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 255

diversityI don’t have a lot of time to blog this morning. I’m speaking at a conference called “Faith, Freedom, and Forgiveness” this afternoon and I’m a long way from being ready. My assignment is to help the audience move toward a theology of forgiveness, especially as it relates to the old wound of slavery.

As I was digging around in my files I came up with these notes from Martin Luther King Week at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2001, when I was (to my great surprise) invited to be the guest speaker. The title of my lectures was, “Living in the Lion Tribe: Confronting the Problem of Prejudice with the Power of Love and Imagination.”

On the first night I gathered with about fifty students in a large, upper room and started with this introduction:

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 that was one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s greatest gifts—he helped people imagine a different kind of reality than the one in which they were currently living. He talked about a day when racism would no longer exist. He dreamed of a day when black people and white people would join hands and say in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last.” It may have been this gift of religious imagination, more than any other, that led to the success of the Civil Rights movement.

He learned it from Jesus, who asked his hearers again and again to imagine a reality he called the Kingdom of God. He learned it from Paul, who talked about the church as the living, breathing body of Christ. He learned it from his father and a host of other black preachers who knew the power of imagination to inspire and change.

And then we moved into a group activity, guided by these notes (written mostly to myself):

Tell the story of Ayla from Jean Auel’s book, The Mammoth Hunters. How she came to a tribe headed by a red-haired giant of a man named Talut who valued difference more than sameness (read the paragraph on page 286). Describe the others in the tribe: Ranec, dark-skinned and handsome; Fralie, angry and bitter, Druwez, a half-breed from the Clan; Tulie, an imposing headwoman. All of them part of the tribe even though some of them made things more difficult and made the tribe less welcome at the large summer gathering.

Talk about how Ayla was welcomed as a guest, and treated as special because she was tall and blonde (that is, different from the short, dark people from whom she had come). Her special abilities were her healing knowledge, her way with animals, her skill with weapons, and her talent for making fire. She was invited to join the Lion Tribe, and on the night she was “adopted” she revealed her fire-making ability to the astonishment of the others, and then gave to each member of her new “family” a piece of firestone and flint so that they, too, could make fire.

Here is a fictional community in which people are valued for what makes them different, not what makes them the same. Let’s take some time tonight to discover our differences and to learn how to value them.

Crane Hearth—blue
Fox Hearth—red
Elk Hearth—green
Bear Hearth—black

Each “hearth” will circle up and take some time to identify the unique contributions of its members. Members will take turns speaking by holding the “speaking stick” (a washable marker). When the hearth is satisfied that someone has a valuable difference to offer, that person will pass the speaking stick to his or her left and be welcomed into the Lion Tribe with its special mark—four, short vertical lines on the right palm. When each hearth is finished the whole tribe will circle up, its members will hold out their right palms, and be dismissed with this blessing:

“That which makes us different makes us valuable.”

I don’t know which of these notes, if any, will end up in my address today, but I hope you’ve found something here that will help you think about how we can work to overcome prejudice through the power of love and imagination. The alternative is to keep our hearts and minds closed, and go on exactly as we have.

And that’s not a good alternative at all.

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.

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.