Seeking the Kingdom of God, Part 2

Celebrating Jubilee

I’m celebrating my year of Jubilee.

Fifty years ago I gave my life wholly and completely to Jesus. Peter often reminds me that I belong to “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” Peter goes on to say, we are called out of darkness for one purpose: to proclaim the mighty acts of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

In order that I may proclaim the mighty acts of the One who called me out of darkness, I’ve chosen to share how I was drawn out of darkness into God’s glorious light.

Seeking “God’s Reign” in my Life (Read part 1 here.)

My parent’s had me sprinkled by the minister of their church shortly after my birth. Later, I attended catechism classes on Saturday mornings at the tender age of seven. In the early days the classes were held in a small building in town, but later we met in the basement of the Hope Reformed Church on Hickory Street in Sutton, Nebraska.

Dad usually dropped me off, with hopes that I would learn the doctrines of our Reformed faith to successfully pass an examination given by the elders in the presence of the entire congregation. There were four in my class, two boys and two girls.

If we succeeded in this confirmation of faith, we could join our parents and the others—those whom God predestined and elected from eternity past to eternal salvation—in the communion service held four times each year.

This was no easy task for an elementary kid. We memorized 129 questions with the answers to all the questions from the Heidelberg Cathechism . We took quizzes each week. We memorized all 66 books of the Bible. It was critical to spell them correctly. Frequent pop quizzes kept us on course. Large chunks from the Old and the New Testaments—the Beatitudes, Luke 1 and 2, Psalms 1, 2, 23, and many more, were also memorized and recited.

Why the Heidelberg Catechism? According to our pastor, this work alone gave “the true interpretation” of the Bible over against many false interpretations.” 1

This was serious business. I was passionate about every part and highly motivated to succeed. Even at this young age I desired to learn how to obey and follow God.

Many times I propped the copy of my catechism on the shelf back of the stove while stirring soup, pudding, or pouring pancakes for supper. I balanced it against the laundry basket while folding wash cloths and towels, always a bit wonkier than mom wanted.

The auspicious day arrived. I remember vividly the events of that Sunday morning. The church bell in the steeple rang out the beginning of the service. The four of us, dressed in our best, walked single file down the long aisle between the polished pews in the sanctuary. We took our seats—facing forward—in the hardback chairs provided in front of the pulpit. My face burned crimson with hundreds of eyes focused upon us!

When my turn came to recite answers to the Heidelberg questions, I stepped forward, my heart pounding in my chest, every beat drumming in my ears. I took a deep breath, answered each question, then quickly and solemnly returned to my seat as another classmate stepped forward to answer another round of random questions.

Seeking Communion

After the ceremony we stepped down from the platform, greatly relieved to join our parents and the other congregants already gathering into a circle around the pews, to partake of the Lord’s Supper.

My mother, dressed in a brown tweed-like dress, seemed more nervous than I. My skin itched from the cream-colored crocheted dress purchased a week before and my skinny legs were swimming in my first-ever pair of nylon stockings.

Once the service began my thoughts turned away from my body to that of Christ’s Body, to the Bread and the Wine.

I took the piece of bread, torn from a whole loaf — Christ’s body broken for me.

I sipped wine from a silver goblet, filled to the brim — Christ’s blood poured out for me.

All the years of study culminated ’round the Lord’s Table—confirming me as a bonafide child of God, worthy to live wholly in God’s Kingdom. After years of insecurity and uncertainty in my own home, it was a relief to find myself belonging, to fully belong in God’s household.

Many people claim religion and faith is a crutch for the weak. They may be right. This very crutch enabled me to navigate the rocky road of my youth.

To close out the day my best friend, a member of the Christian church in town, joined my parents and me for dinner at a nearby restaurant. I splurged on a shrimp basket and onion rings. Our conversation was stilted and awkward.

Little did I know at the time that this would be the last time I would share communion around the Lord’s Table with my parents and the members of this church.

Seeking the Kingdom

The summer after confirmation a friend invited me to attend Bible camp out in the boonies of northern Nebraska. My parent’s were less than enthusiastic. In fact, they were vehemently opposed to the idea. She and I prayed and prayed. I’m sure I did my fair share of pestering for an answer.

Surprisingly, they agreed. With my salvation intact, what kind of trouble could a recently, confirmed girl get herself into?

I still remember that day. My friend and I were standing on the sidewalk north of the Reformed church when dad told us I could go. We believed it was a miracle!

