Growing Smaller

I turned 30 this year, a milestone which I heartily celebrated. I had been looking forward to this for at least six years, ever since I read through the Old Testament in 2006 and kept noticing how many of the patriarchs had been 30 when significant things happened in their lives:

“Joseph was thirty years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh
“Saul was thirty years old when he became king
“David was thirty years old when he became king
“The Levites thirty years old or more were counted
“Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry

So I asked a dear friend and resident expert on the Bible and Jewish culture if this thing about turning 30 was important in some particular way, and he responded:

Why does God give energy to youth, but then hold them back because it’s not time to use it? Hmm. I’ll have to think about that for a decade or so.
You’re right about 30. From all the references it is clear that that is the age at which a person enters into their life’s work. (Interestingly, that’s how old I was when we moved to Israel.) But, hang on, it’s not until 50 (!) that one reaches full maturity and counsel, able to pass on to others one’s life’s experiences in fullest measure. Nevertheless, each age is good and fruitful in its own way.

So. 30. Significant. Yes.

What I didn’t know then was that the ensuing years of my life from that time until age 30 would be both incredibly painful and incredibly joyful, full of adventurous and humbling experiences. I would complete nursing school, work night shift for a long, lonely year, put down roots in Downingtown, go back to graduate school, travel to Sudan, work to establish a life there, get kicked out, feel completely unmoored for a year, get hired to work in North Philadelphia, put down roots in yet another community here. I would earn 2 degrees, buy 2 houses, learn 2 new languages and make countless cultural faux pas along the way. I would plant many gardens, make many new friends, and generally become a grown-up (?!).

With all of that, on the eve of my 30th birthday this winter, it felt like there was still something on the horizon, something important that was about to change. I spent some time in prayer and solitude with God and had a sense that this 30th year itself would be… momentous. Some sort of Big Change would occur, and I had a few specific hopes of what that Change could entail (let me be honest, I really hoped it would involve falling in love and eventually getting married). I figured regardless it was about time for whatever that Change was going to be, and settled in to see what God would bring my way.

Here’s the thing — my 30th year is not quite over, but as I review what has happened so far this year, there is pretty much just one theme, and it’s not quite the Change I was expecting: I am realizing my small-ness in the world and surrendering to that truth.

Many of my dreams of perfection, of preaching and healing and being a world-changer, of leading thousands of people to Jesus and seeing lives changed because of my witness have fallen flat. I set out to accomplish those things. I… accomplish… things. Or not. My ideas were so lofty, so built on desperation to show the world my significance. They were so full of me.

This year, this milestone year, as I’ve lived my 30th year on this earth, I honestly thought that God would give me the ministry/man/family/career of my dreams.

Instead God gave me a realization of my brokenness and dependence on Him, and in the meanwhile, set my heart free to live out of a knowledge that I am deeply beloved based entirely on His grace, not my efforts or abilities.

Instead of satisfying these physical wants, God has first deepened and then sated the eternal, endless Desire of my heart. He feeds me with His very Self every day and I am satisfied.

Instead of me changing lives in dramatic fashion because of my strong witness, God has changed my life and given me a stronger witness because of my weakness.

I’m not even sure I can dream the way I once did, all guts and bravado, all fearless and self-assured. Now I dream different, smaller and more grand dreams –of walking hand in hand with God in the garden –of sitting each morning with a mug of tea and my Best Friend, talking heart to heart –of the privilege of showing other hungry people where I’ve found sustenance –of serving the least of these, my brothers, as one of the least of these myself.

In short, I have found that I am much smaller in the Story than I ever thought. And much more deeply beloved. This — this counts as a truly momentous change.

Growing Smaller

What if I Left the City?

[Deeply thoughtful post from Deborah M, following up her other pertinent question, “Is it safe?”.]

This spring and summer, I dated a guy who I liked quite a bit, who also happened to have his heart set on leaving the city of Philadelphia for greener pastures. This naturally led me to start asking questions about the future that I had not asked since moving here to this neighborhood. Questions like –

“why am I here?”
“does this neighborhood need me?”
“why am I paying this personal cost to live here?”
“Is it worth it?”
“what if I left the city?”

All these questions led me to paint a picture of another kind of life that I would have gladly welcomed — a life less pinched by noise and concrete, with more wide-open spaces and green growing things. I thought of having patients who mostly had their lives “together”, whose first request would never be for narcotics or disability, whose stories would leave me with less secondary trauma and pain. I thought of what it would be like to raise children in the city (should God be so kind as to give me the gift of children) and compared that with raising children in a place where they could run safely in the woods like I did as a child.

As I thought of these things, I put off repairs on my house as I began to long for another community, a new place to live and work. I looked looked upon the sweltering heat and noise of summer in the city and my reaction to them as clear evidence that this is not what I was made to do, and despised this life here, even as I feared the possibility that God might want me here, while I want to be not-here.

