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From the Ground Part 2: Bearing the Gardener’s Fruit

From the Ground Part 2: Bearing the Gardener’s Fruit

Last week we explored the biblical portrayal of God the gardener, who formed humans in his image to rule creation as he does; as a gardener. Jesus enacts this rule by dying on the cross and bringing new life up from the cursed ground, reconciling earth and heaven and calling us who follow him to do likewise.  

 

(De)Formed from the Ground

The rule over the ground that we were made for has been tragically deformed, however. We see examples of this all over Scripture, and it is not hard to see parallel examples repeated in the present.

God forms his people Israel and leads them to dwell in the land of Canaan. What we find is that the quality of the relationship God’s people have with the ground beneath their feet is an essential marker of their faithfulness or unfaithfulness to God. This is portrayed in the prophetic oracles concerning Israel’s tenuous relationship with the land (e.g. Jeremiah 12:7-13, Ezekiel 33:28-29, Amos 9:5-15, Malachi 3:8-12), all of which recall the blessing of Deuteronomy 28:11 (echoing Genesis 1:28 “…God blessed them. And God said…”) and the curse of Deuteronomy 28:18 (echoing Genesis 3:17 “cursed is the ground because of you”). A fruitful ground, rather than one that is wasted away or only yields thorns, is a sign of God’s blessing for his people’s faithfulness. 

The ramifications of our deformed relationship with the ground is unfolding in the ongoing struggle of God’s people to respect and emulate God’s loving rule over his good creation. We see this deformation playing out in current, popular ways of relating to creation. In our postmodern iteration of sinful relationships with God’s creatures, both desecration on one side and deification on the other are false. Both are deceptions. 

To turn creation into a god (to deify it) is to lay a weight on it which it cannot bear. By our actions, habits, policies, or even our indifference, we reveal whether we consider the ground good or not, while in the Bible God says very clearly that it is. Both deification and desecration are ways of robbing creation, and the very ground itself, of its God-given dignity.

The key is to recognize our own deformation from the ground, confess it, and seek to be reformed into Christ’s creation-gardening image. Ask yourself: In your daily activities, habits, political persuasions, or even your inaction, how might you be inclined toward either idolizing aspects of creation or destroying aspects of creation? Only by being re-formed into Christ’s image can we overcome our present deformed relationship with the ground.

 

(Re)Formed In the Image of the Gardener King

Surveying John’s Gospel, we see the full representation of God’s gardening nature in the person of Jesus Christ. The Word that upholds the universe steps into the very creation he is tending, taking on flesh to become the Gardener King. It reveals the reality that caring for creation is a fundamental aspect of humanity, written into the very fabric of our call to imitate our creator. 

The Bible’s call to care for creation as Christ does is even more expansive, as God’s gardening of creation is more than tending soil, so our image-bearing of the Gardener King includes more than having a backyard garden. Tending creation is not an optional subplot of God’s mission to bear fruit for his glory; rather, it is foundational, formative, and necessary. 

 

Bearing the Gardener’s Fruit

The fruit Jesus wants us to bear is the same fruitfulness God originally called humanity to in Genesis 1:28. We are to cultivate all of creation as God does, from the literal ground up. But in our present cursed-yet-reconciled relationship with the ground, we can only “bear fruit in keeping with repentance”. We must turn away, repent, from destructive or idolatrous practices and turn toward a more Christlike care of creation.

Each of us can discover the boundaries of our responsibilities to creation in the places we are (de)formed by. Then, being (re)formed into the Gardener’s image, we can play a crucial role to positively form our places by dying to ourselves to produce life-giving fruit for the good of our fellow God-creations. To use a term popularized by Wes Jackson, farmer, activist, and founder of The Land Institute in Salina, KS, we can do this by consulting the genius of our place.

 

The Genius of the Place

In Jackson’s book Consulting the Genius of the Place, he calls upon his readers to attend closely to the place in which they live in order to gain wisdom for how to live within its (God-given) ecological limits. 

King Solomon’s treasury of wisdom was, at least partly, gained through just this sort of attentive study of ecological embeddedness. Yet our Gardener King certainly surpasses Solomon in wisdom. Jesus is the very fount of wisdom and the firstborn over all creation. His masterful parables put this wisdom on full display, and we even have direct commands from our Gardener King to study his creation in order to glean his wisdom: “Look at the birds of the air…Consider the lilies of the field….”

