The Suburbs and Your Soul
It’s not often that you read a book that speaks to you and for you, that asks the questions you ask, and that has a little closer reach toward some answers. But I’m feeling that sense of resonance as my wife and I start reading Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much by Ashley Hales.
My life in general follows the arc she describes – growing up in the suburbs, spending extended young adulthood in major cities, and then returning home to suburban life closer to family. She captures the concerns or accusations that crop up in the back of my mind from time to time:
“More than 50 percent of Americans live in suburbs, and many of them desire to live a Christian life. Yet often the suburbs are ignored (‘Your place doesn’t matter, we’re all going to heaven anyway’), denigrated and demeaned (‘You’re selfish if you live in a suburb; you only care about your own safety and advancement’), or seen as a cop-out to a faithful Christian life (‘If you really loved God, you’d move to Africa or work in an impoverished area’). From books to Hollywood jokes, the suburbs aren’t supposed to be good for our souls” (8).
The last two of those 3 problems especially can be hard for those of sensitive conscience, those who feel like second-rate Christians for not doing ministry in what might look or sound like a hard place.
The particular fear of not being faithful is something key Christian voices have tried to dispel, from the late urban missiologist Harvie Conn to the modern neo-monastic Shane Claiborne. Both are adamant: you should not feel guilty simply based on where you live, and you can serve the Lord wherever you are. Becoming a Christian doesn’t necessarily mean you stop being a doctor or that you move away. You become a different kind of doctor, yes, and a different kind of neighbor. But part of the core advice from the monastic church fathers was a call toward stabilitas, highlighting the sanctifying power of staying put.
Further, John Chrysostom (AD 349-407) points us to the Bible to see that the faithful Christian life has many possible expressions:
“There are innumerable models laid before thee in the Scriptures of virtuous lives; whichsoever thou wilt, come, and after the Master find it in the disciples. One hath shown forth through poverty, another through riches; for example, Elijah through poverty, Abraham through riches. Go to that example, which thou esteemest most easy, most befitting thyself to practice. Again, one by marriage, the other by virginity; Abraham by marriage, the other by virginity. Follow whichever thou wilt: for both lead to heaven. One shone forth by fasting, as John, another without fasting, as Job. Again, this latter had a care for his wife, his children, his daughters, his family, and possessed great wealth; the other possessed nothing but the garment of hair” (Homily XII on Phil 3:13-14).
I didn’t expect Chrysostom to encourage us toward anything “easy.” But he tells us to step into the place in life that seems most fitting for us. We take the path the Lord has laid out for us. And wealth or status (or location) by themselves cannot determine our level of faithfulness.
“Thou seest that nothing can obtain the mastery over virtue; neither wealth, nor poverty, nor dominion, nor subjection, nor the preëminence in affairs, nor disease, nor contempt, nor abandonment. But having left all these things below, and upon the earth, it hastens towards Heaven. Only let the soul be noble, and nought can hinder it from being virtuous.”
He goes on to compare virtuous living to art and sports. A person can be stripped of every material blessing and still possess the skill to create great art or to be a great athlete. Living faithfully over a long time is like this. It creates a skill set, habituating dispositions and actions that stay with you wherever you go.
Essentially, to follow Jesus is to learn “how to abound, and how to be in want” (Phil 3:12). This spiritual refinement and growth happens irrespective of place. And yet, paradoxically, where you live still matters. It’s not morally neutral.
In a future post we’ll take up this theme and explore more insights from Hales’ book.