I got a letter in the mail today detailing the time and location of the next homeowner’s association meeting. My immediate response was annoyance. What a waste of time. People arguing about stupid things like so-and-so not moving his garbage can from the curb in a timely fashion. These folks have way too much time on their hands.
Tract houses fenced off from the rest of the world. Mini malls full of things that none of us really need. Tidy little parks, so pristine as to be almost unfriendly.
The impulse for building the suburbs was to create an idyll: the best of the country with access to the city, the pleasure of a country manor, a place of safety, and strong, thriving communities. These are good hungers; to enjoy, to rest, to work well, to keep your family safe, to grow a cohesive community. But when these hungers a met through shiny suburban packages, they come out sideways as consumerism, individualism, busyness and exclusion.
– p. 14
Hard to argue with that as I type on my laptop while I sit on my bed inside my house that sits next to my pathway on my street.
Ashley Hales knows what it is to live in the numbing suburbs, so she doesn’t condemn her readers for our struggles. Everything in the suburbs is designed to cater to an individualistic mindset, thereby undermining community-building before it even starts. Strange to realize this truth, for we so often imagine that the cities are places of disconnection. Yet it is us, wandering the aisles of the nearby Target, almond milk mochas in hand, who struggle mightily with getting out of our own heads.
Hales goes on:
There is a better way for the suburbs.
Each of the ten chapters explores specific temptations that suburbanites must be aware of and provides creative ways to address and overcome them. Hales begins with the most obvious sin of the Western world – consumerism. We have such a hard time embracing life as it is because we have bought into the idea that “this” or “that” will fulfill all of our deepest longings. Therefore, contentment is continually out of reach and our bank accounts bleed – yet “this” and “that” is never enough. It never ends.
So we must:
…ask for hearts that are not content with the thing itself but hunger for the source of our desires. … May the dust of our idols catch in our throats and awake us to our deathly habits of consumption.
– p. 30-31
That is the point of Finding Holy in the Suburbs. Hales spends 174 pages consistently pointing the reader to her need for the Lord. That might seem like a lot of ink spilled in order to share a fairly simple point, but nowhere is this book repetitive. With careful methodology and a solid understanding of Scripture, Hales first confronts us with the problem, moves us to the crisis point of repentance, then ends with a call to partner with God to bring shalom to the placid-looking streets we travel.
“Your suburb is not your home. It is your place you are called to in exile as you wait for glory. … The call of shalom is to maintain…’faithful presence within’ the structures of our neighborhoods and culture, as we experience God’s presence even in exile.”
– p. 156
As we live within the paradoxical “already” and “not yet” Kingdom of God, strangers and aliens who look like everyone else, we are tasked with bringing the Gospel to those who have yet to taste and see that God is good. The only way we can effectively accomplish this mission is to choose to reject the seemingly-sweet, definitely seductive vision the suburbs places before our eyes each day. Our lives are not about countertops, playdates or neatly trimmed lawns. None of these things are bad, of course, and there is no need for us to flee into the desert, but they do not define us.
We are, instead, defined by belonging to God.
The suburbs shine brightly, beckoning all to chase the much-heralded “American Dream.” Up close, inside, the light is dim, like a barely-flickering low-wattage bulb. We have the light of God within us, brighter than the sun itself. Ashley Hales helps us to see that and to reorder our priorities. Be sure to read this one.