What Richmond Needs: Imagination

imagineLast week I went to a clergy convocation called “The Face of Race in Richmond.” Ben Campbell, Pastoral Director at Richmond Hill, had asked me to serve on a panel with a few other ministers, simply to talk about how we experience the issue of race in this city.

I wasn’t sure that I was the best choice, but I agreed, partly because this year First Baptist Church is working to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, through partnerships with other churches, individuals, agencies, and organizations. One of the churches we are working with is First African Baptist, and that effort has already involved some remarkably honest conversations about race.

So, here’s what I said at the clergy convocation:

We are not where we ought to be on the issue of race in Richmond, but thank God we are not where we used to be.

Two nights ago, in an event completely unrelated to this one, I sat down with a handful of deacons from First Baptist Church and a handful of deacons from First African Baptist because their pastor, Rodney Waller, had challenged us to “show Richmond what true racial reconciliation looks like.” I added that while Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors we can’t love what we don’t know, and suggested that we get together for some meals. The first one was Tuesday night, and it was a smashing success.

Ken Medema is a blind musician with a remarkable kind of inner vision. I once heard him say something I wish I had written down, because I’m not sure I remember it exactly as he said it, but what I heard him say was something like this: “People don’t change because you tell them to. They don’t change because you shame them into it. People change when they can imagine a different kind of reality than the one in which they are living.”

I think Jesus got that. He spent much of his time preaching sermons and telling stories about God’s glorious kingdom and constantly searched for ways to explain what it was like. He said:

The Kingdom is like a sower who went out to sow some seed. It’s like the shepherd who went out to look for his lost sheep. It’s like the treasure you stumble upon in the field, or the precious pearl you find at the flea market. It’s like the king who throws a party for outcasts, or the father who kills the fatted calf for his no-good son. It’s that place where Samaritans pay your hospital bills and sinners go home from the temple justified. It’s where those who worked an hour get the same as those who worked all day and where the beggar at the rich man’s gate ends up in the bosom of Abraham. It is, finally, that place where the last are first, the least are great, and the lost are found forever.

Jesus tried to help people imagine a different kind of reality than the one in which they were living, so they wouldn’t be content with the status quo, so they would make the effort to change themselves, and change the world.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann once wrote that “The central task of ministry is the formation of a community with an alternative, liberated imagination that has the courage and freedom to act in a different vision and a different perception of reality.” Let me say that again. “The central task of ministry is the formation of a community with an alternative, liberated imagination that has the courage and freedom to act in a different vision and a different perception of reality.”

I think that’s what Jesus was up to.

Do you remember how he started his ministry? He called some disciples, that is, he formed a community. And then he started teaching them about the Kingdom of God, saying, “the Kingdom is like a mustard seed, a treasure, a pearl.” He did his best to inspire in them an alternative, liberated imagination. And then, through his own example, he showed them the courage and freedom to act–to preach the Gospel, to heal the sick, even to turn over tables in the Temple. He did it to bring in the Kingdom, because when he looked at the world around him he saw not only what was but what could be. He had a different vision, and a different perception, of reality.

I think that’s what Martin Luther King, Jr. was up to when he began to share his dream that one day this nation would rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed of equality, that the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners would be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood, and that his four little children would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

He was doing what Jesus was doing with his vision of the Kingdom: he was helping us imagine a different kind of reality than the one in which we are living. He was doing what Walter Brueggemann talked about: forming a community with an alternative, liberated imagination that would have the courage and freedom to act in a different vision and a different perception of reality.

So, perhaps the best gift that we, as religious leaders, can give to our city…

…is the gift of imagination.

KOH2RVA: Day 188

Colourful preschool numbersThe tiny little robot who keeps track of statistics on WordPress tells me that yesterday I surpassed 500,000 total views. That means that since I started it back in September, 2008, more than a half a million people have visited my blog.

Well, let’s be realistic.

It means that since September, 2008, my blog has been viewed more than half a million times. And WordPress itself recognizes that I’ve had more views than visitors—you know, the kind of people who come back for a second look just because they can’t believe what they read the first time (many of those people wanted to know, “Will the World End on December, 21, 2012?” the title of one of my posts. In fact, the most views I got on any single day was 1,407 on that post on December 20, 2012).

Still, I’ve written 501 total posts, for an average of almost 1,000 views per post. And people have commented on what they’ve read. WordPress tells me I’ve had 1,817 total comments from people who like the conversation to go both ways, which I appreciate.

I’m hoping that conversation will continue.

