Vanessa Stokes is a WTS MDiv student and a Peterson Center Research Assistant
“Original works of grace are possible in the everyday work of forgiving the sinner, in helping the hurt, and in taking up personal responsibilities…creation continues. The streets and fields, the homes and markets of the world are an art gallery displaying not culture, but new creations in Christ.”
-Max Lucado, Traveling Light
God created, and saw good. God saw good not because creation made the right choice or was the most awe-inspiring but because God declared us and all life so.
Still today, we are in creational collaboration with our kin: the person passing by on the street, the peony in the pasture, the alpaca on the marshy mountain. The call God gave to be fruitful and create does not stop in Genesis 1.
Maybe Christian imagination is a furthering of the Genesis 1 call, a prompting to create and view the world through a lens of God’s own imagination. Michael Williams in How to Read the Bible Through a Jesus Lens encourages all Christians to read every book of the Bible to find a theme ultimately fulfilled in the person and work of Christ.
What if we not only saw the Bible as part of the fulfilling work of Christ but the world, others, ourselves through God’s imagination?
Consider the formless, primordial deep from Genesis 1. Chaos ran rampant. God saw chaos and dreamt of creation. The inchoate deep was nothing like the light-filled, intentional, ordered, shouting-replete-about-its-Maker world we live in today.
God imagined what could be out of what was not.
We cannot look at what is around us as the world would have it. We are called and gifted the ability to see everything around us through a lens of Christian imagination.
Eugene Peterson said, “The assumption of spirituality is that always God is doing something before I know it. So the task is not to get God to do something I think needs to be done, but to become aware of what God is doing so that I can respond to it and participate and take delight in it.”
The Kingdom of God is not fully present, not yet. Why should we wait for what will be when we can respond to what God is currently creating and what God is presently imagining for the world around us?
Before coffee’s arrival in Yemen, coffee was only a crafted conversational brew. Then, the Sufi monks discovered its ability to sustain a person in an awake state, and they adopted coffee as a panacea that would allow the Sufi community to conveniently stay awake for midnight prayers.
The monks saw coffee like apocalyptic literature—an unveiling of things not known and which could not be known apart from the unveiling.
Jesus does the same with the dying daughter of Jairus, the synagogue leader, in Luke 8. On his way to heal Jairus’ daughter, a bleeding woman who has been neglected by society because of her condition stops Jesus. She is unseen and unheard.
Yet, Jesus sees a child of the Kingdom of God who has enough faith to touch his tunic for healing. Jesus sees her. Jairus and those of importance around him must acknowledge the bleeding woman. Had Jesus been looking at the world around him only through the eyes of Jewish culture, he would not have given this suffering woman another moment’s notice.
A servant in Jairus’ household rushes up to tell Jairus his daughter is dead amidst the happenings of Jesus and the woman. So, Jairus tells Jesus there is no longer a reason for Jesus to come to his house, for there is nothing Jesus could do. Jesus insists his daughter can still be healed—had Jairus not just seen Jesus heal the suffering woman?—and continues on his way to Jairus’ house.
The people at Jairus’ house are wailing and crying for the lost little girl. Jesus says to them, “Stop wailing. She is not dead but asleep.”
The people laugh at Jesus.
Jesus in response takes the little girl’s hand saying, “My child, get up!”
Immediately, she awakens and laughter turns to astonishment.
Jesus did not accept what Jairus knew as the only truth. From death to life, Jesus imagined what could be done in God’s hand. Jesus did not limit his understanding of the people or places around him to a human perception of them to take reality as final fact.
Alber Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
Having a Christian imagination is about seeing hope in times where there is absolutely no hope–Daniel in the lion’s den style. Christian creation is believing in miracles or even believing the sun will rise again today and set again at the end of it.
“If I want potatoes for dinner tomorrow, it will do me little good to go out and plant potatoes in my garden tonight. There are long stretches of darkness and invisibility and silence that separate planting and repeating. During the stretches of waiting there is cultivating and weeding and nurturing and planting still other seeds,” as Lucado says.
Christian imagination is a both-and, a now-and-not-yet imagination. With Christian imagination, we look past what may be right in front of us without ignoring what problems persist or the pain around us.
Such ideals are not promoting a prosperity gospel mindset. Not in the least. The suffering and pain of life is not negated by the joys and wonders of Christ. Just as we cannot know Christ purely as the Son of God without acknowledging his suffering on the Cross as the Son of Man, we cannot look at life through the lens of Christian creativity without first declaring the reality of pain there may be.
Once we understand pain cannot be separate from Christian hope, we can all be a part of the good work of Christian imagination.
Mary Oliver calls us all to action in her poem, “I Happened To Be Standing”:
I don’t know where prayers go,
or what they do.
Do cats pray, while they sleep
half-asleep in the sun?
Does the opossum pray as it
crosses the street?
The sunflowers? The old black oak
growing older every year?
I know I can walk through the world,
along the shore or under the trees,
with my mind filled with things
of little importance, in full
self-attendance. A condition I can’t really
call being alive.
Is a prayer a gift, or a petition,
or does it matter?
The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way.
Maybe the cats are sound asleep. Maybe not.
She saw the ordinary pieces of her life through the stained glass window of faith. Oliver pokes the often assumed stance toward agnostic animal lives.
Oliver uses her poetry to press others toward inventiveness in their lives. Now, God can reveal a lot to us individually—there is no limit to what God can do; yet, a person’s revelations and imagination seldom moves past their experiences.
Thus, our process of reimagining is not just personal but collective. The church body, aptly called, is meant to work as one for the fruition of all. We likely do not understand the world as a sternum does if we are a femur. We need a collective imagination to flourish.
Not long ago, I was sitting in my Hebrew class on a day set aside for creative presentations. The presentation prompt was a lofty and vast request to create something around Genesis 1.
I brought my piece up to the front that day not knowing how it would be received. Timidly, my hands revealed a comic strip of images about each day of creation. In my collection, I tried to convey the intentionality and beauty of cosmic celebration.
In each piece brought forward, the class saw it for what it was and for what it could be. They ate away at each handiwork like ants on peonies—snacking on the nectar at the base of the bud—at the initial image or words or actions of each presentation until it blossomed into something our own individual imaginations alone could not have envisioned.
Someone’s painting of the two hands of God ordering formless and void strings of creation became a co-creation of the hand of God and the hand of man connected by the string of the world between us. Another’s poem on the dark and void beginning became a commentary asking if God was lonely and if feeling as such sparked God’s crafting of the world, of mankind in his image.
We need each other to imagine for us and beside us.
Christian imagination work is a firsthand involvement in the creation process of everyday life. For the Protestant Reformers, the “rediscovery of firstand involvement resulted in freshness and vigor.”
Yet as every artist, painter, electrician, pastor and teacher knows, creativity and imagination can be difficult.
It is much easier to fade into the monotony of copy and paste culture. We compress ourselves down to the work we are told to do and forget to look up from our cubicles or our kitchen tables—as COVID could have it. It is easier to fade through life, slicing ourselves down to speed up our return to dust.
I myself have chosen to reuse a metaphor in a poem or paper rather than taking the time and space to manifest something new. I have chosen to see a homeless person in the free food line as another ticket taken at the door rather than an individual person who God intentionally created.
In the same way, Christian imagination is a choice because we are lazy, and it can be daunting to choose hope and joy day in and day out.
To use our imagination is to not know what we will find when we do. Often I have prayed, “God open my eyes to what You see, to what I cannot see,” but I am terrified of the outcome.
What if the world around me changes? What if I have to change with it?
It is a leap of faith and hope.
There will be times when our leap fails, not because of God, but because of ourselves and this is the daunting fear. But failure is not final. There is finessed freedom in failing. Every baker has had to trash a tart or two before learning how to make a good one.
God is not without grace in our process of developing a new way to view the world.
And God’s grace is the most beautiful and humbling part; we could never do it ourselves. We pray, “God open our eyes, open our hearts, open our minds to what you see when you gaze lovingly upon your beautiful creation.”
We begin in prayer. Then, by being present. We choose to see the world around us and not pass it by. It is a way of life, so it will be messy, the best work always is. It is a long obedience in the same direction.
As God finds us in our mess, so we find God in the mess of our world.
“My job is not to solve people’s problems or make them happy, but to help them see the grace operating in their lives.”
-Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor