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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

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