Remember the Reason

Remember the reason for the season,

Corruption of intent and confusion of purpose.

Easter eggs, chocolate bunnies, and church productions,

Remember the reason for the season.

As Christmas transforms into consumption,

so could Resurrection Sunday into comfort.

Do we pause to remember…

betrayal, isolation, denial?

 the gruesome death on the cross?

the dead body in rock?

the 11?

Shame

1

Disappointment

2

Confusion

3

Remember the reason for the season?

Do we pause and contemplate the emotion of the women

A stone rolled away

An empty grave

A pair in dazzling apparel

Do we pause and celebrate, “He is not here, but has risen.”?

Do we “remember how He told you, while He was still in Galilee?”

A stone rolled away

An empty grave

Christ is alive!

The Resurrected keeps His promise

The gravity of this moment,

for every action, an equal and opposite reaction.

The miracle

Selah

Promises kept

Selah

He is God!

Selah

Let us…

Let us remember the reason for the season.

Zach Meerkreebs, New City Stories Contributor

Murky Waters: Seeking His Face in Discernment


You have said, “Seek my face.”
My heart says to you,
   “Your face, Lord, do I seek.” – Psalm 27:8 ESV

Many of us know the parable of the drowning man. It is not one of Jesus’ parables, but it is one that is frequently mentioned in Christian circles. If you haven’t heard this parable before, here it is:


This is the story of a drowning man.
As the man is drowning, he has no fear. Why? Well, this drowning man is very religious.
“God will save me!” he says.
A man in a canoe comes by and offers the drowning man a life jacket. He says, “No thanks. God will save me!”
Then, a helicopter comes overhead. The crew throws a ladder down to help save the drowning man, but again the man says, “No thanks. God will save me!”
Finally, a person swims out to the drowning man to save him and the man says, “Climb on my back. I will swim you to shore.”
Of course, the drowning man still refuses and says, “No thanks. God will save me!” And so, the man that had come to save the drowning man returned to shore.
Sadly, the drowning man did drown. He went to heaven where he sees God.  He says to God, “I prayed every day and was a very religious man.
I did everything the prayer books told me to do, so I have to ask you, why did you let me drown?”
Then God replied, “I sent a canoe, a helicopter and a man to bring you to shore and you refused their help!”

https://www.brandonsteiner.com/blogs/what-else/the-story-of-a-drowning-man

Nice little parable, right? I do think there is some truth to it. Oftentimes, when we are so preoccupied with with our own version of God and what He ought to do for us that we can miss His promptings and invitations.

However, there is, in my mind, a major problem with this parable–it doesn’t take into account the murkiness that is discernment. Sometimes in our life when we feel that we are “drowning” and we need to make a big decision or else we “miss the boat,” it is difficult to discern whether or not there is a boat in front of us at all. Or, sometimes there might be multiple vessels offering to pull us out of the water but we cannot decide which is the rescue boat and which is the pirate ship.

Nautical metaphors aside, there are just simply times in our life when we feel the weight of large, looming decisions and it seems impossible to discern the next right step. It might seem that there is no clear path forward and making a decision seems like a total shot-in-the-dark. It could be that there are a few options in front of us, but none of them align with what we have envisioned for ourselves. Or, it may be that there are many good opportunities we have to choose from, and it seems impossible to distinguish which opportunity is the best one. Finally, it may simply be that we have trouble hearing God’s still-small voice in this season and cannot discern what His will is in this moment.

Whatever unique situation we find ourselves in, the process of discernment is often overwhelming and much unlike what the parable describes above. Many of us feeling burdened by a looming decision desperately wish for someone to “swim” out to us and pull us to shore. The fact is that these liminal times–the transitional, “in-between” spaces where things seem so unclear and so pressing–make up much of our lives. So, how are we do navigate them? How do we stay afloat in these waters?

Simply put: we have to seek God over and above His plan for our lives. It is precisely in these periods of intense discernment that we desperately desire for God to send a rescue boat (or maybe a cruise ship) to take us to the destination He has for us. We want God to illuminate our path so that we can run towards the work He has for us. The problem with is, when our hearts are set on the “boat” or the “path,” we tend to forget God Himself. God knows that our ultimate destination is not a place, not a title, not a reputation, but Himself. Because God fashioned us, he knows that our ultimate joy and contentment is found in communion with His triune life. Much like Peter, when we focus on being saved from the waves instead of gazing upon the very face of God, we begin to sink faster.

