For the love of the city
I grew up in Winnipeg’s west end, within walking distance of Winnipeg Stadium and Winnipeg Arena. I know the city. I love the city. I enjoy rural vacations and visits, but I am always glad to return home to the city.
Since I grew up in the city, and my wife refers to me as a “reluctant gardener”, I have had to work at identifying with rural images. I recall visiting the church decorating committee in the church where I grew up and marvelling at how they put together such beautiful displays of fresh produce at Thanksgiving. A cornucopia was filled with an assortment of fruits and vegetables, sheaves of grain leaned against the stage, and pumpkins adorned a table. I cautiously approached this creative group and asked if they had any urban images, if there was any room on the table for a computer, a briefcase, some books, a hockey stick and rollerblades. These were the things I was thankful for. The person looked at me with some perplexity. What was I talking about? This was Thanksgiving. Didn’t I know that Thanksgiving displays always included fresh produce? This was evidence of divine blessing.
Although many of us live in cities, we continue to think in rural images, unable to translate the Christian gospel into urban language. Some years ago, I taught an evangelism class in which participants were encouraged to use images and metaphors from their work to explain the gospel. I distinctly recall how “the light went on” in the mind of a gemologist and a piano technician. They understood the good news of Jesus in a radically new way-a way that could be explained to their colleagues in language they could understand.
Too often, we return to the garden, go back to Eden, and forget that it is all going to culminate in the city, in a new Jerusalem. The Bible is often thought of as an agrarian document, and in many ways it is. Jesus’ parables dealt with plants; trees, farming and shepherding, but I’ve also discovered that the Bible has much to say about the city-how we are to think of the city, live in the city and pray to the Lord on its behalf.
Seek the welfare of the city
Jeremiah 29:4-7 records the counsel of God to the Israelites, the people of God, who had been carried into exile in Babylon, and by extension to us, the people of God, who live “in exile” in the midst of a pagan culture:
“This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’”
The point of this passage is that we need to be intentional about our concern for the city. To “seek” means to deliberately look for opportunities to express concern and care for others. It is a recognition that God calls us to accomplish ministry where we are.
What are we to be deliberate about? What are we to seek? The Hebrew word is Shalom. It means peace, but it also means prosperity, health, safety and wholeness. But wholeness for whom? For ourselves? No. For the city and its inhabitants.
The command to seek the peace and prosperity of Babylon was not good news for the Israelite exiles. They were there against their will, and yet they were told that their personal wholeness was tied to the wholeness of Babylon. To obey God’s command, the exiles had to put aside their resentment, homesickness, bitterness, pride and even hatred of the Babylonians.
Similarly, we have to get beyond our fear of rejection, our self-absorption and our prejudices and get to the point where we recognize the needs of the people around us. There is a parallel between this Jeremiah text and Jesus’ invitation to “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness”, with the promise that “all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).
The church does not exist to serve us. Christ’s church is not a self-serving institution. Rather, we exist and spend ourselves for the purposes of God’s Kingdom. The church is to serve as an example of what it means to live under God’s rule. The world should be able to look at the Christian community and say, “There is a people who are sold out to the purposes of God.”
When Jeremiah told the people of God to seek the peace and prosperity of the city, their heads must have turned in complete disbelief, because cities are enemy territory, especially cities like Babylon and Toronto. They are really bad, the home of the beast. Who in Toronto or Buffalo or Montreal or Ottawa? God would!
God is primarily interested in establishing His Kingdom, His rule on earth, and that rule includes the city, here and now. God’s rule embraces the city-the home to millions upon millions of people from every nation, tribe and language. Jesus’ instruction to go into all the world is a direct call to our cities. For the first time in history, there are now more people living in cities than in rural centres. We cannot avoid the city if we are serious about God’s Kingdom. Therefore, seek the greater good, seek justice, seek the welfare of the city.
The people of God
I believe that we have mistakenly reduced God’s Kingdom to the proclamation of a formula: “Accept Jesus, and you’re in.” That is not what the gospel is about. It’s about seeking first God’s Kingdom and His righteousness. It’s about the creation of a people who are sold out to God and His purposes, who voluntarily live under His rule. What will that look like?
As God’s people, we will invest in relationships so that we will know people well enough to understand and respond to their needs.
As God’s people, we will evaluate our jobs in terms of relationships, not merely concerned about whether we are successful and happy, but investing in the success of our colleagues, intentionally looking for ways they can prosper.
As God’s people, we will be embarrassed by our trivialization of worship to hymns and choruses, as if worship can be reduced to what happens between 10:00 a.m. and noon on Sunday mornings and not include the service which we are called to from Monday to Saturday.
As God’s people, we will actively seek to bring down walls that divide, including denominational barriers.
As God’s people, we will not be deceived by a “Freedom 55” mindset, as if we are owed a cushy retirement while a large percentage of the world’s population lives in poverty and without the gospel.
As God’s people, we will not say, “I’ve done my bit, my work is finished. Let someone else do the work of the church and the Kingdom.”
As God’s people, we will work for issues of righteousness, mercy, justice and equity. We will work for children in poverty, for abused spouses and for the physically, cognitively and emotionally disabled.
