Sequence and Priority

A former colleague closed his letters and emails with the signature line, “Kingdom first!” It always called to my mind Jesus’ offer in Matt 6:33: “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.”

Stephen Covey, in his classic “7 Habits,” demonstrated that the only way to protect our priorities from getting lost in “the thick of thin things” was to “put the big rocks in first.” Here’s a clever video.

In English “first” can be understood as a function of time, and of priority. Sometimes both. For example, if exercise is a priority, it might be a good idea to do it first thing in the morning.

The motto of my alma mater, The Stony Brook School, is “Character Before Career.” Most of her graduates have had successful, some stellar, careers in the world of business, science, law, medicine, education, the military and ministry; and I’m sure the character emphasis made a difference.

The secular world values and rewards character traits like honesty, integrity, and self-discipline that Stony Brook tried to instill. But I’ve been pondering, what if the motto were “Kingdom Before Career”? How would that have been incorporated into the curriculum and activities of a school? How would my student days have been different? Would that emphasis have altered the profile of our alumni? Would the world have been as welcoming of young men and women saturated in the values of the Kingdom? Would the world have been any different?

It’s fascinating to observe which Bible verses come to define the Christian life and identity. John 3:16 is certainly in anyone’s top five. We frequently identify people as “believers” or “non-believers.” Before the disciples and their converts took the name “Christian” they were called “followers of the way” in the book of Acts. One would assume that “followers” would also be “believers” and vice versa. Perhaps the terms are synonymous, but carry a different nuance, at least to me.

In Kenya church folks made a distinction between being “a Christian” and being “saved.” That is strange to our ears, but there one could be a Christian by virtue of baptism and church attendance and decent behavior. The title “saved” designated those who had been touched by the East Africa Revival and who lived and prayed and sang and testified in the manner of that revival.

Here is where I’ve been going: Is it possible to be “a Christian” or “saved” or a “believer” without being a “Kingdom seeker?” Or a “Kingdom first seeker”? I can speak for myself. I was baptized as an infant. I “asked Jesus into my heart” at age 5. I responded to many “altar calls” and made many “rededications.” I had a strong and temporarily transforming encounter with the Holy Spirit.

In retrospect I could see all of those experiences as species of “Kingdom seeking” or at least a hunger for God. But is this what Jesus meant when He said, “Seek first the Kingdom…”? What should we make of that word “first”? For what percentage of my life, even my life in ministry, has the Kingdom been truly my first priority? Only God knows for sure, but I have a pretty good idea. (And a pretty reliable gauge to measure it.)

There are wonderful promises attached to this invitation from Jesus. Jesus makes this offer in the context of anxiety about other things. “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’…. But, seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you.” One of my students once asked me with great anxiety: “I’ve been seeking the Kingdom all my life, but where are the things?!” He never saw the irony because he had still not gotten the point.

When we stop to think about it, most of our anxiety is rooted in concern about things other than the Kingdom. We tend, like my student, to see Jesus’ statement as a key to unlocking material provisions–food, shelter, clothing. Then, with these in hand, we will be relieved of anxiety. Except there are never enough material possessions to calm an anxious heart. In fact, it usually works the other way.

Somehow, I don’t think this is what Jesus meant. He wasn’t interested in giving formulas for success and prosperity. He called people into a new world and a new consciousness characterized by peace. When we seek first the Kingdom we get the Kingdom, and having the Kingdom relativizes everything else Whatever we find we have of food, shelter, and clothing, (or popularity or friends or “success” or control or prestige or authority or… ) is more than enough.

Is it too much to say that anxiety is a symptom of a Kingdom deficiency?

Your Most Valuable Possession?

Capable of generating great wealth or poverty, delight or misery, wisdom or folly, knowledge or ignorance, skill or incompetence, this most valuable possession is all yours. Though someone is trying to take it away from you almost continuously, they cannot succeed without your permission. Any idea what it is? Attention. Your attention.

These reflections were triggered by a speaker who used the phrase “pay your attention.” It made me think, “Yes, my attention is actually mine.” And “pay” is a good verb. It reminds us that attention is something valuable, and something we choose how to spend.

How much attention do we have? Is it something you can accumulate like wealth? Not quite like wealth, perhaps, which we measure in quantity. But we can increase the intensity, focus and quality of our attention.

Like gold, attention has the value of a limited resource. But actually, the limiting factor is not attention but time. In each moment, you have only a limited supply.

What if instead of “pay” attention we thought in terms of “investing” our attention. That might be more accurate. Attention + Time = well, Everything. We are the product of what we have given our attention to for how long? And what we have not given our attention to.

“Pay attention!” said the teacher. “But I am paying attention!” said the little boy.

I don’t think anyone has an attention deficit, per se. Attention is there in abundance. We are just “paying” our attention to something or someone else. “Pay me your attention!” says the teacher. Ah, there’s the rub. Maybe we will, maybe we won’t.