As we do our best to navigate these waters, the various crossroads of our lives, we must remember to look up before we look forward. We must remember the words of Jesus himself, the one who has not only walked this same journey perfectly, but who has sent His Spirit to guide us along the way:  “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33 ESV).

I leave you with two prayers. The first is written by Thomas Merton and the second is my own prayer that I wrote in a season of difficult discernment. My hope is that they encourage you as you yourself discern God’s will and “seek His face” in this season.


My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going
I do not see the road ahead of me
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think that I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you
and I hope I have that desire in all I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this, you will lead me on the right road
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore, will I trust you always.
Though I may seem to be lost
and in the shadow of death,
I will not fear, for you are ever with me
and you will never leave me to face my struggles alone. Amen.
(Thomas Merton)



Lord, it is good to ask you to light up our path

but it is better to ask you to illumine our hearts.

Let me not be dragged about by concerns for the future

but ground me with your grace so that I might desire your presence.

We cannot walk this road without your guiding hand

and we cannot hold your hand if we are anxiously hurrying along.

Give me the desire of all desires, the desire to seek your face.

All of my ambition and all of my uncertainties are consumed by the beauty of your presence.

The road does not seem so unsure when I am looking up.

Lift up my gaze to you, Lord. Amen.

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor

Seeking the Spirit: A Reflection on Galatians 5:16-26

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. ” – Galatians 5:22-23

When I read the list of acts of the flesh in this passage, some stick out to me more than others. I have never partaken in some of them, and some even seem wholly irrelevant to my life, but others reveal themselves as regular temptations in my mind. We all have bents toward different desires of the flesh, things we honestly feel we want to do. However, Paul tells us the flesh and the Spirit are at war with one another, so we do not do whatever we want.

The Christian life is one of laying down things we thought we wanted, things we thought would make us happy, or even things we have given a hold over ourselves if those things compete with God for our affection, devotion, and love. This process is often painful, long, and even confusing, as we may wonder what God plans to do with the parts of ourselves we have chosen to surrender to him. Sometimes, when God plants things in those freshly cleared flowerbeds, they take time to grow. In the meanwhile, as we wait, we might feel we lack gratification or even happiness.

We must hold fast to the truth that we have crucified our old selves, old passions, and old desires to make room for the Spirit. Dying is hard, and this takes trust. However, we serve a God who is trustworthy. I must confess that sometimes I forget the Holy Spirit is a person. I think of him as a sort of force or idea, but I find comfort when I remember he is one of three persons of the Trinitarian Godhead. Cultivating a personal relationship with God, with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, reminds me why it’s worth it to crucify my old self, old passions, and old desires. If something needs to move to make way for him to move in, it has to go. Nothing else is really worth it.

The fruit the Spirit plants in place of the desires of the flesh can take time to grow and ripen, but the Holy Spirit is trustworthy with any part of ourselves we give to him. The fruit he brings will gift us with exceedingly more fulfillment than we ever could have expected from our old desires. I have found that, though the process of turning away from myself to turn to God has not always been the happiest journey, it has brought deeper and more abundant happiness than I ever could have given myself. Living by the Spirit and keeping in step with the Spirit can be hard, but it is always good, and always worth it.

Only the Holy Spirit can give us the fruit of the Spirit, and seeking God in relationship can serve as a great first step in asking God to fill us with those fruits. C.S. Lewis words it well when he says, “The very first step is to try to forget about the self altogether. Your real, new self (which is Christ’s and also yours, and yours just because it is His) will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come as you are looking for Him.” Go and seek God today, giving up the flesh and its desires and passions. Seek the Holy Spirit, and ask him to do what he will in your heart.

Rachel Smith, New City Stories Contributor

From Resurrection to Resurrection: A Reading of 1 Corinthians 15:12-23

As disciples of Jesus, when we hear the word “resurrection,” what comes to mind? Certainly the resurrection of Christ our Savior – as it should! Yet, every Easter when we teach on the resurgence of our Lord from the grave, I am struck by the way in which our theology seems inescapably bound to our present age alone, when Scripture has so much to say about future hope. In the West, our context is so saturated with rhythms of instant gratification that even the Church lives in the here and now. We quickly and easily forget these striking words from Paul to the church in Corinth:

12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope  in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Paul is making two bold and unabashed points in this letter. Firstly, he wants the Corinthians to know that the belief in the resurrection of Jesus has been unmistakably tethered to the belief in the resurrection of all believers at the end of the age. These ideas in Paul’s mind have been fused together like two metals that can no longer be separated or distinguished. If we wholeheartedly believe in the one, we must fully cling to the other. This is why Paul says that if there is no final resurrection of the dead, then not even Jesus has been raised.

