A Few Moments of Peace in the Peaceable Kingdom

Outside my window is a pallid sky, an unremitting drizzle, and the kind of mugginess you get when autumn reports for duty but summer stubbornly contests the election. It’s a sunless day. Gloomy, lugubrious, melancholy. Pick your adjective.

On boring, featureless days like these, hope feels hard to come by. The pandemic continues to siphon our nation’s positivity. The relentless cacophony of politics drowns out our optimism for the future. We keep talking past each other on issues of race, climate change, the economy. And so, while hope has become a precious commodity we need more than ever – more valuable than toilet paper in March – unfortunately there seems less and less to go around.

Maybe that’s why today I found myself daydreaming of heaven.

My imagination wandered into that mysterious realm, that inscrutable kingdom that lies both in our future and outside of time itself. I did not picture the eye-rolling stereotypes of clouds, golden gates, and Roman columns, since none of those come anywhere close to sound interpretations of Scripture and the handful of enigmatic images it provides. No, I pictured that prophecied coupling of heaven and earth from Revelation 21-22, in which every inch of our world is saturated with the goodness, beauty, and truth of God’s presence. Skeptics and atheists may say this is a desperate and pitiful reverie, an utterly incongruent idea when placed next to what we know of human history. Still, the thought of this heaven is the boost my heart needs when the streams of hope run dry.

Of course, whenever I envision the light of the New Jerusalem gleaming like some divine Minas Tirith, I end up with more questions than I do certainties. Not what will such a land look like, necessarily, but what will life in that great new age be like?

OK, cue the predictably lame “I Can Only Imagine” jokes…

That’s the point of the exercise, right? Not simply to picture a beautiful place, but also to cast our hearts and minds to an existence rescued from all the societal unrest, ugly partisanship, and tragic wilting of truth.

And so I wonder…

Will There Be Politics in the Kingdom of God?

You laugh, I know. After all, right now the very thought of politics brings a grimace to the face of Trump and Biden supporters alike. But if I read what is inarguably the most beautiful scene in the Book of Revelation to its conclusion, I find this curious detail:

The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring its splendor into it.

Revelation 21:23-34

Did you catch it? Alongside that divine capitol city, there are nations… and kings… and state visits, apparently. Which means even in the glorious kingdom of God in some form or another there are gates and borders and territories. There are regions and locales, dominions and jurisdictions.

It seems John’s vision, or at least his perception of that vision, unfolded according to something like a system of suzerainty, in which tributary states prosper as protectorates under a greater sovereign state. Whether or not this form of international relations is simply a way for our finite minds to comprehend the incomprehensible, or is actually God’s chosen structure for his consummate Kingdom, one fascinating aspect it assumes is that eternal life progresses within a perfected governmental structure, of which the Lamb is the head. There will be monarchical oversight, perhaps a Camelot-like administration, yet completely devoid of scandal, hypocrisy, and duplicitous agendas.

Thankfully for everyone, God is not on Twitter.

I know, I know… I’m already lost in the semantics of this otherworldly reality. Still, with every bombastic tweet, every puerile power grab, every legislative bottleneck, and every vindictive political meme a friend callously posts on Facebook, the promise that God will not merely eradicate politics but rather teach us what governing truly looks like is the kind of hope I want to cling to on gray days like this one.

Will There Be Art in the Kingdom of God?

I remember how my friends and I used to regularly pester our poor youth minister. Only in his early twenties himself, Stephen somehow dealt with our impertinences with the patience of Dumbledore. That didn’t mean he didn’t get fed up sometimes, though. One night in particular, we were peppering him with ill-conceived questions about heaven. After patiently fielding as many ridiculous inquiries as he could, in exasperation he finally held up his hands and said, “Look, guys, here’s what I think heaven is going to be like. I think we’re going to sing praises to God all day, and we’re going to like it.”

We winced and looked at each other. Praise God… all day? Like, all day? Just some endless worship service? Ugh! Would we have to wear church clothes?

“So, like, is the heavenly banquet like a big church potluck? Will I get in trouble if I bring deviled eggs?”

Thinking back to that moment, I smile. Stephen was doing his best to sketch us a picture while remaining true to Scripture, and yet we had worn him down so much he had little imagination left. Don’t worry, he assured us. In heaven, church’ll be fun.

