Becoming Fluent in the Language of God's Kingdom

By Ryan Poe (listen to the full teaching on 4/23/17)

I recently read an article about a guy named Destin Sandlin and the backwards bicycle.  Destin is an engineer who hosts a video series called Smarter Every Day.  A couple of years ago, some welders where Destin works reengineered a regular bicycle so that when you turn the handle bar right, the bike goes to the left.  And when you turn the handlebar left, it steers right.  It took Destin 8 months to unlearn the proper way to ride a bike and to relearn the backwards way.  Destin went on a world tour with the backwards bike and he offered a reward of $200 to anyone who could pedal the bike 10 feet and…it couldn’t be done.  Evidently, the subtle physical and cognitive dynamics that are at work when riding a bike are actually so complicated that to override your normal bike-riding instincts requires a complete reorientation to the bicycling experience.

This captures, I think, the challenge that followers of Jesus face—the truly disorienting nature—of learning how to live as citizens of God’s kingdom-in-advance.  We’ve grown accustom to the greed, the violence, the corruption and we’ve learned to celebrate the wealthy, the strong, the successful, the beautiful.  But Jesus tells us that it’s all backwards.  Jesus tells us that there’s a new way to ride the bike.  There’s a new way—a better way—to live in the world.  But, it will require us to unlearn some things, and to take on some new practices, some new habits of life. 

One of the clearest articulations of the habits of life of God’s future kingdom are found in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, chapters 5 thru 7. 

The sermon begins with a list of what are called the Beatitudes and in our gatherings, we’re going to work our way through each one of them.  This post is intended to set the table for what’s to come.  I encourage you to take a moment, grab a Bible and read through the Beatitudes, located in Matthew 5:1-12.  Come on back when you’re done. 

So, every once in awhile I have a good idea, but while preparing for this series, I thought it might be clever if we called this teaching series, “#blessed”, but, then it occurred to me that people might not realize we were being ironic…so I let it go.  I know a lot of Christians—and I’m sure you do, too—who are #blessed when they get a promotion or new shoes or a great parking spot.  And, sure, we can celebrate when good things happen.  But, the apparent message of the Beatitudes is that the mourners are blessed.  The meek, the merciful, the persecuted!  But I don’t know many Christians who Instagram photos of their hardships or humble circumstances.

This is part of what’s so perplexing about Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God--illustrated, in part, in the Beatitudes.  These 9 statements undercut the predominant worldview about who is blessed.  It’s…backwards.  Maybe Jesus meant something besides blessed?  It’s like,  “Jesus, you keep on using that word, but I do not think it means what you think it means.”  But, the Greek word here is makarios, which means “fortunate, joyful…blessed”. 

So, what’s going on here?  How are we to understand this teaching?

I think that Jesus is saying that those who mourn, the humble, the merciful, peacemakers, the persecuted are blessed because God remembers them and has begun the work of delivering them.  Jesus is extending hope to these folks who feel ANYTHING but blessed.  Jesus is saying, “God HAS NOT forgotten you and God HAS BEGUN to set the world right.  In fact, that promised future that the prophets told about is arriving in the present, through the work that I’m doing.”

But, this might feel like a lot of pie-in-the-sky if that’s all that Jesus were saying here.  Fortunately, it’s not.  Jesus’ entire message of the kingdom of God was an invitation to participate in God’s delivering work.  Blessed are the meek...so learn meekness.  Blessed are the peacemakers…so become a peacemaker. 

In light of how the world-as-we-know-it works, this is totally backwards.  But, what we hear from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, is that repaying evil for evil isn’t working.  Exchanging violence for violence isn’t bringing about a less violent world.  Pride, greed, cheating, lust:  these cycles that get repeated over and over down throughout history—they never lead to anything better.  It’s just more of the same.

But in God’s promised future—we’re going to see all of this brokenness reversed.  And Jesus is saying, “Now that I’m here, God’s new world is coming to birth; and, once you realize that, you’ll see that these qualities:  humility, meekness, mourning, mercy, purity of heart, peacemaking—these are the habits of heart and life that anticipate God’s kingdom here and now.”[1] 

It’s absolutely backwards from what we’ve come to experience as normal, but if we invest ourselves in the slow, deliberate and Spirit-led process of learning life Jesus’ way, we’ll find that it’s far better than the vicious cycles that the world is caught up in.

New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright likens the process of embracing the Beatitudes to that of learning a second language. 