To say my life changed after that week at camp is an understatement! To say all hell broke loose is not an exaggeration!

At this rustic camp in the country, the goodness of the Good News grabbed hold of my heart. So palpable was this unfamiliar spirit of love for my thirsty soul.

By the middle of the week I yearned to “walk down that heavenly road,” where Jesus promised to “walk along with me!” When the invitation to come forward was given I fought back, fearful of what seemed to be taking place.

I was reared on the wrathful God. The Old Testament proved this point. Select verses repeated as a mantra from the book of Romans drove that message deep into my psyche. All have sinned! All fall short of the glory of God! All are utterly depraved!” All have evil hearts!

From the moment of my conception to the moment when the doctor cut me out of my mother’s womb, I was depraved and sinful.

Oddly, with the emphasis on Romans, I do not remember any teaching from Romans six, until attending this camp! Since my grandparents and parents were of the elect, I had been sprinkled as an infant. My subsequent confirmation attested to my secure status within the body of God’s chosen ones.

Yet, strangely, Paul seemed to believe baptism pictured a burial of an actively informed individual, rather than an act upon a passive infant. And in a bizarre way, counter to what I held to be so, Paul taught this was a burial one chose for oneself. It is gruesome picture of dying and burying – yet it portrays the beautiful image of beginning a new life.

Fully aware that the “wages of my sin were death,” I knew I had to get this right.

Dare I follow the Jesus I discovered at camp or bow to the angry God portrayed in my home and at times in my church?

I chose Jesus!!

I sobbed running up that aisle, while singing, “I have yes, I have – decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back!”

We began praying for another miracle. Since I came from a different denomination permission from my parents to be baptized was required. I held my breath as the camp dean telephoned my parents. None were surprised when permission was never granted. Fear gripped my heart as I returned home.

A couple years later, after much turmoil, soul-searching, arguing, intense study, prayers, pleading, scouring Scripture in the Old and the New, and after many tears and sleepless nights, I knew what needed to be done.

I needed to die in order to live!

I know, I know, that sounds dramatic, but death really was my only answer.

The lyrics from Glorious Day captures my situation well. Buried beneath shame. Breathing, but not alive. An orphan in need of rescue. So, naturally, when I heard God call my name, I ran out of that grave, out of the darkness of my life, into that glorious day!

Instead of attending the closing spring semester school events, my friend drove me to a small country church in Trumball, about 30 miles west of Sutton. 2 It was here that I would die and rise again!

After publicly declaring my faith in Jesus Christ, the preacher buried my white-gowned body into the watery grave. Several friends, including the children attending VBS at the church witnessed my rebirth. When I came out of that watery grave, clothed with Christ, I heard the angels rejoicing.

In a very short time I discovered only a few would rejoice with me! Letters to the newspaper cried, “soul-napping.” They spoke of “brainwash[ing].” “Christianity has hit a new low,.” The editor of the paper even went so far to encourage the “breaking out the old 12 guage [sic].” 3

A church would burn to the ground! Concerns of arson were rumored. A church steeple, where the bell tolled forth the day of my confirmation, would be struck by lightening! “God’s judgment,” others declared.

No one ever asked my opinion on the matter. But, one sole letter brought encouragement. It asked an important question: “Has our democracy declined to the point where a person is no longer free to pursue the religion in which he or she believes? Maybe some interested person should cross to the other side of the fence to see just who is brainwashing who.”

Today I’m still amazed at the ferocity against my free expression of faith.

I shake my head at this community of German immigrants from Russia, who less than a century prior, had arrived in Nebraska, denouncing their allegiance to the Czar of Russia – all for the sake of religious and social liberty.

Looking back I’ve often wondered, if keeping the circumstances exactly as they were, would I do the same? I’ll never know, but I have no doubt in my mind. This was the day my life truly began. And that my friends, is a jubilant event!

Expelled from the Kingdom

One day a letter arrived from the Reformed church informing me I was in risk of excommunication. In case you’re not familiar with this term, it essentially means to be expelled from a community in which one partakes. For some religious groups this is serious business. It affects one’s salvation and threatens eternal damnation.

My crime? I “renounced [my] Christian baptism” and had “been re-baptized into the baptistic faith.” 4 This was somewhat true, yet not fully so.

