The Flannelgraph Kingdom: Seeds and Trees

October 31, 2005

Everything I ever needed to know about the Kingdom of God, I learned from flannelgraph.

Jesus teaching. Jesus talking. Jesus healing. These are scenes forever etched in my mind in bright, friendly flannelgraph pictures. They are pictures that are associated with all sorts-of other ones: pictures from stories throughout all of scripture. And each of those smaller stories is a part of a larger one, which seems to be driving in a single direction.

From the beginning of scripture, the world was portrayed as a place full of violence: violence that upset the order of creation because it represented men trying to press their own “kingdoms” in place of the natural rule of God that characterized the early verses of Genesis.

One thing in scripture is clear: in order for God’s kingdom to come, the kingdoms of violence and politics must come to an end. (Not that there cannot be a place for them in the short-term, mind you, but only to the extent they are useful to God’s means and ends).

So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that, when Jesus came along, he mostly talked about a single subject: God’s kingdom. How it would come. How it would work. Who would be a part of it. Who would be left out. How to look for it. What it would be like after it arrived.

To me, the most powerful images that Jesus used were the images of seeds and plants. Particularly the comparison of the Kingdom of God with a tiny mustard seed that grows into a giant tree. And don’t miss this – it is a tree where birds can find rest. It is a Kingdom, as God promised Abraham, that would bless the nations.

Why was it so important to Jesus to emphasize, again and again, that the Kingdom would start in small ways? Part of the answer, I think, is that it demonstrates that the Kingdom’s power is not in its ability to immediately destroy and replace everything around it, but in its potential for slowly transforming and blessing what is already present. Just as genetic power allows a small seed to transform light, soil, water, and air into something beautiful and useful, so God’s Kingdom comes into our world and transforms each of us, both individually and collectively, until it becomes something tall, beautiful and powerful.

However, a huge caveat is now in order: many people, it seems won’t be capable of accepting the Kingdom. Like hard soil or patches of earth that are covered by thorns, many will be incapable of being a part of it because they are unable to even understand how it works or what it is about, so that it can grow from within them.

Jesus’ warning, then, is that we are always in danger of not properly discerning the Kingdom. We may think we have “taken it in”, and indeed we may even do so for a time, but without discipline and vigilence, it can be lost.

Why we won’t be able to understand what it is about is the other dominant theme in Jesus’ parables, and the subject of the next post on this subject. But, in the meantime, does anyone else want to begin tackling that question?

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Opiate of the Masses

October 30, 2005

Was Marx right? Is religion really the opiate of the masses? MC Wright, who wrote this article, seems to think so:

It seems that many modern day churches are really modern day opium dens, lulling people into a predictable pattern of passionless living, centered more on what God can give you rather than what God created me for. Churches should be hot beds of cosmic activity as the divine drama is played out in millions of one act human stories that radically effect the people they come in contact with along the journey.

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Soccer Mania

October 29, 2005

We had an incredible soccer day at the Ritchie household. Becca scored her first two goals ever during our early game, and Lexi’s team came out on top in a very hard-fought game against a good team to win their U10 girls’ division championship.

I’ve had a blast coaching both of their teams this fall. They are both full of fun, sweet girls with a great set of parents. As I’ve mentioned before, it is therapeutic to go out and coach them/play with them after a day of stressful civil litigation.

Stories of the Invisible God

October 28, 2005

Lately, I’ve noticed that a lot of people in my faith community are telling (and being encouraged to tell) stories about God’s very visible, active involvement in their lives: in connection with illnesses, addictions, financial problems, mission efforts, etc. I think that these are great stories, and I love to listen to them.

But these are not the only stories of spiritual “experience” that I want to hear. In my walk, I have certaily had my share of experiences where God’s presence seemed very real and immediate, but I’ve also had experiences where God seemed distant and absent, where I wondered where he was or whether he really cared about what was happening at the moment.

Isn’t it also appropriate to tell those stories? Doesn’t scripture reflect both types of stories (even in the life of Jesus himself)? And, if we don’t grow accustomed to openly speaking of our struggles during periods where God is “absent”, doesn’t one’s ability to relate increasingly impressive, powerful stories about God’s involvement in their lives become a tacit measure of spirituality? Doesn’t it make those who are going through spiritual dry spells feel like something is wrong with them? Should the authenticity of a spiritual community be measured, in part, by how many stories of dryness, struggle, and absence people are willing to relate?

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Should People Who Are Present Matter More?

October 26, 2005

I’ve been noticing something lately: cell phones, blackberrys, instant messaging, and text messaging are fundamentally changing the way people interact with each other. (I know, I know… about now, some of you are saying “Well, Duh!” – but just stay with me for a minute).

