All posts by Don Stephens

I'm a musician, teacher, and sheepdog with a passion for the Kingdom of God. Currently I work with Youth With a Mission, traveling and teaching on Worldview and the Kingdom of God.

Why do so few understand the Kingdom?

Today I’m reading in Luke 8:10 “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is in parables…”  Almost every time I stand before a class I find a small group of students who gladly receive the Kingdom and walk away changed to the core of their being. Revelation does that; it rearranges the furniture of our soul.

But there is almost always another group who remains oblivious and unchanged, as if they cannot see what others are seeing.  I’ve often expressed my frustrated wonder that the entire class isn’t left standing on their chairs rejoicing and demanding to hear more glad news of the Kingdom. 

I think the key to these two groups may be found in our posture towards Jesus.  In nearly every group of Believers there will be a portion who are after God for what he will do for them.  In the Gospels we see crowds of the curious pressing on Jesus for miracles, healing, and bread in the wilderness.  Skye Jethani refers to these as believers who are living “from God.”  These beloved people see God as their butler and therapist, ever attentive to their own happiness, their own well-being, their own health, wealth, and desires.  And our gracious God often obliges them, (like the crowds in the wilderness), by meeting their needs.  But their relationship with Him is little more than what Jethani calls “consumerism with a Jesus sticker slapped on it.”  These are the ones for whom parables will have to suffice. 

But there are others, disciples who have left everything to be WITH Jesus, to apprentice themselves to Him because of who he IS.  These are the ones who are given eyes to understand the mysteries of the Kingdom, who are gifted with revelation into the nature of reality and Truth. When the crowds turned away and Jesus asked his disciples if they would leave as well, Peter answered , “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life.”  (John 6:68).

It’s up to each of us to classify ourselves: will I be a part of the crowd who presses on Jesus for what He offers me, or will I be a disciple who sees no other possibility but Him?

Mandela’s Garden

Nelson Mandela spent twenty-seven years of his life in prison for the crime of promoting a color-blind nation. It was a sentence that ripped him from his family, career, and community, and confined him behind concrete walls on a guarded island.

He passed his last eighteen years imprisoned on Robben Island, just off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. While others might have been broken by such a sentence, Mandela was no ordinary man. Hope sustained him as he transformed his prison cell into a school room and a corner of the prison yard into a garden. It was his way of taking the little desert he’d been given and turning it into a bit of Eden. Day after day he tended his garden, faithfully watering, pruning, weeding, and cultivating until he possessed a little chunk of paradise right there in the midst of a penal wasteland. And God Himself surely watched him and decided He could use a man like that.

This is our call. We’ve each been entrusted with a personal little fiefdom that consists of our relationships, gifts, talents, possessions, vocation and time. For some it is a humble place, rocky and poor while others have been entrusted with riches and influence. Regardless, we each have the opportunity to work our little plot and develop it into a garden of beauty, order and abundance. This is what disciples of Jesus do.

And this is how great kingdoms are born: when the “underlords” of smaller lands and fiefdoms band together and pledge their allegiance to a sovereign, then all those little territories are knitted together into a great kingdom. God’s kingdom is no different. Even if our little world feels limited and poor, we can each work the ground we’ve been given, and bring our works to the Lord. And as we do, bit by bit the earth begins to shine with God’s glory. Are you faithfully tending your garden today?

The State of creation Address

Last week we were treated to the president’s State of the Union Address before live television and a joint session of Congress.  Donald Trump brought us up to speed on the progress we’ve made in areas of economy, employment, defense, border security, and foreign relations.  And he reminded us of the work that still needs to be done, calling all Americans to unite for the common good of the nation.

I wonder if maybe we could use a “State of the Creation Address.”  Of course Jesus – our Servant King – would be the one to deliver this important speech.  He might tell us about the progress we’ve made in feeding the poor and lifting them out of their poverty (1), of the innovation and creativity of the human race, of the progress we have made in healthcare and medical research, and of the growing peace and stability among the nations. (2)  Yes!  All these things are true!  He might mention that life expectancy and freedom are on the rise across the world, and that faithful missionaries are pushing deeper and deeper into the most unreached places on our planet, translating scriptures and planting churches of happily redeemed people. 

But then he would certainly remind us that much is yet to be done: that vast populations struggle under oppressive belief systems, that human trafficking still flourishes and millions of unborn babies are being murdered every year in their mother’s wombs while divorce, greed and crime deface his beloved people.  He might lament our political hostilities, or the plague of ignorance that stubbornly holds many in bondage.  And I’m pretty sure He would remind us that we truly are our brother’s keeper and that there are dozens of broken people within walking distance who still haven’t heard the good news of His glorious reign!  

In the end, I feel sure our compassionate King would remind us that He still loves his world, and has delightful plans for it’s redemption.  “For as truly as I live”, (He might say), “my glory WILL fill the earth as the waters cover the sea.  So let us redouble our efforts to see the work finished.  With prayer and faithfulness we CAN do this together because I am with you even to the end of the age.”

Vocation and calling

Skye Jethani tells us in his wonderful book, Futureville that every Christian has three callings: The “highest call”,  the “common call”, and the “vocational call.”  It’s an idea that brings welcome clarification to me, especially as we begin the new year. 

Our Highest Call is the calling to Jesus.  Human were specifically designed to function in a living relationship with Him.  “In Him was life, and the life was the light of man.” (John 1:4)  To attempt life apart from Jesus is an empty, dead-end street of frustration no different than trying to drive a car without gas.  The highest call is where everything begins, it’s where we discover our true personality and purpose for getting out of bed in the morning.

The Common Call: Once reconnected with the Source of life the common mission of every disciple is to apprentice himself to Jesus and become like him in every way.  This is our call to love our neighbor, to forgive our enemies, to pray and feed the poor, to serve one another and to bring glory to God in all things.  All believers have these first two callings in common.

But finally we have the Vocational Call:  This is where God reveals and develops His unique gifts and contributions in us to serve the world around us.  I’m a musician and a teacher. But as I write this post there’s a friend across the room who is gifted in business and hospitality.  He manages this little coffeeshop, makes each person feel like the most important person in the world and serves his customers with joy.  Others who come here are nurses, construction workers, truck drivers, artists, policemen, and sanitation workers.  The Kingdom needs every one of these vocations because each one brings order, beauty and abundance to the world around us.  And here is the mind-blowing thing about vocations:  They matter!  Where would we be if the cooks, the truck drivers, the plumbers and the musicians disappeared from among us?  In the Kingdom everyone and everything matters!

May you experience a fresh understanding of God’s calling in your life as we enter 2019. 

PS: Futureville is about the Kingdom.  It’s a great read and covers much more than just calling and vocation.

Second floor windows

“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”    (Matthew 25:34).

Author Bob Goff points out in his wonderful book, Everybody Always, that the second floor windows at Disney World are dedicated to the people who helped make the Magic Kingdom a reality: the architects, builders, artists, and accountants who’s dedicated work moved the dream from Disney’s  imagination to a real, geographical place.

Several Bible passages suggest that our rewards in the Kingdom are very much like these windows, except that a Kingdom inheritance  is way better  than a cool-looking window.

Hopefully we don’t need to be reminded that our rewards and inheritance must never, ever be linked to our salvation. Adoption into God’s family is initiated and sustained entirely by grace.  But once we’ve been received into the Kingdom, the One who is “making all things new” has plenty of work for us to do.  And he promises rewards for those who are faithful.*  Scripture doesn’t spell out exactly what our inheritance will look like, but certainly it’ll be sweeter than a  window at The Magic Kingdom.

Bob suggests there might be some value in imagining what our Kingdom “window” might say: “Lover of outcasts, and healer of bodies”, “Teacher of children, and a vessel of cheer”, “Builder of homes and leader of men”,  or “Fixer of cars and example of love”.  The happy souls in Matthew 25 seemed to have been surprised about their own rewards: “‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality?’… And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you were doing it to me!’’”

However it plays out, we can be certain that God has plenty of work for us to do, and that everything we do matters: “Therefore, my dear friends, stand your ground, and don’t hold back. Throw yourselves into the work of the Master, confident that nothing you do for him is a waste of time or effort.” (1 Corinthians 15:58)

*1 Corinthians 3:1-13 & Matthew 25:21.

Building Disneyland

In 1964 Mom and Dad packed up our Ford station wagon and drove us across country to Disneyland, the epic fulfillment of my eleven-year-old dreams. The magic kingdom with it’s pirate ships, jungle cruise, talking animals and Matterhorn was no disappointment. It set my imagination on fire.

(Photo by Jorge Martinez)

Two weeks later when we returned home, bone-tired of travel, I set out to build a architectural replica of Disneyland, complete with waterways, rides, avenues and, of course, the Fairytale castle. (Especially the castle). I gathered an old model train platform, paper mâché, clay, lights and pumps and spent the remaining weeks of Summer building and wiring until I ran out of capital and returned to school where my young imagination was powered down and my psyche was crushed into adolescence.

I share this childhood memory to point out something deeply human that was happening in my young heart: I was dreaming of a perfect world, and of helping to make that world a reality. The success of Disneyland testifies to a universal vision we all share. “Uncle Walt” intuitively knew that if he built his fantasy kingdom, the masses would come year after year to experience “the happiest place on earth”, where beauty surrounds like oxygen and adventure beckons from every direction. It’s doubtful he realized the origin of his concept, or that His success was built on a dream God placed in our human soul. Yet with all it’s delight, Disneyland will never rise above a hazy, commercialized reflection of the true Kingdom; for there is no King within the castle’s fiberglass facade, and it’s magic begins to dry-up like grass clippings before we’ve exited the parking lot.

But every time we pray the Lord’s prayer are we not calling on God to build the real thing right here on earth? “Let your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven!” “For as surely as I live, (says the Lord), all the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord… the wolf will lie down with the lamb… a little child will lead them… and they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks… Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they learn war…”* Just as Disney built his magic Kingdom on worthless, Florida swamp land, God will build His on the tired, bloodstained soil of this earth. Piece by piece and person by person He is quietly at work, inviting each of us into His eternal vision. Today I understand that my eleven year old imagination was never far from home!

* Matthew 6:10; Isaiah 2:4; Isaiah 11:6; and Numbers 14:21

Bring your kid to work day

When God created Eden He filled it with beauty, order and abundance. Adam, in turn, committed treason and delivered the world into the hands of the enemy. From that instant everything began to disintegrate into chaos, ruin and scarcity until the glorious moment Jesus declared, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” In one grand sweep of genius love, God began the reconstruction plan of the ages. He would do the work that only He could do, redeeming the world from the powers of sin and death, and then he would bring us back into the act of restoring the earth to it’s original beauty, order and abundance.

(Photo by Sabine van Straaten).
God included man in His original purposes when he invited Adam to name the animals, fill the earth and subdue it. And now He has brought us back into His cosmic reconstruction crew. How does He accomplish it? By pouring His life into us, tasking us with various callings, and bringing us to work everyday. In the eyes of God, every day is “Bring your kid to work day.”

The great philosopher and scientist, Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “Man by the fall fell at the same time from his state of innocence and from his dominion over creation. Both of these losses, however, can even in this life be in some parts repaired; the former by religion and faith, the latter by the arts and sciences.” It seems to me that God gives to each of us vocational callings that are meant to restore His beauty, order and abundance to the world. Musicians and artists are tasked with filling the world with beauty; farmers, businessmen and industrial workers are called to produce abundance, and policemen, politicians, and judges bring order. Still others, like teachers, builders, and sanitation workers bring some combination of the three.

Regardless of our vocation, work matters; it serves a greater purpose than we dared to think. And to those who have eyes to see the Kingdom, every day is “Bring your kid to work day.” What a joy to work beside Papa in the restoration of all things!