It’s been almost two decades since I left my home state of Montana and moved out to Portland, Oregon for seminary. When asked where I’m from, I still answer, “I am from Montana, but I live in Portland.” After eighteen years, I still don’t see myself as being from here. I still consider myself an outsider. I just don’t seem to fit in.
I think I’m too rural for the city; I feel claustrophobic here. My horizons are blocked by the neighbor’s fence behind me and the tall apartments in front of me. I always seem to be jostling against people and bumping into things. Even the parking spaces are smaller. It’s hard to ignore the chaos and clamor—the yelling, the car horns, the police sirens (one is screaming past right now). Whenever I get chance to return home to Big Sky country, my body decompresses. My breathing slows. My heart rate goes down. My natural movements become, well, more natural.
And there’s culture shock. I just don’t fit in with Portland culture. If you’ve ever seen the cable TV show Portlandia (I watch it for training, to help me understanding my surroundings!), you know this city has a culture all its own.
Unlike many Portlanders, I am not a hipster. I don’t sport trendy scarves, tattoos or facial hair. Skinny jeans make me look like a sack of organic flour, its lower half caught in an ever-tightening vise. I don’t hike or run marathons. I don’t drink gourmet coffee or designer microbrews; in either case, I wouldn’t know a good batch from a bad one.
I do share Portlanders’ love of books and bookstores, especially our legendary Powell’s City of Books—the world’s biggest independent bookstore of new and used books. But as the city keeps growing, I find I seldom have the stomach to fight the traffic, crowds, and parking fees to get there.
So I hunker down at home and gaze longingly at pictures of spacious vistas—like seascapes along the coast or landscapes of the majestic mountains and plains in Montana.
Naturally, this begs the question: why don’t I just move?
Ah, there’s the rub. For multiple reasons, it seems clear that God wants me here for now. I am called to reflect Jesus and show God’s love to this city; yet for my own selfish reasons, I’d rather flee.
I am Jonah.
Jonah, too, was called to go to a city against his will. God told him to head east to Nineveh, but Jonah headed west to the ocean. God wanted him to call Nineveh to repent, while Jonah wanted it destroyed. God said go, and Jonah went—the other way. He shipped out to sea, and because of his disobedience, God sent a storm that threatened to sink the ship and everyone in it. So the judgment Jonah had desired for Nineveh was now brought down upon his own head.
After being thrown overboard by his shipmates, then swallowed and puked up by a fish, Jonah finally obeys. He goes to Nineveh and calls its residents to repent. But when they do, he is even more contrary than before. In fact, he actually throws a tantrum because things didn’t go his way.
Yep, I am Jonah. Oh, I am not so callous that I want to see my city destroyed. It’s just that I wish God would call someone else to live where I live, and let me move away. It feels like I never fit in here, and I don’t want to step up and try. I just want to take my toys and go home.
But I also don’t want to be a reluctant prophet, trying to pick and choose where I am called to go. I don’t want to insist on reflecting Jesus only where I feel comfortable – and pitch a fit when I end up somewhere else – because the gospel is for everyone, everywhere. Jesus said “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John12:32). Paul said he must “become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). Peter said we Christ-followers are “foreigners and exiles”—called to “live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12).
Those scriptures apply to me too.
But how can I authentically reflect Jesus’s love to this city when a part of me still wants to leave?
It comes down to grace. In grace, Jesus sought me out; so I need to pay it forward. If I truly understood the depth of his love toward me, I think I’d be more than willing to share it wherever I go, even if part of me doesn’t want to be there.
Maybe one day, God will allow me to retreat to a wide-open space where I can breathe. But until then, I—a twenty-first century Jonah—am called to represent Jesus every place I go. Even the places I’d rather not be.