Clash of Kingdoms (Part 2)

(This is a continuation from last week’s post. You can find the first part here.)

To illustrate the answer, and the accompanying framework that hopefully simplifies it for us, let me tell a story…

My wife, Emily, works for a large financial corporation and recently transitioned into a role where she analyzes the effectiveness of their training for lenders. I know what you’re thinking…sounds like a barn burner of a role!

She actually loves her job and the people she works with, including her supervisor. In one particular conversation with her supervisor, she was told that they were looking to hire a new employee with a masters and/or PhD in “descriptive statistics” to help use big data in the evolution and analysis of their training effectiveness.

Just like we do in the church world, Emily’s supervisor was thinking that more education would be the key to unlocking their greatest potential. Emily, however, began reading a book on the subject and discovered something…it turns out that through an Excel add-on, anyone with a computer and Microsoft Office can accomplish the goal they were thinking they’d have to hire an (overly) educated addition to the team to do.

Again, this is an (overly) long way of illustrating that when it comes to the Kingdom of God, the key is resourceful action over knowledge. The Kingdom of God is something to live into and pursue through our action…not something to be studied from the outside. That’s what the Kingdom of God has to do with you.

And even more pointed, the Kingdom of God has to do with whoever is right in front of you.

So we’re through the warning and the framework regarding the Kingdom of God. Now onto the overview

For this, we will turn to a passage from Mark’s narrative of Jesus’ ministry and a few places in the physician-turned-journalist, Luke’s, account as well. Mark writes, “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!'” So, first of all, according to Jesus, the Gospel or good news is that the Kingdom of God has come near. Is our personal salvation a part of this good news? Of course! But it’s sooooo much more!

And as you can read, the proclamation of the Kingdom of God is accompanied by an instruction. Repent and believe.

Then Jesus gives us some further glimpses of the Kingdom in a few different places we read of in Luke’s documentation of his ministry. Looking at 8:1-3, 10:8-9, and 17:20-21, we can understand that:

  • the Kingdom of God is good and it is good news
  • the values in the Kingdom of God are often counter-cultural to values in kingdoms of man
  • Jesus will use whatever means He so chooses to support and grow the Kingdom of God, including the earthly wealth of those who are in power at the top of kingdoms of man and at odds with the Kingdom of God, such as that of Herod Antipas himself
  • the Kingdom of God is accompanied by healing, often times miraculous
  • the Kingdom of God is less tangible and more mysterious than kingdoms of man

There is so much we can understand about the Kingdom of God by looking at the narrative of the Old Testament as well, but as you can see here, we get a great view and understanding from the ministry of Jesus.

So the next time you read or hear someone talking about the gospel, consider what they are really saying. Is it the whole gospel? And what does it look like for you to live as a citizen of this Kingdom?

Clash of Kingdoms (Part 1)

What is the Kingdom of God?

If you are in any way a church person, of course you’ve heard or read about the Kingdom of God. But how would you define it and what does it have to do with you? I’m sure these are not questions many people walking around asking in their heads most days, but let’s take some time to consider them today.

Over the course of this post, I’m going to do four things:

  • Give a warning regarding how the Kingdom of God is taught
  • Give a framework for understanding how the Kingdom of God relates to you
  • Give a brief overview of the Kingdom of God that we see in the words of Jesus
  • Finally, give a specific application of the clash between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of man

You ready? Let’s go!

As I was considering this topic and doing some reading, I came across a really helpful quote that speaks to some of the queasiness I feel even at the mention of “The Kingdom of God.” In his work, Divine Government, RT France (an anglican cleric and Oxford theologian) speaks to how the phrase Kingdom of God is often interpreted in many ways to fit the theological agenda of those interpreting it.

What does that mean?

Basically, it means that whoever is doing the teaching about the Kingdom of God will typically fashion the details (consciously or subconsciously) in order to match the teacher’s desired outcome and personal understanding.

For example, if I am not concerned with the here and now of this world and, therefore, don’t care if you are either, then I will likely talk about the Kingdom of God as a future reality. That way, you don’t need to give much attention to how you treat people or care for our creation today, but it’s temporary and there’s something better coming anyway.

Or, if you think we should all be evangelizing everywhere and at all times in the typical sense of evangelism, then you will teach on the Kingdom of God as a people group. And, coincidentally, God’s expectation for us is to get as many people into that particular people group as possible.

Finally, if I think of the Kingdom of God as a lifestyle, then I will teach about it in a way that would get you to consider your behavior above all else. Therefore, to take this position, would be to consider how in the Kingdom, you are supposed to speak and to act in a particular way and I want you to speak and act in a predetermined manner as one aware of the Kingdom and its expectations. You get it?

All of this to say…

Be careful and thoughtful when people start talking about and teaching on the Kingdom of God…like I am here 😉

So with all of the interpretations and philosophies and teachings of the Kingdom of God, what does it have to do with you and me??

(More to come next week…)

 

Faith for Exiles (Part 2)

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(If you missed last week’s post, I recommend checking it out here before continuing!)

Well, as David Kinnaman puts it, “we have allowed our technology to outdistance our theology.” We now turn to Google above friends or trusted advisors (if we even have any).  Kinnaman writes, “Young people are looking to their devices to make sense of the world around them. They are using the screens in their pockets as their counselors, their entertainers, their instructors, and even their sex educators, among many other digital-Sherpa roles.”

And, in true millennial fashion, I would say adamantly that it’s not our fault!

Instead, as David points out, the issue is discipleship. The main reason why people drop out of church or fall away from the faith is insufficient discipleship. When the true troubles and worries of this life rear their ugly, painful heads, many exiles tend to go the way of culture rather than the way of Christ.

And there are different levels of “exile” today. One of the most helpful aspects of Kinnaman’s latest work is the stratification of exile and the corresponding definition.

  • Resilient Disciple
  • Habitual Churchgoers (my personal favorite designation)
  • Nomad
  • Prodigal

You can read the book to find out the definition of each grouping, but they are very helpful and it would be interesting for the Barna Group (Kinnaman’s research firm) to create an online assessment individuals could take, based on the data, to determine the category in which you’d fit!

So what can you do about all of this?

Kinnaman is careful to explain that this is an explanation of lots of research and not a guide on how to reach young people. (By the way, that kind of language–reaching young people–will typically send exiles running the other direction!) But, if you must reverse engineer this from a particular end point, the Faith for Exiles book might be helpful.

As to top predicators of resilient Christians, the research reveals four big factors:

  1. Feeling connected to a community of Christians
  2. Understanding the church as a place where you feel you belong
  3. Feeling loved and valued in your church
  4. Feeling connected to people who are older

As you can see, people feeling connected, like they belong, and valued will more than likely result in resilient disciples.

Therefore, the organizational/institutional local church might do well to direct its resources to making all people feel connected, creating a place where they belong (no matter what they believe), showing love and value to all people, and providing environments where people can connect intergenerationally.

Along with being awakened to our current reality straight from the horse’s mouth, Faith for Exiles creates some great language to describe the current state of the church in America. For example, concepts like brand Jesus, insulating tribalism, empowered atheismcultural indoctrination, among others are helpful language to get a grasp on how the experience of the local church is viewed in the eyes of many today, especially younger generations.

To be fair, Faith for Exiles is not your typical page-turner, but for anyone interested in what’s really going on in the hearts and minds of those leaving the church over the past several years, it’s an incredible resource…and one you might need to refrain from defending yourself against if you are going to make a difference moving forward.

And I highly recommend it!

Faith for Exiles (Part 1)

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Have you ever had a moment when you were attending a conference, reading a book or a blog post, or even watching the latest Netflix documentary, and had what can only be described as an epiphany?

About seven years ago, I had one of these moments!

At the encouragement of a great friend I knew from seminary who is also a church planter, I jumped in my car and drove up to Washington DC to attend an event called You Lost Me Live. An author named David Kinamman had just written a followup book to his very popular unChristian book; which had been released a couple years prior. The name of the new book? You Lost Me. And David was on a tour promoting the new book to begin a conversation about why young Christians are leaving the church and rethinking faith.

