“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce… marry and have sons and daughters… increase in number there… seek the peace and prosperity of the city… pray to the Lord for it because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
The Prophet Jeremiah writing to the Jewish Exiles in Babylon in the 6th century BC
Going back to my roots
Since starting a family Alison and I have often found our selves looking back at our own childhoods. The contrast for myself in particular between being raised in a large family in the countryside and our kids’ experience of life in SW London is often striking.
There are some things I do not miss. Life in a small village can be very inward looking with some rather limited perspectives on life. Fallings out with family or neighbour are magnified in a close community and you can know too many secrets for anyone’s good!
However, what I miss most is the sense of being rooted to a place and a community.
There were 14 of us cousins (on my mothers side alone) and most of us would meet weekly on a Sunday after church for a family meal as well as during the week in the school holidays. I loved the openness of being able to just drop in on family and friends. Childcare would be shared between the generations and there was freedom to roam in a large space that was mostly free of traffic. Family meals were frequent, noisy, crowded and would include at least 3 generations.
Being rooted in a particular community also meant that you felt deeply connected to the place. Rather like the Israelites in the Old Testament, your connections weren’t just with the people but with the ‘good land that the Lord your God has given you’. The place mattered. The changing seasons, the hedgerows and fields, the birds and wildlife, the farms and cottages, the schools and village shops, the churches and chapels; you felt an ownership and connection. Although I moved away over 30 years ago a part of me still feels it belongs there, so deep was that identification.
Calling and place
We often speak about ‘calling’ in connection with a profession or ministry. But it is clear in Scripture that God also ‘calls’ us to live in a specific place, even if that place is not where we’d really like to be. There are many days I wake up and wish I were back in a rural setting but I feel that God has placed me here, in SW London, in a particular street and community.
During the exile, the people of Israel had been forcibly removed from the land of promise and dragged off to Babylon. But even there, in a place far from where they’d rather be, God tells them to become rooted, connected and committed to that place. Jeremiah tells them to “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens… marry… seek the peace and prosperity of the city… pray to the Lord for it…”
Now, I obviously cannot recreate the community or sense of place that I enjoyed as a child. I shared in my parents calling to live and work and worship and serve where they and their forebears had lived for many generations.
But I can embrace my calling to this moment in time and space where the seemingly random circumstances of life have thrown me into this house and this street, to worship in this church and pray for this city.
There are a number of things that I’ve found helpful in becoming more rooted to the place I live:
Walking seems to connect me much deeper to a place than just driving or taking public transport. As I walk I’m observing what’s happening, engaging with neighbours and trying to listen at the same time to my spirit, and to God’s Spirit.
There is something about getting soil on your hands that helps connect us to a place. Jeremiah told the exiles to ‘Plant gardens and eat what they produce…’
“Pray to the Lord for it’ urges Jeremiah. I find it helpful to discover the names of the neighbours on our street so I can pray for them. The same with local councillors, our MP, our postman, local school heads (usually shown on the school board at the gate), community police, residents’ association- the list goes on. Names or no names we can lift up everyone and everything that happens: If our neighbourhood prospers, so do the Rodwells (and everyone else)!
Having worked for a central London church for 18 years I’d not been able (until last year) to get as connected as I would have liked with the local Christian community. But what a blessing to be able to walk to church and home group, to be constantly bumping into the people during the week that I’d met in church on Sunday and to see our kids making friends who live just round the corner.
Time is short and I’ve got work to do; the kids need picking up, the garden needs watering and there’s the washing to hang but I want to ‘seek the peace and prosperity’ of my community and London so what’s to do? I doubt if we will ever really connect until we give something back. So I ask myself; what am I passionate about; where do I have some space in my diary; what do I find myself praying about; are there places where my talents and local needs coincide?
Giving to local needs is another way of getting a heart-connection with where you live. Part of that would be giving to your church but we can also give to local projects such as food banks as well as helping out friends and neighbours in financial straights.
Like many Londoners I meet, I often have dreams of moving out into the countryside. For some, due to work or other pressing circumstances, this can become unavoidable. However, the blessings of staying in one area for as long as possible can, I believe, far out-weigh the advantages of moving either outwards or upwards.
And as we put roots down in our locality we find our hearts changing. A deepening connection to place and people starts to outweigh lifestyle or living space concerns.
Jeremiah tells the exiles in Babylon: “Make yourself at home and work for the country’s welfare. Pray for Babylon’s well-being”. This was not what they wanted to hear but God had bigger plans, both for them and the place where they lived, than they could possibly have guessed.
At times I would definitely prefer to live where I would wake to the bleating of sheep rather than the blaring of car horns. But I have a feeling that God has plans for London and particularly for this corner where I find myself. And what I think He wants are people who will get the ‘city where I’ve carried you into exile’ under their skin and into their hearts.
And who knows what might happen if enough of us hear this call, take it to heart and start to get connected…