Imagination is the work of discipleship
Updated: Oct 7
I think that I get pigeonholed sometimes into just the arts&crafts priest, the I just want to sit in camping chairs priest and not do any work priest. And as fun as it can be to poke fun at the sandals priest because he is not a blazer priest, I want it stated for the record that I don't hang ribbon from the ceiling because I'm trying to be irreverent, I don't plan craft nights and loiter on the back patio of Agora and invite our people to write their own prayers because I am lying down on the job, I do it because I deeply deeply believe that the responsible and faithful and convicted work of discipleship is a work of creativity, of daydreaming, and of imagination.
In scripture and in the person Jesus, God has painted a picture for us of this promised future called the Kingdom of God, where Jesus' work has been completed, where God's reign of love and of care is accomplished. In the Kingdom of God, everything that divides us falls away, and all people have been reconciled fully to one another and also to God. Our work as Christians is pointed towards the Kingdom of Heaven, everything we do is pointed towards the Kingdom of Heaven, and the work of ministry is to begin to build that Kingdom here, right now, in our midst.
We know that the world is not as it should be -- there is division, strife, inequality, poverty, violence, exhaustion, loneliness -- and Jesus saw that as well as any of us. The question for us, then, is how should the world be? What kind of world was Jesus working towards? We are working towards this kingdom of heaven, well what is it?
We have to understand that there is no precedent for the Kingdom of God, we are working towards something that does not exist here in front of our eyes and for which there is no template, which makes it a work of imagination.
Go ahead, paint the Kingdom of God.
If looking at a blank canvas raised your blood pressure, it's okay, because we are not starting from scratch. So where do we start?
First, it's important to say that imagination takes inspiration.
We're not imagining the Kingdom of God entirely from square one -- though that's what God did with creation. Instead we have clues from scripture what the Kingdom of God is like, and from which we can start to lay out some line work.
Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. What would the world be like if we genuinely loved our neighbors as ourselves. What would it be like if we were loved by our neighbors the way they loved themselves?
In Matthew, Jesus said that how we do unto the least of these we do unto him. What would a world be like if all the hungry were fed, if all the thirsty were quenched, all the naked were clothed, all the sick were visited and healed, if all the strangers were welcomed?
In Luke, Jesus says that he has come to:
proclaim good news to the poor.
to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
What would be good news to the poor? What would it take to free the oppressed?
We have inspiration from scripture: what would it mean if the world we were working towards was one where a few terms were fulfilled:
- love was freely given and freely received
- people's basic needs were addressed without transaction
- the idea of "the stranger" melted away
- people were freed from what oppresses them
Secondly, we can name that an imagination for the Kingdom of God would flaunt rules and constraints the way that Jesus flaunted rules and constraints.
There are all kinds of arbitrary rules and expectations we place on ourselves -- as individuals and as a church -- that constrain our imaginations for what we are allowed to do as a church or what we are allowed to envision for the Kingdom of Heaven.
I know you think that the strong inherit the earth, but I'm telling you it's the meek.
I know you saw these men put more into the treasury than this widow's two coins, but I'm telling you hers was worth more.
I know you think we don't have enough food to feed these 5000 but I'm telling you we do.
I know you've read that one cannot heal on the sabbath but I'm telling you it's okay. That is what it's for.
I know you think death will be the end of the line for me, but it's not.
We get to break rules not because it is fun to be a rebel, but because scripture tells us to, and Jesus' life tells us that some of the ways of the world are senseless to God, and some of the ways of God are senseless to the world. And we get to figure out which of those rules are keeping our imaginations from expanding into the fullness of the Kingdom of God.
*Goldman Sachs asks, is curing patients a sustainable business model?*
In Corinthians, Paul says this:
For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel--not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God... Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
One of the foundational rules of our culture that cuts across every aspect of our lives is the logic of deservedness. Everything must be deserved. What would be possible if we broke the rule of deservedness? What kind of a world would it be if curing patients did not have to be a sustainable business model? What kind of a world would it be if the hungry did not have to earn their food, or the homeless earn their homes? What if there was nobody who didn't deserve to have their debts forgiven? What if we decided together that there was nobody in our culture who deserved to be thrown away, or, if even for hard work, there was nobody who deserved a "good life" more than anyone else? What kind of a Kingdom of God would that be? What kind of a community would that make possible?
Finally, imagination requires practice and it is okay to be an amateur.
I feel like one of the things that happens with imagination or with art is just a kind of immediate overwhelm of, like, I'm not an artist, I don't know what to paint, I don't have an imagination, I can't do this!!! As if it should be normal at all to be a complete amateur, to sit down at a blank canvas, and to produce a Starry Night. Or that it would it be normal to sit down on your first day of being a Christian and be able to articulate a clear or coherent picture of the Kingdom of God. The apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians: For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
How do you cultivate an imagination?
Well, you just start using it, and then you keep going.
To grow an artistic imagination, you just have to start making art, bad art, simple art, boring art, copycat art, and then you slowly start to understand the next small step to take.
To grow a ministry imagination, you just have to start doing ministry; join a ministry, start a new ministry, do a ministry badly. And from the place of doing a ministry, you slowly start to understand the next small direction to move to draw the circle of care wider.
To grow an imagination for the Kingdom of God, maybe you start by taking one little facet of what we understand is promised in the reconciliation of all things, and you make it true between you and one other person, or in one little group, or in one little house. And maybe slowly over time you start to understand the next step to take in the direction of the Kingdom of God.
This was my experience of the ministry of The House at the outset. Things had taken a real hit during COVID and it was essentially like being handed an empty canvas and a ton of art supplies and being asked: What could this be? What does this need to be? And the work was essentially imagination all the way through. We started a bible study and took stock of what mattered the most to us from the Gospel. We spent time articulating the rules and expectations heaped on young adults and college students and deciding which ones to break and in what ways. And after essentially sitting on my hands for like six weeks, we just had to start. And then we had to keep going, and watch our imaginations grow for what's possible.
I say all of this not to say that I am somehow an imagination guru-- I'm just the arts&crafts priest. But rather to share that I deeply deeply believe that the work of the church is cultivating an imagination for the Kingdom of God and then starting to make it in our midst.
So I'll offer you this question. We know that the world is not as it should be-- how then should the world be? Or perhaps, when you imagine St. George's at its best and at its bravest, what do you see?