The second statement Paul is making is that if we only have hope in this present life, we are “of all people most to be pitied.” What can Paul mean by this? Hasn’t Jesus died so that we can have “life and life more abundantly”? Certainly! Yet, the New Testament seems to suggest that our ultimate hope is to be set on the hope of the resurrection. Peter references this in the first chapter of his letter to the exiles when he says, “Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

Paul continues in 1 Corinthians by making a correlation between the the inheritance that we have through Adam and the inheritance that we have gained through Christ:

20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.

Although Paul (in true Pauline fashion) is making weighty theological statements here, he is also setting before our eyes a beautiful promise – that we who belong to Christ shall be raised from the dead just like he was! This is one of the many ways that Christ is fashioning us into His image. I want to postulate that this is a hope that transcends all other hope – the hope of being raised from death to be with our Lord unto life eternal. May it be so!

Here are some questions to continue this conversation…

  • Where do you place your hope?
  • When you think about the resurrection of Jesus, do you also long for the resurrection of the saints?
  • What do you think Peter means when he says to “set your hope fully” on the resurrection?
  • How can we have a hope that transcends this life?

Melody Hickey, New City Stories Contributor

Unveiled Faces: A Reflection on Galatians 4:8-20

This week at New City we heard about Galatians 4:8-20.  In this passage Paul writes, “Formerly when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather be known by God, how can you turn back again…?”

Paul describes not knowing God as being enslaved to things outside of God. He is concerned that the people of Galatia will turn back to these old ways which he calls “the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world” (Gal. 4:9). When Paul describes where the Galatians are now, he does not just say that since they know God they should know better than to go back to their old ways but he says that God knows the Galatians. For Paul, God knowing people is the primary reason to not turn away from faith.

Why does Paul make this distinction between knowing God and being known by God in Galatians 4? Paul’s image in 2 Corinthians 3:16-18 helps us grasp what Paul is saying to the Galatians.  In 2 Corinthians 3:16-18 Paul writes,

but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit

In Galatians we see language of enslavement, and in 2 Corinthians Paul speaks of freedom. Where does this freedom come from? Paul says it comes from the Holy Spirit. How do we learn about the Holy Spirit?  When we pray and worship we can see the Spirit working in our lives and other’s lives and we come to know the nature and work of the Holy Spirit. These are great ways to see the Spirit of God at work. However, in this passage to the Corinthians, Paul seems to offer another way to know the Spirit of God and the freedom it offers.

Joao Zeferino de Costa, Moses Receiving the Law

The first line of this passage offers the first step: “but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.” When you see the word “veil” maybe you think of the veils women wore in this time that covered their faces. Or maybe you think of a veil worn at a wedding. Both of these images can add to our understanding; however, what Paul has in mind can be found in the verses right before this passage when Paul describes Moses putting a “veil” over his face after going into the presence of God in Exodus 34:34. Moses would go before the Lord with his face unveiled and, when he returned to the people, his face was shining.  Because his face shone so brightly, Moses would then veil his face when he spoke to the people in order to protect them from the sheer glory of the Lord.  In the same way that Moses got to speak with God with an unveiled face, Paul says here that the Corinthians too can have “unveiled faces” before the Lord.

However, Paul’s concern in his letter to the church in Galatia is that some people are approaching God as if they have veils over their hearts. The people want to get to know God without letting God get to know them. Psalm 139 tells us that God already knows us because he formed us from the start. Maybe it is scary to let God in on the pieces of ourselves we do not like or we do not think He would like; but Paul assures us that there is freedom in the presence of God’s Spirit. Just as Moses was invited into the presence of God despite his unworthiness, we too are invited.  On our own we are not worthy to be in God’s presence, but as Paul says, “the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom.”

