I grew up in Hagerstown, and so to me the idea of a “gated community” seemed like something out of a movie. Then I moved to Texas. In Dallas, gated communities were everywhere. Visiting friends—whether in a home or just an apartment—required navigating an elaborate set of security checkpoints. Alarm codes, razor wire—things that once seemed excessive were now matters of geographic necessity.
But in time it hit me. The gates and locks and fences weren’t merely physical. They also existed in our minds and in our hearts. Growing up in Church, I was always warned about the “culture war.” Christianity was a lonely underdog in a hostile world. Our task was twofold: (1) Stay “safe,” and (2) “fight back.”
It’s hard to argue. After all, there’s a lot of truth to this image. Following Jesus will certainly put you at odds with the values of other cultures. But what I saw developing—both in me and around me—was a culture based on fear. Safety and security became our greatest values. We retreated behind the walls of Christian culture, emerging only occasionally to lob a few “gospel bombs” at the evolutionists, the liberal democrats, or whoever our common enemy happened to be. In other words, the word “culture” became a way of distinguishing “us” versus “them.” We were the good guys. Why weren’t we doing a better job at reaching the bad guys?
SEEK THE SHALOM OF THE CITY
Israel had a similar experience. During Jeremiah’s ministry, the people experienced the pain of exile. They were removed from the security of their land. They were surrounded by a hostile, pagan culture. What was their solution? Apparently their only solution was one of isolation. They stuck together. After all, there’s safety in numbers.
As a young person, I grew up in a world of “Christian” alternatives. There were Christian schools. Christian bookstores. Christian coffeehouses. Christian books. Christian music. In recent years, I’ve even seen Christian versions of the Nintendo game “Dance, Dance, Revolution.” Granted, there are times, places, and even seasons of life when it’s refreshing to have a “Christian” alternative to pop culture. But my question is: since when did “Christian” become an adjective? To be a “Christian” is to be a follower of Jesus. It’s a term that refers to people—not things. Jesus prayed that future followers would be “in the world but not of the world” (John 17:14). We’ve reversed that. Christian culture has allowed us to remove ourselves from the world while enjoying all the same things. I believe God is challenging us to think differently—to think missionally—just as He did with His people long ago:
This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 (This was after King Jehoiachin and the queen mother, the court officials and the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen and the artisans had gone into exile from Jerusalem.) 3 He entrusted the letter to Elasah son of Shaphan and to Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. It said: 4 This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 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. 7 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.” 8 Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. 9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 29:1-9)
Do you hear what God is saying? He’s telling His people to seek the shalom of the city (v. 7). The Hebrew word shalom (translated above as “peace and prosperity”) refers to overall goodness and wholeness. It’s easy to point our finger at the brokenness of the world. It’s far more challenging to seek its restoration.
In Dorothy Sayer’s excellent book Creed or Chaos she has an entire essay entitled “Why Work?” She writes:
The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables. Church by all means, and decent forms of amusement, certainly—but what use is all that if in the very center of his life and occupation he is insulting God with bad carpentry? No crooked table legs or ill-fitting drawers ever came out of the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth. Nor, if they did, could anyone believe that they were made by the same hand that made Heaven and earth.
Is it possible—just possible—that the best way to see our world improved is not by merely “being good” but through creativity and engagement? Is it possible that the best way to get prayer back in public schools is to send our kids there? Is it possible that the best way to reach our coworkers and neighbors is to not only invite them to church, but to also share our lives and hearts with them? The gospel tears down the fences of our “gated community,” and provokes us to love those outside them.
GOD’S PLANS FOR YOU
God next reveals His plans for the nation of Israel. Their exile would last for seventy years, after which they would return. They are there for a season—His desire for them to “settle down” and seek the good of the city is motivated by the narrow window of influence His people would have.
10 This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” (Jeremiah 29:10-14)
If you’ve been in church for a while you have verse 11 on a coffee mug somewhere. But let’s be clear about something: God wasn’t talking to you or me. He was talking specifically to Israel. God has phenomenal plans for all people—we just can’t claim this verse as applying to our lives. Sometimes God can be glorified even when you and I don’t prosper, and even when you and I come to great and often terrifying harm.
This was true of a young pastor named Kyle Lake. Lake wrote a powerful sermon for a Sunday in October of 2005. He concluded with these words of encouragement:
Live. And Live Well. BREATHE. Breathe in and Breathe deeply. Be PRESENT. Do not be past. Do not be future. Be now. On a crystal clear, breezy 70 degree day, roll down the windows and FEEL the wind against your skin. Feel the warmth of the sun….
If you’ve recently experienced loss, then GRIEVE. And Grieve well. At the table with friends and family, LAUGH. If you’re eating and laughing at the same time, then might as well laugh until you puke. And if you eat, then SMELL. The aromas are not impediments to your day. Steak on the grill, coffee beans freshly ground, cookies in the oven. And TASTE. Taste every ounce of flavor. Taste every ounce of friendship. Taste every ounce of Life. Because-it-is-most-definitely-a-Gift.
Kyle never preached this sermon. These words were in his notes, tucked into his Bible. He was performing a baptism that morning, and while standing in the water he touched a microphone that wasn’t grounded. The electricity killed him instantly.
We don’t always know what the Lord’s plans are. But we can look at His dealings with Israel and count on God to always do what’s best for His kingdom even if it comes at the expense of our own empires. And as we leave our own gated communities, we are reminded that our lives are to be marked by a different set of standards than even our own Christian culture might suggest. Courage—not necessarily security. Compassion—not necessarily offense. Love—not necessarily safety. Because the gospel tells the story of a God who stepped away from security and safety, and calls His people to follow Him in doing the same.
“As the Father has sent me,” Jesus said, “so I send you” (John 20:21).
Most excellent challenge for me.