There Is Another Kingdom

I’ve heard about a kingdom where justice rolls like a mighty river. Where enemies become friends and captives are released from their chains. It’s a place where the stranger is welcome and the wayward is pursued. Where the hurting find comfort and the broken find healing.

It is a kingdom full of peculiar people. They listen before they speak and do all they can to live at peace with everyone. They are quick to confess and always seek to be humble. They are known by their love. They keep no record of wrongs.

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In this kingdom weapons of war are transformed into tools for farming. Here debts are forgiven and resources are given away freely. In this kingdom the last go first and the first go last. It is like a feast where all the people we wouldn’t think to invite are the guests of honor.

This kingdom is upside down.

It is not a kingdom for the self-sufficient or the capable or the best of the best. It is given to the poor in spirit, those who find themselves at the end of their rope. It is kingdom that belongs to children. A kingdom where prostitutes and tax frauds often find their way before the pious do.

It is a kingdom of people tasked with the ministry of reconciliation. Where folks move to the margins to be with the looked over and left behind. It is a place where worship looks like meeting the needs of the least and lowest and setting the oppressed free.

Here the people seek to change the world with towels and basins rather than horses and chariots. In this kingdom people hunger not for power or privilege but for righteousness and justice. Here doing right and loving mercy are inseparable.

Here the works of darkness are exposed in the light. This kingdom has no room for selfishness or hate, greed or lust. It is a place where all people are cherished and equal. Here love purifies from all -isms and phobias and pride.

This borderless kingdom shares no common language or dress or flag. Their people are united by faith, hope, and love. Their anthem is, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain” and their pledge is, “Jesus is Lord.”

Their most sacred site is an empty graveyard. They model the belief that laying down their lives is the only way to truly live. And they wouldn’t trade the whole world for a single, solitary soul.

This kingdom, they believe, never ends.

It is not fully realized but it is not some far off fantasy. It’s breaking in, here and now. It is at hand. Close enough to touch. Among us.

If we are not careful, we will be so consumed with other, earthly kingdoms, that we will forget our roles as the citizens of this one. We will lose our imaginations. We will give into despair. We will look for salvation in all the wrong places. We will begin to look and think and act just like any old kingdom in history.

We can’t do that because there is another way.

There is another kingdom. We’ve been invited to be participants and ambassadors. To take it to our neighbors and to the ends of the earth.

This is what we belong to. This is who we are.

God help us to remember. God help us to be faithful.

 

 

 

 

 

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Religious But Not Spiritual

religious not spiritual

It is popular these days to hear people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”

Many observe the stale, lackluster faith of those simply going through the motions. Or they see religion as a box too small to contain their worldview. Organized religion is often perceived as corrupt, outdated, or harmful. And we’ve all encountered a person who is both intensely religious and intensely a jerk at the exact same time.

So plenty shy away from the label and baggage of “religion.” I get that.

Even churches tend to resist the term “religious.” I regularly hear (and have probably said), “Christianity is not about religion but relationship.” When we say that we are trying to point people to something dynamic and impactful rather than something that becomes empty and heartless. We believe that checking the right number of religious boxes isn’t the thing that matters most. And the Bible certainly speaks to that repeatedly.

But here is the thing: I need religion.

The truth is sometimes I’m religious but not spiritual. Sometimes I don’t “feel” it. Sometimes I wonder what in the world I am doing. Sometimes I have doubt, anger, frustration, or failure in my spiritual life.

If I can only show up when the fire is hot, I will be in trouble. If I was to rely on just my feelings, I’d have quit a long time ago.

There are times I may not feel like attending worship or loving a person who is difficult to love. There are times I am not up for singing “It is well with my soul.” There are times my prayers get caught in my throat.

When those times come, religion keeps me going. The structure built around my faith comes to my aid. The things that have been practiced and rehearsed week after week and century after century minister to my dry spirit.

When I participate in religion I eventually find the things I have been lacking. I find hope and joy and rest. I find substance and sustenance in the bread and the cup of communion. I find peace in the reading of Scripture and support as I gather weekly with my church family for corporate worship.

