When I was in college my theology professor, lecturing on the Kingdom of God, turned to me and asked, “So, Stina. When you are older and own a home and have a perfectly good kitchen and dining room and so on, I want to know: Will you spend thousands of dollars updating it? Redoing it?”
When I was the invincible age of twenty-two, the thought of having thousands of dollars to spend on anything—let alone owning a real home—seemed a million years away. And what a silly question: Of course I wouldn’t spend my fictitious money on frivolous home renovation projects. I wouldn’t settle for a domesticated life of fine things.
We were talking about the Kingdom of God, after all. About upside-down priorities—of the last, first. Of giving all that we had to the poor. I never imagined myself wanting comfort; I who grew up with it and never knew life without it. My head and heart were fixed on higher, nobler things.
“No,” I replied to my professor, my voice bold before my classmates. I looked around importantly. “No, I would never do that.”
I smile to myself now as I remember that moment, as I sit here, molded into the couch. My back is sore from carrying my infant all day, from lifting my preschooler in and out of the bucket swing at the park. I grab a box of Honey Bunches of Oats from the top of the fridge; I burrow my hand inside for a fistful of comfort.
Comfort, comfort. I didn’t realize how much I would want comfort, how quickly I would seek it out.
Shortly after college my ideals led me to live in an intentional Christian community in rural Georgia. I remember talking to one of the wizened long-termers (a real radical, in the flesh!) who had served there for thirty years. Over cups of weak coffee from the community kitchen, I told him about my dreams of living prophetically, of selling everything I had to follow Jesus.
Cradling my warm mug in my hands, I asked if anything had surprised him in a lifetime of communal living below the poverty line. And he told me: “I never knew how much I’d crave comfort. I never knew how tied to routine I would become, how reluctant to change.” I choked back my surprise, the coffee sour on my tongue.
I am starting to understand what he meant, now that I live in a neighborhood that is far from desirable on paper—high levels of poverty, crummy schools, home burglaries. When my husband and I were twenty-four and newly in love, living here felt perfect. It rang with some of the soaring idealism I had then: thoughts about God in the city, of loving our neighbors, of fleeing the suburbs. It was easy then to be critical of people older than me—white and well educated—who bought up McMansions and retreated from neighborhoods like mine as soon as they had children.
And yet here I am, thirty-one years old, eating cereal on the couch and circling things in the IKEA catalogue. Being broke, it turns out, is stressful. I fantasize about having money, about being able to buy new clothes. To join a gym. To afford nice things for my daughter. To be free of guilt while tossing a few comfort items into the Target shopping cart: nail polish in trendy colors, a pair of sunglasses. For buying a coffee to go.
And it’s more than wanting material goods; I am unused to being a minority. I am unused to living in an area with high crime. I fear for my kids when sidestepping syringes on our walk to the park. My discomfort with difference, my search to find others who look like me: I feel these primitive instincts disrupting my lofty ideas of life in the city.
We are all seeking our kind. It’s natural and normal for humans to want to be with people who look like them; it helps promote a sense of identity, of connection. Yet, I know that God wants more for us than benign comfort and sameness; after all, Jesus purposely alienated himself from his in-group—devout Jews—by befriending tax collectors, Romans, prostitutes, and foreigners.
I know all this, the parables burned deeply into my psyche, and yet I just want to shut my eyes sometimes—new shoes might help, perhaps, or another cookie.
A former mentor of mine once led a Bible study on Colossians and I’ll never forget his words. “We should never feel comfortable in this world,” he told us. “We are aliens and strangers, we feel dis-ease for a reason. It reminds us that we belong to God and God’s kingdom.”
Dis-ease, I think, as I open my laptop and read another email about a shooting in my neighborhood, as I search the internet for home values in areas that have the city’s best schools, wondering if we’d ever be able to afford the mortgage. I sigh deeply, taking another handful of cereal, finding a small satisfaction in each sweet, crunchy bite.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Stina Kielsmeier-Cook
Stina Kielsmeier-Cook is a writer from the fair and frigid city of Minneapolis, where she lives with her husband and two kids.