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Meditation on Transition: What Jesus’ Teaches Us About Being Sent

“…and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” Matthew 6:33

My wife and I love the mission of God. In hindsight, it has fueled so many of our life choices and endeavors: where we will live, what jobs we will take, the friends we will make; you name it. It is so much the bedrock of who we are that, before we could ever even articulate it, we were drawn to it in the form of a community called New City Church in Lexington, Kentucky, a church whose vocabulary simply oozes mission and purpose. I mean, their core values, the lenses through which they primarily make decisions about what stays, goes, and gets created, are love, rest, risk, and send. Send, meaning that we are committed to the commissioning of the people of God for the purposes of God both near and far in our communities. It was a no brainer. People who knew us well might have seen it coming a mile away.

What we didn’t see coming is that we would be the ones who would be sent far. Far, as in 3 hours away from the community that was sending us. Far, as in, no longer close enough to visit and encourage our friends on a daily basis. Far, as in, leaving our jobs, ministry entrustments, favorite restaurants, known roads, neighbors, and everything else in Lexington, Kentucky for the unfamiliar in Delaware, Ohio. In short, my wife and I are in transition. What makes this transition hard is not necessarily the amount of time we have spent here (it’s the shortest amount of time we have lived anywhere), but the intensity of the life we have lived here. It’s led to what feels like an equally intense transition process.

If you have uprooted yourself before, you know a lot of stuff comes up in transition: insecurities, fears, second-guesses, questions, vulnerabilities, lies, and the like. My wife and I went all in in our relationships. We invested heavily in our community. We sacrificed, in the moment, what felt like a lot in almost every area of our lives, and had been experiencing the good and tangible spiritual fruit of those decisions. Yet now we are committed to leaving much of it behind, being vulnerable, and venturing out into the unknown.

In this season, perhaps a great source of peace has been looking at the most intense time of transition for Jesus, his temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4). Jesus has just finished a 30 year stint as a physical laborer in relative obscurity. Aside from his training in the scriptures, which all Jews received in some form, he has no degrees, assessments, strengths conditioning, strategic plans, demographics, or denominational support to make his ministry a “success.” Regardless, he has just been commissioned by his Father and his community through the baptism of John and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In the overall narrative of Jesus, we know that he is about to step into an intense life of spiritual warfare, teaching, healing, and multiplication that will literally change the face of the world – but there must first come transition and temptation in the wilderness, and his responses have encouraged me.

His first temptation is to turn stones into bread (v. 4). Jesus has been fasting (as in, no food) and is hungry, his physical needs surely pressing in on his faith and conscious as he thinks about and prepares for what is to come. I’ve found the question of physical need always sneaks up on me in dark times. I get so excited about the call to a new opportunity that reality strikes when people ask questions like, “Where will you work? How will you live? Who is your support? How will you put food on the table?” When these questions come, Satan stokes the flames of my scarcity mindset. I quickly become terrified of running out of money. I begin to guard my resources and am tempted to become bitter about the call. I lash out at my wife for what seems like “frivolous spending.” This was not Jesus’ response. Instead he says, “’Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (NIV, v.4). I wonder if this is where Jesus learned the lesson he taught his disciples in Matthew 6:

“But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (vv. 30-33).

Jesus’ second temptation is to throw himself from the top of the temple, so that the Father can prove his loyalty and faithfulness to him by saving his life. It’s a question of trust. So much of my transition has been long periods of excitement and planning, punctuated by a few intense days of emotional doubt and frustration. I begin to doubt and ask questions, “Am I really cut out for this? Did God really call us? Am I hearing God correctly?” or “Did I hear him at all?” The confidence disappears and saps every ounce of momentum and energy from me. However, Jesus replies to Satan in this moment: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (v. 7). This is not blind acceptance or masochist-looking obedience. This is Jesus, a mature son of God, likely looking back at the faithfulness of God throughout his life and asking the question, “Has the Father failed me yet?” I’m certain the answer for him is, “no.” It is for me too.

