I recently had an epiphany: about half the Christians I know love the King but are almost oblivious to the fact that He rules a kingdom, and that He calls them, in season and out, to seek His kingdom and to advance it. They are intimate with the King, or at least they say they are, but they’re not about the King’s business. And this: that about half the pagans I know have some inkling there’s a kingdom — that life is meant other than it is, more joyful, hopeful, peaceful, fruitful, just; less segregated, paranoid, dismal, violent — and to varying degrees they are stumbling toward the kingdom, groping for it. But they are most obvious to two things: first, that what they dream, however blurrily, is really the kingdom of God rather than some political utopia or socialist paradise or retooled version of the American dream, and second, that this kingdom has a King. They intuit the kingdom, and in some remarkable cases are doing the King’s business, but they shun or remain aloof from or outright ignorant of or openly hostile to its King.
I think of Harold, a friend of mine. He’s a big, tall, handsome First Nations man with long black hair that he shakes like a rock star’s mane and with arms brocaded with tattoos. He dresses mostly in black leather. I call him the Indian Bono. He’s a rough sort — his language, his ways. He always smells of cigarettes.
And he’s a moviemaker. He’s making several movies at the moment. One of them is about breaking racial barriers. It’s about gangs. It’s about root violence and despair. I’m not sure, exactly, what it’s all about, except that it’s about the kingdom of God, and Harold seems the most likely man to make it.
And that’s because Harold made another movie about the kingdom of God. It’s called Broken Down, and it was a huge local blockbuster. It was screened the first night in a theater that seats 738, and hundreds of people were turned away at the door. They showed it the next night to a packed house, and ever since, Harold’s been traveling to nearby communities who hear about his movie and want to see it, too.
He wouldn’t tell you that Broken Down is about the kingdom of God. He made it as a documentary on the homeless in our community, the men and women who live in tents, in shipping containers, in stairwells, who scavenged bottles for enough money to buy beer and cigarettes. He made it to tell the story of drug addicts in Vancouver’s east side, the pale and skittish junkies who’ll do anything, anything, for their next fix.
But the story he ends up telling is the story of humanity of people who’s humanity most of us forgot a long time ago, when we were signing petitions to keep them off our streets and lobbying governments to step up policing their presence. He tells the story of the child who still lives inside each man, each woman, who still wishes they were home safe, with mom and dad. He tells the story of the longing in each person that someday, one day, maybe soon, they’re going to turn this around, get off this stuff, get a job, start a family, reconcile with parents.
Maybe next month.
I wept through most of it. Especially, I wept for Lilly. Lilly’s a First Nations girl, maybe twenty or twenty-two, nearly incoherent from her heroin addiction and her sexual trauma. She does whatever a man wants for as much as he’s willing to pay, and only occasionally uses the money for food. She sleeps wherever she can scrounge up warmth and dryness, but that’s a rare find in the back alleys of a rainy city. In the movie, Lilly rocks back and forth, looks away from the camera, mumbles, lamenting and cursing, laughs without joy. She shows the bruises on her legs, from the beatings, from the needles. She hates men and fears them. (Harold told me that when he approached her to ask if he could talk with her, she cowered and groveled, told him she’d do anything he wanted if he didn’t hurt her.)
Why is this the kingdom? Well, in some ways it’s the opposite. It’s the desolation the Prince of Darkness has wreaked. It’s an unrelenting display of his deceitfulness and ruthlessness and corrupt power. But here’s why Broken Down is, at heart, about the kingdom of God: because in the pin-drop quiet of that theater, as we watched Lilly, and Red and Brenda and others, all those watching, those who knew and loved Jesus and those who didn’t, yearned for the world to be otherwise. And most of us, at least in the brief moment of our watching, we’re willing to do our part to make it otherwise. In us all a prayer took shape, however inarticulate: “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Most of us walked away from that, shook it off, went back to signing petitions and buying big TVs on credit.
But for a moment, eternity intersected us, the kingdom brushed us, and we ached for a world of shalom.
