A bog. The kingdom of God is like a bog. Maybe Jesus didn’t include it in his kingdom parables (or the gospel writers left it out), but I think it’s true all the same. If they’d had bogs in first-century Palestine, Jesus would have said it.
One summer when I was working as a wilderness guide in the Adirondack Mountains, I came across a definition of bogs at a wildlife center: “Places that are fringe-like and live by their own rules.” At the camp where I worked, we joked that this description makes our beloved camp a bog. Then, because Camp Fowler is the place that most resembles the kingdom of God to me, I started thinking about the kingdom of God as a bog. It fits.
The resemblance starts with this camp. I worked as a wilderness guide there every summer I was in seminary and up until my qualifying exams in my doctoral program. For many reasons, those summers are part of my sanctification. In seminary they kept me sane and probably saved me from myself. I spent a lot of time during the school year learning about God’s intentions for the world. I learned about creation, sin, salvation, sanctification, prevenient and justifying and sanctifying grace, about virtue ethics and eschatology. I learned what God had planned for the world and how we could participate in God’s redemptive work as we lean in toward the kingdom of God. But these ideas were all abstract and dressed in fancy clothes afraid to get dirty. I learned about these realities in a stark white lecture hall with harsh lighting and no windows. My seminary itself was the farthest thing I could imagine from the kingdom of God. Camp Fowler, though, embodied all the things I learned about the other nine months.
Working at Fowler I learned that Grace isn’t afraid to get His hands dirty in the garden. I learned that sometimes the Holy Spirit will speak to children without our mediation. All people are welcome at this camp, and that welcome is tangible—an extra chair pulled up at a table, big hugs, genuine listening, and even friendship among people who couldn’t be more different. Worship is loud and raucous and usually involves dancing. Canoes are by far the most beloved watercraft, and anything with an engine is assumed to be inferior because it moves too fast to see the world properly. Campers, staff, and volunteers alike take great delight in repurposing everything. Children assume that Jesus probably composted his food waste. This place is not like other camps, not like other places, and the lack of altar calls puts it on the fringe of its denomination’s camps. It plays by its own rules. As I understood my theology classes, it plays by kingdom rules.
For the kingdom of God, too, is fringe-like and plays by its own rules. As the kingdom of God presses against the seams of this world, sometimes bursting them wide open, it is by its nature at the fringe of our world, the edge of our vision. It is ever present but not always seen. Christ’s parables tell us of the upside-down ways of the kingdom—of prodigals welcomed home, of wedding feasts full of the outcasts, of mustard seeds prized, of seed scattered everywhere, of selling everything for a pearl—ways that could be described as its own set of rules.
Bogs are neither the prettiest nor the grandest places. Mountains will always call to more people than bogs. The rules of life in a bog are messy, full of algae and uncertainty and surprise. But bogs are teeming with life. And not just any life, either, but interesting life: dragonflies, moose, frogs, newts, beavers, and cranberries. Sphagnum moss is a vivid spring green and shouts for people to roll around on its spongy soft bed (if you haven’t tried this, you’re missing out on a true joy). That life is inviting. Bogs are tricky, too. Step in the wrong place, and suddenly you’re sucked into the mud up to your waist, the bog welcoming you as one of its own. You become part of the bog.
Even with the best intentions of professors, preachers, and administrators, the kingdom of God we learn about in seminary can come off as a sterile place. It’s not. It’s not pristine; it’s not made of stained glass; it’s not abstract. It is messy and inviting and full of the most interesting life. We should be looking for this kingdom, on the fringes. Get out of our classrooms and search for the places that are playing by their own rules. Pass time with these people, in these ecosystems, and discover there a reflection of God’s kingdom. Put a place and a way of life, an existential knowledge, alongside your (vital and invaluable) classroom knowledge. Find a place that shows you what the things you’re learning really look like. Hold that image in your classroom and as you do your homework. And watch your step. If you pass enough time in kingdom bogs, you may find yourself sucked in.