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The God of the Process

“But now, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” Isaiah 64:8 ESV

Years ago, I found myself in a season of deep wrestling as I began to experience not a crisis of faith, but rather a crisis of truth. I had more questions than answers as I struggled to discern what the Lord was asking of me and desperately tried to attain it in my own life. I viewed my walk with the Lord as a static state, being either totally right or completely wrong – and this drove me to live in utter fear. I was paralyzed at the thought that any one decision or belief could completely define my sanctification.

In the midst of this battle, I felt the Lord speak to me one day, not as an audible voice, but as an internal impression on the heart. He said, “I could have snapped my fingers and made the rocking chair appear, but instead I took the time to carve it into one.” Immediately, I got a picture of Jesus as a carpenter, surrounded by wood shavings, carving away at edges with a plane and drawing corners with a compass. Every morning he awakes early and begins where he left off the night before. Day by day, week by week, what was formerly a rough piece of wood, full of knots and splinters, becomes a well-crafted and designed piece of furniture. Now whether or not the people of Jesus’ day had rocking chairs, the point was this- Our God is a God of the process.

As not only Christians, but as American Christians, we are so drawn toward accomplishment and finality. We crave a finished product but often begrudgingly go through the steps of accomplishing that finished product only out of a place of necessity. When we carry this mentality into our faith, we tend to view the sanctification process as this terribly mundane and laborsome series of hoops we have to jump through to finally achieve righteousness. The thing is, our God is not the CEO of a company and He is not a drill sergeant for the military. Our God is a God who actually enjoys the process in which we become like Him. He is the Potter who takes the clay into His hands and fashions us into His image.

When we fall into that familiar pattern of thinking that God will only be pleased with us at the end of our life, when (if we’ve played our Christian cards right) we will perhaps be slightly more mature in the faith, we must remind ourselves of the nature of the Father. Micah 7:18 tells us that God actually delights in mercy. This means that God finds joy when He is able to forgive us and give us the love and strength that we don’t deserve. It is no difficult thing for God to hate the sin that entangles us and yet find joy in restoring us to fullness. Psalm 102 says, “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

Do the Scriptures not make the case that every season is of profit? Would Moses have been prepared for his confrontation in Egypt if he had not born the shepherding season of the wilderness? Would Peter have taught his Acts 2 sermon with the same boldness if he had not denied Jesus and been mercifully redeemed? Why was Jesus born as a child through Mary and not sent as a fully grown man? Because we serve a God who delights in the process.

You see, our lives are not viewed from the throne as a static state, as if God has a good list and a naughty list. The Lord created life and time and space so that we could go on a long journey with Him of maturing and growing in our own sanctification. This is why Ephesians describes us as the workmanship of Christ. He is weaving you and me into a beautiful tapestry, filled with elaborate color and varying texture. With each season of trial and season of joy, each failure and each step toward holiness, He is threading the needle of maturity, looking forward to the day when the tapestry will be finished, yes, but finding delight every seam and stitch along the way.

Audra Lynn, a worship leader from IHOP-KC, wrote a song that encapsulates this:

“How I long to see the picture finished

Painted as a perfect portrait

Void of all the mysteries of my life

The cares of life bend every corner Taking me in wrong directions

Can I walk despite the pain and strife?

But what is life without all the yearnings of the heart?

And who am I to doubt all you have in store for me?”

 

In Closing, here are some questions we can ask ourselves this week:

  • -How can we partner with God in embracing our own unique process in this season?
  • -Do we have confidence that the Lord values our journey toward maturity?
  • -Do we find joy of fear in anticipating a lifelong journey with the Lord?

 

Melody Hickey, New City Stories Contributor

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: 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

Holy Confusion

I form light and create darkness,
    I make weal and create woe;
    I the Lord do all these things.

Shower, O heavens, from above,
    and let the skies rain down righteousness;
let the earth open, that salvation may spring up,[a]
    and let it cause righteousness to sprout up also;
    I the Lord have created it.  Isaiah 45:7-8 (NRSV)

I’d come to the place where I knew that God was the Sovereign – the mighty protector and holy giver of destiny.  But now there comes the life of moving nowhere.  I’d learned that God’s blessings are given in his own deep other-worldly timing.  So, it wasn’t the loss of anything that became real, though there had been loss and wounds and healing and love.  And there will be more.

That wasn’t the deal.  There was a vastness to it.  A wide and long sort-of lush desert.  I was living within it.  Above, below, behind, before, right, and left – a space.  My counselor called it “the liminal”, the in-between.  Perhaps it was.  Perhaps it is.  It feels like a dance floor with no one on it.

When I was a girl, I used to go to the indoor basketball court in our church and lay down right in the middle of it.  The floor was cool, the space was large and dark – lush with nothing.  No one was playing or present at all.  But it felt like healing.  I’m not sure I knew the name for the feeling then.

Now I do.  I know because I’ve marched through unhealth and church wounds.  Now I know what healing feels like.  And it’s like laying in the middle of a basketball court in the dark.  An allowing of the empty so Something larger can be present.  Or Someone.

It’s a sense of the holy milling quietly and gently in the soul – a non-forceful but working entity reminding of love and grace and fullness.

But that’s not what I’m talking about.  It’s after that.  Well, maybe there’s no “it”, but it’s after.

They’d always said that ministry was and is and should be me acting with God for his purposes.  Maybe they are right.  But that means there’s an “it” hiding somewhere in the after.  But I haven’t found it – “it.”  There’s a kind-of God given confusion.  Can that even be a thing?  It doesn’t sound quite right theologically and my education is pushing it away like a cup of spoiled milk.

Most of the time, we think of confusion as a bad thing – or maybe I just do.  We think knowing is key.  But here’s the deal, God is the only All-Knower.  So, when the holy descends, I can’t and will never understand it all.  It brings with it the unknown lapping over the soul like a kind but rushing river.  I swim gleefully and carefully within it because it is both a comfort and a challenge.  It’s an expansive feeling – a lostness in the Known without knowing.  It’s a feeling of goodness beyond myself, beyond my need and want.  It’s a joining to the Immense.

And because of that, it is a confusion.  And because of That, it is holy.

 

Jessica Fleck, New City Stories Contributor

The Shepherds: Advent Week Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor

 

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

[2] Morris, Leon, 84-85.

 

 

Preparing for Immanuel: Introduction to New City Stories Advent Series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor