Saturday, December 26, 2015

Love your Neighbor

 So the last few years I've been trying something new—new for me, anyway. It started with a neighbor, or at least I think it did. It's sometimes hard to put your finger on the beginnings of the often long process of God's patient attempts to shift our hearts toward His. Perhaps there were many other moments He intended me to take note of, but I remember this one. We had a neighbor, a young single guy, who for three to four years lived right next door to us in our apartment complex. His door was literally a few feet from ours. I don't know his name. We would greet each other politely when we passed. One day on my way out the door, I saw him loading his furniture into a moving van. I think I stopped and asked the obvious, “are you moving?” I didn't really have much to say after that beyond a generic “good luck.” I didn't know him. I remember feeling like I had completely wasted the years that I had lived in such close proximity to this guy. I wasn't a good steward of the time or the space we shared or, most importantly, of the Gospel with which I had been entrusted. The whisper of the Spirit was not condemning, though. God was instead welcoming me to view my neighbors the way He does. He was inviting me to follow him into the terrifying and exciting realm of actively loving my neighbors, seeking to bless them however I could, and pursuing them the way He pursues me.

I quickly realized that before I could love my neighbors I would have to first meet them. This obvious initial step can be an Everest of an undertaking for an introvert such as myself. How exactly does one meet one's neighbors anyway? I had to think on it for awhile. Our first attempt to meet the neighbors came about near Halloween. I had been conspiring with the Holy Spirit for a few weeks to devise a plan to meet everyone in our complex. Finally, He gave me the idea of doing what we ended up calling “reverse trick-or-treating.” We bought a bunch of candy, dressed our seven-month old up in her cute little Disney's Stitch costume, had a quick family prayer, and off we went. I gotta tell you, it was terrifying. Just knocking on doors and talking to strangers is really tough for me. Having an adorable baby as your wingman definitely helps, though. Family, and particularly kids, can be awesome ice breakers. We introduced ourselves, passed out some candy, and let people know where we lived. No big deal. These initial introductions eventually lead to a weekly neighborhood BBQ and a growing community within our previously guarded apartment complex.

I wish I could tell you it was all an easy ride from anonymity to instant community—that we didn't have any obstacles or heartaches. Getting to know people, earning the right to peer into their lives, and becoming vulnerable by welcoming them into your life can be a messy business. There really isn't any other way to go about it, though. The good news of Jesus' incarnation is best delivered incarnate, face to face. If He can leave Heaven to become Immanuel, “God with us,” then we can cross the hall to love the folks in the next apartment. The first door that opened to us belonged to an older woman who was desperately afraid to leave her apartment. She was addicted to painkillers and had burned all bridges to her remaining family. It was into this darkness and despair that Jesus invited us to shine His light. She eventually came with us to our weekly church gatherings, and we gave her rides to the grocery store and her doctor's appointments. She had some profound emotional/psychological wounds. Sometimes she loved us, and sometimes she was inexplicably angry with us. To be frank, it was often an extremely taxing relationship. Even so, I am grateful that He trusted us with her.

There were many encouraging moments, new friends, and redemptive glimpses of the kingdom of God breaking through. One notable highpoint of our time at the apartment complex was meeting a young family who later became our good friends and ministry partners. They were really great at inviting people and helping us put on our neighborhood BBQ every week. They were kind of shy like us, introverts set in motion by the power of the Gospel. Just like God to intentionally use our weaknesses to emphasize His strength. They opened doors to a bunch of Spanish speaking and Filipino neighbors with whom they already had ties (their kids being in school activities together and such). I remember the husband later telling me that he had been crying out to God to show up in his life, to offer some hope, a way out of his addiction and depression. He saw our knock at the door as God's answer to his prayer. As he spoke, I remembered back to when God was stirring in my heart and calling me out of my comfort zone. It's a beautiful thing when He gives us a brief peek into the bigger picture.

