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The Holy Work of Shape-shifting Dragons

I was driving my son to school when we almost ran over a beaver in the middle of what should have been a beaver-less place. It was a field filled with cows and one lone dump truck rusting into the ground. After narrowly dodging becoming beaver murderers, my son and I got to thinking about beaver-ish things. He had a lot of questions.

“Why was the beaver crossing the road?” he asked (in a literal sense, not as an alternative to a chicken-based joke). “Did it live in that field?”

I had no idea. What I did know was that beavers normally don’t live in fields with cows. I said as much, and then asked, “What if that beaver wasn’t actually a beaver but a shape-shifting dragon that thought being a beaver would trick us into believing it belonged there so it could eat one of the cows?”

He talked about this for the next 15 minutes. He talked about it as we got out of the car, walked through the door, and tossed his backpack on the floor. At some point, we decided that the beaver was, in fact, a dragon, but it wasn’t going after a cow; it really wanted to drive the old dump truck sitting in the middle of the field. 

I’ve thought about this conversation a lot since we had it. In fact, I’ve thought a lot about the random beaver/dragon-style conversations I’ve had with my kids. It’s always been a goal of mine to foster their imaginations, curiosities, and general wonder of the world, but, for reasons I have never been able to pin down, these what if conversations always feel as though they are doing more than just letting us be ridiculous together.

I’ve gotten a lot of advice about what ifs in my adult life, mostly to stay away from them and their distant cousin “if only” for the sake of my own joy. “What if I’d done X differently? What if I did X instead of Y?”

To reframe the imagination as sacred connects me to the Creator in every creative moment. Dave Connis

What ifs can sometimes turn into dangerous explorations of unfulfilled longings, deep sorrows, or regrets. These sorts of what ifs? can take us over. Swallow us whole. When they do, we get lost in the crypts and dungeons of Whatifland. Down there, in the dark, we forget about the world outside. We forget about Whatisland. Mystery and curiosity turn us into prisoners of everything unrealized if we are not careful. When that happens, imagination becomes something that we use against ourselves, and to protect our hearts, we put it in a cage.

Alternatively, if we spend too much time in the cities of Whatisland then mystery becomes inefficient, curiosity turns transactional, and imagination is reduced to simply being a means to an end.

I know my imagination isn’t an animal that has to be caged, but it also isn’t merely a means to an end. If I believe that I’m redeemed, I also must believe that my own imagination finds its source in the Creator—that it’s not just redeemed but can also help bring about redemption itself. The Creator’s imagination is clear in every God-breathed work, in the breath given to humanity in the beginning. We have been made in the image of a Creator. To create, you must imagine. To create the zebra, God imagined its stripes. To create the colors of a sunrise, God first imagined the canvas of the sky. He imagined the laughter of a child and the love humans can share. He also imagined beavers that might appear in beaver-less places.

I’m a writer of children’s literature—most recently, The Stories of God (and Kiki). The bulk of my career has been built on exploring and writing about ridiculous what ifs. But the shape-shifting dragon conversation made me realize how often I force my own imagination to live in the dark, isolated places of Whatifland and Whatisland. It made me realize that, if imagination isn’t a part of my theology, I can lose it, or its purpose, entirely.

I’m asked a lot by parents how to help inspire and foster their kids’ imagination and creativity. I’ve given advice like, “Slow down, truly look at the world and engage it with the wonder your child has for it.” While that’s true, I think the holy work of shape-shifting dragons has expanded my answer.

To take the imaginations of my kids seriously, I have to slow down, yes, but I also need to take my own imagination seriously, or maybe less seriously if I want to dive down the rabbit hole of beavers turning into dragons, and reform it as a holy practice, a muscle that needs to be exercised. I need to challenge the notion that mundane actions—things like coming up with stories of beaver/dragons—are inconsequential.

To reframe the imagination as sacred connects me to the Creator in every creative moment—not just when I pray, read the Bible, and perform other “official” spiritual practices. And as with all things redeemed, we have to practice using it outside of the darkness of our broken extremes.

I need to work on my own theology of imagination and let the Spirit breathe redemption into my imagination. I need to remember to step out of the crypts and dungeons and into the wilds where magical beasts roar and intrepid explorers dare. Where mercy reigns. Where griffins fly. Where all are forgiven. Where dragons shape-shift. Where imagination is redeemed. And all of it points me to Jesus.


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