God Made Us to Be His Kingdom

As he opens his letter that we now call Revelation. the apostle John mentions something in passing that blew me away this morning. John tells us God “has made us to be a kingdom.”

That’s huge.

God has made US to BE the Kingdom.

The Kingdom isn’t some far off distant thing to hope for. The Kingdom of God isn’t distinctly separate from us that we can choose to participate in or not. We ARE the Kingdom. At least, that’s what we’re MADE to be. US. You and me. Together, doing the best we can in Jesus’ power and grace.

When Jesus teaches us to pray, “Father, Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,” it’s not a plea for something else to come, it’s a calling and a challenge to US to realize we’re already here.

When you’re wondering what your calling is, start by being the Kingdom to the people around you.

When you’re wondering where the Kingdom of God is, look in a mirror and remember Jesus’ words: the Kingdom of God is within you.

We are meant to be the Kingdom. You are meant to be the Kingdom personified. You are meant to be love and mercy and grace and forgiveness and compassion to the people around you — and to yourself.

Go be the Kingdom! Go be what you were made to be!

On the Need For Artists

The world lost an incredible woman this morning when Maya Angelou passed away at the age of 86. She was a poet leader whose inspiring works were matched only by her inspiring life.

The extraordinary outpouring at Maya Angelou’s passing reminds us that the world is not clamoring for more theologians or more men standing at podiums dispensing answers. No, the deepest desire and yearning of the world is for artists: poets and writers and painters, sculptors and actors and musicians who can cut through the noise of life and make. us. feel. Artists who speak to what it means to be human and inspire us to be better.

It strikes me that Jesus wasn’t a theologian. He never dealt in big words or complex theories, never got bogged down in the minutia of religious argument. He simply told simple stories to simple people, and yet his stories had deep, meaningful impact. He made a habit out of answering questions with questions, inviting people to be curious and explore rather than dispensing answers from on high. Jesus cared more about systemic injustice than systematic theology.

May we follow in Maya Angelou’s footsteps — indeed, the very footsteps of Jesus! — and dream of a better world, then join God as creative artists to make that dream, the Kingdom of God, come true.

Of Holidays and Citizenship

‘Tis the season for gentle snowfall, sipping hot cocoa by the fire, hanging lights, and… fighting a fierce and bloody war to defend the holiday of Christmas.

That’s right, it’s officially War on Christmas TM time, boys and girls. And that means leaving no stone unturned in the search for things to be offended by. No baby Jesus on the courthouse lawn? Persecution! No “Silent Night” at the kid’s Christmas program? To arms! Calling it “winter break” instead of “Christmas Break”? Battle stations, everyone! Someone wish you “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas?” It’s a horseman of the apocalypse!

We’ve even moved beyond those traditional theaters of war this year into the realm of not-so-subtle racism, with Fox News battling suggestions of inclusivity by making sure everyone knows the “verifiable fact” that both Jesus and Santa Claus are white.

Look, I get it. I really do. Drawing battle lines, creating a “them” for “us” to rally against, engaging in a war… it makes sense. It does. We do it because it makes us feel better about ourselves. Morally superior. It gives us a (twisted) sense of purpose and calling, something that feels worthwhile to accomplish. And it allows us to create a separate group of people, whom we can blame everything on when anything goes wrong. Drawing battle lines creates a built-in scapegoat for all our problems and issues.

Underlying it all is the unspoken assumption, our expectation, that our civic leadership endorse and embrace our specific religious belief system. Until they do, and do so wholeheartedly, we will continue to find (or create) reasons to be upset and offended.

Unfortunately, all of this runs contrary to how I read the narrative of faith in the Bible. That narrative, to me, majors on a theme of inclusivity, not exclusivity… a theme of tearing down walls rather than building them, erasing battle lines instead of drawing them. It centers on an idea of loving everybody (even regardless of what holiday greeting they use), and beating our swords into plowshares. To give up the battle in favor of gardening. To stop destroying and start creating.

Along with that, this narrative teaches me something about who I am as well, and it couches it in terms of citizenship. “Our citizenship is in heaven,” Paul writes at one point, not in this world. For Paul, this was a direct contrast to his Roman (read: privileged) citizenship. For us, let’s make some folks uncomfortable: We are not citizens of America. We are citizens of the Kingdom of heaven.

There’s no dual citizenship here. There’s no foot-in-both-worlds possibility. When we choose to become citizens in the Kingdom, we renounce our citizenship in the world. We renounce our American citizenship.

We’re not “Christians first, Americans second” — we are, essentially, no longer Americans.

