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Remember the Reason

Remember the reason for the season,

Corruption of intent and confusion of purpose.

Easter eggs, chocolate bunnies, and church productions,

Remember the reason for the season.

As Christmas transforms into consumption,

so could Resurrection Sunday into comfort.

Do we pause to remember…

betrayal, isolation, denial?

 the gruesome death on the cross?

the dead body in rock?

the 11?

Shame

1

Disappointment

2

Confusion

3

Remember the reason for the season?

Do we pause and contemplate the emotion of the women

A stone rolled away

An empty grave

A pair in dazzling apparel

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

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

A stone rolled away

An empty grave

Christ is alive!

The Resurrected keeps His promise

The gravity of this moment,

for every action, an equal and opposite reaction.

The miracle

Selah

Promises kept

Selah

He is God!

Selah

Let us…

Let us remember the reason for the season.

Zach Meerkreebs, New City Stories Contributor

The God Who Passes Through: A Reflection on Galatians 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artwork by Josefa de Ayala

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

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

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

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

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

18th Century Scottish Presbyterian preacher Ralph Erksine

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nilah MacLean, New City Stories Contributor 

The Gift of Gratitude

“…do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7 ESV

I’ve never been good at writing thank-you notes.

As a kid, I would procrastinate writing them after birthdays and holidays because the task seemed a little daunting—just looking at the stack of cards waiting to be filled with ink would make my hand cramp. It’s not that I wasn’t grateful for the gifts. I simply would rather spend time playing with those new gifts than thanking the people who gave them to me.

I know that’s horrible…but an honest 10-year-old Rachel would have told you the same thing.

However, something switched in me when I actually practiced enough discipline to sit down and write those notes. I realized as I wrote them not only how grateful I was for the gift, but also how glad I was for the relationship from which it came. I realized how much effort might have gone into choosing the gift, the money that went into buying the gift, and the anticipation with which the gift was sent and the response anticipated. If I had failed to sit down and spend time thanking people, I would have missed out on a lot of humbling gladness.

Physically practicing thanks and gratitude made me far more grateful and glad for the gifts I’d been given and the people who gave them to me. The gratitude in and of itself was a gift. Without it, I would have missed out on realizing the significance behind these gifts, though it had been there the whole time. I’ve realized lately practicing gratitude to God lands me in a similar place.

God provides for us in ways we could never deserve. He gives us gifts far better than what we could ever expect or even ask from Him. His gifts, whether they come through moments of sheer happiness or through trials, through practical provision or human relationships, through emotional comfort or spiritual growth, often abound regardless of our acknowledgment of them. When we practice acknowledging his gifts, what changes is not the fact that God is good, but our increased awareness of how good He is to us.

A few weeks ago, Zach preached that gratefulness results in gladness, which in turn spurs more notice of God’s goodness. It’s an upward spiral of thankfulness that enlightens our view of God

and heightens our awareness of the gifts he’s made available for us, from our salvation to our relationships to the cappuccino I just finished.

As Thanksgiving has come and gone, I pray we may remember gratitude is not seasonal, but a gift always available to practice and receive from God. Finding concrete ways to thank God, whether by journaling his gifts, reflecting on them with a small group, or simply saying a short prayer in the moments we notice God’s abundant generosity in our lives, allows God space to remind us of his faithfulness and goodness. Gratitude is the gift of recognizing the rest of his gifts. I pray we together seek to offer God our thanks this season and in the coming seasons, always giving him the space to remind us of the blessed perspective in which we get to live, thanks to his generosity.

 

Rachel Smith, New City Stories Contributor

Thankful for God’s Word

“12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” Hebrews 4:12 & 13

The Word of God is living….

The Word of God is active…

The Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword…

The Word of God discerns the thoughts and intentions of our heart…

The Word of God exposes us, naked, to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account…

This is what this season has been for our community and I. We have allowed the intensity of James to lay us bare in front of God to examine our lives. If you didn’t jump on board that train, it’s not too late…all aboard! This last weekend we were able to hear from multiple voices that call New City home. Every person who shared had a word that pierced my heart in different ways. Our brother Chavo shared that “Competency kills! Familiarity breeds laziness.”  Noah shared how the Lord challenged him with the image from James 3:11-12 that fresh water and salt water can never come from the same spout.  Soccer in Noah’s life has brought some of the greatest fruit (“fresh water”) but also has brought about intense frustrations, which at times lead to “colorful” metaphors (“salt water”). We heard a sweet word from Thomas inviting us to receive the promise that when we draw near to God, He will draw near to us every time.

