Before the Great Beginning, before “the heavens and the earth” were breathed into being, do you think that God imagined the earth? Or, perhaps, several different earths? Or several different universes? In that unfathomable time before time, do you think God imagined breathing you into being? And when your mind is quiet and your heart open, what do you imagine?
Whether these questions make you excited or cause you to feel a little dizzy, I hope you will see that engaging the imagination is an essential part of following Jesus in our time of challenge and change.
We have reached the second step within the four-fold process of ecological discipleship: repent-reimagine-reform-repeat. My last post started us off with Sweet Repentance, which called us to confess that we have not lived up to our vocation as earthkeepers, and to commit to actions that cultivate greater harmony in our relationships with God, each other, our fellow creatures, and the earth.
Repentance calls us to acknowledge that we have lost our way, and it is easy to see many places where we have wandered off the path; the consequences of disharmony are all around us. It is harder to know how to get back on the path and make things right. What if there is no pre-constructed way forward, no pre-determined destination? What if a new path must be built, step by step, turn by turn? What if we must imagine a harmonious world before we can help create one?
It is important to grapple with these questions because the worldview that dominates Western culture, and most of the world, has locked us into particular patterns of thinking and acting for so long that it is hard to imagine anything different. It is hard to imagine a world in which humans do not dominate and desecrate the planet, where personal and corporate success is measured in ecological, not economic terms, where political decisions are made to benefit future generations, where learning to care for one's place is central to education, where churches are less concerned with getting people to heaven than getting heaven to earth, where the love of Christ is discovered and shared in the great diversity of life that surrounds us.
It may be hard to imagine all this, but we must try, because the practice of imagination enables us to set aside our current constraints in order to construct an alternative reality. To put it more simply, imagination is the birthplace of vision.
The Hebrew prophets knew this well; their calling was to guide Israel when it had lost its way, to help them remember God’s vision of “shalom” (well-being or harmony) and their role in helping the vision become reality. This was particularly important when those in power - often Israel's kings - imposed a different vision. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann describes it this way:
It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.
This is why, in moments of great grief, confusion, or oppression, the prophets invited the people of Israel to imagine a future in which the world would be turned upside down, which is to say right side up.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and lion and yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like an ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
Such vision inspires both hope and action. If we imagine that such a future is possible, it cannot help but change how we live in the present. With our imaginations inspired, we can begin to carve out a new path, one step at a time.
Jesus knew this well, and practiced his own form of prophetic ministry through parables. By using imaginative language (“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed...” ) and taking normal situations in unexpected directions (…"and then a Samaritan happened to come by”), Jesus opened up people's hearts and minds to new ways of thinking and acting. His parables are pictures of what the world would look like if we lived the way God intended. They are visions of relational harmony in which everyone has a place and everything is in its rightful place: a great banquet, a family reunion, a rescued sheep, a bountiful harvest, a surprise reversal of good and evil, lost and found, first and last.
Jesus practiced what he preached. It is not a stretch to say that his life was a living parable; it takes a courageous act of imagination to see death on a cross as the pathway to life in the new creation.
One More Set of Questions
What does prophetic imagination look like in our age of industrial destruction, technological devotion, and political division? What parables can we tell to break us out of our rigid worldviews? What living parables walk among us to help us imagine the steps we can add to the pathway guiding us toward God's vision of shalom?
There are many answers to these questions, many of which we can discover right where we are if we have the eyes to see. If you would like a little help getting your imagination going, here are a few places to start.
- We sought God outside the typical church setting, like those in the Wild Church movement.
- We made decisions like many Native American tribes, considering the impact on the next seven generations.
- We spoke as straightforwardly about climate change as Greta Thunburg (she refers to autism as her superpower – a great example of reimagining).
- We included the non-human world in our churches' ministry and mission.
- We celebrated downward mobility.
- We invited a friend or two to join us on this journey.
Each one of us has been gifted with imagination, and it is a shame when gifts go unopened. Let's cut the ribbon and open the box. I can only imagine what’s inside.
With you on the Way,