My Banner Over You is Love: A Testimony of Forgiveness

“He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.” Song of Solomon 2:4 ESV

In the past when I looked at this flag and my Dad’s picture feelings of anger, resentment, confusion, abandonment, fear, loneliness and most cutting rejection pierced my heart. When I got handed this flag at his funeral the only meaning it had was the reminder of what my father did to me and my mom before I was even born. He left us.

His choice to leave marked me so deep to my core it was unbearable. A flag that was the mark of a soldiers honor to his country was the constant reminder in my heart of the dishonor he had shown for leaving me. Honestly, I hid this flag for the longest time; I couldn’t look at it…until my heart started to forgive him.  It was only until recently that I decided to put it out on display after allowing Jesus to heal the broken places of what was supposed to be one of the most foundational and meaningful relationships of my life.

And slowly that forgiveness allowed for Jesus’ freedom to heal the gap in my heart where I so longed for a relationship with my Dad. Forgiveness opened the door for me to see my father as someone flawed, scared and not ready. I accepted that. One final step of forgiveness was necessary though; I knew it wasn’t finished.  The thoughts and feelings of abandonment and rejection always lingered around me like best friends at a party.

Recently in a freedom prayer session Jesus showed me the picture of my Dad’s flag that I received at his funeral.  I knew that Jesus giving me this picture meant that I had to lay everything down; from the hurt, the rejection, and the indescribable pain lingering in my heart to the anger and hate I had for what he had done so many years ago.  Years of agony, pain, and bitterness had developed in place of a relationship for which I had desperately longed.  I laid it all down in the flag case with the flag and Jesus replaced it with his redemption through the cross.

Immediately after this, Jesus spoke to me and said “My banner over you is Love.”  I caved, it was finally finished. I knew it. I felt the burden of the pain in and around my heart for my Dad lift– a burden that had been there longer than I can remember.  I was free.

This flag is no longer the banner that marks my life and the choices that my dad made or didn’t make no longer define who I am.  Jesus’ banner is the banner that flies over my life and that banner is LOVE.  Even though I wasn’t my dad’s decision I was Jesus’ decision.

So now when I look at that flag and at that man in the picture that honorably served our country, I have nothing but love in my heart for him because I know that banner in that case is Jesus’ banner of love, freedom and redemption for me and him.

Rachel Morris, New City Stories Contributor

The Importance of “Who”

As iron sharpens iron,
    so one person sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17

For the last 5 years, I have had the joy of walking beside many young men and women in times of transition. In college, before I started my first “big boy” job as a college pastor, I experienced a period of intense, transient angst. The reason for this angst was due to the ever present question: “So what’s next for you?” Most of the time, in periods of transition, we allow other people’s questions, expectations, and concerns to have a large impact on the questions we wrestle with in our decision making. We get going on the “what” and the “how” (because of my crazy ideas this can become “how am I going to make a living?”), and we forget the extremely undervalued but essential question of “Who am I doing this with?”

Why does this matter? What are the dangers of missing the “who” as we plan and discern what is next? I am concerned by the number of young people I get to do life with who are lured away by the job description or resources promised. I am heartbroken by the number of emerging leaders who get cruising after hearing the “what” and “how” just to be deflated, discouraged, and disappointed by the “who.”

When I was growing up, my parents had a pretty long leash for me and I had a lot of freedom. If I had to explain anything to my mom about where I was headed it was usually who I was going to be with, not what we were doing. If your parents know who you are with, they can breathe easy.

Recently my wife and I have experienced this because we have had to utilize a small army of babysitters for our wonderful one-year-old little girl. I don’t really know what these babysitters do with Eden, but it probably includes smiling, chasing her, eating avocados, and selfies. I love these people and am grateful that they play with my daughter in our backyard, watch movies, and go on walks–but even more than what they are doing, it is important to me to know who she is with. When we are in a bind looking for a babysitter, we don’t let our urgency cause us to be flippant in who we invite to watch our daughter–we rearrange our plans instead. I believe this is because the “who” matters, and if the “who” matters in our day-to-day life, why do we let it sink in priority or even disappear from our decision making when it comes to our calling? Do we feel like we have to settle? Are we being too picky? I am not saying the “who” question should become the only question but I do believe that, sadly, it has been demoted in many of our discerning and decision making processes today.