The most important task of life is learning what is worthy of our Attention + Time.

Room to Breathe

Last year I rediscovered J. B. Phillips’ classic little book, Your God Is Too Small. I still highly recommend it as it corrects so many misconceptions about God on the basis of which many people have understandably left the faith. If the things they have come to believe about God were true then of course they must leave the faith. But of course they are not true. It’s like abandoning a life-long friend on the basis of a nasty rumor circulated by his or her enemies. We believe the lie and walk away.

But there is another reason why people leave the faith, or never experience the faith in its fulness even though they may have spent a life-time in church. Perhaps especially if they have spent a life-time in church. It may also be the reason why Christians have so often “shown up” as mean-spirited, cold, authoritarian, judgmental, thin-skinned, irritable and even violent. Clearly something has gone wrong. Maybe it was bound to happen.

I’d like to offer for your consideration the possibility that our God is not too small, but the box in which we keep Him is too small. In fact, the box in which we live our whole lives may be too small. I’ve come to believe that many of our problems in life and faith can be traced to nothing more sinister that a failure of imagination. Consider the simple illustration of the transition from flat earth to round earth visualization. To us the earth seems flat. It takes imagination to believe that the earth is round. Once we do, our whole consciousness changes.

“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your [flat earth] philosophy”. Thus spake Hamlet, and I think it is true for us. Our philosophies tell us what is possible, not just about this world and our lives, but also about God. I would invite us to consider the possibility that there is nothing wrong with God. But we have tried to contain Him in a space far too small for Him to breathe His life-giving Spirit over our often chaotic and brittle lives.

If You Want To….

I want to write a brief follow-up to my sermon Sunday in which I emphasized the essentially voluntary nature of discipleship.  Jesus said, “If anyone wants to follow in my footsteps….” Luke 9:23 (J. B. Phillips).  

I remember when it first dawned on me that not every child wanted to be my friend.  I was three years old.  One of the four-year-olds had thrown me down on the playground. How could this be?! I wanted to be friends with him!  Later in grade school I learned that not every brown-eyed girl I loved wanted to be my one and only forever girl-friend.  Sadly, this applied to the blue-eyed girls too..

After a season of revival in America and the world over, the number of people choosing not to become or remain Christians seems to be growing.  Likely, what they have seen of Christianity has been distorted, and to a large degree those, like us, who bear Christ’s name bear some responsibility.  But even Jesus — the most beautiful example of life in the Kingdom — was thoroughly rejected, tortured and killed, just as He had said He would be a few verses earlier.  

How does one become the kind of person that doesn’t want to follow Jesus Christ?  Some might say we were born that way–original sin.  But most of the children I have known find Jesus very attractive, and would gladly follow Him, up to a certain age.  

We are all becoming a certain kind of person, the kind of person who makes the choices that we make every day.  There is no real mystery in our behavior; we are just that kind of person who does those kinds of things. Ask someone if they sometimes tell lies.  Most will admit they do.  But few will admit to being a liar.  Granted, it is a tough word to say.  Perhaps it is easier to say, “I am the kind of person who, under certain conditions, will lie.”  

Our current behavior reveals a lot about who we are right now, if we have the eyes to see it. However, the person we might become is less obvious. Who could have predicted that over 90% of the Christians in Germany were the kind of people who could, under the right circumstances, become Nazis?

How does one become the kind of person who, when presented with the option of following in the footsteps of Jesus, says, “No thanks,” or in the modern idiom, “I’m good.”  Perhaps that’s the reason they don’t need Jesus.  “I’m good enough without Him”. I don’t think this is a dodge, but a sincere belief. The question is, how it came to be formed.

In “The Great Divorce” C.S. Lewis depicts a bus load of “ghosts” arriving on the edges of Heaven, where they meet a variety of its inhabitants.  It’s not clear exactly where they have come from, perhaps purgatory, perhaps Hell.  But two things become obvious: 1) these ghosts are being given the option of staying in Heaven, and 2) most choose to go back to where they came from.  Lewis helps us see how it is possible for a human soul to become so malformed as to prefer Hell to Heaven.  Heaven is just too strange, too real.  In one case, Heaven seems offensively unjust and unfair to the ghost who encounters a forgiven murderer.  Though several of the ghosts are quite religious, it is clear to all that they would be miserable in Heaven, and they choose in the end not to stay.

This portrayal challenges the notion of God condemning sinners to Hell against their wishes and invites us to consider the very real possibility that Heaven would be a place of misery and even torture for those who do not want to be there. Whether Lewis’ fancy is accurate or not, it does remind us that Heaven in not whatever we want it to be, whatever we liked here on earth, just better and forever–the great golf course in the sky that we sometimes hear about in funeral messages. There is nothing in Scripture to support that notion! Heaven is the dwelling place of God, and those who don’t have much use for Him even in small doses now are unlikely to enjoy His company for eternity.

