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Into the Valley

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”Matthew 16:24 ESV

The pilgrimage that most imagine when they think about the journey of the spiritual life is the steep and glorious trek up the mountain.  We often picture our soul beginning in a kind of valley of darkness and isolation from God, obstructed by sin and moral confusion.  But then, after God removes the scales from our eyes, we embark on a long ascent up the mountainside that is filled with holy encounters and sanctifying lessons.  Finally, we dream of the day when we reach the peak and our spiritual vision becomes clear and we come to total peace.

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

There is some warrant for this particular image of the spiritual pilgrimage.  There are metaphors and images in scripture that lend us to believe that any spiritual journey moves upward towards the mountaintop.  For example, Isaiah 2:2 says, “In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all the nations will stream to it.” More than this, God Himself meets with individuals on hills and mountains throughout Scripture.  From God meeting Moses on Mt. Sinai to Elijah climbing Mt. Carmel to hear God’s whisper in the Old Testament and from Peter, James, and John witnessing the glory of the transfiguration on a mountainside to Jesus Himself retreating to the Mount of Olives to commune with his Father in prayer in the New Testament , a clear pattern of God encountering his people in high places emerges.  

This image of the spiritual life also makes sense on an intuitive level.  As we mature in our faith, we move from slavery to freedom, from blindness to sight, from certain death to abundant life. There seems to be movement from the lesser to the greater, the lower to the higher.

But what of our experience? Does this image of a spiritual climb to the mountaintop hold up when the Christian life is lived out?

Jesus teaching the crowds in his Sermon on the Mount

It seems to me that in the daily rounds of life the journey of the spirit is not one of ascent, but descent.  The Christian journey is fundamentally constituted by a kind of “downward mobility” into a life of service and sacrifice.  Freedom in the spiritual life is not found in doing all we can to climb to the top, but in crawling through the trenches of humility.  Scripture teaches us this principle, too. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lays out what the Christian life ought to look like; the lowly traits of meekness, humility, persecution, and hunger are all markers of those who have reached spiritual heights, which is why Jesus calls them “blessed” (Matthew 5:1-11).  So does this mean to go up one must go down?  Should we live our lives in the valley in order to reach the peaks?

We have an apparent contradiction at the crossroads of our spiritual pilgrimage; namely that to be truly “blessed,” to reach the heights where Christ reigns and offers life and love, we must descend into the depths of self-forgetfulness and denial.  How is this the case? How can we find ourselves by forgetting ourselves?  How is it better that we move from being free to follow our every desire to becoming a “slave to Christ?” How can burden be a means toward freedom?  The answer to this riddle is the cross. 

The cross of Christ is the sweetest burden that I ever bore; it is such a burden as wings are to a bird, or sails to a ship, to carry me forward to my harbor.”
―Samuel Rutherford

The cross of Jesus Christ is both the sure foundation and the animating force of the Christian life.  The cross represents the real, historical, and cosmic event where the way of death now becomes the way of life.  In this way, the Cross is a model for us, a kind of ultimate signpost that shows us the way towards the divine life.  This signpost does not point us in the direction that we might think, but it always leads us the right destination.

I want to be clear here: The path through the valley does not end in the valley.  We as followers of Christ should not seek out meekness for the sake of meekness, trials for the sake of trials, lowliness for the sake of lowliness. If we view these things as ends in and of themselves we end up with a kind of self-serving asceticism where our actions, however sacrificial, are built on our pride masquerading as humility.  Instead, however, we are called to follow Christ and the path that he walked was one marked by pure self-sacrificial love for God and others.  Paul says in Romans 8:17 that “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (ESV).  In other words, if our proper spiritual destination is Christ Himself, if we are truly “heirs with Christ,” then our own self-sacrifice can only lead us to Jesus if it participates in Jesus.