People no longer feel a need to communicate with the people who are in their presence. They can just as quickly whip out a cell phone or a text messaging application and communicate with someone who matters to them, either because it relates to their job or because it is a family member or friend.

In a way, its insulting to those around them, even to strangers.

Those whom people happen to randomly encounter on the street, in a bus, in the airport, in a waiting room may as well not even exist to those who are wirelessly enabled communicators. As Sweet puts it in his most recent book (see the last post), they are merely objects in the environment to be navigated.

There is an up-side to this, to be sure. Technology allows me to communicate with my wife and family, even when I am hundreds (or thousands) of miles away. It keeps me taking care of work-related issues even when I’m not in the office.

But at the same time, it is systematically stripping people (myself included, though I don’t think I’m as bad as lots of folks) of the benefit of random encounters in the real world.

There is something very disturbing to me about that disconnect. I see it when a middle-aged businessman gets on a shuttle with me and speaks the entire time – often with a sense of assertivenes that seems inappropriate in that context – to an “invisible” person who is on the other end of his cell phone connection. The only clue that the other person in the coversation is not imaginary is one of those blasted earpieces that communicates wirelessly with his cell phone.
Sheila and I saw it the other day in a restauraunt, too. A guy was out with a very attractive girl, obviously on a date. The two were sitting at a table. Want to know what he was doing? Talking on his cell phone – and for an extended period of time at that! Did he think it was impressing her? If so, she didn’t look too impressed.

I don’t even understand what that guy was thinking. Why ask her out if, for all practical purposes, he wasn’t going to talk to her for a large part of the date? Does he not understand how that must make her feel?

So there you have it. All of this technology does a great job of connecting us to the people we want to be connected with. Thats great. But it also has the potential to disconnect us from those who are in our physical presence. That, it seems to me, is not so great.

Anyone else noticing this trend?

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Of Sodom and Isaac

October 24, 2005

I really like Leonard Sweet’s book Out of the Question…Into the Mystery. In this book, Sweet makes the case for a relationship-centered view of Christianity, rather than a doctrinal or rule-centered view. He argues that, while rules and laws can be important in a certain sense, God seeks relationship with us above anything else.

Sweet argues that, when he was asked to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham was being tested in two ways. There was an obedience component of the test, and there was also a relationship component of the test. Abraham passed the first component, Sweet argues, but he failed the second miserably.
I’ve tried to follow Sweet’s reasoning as closely as I can. There are a few things he has to say on the subject that may be a little over my head. But in the end, I’m just not buying the argument – largely because of what the Hebrews writer would later say about Abraham, and because of the way this act foreshadowed God’s own act (which, unlike Abraham, he would follow through to the end) of sacrifice.

Nevertheless, Sweet poses a question about this story that I really can’t answer. Abraham, we know, spoke out voiciferously for the people of Sodom, even though they were not even his kin. Why, then, would he not plead in a similar way for the life of his own son? Of course, you could say that the biblical record is silent on HOW Abraham reacted to this bizarre order. But if he DID plead for Isaac’s life, why aren’t we told about it? The Genesis record is completely lacking an answer to this question.

I also think he makes an interesting observation about the “great nation” that followed Abraham. It was not called “Abraham”, but “Israel” – meaning “one who struggles/wrestles with God”. This name was given to Jacob after he basically forced his way into (a) the lineage of Abraham’s blessing and then (b) a blessing from God himself.

Sweet loses me in his thinking on Abraham, but I quickly catch up with him when he returns to his thesis: those who pursue relationship with God passionately (think: David) seem to be the ones that please him the most. On the other hand, I’ve been thinking, those that are indifferent to him “personally” – even though they try to be good “rules keepers” – tend to end up in more hot water than anyone else.

I can think of few messages that are more relevant in a culture that is increasingly void of meaningful relationships.

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My Film Career

October 23, 2005

My son’s friend is making a movie, and – for some reason – he wants to cast me a a hitman. I’m thinking about doing it, provided I can go with an appropriately Schwartegenerrian feel: mirror shades, jeans, lather jacket, shotgun, and one really good, tough sounding line delivered at just the right moment. What do you think? Should I go for it?

In the meantime, Age of Empires III is exceeding my expectations in terms of its performance on our aging systems. Its running in a window on my 2.x Mhz computer with a 128 MB Ge-Force 2 card, and it runs pretty respectably on our other system, which is WAY below the recommended system requirements. We’ve already played about three hitch-free network games against the computer on Easy difficulty, and we’re about to play one at the next step up.

Lastly, but far from least, I was blessed this morning by a presentation from Angie Martin in our bible class. Angie made a fantastic, scripture-filled talk on prayer, which she concluded with a moving blessing that she spoke over our class. Her gentle, joyful spirit are a source of life to her family and great refreshment to others around her, including myself.