Where We Are Headed

The best insight into where we are headed came through my barber. His name is Blue. He is an African-American millionaire who owns a group of Houston salons called A Shaving Grace and who runs a successful income tax business. A stylist was out that day due to the virus, so Blue had stepped in to take her place. Blue’s story began with gangs, passed through prisons, and was perfected by the gospel. Everything about this man dripped with grace. But he became a fiery prophet when he spoke of our country.

“We have chosen Saul over David,” he said, in full hearing of all who were there. “We want everything to look good while we sin. Saul might look good, but he’s no good. He can’t cover our sin. Once one domino falls, they all fall, and there ain’t no cover-up that can take care of that. We’d better repent or God’s gonna take us apart. We gotta understand that Jesus is king. ”

Blue’s Saul-over-David comment refers to the story of the Israelites when they demanded a king for themselves who looked the part. (I Sam 8:7-9) The prophet Samuel warned them, but they insisted. They ended up with Saul, a leader who looked good but was full of pride, envy, and manipulation. It did not go well for the nation. 

But the king God had chosen for them did not look the part: ruddy, lusty  David. He wore no armor. He wore little at all. But he was brave. 

We will need to be brave, too.

We are headed into a season where unusual courage will be required, more than we have ever needed. We are headed into a world that will look more and more like the one Anthony of the Desert (Egypt A.D. 251-356) foresaw when he prophesied:

“A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, ‘You are mad, you are not like us.’”

From the Apophthegmata Patrum (Sayings of the Fathers)

But there are reasons to take heart in the day of courage, for along with the conflicts to come will also come heaven’s resources. Here are three of those resources. Here is where we are headed.

We are headed toward the

  • Recovery of a supernatural worldview
  • Role of a referee
  • Revealing of a kingdom culture

  1. Recovery of a Supernatural Worldview

It will become increasingly clear that human leaders are influenced by the spiritual realm. Indeed, in some cases, it will seem that they are not only influenced but animated by that realm, as if not possessing a will of their own. It is pride that connects people to the cosmic powers that use them. (See the “Second Heaven” portion of this essay). 

This is not a novel idea. It is an ancient one buried under a two-century experiment in which man decided to call himself “modern” by closing a  compartment door on the supernatural and confining himself to that which contained rational explanations only. The shorthand for this modern project is called “the Enlightenment.” A whole lot got done during that two-century experiment, especially in the realms of technology, medicine, and representational government. But we have paid a price: we are left divorced from the Spirit. We do not know what moves us. For in our attempt to throw out the bathwater of superstition we have flung the infant Christ out as well.  

The prophet Isaiah states where we are headed when it comes to a recovery of the supernatural worldview. He connects earthly leaders with their spiritual counterparts.

On that day the Lord will punish the host of heaven, in heaven, and the kings of the earth, on the earth. 

Isaiah 24:21 (ESV)

Yes, for the one who watches the symbolism of what is going on around them, the relationship between the visible rulers and the invisible ones will become increasingly clear. 

Take the tearing in half of the State of the Union address on February 4th, 2020, for example. When the Speaker of the House stood and immediately ripped in two her copy of the president’s speech the moment he had spoken the final word of it, it was an ominous sign.   

But you have to be looking for these things, not with a view to talking loudly about them, but with a view to praying and loving your neighbor. You have to discover what Blue the barber discovered when his eyes fell on Psalm 25:14 while lying on a penitentiary cot:

The Lord confides in those who fear Him, and reveals His covenant to them.

Psalm 25:14 (Berean Translation)

When He shows you a sign, He is treating you like a friend. He trusts you enough to share with you what He sees. He is preparing you to be the referee, the intercessor you will need to be in the conflicts to come.

2. Role of a referee

We have moved away from a culture of debate to a culture of coercion:  “You are not like us, therefore you are a threat, therefore you will suffer the consequences.” This is the spirit that is at work in the air of public space: a pressure to conform and perform. 