C.S. Lewis, in his famous sermon The Weight of Glory, says that “the cross comes before the crown…a cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside.”  Discipleship must take on the shape of the Cross, it must have a “cruciform” character, because this is the way Christ leads us by His example as Calvary. Fortunately, it does not end at the Cross; instead, just like the tomb opened up and Christ ascended to the right hand of the Father, so we too are promised ascent towards glory and freedom at the end of our spiritual pilgrimage, ascent towards the One who called us down the path in the first place.

But there is another strange thing that happens when we descend into the valley.  Not only is it the way towards freedom, but we actually begin to experience freedom while we are there.  Why in a place marked by sacrifice, denial, and humility do we actually feel more alive and more like who we were created to be?  The answer again can be found in the cross of Jesus Christ.

When Jesus says “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30 ESV), he isn’t saying that no yoke or burden exists.  No, not at all. In fact, the exact opposite is true. The yoke and burden of Christ seems that it would be impossible to bear:  betrayed by those closest to him, the victim of  an unjust sentencing, brutally tortured and spit on by those he came to save, and nailed naked to a cross in front of friends, family, and strangers — this hardly sounds like an “easy” yoke or a “light” burden.  So what is Jesus saying? He is claiming that in him and his power, all suffering has been transformed into new life.  This is what Paul had in mind when he writes “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55 ESV).  It’s not that death no longer exists–it does.  It’s that death takes on a completely new meaning when it is found in the Son of God and Man, the only one able to give meaning where there is suffering, to provide life where there is none.  

So the valley not only leads towards freedom and glory but it also provides it.  When we pick up the “yoke” of Christ and place it around our necks, it isn’t easy because it is without trials and demands; no, it is easy because Christ Himself, through the power of his Holy Spirit, gives us the vision, the strength, the will, and the joy to carry it forward.

***

In my own spiritual journey, I have always struggled with ambition.  Ambition, pride, and recognition are some of the obstacles that keep me from trekking down through the valley, which I know is the way towards Christ.  I want to reach the mountain peaks, but not without others recognizing my climb.  

Then God gave me a son.  About a week before Eli was born, I wrote on a whiteboard next to my bathroom mirror: “Do you desire the humility of the cross more than the glory of man?”  I wanted to desire the humility of the cross more, but I was afraid I couldn’t act on this desire on my own.  When Eli came, I realized his presence in my life helped me to solve this dilemma.  I have no choice but to change his dirty diapers every two hours, comfort him when he cries, heat up meals for my tired, nursing wife, and make late night pharmacy runs for medicine.  Ambition is not a temptation with a newborn child.  I feel no need to be impressive around him, just present. I don’t need him to recognize my talent, just my love.

God giving me Eli is a means of grace.  God is nudging me along the path; I am being led down into the valley where my Guide is teaching me that life emerges from forgetting myself and serving others.  For me, Eli’s presence in my life helps me to forget myself.  How can I think about my future calling when I know that right now I’m called to be a father?  Of course, Eli is more than a “means of grace” in my life.  He is first and foremost a precious child made in God’s image who will, God willing, embark on his own spiritual pilgrimage one day.  

This season of life reminded me that God is more invested in our spiritual journeys than we are.  He will give you roles and responsibilities, He will place people in your life, He will allow you to walk through difficult seasons in order to give you opportunities to be Christ-like.  He wants us to carry His burden and take on His yoke because when we do, He is there in a special way with us.  It is impossible to be like Christ when we always have ourselves first in our minds and in our hearts.  In thinking that we can achieve the glory of Christ without the Cross of Christ, we complicate our pilgrimage and risk losing our way altogether. So God, in His deep desire for us to reach the end of our spiritual pilgrimage, gifts us with steps along the path; steps of humility, self-denial, and sacrifice.

Our spiritual journeys must always take on a cruciform character.  We must “take up our cross” and carry them into the depths of the valley of humble service because it is in this valley where God strips us of all that weighs us down and we emerge unburdened, ready to climb the peaks.  In the valley, we are given responsibilities, roles, and opportunities to serve that must be fulfilled in faithfulness now, not later.  This gives us the freedom and cultivates the character necessary to move us towards Christ because it is Christ’s character that we are becoming.

