City of God: Faith in the Streets - book review
A book review of “City of God” by Sara Miles offered by Rev. Paul Brown, Pastor, Central United Methodist Church, Canton, North Carolina What does it mean to be missional? What does it look like to experience God’s presence outside our sanctuaries and beyond the shadow of our steeples? In her book, City of God, Sara Miles offers an expanded theological vision that calls into question old assumptions we have about where we can find God. Of course, God meets us inside our church buildings, as people come together on Sunday mornings to hear the Word and celebrate the sacraments. In fact, this is how Miles herself first became a Christian – by stumbling into an Episcopal church where she encounters Jesus in the Eucharist. But the God who took on flesh in Jesus cannot be contained by four walls or written liturgies. As Miles puts it, the Word “becomes even more vivid outside.” On Ash Wednesday, as Miles and her friends from St. Gregory’s Church in San Francisco share the message of repentance, mortality, and forgiveness with their neighbors, they make a startling discovery. They find God in the streets of their city. For Miles, finding God outside of church is all about paying attention. The sobering reminder that “you are dust, and to dust you will return” should stir up in us repentance for failing to pay attention to the world that God loves so much. Instead of foolishly thinking we must somehow carry God to our neighbors, she gently reminds her readers that God is already there – out in the streets, waiting for us. “Paradise is a garden,” she writes, “but heaven is a city.” This is perhaps where Miles’ writing shines the brightest. With sharp wit and an eye for detail, Miles lovingly describes the sights, smells, and personalities that populate the Mission District where she lives and worships. In the process, she illustrates for us what paying attention looks like in everyday life. Miles finds God in a bearded old Mexican woman who offers an unexpected blessing. In Paul, the wise and jovial rector of St. Gregory’s. In a homeless Creole man nicknamed “Mr. Claws” for his curling, uncut nails. In her neighbor’s wife, who receives ashes from Miles on her way to the doctor. “In a city,” Miles explains, “grace just falls all over the place.” Early on, Miles acknowledges that her book is not “about how to fix or save or reinvent the church.” Neither does she offer up her Ash Wednesday experience as a model to be mimicked in every other community. After all, San Francisco is a very long way from most towns and cities in western North Carolina. Instead, what City of God sparked inside of me was a longing to step outside my church building and to start paying attention. Miles says it best: “God’s blessing is everywhere. Whether in the midst of a literal city, or in the suburbs, or on a lonely mountainside, worship outside of a church building allows a glimpse of the world, the whole world, transformed.” Perhaps if we can learn to pay attention, we will find God waiting for us right here on the streets of western North Carolina.