After a break for Christmas and New Year’s, I’ll pick up right where we left off. We are still partway through a seven-week series-within-a-series, where I am trying to summarize Jesus’ teachings by presenting condensed chapters from my ebook, Entering the Kingdom. This is our fifth post in that mini-series.
5. Inside the Kingdom
5. Once in the kingdom, its love and care will become our experience, while the world’s assaults will seem remote and powerless. In the kingdom, we will be free from anxiety, fear, guilt, lack, humiliation, sickness, and all the ills of the human condition.
A wind of freedom
Huston Smith in The Religions of Man said about the teachings of Jesus,
There blows through these teachings, Berdyaev has said, a wind of freedom and liberty that frightens the world and makes it want to deflect them by postponement; not yet, not yet! H.G. Wells was evidently right; either there was something mad about this man or our hearts are still too small for what he was trying to say.
“A wind of freedom and liberty”—that is the primary note I feel in Jesus’ teachings. They show everyday life in this world unvarnished, with all of its anxiety, struggles, assaults, obligations, and injustices. But then they show a way of being that glides above that, unchained to the world’s struggles and burdens. This wind of freedom and liberty is radical, breathtaking. It is both deeply attractive and oddly frightening.
Below is a brief sampling of sayings in which you can feel that wind of freedom on your face. With each one, try to picture yourself in that situation, and then try to picture yourself making that response. What comes up for you when you do that?
Other Cheek, Coat and Shirt, Second Mile
The situation: A social superior is forcibly taking from you, both taking something very physical (shirt, time/energy, physical wellbeing) and intentionally taking your dignity in the process.
Your response: “Being wrapped in God’s love, my security is not at issue. I haven’t a care in the world. But I’m really concerned about this poor guy. What can I do to supply his worrisome sense of lack?”
Congratulations Poor, Hungry, Sad
The situation: The rich and powerful have excluded you to the point of effectively pushing you out of your society. You are destitute, hungry, and mourning the tragedy of your existence.
Your response: “God, the most powerful of all, has given me an honored place in his kingdom, and this will give me all that my society took away. Do not pity me. I should be congratulated!”
Love of Enemies, Better than sinners: sunrise, Better than sinners: love
The situation: Someone is treating you like his enemy, trying to put you beneath him and make you suffer.
Your response: “God I love this person! I love him just as intensely as God loves him. I feel no more love for my dear children than I feel for this priceless person.”
The situation: It’s up for grabs whether you will have enough food and enough clothing.
Your response: “Why on earth would I worry? God takes care of the birds and the grass, and I am far more valuable than they are. So why wouldn’t God care for me even more? What’s there to feel anxious about?”
The basic idea
The person in these sayings is so immune to the seemingly awful circumstances facing him that it’s almost like he’s mentally living somewhere else. And that is the key. In these teachings, “you” (the person in the teachings) have psychologically left the world as your world. Its happenings no longer seem so significant, no longer impinge on you like they used to. Instead, you have experientially taken up residence in the kingdom. It has become your world. As a result, the kingdom looms larger in your mind, while the world seems to have shrunk. The kingdom is what seems present, here and now, while the world has receded. The kingdom’s love and care are what surrounds you, while the world’s assaults leave you untouched.
The saying that best captures this exact state of affairs is “Treasures in Heaven”:
Do not treasure for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and gnawing deface and where robbers dig through and rob, but treasure for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor gnawing defaces and where robbers do not dig through nor rob. For where your treasure is, there will also be your heart. (Q 12:33-34)
The key is that last line: “For where your treasure is, there will also be your heart.” If you treasure the things of earth, which are always at risk, you have placed your heart on that field of risk. It becomes a hockey puck, constantly swatted about by all the cruel sticks of the world.
But if you treasure the kingdom of heaven (this passage doesn’t say “kingdom” but I think it’s safe to add that onto “heaven”), you have placed your heart beyond all the robbing, breaking-in, and eroding forces of earth. Your heart is safe from all the storms of the world, safe in God.
This saying, then, pictures exactly the contrast I am talking about between psychologically living in the world vs. living in the kingdom.
The image of the inclusive feast
To get a better grasp on this concept, think about Jesus’ main metaphor for the kingdom, which was an inclusive meal—a dinner party, a wedding celebration, a joyous feast. This image shows up everywhere in the Jesus tradition, in his teachings and in his demonstration.
At these meals—either in his teachings or in his life—everyone was included. Everyone was joined together, without regard for their rank in society (“Go out on the roads, and whomever you find, invite, so that my house may be filled”—Q 14:23). So you have love and you have togetherness. Also, of course, when you attend a feast, you just get to enjoy yourself. You aren’t in the act of providing; you’re being provided for. And there is plenty; all the worries about there not being enough are, for the moment, gone. Finally, the meals in Jesus’ teachings are often celebrations (“Let’s have a feast and celebrate, because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and now is found.”—Luke 15:23-24 SV).
So you have this zone apart, a carefree space filled with love, inclusiveness, togetherness, abundance, and celebration. And then outside that zone is the usual: the hate, exclusion, separation, toil, care, deprivation, and drabness inherent in ordinary life.
With his teachings and with his real-life meals, Jesus was saying, “This is what the kingdom is like, an inclusive meal, a feast of plenty, a joyous celebration—and you are invited. You can stay outside, subject to everything this feast is not, or you can come inside, and make it your home. You can live in this zone apart all the time, where the sorrows of earth can never enter.”
Experiences of the transition in perspective
The movement from the world to the kingdom is really a transition in perspective. You go from feeling surrounded by a harsh world to feel surrounded by a luxurious feast. In many spiritual experiences, we see this exact same transition in perspective, in which suddenly the kingdom feels like everything and the events of this world seem like nothing.
