God, through the prophet Jeremiah, wrote a letter to the exiled Israelites. He invited them to seek the peace of the city to which they had been carried.
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.”
Any Jew could pray for the peace of Jerusalem; that was the Motherland, the place about which they dreamed of returning. But to pray for the peace and prosperity of Babylon – that would have been a challenge. Babylon represented everything wrong with the world: A conquering enemy which had destroyed Jerusalem, decimated the population, and carried away thousands in a massive forced re-location effort. Jews would have occupied the lowest rung in the Babylonian social hierarchy, they would have been required to learn a foreign language and surrounded by many things which felt godless, pagan and immoral to them. But instead of waiting for a glorious day in which they would return to Jerusalem, or building a mini-Jerusalem in Babylon, God called the exiles to lay down roots in there, to build homes in the city, to invest in the agricultural infrastructure, to raise families in Babylon and to pray for and invest in the prosperity of this “enemy” city. In fact, God tied their own shalom (translated “prosperity” here) to the shalom of pagan Babylon. If the idol-worshipping, oppressors of Babylon experienced shalom, then the exiles would find their own shalom.
For many of us, the hard places in our cities, the places marked by high crime or desperate poverty, or those places which seem given over to debauchary feel a little like Babylon. These are places of exile; places we avoid as best we can. We seek first and foremost our own shalom inside the confines of our homes. This is challenging enough for those of us with extremely full lives and busy households. But what might it mean for you and me to love and to long for the flourishing of the so-called godless places in our cities? What kind of work might God need to do in my heart in order for me to give myself to the dark places of my city instead of building my version of a little walled Jerusalem?
Pray for your city
One way to begin cultivating a love for the “exiled” places in my city is to pray for them – not for their destruction but to pray for God’s mercy and goodness to arrive in greater measure. There may be ways in which you and I see the challenges of our city better than those living elsewhere. In your neighborhood or workplace, is hard-heartedness or materialism devastating people’s lives? How might Jesus honor your prayers for the strip clubs and seedy motels in your city? Pray for God’s power to be manifest in specific ways. Begin activating your imagination in prayer – what if God showed up in power? What if there was revival? What if unhealthy practices ended and those on the margins were welcomed and healed of their wounds?
Connecting with the Marginalized
In just about every city and town people are marginalized. We create systems and structures which work well for some and very poorly for others. Who is excluded in your community? How might you reach out to that community? Are there poor areas of your town? Could you do your laundry in a Laundromat in that area of town or grocery shop there or even just take public transportation while looking for natural places to develop relationship? Not far from most of us exist opportunities to tutor a kid in a challenging situation. Most of us wouldn’t have to drive very far to be a big brother or big sister, or to visit a local jail. Ask God to open up a door to connect with people who live on the margins of your campus or city so that you might together seek shalom alongside the excluded. That might involve sharing your faith (as you might share a meal – not shoving food down others' throats but inviting people to a table to sit with you), sharing your resources, or sharing your know-how and access.
Don’t go it alone
We are communal beings designed to live and work alongside other people. We were not meant to be lone rangers. As you pray or work to seek the shalom of your city, take friends along with you. Is there someone near to you with similar passions who might join you? Ask God to bring someone to mind whom you could invite to seek the shalom of your city together.
Babylon can be a hard place in which to invest when you are dreaming of Jerusalem. But God may have placed you in proximity to marginalized communities for good reason. Don’t miss the opportunity to invest in the peace and prosperity of Babylon. In God’s letter to the exiles, he says that he carried them to Babylon. The image of God carrying them is tender. The image of him dropping them off in the city of a pagan oppressor is challenging. Let the tender God whose heart yearns both for Jerusalem and for Babylon carry you into situations where you might be a bearer of shalom.