How do we become the kind of people for whom the real Heaven would in fact be Heaven? The Lord’s Prayer gives is a clue when Jesus taught His disciples to pray, “They Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.” Whatever else, we can say with certainty that Heaven is where God’s will is done. Are we the kind of people who embrace God’s will here on earth?

It’s the little choices we make every day that form us into the kind of people we are, who then make the kinds of choices that we make; and on it goes, everyday each of us becoming more and more the way we are, firming up a character. Life goes on, day by day. But we never know when life will present us with a choice that has huge, even eternal consequences. Mysteriously we don’t seem to be able to choose but one option. We might not even realize there is more than one.  It is terrifying to consider that we could reach the place where we are unable to say yes to God, or to the good, because we can no longer see any advantage to it. The wrong way seems to be either the right way, all things considered, or the only way. We might not realize we are making a choice at all.

I beg us all to look for as many opportunities to say yes to the promptings of grace that come our way, to choose the Jesus way, in every decision. To practice building the habit of saying “Thy will be done.” Our little choices are what have made us the kind of people we are, and they will keep doing so for all eternity.

Jesus offers us the gift of discipleship. What a privilege to be invited into the curriculum of the Kingdom, where His will is done, and we love it!

Cartography

In his best-seller, The Road Less Traveled, psychiatrist Scott Peck said that the key to mental health lies in the ability to redraw our maps.

In the early years of exploration maps of the ”new world” were wildly inaccurate. But with each expedition they were revised into closer correspondence with geographical reality.

The success or failure of a mission depended on the accuracy of your maps and your ability to adapt when the maps turned out to be wrong.

This is (or was) a fair metaphor for our lives and the human experience generally. We are given maps in childhood and pointed in a certain direction. ”This represents the way things are, where you should go, and how to get there.”

Along the way other maps were thrust into our hands by people who told us they were more accurate portrayals of reality. Or that they would take us to a better destination. Sometimes they were right.

These days it feels like we are in uncharted territory again. But this time it seems like nothing is solid, like a river or a mountain. How do you make a map today?

Some people think that’s the wrong question. We should focus on making reality conform to our maps. This is the agenda of our day. Another kind of exploration. How far can we go? It is going to be interesting to see.

2022: The Care and Feeding of Souls

Every few years we hear another sad story about a child confined in a basement or secret room by demented adults–usually, unimaginably, their parents. The child is severely malnourished, often injured, and living in its own filth. Those stories quickly pass with the news cycle. No one follows up as the child finds its way, usually, into foster care. We can only imagine what the future holds for kids subjected to this kind of trauma.

It is an extreme example, but I think many souls are kept locked away in basements like these children. John Wesley used this diagnostic question in pastoral conversations: “Tell me, how does your soul prosper?” This sounds a bit strange and archaic to modern ears, but it is a profound question. It invites us to consider first whether we even know that we have a soul. We talk far more about our bodies and our emotions than we do about our souls. Few would want to say that they are soulless. But how many know the condition of their soul or whether it is prospering.

We neglect our souls at great peril. An undernourished and unwashed soul can become a toxic force affecting every aspect of our lives, and, sadly, the lives of those we love. We have all met people for whom the only adequate description is that they have a diseased soul. How did they get that way?

How are you caring for your soul? We can answer that question easily for our bodies. We diet and exercise and sleep and take supplements and meds to keep our bodies prospering. We know we have minds and we try to keep them sharp. But what about our souls? How are we feeding and caring for them? A neglected body will sooner or later demand our attention through the gift of pain. Souls usually suffer in silence. We only hear a muffled whimper when things are very quiet.

I encourage you to make 2022 the year of the prospering soul.

Pictures You Can Never Unsee

Often around the edges of websites there is “click bait” with captions like, “Photos from Vegas you can never unsee.” They are usually accompanied by a suggestive shot. We are bombarded with visual stimulation. And it does get into our heads. I’ve heard that we never actually “forget” anything that we have seen or experienced. It’s all in there, even if we can’t call it to mind. That feels true.

Sometimes I feel like my mind is becoming more cluttered than my garage. Like looking for my tape measure on my cluttered workbench, I struggle to recall where an idea or a quote came from, which of the books I’m reading, or which YouTube, or blog or conversation.

I wonder what the long-term effect of all this information will be. It’s not making me any wiser. Mostly just more weary. Processing all that stuff takes mental energy. Feeling like I’ve never got it all sorted creates a low-grade, chronic anxiety. Then there is the haunting awareness of all the stuff I might need to know. What am I missing? It’s overwhelming.

When St. Paul offered this information filter did he foresee the internet, 24/7 “news”, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Instagram, Facebook? Just this alone would surely simplify life. And what would I really miss out on?  Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Phil 4:8