Many voices declared and demonstrated the reality of Hebrews 4:12 and 13. James had served their spirituality through acting as a double edged sword and exposing them bare in front of the Lord. I don’t know about you but in my flesh, the reality that Hebrews 4:12 and 13 invites us into does not always breed thankfulness. But what if we leaned in and allowed the Word of God to do its job? I am so grateful for the power of God’s Word and my prayer is that in this season our community would grow deeper in our thankfulness for it.

What would this gratitude for Scripture do for your intimacy with Jesus? How would this impact your walk with the Lord? How could a deep gratitude for God’s Word transform your journey with Him? When I am deeply grateful for something, I treat it differently. My desire is that through thankfulness for His Word (not for a great podcast, sermon off YouTube, or book) we would see a deeper sense of intimacy and allowance for the Spirit to move in our lives. I believe deeply that His Word will bear fruit in our lives if we receive it fully. Isaiah 55 declares a promise about His Word…

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Isaiah 55 and Hebrews 4 teach us that we can anticipate transformation, not only from a sermon series through James at church but anytime we open, address, and allow the Word of God to interact with us. I believe as we grow in thankfulness for His Word we will be more postured to receive It’s ministry. As we continue as a community diving into Scripture together, lets pray for a greater appreciation for it.=

As you meditate on this during your week, here are some questions….

  • How have you experienced the Word of God in the ways Hebrews 4 describes?
  • How could you position yourself to experience God’s Word in a deeper, more intimate way?
  • Do you see Scripture as a a means of our Spirituality or as a generous gift from God?
    • How would our life look different if we saw it as a gift and not just a “means to an end”?

What promises or stories in Scripture are you thankful for?

 

Zach Meerkreebs, Head Planter and 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

 

 

Grace Upon Grace: How James 4 Changed My Life

Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you…. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection.  Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” James 4: 8-10 NRSV

James has been a book of healing for me. It may seem odd to hear that because so many people say, “Oh, James is so intense,” or, “That is a Catholic book because it talks so much about works.” I want to offer a different way to read James, one that I will share through my own personal testimony.

I attended a Christian music school for my undergrad, and when I got there, I had two goals: to learn guitar and to know Jesus for myself. I am a pastor’s kid, and at the end of high school I realized that I had been coasting through life on my parent’s faith. My desire to know Jesus for myself was real, but looking back, I lost view of that second goal pretty quickly. My first goal started to morph into obtaining a certain status with my gifting. I began to idolize individuals who were on stage, and I wanted to be like them. I would follow them on Facebook and Instagram, dress like them, buy the same guitar gear as them, and spend my time trying to obtain what they had accomplished. My heart was set to be that person on stage after I graduated. I set my life vision on that goal and planned on being there for the rest of my life thinking that THAT was what the Lord had led me to. At the time I didn’t know that I had a problem, but I did know I was tired and discouraged, and that I wasn’t excelling to that level of musicianship and status that I had idolized.

My senior year, I was in a worship class and we were praying individually during the class one day. I was tired, discouraged, and becoming angry at myself and, honestly, at the Lord. Why would He lead me to this school to set me up for failure? It was then when I felt Him speak to me. It wasn’t audible or said by someone near me, but I knew the thought or phrase wasn’t my own. He said to me, “Thomas. I didn’t create you to be ‘Adam.’ I don’t need another ‘Adam.’”  At that moment I realized that I was trying to be someone I wasn’t meant to be. I was striving and performing to earn a title, a status, and a reputation that the Lord didn’t design me to have.

This was freeing and heartbreaking at the same time. Four years of trying to be someone I wasn’t–gone. My life plans were crumbling in front of me. I felt lost in my calling, I felt lost in my friendships, and I didn’t know what the Lord was calling me to.  During that season, I found this little book near the end of the Bible named James. As I read this book, I felt like someone had articulated my frustrations, sins, and answers into five sweet chapters. Focusing on chapter 4 for time’s sake, I will share with you what the Lord has been speaking to me.

“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” – James 4:1. As I read through this book and this chapter, I felt as though I was laying on a counseling couch and the Lord was speaking directly to me. My whole undergrad, my heart was warring with what I could obtain rather than seeking what God wanted me to be. I desired (v.2a) to be something I wasn’t made to be. I coveted (v.2b) what others had, whether that was materials or status. I wanted it to be my identity. I didn’t ask (v.2c) the Lord for what His plans were because I thought I knew them already; however, when I asked (v.3) for these things (talent, ability, and giftedness), I never asked if they were what the Lord had for me.

