Holy Imagination

Notes from a talk I presented this week at a Lenten Lunch on behalf of Churches Together

I wonder, do you remember when under every bridge hid a lurking troll? Do you remember when storks delivered babies? Do you remember when there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? I remember when I was a child, everything was magical. I remember playing on the climbing frame at school. One day I was a rocket man zooming into space, the next day a pirate on the seven seas, every day an adventure, after an adventure, after an adventure. Even a simple walk in the woods was to wander where the goblins lived.

But we’re older now, sadly, and we don’t believe in fairy tales anymore. We’ve crossed many bridges and we’ve never had our ankles grabbed by a snarling beast. We’ve checked under the bed, and there’s nothing there but lost socks and hankies! And although Disney may protest, we’ve learnt that not every story has a happy ending.

But I believe that in growing up, we’ve thrown away the baby with the bathwater. We’ve thrown away the ability to see things unseen, as well as throwing away superstition and fairy tale. Remember Peter Pan?  Remember the scene where Tinkerbell begins to fade. The children ask Peter what’s going on. He explains that Tink’ is dying because somewhere in the world someone has just said they don’t believe in fairies anymore. Dare I say it, there may not be such a thing as fairies, but I wonder if in growing up we’ve left no room for mystery, for wonder and imagination and in doing so, something has gone out, something in us has died.

I want to talk about the art of imagination today. Often the modern world has dismissed imagination – we don’t deal with dreams, we deal with facts and figures, the real world, the world that we can see and touch. But I believe that there is so much more to imagination than playing ‘let’s pretend’. Imagination is the creative art of seeing things that can’t be seen, of seeing the world differently, of understanding things in another way.

Let me give you some examples. I’m a Liverpool Football Club fan – have followed them for most of my life. I was watching the Carling Cup final on Sunday, although with our evening service I had to record half of it. There was a great example of the importance of imagination. Cardiff City had the imagination to believe that although they aren’t a Premier League side that they could match Liverpool, and that imagination gave them the belief and passion to do so. It made a real difference. When Liverpool went behind, they didn’t give up either, but had the imagination to believe that they could still win it, and much to my joy they did.

I’m a Biochemist by training. Often I hear that there is a division between the sciences and arts. Artists are the creative ones whilst scientists deal with what can be observed and proved (running joke at Imperial College where I trained that if you looked up Boring in the Yellow Pages it says see Civil Engineers!) Ask any scientist, however, about this split, and they’ll tell you it’s a load of nonsense. To be a good scientist you need to have imagination, the ability when looking at what you’ve researched to ask if there is a different way of interpreting things to what has been done before. Take Galileo who was able to see beyond accepted facts and say that the Earth circled the Sun rather than the other way around – that was a leap of imagination – or Einstein who came up with theories that turned the way physicists thought the world worked on its head! To be a great scientist, you need to be able to think outside the box as they say.

Another example can be seen in those activists who have given their lives to trying to change the world for the better. One of my heroes is Martin Luther King Jr.; now there was a man with a powerful imagination – the ability to see that the world didn’t have to be the way it was, the ability to see that it could be different and to strive to live up to and create the better world he could see in his imagination.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.

There is imagination powerfully at work, making a real and important difference.

As a Christian, I believe that imagination is a God given gift. The Bible tells us that he made us in his image – as this is written in the context of God creating the world, I believe this means that he made us to be creative like him, to be people of imagination. J.R.R. Tolkien who wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings was a Catholic, and he talked about in his writing being a sub-creator, reflecting the creativity of God as he invented the stories and worlds of his books.

The New Testament book of Hebrews says that faith is an act of imagination, ‘Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see…’ (Heb. 11:1)Faith is about seeing this world as God sees it and as God wants to make it, and then, having seen it, working out that vision in how we live.

How do we gain that vision? Through prayer and reflection on the Bible, through reading it and asking God to make it shape our understanding of God, ourselves and the world we live in, to make it inform our imagination. Over Lent we remember Jesus going into the wilderness for 40 days to prepare himself for his work to come. I believe this was his way of putting aside time to enable his imagination to be shaped and nourished in this way.

Another example a ‘holy imagination’ if you like is Abraham in the Old Testament. God spoke to him, gave him a wonderful promise, ‘You’re going to have a land, I’m going to take you to this land, this far place and create from you a vast nation of descendants that will bless the world’. Abraham was an old man when he heard this; he must have thought he was going mad. This couldn’t happen, he was too old, he didn’t know where he was going, none of these things made sense. And yet, he used his holy imagination to see what God’s promise could look like. No doubt that picture fuelled his determination during the lean days, the troublesome days, the days when everything God said seemed like a pack of lies. The days when he didn’t know where he was going he went, because in his mind he could see where he was going to get to. The days when he felt like a stranger in a foreign land, living in a tent, surrounded by people he didn’t know, who didn’t like him, he put up with it because he could see a different scene. He could see not tents filled with strangers, but a holy city with firm foundations filled with his children and their descendents. He could see what was coming, what God had promised and he hung onto that. He had looked ahead and saw what God was going to do, and so lived his life based on that promise.

We might not be Abraham or Jesus, but this kind of imagination can make a difference for us too. Think about the homeless guy selling the Big Issue or the pictures of hungry children on the TV that you’re asked to help or that lonely neighbour? It’s easy isn’t it to get used to this, to become dulled to it. Maybe if you’ve read Jesus saying in the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25 that when you feed the hungry you feed him, when you see these pictures your imagination might kick in and you’ll find yourself seeing them quite differently!

Jesus was a fantastic storyteller. As he taught and told his stories, he painted a picture of a world where everyone was included, where the hungry were fed, where the lonely were befriended, where the sick were healed. He told stories such as the Prodigal Son and the Lost Sheep to communicate the love of God for us and his longing for a relationship with us. A God who was at work restoring his Creation, putting right that which had gone wrong; had been spoilt.

I have a set of blue John Lennon sunglasses at home. When I put them on the world becomes a very strange place! You see it in a very different way! I want to encourage you this Lent to put on the glasses of imagination and see with me a better world, the world as God sees it, and to have the courage to be part of it.

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