Spiritual Rhythm: Being With Jesus Every Season of Your Soul
I recently had an epiphany: About half the Christians I know love the King but are almost oblivious to the fact that He rules a kingdom, and that He calls them, in season and out, to seek His kingdom and to advance it. They are intimate with the King, or at least say they are, but they’re not about the King’s business. And this: that about half the pagans I know have some inkling there’s a kingdom—that life is meant to be other than it is, more joyful, hopeful, peaceful, fruitful, just; less segregated, paranoid, dismal, violent—and to varying degrees they are stumbling toward the kingdom, groping for it. But they are mostly oblivious to two things: first, that what they dream, however blurrily, is really the kingdom of God rather than some political utopia or socialist paradise or retooled version of the American dream, and second, that this kingdom has a King. They intuit the kingdom, and in some remarkable cases are doing the King’s business, but they shun or remain aloof from or outright ignorant of or openly hostile to its King.
I think of Harold, a friend of mine. He’s a big, tall, handsome First Nations man with long black hair that he shakes like a rock star’s mane and with arms brocaded with tattoos. He dresses mostly in black leather. I call him the Indian Bono. He’s a rough sort—his language, his ways. He always smells of cigarettes.
And he’s a moviemaker. He’s making several movies at the moment. One of them is about breaking racial barriers. It’s about gangs. It’s about the roots of violence and despair. I’m not sure, exactly, what it’s all about, except that it’s about the kingdom of God, and Harold seems the mostly likely man to make it.
And that’s because Harold made another movie about the kingdom of God. It’s called Broken Down, and it was a huge local blockbuster. It was screened the first night in a theater that seats 738, and hundreds of people were turned away at the door. They showed it the next night to a packed house, and ever since, Harold’s been traveling to nearby communities who hear about his movie and want to see it, too.
Harold wouldn’t tell you that Broken Down is about the kingdom of God. He made it as a documentary on the homeless in our community, the men and women who live in tents, in shipping containers, in stairwells, who scavenge bottles for enough money to buy beer and cigarettes. He made it to tell the story of drug addicts in Vancouver’s east side, the pale and skittish junkies who’ll do anything, anything, for their next fix.
But the story he ends up telling is the story of the humanity of people whose humanity most of us forgot a long time ago, when we were signing petitions to keep them off our streets and lobbying governments to step up policing their presence. He tells the story of the child who still lives inside each man, each woman, who still wishes they were home safe, with mom and dad. He tells the story of the longing in each person that someday, one day, maybe soon, they’re going to turn this around, get off this stuff, get a job, start a family, reconcile with parents.
Maybe next month.
I wept through most of it. Especially, I wept for Lilly. Lilly’s a First Nations girl, maybe 20 or 22, nearly incoherent from her heroin addiction and her sexual trauma. She does whatever a man wants for as much as he’s willing to pay, and only occasionally uses any of the money for food. She sleeps wherever she can scrounge up warmth and dryness, but that’s a rare find in the back alleys of a rainy city. In the movie, Lilly rocks back and forth, looks away from the camera, mumbles, lamenting and cursing, laughs without joy. She shows the bruises on her legs, from beatings, from needles. She hates men and fears them. (Harold told me that when he approached her to ask if he could talk with her, she cowered and groveled, told him she’d do anything he wanted if he didn’t hurt her.)
Why is this the kingdom? Well, in some ways it’s the opposite. It’s the desolation the Prince of Darkness has wreaked. It’s an unrelenting display of his deceitfulness and ruthlessness and corrupt power. But here’s why Broken Down is, at its heart, about the kingdom of God: because in the pin-drop quiet of that theater, as we watched Lilly, and Red and Brenda and others, all those watching, those who knew and loved Jesus and those who didn’t, yearned for the world to be otherwise. And most of us, at least for the brief moment of our watching, were willing to do our part to make it otherwise. In us all a prayer took shape, however inarticulate: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is heaven.”
Most of us walked away from that, shook it off, went back to signing petitions and buying big TVs on credit.
But for a moment, eternity intersected us, the kingdom brushed us, and we ached for a world of shalom.
