When I found out the focus of this edition of the Mosaic, my mind immediately went to a book I read awhile back called “Justice In The Burbs” by Will and Lisa Samson. This book caught my interest since I have always lived in the “suburbs” and much of what I read about living missionally was focused on moving into inner city and poverty-stricken neighbourhoods.
In their book the Samsons focus on encouraging Christians, living in the suburbs, toward a lifestyle of justice – living a life for others in radical ways. Differing from many other books on the subject, the Samsons employ three writing styles in which they effectively get their point across. The first element is narrative. In each chapter, Lisa Samson, tells us the story of a fictional family as they seek to understand how God would have them live. The storytelling is engaging and I was able to identify with both the joys and the challenges of this family.
The second element is discourse. Building on elements from the narrative, Will Samson digs deeper into a discussion of related topics and helps the reader identify specific issues that may need further reflection and consideration in choosing to live a lifestyle of justice. The final element is meditation. The Samsons believe strongly that living a missional life is tied directly to immersing ourselves in scripture, meditating on it and responding to its call on our lives. To this end they have included meditations by various authors including Brian McLaren, Christine Pohl, Leonard Sweet and Luci Shaw among others.
For many of us living in middle class suburbia we experience an ongoing tension caused by having more than we need to live and the desire to live justly. The Samsons do not shy away from addressing this conflict. In fact, the first sentence of the book is a confession that they themselves have failed. And yet their failure in and of itself, gives them a unique vantage point to help us navigate our own journey. They recognize that being part of middle class suburbia provides them with a position of privilege. “As we think about issues of justice, a key concept is privilege. Many, if not most, of the people reading this book can choose whether we join with justice. This is itself a statement of our privilege.”
The Samsons take us on a journey through the reasons why many suburbanites do not engage in living justly — all those usual reasons like not enough time, family first, church commitments – and then they switch gears to remind us why we should. Why should we care? Because it matters to our world… it matters to God.
In encouraging a lifestyle of justice, the Samsons remind us that it will not be easy and it requires long-term commitment. It’s not about doing an act of justice here or there. It is about transforming our lives, including what food we purchase, how it is grown, who grows it, the clothes we buy, the home we live in, the cars we drive, the work we do, our relationships with our family, our church family, our neighbours, how we spend our leisure time and of course, the ways we serve God and serve others.
Digging deeper into the issue of serving others, there were two key points that spoke to me in this book. The first is what Will Samson calls theology of place. Samson says. “The theology of place states that God has placed us where we are for a reason. We believe there are not wasted resources in God’s economy…. God is a being of great economy. He works before you even realize it and before you sign on, and he’s placed you where you are today for a reason. If you find yourself in the suburbs, welcome to your mission field.”
This concept of theology of place resonates with me. Rather than looking at other neighbourhoods as the place to “bring God” and act justly (which as I write it sounds quite arrogant to this suburbanite) I should see my own neighbourhood as the best place for me to live missionally. The family across the street from me is going through separation and divorce; a neighbour two houses down recently lost her husband; the son of another neighbour was diagnosed with schizophrenia; and another neighbour lost his job and is struggling to pay the bills for his family. And these are just some of the things I know about.
Thinking about Matthew 28:19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” The word “go” could best be translated “as you are going.” It’s kind of that “bloom where you are planted” idea. Jesus called his disciples toward missional living wherever they were. Today we often want to leave the missions work to the professionals – the missionaries. But that wasn’t what Jesus had in mind. Samson states, “Of all the miracles Jesus performed, only one – the cursing of the fig tree – was not an act of restoration. As he was going, he was restoring. Therefore, if we are following the model of Christ, “going” means participating in God’s work of restoration. This implies a very personal involvement for what it means to make and to be disciples of Jesus.”
The second key point that captured my attention was the idea of joining in rather than creating something new. It seems that often when Christians decide to do something it ends up being something new. We feel the need to start a new ministry, charity, parachurch organization to accomplish the new thing.
If you go to the Canada Revenue Agency’s website and do a search for charities you will find there are 113,392 charities listed, 40,795 of which are categorized as religious. I don’t want to get into a conversation about the merit of all these organizations, but the numbers do lead me to believe that perhaps there is already an organization doing what I am called to be doing.
What affected me when I read Samson’s point about “joining in” is this: that God is already at work in the acts of justice of churches, parachurch organizations and other charities. Perhaps, before we create the new thing, we need to look at where God is already working and join in. And it might not be with an organization whose building has a cross on the roof.
I began to put this into practice this year. I contacted the local social service agency in my area to find out how I could volunteer. They have a financial aid program that provides some emergency funds for people who are unable to pay their rent, oil bill, etc. Each recipient is asked if they would consider participating in financial counseling but unfortunately the agency has not had anyone able to provide this service. That’s where I’ve stepped in. God has provided me with an opportunity to serve my community through workshops, seminars and one-on-one counseling on financial management. I believe God will also provide me with opportunities to bring Him into the conversation as I develop relationships.
The Samsons devote a chapter of the book to very practical ways we each can join in living a lifestyle of justice. The book concludes with a couple chapters on how this kind of life will benefit both the world in which we live and each of us as individuals. “But the greatest reward for doing this work is to join with Jesus. Jesus never wrote a book. He never painted a great work of art. He did not leave us a symphony or the plans to a beautiful building. What Jesus left us was a series of relationships. By joining with justice, we are claiming to be a part of two thousand years of interconnection with God incarnate, the people he ministered to, and the people they in turn ministered to, down through the generations. Our lineage of faith relationships literally goes back to the Lord himself.”
I encourage you to live out the theology of place, viewing your community as your mission field and joining in with justice where God is already at work.
Samson, Will and Lisa, Justice In The Burbs – Being the Hands of Jesus Wherever You Live, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2007.
Joanne Bell is the Stewardship Development Director for The Free Methodist Church in Canada