McCormick Theological Seminary
Commencement Address – May 14, 2011
“The Vision Thing”
Cynthia M. Campbell, President
Sixteen years ago last month, I stood in the pulpit of Rockefeller Chapel to deliver my inaugural address. In it, I said that McCormick’s charge was to prepare leaders for a church we could not yet envision. Apparently, it struck a chord because we ended up using variations on that theme for several years in our attempts to shape and interpret McCormick’s mission. But I have decided, now that I will be leaving in a few weeks, to let you in on a secret. I came up with this phrase about “a church we cannot yet envision” because, frankly, I couldn’t think of anything else to say!
The moment I arrived at McCormick, actually even before, people began asking me: “What is your vision for McCormick? What is your vision for theological education? What is your vision for the future of the church?” Obviously, I knew these were the questions. And, not surprisingly, I had a lot of thoughts about both theological education and the church. But three and a half months into my tenure at McCormick, I was still trying to learn people’s names and figure out one-way streets in Chicago. All in all, what I didn’t know seemed much clearer to me than what I did! I knew there was a lot I could not envision!
You who graduate today will at some point in the not-too-distant future be in the same situation. As our new pastor, what is your vision for our church? As our new associate for youth, how are you going to build a program that will quadruple the size of our youth ministry? As a newly-minted Doctor, surely you now have the vision for how to revitalize and transform our congregation … isn’t that what the seminary PR materials say you’re supposed to have learned?!?
Lots of people want to help you with this! A little prowling around the internet will lead you to a variety of websites on “vision casting” – the latest buzz word in both business and church circles. The materials suggest that, first, the leader develops an idea about the future of the business or church, and then persuades employees or congregation members to get on board. You have to make sure that your employees “really believe” in your vision, says one website. Then, your job is to attract, train and retain employees (or congregation members) who will make your vision a reality.
I must confess that a great deal of this “vision casting” stuff seems more than a little narcissistic – it is all about “the leader” and “his vision.” We know, of course, that all sorts of people can have visions, even very compelling ones. Adolf Hitler had a vision of Europe from which all Jewish people had been eliminated. Osama bin Laden had a vision of destroying what he perceived to be Western and/or American domination. Visions must be tested. So, this afternoon, I want to reflect for a few moments on some familiar passages of scripture and let them guide us as we all think about the “vision thing” and our role as leaders who help communities discover and follow God’s vision.
First of all, in order to receive a vision, you have to be paying attention. From what I can tell, visions in the Bible are always gifts. They are given to the prophet or leader by God. But the recipient of the vision needs to be paying attention, ready to receive the vision when and as it comes. The Revelation to John is a case in point. Chapter 21 opens with stirring words: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth.” But in fact, this is but another in a long series of visions. They begin in Chapter 4, after the letters to the seven churches. John writes, “After this I looked, and there in the heaven a door stood open!” Chapter after chapter in this mysterious book, John says: “and then I saw …; then I looked …; after this I saw ….” John is given an amazing series of visions, because he was paying attention – eyes open, mind on alert, heart ready, spirit focused.
Paying attention is not easy in our world. Most of us, most of the time, have our attention divided in at least more than one direction. We sit in meetings and check email on our Blackberrys. We go to class and surf the web during the lecture. We drive and do all sorts of things: eat, talk on the phone, put on make-up, text, and talk back to talk-radio. And we are insanely proud of our abilities to do these things!
But receiving a vision, especially a vision from God, requires that we pay attention. Discerning what God is up to in the world and being ready to receive God’s call to action demands that we step back from the busyness and the schedules and the demands of the moment and reflect. When I was a pastor, I took one day a month and went to a friend’s home out in the country. I walked the fields; I took naps; I worked through the lectionary for the coming weeks. I always came away with the basics of worship planning but even more important were those moments when an insight would just open up inside my mind, and I could see because I was paying attention to something other than the tyranny of the moment.
