Thy Kingdom Come.
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’ Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” - 1 Corinthians 1:18-20
“It is always that way with the kingdom. It is so strange, so low; it is seldom recognized. It looks like a mistake.” - Paul Miller
“She’s read too many books, she’s got nails inside her head.” - Bob Dylan
I like books. I like them a lot, in fact. Okay, I love them. I love them with a rhapsodic and rapturous love and I feel safest and most relaxed in libraries, enwombed by rows upon rows of of the things. I approach ecstasy when leafing through one and practically huffing the synesthesiastic bouquet that is Fresh Book, or Old Book, or even Musty Library Book. I love the promise of a new title, which is the promise of escape and transport and knowledge and edification. I love the objects of themselves, their heft in my hand. My mom has been trying to sell me on a Kindle for years. Not gonna happen, though I suppose I’ll have to (very begrudgingly) concede when print breathes its last, if that happens in my lifetime.
As with all things we love, we have a unique and perverse flair for turning them into idols, salvific vessels that hold some magical power to deliver us. We make things into little gods because we can control and manipulate them. Books can be transcendent, yes; but they are only transcendent because they point to that which transcends. Everything - every piece of art, every book, every bit of wisdom or writing only insofar as it reveals Jesus Christ.
GASP! Such a sentiment would have been absolute anathemic tripe to the cataracted eyes and stoppered ears of my 20-something atheist self. I prided myself on the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge through books. I prided myself on being “smart”. I remember a heated argument with my dad one morning as he incredulously marveled that I believed there was nothing beyond this world. “But what do you have to hope in?” My eyes full of tears from the emotional intensity of arguing with my dad - both of us impassioned and with a flair for rhetoric and a love of debate that too often turned into a prideful need to Be Right - I gestured toward the stack of books next to me. Weak, a voice in my own head retorted. Truly, no one can see the kingdom until they are born again.
The months that followed turned into a frantic search for justification and some thread of knowledge that would save me. I pored over Dawkins and Hitchens and my search for justification turned into a kind of desperation for something, ANYTHING that just rang true and resounded in the eternal soul that I refused to acknowledge. I distinctly recall throwing “God is Not Great” down in disgust one night in my apartment. Rationally, I believed what I was reading. But why, then, did I feel so gray? So leaden? Why wasn’t it fulfilling? Why did it seem so ugly?
Brian Zahnd, in the excellent “Beauty Will Save the World” (yes, a book), says that the story of the life, crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the most beautiful story in the universe. Our souls thirst for beauty and truth and love and there is one and only one font that will fill us, only one name above all names. And intrinsic in beauty, inextricable from it, is mystery. Jesus said that the coming of the kingdom cannot be observed.
Dostoevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov, has Father Paissy observe that “… the learned ones of this world have absolutely nothing left of what was once holy. But they have examined the parts and missed the whole, and their blindness even is worthy of wonder.”
My blindness was, and is, certainly worthy of an absurd kind of wonder. Yet also therein is the mystery of lavish mercy and grace. I have been so wrong, and proud of it for most of my life, and yet He loves and has always loved me!
As I pursued a loveless “truth”, examining minutiae and collecting big words like a deranged crab hoarding metallic seajunk, I think my unspoken premise was that I would collect all the information I could and sift through it and if someone could present a convincing enough intellectual argument perhaps I would reconsider my atheism. But oh, that isn’t how God works at all, and thank Him for it. Faith isn’t the antithesis or opposer of knowledge, as it's so commonly postured in our world and as I believed. It’s the soil from which the only true knowledge can grow.
Knowledge is never an end in itself. It’s valuable only in whether it draws us toward God.
When the humbling came, the holy epic smackdown, the Stone Cold Stunnah (as Steven would say), the flash on the road to Damascus, it was terrifying and beautiful and the knowing and being known-ness that flooded my inmost parts erupted in the most cleansing tears I’d ever shed. There’s a reason God invented baptism. Water has some kind of inherent rebirthing power, I’ve decided. At the swimming pool, whenever my children’s badgering overrides the universal mother’s refrain of “I don’t want to get my head wet” and I plunge underneath, much to their delight, I always feel a sacred sort of freshness afterward that lasts for hours. Yes, even in public pool water that you know has some pee in it. Water - it’s magical.
And it’s still like that, even now, when God’s grace pours out on me anew - the words, the knowledge, the arguments and counterarguments fade away. And there is mercy, and beauty, and love, all of them so deep and abiding. There is the bread and the wine, the body and the blood. There is a person, the most beautiful person in the world, at the crux of the universe. I was struck by a verse in Galatians today - Paul was actually scolding them for their waywardness, but the first part of the verse says this: “But now that you know God - or rather are known by God…” Or rather are known by God. Paul almost seems to think that’s primary, our being known. God calls us by our names, he floods us with his knowing, and Jesus says the kingdom is in our midst if we will only repent and believe. I love what Paul Miller says about it being so low and and so strange. We have to bend down to see. We have to get strange, to let God turn things on their heads and turn us on ours and confound our hard-won wisdom.
But here, right here, God is calling. The kingdom is coming. I know it is because the waiter at IHOP had a supernatural glow about him, a cheerfulness that didn’t jibe with the packed restaurant and the beads of sweat on his forehead and the children running perilously close to his legs as he hurried over the tiles and when he laid my plate in front of me the tattoo on his forearm in cursive script read ‘Jesus Forgive Me”. I know the kingdom is here because the night before I’d kept my friends up way past their bedtimes talking about God and He was there, where the three of us were gathered in His name, and it was holy. I know it is here because earlier that afternoon I’d sat next to my dad at his birthday dinner and decided to start peppering him with bold questions: Are you afraid of dying? What’s your favorite memory of your mother? Your father? What’s your greatest regret? What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done? And this relationship, the one I’d fretted over and worried over and tried to analyze into submission was suddenly pervaded with a sense of wonder and delight and curiosity, and though it had been fractured in a hundred places was healing in a thousand more, there, in that moment, in that restaurant. I know the kingdom is coming because as we drove home after all this, back to Leon, I listened to my favorite music and its notes and harmonies somehow threaded through me so I wasn’t just passively listening to the music but was bathed in it, and Steven was sitting on the porch waiting for us and he jumped up and I ran into his arms and it was the sweetest homecoming hug ever and I saw him anew, fresh, like a newlywed. I was Home.
That whole weekend, God was revealing himself to me, weaving his goodness through everything in that simultaneously subtle and extraordinarily vivid, joy-saturated way that makes you want to both laugh in delight and cry and fall down on your knees in gratitude. You think you know? God asks, tenderly. You think you see? You don’t. Surrender. Get low. “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up, do you not perceive it?”
Repent, and believe. Easter is everywhere. Let Him love you.
P.s. Craziest thing he’s ever done: He and an old girlfriend and another couple decided to break into a stable in Brea Canyon at midnight to joyride some horses. They successfully carried off this caper until my dad’s horse suddenly made a break for the stable door, only the bottom half of which was open. He tried to rein the horse in, turn it, anything, but realized it was futile and laid down as low as he could just before the horse went through and barely cleared the door.