Monday, May 21, 2018

Give Us Faith's Imagination

Yesterday as Christians celebrated the Feast of Pentecost, I sat with my wife in the pews of All Saints Church in Worcester. It was a wonderful celebration which included great music and a terrific sermon preached by my friend, the Rev. Ned Prevost.

The recessional hymn was Gracious Spirit, give your servants. The text is written by an Episcopal priest named Carl Daw. It has been said that the one who sings prays twice. If that's true, then we should pay more attention to hymn texts, which are poems really. In the third verse of Daw's "double prayer" the congregation asked God to "give us faith's imagination, hope's renewing, love's delight."

Faith, hope, and love. These three, St. Paul said. These three that form and shape congregations, guided by the Spirit. But what stayed with me after the dismissal was the way the poet connects faith with imagination. Give us faith's imagination. What might that look like?

I've preached many times over the years on faith, perhaps most consistently when preaching on Thomas, as I did not too long ago. (See here.) I tried to say there (and at other times) that faith is not primarily a noun about what we say we believe, but a verb focused on trust. So I won't say much more about that here.

What struck me in Daw's hymn, however (which I'm sure I've sung before, but somehow glided over these two words) is that trust leads us, with God's help, to imagination. This word comes from the Latin word, imago, which means image. Imaginari means, "to picture oneself." Imagination is about the ability to be creative or resourceful. It's that second meaning that strikes a chord with me.

Wisdom, in the Old Testament sense, is not a heady philosophical idealism. It's about resourcefulness. In Proverbs, the sage counsels learning from the ant. This is not Plato's cave! It's about learning how the world works and navigating our way through a sometimes unsteady and confusing world. Imagination as creative resourcefulness doesn't take our heads into the clouds, in other words, but takes us body/mind/soul into the world and all of it's challenges.

Give us faith's imagination. With God's help, we can imagine the world as otherwise. We can imagine justice and compassion. We can imagine our work as instruments of God's peace and as agents of reconciliation. We refuse to stand idly by, and instead find ways to act, however imperfectly, by taking a step toward love of God and neighbor. Faith's imagination allows us to be creative and resourceful in picturing ourselves as making a difference, if not halfway around the world, then at least in the neighborhood: to the neighbor sitting next to us on an airplane, or driving too slowly in front of us, or trying to find forty-seven cents in her purse when we thought this would be a quick errand for milk...

Give us faith's imagination. I love the Church. Anyone who knows me or has heard me preach or has read this blog before knows this. I actually have a fairly high tolerance for the Church's imperfections. But perhaps what gets under my skin more than anything besides clergy misconduct is how anxiety shuts down our imaginations. In our anxiety we chase the next "fix." We think we can operate congregations, and manipulate them, as if they were clocks. Clergy are more susceptible to this than lay people but lay people are not immune to this danger.

We need faith's imagination, not to grow the Church but to form disciples who can take faith's imagination with them into the world - and into our homes - so that the world might have life, and have it more abundantly.