Scripture does not paint a full picture of heaven, least of all what our main activities will be, but it does allude to moments of congregational praise of God for his glorious power and love. And rightly so. Worship would certainly underscore life in God’s kingdom. But we also know there are all sorts of ways to worship God – to express our awe, our adoration, and our thanksgiving. Music is one way, but so is writing, painting, sculpting.

Art is the expression of ideas and concepts too important for only one mind to possess. It’s a creative act bestowed by a benevolent Creator. For me, preaching a sermon is a form of art, while for another it may be photography, playing a great round of golf, composing a musical, or fine-tuning a stand-up routine.

If art is how we experience all that is good and beautiful and peace-giving in life, then art also extends beyond those activities commonly considered part of the medium. Thus, art is found in a fisherman expertly casting his fly, a carpenter deftly sanding down a length of wood, or a gardener gently guiding her plants into full bloom. It is expressed in that magic space where one’s power, patience, and passion meet.

While not Scripture itself, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s oft-quoted “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” reinforces the idea that our attention to beauty – and our recognition that there is beauty even in our most instinctual and mundane actions – is a core part of worship. The poem concludes,

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is — 
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places, 
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his 
To the Father through the features of men’s faces
.

– Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1877

Is it too much of an extrabiblical stretch to believe our Creator will allow us to retain the capacity and love for creating, even within the perfection of our imperishable bodies? That in addition to singing the Lord’s praises, we might also write in reverence of them, paint in reverence of them, make music and movies and even amazing meals in reverence of them?

This may be just me wanting to take some of this world with me when I die. Or, perhaps it’s me wanting these beautiful things we get to experience in this life – things like Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, or Tom Colicchio’s braised short ribs – to be more than just beautiful things, but rather genuine traces of heaven itself.

Will There Be Seasons in the Kingdom of God?

The expectancy of the seasons is a fundamental aspect of life on earth. Cynical philosophers may declare that time is merely a human construct, but scientific research actually reveals we don’t count hours, days, and months for arbitrary reasons. It’s actually a response to immutable natural forces. The concept of a twenty-four-hour day, for instance, is how we acknowledge the intuitive rhythm of our internal circadian clock.

The dang circadas are keeping me awake!

So, let’s talk seasons. While today’s mugginess isn’t pleasant, we’re nonetheless entering the time of year I treasure most. The welcoming cool of autumn, and its crisp scents and colors, is coming on. The season of harvest. Every year, it lifts my spirit. I marvel at God’s imagination, his astonishing attention to detail.

I know the same could be said for summer, but I’ve never been near as fond of it. It’s hot, humid. You have to schedule your morning run before 7 AM or you risk heatstroke. Even evening strolls make you want to shower afterward. Granted, I grew up in Texas and I live in Georgia, so you get what you pay for. But this is all the more reason why I adore fall, and why I hope the same unique and sublime sensations it brings will be present in the heavenly kingdom.

Here’s the thing, though. Again, the cynic will say, “Well, technically, autumn signals death and dormancy. It marks the withering of life (even if only temporary).” The leaves may change into beautiful colors, sure, but they end up a lifeless, brown pile on the yellowing lawn. Crops are harvested and fields are mowed. Sunlight retreats. It’s darker in the mornings, and it’s darker in the evenings. This is a season of senescence, old age preparing for expiration. As lovely as an autumn breeze may feel, what place would such morbidity have in the renewed and eternal kingdom of God?

A valid point, I suppose. The description of the kingdom in Revelation 21-22 does repeatedly claim there will be no need for the sun or the moon, for all illumination will come from God himself. So, if there is no day or night, how can there be a harvest season? How does one even sow seeds or reap their fruit?

On the other hand, the final image of John’s prophecy is of a restored Eden, in which there are indeed crops which yield fruit each month (Rev. 22:2). So, either there are no seasons and these crops are as magical as everything else, or in heaven the harvest season is a permanent state rather than a passing one.

Now available FOR ALL ETERNITY!

I don’t know. But here’s what I do know, or at least, here’s what I believe.

The gospel is the story of hope emerging, struggling, dying, and living again. It is the way of Jesus, who reigns as King of heaven, and every year hence the earth has, in its skies, its climates, and its seasons, retold his story. Through both splendid songs and harrowing groans, through both mountain vistas and dissolving glaciers, this world tells the story of its once and future King. It has offered its very being unto its Creator.