Don’t get rid of the value in what you are doing — in fact, I would still say this is of GREAT value. Don’t forget to ask the “how, “what,” “where,” and other responsible questions for a big kid to ask.  It is good to ask how this opportunity will help me fulfill my call rather than how it might meet my needs. It is healthy to ask what is God doing with this opportunity instead of what my 9-5 schedule will look like. Instead of getting all sorts of pumped about where opportunities are located –whether they’re in Denver, Nashville, San Fran, or Portland (I just listed sweet spots I wouldn’t mind hanging) – we should be asking where do I get to partner with Jesus in places where his Spirit is already at work. These are all important questions that are essential to the discernment process, but we cannot forget the question of “Who am I doing this with?”

Jesus teaching the crowds in his Sermon on the Mount

We see Jesus teach about the “who” and the importance of discernment, clarity, and wisdom in community in Matthew 7:15-23.  In this passage we first see a warning from Jesus. It kicks off in verse 15 when Jesus says to “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.”  When we are talking about ministry opportunities I would confidently say that most opportunities, potential bosses, selection committees, etc. do not come across as “wolves.”  However, without going too far down this road, it may be that the job offer and salary package might tempt and comfort us like a sheep but lying in wait are the “ferocious wolves” of unhealthy expectations, toxic work environment, or other dangerous aspects.  After this warning, Jesus then challenges us to look at the fruit others produce. Don’t be afraid to ask real, pointed questions when discerning what’s next. It matters. Take time to define, and let scripture define, what “good fruit” looks like to you.  We then move into a passage that can be pretty uncomfortable…Matthew 7:21-23 where Jesus tells some people that he “never knew” them despite what they did in his name. We see in this passage another warning of relying on the “what” and “how” of a resumé and not on the “who” of a relationship.

Other important passages that emphasize the importance of who include 1 Corinthians 15:33 where we see the power of poor company, Proverbs 27:17 which is quoted over and over again not because it’s cool…it’s key, and Hebrews 10:24-25 which speaks to the importance of good “who” as well!

Ultimately we must remind ourselves of the Who that got us into this spot in the first place. It is sad the amount of times I ask someone in the discerning process, “What is Jesus telling you about this?” and they reply, “Well…I don’t know…I should probably ask.” Just earlier this week (confession) I was preparing for a meeting with a mentor of mine and I literally said out loud to my wife, “I really hope he doesn’t just say, ‘well what is Jesus saying about all of it?’” It matters, I know it does (I am writing a blog about it) but I forget sometimes. Forgetting the Who could be detrimental to the process and end up leading us in some sticky spots.  We must remember Who is calling you, Who is providing for your need, and Who is leading you perfectly as you discern, process, and answer your call. This Who was passionately unapologetic when it came to His “Who” (Luke 2:49, John 5:19, 8:28&29, 12:49).

My prayer is that we take into consideration the “Who,” our Lord Jesus Christ, and the “who” we will be partnering with as we move forward. Would we pray for the correct who as we seek to follow God’s call on our lives.

Zach Meerkreebs, Lead Planter of New City Church and New City Stories Contributor

 

Rest and Risk: Connecting Our Core Values

“…nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” Matthew 26:39 ESV

Resting and risking are two of New City’s core values. From my experience, these are the two core values that are uncommon to most churches. The other two core values are love and send, two commonly heard values in a church— to love God and one another (Lk 10:27) and to “go and make disciples of all nations”(Matt 28:19). This leaves me asking two questions: What scriptures point to resting and risking? And how do rest and risk relate to each other in the Christian life?

Resting is not New City’s idea, resting is God’s idea. God initiates rest in the creation story in Genesis 2:2-3: “So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.” In Matthew 11:28 Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” However, this verse is not about giving up all responsibilities and sipping lemonade on an island. Jesus continues saying, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” There is still a responsibility for Christians in the resting, but it is a responsibility given by Christ, exemplified in Christ, and fueled by rest in Christ. This is why Jesus says come to him–not only is our rest found in His presence, but our purpose is found in His presence, too.

