Wednesday, February 28, 2018

What if ... ?

After spending a good deal of my morning devotions pondering a series of "what if" statements, I was absolutely captivated to read Scott Sauls' latest blog post. If you are a Jesus-follower, please read it.

And if you tend to see the church through rose-colored glasses and say, "We're pretty much already doing these things" you need to read more carefully -- both the daily news AND this blog post.

Please, Lord Jesus, make it so.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Already / Not yet

If you are a Jesus-follower, you've probably figured out that this Jesus-following life can be pretty frustrating. Sometimes we talk about the already / not yet nature of this life ... how there is so much that we have been given (read the first chapter of Ephesians, for example, and see how many of the great spiritual things Paul writes about us are in the present tense -- not someday you will be, but you already are!) and we live now with forgiveness, limitless love, and a God-given identity as sons and daughters of God and co-heirs with Jesus Christ. Park on that stuff, and it's pretty amazing!

But there's a frustrating "not yet" to this life as well. In so many ways, we are like those old Israelites -- already freed from Egypt, but still wandering around the wilderness, dreaming of how great the Promised Land is going to be. If you know those stories (from Exodus and Numbers, mostly) you know that God provided a way for the people to experience a foretaste of the Promised Land when the spies went into the land and brought back fruit for the people to taste. But the people were afraid, and weren't ready to trust God for all of what he'd promised just yet. So they grumbled and rebelled, and God said, "Okay, this generation has to die off -- so you'll all spend 40 years in this wilderness and your children will go into the land." What happened? Of course, the people were chagrined and ran up to take possession of the land. And they got thoroughly trounced by the people, because God had said they had to wander a while longer.

It's a frustrating place to live, this already / not yet life.

A couple days ago I finished reading through Deuteronomy, which is basically Moses' last sermon to those Israelites just before he dies and they cross over into the land and begin to take delivery on all God has promised. I have to admit, there was a lot in the book of Deuteronomy that was uncomfortable to read. Many, many times I thought, "I'm guilty." I've broken God's law. I've gone off after my own ways, refusing to listen to his word. I've wounded my neighbors and justified my own sin. I've cowered when I should have been bold. I've been bold when I should have waited. There's plenty in that book to weigh on your heart if you're honest. And yet there is a promise there that God is good, and loving, and wants the very best for us. He's not simply waiting to punish, but he is working out his good will.

This morning I was debating where to go next in my morning reading. I spent the last couple days reading my other resources -- Oswald Chambers and the Daily Texts and John Piper's "Solid Joys" devotional -- but I was hungering to get back into the Bible itself. I thought maybe I'd read the book of Acts, but that's more of a work assignment for some of the stuff we have coming up at my church in the near future, and some of the specific projects I'll be chasing. Good stuff, but not where I want to park for my morning devotions right now. I felt a nudge to get into Matthew's gospel, so I started reading the first chapter.

And God used it to just break me open. Coming off that sense of my own sin and inadequacy in the book of Deuteronomy -- all true -- it was so life giving to read this list of sin-sick people and how God used them. As I started to read the genealogy -- the part we often blip over -- I sensed that I should consider each name and whatever stories I knew about them from the point of view of the local gossips who were talking about them over coffee at the local cafe. Oh, my. Judah and Tamar. Salmon and Rahab. Boaz and Ruth. David and the wife of Uriah. And all the rest! Then I got past the genealogy and, still listening in one ear to the hushed cackles of those gossips at breakfast, I started reading how Mary was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit, and how Joseph planned to divorce her quietly because that was the most righteous thing he could think to do. How the local chatterers must have loved dissecting all that!

Fact is, each and every one of those sinners was stuck in the wilderness, stuck in that already / not yet. And so am I. Pondering all this as I read this morning, I went back to a devotional I remembered from Oswald Chambers for July 6. (Don't ask me why I remember that date, but I do.) He says in that devotional that when we are given a vision from God of what he wants to do in and through us -- a vision of the Promised Land, in a sense -- he takes us down from the mountain into the valley and then he begins to beat us into shape to receive the vision. Fact is, when we first glimpse these things, we're not ready to receive them, so God in his grace begins to prepare us to receive his promises. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, we have to endure some reshaping, some purifying, some preparation. It's a painful process, but God is doing it in love to prepare us for the glory he wants to pour into our lives.

