Visions of the Good Life

Your kingdom come.
    You will be done,
        on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:10, NRSV)

I want you to do something for me. I’d like you to think about what comes to mind when you hear/read/see “the good life.” Go ahead and close your eyes. Picture yourself in the midst of that “good life,” a life where you, and all those around, you are flourishing. What does that look like?

For some of us, it might be lounging in a chair, sipping mai-tais, while you squish the white sand in-between your toes. For others, it might be hands on knees, trying to catch your breath, as you look out and gaze upon the magnificent vista of mountains before herson-rodriguez-96113.jpgyou. Then there are those who notice the goose bumps rise on their arms, the hair stand on the back of their neck, and the tears that well at the corners of their eyes, for the Habitat home owner is getting the keys to their new house after hundreds of hours of “sweat equity.”

We have a particular picture of what living the “good life” looks like. And what’s more is this picture is the aim of our actions. It is a sort of goal our life bends towards. It motivates most of what we do. Sometimes there are competing visions inside us of what this life would look like, but more often the most deep seated picture will win out.

I’ve been thinking about this for the past couple days in the wake of what happened at Charlottesville. In the aftermath of the egregious act of terrorism and the repugnant open displays of racism, I was left wondering what visions of the “good life” could bring those people to act in the way they did and plan to do.

Even more of a conundrum, at least for me, is when some of those who espouse to be “Alt-Right” confess to being Christian. The conundrum lies within the competing visions of what a “good life” looks like to the protestors and the Christ. I don’t know what the “good life” for a neo-Nazi might be, but for Christ, the “good life” is another term for the

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Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount

Kingdom where the poor, the mourning, the meek, the hungry and thirsty, the merciful, the pure, and the peacemakers live in God’s presence (see Matthew 5:1-12.)

 

The Christian struggle is to not simply acknowledge Christ’s vision of the Kingdom as good and holy but to live out that picture of human flourishing. Our actions, and inactions, give away what we hold dear, what we believe to be true, what we value, what we love. Indeed, they give away what we worship.

The struggle is real y’all, but it is an endeavor worth embarking on. Let’s do it together.

May it be so this day.

(For more, see Smith, Desiring the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009))

Past Mistakes

Now in the following instructions I do not commend you because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. (1 Cor. 11:17, NRSV)

The day after my brother’s sixteenth birthday, my mother got a mysterious phone call in the night. See, Kirk had gone to the YMCA on the west side of town earlier that evening to oliver-cole-213348.jpgplay pickup basketball and he was late getting home. My mom thought Kirk was calling to let her know he was on his way home. Well…Kirk was on the phone, but not with the story my mom wanted to hear.

My mom answered the phone to a profanity laced rant for about a minute about how my brother was downtown (not the west side), gotten into a car wreck, and one of his friends was hurt (he was supposed to be alone). So my mother had a decision to make, what was she going to address first? Was it the foul language even a sailor wouldn’t dare utter? Kirk’s being where he wasn’t supposed to be? His having a passenger when he was supposed to be alone? Or the fact that he was in a car crash at all? Decisions, decisions.

Everyone turned out okay in the aftermath; my mom didn’t kill Kirk (though she thought about it.) And I certainly got an object lesson in the consequences of choices. I was able to learn from my brother’s mistake and at the very least not make the same faults.

That’s a little bit of what is going on whenever we read 1 Corinthians. We are reading Paul’s reproach of the church’s mistakes. They apparently were divided along wealth lines as those in power were gorging themselves on food before the rest of the church (the poor) got there. These wealthy Christians made the mistake of letting Roman class divisions and expectations seep into their community practices.

We know what they did wrong (at least what Paul felt was important enough to bring up) and we can learn from their mistakes. This extends throughout history as well as we see

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through the open window of time. We get the privilege of learning from those who came before us (even our previous selves). We do not have to be bound to or defined by the errors of the past, whether they are as small as crashing a car or as big as denying women the right to vote. Each day God gives us the ability to look back and move forward.

Might we do so this day.

What Comes Next?