That idea has far reaching implications on a number of levels and issues. But during this time of year, the holiday season, what it means to me is it does not matter whether or not civic leaders legitimize the symbols of our faith — the symbols of a rival and competing kingdom.

It does not matter where we may or may not be not allowed to place images of Jesus… after all, the image of our Creator is borne by all of us in flesh and blood, not in plastic light-up made-in-China dolls.

It does not matter what holiday greeting you receive in a checkout line… after all, Jesus’ most valuable lesson was that Christians ought to demand privileged status in society and be offended when we don’t receive it. Or the exact opposite of that. Whatever.

Loving God and loving people, sacrificing yourself for the sake of others, is what being a citizen in the Kingdom of God is all about. And doing that most assuredly does not require putting a label of “Christmas” on everything or having a white baby Jesus doll on a public lawn.

Enemies at the Table

You had to know it would happen.

After every major natural disaster, someone in the Christian community makes an insensitive post about how the disaster and the subsequent loss of life was the mighty hand of God’s judgment against sin (usually gays or abortion doctors), or about how we all deserve death anyway and so really it’s not that bad.

And I get it. I really do. I get the desire to explain away the hard things. I get the yearning to tuck away the destruction of an elementary school and a daycare center into a neat theological file folder so it doesn’t shake your faith too badly. I get the temptation to take the horrendously misused doctrine of total depravity and push it to its logical (and heartless) ends.

I get it. I used to be there, I used to do the same things. If the internet had birthed the world of blogging ten or fifteen years ago, I would have been right there, passionately writing those same themes and ideas — and powerfully alienating the hurting and grieving communities who most needed to see the mercy and compassion of God.

I would have been right there, alongside John Piper who has made headlines again after a ludicrously callous tweet, quoting a Bible verse about a house collapsing and sons and daughters dying (made in a weak effort to point people to God’s sovereignty). I would have been right there, alongside Pat Robertson who has made headlines again after saying if the people in Oklahoma had just been praying more, then God would have intervened and stopped the tornado. I would have been right there in the thick of it all, defending God… rather than having compassion on broken people.

But listen: I don’t blame John Piper and Pat Robertson and others for their comments. Those sorts of comments are born out of a particular philosophy, a certain perspective, an understanding and approach to the world that I once shared. It’s an approach that says to be a leader you have to have all the answers. You have to be able to explain everything. You have to know or else people won’t follow.

They are comments made in response to an incredulous world asking, “Why would God send a tornado like this?” or alternatively, “Why would God allow a tornado like this?”

Once upon a time I thought the most important thing was to be able to answer that question.

Now, I am finding the best response is perhaps the most honest one: I don’t know. I don’t have any idea why God would send or allow something like this. God’s ways are not our ways, and his thoughts are not our thoughts. Maybe it’s because of sin, or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s because he’s angry, or maybe it’s not.

Maybe the answer to that question isn’t as important as just loving the people who are directly affected.

Whether that be through financial donations, or traveling to do disaster relief, or praying for the victims, or sending cards and letters, or whatever… acts of love speak infinitely more loudly than any sort of jumbled mess of an answer we can stitch together.

So I don’t blame the folks making those comments, because I understand where they’re coming from. I don’t agree with them, but I don’t blame them. I also don’t blame them because they are part of my family. They are part of my spiritual, jacked up, messed up, eclectic family and they are adopted children of God just as I am.

But it’s become sport in the world of Christianity to hurl insults at our family members. Back in February, I wrote about what happens when our fellow Christians make public displays of ridiculousness:

What happens is we distance ourselves as far as possible from the offending party… We are quick to announce to the world, “We are not like them.”

[I]t becomes a race to see who can denounce the others in the harshest, most public manner possible. “Open letters” are posted, interviews are given, sermons full of warnings and labels and epithets are delivered, websites are launched… But here’s my plea: can we please stop distancing ourselves from one another, and instead band together to help one another?

…I understand you want people to see you are not like Mark Driscoll. I understand you want people to see you are not like Rob Bell. I understand you want people to see you are not like Ted Haggard or Eddie Long or Catholic priests. So rather than rant and condemn, show them.

And love those whom you are not like. Maybe in that process, you’ll realize you are more like them than you care to admit. And you’ll realize we all need help and are all in this together. As one big jacked up family.

This debate is heating up again with Rachel Held Evans taking Piper to task for his latest comments. And I don’t blame Rachel for her passion and her blog post, either, because I understand where she’s coming from, too. She has a heart to see people fall in love with Jesus and experience freedom in the Kingdom of God, and it pains her to see things like Piper’s comments that hinder that journey for folks. Believe me, I get that.