Even after I’ve already believed and committed. Even when I already obey and follow. Religion and its prayers and rituals and movements bring me rescue and relief. When I go through the motions of religion, I am renewed.

Though I strive to avoid an empty faith or passionless belief, though I desire to always have my heart stirred, the truth is sometimes it doesn’t go the way I want. For whatever reason, sometimes I need a push, a jump-start, a nudge.

I find the help I need in religion.

I wonder if our reluctance to call ourselves religious has been to our detriment. I wonder if we rob ourselves of the very tools we need when we turn our nose up at ritual and habit. I wonder if we’ve damaged the relationship because we have neglected the practices of religion while looking for a purely spiritual faith. 

Religion can certainly be misused, but it is a gift from God and I’m thankful for the ways it has brought newness to my faith. It need not be stale and lifeless, but the very place where grace is found over and over and over again.

So gather with God’s people, even when it’s easier to avoid them.

And say your prayers, even when the words sound hollow.

Sing the songs, even if you aren’t sure you believe them.

Read the Scriptures, even when the message seems distant.

Take and eat, even when you don’t feel hungry.

Go through the motions, especially when the motions are all you have.

And then, may God show up. May your soul find rest and encouragement. May living water quench your thirst. May emptiness give way to satisfaction. May you be formed into the fullness and likeness of Christ Jesus. And may the spiritless become Spirit filled. 

Have Mercy On Me, a Sinner

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What we think of ourselves says a lot about how we approach God and how we treat others. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus uses a story of two men at the Temple praying in order to teach us a thing or two along those lines.

One of the men is a Pharisee. He is devout and schooled in theology. He knows the Scriptures in and out. He has mastered the disciplines of his faith. He knows he is good.

His prayer is a picture of self-righteousness, “Thank God I’m not like everyone else.”

The other man is a tax collector. He is considered a traitor to his people and his faith. He gets rich working for the bad guys while lining his pockets with the neighborhood’s money. He is despised. He knows he is broken.

He prays from a place of humility and contriteness, “O God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Jesus explains it is this man, not the “good” one, who leaves the Temple right with God.

Now sometimes us church folk fall into the category of Pharisee. We start thinking we are better or more holy than others because we do the right things or avoid the wrong ones or at least don’t do them as much as other people. The problem with the Pharisee’s prayer is not that it isn’t true, but that it is built on what he has done and dripping with pride.

This mindset is graceless. Here being right with God is about behavior modification. Here we forget we need God just as much today as we did at our lowest point. And here we become hypocritical judges in our assessment of everyone else. We reassure ourselves of just how good we are and miss out on God’s work in our lives and transformational relationships with people around us.

This is a dangerous place to live.

There is another mindset that isn’t mentioned in the parable but is prevalent in our culture. Sometimes we model a similar prayer, “Thank God I am just like everyone else.”

Here we aren’t bothered by our brokenness, we are just glad we aren’t the only ones experiencing it. We excuse our behavior/thoughts/attitudes because everyone else seems to be on the same page and, hey, we’re just human after all. Here the idea isn’t to elevate ourselves over tax collectors, but to lower the bar for what is required of us.

We like being broken, so we don’t change. We rest in the comfort of knowing there are other broken people, so we don’t want to see them change.  We enjoy our sin. Or perhaps its too hard to resist so we’ll just stay right where we are.

This too is a dangerous place to be. Here we find cheap grace. Cheap grace is as useless as no grace.

The only proper approach is that of that tax collector. It is here we realize how much work needs to be done in us. That scandalous sinner or pious preacher, I need God. It is here we see regardless of how good or bad our behavior is we must have mercy.

Change without mercy is fine, but cannot save anyone. Mercy without change is easy, but meaningless. Mercy, when experienced with a humble heart, has the power to bring about change in us.

This is the mindset the Church is to have: acknowledging our need of mercy and allowing mercy to transform us.

That means more than mouthing these words in prayer, but allowing this understanding to shape us through and through. We are to embody this concept in attitude and action. It should guide the way we take inventory of our hearts. It should affect the way we approach our neighbors and our God.

