I remember the day I thought I had discovered a portal to another world. I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old. It was a bright, summer day. At least that’s how I imagine it. What I am probably actually remembering though is the feeling of long boredom. But that day, I wandered into my father’s room and started rummaging through the stuff on his desk. It was mostly piled with boring grown-up stuff, legal pads, brown clipboards, manilla folders and those giant black binder clips that I used to clasp onto the ends of my fingers to see how long I could take the pain before shaking them off like crabs. But across this expanse of office supplies, perched in the pewter Fighting Illini mug my father used for his pencils, was something I’d never seen before.
It was of medium size, larger at least than the pencils and scissors that it rested with. It had a black handle, and a round, silver head. It looked like one of those giant lollipops you only saw at carnivals and boardwalk candy stores. The area inside the head was made of some kind of glass that for some reason made everything blurry. I lifted it slowly out of its place and began to explore the world. It didn’t take me long to figure out that, held at the right distance, it didn’t make things blurry, it made things bigger. It was a magnifying glass.
Now the only thing I knew about magnifying glasses was what a friend told me at school. If you hold it up to the sun, it turns sunbeams into laser beams and fries bugs to a crisp. So I spent the next few minutes trying to kindle one of our dead window sill flies, without much luck. No laser beam, no fire, no crisp. Super bummed, I got up and took the glass to see what else I could see. I was already starting to get bored.
And that’s when it happened. I was holding the glass at about arm's length when for a split second everything inside it flipped. I can’t remember if I let out an audible gasp. I was too startled by what I just saw to notice. I had just stumbled across a portal to another world. One just like ours, but everything in it was upside down. The portal would disappear on me if I didn’t hold the glass in just the right place. But when I got the coordinates right, it would open up into that other world all over again. I saw it with my own eyes.
I didn’t tell anyone about my discovery for several days. It was my little secret and it was thrilling. Every chance I could get, I would slip away into my father’s room, shut the door behind me and, glancing over my shoulder, I’d check to see if this other world of mine was still there. And sure enough, there it was, every time, just waiting for me. Upside down. And I’d walk away smiling to myself at what an amazing place this universe was.
Then I learned about basic optics and focal points in school and the magic died and entire worlds were destroyed.
But if you would indulge me for a moment longer, hold in your imagination what my imagination thought it saw. An entire world, just like ours, except everything is turned upside down. An entire world, present everywhere and immediately available to us but invisible if you do not have the eyes to see. An entire world that opens up radically new possibilities and new ways of being that hold promise for the world we find ourselves in. I have come back to this looking glass moment in my childhood time and again when I think about the New Testament announcement to “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Because if the Gospel of Jesus Christ is true, and if Jesus is who he claims to be, then the invisible kingdom of God has irrupted into the time and space of our current reality. And for the Christian, this upside down kingdom of God’s grace is far more real to them than the social-material kingdoms we live in today. To repent is to turn one's entire life away from prior allegiances and reorient one's entire life in this world around the ways of the upside down kingdom of God. Indeed, all of the Christian life could be framed as training our eyes to see this “really real” kingdom as present all around us today and learning to live by the logic and ethos of that upside down kingdom now, even while remaining in the midst of the less-real world of this present age.
As Lesslie Newbigin put it “We must live in the Kingdom of God today in such a way that it provokes questions for which the gospel is the only answer.” Or in J.I. Packer’s words, a favorite quote of ours at Redeemer East Harlem, “The purpose of the church is to make the invisible kingdom visible.” The church’s life together is that portal that opens up a glimpse into what life looks like in the invisible, yet really real kingdom of God today. It is that looking glass that both magnifies and inverts. And if the church has rightly seen its role in the world as magnifying Christ in its worship, it has too often forgotten its other crucial role – of being the upside down community that embodies the power-inverting ethos of the kingdom, the upside down logic of grace. Where the world forms lives whose ambition is to be near the powerful and the rich, the church is to form lives whose ambition is to be near the vulnerable and the poor. Where the world forms lives that relish in being associated with the famous and the influential, the church forms lives that relish in being associated with the disreputable and the excluded. Where the world forms lives that ascend to the inner circles of the privileged and elite, the church forms lives that descend to the outer circles of the downtrodden and broken-hearted.
Our prayer at Until Zion is, to borrow the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that Christians today would “recapture the gospel glow of the early Christians, who were nonconformists in the truest sense of the word and refused to shape their witness according to the mundane patterns of the world … If the church of Jesus Christ is to regain once more its power, message, and authentic ring, it must conform only to the demands of the gospel … The [healing] of our world … will come, not through … the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority.” May the world peer into the church of Jesus Christ and gasp in amazed wonder at an entire world, just like theirs, yet where everything is turned upside down. May they catch a glimpse of the really real kingdom of God.