Your zip code won’t make you holy

The in-between moments I fill with podcasts and Voxer conversations with writer friends as I circle the suburbs in my minivan. One conversation with a friend about moving to a city or the suburbs, lead her to write down this encouragement: your place doesn’t make you holy.

Friend, I’m hear to tell you the same thing: your place doesn’t make you holy; it is instead the ground you’re called to love. 

Moses, after all, fled the land of his birth after killing a man. He lived in obscurity for decades before God made the desert and a bush the place of holy ground. Anything can become a place where holy dwells, no matter the twists and turns and utter wretchedness that brings us to places we never thought we’d call home.

Whether you live in a city, suburb, small town, or out in the country, please know this: your place does not make you holy.

We believe all sorts of lies about landscape. If you live in the countryside, you’re closer to the land and closer to the way things “ought to be.”

If you live in the city, you’re doing God’s work because you minister to cultural elites or urban poor and you know the language of gospel transformation.

If you live in a suburb with all the amenities of affluence, you must be experiencing the “good life,” the favor of God.

If you live a small town where everyone knows your name, you’re creating gospel-community and vulnerability.

But maybe not. Let us not use our places so unthinkingly — as if they were tea leaves to read about our place in the kingdom of God. 

We cannot continue to equate our places with the favor and intimacy of God. We’ve elevated certain landscapes, certain ways of life in the Anglo middle-class American church. We need the church to be in every spot of earth — in every tribe, nation, language and tongue. We need the church to be the church whether you’re called to love Jesus in your suburban cul-de-sac, or living alongside (or if you are) the poor in the inner city, in positions of cultural influence and power in metropolitan areas, in small and obscure towns, in colleges and universities, in small businesses, in park playdates and shopping malls and refugee resettlements. We need to be the hands of feet of Jesus wherever we’re called to live. 

This is what the priesthood of all believers looks like. It is not just about vocation and jobs. The priesthood of believers means we belong to a place. We rise and fall with it. If there are no little people — if we’re all welcomed equally as heirs of the kingdom and beggars at the foot of the cross — then there are also no little places. All places matter. The good news of Jesus can flourish in suburbs and cities, in slums and palaces, in grasslands and hinterlands. 

Our places do not have a moral rating attached to them. Numbers do not make us holy — we  are not more holy depending upon our zip code or our bank account. Our neighborhoods — high and low, rich and poor, suburban, urban, and everywhere in-between — are where and how the gospel can take on flesh.

Each place, of course, has its particular barriers to the gospel going forth. Each place also reflects the goodness of God in the systems it holds up as the “good life.”

For me, as I try to find holy in the suburbs, the walls of power are formed by cultures of affluence, by gated communities, by a consumerism and dedication to youth sports and intellectual achievement that leaves us pushing off our shared human brokenness, leaves us aching for empathy, and a chance to move beyond being a “hot mess” so that we can finally ask the hard questions.

These are my challenges in the suburbs. Yours are different. Yet the call to love is the same. Rather than wishing yourself somewhere else or somewhere more exciting, let us ask the hard questions of being emplaced people. What are the challenges of your particular time and place?

As we lean into our places with their shared beauty and brokeness, let us commit to being people who love

Let us be people who learn to love our places — let us walk the streets, meet our neighbors, and spend our lives pouring ourselves out for the places to which we are called. Love your cul-de-sac. Love your high rise. Love your sleepy town. Love your farmer neighbor.

But please let us stop treating our places like another consumeristic choice. Often, living in suburbia is hard for me. I fancy myself a college town or city person. Yet I won’t gain anything as I pine for the past or yearn for the future. Here I am. I’ve said, “God send me.” That means I stay put, right here, in my suburban cul-de-sac. Here is my holy ground. Where’s yours? How will you love it?

Will you find holy in the suburbs — or wherever God placed you? 

Ashley Hales

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