The Inverted Kingdom

Michael Spencer, talking about many examples of small, unglamorous ministries to the poor:

One day, they will be a big thing. On that day when Jesus comes to reveal his Kingdom, there won’t be any way to miss these ministries and the people who keep them going. He’ll make sure of that.

The one for whom there was no room in the inn, the one from forgotten Nazareth, the one with the unwed mother, the one whose infant skin was covered with straw and rags in a stable, the one who had no place to lay his head, the one who was the poor, the cold, the naked and the imprisoned. He will remember those ministries. I assure you.

You might consider dropping in on one of those ministries sometime. They do have one thing many big churches don’t have.

Or, to be more precise, they do have someone many big churches don’t have. And he’s not generated on a big screen or via special effects.

He’s the one I hope we’re all looking for. He’s not so hard to find, even if, in this world, he’s no big thing. Just think like Jesus, and you’ll find the way.

I can think of no better way to participate in the season of Advent than to reflect on the truth contained in these words and then act on them. Of course, Jesus said exactly as much when he stated “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” But sometimes it takes someone smacking me upside the head with a big stick of truth to really make it clear.

I need to make some changes in my life. I need to help my family make those changes as well. I need to help my church make those changes. This is not an issue of our eternal destination (although depending on one’s reading of Matthew 25, it might be). This is an issue of letting the love of Christ flow through me to a group of people he has a special concern for: the poor.

The incarnate Christ laid in a manger, helpless, homeless, and poor, in order to create a people who would live out the Jubilee lifestyle that God desired his people to live all along. But instead of being a Jubilee people, content with what we have and filled with compassion for the poor and the lost, we have become just another cog in the consumerist machine which has overtaken the world.

Unfortunately, too often I’ve chosen consumerism’s way. But it’s a dead end. I want Jesus’ way.

Help me, Lord!

Playing Church

When I was in college, I joined with a bunch of naive, new and newly-energized Christians in my first experiment with applying the teachings of Jesus in a community setting. And while we made a ton of mistakes and went quite off the deep end in many ways, I do believe that we managed to take the priorities of Jesus and the early church and contextualize them for our college experience.

We spent time together.

We broke bread together.

We shared our possessions with one another.

We became good friends to those who had not yet joined our community.

We gave to the poor of both our time and our money (what little we had).

But, unfortunately, then I graduated and was forced away from this unique community into the “real world.” After two failed attempts at trying the same thing in this new environment, I gave up. And began “playing church.”

Sure, I go to church every week. I meet with a small group as well. And to be honest, after a period of struggle with my faith, I find myself closer to Jesus now than at any time since that college period – and perhaps even including it.

But my life doesn’t look a whole lot like the lives of our church fathers (and mothers). And in fact, in many ways, it looks a whole lot more like the “American dream” than the Kingdom of God.

This is a problem.

Now, I don’t believe this is a problem the way I would have when I was in college. My college self probably would have looked at my present self and been quite convinced I was going straight to hell. I believe God has taught me that he’s quite a bit more gracious than that.

But instead, I am convinced that it is a problem for myself personally and the church in general in that it is stunting our growth and development. God wants to give us the entirety of his kingdom, and yet we settle for the American dream where we can receive but small portions of that kingdom.

So given that I want more of the kingdom of God in my life and the lives of my brothers and sisters in the faith as well as my friends and neighbors who may be at another place in their journey, how can I get past settling for “playing church” in order to really live out a missional gospel which transforms the status quo?

The barriers are tremendous. I live in a city where a one hour commute is considered reasonable. I live in a relatively suburban area, where each family keeps to themselves in their own walled-off fortress. And I have two young kids, with a third on the way, which obviously places a strain on my time and resources.

It’s pretty easy, given these constraints, to just do the church thing and live a normal life.

But could there be more for us? Could we actually give up our “right” to choose the neighborhood in which we live, and the schools to which we will send our children, in order to live closer to a real Christian community? Could we open up our schedules and plan our activities in such a way as to maximize time spent with our community? Could we choose to work closer to home so that we can be closer to our community and have a lighter environmental footprint? Could we make the tough choices to simplify our lives and share our resources in order to have more to give to the world’s needy?

Each of these choices is possible, but hard. The question is, do I really believe that the payoff is worth the cost?

Cacophony

Every once in a while, God is able to break through the noise of our lives and teach us something very significant. I didn’t realize it at the time, but last weekend God did just that for me.

We had our church retreat last weekend, focusing on rest, and silence, and contemplation. Unfortunately, I have two small children, so I didn’t get much of any of those three things over the two days we were there. Except for about twenty minutes on Saturday.

The kids were in their class, and I managed to escape for a brief time to find God. And there I sat, staring at a tree. And seeing glimmers of the kingdom of God.

I saw its glimmers in the sun shining through the leaves. I saw the barest hint of it as the wind rustled against it, causing the shadows on the ground to change in endless ways. And I sensed it in the peace that settled upon me, as I sat there in silence, staring, in the presence of God.

