Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Hospitable Christianity

Have you ever come across a line in a song or a book or a movie that articulates something you feel on the inside in a profound way but were not able to put into words. I came across one such quote about a year ago in a little book by Henri Nouwen called Reaching Out,

“Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space in which change can take place.”

The title to the blog seems almost contradictory in this day and age. Just think of how many times you have heard the word hospitable spoken in a conversation next to the word Christian? The truth is that for many folks with sincere questions about God and faith the church is perceived as anything but a hospitable place.

I have been involved in so many church activities at various times in my life which were either something of a bait-and-switch or just down right confrontational. The bait-and-switch tactic involved trying to get folks to come to a concert, a dinner or to some other event or giveaway and then hit them with the gospel message hoping that they would respond. And it usually went over about as well when as when a waiter receives a religious tract in place of a tip (something I experienced on more than one occasion back in my table-waiting days).

The confrontational approach, on the other hand, is unapologetically in people’s faces with the ‘truth’. This was my preferred method as a freshman in college. Again it made few if any converts but I sure walked away feeling good about myself because I had stood up for Jesus in front of those pagan, abortionist, evolutionist, homosexual, secular, atheists types (or just insert any group I missed here ___________________.)

Perhaps there is a different approach to sharing our faith that has less to do with bait-and-switch or merely arguing about belief – a way of creating space where folks can encounter God not by sheer force of arguing or by a sales pitch but in a way that respects them wherever they may be in their journey.

This will be our primer for this week’s small group. I am curious as to what your experience of church has been when it comes to outreach or sharing faith?

What might it look like to be a community of Christ-followers that are not simply trying to change people but creating space and opportunities where change can happen naturally and relationally, where folks can begin to experience God right where they are at?

Friday, July 17, 2009

D-Day and the Kingdom of God

When I posed the question (from the last blog) “What is the kingdom of God?” at our small group meeting last Thursday night the answers I got were all over the map.
The kingdom of God is…
“a present reality”,
“something of heaven,
yet something of our connection to one another here on earth”
Some people cited scriptures,
Some folks talked of concepts and ideas,
And still others brought up that for how often it’s mentioned (i.e. The Lord’s Prayer, and the parables) that they really didn’t have a clue as to what kingdom of God really means (probably one of the more honest comments on the subject).

A look at the New Testament will confirm that the answer is “All of the above”. The kingdom of God is a present reality, something within, something of community in this world, something of a glorious community in the age to come and something that we don’t fully grasp even though it is written about over and over throughout the New Testament.

One of the most basic ways of understanding the kingdom of God is as God’s rule and reign. The kingdom is the realm that is ruled by the king. This concept sounds easy enough however the mere mention of the term “king” or “kingdom” is a bit abstract or foreign to us modern Americans living in a democracy where every one gets a vote (in fact America was founded by its revolt against a monarchy). Yet even though we don’t have much of a grid for kings or kingdoms I think we can still understand something about governmental rule that might help our understanding of what the kingdom of God is.

In June of 1940 the Axis powers of Germany and Italy invaded France and within a month France became occupied territory. During this low point in the war the French lost their right of self-rule and instead were dominated and ruled by enemies from outside of their country. This enemy occupation persisted for four years until the Allied powers staged an invasion that would be the beginning of the end of the enemy occupation of France. On the Tuesday morning of June 6, 1944 the Allied powers launched the now famous D-day invasion on the beaches of Normandy. Gradually over the next 2 months the Allied invasion began to succeed in defeating the Nazis throughout the villages and towns of the French countryside until at last Paris was freed on that August 25.

Was France completely liberated on the D-day invasion of Normandy?
No… not much of it at least (only scattered villages here and there). However the rescue was well underway. What began on D-Day would not stop until the Axis powers were defeated in France and the citizens were liberated from their tyrannical rule. When France was finally liberated by the Allied armies, the citizens of France were once again restored to a place of self-rule and self-determination.

This look at France during World War II is helpful in understanding our own place in a far greater story that began back in the opening pages of Genesis (I will get more into that aspect in a future blog). Just like the French in World War II, we find ourselves in a time where humanity is enslaved by an occupying force. The New Testament refers to this time as the present evil age that is ruled by Satan, the god of this age (2 Cor. 4:4 Gal. 1:4 ). Yet as hopeless as our world may look as enemy-occupied territory right now, a rescue plan has been enacted in the person of Jesus. Jesus came into our world staging a D-day invasion of sorts—the kingdom of God breaking into this present evil age. Yet unlike the wars between kingdoms in our world, the kingdom of God came not with armies or weapons but through sacrificial love. In the ministry, the cross, and the resurrection of Jesus the kingdom of God began advancing into our world setting things right again one person at a time.