Much coercion of conscience will take place, much image engineering and shaming, much attempt at guilt atonement without faith in the work of the cross. It will be a season of unparalleled self-righteousness: “You are guilty, and you should be ashamed. Atone for it. Cover yourself with our words and our ways and our appearance. For we are the experts. We are the true guides. Join us or be ashamed.” Not just one side or group will shout this. Many will. It will become hard, very hard, for the unpretentious person who desires to live life in simplicity and dignity. 

As those who belong to Christ, we will be caught in the middle. But this position is the perfect one to be in if we are to maximize our influence.

We have to be present and free of pride, lest the cosmic powers animate us like the very people we have accused of being evil. We are vulnerable to being reviled by either side of any conflict, depending on what honest-hearted  call we make on any given situation. But over time, this will build trust among the sincere on all sides. For people will see we are beholden to no one.

During the years 1997 through mid-2001, I lived under the coercive culture of the Taliban in Afghanistan, a network of power that demanded radical conformity.I discovered this irony about them: it was the non-Taliban Sikh community whom they trusted with family money. (Sikh men are recognizable by their vow of uncut hair and colorful turbans.) Why were they trusted? Because they were no one’s nephew in the network of power. They were the faithful outsiders who were good managers. Therefore, if anyone needed to deposit collateral, save up for a marriage, or protect the family inheritance, they did it with the families of India who had prospered in Kabul since the days of Guru Nanak (1469-1539).  Behind the simplicity of their cloth mercantile tradition was the highly valued role of being the neutral third party with other people’s money. Everyone on both sides of anything knew the Sikhs would not run off with it. And they never did.

It will be the same where we are headed. We are headed into that trusted third-party role. At present, those of us who belong to Christ might be categorized as quaint; the kind of co-worker or relative who may be respected for their earthly skills but whose faith is mostly irrelevant:  “You’re the religious one; please pray a polite prayer at the Thanksgiving meal.” But the day will come when those same voices that restricted us to meal-time blessings will say,  “We are broken; you are held together by Another. Would you speak into our situation?” 

In that day, it will not necessarily be our doctrine or dogma that is  convincing — for we are also headed into a world weary of words. No, it will be our wisdom and insight that is convincing. Indeed, for some, they will no longer call it only wisdom and insight. They will call it “the spirit of the holy gods” (Daniel 4:9). But we will know it is the Spirit of Christ who has chosen to live in the fractured mud-brick residence of ourselves. 

A peacemaker is, as Jesus describes him or her, a “son of God.” (This is representational, not biological; it is much deeper than DNA.) A peacemaker is not a son of worldly power. He is no one’s pawn or puppet, nor does he pretend to affirm a value he himself does not believe in. It is in this sense that he can be perceived as a threat to those ruled by the value of control, for no one can buy him off. And yet that same integrity is what causes those in control to keep coming back to him, for his counsel will be spin-free, and that’s a rare thing. 

Like the baseball umpire who calls balls and strikes, he is present but set apart. He suffers, but he is neither a winner nor a loser in terms of the game at hand. He represents a higher authority, indeed, the authority. He is a viceroy of the Creator, by whom all authority, power, and government is established and anointed — notwithstanding how much they may have fallen from their intended glory. Though the arena of this world is indeed a very real one of winners and losers, there is something about his nature which is securely itself, such that winning or losing does not define him. This calm confidence will cause puzzlement, annoyance, and at times offense among those who are completely lost in the matrix of power and control. 

We are headed into a world where on-camera you may be mocked, but off-camera those same people who mocked you will come to you for healing. There will be those who seem to put on a zip-up “demon suit” railing you in public yet, in private, take it off and become little children before you, weeping in your arms. This is because they do not know who they are. But you do. This is why you are a peacemaker. This is why you are headed into a role as referee for the conflicts to come. 

3. Revealing of a kingdom culture 

You are at home in your culture, and you are like them. You swap recipes and share sports teams. And yet you are not like them at all. You are a pilgrim passing through, as the singer Randy Travis says. Your life at one and the same time affirms and critiques the culture. 

