Review: Finding Holy in the Suburbs

Finding Holy in the Suburbs

Gentle Reader,

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 suburbs.

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.

– ibid.

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.

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Review: Mere Hope

Mere Hope

Gentle Reader,

Mixed feelings about this little book. Maybe that’s because I’m naturally cynical.

In Mere Hope, Jason Duesing instructs the reader to do four things: look down (hope’s foundation), look in (hope’s fountain), look out (hope’s flourishing) and look up (hope’s focus). Each of these steps is centered on the overarching theme of remembering Jesus, meaning that we are to live each day intentionally conscious of His presence and work in both our lives and the world at large. In this first chapter, Duesing writes:

By the Middle Ages the use of the phoenix as a Christian “resurrection bird” faded, but throughout other forms of literature, the avian myth appears to convey and remind of Christian hope. … What I love about the phoenix…is that just at the darkest moment, when you think this majestic creature has died or given its life for another, it is reborn, returning to life. … The foundation of our hope rose from the ashes of death; “something greater than the phoenix is here” (see Matthew 12:41). This mere hope is good news, for ours is a cynical age without much hope.

– p. 5

Given the chaos of our world and our growing awareness of it due to the constant connectivity of the internet, particularly via social media, this is a good reminder. All is not lost. The darkness, no matter how great, isn’t going to win. Our Savior, though He died, lives. We must continually reflect upon this truth.

I particularly appreciated the chapter on looking out, which seeks to move us from reflection to action:

…mere hope flourishes when it is employed in the service of others.

– p. 94

Just as we easily forget that God really is in charge and that evil really isn’t going to win, we also forget that our job is to go out and not only preach the Good News, but to take care of people. The two go hand-in-hand, for as James wrote, faith without works is dead (2:17). While it’s just a short jump into the terror of believing that our works keep us in right relationship with God (wrong thinking that has to be consistently battled), it’s an equally short jump into a “they need to pull themselves up/nobody ever helped me and I’m fine” mentality. This is not the example of Christ. He rolled up His sleeves. So, too, must we.

What brought me up short while reading this book was Duesing’s mediation on Evangelical Stoicism:

…Stoicism that is high on morality, asceticism and indifference plays well into our day of mutual challenges to “just grind it out.” … We are experts at “toughing it out.” … We have gotten very good at being proficient and we know how to get by. … In the face of the decline of cultural morality we hunker down and huddle up. Yet, simple joy, faith, hope and thankfulness are conspicuously absent as we “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

– p. 118-119 (emphasis mine)

Duesing is right in his claim that Evangelical Stoicism exists. I think he is wrong that it arises as a result of cultural shifts or societal pressure, however. I cannot speak to other parts of the world, but here in the United States Evangelical Stoicism exists because of the movement’s intimate connection to the very Western value of individualism, as well as the ever-present specter of the “American Dream.” As I alluded to above, it is with great difficulty that we expunge the “bootstraps” notion from our psyches. Thus, while Christianity itself has an extremely interdependent mindset, broken people living and working together in the power and for the glory of God, that way of being is largely foreign to us, here and now. We know how to be Stoic. We know how to strive. We know how to put on a brave face.

I agree with Duesing’s remedy for the problem: look up. Refocus on the Gospel. Our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world have no choice but to daily, moment-by-moment put all their trust in Christ. We get distracted by…stuff. Bank accounts, jobs, Netflix, whatever. You know what gets you, just as I know what gets me. In order to shrug off the shackles of “keeping up with the Jones’,” which is certainly a major element of our Stoicism, we have to forcefully remind ourselves that we are nothing without Him. A constant awareness of the Gospel and what it means – suffering and death for you and me – is the only thing that will break us out of our individualistic shells.

Overall, there’s nothing really wrong with this book. The author has a Calvinistic framework through which he views the world, which isn’t my jam, but no biggie. He doesn’t beat the reader over the head with it. I do find Wayne Grudem’s endorsement annoying, given his political activities in the last few years, but his standing as an author and teacher in Southern Baptist circles (this book is published by B&H Books, part of Lifeway Christian Resources, the publishing and distribution arm of the SBC) means that most first-time authors of that particular denomination would seek out his approval. Given what I know of the publishing world, I get why Duesing and his team went there.

I would have preferred some practical application tips or discussion questions at the end of each chapter. What does it look like to put mere hope into action? How do we move from the realm of the theoretical to “feet on the pavement” living? As one who really is naturally cynical, that would have been helpful. In the end, though, I do appreciate Duesing reminding us to continually look to Christ, the Author and Perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).

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Review: Born to Wander

Born to Wander

Gentle Reader,

The Hebrew words lech lecha used here for the command “go” emphasize this wasn’t a casual suggestion. … Lech lecha also carries the answer to the “how?” and “where?” questions that arise in the immediate wake of “go.”

How? By walking?

Where? Toward the One who bids you to come.

Lech lecha tells us the Lord is our launchpad. He is our companion on the way. And He is our destination. Lech lecha is the roadmap for the pilgrim’s journey.

– p. 36

Michelle Van Loon’s Born to Wander: Recovering the Value of our Pilgrim Identity should be required reading for Christians living in the United States of America in 2018. We are so wrapped up in the temporal, scrabbling for power and influence by man-made means that we completely ignore the fact that we do not belong to this world. Oh, we give lip service to the idea. We quote the verses. But the way we live proves that the words are meaningless to us.

