Last night was fun. How many of our days begin that way? I often wonder. But last night was fun for me because it was our first youth group outing here in Nashville and we went and played FootGolf (It’s basically what it sounds like…golf played with a soccer ball with your feet). And it really was so much fun. Seeing thirty or so middle and high school students run around a golf course kicking and laughing and having a blast. And I was right there with them. For about two hours we weren’t worried about schedules or upcoming classes or responsibilities (and most of them weren’t even on their cell phones). We were just present with each other in the moment. Say what you will about teenagers and youth ministry, but when it comes to playing together we know how to be present in the moment.
It’s actually kind of funny. Over the years you hear different critiques about youth ministry and one of those that always seems to come down the pike is that youth ministry is all about playing. All they seem to do is look for ways to have fun together. Can I flip the coin a bit? One of my main critiques of my peers and those older than me in the church is sometimes this…they have no idea how to play anymore? When do they make time to play? I’m not talking about scheduled recreation or hobbies, but opportunities for belly laughing and goofing off and losing track of time as you find yourselves just being fully present in play with those around you.
In his letter to the Corinthian church Paul writes this amazing passage all about love. And nestled in the middle is this verse that most read through the lens of spiritual maturity, but I look at it a little differently. The verse goes like this, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” – 1 Corinthians 13:11 Now I have the unique privilege of spending my working life around teens and my home life around kids even younger. It’s amazing to see the necessity of play in their lives. It puts them on equal footing, the expectations are understood and for the most part everyone is included. What if in speaking about love, Paul is referencing the loss of naiveté that is the heart of love. A love that doesn’t ask questions but includes everyone and draws them into a beautiful experience as one. You see, this is what play does. This is what so often we are missing as adults. So maybe today you need permission to…walk in the rain, jump in mud puddles, smell flowers, stop along the way, build sandcastles, watch the moon and stars come out, say hello to everyone, go barefoot, go on adventures, act silly, dance, fly kites, laugh and cry for the health of it, go wondering and wandering around, ride bicycles, draw and paint, fall down and get up again, talk with animals, stay up late for or even climb trees…in other words, play. Maybe this might be the way we see the Kingdom come crashing in on our lives once again.
“I usually don’t get too political…” How many times have we seen or heard this phrase from our friends as of late. And what follows is usually some rant or expression intended to bend our ears or our hearts to their cause or stance. And I’m sure it’s pretty much effective 99% of the time, right? It almost seems that every one these days is a political expert and with so many experts it’s mind boggling to think that our society isn’t more healthy. I mean we all know the right answers to fix everything so why isn’t everything fixed?
During Jesus’ days his opponents would often try to find ways of tripping him up or engaging him in some debate. And they didn’t shy away from political discusssions either. At one point they even questioned Him about paying emperial taxes and Jesus’ reply was ingenious. He asked to see a coin, examined the image, and “Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesarʼs, and to God what is Godʼs.”” -Matthew 22:21. This has been interpreted a myriad of different ways but it’s probably best thought of in this light. Jesus was saying to his opponents, “Let Caesar have his money and his power and his way of doing things. God has His own way of getting things done.” And that has always been the case. God’s Kingdom does not operate according to the systems, laws, means, and methods of this world…it’s different; an alternative Kingdom.
But so often as of late it seems we in the church have forgotten this. We enter into the political arena with the same tools, the same weapons, the same words as those who are not a part of the church. In his epistle, John puts it this way, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” – 1 John 3:18. So what does that mean? If you’re pro-life, then be pro-life by adopting babies, supporting foster agencies and single mothers or by sponsoring a child overseas. If you care for the widow, then volunteer at an assisted living facility or find a shut-in to help out. If the homeless tug at your heart then head down to your local mission. If caring for the earth strikes home then start a recycling program and help educate others. If you care for refugees then find a local agency and find out how to volunteer. The Kingdom of God is about action, but not the action that we do often see on display that belongs to Caesar. Our action is love in action and it enacts God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. So what are you waiting for? It’s time to get political.
Lately I feel as if I am surrounded by noise. And I’m not talking about the loud rambling oilfield trucks that plague our suburban streets. I’m not even referencing the fact that there are four kids in my house who must all have inside voice issues. I’m actually making reference to the multitude of voices in our world today that feel the need to make sure that they are heard, they are understood, they are perceived as being right and that they solicit change. It’s exhausting. It doesn’t matter on which side of which issue someone is speaking about it all has begun to blend together and just become noise…and I’m afraid I have even been guilty of adding to the noise. And so today I say to you and to me…’shhhhhhh’.
Often when I am plagued with some seeming societal ill I try to look to the testimony of Jesus to see how best to address what is going on around me. There are a couple of interactions that Jesus has in the gospels that have always perplexed me. It comes after Jesus has spoken some very unpopular/polarizing words and it doesn’t go over so well (I’m sure none of us can relate to that as of late). The first is in Luke at the beginning of his ministry in Nazareth, “They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.” – Luke 4:29-30 The other instance takes place in John 8 after Jesus is forced to stand in the way of the religious elite on behalf of a woman caught in adultery and then speaks about His being sent by the Father. “At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.” – John 8:59 Notice what it doesn’t say here, “Jesus kept arguing the point with his opponents until they were forced to concede and admit defeat.” No, in fact, it’s quite the opposite. He realizes the crowd will no longer listen, has gotten past the point of listening and so He walks through their midst. Jesus just steps away.
Of course Jesus doesn’t walk away and have a pity party. No, Jesus gets back to doing what He does best…enacting the Kingdom of God. In Luke He begins casting out unclean spirits and in John He heals a blind man. Jesus realizes that His argument is best made in enacting that which He is speaking about. There is no greater defense of one’s position than positive Kingdom action that will at once pull you away from pointless arguments and eventually silence your naysayers. Jesus knew this and trusted His work to it. Why? Because He knew the value of silence and He trusted the mission. Here as well we must seek to model Christ of whom we read these words just a short time later in Luke, “ But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” – Luke 5:16 Maybe we need to pull away from the noise. Maybe we need to withdraw. We certainly don’t need to add to it. Maybe it’s time for a little more shhhhh and a lot more action for the Kingdom.
It seems to me that “we the church” have an issue. Now when I say we, I am not simply referring to a local congregation, but to the church as a whole. And perhaps to specify a little more, I probably mean the western church. It seems we have mishandled things a bit. You see, we have been charged with delivering the greatest message on earth. We are ambassadors of the Kingdom of God, Heralds of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and Makers of Disciples for our King…but something has gone awry. This message, this charge has somehow been perceived by the world around us as something that is boring, petty, ineffective, irrelevant, etc. Where did we go wrong?
In the gospel of John, Jesus is speaking about the message of the Kingdom. He refers to himself as the good shepherd and even speaks of the sheep he has not yet brought into the fold that still belong to Him. In this passage he talks about what the message of the kingdom looks like lived out in the life of a believer when he says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” – John 10:10. Full life! Not simply life that holds onto some distant promise and isn’t fully lived out in the here and now, but full life now. Another way to see this comes from the founder of Methodism John Wesley. “By salvation I mean not barely according to the vulgar notion deliverance from hell or going to heaven but a present deliverance from sin a restoration of the soul to its primitive health its original purity a recovery of the divine nature the renewal of our souls after the image of God in righteousness and true holiness in justice mercy and truth.” In other words God’s salvation isn’t simply something for the age to come, but it is expressly for the world now.
I think this may be where we have mispackaged things a bit. So many of us desperately cling to our hope in the next life that we have forgotten we are called to live out that hope in this life in order that we might share it with those around us. As we grow in holiness we become engaged in acts of justice, mercy and truth in order that we might live out the words of The Lord’s Prayer, “Your Kingdom Come, Your Will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” If we are called to live in this fullest life that God has promised then the world around us should see something captivating, inviting, even enviable. Christians should be the last people on earth who are ever accused of being boring or petty. Our message is too important and our lives are an adventure to be lived out in the Kingdom’s calling…
So my charge to you (and me) today: I implore you to throw off the boring, to free yourself of sin that entangles, to embrace the unknown and live in the freedom of God’s Spirit. To know without a doubt that the life you have been given is the fullest, greatest most inconceivable life imaginable because the forgiveness and The Spirit you have received came from the Divine life that spoke all life into existence. May you know the message you have within you is greater than any word or story every spoken and share that life as if all life depends on it…because it does. Now go and be the image bearers of Christ in a world that desperately needs to see Him and the life He has offered.