Yes, I suppose in a way I was renouncing what the letter called my “Christian baptism“. You see, as a passive infant, I had been sprinkled, that much was true. But I was not, as the letter stated choosing to be “re-baptized into the baptistic faith.”

I was baptized into Christ. There’s a world of difference!

Of my own free will and not by that of my parents, I chose Christ. For me, that required following the New Testament pattern of immersion, which John Calvin acknowledged as the “practice of the ancient Church.” 5 I knew the Reformed and Independent Christian church views about conversion, baptism, and salvation were at odds with each another. I determined that being baptized into Christ was a necessary decision on my part since infant baptism is essentially an event for parents to publicly declare their commitment to raise the infant in their faith.

The letter suggested I meet to discuss the doctrinal concerns with the Spiritual Council. We met in the basement and sat in a circle — all men and one teenage girl.

This time the questions were not random. There were no memorized responses. I answered with as much verve and confidence as my nearly-17-year-old self could muster under the circumstances, undoubtedly unable to conceal my insecurity — and acutely aware whatever answers I gave would be systematically and summarily dismissed. My face burned red and my heart pounded in my chest.

I shared my deepest concern: the act of baptism upon an infant offered no opportunity on the part of the individual to believe or decide to follow Jesus for oneself. Baptism of an infant — whether dipping, pouring, sprinkling, or even immersion for that matter — made absolutely no Biblical sense to me.

One argument they made is branded in my memory. It is about blood. The Biblical basis, in their opinion, for sprinkling of infants is found in Exodus 24:8: “And Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord hath made with you concerning all these words.”

Had I been on my spiritual-toes I would have pointed out the necessity of reading Bible verses in their literary context. The first before says, “And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient” (Ex 24:7, KJV). Clearly assent from the people was required before the sprinkling commenced. 6 Infants do not consent, they usually howl in protest when water is sprinkled or poured over their heads.

Consent was necessary in the days of the old covenant. Consent is necessary in the new covenant.

A covenant, by its very nature, requires the assent of both parties. Otherwise the covenant is nonconsensual, veering too close to a violent act. We all know what that means — the stronger and more powerful imposes itself upon another against their will! To call this a covenant, in my mind, is a mockery of what a true covenant is to be.

Biblically speaking, It would have been better — to sprinkle water upon us while we sat in the sanctuary confirming our faith in the presence of other believers — than to sprinkle us as infants. At least then, there would have been a semblance of assent on our part to the covenant, an entering into the covenant of our own volition.

Had access to John Calvin’s Institutes been as readily available to me back then I may have argued more in my favor. I wonder now if those leaders had ever read that Calvin, or Calvin’s view that essentially points out the impotency of infant baptism.

Calvin wrote, “But from this sacrament [baptism] as from all others, we gain nothing, unless in so far as we receive in faith. If faith is wanting, [lacking in an infant] it will be an evidence of our ingratitude, by which we are proved guilty before God, for not believing the promise there given. In so far as it is a sign of our confession, we ought thereby to testify that we confide in the mercy of God, and are pure, through the forgiveness of sins which Christ Jesus has procured for us; that we have entered into the Church of God. (emphases are mine.) 7

Perhaps I could have convinced them that I merely followed Calvin’s advice.

“Baptism serves as our confession before men, inasmuch as it is a mark by which we openly declare that we wish to be ranked among the people of God, by which we testify that we concur with all Christians in the worship of one God, and in one religion; by which, in short, we publicly assert our faith, so that not only do our hearts breathe, but our tongues also, and all the members of our body, in every way they can, proclaim the praise of God.” (emphases are mine). 8

I doubt these words would have changed anything. But it would have mattered to me for these leaders to know these views, my views, could have been supported from the pen of John Calvin, a theologian held in high esteem by the leaders in the Reformed tradition.

A few months later a final letter arrived from my Spiritual Council. “It is with sorrow of heart that we hereby inform you that you have been placed under suspension … for your wilful act of being re-baptized in repudiation of your baptism.” 9

The letter went on to express concern that “God’s Spirit enable [me] to repent of this rash act.” It was a relief to learn this was “not an unpardonable sin,” in their view at least. Regardless of their views, it would have been disobedience on my part not to choose the path God’s Spirit led me to.

There would be no turning back, no repenting on my part — only rejoicing in following Jesus with a clear conscience and not the traditions of men. The lyrics of that long-ago song still ring out, “Though none go with me, still I will follow.”

