I was walking in my neighborhood this morning when I came upon a house with Christmas lights on. The display was not intricate—some strings of bulbs on sticks in the ground lining the front yard. As I walked up to the house, the lights clicked off.
Today is January 23, the twenty-ninth day after Christmas. What scenarios, I wondered, could explain this unusual situation?
Two broad categories of options presented themselves to me, each of which is relevant to any possible action I might take in response.
Scenario one: The homeowners installed the lights themselves.
If this was the case, at least five possibilities arise.
(1) The owners like having Christmas lights outside their home and thus have not removed them. If so, they would likely not appreciate my knocking on their door to tell them their lights are still out or removing the lights for them. In fact, they might consider my actions to be trespassing rather than ministry.
(2) The owners forgot they installed the lights. If they are on a timer, they might come on after the owners go to bed and go off before they wake up. If so, they would be surprised and perhaps chagrined to learn that they are the only house in our neighborhood with Christmas lights on display and might be grateful to me for pointing out the situation to them.
(3) The owners are traveling and thus have not been able to remove the lights. If so, however, it seems they would have removed them before leaving or called friends, neighbors, or family to do so. On the other hand, their trip might have been so sudden and so distracting that they are not concerned about the lights. If so, they might be grateful if I removed the lights for them.
(4) The owners installed the lights but are not able to remove them due to illness or disability. If so, it would seem that they would have called their friends, neighbors, or family for help. But if they have no one to help, they would likely be grateful for my intervention.
(5) The owners have passed away. If so, their family would be occupied with far more urgent matters than removing the Christmas lights from the lawn. They might be grateful to me for pointing out the situation or removing the lights, or they might consider my actions intrusive.
Scenario two: The homeowners had the lights installed.
If this was the case, at least four possibilities arise.
(1) The people who are supposed to remove the lights have been delayed, but the owners paid them in advance and don’t want to pay twice for the same work. In this case, pointing out the situation or removing the lights would be unnecessary and probably unwelcome.
(2) The people who are supposed to remove the lights have been delayed, but the owners know them personally and are extending grace. In this case, see scenario two, option (1).
(2) The people who are supposed to remove the lights have been delayed, but the owners forgot the lights were installed. In this case, see scenario, one option (2).
(3) The people who are supposed to remove the lights have gone bankrupt or refuse to do the work and the owners are unable to remove the lights themselves. In this case, see scenario one, option (4).
Know their why before your how
Why have I taken you through this strange exercise in reasoning?
To make the simple point that, in doing ministry, we need to know the why before we choose the how.
If we know why a person has not accepted Christ as their Lord or does not attend church or does not believe the Bible to be true, we can then know how to help them take their next step in faith.
If we do not know the why, as the Christmas light mystery shows, proceeding with the how might do more harm than good.
The Lord “looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7) and knows our mind (Jeremiah 17:10) and thoughts (Matthew 9:4). He knows the why and will lead us to the best how in response. But we must go to him before we go to our neighbor. We must ask him to show us the need we are to meet before we seek to meet it.
Moses sought to protect his enslaved Jewish people by killing an Egyptian, an act which led to an exile during which he was no help to them (Exodus 2:11–15). Forty years later, when he listened to God at the burning bush, he became the great liberator of his people.
God is already preparing the hearts he intends us to serve. He will lead us where he can best use us. So pray first, then act as his Spirit directs. And remember the old adage: don’t get ahead of God—he may not follow.
Whose Christmas lights are on in your neighborhood?