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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

 

“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 

Theology of the Workplace

“Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might…” Ecclesiastes 9:10a NRSV

Is our work just for money and are we living from clock in to clock out? Does everything we do from day to day mean anything? Are pastors the only ones out there that do ministry for a living? These questions have been discussed repeatedly and will always be discussed on this side of eternity. When we think about these big questions about our work, it is important to remember that the Lord is inviting us into even the remedial tasks.

Ecclesiastes 9:10a says “whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might…” God is inviting us to work, and to work well. If we read on, the verse says, “there is no work, knowledge, planning or wisdom in the grave.”  This means that we have work to do on this earth that is fulfilling and full of purpose.

But how is this work to be done? Are supposed to just put our head down and forget the others we work with or are we to work with one another towards common goals?

I believe God created us to work in community with others. Think about it, our jobs are all about connections. I used to have a ritualistic response to my mom when she would ask me about studying.  As quick as I could, I would respond, “It’s not about what you know mom, it’s about who you know.” Even though I was using this as an excuse to run from my responsibilities, there are elements in this statement that are true. For us as Christians, there is more to the phrase “it’s about who you know” than just collaborating, it’s about an opportunity for the gospel.

In our work we develop networks, networks that the gospel can be shared through. A good example of this is “The Poverty Cure Project”, which pursues different solutions to help the world’s economic issues as a Church body. To explain their approach to doing collaborative work, they use the illustration of a table and how so many people’s hands have assisted in helping create the table: from the farmer, to the man at the lumberyard, to the man who makes the saw blades that cut the wood. “Every product is a result of collaboration” and we get the opportunity to engage in those collaborations.  As Christians, God is inviting us to combine the skill of our bodies with the fruit of our labor and as we do this with others, our work has meaning both practically and spiritually. We can share the gospel through our work.

Networking is another term for these collaborations. Networking, when done often, creates a community and we as humans are made for community. Dr. Steve Seamands says, “A reflection of the Trinitarian imprint is that we were made for community.”  In other words, we are made to be in network with others.  When we live and work in community, we are reflecting the image of God in us and are fulfilling God’s design for our lives.  Community is how we survive and how we work and arguably how we spread the Good News of Christ.

So, don’t just look at work as something you do to survive. Work is something that gives us purpose and defines our lives, by allowing us to fulfill our callings and meet the needs of others. Work is an opportunity to enter into networks and community so that the Gospel can be spread into all the world. In that exchange the value of work is created.

Here are some questions to reflect on this week as you work:

  • What part of our work have we neglected because we see it as meaningless?
  • What can we do to change our mindset and find purpose in the small things?
  • How has a working community given you the opportunity to share the Gospel?
  • With “fresh eyes” how can you now see how those doors have been open all along and how can you now actively step into those situations to fulfill your call to spread the gospel in your work?

Kendall McKee, New City Stories Contributor 

Holy Confusion

I form light and create darkness,
    I make weal and create woe;
    I the Lord do all these things.

Shower, O heavens, from above,
    and let the skies rain down righteousness;
let the earth open, that salvation may spring up,[a]
    and let it cause righteousness to sprout up also;
    I the Lord have created it.  Isaiah 45:7-8 (NRSV)

I’d come to the place where I knew that God was the Sovereign – the mighty protector and holy giver of destiny.  But now there comes the life of moving nowhere.  I’d learned that God’s blessings are given in his own deep other-worldly timing.  So, it wasn’t the loss of anything that became real, though there had been loss and wounds and healing and love.  And there will be more.

That wasn’t the deal.  There was a vastness to it.  A wide and long sort-of lush desert.  I was living within it.  Above, below, behind, before, right, and left – a space.  My counselor called it “the liminal”, the in-between.  Perhaps it was.  Perhaps it is.  It feels like a dance floor with no one on it.

When I was a girl, I used to go to the indoor basketball court in our church and lay down right in the middle of it.  The floor was cool, the space was large and dark – lush with nothing.  No one was playing or present at all.  But it felt like healing.  I’m not sure I knew the name for the feeling then.

