Admittedly I put the word “evangelicals” in the title of this blog post as click-bait, to some degree. I’ve been so busy trying to start a coffeehouse that I’ve blogged only one other time this month so I need to make up for my abysmal numbers. But I used Lou Reed in my opening sermon of the school year in a completely inappropriate and yet actually valid reference to the kingdom of God and so I wanted to share about it.
Reed’s famous band the Velvet Underground has a song called “Heroin” that’s always haunted me because of the first verse:
I don’t know just where I’m going
But I’m gonna try for the kingdom, if I can
‘Cause it makes me feel like I’m a man
When I put a spike into my vein
And I tell you things aren’t quite the same
When I’m rushing on my run
And I feel just like Jesus’ son.
Yes, it’s about heroin. Yes, it’s awful to glamorize heroin. Yes, his references to the kingdom and to Jesus are probably haphazard. But ever since I first encountered this song in college, the first two lines have basically become my autobiography: “I don’t know just where I’m going but I’m gonna try for the kingdom, if I can.”
Trying for the kingdom. Doctrinal sticklers will probably quibble with the word “try” because justification by faith means that you don’t try (or you don’t admit that you’re trying). You just sit really piously and receive God’s grace mysteriously without making any effort (supposedly). Except that when I read trying, I’m reading something different than trying to be morally perfect or to accrue the most community service hours.
Trying for the kingdom of God means that every day of my life I’m looking for it. Desperately. Like a deer in search of water. Like a watchman waiting for the morning. And when I say looking for it, I mean that it’s not just a metaphor or a concept. It’s a reality that is completely physical even though it’s transcendent. It’s a lens through which the same reality is perceived but illumined by unspeakable glory.
The way that I hear many evangelicals and other theology nerds talk about the kingdom, it makes me think they haven’t had a direct physical encounter with it. Or maybe they have but they didn’t make the connection. The kingdom is not a theological construct that serves a rhetorical purpose in the Calvinist explanation for everything; nor is it a word for what the world looks like when all my social justice causes are achieved; nor is it a Disneyland heaven that only happens after we die. It’s an actual physical reality that cannot be explained but only evoked through parables.
It haunts the world that is controlled by the paradigms and narratives of the powerful which can never snuff it out. It is the one space that the global market cannot colonize. It looks like a tiny seed that becomes a giant weed, yeast that stirs up dough, a secret treasure buried in a field that makes a man sell everything else he owns just to sit and look at it.The Eastern Orthodox theologians taught me that Jesus’ Transfiguration is the world as it really is and we just can’t see it because of our sin. That’s become the primary framework with which I understand the process of Christian salvation. It’s a mystical awakening that starts when we are liberated from idolizing and justifying ourselves. It’s like the polishing of glass that we only see through “dimly” at first.
Here are two key verses in this regard:
Blessed are pure in heart for they shall see God. [Matthew 5:8]
Unless one is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God. [John 3:3]
I believe God gave us dopamine so we could taste his kingdom, so that we wouldn’t just be animals or logical robots, but humans who marvel and rejoice and even fall to the ground in rapture when the glory overwhelms us. I’ve done drugs before. Never heroin. They aren’t healthy and I don’t advocate doing them. But I do wonder if God somehow beckoned me into a deeper mystical reality when I was in a psychedelic frame of mind.
I see the dopamine rush of drugs in comparison with a direct experience of God’s kingdom as being analogous to the relationship of porn to sex. It’s a counterfeit version of an experience that can actually be very real and palpable. The difference between the two is that drugs make us stupid and unstable; encountering the kingdom of God in full sobriety involves the same dopamine rush but within a stable, intelligible mental frame.
I sat on a bench on Riverside Drive in Manhattan about two years ago around sunset. Who knows? Maybe Lou Reed sat on that bench once. But for about thirty glorious moments, the kingdom of God overwhelmed me. Words can’t capture the intensity of the ecstatic spiritual experience I had. The only analogy I can make is that it was like a version of being stoned that didn’t involve the paranoia or forgetfulness.
The streetlamps became lovely. The leaves were dancing on the ground. And I found myself compelled to ask God’s blessing on every car that drove past. I think it was the same thing that Thomas Merton described on a street corner in Louisville, Kentucky. The universe was filled with love. And for that brief window of time, I was able to see that that was what the universe really is.
I’ve had other moments since then, but nothing quite that glorious. So I keep on wandering, not knowing where I’m going but trying for the kingdom every day.
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