The Kingdom Doesn’t Sparkle

Cole Jones is the RUF Intern at the University of Virginia. Cole was raised in Nashville, Tennessee and quickly developed a love for the outdoors and sports at a young age. He went one state south for college, to the University of Alabama where he majored in Management Informations Systems and began painting in his free time. Putting computer science, art, and a global wanderlust aside, Cole followed a decisive tug to work for RUF at UVA and is enjoying his work with UVA students in his new Virginian home.

The University of Virginia sparkles in the morning. 

As the sun rises over UVA, the manicured grass, the polished landmarks, and, most centrally, Thomas Jefferson’s refurbished Rotunda all glimmer with the same glory as the bodies that fill them. They emerge at 8:30, not as a rule but as a rhythm, and with tired eyes from a late night of play or productivity, students stumble into a jog. Some run half-marathons, others half-miles, but with form-fitting athleisure and sparkling skin, they wave to a friend, look good while doing it, and check the box before 9 AM.

The streets of Charlottesville are full of impressive people in the morning, but running is not universal, nor is it exclusively a vice. It is paradigmatic, though, of 17,000 people who work and play with the same voracity: manicuring, polishing, and refurbishing themselves into something glorious. UVA is spectacular. Trouble, however, arises in the sparkle.

The hiccup of living in a factory of self-actualization is that it turns out to be quite dehumanizing. By embracing a four-year assembly line of omni-competence, students become a project to themselves, the school morphs into a stage for performance, and their counterparts are reduced to measurable entities to compete or compare against. But our crucified God tells us that His kingdom is neither a factory, nor an assembly line; His humans are not comparable data, but the closest thing on earth to Him. In the environment of UVA, this kingdom of rest feels so discouragingly unrealistic that students have no choice but to reduce it, like their own Imago Dei, to an interesting and uncompelling idea that is considered but never lived with their actual bodies.

Our murdered King affirms and challenges: Indeed, it will be hard for a UVA student to see His kingdom. Due not to its unreality, but because it does not come flying in on wings of glory and sparkling skin. It comes only in obscurity, drafting on the hidden spirit of humility, a complete reversal of what we’ve known. 

Luke 17 tells us, “When he was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with something observable; no one will say, ‘See here!’ or ‘There!’ For you see, the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

It is here, but it is hidden.

UVA is often a dry land of analysis and entities, but artistic imagination revives us like a fresh rain. For our first Large Group of the semester, I created and gave out the following artwork of the Rotunda as a poster print. As with the students, I’ll leave contemplation to you and provocation to the Spirit.

The prints were intriguing and aesthetically pleasing to the students. The danger, though, is that the art would only perpetuate kingdom-life-in-theory and never in body and in heart. So, I placed sticker versions to remind and re-orient students to the reality of true glory that God calls us back into. I hid them where you’ll have to search and think: a homeless person’s bench, the bathroom stall of the Corner’s most popular bar, above our heads and below our feet. 

After we placed them, I elaborated in Large Group:

“Look, our hope is not for you to be the perfect Christian. RUF doesn’t exist to create perfect Christians. That doesn’t exist, anyway. No one expects that. You don’t master the kingdom, you live in it with the King.

My hope is that you walk throughout your day and search for these reminders of the kingdom—on the Corner, on 14th street, on University Circle, or past the Rotunda—free from the kingdom of the world and whispering under your breath from deep within your heart: ‘God, I love you. Thank you for my freedom’.”

Texts like these remind us He is at work: