A morning devotional I read recently prompted the reader to “switch off the car radio while driving, look around and notice where things are not the way they are supposed to be. Then pray and ask the Lord what He would want to become a reality there.” To see the situation with God’s eyes – imagining what it would be like if His dream for the earth became a reality. As I left home that morning, I expected that I would probably see what I have seen so many times before – homeless people scratching in other people’s refuse bags for food and stuff to salvage (that certainly isn’t the ways things are supposed to be) or pollution or potholes. But this particular morning and less than a minute after I left home, I saw it. I noticed: high walls, electrified fences. Many of them. Everywhere.
Homes and streets are supposed to be places were we dwell. Nowadays it has become places where we hide, turn in upon ourselves, while we desperately search for other places to dwell in such as shopping malls and coffee shops and restaurants. No longer do we dwell and spend time in the ‘hood serving and living with our neighbours, we try to make a life and find enjoyment by joining the anonymous masses running on the same treadmill that keeps the monstrous wheel of consumerism and individualism going.
I listened to a sermon by Walter Brueggeman recently where he challenged Christians to imagine what life could be like if we had to shape our lives according to our faith, and not according to our fears. He said that societal structures are set up in a way that reinforces fear. And people who are afraid have no energy. We fear danger, we fear not belonging, we fear not having, we fear not being secure, we fear “our stuff” to be taken away from us – and how has that shaped our lives? High walls, electric fences. Our homes and neighbourhoods now resemble our fears, not our faith.
I have a memory of driving through Phoenix, (a residential area close to our own and one of the largest Indian communities in South Africa) and looking at the fences around their homes. It was quite clear that the majority of these fences were erected some time after the homes were built. And I wondered what life was like in Phoenix before the walls, before the fences. I could imagine neighbours chatting to each other from their gardens, the smell of curries in the air, kids playing cricket across neighbouring lawns. I started imagining what my (lack-of-)community / neighbourhood could look like if the way we lived was shaped by our faith and not by our fears. If we could really dwell again in our neighbourhoods…
I have a dream. I dream of buying a simple house with a big fence and a huge open porch. And when we move in we will invite all our friends and all the neighbours to come to our “break-down-the-high-wall-and-take-down-the-electric-fence” party. And as it goes down we will shout, “Hurray!”. And we will give people sandwiches and we open our arms in embrace and tell them that they are welcome. People are hungry for welcome*. And we will invite them to pop in and have coffee with us on the porch as we dream together. I imagine living boldly amidst crime in a violent society and vulnerably and openly in culture urging us to keep ourselves private and separate. I imagine planting herb gardens where neighbours and friends can help themselves; vegetables and fruits for beggars. those who are hungry and yes, the monkeys too.
I imagine a city where kids are safe to walk to school or a friend’s house. Where people cycle to work with a smile and wave at each other (rather than rush to work in their racing cars and glare/swear at each other). I imagine communal vegetable gardens and green areas becoming well maintained and safe again packed with picnicking families, playing kids and runners alike.
Our own wellness is locked up in the peace and wellness of our city. Eugene Peterson says that there is an indissoluble connection between geography and spirituality.
Let us dream again about life. Let us live again by faith.
Isaiah 58:12 (ESV):
And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to dwell in.
Let us be repairers of what is broken. Let us be restorers of streets and neighbourhoods and cities.
Holy Spirit living breath of God
Breathe new life into our souls and the places we inhabit**
Give us dreams and imaginative visions.
Give us faith for what we cannot see.
Give us boldness to break down walls.
Give us wisdom in bringing restoration.
*Phrase from Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition by Christine Pohl
**Phrase adapted from Keith and Christy Getty’s song, Holy Spirit