Wright says that when you learn a second language, initially, you have to think about why this word is formed this way and why the irregular verbs do this instead of that.  You have to adjust to the nuances and inflection.  You spend hours studying, memorizing, practicing.  I think this accurately captures the task of embracing the Beatitudes.  It will require engaging in some practices that help to reform our character.  It will require mental energy and deliberate action.  But, the more we do it, the more we find that God works a change in us until one day, the virtuous qualities of these beatitudes become second nature to us.  We become fluent in them.    

And in most cases, the reason someone learns a second language is that they want to be able to be at home in the place where that language is spoken.  Learning the language has a goal in view:  acquiring the habits of mind and tongue which will enable you to function already, where you are, as a linguistically competent citizen of that country where the language is spoken. 

The Beatitudes are the language of life that will be spoken in God’s promised future.  Wright says, “The greatest compliment you can pay someone who has learned a second language is to mistake him or her for a native.”

Our task as followers of Jesus is to learn this language—to become fluent in it here and now so that we can participate in God’s delivering work.  The language of the Beatitudes is the language by which God speaks through humans into the world.

But there’s no Rosetta Stone or one-size-fits-all approaches with the Beatitudes.  The process of taking on these qualities looks different for each of us and it cannot be realized apart from the Holy Spirit.  But, we can—and should—engage in this learning/discipleship process together.  So, let’s do it.  Let’s get on the bike.  Let’s learn the language—whichever analogy suits you best.  But, let’s commit to this and see what God might do through us.

[1] This quote and the illustration that follows come from: N.T. Wright, After You Believe:  Why Christian Character Matters (New York, NY:  Harper One, 2010).

"Do not give your heart that which does not satisfy your heart."

By Scott Smith

For centuries Lent has been considered a penitential season – a time of intentional self-examination, and penitential practices have long been understood to be a vital catalyst toward that end.  The original purpose of these practices was to create an atmosphere within the heart that both propelled us toward an honest appraisal of our brokenness and pointed us in the direction of repentance, of returning to God.  These practices were not meant to be an end in themselves that gain us better standing before God.  They weren’t intended to “solve” the problem of human brokenness, rather, they are meant to create an environment which makes self-examination possible so that we can find our way out of the darkness.  Lent is a gracious invitation to perceive and name those things in our lives that are obstacles to the wholeness that God passionately wants to give us, a wholeness that we can never experience apart from learning the many ways in which all of us are broken. 

Of course self-examination will do no one any good at all unless it is approached with a measure of honesty as well as a genuine desire for transformation.  The problem is, however, being completely honest with ourselves is something that we are inclined to shy away from both consciously and unconsciously.  Our natural tendency is to clothe ourselves in layers of denial and dishonesty that disguise our true condition, the result being that we only become more alone in our brokenness.

So what do we hope to discover through these penitential practices.  In the church of my formational years, the goal was to search high and low and see “if there be any wicked way in me,” the result being a list of “sins” we needed to confess “lest we eat and drink damnation” unto ourselves on Communion Sunday.  This approach is terribly reductionistic and ineffective.  I would argue that gaining insight into the mechanisms of our brokenness is a better goal.  I can’t remember for certain who it was, but a renowned psychologist argued that even our most destructive behaviors are rooted in a survival instinct.  As crazy as it may seem, even at our worst, we are driven by a desire to live.  If this is even remotely true, then the insight we need is what areas of brokenness are our trying to address through behaviors that will never get us what we want or need.

The truth is that we are forever filling our lives with things that do not satisfy our hearts, things that actually compound our brokenness.  When our hearts start to ache because of the vacuum of spiritual hunger, we try our very best to soothe that ache in ways that don’t work.  When we are overwhelmed by anxiety and existential angst we are given to a plethora of distractions.  And when we become acutely aware of the profound emptiness of our hungry hearts, we consume that which can never satiate that hunger. 

Abba Poemen (4th/5th century, Desert Father) offers wise counsel, “Do not give your heart that which does not satisfy the heart.”   That is a good word for the season of Lent.  It is an invitation to identify and abstain from those things which do not leave us satisfied.  Lent offers us an opportunity to fast from that which is not food for our souls.  It is a good time to reflect with some measure of honesty about how hungry our hearts really are.  But more than being a chance to recognize that we may be spiritually starving to death, Lent is also an invitation to a feast – an invitation to eat and drink from the wellspring of God’s inescapable love which is genuine food for our souls. God wants our hearts to be satisfied, and God wants to satisfy our hearts.  To borrow from C.S. Lewis, our problem, however, is not that we desire too much joy, rather we desire too little.