Ambassador of God’s Kingdom or My Own?

As a member of the majority culture (though no longer majority demographic) in a neighborhood where I am the minorityboth racially and socioeconomically, I feel the clash of culture in most of my interactions with neighbors.  I parent differently than many of the other grown-ups here, I have different rules for my children and different expectations of their diet, their interactions with others and their use of time.  This of course is true to some extent with all parents even within the same culture…we’re all somewhere on the spectrum in all categories.  But the contrast between our own background in an achiever culture and the more prevalent survival culture here seems much more evident in this context.  In my oldest daughter’s more affluent, elite private school, I think we probably seem like irresponsible, licentious parents whereas over here, we probably seem like the most extreme micromanaging, helicopter parents that ever lived.

Cross cultural ministry isn’t just a description of Americans going to South America or China but can happen within a neighborhood school or in most urban settings in America.  What makes it so difficult is that our cultural differences can not only be so distracting, they can too easily get entangled with the citizenship we are actually supposed to be an ambassador for in the first place. Its the reason Christian missionaries throughout history made such a bad name for themselves (and we continue to do so today) as imperialists, colonialists, etc. Its honestly why tying politics and religion together is so destructive.  I attach rules of practice and lifestyle to the Good News about the person and work of Jesus in such a way that I often obscure the latter for the former.  I assume what my neighbors need most is to do life the way I do it, not find it in Jesus alone.

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not!  For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor.  For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.  I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.  Gal 2:15-21

The bottom line is that in the beginning, I put myself in the place of God and turned out not to have His power or knowledge or ability to do the job successfully.  So, He put Himself in my place to restore order in every sense.  The message is that God is God so I don’t have to be because as much as I might want to be, I am not actually qualified or capable.  The relationship of God as King with me as His child does not require money to function gloriously, nor does it require a particular type of education, or particular type of diet, or schedule, or furniture or parenting style.  But MAN don’t I want to keep sitting in God’s place over all these aspects of other people’s lives.  I like new laws because they give me a sense of ordering the world around me, something that apparently God is in charge of but I’d rather be.

Maybe its the difference between being able to recite all kinds of great facts about dancing so that one becomes an expert dance competition judge but never really learning to actually dance.  Getting out and actually dancing is awkward, takes a long time to master, and can only be done by physically getting out and dancing.

They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.  They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long,  and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues  and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.  But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers.  And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.  Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ.  The greatest among you shall be your servant.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.  You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!

 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.  You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.  So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

Matt. 23:4-11; 23-28

Living amid American poverty, I see so many kids essentially raising themselves and living as I would without the governance of authority.  And “authority” around here usually only shows up for punishment, whether it be in the physical reaction of a parent to displeasing behavior or a police car called in to break up domestic situations.  Education isn’t a priority in the same way it is for the culture I’ve come from.  Conflict, meal time, family structure and future plans are all viewed from a very different perspective than my own.  So I start thinking that my job is to change these practices around me, get them to do it my way because to me, clearly my way is superior.  Woe to me, hanging burdens on the necks of others that won’t get them any closer to the Lover of their soul nor restore either of our relationships with Him.  What I essentially end up offering are methods to live self-sufficiently so that we feel our desperate need for a heavenly Father as one with an epidural feels childbirth…keeping it manageable from my end.  “You don’t need to live as one dependent upon on your Father the King, instead, just follow my methods and you’ll hardly need Him!”

I strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.

I am continuing to value a present day kingdom over One that will never perish, spoil or fade away.  I am continuing to buy into the notion that now is the most important moment, as if eternity in His Kindgom isn’t even real.

If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness,  he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.  But godliness with contentment is great gain,  for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. 1 Tim. 6:3-7

It is not Jesus plus good methods equals a stronger Kingdom of Me.  It is Jesus alone for His Kingdom alone.