In the first three verses of chapter four, James listed my sins one by one. I was like, “Oops, guilty of that. Wow, that one too. I hope there is an answer!” And there was an answer in verses 5-10. “God yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us.” James isn’t referring to the Holy Spirit in this passage; he is talking about the human spirit that we all were created with–our passions, our desires, and our thoughts. James is also not saying God is jealous of us. He is the creator God and the sustainer of life. He doesn’t need anything because He created all things. He is jealous FOR us. His wants us to turn to Him. He wants our passions to be His passions. He wants our desires to be for Him. He wants our thoughts to be of Him. I was desiring to earn something that I wasn’t created to be, and God’s desire was only for me to realize I had nothing to earn. I only needed to realize that everything He had for me was in Himself. I can rest in Him. I can rest by acknowledging and accepting that He is God and He has a purpose for me.

It has taken grace upon grace for me to realize that all I need to do is simply rest in Him. Thankfully, there is grace. Verse 6 says that “He gives more grace.” All I needed to do was to receive it. All I needed to do was submit myself to His love and grace. “Humble yourselves before God and He will exalt you,” says verse 10. “He gives grace to the humble,” states verse 6. All you need to do is draw near to Him. He doesn’t want to stay at arm’s length from you. His desire is to walk with you through life. If He needs to carry you through some seasons, let Him. Don’t fall into the trap that I did. I boasted about who I was going to be and what I was going to do, but it was not what the Lord had for me. God has been so patient with me as I have walked through these past couple of years. I can now see His hand in my life so clearly. Though I am still on a journey toward finding out what the Lord has for me, I feel as though He has calmed the storm in my heart and I am no longer “lost at sea”; rather, His grace has been the wind in my sails, and His heart is my compass toward His will for me.  “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you,” says verse 8. This is my testimony. Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.

 

Thomas Hickey, New City Stories Guest Writer

Weekly Devotional: James 4

We invite you to read James 4, listen to Zach’s sermon, and reflect on these questions in your devotional time this week!

  1. What are the normal outcomes of the internal struggle or “passions at war within you” in your life? How do you notice and deal with this tension?   How has internal turmoil impacted your external actions? (verses 1 and 2)
  2. What does it look like to submit, draw near to the Lord, and grow in humility in this season in your life? (verses 7 and 8)
  3. How can your future plans and how you communicate them demonstrate your submission and trust in the Lord and His sovereignty? (verses 13 – 17)

 

New City Teaching Team

Idols in our Pockets

“…Yet do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart; and do not turn aside after useless things that cannot profit or save, for they are useless.” 1 Samuel 12:20b-21

Idolatry doesn’t have to be explicit. In fact, it normally isn’t. When we think of “idol worship” we tend to picture people bowing before an elaborate shrine with some small statue of a foreign god at the center. In a way, this picture of idolatry makes sense. Christians have (rightfully so!) gained their understanding of idol worship from the Old Testament. In Exodus 32 and 1 Kings 12, we read that Israel turned to and trusted a golden calf for their prosperity and salvation. 1 Samuel 7 tells us that the Israelites were worshipping “Baals and Ashtoreths,” which were physical representations of Canaanite deities. In 2 Kings 23, we even read that King Solomon of Israel built places of worship to multiple foreign gods in the heart of the Promised Land itself.

An Asherah Pole was a physical representation of foreign goddess, Asherah.

When surveying the Old Testament stories of idol worship, we modern, Western Christians may be tempted to think that we have successfully avoided such sinful practices. I cannot name a single Christian who has erected a stone altar on the side of a mountain in the wilderness and travels there to offer praise and sacrifice to a foreign god. But just because the form of idolatry may look different, it does not mean that we have kept idolatry at bay. This ancient world with all of its shrines and idols and deities seems so distant from our modern sensibilities. But is it?

James K.A. Smith, in his book You Are What You Love, lays out a kind of thought experiment that has been haunting me lately. He says to imagine an alien ethnographer who is sent to Earth to study human culture and to take the findings back to its home planet. Imagine that this alien gets beamed down to your kitchen table one morning while you are eating your breakfast. The alien sees you, sitting there eating and hunched over a tiny glowing rectangle. The alien, watching intently for nearly half an hour, observes that this glowing box is clearly important to you because the amount of time you spend focused on it as opposed to your spouse or your food or anything else in the room is excessive. The alien concludes that this small, bright rectangle must be an object of religious devotion—a kind of idol that humankind spends many hours each day worshipping.

