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Liberating the Imagination

by Michael Blair

VST Convocation Address, 2023

Chancellor Evans, Principal Topping, members of the faculty, Board of Governors, graduands, honoured guests. I am deeply grateful for this honour that you have accorded me this evening. It is an incredible gift of grace, an affirmation of calling and ministry and a reminder of God’s faithfulness, and I am thankful. To the ancestors who left the soil of the African continent, and the women of faith, especially Ruby, who in the tradition of the church “prayed me through,” encouraging my gifts, nurturing my spirit and feeding my soul, I say Ache, Ache.

My gratitude to Principal Topping and colleagues who worked to make this honour possible. It is a delight to be a part of the great cloud of witnesses who have been honoured by this institution over the years, including my friend and mentor, the Very Rev’d Lois Wilson.

I am thankful, to be a part of this particular graduating class, not only because I have some good friends among the graduands, but because it is probably the most exciting time in the history of the world and the church to be called to participate in leadership. The opportunity to lean into the collective work of meaning-making, to mine the depth and resources of our inherited faith tradition, to find the resources to live boldly with hope!

So, if you would indulge me, let me offer some personal reflections from the context of 40 years of public ministry and particularly, the last almost three years as General Secretary.

My first observation is that we continue to be enticed and entangled by Christendom and its colonial project. Even as good liberal progressive churches, which know that Christendom is a part of the death-dealing system, we continue to be captivated by its values and projects.

Even despite the fact of the great unmasking of the last three years – COVID 19 and the inequities globally, the unmasking of the colonial enterprise and the horror of genocide of Indigenous peoples, the racial reckoning with the realization that black and brown bodies matter, and the pace of technological advancement – has landed the final death blow to Christendom, the reality is that Christendom is dead!

It has been dying for a while. 

It’s been a long goodbye.

Yet as I look over Churchland, it seems to me that the trappings of Christendom, with all the systems and practices of the colonial project, still have a hold on us. It preoccupies our imagination, our energies and our resources.

My intuition is that too much of our time and energy is spent trying to hold onto and recreate what was, rather than embracing the possibility of risking something new.

In this post-resurrection season, as we remember the early followers of the way – Jesus their teacher had been killed, there were rumours that Jesus was brought back from the dead, they encountered the risen Christ, they were sent to take the life transforming the good news of Jesus to the world – they caught the reality of God’s dream for a healed, transformed creation, and so they:

Built community.

They lived in expectation that God in Jesus by the Holy Spirit would show up.

They prayed and waited for the empowering of the spirit they trusted and risked their lives.

They told the stories, which opened their imagination, and in an uncertain, hostile world, they dared to invite people into places of hope.

They opened their heart to new possibilities.

They trusted in the God made flesh in Jesus.

And so can we!

The death of Christendom invites us into a new way of being.

My second observation is that we have lost confidence in the gospel and the God of the gospel. It seems to me that the stories we tell, and how we tell them, have no capacity to elicit anything more than a yawn. It is all fantasy, with no capacity to change lives and the world.

That loss of confidence expresses itself in a form of arrogance that diminishes any appreciation of the value of the other. We play a zero- sum game, forgetting that the ministry of Jesus fought against the forms of arrogance that devalued or dehumanize the other.

The loss of confidence in the narratives that once had given so many lives so much meaning, inspiration and empowerment, is part of the postmodern condition. No longer are those narratives meaningful, inspirational and empowering. Instead, under postmodern light, every master narrative is suspicious. It is suspicious because it tells and reinforces and legitimates and replicates an old structure that kept the marginal in their marginal position.

But we have to tell stories. We have to tell our narratives. The question now is whose story are we telling? Whose perspectives do we privilege?

I believe it is time to revive that confidence in the gospel and the God of the gospel by listening to the narratives emerging from situations of hunger, thirsty-ness, nakedness, and from places where there are prisoners, migrants, refugees. Sure, we have offered our hands and feet to tread a path with them towards abundant life. But it is also important that their narratives and stories of redemption, of overcoming, of uniting, of miracles and of healing, told and expressed by them, are heard and popularized. So that the previous grand stories and narratives that kept their affliction would no longer hold sway. So that the previous grand stories and narratives would no longer legitimate exploitation of many by the few. So that the old structures that kept them at the margins will no longer be replicated. So that we can usher in new ways of doing relationships that are more humane, righteous and just.

