At 6:25 A.M. on a recent Saturday, a few neighbors met in my driveway. We loaded food into a minivan and drove from our suburban neighborhood to nearby Chicago, where we cooked and served breakfast at a homeless women's shelter.
Our monthly visit to the shelter is a step on a shared journey of faith. Through serving, we solidify our friendships with one another and remember to be grateful. We dare to believe our small acts of justice matter and advance the kingdom of heaven.
Simple Acts of Love
The women at the homeless shelter each have a story. Some wrestle with mental illness, addictions, or both. They've experienced poverty, abuse, pain. Some are incredibly smart; some are angry and withdrawn; many have faith that far outshines mine.
After cooking and serving breakfast, my friends and I typically visit with the women for a while. On the drive home, we talk about our conversations. Finding common ground with people we don't know isn't always easy. But on this Saturday, my friend Kathy remarked, "You know, you don't have to figure out what to say. You just have to listen. All they want—all everyone wants—is someone to listen to them."
Kathy, who's not a theologian by any stretch, had said something profound. She was, in a way, bringing the kingdom of heaven to a homeless shelter. She brought the hungry food, and she provided the poor with the shelter of her attentive listening. In the process, her obedience led her to truth: black or white, privileged or poor, everyone just wants to be loved. And listening is an act of love.
The Here-and-Now Kingdom
I grew up thinking God's kingdom meant heaven—a place we'd go in the future if we were "in" with Jesus. So bringing the kingdom into the world meant evangelizing—leading seeker Bible studies, arguing with atheists, witnessing to friends, inviting non-believers to church. The goal was getting sinners to pray "the prayer" and be saved. Although such efforts are worthwhile, they seem less like bringing the kingdom into the world and more like pulling people out of it. It was as if we were selling tickets for a future event, or offering a bus transfer for a ride to the preferred eternal destination.
Jesus often said, "The kingdom of God is near you" or "among you" or "within you" (Luke 10:8-9; 17:20-21). He described this kingdom with word pictures: It's like a seed or a bit of yeast or a hidden treasure—small inanimate things that effect great change in the here and now. He also said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:3). So this here-and-now kingdom apparently consists of folks who realize they're spiritually bankrupt, needy, hungry. It's a fellowship of people who understand we can't buy our way into the kingdom; we're dependent on God's goodness to welcome us in.
The kingdom of heaven isn't just a place we go when we die; it's a movement we're part of today. It's living in the presence of God forever, starting right now. Eternity, by definition, is all time, including the present moment.
"Instead of being about the kingdom of God coming to earth, the Christian religion has too often become preoccupied with abandoning or escaping earth and going to heaven," pastor and author Brian McLaren writes in The Secret Message of Jesus. "Too often its members have forgotten the teachings of Jesus about making peace and turning the other cheek and crossing boundaries to serve people formerly considered 'outsiders.'"
Jesus talked about the future, no doubt. But mostly he lived as if the kingdom of God truly was "at hand." He told us to pray, "Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10). This prayer isn't just hoping for change, but asking God to direct us in facilitating that change and then—often the most neglected part of prayer—actually doing what he commands.
Jesus also said his disciples would be known by their sacrificial love for each other and for God (John 13:35). How do we show that love? Jesus said: "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me" (Matthew 25:35-36).
People who live in the kingdom of God right now choose to give, to practice hospitality, to be kind to the suffering, sick, or poor. We experience the kingdom of heaven on earth when we recognize God's presence here with us and serve him as if he really is our King.
A Starting Place
We can bring God's kingdom to earth by starting where we are. "God has placed us where we are for a reason," write Will and Lisa Samson in their book Justice in the Burbs. "Wherever you are, that is where the kingdom of God is at work …. So doing missions means doing the work of the kingdom wherever you are sent. And the best place to think about where you have been sent is to see where you are."
Here are three spiritual practices I use in doing my small part to further God's kingdom right now, right where I am:
Praying. Often we think of prayer as a last resort, but it ought to be our first and continuing effort. We should pray fervently against injustice. And pray with our ears open—listening for what God would have us do, and obeying his promptings.
Living simply. This practice entails seeking God's kingdom first (Matthew 6:33) rather than seeking position or more possessions. We must be aware of our privilege, not so we feel guilty, but so we're grateful. We should live within our means and be content, stewarding our resources carefully.
Giving. When we pray and live simply, we can respond to God's commands to give. He promises to bless us when we do. Beyond writing a check, giving also involves the activities mentioned in Matthew 25. We need to give of our time, our love. We can sponsor a child, volunteer, become a regular donor, invite others to participate.
When we love a difficult coworker or offer help to a stranger, we invite God's presence. When we serve at a homeless shelter, bring a meal to our unemployed neighbor, or choose to be patient with our children, we push back the powers of darkness and live in the reality of God's kingdom. We say with our actions, Your kingdom come.
Keri Wyatt Kent is a speaker and author of several books including Simple Compassion: Devotions to Make a Difference in Your Neighborhood and Your World (Zondervan). www.keriwyattkent.com
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Kyria.com.
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