O God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

May these words be on our lips and in our heart. May we pray them and live them. May we be humble and contrite. And may we find the mercy we so desperately need.

To My Non-Christian Friends This Election Season

To My Non-Christian Friends, dearfriends_black

This election season has been something else, huh? (Here is a video of puppies if you need something to cheer you up.) Take heart, it is almost over. We have at least until February before people start openly campaigning for 2020.

In the meantime, I’d like to say something to you. Specifically, I’d like to say sorry. I think you have seen us Christians at our worst lately and for that I apologize.

I’m sorry that you’ve seen so much fighting between us. We can be brutal to each other and we call ourselves family. We fire missiles from all sides of the aisle and don’t worry too much about collateral damage. It probably isn’t very inviting when we behave this way. I’m sorry if you are less likely to want to be around us after all this.

I’m sorry that you’ve probably gotten into a debate or two with one of us. I’m sorry that we don’t often fight very graciously. I’m sorry that we stoop to things like name calling and rapid dismissal.

I regret that we often want to be heard, rather than hear. That isn’t very kind of us.

I’m sorry if you were unfriended because of your political views. I’m sorry we value our opinions more than your friendship. I’m sorry that we let partisanship get in the way of relationship. There are things we will all never agree on, but that shouldn’t stop us from sharing meals and photos of our kids and life in general.

I’m sorry that you see us defending things that are indefensible. Things Jesus would oppose. Things we have routinely and loudly condemned. I’m sorry that we hold a double standard so that we can excuse our candidates and condemn someone else’s. That’s not consistent and its certainly not Christlike.

I’m sorry for all the false memes and bunk articles we have posted. We don’t think very highly of lying, but we are at times in such a rush to be right we fail to check our information. That isn’t very good of us.

I’m sorry if we have led you to believe that a person’s eternal destiny hinges on how they vote. We don’t actually believe that, though we sometimes act and preach like it. Sometimes we (rightly or wrongly) put a lot of hope and energy into these things, but if you give us a time to catch our breath we will remember it is grace, not ballots, that save us.

We sing a song that says our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus. I’m sorry we haven’t acted that way lately. While we want to have a say in government, ultimately our hope is not in presidents and senators and legislation.

I’m sorry if you’ve been hurt by the way we talk about the candidates and their supporters. Regardless of politics you and they are loved and cherished by God. We’ve failed to reflect that too often. That grieves me.

I apologize that regardless of which side we are on, we are often unable to understand where you are coming from. I’m sorry if we talk down to you or figure you couldn’t possibly know or have hurt you with our assumptions.

I know it is probably hard to see through all the nonsense, but Jesus is better than we represent. I’m not sure of a lot of things, but I’m absolutely positive of that. I’m sorry if we have failed him and you this election season.

If we are honest we are just regular ole humans. We mess up, we don’t always do what we want. We can be too passionate, we can be misguided, we can be flat wrong. Please don’t hold that against Jesus.

I can’t speak for all of us, but I can speak for me. I would trade in all this election stuff if it meant people would be more likely to consider following Jesus. His ways are better. We have a saying that goes like this, “His grace is sufficient.” The grace of God is sufficient to cover our weakness and our mistakes. We greatly depend on that.

Now I’m asking for grace from you. Please forgive us for our actions and attitudes, our words and our compliance. Please forgive us for pointing you toward a political party more than Jesus. Please forgive us when we cross the line, wound others, or look no different than any other person you know.

We are supposed to do better than that. We have been wrong. Maybe not all of us, but some of us, including me. And I’m sorry.

What Kaepernick, Immigrants, Republicans, and You Have In Common

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source: generationnblog.wordpress.com

There have been several stories in the news over the past few days that have bothered me:

I have this question: What is wrong with us? How has this become the way we respond to people who are different? It isn’t that we are just so passionate or a little too polarized. These things speak to a lack of decency and a seemingly increasing inability to see value in other people. This is not okay and we need to reconsider some things to bring it a stop.

So let’s start with the basics.

What do Colin Kaepernick, Republican campaign workers, and Somalian refugees have in common? They are human beings. Just like the people who responded to them in evil ways.

And being a human means a few things. It means they are someone’s son or daughter. They could be someone’s mother or father, aunt or uncle, brother or sister, grandfather or friend. They are loved by people. They matter to somebody. They are connected to others.

Being human means they have hopes and dreams and fears. They have plans for their kids. Their dogs are counting on them to be home in time to let them outside. They have projects around the house that need attention. They hate when their cereal gets soggy. They have seasonal allergies. They are real people.

We have to remember that everyone is a person first. It seems simple, but it’s not.  They are a person before they are a statistic, before they are a candidate, before they are a Christian or a Muslim, before they are “all that is wrong with America today.” They are flesh and blood, heart and soul, people.

They may make you irate, they may do things you consider immoral, they may vote from opposite worldviews, and they may be different than you in every way, but they are people. Which means you have something in common with them. If we can start with our common humanity, perhaps we can begin to move toward something better than hate and division.

In the book To Kill a Mockingbird Scout quips, “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.” Her brother dismisses her as young and naïve, but I think she is on to something.

There are a lot of ways I may be different from another person. Religion, politics, economics, culture. Some of those differences are things I am not able to set aside. I can’t or won’t change who I am in a lot of ways. For instance, I will never be a New York Yankees fan. This is unthinkable. I have principles. But it doesn’t mean that I have to reject the humanity of those who support that team. They are folks just like me.

Despite our differences, we share something first. And it’s not just that we share tangible things like skin and bones, but there is something deeper that connects us all and informs the way we should treat one another.

The Scriptures say that people are made in the image of God. All people. Not just a select few, not just the ones with the right beliefs. All of them. It extends to all political parties and sports fans and nationalities. It crosses religious divides and language barriers and class systems. If you are human, you bear the image of God.

So I can’t hate you. We have too much in common. We are image bearers. We are people. All of us. And people are meant to be loved.

For me and my tribe, the followers of Jesus, this is not optional. Not one bit. Even if we are confident that protesters and party leaders and immigrants are the enemy, Jesus says to love them anyway. In fact, the more we are convinced they are the enemy, the more our love toward them should grow. That is the way of Jesus.

I believe the more we look at our story, the more we see all the things we share universally. For all have sinned. For God so loved the whole world. Good news of great joy for all people. There is plenty here for us to build on.

So let us start with what we have in common. Let’s start with the fact that we are people. We are all folks. Even when we are different, even when we disagree, even when we are confident we are in the right.

We have got to do better. We have to refuse to be part of the continued dehumanization of “the other.” We cannot allow our world to be a place where people are hated or dismissed or hurt because they vote differently or worship differently or think differently or have a different skin color. We have far too much in common for that to continue.

You and I must remember our shared humanity with the people on the news and the people across town and the people around the world. We share something with the person who is driving much.too.slowly when you are in a hurry. With the waiter who is neglecting your long empty sweet tea. We share some things in common with the annoying guy at work. With refugees and Democrats and The Donald. With the people we don’t understand. With our neighbors.

They are human. Just like you. They aren’t perfect. Just like you. They have experiences and stories. They have hopes and fears. Just like you. They aggravate someone. Just like you. They are made in the image of God. Jesus died for them. They are meant to be loved. Just like you.

Let’s start there and see if we can’t make this world a better place for everyone. Let’s set aside as much “us and them” language as we can and stick to the things that make us “us.” Let’s see the shared humanity in everyone we meet.

The Promiscuous Church & Her Part-Time Lovers

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Source: Pixabay

The Hebrew Scriptures tell the story of a man named Hosea. This religious leader and prophet is instructed by God to marry a promiscuous woman named Gomer (sounds wonderful, right?). Their marriage will demonstrate to the people of Israel how they have forsaken God by turning to the gods of their neighbors.

The neighbors’ gods were promising a host of wonderful things. A bountiful crop, fertility for families and livestock. They offered health and wealth and security. They promised to vanquish their enemies. And the Israelites bought it hook, line, and sinker.

They worshiped these other gods. They looked to them with hope and expectation. They gave them their time and treasure and affection. Perhaps they even put bumper stickers on their donkeys and filled social media with how these gods were going to save the day.