I'd say the biggest factor in this whole journey toward loving my neighbor thing was the new perspective that God gave me. Instead of simply “doing my laundry,” for example, I started actively looking to meet people and start conversations in the communal laundry room. In my previous life, I had learned exactly how long the machines took at each stage of the process, and I would drop my clothes off only to return briefly when I needed to move them to the next machine. With my new outlook, however, I started bringing a book, so I could stay in the shared space and visit with some of my neighbors if the opportunity arose. Going to get the mail became a trek across my mission field, greeting neighbors by name, and learning to notice the heartbeat of the neighborhood. Just being outside where you can be seen and become known by your neighbors is a huge part of the process. I would often play with our daughter on a shared patch of grass outside our apartment where we had our BBQs. We went for a lot of walks around the complex and to nearby shops. Our everyday tasks, stuff we are already doing, have the potential to be conduits of the Gospel. These are mundane activities that can be utilized by God if we are willing to seek His kingdom first in all things—even while washing a load of smelly socks.

I'm excited about this next chapter in our new neighborhood. We've been renting a house for a little over a year now, and we're eager to get to know everyone. We've especially been praying about and on the lookout for some other believers living in our neighborhood who would be interested in partnering with us. We try to use holidays and hospitality to foster the initial introductions. We've had an awesome neighborhood Memorial Day BBQ and a Halloween costume party. My wife made some great banana bread for Christmas that we recently passed out as a family. I've also been frequenting a local coffee shop within walking distance of our place. Whenever I meet one of my neighbors, I write their name down in my notebook (my memory is pretty pathetic). My goal is to pray for them and hopefully remember their name the next time I see them. Even doing yard work can be a kingdom activity. While I'm raking the leaves or cutting the lawn I'm also observing the neighborhood and praying for the families I've met and asking God to facilitate introductions to those I've yet to meet. I've already met a few neighbors while working in the yard. If we set out to merely rake the leaves, then odds are that's all we'll accomplish.

Ultimately, meeting the neighbors and seeking to bless them is about more than just expanding our social circle. We currently have all the friends a couple of introverts could ever want. However, the heart of God compels us out of ourselves. He is a perfectly content community within Himself, and yet He makes space at His table and welcomes us wandering orphans into His family. This missional DNA is transmitted to His adopted children. Play-dates, Superbowl parties (even if you don't like football), BBQs, and neighborhood game nights become the highway on which the Gospel can be delivered. As His ambassadors, we are to both declare and demonstrate the good news of God's kingdom. So I try to learn the story of God well—to know what He is up to in the world and in my neighborhood. I'm convinced that the declaration happens best in our living rooms or over coffee, and the demonstration happens most effectively and authentically in our Gospel-centric, everyday lives. Community is the unassuming and organic means by which God frequently advances His kingdom, so we seek community with Gospel intentions. I wouldn't want the reader to conclude that we're even close to proficient at this exciting endeavor. We're still awkwardly trying to figure this new way of life out, but I'm happy to report that it's a genuine pleasure to love our neighbors. My longing to see redemption in our neighborhood and city—for His kingdom to come—has been an incremental gift from God. Furthermore, I find that my commitment to God's global mission grows in direct relationship to my commitment to the folks living next door to me. I'm inspired by good friends who have left the comfort of the U.S. to make their home in Thailand (They also gifted us with their BBQ before they left!). They pursue their Thai neighbors with the love of Jesus in simple and profound ways, faithfully obeying the command to love neighbor as self in a cross-cultural context. Wherever you live, I can assure you that there is profound brokenness behind every door on your street. Our innate hunger for Christ manifests in a myriad of different fallen ways that end in death. Depression, addiction, abuse, empty pursuits of pleasure and things, hurting and broken families dwell in darkness behind white picket fences and nicely manicured lawns, awaiting the good news that has miraculously found us on its way to them.

For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: 'Love your neighbor as yourself'” (Galatians 5:14).

Sunday, December 6, 2015

What Happened to the Kingdom?

