Only Jesus

“I move a vote of no confidence.”

It was one of the most memorable experiences of my academic career as a Political Science major at Furman University: Dr. Nelsen’s annual parliament simulation. I was assigned to be the chairman of the Nationalist Party, a far right group that generally found itself outside government coalitions, so we were content to be an opposition party and (quite literally) wave our flags of implicit xenophobia. We were loud, but we were powerless.

By the third night of the simulation, things got interesting.

The centrist parties were tied up in a tedious debate about some procedural issue when the leader of the Green Party pulled me outside. “I think we have the votes to put together a far-right/far-left government around the issue of global warming.” I was curious. “Tell me more.” He said, “Well, we want to eliminate fossil fuels, and you want to bring back jobs from overseas.” I thought for a moment. “That’s a great idea. But is this kind of coalition realistic?” 

We consulted our professor who, though I’m sure he appreciated the ongoing parliamentary debate, was intrigued by the potential drama our coalition would stir. Dr. Nelsen said, “Radical coalitions are rare, but sometimes polarized parties can find enough common ground to rule. Good luck.”

I stood at my seat, “Mr. Moderator, I have a motion.”

Today, as we approach one of the most polarizing presidential elections in history, the church is getting caught up in the drama. I’ve heard my conservative friends say, “If you vote for Joe Biden, then you can’t call yourself a Christian.” Likewise, I’ve heard my liberal friends say, “If you vote for Donald Trump, then you can’t call yourself a Christian.” These viewpoints are held with considerable conviction, and they are driving a wedge into Christ’s body.

We need to find some common ground.

Have you ever considered the radical coalition that Jesus put together? He called both Levi the Tax Collector and Simon the Zealot to be among his twelve apostles. Levi was a leftist bureaucrat who believed in big government, and Simon was part of a right-wing populist movement that advocated throwing off Roman rule. What could possibly bring these two men together? 

Hint: It wasn’t global warming. 

These men experienced the radical grace of God, which rescued them from sin and gave them new life in Christ. The same is true for us. Yet, the ballot box has become a new form of self-righteousness that is destroying our freedom. “There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:12). We must not impose extra-biblical requirements like party affiliation or candidate preference on other Christians. To do so is to insult God, “who alone is Lord of the conscience.” 

Don’t misunderstand. Politics matter, and God has called us to “do justice and love mercy,” but he has left us free to disagree about the best way to go about it. As followers of Jesus, we would do well to remember that politics have no power to overcome evil or bring salvation.

Only Jesus can do that.

God Moves

Joseph was lying forgotten, bound in chains in a dank prison cell when the guard nudged him. “Wake up. Come with me. Pharaoh himself has summoned you to stand before him.” Eyes blinking in disbelief, Joseph wondered what it could be. Had the cupbearer finally remembered him after all these years?

God moves.

I was sitting in seminary back in 2004, my spirit rising as I listened to a classmate defend his sense of calling to do long-term youth ministry. The professor was chiding him for having such a limited imagination. After class, I invited him to lunch. I encouraged him to follow God’s call and to not worry about what people think. A few weeks later, he went to Tennessee, and we lost touch.

God moves.

In 2015, as we prepared to move to Orangeburg, my mentor recommended that I contact his church’s former youth pastor, who had attended college in Orangeburg. So I called him seeking counsel. We had a great connection, and he has come down to preach for us multiple times over the years. In the last six months, God has opened a door for Joel and his family to relocate to Orangeburg and join our church as a full-time staff member.

God moves.

As we were beginning the interview process, the Pandemic hit. Everything had to be done virtually. At the time, this felt like a major set back, but in retrospect, we have seen God’s sovereign hand at work. Over the last 3-4 months, Joel and his wife, Latifahia, have been connecting to our church through online worship and Zoom Bible studies. Thanks to this “disaster,” when they arrive in Orangeburg on July 27th, they will already be a part of our church family.

God moves.

In a recent conversation, Joel asked me, “Did you use to wear a baseball cap backwards?” “Y…yes.” “I think we had a seminary class together, and you invited me to lunch…”

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform.
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unsearchable mines
Of never failing skill,
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.

William Cowper, 1773

Limited Menu

I was staring blankly at my phone.

That happens a lot these days. “Which restaurants are open?” I wondered. Some of our favorites are either closed or offering curbside service with a limited menu. Our family misses dining at San Jose’s and Thai Orchid, but we are thankful for the carry-out option.

