Where There Is Vision
—Expanded & Revised—
A golfer’s errant shot ended up hitting an anthill. He squared up, took a big swing—and missed. Thousands of innocent ants were killed. The hacker re-set, took another swing—and missed again. Another wave of ants was destroyed. Panic-stricken insects scurried everywhere.
One ant finally took charge. “Follow me,” he cried with authority. Another ant yelled, “But where are we going?”
He pointed to the golf ball sitting in front of them. “There. If we don’t get on the ball, we’re all going to die!”
Ezra Earl Jones, Methodist Pastor and church leadership expert, writes, “Leaders do not have to be the greatest visionaries themselves. The vision may come from anyone. The leaders do have to state the vision, however. Leaders also have to keep the vision before the people and remind them of the progress that is being made to achieve the vision. Otherwise, the people might assume that they are failing and give up.”
I have always believed that the vision – and therefore the direction – which a particular church is called to take grows out of the hearts and minds of God’s people in that time and place. In other words, God’s vision for a congregation is not something a pastor comes in and magnanimously bestows upon them. The pastor’s task is to help a congregation perceive the vision already emerging amongst them.
God’s vision for your life and work together emerges from within and among you as a community of faith, facilitated by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. That vision then begins to grow as we share our own sacred stories and sacramental understandings with one another, with the express intention of fulfilling God’s purpose for our lives together.
As Presbyterians – and as those who are born as the Church through the gift of the Holy Spirit – we believe that such vision can emerge from any corner of the church; any individual or group has the potential to perceive God’s vision for the building of God’s redemptive realm in Jesus Christ. Indeed, one might say that, every unique member of the Body represents an irreplaceable piece of the Big Picture for the church and its ministry in the world.
Albeit, sometimes that vision comes through very surprising mediators.
In his memoirs, the Rev. Jesse Jackson recalls his first day in the sixth grade. “I’ll never forget it,” he writes. “My teacher was Miz Shelton, and she began writing these long words on the blackboard we couldn’t understand, never even heard of before. We all looked around and started whispering to each other, `She got the wrong class. She thinks we the eighth-grade class.’
“Somebody finally called out, `Uh, Miz Shelton? Those are eighth-grade words. We only the sixth grade here.’
“She turned around. `I know what grade you are. I work here. And you’ll learn every one of these words, and a lot more like them, before this year is over. I will not teach down to you. One of you little brats just might be mayor or governor, or even president, some day, and I’m gonna make sure you’ll be ready.’
“And she turned back and went right on writing.”
At that time, Jesse Jackson remembers, her proposition prompted no glow of possibility in him. “Aim to be governor? Even aim to be mayor, when in Greenville then there wasn’t a single African-American on the Board of Education, in the police department, the fire department? And aim to be president?!”
Before any great accomplishment is possible, someone must be able to “catch the vision, dream the dream.” [Presbyterian Hymnal #430]
A great vision can emerge from anywhere; but it must first be perceived; and once perceived, then fully discerned; and once discerned, then faithfully developed. Once developed, that vision must be expressed with a sense of urgency in order to make manifest God’s will.
The Psalmist put it this way: “Let Your work appear to your servants, and Your glory to their children And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands for us. Yes, establish the work of our hands.” [Ps. 90:16 – 17 nkjv]
Proverbs [29:18 kjv] counters with a brief, but profound, indictment: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Now, I’ve rarely heard this passage preached on. But that notion of vision undergirds virtually everything recorded in the annals of Holy Scripture.
At the inception of creation, God had a dream – a vision – of The Way Things Should Be. Unfortunately that vision was soon corrupted by the crown of creation: human kind. The rest of the Bible is the story of God’s odyssey to reclaim and redeem that Sacred Vision for both humanity and creation itself.
The English Standard Version expands the translation of Proverbs 29:18 to read: “Where there is no prophetic vision, the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law.”
According to James Hamilton, Jr. the word translated here as vision typically refers to the blessed restraining power of the Law and the Prophets. “Disregarding the visions of the prophets is like walking blindly toward a precipice, but the danger is not an abstract fall from an impersonal height. Rather, the danger lies in defiling the holy God by transgressing his boundaries” (God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology, Crossway Pub., 2010, as paraphrased by Pastor Chris Brauns).
The implication here is that God’s vision is the ultimate reality for God’s creation. God’s holy will shall not be satisfied until God gets God’s way with the world. Thus, to not be faithful in discernment – or to intentionally cast off a vision given – is to walk down a perilous path.
And so, Proverbs sternly warns, with an adjoining caveat, “Where there is no vision, the people perish; but he that keeps the law, happy is he.”
The fundamental message – and promise – of the Bible is that God never gives up on the Divine Dream. God’s Dream is God’s Word and God’s Word is Sacred Reality. In order to live the life God has ordained for us at creation, we must seek to faithfully discern and live into God’s vision; and do so with a sense of vital urgency. “How bare does a place look without Bibles and ministers! And what an easy prey is it to the enemy of souls! That gospel is an open vision, which holds forth Christ, which humbles the sinner and exalts the Saviour, which promotes holiness in the life and conversation: and these are precious truths to keep the soul alive, and prevent it from perishing” (from Matthew Henry’s Commentary, 1708 – 1710).
Where there is no vision, people perish, languish, stray, wander. But those who seek to live out God’s will for their lives will most surely be blessed.
For many years my family would spend a week in Hot Springs Village, Arkansas; a retirement resort in the Ozark Mountains. It was always a wonderful time for us to reconnect; remember what was really important; get away from the stress of daily existence and unwind; sort of recapture our own vision of what family was all about.