I’m sure many people thought all of this was simply in addition to the worship of their God. I’m guessing some figured God was using these other gods to accomplish his will for the people. Many probably thought they could remain faithful to God, while using these other gods to meet their needs.

But they couldn’t. They cheated on God. And Gomer’s continued infidelity was an illustration of the way the people had traded in the faithful love of God for the groping arms of part-time lovers.

There is a lesson here for the modern Church. 

Certainly the gods look a little different these days, but they still promise the same benefits: comfort and luxury and security and all the things we dream of late at night. Our politics and culture and lifestyles are just another group of suitors clamoring for our affection.

They invite us to give ourselves to them in exchange for some lofty promise. We are convinced they will make us happy or feel important or keep us well fed. We slide under the sheets with political parties and cultural fads and materialism thinking that this time we will finally find all the things we are looking for.

There may have been times when we felt guilty about our little forays, but lately we justify it, baptize it in religious language, and even convince ourselves this is God’s will for us. We join the Israelites in assuming all of our potential lovers are legitimate. We think we can still be faithful to God in the midst of it all.

But we can’t. And just like Gomer we have become harlots. We sell ourselves to whoever will promise us the most. We forsake our vows and our values for the chance at something enticing: a record-setting crop, the promise of security, heaps of privilege and power. We prostitute ourselves to whoever and whatever can make us feel prettiest or safest or shower us with the most presents.

But in the morning when the lights are turned on the Church finds herself in bed with a multitude of strangers who are not all that interested in her. When the elections are over or when things start to get a little tense or when someone else a little more appealing comes along, we find that we have not been loved in the slightest.

Those who intoxicated us with their charm and flashy smile have abandoned us. They weren’t faithful and never planned to be. They lied, promising far more then they could ever deliver. They used the Church for their own pleasure and gain.

So we are left unloved and broken. Those we hoped were lovers turn out to only be consumers. What we had hoped would satisfy has done nothing but leave us starved. What we hoped would make us feel whole has instead wounded deeply. And our reputation has been sullied in the process.

In the story of Hosea, the two-timing Gomer eventually finds herself living with another man. Sadly she has become his possession, not his beloved. She is exploited, not adored. How often is this our story?

Hosea, her rightful husband, the man who loves her, purchases her back. He redeems her. He tells his wife, now forgiven, that she needs to leave this life of promiscuity and not fool around with other men. He commits to be there as she restarts her marriage. He will not leave her.

You see, God wants his people to realize he is faithful. He isn’t quick to drop them. He isn’t running around on them. He isn’t sneaking off in the dark of night. He actually desires them. He cares for them. He loves them. He is always true to them.

The message for Israel is the message for the Church.

It isn’t these other gods who care about you. They have no real power to change your life. They might look appealing and they might offer little trinkets, but they are not worth your affection. They will leave you feeling empty sooner or later.

It isn’t the political parties who love you. They are just another john in a long line of johns who will promise you the whole world if you’ll just be faithful to them. They want to use you. If you want to give them your vote, okay fine, but not your allegiance. Not your heart.

It isn’t comfort or cash or attention or accolades or pleasure or power or privilege that will satisfy you. In the morning they will all run off for the next person and then the next person and then the next person. These things are fleeting, not faithful. Don’t give yourself to something that won’t give itself for you.

If the Church is the Bride of Christ, she cannot allow herself to be seduced by the siren songs of potential suitors. We cannot climb into bed with whatever things sound most fun or promising or comforting right now. We cannot give ourselves to anyone or anything other than the God who redeems us.

Ours is a God who is faithful. The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. He is the one who will satisfy our desires and give us hope. He is the one we can rely on and who won’t run away when times get rough. He won’t abandon us for the next pretty little thing that walks by or use us only for his personal gain and pleasure.

Church, may we be faithful to the One who is faithful to us. May we remember that the sweet nothings whispered in our ear by culture and politicians and neighbors are nothing more than empty words that lead to broken hearts. May we remember our vows and may we change our promiscuous ways. And may we find all we ever need in the loving and trustworthy arms of Christ.

When We Disagree.

