Monday, February 13, 2017

Sound and Silence (or Banishing the Banshee)

I have a neighbour that screams like a banshee — or at least she used to. She doesn’t anymore, and herein lies a tale.

Like many families, we live in a semi-detached house with nothing more than a cinder-block partition and a little ancient insulation separating us from our neighbours. You can’t hear everything that occurs on the other side of the party wall, but you can hear plenty, especially when voices are raised.

We heard plenty. Regularly. Our neighbour made sure of it.

A Captive Audience

After all, she had a captive audience of which she was blissfully unaware and a sonic arsenal at her disposal like few women on the planet.

So we heard from her whenever her husband or sons sinned against her in matters large or small. At length, I might add. We heard from her when the City unilaterally removed a tree from the boulevard out front without consulting our neighbour first. We heard from her whenever the gardener would accidently blow a few handfuls of grass cuttings across the property line.

All, I will concede, from a safe distance. My neighbour’s ire has never been directed at me. In fact, whenever we talk she is all smiles and sweetness, a state I prefer any day to either active hostility or passive-aggressive silence. I prefer it primarily for the sake of testimony, but I also prefer it because experience has demonstrated that any attempt to modify my neighbour’s behaviour, even in the most gracious and conciliatory ways, ends in the emotional equivalent of a nuclear meltdown.

Some fights are just not worth it. It’s clear her husband feels the same way.

The Human Fire Alarm

My daughter does not. Six months or so ago while I was at work, the human fire alarm next door let loose on her teenager with a choice selection of expletives. He returned the barrage, and mother and son went back and forth for close to an hour.

My daughter, usually shy and reserved, reached critical mass. She went downstairs, knocked on the neighbour’s front door, and made a clear and (I am told) polite request for a little peace and quiet. She was met with a flurry of abuse, threats of legal action, and a door slammed in her face. Undeterred, my daughter marched back upstairs and made a call to our equivalent of Children’s Aid to report parental abuse.

You know what? We’ve been listening to the sound of silence ever since. It’s absolute bliss.

Fools and Folly

Now personally, I would never have done it. It’s not that I’m afraid of confrontations: anyone who knows me knows that. It’s that, as many of you know, when you are dealing with someone that experience tells you cannot be reasoned with, escalation is generally not the most prudent strategy. “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself,” as the writer of Proverbs aptly puts it. Further, when you resort to the authorities to fight your battles for you, expect the other side to do the same. I knew the next time the noise on our side of the party wall rose above a whisper after 11:00 p.m., the chances of a chat with the constabulary at our own front door had just increased significantly.

Also, I believe strongly in the authority of parents — and that includes the authority of unsaved parents with questionable judgment and a notable lack of impulse control. You don’t get to choose which God-given authorities you obey, and that’s just how it is. It would take a lot to persuade me that calling in the secular bureaucratic robot cavalry every time the volume goes up next door is in the interests of anything other than assuaging my own annoyance, not least because the eldest child next door is in his mid-teens, and more than capable of giving as good as he gets.

The Official Christian Response

Now, some of you will definitely disagree with my take on that, and it’s THAT reality that is of the greatest interest here, I think.

You see, there IS no prescriptive, legal, official Christian response to a noisy, out-of-control neighbour. There just isn’t. All such responses must be filtered through the conscience, knowledge of scripture and accumulated practical wisdom of the individual believer. If you can find an unequivocal biblical command that deals with this particular situation, go for it. I can’t.

Thus my daughter has one reaction: a polite complaint. I have another reaction: save your verbal shots for situations in which they might matter for eternity. Reading this, you might well think of good reasons for finding a third or fourth option.

Therein, I think, lies one of the beauties of the New Testament church: the primacy of the Holy Spirit-guided human conscience in our walk before God.

Fully Convicted

In writing to the Romans about disputable matters, Paul’s upshot is that while finding the best answer to any question about personal conduct is always important, conviction before God is even more important:
“One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.”
So what matters most when I confront my neighbor — or decline to confront her, as the case may be — is not so much the act itself as the fact that I have consciously brought God into it. It is the obedient awareness of God in the situation that sanctifies it and makes our action or deliberate inaction pleasing to him.

Honor and Thanks

If I go to my neighbour’s door conscious of the presence of God with me, the chances I will shout at her, even if I’m very irritated, go way down. If I go to her door determined to honor my Saviour, the odds of me returning fire when she cuts loose and slams the door in my face are vastly reduced. If I go to her door giving thanks for the opportunity to speak to her on God’s behalf, the odds of me gossiping about her bad behavior to others after the fact drop significantly. If I refuse to act until I am fully convinced of the rightness of my choices before God, the odds of me calling Children’s Aid vindictively and spitefully become microscopic.

Mistakes and slips can still happen, of course, but they happen a lot less when we have the honor of God in our sights.

Likewise, if I stay home and do nothing at all because I am fully convinced from scripture that my aural comfort is less important to God than my neighbour’s parental autonomy, or because I am convinced my witnessing opportunities with my neighbor will be better if I hold my peace about her vocal gymnastics, I may well be right or wrong about these things; only God knows. But I would not honor God better by letting my temper guide me instead of my conscience. (If I were to stay home out of cowardice, laziness, indifference or mere pragmatism, that’s another story, of course.)

Why? Because I’m doing (or not doing) these things for the Lord, not for myself. Sinful, selfish acts simply CANNOT be performed “for the Lord” no matter how cleverly we try to justify them to ourselves. As Paul puts it later in the same passage, “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”

What We Can and Can’t Control

Anyway, our banshee has been banished, at least temporarily. Perhaps my neighbor fears the authorities. Or maybe having a young girl tell you she has heard every inappropriate word you’ve uttered for the last several years is more embarrassing to some people than others. Or even better, it’s not impossible she has had time to think over her behavior and is genuinely contrite. I can’t tell you because I don’t know. When we interact with others, we don’t get control of the outcome. Sometimes we don’t even get to see it.

We do, however, have control of what we do, and whether or not we do it for the glory of God.

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