Don’t you just love it when someone tells you there are only 48 days left until Christmas. The countdown to Christmas used to be so exciting as a kid. But as an adult, well…it’s still fun, it just comes with a little baggage. There are even those moments where you almost seize up a bit because you know you aren’t prepared (admit it, when you saw the day tally above this was you). And you would think it might be easier in the church because we have an entire season dedicated to preparation, but this holiday and all it entails still seems to take us by storm.
In the church calendar the time we are entering into is referred to as Advent (It begins November 30th this year). And Advent is the season of welcoming/ushering in God’s Kingdom through the celebration of Jesus’ birth. It is a season literally built around preparation…and yet it is often the season where we feel the least prepared. On Wednesday nights our youth group is going through a series on the three parables found in Matthew 25. These parables are all about Advent and the ushering in of God’s present and coming kingdom. The first of these is the parable of the Ten Virgins; five wise and five foolish. The difference between the two is that the five wise had framed their lives around preparation and had brought with them extra oil in their anticipation of the bridegrooms arrival. The foolish virgins, although ready and excited for the bridegrooms arrival found themselves ill-prepared and shut out of the wedding feast. The parable ends with the verse, “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour”. Matthew 25:13
I think this speaks to the idea of being ready versus being prepared. Here’s a little personal illustration to further elucidate. I recently ran the Detroit Half Marathon for Team World Vision. And although I considered myself ready (I had registered, bought nice shoes, got there on time…) I was far from prepared. I had not put in the adequate training time to make the experience all it could have been. I think it’s that way with the five foolish virgins. They were ready for the Bridegrooms return, but they weren’t prepared. It wasn’t a part of their DNA. They didn’t think to buy extra oil because it wasn’t a part of everything they did. Anticipating the Kingdom of God should be a part of who we are and not just something we “get ready” for.
So I’m thinking a bit different about Advent this year. Is the celebration and enacting of the present and coming Kingdom a part of me every day or is it something I just celebrate once a year? And I think that if we are constantly being prepared we will start to see the Kingdom ushered in a lot more often than just during Advent. After all, The Kingdom of God is at hand.
So this week I had the privilege of getting to perform a tune-up on our 2004 Dodge Grand Caravan. I say privilege due to the fact that I am amazed that my wife ever lets me tinker with anything under the hood of either of our cars. But hers had been idling roughly and even almost died on her, so I think she was desperate. Early into this operation I could tell that it was going to be a doozy. But I followed all the instructions I received off of YouTube and seemed to get through it okay. Even though I was so nervous about the wire connections to the spark plugs. What if I didn’t get them in the right order? What if the connections are too loose? Will the car blow up? Will my wife consequently kill me? But I am happy to say that all is well in Dodge Caravan land…she’s purring like a kitten (the car that is).
But that got me thinking about connections. Just last week with our students we were talking about how we, as a church, could transform Flint and the culture around us. And we brainstormed program and service ideas and then one of my leaders pointed out a very simple and yet profound truth. In the midst of all of our scheming and planning it is essential that we stay connected to God. We have to be in the Bible, we have to be praying…otherwise all of our efforts are either a) useless or b) ineffective and we will eventually run out of steam. One of my favorite passages of scripture puts it this way, “Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” – John 15:4-5 There is something key to our efforts and our connectivity to God.
Back to the car for a bit. The spark plugs I put in are brand spanking new and so are the wires. They are the perfect implements for powering that lovely 3.3L 6 cylinder engine (albeit an old engine). But if they aren’t connected or even just partially connected, they will fail miserably and all of a sudden I may have to rely on Flintstones power to get said Dodge Caravan from point A to point B. And I think it’s the same way with our Kingdom efforts. If we aren’t connected to the vine, if we aren’t intimately connected to God we will just be spinning our wheels. So may you renew your connection; even strengthen your connectivity in order to effectively bring the Kingdom of God to those around you.