The event was amazing! Both David and Mark Batterson (the pastor of the host church) spoke to a small crowd for a couple days and, in the meantime, we got to do some sightseeing in our nation’s capital; which never gets old to me! As David, Mark, and other presenters spoke, I remember taking notes until my hand fell off! It was incredible.

The funny thing is that I had not even read the book before the event, but, fortunately, everyone who attended received a copy. When I returned home to the south, I started reading right away and came to a chapter in the book about Exiles; in which David uses the language of exile from the experience of the Israelites in the Old Testament. He applies this experience to many of us in the church today. Essentially, David says that there are a number of young people who are in the church, but feel like they do not belong. They are exiles.

And in that moment, David gave perfect language to what I was feeling.

This was the epiphany: I was an exile. Despite an ever deepening faith in Jesus and a hunger for the Kingdom of God here on earth as it is in heaven, I felt like I didn’t belong in the local church. I was a stranger in a strange land…and lots of the folks around me felt like I was a stranger. They were always wondering why I had to be so strange and would much prefer I just get with the system…the status quo.

So naturally, when I heard that David was releasing a new book (Faith for Exiles) and I had the opportunity to be a part of the launch team, I jumped at it. I have read the new book thoroughly and am excited to share some of what I think we can all learn from his latest project!

First of all, David has an incredible understanding of the current culture, especially the white, middle-class, suburban culture. He states that “many of us today turn to our devices to make sense of the world.” I actually have a real-life example of this concept…

Several years ago, I was officiating a wedding for a good friend. As is often the case, there was a little spat between a couple of the bridesmaids before, during, and after the ceremony. I remember sitting next to one of the bothered bridesmaids at the reception and I picked up her Blackberry (which should give you an idea as to just how long ago this occurred). I noticed that her browser was open to Google. And what had she googled?

“How to make the best of a bad situation.”

Think about it…

Here sits a well educated, intelligent, and socially well adjusted young woman, surrounded by her closest friends, but yet she chooses to turn to a handheld computer and strangers on the internet for advice on what to do in her current situation.

This is the norm today. We turn to Google first. It’s easy. It’s quick. It does not require us to be vulnerable with another human. It allows us to hide while we put on a front to convince everyone that we’re just fine.

So what does this have to do with faith?

(Stay tuned for the second part of my review of Faith for Exiles in next week’s post!)

Putting Identity Before Instruction

Several years ago I was doing my pre-service ritual on a Sunday morning; which included sipping coffee and gathering my final thoughts while early arrivers made their way into the lobby. As I made small talk; which is not exactly fun for an introvert like myself, the doors to the gym-made-sanctuary were violently swung open by a production team volunteer yelling, “Hey Stephen, will you tell Erik to take his hat off?!?”

Erik was the recently hired worship director and he was guiding the different teams in their run-through prior to the “worship experience,” as we called it in those days. Of course my first thought was, “Oh yeah, this is what Jesus died for and why I went into full time vocational ministry.” Then I thought back to that day in seminary when we discussed the case study of a camera operator triangulating the pastor in a plot to make a wardrobe change.

Are you feeling my sarcasm??

Turns out that the production volunteer had already asked Erik to remove his hat; which he declined because, well, who cares?? The real issue, however, is that Erik was new and a relationship had not been developed between him and this entitled production volunteer.

This ministry moment illustrates the damage we can do when we throw around instructions before addressing identity.

We all get our identity from our relationships with others…starting at day one. I was born a son to my father and mother. When I arrived, they chose my name (coincidently the same as my father’s) and wrote it on the certificate. I didn’t choose my name and yet that is the most prevalent way by which I am known. I received that identity out of relationship to my parents.

Do you can see just how tied up our identity is in our relationships with others? Therefore, we really have to consider relationships (and their correlation to our identities) before we start throwing around instructions.