Growing up in a typical evangelical, non-denominational, Christian tradition, I didn't hear much about the “kingdom of God,” or the “kingdom of Heaven,” as it's also often called. Sure, I got the obligatory and whimsically vague references to “seeking God's kingdom first” and I'd hear about how Jesus instructed his follower's to ask God to bring his kingdom to Earth in the frequently recited “Lord's Prayer.” But there wasn't always enough helpful talk about the nature and function of the kingdom, how we are to seek it, participate in it, recognize it, or even think about it. There are significant historical reasons for why much of the Church has shied away from talk of “the kingdom.” Misunderstanding about what (and when) the kingdom is had led many to look to generic social justice, technological/medical advancements, government, and a tragically misguided hope of man-made utopia as the answer to the Lord's prayer. After bad theology was exposed by harsh reality, the baby was essentially thrown out with the bathwater. In some circles, talk of the kingdom has been forever marred and relegated to “liberal” mainline traditions and heretical groups like the Watchtower Organization. But it will take an enormous effort of censorship on our part if we are to read through the four gospels and not notice Jesus' obvious preoccupation with “the kingdom.” He simply would not shut up about it (especially in the synoptic gospels). He went as far as saying that preaching the good news of the kingdom was the reason for his arrival (Luke 4:43). I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say anything this pivotal to the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth is worth another look.

Fair notice, this post will probably raise more questions than it will answer. It is by no means meant to be an exhaustive discussion of the kingdom of God. I mainly plan to focus on what I see as three simple elements of the kingdom of God: the King, his people, and his reign. More on this shortly. I must begin by saying I believe we have truncated what Jesus preached as “the good news of the kingdom of God” into what we now think of as “the good news,” or “the gospel.” The modern American version of the “good news” primarily focuses on the individual's salvation from Hell (and perhaps their transformation into a better person). In other words, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. Have you considered inviting Jesus into your heart as your personal savior?” While these sentiments are not untrue or entirely unhelpful, I would argue that they are incomplete. They miss the grander narrative of the good news of the kingdom of God as Jesus told it (of which personal redemption and transformation is certainly an important part). Notice that the “personal savior” pitch can more easily be sidestepped. “That's just not for me,” one might conclude. “I can see that it's really helpful to some, but I have a different truth that works for me,” etc. Jesus' invitation, on the other hand, is not so easily ignored. It has a scope and weightiness to it that must be reckoned with. In no uncertain terms, Jesus declares that he is the rightful King over everything, who is redeeming a people from among a horde of unworthy rebels, and he intends to ultimately confront and eradicate all evil from his universe and to reign supreme over all of creation. His people welcome his reign, while his enemies rage against it. We are in the midst of his redemptive process, and when he is finished every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:10-11). This is what we are being invited into. It's a story that's bigger than any one of us, and to opt out of Jesus' unprecedented invitation comes with immediately felt cosmic implications.

The unmistakable focal point of the kingdom of God is the King (an authoritative title that 21st Century Americans can hardly comprehend), who is sacrificially re-creating a people who will willingly live under his reign now and forever. I believe the language of kingdom (the King, his people, and his reign) is throughout Scripture. Genesis documents how the first humans rejected his reign, thereby rejecting their King, and ceasing to be his people. The rest of the unfolding story of the Bible recounts how he is methodically seeking to restore things to his original intent and good design. He calls Abraham out of a pagan society in order to miraculously create a people who would willingly live under his reign. Centuries later, he rescues Abraham's descendants from their Egyptian oppressors—to create a people, a “kingdom of priests”—with the purpose of reigning over every aspect of their society as their King. These foreshadowings of his kingdom were doomed from the beginning. The people he redeemed were unable to obey his law and live under his reign, as their hearts were cold as stone. But these early hints at kingdom were not without purpose or effect. He used these foreshadowings to articulate the necessity and genius of his ultimate plan. He promised David, the quintessential human king, that from his line would come a Son who would rule over an eternal kingdom. Likewise, Daniel prophesied, “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those [previously mentioned human kingdoms] and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever” (from Daniel 2:44). The eternal Son would come himself, as a perfect human, uniquely capable of living under his Father's reign, and he would create a people from wretched rabble. This people, once freed from their chains, will be empowered by his Spirit to carry out their newfound desire to live under his reign. Where the King reigns, his kingdom comes.

