Tuesday, 27 March 2012

On Being Sherlock

Seems to me that those of us who wonder about spiritual things are always looking for clues. Like Sherlock Holmes and Hercules Poirot, we want to solve life’s mysteries. One of the puzzles is this: what exactly did Jesus mean when he kept talking about “the kingdom of God”? 

First we’re faced with the fact that the very idea of a kingdom sounds like a fairy tale of Cinderella and old English castles. In modern times we’re committed (in theory at least) to democratic governance. We believe, along with Churchill, that “democracy is the worst form of government systems, except all the others that have been tried.” 
Although every Sunday I join a roomful of people in praying “…thy kingdom come”, I still gulp at the archaic term, “kingdom”. (then again I also begin the prayer with a quiet, “Our Mother”, which luckily sounds enough like “Father” that nobody notices...)

 There are so many megalomaniacs wreaking havoc in various countries around the world that many find it difficult to see God as a Sovereign whom we can trust and follow. 
It helps to remember that Christ is not describing life as the realm of a divine dictator. Rather he teaches a way of life offered by the One who not only created us, but loves us in an encompassing way that extends even to allowing rebellion. 

Once we get over the king thing, the puzzle remains: what did Jesus mean?
Warning: at first impression Jesus’ “kingdom of God” sounds way less exciting than “The Holy Grail” or “The Secret”. We much prefer fast and definitive action, but the Spirit’s way is rarely dramatic or obvious.  Like Holmes and Poirot, we must continue feeling our way patiently through the fog and keep hunting for signs.

The other day I read these words:

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed…
The kingdom of God is like leaven for making bread…
The kingdom of God is like money hidden in a field… 
The kingdom of God is like a merchant looking for fine pearls…
…receive the kingdom of God like a child…
(Matthew 13, Luke 13, Mark 10)

Jesus had an interesting way of teaching.
Unlike some preachers, and the creators of “The Secret”, he didn’t always explain exactly how life works or give simplistic answers to our deepest dilemmas. He spoke as one who knew that spiritual realities are bigger than human language and beyond logic. On a far smaller scale, but similarly, I can't adequately describe what it’s like to be a grandparent. Words are limited.
I picture Christ frequently pausing before he said, “Well, it’s sort of like this… but then it’s sort of like this, too…. and this.”

Nevertheless, in the homely comparisons above, there are intriguing clues about how God works.  Jesus' descriptions suggest that by paying attention to our everyday experience when we’re farming, cooking, purchasing, or investing, we can spy God’s underground methods. Each simile contains the idea of hidden and subtle goings on. 

“The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed…”
How much hope and faith does it take to believe that a maple key can grow into a majestic shade tree? Is there really any use, for instance, in a teacher’s attempt to teach children how to negotiate instead of whacking each other? In the face of the latest appalling violence surely it would be hard for him to feel hopeful that he’s making any difference. But what if he's actually planting a tiny seed of peace with huge potential? 
As another example, when a driver waves us into the traffic lane in front of her instead of squeezing our car out, can we see God’s kingdom in embryo? Could that driver's tiny seed of altruism possibly grow into a tree of hope in our heart, hope that enables us to envision a compassionate human community? Such faith is an antidote to today’s widespread feelings of despair and powerlessness.

“The kingdom of God is like leaven…”
If you’ve made bread you know that grains of yeast look unimpressive too. What fun it is to come back after an hour and see your dough puffing up to twice its original size. It sure feels like a miracle.
Some of us viewed the Occupy movement in just that way, as a potential leavening agent for our greedy, oppressive society. But then, when the Occupy campouts were ejected it seemed like the end of the movement’s effect. What a happy surprise recently to discover news of ongoing action that is growing out of that yeasty protest. 
What about emailing a politician with our plea for justice? Is Jesus telling us that one email can work as a leavening agent? 

Forgive me for the following conglomeration of metaphors but let’s imagine we’re detectives. In our Deerstalker hat, with magnifying glass in hand, we tiptoe through each day, hunting for evidence of this mysterious kingdom. Maybe we'll catch sight of Baker God making delicious bread, or of Farmer God planting wide fields, of Financial Advisor God acquiring abandoned properties, or of Fisher God smiling fondly at a glimmering pearl. And maybe if we are as willing as the child Jesus refers to, when we catch God at work, S/He’ll let us help.