When my family gets together, the conversation eventually turns to church. On my Cunningham side, it’s the family business going back three generations and we love to talk. On my Brasher side, I married a minister who dives into her faith and her profession with both head and heart; we all have a lot to contribute to the discussion. Somewhere in the course of the afternoon or evening – I think it was after the first round of pie – I climbed up on one of my soapboxes to wax on about how much energy churches spend perpetuating themselves as institutions as compared to time and money actually spent on ministry. My father responded by quoting my brother, who was not with us, who summed it up by saying God is most able to use us when we see ourselves not as a part of the church, or a church, but as a part of the Kingdom of God: churches, as institutions, come and go; our calling runs deeper than doing what we can to keep the doors open; we are called to invest our lives in the Kingdom of God in the world.
I woke up thinking about my brother’s words and realized I resonate deeply with the theology and struggle with the terminology. Yes, I know the words go back to Jesus and even into the Old Testament and are translated from the original languages in which our scriptures were written. As a person who has spent most of my life fascinated by how words and how the way we say things empowers and inhibits what we think and feel and do, I think faith often floats on metaphor and the way in which our word pictures can expand our imagining when we try to incarnate what it means to be created in the image of God. I take issue, therefore, with kingdom as our working metaphor because I don’t think it works very well for most people. OK – for me.
When I was in seminary, I went on a mission trip into the interior of the Yucatan peninsula. Our job was to dig wells to help the subsistence farmers in that region to survive. One morning, I walked out into the rocky field to see a man with a small pouch draped over his shoulder walking among the stones with a pointed stick. He would wedge the stick in between the hard places, looking for the tiniest invitation from any sort of soft spot, and then he would drop a couple of seeds in the hole and cover them up. Most of the seeds he planted had about as much chance of growing to fruition as I have of breaking the world record in the 100 meters at the Olympics next summer. The next time I read the parable of the Seeds and the Sower, I saw it in a whole different light because I had seen an incarnation of the story in the Mexican man poking his way across his field. The metaphor made sense in ways it had not to me and my shrink-wrapped-produce-watching-International-Harvesters-as-I-drove-down-the-highway world. If the stories are going to maintain meaning, we have work to do, both to reach back and understand the world in which Jesus told them and to reach deep into our own world for new metaphors to help the stories travel well across time.
I searched this morning for modern day kings and queens. Here are some of the folks I found:
Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk, King of Bhutan
Margrete II, Queen of Denmark
Abdullah II, King of Jordan
Letsie III, King of Lesotho
Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin ibni al-Marhum Sultan Mahmud, King of Malaysia
Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Deva, King of Nepal
Harald V, King of Norway
Carl XVI Gustaf, King of Sweden
George Tupou V, King of Tonga
Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom
Best I can tell, all of the ones listed hold a mostly ceremonial office, other than King Abdullah II of Jordan. We don’t have many monarchs in our modern world who are credible examples of leadership. The words king and queen are anachronistic and archaic. In the days of the Hebrew kingdoms, where the ruler sat as God’s representative, they knew how to think of God as the Ultimate Emperor. In Jesus’ time, as the Romans exacted empire on the world around them, the metaphor of God’s kingdom rang true because of its stark contrast to the government under which the people were forced to live. No to mention that much of the language we use to talk about the historically significant monarchies of the past is a language of violence and conquest (a discussion for another time).
Even as I write, I’m mindful that one of the most moving pieces of sacred music I know is Jane Marshall’s arrangement of the ancient Latin poem, “My Eternal King.”
My God, I love Thee;
Not because I hope for heaven thereby,
Nor yet because who love Thee not must die eternally.
Thou, O my Jesus, Thou didst me upon the cross embrace;
For me didst wear the nails and spear, and manifold disgrace.
Why, then why, O blessed Jesus Christ, should I not love Thee well?
Not for the hope of winning heaven, or of escaping hell;
Not with the hope of gaining aught; not seeking a reward;
But as thyself hast loved me, O ever-loving Lord!
E’en so I love Thee, and will love, and in Thy praise will sing;
Solely because Thou art my God, and my Eternal King.
And so, all of my meanderings thus far are leading me to questions rather than one particular point. I don’t have a substitute metaphor to champion – I don’t think this is an either/or discussion — and I’m not trying to say those who use kingdom language are erring. I wonder, if we were to work to find new word-wrappings for the foundations of our faith to speak alongside of the language we already use, might we not invite more people to join in the journey? (I realize my thought is in no way original; it’s just what I’m thinking about today.)
I remember my father preaching a sermon years ago, as he was challenging the church he then pastored to dream and vision beyond their walls and ultility bills, and he read to them Dr. Seuss’ On Beyond Zebra. The story begins with a young boy’s pride at having learned all twenty-six letters of the alphabet. The other kid congratulates him and then tells him it’s only the beginning: the alphabet doesn’t stop there. Those of us who populate the planet right now are the only ones who have seen the picture taken from space that let us see the whole world at once. The Psalmist could only gaze into the night sky. Jesus never got more than a day’s walk from his birthplace. We can see deeper into space than we even know how to comprehend. Yet, it seems, that those who scattered seeds by hand and washed dust from their feet had more expansive imaginations with which to think and talk about God. We cannot allow ourselves to be content with words that have been handed down, however packed full of meaning they were for those who came before. We don’t need to discard them; they are treasures for sure. And we need new metaphors on beyond kingdom: inclusive, insightful, intimate, incendiary words that will pull us beyond our complacency and committee meetings, even beyond our good intentions and dutiful service, where we can be lost in wonder, love, and praise and found kicking it up in the valley where the dry bones dance.