An Active Imagination

“Peaceable Kingdom”, John August Swanson, 1994

Amos 9: 13-15

13The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps, and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. 14I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. 15I will plant them upon their land, and they shall never again be plucked up out of the land that I have given them, says the Lord your God.

So, out here in the wilderness, what are we supposed to do while we wait for things to get better?  I mean, faith is about waiting, yes.  But faith is also about doing. Faith is supposed to be active, right?  So what are we supposed to be DOING during this wilderness time?  And how can we find out more about when this will actually resolve?

We 21st century journeyers struggle with the unknown, with just leaving things to chance, with admitting that perhaps there are those aspects of our journey that are not for us to know now. That is what Advent does for us…it points us toward mystery. Some would equate that to nothingness or, perhaps, even to darkness–unknown, foreboding, maybe even a little dangerous. But God came and comes over and over again. I think that God’s coming does not, much to some of our chagrin, bring with it the surety that we might like. In fact, knowing everything that’s ahead, being so absolutely sure of how everything is going to turn out, is surely the death of our faith.  Because if you are so sure of everything, why would you need faith at all?  God doesn’t give us surety; God instead instills faith in us to lead us through the darkness.

It is our faith that opens the door to our imagination.  And it is our imagination that strengthens our faith.   God says…walk with me awhile my child and look…look far beyond where you can see…listen far beyond where you can hear…journey far beyond where you think you belong…and there, there I will be, and there will be the Creation that I have created for you. You can’t see it right now.  But you can imagine it. 

Imagination is not some remnant of our childhood that we were supposed to lose as we matured.  It is part of us and it matures with us.  A mature imagination has no limits to what it can envision; it has no boundaries to what it can do.  A mature imagination steps beyond reason and intellect, not leaving them behind, but sweeping them into a new image, a vision of a New Creation.  A mature imagination is fueled by faith.  Our imagination takes us to the place to which God leads us.  Our imagination gives us a glimpse of the mystery that God has promised, the promise of new life.

Advent is about imagining.  Think of those that came more than 2,000 years before us.  They were imagining what the coming of the Messiah would mean.  Now they more than likely got it wrong.  But that’s not the point.  They were imagining a new Creation, a new way of being.  They were imagining that their lives would be better, that peace and justice would rule, that hunger and poverty would be no more.  They were imagining that they would find there way home.  And their faith walked them in that direction.  So, in this Advent so many years later, just imagine…

Your imagination is your preview of life’s coming attractions. (Albert Einstein)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Between Night and Day

2016-11-30-between-night-and-day(Advent 2A) A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. 10On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious. (Isaiah 11: 1-10)

Yes, another reading about that future vision that God holds for us.  Advent is harder than we thought it was.  After all, we assumed that we just had these four weeks to prepare for Christmas (challenging enough by itself!) and we keep getting hit with the prospect of preparing for what is essentially the “Great Unknown”.  I mean, God gives us this vision pretty plainly but wolves cavorting with lambs and calves and lions sharing an abode and all of this being led by a child may be just too much to fathom.  In the words of Mary at that fateful encounter with the angel, “How can this be?”

Maybe that’s our whole problem.  Maybe we have not allowed ourselves or risked ourselves or trained ourselves to imagine something other than what we know.  We are pretty locked in.  Most of us have planned our tomorrows and possibly even the day-afters and we get really irritated when someone has a different idea.  In other words, those pesky new shoots that keep getting in the way of our perfectly trimmed hedge around our lives are sometimes just downright irritating.

So this season of Advent comes along as the great reminder that life does not and cannot go as planned.  Thanks be to God for that!  As we walk this season of remembering that coming of God into the world 2,000 years ago as Jesus Christ and at the same time looking toward the coming of God’s Reign in its fullness into the world that we now know, we are acutely aware that we live between two ways of being.  With our feet planted in this earth that still bears the marks of poverty and homelessness, of terrorism and war, of disunity and disregard of the rights and lives of others even at our own back door, we are called to imagine something different, something more, something beyond what we have.

We are the ones that live between night and day.  The night is reaching toward us, calling us, desperately needing our voices and our hearts to bring it into the light.  And up ahead in the faint distance is the Light that we ourselves crave so badly.  It would be so easy to just go and leave all this mess behind.  But that is not the plan.  Between night and day is where we are called to be.  That is the lesson of Advent.  And here, here is where we are called to imagine God’s vision into being.  We are not called to passively wait for the coming of God but rather to actively imagine this world the way God does and do our part to make it happen.  So, dare to imagine what God does.

If I cannot find the face of Jesus in the face of those who are my enemies, if I cannot find him in the unbeautiful, if I cannot find him in those who have the “wrong ideas,” if I cannot find him in the poor and the defeated, how will I find him in the bread and wine, or in the life after death? If I do not reach out in this world to those with whom he has identified himself, why do I imagine that I will want to be with him, and them, in heaven? Why would I want to be for all eternity in the company of those I avoided every day of my life? (Jim Forest)

 

FOR TODAY:  What do you dare to imagine of God’s vision?

 

Advent Peace,

Shelli

The Wilderness of Former Things

About to Do a New ThingScripture Text: Isaiah 43: 18-19

 18Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. 19I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

 

I love old things. They are full of stories and ripe with history. They are real, full of pits and marks from the past. My house is full of antiques and, for want of a better word, “repurposed” antique wanna-be’s. I love history. I love old houses and antique shops and cemeteries. I love connecting with the past and those that came before me. I love old churches and especially those that honor and celebrate their rich histories. Our church just refabricated the historic stained glass windows in the sanctuary and the whole nave looks like it has been woken up. See, old things are not the problem; old ideas are not the problem; old notions of who God is and who we are before God are not the problem. The problem comes about when we find ourselves stuck with “the way it has always been”, not wanting to bring the past to life, wake it up, repurpose it so that it has life for us now and beyond. The problem comes when we find ourselves holding on, wandering in the wilderness of former things.

Gethsemane Window, First United Methodist Church, Cleveland, TX
Gethsemane Window, First United Methodist Church, Cleveland, TX

 

I don’t think God wants us to forget the past. It is part of us. It is coursing through our DNA as we speak, making us who we are. It is what taught us to breathe, taught us to live, taught us to be. We always carry with us the echoes of what God created before. They are our beginnings. But beginnings are not meant to be held onto. It is to our detriment to pad our lives with the past, to clutch at the beginnings as if they are the end-all, and to miss the new thing that God is doing, the repurposing of the old into the new.

"The Good Shepherd Window", First United Methodist Church, Cleveland, TX
“The Good Shepherd Window”, First United Methodist Church, Cleveland, TX

 

Tradition is not a bad thing. It is a wonderful thing. It means to come into a conversation that began long before we got here and that will continue long after we are gone. It means realizing that there was something before we got here that is of value. It’s just not finished. We have to enter the conversation, embrace its riches, and then find what Truth is finally ready to be heard. Edna St. Vincent Millay said that “[Humanity] did not invent God, but developed faith to meet a God who is already there.” But the conversation must continue so that we can see the newness that God is doing as Creation is repurposed and Truth becomes fuller.

 

Lent is known as a season of the wilderness, a season of wandering into the unknown, of being vulnerable, of letting go. Maybe it’s not so much that we are entering wilderness, but that we are exchanging one wilderness for another, leaving the wilderness of former things behind and journeying on the way that God has made in the wilds of the new and untamed wilderness. But if we do things the “way we’ve always done it”, we will miss the newness springing forth. The wilderness is the place to begin but the beginning cannot be held for more than a moment or it is lost in the past.

 

Home is where your story begins. (Annie Danielson)

 

FOR TODAY: Begin again. Embrace the past and repurpose it as new.  On this 20th day of Lent, let your journey turn toward the new thing that God is doing.

 

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Under Construction in the Wilderness

Wilderness Road (Negev desert)Scripture Text: Isaiah 40: 3-5

3A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

 

So, here we wander in the wilderness, hoping against hope that it will all be over soon, that things will finally, once and for all, get back to normal. So, what IS normal? Is it places that are not the wilderness? It is times that are not now? Is it ways of being that were before? Here, the exiles, just released from captivity, dripping with newfound freedom, are beginning to return. They are making their way through the wilderness, headed toward “getting back to normal”. But their city and their way of life lies in ruins. They can’t just go back and pick where they left off. They are looking for comfort, for solace, for a promise that God will put things back the way they were before.

 

But that is not the promise that has been made. Rather than repair, God promises re-creation; rather than vindication, God promises redemption, and rather than solace, God promises transformation. God is making something new—lifting valleys, lowering mountains, and, ultimately, when all is said and done, revealing a glory that we’ve never seen before. The truth is, there is no going back. So what is normal? Perhaps “normal” is newness, going forward, becoming re-created. What if THAT was normal?