When I read Smith’s thought experiment, I was immediately stung with conviction. How many times have I mindlessly scrolled through a feed instead of engaging with my family or reflecting on my day? How many times has my iPhone kept me from stewarding my daily responsibilities as a student, friend, husband, and father?  More importantly, how many times have screens kept me from communing with the one true God, the One who is always inviting us into deeper relationship with Him? In our secularized context, where the temptation to worship other gods and bow down to false idols seems so distant, we need to be taking an account of our lives and asking ourselves if we have simply erected new, shinier idols in their place.

At its most basic level, idolatry is the continual engagement with lesser realities that keep us from the worship of and communion with God. As our technological world continues to fashion together objects that are more attractive, more addictive, and more all-consuming of our time and devotion, we as Christians must reflect on our use of these objects so that we can navigate away from idolatry and towards deep friendship with God.

Of course, technology such as smartphones, laptops, smart watches, tablets, and televisions are not the only modern day idols that we have erected in our lives. An idol is simply something that captures your heart that is not God Himself. However, it seems to me that technology, with built in features that are explicitly designed to clamor for our attention and cause addiction, pose a very immediate and grave threat to our spiritual health both as individuals and as body of believers. This is because technology’s very nature is to keep us hopelessly unreflective through endless and addictive distraction.

This is a serious problem for Christians because Scripture teaches that the remedy for idolatry in our lives is a kind of deep remembering of who God is and what He has done on our behalf. By “remember” I do not simply mean a kind of cognitive act where we dust off some old memories, but a kind of engagement with God’s story and our place in it that brings us into deeper communion with Him. This is what worship is. To keep idolatry far from our lives, God calls us to participate in everyday practices that bring about a kind of remembering that anchors our hearts in Him. Communion, Sabbath keeping, prayer, shared meals with fellow believers, praising God through song, and so much more all constitute daily and weekly practices that pull us into remembrance of who God is and what He has done. Through these practices of remembrance, our identities are more fully formed by God and His story as opposed to the false idols of this world.

Are you beginning to see the insidious problem that technology presents? In 2018, all of us have not only a powerful potential idol in our pockets, but this “potential idol” also makes it nearly impossible to engage in the necessary practices that will heal us of our idolatry. In other words, our smartphones not only act as a kind of temporary distraction from God, but their very nature causes them to break in and interrupt our attempts at remembering who God is.  I cannot tell you how many times my phone has kept me from entering into a full posture of worship of God. It happens every day. I attempt to enter into a time of scripture reading and prayer, and I hear my phone buzz or ‘ding’ and I am distracted. Once I am distracted, I pick up my phone and begin to scroll until my attention is no longer on God but on some political Facebook post that I disagree with or a highlight video of my favorite sports team. Now, when I try to re-engage God in prayer, the thoughts of my heart are scattered and are in conflict with one another. Before I know it, I am late for work or class and I have to run out the door.

I did not realize that technology represented an idol in my life until, ironically, I left my phone in the other room one morning and spent some time with God in prayer and in His Word. I was reading through 1 Samuel 12 when Samuel is warning the people against idolatry and he says to “…not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart; and do not turn aside after useless things that cannot profit or save, for they are useless” (v.20b-21). It struck me in this moment that my phone was an “idol” in the proper sense of the word. It is not only “useless” to “profit” or “save” me, but it actually keeps me from following Christ with all of my heart. I always knew that I spent too much time looking at screens, and I have been constantly trying to put boundaries in place to spend less time doing so; however, it wasn’t until in this moment reading Samuel’s words that I realized that I too was worshipping a false god. The problem because spiritually real to me.

Maybe you don’t have this same tenuous relationship with technology that I describe. If not, praise the Lord and take what I share as a cautionary tale and a reminder to evaluate your life to see what might be keeping you from deeper friendship with God. My hunch is, however, that many of us struggle with this to a certain extent. Whenever I walk into a Starbucks or into a classroom or even to a room full of close friends I see people staring at their screens and not at one another (I am one of them). If we struggle to look up from our phones when we are around friends, how much more are we looking at them in private?

As brothers and sisters, let us be bold and creative in figuring out ways to navigate the terrain of this modern, technological world and know that the glow of this world is but a faint flicker compared to the illuminating glory of the One who calls us to Himself.

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor