Saturday, September 10, 2016

How to More Than Just Survive the Zombie Apocalypse

My wife and I have kinda been binge-watching a zombie show the last few weeks. After we get the kids to bed, we're like two codependent junkies. “Just one more episode,” has become our notorious last line. The story is driven by a group of average people who find themselves in the midst of a global zombie outbreak. Their old lives are only a distant memory, as they are now preoccupied with the more pressing and all-consuming task of staying alive. In many cases the individual members of the group have nothing in common beyond their catastrophic circumstances, but they are firmly unified and mobilized by their shared objective. They must work through their differences, forgive, and resolve their conflicts because their weightier task compels them to band together. Their marital conflicts, parental teaching moments, and occasional leisure times and impromptu celebrations must happen in community and on the go, while scavenging for supplies, defending each other against the undead, strategizing, and constantly moving forward. Throughout their extraordinary ordeal they inevitably become family. Those of us who have succumbed to the gospel are similarly caught up into something far bigger than ourselves (and there really is no way to smoothly transition from zombies to the gospel). Our entire outlook should be completely shifted. According to Scripture, we live in a world filled with the walking dead, but we’ve also been entrusted with the Cure for the zombie apocalypse. 

Most Christians are familiar with Jesus’ Great Commission (recorded in Matthew chapter 28). There is some discussion among Greek scholars as to whether Jesus is commanding his disciples to “go” or if he is just assuming that they will be going (something like “as you go...”). I am unqualified to settle this linguistic debate, but it seems irrelevant to me if in either case Jesus is expecting forward movement. What comes after is, I think, very clear (and only a heart of disobedience could muddy it). We are told to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything [Jesus has] commanded [us].” Thankfully Jesus promises to be “with [us] always” in this endeavor. Far from mere survival or escapism (like in the zombie show), we are given a triumphant and redemptive kingdom task. We are charged with declaring and demonstrating the victory and boundless jurisdiction of our liberating King—who is waking the dead to life—and his coming kingdom. The urgency and the centrality of the mission are similar to that of the folks in the zombie saga, but the rewards and dangers are infinitely greater. 

As followers of Christ, we are not to be consumed (totally fits with the zombie theme) by the cares of the world. We are instead to be captivated by his better kingdom and driven by his heartbeat to seek and save the lost. Like the folks in the zombie show, we find ourselves in extraordinary circumstances. We must recognize the dangers of being complacent or unengaged. “The time is short,” says the Apostle Paul. “From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.” (1 Corinthians 7:29b-31). Likewise, Jesus explained to his would-be followers, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Are Jesus and Paul telling us to neglect and/or despise our families, to just suck it up when we’re grieving, and to never celebrate or smile in the good times? Clearly they are not. Elsewhere Jesus famously commands us to love even our enemies, and Paul says that husbands should love their wives as “Christ loved the church” and warns that Christian men who fail to provide for their family are “worse than unbelievers” (Ephesians 5:25 and 1 Timothy 5:8). Jesus also wept with those experiencing grief and celebrated with those who were rejoicing. It seems then that Jesus and Paul are describing a devotion to Christ and his kingdom that supersedes all other relationships and obligations, a kingdom perspective that causes us to hold loosely to our physical possessions and personal safety. Jesus warns, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). Our families, jobs, finances, and leisure time can be huge blessings and potential assets on the journey, but they are not to become distractions or idols that draw our hearts away from the mission. 

It's so easy for our schedules to become filled up with school activities, soccer practice, work deadlines, hobbies and leisure (this is coming from a guy who just confessed to binge-watching a television show). Our hopes and dreams start revolving around our upcoming family vacation, a new car, promotion at work, a sport’s season, or retirement. With our short-sighted vision, our prayers also become limited to requests for parking spaces when we're running late, escape from suffering and illness, clarity from God regarding which new house he wants us to buy (and that he'd give us a great deal), and a miraculous transfer to another division for our hard-to-get-along-with supervisor or coworker. How silly (not to mention dangerous) it would be for the zombie show’s survivalists to go about their lives as if nothing had changed, to pretend that they weren’t surrounded by immense death and decay. 

I think our intentions are good. In many cases, we just don't know any other way. We tragically may not even know what we said “yes” to when we decided to follow Jesus. Several of us responded to another gospel—the popular Americanized gospel of personal salvation, isolation, and eventual extraction—instead of the gospel of the kingdom of God that Jesus and his apostles preached. The latter gospel, the true gospel, is a bigger story that doesn't end after we say “the prayer.” It's a story of rescue and restoration, in which we not only become recipients but also participants in his ambitious redemptive plan for our neighborhood, our city, and the world. It’s about Light heroically crashing into a dark world, transforming once-agents of darkness into his light-bearers, and commissioning them to spread out and shine in every dark corner. It's an extraordinary story that requires the presence and power of the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead. There are important rights and responsibilities that accompany our kingdom citizenship. The Holy Spirit was not given to us merely so we would have a supernatural leg-up while investing in all the same mundane things that our not-yet-believing friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers are pursuing. “Something is wrong,” says Francis Chan, “when our lives make sense to unbelievers” (Crazy Love). 

