by Nate Ledbetter, March 2011
“When I am an old woman I shall wear purple.” – Jenny Joseph’s, “Warning”
I sat there, stunned. At first, I actually chuckled out loud with a nervous kind of laughter communicating my disbelief. And I was in a good, light-hearted mood until the truth set in. He was being serious. It was the pastor, you see. A well-intentioned man, I’m sure. We were attending a men’s gathering at his wealthy church with hundreds of people crammed into the room to hear a good friend share his life story. Somehow I ended up sitting next to the Senior Pastor, who casually mentioned to me that his helicopter was in the back behind the church. That’s when I chuckled. And that’s when he insisted he was serious, that he really had his own private helicopter with his own pilot waiting to escort him back home following the evening’s festivities, all provided to him by the church. He was big time.
I understand that some people have been given a platform that requires a level of adaptability between worlds, and I have friends who steward their resources with great care as they generously serve others in quiet and humble ways. I am not wagging a finger in judgment as I share this story; rather, I am expressing a deep concern for the institutional church as we know it. That night, I drove home to my neighborhood where approximately 40% of the people are unemployed, while the percentage rises among the under-employed.
And this might appear extreme in some ways, but I wonder what would happen if the North American church did a Kingdom audit on its values, priorities, and resources. What would we discover? Behind the audit, what would we find out about our motives and spirit? This question haunts me because I know how badly I need God’s heart to heal the brokenness of mine. Even many younger church start-ups appear to display a casual air that seems to say, “We’ve got this church thing figured out, and we’re going places.” And while our glossy brochures talk about empowering the poor with dignity, we know down deep that something is off kilter. The DNA of many mainstream churches seems to be self-focused, while the One quietly invites us to rise each morning in pursuit of justice, mercy and humility.
The book of James describes the greatest command of Jesus as “the royal law (1).” To love one’s neighbor is to represent the King, the God of all creation who made us to enjoy God, to love others, and to stand alongside the vulnerable. Like the religious leaders Jesus challenged and at whom He threw tables and spoke sternly, we now fly our pastors on private helicopters, building 80-million-dollar worship centers, forgetting that true royalty is not a matter of material wealth, and that being wealthy is not a Kingdom ace card.
This is not a simple matter. What I am attempting to say is that we have some hard thinking to do about what really is the Kingdom of God, where and how our life is under the influence of Jesus as King, and how we link the royal law of loving our neighbor to our identity as a royal Kingdom of priests. This is not about big buildings or even budgets per say. That conversation tends to make me tired. And yet we must wrestle with how God intends for us to leverage our institutions to restore struggling neighborhoods here and around the world.
When I was a pastor at Mars Hill in Grand Rapids, Michigan, we used to quote our favorite unknown author, “There are no God-forsaken places in the world, just church forsaken.” No matter where we live and work, the Spirit is with us, before us, paving the way ahead, and here we remember that the church was originally designed to be more of a movement of relationships than an institution. We organize, we pay our taxes, we follow the steps needed with our 501(c)3, but at the end of the day, God’s global royal remnant is meant to be all-embracing, expansive, and far-reaching, leading the way through quiet friendships among the poor and excluded. Our organization is meant to be a vehicle to empower movement, working to restore the dignity of all with respect to God’s image in every person and in every neighborhood.
It seems we’ve lost sight of our identity, and we’ve given ourselves over to a counterfeit royalty. We’re flying high above the struggle and pain as we look down toward our landing pad. I’m trying to get at the deep waters of the heart, and how that leads back up to the surface of purple royalty.
