NYC is big.

I mean really, really, really big.

This past week, I took a few days off and headed for the Big Apple to explore and spend time with a close friend and my sister. I saw more of the infamous empire than I ever have, and enjoyed the change of pace and scenery for the time I was there. But to be honest, actually living there, every day, doesn’t immediately appeal to me.

In the hustle and bustle of a city of that magnitude, of a place people write stories and songs and scripts about, where universally you can mention “Oh, I’m from NY” and everyone instantly identifies you with the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building (even though you live in an entirely different world upstate about 6 hours away…), NYC is a place you can go to reinvent yourself. Lose yourself. Or to cling to yourself with all you’ve got.

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A few weeks ago, I read a really interesting essay by John Ortberg about the difference between our mission and our “shadow” mission. This concept was new to me, as I’ve usually been under the impression you’re either living your life mission…or you aren’t. But Ortberg says it this way:

“A shadow mission is an authentic mission that has been derailed, often in imperceptible ways. Part of what makes the shadow mission so tempting is that it’s usually so closely related to our gifts and passions. It’s not 180 degrees off track; it is just 10 degrees off track.

A favorite author of mine, Holley Gerth, wrote a blog post about this very thing in which she briefly sums up how we identify our “shadow” mission:

  • A shadow mission exhausts you while a true mission energizes you
  • A shadow mission comes from guilt or insecurity while a true mission comes from freedom and love
  • A shadow mission is about you while a true mission involves you but also includes God and others
  • A shadow mission leads to resentment while a true mission lets you serve no matter the response
  • A shadow mission makes you feel more distant from God (even though you’re trying to earn his approval) while a true mission brings you closer to him

Wandering around NYC, I thought a lot about who I am right now in my “career path”, how easily life’s circumstances lately could tilt me just a few degrees off my real mission and how maybe, just maybe, I was already allowing the tilt without realizing it. The stress, the exhaustion, the fear, the questioning…all wrapped up in the pretty package of what I’m already working at and toward in my spiritual life and in my calling (or what I feel called to right now).

Interesting. And as I watched hundreds of people pass me by on those crowded city streets, stared up at the skyscrapers and caught glimpses of daily life on the faces of those who are clearly tired and running a race to keep up with their own missions, it made me think of how easily I could slip into those routines, forget my purpose, and lose track of God’s calling and voice. No matter where I am. 

There are plenty of people who love living in that city. And don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed my tourist moments and seeing all the places I’ve only seen in movies and TV shows. There is an excitement about it, a feeling of grandeur and expectation when you gaze at the skyline. I could have come to my realizations anywhere- but in that place, it was almost as if God was saying very gently, “Look around you. Pay attention. Don’t get lost.” Your real mission doesn’t change…it’s ourselves that get off track and distracted. Stepping back, seeing a bigger picture, and abandoning my “shadow” mission is absolutely necessary.