Earthly Kingdoms

What do religious leaders do when one of their own—trained to look deep into God’s word, encouraged to drink deeply from Scripture, commanded to obey God only—suddenly discovers and determines their answers to life’s questions are wanting, inadequate, and unscriptural?

We do what all authoritative systems have done throughout history. We exclude. We excommunicate. We shun. We shame. We silence.

If that doesn’t get the job done, God forbid, we slaughter!

By this the Kingdom of God is torn asunder.

I learned the hard way that seeking God’s reign in my life – in a small town where everybody knows your name and where everyone has something to protect – is risky business. It’s dangerous to seek the Kingdom in a system that survives only when every question has one answer: submit. Submit to the systems of the community, church, and society or prepare to pay a hefty penalty.

Jesus warned his disciples – God’s kingdom-seekers – to anticipate persecution from the worldly systems which function diametrically opposed to this Kingdom, the Kingdom of God. To experience this in the world is expected. To experience this in the church reveals the tattered condition of the Kingdom.

Seeking a Name

I wonder if all our postering to seek the Kingdom is merely a ruse to build empires? Authority masquerading as service? To gain fame and notoriety? To rule rather than serve? To seek a name that will outlive ourselves?

Do the stories we tell, the myths we pass down, the doctrines we formulate, the hierarchies we construct, function to further the Kingdom of God or do they exist to establish our own empires?

Are these the barriers to building the Kingdom that Jesus imagined? If we’re honest, I believe we must affirm this to be so. If you don’t believe me, time spent in face-to-face conversation with those younger than ourselves will hopefully enlighten and convince you.

I read a statement recently tucked in a footnote that is worth pondering here as a warning:

“Modernity’s metanarratives legitimize ‘us’; the Christian narrative places ‘us’ under judgment as well. In knowing how the story ends we do not know which aspects of our work will be burned as wood, hay, and stubble.” 10

I wonder if what the church has built over the century will stand for all time or be doomed to ashes? I wonder about my own self. Will that which I’ve invested in stand for eternity or be reduced to rubble? Paul’s warning to the church in Corinth ring true even today (1 Cor 3:11-13).

Restoring a Tattered and Torn Kingdom

At this crucial time in history many Christians are wondering if the Kingdom is lost? Is it possible to restore this torn and tattered Kingdom to its former glory? Should we abandon the hope of God’s Kingdom on earth?

Is it but a mirage on the horizon, vanishing from sight the closer we get to it?

Was it a fantasy, a dream, never intended to be realized in our temporal lives?

We hope it is possible. And if we’re honest with each other, we know precisely what got us in this predicament.

In our failing to imitate Christ we have mimicked the world, sought fame and fortune.

In circumventing the call to righteousness we have welcomed the competitive, consumeristic, and capitalistic ideology of the day into our churches, homes, and in our private lives.

Yet in our hungering and thirsting for more, for position, for power, for popularity, we have still come away empty.

More has not satisfied and many are left wanting.

Is there time to restore this tattered and torn kingdom? I believe there is.

But this time round, let’s start from the bottom.

Let us walk with the least of these. Let’s live holy lives before our children. Let’s keep our promises to our spouses. Let’s walk humbly with one another.

  1. Rev. Norman L. Jones, Study Helps on the Heidelberg Catechism, (Produced by the Publications and Promotions Committee of the Reformed Church in the Unites States, 2009), Revised 2nd Edition, pg. 1.
  2. I did not learn to drive until my future husband insisted I get a license before we married!
  3. From Across the Fence, an editorial in the Clay County News. Years ago I returned to Sutton to make photocopies of letters on record at the newspaper office in town. I mention no names here out of respect for those individuals. (Years later when the minister (who eventually became my husband) made calls on the youth in town, one youth’s mother actually too the editor’s advice and greeted the minister at the door with a loaded shot gun!)
  4. Excerpts from a letter signed, “Your Spiritual Council, Norman Jones, President” dated June 18, 1971.
  5. Calvin’s Institutes, IV, xv, 13.
  6. See Ex 24:5-8: He sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed oxen as offerings of well-being to the Lord. Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he dashed against the altar. Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people, and said, “See the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” (NRSV)
  7. Institutes IV, xv, 15, John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1997.
  8. Institutes IV, xv, Paragraph 13, John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1997.
  9. Excerpt from a letter from “The Spiritual Council, dated October 15, 1971.
  10. My italics. Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), pg. 18.

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