I went to seminary right here in Utah at Salt Lake Theological Seminary. Sadly, that fine institution closed after the financial crisis of 2008. Unbelievably, most of the staff stayed on, working for free so that the class of 2009 could graduate. I was in that class. It was in seminary that I was introduced figuratively and literally to the late Dr. Eugene Peterson.
Dr. Peterson became a valued supporter of SLTS. He donated both his time and money and he spoke at one of our baccalaureate services. While Dr. Peterson is best known for his modern translation of the Bible, The Message, he also wrote over thirty insightful theological books. I have read a number of them.
It turns out that one of Dr. Peterson’s greatest fans is Bono from the legendary music group U2. They shared a special bond in their appreciation of the biblical book of Psalms. And they held each other in the highest regard. There is a compelling YouTube video that tells the story of how these two incredibly talented icons from two completely different worlds became close friends. That video and Bono’s hymn of praise based on Psalm 40, are worth a YouTube search.
My own understanding and acceptance of Dr. Peterson took some time to develop. I struggled in particular with his idea that pastors need to be “subversives.” As an old political science major and a patriot, I knew “subversive” was a loaded word.
In The Contemplative Pastor, Peterson wrote the cringeworthy: “I actually believe that the American way of life is doomed to destruction, and that another kingdom is right now being formed in secret to take its place.” He goes on to say that all earthly kingdoms will suffer this same fate. Eventually, all the kingdoms of this world, including the kingdom of “self” will give way to the Kingdom of God.
It is Dr. Peterson’s contention, (and I agree) that it is the job of the pastor to help usher in this Kingdom of God. The key is that it is being formed right now in the midst of all the earthly kingdoms. It is being formed all over the world in churches, para-church ministries, families, and individuals who have a real heart for God. Working to bring forth God’s Kingdom is perhaps the broadest and best definition of what it means to be the church.
This coming divine kingdom does not have a political agenda. It is not capitalistic, socialistic, communistic or anarchistic. And because earthly kingdoms actively resist the Kingdom of God, it is not able to be brought forth by direct assault. Hence the need to be subversive. For the record, this does not mean being politically or violently subversive.
It does mean using the tools of subversion used most effectively by Jesus. Prayer and parable (stories) are the stock-in-trade tools of the subversive worker. Those who wish to bring forth the Kingdom of God tell stories, and pray prayers that change the hearts and minds of those who have “ears to hear.” And the powers that be in the earthly kingdoms tend to take such efforts lightly. All the better for us subversives. We can work quietly right under their noses.
Those of us who are actively engaged in Kingdom work recognize that we have dual citizenship. We are certainly political citizens of the country, state, county, and city in which we reside. At the very same time, we are citizens of the Kingdom of God in which we also currently reside. We have roles and responsibilities in each kingdom.
You will know better than anyone else what jobs you have within your different earthly kingdoms. Our responsibilities in the Kingdom of God may be less clear, but they include introducing people in the earthly kingdoms to what life is like in the Kingdom of God.
We in the church, have a powerful tool to help us do this. We can be in authentic, honest, personal relationships with those living only in earthly kingdoms. Our stories and prayers are key in building of these relationships. They are conscious-altering words that change hearts and lives for the better.
We make the best case for Kingdom living and the church when our lives and deeds match the words we speak. This is what it means to be authentic. The Gospel is preached both in word and deed. The way the Gospel is conveyed is as much a part of the Kingdom as the truth that is presented.
As co-workers in the church and the Kingdom of God we take to heart this passage from 1 Peter 3:15, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” When the church interacts with earthly kingdoms with gentleness and respect, the Kingdom of God grows.
Rick Ehrheart is pastor of Mountain of Faith Lutheran Church in Tooele.