Whenever I read those Bible passages on rich people, I get a bit uneasy. I grew up in an extremely safe, white, two-parent, middle-class, American household. I’ve never experienced going without food, water, shelter, or love. Those passages are talking about people like me. The rich are not just celebrities. They are...me.
It’s why I feel the anger bubble up every time I hear another woman complain about living in America. A place I can let my hair down, get a job, own a car, have several sources of clean water around my house, a trash truck that takes my trash away every week, several toilets to whisk waste away the minute it hits the water, a safe place to lay my children at night, trustworthy neighbors, the ability to and time to read, endless places to instantly acquire food if I run out or don’t feel like cooking, emergency services I can call and trust, and the list goes on...and on...and on. And if I am in that rich category, how do I know I’m where I should be in the kingdom? Some of us will get in by the skin of our teeth (1 Corinthians 3:13-15).
How do we know we aren’t spiritually poor? We equate having the right knowledge with being spiritually rich, but the religious elite that Jesus was so frustrated with are a clear indication that is far from true.
In Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much, Ashley Hales asks us to ponder our lives a little less “self-referentially.” For example, do we really use our wealth, our safe location and position for others? Or do we just use it for our own comfort?
She presents ten areas all suburb-dwellers struggle with: Consumerism, Individualism, Busyness, Safety, Repentance, Belovedness, Hospitality, Generosity, Vulnerability, and Shalom.
It was interesting to me that she began with consumerism, as that’s exactly where the Spirit began with me a year and a half ago. Vulnerability was also surprising, as much of what she said resonated with the latest thing God’s been working on me with. And if you’re wondering...YES, being vulnerable was absolutely worth it. When I reminded myself that it was between me and Jesus, that I was growing in an area where He created me to be and serve, that I have a perfect Father, a perfect Parent, who knows exactly what He created me to do...then I had every reason in the world to make myself as vulnerable as He needed me too.
I think Ashley Hales’ book is a really valuable resource for every suburban bookshelf, both to periodically reread and discuss with others. I say this, because the closer I grow to God, the longer I read Scripture, the more convinced I am that God is less about our comfort and more about our growth. That these two things are, unfortunately, very incompatible. That’s not to say we won’t be comforted and held. That we won’t be encouraged by a friend, a book, a song, something in nature, just at the moment we need it most. That we won’t experience joy - not just fluffy happiness like when we open a Christmas present or eat a cinnamon roll - but deeply rooted, eternally growing joy. But…
Jesus does describe Himself as the true vine and we the branches that only bear fruit when we are abiding in Him. And when we are bearing fruit, we are pruned so that we bear even more fruit. I don’t know how you prune your plants, but I’ve never propped them up in front of a movie with candy and cake and thought, “wow, they’re really living their best life now!” No, I either pinch off branches - basically squeeze and rip - or sever them with scissors. But they sure as heck look better, act better, and are all around healthier plants. They fulfill their purpose much easier.
But what does this even look like in the suburbs - the ultimate place of comfort and safety? Of having the option to hunker down away from everyone and everything we don’t like?
Unlike a lot of self-help books, I never felt like the practices of learning to live faithfully were just more items on my to-do list. God is already working. I don’t have to start anything. Just be willing to join. To remember that we are his physical presence in the world, and we have a very important part to play in our little corner.
It’s a letting go, like the shedding of useless layers of clothing and souvenirs and cheap trinkets:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,” -Hebrews 12:1
At the end of each chapter, there are suggestions for starting small in each area. Counterliturgies, Ashley calls them. Practices that intentionally counter the regular habits doing more harm than good. But despite a whole chapter dedicated to generosity, I’m gonna have a hard time lending this one out. This one’s headed for the reference book shelf.