In his bible study, The Gospel in Life, Tim Keller talks about how the tallest building in a city will tell you what people in that city worship. It can be a cathedral, a temple, a minaret, a sky scraper. These buildings represent the things where people find their significance and self-worth.
When we talked about this two weeks ago in our Gospel in Life bible study, I wondered what the “Tower of Fremont” is. Fremont, after all, does not really have any tall buildings; none that tower over everything else anyway. Some people suggested Lake Elizabeth, the Hub, and Costco. The more I think about it though, I think the Tower in Fremont is the residential single family home. In fact, the closest thing to towers in Fremont are the obelisk-like neighborhood signs marking its five districts: Centerville, Niles, Irvington, Mission, and Warm Springs.
I’m still a newcomer to this community, but it seems to me that Fremont residents have vigilantly guarded its city from any towers competing with their homes/neighborhoods. When the Oakland Athletics started a feasibility study about moving to Fremont, the residents rose in protest. We didn’t want the traffic, the out-of-towners, the noise and chaos associated with being home to a Major League Baseball team. In Fremont we find our significance in our homes, our families, our neighborhoods, our small circles of trust. We’ll drive out of town for food or entertainment every once in a while but most of the time we’d be happier having a barbecue in our yard and watching our kids play organized sports in our local parks.
We are most threatened when we sense our trinity of family, home, and neighborhood is being threatened. One year ago, we had to put our daughter’s name in a lottery to get her into our neighborhood elementary school. The school was impacted and some of the children living in its attendance area were going to have to go to a school in a different neighborhood. Parents were livid about the process. They started blaming what they perceived to be interlopers from different neighborhoods who were allegedly using a false address to get their kids into the school. It turned out that the school was able to accommodate everyone and everyone who registered was admitted to the school.
In the words of David Goetz in Death by Suburb,
The suburbs tend to produce inverse spiritual cripples. Suburbia is a flat world, in which the edges are clearly defined and the mysterious ocean is rarely explored. Every decision gets planned out, like the practice of registering at retail stores for one’s wedding gifts. Only tragedy truly surprises.
The problem with the false god of family, home, and neighborhood is that sometime or later tragedy is going to surprise us. It may be a small tragedy like not getting your child into the neighborhood school. It may be a great tragedy like finding that your marriage is failing, or losing your house because you can’t keep up with the mortgage, or getting sick with terminal illness. The Tower of Fremont can’t save us from tragedy.
The Tower of Fremont can’t deliver the good life it promises either. We are hounded with loneliness in our own homes, boredom in our safe and comfortable community, and insecurity as we compare ourselves with our neighbors.
The problem with the Tower of Fremont is that it is built with rotten materials. Our families and neighborhoods are made up with broken people alienated from God and from one another. On the outside our neighbors see a young middle class family that loves their children. But inside our home we are often disappointed with one another, frustrated with our children, and longing for escape. We long for an extended vacation to get away from it all. But vacations are a temporary fix at best and at worst we come back feeling like we need a vacation from our vacation.
The Gospel interrupts our brokenness through the power of divine grace. The Gospel does not fix our lives, it fixes us. The Gospel frees from our need to find significance in our own performance and achievements by telling us that God not only loves us but approves of us by looking at the perfect life of Jesus as our own life. By showing us that the penalty for our sins was paid in full on the cross, we are freed to admit our brokenness and live a new life as God’s forgiven and accepted children. The Gospel tells us that we are far more broken than we thought we were, but far more loved, accepted, and blessed in Christ than we ever dreamed we could be.
The Gospel puts our life in Fremont in perspective. We are freed by the gospel to worship our Savior and we don’t need to worship our families, homes, and neighborhoods anymore. We can become servants of our families, homes, and neighborhoods.
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. (Galatians 5:13)