I believe strongly in the place of the power of imagination in our lives of faith. I think the first lessons about imagination in relation to faith were taught to me by my paternal grandmother. She was constantly giving witness to Jesus in her day-to-day life. She sang hymns as she did her housework. She offered up commentary on things we saw on television. Nearly everything she did was aimed at seeing all things — great and small — in light of Jesus and the Christian life. Seeing that I was an imaginative child, a lover of books and stories, she encouraged my imagination; but she also taught me that it is something to be trained. She took Jesus at his word that whatever we asked for we should give thanks immediately as though we had received it already. And, she cautioned that, just as we could pray with our thoughts and imaginings for good things, we could likewise send our own creative energy into dark and ugly directions. The essence of her message, rooted deeply in her Appalachian Pentecostal faith was, we help create our reality by the way we first give it shape in our thoughts.
My academic training taught me how to think critically. That is a fine skill and I advocate the refinement of critical thinking skills in everyone. That critical thinking is a useful tool at seeing clearly how things were and are — and what they might be if certain choices are made. But there is another necessary skill that functions in a different way — that of imagining (some say dreaming) what things might be like. This is a constructive (rather than deconstructive) process; much like doing a preliminary sketch before making a final work of art. The sketch does not have to have everything worked out. Some details may be vague. Some elements may prove undesirable and will be dropped from what is actually created. Its importance is as a tool for exploration and experimentation that helps move toward the creation of something that will, ultimately, be better after refinement in the making.
In my own life, I look upon imagination as a kind of prayer. I form a concept of what I want to see come to be and I offer that up both for my own contemplation (and greater refinement) and to God as an expression of my inmost desires. I leave room for God to take up my suggestion and work with it — or to discard it altogether. I trust that God knows what I do not know and sometimes my ideas would not take me, or others, where it would be good for us to go.
When I was looking ahead to my next position of employment, for instance, I really could not get a clear picture in my mind of what I wanted my next job to be. But, I could imagine the sorts of things I wanted to have be a part of my new season of work. I began by making lists of those elements in my journals. I prayed about them. I revised them. I prayed some more. And then, quite suddenly, an employer came looking for me — and the position had every single one of the elements I’d offered up to God in my imaginings and prayer.
Imagination works best, I think, when we make sure we leave room for God (and others) to participate in the creating. Some people are afraid to use their imaginations, being concerned they will imagine something that is too riddled with defects to be a reality in which they would actually care to live. Indeed, I have experienced myself, and have seen many other people experience, imaginings that were so specific, so detailed and closed to God’s contributions and revisions, so closed to the input of others, that, when their imagined reality took shape it was so ill-shaped as to be a nightmare from which they could not wait to escape (I also had a couple jobs earlier in my life that came to me that way).
Imagination, I have been convinced by life experience, is a powerful thing in our lives; and, just as my grandmother taught me, I have found that it does, indeed, need to be trained.
I have experienced the negative side of imagination also. During times when fears have been left unchallenged in my life, when much of my time thinking has been taken up with contemplation of scenarios of hardship and even doom, I have opened myself to those possibilities and some of them have come my way. When I’ve not pulled myself out of that mindset, I have found that negative developments cascaded one after another. I think we do that as groups and societies, also. That is why I am not a proponent of rhetoric about unseen dangers and threats. When fear is allowed to rule our minds we create a world shaped by those fears — not by those things we hold to be virtuous and beautiful.
My sense of the power of imagination also guides me in how I choose to see what is. If I see a broken world, I can choose to then add onto my sense of hopelessness or my sense of hope. Every moment is framed by what was and what might become. Do I look at something or someone and wince and go away depressed? Or do I wince and imagine something better?
Imagination is a necessary ingredient as we work to live into unity in the love of God. What will be the “ingredients” we add to our dreams? What intentional openness will we leave for the participation of God and others in the imagining of what will come to be? What time, effort, and dedication will we devote to imagination as we come together for the sake of the love of Christ Jesus? We need to make our sketches in order to build. We need to share our thoughts and dreams with God. God then gives us the vision we need in order to live and to prosper.
I want to invite you to imagine with me what unity in God’s love might look like. What are the ingredients to add? What are the possible shapes of our dreams? What things might we ask God or others to contribute? How open are we to their suggestions in those places where we’ve not invited them — or where we have been very specific in our own imaginings?
My imagining right now looks a bit like this . . .
In local communities, Christians of every variety would actively seek each other out to work together to care for everyone in the area. They would encourage people, visit the sick and the lonely, visit the prisoners, feed the hungry, pray for everyone, pray with anyone who welcomed this, provide for physical needs and offer spiritual comfort and inspiration. They would speak openly about Jesus and how his love and teachings transform their lives — and how everyone is welcome to love as he loves and live as he lives. They would welcome new disciples where they are called to join the Christians of the community in Christ’s mission and ministry. The Christians would be true to the movings of the Spirit that call various members of their number to particular ways of theological understanding, spiritual practices, and ways of service. They would celebrate the many gifts God shares with the community through the variety of Christians in their midst. They would give witness to their understandings and would not try to overpower one another or control one another. They would trust in God to guide them and celebrate God’s provision for them day-by-day.
Christians in regions and around the world would work to be in active relationship with one another. They would travel and receive each other as guests. They would learn about the workings of God among Christians in places other than their own homes. They would witness to what they believe, think, and experience. They would see all Christians as members of the same family of believers and would welcome one another freely. They would be honest about their differences. And they would trust that God would lead them in the ways of truth.
The Christians might be many or they might be few; but whatever their number, they would be known for their love, kindness, hospitality, and willingness to serve all in their communities, their regions, and the world. They would not despair when their numbers dwindle in a place; nor boast when their numbers grow.
In all things, the Christians would live as ones who know that there are always things to learn. They would be respectful of all, looking upon them as potential teachers. They would be sure to live as ones who know that in all their doings, all their words, and all their silences, they are teaching. They would look upon themselves as ambassadors of Christ Jesus and as examples of the gospel he brought into the world.
Those who are not Christians would look upon the followers of Jesus as friends who love them. They would be encouraged to grow in their relationships with God, each other, and all of creation. They would desire to be the best people they can be, according to whatever faith to which they are called.
Christians, working alongside non-Christians, would proclaim love for all creation. They would care for all creatures as they care for their own families. They would work together to heal the earth and its inhabitants, to show compassion where there is suffering, and share kindness with every being. The Christians would demonstrate their love of creation by learning to love all things with the depth and passion of God.
Here is the dream of my imagination. I offer it up to you and to God. It is not complete; and it is open to revision.
I have left unanswered many things. I have not even mentioned many things that deserve to be mentioned. Among those, what do Christians do about the fact that they are not all welcomed to the Eucharist in each other’s churches? What about those who call themselves Christians, but others do not recognize them as such? I haven’t made all the problems we talk about in ecumenical circles go away. Other imaginations are needed. God’s guidance and help is needed.
However we imagine the unity of Christians, all people, and all creation in the love of God, I hope and pray that we will be known most of all for our love, our compassion, and our service to all in the name of Christ Jesus. Once, a young man came up to me and touched the cross around my neck. He said he liked Jesus a lot, that he was inspired by what he did and taught — by the love and compassion he shared. He said he hoped there would be people who would love like him and do like him. I add my dream to his and offer these things up as a prayer for us all.