Ashley Hales: God’s Call to a Reluctant Suburbanite

On the day the moving truck pulled away, I was the last to leave. The walls were empty except for the black and white stripes we’d painted, and that little spot of white on the turquoise kitchen wall we covered up with a frame (thinking one day we’d get around to fixing it). There was no bump-bump of children running up and down stairs, no circles of noisemaking.

I stepped on the floorboard that always creaks—to hear it one last time. What was once something to fix was now dear.

I ran my fingers along the living room walls. “Thank you,” I said as I touched the walls that had seen so much life and laughter, so many tantrums and tears. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

I walked around the room, blessing this house and caressing it like the lips of a lover. I prayed the house would be a sieve where our crazy would get caught and our love would pour out to the next owners, another pastor’s family.

This move from an urban neighborhood in Salt Lake City back home to the suburbs of Southern California was clearly where God was calling us next, but that didn’t prevent the leave-taking from feeling like a kind of death. This was the home we’d known the longest as husband and wife. We brought home half our children to this spot of earth. This was the house with the 15-year renovation dreams attached to it. This was the house with the bookshelves my husband, Bryce, built for me to hold the weight of my years of study.

We were leaving the creaking, 100-year-old floorboards Bryce had refinished to follow God’s call to plant a church in the land of plenty and cookie-cutter tract homes. Roots, when exposed to the light, quiver a little.

Markers of Belonging

At first, I scoffed at the idea of a suburban church plant. I thought I was too good for the suburbs, too good to move back home. If you gave me a life in the city or the country, I could idealize it to death, cover it in metaphors, and figure out what the kingdom of God looked like with art galleries and public transportation or endless space for my children to run.

This move, however, pulled me up short. My self-narrative for the past two decades had revolved around movement and moving place. As a married couple, we had moved eight times and birthed more children than we planned. Now, instead of living a life overseas or in the heart of a bustling city center, we found ourselves moving home—to the suburbs. We would be two miles from the hospital where my husband was born.

Some people crave the rootedness and security of staying put. I have measured my homes away from home as markers of belonging. Each one—Los Angeles, Edinburgh, Los Angeles (again), San Diego, Salt Lake City—was evidence that we were doing significant things for God. From there it was a quick jump to seeing our address as the measure of our worth. For a woman who craved the cultural hub of a city or the idyllic freedom of a rural life, I bristled about a move to the suburbs. I was happy in Salt Lake City. The city was booming: Ski resorts were a short drive away, diversity was increasing as more immigrants moved in, and restaurants with award-winning international cuisines were popping up downtown.

Moving home held out its charms: I was excited about proximity to family, how a newer house meant fewer things falling apart, and how we wouldn’t have to learn a new place. But, I wondered, how would I find belonging in the suburbs where everyone—even their houses—seemed to look the same?

I craved sustainability, depth, meaning, nuance—the things you find in a city, I reasoned, or at least in the type of rural life championed by Wendell Berry. How did this move fit; how could I fit? Underneath my feelings of superiority was a deep fear that I couldn’t cut it: I wasn’t pretty enough or successful enough. Could I find belonging in the suburbs, or would I be a misfit?

I’m comforted by the biblical precedent of God’s people laughing at his plans—backing into corners and running off in the opposite direction. I feel kin to Jonah, thinking he was too good for a place; to Sarah, laughing at the idea that God could do the impossible; to Moses, thinking he didn’t have the right skill set to serve God’s people; to Joshua, who was afraid; to David, who followed his feelings, which led to adultery and murder; to Peter, who said he’d always come through and then ran away; to Paul, who desperately wanted to do everything right. The list goes on. In each story, God leads these wayward souls to repentance and restores them to fellowship. So I took a deep breath, said goodbye, and closed the door to our life in Salt Lake City. This was it—we were moving to the suburbs.

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Source: Christianity Today