If the ecological beauty depicted in Revelation 21-22 is any indication, these are commands we will have the pleasure of obeying for all eternity when our Gardener King consummates the renewal of all things which he has already inaugurated. 

 

Consider the Ground

I believe it would be wise to start practicing now. Consider the literal ground of the place you live. Obviously, this would be your home and the land it stands on, but also keep in mind your neighborhood streets, parks, schools, and other public places. Take inventory. 

What do you have that owes its existence to the ground? Your food, of course, but also the wood of your furniture, metals mined from the earth, the energy that powers your lights, appliances; even the materials used to manufacture plastics and other synthetic materials came from somewhere

Then expand your attention beyond your four walls. Christ Community’s mission is to influence our community and world for Jesus Christ. We cannot do this until we know and love our communities and world by paying attention to the actual places in which we, and our neighbors, live and move and have our being. This includes the health and integrity of the ground itself and all it supports. 

Thank God for the ground beneath your feet, then pay attention to ways he may be leading you to work with him as he forms you to bear fruit as a more faithful follower of the Gardener King.

From the Ground Part 1: God the Gardener

From the Ground Part 1: God the Gardener

ou work in your garden this spring prepping the soil, planting seeds or starts, and weeding, you will participate in one of the most foundational ways Christians can be “renewed in knowledge after the image of [our] creator” (Colossians 3:10). This is because one of the primary ways God reveals himself as our creator is as a gardener. He cultivates the earth and thereby grows new life from the ground.

 

God the Gardener

Genesis 1 portrays the intimate, intentional activity of God in creation, modeling what “dominion” looks like for the image-bearers who would come on the sixth day. Godly rulership is exercised for the very goodness of a diverse, abundantly flourishing creation. God’s rule sustains all creatures, of all their various “kinds,” knitting them together into whole, healthy ecosystems that support life. God put the ground in place, nestling it in the midst of the waters above and below, where it would have rainfall and sunshine, to be the place where human and non-human creatures flourish together. 

Beyond showing God gardening creation toward flourishing, Genesis 2:8 tells us directly: “The LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed” (emphasis mine). The King of Creation is a gardener, and he created humans in his image to garden creation like their creator, alongside their creator, who is not an absentee landlord but is actively involved, “walking in the garden in the cool of the day.”

The key here is that the act of gardening is a crucial metaphor for understanding how God intends “dominion” to be carried out. His reign is not far off in some distant throne room, aloof to the goings-on of the world below and issuing orders from afar; rather, his holiness has no qualms being intimately, even messily, invested in tending the soil to produce life. 

“But isn’t this all just a metaphor? God isn’t really a gardener, he’s only like a gardener.” To this I would say, “Yes, and….” Yes, the image of God gardening is just that, an image. He does more than planting and harvesting as he rules the universe. 

And…my challenge is for us to see that God as a gardener is a potent image grounded in two biblical realities: 1) the human experience of gardening from which the image is drawn is itself an image-bearing reenactment of God’s original creation, which in the Bible is explicitly referred to in horticultural terms (Genesis 2:8), and 2) the original calling of humanity to bear God’s image by cultivating the ground of the garden in which God placed them (Genesis 2:15) is not a metaphor—all technological innovation which humanity has heretofore cultivated is grounded, has its very physical, biological, literal foundation in the agricultural and ecological flourishing of the places upon which society is built.

 

Cursed Is the Ground Because of You

Not long after humans come into the picture, however, the very ground itself is cursed by God because of human sin. After Adam and Eve sin against God, taking upon themselves the definition of good and evil and listening to the serpent’s lies, God lets his human creatures know of the consequences that come from such prideful self-realization:

And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;”

Genesis 3:17

The very relationships we were made for are now cursed. Notice, critically, that the curse God pronounces here, though brought about by our sin, is spoken over the ground. The curse upon creation lands precisely in the place where our livelihood and purpose originates: the land itself. We have become aliens upon the very ground from which and for which we were created.