As I went door-to-door with the students of the Summer Medical Institute (SMI) for a week in July, I felt all the while like a traitor — how could I teach and mentor about urban medical ministry while I am longing for something else? Not only that, but the lesson I learned during SMI was mainly that God and this community don’t need me. In several encounters, it was crystal-clear to me that God was already at work before we arrived, and would continue to be at work long after we left. We were just there for a moment to witness what God was doing. In that case, I thought, why am I here, anyway?

Likewise I had several conversations with people about the early days of the health center where I work and thought of the few people who have actually stayed here for a lifetime of service. Rather, most have spent a season of their lives serving and giving of themselves and their talents here, and then moved on. So I wondered if my season of serving here would come to an end sooner or later, and hoped it might be sooner.

Then a devotional in which one of my coworkers challenged his brothers and sisters who are “born and raised” in N. Philly that the mission of ____ should not be reserved for “outsiders”, but that ideally the future clinicians and administrative staff of the clinic will be men and women who are “native” to the community where our clinics are located. I had the distinct thought that I might be a sort of place-holder here, holding this place until a nurse practitioner from this community is ready to take the place. and I welcomed this idea.

And, oh that fear! the fear that after all of this questioning, after turning a critical eye on my life here, after realizing this city does not need me and reminding myself how much I love green, open spaces — the fear that I might lose my heart to live in the city but God might still keep me here. This fear kept me from actually looking at the choice with clear eyes, because the result of such scrutiny might be unbearably painful.

Then something happened. In conversations with the guy I had been dating as well as others, I realized that what I have here is no insignificant thing: I have a deeply loving community at work, a job that is meaningful and challenging, am part of a tight-knit community of believers here, with friends who hail me joyfully every time I walk around the block. I am connected to others who are living out the Gospel here in both word and deed. In a 5-block radius from my home there are community gardens, community centers with after-school art and dance programs, a bike shop, a legal clinic, a Christian school, a crossing guard who daily demonstrates love for Jesus and each child who crosses the street, and probably many more things that are clear images of God’s kingdom here on earth.

I also experienced some things which highlighted the brokenness in me, and in all the over-achievers of my ilk. My educated, have-it-all-together self, with my good income and stable life, is also broken and in desperate need of the Saviour. And who is to say that people in middle and upper class communities don’t wrestle with chronic disease, drug addiction and brokenness of many kinds? Before the Lord, I am no better or worse than North Philadelphia, and that is the only place that really matters.

So, in short, I looked at the possibility of leaving here, and I chose not to. I chose to stay. I could have chosen to leave, but didn’t want to. I realized that if I left here, I’d be trying to get away from some things I don’t like, but what would I be going to? Indeed, I have a precious community here, a sense of purpose and joy in life, and I didn’t see anything on the horizon that rivals that. It was in the laying out of options, and the choosing, that I realized a greater sense of commitment and joy in what I do have.

This is not to say that I will be here forever. I don’t doubt that God may lead me to another place at some point in the unknown future. But for now, I am here, in North Philadelphia, and I will stay here with a renewed sense of my smallness in the Kingdom God is bringing forth here, yet an equally renewed sense of awe at that very same Kingdom He is bringing forth here. That guy I was dating broke up with me in part because of this decision and I’m ok with that. And I’m going to renovate my kitchen and fix the drainpipe. In fact, the plumbers are here to work on the drainpipe right now.


What if I Left the City?

As If They Were Jesus

“Let me love them with Your love, let me reflect Jesus to them…”

I catch myself praying such prayers quite often – about my friends, family, church, patients, neighbors – I want to love with the love of Christ, to serve with His humility, and to touch with His healing. I image my love flowing from and because of Jesus, ministering in a way similar to how He ministered, His love pouring out of me. Like Paul prayed for the Philippians, I want to have the same attitude as that of Jesus Christ, who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking on the very nature of a servant. Clearly, this is what we’re called to do, right?

Perhaps it is, but there is another image that Jesus gave, and it is the direct opposite of these images in my head:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

“And the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

“He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” — Matthew 25

Do you see it?

Caring for the hungry, thirsty strangers, loving the naked, sick and imprisoned – we don’t do it as if we were Jesus, but as if they were Jesus.

This image haunts me. When I look into the eyes of my patient who is seeking disability for inappropriate reasons, or sobbing over losing their daughter to cancer, or frightened by chest pains, or struggling with emotional eating, it is far too easy to picture myself as a saviour, healing or teaching or setting things right. It is much, much harder to picture them as my Lord, hungry, sick, naked, imprisoned. I desperately need to rethink this godlike persona I try to project, to stop trying to be a heroic Jesus-figure in the world, and instead start seeking and serving Jesus in the lost, broken and hurting ones. Come, join me if you will, and let’s see what it does to our hearts and lives!

As If They Were Jesus

Is it safe?