And I get that for some people out there, this is a cause that forces one to take sides – to choose Rachel or John – and respond with tribalistic passion in defending your choice.

I get that, but I hope and pray that we all get something else: division is not healthy. Unity is God’s desire. We are called to love, not to tear apart.

Look: for pastoral care and wisdom and shepherding, I would take Rachel Held Evans over John Piper any day. But in the Kingdom of God, I do not have to choose. There is room at the table for both of them.

If this were truly a family reunion, I think John Piper would be our crazy uncle who stands in the corner saying embarrassing things that everyone shakes their head at. And I know some of you disagree with me and feel that way about Rachel Held Evans. But John is still family, and we still love him. Rachel is still family, and we still love her. I have seen cruel, mean things said about them on Facebook and Twitter and blogs that nobody would say to their faces. That kind of division has got to stop. John and Rachel are beloved by God. Valued. Cherished. And in the Kingdom of God, they share a seat at the same table — the wedding feast of the Lamb.

Whether you agree or disagree with whatever you think they’re trying to say, they both have hearts to see people know God. They both belong to us. We, in our narrowly defined personal versions of orthodoxy, are quick to speak and slow to listen. We are quick to pounce and prove and point… and slow to love. It seems to me we ought to practice loving one another now — otherwise that wedding feast is going to be a mighty awkward event.

Render Unto Caesar

In case you hadn’t heard the news yet, Louie Giglio will not be praying at Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony this week. The firestorm over this man and something he said a couple decades ago is astounding in its ability to get people riled up.

Giglio is an evangelical pastor from Atlanta, and he is on the forefront of the fight against human trafficking and the sex slave trade. This has brought him a lot of positive attention, and for good reason — it is an excellent cause and he and his church are doing amazing things to aid in the fight against those horrific crimes. In fact, that attention is why Giglio was invited to pray at the inauguration in the first place.

However, some groups began researching Giglio and unearthed a sermon that he taught more than 15 years ago about homosexuality. It was described as “anti-gay” and so the groups began pressuring Obama to revoke Giglio’s invitation. Eventually, Giglio and Obama announced, separately, that they had mutually decided Giglio’s presence at the event would not be beneficial. Giglio’s withdrawal has now created its own firestorm. Everyone is up in arms at everyone else. The familiar battle lines are drawn: secular progressives versus religious conservatives. It’s a tired battle we’ve seen play out far too many times over the past fifty years.

It’s one that I wonder why we even fight. From either side of the issue.

Look, the groups who were pressuring Obama to give Giglio the boot were being asinine. The guy is giving a sixty second prayer of blessing, not a sermon. Giglio isn’t involved in any scandals, no extramarital affairs, no drugs, nothing. The guy’s clean. The fact that they had to go back more than 15 years to find anything on him should tell you something. The fact that an evangelical pastor gave a sermon labeling homosexuality a sin (and thus somehow qualifying as “vehemently anti-gay”) in the early or mid-90s shouldn’t surprise anybody, either. What is surprising is that something someone said nearly two decades ago is being held against them now.

I have things I said five or ten years ago that I hope aren’t held against me, let alone fifteen or twenty.

But on the other side of the coin, Christians are acting just as foolishly, if not more so. Complaints that the first amendment is being shredded abound; cries of persecution and an anti-religion agenda dot the landscape. It’s as if Christians got together and said to those in opposition to Giglio, “Oh, you want to overreact? We’ll show you overreact!” Contrary to popular belief, the First Amendment does not guarantee anyone the right to pray at an inauguration ceremony. And even if, in some strange land, this amounted to “persecution,” aren’t we supposed to turn the other cheek? To pray for those who persecute us? To show them the love of Christ?

If we truly represent Jesus, then apparently he’s a whiny little kid with a martyr complex.

There is a much larger issue, however, that this whole brouhaha has served to highlight in my mind: why Christians should be incredibly wary about casting their lots with anything or anyone political in the first place.

Instead of getting angry, I pray this is a reminder to us of why mixing the kingdom of God with the kingdoms of this world is rarely, if ever, a good idea. Politics will never be able to save us. We will never be able to pass enough laws to make people holy or make them love God. We will never change people from the inside out with the machinations of Washington. So why do we try?

It’s alluring, that’s for sure. It’s nice to think that taking up political causes like pacifism or welfare programs or the rights of unborn children would actually solve the problem of death and poverty and abortion. It’s nice to think activism (or, in this day and age, slacktivism) would actually bring about the kingdom of God. But it won’t. It won’t because politics doesn’t change hearts, it only applies surface-level solutions to immensely deep problems. It won’t because politics is tainted by human corruption, greed, and power.