Finally, Jesus is taken to a high point and shown all of the nations of the world, his for the taking, if he would simply compromise his mission and heart to worship Satan. It’s a question of glory and priority. My internal pride and willingness to compromise on what I know is right can at times be overwhelming. As a person gifted with vision who often looks to the future, at times I can become overwhelmed with thoughts of personal glory and influence. I’m confronted with  the very real question, “In my leadership, is my desire for people to worship me or worship Jesus?” Sometimes the answer is obvious; other times it is less clear. However, Jesus’ words ring clearly into my confusion, “’Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’” (v. 10). I pray for the strength to make this the truth of my heart.

It’s possible this might seem like a bleak picture of transition. It is true that you lose a lot when you uproot yourself. But remember, you also gain a lot: courage, patience, faith, a desperation for God’s still, small voice. I have not been perfect in this season or any other. Sometimes all I can talk about is what the Lord will do with our new opportunities, while other times I am overwhelmed with anger or sadness at the thought of leaving. I don’t know how a perfectly humble man like Jesus felt in this moment of transition, but I am inspired by his example of faithfulness. May we also look to him in whatever season we are in and present our hopes, fears, emotions, and desires to him, the one who withstood all temptation.

Blessings all!

 

Jordan McCain, New City Stories Contributor

 

Featured Image: The Temptation in the Wilderness, by Briton Rivière (1898); Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Christianity is Not a Syllabus: Reflection on James 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Rachel Smith, New City Stories Contributor

Being Sent to Follow: What Sukkot Teaches us about Sending

“…that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 23:43

Happy Sukkot!  Let us meditate on the Feast of Tabernacles!

Growing up in a Jewish family meant that from late September through late October we would celebrate Sukkot.  The main way we celebrated was by building a temporary structure in our backyard to represent a “booth” or a temporary structure. There were many days we had the purest intentions to sleep outside, but growing up in Colorado during this time of the year…I always ended up back in my cozy bed.

So what is Sukkot and why dig into this while we meditate on our core value of “Send?” Sukkot is the festival of Tabernacles, a “gathering of the year’s end.”  This holiday has agricultural significance as it marks the end of the harvest time and the agricultural year in Israel. However, this season draws its deepest significance from the Exodus story and the deep dependence that the Hebrew people displayed on the will of God (Leviticus 23:42-43). How powerful is it that as our own community here at New City spends time on our core value of “send,” we have the opportunity to celebrate and remember what this means through this festival?

Sukkot is the remembrance of a community on the move, dependent on the Lord, and believing in a destination. Would you utilize these passages and prompt questions to guide you?

God’s people on the move…

  • Exodus 25:28
    • What does the word “dwell” mean to you?
    • What is the significance of God’s promise to dwell with us?
    • How are you experiencing God dwelling with you as you “tabernacle” with Him?
    • Check out Revelation 21:2-23
  • Numbers 9:15-23
    • What guided the Israelites to get up and move? Do we live this way now pertaining to the presence of God as our guide?
    • The tabernacle exemplified intimacy with the Lord, but there was flexibility (could be up for 2 days, a month, or a year) and mobility. How does this challenge and inform us as we meditate on “send”?
    • What would it look like to see our church as more of a tabernacle than a temple?

God’s people dependent on the Lord…

  • Are you living dependent on the Lord as you live sent, like the Israelites depended on the pillar of cloud and fire?
  • Sukkot celebrates God’s people’s dependence on Him as they wandered. How can we remember and celebrate our dependence on God as we are sent, wandering in the world with mission and promise?
  • Exodus 13:21-22
    • What provision did the pillars provide?
  • Exodus 14:24
    • How have you seen God’s protection as we live sent?
  • Exodus 16:1-36
    • How have you seen God’s provision as you are on the move living sent?
    • Have there been any unique directions or promises from God as you are on the move?

God’s people believing in a destination…

  • What destination do you have in mind as a Christ-follower?
  • Joshua 3:1-17
    • What directions do you see in their  “last steps” as they arrive?
  • Numbers 13:1-33
    • How are you being one of the 2 and not the 10 as you are living sent?
      • What does it require?

As we explore our core value of “Send,” we are usually moved to think about the Great Commission, Acts 1:8 into Acts 8:1, and so on. What if we took time to see how the men and women of the Old Testament lived sent lives in dependence on the Lord? Let’s take time this week to think about the significance of the tabernacle and what that says about our God and how that might inform how we engage with God in His mission in the world.  