So I suppose the question in that already / not yet time is, do I trust him? Can I recognize that God is doing good things in this waiting, and inviting me to grow into all he is preparing? Can I bring my frustration to him in the meantime without losing sight of his promises? And can I delight in him, not just in the promises, here and now?

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Peaceful evening

What to do when the snow is falling?

Watch "Quigley Down Under" (a Tom Selleck Western set in Australia) and hang out and enjoy the peace and quiet.

It is a pity that we don't get along. At all. 

Friday, February 23, 2018

Welcome home

The snow did not disappoint! We got a solid 4-5 inches last night, which is far better than what we've had all winter. There were some snowy adrenalized moments -- I meet with a group of guys almost every Thursday night and on the way home after the group broke up last night, we found a young man whose car had turned sideways on the road due to the slope and the slippery conditions. So we helped him get straightened out and out of traffic. Had a friend who needed a little help shoveling out this morning. Talked to one of the neighbors who was snowshoeing through Decision Hills with her dogs this morning. (Personally I'm waiting until Sunday afternoon to try my snowshoes, as we're supposed to get another 5-6 inches Saturday night.) And as you can see in the pics below, the sun came out and it is just exquisite here at Decision Hills. So I thought I'd share a few of the shots Kenai and I took as we were out walking around. 

The Youth Center near the north end of the campus is one of my favorite buildings onsite, partly because it was severely vandalized in the spring of 2014 and when we moved in last summer, it was in really rough shape. I was amazed to see it rehabilitated so completely by some very dedicated people -- now it's one of the most beautiful meeting spaces we have. This view is from the northwest, looking down the slope -- the building is built into the hillside, so it looks like it's a little more buried from this angle than it actually is. 

Just above the Youth Center on the hilltop, these three crosses provide a beautiful spot to sit and contemplate. 

From the hilltop next to the crosses, turn around and you can see the north half of the property -- it's largely open prairie with a few trees. This view looks south toward the main worship center. It's delightful to have such an expansive backyard!

The trail curving around the northern end of the property along the top of the bluff near the lake. There's a beautiful stand of pines along this part of the trail, and the deer love to bed under them. 

Bittersweet grows along the bluff top in the north end, and these berries in the snow splash a little color into the landscape. 

This view of the lake struck me humorous -- the snow that drifted in around a fish house, long since removed, now looks a little like the ruins of an old castle sitting in the middle of the frozen lake. 

Clusters of sumac aren't quite as vivid as the bittersweet above, but against the cedars they make a pretty contrast. 

Lots of shots like this today -- sun on the snow on the different evergreens looks like a postcard. 

You don't quite get the idea from this shot, but I thought when I first saw this branch with the long needles sticking out of the snow that it looked like some kind of marine creature -- an urchin or sponge or a sea cucumber of some sort. Guess I'm missing my days on Puget Sound!

Had to get at least one shot of Kenai. He was having so much fun!

I've often thought how following Jesus is like tracking an animal. One of the things I love about new snow is the chance to get a clear idea of what the deer, squirrels, rabbits, coyotes are up to. When I'm confused or impatient or afraid, I often pray to be able to see God's prints clearly, like these deer trails crossing the field below my cabin.

After a long walk, it's delightful to come back to this little haven in the woods. I've come to love this place -- it really has become home in the last six months. My friend Guy was here throughout the morning, plowing snow off the roads and parking lots and taking good care of me as well. 

These guys love to hang out under my bird feeder. Most days there's a group of six that provide endless entertainment.

And the birds themselves are fantastic. This chickadee and a dozen or so others are the most common visitors, but there are quite a few different species that come and go. 

When Kenai's sleeping over, I move one of my chairs so he can sit by the window. This shot is taken from my recliner, which is my favorite perch in the house, looking out the west-facing living room window past the bird feeder and the squirrels and the towering oaks to George Lake, about 35 yards downhill. Sunsets here, might I add, are spectacular. 

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Eager anticipation?

On a personal note, listening to the weather forecast when they're saying 3-5 inches of snow TWICE over the next few days is a little like being a Vikings fan going into the playoffs. Too many fizzles have conditioned me to believe every snowstorm is going to choke. Until last week we had bare ground here (and yes, I know, other places not far away got plenty this winter -- doesn't make me feel better, sorry).

My snowshoes have been hanging on the wall all winter, looking down at me with reproach. I'm hopeful they may yet get used this season.

