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“Here I Am”: Recovering a Theology of Calling

“We are not primarily called to do something or go somewhere; we are called to Someone.” – Os Guinness, Rising to the Call

The question of calling haunts me. It seems to follow me wherever I go.  It’s a part of every thought about my future, a factor in many of my decisions in the present, and is in nearly every conversation with friends and family. I know I am not alone in this.  I often hear friends talk about where they feel called, what they feel called to do, and how they are going to go about following that call from God.  It can be exciting, overwhelming and anxiety-producing all at once.

In many ways, the centrality of calling in Christian circles makes sense.  The fundamental structure of God’s story involves call and response.  God called creation into existence, it responds by reflecting His beauty, creativity, and even His very image.  God calls Abram out of Ur and he responds in obedience (Gen 12). God calls out to Moses from the burning bush and Moses responds by saying “Here I am” (Exodus 3). Jesus calls fishermen to follow him, they respond by dropping their nets (Matt 4).  And so on.  This rhythm we see in the story of God is even the reason why we structure our worship around call and response; it is the ebb and flow of the Christian story.

It is no wonder then that many in the Church, including myself, have a kind of obsession with figuring out the what, where, and how of God’s call on our lives.

But there are serious dangers here.

I have observed that in my own life and the lives of those around me, when we talk about “calling” we are usually referring to specific things like occupation, location, people groups, and so on.  Again, to a certain degree, this makes sense.  God does call us to specific places, tasks, and people groups.  He called Jonah to Ninevah (Jonah 1), He called Moses to free the Israelites from slavery (Exodus 3), and He even called Philip to one particular person, the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8).  We shouldn’t disregard the specifics of God’s call, but in our attention to them, we should be wary of making them into idols.

If there is one clear theme in scripture, it is that God is pursuing our hearts. Our hearts are the seat of our affections—they contain the throne room of our loves and are the core of our very being.  So, if our hearts are preoccupied with things that are less than God Himself, then there will inevitably be misalignment in who we are.  This misalignment is what scripture calls “idolatry.”

Many of us, including myself, have flirted with (and maybe have even fallen into) this trap of idolatry when pursuing God’s call on our life.  When we think about, talk through, and pray over our call, we find ourselves obsessing over titles, romanticizing places, and maybe even yearning for recognition.  We often mask our misaligned desires in language of “calling” in order to baptize our ambition while all the time God was calling us not to a title or to a place, but to Himself.

But how can we avoid this idolatry when trying to embrace God’s call?  These secondary aspects, the “lower tier” goods of location, position, people groups, etc. are so interwoven into this question of calling that it seems impossible to filter and order them in a healthy way.  How can we grasp a theology of calling that helps us develop rightly ordered loves?

I believe the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22 offers us understanding and hope.  But first, some context.

You see, when Abraham was seventy-five years old, he was called out of Ur and told to settle in the land of Canaan.  God promised him that he would be the father, the patriarch of a “great nation” and that this nation would “be a blessing” to the rest of the world (Gen. 12:1-3 ESV).  Abraham obeyed “as the Lord had told him” and traveled as a nomad for decades, moving in and out of the land that he had been promised, waiting for God’s word to be fulfilled (Gen. 12:4 ESV).

This was no easy task. During this period of over twenty-five years of wandering, waiting, and yearning for the “call” on his life to be realized, Abraham did the following things:

  • Abraham lied to Pharaoh and told him that Sarah was not his wife but his sister because he was afraid that the Egyptians would kill him in order to have Sarah (Gen 12:10-20)
  • Abraham was impatient with God and questioned the Lord on when he would give him an heir (Gen 15:2-3)
  • Abraham struggled with how he was to possess the promised land of Canaan (Gen 15:8)
  • Abraham, fearing that Sarah would never be able to bear him a child, decided to take matters into his own hand and had a child with Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant (Gen 16:1-4)
  • Abraham “fell on his face and laughed” at God when He specifically promised that Abraham would have a son through Sarah because she was ninety years old (Gen 17:17)
  • Abraham lies again about Sarah’s identity to King Abimelech because he feared for his own life and his own future (Gen 20:11)

If you read the entire story of Abraham carefully, you quickly realize that Abraham struggled to understand and embrace God’s call on his life.  He pleaded with God for clarity, he questioned God on how he was going to fulfill His task, and there were even times when he tried to control his own fate.