For me, at this moment in my life, this was my son. For others, it could be something that at first seems like a set-back. Maybe a neighbor moves in across the street that needs to feel welcomed.  Or maybe there is an opportunity to volunteer at a local shelter. Or maybe your spouse needs you to spend more time helping around the house. Or maybe a difficult co-worker needs a friend to make them less lonely. Whatever it is, Christ is there.  He is calling us down this path because he has already walked it and knows that it is the way towards his love, freedom, and glory. That is the promise of the Cross.

 

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor

 

Facing Jericho

And the commander of the Lord‘s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.   Joshua 5:15 ESV

If you are familiar with often recited Bible stories, then you might be familiar with the story about Joshua defeating Jericho.  Jericho was a city surrounded by walls, and Joshua was the leader of God’s people and the plan was for the army to walk around the city until the walls fell leading to victory for Joshua and his people. However, this strange plan was not just to walk around once, but to walk around the city once per day, for six days. On the seventh day, the Israelite army would march around Jericho seven times followed by seven priests blowing seven rams’ horns until the walls came crashing down and Israel could claim victory. This unusual method separates this story from most Old Testament stories of war.

Before Joshua even gets to Jericho, however, he has an even more interesting encounter. In Joshua 5:13 we notice this language: “When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked.”

If you have ever had a big moment coming right around the corner— the start of a new job, a big move, a tough decision, an important day at work— then you have been where Joshua is in this moment. Joshua knows that the conquering of Jericho is ahead because God has promised the Israelites the land, but he isn’t quite there yet. All he can do is think about what is to come and see Jericho in the distance.

When I am in this place before something important, all the possibilities at hand tend to crowd my mind. Maybe you do the same thing, maybe you ignore preparing for the big day that is coming, or maybe you plan and plan to make sure nothing will go wrong. In chapter 5 we see that when Joshua is in this very position, he has an encounter with a messenger from the Lord.

 

When Joshua looks up, he sees a man standing before him. Joshua asks the man if he is on their side or the enemies’ side. The man responds that he is neither, but he is a commander of the Lord- Yahweh’s army. Joshua then falls on his face and worships and asks, “What does my Lord say to his servant?” (Joshua 5:14b). This is already very different from my natural reaction to looming, important, and tense days ahead. Joshua encounters a member of Yahweh’s army, worships, and asks how he, the leader of his own army, can serve his Lord. The best part of this story, in my opinion, is the commander’s response.

“‘Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.’ And Joshua did so” (Joshua 5:15).

The commander of the Lord’s army does not start off by giving Joshua the grand plan on how to face his enemies and have victory at Jericho. The commander does not give Joshua a pump up speech, nor does he bully Joshua into doing a good job. In a time of heavy stress, the commander tells Joshua that this moment is holy. Not only is this place holy, but Joshua is asked to take his shoes off and sit awhile.

Maybe this command is familiar to you. Earlier in the story of God’s people, Moses is also told to do the same thing when he finds himself standing on holy ground (Exodus 3:5). We are told that an angel of the LORD (Yahweh) meets Moses in a burning bush, and when Moses turns aside to see the bush, he is told to take off his sandals. This seems to be a common way that God invites His people to just listen and take a moment in His presence.

When Joshua takes his sandals off, the chapter ends. The next chapter picks up describing how Jericho is shut up inside and out. Then the Lord gives Joshua the seemingly silly plan to walk around the city for days. Even though this plan of attack seems strange, as readers who know Joshua’s recent encounter with God, we can be confident in the plan. We see that Joshua is not acting of his own strength or his own thought; rather, Joshua leads God’s people with the plan God gives him.

Later in the story we read that the plan succeeds. God had a plan, and he used Joshua’s leadership to carry out the plan. We see in Joshua that Christian leadership is full of difficult choices and, at times, large responsibilities. However, we also see in Joshua that Christian leadership begins in our devotion to God. Christian leadership begins when believers submit to God, trusting in God’s plan and in God’s ways. Joshua worships before the victory ever happens at Jericho.

