There was a big hoopla this week in preparation for the presbytery meeting. It was over the new vision statement for the presbytery. Ready to hear the controversial statement? “We fearlessly follow the Holy Spirit into a changing world.” Guess which word caused so much anxiety for people on every end of every conceivable spectrum? Fearlessly.
We sometimes act as though anxiety equals faith; that if we are worried and fretting over situations that is somehow faithful. Or we think faith needs some humility attached to it, some good, old fashioned fear mixed in, in order to keep us in check. Whatever the reason, fearlessly made some people fearful.
Part of it is the audacity of the word. It is a reckless word, daring and caution-throwing. Fearlessly. Shamelessly. Brazenly. Take your pick. Also, it’s a word that holds our feet to the fire. It’s no half-way word. It’s an all-out, no holes barred word. Fearless.
But the visioning team chose the word deliberately. It is a future word. It is a word spoken by messengers of God from creation to revelation and everywhere in between: fear not, do not be afraid. I come from a different reality, I come from the new, where hope is real and God’s promises are fulfilled, and I speak to you from God – do not be afraid. For God is doing something new. For God is with you. For God is leading you. For all these things around you that seem so big and scary and overwhelming, these things do not have the ultimate power to say anything over you. God does. Fearlessly follow.
But we’re not very good at fearlessly, (or following, for that matter). We’re not very good at living out of the future. We’d rather use the knowledge of the past to manage the risks of the present and behavior-modify ourselves into God’s kingdom. We can be good boys and girls. We can love our neighbor- or at least strive to- if that’s what makes God happy. We can feed the hungry, at least when they’re on our radar screen, because we know it’s the right thing to do.
But what kind of dangerous, wild and unruly territory are you suggesting we enter when you say that we’ll fearlessly follow the Holy Spirit into a changing world? We’re quite comfortable with timidly inviting the Holy Spirit into our dormant church, and even that feels a tad risky.
So what is church? We ask again.
Last week we talked about church as the place – the people – where God resides. That we live and move in the world as people who have known God’s faithfulness in the past and continue to tell and to live into those stories as God moves in the present.
The church is also the place- the people – with eschatological imagination. We live from the future that is coming, we dream of it and speak of it and sing about it and sometimes sound ridiculous as we talk about peace or justice or fearlessness in the midst of a violent, unjust and fearful world. We live it out with our lives in the face of, in contrast to, that utter void of such things that the world seems like much of the time. Fearlessly.
The writer of our scripture today had an eschatological imagination. He or she indwelled their vision of the future. It wasn’t vague; it was very concrete. Babies wont die too young, people will live a long, long time. You get to keep the things you grow and it won’t get pillaged. The things you build you will get to enjoy yourselves. God will hear you – in fact, before you even finish speaking God will listen to your need. There wont be violence of any kind tolerated in this future of God’s; the people and place will be a joy and delight to the whole earth, in fact, they will be a joy and delight to God too.
You can almost taste in this vision, what kind of situation they were coming from – even the specifics, and what good news this must have sounded like.
A few weeks ago, Owen was having trouble with someone teasing him. The boy was relentless, and Owen was getting more and more frustrated and filled with despair.
He would have to talk to the boy.
In the end, what empowered him to talk to the boy, when he really wanted to punish him, what helped him to reach out and respectfully engage the boy, was not some idea that he “should” do that. That good kids, or Christian kids, or whatever, are nice and not mean. Believe it or not, what empowered Owen was his eschatological imagination. He was able to envision a reality where everybody could be strong without making other people weak, to imagine it so fully that he could live from it without even seeing it in front of him.
What he had been experiencing was a kid finding strength by making him weak. And what his wounded and justice-seeking self wanted was to be bigger and make that boy tiny enough to squash him! He imagined that storyline for a while. But when he wrestled through the pain of the experience and with help began to see how that feeling of weakness made him long for strength the same way this little boy might be doing too, it fired up his eschatological imagination and the child could not go back to sleep. For over two hours, he called me in his room every time had a new idea, something he would say to the kid, some way he would reach out.
He got so grounded in this reality, in this identity that he began to say that he was someone with kindness inside, someone who could be strong and help others feel strong. He owned that identity, stepped into it and tried it on until it felt comfortable. He went to school – utterly undaunted by the smart-ass kid we passed on our way in who made a comment to him – and it was all I could do to keep from grabbing the kid’s cheeks in my hands, and giving him a good come-to-Jesus right then and there.
But Owen, unfazed, was living from a new reality, a future reality that was not yet realized, where people didn’t have to make others feel weak in order to be strong. He didn’t have to make others feel weak, and that identity made it strong. Somehow, he got up the nerve to ask the child to please stop doing what he had been doing to Owen. And a few days later, he reported with a huge smile, that the boy had asked Owen if he could be friends with him.
This is kindergarten conflict we’re talking about here. But I hid the tears in my eyes when his teacher said in the conference yesterday, “Owen treats his classmates with respect and kindness. He solves conflicts in peaceful ways.” Because I had seen the struggle it had taken him to get in touch with his eschatological imagination and live from that place. And because watching him do it gave me hope.
We don’t treat others with respect and kindness because that is what we’re supposed to do. We don’t do it because we really truly believe that kindness will spread and one day wipe out all disrespect. We don’t stand up for justice because we think we can end injustice, or because the bible says so. We do these things because as people of faith we bend our lives towards the reality that is not yet fully here, we live into the coming of God – when there will be no injustice, or unkindness, when all people’s dignity and humanity will be upheld.
The church is not the place where people go to be good or learn how to be good or to ease their guilt for not being good. And it’s not meant to be where we timidly sing our hymns and anxiously pray our prayers and strive to please God without asking too many hard questions or getting down by life’s difficulty. No. The church is the place where we audaciously live out now what is coming, where we fearlessly practice it even if we don’t yet see it on a day-to-day basis.
We give to the poor not because we think we can eliminate poverty, or because we are obligated to do so by our religion. We give to the poor because we have the eschatological imagination to envision the day when there will be no more rich or poor and everyone will have enough. So we witness to that day by living it out now.
We worship because the day is coming when God will be so close to us that we will delight in God’s presence and God will delight in us, when we’ll barely open our mouths and God will hear our needs and respond, when there will be no more weeping or despair or sadness, only closeness and belonging and fulfillment.
We sing the perfect future into view. We live it into view, and pray it into view. This is called hope. Faith is hope in the activity of God, it is trust in the God that is bringing God’s future and bending our lives, our wills, our imaginations, towards that future. It is letting the possibility of it fill us so completely that it guides us more than the problems we see around us.
And because it is eschatological, Faith is never complete, it is always becoming. Like the Father in Mark who says, “I believe, help my unbelief!” the only way faith is real is up against our doubts, hope only exists up against despair. We name the places of unbelief even as we believe; we share the places of despair out of our yearning for the hope that is promised. Our eschatological vision fuels the way we live our lives - it alerts us deep in our core to the places in the world where the things of God's promised future are lacking, and when it does, we live from their fulfillment, even when we can't yet see it completely.
So fire up your eschatological imagination. What’s your eschatological vision? What places of godforsakenness, grief or yearning do you bear? How does God’s future meet you in those places? Flesh it out, what does it look like?
I have my own eschatological vision of God’s future.
It goes like this:
In that day there will be no more fear or judgment in close relationships and families, but love will be unconditional and people all feel known and understood.
There will never again be a single miscarriage, or a barren womb.
Children will be born strong and healthy, and will grow up without parents ever worrying about ADHD or IQs or SATs or STDs or the million other accidents, injuries, injustices, disabilities and disorders that threaten our children.
One day there will be no poverty. At all. Everybody will have just what they need. So there’s no gluttony either. Or greed. People will look for chances to share and feel free doing so, and when they do nobody takes it for granted or disrespects their things.
Nobody will be lonely. They can be alone in sweet solitude without being lonely, because everyone will belong somewhere, to someone. Everyone will have a place where their soul is at home – a place and people that holds their history and their dreams, a place where they can be fully themselves. In fact, everyone will always be fully themselves.
Every single person will get the chance to be productive in ways that stimulate them creatively and intellectually. And they'll get to know that what they do contributes to the well-being of others.
No hunger. No AIDS. No cancer. No disparity that makes people judge and hate and breeds jealousy and contempt. All cultures and peoples living in rich expression and mutual appreciation for each other. This is my eschatological vision.
The church is a people of faith, a people of hope, who don’t bring the new reality, but who join the trajectory of God who is bringing the new reality. We live like it's true because we are witnesses to God’s kingdom that is coming.
So, may we be people of rich eschatological imagination. And then may we fearlessly follow the Holy Spirit into a changing world.