A friend of mine named Barbara Whitfield had a near-death experience (NDE) while confined in a circular hospital bed (she described it as “a Ferris wheel for one”). During that NDE, she had a life review, in which, she said, “God’s love...was holding me. It felt incredible....God was totally accepting of everything we—God and I—reviewed in my life.” Then she said something that captures this transition in perspective perfectly:
No matter how I judged myself in each interaction, being held by God was the bigger interaction. God interjected love into everything, every feeling, every bit of information about absolutely everything that went on, so that everything was all right.
“Being held by God was the bigger interaction.” That’s it.
Here is another example, an experience collected by the Religious Experience Research Centre:
Briefly speaking the experience is of deep peace a feeling of well-being when everyday life is reduced to a trivial level. I loose [sic] track of time and may be two or three hours sitting still experiencing a peaceful joyful sort of feeling. I seem to become insulated from the outside world, sound for instance is not noticeable and it is only as the feeling withdraws that I become conscious of my surroundings which at that time always seem imbued with great beauty, even ordinary objects.
Notice that while in this experience of “deep peace,” the person feels “insulated from the outside world,” such that “everyday life is reduced to a trivial level.” That’s being in the kingdom.
A favorite example of mine comes from Arthur Koestler (1905-1983). He was accused of being a spy during the Spanish Civil War and imprisoned in solitary confinement. While standing by the recessed window of his cell, he used a piece of iron spring from his wire mattress to scratch mathematical formulae on the wall. After scratching a particularly beautiful formula—Euclid’s proof that the number of primes is infinite—Koestler felt so enchanted by the beauty of it that he felt transported:
I must have stood there for some minutes, entranced, with a wordless awareness that “this is perfect—perfect”; until I noticed some slight mental discomfort nagging at the back of my mind—some trivial circumstance that marred the perfection of the moment. Then I remembered the nature of that irrelevant annoyance: I was, of course, in prison and might be shot. But this was immediately answered by a feeling whose verbal translation would be: “So what? Is that all? Have you got nothing more serious to worry about?”—an answer so spontaneous, fresh and amused as if the intruding annoyance had been the loss of a collar-stud. Then I was floating on my back in a river of peace, under bridges of silence. It came from nowhere and flowed nowhere. Then there was no river and no I. The I had ceased to exist.
Here again, even dire circumstances become “trivial” and “irrelevant.” Instead, floating along on that river of peace becomes everything.
These individuals experienced exactly what Jesus seems to have been talking about. They entered the joyous celebration, and while inside it they were completely insulated from the harsh world outside.
Close your eyes and relax.
Get in touch with some sense in which you are poor—some basic need you lack.
Get in touch with your sense of being excluded and unimportant.
and with your sense of being constantly threatened by the uncertain happenings of the world.
In some sense, you are out in the cold. Feel that.
Now see before you a beautiful golden door. See it open.
Inside there is a joyous feast going on.
Warmth and welcome radiate from that open doorway.
Someone beckons you inside, saying, “We have been waiting for you. We have a place of honor prepared for you.”
You say, “But I have not brought anything to give to the feast.”
In response, you are told, “The only gift we ask of you—and it is priceless to us—is that you accept your welcome.”
You step into the warmth and glow of the room and are taken to your seat.
You feel immediately accepted and valued by everyone present.
Everyone feels familiar to you. No one feels like a stranger.
No one is higher, no one is lower. All are equally included.
The room is filled with a sense of togetherness and joy.
The air is pervaded by a feeling of love, as if the air is love.
There before you on the table is the very kind of food you’ve been lacking.
Your every need is effortlessly provided for, and the supply is endless.
You feel absolutely safe, without a care in the world, filled with a fullness of joy.
You know that the situations that have been troubling you still exist outside this room, but they don’t seem to matter anymore.
All that matters is here, now, this moment.
Just when you thought it couldn’t be any better, a hush falls over the room and Jesus walks in.
And then you notice something else in the room—a sense of holiness, a feeling of God’s presence.
It feels like God is right there in the room. He is the love in the air. He is the host of the feast.
Jesus walks up to you, addresses you by name, and says, “I’m so very glad you came. I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time.”
Then he says, “Now that you are here, you have a choice before you.
You can choose to stay. This can be your home forever.”
Then you realize you feel like you have come home.
It’s as if, after a long, difficult journey in a foreign country, you finally have come home.
Then he says, “You can live in this feast in your mind all the time,
even while your body is outside, in the rough and tumble of the world.
Even while you interact with the world, your presence here will always be the bigger interaction,
and by comparison, the happenings outside will seem trivial, not worth worrying about.”
You want to stay more than anything you’ve wanted in this world,
but you’re worried the choice required of you will be too much.
So with some trepidation, you ask, “What do I need to do to stay here?”
He answers, “All you have to do is value this more than what the world can give you.”
The question I’d like to throw out for discussion this week is this one: Is this how we genuinely think of the spiritual life vs. conventional life? Do we think of the spiritual life as a carefree feast and conventional life as an experience of deprivation? Or do we think of it the other way around, where the spiritual life seems full of hard work and sacrifice, offering only modest rewards, while conventional life seems to offer all the goodies? I’m asking this not so much in terms of what we believe conceptually, but what we believe in the moment of choice, when we are faced with a concrete instance of having to choose one way vs. the other. In that moment when we choose, for instance, whether to be generous vs. retaliatory, which side are we seeing as the feast—the spiritual life or the conventional life?