I had my mind and heart opened to a new way of understanding God during a presentation at the House of Bishops gathering here in Taiwan. The speaker was a British theologian who now teaches at the seminary in Hong Kong. He described doing a bible study a few years ago among seminarians in Africa. The text was Genesis and the story starts after Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree. They hide from God in the Garden of Eden “in the cool of the evening” because they fear God. And God says “where are you?” (Genesis 3:9)
For many readers, this is a morality tale. This is the big break between God and humanity – Original Sin. But for the professor’s African students, they interpreted God’s question as one of longing, of desire to be with humanity. “Where are you? I created you because I want someone to love. Where are you?” And then that same desire gets played out in another Garden – the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus longs for God’s presence. And that longing gets repeated on the cross by Jesus with the psalmist’s words “My God, my God, why have you deserted me?” It is a cry for relationship, a longing to be together with the source of all that is. And that longing comes from both “sides” of the relationship, which is all One.
For a moment, think about how that insight got to me. A theologian from England learns from students in Africa, goes to Hong Kong to teach and makes a presentation in Taipei to a gathering of bishops that includes an American from Western Massachusetts. The imagination that is grace, God’s revelation to us, knows no boundaries. It is never limited and it is always multidimensional.
I’m telling you that story because it may help to illustrate the theme of this gathering of the House of Bishops: Expanding the Apostolic Imagination. We have gone halfway around the world to gain a better understanding of our God who can never be contained in one culture or one context – or in one dimension. In a brilliant sermon at the opening Eucharist, our Presiding Bishop, Katherine Jefferts – Schori, preached about Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century mystic and scholar who discovered God in creation and in science and who dared to take on the political leaders of her time. She wrote a liturgical drama “Ordo Virtutum” in which the personified virtues sing their parts. But the devil can only speak for he is condemned to live without music. He lives in only one dimension and without imagination, without newness.
Our time together in Taipei has featured a lot of “newness.” We have heard from church leaders in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Pakistan. We will hear from speakers representing Japan, Korea and the Philippines. Their context gives them insights we need to hear.
We have also spent time visiting cultural landmarks and churches. Betsy and I joined groups that went to St. James in the city of Taichung and Good Shepherd in Taipei. In a country that is less than four per cent Christian, these churches are growing. Not only do their little faith communities grow, but as they do, they start other faith communities. St. James, started in 1971 with a donation from the Diocese of Upper South Carolina, has started or renewed eight churches in the Philippines. They are not huddling together, trying to figure out how to survive. They are going “out” with the good news. I believe there is an insight here and spiritual energy for the church in our culture.
These speakers and these trips are expanding my “apostolic imagination.” Betsy and I are blessed to have this opportunity.
And I had my “civic imagination” expanded as well. When we visited St. James in Taichung, we went by “high speed rail.” The train attained speeds of 180 miles per hour. We made the 130 mile trip from Taipei (the biggest city in Taiwan) to Taichung (the third biggest city) in 55 minutes.
What would happen if we had a high speed train going to and from Boston (the biggest city in Massachusetts) to Springfield (the third biggest city)? It has been proposed and not acted upon by political leaders in the past. What would that do for the challenged city of Springfield? It could create new possibilities that will never happen with the dead end idea of casinos. The technology is available. Could we have our civic imagination expanded – by Taiwan?
Thank God we have a God that is always creative, always offering new possibilities, and always longing to be with us in the relationship that gives life.