Many of our churches have a habit of investing too much in the next big growth-delivering, soul-saving, church-renewing spiritual product, often backed by a handbook and set of videos from some wealthy church somewhere a long way from where God has placed us.
This is all good, but in my experience doesn’t quite work as well as advertised on the tin. Most church-renewing spiritual products, it seems sometimes, haven’t met my church.
When Jesus first taught the Sermon on the Mount to his disciples, it must have been a shock. It’s still a shock today. What he majored on was not technique, was not slick and didn’t need a workbook.
Blessed are the poor in spirit … those who mourn … the meek …
those who hunger and thirst for righteousness … the merciful … the pure in heart … the peacemakers … the ridiculed (or persecuted). (Matthew 5:3-12)
Instead, these Beatitudes are all these things:
grounded in a deep need of God
affecting all of life
undergirding and rising above any specific plans
concerned with our hearts, not our skillset
encompassing sadness and setback
using the materials to hand, and
successfully helping us and our works to be a sign, instrument, and foretaste of the total transformation of the world in Jesus.
A spiritual strategy, in other words, for the rest of us.
One of the things not to watch at King’s Cross station is tourists talking selfies as they crash luggage trolleys into a brick wall. On top of the brick wall is the sign ‘Platform 9 3/4’, and you can also find a convenient shop nearby of Potter memorabilia.
Great though Harry Potter is, you can find an even better story hidden around the corner from King’s Cross Station.
The British Library stores every book ever printed. Its greatest treasure, which may even be the UK’s greatest treasure, is on exhibition there. This is something more valuable than the crown jewels and more influential than than The Wealth of Nations or the Magna Carta (also on display nearby) or Newton’s Principia Mathematica.
The Codex Siniaticus, the book from Sinai, is the ‘oldest Bible in the world’, and the earliest complete New Testament, dating from 320 AD.
How it was found is unbelievable.
The first 43 pages of it were discovered in a monastic fire-basket in 1844 by German scholar and explorer Lobegott Friedrich Constantin von Tischendorf. He was visiting St Catherine’s monestary on the traditional site of Mt Sinai.
I perceived in the middle of the great hall a large and wide basket, full of old parchments; and the librarian informed me that two heaps of papers like this, mouldered by reason of age, had been already committed to the flames. What was my surprise to find among this heap of documents a considerable number of sheets of a copy of the Old Testament in Greek, which seemed to me to be one of the most ancient I had ever seen.
His excitement prevented the monks from handing over the rest, but also, fortunately, from burning any more pages.
In 1859, he persuaded the monks to present the whole MS to Tsar Alexander II of Russia. It contained about half the Old Testament and all the New Testament. After the Russian Revolution, and long after Tischendorf’s death, the revolutionary government didn’t want it, and the British bought it.
Like the overture to a symphony, or a trailer for a film, the Old Testament gives us appetizers for what was going to be happen after Jesus came. Here are 14 things about Jesus and his Kingdom, promised then, unfolding now.
The prophet Ezekiel talked about ‘sprinkling clean water on you, and you will be clean’.4
Isaiah had ‘sins [that] are like scarlet’ becoming ‘white as snow’.5
Zechariah talked of a ‘fountain’ that would cleanse from sin and impurity.6
4. New people
Ezekiel talks in terms of a heart-transplant: stony, unyielding hearts replaced with tender, responsive ones.7
Jeremiah promised a new day when God’s purposes and ways would live in people’s hearts and minds. Theirs wouldn’t be a second-hand knowledge, a second-hand love. People would know the Lord for themselves.8
5. Life-giving water
Some Old Testament poetic pictures of the kingdom of God are of abundant, flowing, splashing water.
Isaiah had a vision of living water that anyone could come and drink for free: ‘Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters … without money and without cost.’9
Ezekiel described a river that made the dead places live: ‘Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows … this water … makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live.’10
Within the reign of God, the land would flourish and the people prosper.
‘I will send down showers in season; there will be showers of blessing,’ says Ezekiel. ‘The trees of the field will yield their fruit and the ground will yield its crops; the people will be secure in their land.’11
Jeremiah talked of how God’s people, ‘will rejoice in the bounty of the Lord … they will be like a well-watered garden.’12
There’s talk of rebuilding and renewing, both of communities and of physical infrastructure. The images pour out of scripture: tambourines, dancing, weddings, songs of praise, thronging crowds, re-planted vineyards, re-dug wells, re-built walls.13
(How does this work today? That’s for a later entry. But a clue is Paul saying, ‘I have learnt to be content whatever the circumstances.’ 14)
7. A spreading kingdom
This kingdom was going to spread through the world:
‘It is too small a thing’, Isaiah taught, for the King just to reign over the Jews. All the nations would be blessed. Light would come to the non-Jews and into the most distant parts of the earth. 15
God will send his people to the ‘distant islands that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory.’16
Representatives of the kingdom will ‘proclaim my glory among the nations.’