This week think about these questions: What Jericho are you facing? What does it look like for you to “take off your sandals” and notice the holiness of where God has you? How can you praise God this week before you see a victory? Sitting with God reminds us that he is a God we can trust. He is the I AM and he calls us to look up, take off our sandals, and know that where we are standing is holy ground— not because of who we are, but because of who God is.

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 

The Importance of “Why?”

Everyone experiences loss in their life–loss of a loved one, a job, an important possession, or even simply the way life was before a major event. Really, loss is any transition that disorients us, causing us to work towards reorientation and form a “new normal.” This is why grieving is often so difficult–we will never get back to the way things were before, no matter how hard we try.

Why do these painful losses have to happen?  Everyone can agree that our fallenness makes us feel alone and absent from God. When confronted with a loss, we often feel further from His goodness, experiencing anger and indifference because we simply cannot understand how God’s goodness can overcome the present grief. Unlike God, we are inside of time, so we cannot comprehend the vastness of His plan or how any loss could be used for overall good.

The good news is that we do not need to understand. In fact, it is good to admit that brokenness exists and that we can’t understand it. Even in the psalms, the writers going through disorientation express frustration and anger with God—they don’t understand the losses they are going through, and they are questioning. Psalm 22:1 exemplifies this kind of anguished questioning:

“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.”

David understands that trying to make sense of or justify any loss on our own will simply not hold ground. In fact, we often cause more harm than good by trying to be optimistic in the face of loss and explaining it away as “God doing everything for a reason.”  Instead, David is honest about his experience and honest about God’s relation to that experience, even if he is limited in his understanding.

Indeed, this idea of questioning God seems wrong to many of us, even though it is a very natural thing during times of grief. “Why me?” “Why did God let this happen?” Even Jesus on the cross, praying David’s words from the psalms, cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). In his deepest moment of grief and darkness, Jesus questioned the presence of his Father in his suffering.

However, what we often fail to realize in asking the question “why?” is that the questioning itself is putting God foremost, knowing that He is the only One with the answers. Sorrow itself needs God to validate it. Both complete confidence in God and asking God “why?” are equally Christian ways of handling loss. Both responses admit that God is in control of our lives even though we can’t necessarily understand His reasoning.

We ask “why?” because we do not understand or agree with evil, but we still know that God is in control and is able to redeem the brokenness of this world for His good purposes. This is why David, right after he questions God’s presence in Psalm 22:1-2, affirms God’s character in verses 3-5:

“Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.  To you they cried, and were saved…”

Jesus provides us with the ultimate example of simultaneously wrestling with and trusting God in suffering.  Despite his anguish on the cross under the weight of the world’s guilt, Jesus trusted in His good Father and His plan for him and for the world (Matthew 26:39).  God’s overarching plan of redemption and restoration has and will continue to come to fruition, and we must take that into account when we experience loss.  

Optimism is claiming that we know what God has in store for us and we can explain away each instance of loss. Hope, however, is admitting that we hate and question loss—we are angered by it, but we don’t give up our faith in Christ, the One who redeems suffering and overcomes evil. Loss may lead us to a confusion of identity, but if we look to Christ during times of loss and suffering we are reminded of our identity in Him.  This fact will lead us and help us be with others through the dark times of disorientation into reorientation.

 

Autumn Terry, 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

Faithful To

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.  Matthew 21:43

The renters are given everything they needed to produce wine, including a press and a wall (v. Mt. 21:33).  They weren’t given just one vine of grapes but an entire production and probably a vast amount of land full of fruit-producing plants (Is. 16:8).  The grape farmers were deeply faithful to the vineyard – they produced good grapes.  In fact, the owner was very satisfied and sent servants to go get his portion – presumably the rent he was owed – from the tenants (Mt. 21:34, 38).

