Review: Finding Holy in the Suburbs

Finding Holy

Finding Holy in the SuburbsAshley Hales (Foreword by Emily P. Freeman). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Suburbs reflect our longings for the good, that we often fill with gods of consumerism, individualism, busyness, and safety. Only when we repent and find our longings met in belonging to God, can daily life in the suburbs become a holy endeavor.

Nearly one-half of Americans live in suburbs, and yet many view the suburbs as a place of desolation, a deadening affluence and isolation that James Howard Kunstler has described “the geography of nowhere.” In many Christian circles, the “cutting edge” Christian life is one lived in urban neighborhoods. So what does one make of a call of God to leave an urban community that has been a thriving place of ministry and rich relationships to return to the California suburb of one’s youth? That was the challenge faced by Ashley Hales and her husband as they moved from urban Salt Lake City to that California suburb.

Hales discovered that there was a hunger in the suburbs, a longing for “home” that people filled with consumerism, individualism, busyness, and safety. In the first part of this book she described her own wrestlings with these false gods. She describes the consumeristic fantasies of granite countertops and therapeutic shopping at Target. She describes the individualism of measuring worth in the square footage of suburban castles that close us off from community. She narrates the busy life of the mom in a minivan ruled by the schedules entailed by all the childhood experiences our community says our children must have. She confesses the fears for safety that lead to walls and fences and gates that end up shutting out the joyous life of the kingdom.

Hales believes that “healing begins at the place of hunger.” It is when, in conversations over coffee, or the back fence, the doubts and frustrations arise that expose the brokenness of this life and the chance to “find holy” opens up. The middle part of the book deals with two movements that are critical. The first is repentance, when we acknowledge that the “glittering images” of suburban life mask an inner emptiness. The answer is not to double down or to look for a different place, but to acknowledge our mess, and stay put, waiting for God’s grace. The other part is to know that grace, that we are God’s beloved, and that our belovedness is not in how “ripped” or svelte we are, but in finding a better Lover who sees us in our beautiful brokenness and will not let us go. The challenge is to live in that reality each day in the little acts of suburban life.

The concluding chapters commend an alternative life in the suburbs that arises from repentance and belovedness. It begins with hospitality that doesn’t worry about how Pinterest-worthy our homes are but shares meals together as family and invites others into the warmth, with children interrupting, and crumbs in the sofa. Instead of consumerism, we live with an open-hearted and intentional generosity with our stuff and our time and our money. It means choosing vulnerability over safety in opening up our lives to our church and our neighborhood. It is living into the shalom of God in the midst of our broken-busy lives.

Hales writes in a style that at once evidences deep spiritual reflection, and personal honesty about her own moments of failure, repentance, and of rooting her life in the suburbs in an awareness of the presence of God in the ordinary. Each chapter concludes with some practices that individuals, families or groups may use.

As one who has lived in a suburban community for 28 years, there was much that I recognized, from the dreams of kitchen remodels to the minivan lineups at schools, practices, and fast-food drive-throughs, to the concerns for safety (far greater than in the urban community of my youth). I appreciate the insight of the author to see beyond these things to the hunger and longings of her neighbors, and the needed posture of Christians who live in this setting.

At the same time, I wonder if her and her husband’s commitment to minister in that community sets them apart from many. Our suburb significantly empties out during the day as people spend the bulk of their waking hours working somewhere else–often a place where they form their most significant friendships. She doesn’t deal with the transience of suburban communities (the house next to us has had four owners during the time we have lived here, the house behind us seven). Suburbs have life cycles from the squeaky clean “new build” stage to aging housing stock and changing demographics as many move to newer exurbs while some stay after raising families to become empty-nesters, and eventually, those who choose to “age in place.”

I hope the author and her husband will stay long enough to wrestle with these realities and work out the practices described in this book, which I believe reflect what kingdom presence looks like, as believers in the suburbs. Many suburbs really are a “geography of nowhere,” removed from shops, services and workplaces, and with attached garages that allow us to enter our “castles” without any interaction with neighbors. Many communities have no real identity and have little beyond the local schools to offer cohesion.  This work describes well the spiritual landscape of suburban life and the posture needed for those who will minister there. I look forward a sequel to this book, something like, “Further Adventures in Finding Holy in the Suburbs.” This is needed work!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires EverywhereCeleste Ng. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.

Summary: When Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl rent a duplex apartment from Elena Richardson, the matriarch of a successful Shaker Heights, Ohio family, it sets in motion a series of events, “little fires” that culminate in a fire that burns down the Richardson home, and transforms the lives of both families.

Elena Richardson, matriarch of a seemingly perfect and successful family in Shaker Heights, Ohio, sleeps in one Saturday to awaken to a house on fire–little fires started in the center of each of the beds in the house. Elena, the keeper of rules in a community of rules watches the house burn down as her “perfect” children and husband gather–all except Izzy, who always pushed against the rules and is no where to be found. It is Izzy who set the fires, and has fled. How did all this happen?

The little fires begin when Mia Warren and her high school daughter Pearl rent a duplex apartment Elena owns. The two of them have lived a gypsy life, living only long enough in any one community for Mia to compose a series of photographs, the sales of which, along with odd jobs provide enough for them to live on, before they pack what fits into their VW Rabbit and move on. But this time they hope to stay.

Little fires. Elena’s son Moody is curious and meets Pearl and instantly falls in love and draws Pearl into the affluent life of the family with older brother Trip, and sisters Lexie and Izzy.

Little fires. Elena visits the duplex and sees Mia’s art–photographs altered or with other objects superimposed that she sends to a New York dealer. Hearing Mia works at a Chinese restaurant to make ends meet, she invites Mia to clean and cook in exchange for the rent in what seems a noble gesture of supporting the arts.

Little fires. Izzy is suspended for standing up to a bullying music teacher, and opens up to Mia, who asks, “what are you going to do?” opening up possibilities Izzy has never thought of before. Izzy begins assisting Mia in her work.

Little fires. Lexie and Izzy see a photograph of a younger Mia holding an infant (Pearl) in the Cleveland Museum of Art by a famous New York photographer, Pauline Hawthorne. They talk Mrs. Richardson, who is a reporter for a local newspaper, to investigate the back story. In the process, she uncovers secrets Mia has kept even from her own daughter.

Little fires. Mia figures out that the Asian-American baby who is a ward of the state that the McCullough’s, close and childless friends of the Richardsons, want to adopt, is the baby her co-worker at the Chinese restaurant, Bebe, left at a fire station when she had been abandoned and in post-partum despair. Mia lets this information slip, leading to a custody case that is all over the press, and that divides the community, and fires Elena’s resentment of Mia, who seems to represent everything Elena is not, and perhaps turned away from for her successful, rule-abiding existence.

Little fires. Pearl and Trip become involved, as much at Pearl’s initiative as Trip’s, destroying Moody’s friendship with Pearl. Pearl helps Lexie get an abortion, even letting Lexie substitute Pearl’s name on the patient record, and then brings Lexie home to be cared for by Mia afterwards.

Little fires that in the end lead to the setting of little fires that burn down the house. At one point Mia talks with Izzy about how, like prairie fires, “you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over.” The fire that destroys brings new life to the prairie. The question is, will it do the same for all the people caught up in these little fires? What will Mia do about the secrets of her past that have been uncovered? And what will Elena do, seeing the destruction of her perfect life by her wayward daughter?

I was drawn to this book because the author grew up in and writes about Shaker Heights. We lived for nine years in its poorer, blue collar neighbor down the road, Maple Heights. I knew many of the places about which she wrote, ate at some of the restaurants, shopped at Shaker Square and occasionally at Heinen’s, and admired the ambiance we couldn’t touch. We knew about some of the rules. Her portrait of this earliest of model suburbs rang true.