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Photo Source: conferencecalling.com

One of the blessings and/or curses of social media is that everyone has a voice. You get a voice, I get a voice, your crazy uncle gets a voice. And since everyone has a voice, somewhere on the internet somebody is wrong right this second. They are going to vote for the wrong candidate or they don’t value your religious convictions or they think the Dallas Cowboys are a team worth supporting.

The chorus of voices is diverse and our opinions are many and yet it seems to me that we have lost the ability to disagree well. We insult and antagonize. We jump to conclusions and fight straw men. We even go ALL CAPS when feeling particularly saucy.

Every issue is now politicized and our ability to find common ground is stunted. We make enemies out of people who hold differing views or experiences. We dehumanize ourselves and others simply because we disagree. And amazingly, despite all the venom we spew and seemingly conclusive facts we vomit, we change not a single opinion.

We can (and should) debate and be passionate, but we need do it with decency and mutual respect. We don’t have to hate each other just because we don’t agree. We don’t have to make it our personal mission to correct or rebuke every wrong person we encounter.

It is time we recover some civility in the midst of disagreement.

Which means we need to hear the other side. Not just take in their words, but actually process what they are saying. Why do they hold the positions they hold? How did they come to that conclusion? What experiences have brought them to this point?

It is easier to just unfriend or unfollow people. It is easier to watch only the news channel that reports from our preferred angle. To dismiss alternate opinions and brush aside any information contrary to what we already believe.

The consequence is we end up living in an echo chamber where the only voices we hear are the ones that sound like ours. This makes us more polarized and deteriorates our capacity to understand people who think differently than we do. We are in trouble if we are so convinced we are right that we can’t even allow other opinions to show up in our newsfeed or on our cable news station. This is a weakness, not a strength.

If we are going to disagree well we will need to listen, actually listen, to what every side has to say. We will be better for it. Our own positions will be strengthened as we learn what others believe and perhaps our well-roundedness will gain us credibility.

If we are going to disagree like adults we will need to stop villainizing people simply because we don’t see eye to eye. I may disagree with you but it doesn’t mean I hate puppies or sunshine or your children. We can do without that nonsense. We may not come to the same conclusions about how taxes should be spent, but I don’t think either of us is trying to destroy our country.

Disagreeing with me doesn’t make you a Neanderthal/jerk/heretic/Nazi/communist/whatever-your-scariest-insult-is. It just makes you wrong. Using blanket statements and hyperbolic terms will get us nowhere. A person is not an idiot just because they have the audacity to disagree with you or me. Sitting behind our keyboards and slinging mud and insults at people we don’t have to look in the face is the cheap way out.

This is not how the real world works. We have to cooperate and live and work and study and worship with people who may disagree with us on any number of issues. They are our friends and spouses and bosses and neighbors. If there is no one in our lives who disagrees with us, we are missing out on meaningful relationships while at the same time not having any influence on people who see the world differently.

If we are to disagree well, we need to be realistic. We need to understand we won’t change everyone’s mind and agreeing to disagree is okay in most situations. We are not likely to convince a person that the positions they’ve held for decades are ignorant and no thinking person would ever come to such conclusions. Some opinions are incredibly complex and have been formed over much time and thought.

Be heard, be prepared (and be kind for crying out loud), but don’t expect a pithy statement or even a heartfelt plea to change someone’s mind. When is the last time an argument in the comment section convinced you that you were wrong? People have been arguing about the things we argue about for a long time. There are smart and caring people on many sides of many issues.

We can do better.

We can be humble. We can sometimes keep our mouths closed and fingers still. We can remember that compromise and finding common ground is not caving. We can think critically. We can allow for others to freely share what they believe. We can learn. We can listen. We can avoid attacking the other person. We can respect and love and esteem each other as fellow human beings. And still disagree.

Disagreeing isn’t the problem. The way in which we disagree will determine much of what we contribute to the world. Are we adding to the discord and division that needlessly rules the internet? Or are we voices of reason and people of respect and decency? Do we sow peace and love or discord and hate?

Let’s be right and wrong with a heaping scoop of decency. Let’s disagree well. Or at least better than we have been recently. Can we at least all agree on that?