Citizens of Heaven Above
My understanding of ministry is based in part on the idea that the church's
purpose, its holy calling, if you will, is to be a place of refuge where all can
find safety and acceptance, where we can learn how to regain our capacity to
safely experience emotions, to imagine the pain of others, and to make
reparations to those, in our alienation, we have harmed. In essence, our life in
the church is all about restoring broken relationships - with God and one
This seems ever more critical today, for our world is increasingly a culture
at odds, where conflict in relationships seems the norm, where acts of kindness
too often seem few and far between. For example, just the other day an anonymous
driver stopped to let me into an intersection. I commented to Linda, my wife,
how pleasant an experience this was. Her response struck me. Isn't it odd, she
asked, that we actually find it refreshing when a stranger does something nice
for us? Shouldn't that just be the way life is? Why don't we at all times and in
all circumstances seek to do kindnesses for one another - strangers included?
Yet you turn on the television and conflict is what you see. News shows, in
fact, seemed designed for controversy. The standard set-up involves a person on
one extreme arguing with someone on the other. Genuine dialogue is rarely
sought, just argumentation and fireworks. It gets good ratings, I suppose, but
think of what is lost. A civil exchange of ideas that seeks edification or
consensus is simply out of the question.
Several years ago, Linda and I sold a house. And to be perfectly honest, it
didn't go all that smoothly. In fact, whenever we would call, our realtor's
voice mail message would say, "This is Mary Byrnes, your real estate
consultant for life." We came to think she meant that literally!
The nit-picking and unreasonableness of the buyers more than once jeopardized
the deal. In fact, the whole process of buying and selling a home has become so
complicated and the documentation so stringent, that some realtors I've talked
to say the fun just isn't in it any more. In our litigious society, there's no
such thing as trust between buyer and seller. One realtor several years ago
lamented that he could still remember the days when settlement involved nothing
more than a handshake.
It is within this world of mistrust, conflict and strained relationships that
the church finds itself. And because we all live in this same world, it's only
natural that we bring it with us into our church life.
The sad fact is that the world has a way of permeating everything we do,
including church, often in subtle and unseen ways. Therefore, we constantly must
be on guard against its ever-present influence.
But just exactly how is this to be done? One clue is to be found in this
phrase from Paul's letter to the Colossians. He writes: "[God] has rescued
us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved
Son, in whom we have redemptionů" We, the church, in other words, are
those who have been reoriented away from sensibilities of the kingdom of this
world, a world of brokenness, strife and envy, and into the kingdom of God, a
place where things are done differently, where human expectations and human
understandings are strongly influenced by the altering presence of the divine.
Several years ago, some friends of ours adopted a child from the former
Soviet republic of Moldova. The process of adoption, by all accounts, was an
odyssey, to say the least. Not only were there a seemingly unending amount of
red tape to cut through, and the usual payoffs at every turn, but there was the
arduous journey of several weeks duration to get to what can only be described
as a very primitive, Soviet-style orphanage to claim their new, 18 month-old
Watching Christopher, who had spent his whole life in this decaying and
impoverished institution thousands of miles from here, come to terms with life
in affluent America among doting parents and within a warm, Christian family was
striking, to say the least. Christopher was a spirited child, with boundless
energy. But it was hard for him to adjust to life as it is lived here. He simply
hadn't known anything of family life and, understandably, didn't know how to act
within one. He would bound into a room, like a bull in a china shop, oblivious
to the chaos he was creating, and blissfully unaware of the subtleties of
gracious and love.
In a sense, we too are like that. Biblically speaking, at baptism, we are
ushered into the courts of the royal king, unaccustomed to courtly life and
unsure of how to act. We stumble and clumsily betray our unrefined ways, so
conditioned are we to the vulgarities and brokenness of life lived beyond the
castle's fortified walls and far from its rarified air and lightness of being.
Into this world of perfect love and perfect grace, we bring our brokenness, our
confusion, our hurt, our anger, our hatred and our fear. And into this perfect
world we bring our ever-present need - for love, for acceptance and for
Rarely in our world do we see with absolute clarity the distinction between
this world and God's kingdom. In part that's because here in the United States
this distinction can get a bit fuzzy.
On two separate occasions, I have had the wonderful experience of traveling
to the Dominican Republic as part of the same church mission project Jennifer
was a missionary to, helping to build a hospital for Haitian immigrants, all of
whom have come to work at substandard wages in the sugar cane fields that dot
the landscape of the troubled and impoverished island of Hispaniola.
One night, after a long day's work, a friend and I decided to go to the city
square to take in the sights and sounds of La Romana, a fairly good-sized city
by Dominican standards. No sooner did we sit down amid the carnival-like scene
of people dancing to the incessant beat of blasting radios, and amid the
colorful carts selling ice cream, fruit and all manner of things, than we were
accosted over and over by street hustlers who wanted to know if we were
interested in, of all things, a date!