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42)

I like to tell people my first job was working for my grandfather, Walt. Walt owned a construction company called Premier Finishes, which focused on commercial interior construction; think drywall. He let me, as a little 12 year-old, hover around construction sites, clean-up, and learn what actual work felt like. Thought I would never admit it at the time, it was one of the most formative experiences of my life. Plus I can say I worked construction, so there’s that. GreenDoor.jpg

However, my favorite experience growing up was riding around with Pa Walt in his truck. If we timed it just right we would get to listen to that famed radio personality Paul Harvey. I always enjoyed bouncing down the highway, gravel road, or city streets hoping to get a chance to hear Harvey say, “and now you know the rest of the story.”

There’s a bit of “rest of the story” quality to what those early Christians devoted themselves to: learning, socializing, communing, and praying, all with the other believers. After the veneer of Spirit filled Pentecost had worn off and all those gathered had the opportunity to return to their daily lives, it could have been extremely simple to go back to the same old life, the same routine. But they didn’t, their baptism wasn’t the end of the story. It continued on.

Instead, they did something radical, they lived as if their covenant with God and each other actually mattered. We get a look into what repentance or changing one’s heart, mind, and life might actually mean. In the waters of baptism and through the Spirit, they received the gift of life with God in Christ, and then went and showed what that might look like.

Instead of returning back to their ordinary lives, their lives were utterly and resolutely changed. They couldn’t go back. Their baptism wasn’t the ending of their story. They didn’t merely bask in the glory of God’s grace but moved on from it. Baptism was their launching spot into the community of God devoted to doing some of the most intimate things with one another: learning more about Christ, hanging out, cooking and eating, and even praying.anastasia-taioglou-214773.jpg

If you want to know what should happen after baptism, what should happen in the Church, well now you know the rest of the story.

May it be so this day.

Having Ears to Hear

Then [God] said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5)

Church camp is an exceptional place for many reasons, but one that continues to stick out to me is what happens at worship. In the midst of the giggles, the not loud enough pronouncements of Scripture, the awkward skits, the songs and hymns sung half-heartedly, and the myriad of different prayer practices, God some how breaks in. christian-sterk-175123.jpgWhen given the chance to lead the gathered community into the presence of the Divine, those youth shine like the sunrise. I often have to stop, let go of what is keeping me tethered to the outside world, and take off my sandals, for that place is holy ground.

One of the problems of church camp is you have to leave. We can preach and teach and tell and implore those kids to take home their experience of God, that feeling the presence of Christ isn’t held only at that one place, and the Spirit is with them wherever they go, but it’s hard, even for me as an adult. The set-apartness of camp is simply more conducive to being attentive to God than the monotony of everyday life.

But Moses’ experience of God, while remarkable, was not out of the ordinary life for him. He was doing his everyday job, tending the cattle. He led his flock to the mountain, but it wasn’t for any other reason than to find grass to graze upon. He was only trying to keep the flock going and healthy when he noticed that mesmerizing shrub alight but not burnt. He could have gone on, but he stepped out of the everyday and into the holy.

Moses made the conscious decision to leave behind all that was going on to go into the presence of God. He didn’t have to, he could have gone on, taken steps backward, returned to his animals, traveled back to Jethro in Midian. He had responsibilities,

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duties, a job to do. He could have exclaimed he was busy, this was inconvenient, there were better things to do with his time, but instead, he took his steps forward.

If holy moments happen even in the midst of the stink of cattle, they can happen in offices, classrooms, factories, restaurants, hospitals. They can even happen in a sanctuary, we just have to be willing to dive in and take our sandals off.

Routine Tasks

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” (Genesis 22:1, NRSV)

In the midst of bunting, bottle rockets, and bombpops, there will be time today for you to take a step back. A lull will come upon the festivities of Independence Day, and you’ll tumblr_o8untfngxE1v4yqceo1_1280.jpghave a chance to slow down a bit.

