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Seeking the Spirit: A Reflection on Galatians 5:16-26

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. ” – Galatians 5:22-23

When I read the list of acts of the flesh in this passage, some stick out to me more than others. I have never partaken in some of them, and some even seem wholly irrelevant to my life, but others reveal themselves as regular temptations in my mind. We all have bents toward different desires of the flesh, things we honestly feel we want to do. However, Paul tells us the flesh and the Spirit are at war with one another, so we do not do whatever we want.

The Christian life is one of laying down things we thought we wanted, things we thought would make us happy, or even things we have given a hold over ourselves if those things compete with God for our affection, devotion, and love. This process is often painful, long, and even confusing, as we may wonder what God plans to do with the parts of ourselves we have chosen to surrender to him. Sometimes, when God plants things in those freshly cleared flowerbeds, they take time to grow. In the meanwhile, as we wait, we might feel we lack gratification or even happiness.

We must hold fast to the truth that we have crucified our old selves, old passions, and old desires to make room for the Spirit. Dying is hard, and this takes trust. However, we serve a God who is trustworthy. I must confess that sometimes I forget the Holy Spirit is a person. I think of him as a sort of force or idea, but I find comfort when I remember he is one of three persons of the Trinitarian Godhead. Cultivating a personal relationship with God, with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, reminds me why it’s worth it to crucify my old self, old passions, and old desires. If something needs to move to make way for him to move in, it has to go. Nothing else is really worth it.

The fruit the Spirit plants in place of the desires of the flesh can take time to grow and ripen, but the Holy Spirit is trustworthy with any part of ourselves we give to him. The fruit he brings will gift us with exceedingly more fulfillment than we ever could have expected from our old desires. I have found that, though the process of turning away from myself to turn to God has not always been the happiest journey, it has brought deeper and more abundant happiness than I ever could have given myself. Living by the Spirit and keeping in step with the Spirit can be hard, but it is always good, and always worth it.

Only the Holy Spirit can give us the fruit of the Spirit, and seeking God in relationship can serve as a great first step in asking God to fill us with those fruits. C.S. Lewis words it well when he says, “The very first step is to try to forget about the self altogether. Your real, new self (which is Christ’s and also yours, and yours just because it is His) will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come as you are looking for Him.” Go and seek God today, giving up the flesh and its desires and passions. Seek the Holy Spirit, and ask him to do what he will in your heart.

Rachel Smith, New City Stories Contributor

From Resurrection to Resurrection: A Reading of 1 Corinthians 15:12-23

As disciples of Jesus, when we hear the word “resurrection,” what comes to mind? Certainly the resurrection of Christ our Savior – as it should! Yet, every Easter when we teach on the resurgence of our Lord from the grave, I am struck by the way in which our theology seems inescapably bound to our present age alone, when Scripture has so much to say about future hope. In the West, our context is so saturated with rhythms of instant gratification that even the Church lives in the here and now. We quickly and easily forget these striking words from Paul to the church in Corinth:

12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope  in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Paul is making two bold and unabashed points in this letter. Firstly, he wants the Corinthians to know that the belief in the resurrection of Jesus has been unmistakably tethered to the belief in the resurrection of all believers at the end of the age. These ideas in Paul’s mind have been fused together like two metals that can no longer be separated or distinguished. If we wholeheartedly believe in the one, we must fully cling to the other. This is why Paul says that if there is no final resurrection of the dead, then not even Jesus has been raised.

The second statement Paul is making is that if we only have hope in this present life, we are “of all people most to be pitied.” What can Paul mean by this? Hasn’t Jesus died so that we can have “life and life more abundantly”? Certainly! Yet, the New Testament seems to suggest that our ultimate hope is to be set on the hope of the resurrection. Peter references this in the first chapter of his letter to the exiles when he says, “Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

Paul continues in 1 Corinthians by making a correlation between the the inheritance that we have through Adam and the inheritance that we have gained through Christ:

20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.

Although Paul (in true Pauline fashion) is making weighty theological statements here, he is also setting before our eyes a beautiful promise – that we who belong to Christ shall be raised from the dead just like he was! This is one of the many ways that Christ is fashioning us into His image. I want to postulate that this is a hope that transcends all other hope – the hope of being raised from death to be with our Lord unto life eternal. May it be so!