Of course, the owner had the rights to everything in that farm since he’d built it and owned it outright.  All he’d asked for was payment from the ones renting the property. More than that, the owner didn’t even demand a finished product of wine, he only wanted the grapes as they were being harvested (v.34).  So, the renters would have been left with many bunches of grapes, a wine press, and the safety in which to make and then sell a lucrative product.

In return for rent in the form of grapes, the farmers could produce wine.  The renters were unrestricted beyond that – they were not considered slaves or even servants of the vineyard’s owner (v. 34).  In other words, in return for only rent, the tenants were given a vast supply of produce to sell, freedom to use it as they wanted, and land on which to live.  It wasn’t just a fair agreement, it was a fully gracious agreement.  The owner planned to make them wealthy.

And, the renters had been very faithful in growing and producing grapes.  They were good at their craft.  In fact, they were fiercely loyal to the vineyard.  As it turned out, they would eventually murder to keep it and its produce.

When he doesn’t receive what he is rightfully owed, the landlord sent one servant and then another to the vineyard to collect.  When they ferociously kill both servants, in an act of unprecedented and lavish grace, the owner sends his son to gather the payment.  He did not send his son with an army to imprison, enslave, or execute the renters who had access to his land and an income from his produce (vv. 37-38).  He sent his son to represent himself, thinking that maybe the renters didn’t respect the servants he’d sent.  But, in fierce defense of grapes, the renters slaughter the son too.  Instead of being content with their huge portion of wealth, the renters were also greedy enough to obtain the portion belonging to the owner’s son – his inheritance (v. 38).

In either case, in this scenario, the grapes or wine were going to be produced.  It would either be done in faithfulness to the owner or in faithfulness to the vineyard and its renters.  Of course, the owner had the right to take everything, but he was generous.  In return, while attempting to tend the owner’s vineyard, the renters became so infatuated with the grapes that they began to think of them as their own bunches of tiny fruit.  Instead of remaining faithful to the owner in their gardening and sending, they were intensely faithful to their grapes.  Instead of sending to the Father, they were going to send and sell the grapes elsewhere.  Instead of being faithful to the one who had the power to create and gift vineyards, they were faithful to the yield of the vineyard.

In using our talents, we must be faithful to the one to whom we are sending.  When someone becomes more attached to the people in whom they are invested or the gifts the Spirit has given, the heart attaches to those things or people instead of the Father.  This action chisels the soul away from the rightful, lavishly gracious, and loving Owner.  It causes us to become vicious in defending the product. It causes what we produce to become more valuable to us than God. We are left holding onto something that will die instead of onto the indulgent and infinite Life Creator.

The question isn’t “what have we produced,” but to whom will we be faithful with what we’ve been given?  To whom will we send the fruit?  Our fruit may be used for others, but it is ultimately given to God.

In the end, faithfulness to fruit rather than faithfulness to the Owner – the Father – took the tenants outside of his grace.  It may seem as if the owner instigated this by finally “bringing those wretches to a wretched end” (v. 41, NAS).  However, by rejecting the grace of the Generous One, the farmers took themselves out of his favor.  They were attempting to disconnect the vineyard from the Owner.  They brought their own destruction because they were cutting themselves off from the Creator – the builder of the vineyard.

Of course, it was the Pharisees, not Jesus, who came to the violent conclusion of a “wretched end” for the renters.  The Jewish leaders decided that judgement in some form of painful and dignity defying death would be best.  Jesus, in his grace, only said the vineyard would be given away to those who would be faithful to the Father, producing for and sending the grapes to him (v. 43).  Jesus — who is exemplified by the murdered son in the parable — does not choose to repay death with death.  Instead, he moves leadership away from the Pharisees — exemplified by the tenants — allowing them another chance at restoration.  Whether we are faithful or not, restoration lives in the heartbeat of Jesus.