For the last 7 weeks, I’ve been preaching through a series on the ordinary means of grace called “Soul Food” from Acts 2:41-42. That’s where God tells us how the early church was devoted to baptism, the apostle’s teaching (Scripture), the fellowship, the breaking of bread (The Lord’s Supper), and prayer. Together, these Spirit-empowered means of grace nourished God’s people as they spread out from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. God feeds his people with “meals” of grace.

Enter COVID-19 and the worldwide pandemic.

In God’s providence, the church is not able to meet together physically, which limits us to Scripture and prayer. Think about it. Three of the five means of grace can’t really be done in isolation. Baptism is washing with water, publicly identifying with the body of Christ. Fellowship is being together and having all things in common. The Lord’s Supper is bread and wine administered to the gathered body. But Scripture and prayer are available to Christians at all times.

I guess you could say that God is offering curbside service with a limited menu.

Yes, being quarantined is frustrating. But God has graciously given us this time to feast on His Word and prayer. This is a time to deepen our personal relationship with Jesus, hearing his voice and having his ear.

Brothers and sisters, make the most of this opportunity. Read and study the Bible. Meditate on it day and night. Listen to the voice of God in the Scripture. Speak to Him with honest prayers. Tell Jesus whatever is on your mind. Adore him. Advance his kingdom. Ask him for help. Admit your sins. Arm yourself against the enemy.

The next time you’re staring at your phone, take the opportunity to tap over to the Bible app and meet with God. Find a quiet place. Listen and speak. We may have a limited menu, but it provides unlimited satisfaction.

Worship Changes

(during the COVID-19 threat)

UPDATE: We are going to err on the side of caution and CANCEL our service today. However, please join us for a Facebook live virtual service at 10:30am.

  • New City will hold worship as planned this Sunday with some slight adjustments in an effort to heed the guidelines put out by the CDC.
  • We will stream the service on our church’s Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/newcityoburg. And the sermon will be recorded and posted to our website & podcast Sunday afternoon.
  • If you currently have any persistent symptoms related to coughing, sneezing, fever, or a runny nose, please stay home. If you are sick with a cold or any symptoms of the flu or Coronavirus, please stay inside and do not expose yourself to others.
  • If you are over 70 or have a serious chronic medical condition, we encourage you to stay home.
  • We will not serve coffee or food during our 10:00am gathering time, but feel free to bring your own. The kids’ bible study will meet as usual.
  • We will have plenty of soap and paper towels on hand. Please wash your hands when you arrive. You can count out the recommended 20 second wash by singing the New City Doxology remix with the Amens.
  • Please forego hugs and handshakes in favor of elbow-bumps and waves. We are family, but we’ll have to show it in other ways this week.
  • Avoid touching your face, eyes, nose, and mouth. If you do, please take a moment to re-wash your hands.
  • If you cough, cough into your elbow or a Kleenex and throw the Kleenex away. After using a Kleenex, wash your hands.
  • Be conscious of touching handles on doors, sinks, cars, etc. For example, use the proper hand washing technique of turning off the water with a paper towel and then opening the door with the paper towel before throwing it away.
  • The offering bowl will be placed on a table as you enter the worship area. You can give as you enter or when you are leaving. Online giving is always available.
  • We will not pass The Lord’s Supper this week, but it will be served “self-service” on the table up front.
  • In times of national emergency such as this, it is important that we follow our Savior’s lead of love and “count others more significant than ourselves.” Fittingly, the sermon is on “fellowship” as a means of God’s grace in our lives. May we love one another well!

Bridge Builders

The Brooklyn Bridge is an iconic example of human engineering. It was the longest suspension bridge in the world at its completion and was even dubbed the “eighth wonder of the world.” The 1,600 foot bridge connects the communities of Manhattan and Brooklyn with its stately granite towers and steel cables.

When Laurie and I stayed in Midtown for our tenth anniversary, we took the subway to Brooklyn and walked back to Manhattan on the pedestrian lane of the Brooklyn Bridge. It was incredible to walk across a piece of history.

As we continue to see God plant a cross-cultural church here in Orangeburg, I have visualized our work as that of bridge builders. We are connecting people to God through Jesus Christ, and to one another despite social, racial, and economic differences. The river of division is great, the waves and dangers real, and the risk of failure palpable. Yet, the vision of creating safe passage for Christian unity is inspiring and God-breathed.

I remember reading about the dangerous construction of the Brooklyn Bridge and the fact that dozens of workers actually died in the process. Workers known as “sandhogs” used shovels and dynamite to clear away the mud and boulders at the bottom of the East River. This all had to take place under water in specially built, water-tight structures. These work conditions were not only extremely uncomfortable, but it gave men blinding headaches, itchy skin, bloody noses, and slowed heartbeats. And as they rose back to the surface, the intense change in pressure could prove deadly.

Not to mention the unexpected explosions and collapses.

Bridge building means giving up your right to sit safely on one side or the other. It means risking being misunderstood by both sides and having your reputation questioned. Bridge building means you never get to fully rest in either community, which creates isolation and suspicion. In racialized terms, it means being called a Social Justice Warrior or an Uncle Tom or a Colonizer or a Sell Out.

For some, it has meant giving their lives.

Being a Bridge Builder is dangerous, and it may mean living in the tension of Now and Not Yet forever. But isn’t that the tension of every Christian life? Isn’t that what Jesus did for us when he stretched out his body between heaven and earth to bridge fallen humanity to our gracious Father?

In cross-cultural church planting, I have seen brave men and women devote themselves to working on the bridge. And it is something for which I am eternally grateful.

Running

I have never been much of a runner. But in my quest to get back in shape and lose the extra weight that mismanaged stress had put on, I decided to train for a 5K last year. In just two months, I went from barely running a mile to winning first place in my age category (i.e., guys with a dad-bod).

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But here’s the thing.

As soon as the race was over, I stopped running. That little bit of success, that little taste of victory, actually worked against me. Before I knew it, a month had passed and the pounds started coming back. I was right where I started.

Why do I always go from discipline to disaster, fighting to failure, running to retreating?

I’m tired of running these ups and downs. I’m tired of giving in to the downward spiral of apathy and self-defeat. It just leads to hopelessness. But I’m also tired of pumping myself up with shallow slogans and personal promises to do better the next time around. I already know where my rededication will lead. Whether it’s running a race or being a husband or doing my job or reading my Bible or being a neighbor or whatever else––I know I’ll eventually stop running.

The apostle Paul was given a “thorn in the flesh.” We don’t know exactly what the thorn was, but it was unwanted, and Paul pleaded with God to take it away. But God answered him with maddening clarity: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). God had a beautiful design for Paul’s weakness. Notice the verb tense “…is made perfect.” It’s present passive. That means whenever you’re feeling weak, whenever you’ve dropped the ball, whenever you’re letting it spiral out of control––in that very moment, in the present situation––His grace is sufficient for you.

I have never been much of a runner. I tend to retreat into apathy and self-defeat. But God keeps extending his grace to me. He keeps offering me his power in place of my weakness. My weakness is an opportunity for His power to be seen for what it is — perfect.

“Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.” Hebrews 12:1-2

Tiny Red Dots

It’s New Year’s Eve, and the tiny red dots on my phone are mocking me.

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You know the ones. They levitate on the top right corner of our app icons. They constantly notify us about unread messages, unfinished tasks, and unanswered social media. The tiny red dots tell us all the things we’ve left undone, all the people we’ve left unloved, all the work we’ve left undeveloped, and all the promises we’ve left unfulfilled.

It’s hard to end the year with tiny red dots.

It’s even harder to know that we’ll end our lives that way, too.

In 2018, two of my dear friends, Henry and Rachel, died suddenly and without warning. Their lives were gone in an instant, and I couldn’t help but feel the pain of the lost potential and the shattered dreams. Death had come at the most inopportune time, and the grief was hard to bear.

But I found comfort in these lyrics by Rich Mullins:

Sometimes the night was beautiful
Sometimes the sky was so far away
Sometimes it seemed to stoop so close
You could touch it but your heart would break
Sometimes the morning came too soon
Sometimes the day could be so hot
There was so much work left to do
But so much You’d already done

When Mullins wrote these words, he didn’t know how prophetic they would be. In 1997, he, too, died in a sudden tragedy with “much work left to do.”

But there’s hope. There’s so much God has already done!

That is the good news of Christianity. Jesus came to finish the work that we leave undone. He came into the world to love where we hate, to speak truth where we lie, and to do what is right where we fail. And after He lived for us, He died in our place.

Tiny. Red. Dots.

Beneath the cross of Jesus were tiny red dots of blood that dripped from His hands and feet. The penalty our sins deserved fell on Him, and by His wounds we are healed. Through faith in Jesus, we are made complete and righteous before God. We are adopted into God’s family, and we are being renewed day by day.

So in spite of our tiny red dots, we can sing with Mullins:

Oh God you are my God
And I will ever praise you
I will seek you in the morning
And I will learn to walk in your ways
And step by step you’ll lead me
And I will follow you all of my days

As we enter the new year, I’m praying that the tiny red dots will find new meaning for us. May they remind us of the finished work of Jesus and lead us to follow Him step by step.