The other movie Harold’s making is about teenage gangs in our city that make the streets a dangerous place on certain nights after midnight or so. People, innocent people out walking their dogs or getting off a bus or coming home from watching a movie at a friend’s house, sometimes get accosted by eight, ten, a dozen kids with sticks and chains, and many of the victims end up in the hospital. Some go straight to the morgue. A young boy, barely in his teens, recently got a whole mouthful of teeth kicked in for just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Another young man, early twenties, the son of a good friend of mine, narrowly averted the same fate by offering, without resistance, the two hundred dollars he had in his wallet. He got away with only having his face spat upon like a cuspidor. Another young man, all of fifteen, got a knife in his belly and didn’t live to see daylight.
Again, this doesn’t seem like a ripe matter for the kingdom, except that every time one of those incidents happens, it shakes the whole town, if only a little, out of our apathy and lethargy, and makes us long for something different. In our worst moods, which hit us often, the difference we want is retaliation, vigilante forces, massive police strike-forces bearing down on evildoers. We want higher, thicker walls on our gated communities. We want more surveillance cameras.
But in our best moods, the difference we seek is shalom, where everything is as God intends it to be: streets are wide open and safe; the generations bless each other, learn from one another; every tongue and tribe and nation is present and honored; no one lies and no one steals and no one lacks for anything.
We want shalom, though no one but me and a few of the crazies I hang around with call it that.
What Harold’s been doing is interviewing gang members, especially the leaders. He’s chasing a hunch that, beneath the bravado and bloodlust, nobody wants to live this way. That underneath the cockiness and freshness and cruelty is someone just wishing they mattered.
The way Harold put it: “No kid when he’s five dreams if beating heads in with a baseball bat as a career. I’ll tell you what puts them there: fear. They’re afraid it’s this, or nothing.”
And he openly wonders what the alternative to this and nothing might be.
That would be the kingdom.
TAKING HOLD OF THE KINGDOM
I’m captivated by the kingdom of God. Jesus came announcing it. He said it is near, and hear, and within us. He said that it was first and most urgent item on the agenda is to repent and then take hold, with both fists, of this kingdom, and not to look back for anything.
Somehow, somewhere, for some reason, we domesticated this. We latched on to the Born Again theme and made that Jesus was the principal concern. This is important, no question, but Jesus said it only once, to one man, in a private conversation, and almost as a rebuke. What he said repeatedly, to all who had ears, in the most public way and as the essence of good news, was the kingdom is at hand. And you can join. Just believe and repent.
So all these years later, we’re doing remedial work in theology and from pulpits, trying to make the good news good again. I’m not saying being born again isn’t good news. It is, and of the highest order, to anyone, which is everyone, who needs to know that life can start fresh and be lived on God’s terms. (This, in the root sense, is hilarious: a great merriment through an outpouring of grace secured by a costly appeasement.) The problem is that born again has become more of a slogan and a formula than an immodest proposal Jesus meant by it. He meant, preposterously, that anyone — anyone at all — can become a new creation. We’ve reduced that to anyone can go to heaven. No small thing, for sure, but Jesus had other things in mind as well. The remedial work, then, is to unleash the gospel in all its wildness, it’s topsy-turvy, inside-out, subversive force. It’s to proclaim a gospel that has both this — world and the world-to-come implications. If forced to pick, I’d take the world-to-come implications. But we’re not forced to pick. We get both. We’re invited to enter the kingdom now, and stay forever. The kingdom makes the gospel good news to the poor and the broken, to prisoners and prostitutes. And the kingdom makes bad news to Ceasars and Rich Young Rulers. It disturbs the dreams of Pilates and wrecks the parties of Herods.
Jesus came announcing the kingdom.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF SUCCESS
Maybe I am claiming too much, but if Jesus wants us both to bear much fruit and to pursue the kingdom of God first — if to do one is, indeed, to do the other, and vice-versa — then one of the best shifts we could make in our churches is to dismantle the model of spirituality that equates busyness with faithfulness and replace it with the simple idea that fruit alone denotes faithfulness, and fruit requires seasons. Seasons as a model for spirituality accords with kingdom life in ways that shine light on both the kingdom and seasons.