Yet all around me there was a cacophony of lives rushing to and fro. Mothers, fathers, and children. Students (for we were at a college that weekend). Fellow retreat-goers who had not found a space of quiet into which they could immerse themselves.

We cannot see God in the midst of the chaos that is our lives. Especially in post-millenial America, we rush to and fro, contributing to a cacophony which drowns out the voice of God, still and small that it is. We think that by accomplishing our tasks we will bring ourselves rest and satisfaction, and yet we never find that rest.

I got a new car this week, a Prius, in order to help the environment, save some money on gas, and give us a sedan that we desperately needed with two kids here and a third on the way. One of the unique features of the car is the energy display which shows you your gas mileage as you drive. And I found that the positive feedback of higher numbers changed my driving habits. Rather than rushing from stoplight to stoplight, I began to smoothly accelerate and coast as much as I could to a stop. I left people the proper amount of space on the freeway, rather than bunching up a bit too close behind them, getting ready to lane change around at a moment’s notice.

And my driving became more peaceful. In the midst of this change, I was brought back to that tree. Everyone was rushing around, trying to get there a few fractions of a second faster. Not letting people merge. Tailgating in order to force others over so they can shave fractions off their commute time. And I came to a realization. Whether we rush to and fro or give ourselves space and a couple minutes longer of a commute, we all have the same amount of time on this planet. And in the end, the fact that we were able to accomplish one or two additional things in our lives doesn’t mean all that much.

But what if we could see God by giving ourselves the space to be with him in silence? What if instead of passing by the trees which daily sway in the breeze, we could see the kingdom of God shimmering in their leaves?

That is a gift far greater than any accomplishment we can achieve in this lifetime by contributing to the world’s cacophony!

Grace, Revisted.

Emerging Grace: “The missional perspective seems to be that God loves us while we are yet sinners and that our sins are already forgiven before we even repent of them.

I think one of the biggest offenses of the evangelical gospel has been confronting people on the basis of their sin rather than introducing them to the love, grace, and mercy of God.

Do we dare run around in the ridiculous lavishness of His grace and trust others with that abundance of grace? What could happen if we let people be free of judgment, willy-nilly, without the restraint of guilt? Could their mistakes be any worse than the mistakes of legalism?”

I don’t think there’s anything I could add.

Post-Evangelical

As I’ve navigated my way through the Christian and evangelical worlds in the years since my embrace of Christ, cracks have developed between my understanding of God through scripture study and direct experiences with God and the traditional “evangelical” approach to those subjects. Some examples:

  • While I hold scripture in extremely high regard, I have trouble accepting the modernist doctrine of inerrancy. The fact is, when I read the scripture, there are points of disagreement within the text which I cannot reconcile with an inerrant reading of it. That being said, I believe that God in his sovereignty has directed the writers of the scriptures and the church in its development of the canon and therefore while the scriptures may not be inerrant, they are inspired, authoritative, and the ultimate rule in our faith. We are not to reject their teachings (but we may find that they teach us something different than we had always thought or were taught that they said). As I like to say, “I do not believe in inerrancy, but in something which is functionally the same.”
  • Evangelicalism tends to get caught up in its own certainty. There is a tendency within evangelicalism to believe that one’s own (or one’s churches own) interpretation of the scripture is definitively “the truth” and that anyone disagreeing with those teachings needs to be “corrected.” I have learned again and again that my beliefs are only my best approximation of God’s truth at this time, and can only be held on to lightly. I believe Jesus affirms this position when he discussed the concept of “new wineskins.”
  • I have been troubled by the lack of inclusivity among many evangelicals. Jesus modeled a radical inclusivity which reached out to even the most “sinful” of individuals, and which did not require any sort of hoop jumping to come into fellowship with himself. But for most evangelicals, that inclusivity has a limit. We’re a radically inclusive people, unless you’re gay, or (in some cases) liberal, or what have you.
  • Evangelicalism is far too focused on individual salvation rather than the expansion of the kingdom of God. While I believe that initially, we must be transformed individually, I do not believe God wants us to linger long in this place. He always brings salvation (in the form of inner healing, physical healing, and spiritual reorientation) first in order to move our focus outward to the world so that we may be agents of salvation and bringers of the kingdom of God to others. But in our “I” orientated worship songs, the “I”-ness of our prayers, and the inward focus of so much of what we do, I believe that envangelicalism tends to miss this key point.

While these are my immediate critiques of evangelicalism, I by no means want to imply that evangelicalism is without merit. To the contrary, as a post-evangelical attending an evangelical church, I believe that evangelicalism continues to be one of the key ways God is working in the world. Internet Monk has an excellent post which outlines some of the strengths of evangelicalism which I appreciate as well.

But in the end, at this point in my life, while I continue to associate with the evangelical expression of God’s church, I consider myself to be post-evangelical and believe that it will be the emerging church and its many “posts” (post-evangelical being only one of many) which will best show the gospel’s relevancy to our post-modern, post-Christian western society.

Mystery

My wife and I are thirty-one weeks into the launching of our latest project: an active little boy who was supposed to come out toward the end of July.

He will join his five year-old brother and three year-old sister when he arrives.

Now, for my wife, pregnancy has never been something which can be called easy, or even not horrible. Well, at least parts of it, in any case. She has suffered each time with incredible, debilitating morning sickness. And each time, her blood pressure has shot through the roof as she has entered labor.

Unfortunately, after the birth of our daughter, it never really came all the way down. And that has impacted this pregnancy.

She’s been given a prescription of “get as much bed rest as you can stand.” So we’ve reorganized our life to try to work around the loss of a very important pair of hands around the house. She’s been given medication, but so far, it hasn’t made much of an impact.

And we’ve been given a truckload of worry. Worry that the extra heap of contractions she has endured at an earlier point in this pregnancy may lead to a May or June baby rather than a July one. Worry that her blood pressure may spike still more during delivery. Worry about things that I won’t even mention because I cannot bear to think of them happening and am trusting that God will not allow to happen.

And here I sit in God’s mystery. Stretched quite a bit too thin by worry and added responsibilities. Quite aware of my sinfulness as I struggle to keep it in check. And praying longingly for God’s redemptive power in the midst of it all.

God knows what we want and he knows what we need. Praying “harder” won’t cause his grace to come any more or less quickly. But my desire is that instead I would pray deeper – deeper into the heart of God.

Deeper into the mystery.

I’m looking forward to holding our baby boy and crying with my wife as we celebrate his entrance into the world. An entrance which I believe is an opportunity for us to see the kingdom which glitters underneath the veil of the ordinary.

An entrance which will introduce us to yet another aspect of the mystery which veils so much of our lives.

Static

I just finished the book Static, by Ron Martoia. For a more complete review of the book, please go see what Michael Spencer of InternetMonk.com has to say. His review was what compelled me to pick up the book in the first place, and I am glad that I did.

Martoia’s book is about deconstructing and re-contextualizing the gospel message for the post-modern world. His point is that the tried-and-true messages of repentence, sin, salvation, and the “ticket to heaven” first of all do not resonate with today’s post-modern generation (roughly speaking, Gen X and more significantly Y), and secondly are based more on our cultural Christianity than on the teachings of scripture.

Some of the things that really struck me about his book:

  • He talks about the fact that while evangelical Christianity emphasizes the “Four Spiritual Laws” and the “prayer to accept Jesus,” the vast majority of converts come to know Christ gradually and don’t necessarily have a specific “date” of conversion. In fact, he seems to downplay the need to get someone to “make a decision for Jesus” to the point of unimportance. This resonates with me, as it was how I came to know Jesus. I can clearly see the “pre-conversion” processes which led me on the path to finding Jesus in college, and the gradual slide over a period of months from ardent skeptic to committed disciple. Even today I can see that my “conversion” is a continuing process. I can no more claim that I’ve “arrived” in my faith than I can that I have gotten as old as I will become.
  • He emphasizes that when Jesus talks about salvation in the Gospels, he is not talking about a ticket to heaven. Instead, he is talking about the restoration of the shalom of the Garden of Eden. Salvation comes to individuals not by praying a prayer, but rather through a reception of grace from Jesus – be it through healing, re-integration into society, or whatnot. In fact, Martoia emphasizes the fact that Jesus does not call people to repentence, but instead simply loves and cares for them where they are at. The repentence comes as a natural response to that grace, and then sometimes only much later.
  • He discusses that when Jesus talks about “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven,” he is not talking simply about some future kingdom, but rather his ushering in of the kingdom of God here and now. Jesus brings heaven down to us – we don’t need to wait until we die to experience it.

His main point in all of this is that we need to go back and read what the scriptures really said – trying as best we can to understand the context in which they were written – and then to take that understanding and re-contextualize it for post-modern people. Rather than focusing on a person’s sin and their need for forgiveness (something that many people today would not recognize), we can present the good news (or “newsflash” as Martoia re-christens it) that the king has arrived to heal the brokenness in our lives and in the world, and let people come to terms with issues of sin in time as Jesus draws them nearer to himself.

What I really appreciated about Martoia is that he did not cast off the traditional understandings from scripture – sin and repentence, eternal life in heaven, and so forth, but rather he shifted our vision to the stories that Jesus emphasized in his ministry. Yes, Jesus did on the cross for our sins, but that was simply part of the larger purpose he had in his ministry – the restoration of the kingdom of God – the garden of Eden – that we were intended to live in.

While much of what Martoia had to say was familiar to me based on some good teaching I have received in earlier parts of my life as well as the path on which God has been taking me over the course of the past few years, the way that he presented it was still challenging for my faith. There were some quite uncomfortable moments while reading the book, and some that I’m having to set aside for later thought. InternetMonk says this better than I could, and I wholeheartedly agree with him:

I appreciated his frequent references to his own struggles with these changes in understanding, because I’m still having them, and expect to have them for as long as I’m reading outside of the “safe and approved” box.

But I suppose if I never strayed off of the “safe and approved” list, I would have a much harder time shedding the old wineskins which prevent me from growing in my love for and understanding of God.