Now I do.  I know because I’ve marched through unhealth and church wounds.  Now I know what healing feels like.  And it’s like laying in the middle of a basketball court in the dark.  An allowing of the empty so Something larger can be present.  Or Someone.

It’s a sense of the holy milling quietly and gently in the soul – a non-forceful but working entity reminding of love and grace and fullness.

But that’s not what I’m talking about.  It’s after that.  Well, maybe there’s no “it”, but it’s after.

They’d always said that ministry was and is and should be me acting with God for his purposes.  Maybe they are right.  But that means there’s an “it” hiding somewhere in the after.  But I haven’t found it – “it.”  There’s a kind-of God given confusion.  Can that even be a thing?  It doesn’t sound quite right theologically and my education is pushing it away like a cup of spoiled milk.

Most of the time, we think of confusion as a bad thing – or maybe I just do.  We think knowing is key.  But here’s the deal, God is the only All-Knower.  So, when the holy descends, I can’t and will never understand it all.  It brings with it the unknown lapping over the soul like a kind but rushing river.  I swim gleefully and carefully within it because it is both a comfort and a challenge.  It’s an expansive feeling – a lostness in the Known without knowing.  It’s a feeling of goodness beyond myself, beyond my need and want.  It’s a joining to the Immense.

And because of that, it is a confusion.  And because of That, it is holy.

 

Jessica Fleck, New City Stories Contributor

The Long Game

“So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne.” Hebrews 12:1-2 CEB

How difficult would it be to spend time in Gethsemane, praying fervently, sensing the reality of the cross ahead, knowing the pain waiting just hours away, all the while aware of the power at your fingertips to call upon angels and deliver you from suffering?

How could Jesus endure?

Jesus understood the long game: The truth that, woven into the fabric of life, into the call of God which rested upon his life, was the reality that joy was waiting on the other side of endurance, of following the will of God, of suffering and death. Jesus endured the cross, ignoring its shame, because of the joy set before him — a joy he would not experience until he sat “at the right side of God’s throne.”

How often do you reach out in life for joy now, find it isn’t there, and leave with a sense of longing, a sense of depressed frustration, a sense of confusion?

How often do you reach for your phone in a moment of social anxiety, searching for a quick fix to an uncomfortable situation, knowing this temporary solution isn’t permanent but satisfies the need to avoid pushing through to the other side, wherein a contentedness with not knowing exactly what to say next awaits?

How often, in a world that has changed drastically, perhaps too fast for us to understand, do we expect instant gratification, and how often do we struggle to feel content when what previously provided such gratification no longer does?

Jesus understood the long game. The path to joy required that he endure suffering, pain, the cross, and death. He found joy on the other end of following the will of God, wherever that led. For some of us at New City, this means enduring the long road toward finishing an M.Div. It means daily waking up and going to class, listening attentively, reading for hours, writing for days, and choosing to continue doing so for three to four years. For some of us, this means enduring the long road toward finishing college or medical school, toward getting a business up and running, toward waiting to see whether or not in fact we can conceive children.

Having a vision for the long game includes “fix[ing] our eyes of Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.” Jesus had faith that his road to sacrifice would result in joy. Because of Jesus, we can have this same faith that when we follow the will of God, the product is joy. This joy may not come for a time — in fact, this joy may not come until, like Jesus, we’ve endured our cross to the point of death — but that joy will undoubtedly be sweeter than we could imagine.

Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane

Joy is a funny thing. It may come in a moment — it may come in stages. I spent about 18 months overseas with the Army in Kuwait, and it was void, in many ways, of joy. It was hard. When I returned to the US, interestingly and unexpectedly, joy didn’t flood my heart as I expected. It came in stages, and is still coming to this day, over two years later, as I reflect on the experience and realize the benefits deployment had upon my life and the lives of others.

Based on past experience, we tend to expect joy to come at certain moments. Perhaps it does and will, but more often than not, I’ve learned that as my life with God changes, joy takes on a different flavor, one that tastes more like the will of God over time and through challenges than like instant satisfaction with the present. The long game.

 

Tyler Tavares, New City Stories Contributor