This is not freedom to do what we want. This is a freedom to stand before God unveiled, to not hide our shame from God. When Adam and Eve hid and clothed themselves in Genesis, God looked for them and made a new covering for them (Gen 3:8-21). And God has made a new covering for us today in the person of Jesus Christ.  Paul says that if we are in Christ we are “clothed with Christ” (Gal. 3:27).  Because of Jesus and the coming of His Spirit, we do not remain in our sin, but “we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed” (2 Cor 3:18).

We do not have the enslavement of sin anymore, because Christ took the sins with him on the cross and he came back resurrected with new life. This is something we know about God, that he loved the world so much that he sent his son to die for us (John 3:16). Do we know that, because of Christ and his righteousness, we can now have unveiled faces before God? Do we know that when we are known by God he transforms us into his image? This is why we do not only seek to know God, but we rejoice in being known by God. This is why Paul begged the Galatians to not turn back to their old ways of enslavement, because they have freedom already in Christ Jesus. Instead of reaching for our veils, for our coverings for sin, we go into the presence of God and reach out to Him. We trust that Jesus really did take our sin to the grave, and returned with new life and freedom for all of us to be transformed.

May we live with unveiled faces, and invite others to do the same.

Mary Katherine Wildeman, New City Stories Contributor

The God Who Passes Through: A Reflection on Galatians 3

Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in his book After Virtue says “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story…do I find myself a part?'” (216). The church in Galatia had forgotten the story they had once received with joy, which was the Gospel story.  This is why Galatians is known as Paul’s angriest letter. You can just hear the frustration and disappointment in Paul’s writing:

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. (Galatians 3:1 ESV)

The problem with forgetting our story as Christians is not just that we lose sight of what is true and what gives us life, but that we are also taken over by rival stories. Our culture promotes a story of self–self-sufficiency, self-promotion, self-satisfaction.  A rival gospel in our own day is one of individualism where we can only find “freedom” if we do what we feel is right for ourselves. It wasn’t so different in Galatia. The Christians in Galatia were slipping back into the “law,” believing that they needed to be the ones to earn their salvation.  The primary way this manifested in the Galatian church was by their trying to force Gentile believers into circumcision, which signified entrance into the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 17). While this story they had fallen back into had all the trappings of piety and religion, it was really a gospel of self. They had forgotten their new and better story, a story where Christ provides a way to freedom for all through him and him alone (John 14:6).

This “gospel of self,” both in our day and in Paul’s, cultivates a kind of fear. It places the burden of salvation, joy, contentment, and freedom on us.  We shift our reliance from an unlimited God to our limited selves.  It is in this state of fear and worry that we begin to take measures into our own hands. We make lists, we read self-help books, we try to go to bed earlier, we listen to TED talks, we volunteer our time, we do our best to pray and read our Bibles, we go to work early and stay late, we make sure we attend church and small group, and we expect the same from others. There is nothing inherently wrong with any one of these “rules.” They have value so long as they are operating in the right story.  We need to take a serious audit of our lives and ask the question: Are we operating in the right story? Is our list-making, self-help following, people-pleasing, five-minute-a-day praying blueprint for our lives producing any growth?

Many of us Western Christians have smuggled the story of the world–a story of individual achievement, social status, self-sufficiency, productivity and consumerism–into the Church.  We have tried to baptize a way of life that is totally foreign to what God intended, Christ inaugurated, and the Spirit inhabits. We sing “Take the World, But Give me Jesuswhile carrying the story of contemporary culture in our back pockets.

I know this because I struggle with the same thing. I find myself always battling anxieties about my future. These anxieties force me to ask “I” or “me” questions.  “What if I fail?” “How will I know what to do next?” “What if I’m not accepted?” “How will my gifts be utilized?” “What if my calling is never realized?” Notice that these questions–the questions many of us wrestle with every day–are totally centered around the self, the I. Of course, these kinds of worries are natural to us, because we are natural sinners born into the world’s story. Unfortunately, it draws us into a way of life that is marked ultimately by “anxiety for tomorrow” and leads to us trying to control every aspect of our lives (Matthew 6:34).

This is one of the primary reasons why Paul’s letter to the Galatians is so important for us today.  Of course we aren’t demanding circumcision for those who want to be a part of the Church; however, we do find ourselves capitulating to rival gospels all the time, often bringing them into the church.

Paul responds to this backwards gospel in Galatia by sternly (read: angrily) reminding his fellow believers that Christ has ushered in a new stage, a new covenant. Trying to apply the old paradigm (which had an important place in the story of God!) onto the new becomes “works righteousness” and is antithetical to the Spirit of God and His mission in the world (Galatians 3:28).