When you think of it like that, even the mugginess of this gray day is put into a greater perspective. In these times when all hope seems lost, the earth itself reminds us that these moments, however long they feel, are fleeting. They are but a single page in a grand book about the triumph of hope. And I can’t fathom why the telling of this glorious gospel would ever cease once heaven and earth meet. No, in the peaceable kingdom, I believe it will be on display with even greater eloquence than it is now.

I know, I know. It feels like an outlandish fantasy, even for the devout. No doubt I’m playing and bit too fast and loose with Scripture here. But, you know, given the spiraling fear and acrimony being sown today in our politics, our national discourse, even our homes and our churches, I’ll take a few peaceful moments in this heavenly daydream however I can get them.

Because they remind me that hope remains. It endures.

All the Answers

For The Ink Well Creative Community

Word: Unexplained
Parameters: Write for 15 minutes without stopping

Warnings-in-The-Bible-Read-Me-

“The Bible has all the answers.”

Surely you’ve heard this folk saying before, whether stated confidently by someone who actually believes it, or sarcastically by someone who might once have believed it but no longer does because when he or she finally brought a question to the book, nothing in its pages seemed relevant.

Often, when you encounter people of the second group, you learn that they have laid aside their trust in “an ancient book full of superstitions” in favor of science or reason or rationalism or humanism or methodological naturalism. In other words, what they’ve set aside is any form of mysticism. Whether because it failed them in the past, or because it never seemed a viable option in the first place, they are not comfortable with any knowledge that is apprehended outside of the intellect.

This, of course, is perfectly understandable. In the absence of cold, hard facts (though why facts must be “cold” and “hard,” I’ve never understood), having faith in something will always mean holding hands with doubt and uncertainty. Some people would rather avoid the feeling. Certainty is a matter of the will, and if it can’t always be effected, it can at least be feigned.

I’ve talked with people who’ve told me, among other things, that they don’t like how the Bible addresses the formation of our planet and the rest of the cosmos. They claim that if there really was a divine being behind its creation, then certainly the Bible would include more details. But, instead, there’s just a short poem that scientific research has already proven to be inaccurate.

Sometimes, I ask them why they can’t have the kind of unwavering faith in God that they seem to have in the scientific method.

They respond by saying that their allegiance to science has nothing to do with faith, but rather with facts. They tell me that science explains mysteries, while religion merely hopes that one day Someone will reveal the purposes of those mysteries.

I don’t ask the questions that come to my mind next, usually because I already sense the conversation has taken a turn for the worse. I’m not sure they’re mindful of it, but I’ve found that when you begin speaking about faith to a person who has cast it aside in favor of reason, you’ve often encountered a point of view that believes the two are mutually exclusive. That faith and reason have no relationship with each other. This, of course, is a fallacy, but in a culture consumed by competition, it is difficult to see past the versus archetype.

But if I could ask them my questions, I would ask them, “Why do we laugh?”

It is one of the questions I took to the scientific method, but found no reasonable explanation. It is a mystery that has yet to be sufficiently answered

I would ask them, “Why are human beings so often kind to each other?”

It is another question I’ve turned to science and reason and methodological naturalism to explain to me, but the only answer they can give is a shrug of the shoulders and the words, “We shouldn’t be.”

The Bible doesn’t explain these questions either – at least not in the way a rationalist would appreciate – but that is the point. Such fundamental elements of human existence remain unexplained. They remain mysteries. And even if someone rejects mysticism, he or she cannot fully escape mystery. Sure, perhaps one day the scientific method will finally reveal the reason why human beings laugh, or why we offer kindness to others even when no personal benefit comes of it. After all, science has shown a great track record for discovery.

But amidst these answers, other mysteries remain. Because the two are not polar opposites. They are not at odds, but in relationship with one another.

I don’t know about you, but that thought fills me with joy. I’m not sure why.

A Great Wind is Blowing

I’ve been thinking about what it’s like to be guided by the Holy Spirit, and a one-word answer keeps shoving its way into the forefront of my mind.

Windblown.

It took me a while to figure out why that particular word should mean anything. But the other day I got one of those questions pastors often get from church members:

“What’s your favorite story in the Bible?”

Now, most of the time, these questions are posed by the younger members of the church – those in VBS classes or, when they’re not preoccupied with shaving cream shenanigans, the church youth group. I have to say, I appreciate this question more than some related ones like, “What’s your favorite Bible verse?” or “What’s your favorite Psalm?” Here’s the deal: I’ve been going to church all my life, and I’ve been a minister for thirteen years, but, in all honesty, I have never been able to arrive at a favorite verse or Psalm. The former requires selecting one statement out of over 31,100 statements, and anyone who thinks he or she can pull that off with confidence probably hasn’t given equal time to all 31,100 of them. The latter involves ranking incredibly personal and historically poignant prayers that will only hold up until Chris Tomlin or Matt Redman finds a catchy new hook for one you hadn’t cared about up until that point, and then your whole echelon crumbles.

