A couple of weeks ago, Mark and I had the privilege of hanging out with Todd Hunter and a small group of people to discuss “kingdom” issues. First of all, a huge “Thank You!” to Jason and Brooke Evans for once again doing a great job of hosting us. They are quite adept at creating a warm and hospitable environment to support relationship building and discussion. Also, thank you to Todd for coming out here to “stir the pot.” Several things he said have bounced around in my brain and helped me to think through some issues.
Downloadable notes of the discussion have been posted by Danny Goeree in his May 2nd blog entry. So rather than producing additional notes, I wanted to offer some response to the things that were discussed. I’ll probably do this in parts over a couple of weeks.
Todd broke the day into discussions on three fairly large topics: kingdom of God, Spirit of God, and leadership. In the conversation about the kingdom of God, Todd stated that we need something huge to drive our imaginations about the Church. Without a new imagination, we are simply tweaking how we do Church. Todd proposed that the driving force behind our imagination must be the kingdom of God. Theologically, the kingdom creates the Church. This must be true in our communities of faith as well as the “emerging church’ as a whole.
I wholeheartedly agree with Todd’s statement. The kingdom of God must fuel our imaginations about what it means to be God’s people. But the question that needs further development is, “What is the kingdom of God?” The simple answer: the activity of God or the extension of God’s will. However, in my opinion, while one-sentence answers may give us a fresh perspective, by themselves they rarely ignite enduring imagination. That’s because reduced definitions extracts meaning from its rich context and dilutes it beyond recognition.
Or let me put it this way: When a 1st century Jewish crowd heard Jesus state, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news,” they probably didn’t think to themselves, “Oh how nice, the extension of God’s will is finally here.” Rather Jesus, his listeners and the phrase “kingdom of God” are all part of a staggering Story or worldview that spans centuries. So when Jesus made his statement, it was like opening up the floodgates of a huge dam. Centuries of meaning came cascading over his listeners, sweeping them away in a torrential river of new imagination.
If we want a grand imagination for being the people of God, it must be found in the kingdom of God. And if want an even grander imagination of the kingdom of God, it must be found in the Story of God. God’s Story reveals the “extension of God’s will.” God’s Story concretizes our identity and place in an age-old saga. God’s Story compels us to reconstruct our theology and practice.
Having been formed in a culture so removed from this Story, we must immerse ourselves in the same river that swept Jesus’ listeners away and resist the urge to swim to the shores of practicality too quickly. We must be permeated with the ideas and images of God’s Story so it reshapes how we see God, ourselves and the world. That is not a quick and easy task.
Dallas Willard states that changing the ideas that govern us is probably one of the most difficult and painful things in human life. “It rarely happens to the individual or group except in the form of divine intervention, revolution, or something very like a mental breakdown” (Renovation of the Heart, 98).
To me, this reason alone means our communities must stay immersed in the Story for a long, long, long time, until it becomes a part of who we are.
So what is this Story? It can’t be defined by a one-sentence answer, nor should we attempt it. Like any good story, reducing it to a quick summary perpetrates terrible injustice upon creative genius and goodness. Instead, any synopsis must act as the text of a good book-jacket does – to stimulate imagination and interest, to catch the reader off-guard and draw him or her deeper into the river of imagination so he or she is swept away and immersed into a startlingly new, yet familiar world.
For me, I think N.T. Wright is probably one of the best people in the world who can do this. Combining years of immersion in the Story at both an academic level and at the “street-level,” he captures God’s Story in a way that draws us in:
“Reality as we know it is the result of a creator god bringing into being a world that is other than himself, and yet which is full of his glory. It was always the intention of this god that creation should one day be flooded with his own life, in a way for which it was prepared from the beginning. As part of the means to this end, the creator brought into being a creature which, by bearing the creator’s image, would bring his wise and loving care to bear upon the creation. By a tragic irony, the creature in question has rebelled against this intention. But the creator has solved this problem in principle in an entirely appropriate way, and as a result is now moving the creation once more toward its originally intended goal. The implementation of this solution now involves the indwelling of this god within his human creatures and ultimately within the whole creation, transforming it into that for which it was made in the beginning” (The New Testament and the People of God, 97-98).
This is the kingdom of God! This is what Jesus was proclaiming to his contemporaries. This is what we must live in if we want an imagination for being God’s people.
Imagination is key to immersing ourselves, our communities and the contemporary world back into the kingdom of God. I think that’s why Jesus used stories to redefine the kingdom to his contemporaries. He took familiar metaphors and symbols from centuries of Jewish culture and teaching and retold the age-old Story with a new twist. And he did it naturally and easily because he himself was fully immersed in the very Story he told.