The other movie Harold’s making is about the teenage gangs in our city that make the streets a dangerous place on certain nights after midnight or so. People, innocent people out walking their dogs or getting off a bus or coming home from watching a movie at a friend’s house, sometimes get accosted by eight, 10, a dozen kids with sticks and chains, and many of the victims end up in the hospital. Some go straight to the morgue. A young boy, barely into his teens, recently got a whole mouthful of teeth kicked in just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Another young man, early 20s, the son of a good friend of mine, narrowly averted the same fate by offering, without resistance, the $200 he had in his wallet. He got away with only having his face spat upon like a cuspidor. Another young man, all of 15, got a knife in his belly and didn’t live to see daylight.
Again, this doesn’t seem like a ripe subject matter for the kingdom, except that every time one of these incidents happens, it shakes the whole town, if only a little, out of our apathy and lethargy, and makes us long for something different. In our worst moods, which hit us often, the difference we want is retaliation, vigilante forces, massive police strike-forces bearing down on the evildoers. We want higher, thicker walls on our gated communities. We want more surveillance cameras.
But in our best moods, the difference we seek is shalom, where everything is as God intends it to be: streets are wide open and safe; the generations bless each other, learn from one another; every tongue and tribe and nation is present and honored; no one lies and no one steals and no one lacks for anything.
We want shalom, though no one but me and a few of the crazies I hang around with call it that.
What Harold’s been doing is interviewing gang members, especially the leaders. He’s chasing a hunch that, beneath the bravado and bloodlust, nobody wants to live this way. That underneath the cockiness and brashness and cruelty is someone just wishing they mattered.
The way Harold puts it: “No kid when he’s five dreams of beating heads in with baseball bats as a career. I’ll tell you what puts them there: fear. They’re afraid that it’s this, or nothing.”
And he openly wonders what the alternative to this and nothing might be.
That would be the kingdom.
Taking Hold of the Kingdom
I’m captivated by the kingdom of God. Jesus came announcing it. He said it is near, and here, and within us. He said that the first and most urgent item on the agenda is to repent and then take hold, with both fists, of this kingdom, and not to look back for anything.
Somehow, somewhere, for some reason, we domesticated this. We latched on to the Born Again theme and made that Jesus’ principal concern. That is important, no question, but Jesus said it only once, to one man, in a private conversation, and almost as a rebuke. What he said repeatedly, to all who had ears, in the most public way and as the essence of good news, was the kingdom is at hand. And you can join. Just believe and repent.
So all these years later, we’re doing remedial work in theology and from pulpits, trying to make the good news good again. I’m not saying being born again isn’t good news. It is, and of the highest order, to anyone, which is everyone, who needs to know that life can start fresh and be lived on God’s terms. (This, in the root sense, is hilarious: a great merriment through an outpouring of grace secured by a costly appeasement.) The problem is that born again has become more of a slogan and a formula than the immodest proposal Jesus meant by it. He meant, preposterously, that anyone—anyone at all—can become a new creation. We’ve reduced that to anyone can go to heaven. No small thing, for sure, but Jesus had other things in mind as well. The remedial work, then, is to unleash the Gospel in all its wildness, its topsy-turvy, inside-out, subversive force. It’s to proclaim a Gospel that has both this-world and the-world-to-come implications. If forced to pick, I’d take the world-to-come implications. But we’re not forced to pick. We get both. We’re invited to enter the kingdom now, and stay forever. The kingdom makes the Gospel good news to the poor and the broken, to prisoners and prostitutes. And the kingdom makes the Gospel bad news to Caesars and Rich Young Rulers. It disturbs the dreams of Pilates and wrecks the parties of Herods.
Jesus came announcing the kingdom.
A Different Kind of Success
Maybe I’m claiming too much, but if Jesus wants us both to bear much fruit and to pursue the kingdom of God first—if to do one is, indeed, to do the other, and vice versa—then one of the best shifts we could make in our churches is to dismantle the model of spirituality that equates busyness with faithfulness and replace it with the simple idea that fruit alone denotes faithfulness, and fruit requires seasons. Seasons as a model for spirituality accords with kingdom life in ways that shine light on both the kingdom and the seasons.
Let me put it this way: We have adopted a view of the spiritual life and church growth that is a variation on free-market capitalism. In capitalism, the economy, in order to be strong, must constantly grow. A 3 percent shrinkage in the Gross Domestic Product for two or more quarters is a recession. (A 10 percent shrinkage is a depression.) Three percent. Governments fly into panic, banks stock the moat, corporations start to implode. It’s wolves. It’s bubonic plague. It’s the sky falling.
Where else is constant growth an unequivocal sign of health? In human bodies, it’s a sign of obesity or cancer. Yet we’ve applied the standard of constant growth to our churches and to our spiritual lives. We applaud every sign of getting bigger, and fret every sign of getting smaller.
This is bizarre.
And it’s not the kingdom. The kingdom is mysterious, Jesus says. It’s hidden as much as visible, underground as much as manifest. It’s not something about which you can say, “Here it is,” or, “There it is.” It’s within us, but it turns out it belongs to the least of these, and its secrets are revealed to children. Tax collectors and prostitutes are more likely to enter it than Pharisees and seminarians. It’s hard to measure by the gauges and scales we use to measure, say, success. Like the Spirit, the kingdom moves where it wills, and no one knows where it comes from or where it’s going.
Let me speak plainly. What I’m discovering is the kingdom’s presence in places where all normal touchstones of success fail. Recently, I spent the day with my friends Pete and Marnie Mitchell. Pete and Marnie are Salvation Army church planters working in two areas very inhospitable to the Gospel—Vancouver’s east side, an inner-city slum of flop houses, crack dens, brothels, watering holes, strip clubs. It has the highest incidence of heroin users in Canada, and the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS cases in North America. The other area they work is Vancouver’s Commercial Drive district, which is about as close to ancient Corinth as a place can get—decadent, amoral, teeming with sexual license and vice.
When I visited, we started the day in a tumbledown walk-up on the east side. The stairwell smelled of urine. The room we met in had holes kicked into the walls. The light in the bathroom didn’t work, which might have been a mercy. The furniture was moldering and tattered. Marnie taught at the War College, the in-house training the Salvation Army does for those who have signed on with the mission. Her topic was spiritual warfare, and the importance of making sure we are clean vessels in God’s hands. The class was made up of a handful of students. Some were suburban kids who sought a life in Christ that would be more than attending youth group movie nights and playing games with Jell-O. But most of the students were people who, not long ago, were living on the streets, turning tricks, making deals, scoring drugs, hustling, busking, panhandling. They were, altogether, the most unlikely troop of warriors you’ve ever set eyes on. Their kingdom disguises were perfect, the camouflage flawless: no one anywhere would ever suspect them of subverting evil, putting the devil on the run.
Then we walked Commercial Drive. Here, the sex shops don’t hide their wares behind tastefully frosted windows. It’s all displayed like fruit in a market stall, like rugs and water jugs at a Turkish bazaar. And everywhere—in the windows of clothing stores and music stores, restaurants and coffee shops, plastered up and down power poles, emblazoned on the sides of bus-stop shelters—everywhere posters and handbills advertise all manner of strange erotic diversions. There’s nothing you can’t get down here.
And it’s here, right in the middle of all this, that Pete and Marnie are planting a church. The audacity of that is stunning. The beauty of it is captivating. They call it Cross-Culture. What pluck!
Is it successful?
Depends what you mean. They witness miracles of transformation that most people rarely see. And they have their hearts torn in two more than most mortals can bear. They’ve learned not to despise the day of small things but to find the kingdom in faith sometimes no larger than a mustard seed. I don’t think success is the right criterion for this.
They’re bearing fruit, in season and out, and whether that’s success or not doesn’t matter. It’s the kingdom.
