A Soft Answer

By Mark King

When a man's ways please the LORD, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him. Proverbs 16:7

Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:16

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Matthew 5:11

Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. 2 Timothy 3:12

It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household. Matthew 10:24-25

I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Matthew 10:16

Some of the verses above make it seem as though a Christian who is pleasing to the Lord will be able to make friends, escape hardship, and point people to the Heavenly Father as others recognize the good works of the believer. Some of the other verses quoted above make it sound as if the world is against Christ and the believer and we should expect suffering and persecution. Which is it? The answer of course, is both! The trick is knowing when to push an issue and when to make peace — therefore, Jesus says we need to be shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves. We need to avoid making a big deal out of something that is less important in order to make our impact greater when something of greater importance is at stake.

I pastored a small church in Chicago which was located in a residential neighborhood. In this neighborhood, the houses were only a few inches apart on the sides and most people had very little yard in front and back. Except for a couple of flower beds, the church essentially had no yard. However, between the sidewalk and the street there was about a six-foot wide piece of land called the parkway. This land officially belongs to the city, but property owners were responsible to maintain it and many homeowners use it to express their creativity by planting grass, flowers, trees, shrubs and even investing large amounts of money in site work and landscaping. This is part of the curb appeal if they try to sell as well.

For years, the parkway in front of our church had not been very appealing. We had two nice trees and a lot of bad grass. In order to contribute to the aesthetics of the neighborhood (something along the lines of a somewhat light-hearted interpretation Matthew 5:16 above) my goal was to simply have a very nice parkway of luscious green grass. We sodded and then seeded and reseeded, watered faithfully, and eventually, after a couple of years, we were able to cultivate a very nice, thick, green lawn that enhanced the look of the church and the neighborhood. But then another problem developed.

Our neighborhood was filled with dogs. It was rare that a home did not have a dog and all these dogs had to be walked, for, as mentioned earlier, most homes in the neighborhood had little or no yard. The dogs loved our grass and they simply did what was natural for them to do. Whenever a dog sees a nice lawn, he or she shows appreciation by making a deposit (often very generous) of nutrient-rich, soil-enhancing material which they assume will contribute to the long-term growth and health of the lawn. Unfortunately, I cannot assign such benevolent intentions to the people who walk the dogs. Many of them also do what comes naturally which is to hurry along as soon as the process is over as if nothing ever happened. As a result, I was picking up several donations per day. It was unpleasant to say the least, and the lawn looked very uninviting (except apparently to other dogs) until all donations were collected and properly deposited each day.

This is a recurring problem all over Chicago and it is actually an offense for which the dog owner can receive a ticket from the police. Property owners combat this problem in various ways. Some post signs that remind dog owners of the city ordinance. Others post signs warning that they have cameras and dog owners who do not pick up after their dogs will be reported to the police. One home owner even told me that she picked up after a dog and followed the dog owner home and left the bag in her dog owner's yard with a note. However, I did not feel that any of these approaches would send the right message to the neighborhood.

The city has also tried some innovative solutions. At one place, I saw that the city had actually designated a patch of gravel as a "doggy restroom," but I certainly did not want one of those installed near the church. The city also installed a number of plastic bag dispensers on light poles. I thought this was a good idea and considered requesting one to be placed on the light pole on the corner of our property until I noticed that the dispensers ran out of bags in a matter of days and they were never refilled.

Another option that you often see in Chicago is the "doggy waste station." It may be free-standing or mounted on a pole. It has a sign asking people to pick up after their dogs, a bag dispenser, and a receptacle to collect the filled bags. I considered this for a time as well, but the main problem is that some people simply did not want to pick up after their dogs so I doubted that the sign and bags would make any difference. Furthermore, this somewhat small receptacle could be filled up every day by every responsible dog-walkers for four square blocks who would no longer have to carry their full bags with them on their walk but could put it in our conveniently placed receptacle. And then worst of all, who wants the job of emptying that receptacle on a daily basis? Not me! As the pastor, I suppose I could have pulled rank and asked our part-time custodian to do it, but considering how hard it is to find good part-time custodians, I didn't think I should risk it.

I finally hit upon an idea that I thought was worth trying. I put some dog biscuits in a jar on the sidewalk in front of the church with a little sign that said, "Help yourself to a doggy treat, and please help us by picking up after your dog." The change was immediate and striking. Instead of finding several doggy donations per day, it dropped to no more than a couple per month. Problem solved!

But then a new problem developed. We started going through a lot of dog treats. Our grass looked great, but it was costing a lot. I was constantly looking for new sources of more affordable doggy treats — and seminary had done nothing to prepare me for this task, so I was on my own. Then something else started to happen that I did not expect. The people walking the dogs started making donations of a more helpful kind. I started finding money in the mailbox. (The mailbox was mounted to the wall above the spot where we placed the dog treats.) Usually it was just loose change but occasionally there were bills. Hardly a day passed without finding money in the mailbox. One time someone put in a check for $25 for dog treats. Once a dog owner stopped me on the street and wrote a check for $100 for dog treats. Another neighbor made a little pedestal for us to set the treats on — they painted some dog paws on it and also lettered in our message that had been on the little sign. Another neighbor who owned a doggy bakery asked if he could provide treats in exchange for some free advertising, which he did for a couple of months. Occasionally grateful owners purchased boxes of dog treats and gave them to us. In two years, we received close to $1,000 in donations for doggy treats and we spent it all. We could not have kept it going without these donations.

What started out as an attempt to have a nice lawn became something of a neighborhood phenomenon. Dog owners would regularly thank me for the doggy treats and would say that as soon as they got near the church, their dogs would start straining at the leash and guide their owners to the front door of the church. I think this was the actual secret to the plan's success — when a dog is intent on getting a treat, he (or she) is not going to take the time to stop and try to find the perfect spot that is required for making a donation. (Perhaps a class in seminary would have given me some ideas on how to get the dogs to guide the owners into the service on Sunday morning.)

Had we attacked the issue in a negative fashion, we might have made dog owners resent us. (Our neighborhood was filled with young professionals whose dog was their only "child" and we certainly wanted to be known as friendly to children!) Instead, they had very positive feelings about the church. Our neighborhood was in a very affluent, secular, "progressive" neighborhood. Most of the neighbors would have been at odds with us on almost everything we believed — from cultural issues like homosexuality, to theological issues like the exclusivity of salvation in Christ alone. There was no need to alienate them on an issue that really had very little importance. I cannot point to any person who came to faith in Christ because of this "ministry" but I do know that there was a tremendous amount of good will that was generated on behalf of the church. Who knows what this might accomplish in the future?

I think this is a valuable lesson for churches and for individual Christians as well. There are times when we have to take unpopular stands and unbelievers around us may become very angry about it. They may think we are old-fashioned, ignorant, unenlightened, backward, bigoted and pathetic — but we don't need to do things that make them think that we are unloving and spiteful as well. When the issue at stake is not of eternal significance, let's lighten up and have some fun. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant about being as shrewd as serpents and harmless as doves.

Image Credit: erickteclados0; untitled; Creative Commons

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Christian-Life  | Church-Issues  | Personal-Life  | Personal-Relationships

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Published on 8-7-17