Van Loon uses the story of the Hebrews in the Old Testament – from God’s first command to Abram to “go” through the return of the exiles from Babylon – to highlight that truth. People are people wherever and whenever one goes, so we are not, in any way, different from this ancient nation. They had the presence of God with them, first in the smoke and the fire, then in the Holy of Holies, yet they did their own thing. Walked their own way. Forgot who they truly were.

So it is with us.

We moderns tend to be proud of the fact that we’ve “evolved” past pagan forms of worship, but our lives are packed to the rafters with things competing for the place that belongs to God alone. Idolatry took root in our DNA from the very beginning, at the fall. In the garden of Eden, when the serpent hissed, “Did God really say…?”, the first humans used God’s gift of choice to entertain their own answers to the question rather than remaining in unbroken relationship with their Creatot (Gen. 3:1). That decision positioned all of humanity to gravitate toward worshiping gods of our own making.

– p. 97

None of us have to look far to find the little idols, the cherished sins, that keep us distracted. I won’t bother crafting a list, because the things upon which we focus our affection and attention are varied and far too numerous. You know what it is that pulls your heart. I know what it is that pulls mine.

Born to Wander is a convicting book. Read it. Especially if you’re sensitive or in possession of thin skin. It’s time for us to embrace our true identity, that of the stranger, the wanderer, the exile. We don’t belong to this place. This world is not our home.

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Review: Made Like Martha

Martha

Gentle Reader,

Now it happened as they went that He entered a certain village; and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word. But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.”

And Jesus answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.”

– Luke 10:38-42 (NKJV)

I’ve read this passage more times than I know. I’ve heard this passage exegeted from the pulpit more than once. I’ve written about this passage. Always, always the message is this: Jesus was mad at Martha because she didn’t “get it.” Type-A people need to learn how to chill out. Be more like Mary.

That’s how I’ve understood this exchange. I come away feeling bad about myself. Thinking that Jesus must be disappointed in me. Wishing that I could somehow mold myself into a non-task oriented person. Never succeeding in the attempt.

Thus, Made Like Martha by Katie M. Reid was an incredibly freeing book.

Jesus never asked Martha to be Mary, and He didn’t ask you to be either. He simply pointed out that you do not have to serve from a place of striving and worry, because He is already enough for you. He is not holding out on you. We have added words to what Jesus said and compromised parts of who He created us to be in the process. Enough is enough! Pointing out one behavior to improve on is not the same as criticizing the totality of who you are. Let’s stop agreeing with the serpent and others who echo his slippery sentiments.

– p. 12

Can I get a loud, hearty “amen?!”

Throughout my life I’ve been described as “robotic” and “mannish.” Because apparently only robots and men have a “get it done” mindset. (Fairly, some of those comments have been gentle teasing from people who truly know and love me as I am).  Women have to be…what, exactly? Flighty? Oozing emotion 24/7? I have no idea. What I do know that I’ve often believed that something is wrong with me. That it’s bad to be different from a lot of the ladies I know.

Reid declares that the personality I have – the list-making, job-finishing, hard-working, generally no-nonsense (unless it’s in an organized fashion) personality – is exactly the one that God intended to give me. I’m neither robotic nor mannish. I am a woman who reflects the imago dei, exactly as I am.

The message would be incomplete if ended there, however. We Marthas do have a particular struggle that Jesus works to free us from: worry.

…she was so consumed with cares that she forgot the One who is most careful with her. She was so focused on her works that she missed the Worthy One in her midst; Jesus, the water-to-wine miracle worker, the feed-the-five-thousand supernatural provider, the raise-the-dead anointed healer.

Have I, like Martha, overlooked the One who resides in the home of my heart? Has worrying and being overly responsible crippled my faith? Have the what-ifs distracted me from the I AM?

– p. 18

Ouch. And yes. Worry leads me to over-responsibility all the time. In recent years I’ve been better about stepping back and sorting out what is mine to bear and what belongs to another, but it’s a struggle. I want everyone and everything to be okay. If it’s not, that’s my fault. Because I’m the fourth member of the Trinity. Didn’t you know?

It’s good to be a Martha. The world needs women who can get the job done, women who don’t mind rolling up our sleeves. It’s not good for us to stay wrapped up in fear – fear of rejection, fear of being overlooked, fear of letting someone else try. Our value is not based in what we can accomplish in a day or how many committees we sit on. Who we are, our identity, is found in Christ. He has done it all so that we can work and serve out of love, not fear.

Reid has done an excellent job of steering her fellow Marthas toward the deep breath of release. We can trust God to take care of us. It doesn’t have to be “just so” for Him to love us. The moment we cry out to Him in the faith of repentance, He makes His home within our souls – mess and all. We don’t have to strive or seek to impress Him. All that is required is for us to listen, to allow Him to guide our hard work in the jobs that He uniquely designed for us before the creation of the world.

Excellent news indeed.

Whether you are a Martha or you know a Martha (so, everybody), I recommend you read this book. Marthas will feel the knots in their shoulders unwind and non-Marthas will gain valuable insight into their sisters. You might be surprised at how fearful we are. We need you who are able to sit at His feet to remind us that we are safe – and that we are invited to do the same.

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