This is the redemptive side of a cultural meltdown. When things melt, what is solid remains. If you belong to Christ, you are part of what remains, the “mountain not made by human hands” organically growing  even as earthly eras make their transitions (Daniel 2:34-35). It is not pleasant. Our eyes should pool with tears to behold it. But it has always been this way. Always. 

Mathetes, one of your ancient spiritual ancestors, put it this way when attempting to explain to the elite of his day the kingdom-culture contrasting with the ways of sin and control:

They dwell in their own countries but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table but not a common bed

They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws in their lives. 

They love all, and are persecuted by all… They are poor, yet they make many rich; they are completely destitute, and yet they enjoy complete abundance. . . They are reviled, and yet they bless…When they do good they are punished as evildoers; undergoing punishment, they rejoice because they are brought to life.

~ Mathetes, Epistle to Diognetus, A.D. 120

History is punctuated by the lives of women and men who were fully engaged in the world they lived in — culturally, politically, relationally — and yet were not of that world. They were a sign of the messianic king to whom all people are accountable, for one Maker made them all.  They revealed a kingdom culture.

One of those who profoundly modeled this was John Ellison Vassar (1813-1878), a former New York brewery owner who visited the armies gathering for the Battle of Gettysburg. To those wearing the blue uniform and to those wearing the gray — foot soldiers and generals alike — he asked the same leading question: “Do you love Jesus?” As if to say, “If you are right about something but arrogant, what have you gained? And if you die courageously tomorrow for your cause, do you not know that only faith, hope, and love remain? Do you know you will look Him in the eye and be called to account for these things?” (See this Google Docs article for more on Vassar.)

This is where we are headed. You are recovering a supernatural worldview. You are becoming a referee for the conflicts to come. You are learning to live out the culture of the king, the one to whom all, yourself included, will give account. 

It will take the courage of young David. It will require abandoning the way of Saul that Blue the barber has warned us about. We who belong to the king will not be known for our ability to force our way to the top. We will not be known for our cleverness or conformity to correctness. But we will be known for our humility, our honesty, and our set-apart lifestyle: in a word, our vulnerability. It is this kind of courage that sets others free, albeit at our expense. Like David’s five smooth stones of his slingshot, this kind of courage penetrates complexity and  clears the way for many to move forward without fear. (I Sam 17) Like un-armored, unadorned David, the only thing we will have will be the simplicity of belonging to Jesus and the humility to obey what His Scriptures and His Spirit instruct us to do. 

And when we do this, we will find we are right in the middle of things as a peacemaker and a prophetic sign. A dawn displacing darkness.  


© Kurt Mähler

Art: Details from Michelangelo’s David (1501-1504). Second, digitally enhanced detail courtesy of software engineer Kaleo Brandt

Game photo: Oakland California – July 21, 2010: Red Sox vs. Athletics: Red Sox hitter David Ortiz up to bat with Kurt Suzuki Catching and umpire behind at the Coliseum.

Blue’s statements are a paraphrase of a much longer and penetrating oratory given on 27 Nov 20.

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  • Stephanie Hilton says:

    Kurt these are timely words. As I was reading your entry I began to feel my muscles relax and peace rest upon me. Your words and the words of Blue and the others set my feet back where they belong, turning my eyes back to our Peacemaker, Jesus, where they belong. Thank you!

    • Kurt Mahler says:

      Your words remind me of what an English horseback riding instructor in the Arabian Peninsula told me: “The key to winning the heart of your horse is to impart the tone of confidence without the tension of fear.” It is this “tone without tension” that you are describing and experiencing. I am thankful, Stephanie. ~ km

  • Rosemary Stovall says:

    As usual Kurt, your wisdom is on point. Thanks for sharing what I already knew was ahead with encouragement on how to walk it out in Jesus. You have been my spiritual hero for years, from the day you offered to get a flogging in Kabul for your neighbor to your miraculous hand of God departure from the country. Love y’all. Keep the wisdom coming.

  • Monica Hernandez says:

    Thank you for sharing this Kurt. This week I have been reflecting on the meaning of Emmanuel: “God is with us”. May it be so for all who call upon His name this year. Love you guys!

  • Liz Stovall says:

    I agree that it will take great faith and courage as we continue to live in this country. I also know that God will provide just exactly what we need when we need it.

    • Kurt Mahler says:

      Your phrase “faith and courage” is an instructive one. There is another, less savory pairing that is possible, which is the pairing of despair with courage. Through the ages people have paired them and tried to make the best it: “If the end is coming, then I will make such an end so as to be worthy of remembrance.” The Romans called this kind of defiant courage “the love of fate” [amor fati]. But such a courage, though inspiring, is tragic, for it still seeks a father who deeply loves, genuinely enjoys, and fully provides. May we each discover the self-giving nature of the Father, that faith may join our courage. ~ km

  • Andrew Estrada says:

    Love this article Kurt!

    Interestingly, I’ve been brooding on the idea of a “third-party” rising up for the past 5-10 years that would influence in the middle. Taking the best ideas from both sides in submission to the Word. Advocates for social issues (racial reconciliation, justice for the poor, etc), economic policy that makes sense, true “pro-life” (rejection of abortion, skepticism of war, and the upholding of adoption and supporting the orphan).

    I never thought of it in the sense that the Church is the “third-party”! This makes so much sense, thank you for sharing!

    • Kurt Mahler says:

      You are welcome, Andrew. I’m glad the essay helped supply you with words to what you had already been pondering. We have to remember that being third party is costly. It is not pain free. Take the Sikh community of Kabul I mention in the essay, for example. While they were considered trustworthy managers of funds by the ruling elite at the time I lived there, a few would inflict them with harsh treatment instead. Along with Hindus, they were forced to wear yellow arm bands. Though such shaming is gone in Kabul, their set-apart ways continue to occasionally attract the few who would cause them much pain, at times to the point of death. So, as long as we understand that suffering is a part of the privilege of being a trusted third party, I think we will keep our salt when the day for courage comes. ~ km

  • M. Bonow says:

    Wow Kurt! Just wow. So thankful for this. There are a lot of lines that require me to ponder further and that will stick with me in 2021.

    Lines like:

    “But you have to be looking for these things, not with a view to talking loudly about them, but with a view to praying and loving your neighbor.”

    “But the day will come when those same voices that restricted us to meal-time blessings will say, ‘We are broken; you are held together by Another. Would you speak into our situation?’ ”

    “A peacemaker is not a son of worldly power, [but his] integrity is what causes those in control to keep coming back to him, for his counsel will be spin-free, and that’s a rare thing.”

    “There will be those who seem to put on a zip-up “demon suit” railing you in public yet, in private, take it off and become little children before you, weeping in your arms. This is because they do not know who they are. But you do. This is why you are a peacemaker.”

    “We will not be known for our cleverness or conformity to correctness. But we will be known for our humility, our honesty, and our set-apart lifestyle: in a word, our vulnerability. It is this kind of courage that sets others free, albeit at our expense.”

    Thank you Kurt! You have inspired courage with these words.

  • Kristin Hill says:

    Wow. Going to share this. God bless you and your family.

  • Grant says:

    Thank you Kurt. This is a timely word and a good “refocus”. Thank you for the encouragement!

    • Kurt Mahler says:

      Thank you, Grant. Your word “refocus” reminds me of my Border Collie. His gift is something shepherds call “the eye.” It is his nature to intensely fix his eyes on the sheep he will shepherd — or in my case, on the tennis ball he will catch. I throw it, he joyfully retrieves it, drops it in front of me, and fixes his eyes once again on the ball. He reminds me daily of what it means to refocus! [I am thankful to Jeff & April Campbell of Dual Oaks Farms, South Carolina, for introducing my family to our Border Collie.

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