I spent a summer as an intern with InterVarsity’s Urban Project in St. Louis in 2009. It was that summer when I first came to grips with the fact that following Jesus meant giving up my life. Literally.
It’s easy to sit in a nice church building singing, “Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.” Summer 2009, I learned that I never really appreciated the full weight of the songs I was singing to the Lord. Countless times I had sung about wanting God to take all of me for His purposes. Countless times I had sung about how I would give it all for Jesus.
Summer 2009, I realized that I really had no idea what I was singing or pledging to before God.
The second week of my internship, we lived with families in the neighborhood. These people had chosen to locate themselves among the city’s poor. During the day, we spent our time hanging out with the neighborhood kids in an apartment complex community. The people living in these apartments were mostly refugees. They came from all sorts of places such as Africa and Asia. Some of them came here seeking a better life, some left war-torn countries, some had to leave because to stay in their homeland meant death.
The kids we played with ranged from 2-year-olds to high school aged children. This one afternoon, I spent with a 2-year-old girl named Hawa. Hawa was a completely quiet little child. She made very few facial expressions and had a round little belly where she’d rest her hands while she twiddled her fingers. She was sweet. She hung by my side, held my hand, and watched quietly as I interacted with everyone around.
I had made my way over to the parking lot away from my team and the rest of the children when I heard something like fireworks. It was mid-June so I figured people were shooting off July 4th fireworks prematurely until a second round of noises went off and the windows of the car in front of me began to shatter.
I sank down in my spot. Heart racing. Not being able to wrap my head around the fact that these were not the sounds of fireworks but gunfire. I looked back to my team, they were gathering all the children behind one of the buildings. Nearby, I saw baby Hawa frozen in her place. I snatched her up and ran behind the wall where everyone else had hid.
I could hear my heart beat in my ears. I could feel the blood and the adrenaline rushing through my veins. I thought I could feel my heart racing in my hands but when the chaos had subsided a bit, I realized that it wasn’t my own heart I felt in my hands, I was holding Hawa. Her heart was beating out of her chest.
When the shots were over, we could hear the parents screaming out their windows and doors for their children. We sent the kids back to the apartments and ran back to the families we were staying with.
I couldn’t believe what had happened. I couldn’t believe how vulnerable and fragile my life was. I had never considered it before. I felt like I was dangling thousands of feet in the air holding on to a piece of string. I could go at any moment. The shooting stripped me of my perceived security, my invulnerability, and my control. I was two-weeks into this internship I had signed up for to learn to follow God in the midst of urban poverty.
The weeks after, I spent wrestling with my fears. The director of the internship walked closely with me helping me to process it all. “I understand if you want to go home.” He said. I did want to leave but stayed, out of fear that to leave would be shameful. I was terrified to be outside. Any time we’d leave to get into the cars or to go into another building, I was counting the seconds until we were safe inside somewhere. For the first time, I finally understood that following Jesus actually demanded my life, in every sense.
As I continued to process over the next few days after the shooting, I became very angry. Angry that for Hawa, this was an every day reality for her. In America! These refugees were fleeing poverty and violence in their own countries only to come to America to find more poverty and violence. The system was wrong. It was all so wrong. But that summer of 2009, I learned that my God was so much more than I could’ve ever hoped for. God cared for Hawa. He cares about the lives of the refugees in St. Louis. I learned that God did in fact, care about the hell that is present on earth today and that He wanted to use me in His restoring of all things. Yes, it would be dangerous. Yes, it demands my life. But as I thought of Hawa all summer long, there was nothing else worth my life. If God is a god who cares nothing of Hawa’s situation, of the endless poverty of the world’s poor, he is not a god worth worshiping. Thankfully, as I learned summer of 2009, He does care.
I am asking you tonight to get angry. To allow the brokenness that grieves the heart of God to grieve your own. I want you to get intolerant. We christians are intolerant of all the wrong things these days. We are intolerant of people who sin differently than us, people whom God loves and for whom He sacrificed His son for. Yet we are tolerant of the enslavement, the suffering, and the oppression of people whom God loves around the world many who suffer so we can have our way of life here in America.
We sit in our church buildings, sing our songs, memorize our Bible versus yet this is what the Lord says in Isaiah 58:
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”
The purpose Jesus has called His followers to what He has defined His ministry to be is found in Luke 4:
17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
What does it mean to follow Jesus? What does it mean to be a Christian? Is christianity just about us, dropped down into creation and having to entertain ourselves, saving souls when we can along the way for some disembodied future?