Dad and I would golf in the morning. Then we’d all have lunch together and go do something as a family: boating, fishing, shopping. One of my mom’s favorite activities was to go antiquing; either at local flea markets, or one of the many antique shops in the city of Hot Springs (some eighteen miles to the south). One such shop was the Morris Antique Mall. Nothing on the inside really distinguishes it from the dozens of others like it around town. There’s a musty smell and dusty relics from the past.
But if you’ll look closely at the outside of the Morris Antique Mall, you’ll see something that makes it distinct: Before it was an antique store, it was a church building. A focus on the future prevents a church from becoming a resting place for dusty relics of the past. (inspired by a story from Michael A. Howe)
The great Douglas MacArthur once observed, “People grow old only by deserting their ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up interest wrinkles the soul. Worry, self-doubt, self-distrust, fear and despair; these are the long, long years that bow the head and turn the growing spirit back to dust.”
“Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
However, I think it’s more inspiring to say it positively: “Where there is vision, the people . . .” What? Live! Progress! Develop! Flourish! Thrive! Increase! Grow! Succeed! Prosper!
That was Jesus’ vision for us, “I came that you may have life in all its fullness.” [Jn. 10:10]
The envisioned future of a church is prophetic in character. It begins with a vital, life-giving idea; a clear description of what that community will look like when its God-ordained goals are ultimately achieved.
An authentic vision for a specific congregation is one that connects integrally and aligns itself with God’s Dream for the emerging Kingdom in the world. Therefore, a church’s vision is the articulation of God’s dream for our lives together as God’s people in this time and place.
Such vision does not come easily. It takes time, effort, and patience. It requires engaging in a process of faithful, prayerful – at times even arduous – discernment of God’s will. In truth, discerning that vision must become a continuous discipline built into the overall life of the church – through prayer and proclamation, study and introspection, reflection and dialogue. It can take months for a congregation to arrive at a simple, declarative vision statement.
According to authors James Collins and Jerry Porris, any good vision statement offers both a challenge and a paradox. “On the one hand it conveys a sense of concreteness; something vivid and real; you can see it, touch it, feel it. On the other hand, it portrays a time yet unrealized – a dream, a hope, aspiration” (Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, 1994, HarperBusiness Pub.).
The Prophet Joel challenges the children of Zion with a renewed vision of God’s dream for them; a dream they had long given up on; a vision of relief from the extended drought of the spirit. Writes Karl Jacobson, “For a generation, at least, God’s spirit has sent no visions, whispered no oracle—either of judgment or hope—into the slumbering prophet’s ear; God’s spirit and voice had been absent.” But now Joel gives to the parched people of Israel a promise of restoration powered by the outpouring of God’s spirit; `Fear not,’ God tells the people, “I will repay your long-suffering,’ `You shall be satisfied with plenty,’ `You will no longer feel ashamed to be my people,’ `You shall know my presence and rejoice.’
For, `Where there is vision, the people prosper, flourish, grow, succeed, exult!’
Generations later the Apostle Peter draws upon those prophetic words as he bears witness to the Day of Pentecost, as the Holy Spirit is, indeed, poured out upon humankind.
Today, many more generations later in the life of the church, that promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit can still enliven and empower God’s people.
On one of our first drives out to Cazenovia, when we were house hunting this past July, Diane and I marveled at how beautiful and green and lush the countryside looked. When we arrived, we were told that this part of the country had been suffering one of the worst droughts in recent history. Diane and I looked at each other a bit incredulously because each of the three times we had driven out it had been through the midst of a summer storm system.
Maybe it was just the eyes we were looking through at the time but, to us, everything looked lovely and fresh and new and growing and green and bright and hopeful. Soil rich with possibility.
“O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain . . . You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame . . .
“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” [Joel 2:23ff]
Sometimes a vision grows out of a people when they discover who they are and where they want to go. And sometimes, I suppose, a vision crystallizes more in a people out of the experience of being through a time and a place to which they definitively know they do not want to return; as with the children of Zion.
Now, perhaps this congregation feels as though it has been through somewhat of a spiritual drought; having traversed many a peak and valley without the draught of pastoral leadership. But, I’m here to tell you that, as I have surveyed this new landscape and its people, I have seen that a flourishing of the Spirit has, indeed, been taking place.
As a young man of this church recently suggested to me, “I think going through a period without a pastor can be a particularly rewarding time for a congregation; as the laity pulls together in mutual support and lay leadership emerges; as new ideas begin to germinate and more open-ended dreaming of the future takes place” (my paraphrase).
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” [Isaiah 55:10 – 11]
I’ll never forget my first official Sunday in the pulpit here at First Presbyterian Church. It was a hot August morning, the sanctuary doors were closed up tight, no windows open, no detectable circulation at all. And there was a distinctively musty smell in the air. The next week I suggested to the ushers that we leave the front doors of the sanctuary open to allow for a bit more air flow. I must admit, it took a bit of convincing – there was some concern with street noise being disruptive – however, the ushers decided to humor the new guy. On succeeding Sundays I had numerous people remark on how nice it was the have the front doors of the church open on Sunday morning to let the sunlight and air flow in.
Or, perhaps, even the fresh smell of a summer rain.
Augustine wrote, “Faith is to believe what we do not see, and the reward of this faith is to see what we believe.”
Maybe all it will take for us to see God’s vision for this church is to just open the doors of our hearts and minds and souls to allow for a little more air and light of the Spirit to enter in. Indeed, it is my belief that God’s dream for First Presbyterian Church is already flowing within you and through you.
All we need now is to believe that our faith will soon be rewarded as we see that vision flourish.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.