Second, even when you are paying attention, sometimes (probably more often than not) you don’t get the vision right the first time. Next to the story about Jesus calling the Canaanite woman a “dog” (as in, “you don’t take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”), this healing story is the most embarrassing in the gospels. People bring a blind man to Jesus. By now, his healing power is legendary. But this time, Jesus needs a do-over! First, he puts saliva on the man’s eyes, lays hands on him and then asks: “Can you see anything?” Images of the guy in the cell phone commercial spring to mind: “Can you hear me now??”
“I can see people but they look like trees, walking,” the man replies. Almost but not quite. A second time, Jesus lays his hands on the man and this time, success! His vision is restored. This is really quite remarkable! In this story, vision for the blind man and success for Jesus do not come instantaneously. They come in stages, and the key both for the blind man and for Jesus was not giving up. Jesus was being willing to try again.
Catching the vision (which seems to me more theologically more appropriate than “casting” it) means paying attention to what God is up to in the world. But it also means being willing to try again. As many people have said, leadership is more of an art than a science. And in art, there are a great many rough drafts on the way to the final product and hours of practice sessions on the way to the performance. At least once in his life, Jesus didn’t get it right the first time! That should give all the rest of us great comfort as we try to lead congregations or organizations into the future. Catching a vision takes work. It takes persistence. It often requires a willingness to start over and try again.
Finally, the word of the Lord that came to the prophet Habakkuk is: don’t give up. “For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and it does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” Ted Hiebert, who wrote the fine commentary on Habakkuk for the New Interpreter’s Bible, places Habakkuk after the Babylonian defeat of the Egyptian-Assyrian coalition in 604 BCE and before the final destruction of Jerusalem in 586. The book as it stands is largely the prophet’s complaint, first about rampant corruption in Judean society and then about God’s use of the ruthless and evil Babylonians to accomplish God’s purposes of judgment? How can a God of justice tolerate injustice and then use unjust means to accomplish God’s purposes?
Habakkuk marches up to the ramparts of the city of Jerusalem; he positions himself at the watch tower and waits for the vision. In fact, he demands a vision. The answer Habakkuk sees is that God’s justice will eventually prevail. In the meantime, the “righteous live by their faithfulness” (v. 3). That is, life comes by remaining faithful to the principles of justice that give shape and form to the universe even when that justice is not visible in the immediate context.
Hiebert writes: “The righteous, the sincerely religious, those who long and work for justice and righteousness receive the strength to go on, not because the world itself is just or because it rewards those who work for justice, but because these persons possess a larger vision of the way things should be. They possess the vision, as did Habakkuk, of God’s just reign. There will always be a discrepancy between such a vision and the real world. But the truly righteous place greater trust … in the reliability of that vision than in the brute facts of existence.”[i]
Over and over again, God has shown us the vision. The important thing is not to give up when it is not fully realized. The challenge is to trust that it will surely come. The challenge is to believe, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., so memorably said, that “the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Sixteen years later, as you (and hopefully I) go out to lead and serve in a variety of ministries, I still do not have a clear vision of what the church is going to become in the years ahead. Change has been the norm for years. But some things are clearer to me. More people grow up outside faith communities. Thus there are more opportunities for us to tell the story of how our lives have been shaped and transformed by God’s love for all people in the person of Jesus Christ. The continuing financial crisis leads some politicians to adopt policies that will do great harm to the poor and most vulnerable among us. Therefore we are called to show what love of neighbor means both for the church’s ministry and for public policy. Violence is too often the response used to settle problems in our homes and neighborhoods and on the global scene. Thus we are called to love our enemies and work with all people towards justice, freedom and peace.
Sixteen years later, it now seems to me that it is less important for us (individually and as a seminary) to envision the church of the future. It is more important for us to catch God’s vision for our lives and for the future of the human and natural world God loves so much. So pay attention. Don’t worry if you don’t get the vision right the first time. Most of all, don’t give up because God has a vision for the appointed time, and even if it tarries, it will surely come.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Theodore Hiebert, The Book of Habakkuk (New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VII), Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1996, p. 643.