But lately I’ve thought about starting a new blog in September called “KOH2RVA,” and asking church members, friends, and partner organizations to contribute, freeing me up to get back to my own blog and my own occasional postings on other topics. I was looking back through some of those old posts yesterday and found this one, the one that started it all. As I re-read it I began to believe that Jesus has been inviting us to help him bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, all along.

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The Central Task of Ministry
September 30, 2008 by Jim Somerville

On page 99 of a book called The Hopeful Imagination, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann claims: “The central task of ministry is the formation of a community with an alternative, liberated imagination that has the courage and the freedom to act in a different vision and a different perception of reality.”

I love that quote, not only because it gives shape to my own ministry, but because it reminds me so much of Jesus’ ministry. Do you remember how he started? He called some disciples, or, in other words, he formed a community. And then he started teaching them about the Kingdom of Heaven, saying, “the Kingdom is like a mustard seed, a treasure, a pearl.” He did his best to inspire in them an alternative, liberated imagination. And then, through his own example, he showed them the courage and freedom to act–to preach the Gospel, to heal the sick, even to turn over tables in the Temple. He did it to bring in the Kingdom, because when he looked at the world around him he saw not only what was but what could be. He had a different vision, and a different perception, of reality.

When his disciples said, “Teach us to pray,” he taught them something that sounds very much like the kind of prayer a soldier might pray before going onto the battlefield, or maybe it’s what a disciple prays before going onto the mission field: “Thy kingdom come!” it says. “Thy will be done!” it says. But then (don’t miss this part) it says, “on earth as it is in heaven.”

To put it simply, I think Jesus wanted his disciples to bring heaven to earth. I think that’s why he spent his time forming a community with an alternative, liberated imagination that had the courage and freedom to act in a different vision and a different perception of reality. I think he still wants his disciples to bring heaven to earth, and the question is, “How do we do it?”

It’s not so hard. You look at the world through his eyes. You look for anything that doesn’t look like heaven…yet. And then you roll up your sleeves, and go to work.

Authenticity

Nobody could have predicted what happened at last Sunday night’s concert.

Phil Mitchell had put together a program called “Dear God”: an assortment of hymns and anthems interspersed with personal letters to God from members of the congregation.  There must have been a hundred people in the choir, singing like angels, and the orchestral accompaniment was heavenly, but when people began to read their prayers a reverent hush fell over the sanctuary. 

Martha Joyner talked about how grateful she was for her family, and especially for her new granddaughter, Emma Grace.  Carl Johnson talked about how God had led him into his work as treasurer of the International Mission Board and through a time of deep personal tragedy.  But then Hannah Ramsey got up to speak.  You could tell, even before she started, that this was going to be hard for her.  Her hands were shaking.  She took a deep breath and let it out.  And then she said, “Dear God, it’s been 99 days since we last talked…”

As she sobbed and struggled through the rest of her letter she talked about losing her sixteen-year-old brother, Jackson, to suicide.  She talked about how angry she was—still—and how she had been trying to work through her pain and her grief.  Her emotion was raw and real, and she held nothing back.  When she finished I let out the breath I had been holding since she began with a single word: “Wow!”   And when she sat down behind me I wrote this note on a slip of paper and passed it to her:

“That was just about the bravest thing I have ever seen.  Certainly the most honest.  Thank you.”

Her courage and honesty added to what had already been shared, and raised the experience of that concert to a new level.  By the time the choir sang “Total Praise” at the end of the evening we were all caught up in a kind of rare unity, where it didn’t really matter who you were or where you came from—we had become family just by being there.  And as we stood to sing the Lord’s Prayer together as a kind of benediction Pastor Emeritus Jim Flamming made his way over to where Hannah was standing and put his arms around her.  I glanced over my shoulder, saw what was going on, and thought what a good instinct it was on his part.  He’s known Hannah all her life.  There was probably a time when she thought Dr. Flamming was God.  For him to put his arms around her like that and hand her his handkerchief was just the right kind of pastoral care. 

The tears flowed freely.

When it was over I told Hannah’s mother that I had read something that very afternoon about how some people avoid church because it doesn’t seem real to them; they’re looking for something “authentic.”  I told her, “But it doesn’t get any more real than it did tonight.” 

It doesn’t. 

And I think we all learned something: that we can not only trust God with our most honest emotions but—when church is real—we can trust each other, too.  And when we do it can make all the difference.  We’re not a roomful of strangers anymore: we’re family.  And a girl who has lost her brother might just discover that she is not alone.

Not by a long shot.

If Not Us, Who?

helpingAt the end of my last post I asked you what it would take to make the move from Unchristian to Christian, which is just what the authors of the book asked some well-known Christian leaders.  Instead of having a reputation for being hypocritical, antihomosexual, judgmental, sheltered, too political, and too focused on making converts these leaders dreamed that in thirty years Christians might have a reputation for being loving, bold, gracious, authentic, courageous, admired, engaged, countercultural, focused on justice and—most importantly—focused on Jesus.  One of my favorite responses was this one from Leroy Barber, President of Mission Year:

The Kingdom of Heaven is like leaven: just a little of it leavens the entire loaf.

What if the church, over the next thirty years, truly lives the life that Jesus as taught us to live?  What if we love our enemies, pray for those who hate us, and offer our coat when our hat has been taken?  Are we ready to truly sacrifice and watch the world move toward the kingdom of God?

The kingdom of heaven is like a man who loses a pearl in a field and purchases the whole field to find it.

If Jesus is as valuable as we say he is, then what will we give up for him to remain alive in us?  Can we, the church, spend the next thirty years valuing Jesus Christ and whatever he asks of us above all else?  Can we even imagine what the world would become?

If the church will choose now to live this way, we can confidently look forward to seeing our culture influenced and changed.  My hope is that when I am seventy-two, I will have seen the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of our God.  I imagine a world lacking divorce, sexual promiscuity, and poverty, and overflowing with peace, mercy, and justice.

Isaiah prophesies that the old wasted cities will be restored.  He says that we shall be called repairers of the breach, the restorers of the streets.

And then there was this bold vision from Brian McLaren, a founding member of emergentvillage.com:

In thirty years research could tell us that when people think “Christian” they think things like this:

  • Christians are the ones who love people, whoever they are—gay or straight, Jew or Muslim, religious or atheist, capitalist or not, conservative or liberal.
  • Christians are the ones who have done more than anyone in the world to stop the HIV/AIDS crisis.
  • Christians are the people who gravitate toward the poor and who show compassion through generous action and seek justice so that the systemic causes of poverty are overcome.  They call the rich to generosity, and they call on rich nations to work for the common good.
  • Christians are people who believe that art and creativity are important, so they consistently produce the most striking, original, and enriching art.
  • Christians are willing to give their lives for the cause of peace.  They oppose violence in all its forms.  They will lay down their lives to protect the vulnerable from the violent.
  • Christians care for the environment.  They don’t see is as raw materials for economic gain, but they see it as the precious handiwork of their Creator.
  • Christians have personal integrity.  They keep their marriage vows and are aware of how destructive misused sexuality can be.  Yet they are compassionate toward people who make sexual mistakes, and they never consider themselves superior.
  • Christians build harmony among races.  You always know that you’ll be respected when you’re around a Christians.

It may be that neither of these visions is your vision for the future of Christianity, but isn’t it important to have one?  A huge, hopeful, vision of what Christians can do, what the church can be, and how the world can change as a result of our efforts over the next thirty years?  That’s what keeps me going.  It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.  A vision of how the world might be transformed by the followers of Jesus, and how through our feeble and fallible efforts we might really help him bring heaven to earth.

If not us, who?

The Central Task of Ministry

On page 99 of a book called The Hopeful Imagination, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann claims: “The central task of ministry is the formation of a community with an alternative, liberated imagination that has the courage and the freedom to act in a different vision and a different perception of reality.”

I love that quote, not only because it gives shape to my own ministry, but because it reminds me so much of Jesus’ ministry.  Do you remember how he started?  He called some disciples, or, in other words, he formed a community.  And then he started teaching them about the Kingdom of Heaven, saying, “the Kingdom is like a mustard seed, a treasure, a pearl.”  He did his best to inspire in them an alternative, liberated imagination.  And then, through his own example, he showed them the courage and freedom to act–to preach the Gospel, to heal the sick, even to turn over tables in the Temple.  He did it to bring in the Kingdom, because when he looked at the world around him he saw not only what was but what could be.  He had a different vision, and a different perception, of reality.

When his disciples said, “Teach us to pray,” he taught them something that sounds very much like the kind of prayer a soldier might pray before going onto the battlefield, or maybe it’s what a disciple prays before going onto the mission field: “Thy kingdom come!” it says.  “Thy will be done!” it says.  But then (don’t miss this part) it says, “on earth as it is in heaven.” 

To put it simply, I think Jesus wanted his disciples to bring heaven to earth.  I think that’s why he spent his time forming a community with an alternative, liberated imagination that had the courage and freedom to act in a different vision and a different perception of reality.  I think he still wants his disciples to bring heaven to earth, and the question is, “How do we do it?”

It’s not so hard.  You look at the world through his eyes.  You look for anything that doesn’t look like heaven…yet.  And then you roll up your sleeves, and go to work.