Is everything completely set right now?
No. A simple look at any cable news channel at any time of the day will show that our world is still suffering under the tyranny of enemy occupation. The evidence of this enemy occupation is sickness, disease, alienation, violence, hatred, and even death. But this is by no means the end of the story.

A look at the last couple of chapters of the Bible reveals that one day the kingdom, which began breaking into our world in the ministry of Jesus, will come in fullness. And on that day the prayer that has been prayed by countless Christians over the last two thousand years – “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” will be gloriously and finally answered. Just as our occupation by the enemy was marked by sickness, disease, death, alienation, hatred, and strife so the arrival of the kingdom of God in it’s fullness will be marked by healing, restoration, freedom, life, and love.

The In-Between
We live in between the invasion and the final victory. Those of us who have become Christ-followers are like the French citizens liberated by the Allied forces. We have been set free and are now making up the growing population of those who are ruled not by the enemy but by the king, who are increasingly living in the reality of the kingdom rather than by the rule of this fallen age. What’s more is that we who have been liberated get to join in the battle to see others set free from the tyranny of the enemy. Each time the kingdom breaks in afresh to this world it is a taste of the fullness of the kingdom to come. In this in-between time it will only be a taste but it is a very real taste and a signpost pointing to the day when the kingdom of God will ultimately come in fullness, when there will be no more suffering or pain, when the dwelling of God will be with man ( Rev 21:3-4 ).

So What Does this all Matter?
This means that when we pray for the sick and they are healed the kingdom is breaking in to our realm. This means that when a person responds to the good news of the Gospel and becomes a follower of Christ the kingdom is breaking in. This means that when a person experiences freedom from spiritual oppression the kingdom is breaking in. But it also means that as Christ-followers we make it our aim to increasingly live in the reality of the future kingdom. So whether we are praying for the sick or building homes for the poor or simply and sacrificially loving others we are a part of kingdom work in this world; part of bringing a little bit of heaven to earth.

One way this understanding of the kingdom has informed my own faith journey is in my personal prayer life. A helpful exercise I try to do in the first moments of consciousness each morning is to get my foggy mind to start going through the Lord’s Prayer not as a rigid formula but with people and situations in mind where I perceive a desperate need for the kingdom to come. I ask God to let his kingdom break in on sick friends, on those who are having difficulties in their jobs and marriages and on those who are isolated and alienated from God and people. Praying this way not only helps me to be a part of kingdom work but begins orienting my life into a kingdom perspective from the start of my day.

Monday, July 6, 2009

What is The Kingdom of God, and Why Does it Matter?

The Kingdom of God is a phrase that appears over and over throughout the New Testament, but what is The Kingdom of God and why should it matter to us?

Is the kingdom of God the church?
Is the kingdom of God heaven?
Has the kingdom of God already come or is it something coming in the future?
What does the kingdom of God look like?
What sort of evidence might clue us in to it’s nearness?
How does someone become a part of the kingdom of God?
Can we participate in the coming of the kingdom of God? If so, then how?

While I don’t normally recommend reading scriptures apart from the context of the chapters in which they appear (this would have been a very long blog otherwise, but feel free to check the chapters out on your own), I have listed just a few of the many scriptures which talk about the kingdom of God in the New Testament. What does this brief survey of scriptures indicate to you about the kingdom of God?

Matthew 5:3 [Jesus Speaking] Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 6:10 [from the Lord’s prayer] …Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Luke 9:2 …and Jesus sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.
Luke 10:9 [Jesus Speaking] …Heal the sick who are there and tell them, 'The kingdom of God is near you.'
Matthew 12:28 [Jesus Speaking] …But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
Luke 17:21 [Jesus Speaking] …nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is within[a] you."
Acts 28:30-31 For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. 31 He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!

Finally, I would like all of us to read Matthew chapter 6 a couple of times in the next week. It is a great chapter to chew on which ends with the phrase “but seek first the kingdom of God…” This is a great passage for preparing our hearts for kingdom life.

In or Out? MP3 Just Posted

This last weekend I spoke at the Kenner Vineyard on the topic we talked about at the last small group. You can download it at VCFK.com or on Itunes (search 'VCFK' and it should take you where you need to go). This MP3 of the message covers a few different aspects which did not come up in the small group discussion which I think will be helpful in processing what this value looks like in practice.