In several places the Bible pictures the nations loading up their mules and making their way to Mount Zion, an image of peoples entering the presence of God and joining his people.17
All kinds of foreigners, says Psalm 87, will say of ‘Zion’, God’s dwelling place with people: ‘I was born there. That’s my home.’
God promised ‘multitudes’ of descendants to Abraham. He repeated the promise to his son Isaac and repeated it again to his son Jacob.18
Even in the leanest time of Jewish history, with wars lost, people exiled and the temple destroyed, God renewed the promise through Jeremiah. He had not forgotten or changed his mind. God’s people will be more than the stars in the sky, Jeremiah prophesied, more than the sand by the sea.19
9. The greatest kingdom
Isaiah20 and Micah21 describe Mount Zion as becoming ‘the highest among the mountains’ with peoples streaming to it.
The prophet Daniel says: ‘The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure for ever.’22
10. A peaceable kingdom
This kingdom, though, is peaceable rather than warlike.
As peoples (poetically speaking) camp themselves on Mount Zion, disputes between them will be settled. ‘Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more.’23
One of the King’s titles is ‘prince of peace.’ Isaiah’s famous prophecy of him includes the line, ‘of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.’24
God’s kingdom is built not through making war but by waging peace.
11. A meek kingdom
Unlike every other great kingdom, the promised rule of God is saturated in meekness and lowliness.
In a passage nowadays read on Palm Sunday, Zechariah tells the people to ‘rejoice greatly’ because the King comes to them ‘righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’25
Isaiah notes that the King will bring justice to the nations, but he won’t ‘shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets.’26
12. A human kingdom
It’s also a kingdom that manages to work within humanity despite our darkest depths. All the Old Testament prophets speak from a context of human rebellion and divine love, these two principles clanging and sparking as they combat each other. We are at war with ourselves and with God and yet the kingdom will win.
The kingdom is the story of the determined lost wooed by an irresistible Finder; the attempted rejection of a love that will not let us go. Expect turbulence.
13. A kingdom of death and resurrection
It is also a kingdom that only reaches its final shape after a death and resurrection.
Several scary Old Testament passages seem to predict some kind of end of the world before the final expression of the kingdom of God. This is a total mystery and best not speculated upon, though it’s not so hard to believe if you’ve lived in the 20th century, or have studied geology or astronomy.
The Messianic Psalm 110, much quoted in the New Testament, talks of a ‘day of wrath’, and many prophets agree with Isaiah: ‘The Lord Almighty has a day in store for all the proud and lofty, for all that is exalted (and they will be humbled).’
The Prophet Zephaniah warns ‘in the fire of his jealousy the whole world will be consumed, for he will make a sudden end of all who live in the earth.’27
The book of Daniel talks explicitly of the death and resurrection of people: ‘multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth’ will wake up, some to ‘everlasting life’ others to ‘shame and everlasting contempt’.28
14. A new order
Some prophetic words seem to refer to the kingdom after the end, but these come to us perhaps more like the music of distant party rather than a precise account.
The final one of Isaiah’s visions, for example, includes the fascinating picture of ‘all mankind’ bowing down and worshipping; but also of ‘the dead bodies of those who rebelled’—asking us to hold in tension the paradox of God’s universal love and purpose, and the human capacity to spite them.29
What does it mean for us?
Some of this is about the far future
But most of it is the now, our world, with Christ as King.
I don’t think the average fish can get its head around the idea of dry land.
Perhaps a really creative fish could picture it, but it would face all kinds of scepticism from other fish. How do you swim without water? Wouldn’t the world be two-dimensional, spread on the sea-bed? How can there be room for everything? It’s a wreck.
Nor can science help. How can you do experiments to confirm or deny the presence of a world beyond the sea? Even if fish go there (a big if), they never come back.
The best schools of fish might conclude the whole ‘dry-land delusion’ is a theory, of no practical use, and best ignored. They would, in short, fillet the argument.
Send in the marine (biologist)s
Since the fish can’t figure out dry land for themselves, the only way they can be educated is if we land mammals take the initiative and send someone to tell them. Without revelation from outside, the fish are like the proverbial sailors of the ship carrying red paint that collided with the ship carrying blue paint: marooned.
So, you say, send a marine biologist to tell the fish about the world outside the sea. But would they believe her? Maybe not. Because to get to talk to the fish you have to become so like a fish that they think you are a fish. And who would believe what a raving fish told them?
Not only that, but I have it on good authority that the sea is full of all kinds of voluble fish who speculate widely about a life beyond the sea. Many of them are unreliable witnesses—fishy, in fact—and they contradict each other all the time.
The conclusion of reasonable people? Stick with what you can see, feel and measure. Truth can’t come from anywhere else.
“Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back–in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”
― Frederick Buechner
“I think of a person I haven’t seen or thought of for years, and ten minutes later I see her crossing the street. I turn on the radio to hear a voice reading the biblical story of Jael, which is the story that I have spent the morning writing about. A car passes me on the road, and its license plate consists of my wife’s and my initials side by side. When you tell people stories like that, their usual reaction is to laugh. One wonders why.
I believe that people laugh at coincidence as a way of relegating it to the realm of the absurd and of therefore not having to take seriously the possibility that there is a lot more going on in our lives than we either know or care to know. Who can say what it is that’s going on? But I suspect that part of it, anyway, is that every once and so often we hear a whisper from the wings that goes something like this: “You’ve turned up in the right place at the right time. You’re doing fine. Don’t ever think that you’ve been forgotten.”
― Frederick Buechner
Vocation is about ‘where your deep joy and the world’s deep hunger meet.’1
It can seem like a luxury if you don’t have a minute to spare in the day. If you’re tired all the time. Or if you’re holding down job(s) just to pay the bills.
Vocation isn’t a luxury.
Especially if you’re tired, stressed, or overworked, it’s an essential. It’s daily bread for your soul.
What is vocation for you? What satisfies your heart? Painting? Hospitality? Intercessory prayer? Helping others? Seeing kids grow? Reading? Dance?
Find some time just for this. It might be only half an hour an month. It might mean going to bed late or setting the alarm early. You can manage that once a month.
I am in the happy position of having nearly died (three times). I have had my heart restarted after it stopped. I have spent a month in a coma. I’ve actually forgotten how many times I’ve been carried in an ambulance with the blue lights flashing.
One thing I learnt was this. Don’t die with your music still inside you. Do something about it, however small.
If you’re coming at this article from the background of a Christian faith, understand that your vocation is the best thing you can do for the Kingdom of God. It’s the best way of serving God and neighbour. Vocation, in these terms, has an audience of just One: the lover of your soul. Do it for him.
If that isn’t your background, pursue your deepest love anyway. Do it this month. Start somewhere. You will find you are not so stressed, not so overworked in the rest of your time. And you know that seasons change, kids grow up, the mortgage gets paid, space opens. Don’t miss the moments you can prise out, like diamonds, from a barren-feeling life.
Living your vocation is a mark of a slowmission lifestyle. If we all spent our days doing what we love and are good at, the world would be a better place. How do you recognize vocation? What are the marks of it?
(I’m grateful to my friend Simon Goddard who gave a talk about this stuff and whose material I have adopted(/copied).)
It’s your passion. This is what gets you going, what you look forward to, what you feel deeply about and what you want to spend your life doing.
You’re not bad at it. You don’t have to be the World No.1. But you’re not terrible at this. Other people appreciate it. I am a writer. I have yet to win prizes in other spheres of life, such as ballet dancing or rocket-designing. But I do win writing prizes. I feel writing is the only beautiful thing I do, and then only sometimes. But at least I do that one thing.
The world needs it. OK, that’s a little grandiose. The fate of the entire planet or the destiny of nations doesn’t have to absolutely hang on you coming up with the goods. But what you do does good, eases loads, makes things better, slakes a thirst. Your joyful endeavour meets a deep need somewhere: wonderful.
The money works. Ideally, you get paid for it. Or maybe someone else gets paid enough in their vocation for you to work for free. Or sometimes you have to do a bit of tweaking to make the money work. For example, people who love the visual arts can get paid as designers. Journalism–being paid to write things for other people–worked for me for a long time. And so on. This can be a happy compromise between creativity and practicality. But also, careers evolve and hopefully you settle into a vocation more and more.
But some questions
This does raise a couple of questions, though.
What about when it’s spoilt by difficult colleagues, bad managers, financial cuts?
What if you haven’t the luxury of choosing your job(s) — you just have to put bread on the table?
A friend who is nursing a very sick wife wrote about how much they were enjoying talking and eating and Bible study and TV. That resonated with me.
Conversation, company, meals, devotion and story-telling: you don’t know how valuable they are till you’ve lost a lot of other things.
Illness can make you do that, pan for the gold. When a flow of suffering washes normal life away, you realise that gleaming among the residue was the treasure you’d been wanting all your life.
We often stumble into this gold, and then stumble away from it again.Maybe suffering or illness helps refine our tastes. It’s interesting to compile a list of what does or doesn’t have this life-giving, joy-giving quality. Here’s my attempt — you may disagree:
People creating something together, for example in a sports team or an orchestra or a village fete
Pottering in the garden
Being happily part of a family
People accumulating together but without community: queues, traffic jams, tourism
Eating ‘al desko’
Looking at a screen into the small hours
Death by Powerpoint
‘Slow mission’, I think, is about choosing these things — things that will exist in some form in eternity — over the things that will pass away?