Friday, September 11, 2009

Historical context

A Heart for the City: Section 1
How important is it for missionaries and/or pastors to study and know the history of the cities they are ministering within?

When I first met my husband, I hardly knew him. I liked him, of course, but I didn't really know him. Through the years, I've gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of who he is; part of that understanding has come from getting to know his family. By family, I don't simply mean the people who make up the family tree; I'm referring to the stories, the hardships, the joys and the pains of family life. And the more I learn about where he has come from, the better equipped I am to respond to his needs today.

Cities are no different than my husband.

Choose any city and you will find some sort of allure or charm. There are beautiful buildings, big businesses, funky shops, great art, amazing music. There are also addictions, violence, broken families, lonely people. And each city is different, having its own distinct set of strengths and weaknesses.

In order for me (or you), as community servants, to appreciate those strengths and, more importantly, to address the weaknesses of the city, mustn't we understand the heart of the city first? It is absolutely essential to realize the truth about a person or a place before trying to step in to offer assistance. Otherwise, our efforts are futile and we are creating more problems than we are solving. Briefly, a few of the things that will happen if we neglect our city's history are:

* Answering needs that don't exist. We might base our "service" on something we've done or seen done elsewhere, completely missing...or dismissing...the actual needs of the immediate community.

*We will disrespect the people we have come to help. Cities are made of people. The history of the city is the history of those people, and if we don't take the time to understand their personal histories, let alone their collective history, then we have thoroughly missed the point.

*We are only serving ourselves. We say we are trying to help others, but simply put, all we want is to feel good about ourselves and what we are "doing".

If you (or I) are working in community service, we should be experts on our communities. We must take ownership of our cities. This obviously means knowing all the current statistics and trends. It means knowing your neighbors. It means knowing what's happening in your schools, synagogues and city halls. It also means knowing where you've come from (because you must consider the city's story as part of your own story). What are the events that shaped your city? What cultures influenced the founders of the city? What tragedies has the city survived? What does the city celebrate? What does it mourn? What is it good at? Has it always been good at it? Has it overcome obstacles? Has it struggled with the same obstacles since it's inception? Why? There are a host of other questions we could ask here, but you get the point. We must be intimately involved with the cities we serve, and that means knowing as much as we can about the people and their history.

This is especially important for anyone whose motivation for community service is faith or religion (I will use Christianity because that is my experience). Trying to help a city without knowing that city is incredibly presumptuous...especially for someone of faith. Service for the Christian should be out of humility, driven by grace and a deep appreciation for what Christ came to do on this earth. We are to follow His example.

Scripture tells us that when Christ was met with the diseased, the blind, the promiscuous, etc., he didn't only meet the presenting need. He also forgave sins, encouraged faith, and extended grace that no one else could...or would. He was able to do this because he knew what was behind the requests for help. He saw the deepest needs and He met them. He was (is), in essence, their Creator.

Now, keep in mind, those deepest needs aren't always the most obvious or accessible. They are needs that sometimes only their Creator, or someone who is very close with their Creator, could know. This is why faith-driven community servants must be incredibly humble, seeking as much understanding as they can--from God, but also from every resource possible. God already knows where the city has been (and where it's going); however, He will probably not lay out complete histories for us during our prayers when we could simply walk to the computer or drive over to the library. We must take the steps. We must do the work. We must make it our mission to know and understand as much as we can about our cities.


Well, because you and I are not God. We need to remember that we are not God (something easily forgotten by those of us who like to "fix" things). And in order to meet the real needs, we've got to do the work, search for the answers, see what is actually there underneath all the layers of city-life. And the more truth we collect, about both God and our cities, the better equipped we will be to handle the deepest needs.

Just like Jesus did.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A Heart for the City

For those of you who live in a city--an urban epicenter--you might understand me when I talk about falling in love with a city. Maybe you were a tourist who found a home in your favorite vacation spot. Perhaps you were a suburban or rural kid who'd always dreamed of living in the "big city". Whatever it was, there was something that lured you into the city life. For me, I think the fascination was of being a part of something bigger than myself. Cities are where life happens. There's diversity. There's change. There's growth. There's trend-setting. In short, there's to the fullest, if you will.

For Christians, or even for the casual church-goer, there might be a connection of the idea, "life to the fullest," to the teachings of Jesus Christ. If you trust the account of his followers, we are told that Jesus said he would bring us life as it was meant to be. Life to it's fullest. Complete life. He promised--and delivered--this to the people who encountered him here on earth. And if you are a follower of His, maybe He's delivered on this promise to you as well.

Somewhere along the line, these two pieces, the city and Christ, have been completely disconnected. Today's Christians have missed the point. We have believed God's promises insofar as they apply to us. We have forgotten about living to the fullest. Half the Christians I know spend their lives trying to hide from the world instead of living boldly within it. The city scares them because it's where most of the sin lives (go figure...most of the people live there too).

The Jesus I know is not afraid of the city. He loves the city. One of the most poignant pictures I have seen in the Gospel is that of Jesus, standing above the city of Jerusalem, weeping and mourning for the people because they were so lost. So hurting. So confused by the world around them. So entirely like me...and like you.

If only we could develop the compassion of Christ. If only we could stand on a hill overlooking our nearest cities and see the needs instead of the depravity. Are we capable of seeing what Christ sees? Can we look through the facades to see the hurting? Can we catch a glimpse of the hearts God has created so that we can help reconcile those hearts with their Maker?

Instead of running. Instead of judging. Instead of ignoring.

I, for one, am interested in giving this a try. My blog has taken many shapes over the last year...mostly to keep me on track with whatever goal I need motivation to reach. This segment will be a bit different because I will be responding to a book in essay form. The book? A Heart for the City. The authors? Those who've given their lives to serving a city. Edited by John Fuder. Read along if you want. I look forward to your comments to challenge me along this journey.

Thanks for reading.