But despite all of these missteps along the way we also see in Abraham someone who, by God’s grace, repeatedly returned to God in prayer, who renewed His promises with the Promiser, and ultimately never stopped believing and trusting that God was faithful to his word.  Abraham’s belief in the Lord was “counted to him as righteousness” not because it was perfect, but because despite all his fears and doubts he never let it slip away (Gen 15:6).

All of this fumbling, wrestling, questioning, promising and re-promising leads up to Genesis 22.

In this chapter we have the story of God “testing” Abraham and commanding him to sacrifice his only son who represents the culmination and the fulfillment of God’s call and promises to Abraham. (Gen 22:1-2).  Abraham responds by saying “Here I am” and by doing what God commands (Gen. 22:1).

At this point in the story, most of us are asking: “Why would Abraham agree to such a cruel request?” and more importantly “Why would a perfectly good God command anyone to do such a thing in the first place?” These are understandable questions, but when we locate this story within the entire trajectory of Abraham’s pursuit of God’s call, things come into focus.

You see, in order to understand this story you have to understand what God was after. He was in pursuit of Abraham’s heart, the axis of his affection and desires.  There was the reality, however, that Isaac represented to Abraham the “lower tier” aspects of God’s call such as the title of patriarch, the legacy of a great nation, and the power that comes from being a leader.  If Abraham is more concerned with these secondary aspects of God’s call, they could usurp God’s rightful place on the throne of his heart.

But Abraham trusted God.

Just as he was lifting the knife in order to go through with giving Isaac back to the One who promised him, an angel of the Lord called to Abraham. Abraham responded “Here I am.”  The angel then told Abraham “Do not lay your hand on the boy…for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Gen 22:12).  Nearby was a ram caught in a bush so Abraham sacrificed the ram to God and named the place “The LORD will provide” (Gen. 22:14).

Abraham, over the span of nearly three decades, was wrestling with and seeking out the Lord.  This continual, faithful struggle cultivated in Abraham a heart that was ready to say “Here I am” when he was asked to give everything. He spoke these words not out of cold indifference, but out of a deep and unshakeable trust that the “Lord will provide.”

Abraham’s story is, in many ways, our story.  We feel a call on our life, but we lack clarity. In this murkiness we begin to question, doubt, and to make our calling our own.  We dream of places and positions and peoples and are tempted to make these things ultimate.  However, if, like Abraham, we receive God’s daily grace to give us the strength to cling to His promises, the Caller will mold and shape our hearts so that we, too, may say “Here I am” when God asks us to give it all back.

 

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor 

Giving is Not Loving: 1 Corinthians 13 and Generosity

The three most important things to have are faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of them is love. Follow the way of love.           1 Corinthians 13:13-14:1a

It is possible to be giving and not loving.  So, giving alone, cannot be love.

“Christ and the Rich Young Ruler” by Heinrich Hofmann

You know how long it takes to feed a baby who’s just learning to eat?  This is the gist of the Greek word used for “give” in 1 Corinthians 13:3.  It alludes to feeding bit by bit and carries a connotation of digestion.  It’s not the same as when Jesus told the Rich Young Ruler to sell everything and give it to the poor-that was an immediate giving over. In fact, 1 Cor. 13:3 refers to continual giving, so it would probably end up being more than the Ruler could have given all at once.

This is the actual taking care of someone, day by day, meal by meal — lifelong giving of everything to those in need.  It’s an even deeper kind of giving than the “shot in the arm” type: it’s a caregiving.  It is longsuffering commitment to provide for those in need during one’s entire life until absolutely all possessions are finally given over.  It’s adopting the needy and naming them in your will.

And this is not love.  According to 1 Corinthians 13:3:

Suppose I give everything I have to poor people. And suppose I give my body to be burned. If I don’t have love, I get nothing at all.

This verse presupposes that it’s possible to give in this lifelong, careful, unlimited way, without love.  In fact, it even yields nothing for the person doing the giving.  Nothing.