 

Cursed Is He Who Hung On A Tree

Where we failed in our God-imaging dominion and brought a curse upon the ground from which we live, Jesus succeeds. Descending into the ground on Good Friday, Jesus bore the curse on the cross, redeeming us by hanging on a tree.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us–for it is written,
‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’             

       Galatians 3:13 

Then he brought the blessing of new life back by rising from the ground on Easter Sunday. The place beneath our feet, the very ground itself, was the place of both curse and redemption.  Adam, Cain, and all humanity after them had been “cursed from the ground,” with Abel’s blood crying out as witness against our rebellion, but Jesus brought redemption up from the ground “to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross”. He overcame our sinful domination by submitting himself to the very death and destruction our sin has wrought. 

 

Bearing Fruit from the Tree of Life

We were created to cultivate and bear fruit, literally and figuratively. That creational purpose was frustrated when the ground was cursed, bringing widespread death, and only by the death of Eve’s promised seed will redemption come, reconciling us to the ground and restoring humanity’s call to bear fruit by our loving rule of creation. 

When God enters creation as the Gardener King, taking the curse upon himself by dying on a tree, being buried like a seed from the tree of life into the ground, and rising from the same three days later, he bears the fruit of sacrificial followers who are connected to him like branches on a vine. Later, when the Spirit reminds these followers that their risen and reigning Gardener King told them that they glorify the Father when they “bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples”, they, and every follower of Jesus after them, should understand it as, yes, a metaphor about loving God and neighbor, but also, in its broadest biblical sense, as a call to emulate God’s loving rule of creation. 

 

Reconciled to the Ground

How else can we prove that we follow the One of whom it is said “all things were made through him” but by living into Jesus’ reconciliation of all things, whether on earth or in heaven? Let us, then, actively embody the reality that, in Christ, we can be reconciled to everything Jesus created in the beginning and redeemed on the cross, including the ground beneath our feet which sustains our lives and that of our neighbors. 

We can do this by following Jesus, our Gardener King, to the cross. We are called to embody the new creation which Jesus has inaugurated even now, as ministers of the whole-creation reconciliation which his blood has bought. By doing so, we participate in God’s cruciform, risen-from-the-ground mission to draw all peoples to himself. 

 

Practice Resurrection

We can do this in the actual places we live, with the actual ground beneath our feet. Find (and get to know) a local sustainable grower. Start a backyard garden plot this spring. Yes, recycle, reduce waste, and reuse what you can. Practice resurrection through composting. 

May these ideas whet your appetite for participating with God in his gardening work in the world. 

Behold Your King (Who Died): Putting on God’s Corrective Lenses

Behold Your King (Who Died): Putting on God’s Corrective Lenses

I awoke one morning unable to see because blocked tear ducts had glued my eyes shut. It was frightening. After a deep breath, I tried to make a calm assessment of the situation. I splashed water and carefully rinsed my eyes. Thankfully that was all it took to restore sight to the “blind” in this situation.

To the spiritually blind, however, it takes quite a bit more to restore right vision, as the apostle Paul’s conversion story illustrates so well in Acts 9:1-18. In many ways, true discipleship might be measured by how willing we are to acknowledge our spiritual short-sightedness and receive from Jesus a clearer vision of God, ourselves, and the world. Disciples of Jesus are not the only ones to see everything rightly, but rather those who know they need to receive sight from Another in order to see things as they truly are. Our rally cry as believers in Jesus is not “I’ll believe it when I see it,” but a practiced, humble posture, “I believe it, so only now do I see it.” 

In the last half of his gospel, John places a special focus on what Jesus’ disciples ought to believe, and so become empowered to see, about Jesus’ kingship. Is Jesus king? How so? What does his rule as king challenge regarding our human rulerships? How do we see Jesus reigning on earth when the sin-scarred world is so opposed to God that we sent his Anointed One, the Christ, to be crucified? 

The answer, beginning in John chapter 12 and reaching a climax in chapter 19, is that we see Jesus as king precisely when we see him on the cross. This king reigns over all by becoming a servant of all, even to the point of death (Mark 10:41-45, Philippians 2:5-11). This indeed has been the centerpiece of God’s kingdom-advancing plan all along, as we read in Ephesians 1:7-10: 

In him we have redemption through his blood (emphasis mine), the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 

John’s Gospel displays Jesus’ cross-bearing kingship in a visceral, experiential story, inviting readers to step into it and believe what John believes about Jesus, and see what he sees. This is a theme we can trace all the way from Jesus’ entry into the city of Jerusalem to his death on the cross. 