 

Jessica Fleck, New City Stories Contributor 

The Shepherds: Advent Week Three

When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;  and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” – Luke 2:17-18  (NRSV)

If you remember, we began this Advent blog series exploring this question of why, exactly, God would invite us feeble, fickle, and fallen creatures into the climax of His grand narrative; namely, the Incarnation.  We first looked at how God invited Mary, a teenage virgin leading a quiet and humble life, to carry in her womb the promised Messiah. The next week we studied John the Baptist and how God placed a special calling on His life to “prepare the way” for the cosmos-altering ministry of Jesus.  Both of these examples prepare our hearts not only through foreshadowing the Messiah to come, but by providing us a glimpse into our own roles in God’s story of redemption.

However, there is another group in the story surrounding Jesus’ birth that gives us an even clearer grasp of God’s radical invitation and His infinite heart for us: The Shepherds.

Luke’s gospel records for us in 2:8-20 that a host of angels appear to a group of shepherds in the fields at night in order to unveil the good news that would echo on for eternity: “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (NRSV).  These words are familiar.  I remember listening to them repeated every year as a child at the Christmas Eve service, followed by the exciting candlelight ceremony where we would inevitably sing “O, Holy Night” and I would wonder if the sprinkler system would go off.

Let’s not let our familiarity with these words strip away the immensely crucial message behind them: God loves to include the excluded.

You see, shepherds at this time were very much outcasts.  They were considered a “despised” class of people.  For one, they were considered ceremonially unclean.  Due to their constant exposure to dirty sheep, animal carcasses, and all that comes with living on the far edge of society, shepherds could not meet the standards of ritual purity needed for access into the Temple.[1]  This is no small matter.  In Jewish culture, since being ceremonially unclean cut you off from worship in the Temple, it consequently cut shepherds off from access to God since He “resided” in the Temple.  Secondly, shepherds were considered untrustworthy because of their low position on the social ladder, making the testimony of a shepherd unreliable and thus prohibiting them from being able to testify in the local courts. This essentially meant that a shepherd had no access to legal rights.[2]  Lastly, because the work of a shepherd entailed leading a flock to distant pastures in order to graze, shepherds were constantly on the move away from society and community.  Shepherds were an isolated lot without much access to the benefits that come from having a network of family and friends.

Shepherds had no access to God in the Temple, no access to the law in the courts, and little access to community in homes or neighborhoods.  I can imagine shepherds sitting on top of the hills surrounding Jerusalem looking down on the city, longing for participation, connection, and relationship. They are the epitome of those “on the outside looking in.”

Yet, yet.  In an act that completely upends the elitist and exclusive standards of Israel’s culture, God decides to send His angelic heralds of the greatest message human ears have ever received to these excluded ones first.  And not only does God allow the lowly Shepherds to be the first to hear the good news, but He entrusts His mission to them to spread this news.  Do you see how radical this is?  Can’t you just feel the heart of God at work?  God bypasses the trivial and misguided barriers that we humans construct in order to include the lonely ones and invite them into major roles in the greatest Story that could ever be told.

It is absolutely fitting that God would invite the shepherds, the ones that typified being on the outside looking in, to be the catalyst for the news of Jesus’ birth.  Jesus, God’s love incarnate, is the one to establish a new kingdom where the last are now first (Mt. 20:16), where the poor and lame are invited to the King’s banquet (Lk. 14:13), and where the meek now inherit the earth (Mt. 5:5).  The inclusion of the shepherds in Luke’s gospel previews this new Kingdom where God’s love subverts all of our feeble standards and establishes a new economy of grace for all.

We cannot let the familiarity of this story keep us from recognizing and reflecting on the reality that God has a deep, mountain-moving, cross-bearing, veil-tearing kind of love for those on the outside looking in  because this is the very same love that would prompt God to become man.

During this last week of Advent as we prepare our hearts for Christ’s coming and reflect on how God is inviting us into His great drama, let us not forget God’s heart for the “shepherds.” Let us at New City, as citizens of this new Kingdom where God’s gracious love reigns through Jesus, reflect and act on what it means to be first in inviting the outcast and first to entrust God’s message to the one on the outside looking in. Most importantly, if you yourself feel like you are on the outside looking in, remember that God is longing after you, eager and excited to include you in His great Story; so much so that He sent His Son to rescue you, embrace you, and to become your friend.  If we accept this invitation, we will join the shepherds in “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.”