Risk is seen often when Jesus calls his first disciples to leave their current jobs and lives in order to follow him. Believe it or not, Jesus did get a few rejections. There was a rich man who asked Jesus, “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?”(Matt 19:17) Jesus responds, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matt 19:21). Jesus is asking the man to risk his current state, his status, and his financial security before following Jesus. Scripture records that although this man followed many of the commandments, “when the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions”(Matt 19:22). The risk was too much for him.

We see Jesus ask the same thing of Simon Peter and Andrew. While they were fishing, Jesus says “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matt 4:19). Immediately they dropped their nets and followed Jesus. They left their current state of fishing, which was their job. They left their financial security and status and followed Jesus. They took the risk.While scripture shows us rest and risk separately, how do the two relate to one another? It reminds me of trying to get back into exercising. A lot of times when I have not exercised in a while I think, “what’s something I can do for exercise that won’t make me sweat?” I hope you laughed at that, because this goes against the very nature of exercising. What I really want is the effect of exercising without the requirements. The only requirement of exercise that you probably should break a sweat, even if it’s only a little.

This is similar to how rest and risk relate to one another. If we only take risks out of our own wants, ideas, and dreams, then how is this following Jesus? Does this not just become making a name for ourselves? Like the rich man, we think we fulfill the requirements to follow Jesus but this kind “risk” only leads to worry, exhaustion, and a life of trying to prove ourselves.

This is where rest comes in. Just like how exercise requires at least some sweat, risking requires resting in God. And vice-versa, resting in God requires taking risks. This sounds counter-intuitive and maybe even impossible, but we see this in several biblical leaders–especially Jesus.

I think most people would agree that giving one’s life for another is the greatest risk. Scripture tells us that “greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). When Jesus is with his friends the night before his own death, he goes to the presence of the Father. Jesus is about to risk and lose his life, and he comes to God for rest. Finding seclusion with a few disciples nearby and “going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.’” Jesus falls down in exhaustion and asks God if there is another way. In a time when Jesus is looking for rest, he confesses to the difficulty of the risk, then confesses of His need of his Father. Jesus comes to God wanting another way and leaves knowing that this is the way God has planned.

Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane

We see Jesus take on a risk, and when he goes to the Father for rest he finds his purpose again, “not as I will, but as you will”. This is why we need to continue to rest even when we step out on a limb and risk. We cannot just rest when life is easy, rather the most important time to rest in God is when we are no longer sure of what we are doing. This is the very moment when I try and contrive my own plan, convince myself that my way is God’s way, or try to do it in my own strength. In these times, be reminded of Jesus, fallen on his face in the garden, resting and risking, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”

Questions to Reflect on This Week:

  • In what ways are you risking this week?
  • Where are you acting in your own strength?
  • How do you best rest in the presence of God?
  • How can you implement this resting into your areas of risk this week?
  • Who can you share your experience of resting and risking with this week?

 

Mary Katherine Wildeman, New City Stories Contributor 

 

A Deep Relief: The Practice of Centering Prayer

12 “And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.” 1 Kings 19:12 ESV

Although I am a person whose bookshelf is full of books on spirituality, there has been one spiritual practice that I have learned about recently that is not from a book.

As I sat across from a counselor one night, we discussed ways to address coping skills for anxiety through my relationship with God. She suggested the practice of centering prayer. While this was a discussion for my specific context, I want to encourage you that this practice is for more than just the whirlwind of anxiety.

Two years prior it was very difficult to trust that God could work through counseling sessions and medicine to help me understand these fears. This was especially due to the fact that what I really wanted to do was read a good book on it, call it a season, and move forward with my life. Thankfully, God knows me better than I know myself. His timing and His ways on this journey have been sweet, difficult, piercing, and empowering.

A few things that often draw me close to God are music, nature, encouraging friendships, and wisdom found in books. However, centering prayer practice requires none of these. While the presence of God is absolutely present in the loyalty of a good friend, in beautiful words pinned in a song, and the green of trees testifying to God’s beauty, God’s presence is also in the silence. Centering prayer helps us slow down to notice the presence that is already there. Just as in other practices like reading scripture, fasting, praying, sabbath, and worship, we do not coax the presence of God. We do not practice these things so that God will take notice of  to center. When thoughts come to mind, you do not follow them as in other prayer practices, but you let the thoughts pass like a cloud. The thoughts come and go as you repeat only the centering word in your head.