But how does Paul do this? How does he prove to them that this law and taking matters into their own hands is no longer necessary and assumes the wrong story? He reminds them of their story– a story that begins with Abraham and ends with Jesus.  After all, Paul mentions Abraham eight times in Galatians 3 alone, so it should be obvious to both the Galatians and us that our story encompasses the whole of Scripture.

Genesis 15 tells the story of God’s sacred covenant with Abraham, and in Genesis 15:8, right after God has reminded him of the promises of offspring and land He has in store for him, Abraham, who has been wandering and surviving and stumbling in the wilderness for years, often taking matters into his own hands, desperately asks, “How am I to know?” a question we are all too familiar with when anxiety creeps in and we feel as if our calling may never materialize. Notice, again, that it is a question centered on “I.”

God answers this question not with a time-frame, not with a seven-step plan, not with a to-do list, but with a promise. He makes a covenant with Abraham.  

To enact this promise, God instructs Abraham to bring “a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon” (Genesis 15:9).  He then told him to cut in half the cow, goat, and ram (but not the birds) in half. In Ancient Near Eastern treaties, which this covenant between Abraham and God certainly draws upon, the halved animal carcasses communicates that if either party violates this sacred promise, they will end up like these animals. Death is to come upon the one who doesn’t uphold the sacred covenant.

But, as we read a few verses later, Abraham does not pass through. He doesn’t participate in the covenantal ritual. Instead, Abraham only saw “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch” pass between the animal carcasses (Genesis 15:17).  Because the fire and the smoke represent the presence of God, the narrative is telling us that only God passes through.

The significance of this cannot be understated. This means that God Himself–the One whose Word can never fail and whose promises are eternal–takes the penalty of a failed covenant upon Himself. This is the beginning of God’s story with His wayward people. A story about a God whose mission it is to bring all things into His love, even if it means giving up His own life.

Now let’s return to the Church in Galatia.  Paul, in responding to their false gospel, reaches the climax of his argument when he states:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith (Galatians 3:13-14)

Paul is saying that Christ himself, who is the Word of God incarnate, took on this “curse” and became like the slain animals of God’s covenant with Abraham.  Christ, who is fully God and fully man, becomes the curse that was meant for us–not because God’s promise failed, but because ours did. By doing so, Christ fulfills the original promise made to Abraham and, if we have faith in Christ like Abraham had faith in God, we too become “heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29).

Artwork by Josefa de Ayala

This faith is a deep trust in the God who passes through on our behalf. This means that if we continue to try to pass through ourselves, if we continue to attempt to earn God’s promises by laws and rules and plans, we are participating in the wrong story, a false gospel.

Jesus Christ, in fulfilling the promises of God to redeem creation, inaugurated the fulfillment of God’s story that began with Abraham.  If we forget this story, it means that we have forgotten that God is a God who passes through.  A God who passes through the animals on our behalf to take the burden of the promise on Himself.  A God who passes through the spiteful and vindictive crowds, carrying that heavy tree, getting tortured and mocked on His way to become a curse for us.  

When we remember the story that centers around God and His redemptive work, we avoid the burden of attempting to tell a story that we never could.  We move from the story of limited self to the Story of unlimited God, whose promises are both sure and true. And when we do this, when this faith overtakes our hearts and we participate in God’s story, we can set up “rules” for our lives, but these rules are now an expression of our salvation, not an attempt to earn it. They become the means by which we enter into deeper communion with a God who has already achieved freedom for us precisely because he has already passed through death on His way to life. He invites us to do the same.

A rigid matter was the law, demanding brick, denying straw,

But when with gospel tongue it sings, it bids me fly and gives me wings

18th Century Scottish Presbyterian preacher Ralph Erksine

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor

Pain: Finding Hope in Suffering

“…but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…” – Romans 5:3-4 ESV

Pain.

I’ve always said, “The only reason it hurts so bad is because it’s yours and not somebody else’s,” but my hope for this blog is to provide a structure for thinking about the concept of pain, mainly if you believe in God, in order to provide some clarity to the pain in your life. What this blog will not do is provide specific answers to the unique, deeply personal pain you may be wrestling with; rather, it will provide some tools in order to help you process the pain you have experienced, are experiencing, and inevitably will experience.

First, the pain itself we experience isn’t the issue, it’s our interpretation of pain which induces our suffering.[1] Interpreting pain involves two things, which I call the Why Questions and the Character of God. Now, before I continue, there have no doubt been mountains of literature written on the problem of pain and the goodness of God by far more qualified thinkers than me, and I in no way pretend that I can reduce such a topic down to a few words in a blog. But vigorously philosophizing and theologizing about someone else’s pain has the tendency to be impersonal, and I wanted to eliminate that as much as possible, so I took the approach of not only sharing what I’ve learned about pain and suffering through my own journey, but also from the life of a friend. With that said— “Why?”

“Why did this happen?” Haven’t you asked yourself that question about suffering you’ve experienced? Or maybe you’ve asked that question about the suffering you’ve witnessed in the world. Does any of it makes sense, especially if you believe in God? Why does God allow such suffering, and if there are justifiable reasons to the unique deeply personal suffering we’ve experienced, then why, so often, does God not explain but instead leave us in a cloud of mystery?

We tend to believe that if we know the reasons behind the suffering we experience we’ll have peace. The problem is most of our painful experiences include things we cannot know; we are quite literally incapable of knowing certain things, and that, in turn, gives rise to another problem—  pride. If we’re honest, we believe that we have a right to know things that only God can know. This isn’t new—there’s actually an account of someone who was deceived into believing that if they knew what God knows they’d be better off.[2] And so the mystery of Why? ignites in us pride, and any time we become prideful we begin to believe God is someone who He isn’t.

Our Why Questions will eventually lead us to a question about God’s character. For some, the very existence of suffering thwarts their belief in God because they believe that if God did exist then there would be no suffering, so since people do suffer then God cannot exist. An even more dangerous route is believing that God does exist but concluding that He’s someone who He isn’t, which is really why some give up their belief in Him altogether. I’m convinced that at the heart of someone’s unbelief in God is an inexplicable pain they’ve experienced that has yet to be resolved.

During an immense time of mental and emotional suffering of my own, I searched out answers to Why Questions in the Bible and in the writings of some of history’s most colossal intellects, but none of it gave me answers to the specific suffering I was experiencing.  All of the answers were written in generalities, so I was never satisfied—even with the answers I found in the very Word of God. How could I trust someone’s word who allowed me to suffer and not explain why? Until one day while I was sitting quietly, thinking, a thought as if not my own entered my mind and removed all doubt in God’s goodness. This thought, exactly as I heard it, is the first tool I offer to you:

If God is not good, then nothing is good; there is no hope.

If God is not good, then there is no reason to live.

But there are good things, there are reasons to live; there is hope. And just like that the prideful rage of desiring answers to things only God can know was put out like a soft blow to a candle. Even though I didn’t receive specific answers to my suffering, I came to believe that God is good without them. Perhaps that’s only what I needed to hear in that moment, maybe it doesn’t help you, maybe it doesn’t make sense yet, but think about it long and hard then consider the second tool I offer which assists the first:

                        There are people who have experienced horrific suffering

                        and afterwards maintain the belief that God is good.

Can you imagine being 13 and suddenly being woken up at 3am from a deep sleep to the frightful screams of your younger brother and sister, then rushing to the kitchen to see your mother glistening in snow white skin only to realize that she had doused herself in kerosene and lit herself on fire in attempt to take her own life? In an instant she had realized her mistake and tried to put the fire out herself but it was only your little brother who awoke first in confusion to her screams and was somehow able to suffocate the fire with a blanket. Frantically, you rush your dying mother to the hospital on a motor bike; nearly 24 hours later, unable to say goodbye or to ask her why she did it, she would succumb to her wounds.

When a friend of mine first told me that story and how he and his siblings lied to the police and to their father—who had been away for business—saying that their mother caught fire by accident, I didn’t know how to respond. You see, Indian culture is a culture deeply rooted in shame and honor, and even though they were a Christian family, they didn’t want to bring shame upon their family name. So the three of them kept the secret about what really happened for 9 years. My friend described how after that horrific night his life was riddled with questions of Why? and anger; anger towards his mom, anger towards his father who had been harsh towards his mother, anger towards himself, and anger towards God. Eventually, his anger took the form of unbelief in God because he didn’t see the sense of someone else ruling his own life anymore.  In the midst of his loneliness he, too, tried to take his own life by an overdose of pills; he figured if he took them he’d just fall asleep peacefully and never wake up, but miraculously he survived. Then one night alone in his room something happened.