 

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor

 

[1] Morris, Leon. Luke an Introduction and Commentary. Inter-Varsity Press, 1983, 84-85.

[2] Morris, Leon, 84-85.

 

 

Preparing for Immanuel: Introduction to New City Stories Advent Series

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” – Isaiah 7:14 NRSV

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” – Matthew 1:23 NRSV

I find it compelling that the story of the incarnation, the story of Jesus coming to the world, involves so many different people: the prophets, Zechariah, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds, magi, King Herod, and many more.  It strikes me that the God of the universe, the great “I AM” who is all-knowing and all-powerful, chooses to include the likes of filthy shepherds and a teenage virgin in the climax of His cosmic story.

God has a beautiful way of inviting His sons and daughters into the work He is doing.  It is no different in the story of the incarnation.  First we read about the prophets such as Isaiah, Daniel, and more, who anticipated and proclaimed the coming reign of the Messiah centuries before.  Then we meet Mary, a young virgin living in a small obscure town who receives the call of God to carry and conceive God Himself.  Next we are drawn into the story of John the Baptist, a figure on the fringe of society whose radical “voice in the wilderness” paved the way for the work and ministry of Jesus.  We are then introduced to the Shepherds, the outcasts and blue-collar workers of the middle-east living on the outskirts of civilization, who become the first to witness and testify to the miracle and glory of Jesus.  We are also introduced to the Magi, the foreign scholars who also demonstrate a faith in and worship of God that is not found even among the religious leaders of Israel.  The rest of the Gospels pull us into the life of Jesus Himself, who is the ultimate example of God’s work in human history because He is the culmination of God’s promises in the flesh.

So, why is this? Couldn’t God have just sent Jesus down as a fully grown man in a cosmic bolt of lightning?  I imagine that He could have.  But God’s story is more beautiful, more creative, and more intricate than what we can imagine.  He desires the full participation of His people.  He desires to work with and through the faith, the joy, the willingness, the stubbornness, the anxieties, and the hearts of His people to accomplish His good and redeeming purposes.

The season of Advent serves as a reminder that our God is a God who acts in and through history.  This historical presence is ultimately evidenced in the name given to Jesus: “Immanuel” meaning “God with us” (Isa. 7:14, Matt. 1:23).  This physical, in-the-flesh kind of presence is the great distinction of the Christian faith.  No other religion climaxes with their god being born in a feeding trough for cows and donkeys, no other faith has as its central axis a fragile child, susceptible to sickness and death.

So, the Advent season reminds us that God is not a distant God.  In fact, He is a God who enters into our historical particularities in order to walk hand-in-hand with His people and invite them into a life of adventure and abundance.  His invitation to Mary and Joseph, John the Baptist, the Shepherds and many more, is the same invitation God offers us today.

This season and every season, let us see Advent as an invitation into the story of God.  Let us participate in Advent by celebrating, preparing for, and pointing towards, the person of Jesus Christ and the transforming reality that his presence has on our lives and on the life of the world.

Throughout the coming four weeks of Advent, New City Stories will dive into the narrative of the incarnation.  Through exploring this story and the people in it (beginning with Mary next week), our prayer is that our community here at New City will be formed by their examples of faith and that our hearts and minds will be prepared for a radically intimate relationship with the God who has come, who desires to come into our hearts now, and who will come again in glory.

Here are some questions to reflect on and wrestle with as we prepare for the coming Advent season beginning next week:

  • How does the reality that God has come, is with us now, and is coming again impact your daily life?
  • What are some practical ways that you can prepare your hearts and minds for intimacy with Jesus this Advent season?
  • Do you feel God calling and inviting you into His work of redemption and reconciliation in the world? If so, how can you be faithful to that invitation?

 

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor