Shaped by a Kingdom Climate

faithcoop  •  June 28, 2024

It’s summer in Tennessee, which means that I think daily about the hostility of our summer climate toward the fledgling plants in my backyard. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about climate – how the right alchemy of heat, sun, and water produce abundant fruit, or how much fledgling plans struggle when the climate isn’t right. As a novice gardener, I have no advice to offer here, but my time in the garden this summer says something about the way we, like my plants, conform to the climate that surrounds us (case in point: a 2,000-year-old Bristlecone Pine). In harsh climates, we, like the pine or my eggplants, are begging to stay alive. In this election year, I’ve been thinking about how many of the metaphors that describe the state of our politics are natural: landscape, air, climate. In the same way that one cannot know the full story of my plants without considering their climate and examining their fruit, we cannot know our full stories without taking inventory of the climate to which we are being conformed. 

As the director of the Chattanooga Fellows Program, I have the joy of helping recent college graduates get to know the city of Chattanooga through, among many things, cultivating curiosity for the stories of those women and men who seek its good. The beautiful reality of these faithful people is that, as they tell their stories, it is clear that their lives are born out of the Story of our God. In stories of diligent work, faithful parenting, unemployment, seeking justice, praying for neighbors, or examining their political lives, it seems to me that it is the Gospel – the Climate of the Kingdom of God – that is telling their stories. Lives shaped by a Kingdom Climate are beautiful lives indeed.

This isn’t new for the people of God. Consider how God brought the Israelites out of Egypt – where the Climate was the great Nile, mediated by the divine power of Pharaoh – into new places, Sinai, the Negeb, Moab, and Jordan. In each of these places, the Law and the Prophets make clear that the True God sets the climate. Like a prominent mountain such as Mount Rainier or Clingman’s Dome, the righteousness of our God creates its own climate. In a barren land, bread (Ex. 16); in dry wadis, water (Ex. 17); in famine, gleaning for the poor (Lev. 19:9-10); and under Roman occupation, the Church (Acts 28:22-28). Jesus himself commissions his disciples to continue to make the Kingdom Climate come on earth as it is in Heaven (Mt. 6:9), and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King reiterates the importance of this in his convicting “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

There was a time when the church was very powerful – In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King

Jesus commissioned his disciples to reveal His Kingdom as thermometers  – through righteousness and rightness that exceeds that of Scribes and Pharisees (Mt. 5:20), and they did so diligently and patiently. Historian Alan Krieder terms this the “patient ferment of the early Church.” Just as our God executes chemical creativity in the yeast of bread and beer, so our God caused this fledgling cohort of puzzled disciples to grow into the most diverse, creative, hospitable, and powerful community the world had ever seen. How did that happen? Ordinary workplace faithfulness, strange hospitality toward foreign neighbors, and faithfully pursuing business deals in other cities with their love of Christ in tow. Don’t those all sound relatable in our day too? Written in the second century by an anonymous author, but spoken to us this very day, the Epistle to Diognetus says of Christians, 

“They show forth the character of their own citizenship in a marvelous and admittedly paradoxical way by following local customs in what they wear and what they eat and in the rest of their lives. They live in their respective countries, but only as resident aliens; they participate in all things as citizens, and they endure all things as foreigners… They are obedient to the laws that have been made, and by their own lives, they supersede laws… They are impoverished and make many rich.”

What might it mean for us, in 2024, like the disciples described here, to situate our stories into the climate of the Kingdom of God? 

Thankfully, as Alex Sosler writes in A Short Guide to Spiritual Formation, “In this Christian story, we don’t have to fight to discover or find love. Love finds us.” (19) Yes, we must receive the radical love of our God which seeks and saves those, like myself, who continually resist him and his Good work in this world. And, yes, we must trust the mystery of God’s Holy Spirit which cultivates fruitfulness in our lives (Gal. 5:22-23), and these characteristics cannot be trivialized as they still indicate a flourishing in God’s climate. However, unlike plants, we participate in our stories and identities. Thomas Merton says,

“God leaves us free to be whatever we like. We can be ourselves or not, as we please. But the problem is this… God alone can make me who I am, or rather, He alone can make me who I will be when I at last fully begin to be.”

Thomas Merton

With the leading of our God, I suggest we align ourselves with his Kingdom Climate by joining Christ in 1) his attention to the ordinary, 2) his mercy toward the margins, and 3) the end of the story in which He is confident.

  1. Jesus likens the Kingdom of God – the Climate of our lives, if we are in Christ – to the smallest of seeds, which, “when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree” (Mt. 13:31-32). How often does Jesus pay attention to small things: unimportant people dignified by the gaze of Christ, ignored places honored by the presence of Christ, basic elements of human creativity (bread and wine) sanctified by the death of Christ? Insodoing, Jesus reminds us what we should’ve seen on the first page of scripture: there’s nothing ordinary about another human being – “there are no ordinary people,” C.S. Lewis writes (10). Who do you honor with your attention? Our political climate, in cahoots with the postmodern news cycle and push notifications, honors hot takes, fearmongering headlines, and division. These outlets “rarely lead to health and restoration,” according to Kaitlyn Schiess (85). A pernicious reality of this climate is not only that these virtues are not those of the Spirit, but that this landscape has atrophied our ability to love the “ordinary.” Only big things and people get attention in our world. How can we, taking our lead from Jesus, love our neighbors, look for those on the margins, and care for ordinary processes as participation in our Kingdom Climate? The challenge of attention to the ordinary is that it’s small, slow, and sometimes unrewarding. The reward is union with Christ.
  2. Jesus is weird about power. What Jesus is not weird about is mercy. Mercy seems to be pouring out of our King at every turn, characterizing every step, shaping his response to every interruption, and oozing out, mixed with blood and sweat, in his last breaths. Can you also feel that our climate puts us in positions of self-defense and self-preservation instead of generous postures of mercy? I can. “Threat” language is as pervasive now as it was in Jesus’s day, but Jesus demonstrates that, while threats may materialize in costly ways (i.e. his own life), mercy in the hope of eternal, Kingdom life is worth the cost (Luke 14:25-33). This shift might require us to see our vote not only as a tool for self-preservation but as an act of love toward our neighbor. Kaitlyn Schiess asks, “How does this practice form me in ways that have consequences for how I treat my neighbor, sometimes through my political participation?” (21)
  3. Jesus lived and taught with a clear vision of the Kingdom of God, beginning now and coming in fullness one day. This vision of the final, completed Kingdom shaped Jesus and all of the apostles who went on to minister to Christians participating in the patient ferment. In Everything Sad is Untrue, Daniel Nayeri, who reflects on the hope that his Christian mother had in the face of great suffering as a religious refugee from Iran, says that two people can have the same experience waiting for asylum, “But one of you will be looking around with joy and anticipation, wondering what you can do to prepare your kids for the new world. And the other will be slumped in the courtyard, surrendered to the idea that it’s all one long river of blood… But what you believe about the future will change about how you live in the present.” (Daniel Nayeri) I am so thankful that the Story of God – our Kingdom Climate – gives us a clear picture of the end of all things, a day when the dwelling place of God is with us, when death and all his friends are banished forever are gone. So, as we work, live, wait, hope, and cry in the present, we must do so as those oriented toward this conclusion. Make no mistake: it is a confident conclusion! Any other “conclusion” is a twist in the road, but not yet the final destination. We can be both patient and confident in the Story of our King rather than fearing for the future with every election, referendum, or economic uncertainty. That’s the strangeness of our Kingdom Climate – confident, attentive mercy toward our neighbors amidst chaotic uncertainty.

We’ll see if my garden lasts the summer. Unlike my novitiate gardening, our King is a master craftsman whose character and Climate are unshakable and unwavering. There is more flourishing in this Climate than any other. May it be so not only for our good but for the good of our neighbors, the city of Chattanooga, and the World.

Written by Ralston Hartness