Written by Kyuboem Lee
Wednesday, 13 November 2013 00:00
I have found that missional engagement with the world requires a biblical prophetic imagination that enables us to see the world anew. The prophetic imagination doesn’t, however, simply descend out of a transcendent, idealized realm when we open the Scriptures in our secluded, ivory tower studies. It is forged out of a dynamic discourse between our messy context and the text of God; an ongoing wrestling between our lived, concrete situations and the ancient words that reveal the God who created and rules over our world here and now.
Take Genesis 1, for instance. It is the account of a Creator who methodically takes on chaos and desolation in the course of 6 days and utterly triumphs over them. The first 3 days, God orders what was a big, huge mess into separated, differentiated spaces or realms. The next 3 days, God populates each of those spaces with living beings. The end result is the complete defeat of chaos and emptiness, and a world that is beautifully and triumphantly ordered and teeming with joyous life. Humankind is created on the last day in God’s image and placed in this world, as a sign of his victory and life-giving rule over creation, and the whole thing is declared to be “very good.”
How do we read this account in the context of inner city Philadelphia?
I live and minister in the Germantown neighborhood, where since 10 years ago I have been a part of a church-planting effort. Germantown used to be populated by children of German immigrants, but like so many urban neighborhoods in America, experienced white flight and the resulting economic collapse in the latter part of the 20th century. There are rumors of neighborhood renewal, but Germantown’s historic high school was recently shut down, a victim of the troubled Philadelphia School District’s deep financial hole. Many blocks have long been made up of Section 8 (government-subsidized) rental properties and abandoned structures, and many of their residents have lived for generations under the national poverty line.
For many years, I helped to run a summer street camp for the neighborhood kids. Along the way, I realized that most Bible curriculums didn’t speak to our inner city context—they usually assumed a middle-class, suburban audience. So a friend who also ran his own camp in North Philly and I collaborated to produce our own Bible curriculums that had our neighborhood children in mind. The first Bible book we worked on was Genesis. For the lessons covering creation and fall, I produced two illustrations—one for the very good creation that God had always intended for his image-bearers, and another for the alienation that have corrupted every dimension of life and kind of relationships that we experience.
“The Fall” portrays chaos and desolation. Before God's work of creation, and after the fall, the place is like a warzone, with crumbling, burned up shells of houses; trash and debris spilling out and filling up all the spaces; graffiti and vandalism everywhere; the church is shut up tight like a fortress; the corner store is abandoned; the only economic activity going on is a corner drug deal; a man is a shell of himself; a police helicopter is flying overhead—the place is a police state, where fear rules. The kids could identify with this because they've seen it and lived it in our neighborhood.
But they could also identify with the other picture that portrayed shalom, the state of the world when God is done with his work of creation, his good design for the world. The houses are in good condition for people to live in; people live in safety and in harmony with each other; there is no fear when they interact with each other, only friendliness; kids are playing on the streets and thriving; the streets are clean and bright; the church is open to the community and there is neighboring (missional engagement!) going on right on its doorsteps; the corner store is open for business and employment. Kids see this picture and they resonate with it too because they know what a good community looks like. They've lived through this too, and their heart instinctively longs for shalom.
The gospel of Jesus Christ tells our neighborhood kids that God has once again defeated the powers of chaos and death and brought in order and life because God’s own Son took on all the dark powers and utterly triumphed over them on the cross. One day, God’s people will have shalom, the “very good” creation which we lost but which we have regained in Christ. In the meantime, we can experience his victory as we see people, families, communities, and cities be transformed from places where chaos and desolation reigns to places of life and order. We can have glimpses—not the full thing, but real, substantial occurrences—of the kingdom of God that Jesus has secured for us. God’s good design for his creation will be realized fully one day; but we can taste it and see it today in our inner city community.
This kind of reading can, I believe, help us become a better missional community of Christ in our contexts. The gospel that has transformed us is also at work transforming this fallen world into a redeemed world. The church’s imagination will need to be captured by this biblical vision so that we might faithfully, courageously, and joyfully engage our hurting, chaotic, and desolate but also joyous, God’s-glory-reflecting, and groaning-for-redemption world.