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Imagination as a Spiritual Practice (Part 2 of 3)

When I was a kid, my favorite thing to do was to play pretend. My friend and I created an entire town in her backyard. Our house was inside a meticulously de-cobwebbed corner of her crawlspace. The market area stretched around her back deck. The battlefield where we fought bloody wars against the tyranny of the king was the sprawling woods beyond. I was always good at playing pretend; I could see the town and hear the voices of our comrades in battle. The clashing of swords and the tang of fear were all real to me. I was so good at playing pretend that when I realized my imaginative thoughts would not be valued during discussions in school, church, or other “serious” settings, I simply pretended I wasn’t imaginative whenever speaking. In time, I wasn’t even imaginative when thinking of ideas while in those settings. I put my imagination in a box, only to be taken out under proper circumstances. As I grew older, those proper times for imagining grew fewer and farther between until eventually I forgot who I truly was. I pretended a part of myself away, but the problem was that no matter how good I was at pretending, that part of me was never truly gone.

It was doing puzzles with my mom during my high school years that began to reawaken the part of me I had locked away for so long. Credit does not go so much to the puzzles themselves, but the movie we watched as we worked, Anne of Green Gables. From the moment Anne named the Barry’s pond the Lake of Shining Waters, I knew Anne’s heart was kindred to mine. By the fourth puzzle my mom and I undertook, I realized that Anne Shirley was the person I knew myself to be in my heart—a person whose imagination is shamelessly free instead of crammed inside a tiny box. Anne awakened in me a restlessness that I loathed but could not ignore, a deep knowing that I was so much more than the prevarication I pretended to be in order to gain assurance that I would be valued and loved. To ease the restlessness, I started writing stories, giving my imagination free rein to create whatever worlds and joys and tragedies it saw fit. When I got a little braver, I began exploring the imagination academically, looking at how the imagination can be an agent of healing when a person creates or consumes art. But still my imagination and my thoughts on God remained carefully separate. At least, they did until I wandered into a plenary session during Hutchmoot 2019.

“Imagination and the Voice of God” was hosted by Helena Sorensen. Waves of people crowded into the room as the start time for the session approached. I ended up sitting my 4’11” frame on the floor beneath a white board because there was no more room for chairs. I had only been involved in the Rabbit Room for three years, and though I was comfortable with my imagination as a writer, I had no idea how imagination and God could mix. Everyone in my church growing up was clear that the Bible was all we needed for our faith. Scripture left nothing for me to imagine; at least that’s what I always pretended I thought. When Helena began speaking, though, it was like she knew the secret longing of my heart. The imagination, she said, is our way to enter the unseen realm—it is the way we commune with God. And with that one idea, the last of the true me was set free.

We’ve spent an awful lot of time interpreting Scripture and arguing Scripture and learning and teaching and trying to rightly divide. But some of you know about a contemplative practice called “entering the scene.” How many divinity doctorates do you need in order to imagine yourself on the hillside with Jesus? You might not come out of that encounter with a systematic theology, but you’ll come out changed. —Helena Sorensen, “Imagination and the Voice of God”

Have you ever had a secret that you felt would lead to questions about how much you love God? I did for a long, long time. I don’t feel connected to God when I pray. Oh, I’ve begged for lives to be saved and pleaded for the safety of the ones I’ve loved. I’ve even tried having a prayer closet with notecards full of prayers taped up on the walls. No matter what I try, I just feel like I’m saying words that God hears. I’ve never felt the intimacy—the presence of God—that others describe when they pray. But sit me down with a pen and a story swirling in my head—that’s prayer for me. Give me my wounds laid out in verse before me—that’s how I feel I was purposed to commune with my Creator. Or give me a cloudless day where the sky is such a rich blue that I just want to swim in it until the rest of the world disappears—that’s when I feel God right beside me. Or give me a book that makes me feel known, that speaks in a language only my soul knows—that’s when I know I’ve been praying. I’ve never walked away from one of these moments with any new theological insights, but I always walk away changed. I walk away knowing more of who God is, who I am, and how I am to love the world around me. I walk away, and my restlessness is gone.

Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field all alone or into the deep, deep woods, and I’d look up into the sky—up—up—up—into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer. —L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
We squeeze every ounce of mystery we can out of faith because we so desperately want to know we're doing okay. But when we deflect the weight of mystery, we toss away chances to experience God more deeply. Hannah Mitchell

As I began to explore imagination as a spiritual practice more in my own life, this moment just after Anne Shirley comes to Green Gables kept coming to my mind. Why do people kneel down to pray? Why must my prayer be like anyone else’s to be more “right”? I’m sure there are plenty of verses people can share with me as to why prayer must look a certain way. But I think, at its core, we want prayer to look a certain way because it is easy to know if we are doing it right. The existence of God alone is a lot for our rational brains to handle, so we cling to any benchmark that lets us know we are doing this whole faith thing the way God wants. We say the “sinners’ prayer” to be saved. We go to church on specific days of the week. We get baptized or we don’t. We search only in the places we know God ought to be to find God’s truth. We squeeze every ounce of mystery we can out of faith because we so desperately want to know we’re doing okay. But when we deflect the weight of mystery, we toss away chances to experience God more deeply.

Mystery is who God is, and we will never know God as fully as we might unless we allow our imaginations to freely rest in the tension of the unknown. This resting in Mystery allows us to ask the secret questions of our heart, like, what if we create art not to praise God, but to be healed by its making? Does God not glory in the lessening of our pain? What if God does not demand perfection or even excellence from our battered souls, but is simply thrilled that we exist in this big, wide world of light?

As we lean into the tension of these questions, they lead us to hope. Hope that one day we will no longer be afraid of the person we are in our hearts. Hope that maybe God loves all of who we are—that maybe it wasn’t God, but people, we were pretending for all along. Hope that we will be brave with our love so that no one will ever feel they have to pretend for us.

There’s a lyric in the penultimate song of the musical Waitress in which the main character sings, “And I know in due time every right thing with find its right place.” Whenever the weight of the time I wasted forcing my imagination into its box presses in upon me, this lyric’s truth rings in my heart. In due time, my right self found its right place. And as those who speak so loudly of loving God and loving people, we must be brave enough to help others find their right places as well.

Somewhere our worthy pursuit of sound theology morphed into an unspoken spiritual hierarchy: the truths we learn from works focused on theology are of more value than those that are not. We learned early on that a study of Mere Christianity is of more spiritual worth than a visit to Narnia. More than that, though, we learned that those who prefer to commune with God among Narnia’s rolling hills are less serious in their spiritual pursuit than those who prefer to dive into Miracles. People put the things of childhood behind them, leaving Narnia so that their adult faith can grow. But by fleeing Narnia’s hills, they close the door on some of the truest ways to experience God. They pretend until they forget the deeper, truer way they once knew. They pretend until all but a shell of their spiritual self is gone.

How many people have missed deeper truths of themselves and God because they fled back through the wardrobe? How many people have felt cut-off from God because we decided which ways were right and which ways were wrong? How many people may yet stop pretending because of our choice to live boldly and to love bravely?

We must swallow our fear of the spiritual imagination’s mystery and lament the pain and loss we have caused. We must talk without shame or fear of the truths of God found among the brushstrokes of a painting or the score of a song. We must lift up the theologians, the artists, and the dreamers, because for so many, the courage to imagine empowers us to see the fullest image of God.


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