Thursday, August 30, 2012

God makes all things new while we seek the city’s welfare

So here's my piece for this month's church magazine...
Familiar territory for me but always revisiting:

Clarence Mendis is the energetic founder-director of Farms Lanka. It’s a project that offers micro-finance and ideas – along with heaps of motivation – to people with skills and ideas but no money. It makes small loans to help people set up in their chosen line of business – anything from agriculture, animal husbandry, batik printing, pottery making, etc – and gives advice to get up and running and then watches them grow.

Once they’ve reached a certain size, the project holders pay back the stake with a little interest and that money can be used for another person with an idea. Farms currently has 4000 projects across the island and has contributed some 7bn rupees to the nation’s GDP. Not bad for a project that started 39 years ago with 200 rupees and faith, as Clarence puts it. He is a remarkable visionary guy, bold to the point of recklessness, but fabulously blessed and used by God. He’s larger-than-life and curiously down to earth.

I thought of him over the summer as we were exploring Jeremiah’s call to the exiles and I was preparing to return to Sri Lanka. He seems to embody Jeremiah 29:7 more than anyone else I’ve met. He looks around at his desperately poor and divided country and asks how he can help to bring prosperity to his neighbours. And he does it in a way that brings dignity and independence to people struggling to make ends meet.

Jeremiah 29:7 is part of a letter written by Jeremiah to people from Judah who have been taken into exile in Babylon. Many of them were hoping to be home by Christmas but he tells them to settle down and dig in for the long haul; most of them would never see home again.

Although many of us are still living in the town where were born, it has in recent years become an unfamiliar place; social changes, the erosion of the church’s place in our culture and the arrival of people of different classes and races all mean that the world in which we grew up has changed forever. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we feel in exile and would like to go home.

But there’s no going back; this is the world we live in and I believe Jeremiah 29:7 has something really important to say to us about how we live in this strange new world. The prophet tells his first hearers to make a living (29:5-6): that’s obvious enough but it’s what God wants us to be doing. He calls us to be active and productive citizens of this place: working, paying taxes, joining in with our neighbours, even playing our part in politics at a local or national level.

And while we’re getting on with daily life, God calls us to seek good things for our neighbours. The word the prophet uses here is ‘shalom’ (v7) which means wholeness, welfare, peace, prosperity; God wants this for everyone. And this is where Clarence comes to mind; he has been actively seeking the shalom of his neighbours across Sri Lanka for the best part of 40 years. And as I think of him, I wonder what we could be doing that does something similar where we live.

So that leads me to do the third thing Jeremiah told the exiles to be doing: simply to pray for the community in which we find ourselves, to ask God to bless and equip each one of our neighbours for their God-given work, asking God to bring them peace, prosperity and welfare – and sometimes to tell them that we are doing so! And in praying, we are offering ourselves to God to be the answer to our prayers.

It’s easy to feel disheartened and disoriented by the place in which we find ourselves. We sometimes find this strange new world of shopping and mobile phones, reality TV and lack of respect for the church profoundly unsettling. And we ask ‘how can God be here?’ That is what the exiles asked and some of their leaders said that God wasn’t with them but would rescue them soon. Jeremiah, on the other hand, said that while he wouldn’t be bringing them home anytime soon, God is with them in the exile. And he will be bringing prosperity and a future to these people here and now, where they are as they got on with the task of seeking those things for their neighbours. And we see here one of God’s great ways of working: he makes things new as we get on with seeking the city’s welfare.

In 31:31-34 the prophet talks about God making all things new in words taken up across the New Testament. He talks about old ways being ditched and replaced with something more wonderful:  a new covenant, a new relationship, based not on where you live and worship, but on a direct encounter with the living God, so that his Law, which had been written on tablets of stone, would now be written on our hearts. It’s what Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 3 and the author of Hebrews (directly quoting these verses) in chapter 8.

If we want to encounter God today, we’ll do so as we seek the welfare of our neighbours; if we want his prosperity and future for us, we’ll stumble across it as we are trying to ensure that our neighbours enjoy prosperity and hope for the future. So, let’s work on ways that we can seek the welfare of where we live. Let’s be creative and bold.

Who among us is going to be like Clarence Mendis and rise to the challenge of helping our neighbours to find their way into the prosperity we enjoy but they can only dream of?

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