In John 12:12-15, Jesus is welcomed into Jerusalem as the long-awaited messianic king, complete with prophetic fulfillment and all manner of pomp and circumstance. John inserts an “as it is written” quotation, confirming the crowd’s appraisal of Jesus as king by citing Zechariah 9:9: “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming….” 

For the disciples, the experience of entering Jerusalem must have included quite a heavy dose of cognitive dissonance. Only the evening before, as written in John 12:1-7, Jesus and his disciples attended a dinner hosted by Martha, Mary, and their once-dead-but-now-alive brother Lazarus. While there, Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment and Jesus declared his imminent death: “she has kept it for the day of my burial.” (John 12:7, Christian Standard Bible). 

The King who is coming…comes to die? The disciples must have been puzzled. In fact, John tells us explicitly in 12:16 that the disciples decidedly did not understand what was going on. 

John 19:35 is a disciple’s pronouncement that the world will never be the same once you see the King of the Universe crucified. After reporting the mixture of blood and water that flowed from the dead Jesus’ pierced side, John says, “He who saw it has borne witness–his testimony is true, and he knows he is telling the truth–that you also may believe (emphasis mine).” (John 19:35).

John wrote his gospel to communicate that God came in the person of Jesus Christ, he came to die on the cross, and we can only see Jesus’ kingship rightly, over and above other rulers that might call for our allegiance, once we believe. There is a desperate urgency inherent to this faith claim–nothing less than everlasting life hangs on whether you trust it or not (John 3:16).

Life on planet earth is a clash of kingdoms. Who rules your world? When life is thrown off balance, and your best-laid plans crumble beneath your feet, when expectations of what should be are exploded by the detonation of what is, who steps in to become your savior? What becomes raised to messianic heights in your heart? Rather than seeing our King lifted up on the cross, victorious over every deathly sting from this world by succumbing to death itself, do we instead resort to near-sighted grasping for lesser rulers around us? 

As Psalm 115:8 warns, “Those who make [idols] become like them; so do all who trust in them.” They reign over us, subverting God’s rightful rule and overthrowing our own delegated authority on earth (Psalm 115:16). 

What, then, do we need? Where can we get the right corrective prescription for our soul’s ocular malady? Our divine optometrist has bestowed on us the greatest corrective lens in the universe: his very own Word. This is what the Gospel of John, from beginning to end, bears witness to. 

“Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” (Psalm 119:18). This is the prayer we need. It is only by God’s power and initiative that our eyes will be opened to behold him and his world as it truly is. 

We need help to see the King clearly and follow him fully. This is the act of faith that every other act of faith, great or small, is built on. Let us trust God, humanized forever in the person of our crucified King Jesus, and behold him together as he’s revealed himself in the Gospel of John. 

Equipped: How Role Playing Games Prepared Me for the Reality of Spiritual Warfare

Equipped: How Role Playing Games Prepared Me for the Reality of Spiritual Warfare

I grew up in a normal home (albeit broken, like all of us), but was never equipped with anything beyond a naturalistic, or maybe vaguely dualistic, view of the world. I thought what I saw was all there was, until people died; then there was heaven. But who knew what that was about? It seemed no one knew. 

The primary formative experiences giving me any sense of transcendence, or spirituality then, as odd as it sounds, were playing fantasy games like Zelda, Warcraft, or Diablo with my friends. I forged weapons and armor, battled dark forces of evil, and rescued allies from fire and death.

We were children equipped with the imaginations to rule the world (or at least our front yard), enacting this RPG-instilled transcendence IRL (in real life). 

Eventually, I did what I thought I had to do: I gave up childish ways. I stopped playing “those games.” Not coincidentally, this is also when a more staunch naturalistic worldview began to settle upon my perception of the world.

 

The Living King

Then a sandal-wearing, unarmed, slain Jesus walks into my life who is also now and forever the victorious, living King (Revelation 5:5-6). He obliterated my mistaken sense of self and sense of the world, and spoke words into my heart which the Spirit wielded like a sword to divide up the mess inside me, clear away the debris, and gave me new life (Hebrews 4:12, John 3:3-6). Jesus came to live inside me to empower me from the inside out by his Spirit. He invaded the territory of my life and sent me out to proclaim the excellencies of his glorious reign (1 Peter 2:9). My naturalistic perception became spiritual: as I came to understand that reality is more than what is seen.

