Rediscovering Jesus in the City (02/14/2012)
I’m back on Long Island after a week and a half trip to Geneseo. I spent about half-hour in Penn Station waiting for the LIRR. In that half-hour, I witnessed 2 different people on 2 separate occasions belittle and verbally abuse service workers and sat across the table from a woman who seemed to suffer from Schizophrenia.
Since I’ve gone to school in upstate NY, I’ve noticed that the more time I’ve spent up there, the more culture shock I would feel when coming back to Long Island during college breaks. So at first, I was bitter. Bitter that I was back downstate rather than upstate. Annoyed at the crowds of people and already wanting to make plans to move back to beautiful, amiable, and wide-open upstate NY.
Next, I got kicked out of McDonald’s. You’re only allowed to sit for about 20 minutes. That made me even more annoyed with the City. As I gathered my things and made my way to the LIRR’s waiting area, I recalled my conversation with Pastor Dave earlier today. With the St. Louis trip coming up for my fellowship back in Geneseo, we were talking about my future and how Dave realizes that I’ve grown a heart for ministry in cities in my 4 years of attendance at CityLights. I was taken aback by how his observations contrasted my current sentiments.
I know I love the city. I’ve loved seeing God move in cities. I love how cities are places of many different cultures and people. It’s diverse. It’s exciting. Dave was right. I do love cities.
So what’s changed?
Yes, the people in general are meaner down here than in upstate in general. I feel like that’s a natural result in densely populated areas. But that’s not news… downstate hasn’t changed. I have.
I used to not be phased by the “mean” culture that is downstate NY. When I went to school, strangers were drastically kinder to me. I started to prefer upstate’s culture to the one I had grown up with. And my time at Citylights taught me to look deeper into city culture with a new set of eyes to see the brokenness of the city and its people.
Perhaps it’s the uncertainty of post-graduate life that makes me find any little reason to reject life here and return to what is now more comfortable: life in western NY. Whatever the case, I was convicted that I was feeling so annoyed to be back.
I started to think about Gerry, the director of CityLights, my role model, and my spiritual father. Over the years, I’ve observed how he interacts with his environment, how he approaches ministry, people, etc. What were the differences in his everyday living that made him such a force of calvary-like love and transformation in the city of St. Louis? I wondered what it would look like if Gerry were walking in my steps tonight. What would it look like?
I recalled an experience I had with him at a Waffle House during the summer of 2009. It was about 3am. We were driving around together and we stopped in for a late-night snack. He was so kind to the woman behind the counter. Knowing it was a graveyard shift, he looked around the back knowing that she’d probably been on her feet for hours and seeing that there was no place for her to sit and rest her feet. He gracefully struck up a conversation about her. He was engaged with her. He showed such a profound level of compassion and empathy for this stranger. Upon leaving, he left her an extremely generous tip. The woman was so blessed. It was such a small thing but it left a profound mark in my memory. People in the service industry are treated with no dignity. But I saw Jesus that night. Gerry sees the situation with a different set of eyes. It’s what I believe to be a new set of eyes followers of Jesus should see the world with. He saw her the way Jesus sees her.
Consider the woman across from me possibly suffering from mental illness. She’s society’s outcast. Much like the lepers in Biblical times, she’s “unclean” or “untouchable”. She belongs to the kind of people that we do not want to associate with. We pretend not to see them so much so that maybe, we really don’t see them anymore. I know that was me. There are so many people in the city like that. I forced myself not to see them to avoid the internal conflict between my uncompassionate heart and the work of the Spirit. And so, over time, I really didn’t see them.
How did Jesus treat the social outcasts of His time? Take the story of the leper for instance in Mark 1. Jesus heals the leper. Not only does He heal him, Jesus touches him. In that time, people used to run across the street away from a leper screaming, “Unclean! Unclean!” Can you imagine for this leper how long it must have been since he had human contact? What does it do to a person’s soul to not even be dignified as a human being with one simple touch? Jesus could have simply said, “Be healed!” and by His words, the leper would be healed. We’ve seen that happen in the Gospels where Jesus heals simply by uttering words. But no, Jesus saw that the leper needed also the healing that would come from touch, human contact, for the first time in a long time. Oh to love like Jesus. To see how He sees. What a difference it would make!
I stand convicted that I am not a loving person. I don’t love Jesus as much as I love comfort and familiarity. And I certainly do not love His people. I especially do not love people who may be rougher around the edges. The city is full of broken people. It’s crowded with them. The problem doesn’t lie in the masses of broken people but within my own broken and unloving self. I’m annoyed with the crowds of broken people. Jesus was constantly followed and pursued by crowds broken people. He was never annoyed with them. Mark 6:34 says, “When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.”
The service workers, the mentally ill, the homeless… you might compare them to the “sparrows” in Matthew 10. Seemingly insignificant to us, but are loved and cared for all the same by our Heavenly Father. How do we treat the “sparrows” in our lives?
Jesus, I’m so sorry for the way I’ve grown so complacent. Renew my mind and give me a new set of eyes to see the world in light of the Gospel. Teach me how to love like You. Transform my life and give me a heart that loves the unlovable and touches the untouchable. May I never just be a passerby but change me to live the kind of life that reflects the good news of Jesus Christ wherever I go. In the big things and the little things, may You be glorified.
The city desperately needs Jesus. Gerry is taking up his cross in St. Louis. What will I do? What will we do?
I love the city. I really do.