Luke 4 is a reminder to us that we can rediscover the power of the gospel by engaging with those who are the victims of the marginalizing forces of our time, the climate crisis, poverty, wars, dislocation and displacement. But Luke also reminds us that we need to be empowered by the Spirit.

The Spirit of the Lord privileges the margins. The same Spirit prioritizes the stories and narratives that are emerging from those places of desolation. We may be surprised that they not only hope for hope’s sake, but they en-flesh hope. To en-flesh hope is a dangerous endeavour. To do the things that you hope for requires organizing of people, creating a movement, collectivizing their lives. You see, the gospel and the God of the gospel still prod, and excite, and trigger the imagination of many, especially those at the margins. It is those stories and narratives that we have to tell; stories and narratives that challenge the old structure and inspire the creation of a new heaven and new earth.

My third observation is that we need a new paradigm. We need a new way of opening up our imagination. French philosopher Paul Ricoeur said, “in order to change a person’s behaviour, you must first change their imagination.” The task of nurturing imagination is the work to which I feel we are called to do as people who are committed to the way of Jesus.

Sam Washington, my first and former high school teacher at Calabar High School in Jamaica, stood at the intersection of the history of liberative struggle of Nanny of the Maroons, Paul Bogle, Marcus Garvey, and the recently assassinated Martin Luther King Jr., and a group of wide-eyed 13-year-old boys embarking on a new journey of life and self-discovery. Sam understood that the social is always political, and theology should not be separated for a deep personal relationship and faith.

You see Sam, loved Jesus. 

He loved the scriptures.

And he understood his role was to nurture the capacity of his students to imagine in order that “hope and history would rhyme” (Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy).

I remember that one day he drew our first-year class to a huge tree, just outside of the classroom window. He reminded us that our goal was always to reach the top of the tree. He told us that if we threw a stone at the top of the tree, it would probably land somewhere in the middle, but if we were to aim at the sky, chances are we would hit the top of the tree. Over 50 years later, that simple illustration continues to shape my life. It was not simply an encouragement to set my goals high. It was more significant than that. It became an invitation to dream and to imagine possibilities.

But dreaming and imagining possibilities as ministers of Christ – we do not do it for ourselves. We dream and we imagine possibilities with and for others, lest we replicate the colonial arrogance of deciding the future other people want to have. We do not want to steal away from them their agency and subjectivities.

New paradigms are emerging from places where there is suffering. God is inviting us to go there, not with colonial arrogance, but with the courage to listen and to stand in solidarity with them. Suffering and pain, if we listen intently, tells and asserts a new rationality. It is a new rationality that challenges the paradigms of old and tickles in our imagination an alternative way of doing human relationships. But we have to listen intently.

To embark on imagining a new paradigm, I must warn you, is a dangerous thing. Not a few of our mission partners in the Philippines, in South America, in Africa have been killed because they believe and fought for the removal of the old and the establishment of a new paradigm. Not a few of our LGBTQ kin, and women leaders and fighters, have been vilified and persecuted for who they are, and they are the ones who believe in the possibility of the dawning of a new world.

I have been influenced by the reflections of Walter Brueggemann.

Isaiah tells us that God is inviting us into a place of building communities/streets for people to live in; what would that look like? Just imagine.

Liberating the imagination is a crucial task of education. The process

of educating happens not only in our seminaries, but also and most especially in the places you will be called to – in congregations, hospitals and military chaplaincies or in other places. As I end, I encouraged everyone to continue embarking on the task of liberating your imagination. Go to uncomfortable places, listen to the cries of the bereaved and exploited, observe a new paradigm emerging from those places, heed. Heed those paradigms, and together create the world with them.

It is that God has a dream!

And God has and is inviting you into God’s dream.

It’s risky.

It’s terrifying.

It’s frightening.

It’s exciting.

And it’s life giving.

Let’s begin to lean (or learn?) into a new way of allowing ourselves to imagine.

Michael Blair is a member of the Order of Ministry in the United Church of Canada and currently serves the General Council of the United Church of Canada as the General Secretary. Before joining the General Council staff, Michael served as the Executive Director of the Toronto Christian Resource Centre, which was a ministry of the then Toronto South Presbytery, now Shining Waters Region.