Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Seeking the kingdom

Oswald Chambers yesterday was focused on Matthew 6:33. That verse -- "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be yours as well" -- lies at the hinge point of my life. One evening in October, 1983, I sat in a tiny prayer chapel built by an order of Catholic nuns. One by one, in my heart and in the presence of Jesus, I brought out every love of my life and set them before him. My parents. Each of my siblings. The farm where I grew up. The girl I was dating at the time. Key friendships. Career ambitions. My sense of myself. One at a time, each was set before Jesus, and mentally / emotionally / spiritually I saw myself cutting the ribbon that tied my heart to each of those things. Snip. Snip. Snip. I sat on the stone floor with a bunch of severed ribbons tying my heart to -- to nothing at all, for the sake of Jesus only, Jesus alone. My prayer was, "Lord, now I have nothing -- you give me back only what you want me to have."

I wanted to spend my life for the sake of Jesus Christ and his kingdom. I wanted to give up all my smaller ambitions. I wanted to throw away every thing that was less than Jesus. That evening remains a defining point of my life, to this very day.

There have been so many echoes of that moment, so many times Jesus has called me back to that first love. At times, especially when he's called me to great risk, he's challenged me: "Are you turning away from that commitment?" He's asked me to do some tremendously hard things. Turn away from easy paths. Turn away from my own comfort and my own glory. Face up to my own brokenness and the brokenness of my life, my relationships. Speak the truth about that brokenness. Allow myself to be known, to be loved, to be treasured. Each echo, each turning point, has provided the opportunity to turn away from Jesus himself, or to turn toward him. There has been a very real choice at each turning. I can take the easy answer, the "right" answer, the appealing answer that will look good in the eyes of the world around me -- including, very often, the Christian world -- or I can have Jesus himself. And I have to say, not because I'm such a great person -- I'm not -- but because Jesus is so excellent, at each turning I've done my level best to pursue him. Nothing else comes close.

I don't believe I deserve any credit for staying faithful to him. He knows I've failed often enough, and my own brokenness has tainted every decision I've made along the way. But in each moment, as best I know how, I've had the opportunity to "seek first the kingdom of God." I've had the opportunity to discern kingdom possibilities in the mix of all that I could choose at any given moment.

I find myself these days staring out at the lake, staring up into the oak leaves, pondering where I am and how I got here. But looking back, there's never been a moment where I turned away from him, in spite of the people who have gotten up in my face asking how I could have missed God so badly. Every imperfect decision, every broken choice, every half-understood option, was weighed in the light of where I thought Jesus was calling. I think I understand the murderer, the persecutor, the arrogant Paul, a little better when he said, "I have lived my life before God in all good conscience" (Acts 23:1).

That's probably what Jesus himself meant when he talked about his kingdom being like a treasure hidden in a field, like one pearl of surpassingly great value. So many of Jesus' stories contain these imperfect anti-heroes. Maybe the guy making real estate deals, selling all he had to buy the field, was less than savory. Maybe the merchant fudged a little bit to be able to liquidate all his other goods in order to buy that pearl. Jesus himself, at the conclusion of one of the most unpleasant and confusing stories he ever told, said (Luke 17) that we should use worldly wealth -- "ungodly mammon" -- to make heavenly friends for ourselves. Maybe none of us really knows what Jesus is offering us at any given moment. He promises never to leave us, never to forsake us. He promises that in spite of the heartache, the journey will be worth it. He promises that if we surrender all for the sake of his kingdom, his all-surpassing love, revealed in so many profound, beautiful, excruciating ways, he will transform us into his image.

Hope is a funny thing. Christians are often guilty of tying our hope to an afterlife, pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by, and there's some biblical warrant for that, though not as much as we tell ourselves. I'm not saying there's not an afterlife, not at all, and I'm not saying that it won't be fantastic. I believe it will. But the Bible seems utterly focused on this existence, this life, far more than we often understand. Jesus himself says that those who give up comfort, relationships, respectability, and so much more will receive "a hundredfold now in this time ... and in the age to come, eternal life" (Mark 10, emphasis added). I'm with Dietrich Bonhoeffer who talked of the "profound this-worldliness" of Christianity, with Wendell Berry whose vision of God sees him as "a great relisher of the world, its good grown immortal in his mind." When Jesus described the kingdom of God, little of what he said had anything to do with an afterlife. Read the gospels. Jesus was talking about relationships, the healing of brokenness, abundant life here and now. That's the kingdom he came to establish. That is the work into which he sends his people. Biblically speaking, hope is not an optimistic glass-half-full dreaminess that someday things will get better. Biblically speaking, hope says that because Jesus is risen from the dead, our brokenness can be healed; love is real; the truth is worth speaking; abundant life is possible. Here. Now. And that someday, God will bring these foretastes to a fulfillment that exceeds our wildest imaginings.

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