Maybe it’ll be in the afternoon heat when a nap sounds really good. Perhaps it’ll be between the cookout and the fireworks when anticipation fills the kids to the brim. Or how about after the grand finale is over and you wait to avoid the traffic back to your home. Heck, it could even be right now, as you took the time to stop and read this devotion.

It leads me to wonder what Abraham was doing when God called to him for the proverbial test. Was he doing his household chores? Was he lounging around? Was he playing with his son? Scripture simply tells us “after these things…” He could have been doing anything, and God called and said, “Hey Abraham, I’ve got something for you to do…”

God tested Abraham, even when he was in the midst of his daily life. God called him out of the monotony of routine, into an account of his faith. As uncomfortable as this story makes us (and it should make you uncomfortable), we cannot lose sight that God inquired to how devoted Abraham actually was. God needed to make sure Abraham was up to snuff, so God set forth the mechanisms for Abraham to demonstrate what was truly in his heart.

Abraham said “Here I am” and went about doing what he needed to do in response to God’s call. God continually calls us to an accounting of our faith, but we seem to miss the question. We think it’s going to be announced and proclaimed like the bang of a firework, but God also works through the everyday, little things of life. We miss our chances when we focus only on the loud, only on the provocative, only on the grand.

Opened-Notebook-with-a-Pen-1024x678.jpgGod tests us daily, in the midst of our ordinary lives, wherever we are that particular day. It could be 52601, or not. It could be in Iowa, Illinois, or Missouri, or not. It could be in the United States, or not. Wherever we are, God calls us to continually live in and live out our faith.

So even today, even on July 4th, God calls you to live as though you belong to God’s kingdom. How will you respond? Will God hear your, “here I am”?

Shards of a Story

She [Hagar] walked away from him about as far as a bow shot and sat down, telling herself, I can’t bear to see the boy die. She sat at a distance, cried out in grief, and wept. (Gen. 21:15, CEB)

I’ll come out and say it: I love a good story. Getting lost in a narrative is one of my hobbies, just ask my wife. Part of this love stems from what happens when we read good tales, we start to see ourselves in it. We identify with a particular character. We become that person. It happens when we read J.K. Rowling, Tom Clancy, or John Steinbeck. It even happens when we read the Bible.aaron-burden-58729.jpg

Sarah got what she wanted and what she was promised, a son. He was a gift in the face of her old age. She got what she wanted, but that didn’t stop her from abusing the “other woman.” She still called for the exile of “that” child because she couldn’t bear the thought of him being treated equally as her own progeny. Bitterness ruled her that day.

Abraham was distressed. Though not from his wife, it was still his son and his mother he was sending out and it was torturing him. Maybe he gave them all he could without the rest of the family noticing he’d stolen items from the stores. He did what he could, but then still appeased his wife and sent out Hagar and Ishmael into the desert. Expediency ruled him that day.

Hagar had traveled this road before. This wasn’t the first time she’d been abused by Sarah. Nor was this her first foray into wandering through the desert. She and her son had done this before. She trekked as far as her supplies would take her, which probably wasn’t far. Her hope sloshed to and for within her ancient water bottle, and when her stock slowly but surely dwindled, so did her dreams of ever finding a new home. She did the only thing she could think of and tried to find her son a nice resting place. Then she moved away and surrendered herself to the oncoming grief. Heartache ruled her that day. tumblr_olp02kSwRH1teue7jo1_1280.jpg

Ishmael’s crime was simply being born, which he didn’t choose. He lived the only life he knew, enjoying the small things when they were presented to him. He was even overjoyed when his half-brother was born. “Finally, someone to play with,” he thought. And they did play. There was delight, glee, and even some laughter between the two brothers. But once again his fate was tied to forces outside of his control. Sent away with his mother, he lamented the unfair nature of his life. Cries of pain turned into cries of desperation as any sort of future for him came into question. Despair ruled him that day.

Four characters. Four different versions. I wonder which one you identify with? Where is God placing you today? Where is Sarah, Abraham, Hagar, and Ishmael in Burlington, the US, the world?

