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Entries in imagination (9)

Imagining My Father

When Jesus says something once, you can be sure it’s important. If he repeats himself a second time, it’s critical. But what if Jesus says something eleven times? Many of us have read the “Sermon on the Mount” over and over. It’s unmatched in beauty and clarity; many of its phrases have worked their way into the everyday speech of western society. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus repeats a simple two-word phrase eleven times.

The other day, as I was reading this passage again, I tried to imagine that I was one of the people gathered on that hillside. I tried to imagine the sound of his voice and feel the breeze soothe the perspiration on my forehead. I began to hear these words with new ears. Jesus kept repeating two simple words over and over. When he talked about the light of the world, he used this phrase. When he talked about loving our enemies, he used these words. And again, as he moved on to generosity, prayer, and fasting, there were these same words. The words I heard over and over were simply, “Your Father.”

I began to sense that in addition to the substance of the message Jesus also wanted to plant something deep in my spirit: the assurance that God Himself is my Father. “Of course,” you might think. “We are all God’s children.” Our idea of the Holy Trinity begins with ”God the Father.” But it’s one thing to recognize God’s title as Father, it is quite another to know him as such.

As I put myself among the listeners I began to perceive something beyond an idea, beyond a theological construct. I heard Jesus remind me again and again that I have a Father, a Father in Heaven. I have a perfect Heavenly Father. What’s more, my Father is within my reach. He’s able to find me in the most hidden place. He is actively involved in my day, my actions, even my thoughts, and this is a good thing, because he’s my Father.

I went back to the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, this time with a pen in hand. I made a list of affirmations about my Father and me. After closing the book, I had a list I could read aloud. Alone in my office, I read each one out loud. I heard the sound of my own voice speak the truth about God, who is also my Father. It was a list of things I could be sure of.

• My Father encourages me to love my enemies and pray for those who persecute me.

• My Father wants to perfect me.

• My Father does not reward “outward performance.”

• My Father sees what I do in secret and will reward me.

• My Father will meet me behind closed doors.

• My Father knows what I need before I ask Him.

• My Father forgives me when I forgive others.

• My Father feeds the birds; He will feed me.

• My Father knows what I need.

• My Father gives me good gifts from heaven when I ask Him.

I learned one final thing sitting on the hill with Jesus. There’s a phrase he uses only once, but once was enough for me: “Our Father.” At the very beginning of what we call the “Lord’s Prayer” Jesus doesn’t start with the words, “My Father,” he starts with “Our Father.” I saw Jesus, my brother, someone who is with me whenever I pray. I saw a picture of Jesus putting his arm around me, saying, “Whatever it is that’s troubling you, whatever it is you need, come on—let’s go to our Father together.”

Perhaps today you will rediscover Jesus, your Brother, and God, your Father. Peace!

Tap The Power of Storytelling

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This blog is about spiritual formation, but in conjuction with the release of my mini eBook The Man With All The Answers, I wrote this piece for ChurchLeaders.com about the power of storytelling in preaching, so I share it with you here. -- OR -- if you're not interested in preaching, you could jump over to Amazon or Barnes & Noble and invest 99-cents in my new book.]

Steven Spielberg’s popular movie, Lincoln, runs exactly two and a half hours. After the brief opening sequence there are no explosions, no sword fights, and no one is killed on screen (spoiler alert: Lincoln is assassinated at Ford’s Theater).

When I saw the film, the theater was packed. Two and a half hours of talk, talk, talking heads on the screen yet no one in the theater moved, no one became restless, and no one complained about the length. And we have trouble holding people’s attention for a 28-minute sermon. What’s the difference?

The difference is story-telling. Spielberg knows how to tell a story, and we would do well to take a few pointers from him. In fact, forget Spielberg: our sacred text, the Holy Bible, is filled with stories. You might go so far as to say the Bible is one story: the Father’s relentless pursuit of his lost children. What lengths would you go through to rescue your children? (There: did you see it? When the subject changed to fathers, children and rescue, you began to engage with the material, didn’t you?)

