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Friday, May 17, 2013

Kingdoms


“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62)


When Donna Lebano went to Game 5 of the Chicago Blackhawks - Minnesota Wild hockey playoff series, she went expecting.
     Expecting to see the ‘Hawks, who had a 3-1 series lead, eliminate the Wild and move on to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
     And expecting her first child. She was 8 months pregnant.
     Little did she expect that, by the time the night was over, the ‘Hawks would have moved on and her baby would have been born.
     Midway through the second period, Donna went into labor. At a hockey game. Which is only marginally better than trying to play hockey in a delivery room.
     Donna was with her sisters at the game, and I imagine they offered to drive her to the hospital. I don’t know, because if they did Donna didn’t take them up on their offer. “No way was I leaving,” she would say later. “We are a Hawks family. I had to see the end of the game.” And so at the game Donna stayed. She stayed through the second period. She stayed through the second intermission. (Excursus: Why do hockey games have two halftimes? I’m guessing Donna may have asked the same question at some point.) She stayed through the third period. She watched Marion Hossa score two goals, and saw the ‘Hawks celebrate on the ice as they advanced to the second round.
     Then she went to the hospital to have a baby.
     Who, by the way, is doing great. His name is Owen Michael, though I wonder if she gave a moment’s thought to naming him Marion. 
     Or at least Owen Hossa.
     Having never had a baby, I only have second-hand knowledge of this at best. But I was in the general vicinity of my wife when our son was born, and I have trouble believing she would have been willing to spend the first hour or two of that process sitting in a plastic arena seat while 20,000 people screamed, loud music played, and an air horn went off intermittently.  Not that she couldn’t have. It just wouldn’t have come up. Watching a hockey game - or anything else, really - just wouldn’t have been a priority for her in that situation. 
     There come moments in life where we have to make choices. Two paths diverge. Two voices call us. Demands compete for our time and attention. Priorities clash, values collide. One great love won’t allow much room for others. Sometimes you can only tell what your heart’s desire really is by finding out what you’re willing to give up to attain it.
     Jesus tells us, surprisingly perhaps, that following him is one of those moments where two paths diverge. In rapid-fire succession, Luke shows us that Jesus doesn’t invite us to an inspiring Sunday-morning club. He doesn’t offer us five steps to a better career, or a stronger marriage, or a more spiritual outlook on life. He calls us to follow him, or not, but to know what we’re getting into whichever way we decide.
     Tough words. And if those tough words do surprise us, it’s probably because we don’t really understand what Jesus calls us to. We’ve made life with Jesus into a religion, but that’s not what he called it. We’ve made life with Jesus into a school of biblical studies, but that isn’t his doing. We’ve assumed that Jesus is mainly concerned with relieving our sense of guilt, making us feel good about ourselves, giving us something fulfilling to do in our spare time, providing grounds for feeling superior to other folks, or reassuring us in the face of our mortality. We’ve seemed to be under the impression that what Jesus came to offer was a way for us to get in touch with our spiritual sides and be appreciated by those around us as “good.”
     It’s hard to imagine where all that came from. Jesus from the beginning set himself against the religious structures of his day. He turned the schools of biblical studies on their ears. He was just as likely to pile on the guilt as he was to relieve it, and often left people feeling worse about themselves, not better. Ask Peter, or Paul, or, well, anyone who followed him if it always felt fulfilling. Take a look at how mercilessly he punctured the egos of those who would use their religion as grounds for superiority. Lots of people who followed him found their mortality hastened. He never allowed for the idea that our spiritual lives could exist outside the world in which we lived each day. 
     And, by the end, almost no one thought he was “good.”
     Our problem is that the dominant culture in which most of us have come of age has allowed and even encouraged the existence of a polite version of Christianity in which Jesus has come to offer us forgiveness for our sins, and in which the kingdom of God has been turned into going to heaven when we die.
     That version of Christianity allows us to happily go on living by the standards and values of this age, while looking forward to the kingdom after we die. What’s not to like?     
     But Jesus called those who follow him to proclaim that the kingdom of God has already come - in Jesus. It’s already broken into the world and is upsetting the order of things, redeeming and renewing. It’s infiltrating the world in the lives of those who live by its laws and priorities. Even - and especially - when living that way brings them into conflict with the powers that be. It won’t come in completeness and power until Jesus returns. But it’s already calling those who would follow Jesus to choose their path and walk it without looking back. It won’t be easy, because our path is our Master’s path. As always, the world breaks those who live by the rules and priorities of another kingdom. 
     And that’s all right, because it’s in being broken that we witness to the power of God’s love and grace.
     Paul wrote in Romans that the creation is “groaning as in the pains of childbirth” as it waits for God’s kingdom to come, for God’s will to be done on earth just as in heaven. And we groan too, he says, as we wait for that same moment.
     Only, some of us have stopped groaning. We’re far too at ease.
     Jesus calls us to a choice. Two paths diverge. Two voices call us. And sometimes you can only tell what your heart’s desire really is by finding out what you’re willing to give up to attain it.

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