Boots sell foam ear plugs in packs of 20. This might seem a bit excessive. Who needs 20 ear plugs? How naive – you have evidently never spent a night in my flat. As I type, Chris de Burgh’s Lady in Red is pulsating from my next-door neighbour’s flat at a volume necessary only in a 12,000-seat stadium. Apparently these ear plugs are also single use only. Fat chance.
If you combine Chris with hourly outbursts of shouting, barking, electro-pop and inexplicable banging, the outcome is not a single night of unbroken sleep for about three months. I seem to be surrounded by 600 people who don’t realise that they are surrounded by 600 other people who would actually quite like to be sleeping at 4am, thanks. With this in mind, you might forgive me for spending the last few weeks trawling property websites, bookmarking every flat that has the phrase ‘quiet side street’ or ‘no pets allowed’ in its description.
Apart from a good night’s sleep, it seems that what I want are neighbours who are, as far as possible, ignorable. But is this desire a defensible one? One the one hand, a solid night’s sleep doesn’t seem like too much to ask. But on the other, some of the most powerful encounters I’ve had with people in my local area have been with those neighbours I just couldn’t ignore.
There was the young Muslim mother divorcing an abusive husband, who I could hear crying through my bedroom wall. Having been woken up by her sobs I plucked up the courage to knock on her door, and so began a friendship in which she shared her pain and enormous capacity to love.
There was the vulnerable Argentinian woman, alone in the UK and suffering from bouts of ill mental health. After arguing about the relentlessness of her dog’s barking and the volume of her late-night music, we were able to listen to her worries about her safety and be a point of contact when she felt afraid.
These are privileges I never would have experienced had these neighbours not been un-ignorable. I can guarantee that neither of these relationships would have been formed if God hadn’t, basically, forced me to engage. Despite my apathy and reluctance, God carried out His purpose to bring people into community and, I hope, a better understanding of his love for them. God used these opportunities to break His kingdom into their lives – and mine.
So I’m faced with a dilemma – God’s kingdom breaking through or eight hours of unbroken sleep?
It’s a toughie.
In all seriousness, it’s a hard decision. I can feel my sanity slipping as I become more and more sleep-deprived; my work less efficient and social life put to one side. To give my all to my job, marriage, church and the people I meet I really, really need more sleep. And yet it seems wrong to be reaching out for the comfort of a better-located flat, purely to avoid the very people I should, surely, be trying to draw closer to.
From the Bible we can learn a great deal about what Jesus might do in my position. Jesus lived a life of two distinct seasons; the 30 years of learning and preparation leading up to his baptism, and the three years after of his awesome ministry. This is not to say that during his 30 years’ preparation he was inactive – quite the opposite. It is in God’s very nature to love people, draw them to him, restore and renew. How could Jesus’ first 30 years of life not have been characterised by this extraordinary love, pointing to his Father? It is inconceivable that Jesus wasn’t acting in that time to build God’s Kingdom. But he knew which season he was in – when Mary tries to coax him into doing his first public miracle, he responds: “Dear woman, why do you involve me? … My time has not yet come” (John 2:4). Jesus knew that it was not yet time to pour himself out in the utterly self-sacrificial way he would in the last three years of his life.
And even while Jesus was spending himself in the three relentless years of his ministry, he made space to retreat, to pray, and to spend time with his disciples. He understood that there are times for action and times for recuperation – a balance modelled by his Father at the beginning of the world, when “on the seventh day, he rested from all His work” (Genesis 2:2).
Perhaps in the same way we are called at different times to absolutely empty ourselves for the kingdom’s cause, and other times to live quiet lives of faith. I’m absolutely not suggesting that we take time out from evangelism, social action and discipleship – rather that God can lead us into times where the pace slows and we learn to live in steady rhythms. These times of recuperation and refocus are not about shutting off from the world, but making sure we have the reserves to face it fully.
So, as I decide where to live once my lease is up – whether to pour myself out or pace myself – the most important thing I can do is to make sure that that decision is driven by God’s agenda, not mine. And if sometime next month I doze off in my lunch break, as I did yesterday, you’ll know what I decided.