Those of us who feed God’s flock must become God’s storytellers. Here’s the journey we must take:

  • Once upon a time, there was a preacher who used bullet points in his sermon. The bullets killed his congregation’s attention and buried their passion. The End. (Chapter One: Just because you outlined your sermon doesn’t mean you have to reveal the outline.)

In Chapter Two we learn that God’s message to humanity is mostly story—even the parts that are not story. Take the Old Testament (please). From Genesis to Ezra-Nehemiah the book reveals one continuous narrative. The grand narrative is followed by books of poetry, filled with metaphor and images. Think of these books as God’s soundtrack to the story. Then come the prophets, who provide the director’s commentary on what has just transpired. Who could understand the prophets apart from the story of the Old Testament?

Chapter Three: When the Bible story moves to the New Testament we meet Jesus, the master storyteller. He didn’t write a book of systematic theology. He spoke in parables. His life was one long illustration of God's love. And when he taught, he used images from everyday life: flowers of the field and birds of the air. Jesus is better than even Spielberg!

Chapter Four: Professor Paul wrote letters filled with theology, but at least he had a relationship with the people who read the letters. Why not try using the book of Acts to reveal the story behind why Paul wrote his letters? Paul wrote to real people, struggling with real problems, and if you tell their story, your people will receive the story of Christians trying to apply their faith in practical ways.

Chapter Six leads us to the book of Revelation, and if that isn’t made for video, I don’t know what is! God's not afraid of imagery or imagination. Are you? (Oh, Chapter Five?) Some things are best left out of the story, especially if it makes your listener supply the missing pieces.

The End – Know when to quit. Which is better: four dry concepts from the scripture, or one life-changing story, also drawn from the Bible? In the jargon of Hollywood, make it memorable, and leave room for the sequel. After all, you have to preach 50 times a year!

Who funds your imagination?

Some people are realists, others dream. I want to be both kinds of people: first I want to dream, then I want to bring reality to what I’ve seen. I have a dreambook, more popularly known as the Bible. I go to that book like I go to the bank: it is the source of funding for my heart-dreams.

Jesus understood the power of imagination and dreams. His teaching invited people to combine their thoughts with his words and imagine a world born anew. I believe this is how we should listen to the word of God: combine our imagination with his words, producing Biblical dreams of the way things are in heaven and should be on earth:

Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12:27-32)

Can you imagine living a life convinced of the Father’s good intentions toward you? How would such a life differ from one in which we worry about daily needs? It’s like throwing your anchor into the future. With each passing day you are pulled closer to reality, swayed less and less by the currents of this life. But hearing his words requires that we engage our imagination, and see ourselves living such a life right now. It produces hope: Godly hope sprung from a Biblically-informed imagination.

Walter Brueggemann emphasized the idea that our dreams must spring from a source other than our wants and desires. He reminds us we are not free to imagine just anything. We receive the Biblical witness and become invested in the vision. Nor do we do it alone. Brueggemann suggests that the church becomes “a place where people come to receive new materials, or old materials freshly voiced, which will fund, feed, nurture, nourish, legitimate, and authorize a counterimagination of the world.”

The Apostle Peter said it this way: “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” (2 Peter 1:3-4) There is enough astonishment in these few words to change your life forever. Can you imagine a life infused with his divine power--a life where he has given us everything we need? Can you imagine the possibility that we can participate in his divine nature--merely by embracing his promises to us? Can you imagine escaping the corruption and decay of everyday life--being freed from evil desires?

The possibility of living into these possibilities begins with our imagination--an imagination funded by God’s words whispered in our ear. Our hearts are lit by our imagination. The source of that imagination makes all the difference.

Both realists and dreamers face the same questions: What is the source of your reality? Who funds your imagination? What is the source of your dreams? What dreams have you derived from God’s promises? How have those promise-dreams changed your life? I’d love to hear your story.

