There’s so much that goes into finding a place to make a home — what are the school districts like? Does the house have a yard? How close are we to our families, friends, and favorite places? Where can we find a community?
Where we live shapes us in ways we don’t even think about, but Ashley Hales’ new book “Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much” (IVP, $13) calls us to consider how we’re bringing Christ into our communities.
Kris McGregor: How much of an impact does where we live have on our spiritual lives?
Ashley Hales: It’s hard to see how our places shape us, especially if we’ve been in a place for a long time. Even if you don’t live in the suburbs, our places shape our desires and loves and affections, so we need to think about what this means for our relationship with God and others.
My husband and I grew up in the suburbs; we both came home from the hospital to the houses our parents still live in. But once we were married, we moved around, we lived overseas, and I had used my place to really define myself as unique and cosmopolitan.
When we moved back home to the suburbs, I had to reckon with that — is it possible to live in a place that’s pretty affluent and comfortable, and to love God and serve him there?
McGregor: The suburbs seem like a harder place to connect with God in creation.
Hales: The suburbs tell us that the good life is found in ease and comfort and success. If you’re in the city, you might be giving up comfort to advance your career; in the country, comfort is going to look a lot more like hard work.
But the suburbs really tell us that the good life is to be comfortable. And when Jesus speaks to some of those comfortable churches in the Book of Revelation, he wants to spit them out of his mouth — they’re lukewarm, neither hot nor cold. That can sneak up on us in the suburbs, and we don’t even realize we’ve been away from God and from shaping our lives around him.
McGregor: Living in my own neighborhood, I feel the need to serve God by going somewhere else. But that’s exactly where he’s placed me, in that moment, hasn’t he?
Hales: The call to be a good neighbor starts with our actual next-door neighbors. It’s not necessarily going around town to donate clothes or pass out food for the homeless — those aren’t bad things by any means, but we need to look closely at who God has put in our lives on a daily basis as well.
McGregor: We’re so isolated today that you may not even know the person who lives across the street, or what’s going on in their lives. How do you learn who your neighbor is?
Hales: All of our modern conveniences that make us comfortable often cut us off from the community that we say we want. I think the challenge for Christians is to say, how can I be thoughtful, how can I be intentional, and move toward my neighbors, even if I don’t know them.
For us, we’ve talked a lot about embracing awkward conversations, and looking out for when our neighbors get home from work to start the conversation.
Just saying, “Hey, I know this is weird and awkward, and we’ve lived beside each other for three years, but what’s your name? I’m getting some neighborhood folks together for a party. Would you like to come?” Whatever excuse we make to do it, we can begin to develop those relationships.
McGregor: In the suburbs, what’s the flip side of the “land of too much?” We’re blessed to live in our homes the way we do in this country, but many of us are living house poor. We’re trying to put something forward to others without giving away our secret struggles.
Hales: We might not have the homeless person sitting on the corner, where you can see that something’s broken, but your neighbor’s marriage may be falling apart, or you know people are struggling with debt and overextending themselves, or they’re so busy that they’re not connecting as a family. These things need the healing power of God just as well.
McGregor: You talk about individualism, and how our society holds that up as a virtue.
Hales: Individualism is a sneaky idol of the suburbs. Everything around us tells us, be all you can be, succeed, look out for yourself. All of our ideas of care are centered on the individual.
We haven’t really grasped what it looks like to belong to larger corporate identities, whether it’s the Church or our neighborhoods. We’re losing something by simply viewing our happiness in terms of ourselves, or even just our nuclear families. Our communities are poorer for it.
Consumerism, busyness, individualism, and safety — they all work together as a reinforced picket fence. We’re so concerned about things falling apart — if my child doesn’t do well, or something evil happens to my family, then all is lost, instead of ultimately trusting our lives to Jesus and knowing that he will keep us safe even if the worst should happen.
Kris McGregor is the founder of Discerninghearts.com, an online resource for the best in contemporary Catholic spirituality.
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