Ten months ago my wife and I lost our life. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. I answered the call to serve a local church as an associate pastor in New York, half a country away from everything we knew. We packed up our humble possessions, got rid of some other stuff, and trekked (well, Carly and the girls flew) fifteen-hundred miles to a new context.
That was last day of our life as we knew it.
A week ago, Carly, Bailey, Hope, and I returned from our nearly two-week vacation in Nebraska, our native state (#GBR). We had a blast during this ten-day party. Pools, zoos, parks, and bar-b-ques. We relaxed with family, reunited with friends, and ruined our insides at our favorite local fast food joint (Runza!). It was everything a vacation should be.
Then we returned to New York. Back to normal. More like, our new normal.
It was hard. There were tears. But Jesus wants us here. So we obeyed and came back. As Tim Keller has said, “If you only obey God when you feel like it, well, that really isn’t obedience at all.” We didn’t feel like coming back. Of course, we were going to come back. But that didn’t make it easy.
Obedience is hard and costly. It might just cost you your life. And yesterday, seven days after returning to this new normal, it hit me. Our move to New York was costly. We lost our life.
When Jesus saved me years ago, I lost my life for good. It was never going to be the same. But as my discipleship journey continues, I learn there are other losings during the process. For us, this time, we lost place. We were, by God’s design, uprooted and displaced. There’s something significant about place for the Christian. God put Adam in a garden. God told Abraham to go to a place that he did not know. God gave the law to Moses on a mountain. God led Israel to a place named Canaan. God prescribed worship to occur in a tent, then later a temple. Israel and Judah were exiled to foreign places called Assyria and Babylon. Jesus came down to this place called Earth and was born in a manger in a place called Bethlehem. He grew up in place called Nazareth. He died at a place called Golgotha. And he will, someday still future, bring a new place called the New Jerusalem. All of creation and into all eternity we will have to do with place.
Our displacement, like others, means we lost relationships. We lost physical proximity to our parents (FaceTime isn’t quite the same). We lost our church, which, though imperfect like all others, we loved dearly. We lost intimate friendships which took years to cultivate. We lost proximity to parks and stadiums and intersections and restaurants where memories were made and may never be relived. In a way, we lost our life.
Yesterday, this hit me because I was reading the gospel of Mark, chapter eight, and reflecting on our vacation. Jesus says, “And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (vv. 34-35).
Now you understand, of course, that we have not physically faced death. We have not faced crucifixion. The Romans are not knocking at our door to test our allegiance to that political rebel Jesus. There are worse things than moving away from family and friends and a church and memories. But that doesn’t mean what we have experienced is insignificant. It is a kind of suffering. It is still a type of death.
As I read Mark 8, I was overwhelmed with this reality. I, in some way, lost my life when I answered the call to minister the gospel in a different place. Carly, in some way, lost her life, too. But at the same time, by God’s grace, I was overwhelmed with a greater reality: I’m gaining my life. Again, Jesus said, ‘Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” The gospel brought us to a place we had never been and a church we had never known. And life here is not easy. No grandparents or aunts or uncles takes a toll. Pastoral ministry is not glamorous and is often more thorns than roses. Displacement can make the life of pastor and pastor’s wife lonely and exhausting. New York is expensive (let the reader understand).
Yet while we lost our life, we are, mysteriously, gaining it. This is a gospel-pattern. Crucifixion necessitates resurrection. Jesus can tell his disciples–he can tell Carly and me–that if we die, we will live, because he died and yet lives. Peter once asked Jesus what to make of it when we leave everything dear to us—family, friends, homes, lands, or anything. Jesus said that truly we will, in some way, gain it all back (Matt. 19:23-30). Why? Because he lost first and best. His losing and gaining was not merely illustration, but redemption, so that our losing is not in vain or for show. It’s gaining life in him. My identity and reputation and meaning and purpose and joy and delight is now in losing everything I am, so that I might gain everything he is.
And this is all for Jesus’ sake and the gospel’s. That’s a big part of losing: Jesus gets the glory, not us. God is gracious to use our losing to show how worthy and magnificent and splendid Jesus is. Your losing and gaining may look different than ours. It might look like rejecting climbing up the corporate ladder, or climbing it and living humbly. It might look like selling your possessions and living among the poor. It might look like passing on fame and recognition to serve commoners as a commoner. In any case, Jesus’ call is the same: “If you save your life, you’ll lose it. But if you lose it for my sake and the gospel’s, you’ll save it.”