As we continue in our series You Are Here: Jeremiah on Life in the City, I have been thinking about one of the the great challenges we have in city life, the challenge to be personal. It seems too easy to slide into anonymity, to see people only for their functions and roles, to be frustrated that “I can’t get to where I want to go fast enough” (a traffic reality that carries a lot of metaphorical weight if you want to think about it).
We have all experienced those moments when we felt depersonalized, a mere cog in the machinery, reduced to our role or function, unseen or unheard. We want to share something of who we are, what we love or what we hope for, what we would like to say if we had the time or space or freedom, but we get squashed by systems and expectations. City life tends to accentuate this human problem. The city is a business, a “busyness”, a powerful way for us to efficiently organize ourselves. But we seldom become known as persons in such a framework. The battle between power and personalness is always present.
A conversation in the 1999 movie You’ve Got Mail highlights the issue. Joe wants to explain to Kathleen that the forces which led to the demise of her business, forces he directly created, were not meant to be “personal”. Kathleen replies: “What is that supposed to mean? I am so sick of that. All that means is that it wasn't personal to you. But it was personal to me... And what's so wrong with being personal, anyway?… Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.”
The text we rehearsed this past Sunday (Jeremiah 29:4ff) could be looked at through the lens of personalness. It is as if the prophet is telling the exiles to counteract the impersonal power of the city with the simplicity of connected human life. “Don’t make it political, make it personal”, Jeremiah seems to be saying.
As we think about ways to reclaim our city, to build and bless it, to make it a place where friendship and family can flourish, where God is known and worshipped, and where we can feel at home, let us keep this idea of personalness front and center. For wherever power goes unchecked, the tender and frail beauty of personalness seems to get squashed. But flowers grow in cities don’t they? Yes, they just need to be tended and protected.
Think about it for the next few days: instead of saying “its just business”, ask rather “how can I make this more personal?”
See you Sunday at 9:29 or 11:11