As God’s people, we will become family to each other in the midst of a dislocated and fragmented society.
As God’s people, we will look beyond the attractiveness of our schools, the comfort of our homes and the climate of our jobs because we believe that, in our baptism, God ordained us to minister in our schools, our offices, our homes and our neighbourhoods.
As God’s people, we will open our facilities to the community because we love the city-not protecting our property as if it is ours to keep for eternity but seeing it as something to be spent for the benefit of the city.
As God’s people, we will encounter some incredibly difficult people and some heart-wrenching needs.
As God’s people, we will not flee the city in search of refuge. Instead, we may need to think in terms of moving to our cities for the principal purpose of doing Christian ministry and mission. We have done this with Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Disaster Service and MBMS International; it’s time we also do it for the sake of God’s mission to our cities.
As God’s people, we will work for the welfare of the city because if it succeeds, so will we. That doesn’t mean that we will become affluent and spend our leisure time drinking designer beverages beside the pool. No, it means that God’s rule — the rule of justice and mercy and grace-will be established in our cities and our communities.
Maxine Hancock has written, “The most current trend affecting the churches is the increasing sense that religious life is a personal and private matter to be negotiated between the individual and the Creator” — as if it has virtually no social implications. In contrast to this, the biblical prophets tell us that God’s salvation is not all about you and me. Our Christian life will not be reduced to my spiritual journey. It’s about God, and we exist to serve Him.
Pray for the city
God’s words in Jeremiah were revolutionary. First, He counselled the people of God to work for the welfare of the city-the city in which they were held hostage. Then He said, “Pray for it.” The natural reaction to revolt, to escape or to seek revenge is here overwhelmed by the command to pray. Such radical counsel about treatment of enemies anticipates Jesus’ words: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
In Scripture, there are numerous examples of prayers being offered for cities-Abraham prayed for Sodom and Gomorrah, Jonah for Nineveh, and Daniel and Jesus for Jerusalem. Prayer will clarify our priorities and help us to see the city from God’s perspective.
In Genesis 18, when Abraham heard God’s threat to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, he felt the horror of what was about to happen. He had no doubt visited these cities and seen the teeming marketplaces and the homes with little children, young people and elderly folks. He tried to imagine all that being squashed by a divine fist, but he couldn’t. It tore at the heart of this man of faith to see people exterminated, so he pled for mercy.
In this day, when so much heartache is paraded across the TV screen every day, it’s easy to be unmoved and indifferent to the suffering of others. We must work to resist this. If we are wrapped up only in ourselves, we will never be great intercessors. We must see the faces of people. We must see that every hurting person is somebody’s family member, somebody’s friend. We must look beyond ourselves and see the city-and pray to the Lord on its behalf.
Abraham’s prayer is the first prayer of intercession in the Bible. Six times he prayed for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, each time more boldly than the last. God quietly waited for His friend to finish, and then promised to relent-but in the end 10 righteous people could not be found. As the smoke rose from the cities, now totally destroyed, Lot rested in a cave, safe with his daughters.
The Bible tells us that Lot’s safety was due to the Lord remembering Abraham’s prayer (Genesis 19:29). It is often assumed that the way things function in society is that bad people, evil ones, take good ones down with them, but that good people can, at best, only save themselves. Here that assumption is thrown out the window. The influence of good people and the prayers of the righteous go far beyond themselves.
The startling truth of Genesis 18 and Jeremiah 29 is that our prayers reach the heart of God.
It is easy to be overwhelmed by all the wrong, evil and brokenness which seem to spring up like weeds in every corner of the earth. It would be easy to throw up our hands in despair and hide in the safe cocoon of our own little life, our own little family and our own little church community, where we know the boundaries and can keep a handle on things. It would be easy to see all the darkness in this world and develop a darkness of our own, a cynicism that says, “Nothing matters, and God doesn’t care. There is no use evangelizing, working for social reform or assisting those in need because it won’t do any good anyway. Evil is so overwhelming.”
It would be so easy-and so wrong! We can’t go into hiding. We are called into this world to be part of this world-to love the city, embrace it, work for its good and pray on its behalf.
God values the obedient working of His friends as they interact with a desperate world, seeking to bring good where evil reigns.
As you and I are intentional and prayerful about seeking the peace and prosperity of the people around us, God will bless us with opportunities to serve people in ways we had not thought possible.
Gerald Hildebrand is MBMS International area director for Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario. This article is based on a message he preached at the Ontario MB Conference convention Feb. 79, 2000.
“There is nothing monotonous about where I live. The constant activity both energizes me and is, at times, too much for me. I have often described the city as comprising the worst of the worst and the best of the best. It is here that I have experienced “in-your-face” drug dealing and have actually feared being shot. It is also here that I have witnessed some of the most genuine expressions of community and family values- both within families and across family, class and ethnic boundaries.”—Carolyn Schrock-Shenk, Conciliation Quarterly, Fall 1994
“I don’t believe the city is evil. I believe that as it is filled with so many thousands of people, it is also filled with thousands of possibilities. Possibilities that frighten us and make us want more locks on the doors, or perhaps even to leave. And possibilities that give us more reason to stay.”—Regina Shands Stoltzfus, Conciliation Quarterly, Fall 1994