The Bible says that “God is love,”[3] and alone in his room that night, my friend experienced the presence of God so powerfully he said it was like “feeling love for the first time.” You know how he responded? “[God] I know you are good.” He also went on to describe how in that moment he knew that “Jesus’s pain [on the cross] absorb[s] my pain.” But the most shocking thing he shared with me was in that moment he said to God, “Thank you that my mother died.” My friend wasn’t thankful to God for the death of his mother but that through her death he was able to experience God’s love. How could a love be so powerful to cover something so painful?

Years later, through a series of family audio tapes he had discovered, my friend learned that his mother had been bitter towards his father because of how harshly he had treated her, but when his father became a Christian and tried to heal their marriage, his mother chose to reject God out of her bitterness. Now, I don’t know what was said between her and the Lord those 24 hours she was alive in excruciating pain, if anything at all, but I do know that discovering those audio tapes brought peace to my friend; the answers had been there the whole time—he just had to wait for them. If someone can come out the other side of extreme suffering still believing that God is good, even thanking Him for it, that’s no evidence to the contrary.

The third tool I offer before I conclude is this:

                        Be honest.

It’s a simple tool, but you’d be surprised at how many people aren’t honest with themselves about their suffering.  They’ll try and cover it up, ignore it, and put on a mask; even more surprising is how many people aren’t honest to God about how angry they are at Him for allowing their suffering.  In their anger, coupled with their pride, they ignore Him. It’s better to be angry at God and honestly tell Him how you feel than to not tell Him at all. That’s exactly what I did through my suffering. I told God exactly what I was feeling and what I was thinking I didn’t hold anything back, and to be honest it wasn’t always in the most reverent way. But you know what? Through my honesty with God He revealed His love, His mercy, His patience, His kindness— His goodness. But don’t just take my word for it…there was a King named David who screamed at God in fear, despair, loneliness, depression, betrayal, anxiety, loss, confusion, complaint, pain— in his suffering. And every time, God revealed His goodness to David.

In conclusion, the pain you are feeling isn’t the issue, it’s your interpretation of your pain that makes up your suffering. Why has God allowed you to suffer? Wading through that mystery, you have to answer a question about God’s character. God’s character and whether or not you truly believe that He is good is the crux of the matter. Do you believe He is good? If you choose to believe that God is not good, then ultimately nothing is good; you have no hope in your suffering, no real reason to live. But there is hope, and there are people who have gone through immense suffering and afterwards still believe that God is good and even thank Him for their suffering. It wasn’t until I believed God is good that I could trust His word and wait patiently through things I don’t understand. Patience is something that you do through and during a period of time, and being patient is contingent on trust, and trust is the continual assertion of a belief, and through suffering your hope is contingent on the belief in the true character of God— His goodness. God knows your suffering. He knows there is injustice. That’s why Jesus had to be crucified for the sins of the world, to be buried, that’s why he rose from the dead to set what has been wronged right; to ‘absorb our pain’ and give us hope in our suffering.

Chavo Frederico, New City Stories Guest Writer


[1] Dr. James Thobaben, Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky

[2] Holy Bible, Genesis chapter 3

[3] The Holy Bible, 1 John chapter 4 verse 8

What Faith?

What faith do we have,
If we’ve declared our next step
And the way we’ll get there too?

What faith do we have
If we don’t look to you?

What faith do we have,
If we’re safe because of fear;
We don’t risk, we don’t give.

What faith do we have,
If we don’t boldly live?

What faith do we have,
If troubles and doubts come
And we cry out to you?

What faith do we have,
If we don’t rejoice too?

What faith do we have,
If above angels and demons you sit,
With a work finished and assurance to bring?

What a faith we do have,
In you Jesus, our King.

*Inspired by the book of Hebrews*

Mary Katherine Wildeman, New City Stories Contributor

Little Sabbath: A Reflection on Rest

It’s kind of like a short deep sleep. The kind where you wake up feeling like your body is in peace. A wakeful rest.

Opposed to this, however, the first half of Isaiah 49:4 regularly defines how I feel about life:

“In spite of my hard work, I feel as if I haven’t accomplished anything. I’ve used up all of my strength. It seems as if everything I’ve done is worthless.”

Life seems like a never ending fight. The finish line just as tangible as fog. I want more but I can’t grasp it. I can’t attain it. But I strive to. I run the race. I scratch at success.

There’s something I’ve found that contradicts all of that. Something pulls me out. Each morning there’s a moment. It’s defined by a discipline but it’s made up of a thing called grace. And there, a little bit each day, the verse I mentioned above is finished:

“But the Lord will give me what I should receive. My God will reward me.”

Do I practice this time with Jesus every single day? Nope. (I wish I did). Do I sometimes avoid it? Yes. Is it always amazing and delightful? Nope.

But there’s something hidden inside the little daily Sabbaths. Rest. A reminder that it’s not just my strength that’s not nearly sufficient, it’s not just my striving for success that’s undeniably inadequate. In fact, I actually have a strength that doesn’t come from me at all. And if I am weak, that strength never dissipates. In fact, success and failure were both demolished on my behalf by a helpless death followed by a triumphant resurrection.

In fact, the finish line is broken behind me. And, I find I was not the runner, but the cherished prize.

Jessica Fleck, New City Stories Guest Writer

Advent Week 3: The Hope of “God with Us”

Flames from the candles cause light to flash and dance on the faces of my family sitting around the table.  I listen to half a sentence my father reads but then my imagination whisks me off to a rocky hillside in Bethlehem.  The light of angels’ flash and dance on the weathered faces of the shepherds showing shock and disbelief.  They shuffle down the hill towards the dark buildings in the valley.  I look up and see my mother shaking her head at me as my hands mess with the wax of the candle.  Even as a distracted and fidgety child, celebrating advent was a time for slowing down and joining creation in mindful waiting.  

Matthew begins his story of the Messiah highlighting some interesting people in the genealogy of Jesus.  Judah sold his brother Joseph into slavery.  Tamar pretended to be a prostitute. Rahab was a prostitute.  David killed a man for his wife.   It is through this bloodline that a baby is born to a girl betrothed to a carpenter.  Uneducated and unkempt men crowd in the small space to see this baby.  Polytheist Persian Astrologists discover a new celestial object that guides them to this young Judean family.  The paranoid King Herod kills his own sons and even attempts to murder other children as he scrambles to secure his power and control.  Bethlehem was a city full of Jews who desired to be independent of the Roman Empire.  This is a story full of the lowly of society.  It is full of desperate people in dark and unjust situations who are longing for change.  

Then a baby enters this world.  A baby named Immanuel.  God with us.

However, we tend to clean up this story of “God with us”  when we skip over the sexual sins, murder, and betrayal found in Jesus’ family history, instead diving into the story of a young innocent girl; when we clean up the surroundings, concluding that the excruciating birth by a virgin teenage girl produces a baby who doesn’t cry; when Mary isn’t a sleep deprived new mother who is learning how to nurse her baby for the first time; when the shepherds aren’t men accustomed to being on the outskirts of society; when a narcissistic and paranoid leader is never someone we would follow; when we brush over the fact that God uses astrology to guide the Magi to the Christ child.

We clean it up, and then hurry to invite God with us.  Immanuel, God with us, but only when we polish up our story.  

But maybe it’s God with us in the process.  Maybe God with us isn’t the immediate gratification that comes after presenting a refined outside.  Jesus comes from a line of murderers, adulterers, unloved and unlikely people.  He is born into an environment that lacks wealth and is among a people who are subject to a foreign empire.  He is surrounded by those who would never surround a King.  He begins his life on earth as a human; an undeveloped, helpless baby who relies on the guidance and assistance from a teenage mother and carpenter father.

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.  So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
1 Corinthians 13:12-13

It is in this process that Immanuel invites us into hope for the restoration of a messy world, reconciliation for broken people, redemption for sinners, and the righting of an unjust system.  Immanuel brings us a hope that calls us to action–action that brings the world back to how it was originally intended to be. Hope for our personal lives, for our immediate community and hope for a better world, a new world.

Faith in this “God with us” motivates us to work towards what we hope for and through love we introduce this hope to our world.  When the darkness in the world is all we can see, let us remind ourselves of this hope and that light has entered and will come back fully into this world.  Let us love like Jesus loved.  Let us be Immanuel to others.  In this season of reflection and slowing down to remember the story, let us join in creation’s hope for the here and the now and the not yet.

Nilah MacLean, New City Stories Contributor