Do you find all this as completely dumbfounding as I do?

The surrounding verses tell why, giving two reasons: First of all, anything we do as Christians must be deeply connected to the Church and its edification (1 Cor. 12-13).  Giving, even if it is careful and longsuffering and boldly generous, must be centered within the Body of Christ in order to be loving.  So, it has to be done within a community that actually knows each other and is family that cares for one another (1 Cor. 12:26), not just called family for functionality.  It is family that suffers and rejoices with each other.

The second reason is that giving to people alone, cannot be lasting.  Love always remains because it is patient, kind, generous, humble, polite, unselfish, joyful, protecting, trusting, hoping, unfailing (1 Cor. 13:4-8).  Love always remains because God is love (2 Cor. 13:11 & 1 Jn. 4:8).

Love, not giving, is the greatest gift every Christian can strive for (1 Cor. 13:13).  It’s also the greatest thing we can give.

 

Jessica Fleck, New City Stories Contributor

Diving into the Easter Story: Resurrection Sunday

Resurrection Sunday 

The central axiom of the Christian faith is this: Jesus Christ died, was buried, and three days later rose again in a final defeat of sin and death.  If this is true, then the entire weight of existence hinges upon it. If it isn’t true, the Apostle Paul himself says that our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain” (1 Cor 15:14 NRSV).

Explore the resurrection.  Enter into the story and search out Christ.  Peek into the tomb to see if he is still there.  If you do, you will find, along with Mary, Peter, and the rest of the disciples that it is indeed empty.  Because of this empty tomb, we can, along with Paul, claim with boldness: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead” and because of that we live.  Hallelujah!

Isaiah 51:9-11 NRSV 

Awake, awake, put on strength,
    O arm of the Lord!
Awake, as in days of old,
    the generations of long ago!
Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces,
    who pierced the dragon10 Was it not you who dried up the sea,
the waters of the great deep;

who made the depths of the sea a way
    for the redeemed to cross over?
11 So the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
    and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
    they shall obtain joy and gladness,
    and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.  

 

Luke 24:13-26 NRSV 

“Emmaus’ Door” (1992) by Janet Brooks-Gerloff.

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 

Job 19:23:27a

23 “O that my words were written down!
    O that they were inscribed in a book!
24 O that with an iron pen and with lead
    they were engraved on a rock forever!
25 For I know that my Redeemer lives,
    and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
26 and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
    then in my flesh I shall see God,
27 whom I shall see on my side,
    and my eyes shall behold, and not another.

  • Questions:
    • How does the fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ impact your daily life?  Does it change the way you view yourself? Does it change the way you treat others? Does it change your outlook on the world and the opportunities that are presented to you each day?  Is your life marked by gratitude, hope, and joy?
  • Challenge:
    • Those are challenging and convicting questions.  If you feel convicted, you are in good company! We live in a broken world and often are separated from the joy and hope that is offered to us because of sin, busyness, and the daily stress of life.  Our challenge to you is that you strive each day this week to read these passages and think about and pray through the reality of the resurrection and how it should transform your life and the life of the world.  Jesus lives and is doing a great work among his people! Let’s celebrate!

 

New City Writing Team

Diving into the Easter Story: Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday 

Holy Saturday, the day between Jesus’ death and his glorious resurrection, commemorates the waiting, praying, and anxious uncertainty that the early church endured.  John 20:19 tells us that the disciples, after Jesus’ death, were all gathered together in a locked room hiding in fear from the authorities.  As we read and reflect on these scriptures let us, along with these first followers of Christ, hope and pray and yearn for Jesus’ presence in our own lives today.

Matthew 27:62-66

62 The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63 and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard[t] of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” 66 So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.

Lamentations 3:19-26 NRSV

19 The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
    is wormwood and gall!
20 My soul continually thinks of it
    and is bowed down within me.
21 But this I call to mind,
    and therefore I have hope:

22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
    his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
24 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in him.”