 

The King’s Victory Prize

The apostle of our King (1 Corinthians 15:8), Paul writes to us of King Jesus’ equipping of his “saints,” his people-made-holy (Ephesians 4:12). This equipping occurs as a result of Jesus’ ascension–what some scholars have called his “ascension gifting” to the church. His ascension declares Jesus’ utter, overpowering victory against the spiritual powers of evil: having taken them captive, he now leads the captive forces in procession before his people. Then he divides the spoils among them, among us (Ephesians 4:7-11). The gifts of victory that Jesus gives us are precisely those associated with the giving of his indwelling Spirit (see Ephesians 3:16). Pentecost was the King’s victory prize bestowed upon his people (Acts 2:33). 

The subject of Holy Spirit-equipped living can be traced all throughout the book of Ephesians and reaches its climax in chapter 6. We are caught up in a cosmic battle, “not…against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness…” And if you weren’t convinced that Paul is talking primarily about the influence of personal, spiritual, demonic evil rather than merely worldly, political power alone, he sums up our battle as “against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12). These are the same spiritual entities over which Christ reigns supreme and to which the gathered people of God make known God’s manifold wisdom (Ephesians 1:21, 3:10).

 

The Unholy Trinity

Paul clearly states in Ephesians 2:1-3 that a biblically-formed and fully-orbed gospel includes within it this cosmic conflict. The reality of humanity becoming free from our sinful flesh is not about improving poor choices, but about defending against the influence of personal, spiritual evil on our minds and on the world around us. This passage is a quintessential example of the ancient framework of the unholy trinity, “the world, the flesh, and the devil,” which wages war against the Triune God and his image-bearers.

John Mark Comer has done fine work reinvigorating our understanding of this ancient framework in his book Live No Lies. While admitting the reality of paranormal, overtly charismatic experiences such as power encounters and exorcisms, Comer speaks of the reality of spiritual warfare, especially in the non-majority world, primarily taking place in the realm of evil ideas (the flesh), implanted by the lies of a personal Enemy (the devil, see John 8:44), that then become normalized in a sinful society (the world).

 

No Small Sins

We are at war with evil, but that war is more often a battle for the human imagination, as a primary route to the heart, than it is for the outward actions that flow from the heart. Capture our minds, covertly and “behind Enemy lines” as it were, convincing us to rationalize “small sins” as long as we’re not obviously engaging in rampant wickedness, and the enemy gains a stronghold in our hearts that’s frankly much harder to resist than an overt, all-out frontal assault (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).

C.S. Lewis is in full accord in Screwtape Letters, his masterful imaginative account of an arch-demon’s advice to his underling tempter-apprentice:

You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy [God]. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.

This safe road to hell is paved, not with good intentions (as the saying goes), but rather with captured imaginations, minds that have been vacated of the reality of the spiritual weightiness of thinking itself, of every thought, however minute a thought it may seem.

 

Stand Against the Darkness

How are we, then, to actually engage in this battle against the evil seeking to ensnare our minds and hearts, and thus our lives? In the face of this cosmic conflict, Paul’s heraldic conclusion to the church in Ephesus is to stand, he repeats three times. Then, recalling an Hebraic, prophetic formula, to be equipped, taking up the God-ordained instruments for spiritual battle (Epesians. 6:13-14, c.f. Isaiah 59:17). Having donned the necessary accoutrements, each encapsulating a necessary quality for, one might say, “defense against the dark arts” (Ephesians 6:14-17), we are then sent forth to… what? To vanquish our opponents? No; rather, Paul’s climactic commission into the fray is simply this: pray (Ephesians 6:18). This is how we stand firm together against the darkness. 

It is indeed a collective commission. Paul, as throughout Ephesians, is calling the church, the Body and Bride of Christ, to be thus equipped (Ephesians 1:22-23, 5:26-27). She is to become a veritable fortress of her God, clothed and crowned with her King’s gracious splendor (Revelation 12:1, 19:7-8, 21:2). Praying together is thus mission-critical, and all the more as the final Day draws nearer (Hebrews 10:25). Our charge is not to obtain victory–that has already been accomplished through the cross and empty tomb–but to stand firm by defending that victory for one another until its fullness comes rushing in on the hoofbeats of the King’s return (Revelation 19:11-16).