This author is DM, a nurse practitioner living in North Philadelphia, and one of the sources of living inspiration for what I am doing now. This is part of our Displacement series. If you would like to contribute a story of your own, send an e-mail to [email protected].

Whenever people who know Philadelphia’s neighborhoods find out where I live, and that I walk or bike to work most days, they either look at me with concern for my sanity, or with admiration for my bravery. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked “Is it safe there?”, and I never know how to answer. Is it safe? No, not really. There have been several shootings on the block or near the block where I live within the past year. There are guys who stand on the street corners at all hours of the day and night, conducting shady “business” deals. It is common for a guy on a dirt bike or ATV to ride up the street popping a wheelie the whole way, shattering the normal neighborhood sounds with their loud engines. My heart still breaks over the story in the newspaper about a 10-month old who lived within a block of me who died with track marks — track marks! — on his body. This is not a “safe” neighborhood.

But I have never felt at all threatened in living here. In fact, I feel like an impostor when people suggest I’m courageous for living here. Indeed, making my home in _______ ____ gives me a sense of integrity and wholeness in my life as it allows my work, church, and everyday life to be lived out in the same neighborhood. I have been graciously welcomed here by many people, and I get to be just one part of a whole group of Jesus-followers who are living in this neighborhood, being the church here. Plus, whenever I feel scared and alone and single and weak and vulnerable in my house alone at night, which has been often over the past year, I get the incredible privilege of leaning on Jesus.

From my journal, I’ve copied out a short list of blessings I received within weeks of moving into the house I bought last October:

Since moving in, I’ve had neighbors

- come and introduce themselves and welcome me to the block
— help me break into my own house when the lock was stuck, then
— scold me for not asking for help moving a shelf
— give me a hand-crayoned ‘welcome to our block’ card,
— feed me dinner, several times
— knock on my door at midnight to let me know a light was on in my car
— salt my top step and shovel my walkway and sidewalk
— put out my trash for me and bring my trash can back in from the sidewalk too.

With this list (and many more I could write since then) I cannot escape the thought that I am receiving much more than I’m giving here.

I’m not saying that living here is all enjoyable. I am not a city girl. I crave open spaces and silence and firelight and home-grown vegetables and long walks away from the sound of rushing traffic. I don’t know the first thing about urban life, music or culture, and don’t really have any interest in learning about them for their own sake. One of my favorite dreams involves living in a small village in a rural area, preferably somewhere really far out, like Sudan, where running water and electricity are unknown. That, I used to tell myself, is what I’m wired for. I’ve told this to God too, and even went to live in S. Sudan to prove it to Him and the world. And then it all fell apart as my team was evacuated and my imaginary future life crumbled. And God brought me instead to North Philadelphia, the last place on earth I really thought He’d wired me for.

I have given up some dreams to live here. But when I moved here, I asked God how I should live, and it seemed clear that He gave me Jeremiah 29.4−7 (and also 8–11) in response:

“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

So I knew that I wasn’t supposed to live here with an eye to returning to where I think my gifts and desires would lead me (Sudan again? North Africa?). Instead I was to literally and figuratively follow these instructions. So I planted a garden. And bought a house. And I pray constantly for this neighborhood because it is my home. I have also stopped thinking and planning about where else I might live in the future. Living here has been one of the hardest and most rewarding things I’ve done in my life. Not because the neighborhood is “unsafe”, but because it’s just not what I would have chosen for myself. But God has asked me to put down roots here.

The process of putting down roots hasn’t come naturally. I felt incredible angst as I bought the house where I now live (angst: not unusual for me – it’s like a signpost that God is at work in my life). Some other day I’ll tell the story of that, but suffice it to say that buying this house on ____________ St was like entering into a deep covenant with this neighborhood. I have cast in my lot with this neighborhood and it has made a huge difference in the depth of my commitment to the welfare of _______ ____.

So I am learning to love the city and being a homeowner. I am grateful for the freedom to make a home and offer hospitality to others here. God has given me neighbors who watch out for me (my car, my trash can, my house…), and living in the midst of some urban chaos has given me just an inkling of what my patients live through each day. But life here is undeniably good — I walk to work, I tend 2 different community gardens, I live 2 blocks from a great big green, tree-filled park, and I have become part of a house church that is like an urban family. Sometimes neighbor kids come and knock on my door (when least expected) and another neighbor who is also a patient of mine gives me food and shares “Spanish conversation dinners” with myself and several coworkers.

I’m not sure exactly what impact I’m making in this neighborhood, but I know what impact it’s making on me: I’ve become more confident, more likely to reach out, better at making decisions, and am learning about how to be friends with people who are vastly different than I am. But most of all I am learning to daily surrender to Jesus and His plan for my life instead of carving my own path.

So when people ask me if my neighborhood is safe, I think they’re asking the wrong question. A better question would be, “is it a good place to live?” and for me, the answer is an unhesitating “yes!

Is it safe?