We wait in hope, right?

And to add in a slightly more ponder-worthy aspect to this, I'm reminded of what I read in Oswald Chambers this morning. He wasn't talking about snowstorms, but he did talk about waiting in hope. Here's a quote:

If our hopes are being disappointed just now, it means that they are being purified. There is nothing noble the human mind has ever hoped for or dreamed of that will not be fulfilled. One of the greatest strains in life is the strain of waiting for God.

In my particular devotional life, that seemed to pair nicely with the Daily Texts' verse: "Does God speak and then not act? Does he promise and then not fulfill?" from Numbers 23.

So what hopes do you have to entrust to God these days? And how are you doing in that department? It's so easy to get jaded, to get a little hard-hearted when we have to wait for what God has promised. Don't forget that he is faithful. In his measureless love, he hasn't forgotten what he's promised you.

Monday, February 19, 2018


I cut down an oak tree the other day. This was quite literally "a tree planted by waters," as both Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 17 phrase it. I haven't counted the rings in detail on the exposed stump, but my best educated guess is that this tree was between 150-200 years old, and probably toward the higher end of that range. In the mid-1800's, the land around here was open prairie, and tree growth was mostly prevented by prairie fires that swept through on a fairly regular basis. This oak grew right along the lakeshore, on the leeward side of the lake, so it was probably protected from those fires. There are no burn scars I can see in the tree-rings. This has been a strong, healthy tree for almost two centuries, and it finally died of old age.

To everything there's a season, I guess, and while my delight is in living trees, there's also a stately grace to that massive dead oak that's overshadowed the north end of the beach, and there's a utilitarian satisfaction in chunking the wood up and splitting it to heat my cabin or to provide a bonfire looking out over the tranquil lake.

It always amazes me to think of what a tree like that has seen in its time, of course. Let's say it's 180 years old. That means it sprouted from an acorn in roughly 1838. Fort Snelling was a trading post a week's journey to the southeast. The military garrison at the fort was tasked with keeping peace between the Ojibwe people to the north and east, and the Dakota to the south and west. Protestant missionaries like T. S. Williamson and Stephen Riggs had just begun work among the Dakota near the fort. Two other missionaries, the Pond brothers, Samuel and Gideon, had accompanied a group of Dakota warriors on a hunt not far from here the year before, ranging far out into the wilderness searching for deer and bison, and they would later write an amazing account of what the Dakota life and culture was like in that time before white settlement. Oxcarts from Pembina, on the Canadian border, had been trekking past here for a few years en route to Fort Snelling, carrying furs south and trade goods north. The Dakota probably camped within sight of that oak sapling from time to time, as they still dominated this land for the first couple decades of this oak's life.

It's sobering to think about how much life has changed here. Now there are no prairie fires, and forests have grown up in this landscape. Four-wheel-drive pickups pull ice fishing houses out on the lake for recreation, and I have cleared a skating rink where middle schoolers slip and slide and skate. Towns with gas stations and grocery stores have sprung up like mushrooms on the prairie, and hunting is done for enjoyment, with food a very secondary concern. The Dakota were enclosed on reservations south of here along the Minnesota River in 1851 and 1857, and the State of Minnesota came into existence in 1858. A bloody conflict erupted between the Dakota and the white settlers in the late summer of 1862, with battles and massacres happening within walking distance of this oak tree. In the aftermath, the Dakota were deported to Nebraska and South Dakota and the trickle of white settlement became a flood fueled by famines in Scandinavia. Villages became towns full of taverns and churches. Horses gave way to automobiles, and half those tiny country churches closed their doors between 1910 and 1920. Minnesota boys flooded to Fort Snelling, now an army induction center, to travel the world to fight and die in a couple world wars and a few other conflicts.

It's a little intimidating to step back and ponder the sweep of history. What does it mean, from that perspective, to read these words from Jeremiah?

Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is in the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water that sends out its roots by the stream and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit. 

Those words are emblazoned on my Bible cover. I've been confronted lately with just how hard it is for me to trust God. In a general way I think I trust him -- he's good, he's got my best intentions at heart, he is working for better things that I can even imagine. He's forgiven my sins and loves me. That's not hard in general terms. But what happens when the specific hopes I carry around don't seem to be realized? What happens when I have to trust in the specifics? What happens when those general promises run up against the specific details of my life, and I'm not happy with the way things are currently working out? Trust gets a little more challenging.