25 The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
    to the soul that seeks him.
26 It is good that one should wait quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord

Hebrews 4:14-16 NRSV

14 Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

  • Questions: 
    • How are you waiting on the Lord in this season? Are your questions, your doubts, and your longings met with a bold hope that can only be found in Christ or do they cause you to turn away from God?
  • Challenge:
    • After reading the passage from Lamentations, make a list of the times in your life where God has provided for needs and desires in your life to help you remember God’s steadfast love for you.
    • Then, read the Hebrews passage and say a new, bold prayer for our needs and the needs of others so that we may approach our great High Priest with bold expectancy and thankfulness.

New City Writing Team

 

Diving into the Easter Story: Good Friday

Good Friday

Although it is called “good,” Good Friday is a solemn day for the Church. It commemorates the betrayal, unjust trial, and brutal crucifixion of our Savior, Jesus Christ.  As Christians in the 21st century, we know the rest of the story and understand that a huge celebration is coming; however, we encourage you to enter into this time of grief, uncertainty, and deep sadness so that you may experience what the earliest followers of Jesus went through.

John 18:28-37 NRSV

Christ in front of Pilate by Mihali Munkacsy

33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 

 

 

Psalm 22:1-2, 12-19 NRSV

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
    and by night, but find no rest…

But I am a worm, and not human;
    scorned by others, and despised by the people.

All who see me mock at me;
    they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
“Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—
    let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”…

14 I am poured out like water,
    and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
    it is melted within my breast;
15 my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
    and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
    you lay me in the dust of death.

16 For dogs are all around me;
    a company of evildoers encircles me.
My hands and feet have shriveled;
17 I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me;
18 they divide my clothes among themselves,
    and for my clothing they cast lots.

19 But you, O Lord, do not be far away!
    O my help, come quickly to my aid!   

Artwork by Josefa de Ayala

John 19:38-42 NRSV

38 After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. 39 Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. 40 They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42 And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.  

  • Questions: 
    • Have you ever felt distant from God, especially in times of deep stress and anguish?  Do you know of others who have had this experience? How does Jesus’ experience, all the way from his agonizing prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane to his crucifixion at Calvary, comfort and sustain us during these moments?
    • Why do Joseph and Nicodemus, who are experiencing both fear and grief, spend so much energy, time, and precious resources to properly bury Christ’s body?  What does this burial teach us about faith and worship in times of grief and anxiety?
  • Challenge: 
    • If you are experiencing distance or isolation from God’s presence or know of someone who is, we encourage you to pray through these passages and reflect on the reality that even Jesus Himself, the only begotten Son of God, experienced deep pain and that he is with you in your suffering.
    • Even when we enter into seasons of grief, fear, and waiting, the example of Joseph and Nicodemus shows us that we are still called to tend to our relationship with Jesus and lavish him with our worship.

New City Writing Team

 

Diving into the Easter Story: Maundy Thursday

Each of the next four days we will be posting a short devotional to provide a resource to help New City Church dive into the story behind Holy Week. From Maundy Thursday to Resurrection Sunday,  we hope and pray that these selected scriptures, questions, and challenges help our community enter into, and be transformed by, the most important Story that has ever been told.  Through immersing yourself in a slow, patient way in the Holy Week narrative, we will be able to anticipate, grieve, wait, and celebrate in a way that Jesus’ followers experienced in their own time and place.

We encourage you to print these devotionals out, share with others, and use in community!

We, the New City writing team, pray that this resource brings life and glorifies the risen Christ!

 

Maundy Thursday 

“Maundy” comes from the Latin word “mandatum” which means “commandment.”  Therefore, Maundy Thursday commemorates the day during Holy Week where Jesus, during the Last Supper and right after he washed his disciples feet, gave a new commandment to his followers: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

John 13:12-17 NRSV

12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16 Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. 

John 13:31-25 NRSV

31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

  • Questions:
    • Are you a foot washer? Is your heart postured in such a way that it will allow you to be, as Oswald Chambers says, a “doormat under people’s feet” for the glory of Christ?
    • What does it mean, exactly, to “love one another” just as Christ has loved us?  What does that look like in your life today? Do your neighbors, co-workers, or family members know that you are a disciple of Jesus?
  • Challenge: 
    • This next week, take some time each morning to read and pray through this passage and then ask God to reveal to you the ways in which you can be a footwasher and a disciple that day.

