I'm back in the office after August, looking out over warehouse roofs to the gently rolling Surrey Hills, turning autumnal in the distance. Surrounded by rural splendour, peversely, it's the idea of cities that is captivating me at the moment.
We've seen some truly great cities this summer. Rome again. Then a train ride through the 2 sides of Napoli, shiny modern in the centre with a collapsing urban sprawl to rival any 3rd world conurbation. Last weekend we walked London again, our capital still brings out the wide eyed tourist in me no matter how many times I go.
The truth is, I've not been able to shake off the Ninevah story that we worked through from Jonah last month. Ninevah, 120,000 strong, ancient Eastern City, yet so contemporary in it's arrogant swagger - a city needing to be noticed, a self made, self sustaining kind of place where only the strong survive, the rich get richer whilst the poor stay in the gutter. You see, the same old cliches about giant communities still apply today.
Another enduring truth is that cities matter to God. Not the buildings, the institutions, so much as the people. In fact, if the Ninevah story is to be believed, the animals too!
These crowded hubs of humanity where every square foot of space is accounted for - they break God's heart. The multitudes of workers, the kids heading back to schools, the elderly who no longer know how to find community. Therefore the systems do matter too - the economy, the work place, the education system, the services - it all matters.
A city is the only place on the planet you can be lost & alone in a crowd, & yet God would grace such places with dignity & purpose. He lifts the lonely, the poor & the multitudes in dead end emptiness, up from the mundane, giving them worth & value where they had only known meaninglessness.
The killer question is this - if cities are so much on God's heart, then why have God's people largly ignored them? We know the early pioneer church of the 1st Century took city after city in the Roman world, it was a city to rural movement. In recent years in the west though, we've managed to reverse that trend. Post war migration of the educated middle classes to the suburbs has been reflected in the Church community, believers fleeing the 'hard' urban centres to form holy huddles around the extremeties, safe from dangerous influence.
If we learn anything from the ancient/modern story of Ninevah, then we must look to see this unbiblical trend turned around. It is more informed by fear than by the purpose of God for His followers. God surely wants His prophets in the heart of the city? God surely sends His Jonah communities to live amongst the City dweller in order to reveal His Father's heart of compassion for the lost multitudes? If we don't go & live this way, how will they ever know what He is like?
Such prophetic communities don't live in fear of being swamped, wondering if they can still catch the last train out of town before the flood comes. No, they have seen something of the nature of God. They actually believe they can contaminate the city, that their small, weak churches can boldly influence an apparently stronger clty culture & see it transformed. They have come to town to reverse the curse, to build a city within the city. They don't dream of escaping to Zion, to a New England, they determine to build it here, amongst the lost, by the grace of God.
So, whilst you raise your hand & come down the front for ministry, why don't we let Stevie Wonder sing us out with the last verse of 'Livin' for the city.'-
I hope you hear inside my voice of sorrow
And that it motivates you to make a better tomorrow
This place is cruel no where could be much colder
If we don't change the world will soon be over
Living just enough, just enough for the city