Busybodies

Over the last year, God has been leading me down a path of gradual repentance in the area of procrastination. I have been busier than ever, yet, somehow, I am still reaching the end of the week without having finished my most essential tasks.

I keep a calendar. I keep multiple lists. I have the practical time-management skills in place. But meaningful change in this area still eludes me. So, I’ve been praying for God’s help. I’ve sought counsel. And I keep trying.

Last week, I read where Eugene Peterson wrote:

“I am busy because I’m lazy. I indolently let others decide what I will do instead of resolutely deciding myself… By lazily abdicating the essential work of deciding and directing, establishing values and setting goals, other people do it for me.”

These words sank deep into my soul. Because of laziness and a desire to please people, I have allowed other people to do the “essential work of deciding and directing” what I will focus on each day. Rather than setting goals and sticking to them, I let myself be driven by the things that comes up every day. As a church planter, there are a thousand things vying for my time; a new project, a new person, a new problem to grab my attention.

“I am busy because I am lazy.” That’s profoundly true.

Here is what God says in Scripture:

“For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (2 Th 3.11-12).

This is exactly what Peterson is getting at. Procrastination is not always about delaying work. It’s also about being busy doing the wrong work, the work that is decided by circumstances and directed by what seems urgent.

I love how Paul counsels busybodies. He says, “We command and encourage in the Lord.” This is the language of faith. Our repentance must be rooted in relationship with Jesus. His grace gives us freedom from the guilt and shame that busybodies feel. His steadfast love gives us confidence to focus on what he has uniquely gifted and called us to do. His power gives us strength to do our own work and trust that God can handle everything else.

Wrestling against procrastination has been a lifelong struggle for me, and I don’t expect to have it all settled any time soon. I’m sure that’s why Paul finishes his challenge with this: “Brothers, do not grow weary in doing good” (2 Th 3.13).

PS – While writing this long-overdue blog, I have resolutely ignored seven phone calls.

The struggle is real.

Preacher’s Kid

Laurie is a PK. But she’s not a typical PK.

A PK is a “preacher’s kid.” They are notorious for being out of control and hypocritical. They dress up and play nice on Sundays but then go crazy during the week. Typically, this behavior is blamed on the unfortunate fact that many preachers tend to focus on church and ministry to the detriment of their families. It’s a constant temptation for us to neglect our wives and children in service to our ministry-idol.

That’s why I admire Laurie’s dad so much. Even though she grew up as a PK, Laurie loves Jesus and even married a guy training to be a preacher. (Lucky for me!) Dave Ingram did such a great job loving his family and prioritizing them that his wife and daughters never grew to despise the church. They never feared what ministry might do to their families. Laurie’s sister is married to a preacher too!

Back in February, our church plant participated in a missions conference at Trinity Presbyterian here in Orangeburg. One of the things they asked us to do was have our kids share what it’s like to be in a church planting family. Yikes! That could go all kinds of wrong. So, with some trepidation, we asked the kids to write out their thoughts. Here’s what they wrote:

Isaiah (11):
Planting a church is a lot of fun. We started in barber shops and restaurants having meetings. Then we started doing House Church. House Church is Bible study at your house. We have food and a “nursery.” We had three block parties, one at Ellis park, and two at the spray park. There was food like hotdogs, hamburgers, and pizza! There was a bounce house at Ellis park. Then we got a building and a music group. Our church and Trinity started Jobs for Life, which is a job readiness class. I do slides at New City on my Dad’s computer. I mess up sometimes! Then our music group led music at the Missions Conference. I love Church Planting!!!

Robbie (9):
Planting a church is fun. You get to move into a new neighborhood, make friends, and have cookouts. We had three block parties: Ellis, spray park, spray park again. You get to praise God and listen to your dad preach the Bible. We have lots of fun after church, too. We play around until it’s time to go. We started House Church, which is my favorite and least favorite part. We eat with some other people. After that, the kids all play nerf war. The parents talk about the Bible. Church planters have to be very patient. It takes a long time. I love church planting!

Brynn (6):
You don’t plant a church with seeds and water, you plant by finding a building and making it better. We started out by inviting people to House Church and then we started making a better hour of worship. Isaiah does slides, Robbie helps set up flags, and I set up the nursery. I love Church planting!!!

What a blessing of God’s tender mercies that church planting has been a positive experience for our children. We are indebted to you for your prayers and support. Please pray that our kids will never be stereotypical PKs.

I wish that Laurie’s dad, who would have been 65 on April 5th, could be here to see the fruit of his Spirit-empowered labors. We miss him and grow increasingly thankful for his faithfulness and the kindness of our God.

 

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