As we trace hue history, we find that purple eventually made its way around the world. From Mexico back to Greece, and from ancient China working west to the Mediterranean shores of Tyre, Tyrian purple was embraced by the powerful and religious. Even Lydia, a woman mentioned in the book of Acts who worshiped God and opened her heart to Christ, must have been a keen entrepreneur who was “a dealer in purple cloth.” The extravagant cost of purple throughout the ancient Near East marked the robes of emperors and kings, and even became known as Alexander the Great’s favorite color. Throughout the ages, human color psychology seems to equate purple with wealth. Even in all its unique meanderings, like inspiring the 1958 pop hit, “The Purple People Eater,” the color largely remains at a distance from common people. And yet I’m convinced that purple royalty was never intended to be an exclusive experience, where only a few elite people gain access to that fine color purple.
And I love purple. It’s a great color. To me, no matter how others have tried to define that color for us, it’s still purple, and it’s still beautiful; purple still seems to be a great royal color for the ages. And that’s what knocks the cover off the ball for me. The Scriptures seem to invite us into a whole new understanding of royalty. How ironic for Roman soldiers to drape a purple robe over Jesus as they mock Him just prior to offering His life as a ransom for many. Here we find the powerful placing of a symbol of privilege over the shoulders of Jesus, in mockery and accusation. And knowing His identity as the true King, Jesus receives this purple robe and seems to flip the color inside out toward a royalty of love. The King’s Kingdom has a royal law known as “love your neighbor.” And this love’s scope and focus is centered on the excluded, those on the outer circle, the marginalized and disinherited—the widow, the refugee, the poor, the orphan. Royalty, as “the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood (2),” is now accessible to everyone. Royalty came to us, adopted us, and gave us a new family.
Everything Jesus calls us to seems to focus on the heart. What are my motives? Where are we putting energy and why? When Jesus comes onto the scene, he challenges the old school purple thinking. He reveals a counterfeit purple where the color fades and the cloth eventually shrinks back to its original motive. We don’t have time to become disillusioned with church or much of anything else. Too much is on the line. Too much is at stake. My love for the living church is growing, and I pray for God to re-kindle in all of us a hopeful spirit of listening with on-the-ground love in motion.
And this is where I feel compelled to listen to the Global church and to anyone asking risky Kingdom questions. There are many leaders and pastors around the world who are living life at the edge, learning alongside the poor, restoring distressed communities into wholesome places, expanding the reach of the living church. There are many who are living by faith and not by sight.
I remember the day Saddam Hussein’s statue was torn down in Iraq. My wife, Melissa, and I were in the Middle East, participating in a global conference with pastors and workers throughout the region and North Africa. In the middle of a seminar, a man burst open the door with a cell phone held high as he announced the news of a fallen statue. In that moment, people from all over the world responded differently. Some were cheering, others were weeping, and still others calmly walked outside and paced back and forth in reflection. These were followers of Jesus from different countries and cultures, holding different perspectives, while standing together in prayer to the same King. Days later, some Egyptian friends took us out for an evening on the Nile River only to discover the police were following us by boat as they watched our every move. As I reflect upon those moments, I am humbled to have been in the presence of royalty, those who are risking their lives as a Kingdom of priests, wrestling daily with what it means to love one’s neighbor in that region of the world.
The writer of Romans reminds us, “Owe nothing to anyone–except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law (3).” This law of love is not enforced with rules or religion. It’s a free invitation to new life under the influence of justice, mercy, and humility. It’s a law of liberation found in Jesus, setting us on a path of hopeful direction where our hearts are free to run and risk and trust. I am learning that purple is beautiful because royalty is no longer insulated, but invitational, not only inward, but outward too.
The result of our royalty is meant to overflow into our streets and cities, where love takes root in the places around us. And at the helm of Christ’s robe is healing and hope, where God is quietly whispering to the broken, “You are beautiful. You are valuable. You are royalty.” May we rise up to the challenge in our neighborhoods and barrios and villages. We are people of the King and all our brothers and sisters are included in the family where purple is the appropriate color. Now, let us awaken as a people of purple and live out our royalty, representing our King through the love of neighbor.
1. James 2 – New International Version 2. I John 1 – The Message 3. Romans 13 – New Living Translation