Monday's Meditation: The Defense Calls Dr. Dallas Willard

Abraham, or Dallas Willard?
Over the last three weeks we’ve been talking about the power of imagination applied to the scripture. Surprisingly, many people are skeptical about such a “subjective” approach.
One of the best defenses for a near-heretical position is to cite an authoritative source, so this week’s Meditation calls to the witness stand Dr. Dallas Willard, ordained Baptist minister, PhD in philosophy, and all-around nice guy. The following segment (used with permission) is from his devotional, “Hearing God:”
The word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: "Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward." . . . When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces [of the sacrifices]. Genesis 15:1, 17
One way in which people are addressed by God within the biblical record is with a phenomenon plus a voice. A phenomenon is an occurrence that can be perceived by any of our senses. For example, it might be an appearance of something unusual. God often accompanies such phenomena with a voice. Such divine-human encounters are richly represented in the events of Scripture, and we need to use our imagination to identify with them.
God's covenant with Abram, a major foundation of the Judeo-Christian tradition, was solemnized when fire from God passed through the air to consume Abram's sacrifice while God intoned the promise to Abram and his seed (Genesis 15:17-18).
MEDITATE: Read Genesis 15:1-17. Notice Abram's questions within the conversation between God and him (vv. 1-9). Now imagine Abram preparing sacrifices and desperately driving away the predatory birds from them. See the setting sun and the dreadful darkness as Abram falls into a deep sleep. Once again God speaks to Abram and the torch-laden firepot lights the sacrifices. Reread the passage and sit quietly basking in Abram's experiences.
Thanks, Dr. Willard. The defense rests--but not before recommending his iPhone app, Hearing God, available for $2.99, which comes to just under a penny a day to have morning devotions with formidable spiritual director.

Monday's Meditation: The Color of his Eyes

At the close of William Sampson’s wonderful book, Meeting Jesus, he asks, “What was the color of Jesus’ eyes?”
The literal-minded person will immediately answer, “The Bible doesn’t tell us. We cannot know. At best we can only presume that because Jesus was born to Jewish parents blah, blah, blah.”
Sampson’s answer is more compelling: “No color is mentioned. But they were not colorless, like Little Orphan Annie. They were human eyes. And that they were human and could be looked into like any human eyes can make a big difference in getting to know Jesus.”
It’s like the stuff of a romantic comedy when the unappreciated girl traps the smooth-operating guy with a question as they talk on the phone: “Oh, you think I’m great? Really? What color are my eyes?” Long silence: the smooth operator is busted. He doesn’t really know her, he simply likes the idea of wooing and winning yet another conquest.
Can you imagine looking into the face of Jesus? Have you brought your imagination into the service of following him? In my experience too many Christians are taught to avoid subjective experiences with God.
Sometimes unbelievers grasp the power of imagination and Spirit more freely than cautious believers. In his play Joan of Arc, George Bernard Shaw--an infamous critic of Christianity--depicts a scene where Joan is questioned by church authorities for the heresy of hearing God’s voice. Her critics tell her the voice comes from her imagination, and Joan replies simply, “Of course. That is how the messages of God come to us.”
Joan would still be considered a heretic today, burned at the modern stake of the blogosphere. True, the Bible is our anchor. In the happy phrase of the King James translation it is our “more sure word of prophecy,” yet that implies there are other means of hearing his voice. I believe we were meant to engage the scripture in all the particulars--even the ones not mentioned, right down to the color of his eyes. It does not matter that we get the answer “right.” It matters that we enter into the real world of the scripture. As William Sampson says, “We do not know the particulars of his life, but we know it was filled with particulars . . . Jesus lived out his life as we do--from one concrete setting to another, one choice to another.”
To imagine Jesus in this way is to position ourselves to live from one concrete choice to another with a chance of making the choices Jesus would have us make. For this week’s meditation, can you imagine the color of his eyes? Why not spend some time alone with him and gaze upon his face?