My life was forever changed in my brief time at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, and the impact of what I learned during that season still reverberates a decade and a half later.
I moved to New York from Orange County, California, as a new college graduate in 2008 in order to do Christian ministry in the South Bronx. I quickly discovered that my understanding of the gospel could not stand under the weight of my own sin.
Before my move to New York, I understood “being a Christian” to largely mean I needed to demonstrate my willingness to be called to radical ministry in order to prove how “sold out” I was to God. The vast majority of my life up until that time had been focused on academics. I had gotten a big college scholarship and graduated with honors, but that didn’t satisfy. Ultimately, I knew those things didn’t achieve my acceptance with God. I figured that, now that college was completed, maybe devoting myself to Christian ministry would give me peace.
I hoped that intense dedication to radical work far outside my comfort zone would maybe, finally, show I was behaving like a Christian. I had considered working with children living on the streets of Peru, among other opportunities. But an unexpected opportunity to move to Westchester County and help with ministry in the Bronx came together. Would moving to New York mean I was “surrendering all?” Although I had a vague understanding of Christ’s death for me, the sandy foundation for my life motivation would quickly give way to the earthquake I was walking into by leaving California.
Almost immediately after my arrival to the East Coast, everything started to fall apart, including the long-distance relationship that was also part of my motivation for my move to the East Coast. I found myself in a place of darkness and confusion that I hadn’t before known possible. I encountered fear that reached deeper. I had so much anxiety, I could barely bring myself to read the word “anxiety” written in type.
Perhaps my struggles were exacerbated by the fact that I moved to New York from sunny California in FEBRUARY (God uses means, right?). I was surprisingly naive to the reality of “seasons.” While Southern California is normally around 70 degrees and mostly sunny in February, it turned out that in New York, temperatures might as well have been “arctic” as far as I was concerned. There was even snow on the beach in New York (two things that don’t mix in SoCal). Even the New Yorkers are done with the cold winter by February.
During those early weeks after my move, I went to an interview for a job, and the interviewer looked at my resume and laughingly noticed, “You moved here from California? Yeah, you still have that ‘sunny glow’ about you… that will be gone soon….” Little did she know that whatever facade of sunniness I still wore on my face was simply a cover for the gloomy clouds that were accumulating in my head.
In actuality, the cold darkness I was discovering was a greater awareness of my own selfishness and depravity. I had moved all those thousands of miles in order to minister to people, but I didn’t really love people the way I knew I should. I didn’t follow God the way I was supposed to. I didn’t know the Bible like I should have. I didn’t even know what “surrendered” or “sold out” was supposed to look like. Every step I took was a further realization of how, if I was honest with myself, I wasn’t what I knew I was supposed to be. I was looking desperately for peace in my inmost being, shalom, wholeness. But I was the most fractured and broken I had ever been, and I was desperate for God to show me what I was supposed to do about it.
I was invited by some dear friends to come with them to visit Redeemer, because they had been quite moved by Tim Keller’s book, The Reason for God. Churches at that time had been making me feel anxious, especially if they talked about the importance of being “fully surrendered” to God. I knew I was a sinner, and I felt increasingly cognizant of my failings. But I lacked the solid hope to lean into, a solid hope that would allow me to admit my broken state.
Over a number of Sundays at Redeemer, I found that the preaching was striking a chord that hadn’t resounded clearly to me before. No doubt I had been taught the gospel in various ways over the years, but my ears weren’t quite ready to hear it. They became ready during those days in New York. One service, Pastor Tim preached, and it was like misaligned gears fell into place, pinched and twisted vertebrae straightening:
“But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance He had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:21-26, NIV).
If it felt like all the things I was resting my hope in for my own righteousness were disintegrating under my feet, it’s because by His grace, they were disintegrating.
If I felt like I was a sinner, it’s because I was a sinner. If it felt like all the things I was resting my hope in for my own righteousness were disintegrating under my feet, it’s because by His grace, they were disintegrating. “He inflicts wounds that heal,” I remember Tim Keller saying. And God was most definitely breaking my dependence on my own self-righteousness, so He could demonstrate His own righteousness as the justification for my life and salvation. If it felt like I simply needed to be washed clean – forgiven – of my sin, it’s because I did need it, and He had done it. If I felt like I couldn’t figure out what God was requiring of me, it’s because He was giving me what He required.
I needed to hear it over and over. I bought a CD of the book of Romans read by Max McLean at a book table at Redeemer and listened to it again and again in my car while driving in the increasingly familiar greater New York City region. To this day, some phrases in Romans still ring in my brain with McLean’s deep gravitas and are painted with a vague backdrop of maple trees lining parkways like The Hutchinson River Parkway.
I attended Redeemer for some months, and I was finally, finally beginning to understand the gospel. As Tim and Kathy Keller would say, “the coin in the soda machine” was starting to drop; the truth of the gospel was starting to break and heal my heart. Christ has already done the most radical ministry on my behalf, knowing I could not. He was completely sold out, knowing I never will be. He surrendered all, knowing I can’t. He achieved for me the perfection God requires of me, knowing full well I am a sinner. We are “in” because He did it. My entire understanding of what it meant to be a Christian was transformed. The clouds began to part. The sunniness came back. I became a changed woman during those months at Redeemer.
Then I promptly moved back to California!
I’m now in my late 30s with a sweet husband and three young children. My husband is a deacon and I lead the women’s group at our church. The foundation for true gospel ministry was cemented in my being during my brief time at Redeemer in NYC.
Christ fully surrendered Himself on my behalf. He suffered, died, and rose again. He is seated at the right hand of the Father, ever living to make intercession for me and all His people. Christ completed His radical ministry, and has freed me to participate in what is now my “radical ministry”: day-to-day life working alongside my husband in our flooring company and raising our daughter and two sons back in Orange County, California. It’s not the far away jungles of South America or the distant concrete and brownstones of the Bronx like I had anticipated He would require of me. But it’s still beautiful and still challenging, because it consists of the exact difficulties and triumphs that God knows I need, moment by moment, to become more like Christ.
I have discovered that the “radical” nature of gospel ministry we are called to is not mainly the geographical location, but the locus of motivation. Operating out of a heart that has experienced a miracle, having been once stone and now flesh, is extreme, and contrary to any worldly culture we might find ourselves in. As a friend of mine has wisely said, “Ministry happens where ministers go.” Sometimes we’re called to go far, sometimes we’re called to stay near. Either way, it’s all of grace.
My story isn’t really earth-shattering, but my earth was shattered when I came to Redeemer in those days, and God used the gospel preaching there to piece together a story no human could have orchestrated. The effects still echo in my family, our church, our business, and our circles of friends. I can move through life freed from fear because His perfect love casts it out.
“All of life is repentance and faith,” Pastor Tim Keller would remind his listeners. Whenever I find myself forgetting the truths of the gospel, and old insecurities re-emerge that I’m not “sold out” or “surrendered” enough, God reminds me: “The Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God…” (Romans 8:16, ESV). He tells me again of His gospel grace, unceasing goodness and mercy toward me. The old man dies again and the sunniness of new birth in Christ re-emerges.