Prayer is essential. If we stand alone, without God’s supernatural strengthening and the combined power of our allies, we’re dead where we stand. Paul begins the whole section on God’s armor by calling us to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of this might.” (Ephesians 6:10). The essential battle practice of prayer is confirmed by Graham Cole, former Dean of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and professor of Systematic Theology: “Prayer rounds out the [armor], and in a way it returns the reader to the beginning, that is, to God, in whom the believer is to be strong. The practice of prayer is to suffuse the whole…The armor of God is not enough without the God of the armor, and prayer is the link.” (Against the Darkness, 169).

 

Fantasy-informed Reality

Beloved, we are in a spiritual battle. Spiritual warfare is very real indeed, much more real and substantial, that is, having a bearing on the substance of our daily lives, than many of the things we think of as real and substantial such as various religio-political ideals, socio-cultural norms, or gender stereotypes. That there is personal evil out there, influencing our minds and cultural systems and attempting to deceive and destroy us, is a radically non-postmodern notion. 

And yet, isn’t this much of the appeal of Tolkien’s legacy of high fantasy? There is a personal evil that seeks to “steal, kill, and destroy”–call it a “Dark Lord” and his forces (John 10:10). And there is the persevering banner of “the Light” that all peoples of good will gather under in an alliance against evil (Ephesians 5:8).

We are undoubtedly not formed to think in this way about our world today, excepting, I think, in the widespread popularity of RPGs. Role-playing fantasy games, when staying true to their Tolkien-formed, biblically-saturated roots, provide categories, affirmed in Scripture, with which to see the reality that, if we follow Christ as King, we have been drafted into the Son’s kingdom of light to ever resist Satan’s kingdom of darkness (Colossians 1:13, 1 Peter 5:8-9).

Let us therefore be unwavering to “take up the shield of faith…and the sword of Spirit, which is the Word of God” (Ephesians 6:16-17) and to “keep alert with all perseverance” in prayerful fellowship with our Spirit-wrought allies, not hesitating to embrace the radical idea of a real, personal, yet immaterial battle of Light vs. Darkness (Ephesians 6:18). Let us skillfully handle the Word of Truth, embodied in Christ and revealed in Scripture, declaring it boldly as if our lives and the lives of others depended on it (2 Timothy 2:15, Ephesians 6:20). Because, in reality, they do (John 1:1-14).

 

 

The Gospel According to Twenty One Pilots

The Gospel According to Twenty One Pilots

At the end of each concert, the two frontmen of the musical group Twenty One Pilots stand together on the stage, put their arms around each other, and smile at their fans as the cheers rise. Throughout the crowd, people lift signs with “Thank You” written on them. After a while the lead singer lifts the mic and gives them his parting words: “We’re Twenty One Pilots, and so are you.” As the duo walks off, the crowd continues shouting out their thanks for their music, performance, and, for many, their witness.

Yes, witness. Witness to what? What are the crowds gathering at these shows so grateful for

I believe the reason the fans of Twenty One Pilots are so profoundly impacted by their music is because through it, whether we realize it or not, we are getting a glimpse of, even becoming participants in, the good news of Jesus Christ. 

 

The Art of Our Everyday Work

I need only one song to show you an example of how this duo embeds the gospel into their artwork. They become a witness and a guide for us as we embed the gospel into our “artwork,” that is, the art of our everyday work.

“Trees” is the song Twenty One Pilots always performs to end their shows. Its basic flow traces the dialogue between God and a man who is hiding in the trees, silent and afraid in the face of his impending death. And yet God comes after him, initiating a conversation and showing his heart’s desire to be with him. 

Clearly, this recalls the aftermath of human rebellion against God in the Garden of Eden, giving voice to the interchange of Genesis 3:8-9. Adam and Eve stood naked and afraid, hiding from God amidst the trees, and yet he came after them. He called them out of hiding and invited them to be known, even in their sin. 

What the song does next is repeat this scenario by repeating the same set of three verses, but building to a much bigger finish. This gives the sense that the same dialogue between God and a man happens again, but with a different outcome. 

And indeed, this is what the good news proclaims! Jesus takes on our shame and faces his impending death, fearful and exposed before his Father as he sweats blood amidst the trees in the garden of Gethsemane, pleading for the cup of the cross to pass from him (Luke 22:42). But this man, the last Adam, remains obedient to the end (1 Corinthians 15:45, Philippians 2:8). He gives himself up to make our death his own, crying out while he stands nailed upright on one tree amidst others, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). This is echoed in the lyrics from “Trees”: “Why won’t you speak, where I happen to be?… Silent in the trees, standing cowardly.” 

 

God’s Heart Cry

Then, the climactic refrain at the end of the song invites a response: “I want to know you, I want to see, I want to say, Hello.” This is God’s heart cry. God came in the flesh to be with us, which is what he has been after since the beginning. He’s always initiating, starting a conversation with us. Not from afar, but here, where we are, in the midst of our sin and shame and death, even taking it all upon himself. Then he rose from the grave to new life and Mary saw him standing amidst the trees, mistaking him for the gardener, and he called out to her (John 20:15-16). The cross and the resurrection are God’s song of invitation to know a love stronger than death. 

So when a slight, dark-haired man stands in front of a stadium full of thousands at the end of a show, he sings out the refrain of that invitation: “Hello.” He repeats it throughout the song, bending over his microphone while his friend sits behind him hammering away at his drum set. Then the hellos stop, and after another chorus and some intervening “la la las,” the beat stops. A synth interlude rolls over the crowd. They’re anticipating. Waiting. They know what’s coming. As the two men make their way down from the stage, the security workers in the front lift two large tom drums on either side of the audience from the orchestra pit. A small platform comes next, one beside each of them. Then the spectators become participants. Drumsticks in hand, the two men climb onto the platforms, held up by the people who have spent the last 2 hours singing their guts out along with them. And then it comes.

Confetti drops like a snowstorm from the ceiling as the two men pound their drums in unison. In between beats (buh buh – pause – buda buh buh buh – pause) they point their sticks out to their “Skeleton Clique” (their fan club). And the clique responds, as if coming to life. The crowd shouts a resounding “Hey!” each time, responding to the invitation sung from the stage just moments before. When the music stops, the duo gets back on the stage and says goodbye.

An Invitation to Participate

This is how Twenty One Pilots ends their show, every time. If you’re curious, you can WATCH a recording. They have designed their music and performances with an invitation for fan participation. If my interpretation is right, they have written their music to be sung out so that the singers become participants in the gospel narrative hidden in its folds. This is what Twenty One Pilots has made with their artwork. They’ve not written “Christian music,” but music that nonetheless points to Christ in story-form. 

What about the artwork of our own lives? Have we received the message that we have to make “Christian art” or do “Christian work” to be impactful in God’s Kingdom? With the apostle Paul I say, “By no means!” (Romans 7:13). 

In your home or at work, with your spreadsheets, with your meetings, with your budgets, with your coworkers, with your friendships, with your relationships, with your sexuality, with your (dare I say it) politics, with your grief, with your depression, with your trauma, with every particularity that makes up your particular story…what would it look like to embed the gospel story into your own story? Every single facet of our story can become a witness and invitation for others to participate in God’s Story. 

But we have to know our story to do this. And the best way, indeed the only way to fully know ourselves is to know the God who knows us. We have to let God in, and respond to his invitation. We need to yell “Hey” when he sings “Hello.” The deep desire of his heart is for us to know him even as we have been fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12). 

 

Reflect on Your Own Story

So reflect on your own story. Write it, draw it, yell it, sing it, dance it, however the Spirit leads. Then invite others to listen to your story. Allow yourself to be known before God as two or three gather around to bear witness to the work of God in your life (Matthew 18:20). In doing so you offer up your story as a prayer, giving voice to the silent dialogues between your heart and God’s, thus training the ears of your heart to recognize your Shepherd’s voice (John 10:3).  

If you’re convinced, come with me and follow the path that Twenty One Pilots have laid, to imitate their artwork as they seem to be imitating Christ’s (1 Corinthians 11:1). Jesus himself told stories and lived a life that perplexed most, but for those who have ears to hear, he has spoken and lived the very words of life (Mark 4:9-13, Luke 8:8-10, John 6:60-69). Let’s participate in his life, and through our lives invite others to do the same.