It's probably accurate to say that trust is only real, it's only really trust, when we have to rely on it in a way that matters.

I'm reminded this morning of something a guy named Hal Borland once said: "If you would know strength and patience, welcome the company of trees." What would it look like for me this morning to sink my roots deep into the water -- to soak in the good things God has provided in my life, to trust that he has not forgotten his promises -- the broad theological promises and the intimate, heart-expanding ones -- to me? What would it look like for me to stand at the water's edge with strength and patience, seeing the sweep of God's activity over time, waiting not in a passive, resentful way but in an active way that anticipates all the good God is doing and seeks to participate even if the desires of my too-small heart are not yet accomplished?

In short, what would it mean this morning to be like a tree planted by water -- to trust?

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Weekend Conference

I had the privilege this weekend of attending a L'Abri conference in Rochester, MN. It's hard to describe what exactly this organization is, so I won't try -- but it's worth looking up if you're not familiar. This particular conference was built around the theme of "Christianity and Creativity" and focused on a lot of presentations and discussions around that theme. I've been sensing a call to invest anew in my love of writing, and this seemed timely.

There's no way I can share all of the excellent things I experienced. (To be honest, one of the most exciting presentations for me was by a man who has devoted much of his life to enjoying, understanding and researching J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and the body of literature that has come to surround it. That drew me in pretty thoroughly. And it was pretty incredible to meet someone who is so much more knowledgeable and nerdy about LOTR than I am!) So I thought I'd share a few bullet point items that were poignant for me this weekend.

