E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web, says there are three New Yorks. The first is the New York of the native “who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable.” The second is the New York of the commuter who devours the city by day and leaves at night. The third is the New York of the settler “who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something”—fame, fortune, identity, power.
I’m a settler. Born in Illinois, raised in Florida, educated in Texas, and professionally launched in Washington, D.C., I moved to New York in search of two things—success and escape. I came to work on Wall Street and to find some distance from an ex-boyfriend. A year in New York is all I need, I thought—but that was 13 years ago.
Now, when people ask me where I'm from, it feels strange to say any place other than New York. The city is now my home.
What Makes a ‘New Yorker’?
How long it takes to become an official New Yorker is a subject of much debate. Many say it takes 10 years. Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City says it takes 7 years.
Others say experiences, not years, make a New Yorker. Rites of passage often include being mugged at gunpoint, subletting an illegal lease, or being groped on the subway. Having to exterminate bed bugs or mice also counts. One requirement, though, is nearly universal: living in small spaces.
I live with three other women in a fourth-floor walk-up apartment that boasts 1,400 square feet. We have our own bedrooms, but we share our living room and kitchen. We take our dirty laundry to a laundromat two blocks away because we don't have a washer and dryer. We also don’t have Christmas decorations because, Who has space to store something you use only once a year?
Roots of Bitterness
There was a time when I could afford more space. In law school, when I summered at a major law firm in New York, I had my own place—a spacious, one-bedroom apartment with a charming yellow-brick faux fireplace in a doorman building. Today, though, even with two jobs, my income is a fraction of what I made at the firm.
The contrast between the home I can presently afford and the home I could have afforded is often hard to reconcile. When someone sends me a package, and I have no doorman to receive it, I lament having to trek a mile to the FedEx facility to pick it up. When I have out-of-town guests visiting, I apologize for not having a guest room. If I had taken that law firm job, I’d have my own place by now, I remind myself, bitter I chose to work in the faith-based non-profit sector.
My murmuring heart is an offense to God. It distrusts his goodness and rejects his generosity. It results from hoping in promises he never made and, when those promises aren't fulfilled, leads to unnecessary disappointment. My complaining spirit magnifies my afflictions and minimizes God’s mercies, falsely believing, “No one suffers as I do!” It takes away any present comfort in what I do have because all I can think about is what I don’t have.
What Makes a Home?
For the past eight years, since rejecting the law firm’s job offer, my story of home has been one of learning contentment. It doesn’t come naturally to me, just like it didn’t come naturally to the apostle Paul. As he wrote to the churches in Philippi:
I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. (Phil. 4:11–12, emphasis mine).
I’ve learned that home isn’t measured by how much space you have or by whether you have certain appliances. It’s not determined by whether you rent or own your place, or by whether you're single, divorced, widowed, married, or married with children.
What makes a home is the presence of God. If he is there, then it is home. In The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, Jeremiah Burroughs writes,
In the house of the righteous is much treasure: his house—what house? It may be a poor cottage, and perhaps he has scarcely a stool to sit on. . . . Yet the Holy Ghost says, “In the house of the righteous is much treasure” (Prov. 15:6). Let the righteous man be the poorest man in the world. . . . If he has but a dish and a spoon or anything in the world in his house, there will be much treasure so long as he is there. There is the presence of God and the blessing of God upon him, and therein is much treasure.
Jesus—who had all the riches of the universe at his disposal in heaven—was poor in this world. When his parents presented him at the Temple, they couldn’t afford the regular sacrifice of a lamb, but offered the poor man’s sacrifice of two pigeons (Lk. 2:24; Lev. 12:8). Later, he told his followers that, though birds have nests and foxes have holes, he had no place to lay his head (Matt. 8:20; Lk. 9:58).
He came in poverty to show us that there is only one thing necessary in this life—the presence of God. “In my Father’s house are many rooms,” he told his disciples (Jn. 14:2). This is what we know about our heavenly home—it is the Father’s house. He is there, and it is the place his glory dwells (Ps. 26:8; 84:1).
Other things—a spouse, children, a washer and dryer—are comfortable things, and we can be thankful to God if he gives them to us. But they are not necessary things—we can have them and yet perish forever; we can have none of them and yet, in Christ, live forever.
At this point in my life, I expected to be married and own a home. The Lord, however, had other plans. But in him, I’m one of the “haves,” not one of the “have nots.” My small apartment in my crowded city is my home—not because it has all the space and appliances I want, but because it is where the Lord dwells in the hearts of his people. In this, I am content—and even rejoice.
Bethany L. Jenkins is the Director of The Gospel Coalition’s Every Square Inch, the Director of Vocational & Career Development at The King’s College, and the Founder of The Park Forum. She previously worked on Wall Street and on Capitol Hill. She received her JD from Columbia Law School and attends Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, where she is a current CFW Fellow and a former Gotham Fellow through the Center for Faith & Work. You can follow her on Twitter.
Welcome to a guest series I’m calling, “Home: Musings and Memories.” I’ve invited writers from all over the Internet to share their stories from home—in part, because next month, I’m publishing a book called, Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home (IVP, May 2017). I believe home is our most fundamental longing, homesickness our most nagging grief. Most of all, I believe that the historic Christian faith has something to say about that desire and disappointment.
The story of Jesus is a home story.
Thanks for joining me and these other fantastic writers in the months ahead in our search for home—and the God who makes its hope possible.