Let me put it this way: we have adopted a view of the spiritual life and church growth that is a variation on free-market capitalism. In capitalism, the economy, in order to be strong, must constantly grow. A 3 percent shrinkage in the Gross Domestic Product for two or more quarters is a recession. (A 10 percent shrinkage is a depression.) Three percent. Governments fly into panic, banks stock the moat, corporations start to implode. It’s wolves. It’s bubonic plague. It’s the sky falling.
Where else is constant growth an unequivocal sign of health? In human bodies, it’s a sign of obesity or cancer. Yet we’ve applied the standard of constant growth to our churches and to our spiritual lives. We applaud every sign of getting bigger, and fret every sign of getting smaller.
This is bizarre.
And it’s not the kingdom. The kingdom is mysterious, Jesus says. It’s hidden as much as visible, underground as much as manifest. It’s not something about which you can say, “Here it is, ” or, “There it is.” It’s within us, but it turns out it belongs to the least of these, and its secrets are revealed to children. Tax collectors and prostitutes are more likely to enter than Pharisees or seminarians. It’s hard to measure by the gauges and scales we use to measure, say, success. Like the Spirit, the kingdom moves where it wills, and no one knows where it comes from or where it’s going.
Let me speak plainly. What I’m discovering is the kingdom’s presence in places where all normal touchstones of success fail. Recently, I spent the day with my friends Pete and Marnie Mitchell. Pete and Marnie are Salvation Army church-planters working in two areas very inhospitable to the gospel — Vancouver’s east side, an inner-city slum of flop houses, crack dens, brothels, watering holes, strip clubs. It has the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS cases in North America. The other area they work is Vancouver’s Commercial Drive district, which is about as close to ancient Corinth as a place can get — decadent, amoral, teeming with sexual license and vice.
When I visited, we started the day in a tumbledown walk-up on the east side. The stairwell smelled of urine. The room we met in had holes kicked into the walls. The light in the bathroom didn’t work, which might have been a mercy. The furniture was moldering and tattered. Marnie taught at the War College, the in-house.training the Salvation Army does for those who have signed on with the mission. Her topic was spiritual warfare, and the importance of making sure we are clean vessel’s in God’s hands. The class was made up of a handful of students. Some were suburban kids who sought a life in Christ that would be more than attending youth group movie nights and playing games with Jell-O. But most of the students were people who, not long ago, were living on the streets, turning tricks, making deals, scoring drugs, hustling, busking, panhandling. They were, altogether, the most unlikely troop of warriors you ever set eyes on. Their kingdom disguises were perfect, the camouflage flawless: no one anywhere would ever suspect them of subverting evil, putting the devil on the run.
Then we walked Commercial Drive. Here, the sex shops don’t hide behind tastefully frosted windows. It’s all displayed like fruit in a market stall, like rugs and water jugs at a Turkish bazaar. And everywhere — in the windows of clothing stores and music stores, restaurants and coffee shops, plastered up and down power poles, emblazoned on the sides of bus-stop shelters — everywhere posters and handbills advertise all manner of strange erotic diversions. There’s nothing you can’t get down here.
And it’s here, right in the middle of all this, that Pete and Marnie are planting a church. The audicity of that is stunning. The beauty of it is captivating. They call it Cross-Culture. What pluck!
Is it successful?
Depends on what you mean. They witness miracles of transformation that most people rarely see. And they have their hearts torn in two more than most mortals can bear. They’ve learned not to despise the day of small things but to find the kingdom in faith sometimes o larger than a mustard seed. I don’t think success is the right criterion for this.
They’re bearing fruit, in season and out, and whether that’s success or not doesn’t matter. It’s the kingdom.
Maybe you don’t spend a lot of time with crack addicts and prostitutes. As my New Zealander friends like to say, “No worries”: the kingdom is still in your midst. The kingdom shines through the mundane and the quotidian. The everlasting flits at the edges of the everyday. It can show up in a conversation you get into at the grocery check out with a cashier who’s just broken your eggs. It can happen with your child, who needs a little more attention just now than you think you have patience for. It can happen with a coworker who irritates you. It happens at those times, in those places, when something of God’s goodness, kindness, justice — God’s shalom — is chosen over other alternatives.
I listened last night to one of my favorite podcasts, The Moth, which features “true stories told live without notes.” This one was a story by Ellie Lee on the wisdom of her father, Ming. Ming is a Chinese immigrant who succeeded in America by selling groceries to other Chinese immigrants at mere percentage points above cost. One day, a nine-year-old boy came into Ming’s store and began shoplifting. Ming followed the boy, who didn’t know he was the store owner and so brazenly carried on with his thievery. Then the boy sat down, in the middle of the aisle, devouring stolen food.
Ming watched. When it seemed the boy had eaten enough, he asked, “Are you full?”
“Where are your parents?”
“Why aren’t you at home?”
“There’s no food there. I’m so hungry.”
“My friend, ” Ming said, “I own this store You have just stolen from me, and that’s not a good thing. I don’t want you doing that again, okay?”
The boy, frightened, nodded.
“What I am asking is this: whenever your hungry, you come right here and tell me. I will make sure you have enough to eat.” (Ellie Lee, “A kind of Wisdom.” The Moth (podcast), 15 June 2009.)
For year’s, Ming’s little friend ate well.
The kingdom, right there, and from a man who, as far as I know, may not even know there’s a King
Just think what could happen on your watch.
~ Darren’s Comments ~
I still cannot comprehend any so-called believer in Jesus Christ, when asked if they honestly shared the Good News of salvation, get all offended thinking that “you do not have the right to judge me.”. They say that it’s personal. They try to give some excuse like “my health, ” “my marriage is in deep shambles, ” or “I am looking for that one to share my life with so him/her can experience what God has for us, ” etc. . . Issues can turn very personal. Don’t you think Christ was free from all that? No. He experienced all that and more without committing any sin. In fact, take Luke 2:42-50:
“Every year his parents traveled to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. When he was twelve years old, they went up according to the custom of the festival. After those days were over, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming he was in the traveling party, they went a day’s journey. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days, they found him in the temple sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all those who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”
“Why were you searching for me?” he asked them. “Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house?”
But they did not understand what he said to them.”
(Luke 2:41-50 CSB)
Yes, I know He was the Lord. However, He subjected Himself to be put in human form under the care of Mary and Joseph (His earthly mother and father). Even though He was the Lord over their lives, Jesus had to be submissive. In fact, in Philippians 2:5-11 the Apostle Paul says that we should take on the same attitude of Christ in humility:
“Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death — even to death on a cross. For this reason God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow — in heaven and on earth and under the earth — and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
(Philippians 2:5-11 CSB)
As True Life Christians, we have the honor and the privilege to act like Christ as 1 Peter 2:21 states:
“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.”
(1 Peter 2:21 ESV)
That’s what people like Pete and Marnie Mitchell did. That is what you and I are supposed to do. Get yourself some Christian friends and mentors with which you can share your successes, struggles, to see if you can approach the gospel different to each person, because each person needs to be approached differently with the one Gospel. Maybe you have writing ability rather than speaking ability? – (such as myself) Maybe you are a great orator but struggle at putting words down on paper or digitally? Or maybe it is not possible for you to speak or write, so then you find another way in faith, because whatever is not done without faith is sin (Romans 14:23b).
That doesn’t mean that you have an excuse ( no matter if it’s valid or not) to try to do any one of those with which you struggle because it says in 2 Timothy 4:1-2:
“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.”
2 Timothy 4:1-2 ESV)
In fact, I have a dear friend who struggles with this because she is an introvert. She struggles going out to make Jesus Christ known. However, she is a prayer warrior, and my life has been enriched by knowing her. Yet, when it comes right down to it, she is ready to share the Good News to a flower clerk at her local garden place, or a Walmart clerk or shopper.
And we, as True Life Christians, are supposed to keep checking ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5 ESV) to see if we are bearing fruit as the Master Gardener wants (John 15:1-17 ESV). For entrance into the Kingdom of God is simple but hard. It as simple as repenting that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6 ESV); and yet it is hard socially, especially in today’s society where Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and other various sorts of social media companies. Maybe it’s because you have a reputation to upkeep.? Yet, the Kingdom is at hand, which leaves us with the saying from Jesus:
““Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”
(Matthew 7:15-20 ESV)
To those who have ears, let them hear and do so that the kingdom will be 1 person fuller. 😇
~ Darren L. Beattie, The Soul Blogger ~