N.T. Wright says: “The whole point of what Jesus was up to was that he was doing close up, in the present, what he was promising long-term in the future. And what he was promising for that future and doing in the present was not saving souls for a disembodied eternity but rescuing people from the corruption and decay of the way of the world presently is so they could enjoy, already in the present, that renewal of creation which is God’s ultimate purpose – and so they could thus become colleagues and partners in that large project.”
Friends, the good news of the Gospel is more than just saving souls from a hell to come, but it is saving us from the hell that is now. Do not reduce the Gospel so small that it is merely personally relevant. The Gospel is globally relevant. That, my friends, is good news.
Consider today what your faith has become about. Is it about the things that are great on the heart of God? Or have you been saved just to go about your days doing a G-rated version of normal? What does it mean to align yourself with His purposes?
“In a way, I said ‘yes’ to following Jesus into the slums. But I was shown that I have more dying to do, more losing of myself. I learned that conversion to Christ is a process. Many more yes’s are needed after the first yes. But when everything wasn’t quite what I expected, I wanted to say ‘no’ so badly and I realized just how costly the invitation of Jesus to discipleship is.” -Karen Ngooi, international student from Malaysia studying at the University of Wisconsin
This past week, I attended Urbana. Urbana is a 5 day student missions conference held in St. Louis that cultivates in the current generation a love for God and for His purposes in the world.
I first heard about Urbana fall semester 2007 of my freshman year. Urbana 2006 had just taken place a year before and I have been anticipating my own participation in this conference ever since. As someone who has been out of college for about a year now and struggling with the post-graduate transition, I went into Urbana 2012 hungry to hear from God and for some inspiration.
I was not disappointed at Urbana.
God really spoke at Urbana. What I was hearing from God this week was that He is asking me to trust Him with my fears. Since I’ve graduated, I think the thing that has most kept me from moving forward with my life, among many other excuses, is fear. Fear that my family will not accept my decision to go into full-time ministry and fear that I will fail in some way. But throughout the week, I really sensed the urgency and the call to surrender our whole lives to Jesus. As Platt said in his talk, what in this life is more significant than this? What is more worth giving our lives to than this?
I found that during the week, I was running out of excuses. I found that I was getting tired of talking about the uncertainties of this stage of life and tired of my own excuses to delay being proactive about entering into what is next in life whether that be an internship, overseas missions, or full-time ministry in the states. I was tired of talking about how I don’t know and how I don’t know how to know. I believe that Jesus is saying, “Child, trust me. I am faithful. I am worth it. Come and follow me.”
In the end, I’m realizing that I want to follow Jesus but I really don’t want to lose anything in the process. I know it costs to follow Jesus. But, I don’t want to lose my security. There are so many things of this world that I love. I don’t want to lose them. But at Urbana, I fell in love with the Lord all over again. His heart for the world, for the lost, His invitation, His mission, His kingdom. It is all so unlike anything I’ve ever come across. So much more magnificent than I could ever hope for. My excuses, which were once all I could see before me became like tiny specks of dust making futile attempts to distract my eyes from the glory of His great invitation.
One thing that has really resonated in me throughout these past few days is something an international student from Malaysia said in her testimony before all of Urbana. “I have more dying to do,” she said. I am governed first by my fears and my petty desires. Instead of Jesus, I’ve let other factors set the agenda for my life. Jesus is not the center of my trust, dreams, and affections. I am learning just how much I don’t love Jesus. I am learning just how much I love my worldly reputation. I wonder, if I didn’t have people watching or if my actions did not result in some sort of reputation, how concerned am I for God’s glory? If He called me overseas, if my friends never saw me again or heard of anything I did for the rest of my life, would He still be worth it? Would His mission alone still be enough? If at the end of my earthly life, if I gained nothing in this world, if I lost it all, would I be satisfied with Jesus? If I had to be perfectly honest, my answer currently is, “No.” I still have so much dying to do.
My post-Urbana prayer is this: “Jesus, help me to die. Help me to know that you are worth all my trust, plans, and affections. Help me to die that I might live for you. Help me to die that I might have true life in you. Where You want me, where You lead me, help me to get there.”
I am learning that the hardships I might endure for His name’s sake is nothing compared to knowing Jesus. I am learning just how many more yes’s are needed before the end of this life. The reality of the hardships of following Jesus are starting to sink in more and more but I’m learning that His love makes it worth it all. There is nothing in this life more worth giving my life to than this. I need to leave the boat. I need to drop my nets. No more excuses. He is worth it.
Phil. 1:21 “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
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.