I’m sure there have been times when another parent at school or in the neighborhood gave you some parenting instructions and yet didn’t know you from Adam. Or there was that time when a supervisor at work started assigning you tasks and you thought, “Why is this assigner telling me what to do? Who does he think he is?,” because he was not your supervisor and had not built the relational equity like your supervisor had.

We are all tempted to instruct others, but that’s never the place to start. We see this in the apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. He spends chapters on identity before he ever gets to instructions. It is our identity as saint, saved, chosen, and sealed that serves as the foundation for the types of behaviors Paul gives us. Notice that he doesn’t start with submission.

For those of us who profess Jesus as savior, king, and lord, we really should consider our identity. Most of all, we should consider how our baptism is the signifier of our identity, because we will only live in submission to Jesus (and to one another) in as much as we live out of our submersion.

In this passage, near the end of his letter to the Ephesians, and only after Paul has spent so much time on our identity, do we find that there are twice as many instructions to husbands as there are to wives. Interestingly enough, when I was preparing for this message, Emily (my wife) and I ended up in some of the silliest spats.

She berated me for being too liberal with our body wash in the shower. Later in the week, I informed her how she was opening a bag of chips incorrectly. (Obviously she was very appreciative of my correction.)

Seriously though??

We were both forgetting our identity. We were failing to live out of our submersion and, consequently failing to live in submission.

So don’t be like me!

Instead, I encourage you to resist the temptation to throw around instructions before you consider identity. Develop relationships with people before you start instructing them on how to live. And, if you believe that Jesus is Lord, remember your identity before writing off any instructions that may actually be helpful in reinforcing that identity.

 

Liars, Spirits, and Fears…Oh My!

I find out about new subcultures everyday. For example, there’s a Nick Cage subculture. That’s right…the guy we all love as The Family Man now writes, produces, and stars in a handful of underground movies, some of which you can see currently on Netflix. And apparently he has an underground following around these cheesy B-rate films. I recently got roped into watching one of these cinematic marvels at a buddy’s home one evening.

As we sat down to take in the horrible acting and predictable plot lines of Season of the Witch, something else caught my attention…

The timeframes for the story is set during the Crusades. If you don’t know about the Crusades, check the google machine, but what stuck out to me was the armor worn by the soldiers in the film. These days, one of the only places to see armor in action is on the news as they report the latest riot from somewhere around the world. But the old school armor donned by Nick Cage’s character (and pulled from some backroom Hollywood  storage closet I’m sure) made me think of the passage from the Bible in which the Apostle Paul uses similar armor as a metaphor for our spiritual protection.

Let me explain…

The very first piece of armor one would encounter, being as it’s held out in front, is the shield. Paul encourages his readers to pick up the shield of faith in his letter to the gathered believer in Ephesus. Therefore, it is our faith that is our first line of defense against anything that might want to come against us.

What might want to come against us?

For me, and maybe for you, fear is one of the largest arrows that comes against me and is the very thing against which I must pick up my shield to keep it from getting any closer!

Fear takes different forms for all of us. Here are three big forms it takes for me:

  • Fear of Inadequacy and Irrelevance
  • Fear of Judgment
  • Fear of Loss

Do any of these sound, or feel, familiar? When I am not intentional to pick up my shield of faith, I can easily be injured by thoughts of not being good enough, not being important enough…

of not speaking up or joining certain circles for fear of being judged…

of losing something or someone I have come to depend on.

Any of these sound familiar?

Interestingly, each of these fears can be the very thing that keeps us from taking the next step in growing deeper in our faith. It’s almost a very brilliant cycle and scheme of our enemy.

Are any of these thoughts familiar: What if I try and fail as a follower of Jesus? The really spiritual people will see me as a fraud if I try to run in those circles. What if stepping deeper into faith requires me to give up my job, relationships, lifestyle, income, etc.??

So we have all of these fears and I would label them as internal, because we create and experience them without much influence from the outside. But at the same time, the writings of Paul remind us that there are external forces of which we must also be aware.

So internal and external causes to fear??

Rather than lions, tigers, and bears, it’s liars, spirits, and fears…oh my! So we find ourselves in a situation where fear and paranoia can reign. But, if fear and paranoia become our regular experience, then we have missed the whole point!