  • Very often, Christians are tempted to withdraw from "culture" -- by which we mean that we are rejecting the world and its evil ways. Instead, this conference came from the perspective that while there is indeed a sense in which the world is sinful and broken, it is still the world that "God so loves" (John 3:16) and Christians are both called to "not conform" to this world but also to be "transformed by the renewing of your minds" (Romans 12:1-2) and it is under this second "be transformed" rubric that we engage in the arts as a way of witnessing to the grace and love of God, both implicitly and explicitly.
  • The creation story in Genesis 1-2 gives us a mandate that can be expanded to three basic categories -- fruit-bearing, gentle lordship, and covenant blessings. These tasks that God gives to humans are not destroyed by the fall -- rather they are made all the more necessary and important.
  • Creativity is one of the most deeply exciting aspects of this cultural mandate. As part of this mandate, art provides a way, through beauty, to speak to the need for hope and Jesus as the fulfillment of God's plan to make hope a reality for us. 
  • Ambiguity in art is necessary to allow a conversation between artist and audience. Some Christian artists are tempted to remove all ambiguity from their art, but this reduces such works to mere propaganda that don't allow the audience any participation in the desired conversation. Propaganda simply says, "This is the truth -- accept it!" Art, on the other hand, welcomes us and gives room for our imaginations to participate in the "world" the artist has created. 
  • Imagination became one of the resounding themes of the weekend, and one that I sensed God wanted me to pay close attention to. (It was all the more impactful for me when two days running, my regular daily devotional -- Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, focused specifically on the imagination!) There were tons of quotes about the value and importance of imagination. Here are just two that might get you thinking about how critically important imagination is: "It is through the imagination that we can think about a loved one who is far away and conceive what it would be like to be with them." And second, similarly, "We connect with and reflect rightly about God via our imaginations." 
  • Both artist and audience need imagination.
  • What does it mean to leave room for the imagination? Great art leaves room for imagination through ambiguity -- it is not immediately obvious what is meant. There are layers of meaning in the Bible through this use of ambiguity, which allows us to come at the same text over and over and discover new depths. 
  • Irony and satire are present in Christian art, including in the biblical narratives. By engaging artists who have a more satiric bent -- examples included C.S. Lewis (a Christian example) in The Screwtape Letters or the songs of Randy Newman (a non-Christian), we can engage the tensions and difficulties of real life. Joy and sorrow often go side by side. 
  • Intentional ambiguity for the artist might mean intentionally avoiding tidy solutions, or avoiding the temptation to try to communicate your whole message in any one work. 
  • Understatement is the artist's friend. What is left unsaid often speaks the loudest. 
  • We have to have the courage to be misunderstood. (Randy Newman again.)
  • There is an integral relationship between Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. All three are necessary -- they are interdependent. 
  • Art that pursues the True, the Good, and the Beautiful may still be disturbing or difficult. 
  • Art that pursues the True, the Good, and the Beautiful pushes the audience to engage with the transcendent. 
  • The Enlightenment (as a historical movement) dismissed God, the Bible, and faith into the realm of the subjective, believing instead that only that which is measurable is objectively true. So we in both the world and the church in the last century have bought into the Enlightenment assumption that beauty is entirely subjective -- that is, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." 
Moving on to a couple thoughts about J.R.R. Tolkien and LOTR: 
  • By the age of 15, Tolkien knew Latin, Greek, French, Welsh, Middle English, and was learning Anglo-Saxon. He learned Spanish shortly thereafter from their parish priest, and learned Finnish in order to be able to read the classic Finnish poem "Kalevala" in the original language. 
  • Tolkien saw himself as creating a mythology for the English people.
  • As an intriguing aside, the presenter briefly referred to A.A. Milne (of "Winnie The Pooh" fame) as a kinder, gentler fantasy writer akin to Tolkien. Sent me down a rabbit-hole (oh, bother) for a while thinking about how much I have enjoyed those stories.
  • The Hobbit and LOTR is about "the sanctification of the humble." 
  • The primary character, in Tolkien's view, in LOTR is God, who is "never named but never absent" throughout. 
We had a couple excellent poets in house, and one who was scheduled to present but health concerns kept her from attending. However, a close student of hers did an outstanding presentation including principles of what to look for in a poem. Here are a few tidbits:
  • Poetry needs strong visual imagery that paints a picture and evokes emotion or reflection.
  • God didn't create the universe "ex nihilo" (out of nothing) but "ex amore" -- out of love. 
  • Poetry needs a surprise -- an unexpected turn or word. Often this "turn" is evidence of God's fingerprints.
  • Beauty is truth shining into being.
  • Pay attention to form. Be economical with words. 
  • Beauty is the recognition of correspondence between two parts of a metaphor. 
  • The intersection of faith and art -- "culture has a thousand surfaces that invite our imprint of meaning"
  • Show both the light and the shadow
We talked a fair amount about movies (including all video-based art) as a more recent historical art form, but one which impacts more people than any other today. 
  • Art is not a commodity to be consumed but a relationship to be nourished.
  • There were a lot of specific movies recommended and discussed. If you're looking for some recommendations, feel free to email me -- my own list got a lot longer after this conference! I'm especially eager to watch "Silence" and a couple others. We also touched on a couple TV series, especially "The X-Files" and "Stranger Things" that both deal with the existence of evil against human reason. 
One of the most provocative breakouts I went to focused on the questions Jesus asks. Did you know that Jesus asks more than 300 questions in the 4 gospels? We talked about how questions are especially "generative" -- that is, they create or reveal something that is profoundly creative, creating new possibilities and relationships. Questions are some of the greatest tools for any artist. 

Okay, that's all just a taste, I know, and there was a lot more. I have to admit that I was convicted and inspired to go back to my own writing, especially, and mostly leave Netflix off for a while. I've started revisiting some writing projects that I've got mothballed away, and I'm even poking at poetry again. Might share some of that in the coming days, depending on. 

And for regular readers, I'm still reading Deuteronomy and haven't forgotten about all that. 

But what about you? Where is God calling you to exercise creativity, whether you consider yourself an artist or not? What are your reactions to some of the bullet pointed thoughts above? Again, feel free to comment or email, or just ponder!

Thursday, February 8, 2018

In the quiet ...

It's a peaceful morning. I've been resting a bit in the quiet contentment of time with God before the sprint of a few things that have to happen today. In the peace, in the quiet, it's good to be reminded that God is faithful and good and capable. I ran across this article that I first read almost a year ago, and it is so timely this morning -- not because I'm particularly impatient today, but because for a change I'm not, and I can actually hear the much needed word about my usual impatience and my relationship with a faithful, good, capable God.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Taking possession of the land

I had the amazing opportunity to preach at The Open Door Christian Church yesterday. This is a dynamic congregation, started a little over seven years ago in New London, MN by my long-time friend Steve Bakke. Since that time they have continued to grow in numbers and in depth. It's an exciting congregation that has a deep sense of the authority of God's word and their calling to be an outpost of God's mission in this world. Last summer, The Open Door acquired a decommissioned Bible camp called Decision Hills that has now become our new worship center. The joy and burden of caring for that property is what pulled me in to work alongside my friend Steve in this great congregation.