Due to the language barrier, we were hard pressed to give them an acceptable
response, at least as far as they were concerned. Finally, in frustration, and
after repeated attempts, my friend and I decided to show them our wedding rings,
thinking that surely this would explain our lack of interest. All, alas, to no
avail. Our only option was to get out of there as fast as our feet would allow.
It was only later that I figured out what might have stopped them dead in
their tracks. All we would have had to tell them was that we were Christians.
For you see, in the Dominican Republic, there is, generally speaking, a stark
contrast between Christians and non-Christians. In Dominican life, it is common
and largely accepted that men regularly cheat on their wives and that
drunkenness and other forms of vice are just part of the way things are.
When these same people become Christians, however, that all changes.
Christians do not drink, do not smoke, do not cheat on their wives. They are
known to be industrious people who are often schooled by the churches for the
better paying jobs. The pastors, in fact, are known to be extremely vigilant in
attempting to protect their flock from the ravages of the surrounding decadent
society. Christians, as such, are largely understood within Dominican culture to
live by a completely different set of standards, and the contrast is as obvious
as it is startling, even to the casual observer.
In our country, though, it's not always that easy to tell. After well over
three hundred years of Christian influence, our culture exhibits evidence of
kingdom values seamlessly intermingled with secular, worldly ones. The contrast
is simply not always all that obvious. Life here can take on an almost gray
tone, with no readily observable distinction between that which honors God and
that which does not. The world and the kingdom co-mingle and interconnect,
leaving us often, and perhaps to a surprising degree, unclear about either.
Which brings me back to relationships - and to the ways in which we as
Christians are to be in relationship. There are ways in which we honor God in
our relationships and ways in which we do not. And in our increasingly strident
and unsympathetic age, it is not difficult to lose sight of the positive ways in
which God seeks for us to be in relationship. We unconsciously mirror the world
around us and forget that we are called to a different s standard - a kingdom
standard - as citizens of heaven above.
This, of course, does not mean that because Christianity is essentially about
relationships, we shouldn't speak our minds or address issues of common concern.
Certainly Christianity does not require that we suppress all questions of truth
and righteousness just so that we might get along. Seeing an injustice or
witnessing a discernable wrong should not require that we keep our mouths shut
just so as not to rock the boat.
And that is because no relationship can remain healthy for long when issues
of fairness and morality are ignored. Peace without justice, after all, is
merely another form of injustice. Take, for example, any married couple. If a
husband or wife chooses to act with disregard for his or her spouse, without
honoring certain boundaries and moral considerations, that marriage hardly will
be the kind Christianity demands. Similarly, if such injustices are never
discussed and/or addressed because neither party wishes to rock the boat, such a
marriage will hardly succeed, by any standard, Christian or otherwise.
No, truth and righteousness must be an integral part of any healthy
relationship, because what we do in our relationships matters. And if what we do
does not honor the relationship we have with God and each other, then these
issues simply must be addressed. The key, however - and this is critical - is
that this must be done in ways that reflect the values of the kingdom rather
than the ones we witness everyday out in the world. It is to this that we must
commit ourselves as the church.
By way of contrast, consider two stories I heard a while back. One was a news
item on the radio about a town in New Hampshire that decided to end the
time-honored New England tradition of the town meeting form of governance. The
reason? Every time they came together, all they did was fight!
The other story comes from a friend who told me about a large, thriving,
predominately African-American church he had started attending. At the men's
Bible study, he told me, intense arguments routinely take place about various
and sundry issues. But at the end of the class, to his utter amazement, they all
hug each other and walk away the best of friends, feeling strengthened and
The latter approach suggests a great opportunity for the church today. For it
is only in and through God's grace that the differences that normally set us at
odds with one another can become the occasions for deeper understanding and a
strengthening of the bonds that exist among all Christ's disciples.
In Colossians, Paul reminds the church that though in the past they were
formed by the world, thinking and acting in ways at odds with God's purposes,
now, due solely to God's mercy - and not their worthiness - they had been set
free in Jesus Christ, given the wondrous gift of unmerited forgiveness, and
bequeathed an entirely new relationship with God and each other. Together they
were bound to a community whose sole characteristic is that it is made up
entirely of those similarly forgiven and similarly blessed.
Remembering this and living it out is one of the greatest gifts we can offer
our disparaging and strife-ridden world - providing an attractive alternative to
the fractious humdrum of everyday life which routinely deadens and demeans this
precious but all too fragile life God has given us - a life, mind you, that is
far too short to waste. Amen.