In 1985, I moved from Oregon to New Jersey. I found myself halfway between Philadelphia and New York City. New Jersey challenged all my assumptions about pizza, recycling and customer service. The people were more aggressive. Wild spaces were harder to find.
Despite the significant cultural differences, I was grateful for the opportunity to live in New Jersey. Being in graduate school felt like a privilege. On my drive to campus, I passed a giant oak tree (named for the Revolutionary War general who died beneath its branches), a Quaker meetinghouse (built in 1760), and Albert Einstein’s house.
My body was less enthusiastic about the new environment. After moving to New Jersey, I got sick more often. A couple of times, I completely blacked out. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before.
From the Jersey Turnpike, you can see enormous oil refineries and chemical plants. We lived near an old canal, connecting the Delaware and Raritan Rivers. Nearby signs warned of contaminants in the water. More than once, we heard stories about raw sewage and medical waste washing ashore along the beach. I started to worry that all the pollution was taking a toll on my health.
That first year in New Jersey, I caught the flu. I’d never felt so miserable. I was 3000 miles from home, and I was too weak to stand. Because I was already worried about my health, I was afraid that my symptoms might indicate something more sinister than influenza. I expressed my fears in spontaneous prayer: “God, please don’t let me die in New Jersey.”
For reasons I can’t explain, God answered my prayer with very specific reassurance: “You won’t die in New Jersey.” At least in my experience, this level of specificity is exceedingly rare. In my prayerful conversations, God is far more likely to say, “Don’t worry” or “I will be with you” than to make unequivocal promises. But I felt confident that death wouldn’t find me in New Jersey.
I took great comfort in this promise. So far, God has been faithful. I’ve never died in New Jersey.
I’ve told this story a few times. People inevitably ask, “If you moved to New Jersey, would you live forever?” From a tactical perspective, I understand the question. At the same time, this question strikes me as a way of diminishing the gift I received. During a time when I felt scared and alone, God offered me some very clear reassurance. That gift of comfort was precious; I don’t need to make it something more. I certainly don’t want God to regret speaking so plainly. I don’t want my communication with God to sound like the service agreement on iTunes.