But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.  For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?  Matt. 16:23-26

Practically, does this mean I quit caring about my kids study disciplines or athletic, musical and art development?  No.  But it means I quit confusing those good things with the Good News, that we have a Friend who sticks closer than a brother, who came to live, suffer and die so that all our disappointments, unmet dreams, broken relationships, divisions, sickness, wounds, blindness and paralysis would no longer be the final statement of our worth and meaning but would become part of our redemption story leading to a glorious recreation.  It means that if one of these children in our neighborhood becomes COO of Walmart or an hourly worker there, his or her ability to love and serve others and participate in making the world more beautiful is contingent on God’s power at work in his or her heart, not gross income or professional title.  It is as images of Jesus that we bring resurrection life to dry bones, hope to the brokenhearted, restoration to the broken places and reconciliation all around.  Multiplying my own image just won’t accomplish any of that.  It is not any of my best methods that others need most, but the God Man, Jesus, who is making all things new from the inside out.

remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.  But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility  by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace,  and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.  And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.  For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.  So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,  built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone,  in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.  In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.  Ephesians 2:12-22

With People, Because He is FOR People

When I think about getting away for rest, or freedom, its amazing how the image of “sailing the world” seems to appealing.  Whether in monastic movement or just modern day Travel and Leisure, the best setting is that which is as natural as possible and void of humanity.  A cottage with views only of breath taking scenery or a hut in a desert, both share the idea that sanity is more easily found in solitude.  Even Jesus got away from the crowds to be closer to His Father.

For all the fun they can be, people can also be really defeating, really difficult and kind of life sucking.  Or worse, and I think the desert fathers were on to something here, I see how defeating, difficult and life sucking I am around people and feel that I might be a much nicer person out in solitude somewhere.

People are this wild combination of beauty, creativity, angst and selfishness, innocence and depravity, wide eyed wonder and seething wickedness, judgmental haters and imaginative dreamers.  And the problem, is we attack what repulses us in each other and ourselves and end up crushing the glorious in the process.  I say instantly regrettable things thinking from one angle and communicate ugly poison in reality.  I hear someone else’s mental process or perspective and hear the toxic and then can’t see the truth.  I just want everyone to fit neatly into a “yes” or “no” box and they just won’t do it.

But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.  I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready,  for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?  For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.  I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.  So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.  He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor.  For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. 1 Cor. 3:1-9

I am a people of the flesh, an infant in Christ, remaining in the flesh as I stubbornly need to categorize people, choose sides, separate and distinguish.  Southern niceness isn’t  the answer, that new law of never disagreeing or admitting that everything isn’t agreeable to me.  Yet carelessly doing violence to another with words solely about the temporary fleshly distinctives is immature and not Kingdom minded.  So what’s a girl to do?  Who will save me from this mind of death?  More specifically, how does Jesus transform the way we live together as people with different priorities, different opinions, different values even from those who are fellow believers?  How do we remain in genuine loving community when we want such different things?  when our understanding of the Bible leads us in opposite directions?  How can we live other than as Ishmael whose hand was to be always against everyone and everyone’s hand against him?

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?  If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise.  For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,”  and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.”  So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours,  whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours,  and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. 1 Cor. 3:16-23

I think this whole matter is the very reason God doesn’t give us marching orders and then send us out to do it on our own.  These are matters of constant dependence upon His restraint, His perspective, His focus, His power and His love.  This is where unless the Lord builds the house, those who labor do so in vain.  This is where my best efforts will always be nothing but filthy rags apart from Him.  Apart from Him, this is impossible and I’d better search for my sailing vessel now.  But He is inviting me to stay, with the people, with Him.  He is inviting me to continue entering into relational settings where I am so utterly dependent on Him that “success” will only come as He defines it, in His power, by His grace.

The Baby King and Baby Horse

I had to prepare a Bible study for my daughter and one of her best friends that they try to do during the sermon each week that we are able.  Today’s text was the account of Palm Sunday as told in Mark 11.  Of course, I left the study in the printer and the friend was sick.  But it grew my understanding of this day we celebrate so I thought I’d at least share it here.

And they went away and found a colt tied at a door outside in the street, and they untied it.  And some of those standing there said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?”  And they told them what Jesus had said, and they let them go.  And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it.  And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields.  And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”  Mark 11:4-10

Its no new insight to acknowledge that no king we’d come up with or envision would come in on anything less than prize winning, huge, grown horses.  Maybe there would be multiple strong horses pulling an imposing carriage.  Maybe in this day in age, the king would come in a caravan of Hummers to impress with strength or luxury cars to communicate not just power but affluence. As demonstrated by the U.S. all over the world, our kingdoms come with power to take over, by force if necessary.  We rule by force.  In a less militaristic way, pop stars and politicians or journalists and Hollywood’s most respected rule by prestige and popularity.  Even Christians assume fame to be the greatest instrument of change or impact.

Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”Luke 17:20-21

He chose a baby horse, a young colt, rather than something grown-up and more expected.  This King came as a baby, not a finely tuned adult.  Jesus was continuing to explain His Kingdom even as He entered into town as their King.  His Kingdom had already arrived and they hadn’t noticed and He was helping them to understand why they had missed it and why we miss it today.

  Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”  John 18:37

As I wrote out the questions for the girls to consider, contrasting His choice of a weak vehicle even to point to His entrance into His world as a weak vehicle, a baby, I began to see what actually changes me.  The leadership or teaching of a baby to a parent is in stark contrast to the leadership and teaching of a grown-up.  We grown-ups assume lessons are learned by our telling them, eloquently of course, to our children.  If we lecture, they will change.  Yet the way I learn to parent isn’t through a talk given by someone or a book or an announcement from a stage.  That little baby for whom I am made parent trains me in the day in and day out of exploration, temper tantrums, whining, learning to eat with mouths closed, learning to read with fluidity, practicing throwing a football and jumping rope.  It is slow and not often obvious growth that we parents experience, but five years in and then ten and then 20, we are different people than we were.  We learn how to interact, how to motivate, how to love, how to forgive, how to repent, how to hope and so much more from this child who trains us, over time.  This transformation just doesn’t happen from sitting in a lecture or attending a conference.  A baby teaches and trains and effects change in us as no famous or powerful person can.

And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth,  yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” Mark 4:30-32

What if I trusted Jesus’ message about His Kingdom in the way I dreamed of ministry?  What if I begin to trust those mustard seeds to grow larger than any other trees rather than just thinking I needed to find an existing Grizwald tree to plunk down in haste?  What if I began to trust His method of growing His Kingdom, slowly, over time, in imperceptible ways to outsiders, remembering that while we are so determined to focus on the outside, His eye is on the hearts of men where the mustard seeds take root?

His Kingdom is already in our midst.  I just haven’t been looking in the right places.

Delighted Pleasure

Racing Chad down a steep slope through uncharted woods behind my sister’s house in the mountains yesterday was exhilarating.  As we avoided thorns and tree branches and dried rain gullies on our way down to the creek, the only breath we had left was used up with laughter.  I told him that Anne Lamott describes that kind of moment as “carbonated holiness”, and he agreed that was exactly what we were experiencing.  The woods belonged entirely to us at that moment, and not even the bear who scaled our front porch the night before, threatened the space that brought our imagination to life.

As Terrell and Martha Jane joined Chad in the creek to work on the “resort” they had begun building out of rocks two days before, I followed the water’s flow without a plan and discovered a trail that needed to be explored.  I just kept going until the perfect resting place by a wider brook presented itself as the obvious destination for this moment’s journey.  I sat by the stream over moss covered rocks, taking in all the fallen leaves, budding green vines, sticks and bubbling water.  Every now and then the sun would peak through the leaves of the forest and reflect off the water even more brightly than it had moments before and it really felt I was abiding in a holy place.

I used my stick to move the moss around, to pull up the various leaves and then poke at the mud.  Even the mud looked beautiful with the sun reflecting off it.  And it occurred to me, the mud is beautiful and within it, there are so many nutrients necessary for life.  Yes even the mud in the holy place felt holy.

 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.  For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  Col. 1:15-17

As connected to the Creator, all of creation reflects Him.  Why then do we deem variations “wrong”?  We want to move the dead leaves away because they seem gross or the fallen sticks because they seem like clutter or the moss off the rock because it seems intent on crushing its host.  And yet all untouched, they provide the setting to meet with the Creator in such a picture that could hardly be captured by an artist’s brush.  There is a place for quiet contemplation just as there is a time for running recklessly, with laughter, downhill in a race through the woods.  Neither is “wrong” and both enjoy the heart of God.

