The Earth and the Altar, by Eugene Peterson and found myself reading and re-reading the same page for about three weeks now. By no accident I then proceeded to read the book of Acts in my own quiet time with my Lord and the word gained an even greater sense of meaning. The word: polis (you didn’t think I’d actually pick a word in English!). It’s the word “city” in Greek, and has taken a new meaning to me in terms of city as we see it in the world, community as we see it in the church, and politics, both in its pure and tainted forms.
Before my commentary, I must quote Peterson. The book is a look at prayer through the Psalms – a book in Scripture Peterson has written extensively on. In the section, “School of Prayer,” he writes:
The word politics, in common usage, means “what politicians do” in matters of government and public affairs. The word often carries undertones of displeasure and disapproval because the field offers wide scope for the use of power over others, which power is often abused. Politics is smudged with greasy adjectives: ruthless, corrupt, ambitious, power-hungry, unscrupulous. But the word cannot be abandoned just because it is dirtied. It derives from the Greek word polis (“city”). It represents everything that people do as they live with some intention in community, as they would toward some common purpose, as they carry out responsibilities for the way society develops. Biblically, it is the setting in which God’s work with everything and everyone comes to completion (Rev. 21). He began his work with a couple in a garden: he completes it with vast multitudes in a city.
For Christians, “political” acquires extensive biblical associations and dimensions. So rarther than look for another word untainted by corruption and evil, it is important to use it just as it is so that by it we are trained to see God in the places that seem intransigent to grace. The people that warn that “religion and politics don’t mix” certainly know what they are talking about. The mix has resulted in no end of ills – crusades, inquisitions, witch hunts, exploitation. All the same, God says, “mix them.” But be very careful how you mix them. The only safe way is in prayer. It is both unbiblical and unreal to divide life into the activities of religion and politics, or into the realms of sacred and profane. But how do we get them together without putting one into the unscrupulous hands of the other, politics becoming religious or religions becoming political? Prayer is the only means that is adequate for the great end of getting these polarities in dynamic relation. The psalms are our most extensive documents showing prayer in action.
There is so much in these two paragraphs you can see why I stayed on this section and read & re-read it (and continue to). While some might hone in on the idea of politics, I am absolutely gripped by the idea that polis, the root of politics and the word for city, is about community – a healthy community fully-functioning for the benefit of all. It makes sense why politics is what it is – many believe their worldview is best for everyone’s (or their own) benefit, thus the disparaging political climates in our culture/world. But to think that city in its purest sense is about healthy community & that politics is learning how best to live that out is absolutely awesome – no matter how tainted those words may be. I note how Peterson says, “how they live with some intention in community.” For so many there is no intention of community in their lives. In fact, they intentionally avoid community despite the fact that they can’t hide from it because we all are a part of so many communities whether we like it or not.
In the church so many different words have been used to indicate “community.” Some churches are called “such and such Community Church,” small groups attempt to create community (whether they’re called that or cell groups or lifegroups or even “cliques” for all I care), teams, clubs, fellowships, ministries & more. It’s as if we know we need to have community as a part of our church and we know we need to attract folks to it, so we try these psuedo-covert names as if we’re “tricking” the naive layperson into living closer to people than they might actually want to.
I’ve never heard of small groups, though, referred to as “cities.” In fact, I don’t know many churches that even want to connote they are city-like because often cities are a reflection of “what’s wrong” with our culture. Yet aren’t we supposed to reclaim the cities for Jesus and lead many to follow Him? Why can’t we take back the name as what it is intended to be instead of us trying to recreate what is in fact where we will be in eternity? We will reign with Jesus in the city – the ultimate community where we can live as He intended. It’s a life even better than the garden because it’s not just with two people, but all God’s children. Isn’t it funny that we often think of eternal life as that like it was in the garden? I mean, I never actually thought of heaven like Revelation 21 says: a city (note that city is used in that chapter a dozen times). In fact, in past readings I’ve thought it to look more like the journey in The Wizard of Oz than a city filled with millions of pure people, crowded like our cities today but sinless. Instead of all these people crammed and uncomfortable waiting for some ball to drop to usher them into some new year, we gather together more joyfully than ever in worship, praising our God who grants us all newness – from new creation to new earth and more.
I wonder if there are any communities that, like Peterson says, are trying to do “everything [they can as people to] live with some intention in community, as they work toward some common purpose, as they carry out responsibilities for the way society develops.” So often these communities that attempt this are similar in race, belief or socioeconomic class, find a common belief that holds them together and/or are friends that developed a vision far bigger than themselves. Sometimes it works. Other times it doesn’t. And even if it usually works, “politics” often get the best of it over time. Sadly, often times the “least of these” end up getting forgotten. Why is this? Is it just sin? Is it some pejorative decline that is a parallel to depravity? Or am I just a pessimist? I know folks have received vision from God and He has blessed not only their efforts, but their lives personally, their ministry beyond what they could imagine and its been proven it clearly was God’s hand and vision all along. But so often what starts with excitement can’t carry its luster.
I’m finding that I’m caught in the middle, myself. I want to live in pure polis. I long for a city where I can live out my calling to the best of my ability, working hard, and being blessed by God’s hand with full knowledge that I am doing what I’m supposed to be. But I feel like I’ve failed. The ministry I had such a vision and a passion for I no longer find myself a part of. On paper (or how I interpreted what I saw on paper), I still believe it, but I had to step away from it. And I know I won’t be back in that setting. I see another ministry from my brother/mentor/friend/father from Seminary that excites me for kingdom and personal reasons. But I know I must stay at arms length. It’s tough.
The name of this ministry: City Church. An accident God’s had me in Acts, seeing the gospel spread from city to city? Hardly. An accident I read Peterson’s book and paragraphs I did about community, city and politics? I think not. An accident I attend a Bible study with new friends at City Church? I think not. I pray that City Church might be the community God longs for it to be – an intentional community with a unique common purpose of loving God and loving others (all others, not just those like themselves). May politics be a part of it in its attempt to bless God in all it does – and may those politics be pure, lovely, admirable and right (Phil. 4:9).
If God is for it, there is hope in that city – both now and forevermore. Amen.