It's not that we will no longer be participating in any of these things. We still need to work, raise our kids, and buy stuff. Rest and leisure are also useful blessings from God. But these ordinary rhythms of life have the potential to be dramatically transformed when our vision aligns with his. The Holy Spirit will begin to organize our time and resources in a way that promotes his agenda and not ours (After all, we’ve died to ourselves, right?). We’ll start seeing great opportunities to make room at our dinner tables and to open up our homes to those who are presently far off (holidays, birthdays, and various other celebrations become natural occasions for this to happen). We will notice how we can actively bless our kids’ classmates and their classmates’ families, teachers, and coaches by serving and inviting. In God's story, there is a “good infection” (to borrow C.S. Lewis' term)–the Cure—that can be transmitted in close proximity from the living to the dead. We may begin to view ourselves as “disciple-makers” who work for FedEx, “priests” who are also dental hygienists, “ministers of reconciliation” who tent-make as contract lawyers, and “ambassadors” of his better kingdom who are assigned to teach kindergartners. Once we've caught his vision, there's no going back. Our aspirations, prayers, priorities, hopes and dreams will quickly and organically start reflecting our changed hearts. 

The 1st Century followers of Christ seemed to understand what they were saying “yes” to. They certainly weren't perfect. The Holy Spirit had his metaphorical hands full dealing with their deeply entrenched prejudices, legalism, bad theology, and immorality (pretty much the same stuff he's still working with the Church on today). But they seemed to have caught the vision of God's kingdom and Jesus' radical agenda. Ordinary and unnamed followers of Christ, tent makers, merchants, tanners, soldiers, slaves, and business owners banded together to carry the good news of God's kingdom to the ends of the earth. The ground they covered, the obstacles they overcame, is nothing short of miraculous and a testament to the Spirit-led life. Aquila and Priscilla were among many Jewish Christians who were expelled from Rome by an unjust edict. They lost their home and business and became wandering refugees. But they didn't let these setbacks stop them. They didn't lose sight of their calling. They continued to share the good news in everyday life as they rebuilt in Corinth. We're told in Acts how they partnered with Paul and opened up their home for ministry. And they didn't get too comfortable. We read how they packed their life up and moved on again when an opportunity to serve with Paul in Ephesus presented itself. An anonymous multitude of transformed Christ-followers stubbornly stayed the course amidst extreme persecution. They gave generously and recklessly out of their poverty. They practiced lavish hospitality both to their spiritual family and to outsiders. They were clearly not living for anything this world had to offer. Their prayers were not for comfort or safety but for boldness to preach the gospel, for courage to suffer well, and for power to take more ground. As a result, they “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). 

I know there are times when we feel like we're barely surviving. We may feel the zombie hordes pressing in on all sides. The weight of living in a dark world, of “fighting the good fight,” can seem overwhelming. Our own fears and failings can be crippling. But this is not the time to abandon the mission. Something has gone horribly wrong when the living start envying the dead. In these times we must press in even more to Jesus, and rally with the church. We must remind ourselves that our inheritance is not of this world. “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead,” says Jesus (Matthew 8:22). The concerns of the living should be drastically different from the concerns and preoccupations of the dead. 

This is what I want for my family, my church, and my neighborhood. I want to live this paradoxical life-abundant in community through service to others and death to self. As Jesus said, it is only when we give our life up that we truly live. Ironically, it is in “wartime living,” when we are giving of our time and resources sacrificially, that the celebrations become sweeter, the bonds of friendship deeper, and the victories more meaningful. I have what I think is a healthy fear of slipping into apathy, so I beg my fellow Christ-followers to keep me on track when I lose the vision, when I settle for the things of the world. We need each other. I also want to partner with my spiritual family members who are urgently seeking the kingdom of God among the unreached and unengaged in cross-cultural contexts around the world, and I want to see our interconnectedness as we labor together toward the same end. I know that I could hunker down, wait for the return of Christ, and live an empty life full of common things. But I will have missed out on the adventure of a lifetime. It's the one who seeks to save their life, explains Jesus, who loses it in the end. Those who have yet to meet Jesus are still dead in their sins and stumbling around aimlessly, pursuing their destructive and insatiable appetites for lesser things (my last zombie reference, I promise). How confusing it must be to them when our lives resemble theirs. I don't want to work the kingdom into my busy life; I want to let Jesus build my life around his kingdom agenda.

“…let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (from Hebrews 12:1 and 2).

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