Can you be radical even though you live in the suburbs?

This is a question I’ve been asking myself lately as I hear people tell inspiring stories about people who have given it all up and gone to live their lives in meager circumstances. I hear of people who leave suburbia with all its comforts to dwell with the poor in lower socio economic towns, I hear of families that pack up and go to work and live in slums in the majority world, I hear of people who move to more dangerous parts of the world, live their lives there, raise their children and love the community they live in all so that they might be a light in the darkness to that place.

Every time I hear these stories I am in awe and I admire those radical people. I also imagine what it would be like to leave my house which I am still paying off, move to another part of the world where nearly none of my conveniences would be met and put my life at risk due to poor hygiene, lack of access to social services and basically live a life of material poverty. A part of me craves the radical shift, a part of me deep down knows that living a life like this actually brings blessing in so many ways to the people around you and to your soul. I see people living this kind of life and I become aware that they truly have ‘lost their lives in order to find it’

But if I’m honest I also have to say that I don’t feel ‘called’ to make that sort of move. Not because it’s a big risk or because it’s dangerous or because it would make my life less comfortable. But just because I don’t feel that this is the shape that my life is to take. However at the same time, I do care about the marginalised and I do believe that I am supposed to think about and help people in this world who are less well off than me. I also know that as I live in one of the most prosperous cities in the world it is on people like me to live to bring balance and justice to our world. So while I don’t feel led to give up everything to physically move to a poorer part of the world I know I must give sacrificially, take risks, leave my comfortable zone even as I live in suburbia.

How do you stay radical in suburbia? How do you stop the sleepy lull of the comfort of family, convenience and security wrapping you up in a warm blanket causing you to forget about the rest of the world? How do you practice Jesus’ radical words such as ‘If any want to become my followers let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me’, and ‘Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven then come follow me.’ How do you take those words not as mere suggestions but literally, in suburbia?

For those of us who live lives in prosperous cities like Sydney in well to do suburbs we need to make a habit of  choosing simplicity continually. People who have taken the radical step to move to a poorer part of the world in order to work with and love the marginalised have made a choice of simplicity, sacrifice, abandonment and service. As people who live in a prosperous city we can make the same radical choices daily thus living a life of sacrifice, simplicity and abandonment so that we can better serve the marginalised in our world. The fact is though that we are daily tempted to make choices which lead to accumulating wealth, security and comfort for ourselves. We are spoiled for choice in the West and so it is harder to reorganise our lives around the practice of simplicity. But living our lives in suburbia and making daily choices oriented around simplicity, sacrifice, abandonment so that we can give more generously to the poor, to me, captures that radical way of living that I see in Jesus’ commands to us in the gospels. We may not have given up everything to live in a poorer part of the world with limited resources, but our heart orientation is the same as those people and we both hold to the Spirit of Jesus in his commands to us to love the poor.

What does simplicity look like in suburbia? I have taken wisdom from John Woolman here who was a Quaker living in the 1700’s in America. This man had an intimate relationship with God yet it worked itself outwardly showing in his lifestyle of obedience and simplicity. Here are some suggestions for simplicity from his publication The Journal:

Dwell in Humility

‘Where people let loose their minds after the love of outward things and are more engaged in pursuing the profits and seeking the friendships of this world than to be inwardly acquainted with the way of true peace, such walk in a vain shadow while the true comfort of life is wanting.’

Here I think he is writing about simplicity in our lives in that we must not get too attached to the material stuff of this world. How can we make daily choices that lead to a detached attitude towards material things rather than a dependency on them?

Speaking truthfully

‘I find that to be a fool as to worldly wisdom and commit my cause to God not fearing to offend men who take offense at the simplicity of truth, is the only way to remain unmoved at the sentiments of others’

‘It was my concern from day to day to say neither more nor less than what the spirit of truth opened in me, being jealous over myself lest I should say anything to make my testimony look agreeable to that mind in people which is not in pure obedience to the cross of Christ.’

It is incredible how much we exaggerate when we are speaking to others. To live simply means to take notice of our speech and speak truth rather than aiming to please people, puff up our achievements as we communicate them to others and to try to come across as more knowledgeable than we are.  In aspirational suburbia our lifestyles will match our words. If we speak with exaggeration in order to make ourselves look good, chances are we will also tend to live that way too. Just as we enhance our achievements through our speech we will need to make sure our physical surroundings and material possessions match our exaggerations. This only perpetuates the whole ‘keeping up with the Jones’ spiral that we see in the middle class.

Justice without delay

(Woolman had a heart for the injustice towards slaves)
‘Many slaves on this continent are oppressed and the cries have reached the ears of the Most high! Such is the purity and certainty of his judgments that he cannot be partial in our favour. In infinite love and goodness he has opened our understandings from one time to another concerning our duty towards this people and is is not a time for delay’

The phrase ‘our duty towards this people’ stands out as it must, for us to consider who are the people today to whom we have a duty? If we are living in such a prosperous nation, who are the people in our nation and our world that we must be generous to because they have so little? Living a life of simplicity moves us to consider these things because as we empty our lives of irrelevant distractions we can fill them with things of substance that will serve our world.

Searching questions

‘Do I use food and drink in no other sort and in no other degree that was designed by him who gave these things for our sustenance? Do I ever abuse my body by inordinate labour, striving to accomplish some end which I have unwisely proposed? If I go on a visit to the widows and fatherless, do I go purely on a principle of charity, free from any selfish views?

The thrust of these questions is ‘Am I living a life of excess?’. This may be with regard to our work, our spending, our food and our time.

Limit your upward mobility

‘I was learning to be content with real conveniences that were not costly so that a way of life free from much entanglements appeared best for me, though the income was small. I had several offers of business that appeared profitable but did not see my way clear to accept them, believing the business proposed would be attended with more outward care and cumber that was required of me to engage in’

How can we make decisions every day to limit our society’s push towards the bigger, better and more advanced? Perhaps we could reject that job offered to us that might mean more pay but would take us away from family? Perhaps we could limit ourselves in the purchases of the latest gadgets? Or we could make simple everyday choices that lead to more time and money  spent with and on the weaker members of our society.

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The Bible talks about our world being like a tapestry woven together. The sea (Psalm 104:6), the clouds (Job 38:9), the lights of the sky (Psalm 104:1), and all the forces of nature (Psalm 102:26) are called garments that God has woven. In this sense the world is like a fabric. Tim Keller says:

Woven cloth consists of innumerable threads interlaced with one another…the fabric metaphor conveys the importance of relationship. If you throw thousands of pieces of thread onto a table, no fabric results. The threads must be rightly and intimately related to one another in literally a million ways. Each thread must go over, under, around and through the others at thousands of points. Only then do you get a fabric that is beautiful and strong, that covers, fits, holds, shelters and delights. God created all things to be in a beautiful, harmonious, interdependent, knitted, webbed relationship to one another. 

The point here is that even though we live in particular suburbs,cities and towns around the world we are all connected. When one thread is broken then it affects everyone. We in more prosperous places, in suburbia in Sydney, must look to those broken threads and use our plentiful resources to bring mending.

There is much change that must take place in the middle ground of suburbia so that we live the radical life that Jesus invites us to live. It involves making daily choices that are sacrificial and which foster a practice of simplicity, abandonment and risk so that we can be generous towards those in our world who live in devastating circumstances.