So when Jesus of Nazareth walks on the scene, the people of Israel had been eagerly anticipating the kingdom of God for untold generations. The only problem—and it's a big one—was that they didn't realize what shape it would take or that they were presently unfit to participate. Even Jesus' closest follower's and friends were initially confused about the nature and scope of his kingdom. Shortly before his ascension, his disciples were still asking questions like, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus redirected their focus away from nationalistic dreams of earthly kingdoms with the Great Commission.

God's kingdom does not consist of brick and mortar, geographic conquest, and planted flags. Why are we surprised, though, that his kingdom does not resemble ours? It is, as Jesus explained to Pilate, “not of this world.” I would argue that the kingdom of God can't be reduced to a mere government or even the Church (as an institution), and yet it has claim to these and more. It pleases the Father to subject all things in due time to the lordship of Jesus the Christ. His kingdom is immense, and there is nothing outside of the King's jurisdiction. He stakes his claim to bodies, hearts, and souls. His kingdom boasts citizens from every people group, skin color, language, and culture. There is no line drawn on a map that can define or contain its boarders. Where the king reigns, his kingdom is present in a very real and powerful way. And so his people cry out “may your kingdom come” in every unseen crevice of our hearts. May you reign over our families and in our neighborhoods and cities. As mentioned, I don't think we can reduce the kingdom of God to the Church, but we should get the clearest view of his kingdom within his Church, as his people are faithfully living under his reign.

There seems to be a notably covert, even subversive, nature to the coming of his kingdom that shouldn't be overlooked. Apparently, his kingdom can go completely unnoticed by some. When asked by the Pharisees about the arrival of God's kingdom, Jesus responded with, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,' or ‘There it is,' because the kingdom of God is in your midst” (from Luke 17:20-21). The King has landed in disguise, easily mistaken by a superficial glance for your First Century average-Josephus. His kingdom spreads as a “good infection,” to borrow C. S. Lewis' term, an organic, grassroots campaign that is transmitted from person to person. It is unofficial and off the grid, often underestimated and ignored by the human powers that be. With a chuckle to himself, God uses the simple things of this world to counterintuitively dismantle the seemingly complex system of Satan's deeply entrenched illegitimate kingdom. If you don't know what you're looking for, you'll never see it. Indeed, Jesus explained to an inquisitive Nicodemus that anyone desiring to see the kingdom of God must first be born again. In Matthew 13, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a tiny mustard seed that grows into a great tree. He gives a similar anticlimactic example of humble beginnings and unnoticed progress with a tale of a woman adding a little yeast to her flour, which slowly works its way through 60 pounds of dough.

So is the kingdom of God here, is it coming, or is it yet to come? The short answer is “yes.” For the long answer, I think it's helpful to look at the coming of David's kingdom. You probably remember how God had stripped from Saul the authority to rule Israel and bestowed it upon a young shepherd boy named David. At David's anointing, God effectively said through the prophet Samuel, “this is my chosen one in whom I am pleased.” You might also remember that Saul continued to sit on the throne for years as an illegitimate king, even causing all kinds of trouble for David and his friends. David waited patiently—even heroically resisting the urge to take matters into his own hands on more than one occasion—for God to bring all of his enemies under his feet and to solidify the authority that was given years prior. “Day after day men came to help David, until he had a great army, like the army of God” (1 Chronicles 12:22). These defectors “understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chronicles 12:32). David's kingdom grew daily while Saul's slowly diminished and was eventually violently overthrown by the hand of God. His kingdom grew somewhat like a mustard seed into a mighty tree.

Likewise, David was used by God to achieve a decisive victory over Israel's Philistine oppressors when he was a young man. Recall how the Philistines had challenged Israel to a winner-take-all death match between two champions. The losing nation would become the winners' slaves. David is of course famous for defeating an enormous warrior named Goliath, and effectively rescuing his countrymen from bondage, with only a sling and his faith. It was many more battles and years later, however, when God had completely subjected the Philistines and much of ancient Mesopotamia to David's reign.

