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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

What are We Counting On?: Reflection on James 5

Although James 5 seems to offer several disjointed topics, James actually presents two images for how we live. The first image is of a self-indulgent rich person and the second is of a patient farmer. While these two people are not seeking the same end result, they are living out the same question: “What am I counting on?” In other words, “Where do I put my hope?”

In James 5:1-6, James warns the rich about storing up rotting treasures, and gold and silver that will corrode. This warning sounds familiar to Jesus’s words in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount:

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:19-21

This is not only a warning to the rich, but to anyone storing up earthly possessions.  Just because we might not consider ourselves living in luxury does not mean we can count ourselves out of this warning. Rather, if we find ourselves “liv[ing] on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence,” then we see that this warning is for us. Both James 5 and Matthew 6 comment on the consequences of counting on treasures. Jesus goes on in Matthew 6 to warn against being anxious about daily needs, focusing instead on how our Good Father provides for the lillies and the sparrows and James says the laborers of the rich will cry out against them. Where does this “rich person” put their hope and what are they counting on? By making life comfortable, predictable, and safe, they are counting on finances, materials, and self-sufficiency.  The consequence of relying on ourselves and material riches not only makes us anxious, but it leads to our neglecting of the others around us.  What are we counting on?

Next, James says, “Be patient, therefore brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord,” and this is where we start to wonder if this all connects. James then presents us with a counter image to how the rich person lived, a farmer who waits for the fruit of his fields. The farmer plows and plants and then waits for the rains to come. The farmer relies on the rain to produce good crops. James says this is how we should wait for the coming of the Lord. Waiting with expectation and with patience. Rather than focusing on storing up earthly things at all costs, James says to have a heavenly focus that waits expectantly for God because that is Who we are counting on.

More than this, James says to count on God even in suffering. He points to the prophets and to Job as biblical examples of people who suffered yet remained reliant on the Lord. The prophets experienced resistance and rebuke of others, and Job experienced unprecedented loss and tragedy. The reason for counting on God even in suffering is because it points others to the purposes and characteristics of God: “You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (James 5:11).

When reading the prophets and Job, we see that another reason to count on God is that God can be counted on. After Job hears from his friends, the Lord speaks to Job, asking him questions like, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4) and, “Who sends the rain to satisfy the parched ground and makes the tender grass spring up?” (Job 39:27). The Lord shows Job that as humans we are not all-knowing, all-present, or all-powerful and then for two chapters the Lord shows Job that He is all-knowing, all-present, and-all powerful. The Lord can be counted on, even in times of suffering.

While we are waiting on the Lord, like the farmer waiting for the rain, James reminds us to be present and committed to where we are: “Let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no” (James 5:12). The coming of the Lord is our great hope and Christ’s second return is why we wait expectantly. Until that time, however, the coming of the Lord in our daily lives is when we are not sure how something will work out and yet the Lord comes through in His own way, each and every time.

James concludes his letter by driving home the call to count on the Lord. “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray” (James 5:13-14). In other words, if life is in the valleys right now, then go to God; if life is exciting, then go to God; if this physical life is difficult to live in, go to God. James says faithful prayer will save us. After reading the rest of James 5, we can see that faithful prayer does not work only because we pray with faith, but because the Lord to whom we pray is faithful. That is why we can pray during suffering and praise during celebration, and why we can seek healing.

Lastly, even in our sin we can count on God. Adam and Eve counted on their ability to hide from God and fashioned clothes to cover themselves–we can easily count on our good works to save us. However, James again points us back to God: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16). We can confess our sins to God and to each other because our God is the Redeemer. If we use the paradigm given by Zach’s teaching on James 1, we see that because God is Redeemer He convicts, and because we are convicted we respond and are sanctified.  In other words, we confess and we receive grace. We do not have to hide ashamed of our sins. God is Redeemer, so we can go to Him and receive both conviction and mercy. We can count on God despite our sins.

The final image in James takes us back to the farmer waiting on the rain. However, this time it is Elijah who prays fervently for rain. James even says, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours” (5:17). Elijah’s prayer was not heard because he was outstanding, but he was heard  because he counted on God to send rain.  God was faithful.

James begins the final chapters of his letter with an image of what it looks like when we count on ourselves and what we can manufacture. Then James shows us what it looks like to count on God, why it is worth counting on God, and what happens when God has all of our lives.

“So friends, everyday do something

that won’t compute. Love the Lord.

Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

Love somebody who does not deserve it

…Expect the end of the world. Laugh.

Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful

though you have considered all the facts

…Practice resurrection”

– Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”

 

Mary Katherine Wildeman, New City Stories Contributor

 

 

Christianity is Not a Syllabus: Reflection on James 1

“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” – James 1:19 (ESV)

Few things intimidate me more than a syllabus. I’ll never forget the first time I read the required reading material, assignments, and overall tone set for the Entrepreneurial Process course I took in college. I considered dropping the course before it started. The thought of earning a grade by completing the daunting tasks outlined in that entirely too long packet sucked the confidence out of my mind and the energy from my body. I surely couldn’t live up to those standards.

