Longing for vision

Instead of writing off their visionaries as eccentric, many churches would do well to pay them heed.

By Molly T. Marshall

Without it -- that vision thing -- we will not fulfill God’s longing for us. Indeed, we may well perish.

Following the Eastertide texts in Acts, vision seems to be the catalyst for the boundary traversing gospel.

Peter sees the non-kosher cafeteria descend from heaven. Cornelius sees an angel of light. Paul sees (and hears) the Risen Christ. Later he sees the “man from Macedonia,” who turns out to be a woman -- Lydia.

These visions open the way for the unhindered gospel in the Mediterranean world and beyond.

Peter’s vision propels him to acknowledge God’s glad welcome of Gentiles. Cornelius’ encounter with the dazzling messenger from God prompts understanding that “God shows no partiality” and accepts those who fear God and do what is right.

Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the way to Damascus revolutionizes Christian mission. His proclamation to Lydia unlocks the door to Europe.

Vision is a key part of corporate parlance. Every strategic planning process speaks of “vision and mission,” and stakeholders know how important focus on these guiding statements can be.

Thoughtful people craft these, often with the help of a consultant, and they become a part of institutional architecture. Rarely are these the product of encounter with the living God, however, and the motive is more often profit than service.

Many of us are skeptical about transformative encounters with the Risen Christ, which reorient our lives. Some are unsure that God continues to engage persons in this way. Perhaps our lack of receptivity prevents such disclosure.

As Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan write in their text, The Last Week: “People who have had a vision report that something important and meaningful, often life-changing, has happened to them -- they would never consider trivializing it as only a vision.”

This statement, more than any other, caught the attention of my Sunday school class as we studied this book during Lent.

The church’s default position should not be tasking mental-health professionals to deal with odd folks who have “visions.” (There are those with hallucinatory disorders who need such care, of course.)

The church should instead listen attentively and with careful discernment to those with spiritual sensitivity to God’s promptings. Creating a context that longs for vision can transfigure the ecclesial ethos.

Recently I have been reading Glenn Hinson’s autobiography A Miracle of Grace. I knew it would be full of wisdom, and engaging it has been like being in his classroom once again.

During his studies at Washington University, he was struggling to discover a relevant faith. His questions were outstripping the fundamentalism he had absorbed from his fractured family. He recounts a pivotal experience with God that helped set the direction of his life:

"One night, after a long period of pondering, I dropped off into a fitful slumber. I remember vividly that I awakened and sat bolt upright in my bed in the pitch black of my basement room. My alarm clock read 2 a.m. I felt a powerful sense of Presence, and John 8:32 was burning on my mind…. All of a sudden it rolled over me like a tide. 'If God is truth ... and if Christ is truth, then nothing you discover by any other legitimate means of inquiry will negate that.'”

The light of faith and sense of God’s glowing presence in him warmed generations of students as we likewise sought vision for our lives.

Now as a seminary leader, I pray for clarity of vision more than anything else. There are so many possibilities to consider, and my head spins in discerning priorities.

Vision has the nature of gift, and it requires the counsel of others to sustain faithful action. Just as the narratives in Acts portray, the Holy Spirit urges and clarifies the next steps for those longing for vision.

The flourishing of God’s mission requires “horizonal” persons -- a term I learned from Glenn Hinson. These are individuals who can see a bit further than others because of God’s illumining grace. Yet, these individuals cannot travel alone. True vision draws others to enact God’s future.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.