Here are some questions to continue this conversation…

  • Where do you place your hope?
  • When you think about the resurrection of Jesus, do you also long for the resurrection of the saints?
  • What do you think Peter means when he says to “set your hope fully” on the resurrection?
  • How can we have a hope that transcends this life?

Melody Hickey, New City Stories Contributor

Unveiled Faces: A Reflection on Galatians 4:8-20

This week at New City we heard about Galatians 4:8-20.  In this passage Paul writes, “Formerly when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather be known by God, how can you turn back again…?”

Paul describes not knowing God as being enslaved to things outside of God. He is concerned that the people of Galatia will turn back to these old ways which he calls “the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world” (Gal. 4:9). When Paul describes where the Galatians are now, he does not just say that since they know God they should know better than to go back to their old ways but he says that God knows the Galatians. For Paul, God knowing people is the primary reason to not turn away from faith.

Why does Paul make this distinction between knowing God and being known by God in Galatians 4? Paul’s image in 2 Corinthians 3:16-18 helps us grasp what Paul is saying to the Galatians.  In 2 Corinthians 3:16-18 Paul writes,

but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit

In Galatians we see language of enslavement, and in 2 Corinthians Paul speaks of freedom. Where does this freedom come from? Paul says it comes from the Holy Spirit. How do we learn about the Holy Spirit?  When we pray and worship we can see the Spirit working in our lives and other’s lives and we come to know the nature and work of the Holy Spirit. These are great ways to see the Spirit of God at work. However, in this passage to the Corinthians, Paul seems to offer another way to know the Spirit of God and the freedom it offers.

Joao Zeferino de Costa, Moses Receiving the Law

The first line of this passage offers the first step: “but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.” When you see the word “veil” maybe you think of the veils women wore in this time that covered their faces. Or maybe you think of a veil worn at a wedding. Both of these images can add to our understanding; however, what Paul has in mind can be found in the verses right before this passage when Paul describes Moses putting a “veil” over his face after going into the presence of God in Exodus 34:34. Moses would go before the Lord with his face unveiled and, when he returned to the people, his face was shining.  Because his face shone so brightly, Moses would then veil his face when he spoke to the people in order to protect them from the sheer glory of the Lord.  In the same way that Moses got to speak with God with an unveiled face, Paul says here that the Corinthians too can have “unveiled faces” before the Lord.

However, Paul’s concern in his letter to the church in Galatia is that some people are approaching God as if they have veils over their hearts. The people want to get to know God without letting God get to know them. Psalm 139 tells us that God already knows us because he formed us from the start. Maybe it is scary to let God in on the pieces of ourselves we do not like or we do not think He would like; but Paul assures us that there is freedom in the presence of God’s Spirit. Just as Moses was invited into the presence of God despite his unworthiness, we too are invited.  On our own we are not worthy to be in God’s presence, but as Paul says, “the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom.”

This is not freedom to do what we want. This is a freedom to stand before God unveiled, to not hide our shame from God. When Adam and Eve hid and clothed themselves in Genesis, God looked for them and made a new covering for them (Gen 3:8-21). And God has made a new covering for us today in the person of Jesus Christ.  Paul says that if we are in Christ we are “clothed with Christ” (Gal. 3:27).  Because of Jesus and the coming of His Spirit, we do not remain in our sin, but “we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed” (2 Cor 3:18).

We do not have the enslavement of sin anymore, because Christ took the sins with him on the cross and he came back resurrected with new life. This is something we know about God, that he loved the world so much that he sent his son to die for us (John 3:16). Do we know that, because of Christ and his righteousness, we can now have unveiled faces before God? Do we know that when we are known by God he transforms us into his image? This is why we do not only seek to know God, but we rejoice in being known by God. This is why Paul begged the Galatians to not turn back to their old ways of enslavement, because they have freedom already in Christ Jesus. Instead of reaching for our veils, for our coverings for sin, we go into the presence of God and reach out to Him. We trust that Jesus really did take our sin to the grave, and returned with new life and freedom for all of us to be transformed.

May we live with unveiled faces, and invite others to do the same.

Mary Katherine Wildeman, New City Stories Contributor

The God Who Passes Through: A Reflection on Galatians 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artwork by Josefa de Ayala

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

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

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

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

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

18th Century Scottish Presbyterian preacher Ralph Erksine

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor

Pain: Finding Hope in Suffering

“…but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…” – Romans 5:3-4 ESV

Pain.

I’ve always said, “The only reason it hurts so bad is because it’s yours and not somebody else’s,” but my hope for this blog is to provide a structure for thinking about the concept of pain, mainly if you believe in God, in order to provide some clarity to the pain in your life. What this blog will not do is provide specific answers to the unique, deeply personal pain you may be wrestling with; rather, it will provide some tools in order to help you process the pain you have experienced, are experiencing, and inevitably will experience.

First, the pain itself we experience isn’t the issue, it’s our interpretation of pain which induces our suffering.[1] Interpreting pain involves two things, which I call the Why Questions and the Character of God. Now, before I continue, there have no doubt been mountains of literature written on the problem of pain and the goodness of God by far more qualified thinkers than me, and I in no way pretend that I can reduce such a topic down to a few words in a blog. But vigorously philosophizing and theologizing about someone else’s pain has the tendency to be impersonal, and I wanted to eliminate that as much as possible, so I took the approach of not only sharing what I’ve learned about pain and suffering through my own journey, but also from the life of a friend. With that said— “Why?”

“Why did this happen?” Haven’t you asked yourself that question about suffering you’ve experienced? Or maybe you’ve asked that question about the suffering you’ve witnessed in the world. Does any of it makes sense, especially if you believe in God? Why does God allow such suffering, and if there are justifiable reasons to the unique deeply personal suffering we’ve experienced, then why, so often, does God not explain but instead leave us in a cloud of mystery?

We tend to believe that if we know the reasons behind the suffering we experience we’ll have peace. The problem is most of our painful experiences include things we cannot know; we are quite literally incapable of knowing certain things, and that, in turn, gives rise to another problem—  pride. If we’re honest, we believe that we have a right to know things that only God can know. This isn’t new—there’s actually an account of someone who was deceived into believing that if they knew what God knows they’d be better off.[2] And so the mystery of Why? ignites in us pride, and any time we become prideful we begin to believe God is someone who He isn’t.

Our Why Questions will eventually lead us to a question about God’s character. For some, the very existence of suffering thwarts their belief in God because they believe that if God did exist then there would be no suffering, so since people do suffer then God cannot exist. An even more dangerous route is believing that God does exist but concluding that He’s someone who He isn’t, which is really why some give up their belief in Him altogether. I’m convinced that at the heart of someone’s unbelief in God is an inexplicable pain they’ve experienced that has yet to be resolved.

During an immense time of mental and emotional suffering of my own, I searched out answers to Why Questions in the Bible and in the writings of some of history’s most colossal intellects, but none of it gave me answers to the specific suffering I was experiencing.  All of the answers were written in generalities, so I was never satisfied—even with the answers I found in the very Word of God. How could I trust someone’s word who allowed me to suffer and not explain why? Until one day while I was sitting quietly, thinking, a thought as if not my own entered my mind and removed all doubt in God’s goodness. This thought, exactly as I heard it, is the first tool I offer to you:

If God is not good, then nothing is good; there is no hope.

If God is not good, then there is no reason to live.

But there are good things, there are reasons to live; there is hope. And just like that the prideful rage of desiring answers to things only God can know was put out like a soft blow to a candle. Even though I didn’t receive specific answers to my suffering, I came to believe that God is good without them. Perhaps that’s only what I needed to hear in that moment, maybe it doesn’t help you, maybe it doesn’t make sense yet, but think about it long and hard then consider the second tool I offer which assists the first:

                        There are people who have experienced horrific suffering

                        and afterwards maintain the belief that God is good.

Can you imagine being 13 and suddenly being woken up at 3am from a deep sleep to the frightful screams of your younger brother and sister, then rushing to the kitchen to see your mother glistening in snow white skin only to realize that she had doused herself in kerosene and lit herself on fire in attempt to take her own life? In an instant she had realized her mistake and tried to put the fire out herself but it was only your little brother who awoke first in confusion to her screams and was somehow able to suffocate the fire with a blanket. Frantically, you rush your dying mother to the hospital on a motor bike; nearly 24 hours later, unable to say goodbye or to ask her why she did it, she would succumb to her wounds.

When a friend of mine first told me that story and how he and his siblings lied to the police and to their father—who had been away for business—saying that their mother caught fire by accident, I didn’t know how to respond. You see, Indian culture is a culture deeply rooted in shame and honor, and even though they were a Christian family, they didn’t want to bring shame upon their family name. So the three of them kept the secret about what really happened for 9 years. My friend described how after that horrific night his life was riddled with questions of Why? and anger; anger towards his mom, anger towards his father who had been harsh towards his mother, anger towards himself, and anger towards God. Eventually, his anger took the form of unbelief in God because he didn’t see the sense of someone else ruling his own life anymore.  In the midst of his loneliness he, too, tried to take his own life by an overdose of pills; he figured if he took them he’d just fall asleep peacefully and never wake up, but miraculously he survived. Then one night alone in his room something happened.

The Bible says that “God is love,”[3] and alone in his room that night, my friend experienced the presence of God so powerfully he said it was like “feeling love for the first time.” You know how he responded? “[God] I know you are good.” He also went on to describe how in that moment he knew that “Jesus’s pain [on the cross] absorb[s] my pain.” But the most shocking thing he shared with me was in that moment he said to God, “Thank you that my mother died.” My friend wasn’t thankful to God for the death of his mother but that through her death he was able to experience God’s love. How could a love be so powerful to cover something so painful?

Years later, through a series of family audio tapes he had discovered, my friend learned that his mother had been bitter towards his father because of how harshly he had treated her, but when his father became a Christian and tried to heal their marriage, his mother chose to reject God out of her bitterness. Now, I don’t know what was said between her and the Lord those 24 hours she was alive in excruciating pain, if anything at all, but I do know that discovering those audio tapes brought peace to my friend; the answers had been there the whole time—he just had to wait for them. If someone can come out the other side of extreme suffering still believing that God is good, even thanking Him for it, that’s no evidence to the contrary.

The third tool I offer before I conclude is this:

                        Be honest.

It’s a simple tool, but you’d be surprised at how many people aren’t honest with themselves about their suffering.  They’ll try and cover it up, ignore it, and put on a mask; even more surprising is how many people aren’t honest to God about how angry they are at Him for allowing their suffering.  In their anger, coupled with their pride, they ignore Him. It’s better to be angry at God and honestly tell Him how you feel than to not tell Him at all. That’s exactly what I did through my suffering. I told God exactly what I was feeling and what I was thinking I didn’t hold anything back, and to be honest it wasn’t always in the most reverent way. But you know what? Through my honesty with God He revealed His love, His mercy, His patience, His kindness— His goodness. But don’t just take my word for it…there was a King named David who screamed at God in fear, despair, loneliness, depression, betrayal, anxiety, loss, confusion, complaint, pain— in his suffering. And every time, God revealed His goodness to David.

In conclusion, the pain you are feeling isn’t the issue, it’s your interpretation of your pain that makes up your suffering. Why has God allowed you to suffer? Wading through that mystery, you have to answer a question about God’s character. God’s character and whether or not you truly believe that He is good is the crux of the matter. Do you believe He is good? If you choose to believe that God is not good, then ultimately nothing is good; you have no hope in your suffering, no real reason to live. But there is hope, and there are people who have gone through immense suffering and afterwards still believe that God is good and even thank Him for their suffering. It wasn’t until I believed God is good that I could trust His word and wait patiently through things I don’t understand. Patience is something that you do through and during a period of time, and being patient is contingent on trust, and trust is the continual assertion of a belief, and through suffering your hope is contingent on the belief in the true character of God— His goodness. God knows your suffering. He knows there is injustice. That’s why Jesus had to be crucified for the sins of the world, to be buried, that’s why he rose from the dead to set what has been wronged right; to ‘absorb our pain’ and give us hope in our suffering.

Chavo Frederico, New City Stories Guest Writer


[1] Dr. James Thobaben, Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky

[2] Holy Bible, Genesis chapter 3

[3] The Holy Bible, 1 John chapter 4 verse 8

The Sabbath Keeps Us

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Christ and the Pharisees by Earnst Zimmerman

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

 

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

***

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

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

 

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor

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