We were sitting around the peeled and cracking table, chatting late into the night. It has become a common occurrence in our small dining room to see an eclectic mix of people perched on different pieces of our patchwork furniture, trading stories and snippets about what it means to believe in God and live out our faith. One of my roommates is an introspective, easy-going South Londoner from the UK. I am an Asian-American suburbanite from Jersey. We are like twins.
K, who joined us that evening, is a vibrant, athletic young man whose most consistent quality is his fervent preaching. “Praise God,” and “Amen” are the most common words to come out of his mouth, and he always says them with an accent of soul and joy. I envy his fluent spirituality, the way his words and life seem to drip with the grace of God. Perhaps some of that jealousy comes from how I struggle to believe, how I tend to brood and obsess over areas of ambiguity and doubt. I have always had trouble believing that people who talked like K, who used praise as punctuation, could really have an honest and meticulous faith. Do such people fully understand the accolades and aphorisms that slip out so freely? Do they know how much hesitation and insecurity they inspire in those of us who struggle with unbelief? But it was hard not to believe him and in his warmness and openness, to hope his friendship could inspire me in the same kind of ways.
So I shared about my day. I had just come back from a personal finance lecture of sorts, intended for young physicians in training. My mind was spinning with numbers and phrases about disability insurance, return of investments, retirement planning, and the thematic concept that I could, that I would one day make money and a career as a doctor. And so I told them what I was thinking, that I didn’t really want to make money, that it was hard for my peers and colleagues to understand why I would live in this neighborhood, that I was happy to give up wealth and prestige and security in exchange for conversations like these, for the friends and gospel-centered community here, and that I wouldn’t want to go back. And deep down inside, I knew that I wanted to impress them, mainly because I was already impressed with myself.
K was quiet for a moment. “Yeah,” he said. “I would never want to go back to my old life.” And then he told me his story. He told me how he used to be “one of those guys” out there. He told me how he used run around with them, how he got high and was gravitating more and more towards the underworld of drugs and violence, how he was hurt by people he thought were friends but just used him for one thing or another. He spoke in uncharacteristically muted tones, as if moving through a dream.
My roommate, who has lived on this block for years, calls them “the walking dead.” He tells me how this stretch of the city earned the nickname, “The Bucket” because no one ever escapes the cycle of violence and hopelessness. He tells me how it was more recently named “Iraq” because of the rapid rise in shootings. He tells me that the kids can’t make it out to the after school programs cause they’re afraid of the violence, of the teenagers who make daily choices between working seven dollars an hour at McDonald’s or working a single drug run for hundreds of dollars and more.
K looked at us and said, “I would rather die than go back to that life.” He paused, and said it again. “If they came to my house, and dragged me and put a gun to my head making me do it, I would rather die.” He spoke more forcefully. “But you know what? You don’t have to be afraid of them. What have you got to fear? They should be afraid of you. Why? Cause you got LIFE. What compares to that?”
And it started making sense to me. There was some meaning in the places that we came from, either as a self-satisfied child of privilege or as a hardened survivor of the street. But there was more meaning in what we were saying and where we were going. That meaning was the source of our courage, however small, and the force of our joy, now intensified. Through Jesus Christ, who became humbler yet, we have access to a new world in which the sacrifice of old ways and fears and insecurities is really our liberation into that which is irresistibly divine, that wellspring in which we find our commonality, affection, and life.
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2:1-11