 

Zach Meerkreebs, Lead Planter and New City Stories Contributor 

Risk: The Faithful Response to Our Rescue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection Questions:

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

 

Mary Katherine Wildeman,  New City Stories Contributor 

Nothing But the Blood of Jesus

As Christians in our modern context, it is difficult for us to envision a time when the gravity of our sins and their subsequent atoning took place by the literal sacrificing of animals on an altar. Although that visceral picture might make us uncomfortable to think about, it was the reality of those who lived in the Old Testament under the Former Covenant. As with many things in the Christian faith, we must know where we have come from to be truly grateful for where we are today. Let us remember the inadequacy of the Former Covenant, in order to embrace the beauty of the New Covenant that Jesus established for for us by His blood.

The book of Hebrews is a New Testament letter that is rich with insight into the meaning of the Cross of Christ. Today, I would like to look at Hebrews 9:12-15, which states:

“He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Therefore, He is the mediator of a New Covenant.”

While much of this language may be foreign to you, I believe this passage, and the broader text surrounding it, argues four main reasons why the sacrifice of Jesus is superior to the sacrifice of goats and calves:

  1.  Firstly, while under the previous covenant, the high priest had to first offer a sacrifice for his own sin before making atonement for the sins of others, whereas Jesus, who was in fact sinless, did not have to do so. His flawless obedience to the Father made him the only man in history with the ability to offer sacrifices for all those other than himself. How humbling, that the one man who was innocent, gave of Himself for the guilty. The blood of Jesus is PURE!
  2. Secondly, because of the utterly sinful nature of humanity (including the high priests of old), under the previous covenant these sacrifices would have to be made repeatedly in order to establish continual purification for the people. Jesus, however, being without sin, is able to offer a “once for all” sacrifice that is eternal and lasting. This gives us an entire new perspective on the moment that Jesus declares “it is finished” on the cross right before He gives up His spirit and submits to death. The blood of Jesus is FINAL!
  3. Thirdly, the high priests of old used the blood of animals. Conversely, Jesus gave of His own blood as an act of willingly laying down His own life. While animals are unable to consciously sacrifice themselves (and were simply the chosen vessel) Jesus IS able to sacrifice Himself. The end of Hebrews tells us that “for the joy set before Him, (He) endured the cross”. The blood of Jesus is PURPOSEFUL!
  4. Finally, while the old purification system had to do mostly with an outward purification of the external, Jesus offers an inward purification of the “conscience.” He is not only able to make us righteous in the way that we relate to those around us, but indeed provides a way to cleanse our innermost being, heart, soul, body, and mind. As the book of Hebrews states, “He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to Him.” The blood of Jesus is REDEEMING!

In closing, let us never forget the kind of redemption that Jesus has provided for His bride.

The purity, finality,  purposefulness, and redeemable quality of the blood of Jesus makes His blood of utmost superiority to all other blood sacrifices, particularly the blood of goats and bulls, in terms of forgiveness, atonement, and purification. When we realize that the sacrifice – that is, the crucifixion – of Jesus was a purposeful and decisive sacrifice, it will cause us to respond in overwhelming worship. The more we understand the inadequacies of the Former Covenant and our own inability produce a clear conscience, the more precious and valued the sacrifice of Jesus and the New Covenant will be in our own lives. I pray this passage causes you to ponder the beauty of Jesus this week and to worship with a clear conscience and a full heart.

Oh precious is the flow

That makes me white as snow

No other fount I know

Nothing but the blood of Jesus

 

Melody Hickey, New City Stories Contributor

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

The Sabbath Keeps Us

“If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath,
from doing your pleasure on my holy day,
and call the Sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;

 then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Isaiah 58:13-14 ESV

The other morning while I was sitting on my front porch during the Sabbath, I noticed a finch perched in the tree a few feet away.  It was bright yellow with jet black accents along its wings, chirping a beautiful melody from its blazing orange beak.  This tiny bird drew me into its performance; I couldn’t help but to just sit and watch and listen.

In my listening, I began to notice that the finch wasn’t alone in its song, but was joined by an entire choir of hundreds of other birds from nearby trees, creating a kind of invisible symphony that touched every inch of the atmosphere around me.  The trees swayed to their song, rhythmically bending and bowing in an act of worship. The sun flickered off of the leaves, dancing to the psalms being sung.  I was witnessing the hymn of nature, a song of effortless gratitude.