 

I mean, have you ever really witnessed a highway being built? (If you haven’t, you don’t live where I do!) It’s not easy. It takes preparation and time and lots of heavy lifting. You have to recruit people to do it, you have to clear the way, you have to show people how to navigate through it. And once in a while (or every other week-end, as the case may be where I live), they have to close the road so that it can be made new. See, lifting valleys and lowering mountains is not an easy feat. God is not a magician. (Oh, sure, God could raise and flatten with the wave of a hand, I’m sure, but what fun is that?) In fact, I’m thinking the world, all of Creation, is even now groaning and shaking with all the movement that is happening, wanting at its very core to burst forth into being, to ignore God’s prodding to wait and be patient. And, no, it will never be like it was before. There is no going back. There is never any going back. In this life of faith, “normal” is newness, it is going forward through the wilderness toward a new normal.

 

At the end of the exile, the people realized that their former lives did not exist. And so, in this new normal, they had to rethink and recast their image of God. They had to find God again in the midst of a strange, new world. They had to discover that God was not in the repair business, that God was not there to clean up their mess and fix their woes, that God loves us too much to put things back the way they were before.

 

We are no different. This wilderness journey that we are on is not a “break” from our lives. Lent is not a season of denying ourselves and giving up sweets and talking about sin and suffering and repentance over and over and then sliding into to Easter morning with a “whew, glad THAT’S over…now we can go back.” If that were the case, there would be no point. If that’s what you think, there is a chocolate bunny that you can have right now! See, the deal is, the wilderness changes you; it changes your life; it changes the world. God is doing something new. There is a new normal. You can never, ever go back. But you CAN go home again. THAT’S what the wilderness teaches you.

 

If you always imagine God in the same way, no matter how true and beautiful it may be, you will not be able to receive the gift of the new ways he has ready for you. (Carlos Valles)

 

FOR TODAY: Think about your Lenten practices that you are doing. What new normal is coming to be?    

 

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Return to the Waters

man under waterfallScripture Text:  1 Peter 3: 18-22

18For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.

21And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

In this season of returning, here the writer of this general letter known as First Peter dispenses with any talk of being “saved” as it relates to salvation.  Instead, the promise lies in our re-creation, our renewal, our resurrection (the “little r” one), our being made into a new Creation.  It is a reminder that in our baptism, in that moment when the waters covered our body, or covered our head, or when drops of the stuff clinging to another’s hand somehow, some way, landed on our head and brushed our forehead and became the sign of a cross, in THAT moment, we were made new.  It wasn’t just washing away of sin and it certainly wasn’t some sort of something that made us sin no more (although, let me tell you, that would have made this life thing a little easier!)  In that moment as the waters touched us, we were made new, suddenly swept into a new way of being, and our life in Christ began.

Now baptism is not some sort of magic potion that makes everything perfect.  After all, we are not robotic churchy beings.  We are human–messed up, sometimes sinful, sometimes without hope, sometimes without direction, sometimes overwhelmed, but always, always, Beloved children of God.  For those to whom this was written, the words were a reminder that whatever chaos and peril life now holds, it is not permanent, that beyond what we know, beyond what we can imagine, the God of all Creation is working on us even now, creating molecule after molecule, so that when the flood waters of life finally subside, we will remember who and whose we are, a Beloved Child of God with whom God is well pleased.  And no matter what we do, no matter how much we mess up this life that we’ve been given, no matter how much the world’s chaos swirls around us beyond our control, the promise is true.  God is always there beckoning us to return to the waters, to return to where we began and begin again.

This season of Lent is not a season that merely calls us to clean up the mire and muck of our lives.  It is not a season to finally become good and obedient boys and girls.  It is not a season that promises to get your life together (or organize yourself or lose weight or some other thing you think you need to do disguised as a Lenten discipline).  Lent is a season that calls us to return–to who we are called to be, to what gives us life, to God.  It is a season to return to the waters of your baptism, not just for 40 days, but forever.

Do you remember the old version of the Apostles’ Creed, where we proclaim that Jesus descended into hell?  Well, this is the passage from which that notion may have started.  It claims that Jesus proclaimed to those imprisoned spirits; in other words, Jesus entered hell and blew the gates off.  See, you can always begin again.  You can always return to the waters. You just have to be willing to try out some newness.

One cannot step twice in the same river, for fresh waters are forever flowing around us.  (Hereclitus of Ephesus, 535-475 BCE)

FOR TODAY:  Remember your baptism. Now begin again.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli