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Why I am a Missional Suburbanite
God has been messing with me lately. That’s the only way to describe it. The “God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3) has been making me uncomfortable, and while I trust that this is for my own good in the long run (and the good of the world around me) it still creates an uneasiness in my soul.
There’s a saying that God comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable. And it is the comfort of my life that God has been challenging me about.
Six months ago, I took a class on urban development and leadership, trying to learn about the problems of the inner city and familiarizing myself with the work of various urban ministries. It was a part of a justice journey that perhaps some of you have seen evidence of in my writing lately.
In recent weeks, God’s invited me to take a few more steps on that journey, and on that journey, I keep coming to forks in the path where I feel I must make choices. As usual for me, God is speaking through books: His Book, of course, but also a few others.
In the past two weeks, I read Will and Lisa Samson’s new book, Justice in the Burbs, and also Shane Claiborne’s book The Irresistible Revolution. Both confirmed what I’ve been learning for the past year or two, that faith in Jesus and caring for the poor are inextricably bound. And now, I can’t claim ignorance anymore.
You can see my reviews of both books below, but I wanted to tell you a bit about how these two works have come at just the right time in my journey.
I grew up in a church that valued the Bible, and that church instilled that value in me, by various means (raise your hand if you did “Bible drills”). The most prevalent was memorization, a gift I’m grateful for. One verse I memorized was Isaiah 1:18, “Come now, let us reason together,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be like wool.”
Christian singer Ken Medema had a song based on that verse, which I heard not only when he came to do a concert at our church but at home when we listened to his albums. And I was so glad that Jesus took my sins away, that I was saved, that God’s love went beyond reason, to amazing grace. To me, that was what the words meant—forgiveness of sin, halleluiah. I’m not being flippant, that really is a thing to rejoice in. And that is what the verse is about. But it’s not all that verse is about. My reading is missing some of the context.
I’ve been reading Isaiah again lately, because I’ve noticed so many of the verses I didn’t read in my childhood are in that book.
For example, the verse directly preceding God’s invitation to “reason.” Reason about what? “Let’s reason together” sounds like an invitation to a thoughtful discussion. But about what? My need for forgiveness? My need for personal salvation? God’s willingness to forgive me, which goes beyond normal reasoning? That’s what I’d always assumed, in fact, been taught. Because it is about that, but it’s also about so much more. The previous verse, Isaiah 1:17 says, “Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”
So “do right” doesn’t just mean not drinking, dancing, smoking or running around with boys who do? (the behavior my tradition labeled as the worst sins) Doing right also includes seeking justice, fighting oppression, helping orphans and widows? Huh. I mean, who knew?
It is still true that God’s grace washes us all clean, makes us white as snow. And that we ought to spurn sinful activities. His forgiveness of course, makes us grateful. That is so obvious that the text doesn’t even mention that. But the next verse says God expects our response to be obedience. How? By doing what it says in verse 17—to do what is right: seek justice, encourage the oppressed (my Bible’s footnote on this phrase says another translation of the phrase might be “rebuke the oppressor”). It seems that God is asking us to fight for justice so that those who are oppressed or orphaned can experience grace. No offense to my church, but how come I didn’t hear this part of the story? I thought that I was supposed to tell other people about Jesus. But this text, which is clearly about amazing grace, doesn’t say anything about telling, except with our actions of justice.
If the Bible says we should seek justice and rebuke the oppressor, then the actions that Shane Claiborne describes in his book—protesting mistreatment of tomato pickers, feeding the homeless and fighting for laws that protect the poor—don’t seem so radical anymore. His term for himself, an ordinary radical, makes more sense.
So, how is God messing with me? He’s poking around in my privileged little life, challenging me to seek justice and help widows and orphans, right here in my neighborhood. As Will and Lisa Samson write compellingly about what they call “theology of place,” which basically means that “God has placed us where we are for a reason. …Wherever you are, that is where the kingdom of God is at work. There is no neutral place. That is good news. So doing missions means doing the work of the kingdom wherever you are sent. And the best place to think about where you have been sent is to see where you are…. If you find yourself in the suburbs, welcome to your mission field.”
Since I do happen to find myself in the suburbs, where the regional pastime is shopping, I’m really wrestling with what it means to be missional. To be counter-cultural. To be a light in a place that presents a well-manicured façade is in some ways difficult. To fight my own tendencies to run after comfort and possessions, instead of seeking God. After all, they say that a light shines brightest in the darkness. In my comfortable suburb, just convincing people they are in the dark is half the battle.
One step on my journey was to decide to let God do the convincing, but do my best to act in a way that will give evidence of my faith. That doesn’t mean speaking in Christian jargon, it means admitting your struggles but pointing to God. It means, I think, loving people even when they are difficult.
In order to love someone, you need to get to know them. Do you know your neighbors, no matter where you live? Does your circle of friends include any people who have a different set of beliefs than you do?
Join the PTA at your child’s school, be one of the parents who volunteers to help with your kid’s soccer team—but do it with a missional mindset. Get to know people—seek out those who are different than you. Is there an elderly person in your neighborhood who could use some help with maintaining her home or yard? Offer to help. If there is a single mom in your neighborhood, get to know her. It’s quite possible that she will have a messy life, she will be needy. Get to know her anyway. Help her out in practical ways. That’s what love is.
You don’t have to move to the inner city to work for social justice. The way we live, the choices we make about lifestyle, consumption, etc. are all a part of justice. But the best place to begin is where you are, and the best time to do it is now.