I preached yesterday on John 17:1-5, focusing especially on verse 3: "And this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." This idea of "life" is one that we need to pay attention to in the Bible if we're going to track what Jesus is all about. In John 10 Jesus defines his purpose for coming: "I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly." So it's been a powerful experience to spend the last several weeks focusing on what it means to have "eternal life."

(If you care to listen to the sermon, you can do that here.)

As I've continued to think more about this idea of "abundant life" -- which seems to be what Jesus meant by "eternal life," in spite of the fact that we so often make "eternal life" about what happens after death rather than a vibrant experience of God's presence and power in this life as Jesus described -- I've been struck by an Old Testament parallel.

Often the Bible makes a physical action or situation in the Old Testament link up with a spiritual truth in the New Testament. In this case, I'm convinced that the Israelites' experience of being freed from slavery in Egypt, wandering in the wilderness as God shaped them for a generation, and entering into the Promised Land and taking possession of it parallels what God wants for us as we live in relationship with him. It's not hard to see the parallel between conversion and the Exodus, when God sets us free from the bondage of our old life. (By the way, "conversion" isn't a one-time thing -- we need to be set free over and over again.) Wandering in the wilderness is something we experience all too often, because God needs to strip us down and shape us into what he wants us to become.

But few Christians really get what it is to enter into the Promised Land. We fail to take hold of the abundant life Jesus talked about and modeled. Instead, we limp along in our confusion and shame and brokenness, and at best we maybe hope for a heaven in which things will be better someday.

I'm convinced that a large part of what God wants for us -- and a large part of what God intends for his church -- is that we should live into and take hold of the fullness of abundant life here and now, on this side of death. Understand, I'm NOT advocating a prosperity gospel that says you can have everything you want. Rather, I'm saying that so many of us settle for far less than God wants to give us precisely because we are too fearful to lay aside our easy answers, our medicating behaviors, our complacency. We are afraid to risk what it might mean to take hold of abundant life and live into the promises of God. In fact if you strip down the way Christians often describe heaven, it sounds like benefit without risk, without the possibility of brokenness or failure.

So I've started reading the book of Deuteronomy. This book is Moses' address to the Israelites as they're preparing to enter and take possession of the Promised Land. If you read with an eye to understanding these things, the book of Deuteronomy is practically a how-to manual for abundant life. I fully expect that as I continue to work through this book, I'll be posting more ponderings about how we can apply Deuteronomy to our lives today.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Living the kingdom in community

Over the past year I've gone through some tremendously difficult redefinitions. In the midst of some major life crises, I found myself, among other things, redefining my understanding of and my participation in the church. In the midst of months and months of heart-wracking challenge, one of the bright spots for me last summer was an email conversation in which I had the opportunity to try to clarify much of what I was thinking and learning about a biblical vision of the church's calling, identity, and vocation. In short, the conversation focused on what it means, biblically, to be a Christ-centered community. Below is one lengthy excerpt, slightly edited, from one of my contributions to that life-giving exchange:

As I read scripture, the kingdom of God is a whole-life participation in God's rule over his creation. So in a broken world, those who live under God's rule are like yeast, like salt, and all the other pictures Jesus uses. They are scattered throughout creation as both signs and agents of the kingdom. And the kingdom itself is a matter for all of creation's participation, probably best exemplified in scripture by a) the garden of Eden in Genesis 1-2 and b) the new Jerusalem in Revelation 21-22. The piece that is not laid out in detail in those two accounts but is so critical to the kingdom, and makes up so much of Jesus' kingdom teaching in word and action in the gospels and especially the Sermon on the Mount, is the dynamic of interpersonal relationships that are so kingdom-key. In this broken creation, all of this kingdom talk and action is only possible because of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

If it's about the kingdom, then what is the church's job? To proclaim Jesus and the kingdom, first of all. It's about proclamation, but that proclamation is both word and action. So the church is called to live like salt and light, kingdom participants and agents in the world. And the church is called to speak clearly about "why" -- N.T. Wright has written and spoken about how the church needs to be doing things that make the world ask, "Why?" Then we can answer as Jesus answered, in parables and stories that point toward God's rule in the world.