If politics could actually save us, Jesus would have been born in Rome and spent his 33 years involved in the Senate or as an Emperor.

Instead, he spent his 33 years largely hanging around a backwoods agrarian community. Spending time with people. Doing the slow and unalluring work of loving people.

Had Jesus been born today, there’s little doubt in my mind that he would not run for President – or if he did, he certainly couldn’t win the primary in either major party.

The prayer at the inauguration seems meant to make us as a nation feel better anyhow. It’s like keeping “In God We Trust” on our money, when so many of us don’t. It’s a way for us to to ensure we don’t incur God’s wrath, and hopefully incur his blessing — a superstitious method of religion. It reminds me of the story in the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel when Israel lost a military battle. They regrouped back at camp and asked, “Why did God let us lose? I know – it’s because we didn’t have the Ark of the Covenent with us! Grab it and let’s go back out and fight!” The Ark of the Covenant was a holy artifact that represented God’s presence. The Israelites thought they were doing a good thing, inviting God to be present with them on the battlefield. Instead, God allowed them to lose the battle again — and allowed their Ark to be taken away.

Apparently, God doesn’t do superstition too well.

At some point in the not-so-distant future, the prayer at an inauguration will be offered by a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Wiccan, or by multiple people to ensure an array of religions is represented. When this happens, Christians will undoubtedly throw another temper tantrum, not understanding that they are being used by politicians. At some point after that, the prayer will probably be done away with entirely and Christians will bemoan the loss of God’s influence – not realizing the loss of one of our modern-day Arks might give us the opportunity to refocus on what really matters.

Something the Bible makes quite clear is this: nations will rise, and nations will fall. Kings and Presidents and countries and governments will come and go. Many have crumbled and many more will, and it does not matter. Some day, America will fall from “greatness” (with all the debatable baggage that term brings with it), just like all the superpowers that came before us. Why? Because politics is only a temporary “fix” to the human condition. It can only hold things together for so long.

The kingdom of God does not require a strong America to exist and thrive, so why do we? The kingdom of God does not require a token prayer at a political ceremony, so why do we? The fate of God does not rest on the direction of one nation – ours or anybody else’s. So maybe instead of pouring our passions into political bandaids and directing our misplaced anger toward politicians, maybe we ought to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and get on with the kingdom business of slow, purposeful, sacrificial love.

Making a Difference… Changing Lives

Last year I for my birthday I asked you to give money to the group charity:water — and amazing organization that travels around drilling clean water wells in third world countries. I detailed for you the incredible ripple effects that giving clean water causes throughout a village. And we had the opportunity to join together and help fund a water drilling rig that would go drill wells in the nation of Ethiopia. Many of you responded and we raised $640.00 toward that drilling rig. You guys are awesome.

This past week, I received this note in my e-mail (many of you who donated received the same one):

The rig you funded drilled its first well!

A few weeks ago, the first of the two rigs broke ground drilling its first well in Merara Village. Hours into the drill, it hit a massive aquifer of pure ground water. Soon, 450 lives here will change. And that’s just the beginning. 

Each rig will go on to drill 80 new wells, and together they’ll change 80,000 lives —every single year for the next 15 years.  

Now that is awesome. You helped make this happen. You literally changed the lives of 450 people in that village. You saved their lives, gave them safety, hope, security, and a chance for an education and equality. You did it.

You brought about a piece of the Kingdom of God here on earth.

Way to go. It is so amazing to see what you’ve done, you should go donate to charity:water again!

In relation to this great news, I found this article from Christianity Today very interesting. The magazine brought together a panel of economists to rate which methods of charity were actually most effective. They ranked the ten strategies presented to them as follows:

  1. Giving clean water to rural villages
  2. Funding de-worming treatments for children
  3. Providing mosquito nets
  4. Sponsoring a child
  5. Give word-burning stoves
  6. Microfinance loans
  7. Fund reparative surgeries
  8. Donate farm animals
  9. Drink fair-trade coffee
  10. Provide laptops for children in developing countries

As you can see, giving clean water came in as the #1 most effective method of charity. It’s not surprising, really, when you consider the truth of charity:water’s slogan: Water changes everything.

Thanks for being a part of bringing the Kingdom of God to Ethiopia for my birthday. It is an incredible thing to join God in his restorative work. Please keep it up!

Worry

I have a confession to make: sometimes I have trouble believing Jesus.

Not believing in Jesus, but believing him. Like what he says. Like that he’s telling the truth.

I’m sitting on my living room couch reading chapter six of Matthew’s Jesus story right now, because they include Jesus’ teachings on worrying. These particular teachings have always raised doubts in my head, ever since the first time I read them as a young Christian back in high school.

The idea in this chapter essentially comes down to this argument: don’t worry about what you will eat. Look at the birds – God takes care of them and feeds them, and you are more important than a bird. And don’t worry about what you will wear. Look at how God clothes the grass with beautiful flowers – and you are more important than grass.

In other words, God takes care of nature. You’re more important than nature. Therefore, God will take care of you.

It seems to me, though, that sometimes God doesn’t take care of nature. Sometimes birds and grass die because they don’t have enough food or enough water. So how good, truly, is this promise?

How good is this promise when you are unemployed because of a bad economy? Or worse, how good is this promise when you live in Africa and you have to watch your children die of starvation? Would you speak these words of Jesus to a parent who is unable to scavenge enough food together to feed all their children and is forced to choose which one gets to eat that day? Would you tell a family not to worry about what they will drink when the only source of water they have is full of bacteria that is literally killing them from the inside out?

Where are the pretty pictures of birds and flowers in those situations?

And so I sit awake at 1:00 in the morning unable to sleep, pondering. Thinking when my brain should be shut off. I can’t sleep because this passage (at some incredibly small level compared to those examples) is becoming personal. Even though Jesus told me not to, I am worrying.

It’s a strange sensation, honestly. One of my spiritual gifts is faith, which means when I’m faced with hard times I generally don’t get ruffled and I have an overarching sense of peace that everything is going to be okay.

But for whatever reason, that sense isn’t kicking in at the moment.

I currently have a part-time job. That was by design, so I could finish writing the book I had been working on. I took this part-time job as a step of faith, fully believing God would take care of us if we took this crazy leap into the unknown to chase a dream.

The book is done. I am shopping it around to agents and publishers. But in the meantime, we burned through a lot of our savings and now have just two months’ worth left in the bank.

Anyone else who is looking for a job in this economy knows how tough the search can be. I’ve applied for five jobs in the past week, but I know there are dozens of other people applying for the same ones. I want to believe everything is going to be okay. I really, truly do. But then I go and read things like there are currently fifteen million Americans who are unemployed – and five million who have been unemployed for more than a year.

Five million. Where are their birds and grass?

And if they don’t get birds and grass, what makes me think I will? Do they not believe in God? Do they not pray enough?

Is Jesus telling the truth?

There are parts of this lesson that Jesus teaches that do give me comfort and peace, however. Jesus asks, “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” And that is true. That resonates in my soul. My worry at one in the morning isn’t accomplishing anything except robbing me of sleep. Checking my email every ten minutes to see if someone has gotten back to me about a job isn’t going to make the messages appear any faster. There is absolutely nothing productive about worry. That alone makes me want to breathe deeply and quit.

The other part that resonates with me is this line: “But seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you as well.” See, the context of Jesus telling us not to worry in this passage is interesting: he talks about giving to the needy and storing up treasures in heaven and our inability to serve God if our master is money. And then he says not to worry.

Oh, and if you are worrying, he explains, seek the Kingdom. Seek the Kingdom and store up treasures in heaven by giving to the needy. Seek the Kingdom by helping others and focusing on them instead of focusing on yourself. Not in order to trigger some kind of blessing — definitely not. But because it reminds us and recenters us on what life in the Kingdom is all about.

My problems seem to become a little smaller when I see them out of my peripheral vision rather than looking at them straight on. And I think maybe what Jesus is saying is that’s just how he prefers it. Because the Kingdom isn’t about ourselves. It’s about sacrifice for the sake of others. Maybe if I stop worrying so much about getting a new job, I’d be able to focus on the people and the needs around me.

So as I sat here tonight pondering, I went and re-lent some Kiva credit we had, and I donated some money to charity:water so someone has clean drinking water — because what I’m worried about seems wildly insignificant compared to the thought of someone not even having clean water to drink.

And it struck me: maybe this is what Jesus is talking about after all. The Kingdom is intended to be lived out by all of us, not just through supernatural miracles performed from on high, but through profane everyday acts of small sacrifice. Through a donation of just twenty bucks, there is someone, most likely in Africa, that will now know what it means to not have to worry about what they will drink. That one person will probably understand Jesus’ words better than I do. Because I take them for granted.

Until I can’t anymore. Until I am forced to look at them square in the face and ask myself: “Do I really believe this is true?”

Honestly, I don’t know. But what I do know after this late night pondering session is that worrying doesn’t accomplish anything. I know that I want to live a lifestyle of giving for the sake of seeking the Kingdom so these sorts of stressful moments don’t choke out my faith any longer. And that conclusion, while not the final word on the subject in my heart, is good enough for now.