I realized in that moment that the world around me was completely suspended in grace, myself included.

***

It is no coincidence that I remembered God’s grace during my practice of the Sabbath, which is a weekly time set aside to slow down and turn my heart and mind and body towards God in thanksgiving.  It is not an accident that as I participated in God’s rest—a rest that He has prescribed and promised to His people from the beginning (Genesis 2:3)—His perfect economy of grace was revealed to me.   Exodus 20:11 tells us that “the LORD has blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”  This means that Sabbath rest is charged with God’s presence in a special way and in that presence we find that blessing and sanctification are offered for us, His creation.

Mariano-Fortuny-St.-Paul-in-the-Areopagus

Many Greek thinkers in the time of the early church worshipped, along with other pagan gods, an “unknown god” (Acts 17:23).  Some believed this “unknown god” to be a far-off deity who created the cosmos but was distant and indifferent towards his creation.  In Acts 17, Paul addresses these very thinkers.  He tells the philosophers that God is not distant or “unknown;” in reality, it is in this God that “we live and move and have our being” (v. 28) and this God “gives to all mankind life and breath” (v.25).

 

I wonder how many of us today worship an “unknown god.”  Sure, we may not say that the God we worship is “unknown,” but that doesn’t mean that we don’t live like He is distant from our lives.  Many of us, including myself, have a habit of keeping God at a distance with our actions.  We function as if His grace is not the reality that sustains us and instead live each day by the power of our own individual pursuits and strivings and reputations and creations.  The cultural message that many of us have adopted is that we can be “self-made,” and it is only when we focus on working to fulfill our individual desires that we can experience rest and freedom.  This contemporary mindset has kept us from living, moving, and having our very being grounded in the sustaining love and grace of God.  We say we worship the God of abundance, but act as if we serve the gods of scarcity.  The result of this is that we, like the first century Greeks, make God “unknown” in our own hearts and minds.

Fortunately for us, God and His grace are made known to us during the Sabbath.

Sabbath is a powerful space where we are reminded that God’s grace, His very presence, is what sustains us continually.   In our individualized, consumerist, materialistic, and technological culture, our imaginations are inundated with the idea that we own our lives, that the sustaining of our existence is solely predicated on our own ceaseless work and productivity.  Even as Christians, whether we realize it or not, our hearts and minds have been trained to look primarily to ourselves for fulfillment.  We find ourselves swimming in the waters of our culture—waters that often flow contrary to what God’s word says about rest, freedom, peace, contentment, and joy.  Sabbath-keeping is a weekly resistance against this way of life.

When we cease from our to-do lists and anxieties and production, we are confronted with the reality that the world keeps on spinning. We creatures are not the ones that rotate the world on its axis or push it around the Sun, nor are we the ones that provide our next meal.  Everything is the Father’s and Sabbath teaches us that the Father is generous.  In other words, isn’t just that the practice of Sabbath provides us with rest from our labor throughout the week (though it does); it reminds us of our limits and insufficiency in light of God’s sovereignty and providence.  During the Sabbath we come to terms with our “creatureliness” and God’s sovereignty.  This is the starting point for true freedom.

The psalmist says, “My soul is consumed with longing for your rules at all times…and I shall walk in a wide place, for I have sought your precepts” (Psalm 119:20,45 ESV).  Talk about counter-cultural! The psalmist here is saying that freedom comes from recovering our God-given limitations.  In an age where we are told that it is our right to go beyond established and natural boundaries, that we need to keep pushing and climbing the social ladder at all costs, that we have little value outside of how much we produce, the Church would do well to heed the psalmists’ words.  It is through practicing the Sabbath that we come to know these limits – and consequently this freedom – in a deep way.  In the Sabbath, we are carried to the “wide space” where we can walk freely with Jesus Christ, who is the “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark: 2:28 ESV).

Christ and the Pharisees by Earnst Zimmerman

Jesus was not against keeping the law, particularly the Sabbath.  What he was against, however, was using the law to create barriers between us and God.  He was against using the law to make God “unknown.”  This is why Jesus boldly reminded the Pharisees that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27 ESV).