As we look at Paul’s final greeting in this letter, he explains the purpose and hope he has for these friends to whom he writes. The purpose is encouragement and the point is peace. This is why it’s so important for us to understand that Jesus’ victory is our victory. Because fear makes no room for faith. And paranoia makes no room for peace.

One of the greatest purposes of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is to help the church realize that in our new identity in Jesus, we are no longer separate. Instead, we are one. And one of our greatest fears as humans is fear of the other…fear of the unknown. Paul wants his readers to understand that in Jesus, there is no longer an other. What (or who) was unknown has become known. As we skim the surface here, understand that unity across socio-ethnic divides deserves its own blog, or book…and there are countless out there!

So back to Paul in prison…

We cannot miss how Paul writes this letter while being in-prisoned for proclaiming the message of Jesus. Yet he does not try to hide how following the Lord and being obedient has landed him in jail, rather than living a wealthy life in a palace! In fact, I would argue that Paul is more concerned with this community than with his own circumstance.

And that is a mark of someone who lives in the true victory of Jesus — having overcome the fears and paranoia of this life, both internal and external, and living life on mission.

The S Word

Here’s a personal confession:

I have a problem submitting to authority!

I know, I know. You’re shocked! 

Of course this is not news to anyone who has been around me for any length of time.

Is it nature or nurture? Or both? I have no idea. I just know it’s tough for me.

Where in your world are you required to submit to authority? If you are employed, and you are not your own boss, how do you feel when your supervisor asks you to do something? It probably depends on both your relationship with your supervisor and the task being asked of you.

Let’s start with a definition of submission: To submit is to willingly and willfully be subject to the will of another.

With this foundation, hopefully I can provide a new framework for an old concept.

The Apostle Paul wrote some instructions to a gathering of people in the city of Ephesus almost 2,000 years ago. In the centuries since, this instruction has been used to manipulate people and even given Paul a reputation as a misogamist. When understood from a different angle, however, we can see that Paul was actually a progressive!

Paul writes, “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” This is the single sentence pulled out of context over and over by (mostly) men to manipulate people. But when put in context, this instruction is part of a larger guidance.

Just prior to this instruction, Paul writes, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The full instruction is for everyone, in this particular gathering, to submit to everyone! Therefore, obedience to Jesus looks like willfully and willingly being subject to the will of one another.

So imagine this…

What would it look like if everyone was striving to be subject to the will of everyone, rather than everyone striving to push everyone’s will on everyone? What kind of community would that be? The hope and goal is that everyone in the gathering is simultaneously aligning their wills with the will of God; which can (inadequately) be summed up in one word: reconciliation.

Meanwhile, back at the house…

As Paul is applying the full instruction to various roles, he instructs husbands to love their wives. Specifically, husbands are to love their wives just as Jesus has loved us. And how did Jesus display this love?

He died.

So wives just have to submit. Husbands have to die… to themselves. And here it is again: death to self.

Then Paul drops the bomb that really kills the opportunity to continue in this effort to just get our wives to do what we want.

He writes, “In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.”

How you, as a husband, treat and love your wife says more about how you feel about yourself than it does about her. Ouch. Let that sink in for a moment.

Here’s the thing…Paul is writing to a culture in which there is no doubt the husband is the head of the household. No one questioned it. Everyone thought and behaved in a way that fell inline with the expectations of the male of the house. This was normal. And if you did not, then you were cast out!

But the new framework presented by Paul moves Jesus into that position for every household of those in the gathering. If the husband is part of the church (and the church is a gathering of people, not an institution), then he is in submission to Jesus. The husband is now expected to willingly and willfully subject himself to the will of Jesus. There’s a new head of the house!

So maybe Paul is not the misogamist the church has made him out to be after all. Perhaps he was progressive beyond his years—challenging the mindset of how a family should view one another and treat one another—in a way that was countercultural, challenging the established mindset of an entire society.

Death to self, after all, will always be countercultural to any society. This, however, is the kind of authority to whom I have less trouble submitting.