 

New City Writing Team

Being is More Important than Doing

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 NRSV

For the majority of my adolescence, I thought I had the answer to the meaning of life. I thought it was logical, biblical, and honestly, kind of easy. When someone at youth group or at school would begin to discuss why we were created, I pulled my answer out of my holster of ready-made Sunday School answers, throwing Matthew 28:19-20 at them with a sure smile.

Obviously, I thought, we were created for the Great Commission, to go and make disciples of all nations. We were created for missions. We were created to do things for God. I lived through that paradigm for a long time. I did as many things for God as I could, whether at church, with nonprofits, or even at school. My life became a scrapbook of all the activities I thought were giving me purpose, a resume rapidly lengthening.

I didn’t think anything compared to the importance of doing things for God, even pursuit of relationships. All my works came from a genuine place of loving and wanting to serve God, so I assumed the tiredness that snowballed over time was normal. I thought it was probably just part of the experience of being a Christian. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was striving to give God reasons to love me.

When God called me to seminary, I thought he was giving me the chance to go to a perfect place to do even more things for him. I was surprised to find God’s expectations were a little less stringent than mine. After arriving at seminary, I started to question the paradigm I had trusted for so long. I felt uncomfortable and a little disoriented as I traversed readings about concepts like rest and love. In the short time I had spent attending New City, the preaching and teaching there had simultaneously pressed me and pulled me in, like both sides of a magnet, always giving an appealing yet perplexing perspective on how to live for God through love and rest. I didn’t know what to do with the magnitude of God’s love I was beginning to glimpse.

Then, one Sunday, Zach challenged us to pray a bold prayer for God to wreck us. In my desperation, I did. In his love, God agreed.

God had begun to deconstruct my paradigm of doing to earn love. Piece by piece, realization by realization, He was breaking me down until all that was left was a vague idea of who I was and no real reason for my own existence. However, God used my blank canvas to paint a more comforting and freeing paradigm than I could have imagined. This is what I learned.

When God created the world, it was sinless. At the time, there was no need for missions. He created everything, including humans, and for a while, everything was good. No one needed to be evangelized. This wrecked my Sunday school answer. Without having things to do for God, I had no purpose. I had no way to measure up or earn his love. I had nothing to strive for. I had no reason to exist. In the midst of all my seminarian pondering of the things of the deep, I realized the way I had always framed my purpose had placed undue pressure on my life. It was too self-centered. It was too complicated.

I realized my real purpose belonged not in my doing, but in my being.

Before creation of the earth, people, or even the construct of time, God existed relationally in three persons: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – who love better and more deeply than we can fathom. God alone defines love. God is love, and love existed before the world was created. Love created the world. Love created us. We were created because of a love so strong it wouldn’t keep to itself, so it overflowed and manifested itself in the creation of you, me, your best friend, my mom, that guy on the bus, and everybody else. To put it simply, God created us to hang out. Seriously, God created us for relationship. He created us out of love and for love, so he could love us and so we could love Him back. He created us, even knowing ahead of time about all the messed up stuff we would do, because even then He thought we were worth it.

Even now, He continues to create. He still thinks we’re worth it. Love existed before mission was even necessary, and love will outlast its necessity. Worship will outlast it. We were made for worship. We were made for love. In the meantime, God does call us to do many things, and we shouldn’t ignore those calls, but our purpose is greater than the fulfillment of a checklist.

As these pieces came together, I realized all the things I did for God over the years seemed meager when overshadowed by the immense amount of love God has for me. I realized that simply being is more important than doing. God wants us to be with him—in love, in kindness, in patience, in joy, and in all the good things to which He calls us. I used to think these things were what I needed to do for God to pay attention to me, but I realize now those things are what God invites us to be, with him and through him. Love is not a thing we do, a place we visit occasionally, or our day job; rather, it is the house we’re called to live in.

Ultimately, life is not about anything we can do for God. It’s about what He’s already done for us. The way He lived out love allows us to simply be redeemed, be rested, be fulfilled, and be His. Ultimately, the point of our lives is to be loved, and that can start right now, before we can do anything about it.

 

Rachel Smith, New City Stories Contributor

Called to Perfection?

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Growing up, my father taught me the extreme importance of knowing words’ true definitions. He would often say, “Melody, definition is SO important. Never say ‘jealous’ when you really mean ‘envious.’ They are two completely different ideas”. There were times when I rolled my eyes and thought that he was simply playing a game of semantics. I didn’t quite understand why these seemingly small and insignificant nuances were of such great relevance until I heard an interview many years later with talk show host Oprah Winfrey.

In this interview, Oprah described an experience she had in a church where the pastor was preaching on God being a jealous God. She spoke about her thoughts that day, saying, “I was caught up in the rapture of that moment until he said ‘jealous,’ and something struck me. I was like 27 or 28 and I’m thinking, ‘God is all. God is omnipresent. And God is also jealous? God is jealous of me?’ And something about that didn’t feel right in my spirit… and that is where the search for something more than doctrine started to stir within me.” That was a solidifying moment for me. I remember hearing that and finally realizing fully what my Dad had meant all those times.

To put it simply, Oprah’s misunderstanding of the definition of “jealousy” ultimately caused her to walk away from Scripture and, consequently, from the Gospel.

Now, why am I telling you this? I believe this principle applies when we read this extremely bold statement that Jesus makes in the Sermon on the Mount: “You therefore must be perfect, as Your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). At first glance, it seems like Jesus is calling us to lead perfect lives – sinless lives – just like our Heavenly Father. But why would He say this? Hasn’t Jesus called us, and specifically New City Church, to the idea of rest? How are we supposed to lead sinless lives with a fallen nature? Doesn’t this idea seem to contradict the Scriptures?

In many instances Scripture addresses this idea. Romans 3:23 states, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Once again, in Isaiah 64, it states, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.”

So the question begs to be asked: What did Jesus mean by “perfect,” and how can we reconcile all these things?

If we look at the definition of the word “perfect” in the Greek (“τέλειος” or “telos”) it is defined as follows: “Brought to its end, finished; wanting nothing necessary to completeness; of mind and character; one who has reached the proper height of virtue and integrity.” This seems to suggest that this idea of “perfection” has less to do with a lack of sin and more to do with a level of maturity that Christ is calling us to. When we look at how this Greek word is used in other places in the New Testament, it seems that this latter definition proves more fitting. Here are some examples:

  • 1 Corinthians 14:20: Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.
  • Colossians 1:28: Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.
  • Hebrews 5:14: But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
  • 1 John 4:18: There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.

Furthermore, in order for us to understand what Jesus meant by “perfect,” we must look at the context in which this phrase is placed.  Matthew 5:43-48 says

Jesus teaching the crowds in his Sermon on the Mount:

Jesus teaching the crowds in his Sermon on the Mount

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Jesus is not merely calling us to a general maturity in this instance, but is requiring of us that we learn how to love in a way that goes beyond selfishness. In the same way that the Father gives rain and sunshine both to the righteous AND the wicked, we are asked to pray for, serve, love, and acknowledge not only those who we enjoy being around, but in fact our enemies! I believe this is a call to love not only those who directly oppose us, but also the guy at work who drives us crazy, the coach who said hurtful things in the past, and the neighbor who has a different political opinion. If we are only capable of loving those who are convenient to love, we must ask ourselves if our love has been matured and completed, or if we are lacking. This perfected love that Jesus speaks of is a love that is unselfish, uncompromised, and unbiased.  It does not love out of reaction, and it is not contingent upon how others treat us.

When we remember that while we were still enemies of Jesus, He was bruised, beaten, and crucified for us (Rom 5:10), we will be persuaded by the Holy Spirit to seek out our own enemies and to show them the mercy which we have been shown. My prayer for us is that by the grace of God we therefore will learn how to be perfected and matured in our love just as our Heavenly Father is perfected and matured in love.

 

Questions for us to wrestle with:

1) How can I go out of my way to love someone whom I normally would not this week?

2) When, in my own life, have I been shown love when I didn’t deserve it?

3) How is the Lord calling me to seek out and serve my enemies?

 

Melody Hickey, New City Stories Contributor 

Waiting in the Spirit

“Be still, and know that I am God!
    I am exalted among the nations,
    I am exalted in the earth.” Psalm 46:10 (NRSV)

Have you ever been forced to sit in silence? Most people today fall somewhere on a spectrum between being aware that they hate every excruciating second of silence and simply being unaware how much the quiet bothers them because they have never had to experience it.

If you have been in the church for any length of time, you have probably sat through some youth group or leadership training that uses this fact about people as a sort of parlor trick. It usually starts with the leader asking, “Have you ever noticed how we can’t sit in silence anymore?” and then proceeds to make everyone sit in uncomfortable silence for minutes while pretending they’re immune or very spiritual.

My first experience with this of silence idea was in college. I was taking a class on Christian spirituality—a crazy, fun, and sometimes boring dive into some of the ancient practices of the Christian faith. Our professor wanted to expose us to various means of interacting and communing with God. We dove into fasting, scripture reading and memorization, study (duh), and even celebration. However, far and above anything else, our professor wanted us to experience silent, contemplative prayer. We would begin every class with 5-10 minutes of unmoving, penetrating silence. He claimed being able to sit in this would lead us to a quieter inner-self through which we could commune with God.

I could not imagine a worse, more boring fate.

I became a Christian in a charismatic church, and, at the risk of generalizing, if there is one thing we are not especially good at, it is silence. It might be hard to understand if you haven’t experienced it. It’s not that we think silence is bad, it’s just that, in a church movement that places special emphasis on things like speaking in tongues, giving words, prophetic speaking, full praise bands, 24/7 prayer rooms, and extemporaneous worship, there isn’t a lot of room for us to sit in silence. We’re busy! The buzz words for us are “activity,” “manifestation,” “works,” “power,” and, perhaps most of all, “expectation.” These aren’t words that often coexist with words like “silence,” “waiting,” and “stillness.”

So now it’s 2018 and I’m reading a book on contemplative prayer, having traumatic flashbacks of what seemed like endless silence I was forced to sit through in college (thankfully, I had my smartphone to entertain me), and wondering how the author could claim that this type of prayer, prayer that calls us to simply listen and focus on a phrase or two, could possibly help us hear from the Lord when we have good worship music, books, and sermons that help us do that. Despite my skepticism, I decided to give it a try.

My first go at contemplative prayer started like most. I found a quiet place to sit comfortably for 20 minutes and started breathing deeply, focusing on the oxygen going in and out of my body. I meditated on these words:

 (Breathe in) Be Still and Know that I am God

(Breathe out) Be Still and Know

(Breathe in) Be Still

(Breathe out) Be

(Start over)

For the first 5-10 minutes, my thoughts flew to a million places. The conversation my wife and I had yesterday. The stuff on my to-do list. The homework that was literally piling up as I sat being “unproductive.” Boredom. Anxiety. Fear. Self-doubt. Pride.

And then, out of nowhere, I felt God’s presence. I refocused on the words I was meditating on.

Be Still and Know that I am God

Be Still and Know

Be Still

Be

It was so different from what I had experienced before. I had received words for people that proved accurate, spoken in tongues in joy and mourning, and been brought to tears in loud worship rooms, but never had I felt so in tune with the Holy Spirit than in that moment.

Some of you will read that as a critique of the charismatic or supernatural gifts and either be disappointed or satisfied. It’s not that. Some stopped reading the moment I started talking about contemplative prayer because you think it’s mystical nonsense. That’s fine.

What I’m learning is that we need the charismatic and the prophetic in its robust pneumatology that brings heaven to earth in profound and mysterious ways as the Holy Spirit moves. We need to look for the Spirit’s very real guidance in our lives and be expectant so that we may fill the world with praise for His glory.

However, at times we also need to stop, sit down, and acknowledge the Spirit’s smaller, more intimate voice. We need to give ourselves permission to stop moving and producing and know that He accepts us without all of that. We can quit filling our minds with movies and TV shows and music and noise and take a moment to hear that He loves us in the loud and in the quiet.

Glory to God. Amen.