What if I was slower to judge that church’s focus, that girl’s life choices, that man’s political interests, that couple’s parenting, that neighborhood, that school, that store, that region and so on?  What if I felt the freedom to run fast and laugh heartily or be still and quiet and extended the same freedom to others to do the opposite of the particular mood I was in at the moment?   What if I became slower to demand conformity to my preference and will and instead more willing to see the sun shining on and through the variety of God’s creation?

He covers the sky with clouds;
    he supplies the earth with rain
    and makes grass grow on the hills.
He provides food for the cattle
    and for the young ravens when they call.

His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse,
    nor his delight in the legs of the warrior;
the Lord delights in those who fear him,
    who put their hope in his unfailing love.  Psalm 147:8-11

The Lord delights.  He delights in His creation and calls it “good”.  He delights in His people and calls them “very good”.  In His Son, He is “well pleased”, and He has placed us in His Son.  What if I began to delight more and be “well pleased” more than any other response?  That would be Good News worth spreading, I think.

Proclaiming the Work of His Hands

Enjoying the front porch of my sister and brother-in-law’s mountain home, Terrell and I attempted to sit with coffee and engage in an unhurried visit this morning.  Much like those tales of playgrounds without fences where all the children gravitate toward the center, huddling for safety, our two youngest were reluctant to take us up on the offer to go and explore the wilderness all around.  Instead they were constantly asking for our attention, asking us to look at this branch they’d found or that leaf they’d discovered.  Martha Jane just kept happily yelling, “Look at me!” and of course, she thought we should take pictures of her at each stop along her short way.  Though we begged to be allowed just to complete a few sentences and explained that life was to be lived, not documented with a phone, their need for our attention outweighed our need to sit and talk.

Nobody enjoys a braggart.  Most people avoid the party goer who drones on and on about himself.  We tolerate the elderly woman in the nursing home who wants to talk about her declining health, aching joints and clogged functions.  Selfies and self-promotion make us all roll our eyes.  And yet, these are the places we spend most of our time with ourselves…feeling bodily limitations, energized by new and perhaps mundane discoveries, proud of completing even menial tasks and really wanting eyes of delight fixed upon us.  I assume that being seen and celebrated is equivalent to being significant and having value.  And yet, God placed Adam and Eve in a Garden, to work it and make it thrive, and their value had nothing to do with their fame but everything to do with their creation as His images.

 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.  2 Cor. 4:16-18

The Gnostics believed that the tangible, material world was less spiritual than the the unseen, eternal world.  This is not consistent with God’s story of creating the material world and calling it “GOOD!” and humanity in flesh and calling them “VERY GOOD!”  But after sin entered the creation, decay was introduced physically and relationally.  The temptation to look inward for authority and meaning rather than to God became my default mode.  And I need the Gospel to remind me that the present moment has its significance in relation to eternity.  My thread in the tapestry is most necessary, but not unto itself.  The glory is seen as each thread makes up the whole design, as my chapter contributes to the full story, as my voice helps form the chorus.

The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they reveal knowledge.

 They have no speech, they use no words;
    no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
    their words to the ends of the world.  Psalm 19:1-4a

What if I were as excited to reflect the glory of God and work of His hands as I am to reflect my own?  What if my need to be seen and praised could be overridden by a desire to usher others into His goodness and warmth and grace and Life?  What if I walked out into the beauty of His creation and instead of yelling, “Look at me here!” I instead shouted amazement at the evidence of God’s strength and creativity and kindness and beauty and power and delicacy and character in the woods and mountains and birds and plants and creeks and clouds and lightening happening all around me?

And yet God did not make me into a speechless plant or an isolated leaf.  The moment others come into the space I inhabit with their voices and their hunger and their desires and their thoughts and their excitement and their personalities it gets a little more complicated, doesn’t it?  And this too is what God intended.  We aren’t merely mirrors but living, moving, feeling, moody, bending, twisting, loud and quiet creatures. Somehow it is in this complexity, interacting with the rest of creation in its complexity, that we better image the fullness of God than hanging on a wall in a temperature controlled building with museum guards keeping everything quiet and controlled.  The human and the divine, in the person and work of Jesus. The Holy Spirit living in the not yet sanctified or glorified me.

So may I begin to see Him glorified somewhere in the awkward selfies, the groaning elderly, the emotionally needy party attendant and the little girl in rain boots shouting from the branches to look at her…and see Him.

for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. Phil. 2:13