Sadly, so much of what the church has done doesn't make the world ask "Why?" at all. Working to increase membership? The Kiwanis and every other organization does that. Fundraising? The March of Dimes does that. Helping the poor? All kinds of NGO's and others do that. Condemning sin? The courts do that. Holding up standards of morality and membership? Country clubs do that. Strategy and vision-casting? Every corporation in the world does that. The world doesn't really ask why about any of those things.

Where the church lives out this kingdom the best usually happens like this: A group of people spend time together immersed in the story of Jesus in some way, shape or form. As they focus on Jesus they begin to reshape their relationships to mimic what they see in him, however imperfectly. Then, when tragedy strikes or trials come, they react in a Jesus-way, and it is often surprising. That is when the world sees and asks, "Why?" So the Amish forgiving the man who shot up their school, or a group of believers when my mom died in 1994 taking care of my responsibilities so I could take a month off, and a non-Christian friend asked, "Where do you find friends like that?"

What is harder for the church, I think, is to find proactive ways to work for the kingdom when tragedy and trial are not dominating our lives. There's something very vulture-like in some churches, sitting around in Bible study groups waiting for bad things to happen so they can be loving and good. The church hasn't done a good job of looking around and seeing injustice, seeing brokenness, and really moving to work for that. Occasionally, but not often.

Partly that's because those things are such this-world solutions. It feels like a social gospel, like we're trying to save ourselves. But we need to keep in mind that we are only imperfectly agents of this kingdom and our primary call is to be proclaimers and signposts of the kingdom. So a farm couple I know manage their 40 acres as best they can, trying to make the land better and trying to tend their little cow herd well and trying to be a force for good among their neighbors in that little valley, and doing it all because they have a sense that God has been so generous to them and they need to make the most of it in grateful response.

How does the church come alongside people like them?

Too often it says, "Come to our Bible study. Be in worship every Sunday. Give more money. Teach Sunday School. Go on a mission trip." Those are all good things, but they are church-centric, not necessarily kingdom-centric, though the kingdom may be woven through those activities as well. The danger is that each of those things has the potential to be self-serving. What does a church look like that is modeled on Jesus and his self-giving love, Jesus who Bonhoeffer described as "the man for others"? That I think is the question that drives so many "nones" toward cynicism, and we need to fight that drift. This also gets at what Bonhoeffer talked about, a phrase that echoes in my heart and moves me to want to write books to spur the church on, "religionless Christianity." There's so much of this content packed into that phrase.

So many churches wring their hands about how to come alongside young adults without ever finding a good way to do it. There's a desperate need, of course. Where is a young adult to find community? College friendships are fading or transformed. Stresses of careers and changes of identity are destabilizing. Changing relationships, marriage and parenthood and the morass of the expectations of mature adulthood are intimidating. There's a huge need for community, for conversation, for role models, for wisdom and grace and laughter in the midst of what can feel like such a heavy life at this stage. It's a hard thing to live into adulting at this level when the confusion of being 20-something seems like it should have gone away by now, but people don't have a good sense of their own competence to navigate life at this level. And sometimes life throws a tremendous curve ball at you that threatens to either transform or destroy everything. That need never really goes away -- that need for a community that is the repository of both grace and wisdom.

Second, there has to be something other than the roundabout of repeated studies. Either within the group, or tacitly in the lives of those who participate, there has to be an outward, self-giving focus or it's not really mimicking Jesus, is it? This is where so many "Bible studies" have fallen short over the years. They have a sense of community and solid content, but they don't have a mission beyond themselves, and they don't really see the need for it. They're self-serving. So they deliver great content, but little transformation.

One of the things that young farm couple has talked about in their implicit way is wanting a church that affirms and reinforces the mission they're already living out. This is where so many study groups could do so much good -- helping their participants understand their lives in terms of the kingdom, see the discipleship value of what they're doing for work, or in their neighborhood, or in their parenting or other relationships. These vocational calls are so often undervalued by both society and by the church. Rather than telling them that their stewardship of the land and the cattle and their families and their neighbors is a valuable, kingdom thing that glorifies God and imitates Jesus, the church says, "Go with us to Mexico where you can help with their stewardship and their relationships and build the kingdom" -- because we like to assume the kingdom is already here since we have clean water and good sanitation and floor heat and new cars.