 

Sabbath-keeping gives us a kind of “holy pause” in our lives.  This “pause” isn’t passive or empty, however.  Instead, this “pause” is filled with God’s presence, reminding us that our work, our toils, and our striving are totally derivative of a work that is already complete.  It is through the rhythm of Sabbath-keeping that we come to know the One who finished the work on our behalf, and from this we can move into a life where our work (and play!) is not independent of and distant from the grace of God, but participates fully in it.  In keeping the Sabbath, the Sabbath keeps us.

***

As I sat on my front porch that Sunday morning watching and listening to the finch and the surrounding symphony of gratitude, I was reminded of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26 ESV).  I couldn’t help but wonder where Jesus got this imagery of the birds and the grace they displayed.  I imagined Jesus himself, weary from a week of labor, retreating into nature one morning and sitting under a tree, watching and listening to this same hymn of nature.  I imagine that as he sat and observed the birds singing while they fluttered from branch to branch, he too was reminded of his Father’s grace that sustains him as he goes into the world to accomplish His will.

It is in these moments of Sabbath rest, of a retreat back into the finished work of God, that we remember who we are and who God is.  In this remembering we are given the freedom and grace to go out to do the Father’s will, which is to ultimately invite all of creation into the song of the golden finch, into the hymn of effortless gratitude and praise to the only One who can and will sustain us.

 

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor

My Banner Over You is Love: A Testimony of Forgiveness

“He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.” Song of Solomon 2:4 ESV

In the past when I looked at this flag and my Dad’s picture feelings of anger, resentment, confusion, abandonment, fear, loneliness and most cutting rejection pierced my heart. When I got handed this flag at his funeral the only meaning it had was the reminder of what my father did to me and my mom before I was even born. He left us.

His choice to leave marked me so deep to my core it was unbearable. A flag that was the mark of a soldiers honor to his country was the constant reminder in my heart of the dishonor he had shown for leaving me. Honestly, I hid this flag for the longest time; I couldn’t look at it…until my heart started to forgive him.  It was only until recently that I decided to put it out on display after allowing Jesus to heal the broken places of what was supposed to be one of the most foundational and meaningful relationships of my life.

And slowly that forgiveness allowed for Jesus’ freedom to heal the gap in my heart where I so longed for a relationship with my Dad. Forgiveness opened the door for me to see my father as someone flawed, scared and not ready. I accepted that. One final step of forgiveness was necessary though; I knew it wasn’t finished.  The thoughts and feelings of abandonment and rejection always lingered around me like best friends at a party.

Recently in a freedom prayer session Jesus showed me the picture of my Dad’s flag that I received at his funeral.  I knew that Jesus giving me this picture meant that I had to lay everything down; from the hurt, the rejection, and the indescribable pain lingering in my heart to the anger and hate I had for what he had done so many years ago.  Years of agony, pain, and bitterness had developed in place of a relationship for which I had desperately longed.  I laid it all down in the flag case with the flag and Jesus replaced it with his redemption through the cross.

Immediately after this, Jesus spoke to me and said “My banner over you is Love.”  I caved, it was finally finished. I knew it. I felt the burden of the pain in and around my heart for my Dad lift– a burden that had been there longer than I can remember.  I was free.

This flag is no longer the banner that marks my life and the choices that my dad made or didn’t make no longer define who I am.  Jesus’ banner is the banner that flies over my life and that banner is LOVE.  Even though I wasn’t my dad’s decision I was Jesus’ decision.

So now when I look at that flag and at that man in the picture that honorably served our country, I have nothing but love in my heart for him because I know that banner in that case is Jesus’ banner of love, freedom and redemption for me and him.

Rachel Morris, New City Stories Contributor

The Importance of “Who”

As iron sharpens iron,
    so one person sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17

For the last 5 years, I have had the joy of walking beside many young men and women in times of transition. In college, before I started my first “big boy” job as a college pastor, I experienced a period of intense, transient angst. The reason for this angst was due to the ever present question: “So what’s next for you?” Most of the time, in periods of transition, we allow other people’s questions, expectations, and concerns to have a large impact on the questions we wrestle with in our decision making. We get going on the “what” and the “how” (because of my crazy ideas this can become “how am I going to make a living?”), and we forget the extremely undervalued but essential question of “Who am I doing this with?”

Why does this matter? What are the dangers of missing the “who” as we plan and discern what is next? I am concerned by the number of young people I get to do life with who are lured away by the job description or resources promised. I am heartbroken by the number of emerging leaders who get cruising after hearing the “what” and “how” just to be deflated, discouraged, and disappointed by the “who.”