Like David, Jesus has been anointed the rightful King. He accurately claims, “all authority in Heaven and on Earth has been given to me,” and yet not everyone currently recognizes his authority. His defeated foe still thrashes about as if he were the king, and, like Saul, he is still permitted to cause great harm. Jesus has truly defeated sin and death on the cross and at his resurrection, yet we clearly still die and are presently feeling the effects of sin in our own lives and in our world at large. The outcome of the war has been decided by Jesus' heroic feat, but for now the skirmishes rage on. The “god of this world” will not go quietly. Death has been defanged and the bondage of sin has been broken through the King's sacrifice and his powerful indwelling and transformative Spirit. However, we still look forward to the day when death will be swallowed up forever and the cancer of sin—rebellion against the King's reign—will be completely eradicated. Jesus patiently waits at the right hand of the Father, while the Father proceeds to make all of his enemies into his footstool.

Jesus invites his people to willingly live under his reign starting now. He is creating a people of light from the spoils of Satan's crumbling kingdom of darkness. He spent much of his earthly ministry describing and demonstrating the kingdom and explaining how its citizens are to behave. It is unavoidably dangerous to live as a citizen of the kingdom of God in a world that is still overrun with people who hate him. Ahimelech, the priest, was murdered by Saul along with most of his family for helping David. Jesus warned would-be-followers to “count the cost” and promised them that in this world they will have trouble. There's no going forward until we accept this, until we take up our cross and follow him. Loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, caring for others at our own expense leaves us vulnerable in a world that won't reciprocate. The darkness will capitalize on our mercy and will often trample on our forgiveness. Remember that they spit in our Savior's face as he carried our cross. He said “Father, forgive them” as his torturers went to work on him. He is not overcome by evil, but he instead overcomes evil with good. This is how he advances his kingdom—not at the edge of a sword but through a tidal wave of mercy and grace. The First Century Christ-followers understood this. They happily accepted torture, crucifixion, burning, and being made sport of in the Colosseum rather than breaking allegiance to their King and his better kingdom. As Jesus explained to Pilate, had his kingdom been of this world then his followers would have resorted to violence to defend him. The Caesars played a bloody game of Whack-A-Mole with our first brothers and sisters, but with every martyred kingdom-citizen another ten sprouted up behind them. Rome, a powerful empire of unmatched strength on the battlefield, was ultimately no match for the good news of the kingdom of God.

Make no mistake, the King's generous offer of amnesty to those defecting from Satan's illegitimate kingdom is for an unknown limited time. Jesus announced Jubilee, the time of God's great favor, when debts are canceled and mercy flows freely. This era of unprecedented grace will conclude with the King's physical return. He will at this point judge those who persistently love their treason more than their coming King along with the instigator who fancies himself a king. In accordance with their unyielding wishes, both will be permanently removed from his presence.

Like an unassuming mustard seed, his kingdom grows steadily, sometimes incrementally, both in our own hearts and in our world. As Christ-followers, we long to see his reign in every part of our lives. We want our friends, coworkers, and neighbors to partake in the good news of his kingdom too. So we persistently look for every opportunity to demonstrate and declare the joy of belonging to the King and living under his reign. My gauge of who is or isn't talking about the kingdom is purely anecdotal, and I have been seeing what looks like a growing interest among evangelicals (an apparent shift in worship song lyrics, sermon lingo, etc.). My hope is that the "kingdom" will not just become a trending ambiguous buzzword in popular Christian culture, overused and misapplied to the point where it is emptied of all meaning. Instead, let's genuinely consider the words of Christ concerning the good news of the kingdom of God, and let's faithfully proclaim and practice the full story. Beware of bad theology that leaves you cowering in a bunker with a stockpile of canned food and ammo. We can't allow ourselves to be fooled by the clatter and pomp of a defeated foe or to be frightened by the shrieking of the dying darkness. As we look around at a world seemingly spinning out of control, we must remember that our King is working all things together for our good and his glory. Light has come into the world and the darkness has not and will not overcome him. With our hand to the plow and our eyes to the sky, we say with one voice, “May his kingdom come!”