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Masters of Imagination

When we think of imagination, we often think of what is not real. This is not necessarily correct. Here is a quote from Eugene Peterson's Subversive Spirituality where he suggests that a robust imagination is absolutely essential for anyone who would follow Jesus:

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Thirteen four-year-old children sat on carpet of the sanctuary at the chancel steps on a Thursday morning in late February. I sat with them, holding cupped in my hands a last season's birdnest. We talked about the birds on their way back to build nests like this one and the spring that was about to burst in on us. The children were rapt their attention.

I love doing this, meeting with the children, telling them stories, singing songs with them, telling them that God lives them, praying with them. I do it frequently. They attend our church's nursery school and come into the sanctuary with their teachers every couple of weeks to meet with me. They are so alive, their capacity for wonder endless, their imaginations lithe and limber.

Winter was receding and spring was arriving, although not quite arrived. But there were signs. It was the signs that I was talking about. The birdnest to begin with. It was visibly weedy and grey and dirty, but as we looked at it we saw the invisible - warblers on their way north from wintering grounds in South America, pastel and spotted eggs in the nest. We counted the birds in the sky over Florida, over North Carolina, over Virginia.

We looked through the walls of the church to the warming ground. We looked beneath the surface and saw the earthworms turning somersaults. We began to see shoots of color break through the ground, crocus and tulip and grape hyacinth. The buds on the trees and shrubs were swelling and about to burst into flower and we were remembering and anticipating and counting the colors.

I never get used to these Maryland springs and every time am taken by surprise all over again. I grew up in northern Montana where the trees are the same color all year long and spring is mostly mud. The riotous color in blossom and bloom in Maryland's dogwood and forsythia, redbud and shadbush, catches me unprepared. But this year I was getting prepared and getting the children prepared for all the glorious gifts that were going to be showering in on us in a week or so. We were looking at the bare birdnest and seeing the colors, hearing the songs, smelling the blossoms.

There are moments in this kind of work when you know you are doing it right. This was one of those moments. The children's faces were absolutely concentrated. We had slipped through a time warp and were experiencing the full sensuality of the Maryland spring.

They were no longer looking at the birdnest, they were seeing migrating birds and hatching chicks, garlanded trees and dewy blossoms. Then, abruptly, at the center of this moment of high holiness, Bruce said, "Why don't you have any hair on your head?"

Why didn't Bruce see what the rest of us were seeing - the exuberance, the fecundity? Why hadn't he made the transition to "seeing the invisible" that were were engrossed in? All he saw was the visible patch of baldness on my head, a rather uninteresting fact, while the rest of us were seeing multi-dimensioned truths. Only four years old and already Bruce's imagination was crippled.

Imagination is the capacity to make connections between the visible and the invisible, between heaven and earth, between present and past, between present and future. For Christians, whose largest investment is in the invisible, the imagination is indispensable, for it is only by means of the imagination that we can see reality whole, in context. "What imagination does with reality is the reality we live by," writes David Ignatow in Open Between Us.

When I look at a tree, most of what I "see" I do not see at all. I see a root system beneath the surface, sending tendrils through the soil, sucking up nutrients out of the loam. I see the light pouring energy into the leaves. I see the fruit that will appear in a few months. I stare and stare and see the bare branches austere in next winter's snow and wind. I see all that, I really do - I am not making it up. But I could not photograph it. I see it by means of imagination. If my imagination is stunned or inactive, I will only see what I can use, or something that is in my way.

Czeslaw Milosz, the Nobel prize-winning poet, with a passion for Christ supported and deepened by his imagination, said in an interview in The New York Times Review of Books that the minds of Americans have been dangerously diluted by the rationalism of explanation. He is convinced that our imagination-deficient educational process has left us with a naive picture of the world. In this naive view, the universe has space and time - and nothing else. No values. No God. "Functionally speaking, men and women are not that different from a virus or bacteria, a speck in the universe."

Milosz sees the imagination, and especially the religious imagination which is the developed capacity to be in reverence before whatever confronts us, to be the shaping force of the world we really live in. "Imagination" he said, "can fashion the world into a homeland as well as into a prison or a place of battle. Nobody lives in the 'objective' world, only in a world filtered through the imagination."

The imagination is among the chief glories of the human. When it is healthy and energetic, it ushers us into adoration and wonder, into the mysteries of God. When it is neurotic and sluggish, it turns people, millions of them, into parasites, copycats, and couch potatoes. The American imagination today is distressingly sluggish. Most of what is served up to us as the fruits of imagination is, in fact, the debasing of it into soap opera and pornography.

Right now, one of the essential Christian ministries in and to our ruined world is the recovery and exercise of the imagination. Ages of faith have always been ages rich in imagination. It is easy to see why: the materiality of the gospel (the seen, heard, and touched Jesus) is no less impressive than its spirituality (faith, hope, and love). Imagination is the mental tool we have for connecting material and spiritual, visible and invisible, earth and heaven.

We have a pair of mental operations, imagination and explanation, designed to work in tandem. When the gospel is given robust and healthy expression, the two work in graceful synchronicity. Explanation pins things down so that we can handle and use them - obey and teach, help and guide. Imagination opens things up so that we can grown into maturity - worship and adore, exclaim and honor, follow and trust. Explanation restricts and defines and holds down; imagination expands and lets loose. Explanation keeps our feet on the ground; imagination lifts our heads into the clouds. Explanation puts us in harness; imagination catapults us into mystery. Explanation reduces life to what can be used; imagination enlarges life into what can be adored.

But our technological and information-obsessed age has cut imagination from the team. In the life of the gospel, where everything originates and depends upon what we cannot see and is worked out in what we can see, imagination and explanation cannot get along without each other. Is it time to get aggressive? Is it time for the Christian community to recognize and honor and commission masters of the imagination - our poets and singers and storytellers-as partners in evangelical witness?

How else is Bruce going to hear the gospel when he grows up? How will he hear Isaiah's poetry, Jesus' parables, John's visions? It will be sad if, when he is 40 years old and enters a congregation of worshiping Christians and ministering angels, all he sees is a preacher's bald head.

A professor friend of mine summarized it like this: "Imagination is not the ability to conjure up what is unreal - rather, it is the ability to see what is real but unseen."

Christianity insists that the work of God - and thus of Christ, who is making all things new - is spiritual, and what is spiritual is unseen, apprehended only by faith. This does not mean that it's not real; it does mean that we need to learn how to see it.

We need to be masters of imagination, not of our own making, but of God's. We need to learn to imagine reality as he describes it for us.