When I was growing up, my parents had a pretty long leash for me and I had a lot of freedom. If I had to explain anything to my mom about where I was headed it was usually who I was going to be with, not what we were doing. If your parents know who you are with, they can breathe easy.

Recently my wife and I have experienced this because we have had to utilize a small army of babysitters for our wonderful one-year-old little girl. I don’t really know what these babysitters do with Eden, but it probably includes smiling, chasing her, eating avocados, and selfies. I love these people and am grateful that they play with my daughter in our backyard, watch movies, and go on walks–but even more than what they are doing, it is important to me to know who she is with. When we are in a bind looking for a babysitter, we don’t let our urgency cause us to be flippant in who we invite to watch our daughter–we rearrange our plans instead. I believe this is because the “who” matters, and if the “who” matters in our day-to-day life, why do we let it sink in priority or even disappear from our decision making when it comes to our calling? Do we feel like we have to settle? Are we being too picky? I am not saying the “who” question should become the only question but I do believe that, sadly, it has been demoted in many of our discerning and decision making processes today.

Don’t get rid of the value in what you are doing — in fact, I would still say this is of GREAT value. Don’t forget to ask the “how, “what,” “where,” and other responsible questions for a big kid to ask.  It is good to ask how this opportunity will help me fulfill my call rather than how it might meet my needs. It is healthy to ask what is God doing with this opportunity instead of what my 9-5 schedule will look like. Instead of getting all sorts of pumped about where opportunities are located –whether they’re in Denver, Nashville, San Fran, or Portland (I just listed sweet spots I wouldn’t mind hanging) – we should be asking where do I get to partner with Jesus in places where his Spirit is already at work. These are all important questions that are essential to the discernment process, but we cannot forget the question of “Who am I doing this with?”

Jesus teaching the crowds in his Sermon on the Mount

We see Jesus teach about the “who” and the importance of discernment, clarity, and wisdom in community in Matthew 7:15-23.  In this passage we first see a warning from Jesus. It kicks off in verse 15 when Jesus says to “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.”  When we are talking about ministry opportunities I would confidently say that most opportunities, potential bosses, selection committees, etc. do not come across as “wolves.”  However, without going too far down this road, it may be that the job offer and salary package might tempt and comfort us like a sheep but lying in wait are the “ferocious wolves” of unhealthy expectations, toxic work environment, or other dangerous aspects.  After this warning, Jesus then challenges us to look at the fruit others produce. Don’t be afraid to ask real, pointed questions when discerning what’s next. It matters. Take time to define, and let scripture define, what “good fruit” looks like to you.  We then move into a passage that can be pretty uncomfortable…Matthew 7:21-23 where Jesus tells some people that he “never knew” them despite what they did in his name. We see in this passage another warning of relying on the “what” and “how” of a resumé and not on the “who” of a relationship.

Other important passages that emphasize the importance of who include 1 Corinthians 15:33 where we see the power of poor company, Proverbs 27:17 which is quoted over and over again not because it’s cool…it’s key, and Hebrews 10:24-25 which speaks to the importance of good “who” as well!

Ultimately we must remind ourselves of the Who that got us into this spot in the first place. It is sad the amount of times I ask someone in the discerning process, “What is Jesus telling you about this?” and they reply, “Well…I don’t know…I should probably ask.” Just earlier this week (confession) I was preparing for a meeting with a mentor of mine and I literally said out loud to my wife, “I really hope he doesn’t just say, ‘well what is Jesus saying about all of it?’” It matters, I know it does (I am writing a blog about it) but I forget sometimes. Forgetting the Who could be detrimental to the process and end up leading us in some sticky spots.  We must remember Who is calling you, Who is providing for your need, and Who is leading you perfectly as you discern, process, and answer your call. This Who was passionately unapologetic when it came to His “Who” (Luke 2:49, John 5:19, 8:28&29, 12:49).

My prayer is that we take into consideration the “Who,” our Lord Jesus Christ, and the “who” we will be partnering with as we move forward. Would we pray for the correct who as we seek to follow God’s call on our lives.

Zach Meerkreebs, Lead Planter of New City Church and New City Stories Contributor