The first time I practiced centering prayer I started at five minutes and centered on the word “trust”. See, long before I knew about this practice God had already been impressing on me the phrase “slow down and trust.” There was nothing fancy about picking my centering word, I just used what God was already showing me in life. Later, I chose the name of God, “Abba,” because it conveys a sense of sovereignty and closeness of God. The five minutes went by a lot quicker than I expected, and so I added five more minutes to my timer and continued. After doing the practice once or twice a day for a week, I noticed a growing desire to be in the word of God. I wanted to spend more time with God. My counselor expressed sensing the presence of God during her time, and I’m sure many others have their own accounts of experiences with centering prayer. I share my personal experience to offer you some insight into the practice. However, remember that you have your own relationship with God that is different from mine. Just as I am
different from my counselor, so are you different from me.

Elijah hiding his face from God after he hears His whisper. 1 Kings 19

Maybe for you, taking time like this is not something you can afford or maybe sitting in silence is terrifying. Let me encourage you with a story of Elijah. Previously, Elijah had just reached the point of giving up on life. Elijah was worn down and burdened by the wickedness around him and his love for the people of God. After the Lord’s angels provided Elijah with food and water, Elijah sought refuge on a mountain in a cave:

“And the word of the Lord said, ‘Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.’ And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of  the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him” (1 Kings 19:11-13).

Just like Elijah’s simple response to the still, small voice, I do not come away from centering prayer always overwhelmed with a great “mountaintop experience.” It is much more like Elijah’s response, where after ten minutes centering on the name “Abba” I wrap up
in the cool of the morning, look out of the window trusting that the Lord is there, as mighty as the wind and as faithful as the morning.

I encourage you to practice New City’s core value of risk this week by taking the time to sit in the presence of God. I think you’ll find that this time is full of rest and love. As you are sent and spent by God throughout the week, you can go in the confidence of God’s sustaining I AM presence. You do not have to wait until Sunday to refill spiritually if you have grown tired as Elijah did. God has created us for this very communion with Him. Go in grace and peace this week.

 

Mary Katherine Wildeman, New City Stories Contributor 

The God of the Process

“But now, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” Isaiah 64:8 ESV

Years ago, I found myself in a season of deep wrestling as I began to experience not a crisis of faith, but rather a crisis of truth. I had more questions than answers as I struggled to discern what the Lord was asking of me and desperately tried to attain it in my own life. I viewed my walk with the Lord as a static state, being either totally right or completely wrong – and this drove me to live in utter fear. I was paralyzed at the thought that any one decision or belief could completely define my sanctification.

In the midst of this battle, I felt the Lord speak to me one day, not as an audible voice, but as an internal impression on the heart. He said, “I could have snapped my fingers and made the rocking chair appear, but instead I took the time to carve it into one.” Immediately, I got a picture of Jesus as a carpenter, surrounded by wood shavings, carving away at edges with a plane and drawing corners with a compass. Every morning he awakes early and begins where he left off the night before. Day by day, week by week, what was formerly a rough piece of wood, full of knots and splinters, becomes a well-crafted and designed piece of furniture. Now whether or not the people of Jesus’ day had rocking chairs, the point was this- Our God is a God of the process.

As not only Christians, but as American Christians, we are so drawn toward accomplishment and finality. We crave a finished product but often begrudgingly go through the steps of accomplishing that finished product only out of a place of necessity. When we carry this mentality into our faith, we tend to view the sanctification process as this terribly mundane and laborsome series of hoops we have to jump through to finally achieve righteousness. The thing is, our God is not the CEO of a company and He is not a drill sergeant for the military. Our God is a God who actually enjoys the process in which we become like Him. He is the Potter who takes the clay into His hands and fashions us into His image.

When we fall into that familiar pattern of thinking that God will only be pleased with us at the end of our life, when (if we’ve played our Christian cards right) we will perhaps be slightly more mature in the faith, we must remind ourselves of the nature of the Father. Micah 7:18 tells us that God actually delights in mercy. This means that God finds joy when He is able to forgive us and give us the love and strength that we don’t deserve. It is no difficult thing for God to hate the sin that entangles us and yet find joy in restoring us to fullness. Psalm 102 says, “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

Do the Scriptures not make the case that every season is of profit? Would Moses have been prepared for his confrontation in Egypt if he had not born the shepherding season of the wilderness? Would Peter have taught his Acts 2 sermon with the same boldness if he had not denied Jesus and been mercifully redeemed? Why was Jesus born as a child through Mary and not sent as a fully grown man? Because we serve a God who delights in the process.

You see, our lives are not viewed from the throne as a static state, as if God has a good list and a naughty list. The Lord created life and time and space so that we could go on a long journey with Him of maturing and growing in our own sanctification. This is why Ephesians describes us as the workmanship of Christ. He is weaving you and me into a beautiful tapestry, filled with elaborate color and varying texture. With each season of trial and season of joy, each failure and each step toward holiness, He is threading the needle of maturity, looking forward to the day when the tapestry will be finished, yes, but finding delight every seam and stitch along the way.

Audra Lynn, a worship leader from IHOP-KC, wrote a song that encapsulates this:

“How I long to see the picture finished

Painted as a perfect portrait

Void of all the mysteries of my life

The cares of life bend every corner Taking me in wrong directions

Can I walk despite the pain and strife?

But what is life without all the yearnings of the heart?

And who am I to doubt all you have in store for me?”

 

In Closing, here are some questions we can ask ourselves this week:

  • -How can we partner with God in embracing our own unique process in this season?
  • -Do we have confidence that the Lord values our journey toward maturity?
  • -Do we find joy of fear in anticipating a lifelong journey with the Lord?

 

Melody Hickey, New City Stories Contributor

“Here I Am”: Recovering a Theology of Calling

“We are not primarily called to do something or go somewhere; we are called to Someone.” – Os Guinness, Rising to the Call

The question of calling haunts me. It seems to follow me wherever I go.  It’s a part of every thought about my future, a factor in many of my decisions in the present, and is in nearly every conversation with friends and family. I know I am not alone in this.  I often hear friends talk about where they feel called, what they feel called to do, and how they are going to go about following that call from God.  It can be exciting, overwhelming and anxiety-producing all at once.

In many ways, the centrality of calling in Christian circles makes sense.  The fundamental structure of God’s story involves call and response.  God called creation into existence, it responds by reflecting His beauty, creativity, and even His very image.  God calls Abram out of Ur and he responds in obedience (Gen 12). God calls out to Moses from the burning bush and Moses responds by saying “Here I am” (Exodus 3). Jesus calls fishermen to follow him, they respond by dropping their nets (Matt 4).  And so on.  This rhythm we see in the story of God is even the reason why we structure our worship around call and response; it is the ebb and flow of the Christian story.

It is no wonder then that many in the Church, including myself, have a kind of obsession with figuring out the what, where, and how of God’s call on our lives.

But there are serious dangers here.

I have observed that in my own life and the lives of those around me, when we talk about “calling” we are usually referring to specific things like occupation, location, people groups, and so on.  Again, to a certain degree, this makes sense.  God does call us to specific places, tasks, and people groups.  He called Jonah to Ninevah (Jonah 1), He called Moses to free the Israelites from slavery (Exodus 3), and He even called Philip to one particular person, the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8).  We shouldn’t disregard the specifics of God’s call, but in our attention to them, we should be wary of making them into idols.

If there is one clear theme in scripture, it is that God is pursuing our hearts. Our hearts are the seat of our affections—they contain the throne room of our loves and are the core of our very being.  So, if our hearts are preoccupied with things that are less than God Himself, then there will inevitably be misalignment in who we are.  This misalignment is what scripture calls “idolatry.”

Many of us, including myself, have flirted with (and maybe have even fallen into) this trap of idolatry when pursuing God’s call on our life.  When we think about, talk through, and pray over our call, we find ourselves obsessing over titles, romanticizing places, and maybe even yearning for recognition.  We often mask our misaligned desires in language of “calling” in order to baptize our ambition while all the time God was calling us not to a title or to a place, but to Himself.

But how can we avoid this idolatry when trying to embrace God’s call?  These secondary aspects, the “lower tier” goods of location, position, people groups, etc. are so interwoven into this question of calling that it seems impossible to filter and order them in a healthy way.  How can we grasp a theology of calling that helps us develop rightly ordered loves?

I believe the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22 offers us understanding and hope.  But first, some context.

You see, when Abraham was seventy-five years old, he was called out of Ur and told to settle in the land of Canaan.  God promised him that he would be the father, the patriarch of a “great nation” and that this nation would “be a blessing” to the rest of the world (Gen. 12:1-3 ESV).  Abraham obeyed “as the Lord had told him” and traveled as a nomad for decades, moving in and out of the land that he had been promised, waiting for God’s word to be fulfilled (Gen. 12:4 ESV).

This was no easy task. During this period of over twenty-five years of wandering, waiting, and yearning for the “call” on his life to be realized, Abraham did the following things:

  • Abraham lied to Pharaoh and told him that Sarah was not his wife but his sister because he was afraid that the Egyptians would kill him in order to have Sarah (Gen 12:10-20)
  • Abraham was impatient with God and questioned the Lord on when he would give him an heir (Gen 15:2-3)
  • Abraham struggled with how he was to possess the promised land of Canaan (Gen 15:8)
  • Abraham, fearing that Sarah would never be able to bear him a child, decided to take matters into his own hand and had a child with Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant (Gen 16:1-4)
  • Abraham “fell on his face and laughed” at God when He specifically promised that Abraham would have a son through Sarah because she was ninety years old (Gen 17:17)
  • Abraham lies again about Sarah’s identity to King Abimelech because he feared for his own life and his own future (Gen 20:11)

If you read the entire story of Abraham carefully, you quickly realize that Abraham struggled to understand and embrace God’s call on his life.  He pleaded with God for clarity, he questioned God on how he was going to fulfill His task, and there were even times when he tried to control his own fate.

But despite all of these missteps along the way we also see in Abraham someone who, by God’s grace, repeatedly returned to God in prayer, who renewed His promises with the Promiser, and ultimately never stopped believing and trusting that God was faithful to his word.  Abraham’s belief in the Lord was “counted to him as righteousness” not because it was perfect, but because despite all his fears and doubts he never let it slip away (Gen 15:6).

All of this fumbling, wrestling, questioning, promising and re-promising leads up to Genesis 22.

In this chapter we have the story of God “testing” Abraham and commanding him to sacrifice his only son who represents the culmination and the fulfillment of God’s call and promises to Abraham. (Gen 22:1-2).  Abraham responds by saying “Here I am” and by doing what God commands (Gen. 22:1).

At this point in the story, most of us are asking: “Why would Abraham agree to such a cruel request?” and more importantly “Why would a perfectly good God command anyone to do such a thing in the first place?” These are understandable questions, but when we locate this story within the entire trajectory of Abraham’s pursuit of God’s call, things come into focus.

You see, in order to understand this story you have to understand what God was after. He was in pursuit of Abraham’s heart, the axis of his affection and desires.  There was the reality, however, that Isaac represented to Abraham the “lower tier” aspects of God’s call such as the title of patriarch, the legacy of a great nation, and the power that comes from being a leader.  If Abraham is more concerned with these secondary aspects of God’s call, they could usurp God’s rightful place on the throne of his heart.

But Abraham trusted God.

Just as he was lifting the knife in order to go through with giving Isaac back to the One who promised him, an angel of the Lord called to Abraham. Abraham responded “Here I am.”  The angel then told Abraham “Do not lay your hand on the boy…for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Gen 22:12).  Nearby was a ram caught in a bush so Abraham sacrificed the ram to God and named the place “The LORD will provide” (Gen. 22:14).

Abraham, over the span of nearly three decades, was wrestling with and seeking out the Lord.  This continual, faithful struggle cultivated in Abraham a heart that was ready to say “Here I am” when he was asked to give everything. He spoke these words not out of cold indifference, but out of a deep and unshakeable trust that the “Lord will provide.”

Abraham’s story is, in many ways, our story.  We feel a call on our life, but we lack clarity. In this murkiness we begin to question, doubt, and to make our calling our own.  We dream of places and positions and peoples and are tempted to make these things ultimate.  However, if, like Abraham, we receive God’s daily grace to give us the strength to cling to His promises, the Caller will mold and shape our hearts so that we, too, may say “Here I am” when God asks us to give it all back.

 

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor 

Giving is Not Loving: 1 Corinthians 13 and Generosity

The three most important things to have are faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of them is love. Follow the way of love.           1 Corinthians 13:13-14:1a

It is possible to be giving and not loving.  So, giving alone, cannot be love.

“Christ and the Rich Young Ruler” by Heinrich Hofmann

You know how long it takes to feed a baby who’s just learning to eat?  This is the gist of the Greek word used for “give” in 1 Corinthians 13:3.  It alludes to feeding bit by bit and carries a connotation of digestion.  It’s not the same as when Jesus told the Rich Young Ruler to sell everything and give it to the poor-that was an immediate giving over. In fact, 1 Cor. 13:3 refers to continual giving, so it would probably end up being more than the Ruler could have given all at once.

This is the actual taking care of someone, day by day, meal by meal — lifelong giving of everything to those in need.  It’s an even deeper kind of giving than the “shot in the arm” type: it’s a caregiving.  It is longsuffering commitment to provide for those in need during one’s entire life until absolutely all possessions are finally given over.  It’s adopting the needy and naming them in your will.

And this is not love.  According to 1 Corinthians 13:3:

Suppose I give everything I have to poor people. And suppose I give my body to be burned. If I don’t have love, I get nothing at all.

This verse presupposes that it’s possible to give in this lifelong, careful, unlimited way, without love.  In fact, it even yields nothing for the person doing the giving.  Nothing.

Do you find all this as completely dumbfounding as I do?

The surrounding verses tell why, giving two reasons: First of all, anything we do as Christians must be deeply connected to the Church and its edification (1 Cor. 12-13).  Giving, even if it is careful and longsuffering and boldly generous, must be centered within the Body of Christ in order to be loving.  So, it has to be done within a community that actually knows each other and is family that cares for one another (1 Cor. 12:26), not just called family for functionality.  It is family that suffers and rejoices with each other.

The second reason is that giving to people alone, cannot be lasting.  Love always remains because it is patient, kind, generous, humble, polite, unselfish, joyful, protecting, trusting, hoping, unfailing (1 Cor. 13:4-8).  Love always remains because God is love (2 Cor. 13:11 & 1 Jn. 4:8).

Love, not giving, is the greatest gift every Christian can strive for (1 Cor. 13:13).  It’s also the greatest thing we can give.

 

Jessica Fleck, New City Stories Contributor

Diving into the Easter Story: Resurrection Sunday

Resurrection Sunday 

The central axiom of the Christian faith is this: Jesus Christ died, was buried, and three days later rose again in a final defeat of sin and death.  If this is true, then the entire weight of existence hinges upon it. If it isn’t true, the Apostle Paul himself says that our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain” (1 Cor 15:14 NRSV).

Explore the resurrection.  Enter into the story and search out Christ.  Peek into the tomb to see if he is still there.  If you do, you will find, along with Mary, Peter, and the rest of the disciples that it is indeed empty.  Because of this empty tomb, we can, along with Paul, claim with boldness: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead” and because of that we live.  Hallelujah!

Isaiah 51:9-11 NRSV 

Awake, awake, put on strength,
    O arm of the Lord!
Awake, as in days of old,
    the generations of long ago!
Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces,
    who pierced the dragon10 Was it not you who dried up the sea,
the waters of the great deep;

who made the depths of the sea a way
    for the redeemed to cross over?
11 So the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
    and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
    they shall obtain joy and gladness,
    and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.  

 

Luke 24:13-26 NRSV 

“Emmaus’ Door” (1992) by Janet Brooks-Gerloff.

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 

Job 19:23:27a

23 “O that my words were written down!
    O that they were inscribed in a book!
24 O that with an iron pen and with lead
    they were engraved on a rock forever!
25 For I know that my Redeemer lives,
    and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
26 and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
    then in my flesh I shall see God,
27 whom I shall see on my side,
    and my eyes shall behold, and not another.

  • Questions:
    • How does the fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ impact your daily life?  Does it change the way you view yourself? Does it change the way you treat others? Does it change your outlook on the world and the opportunities that are presented to you each day?  Is your life marked by gratitude, hope, and joy?
  • Challenge:
    • Those are challenging and convicting questions.  If you feel convicted, you are in good company! We live in a broken world and often are separated from the joy and hope that is offered to us because of sin, busyness, and the daily stress of life.  Our challenge to you is that you strive each day this week to read these passages and think about and pray through the reality of the resurrection and how it should transform your life and the life of the world.  Jesus lives and is doing a great work among his people! Let’s celebrate!

 

New City Writing Team

Diving into the Easter Story: Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday 

Holy Saturday, the day between Jesus’ death and his glorious resurrection, commemorates the waiting, praying, and anxious uncertainty that the early church endured.  John 20:19 tells us that the disciples, after Jesus’ death, were all gathered together in a locked room hiding in fear from the authorities.  As we read and reflect on these scriptures let us, along with these first followers of Christ, hope and pray and yearn for Jesus’ presence in our own lives today.

Matthew 27:62-66

62 The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63 and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard[t] of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” 66 So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.

Lamentations 3:19-26 NRSV

19 The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
    is wormwood and gall!
20 My soul continually thinks of it
    and is bowed down within me.
21 But this I call to mind,
    and therefore I have hope:

22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
    his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
24 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in him.”

25 The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
    to the soul that seeks him.
26 It is good that one should wait quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord

Hebrews 4:14-16 NRSV

14 Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

  • Questions: 
    • How are you waiting on the Lord in this season? Are your questions, your doubts, and your longings met with a bold hope that can only be found in Christ or do they cause you to turn away from God?
  • Challenge:
    • After reading the passage from Lamentations, make a list of the times in your life where God has provided for needs and desires in your life to help you remember God’s steadfast love for you.
    • Then, read the Hebrews passage and say a new, bold prayer for our needs and the needs of others so that we may approach our great High Priest with bold expectancy and thankfulness.

New City Writing Team

 

Diving into the Easter Story: Good Friday

Good Friday

Although it is called “good,” Good Friday is a solemn day for the Church. It commemorates the betrayal, unjust trial, and brutal crucifixion of our Savior, Jesus Christ.  As Christians in the 21st century, we know the rest of the story and understand that a huge celebration is coming; however, we encourage you to enter into this time of grief, uncertainty, and deep sadness so that you may experience what the earliest followers of Jesus went through.

John 18:28-37 NRSV

Christ in front of Pilate by Mihali Munkacsy

33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 

 

 

Psalm 22:1-2, 12-19 NRSV

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
    and by night, but find no rest…

But I am a worm, and not human;
    scorned by others, and despised by the people.

All who see me mock at me;
    they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
“Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—
    let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”…

14 I am poured out like water,
    and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
    it is melted within my breast;
15 my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
    and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
    you lay me in the dust of death.

16 For dogs are all around me;
    a company of evildoers encircles me.
My hands and feet have shriveled;
17 I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me;
18 they divide my clothes among themselves,
    and for my clothing they cast lots.

19 But you, O Lord, do not be far away!
    O my help, come quickly to my aid!   

Artwork by Josefa de Ayala

John 19:38-42 NRSV

38 After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. 39 Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. 40 They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42 And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.  

  • Questions: 
    • Have you ever felt distant from God, especially in times of deep stress and anguish?  Do you know of others who have had this experience? How does Jesus’ experience, all the way from his agonizing prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane to his crucifixion at Calvary, comfort and sustain us during these moments?
    • Why do Joseph and Nicodemus, who are experiencing both fear and grief, spend so much energy, time, and precious resources to properly bury Christ’s body?  What does this burial teach us about faith and worship in times of grief and anxiety?
  • Challenge: 
    • If you are experiencing distance or isolation from God’s presence or know of someone who is, we encourage you to pray through these passages and reflect on the reality that even Jesus Himself, the only begotten Son of God, experienced deep pain and that he is with you in your suffering.
    • Even when we enter into seasons of grief, fear, and waiting, the example of Joseph and Nicodemus shows us that we are still called to tend to our relationship with Jesus and lavish him with our worship.

New City Writing Team