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Bring In Your Kingdom
by Rev. Nathan Hill
During my family’s recent vacation, I inexplicably found myself deep in thought and reflection about heaven and hell - about what happens to us when we die.
And no, it was not because I am theological nerd.
When you spend over 12 hours in a car with a six year old and a four year old, your mind goes to dark places.
But what really triggered these thoughts was a movie my kids watched from their back seat - Toy Story 3.
How many of you have seen Toy Story 3?
The Toy Story movies are a series of Disney/Pixar children films about a group of toys owned by a boy named Andy and their adventures as they deal with being replaced, sticking together, and discovering their purpose. I’ve watched all three of them quite a few times - they are big hits in the Hill household. Fun stuff. What was different this time was the fact that I could only listen, and as I listened, I couldn’t help but hear the ways this movie speaks about how we understand the afterlife.
In Toy Story 3, the plot centers on the fate of Woody, Buzz, Jesse, and their gang of toys as their world is literally being torn apart. Their owner Andy has grown up, and he is moving off to college. The toys know they are facing their possible demise. The best case scenario? The toys get dropped into the attic to wait and wait and wait until maybe Andy gets married and has kids someday. The worst case scenario? They are put out with the trash. Stuck in this conflict, with their world no longer making sense, with their owner no longer giving them a sense of purpose, they feel their fates, their future, literally hanging in the balance.
For some people, vacation is like the most attractive thought in the world until it comes time to pick up and go somewhere else and have… fun. Inevitably, like an invisible spider web, work or thoughts of work grasp us and weave back into our minds and routines. Pretty soon, we are wondering about the office, scheduling, task lists, visions, changes, and so on.
And so we forget that we are supposed to be having fun, relaxing, laughing, or just doing something unrelated to that which gets us a paycheck.
One of my growing commitments to myself is to try not to answer phone calls and emails on my day off, just because I am one of those people that takes any excuse to look at my phone. Since I get all my emails (including work emails) on my phone, yes, it’s tough to peel away. It feels irresponsible not to respond to someone’s email right away, even if I am hundreds of miles away celebrating life with my family.
Yes, those are pretty fireworks, honey, but let me respond to this planning thread real quick.
This wouldn’t be such a big deal if it wasn’t that I try to be a follower of that guy Jesus, who in the midst of launching a revolution about loving neighbors, caring for the poor, and transforming an unjust world, took time off to shut up and go pray by himself. Or sleep on a boat. Or notice the way farmers, fishermen, widows, and birds did their business. Jesus liked to hang out with the wrong people and was accused of being a glutton and a drunk. He must have loved parties.
Core to Jesus’ Jewish faith was the concept of Sabbath. This practice suggested that life was meant to have a regular routine of work and rest - life was better with such a practice in place. At least once a week, people needed to rest and savor life. Rest meant more than just lying around and sleeping - it meant honoring one’s relationships. Some theology professor once told me that sabbath for rabbis even meant making love with one’s spouse.
Intrinsic to all of this and why we have such struggle as post modern people living a fast-paced capitalist world, our society tells us that our value comes from working, contributing to society or to our families in some significant way. Certainly, there is a lot of value from hard work and being successful in our toil - but Sabbath pushes back and suggests something a little different. It perhaps reminds us that our value also ultimately comes from our identity as created beings who are woven into a web of relationship with those we around us and our broader world - and that all of this is meant to be enjoyed and savored, even if for just one day out of the week.
The picture above is from a brief visit to the Red Rock Canyon, near where I grew up in Hinton, OK. I hadn’t been back in a long time, and it was awesome to go and have memories flood back from exploring that canyon as a kid. Like the stump at the end of Shel Silverstein’s book, the Giving Tree, the brief visit was an opportunity to sit and rest and savor the beauty of this world that I share with so many others.
For further reading on Sabbath, check out my friend and colleague James Ellis’ excellent sermon, here.
Written by Rev. Nathan Hill / University Christian Church
Note: This was my out of the box approach to Jeremiah’s call story that I shared with my congregation on Sunday. I sat out a table, big office chair, cup of coffee, and manila folder right in front of the communion table, reading as if I were God and interviewing Jeremiah for his occupation. Yes, it was irreverent and a bit risky - but it worked. I actually ended by naming congregation members who were next in line for their interview that day. “Let’s see who is next…”
Ahh, good morning. Welcome. Come in and have a seat.
Let me introduce myself.
I am God.
Yes, that’s right - spelled G-O-D.
And for the record, there is no “O” before or “damn” afterwards. Just God. I also go by the names - Creator, Yahweh, Awesome Lord, and the Boss.
But enough about me, let’s talk about you.
You are here today to interview for a job, a great job, one of the best jobs in the family business. It is a demanding job with long hours and grueling labor, but it has great benefits, including the opportunity to work closely with me and a pretty good after-death policy. In short, with this position, your name will be revered, and your work will be celebrated by generations of people to come. It’s that good.
Shall we take a look at your resume?
Oh, I’m sorry. I notice your confusion. Being a Jew living sometime around 620 BC, you probably have no idea what a resume is. Or a job interview for that matter. Never mind all that - let’s just move along.
It says here that your name is Jeremiah. That’s a good name. In Hebrew, you know of course that it means “Yahweh has uplifted”. Much better than Scott. (No offense to any Scotts in the house today.)
Your father is Hilkiah, a good priest. I know him well, though he does get a little long-winded with the prayers sometime. Uh, don’t tell him I said that.
Ahh, you grew up in Anathoth, a little village, just about 4 km north of Jerusalem, right? To city folk, you were probably seen as a country kid, but you and your family were close enough to Jerusalem to get word of all the juicy gossip and events unfolding among the kings and priests of your people. Must have been exciting. Kind of like living along the beltway of the Jerusalem world.
Oh, I’m sorry again. I realize you already know this stuff. So, how about some things you don’t know?
I grew up in a pretty conservative Christian culture in rural southwest Oklahoma, where being a follower of Jesus sometimes turned into a weird measuring contest about who could be the most strict, especially about popular media.
The scripture that often got tossed around was 2 Corinthians 10:5 from the King James Version of the Bible: “Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ;”
Basically, one verse becomes justification to dismiss anything you don’t like or understand, including movies, novels, comic books, music, art, or creative expression, especially if it is not explicitly labeled or funded by a Christian entity. Of course, I heard lots of religious types rail against this popular media but then turn around and catch the latest blockbuster anyway. It’s another silly example of “do as I say, not as I do”.
The problem is that the word imagination is ultimately a positive one. I was fortunate enough to be raised by parents who didn’t deter us from using the gift of our minds and creativity, whether it was playing guitar, watching great adventure movies, acting in school plays, reading tons of science fiction and fantasy books, or enjoying nights with our friends playing nerdy roleplaying games. Our imagination was a gift to be used to bring joy to life, not an enemy to be cast out.
And if there is one thing that the life of faith needs in this postmodern, shifting world, we need imagination.
We need communities of faith who can think outside the box and imagine possibilities to engage with people creatively, honestly, and generously.
We need individuals and groups of people who are not afraid to dream big or small about impacting their neighborhood, getting youth off the streets, blessing homeless families, tackling creation care, and offering alternatives to our conflict-addicted way of life.
We need more musicians and artists (in and outside the church) who wrestle with their faith and create beautiful things about doubt, anger, hope, joy, sadness, and pain.
I think some people get scared of imagination because it challenges us to see things from different angles and ask tough questions of everything in our lives, especially our theology and beliefs. A healthy imagination can be a great antidote against easy answers. So, don’t cast it out - embrace it.