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Gates, Chasms, & Suburbia


(Image from an actual suburb of Toronto)

One of the primary attributes of the suburbs that comes to my mind, (besides cookie-cutter houses, family idols, commuting, and affluence), is isolation.

It could be densely disconnected like in the image above or even in a tightly secure urban condominium, but isolation is still at the heart of suburbia.

In Luke 16:19-31 Jesus tells a parable of a rich man and Lazarus.  Some interesting things that I think might have some implications for suburban living

Unlike Lazarus the rich man was nameless throughout the story – maybe because he blended in so well?

No one is in hell here due to doctrine or a disagreement regarding belief statements

We spend more on garbage bags than half of the world does on all goods.  Lazarus longed for the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table.  Could garbage bags be the modern day crumbs?

The rich man built a ‘gate’ to keep people like Lazarus out.  We build fences and zoning laws to distance ourselves from people and problems, and people with problems.

A ‘great chasm’ developed where even those who wanted to cross over to the rich man, could not.  Maybe the danger of the suburbs is that as we avoid interruptions of those unlike ourselves more, we become increasingly unable to allow anyone in.

To quote Gladiator, “What we do in this life, echoes into eternity”

Could the gates we build not only lock others out, but also lock us in?

In a great role reversal, the rich man finds himself desperately needing Lazarus in the next life.  What would it look like for us to come to terms with actually needing those we try to avoid in this life?

Could it be that we can become so isolated in the suburbs, that we no longer see people, as people?  The rich man in the parable repeatedly argues with Lazarus in the third person, telling him what to do, as if he was his slave.

You would think someone tormented in the flames of hell wouldn’t be so verbose.

I wonder if suburbia dehumanizes us?  We’re known as one person at work over here, and at school over there, and at the club or the church over there, and we become fragmented.  No one fully knows who we are.

Maybe that’s why we in turn treat people as work units, assets, or distractions to avoid?

Isolation and building gates isn’t so hard when you’re not quite as important as I am.

{ 8 comments… add one }

  • Jake Belder December 2, 2008, 4:13 am

    Wow, that image is something else. Great post, though. Those are some great parallels you've drawn between that parable and our modern suburban situation, Lon. I think there are a lot of implications that we can take from that. Interesting that you talk about gates—here in Florida I have noticed that all the suburban "neighborhoods" have walls or fences around them and gates which you can only go through if you know the passcode. In Ontario I only remember this being for the richest neighborhoods. It's everywhere here.

    I really like your insight as well as to our identity becoming fragmented. It used to be that you lived, worked, went to school, and went to church all in the same community. I think that forms a much stronger and cohesive identity than living life all over the place. Compound this with the identity problem that arises with the social-networking revolution and this turns into a much bigger issue than people realize, I think.

  • Jake Belder December 2, 2008, 4:14 am

    Hmm…wouldn't let me post the whole comment in one go. So anyway…

    We've talked about suburbia in the past, and so you already know a lot of my thoughts on it. Is there a way we can transform or renew the mess that we see in the photo above? …Perhaps it's a little ironic that suburbia is such a mess when it actually as the appearance of being so neat and clean cut. I guess order births chaos in some instances. What could we do, though? What if we bought a house somewhere in the middle of a suburban neighborhood and turned it into a coffeeshop, a place where a community could begin to form? Could it be that simple? Well, simple could be an understatement…I'm sure those ghetto zoning laws would prohibit it.

    Just some thoughts. We've got to face the problem.

  • lon December 2, 2008, 6:10 am

    Jake thanks for the great feedback. It's interesting, even the condominiums in the urban centers now are 'gated' in many ways, from the front entrace to a person's door, there can be 5-6 different locks to get through… they're like fort knox these days!

    how do we bring transformation here? I think we need a multiple route strategy… i've put some thought into converting a house, but again, those darn zoning laws. it's easy to say everyone's got to flee the suburbs and move into a commune, but I wonder if there's a way of leveraging what's there.

    suburbia seems to communicate via 'networks' rather than geography… maybe there's some good in this even if people don't fully know the extent of who we are.

    that above image is so disturbing to me… there's something we've got to be able to change about the actual aesthetics and physical space of our communities at the same time… I'm at a loss of what's really doable at the moment though…

  • Jake Belder December 2, 2008, 7:28 am

    I think we don't really have a choice but to try and leverage what is there. Strictly from an economic standpoint, to bulldoze everything that's there and start over would be pure insanity. We definitely need some creative brainpower work at trying to figure out how we can make something good out of the existing structures. Of course, I guess that begins with convincing enough people that what is there right now is actually NOT good. That will be our first challenge.

    I think it's great that so many churches are focusing on urban centers—they really are important—but we can't forget the suburbs either. There's a bit of tension here because we want to work in cooperation with other churches, but at the same time the megachurch facility in the suburbs is not a really helpful presence. There are lots of big houses in the suburbs…maybe a suburban house-church movement is something to consider. It will take some really intense and focused efforts to build community, and what better place to root that in than the church.

  • Jake Belder December 2, 2008, 7:29 am

    But things need to be fixed too. In Florida, the big problem is environmental conservation, and I'm sure that is a problem elsewhere also. Our concrete jungles have devastated natural resources like crazy, so we need intense efforts to make suburban areas more environmentally-friendly.

    We need businesses…and not big-box stores. Mom and Pop hardware stores, local restaurants, etc. We need community events…and not just some cheezy Canada Day fireworks. What about local arts and music festivals? There's all kinds of people, as you say, locked up in the suburbs. How can we free them?`

  • lon December 2, 2008, 7:40 am

    I just checked on the comment limit thing Jake, I think it's a glitch being worked on, hopefully it'll get fixed soon.

    suburban house church movement. wow. i think you're on to something. my community has managed to stuff ourselves into a large home before… never thought of it as a movement, but you're definitely making me think!

    You've got so many great ideas Jake! i've talked to people about mom & pop shops, but people love their box stores, myself sometimes included. things definitely need to move more local, while leveraging what we can globally. there's something in the suburbs, where we 'go somewhere else' and 'get'…. rather than staying and creating.

    people don't often begin changing till they have to… ie. if you look at global warming, which is already a little late. i wonder if there's a way we can start revealing to church's in the suburbs that though everything may seem neat and pretty, we're in dire circumstances!

  • Jake Belder December 2, 2008, 8:11 am

    Here's another idea, check this out, Lon. It's about community gardens in Boston. I first saw it in National Geographic a few months ago, but it's a brilliant idea. Set aside plots of land in the middle of your neighborhoods/communities where residents can come and work a small plot to grow their own vegetables, plants, etc. It brings community together and promotes ecological consciousness, among other things. Isn't that awesome?

  • lon December 3, 2008, 12:14 pm

    very cool Jake. My wife and I live in a 40 year old condo that shares facilities, and a community garden with two other condos. i've never been the gardener, but we had just recently discussed being more involved with it… if it's going to help bring redemption, now I think I have to!

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