I only had the privilege of living with Jen in college for a year, but that year was one of transformation and change and following God’s will for both of us. After our senior year, Jen went on to Princeton, where she competed seminary and has since been working at a church in North Carolina. I have always admired Jen’s way of looking at life, and have appreciated the conversations we’ve had since leaving college. It is a privilege to invite Jen to share on the blog today.
By Jen Christianson
Sometimes my life as a minister gives me whiplash.
Today, I spent the afternoon in a retreat to close our summer internship program, celebrating a summer of grace and growth, and grieving the end and the necessary goodbyes.
Immediately after, I drove to the nearest hospital to visit with a congregant in his eighties, who’d survived a tricky heart surgery. He has a long road of recovery ahead, but in so many ways it’s a fresh chapter: life snatched back from death.
The end of one chapter. The beginning of another.
There are too many days like this, sometimes. Too many funerals and baptisms in the same week.
At times, I find it easier (but never actually easy) to strike a balance, and then there are days I scarcely know what to do.
I had a lot of those days in Kenya.
I visited earlier this summer with a group from my church, seventeen other travelers on a ten-day trip to reconnect with friends and ministry partners in and around Nairobi.
For fourteen of us, it was our first time there. And so everything was jarring, everything new, everything a revelation.
And I had whiplash all over again.
Except it looked like this: laughing children next to open sewers in the middle of the slum. Students learning in broken down buildings without light, without air.
Joy next to suffering. Light in the darkest places. Abundant hospitality in villages that know only poverty.
How can it be? How does this happen?
I kept remembering the question from John 1, the incredulous tone: Can anything good come from Nazareth?
And the answer: come and see.
Come and see that even in the midst of great hardship, there is blessing. Come and see the people who laugh and sing even when their stomachs are empty. Come and listen to the friends that we met there, young men like Jeff.
Jeff lives in Mathare, Nairobi’s second-largest slum, giving shelter to half a million people in an area about half a square mile. He is an exception to many rules, not a statistic: he has not succumbed to drugs, alcohol, violence or gangs. He spends his time in a ministry that seeks out young people in the slums, to make sure they know the same path is open to them. He spends Friday nights in church.
But to walk the streets where Jeff grew up, to stand in the classroom he spent years in as a student, and to sit and hear him talk about a God who protects and provides for him is to be profoundly confused. At how this kind of faith can grow, well – here.
I felt that way. Until one night, in our group devotions, when a fellow traveler made this observation: “the people we’ve met,” she said, “have so little. But because of their faith, they have so much. We have so much, and yet, because of our faith…we really don’t have much at all.”
And then I realized: I want Jeff’s faith.
I want to cling tightly once more to the idea that God cares about me, and is at work, all the time, doing something good in my life. I want to sleep secure in the conviction that God protects and watches over me. I want to pray with confidence that I will be heard and answered – even if it’s in ways I didn’t ask for or don’t understand.
I want to walk with intention again, the life of a disciple. To be guided by faith. To follow wherever God leads.
And I’m learning that God often leads straight into a whole lot of whiplash, that messy pairing together of things that just don’t go, that don’t make sense.
A savior who comes to a peasant girl in a stable. A Lord who eats with criminals and lepers and prostitutes. Life out of death. Hope out of despair. Light out of darkness.
The life of a disciple, I think, means witnessing to this kind of illogical, confusing, astonishing, grace and power. It means standing in the middle of these contradictions and proclaiming “yes” to all of them. Yes, God is in these both; yes, something good can come out of Nazareth.
It means remembering that the God who made us all will make it all well, bring it all together, in the end.
Thanks be to God.