Maybe you don’t spend a lot of time with crack addicts and prostitutes. As my New Zealander friends like to say, “No worries." The kingdom is still in your midst. The kingdom shines through the mundane and the quotidian. The everlasting flits at the edges of the everyday. It can show up in a conversation you get into at the grocery checkout with the cashier who’s just broken your eggs. It can happen with your child, who needs a little more attention just now than you think you have patience for. It can happen with a co-worker who irritates you. It happens at those times, in those places, when something of God’s goodness, kindness, justice—God’s shalom—is chosen over the alternatives.
I listened last night to one of my favorite podcasts, The Moth, which features “true stories told live without notes.” This one was a story by Ellie Lee on the wisdom of her father, Ming. Ming is a Chinese immigrant who succeeded in America by selling groceries to other Chinese immigrants at prices just mere percentage points above cost. One day, a nine-year-old boy came into Ming’s store and began shoplifting. Ming followed the boy, who didn’t know he was the store owner and so brazenly carried on with his thievery. Then the boy sat down, in the middle of the aisle, devouring the stolen food.
Ming watched. When it seemed the boy had eaten enough, he asked, “Are you full?”
“Where are your parents?”
“Why aren’t you at home?”
“There’s no food there. I’m so hungry.”
“My friend,” Ming said, “I own this store. You have just stolen from me, and that’s not a good thing. I don’t want you doing that again, OK?”
The boy, frightened, nodded.
“What I’m asking is this: Whenever you’re hungry, you come right in here and tell me. I will make sure you have enough to eat.”
For years, Ming’s little friend ate well.
The kingdom, right there, and from a man who, as far as I know, may not even know there’s a King.
Just think what could happen on your watch.
Stumbling on the Kingdom
Most of our evangelism consists of trying to get people into church. Good as that is (I firmly believe that the church is Christ’s body, Christ’s bride, God’s family; therefore, flawed as the local church is, it makes no sense to say you love Jesus and God and not care about the church), it’s not enough.
Jesus’ standing invitation is not to come to church but to enter the kingdom. Most churches are bricolages of all kinds of things more than they are panoramas of the kingdom come in power. They’re composed of shards of social agency, scraps of country club, skeins of gossip, and, scattered throughout, a handful of kingdom, unobtrusive as pieces of painted macaroni. Churches, even the best of them, contain the kingdom but can hardly be described as the fullness thereof.
And here’s the funny thing: most of the world looks roughly the same: a bit of this and a bit of that and, scattered throughout, the kingdom, quiet and unobtrusive, easily missed.
I suggest our evangelism remain inviting people to church. But I suggest we also include inviting people into the kingdom. And the great thing is, though your neighbor or co-worker may right now have zero interest in coming to your church, she already may be stumbling around in the kingdom.
In my town, non-church people care about the homeless, single mothers, the high level of malnutrition and illiteracy among low-income families, the problem of gangs, the enduring legacy of racial animosity, and a hundred other things. I chaired a community committee recently that helped gather funds and create a vision to refit a school bus to take learning resources to Native reservations. As I write this, it’s at one of the most remote and impoverished reservations in the province.
God cares about all this. His kingdom of shalom speaks to all this.
What I’ve found is that an equally effective way to help people meet Jesus is to help them see that, though they haven’t been in church in years, they’ve been crisscrossing the kingdom on a daily basis.
Just as people can sit in church for months, maybe years, and miss Jesus, they can be in the kingdom for a long time and miss him too.
Which is where you come in. You likely know a person or two who’s not ready to come to your church. But they’re already brushing up against the kingdom. Maybe God put you beside them to help them find the King.
Mark Buchanan is a pastor and award-winning author who lives with his wife, Cheryl, and three children on the West Coast of Canada. Educated at the University of British Columbia and Regent College, his work has been published in numerous periodicals, including Christianity Today, Books and Culture, Leadership Journal and Discipleship Magazine. He is the author of several books including Spiritual Rhythm, Your God Is Too Safe, Things Unseen, The Holy Wild, The Rest of God and Hidden in Plain Sight, all of which have been main selections for the Crossings Book Club.
This excerpt is taken from Spiritual Rhythm by March Buchanan. Copyright © 2010 Used by permission of Zondervan. Zondervan.com.
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