Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: "Living in the Imagination of God"

History of Hymns: "Living in the Imagination of God"

By Marilyn E. Thornton

Cecilia Olusola Tribble

Cecilia Olusola Tribble

“Living in the Imagination of God”
by Cecilia Olusola Tribble
The Africana Hymnal, No. 4141

“Living in the Imagination of God,” a song written by Cecilia Olusola Tribble1, is one decade old. She composed it one week after her maternal grandfather passed away. As found in hymnals, it is a song of welcome, encouraging worshipers to enter into community with God and one another, sharing the hope of the good news of Jesus Christ. It was originally written, however, as the theme song for Journey into the Hush Arbor: Living in the Imagination of God (2006), an Abingdon Press Bible and Arts program. This program, with themes that connect the past with the present, are created for the whole church, but especially for churches serving African American communities. For example, the hush arbor, or brush arbor, was a secret place in the woods whereto enslaved African Americans would steal away in order to worship God and pray for freedom, out of sight of white slave-holders. At the same time, the themes also promote a sense of hope among people who are not always valued by society, to challenge them to see the world as God desires it, a place where justice, love, and grace are possible for all, despite what they may be currently experiencing.

The biblical foundation for “Living in the Imagination of God” can be found in the lyrics of the second part of the song: “Eyes have not seen, nor ears have heard what God has prepared for you and me,” from 1 Corinthians 2:9 and Isaiah 64:4. There is an invitation to “journey into worship where we can see” that what we should be striving for is God’s dream for the way life should be. It is in God that “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28a). Through worship wherein people can shed the troubles of the world, the beloved kingdom, where love, peace, joy, and justice reigns for all people, becomes a reality if only for a short while. Worship offers respite, a reminder of that which we should seek daily, and a renewal of hope that God’s dream can be achieved.

In the fall of 2010, “Living in the Imagination of God” was the hymn of praise for the evening service of the We Who Believe conference, the title of which was taken from words spoken by Ella Baker (1902-1986), whose career in organizing for social justice spanned fifty years: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.” Ella Josephine Baker, the grandchild of slaves, was a graduate of Shaw Academy and University in Raleigh, NC. She worked for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in New York City during the 1930s. In the 1940s, she worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as a field secretary and on the national committee, organizing chapters throughout the South and setting strategy. Baker worked behind the scenes to help structure the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). In 1960, when the young people of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) could not decide on whether to continue direct action or concentrate on voter registration, her suggested compromise to do both saved the day. Baker’s work with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) was invaluable. Its presence at the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City was ultimately responsible for changing the rules of the party, allowing for some black representation. These words—“We, who believe”—and Baker’s life’s purpose were immortalized in “Ella’s Song” by Bernice Johnson Reagon2, founder of the women’s a cappella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock.

The We Who Believe conference was held between the venues of the Divinity School at Vanderbilt, the Scarritt-Bennett Conference Center and the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Sponsored jointly by the Kelly Miller Smith Institute of the Vanderbilt Divinity School, The African American Lectionary, American Baptist College, and the Lilly Foundation, it represented the kind of cooperative activity needed between entities of people who believe in freedom from injustice, hunger and sickness, freedom of faith, and freedom from fear, helping Christians to live into the beloved kingdom that God has imagined for us.

Since its first publication date with the Hush Arbor program, “Living in the Imagination of God” has appeared in the songbook Zion Still Sings: For Every Generation (Abingdon Press, 2007), in the hymnal Total Praise (GIA Press, 2011), and in The Africana Hymnal (Abingdon Press, 2015, #4141, USB Flash Drive).


[1] Cecilia Olusola Tribble (b.1982), an arts consultant in Nashville, has a Bachelor’s degree in Music Education from the University of Memphis, a Master’s degree in Theological Studies with emphases in Black Church Studies/Black Religion and Culture/Religion in the Arts and Contemporary Culture from Vanderbilt Divinity School, and a Master of Arts in Performance Studies from Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.

[2] Bernice Johnson Reagon (b.1942) was a student at Albany State University (GA) when she became involved with the Civil Rights Movement as one of the Freedom Singers. She subsequently earned a Bachelor’s degree from Spelman College and a Master’s and Ph.D. from Howard University. She is currently Curator Emeritus of the National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institute and the Professor Emerita in History at American University, both in Washington, DC.

About this month’s writer:

Marilyn E. Thornton (B. Music History (African American Religious Music), Howard; M. Violin, Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University; M.Div. Vanderbilt) is an elder in full connection in the United Methodist Church. She is the lead editor of African American Resources at The United Methodist Publishing House, music editor for Zion Still Sings and the Africana Hymnal, and a contributing writer for the Africana Worship Book Series.