The first chapter of James reminds me of how I felt after reading that syllabus. Verse two delves into the matter of trials to come, and it only gets more demanding from there. Seek wisdom. Don’t doubt. Be humble. Persevere. Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. Be rid of evil. Obey commands. Keep a tight reign on your tongue. Look after orphans and widows. Don’t be polluted by the world.

The content of this chapter snowballs into what can feel like a daunting list of what is required to be a Christian. Chapter two even tells us faith without works is dead. So much emphasis on works seems contradictory to the Gospel of salvation by grace through faith—why is there seemingly such contradiction from the book of James?

I’ve struggled a lot with the pressing temptation to strive for perfection, do all that is asked of me, and find no fault in myself. However, that expectation is hardly realistic, dangerously arrogant, and not at all Biblical. The understanding of the Gospel with which we approach the book of James affects the way we perceive the commands we find in it. The lens through which we read it enlightens our understanding of living out the Christian life.

This book does not assert we earn our faith, or our salvation, by our works. It rather suggests works stem from true faith, almost like an inevitable byproduct of faith. Salvation by grace through faith precedes these works, and we are enabled by the grace of God, not our own strength, to obey his commands. As God works in our lives, his grace gives us the strength we need to do the things he has called us to do. Our works are fueled by God’s love, not dripping with our own striving.

New City talks a lot about rest. We take off Sabbath Sundays, make rest a point of conversation, and even include it in our core values. I used to think rest had only to do with taking time off work and making space for God, which is true and good, but I’ve learned rest can mean more than that. Living in rest means trusting in what God has already done for us and in us, knowing the good we do is a response to our rescue, not the means for it. When we live in rest, we need no further justification. We trust in God’s saving power and in his strength, which gives us the energy we need to do the kinds of things James calls us to do.

It may seem intimidating to receive all these mandates in the first chapter of a book that says so much about the validity of our faith. James, however, holds rich instruction for demonstrating our love for God. As we choose continually to die to ourselves and worship God through our actions, we learn to further depend on his strength to continue in relationship with him.

 

Rachel Smith, New City Stories Contributor

Risk: The Faithful Response to Our Rescue

At New City we talk a lot about being thankful for our rescue. Even outside of a Christian context, the word “rescue” has implications of risking, preventing, saving, or going out of one’s way for someone else. To rescue is “to free from confinement, danger, or evil” as defined by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. The Israelites experienced this rescue physically and spiritually when God freed them from slavery in Egypt and then gave them the Ten Commandments. In this rescue, God brought his people out of bondage and then began creating them into a new people. He led His grumbling people the long way, with a reluctant leader, but God knew the risk would pay off.

When we think about our personal rescue stories, it can be easy to forget that our rescue came with a cost.

And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him.” (Matt 27:30, 31).

No matter if your rescue story comes from growing up in church, or coming to faith in a desperate place, this was the cost for all believers.  God risked to rescue us and continues to risk by pursuing His children. This is why risk is a core value at New City–it is a core part of our story.

Not only did God risk to rescue us, but we are called to risk for others. We read in scripture that, “greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Risk stems from love. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that those who believe might have life, life everlasting.” (John 3:16). Risking is not about making your schedule more full to check the “love your neighbors box.” Risk involves seeing God’s heart for your neighbors, for people in need, for people who do not look like you, and taking on that heart of love yourself. When you start to see people how God sees them, your schedule, reputation, and comfortability dwindle and finding a way to help others becomes more important.

In Acts 10 Peter has the vision of a sheet with unclean animals coming down and repeatedly hears, “do not call what is clean unclean.” Peter’s first reaction was confusion and rejection because his understanding of what he could eat had been set for years. However, God uses this vision to lead Peter into a risky call; namely, to invite outsiders into God’s story. Through visions and the Spirit’s leading, God gives Peter not only an image of the coming risk, but a person.

The Spirit led Cornelius, a God-fearing Roman soldier, to call for Peter to hear about this vision. This is bold for Cornelius to do because of his position in the Roman army and because of the fact that Peter was a Jew. After a vision warning Peter that Cornelius will call for him to come, Peter cannot help but notice the Spirit’s working. When Peter sees God undoubtedly at work, the risk becomes less of a fearful experience, and more of a faithful call. “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean” (Acts 10:28). After this encounter between Peter and Cornelius, Peter preached the Good News to Gentiles and they received the Holy Spirit. Peter and Cornelius both listened to God, stepped out in faith and took risks, which in turn resulted in the salvation of many.

The Gentiles were not Jewish, which means they were not considered in the family of God’s people. For most of us, this means Peter and Cornelius are a part of our rescue story. This week reflect on your rescue story or on seasons when you ran from God. What did God bring into your life to bring you back to Him? How can you be that person for others this week? Pray for the person after you in line, start up a conversation with someone who doesn’t look like you, be the first to apologize in an argument, pray for opportunities to risk for God. Risking is what Jesus calls us to when he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24). Risk is not just a core value of a church; it is the call of following Christ.

Reflection Questions:

  • What resource(s) to you have excess of (food, money, time, clothes, etc.) and how can you give it away to people in need?
  • What keeps you from stepping out of your comfort zone to help, to encourage, or to share your faith with others?
  • Read Luke 18:18-30 and reflect on where you see risk in this passage.

 

Mary Katherine Wildeman,  New City Stories Contributor