Mirror Images

God created humanity in God’s own image,
        in the divine image God created them,
            male and female God created them.
(Genesis 1:27, CEB)

Familial resemblance is a heck of a thing. I was at dinner this week with some people from church and one of us was able to recognize our bus boy. It wasn’t because the church-goer actually KNEW the young man, but because she knew his father. “Are you the son of…?” she asked. “Yeah,” he replied with a downtrodden look.

I know this feeling well. When I was growing up I would often be confused with my father or older brother when I answered the phone. “Hello,” “Kirk, Kent?” “No, Will…” It13418719_10206383515486311_7510819720127855738_n.jpg can be a bit of a struggle growing up when you’re trying to come into your own personhood and you are continually confused with your family members. And what is more, when I look at pictures now, I can definitely tell my brother and I are related (NOOO!!!) It seems you can’t escape the family traits.

Someway, somehow, each of us is created in God’s image. We bear a family resemblance to the one who knits us together. We might not get confused in a restaurant or on the telephone, but there is something in us where others are supposed to see the Divine One. Similar to how you can’t outrun your heritage, you can’t outrun the fact that you were made in the image of God.

We can argue what the image of God looks like, and people have for millennia, but at a fundamental level, each of us possess that innate trait that connects us with the Creator. This can be a blessing in disguise, a way of dealing with rising tension as it bubbles up in dealing with others.

That person who always post ridiculous rants on Facebook, created in the image of God. That homeless man who is always on the corner, created in the image of God. That baby in the midst of a meltdown in the middle of the bread aisle, created in the image of God. The crazy uncle who spews conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory, created in the kaboompics_Woman taking photo.jpgimage of God.

It’s a challenge to each of us, to see God in the face of those we meet on a daily basis. We’re conditioned to stay in our cluster, haven, or group of like-minded people: those who think like us, talk like us, vote like us, believe like us, look like us. It can be easy to judge those who are different, who don’t fit into our preferential categories and deem as “less than.” But at a fundamental level, each of us has inherent value, no matter the categories we put each other in, and that breaks down any division among us.

We can’t escape our familial resemblance, the things which bind us to one another. We are all created in the image of God.

Changing the Guard

 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:12, NRSV)

Pentecost itself is a season of transition. If it had been written then, I’m sure the disciples would have been listening on repeat Bob Dylan’s song “The Times are A-Changin.'” A little over a month ago their entire lives were thrown into chaos: their leader was arrested and executed, then miraculously he came back appeared to some and then to all, then he left them with specific instructions to stay put and wait.

And so here when the rest of their countrymen and fellow Jews are celebrating a Festival melanie-wasser-245775.jpgto rival any state fair not named the Iowa State Fair, the group of Jesus-followers hunkers down in their safe confines. I wonder if they stayed there the entirety of their time in Jerusalem. Maybe they were afraid and it was just as well to stay in the safe confines of their room.

The disciples aren’t alone though. Their relationship with the divine is changed as well. Though they had access to Jesus when he was alive, he’s no longer there. Instead, they are given the Spirit. And through the Spirit, the disciples transition to apostles. They transform from middle management to upper leadership. They get promoted from Triple-A to the Majors.

And the transition isn’t done there either because though Jesus initiated the beginning of God’s realm here on earth, it’s not complete. God worked through Jesus, but now God transitioned to work through these apostles, the first persons of what we call the Church. It’s an amazing idea, God works through the Church. That means God works through us, we who are the Church.

God works through you. Think about that for a second. You bet it can be a scary proposition, “God relies on little old me?” I’m sure that same question was going on in each of the apostles’ heads as they dealt with the confusion of trying to understand eachlightstock_1138_small_sara.jpg other.

But the quick answer is, “yes.” God relies on you. God relies on me. God relies on us. Because that’s the final transition of Pentecost. Through the outpouring of the Spirit both then and each time one of us is baptized, “me” transitions to “we.”

Through the Spirit, we are united together. Through the Spirit, we are the Church. Through the Spirit, we are God’s People. I guess that means we should probably act like it.

May it be so this day.