Over the last year I’ve been asking some basic questions, ones I’ve been asking most of my adult life, but perhaps not so intensely or intentionally. The questions mostly centered on the Kingdom—and started rather basic: What is it? And what does it look like to live there?
I started collecting images of that kind of life, both individually and what it looks like to live-together. I found it looks like bubbles and molecules, a collection, new wine skins, upside-down, a man looking with love at his wife, a cultivated inner life, a father’s love for a wayward-but-returning son, violence overcome with love, knowing “Life will out”, severed ropes, more like an embrace than a bridge, a better and far country, learning to see right, learning to live unbroken, the love between a father and son, opening a vein, sharing a meal, seeing in green, a dance, present to grief and pain without shelter or reserve, and seeing and hearing like Jesus.
That collection started producing more questions: How does Kingdom life happen? How do we get that kind of life? How do we experience that life, real and present here-and-now? As I read through Scripture and Christian writers (like Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, Dan Stone, Wayne Jacobsen and Scot McKnight), these questions were prominent in my mind. I found, however, that the source of Kingdom-life boils down to an even more basic question:
Why did Jesus come in the first place?
I found (rediscovered?) the answer is surprisingly simple yet profound: Jesus came to give us back our relationship with the Father. Out of that relationship—what the Renovare folk call the “with-God” life—comes everything else: Kingdom life, love, peace, joy, body-life, living-right, freedom from and forgiveness for sin and everything else. From God and our “with-God” living comes our always-transforming to Christ-likeness, Christ-mindedness, Christ-thinking, Christ–feeling and Christ–lving. Out of our trust in who he is and what he can do comes transformation—and a freeing—to be who it is we were designed to be: children in a loving relationship with our Father. And that loving relationship inherently and naturally flows out to others—just like its object and source, our Father. And as we live and walk with other with-God-living people comes body-life the way God designed it to be—and that is an undeniable and vastly bright Light, just like its Center.
But in thinking through this yet another question rose prominently to the surface: Why is this ever-transforming Kingdom life and with-God life not happening among us?
This isn’t a new question—many have been asking it for decades, perhaps even centuries. But the implications became urgently real to me this year. If everything flows from the relationship we have with the Father—transformation, with-God living and body-life that explodes like bouncing molecules—then that’s not happening because we as a Church (the body of followers of Jesus) don’t get what it’s all about. We don’t have this ever-transforming life and with-God life because the vast majority of us aren’t living in relationship to the Father.
Out of that question came yet another: So, what’s keeping us from getting it? That is perhaps one of the more difficult questions I’ve wrestled with, not because there aren’t people asking this question but because there are so many—and that makes for a lot of different approaches. In addition to the spiritual formation and transformation folks I’ve looked in on the more traditional (evangelical?) church-growth and health movements to the more recent voices in the emerging movement and house and simple church movements as well as the tradition of Christian mystics and thinkers like C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, Henry Nouwen, John Stott, St. John of the Cross, and Brother Lawrence.
What have I learned? Heh, that there’s definitely more questions than I have answers to. But I have come to a few conclusions:
It’s all about God. His purpose has been to restore and redeem his creation to him. He wants us to have life—and have it overflowing and abundant. He wants us to experience his love. And that comes in and through our relationship to him—which Jesus restored. Recently, in A New Testament Trilogy I came across a passage where the authors explored what Jesus meant when he said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The bottom line? Jesus isn’t saying that simple assent to the knowledge (accepting the statement as true) that he is the Way to redemption and restoration to the Father will restore our relationship. No, Jesus is saying that knowing the Way—experiencing revelation, restoration and redemption from and to the Father—comes through knowing, walking with, and being in relationship with Jesus. It’s relationship, not doctrine. It’s ongoing-trust, not assent to beliefs. And only out of that relationship will come Kingdom living-together.
The way we do church, for the most part, is not working. Somehow, the way we do church and the predominant church culture that is present in most of our churches (at least in the U.S.) isn’t fostering this basic truth, this Way. While we give assent to the truth, we aren’t living it. What’s broken—and how do we fix it? Some believe the way we do church (as an institution) is so broken it can’t be fixed. Others think it’s about reinventing the church (finds new ways to organize and structure itself) in order to be effective in and relevant to the culture around us. Others think that there isn’t just one way to structure the church, but that we should focus on encouraging groups of believers to be incarnational wherever they find and develop themselves. Others think the simpler models of the early church are our clue to uncovering church and body-life the way God designed it. And still others believe it isn’t about how we organize ourselves at all, but it’s all about finding ways to live-together with each other that will encourage and raise others to develop their relationships with God (which, for me, still begs the question of organization again). And, of course, many are coming at the question from a variety and combination of these and not-mentioned-here approaches.
Me? I'm leaning towards the folks who think it’s about finding ways to live-together that will encourage us to accept, deepen and live in and out of relationship with God. And I’m beginning to think simpler, more organic and basic structures are the way to facilitate that. How that is working itself out in existing church culture or the emerging one is one question with which I still wrestle.
God is moving. People all over the world are asking these basic questions—and coming to many of the same conclusions. And this makes me believe that God is moving in a profound and reforming way. Many describe this movement of God as a new Reformation. For some, it is a reformation of structure, be it an uncovering of the way we are meant to do church or discovering a new way to organize ourselves. For others, it is a reformation of sanctification or changed lives, that God is clarifying our experience and understanding of what how we grow in grace. For some, it is being seen in the shift of the center of Christianity from a Western, northern hemisphere axis to an eastern, southern hemispheric heart. And still others see it is simply as the breath of God moving across the land and waters awakening hearts and minds to him. Any way you look at it, God is moving. He is bursting out with life new and changing and incarnational—that is the nature of his Kingdom.
As for me, I’m simply on the journey. I’m learning to intentionally live out of my relationship with the Father, out of walking with Jesus and out of the Spirit that resides within me. I’ve gained a lot of direction from Wayne Jacobsen’s encouragement to simply walk with Jesus and with those with whom our paths cross—if only for a season—in encouragement to draw closer to the Father, walk with Jesus and love those around us. I’ve become more intentional in being open and attentive to the relationships around me, to live without expectation and to listen to and move with the love God pours into my life. I am working with Jesus to be faithful with what’s been given me.
Sometimes, the journey is lonely and painful. Collecting those images of the Kingdom deepened the sense of longing to experience God’s people in a with-God living-together—and, frankly, it is all too rare. But then I turn a corner on a lonely road and discover that the journey is so full I’m afraid I’ll burst. I see God’s hand behind, with and before me and in the lives of those around me. It’s breath taking. That’s the Way, this walking with and in Jesus. And it’s good, like the Father.
(Images: State of the Union 2003, public domain via Wikipedia; Batoni’s Return of the Prodigal Son via Wikipeida; the way the truth the life by Mark's LA at flickr (some rights reserved); infinity in flames by by Glutnix at flickr (some rights reserved))