As I read, I was drawn into this book with its interesting portrayal of people trying to do good, to keep the rules, to find and make homes and do good work, to make their way in life, and the catalytic moments when it all goes awry. I once had a friend who observed that the American dream is killing us. This book suggests how our suburban dreams may kill us, how the ideal life of successful spouses, kids in good schools groomed for Ivy League admissions, and how a life of following the rules, a life both socially conscious and socially tone deaf may destroy something of what makes us and others unique.

 

Review: This Ordinary Adventure

This ordinary adventureThis Ordinary Adventure, Christine Jeske and Adam Jeske. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012.

Summary: The Jeskes describe what happens when their quest to live a life of “amazing days” meets up with the realities of returning to suburban America, parenting, regular work–and routine.

Take a young man and woman dedicated to living out their faith in a way that leaves its mark in the world for good, who train to do development work in Majority World countries, and then do it. They live with the poor, contract malaria and dysentary, and fear for their daughter’s life when she runs a 105 degree fever. And they meet extraordinary people from the African host who ferries Christine to catch a crucial flight on his beat up old motorcycle, to the health care worker who diagnosed their daughter with tonsillitis and got her on the necessary antibiotics. They help a village close a coffee deal that was still paying dividends ten years later. They had resolved to live a life of faith that chose risk and living “amazing days” over safety.

And then they came home to pursue graduate studies and work with a national organization as a writer. They lived in several locations in Wisconsin, finally settling in midwestern Madison. They find themselves settling into the routines and realities of work, raising Phoebe and Zeke, and engaging and resisting suburban realities and trying to figure out what “amazing days” look like in this different setting.

The book is co-authored by Christine and Adam and they contribute alternate chapters, that describe both their adventures abroad, and the ordinary adventure of early twenty-first century life as people of faith with high ideals who don’t want to settle for ordinary and predictable lives. The book alternates between painful struggle, funny stories, and revelatory moments like watching a spider weave a web in a kitchen window. “Amazing” can be a day at the parks with the kids, or a community gathering, or Adam’s crazy jello creation. it doesn’t have to be a harrowing adventure in a country most people haven’t heard of. The big issue seems willing to be attentive to the form “amazing” comes in and how the amazing God wants to encounter us in different seasons.

I have to admit that there was part of me that wrestled with the “amazing days” thing. The people I knew in the blue collar neighborhood I grew up in would never have dreamed of “amazing days” and would probably have thought this couple a bit strange, running around the world, and then struggling with life here at home. Those I knew who lived lives of faith said their prayers before they went to work while their wives prayed they would return safely. You sought to raise your kids right, helped your neighbors when they were in need, remembered the bonds of extended family. You didn’t think about “amazing days”–just what doing right by God, family, work, and neighbor required. Running around the world, or traveling farther than Niagara Falls, or indulging in all the suburban conveniences (attached garages and whole house air conditioning or introspecting about living simply) were luxuries that seemed beyond us.

Yet I remember when my wife and I bought a home in suburban Columbus years later. We were walking around our neighborhood and asked ourselves if we had “sold out”. We were also committed to a vision of living out our faith that was different than the American dream, which confronted us in the form of the array of leagues and lessons our peers thought was the norm for any child. We somehow never made the obligatory pilgrimage to Disney World but discovered the “amazing” in wandering dusty bookstores and exploring small towns in out of the way places within an hour of our home.

And I think this is the point Adam and Christine make in this memoir of their first eleven years of life together. The temptation to settle down and sell out is real–to abandon the ideals of our faith and become more “realistic” about life. But to settle, to put roots down in a place, to love God, people, and that place doesn’t require a sellout. At the same time, I think we (at least I) continue to need voices like Christine and Adam who keep us attentive to God’s invitation to the adventure in the ordinary. I need the suggestions, both zany and practical, at the end of each chapter. I might just take them up on taking a photograph every day for the next month!