 

 

 

Jordan McCain, New City Stories Contributor

Gratitude in Community

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 1 Thessalonians 5:18 (NRSV)

Here at New City, we have been exploring the idea of gratitude and what it looks like expressed in community. The challenge that Zach gave us this past Sunday was to be a church, a community, where “our gratefulness outweighs our giftedness.” There is so much packed into those five words, and this post will attempt to explore what living out this challenge means for us, not only as individuals, but as a people called to live a life together saturated with thanksgiving. This exploration will focus on 1) seeing our individual giftings as God’s pure grace in our lives and 2) viewing the community itself as a gift, transforming our participation in the community.

1) Gratitude means that we see all things as a pure gift from God.

This principle of “gift,” both on the individual and communal level, is the heartbeat of what it means to be the people of God. If in my own heart I view my abilities as primarily my own and my skills as ones that only I developed, then I will build walls of pride and status that will lead to isolation. If I own my abilities, then I can only offer them at great cost to myself. In contrast, if we see our giftings (notice the language shift here?) as not our own, but as the result of God’s grace in our lives, then we have no need to protect them, but only to faithfully steward them for the sake of others.

This posture of seeing the whole of our lives as a gift also allows us to more readily see the gifts in others. If I take sole ownership of my talents, I will naturally see them as better and more useful than the talents of others, which leads to unhealthy comparison and envy. This can develop factions deep within and oftentimes pit us against our brothers and sisters. This animosity runs directly against the unity that Jesus prays over his Church “that they may be one” (John 17:21).

However, if I see my talents as the sole result of God’s grace in my life, I begin to notice God’s grace in all people. The walls are broken down and this deep recognition of gift in myself opens the door wide open for the practice of thankfulness, celebration, humility, collaboration, and love between members of a community. In order to have gratitude, we must see the whole of our lives as a gift from the Good Gift Giver.

2) Seeing our community as a gift necessarily transforms our relationship to it.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book Life Together has a convicting and powerful word for us as the Church:

The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own laws, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of the brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together… God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship,…God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by his call, by his forgiveness, and his promise. We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what he does give us daily.

Bonhoeffer here gives us two distinct and contrasting approaches to our life together as Christians. He says that we can be “demanders” who have our own ideas of what the community should be like, or as “thankful recipients” who see the community fundamentally as a gift from God. If I enter a community with dreams of leadership without service, of status without humility, of ownership without giving, then I am living in what Bonhoeffer calls a “wish dream,” and I am a “destroyer” of that community from the very beginning. Instead, if when I stand next to my brothers and sisters in awe of the God who placed them in my life, by that very posture I am allowing for the Spirit of God to move and work. How great is the design that God has for His people!

This is the crucial point of Bonhoeffer’s remarks: Jesus is the one who makes this kind of community possible. Through his faithfulness on the Cross, he has destroyed the need for distinctions and “dividing walls of hostility” and gives us all an invitation to a community mediated by him and his finished work (Ephesians 2:14). What a beautiful image! We now no longer have to rely on what we can offer to others, but what Christ can offer through us. The ultimate gift that we have been given is God Himself in Jesus Christ. If we neglect to live into that reality, not only will we begin to erode our own hearts with pride and envy, but we will then begin to erode the community around us. We must remember that the health of our hearts will always manifest itself externally.

Lastly, because we live in a culture so marked by the pulses of individualism, status, competition, and isolation, just think of how a robust community of gratefulness rooted in the person of Jesus Christ could witness to the world around us. Jesus’s prayer for unity among his people ends this way: “So that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:23). Seeing our lives as gracious gift leads to gratitude; gratitude leads to unity; and unity then creates a light for the world that cannot be ignored. The world is hungry for healthy community, and truly healthy community is found only in the self-sacrificial love of Christ. Let us be that vision, that answer, for which the world hungers so that we may have the opportunity to invite others into the ever-expanding table of Jesus.

So, how do we at New City live into this challenge to be a community where “our gratefulness outweighs our giftedness?” We pursue Jesus together and remember that it is in His gift of Himself that we truly find ourselves and each other.

 

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor

 

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together. Harper, 1954, 26-28