Soundtracking your quiet times since the mid-90's.

Soundtracking your quiet times since the mid-90’s.

But I’m confident in naming my favorite Bible story. Unlike the others, my preference for it seems to endure.

It’s John 20:19-23. You probably know the story. The disciples (most likely referring to the Ten, culled by an absent Thomas and a dead Judas) are back in the upper room featured in chapter 13, and they’ve got the door locked “for fear of the Jews.” In other words, they believe they’re next on the Temple Guard’s list. Now that the Sabbath has ended, perhaps the High Priest will be gunning for them. Perhaps they were also part of Judas’s treacherous deal. Perhaps the reports that the tomb has been robbed will bring centurions to their door. They are disorganized, inhibited, and terrified. Whatever confidence and strength they once possessed was lost in the woods outside Gethsemane.

Into this anxiety-filled room, however, steps Jesus. He is just… there. As flesh and blood as his followers, but somehow no longer bound by pesky hindrances like deadbolts or walls. “Shalom,” he says to them, and then he allows them to inspect him – to climb out from underneath the weight of their doubts and fears and behold that, yes, what the woman from Magdala had told them was indeed true. Their Master is alive!

Pictured here. The disciples' expressions suggest Jesus may not be pulling off the stripes as well as he thought.

Pictured here. However, the disciples’ expressions suggest Jesus may not be pulling off the stripes as well as he thought.

But it is in this moment that the high drama of the scene takes an odd turn, and John includes a detail that at first, second and even third glance does not always stand out to readers.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

He breathed on them? Was that… um… customary? A Jewish thing? Something you did when you blessed someone?

It took me a while to grasp the deeper meaning here, but the mystery started to come together when I looked up “breathed” and discovered that the word in Greek – emphysao – shows up nowhere else in the entire New Testament. However, it is the exact word used by the translators of the Septuagint (the Hebrew-to-Greek translation of the Old Testament by Jewish scholars in the second century BC) when they rendered Genesis 2:7: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”

Michelangelo, however, preferred a less intimate, "phone home" interpretation.

Michelangelo, however, preferred a less intimate, “phone home” interpretation.

There’s something deeper than the drama going on in John 20. John – whose narrative resonates on many different levels – isn’t just describing a resurrection appearance and proclaiming the peace that Jesus brings. He is insinuating that what went on in the upper room that day was none other than the beginning of the new creation. The original creation was completed by the breath of God placed into Adam, making him more than what he was – more than an ineffectual clod of dirt. And on the day of his resurrection, Jesus spoke words of peace to his friends and then he breathed on them and said, quite intentionally, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” It was his way of inaugurating a new age – and a new covenant – in which faith in the Risen Savior changes everything.

Funny thing about the word spirit – pneuma in Greek. It can also mean “breath” as well as “wind.” Even funnier thing, so can its Hebrew equivalent, ruach. The Old and New Testament writers, by the way, have all kinds of fun with this wordplay.

For instance, think about the other famous story of the gift of the Holy Spirit, found in Acts 2. How does Luke describe the coming of the Spirit? With the sound of…

Google Image search would like to offer this picture of a person's face being met by "a violent wind."

Google Image search would like to offer this picture of a person’s face being met by “a violent wind.”

According to both the end of John and the entire book of Acts, the mark of a Christian is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit – the Counselor and Teacher Jesus describes earlier in John’s Gospel. The One that would guide the disciples into all truth. It comes to us as if on a breath, unseen, but filling us with a purpose and a conviction we could never produce on our own. Like Adam, we are made more than what we are. Like the disciples, we are transformed from fearful doubters into bold witnesses.

What is it like to be guided by the Holy Spirit? What is John trying to communicate to the Church? What does this mean for us?

Simply that there is a great wind blowing. It is the wind of God, the pneuma of transformation. It cannot be contained, it cannot be stopped, and it brings with it the glory of the new creation.

The Spirit prompts us like a stiff wind at our backs. It is as close to us as the breath we take into our lungs. To be guided by the Spirit is to be transformed into something a little less like ourselves, and little more like the One who created both.