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A Review of The Year of Small Things: Radical Faith for the Rest of Us by Sarah Arthur and Erin F. Wasinger
Aimee Fritz

Suburban life is filled with bake sales, craft sales, and car washes for good causes. Goodwill donations, GoFundMe campaigns, and volunteer work are all attempts to make the world a better place. But most suburbanites don’t have to think too much about poverty and injustice. When one’s neighborhood, health care, and local schools are basically clean and safe, practicing compassion could almost be a hobby, a temporary interest that swells at Christmas and at times of global tragedy.

bookcoverNonetheless, a growing number of people are choosing to reject that comfortable suburban culture and its relentless consumption. Instead, they are “turning…away from the false promises of the American Dream and toward Jesus.” In The Year of Small Things: Radical Faith for the Rest of Us, authors Sarah Arthur and Erin Wasinger share their hunger for simplicity, reconciliation, hospitality, contemplation, and Jesus.

One rainy night after dinner, Arthur and Wasinger were discussing their shared admiration for Shane Claiborne (The Irresistible Revolution) and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (The Awakening of Hope), chief spokespersons of the new monastic movement. Arthur and Wasinger wondered aloud how they might translate that countercultural way of life into their suburban contexts, and The Year of Small Things project began.

New monasticism is rooted in scripture, especially passages like Acts 2 and Matthew 18. It attempts to answer that old rubber bracelet question: “What Would Jesus Do?” Jesus obviously identified with the poor. He obviously wasn’t a racist. He obviously loved strangers, lived in community, and lived a contemplative life.

   In 2005 Cascade Books published School(s) for Conversion: Twelve Marks of New Monasticism, a book edited by the Rutba House, an intentional community founded by Wilson-Hartgrove and his wife, Leah, in Durham, North Carolina. The twelve marks include:

1. Relocation to the abandoned places of Empire.
2. Sharing economic resources with fellow community members and the needy among us.
3. Hospitality to the stranger.
4. Lament for racial divisions within the church and our communities combined with active pursuit of just reconciliation.
5. Humble submission to Christ’s body, the church.
6. Intentional formation in the way of Christ and the rule of the community along the lines of the old novitiate.
7. Nurturing common life among members of intentional community.
8. Support for celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children.
9. Geographic proximity to community members who share a common rule of life.
10. Care for the plot of God’s earth given to us along with support of our local economies.
11. Peacemaking in the midst of violence and conflict resolution in communities along the lines of Matthew 18.
12. Commitment to a disciplined, contemplative life.

These are radical marks that require voluntary poverty and vulnerability on the one hand and a renunciation of the stereotypical American Dream on the other. It’s one thing to give money, run 5Ks for charity, and go on mission trips. It’s something else to embrace messy, unpredictable relationships and move into neighborhoods with abandoned houses, struggling schools, and crumbling infrastructure.

Wasinger and Arthur formed a simple, intriguing plan to embrace this kind of shared, radical faith, and it came with a catchy tagline: “One city, one church, one year. Two families. Twelve small radical changes.” Their goal: “By the end of one year [we want to be] twelve steps closer…to the One who can make something out of nothing.”

The authors assigned one of the twelve marks to each month and outlined practical prompts for first steps. They invite their readers to watch how they tried, slowly and cumulatively, one small, radical experiment at a time.

For example, in December the two families focused on “stuff.” They addressed “[d]ownsizing for the holidays; exploring what it means to be creators rather than consumers; navigating cultural and family expectations without ‘buying into’ society’s myth that stuff equals status or even love.” One family budgeted $25—total—for Christmas. The other family wrote a patient and pleading letter to their parents requesting that donations be made to their church’s Christmas offering instead of giving lavish presents to their grandchildren. (They provide a copy of this letter for their readers’ use in the appendix.)

In other months, the families focus on hospitality, marriage vows, sabbath, time commitments, church, finances, parenting, creation care, self-care, and just living. The “small things” are ordinary, like on-paper budgets, regular date nights, and family mission statements. The authors reassure us that “small things for God were better than no things.” They discuss topics such as school choice, downward mobility, and not locking the door, and these discussions led to action.

It’s unexpected and refreshing to remember that peacemaking starts at home. Hopeful possibilities bloom in our imaginations—Maybe this kind of faith is possible? Maybe we, too, can be radical?

The authors know following through with momentous life changes can feel impossible. They address that concern with the most radical idea in The Year of Small Things: “covenantal friendship.” Just as Weight Watchers, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University prove, real, sustainable change happens best in the context of consistent vulnerability and accountability. Setting this foundation was the first “small thing” the Arthur and Wasinger families did.

They agreed to meet regularly to ask each other hard questions, listen well, speak loving truth, and encourage each other with “transparency and boundaries.” They granted each other unprecedented access in order to critique each other’s written budgets, ask about each other’s marriages, and challenge each other’s parenting decisions. They notice depression and unhealthy busy-ness. They eat, pray, sing, and get sick together.

Despite living in separate houses, they choose to do life together. They share “the material stuff of daily existence: the food, housing, transportation, chores, child care, prayers, conversations, finances, [and] problem solving that it takes to make our lives run.” With that kind of accepting partnership, it seems like all life changes could be within reach.

The authors persevere in spite of their daily chosen challenges, and in some ways their quest echoes other modern quest stories such as Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. Their struggles are voluntary, difficult, and pay off with deeper understandings of their souls and relationships. But unlike solitary Strayed and Gilbert, Wasinger and Arthur journey together, like the hobbits in Lord of the Rings, along with their husbands and children.

The heroines in Wild and Eat, Pray, Love sought personal enlightenment and transformation. They used their time, energy, and resources to make it to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: self-actualization. The Year of Small Things, though, acknowledges that millions of people do not even have their most basic needs met.

Christians have been trying to meet these needs for millennia, but poverty, hunger, and racism persist. This is where covenantal friendship could make a difference. If we hold each other accountable for everyday small things—praying with one’s spouse every night, subscribing to a CSA, seeing a doctor when we’re sick—we will build the trust, and the momentum, for the next small things.

It would be easier to dream and risk big if covenantal friends are going to cheer and challenge us. It’s harder to quit helping at an after-school tutoring program or a refugee ministry (Arthur and Wasinger started and stayed in these things) when we know our covenantal friends will “vow to lovingly ask you the hard questions” like “how is it with your soul?” The authors confirm, “When facing a decision, the first people you think of are those who will lovingly tell you the truth.”

Imagine how covenantal friendship could change the church in America. What transformations could happen if we chose intimate accountability for clear, shared goals? What if each congregation had four families participate in covenantal friendships? What could change in our neighborhoods, churches, urban centers, and political systems?

While the authors recognize that the choice to intentionally identify with the poor through thoughtful, risky, small things does not change the world, they also recognize that the choice does something else: “[Y]ou’ve begun to let God change you.” That’s no small thing!

The Year of Small Things: Radical Faith for the Rest of Us is not a field guide for moving from the comfortable suburbs into commune life. Instead, it’s an intimate look at the authors’ desire to enter into radical faith through a yearlong experiment in new monasticism (they’ve re-upped twice since that first year). Arthur and Wasinger share their struggles, failures, and celebrations with humor, transparency, and grace. The invitation to join them, and have our own hearts and communities transformed, is hard to resist.

 

Aimee Fritz is a freelance writer in Atlanta. You can find more of her work at familycompassionfocus.com.

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