When we spend our lives focused on and chasing after power, money, sex, adoration from others, we become like those things. We become shallow, insatiable, discontent. Yet when we, here in this glorious temple of creation, spill our very lives in worship to God, we become like Him. We become joyful, content, full of peace.
We are, in the deepest places of ourselves, lovers. We are not primarily thinkers, we are not essentially believers, we are first of all imaginative, desiring creatures defined by what or who we love.
All of our thoughts and actions spring from what we desire, from our vision of what we see as the good life.
The secular world has this figured out.
Walk into any mall, step into any sporting arena, and you are immediately drawn into an experience that seeks to change you at your deepest level into someone who wears only Gap clothing or who is a die-hard Cardinals fan.
No one is holding classes on the reasons you should purchase from Gap or handing out pamphlets about the top ten reasons to root for the Cardinals. Rather, an immersive experience is created using all of our senses, an experience that sets in front of us a vision of a good life and then shows us how to pursue that life.
It is incredibly effective.
We in the Church, however, seem to be convinced that humans are primarily thinkers. Brains on a stick, if you will. We seem to think that if we can just teach the correct doctrines, if we can only put forth enough convincing arguments in favor of Christ, people will change their lives, our children will never leave the Church, and the world will fall to its knees in worship.
Clearly, this is not working.
What if we sought to discern not the essence of Christianity as a system of beliefs (or sumarized in a worldview) but instead sought to discern the shape of Christian faith as a form of life? ~ James K. A. Smith
We become what we worship.
The things that we do, the practices in which we participate, shape our desires and thus direct our thoughts and actions.
In other words, to become people of the Kingdom, we must practice being people of the Kingdom.
Lived worship is the fount from which a worldview springs, rather than being the expression or application of some cognitive set of beliefs already in place. ~ James K. A. Smith
If we want our children (and our own selves) to fall in love with Jesus, we must put practices into our days, our months, our years, that work to aim their desires toward God’s Kingdom. We must use all of our bodily senses to pursuade our hearts that God’s will done on earth is the best vision of the good life.
There is a reason God commanded the Israelites to celebrate all of those festivals throughout their year.
There is a reason the Church followed a holy calendar.
We see this happening some in the liturgies of our churches: the sounds of the music, the colors of the spaces, the feel of the baptism waters, the taste of the Eucharist, the scent of the incense in some faith traditions. These bodily experiences train us to be the humans God created us to be, to be lovers of God and lovers of each other.
Yet once a week for an hour and a half is not enough.
How often during the week do you shop or watch sports events? How many hours do you spend relaxed in front of the television or iPad?
We must put more of these practices into our days. We must weave God and His Kingdom all through our time and space in order to aim our desires, our children’s desires, toward the Kingdom.
Imagine praying with our families or friends multiple times a day.
Imagine opening our homes to others once a week.
Imagine serving with our families or friends regularly.
Imagine meeting with another family once a week to do life together.
Imagine following the Church holy calendar with your family or with a friend, adding sights, sounds, and tastes to the various feasts and celebrations as you follow the liturgical calendar.
Let the Spirit capture your imagination.
Make no mistake, this is a war. It is a battle for our desires, for our sacred imagination.
You only have to look around at how similarly Christians live compared to those who do not follow Jesus to know who is winning this war.
Let the Holy Spirit give you a vision for what life could look like when we are aware that we are lovers rather than thinkers. Allow Him to give you ideas for capturing your heart and your children’s hearts for Jesus.
Ask Him to help you weave practices into your life that aim your desires at their deepest level. Ask Him to help you avoid those secular practices that are currently shaping your desires.
We become what we worship.
We worship what we love.
Shape your life in a way that will aim your love toward God and His Kingdom.
Why, oh why, then do we consistently offer Him art that is, to put it bluntly, junk?
Why do we think that music that is dull and overly simple is what is best for inspiring our hearts to worship? Why do we think that literature that is bland and is bad storytelling will turn our minds toward thoughts of God? Why do we think that art that is commercialized and overly sentimental will cause our imaginations to soar to the heavens?
Perhaps this is harsh. I will fully admit that there are artists (in the full sense of the word) out there who inspire awe in the hearts of all those who come across it. But this is not the norm. Not anymore, that is.
It used to be that Christians artists were at the top of their craft. They were respected and admired throughout the world. Think Bach. Think Correggio. Think Milton and Tolstoy.
It is not this way anymore. The secular world no longer looks up to Christian art to lead the way. Instead it sneers at Christian art and views it as subpar, something to be shunned rather than something to inspire.
To paraphrase James: my brothers, this should not be! The lack of excellence in our art indicates to the world that we serve a God who is less than excellent.
Much so-called religious art is in fact bad art, and therefore bad religion. ~ Madeleine L’Engle
Oh, we could do so much better. We could open ourselves up to the power of the Holy Spirit rather than to the power of the market.
Fellow artists, let God inspire you. Open yourself to that which you cannot control. Ignore the sale; ignore what you think people want. Listen instead to the Spirit. Listen to what God is showing you through your work: “my proper place is as a servant struggling to be faithful to the work, the work which slowly and gently tries to teach me some of what it knows.” (L’Engle)
Let your art sing. Let it soar.
Those who are not artists, be discerning. If it is good art, if it inspires you and sets your imagination soaring toward God, then support it. If it is bad art, don’t support and sustain it simply because it involved the name or image of Christ.
I know that my words do not reach many, but I dream of a day when those who claim to follow a God of beauty and excellence are once again those who produce that art which leads the entire world in soaring to the heights, are once again those who produce the art which therefore points the way to God.
I love how much truth can be found in fairy tales and myths. I love that God chooses to give us glimpses of Himself and His Word in the words of storytelling throughout time.
We often view Christianity as rules and laws, as limitations on our freedom. We wonder why God puts so many limits on our fun. I recently experienced a switch of perspective.
I am reading Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton. In his book, he points out that in fairy tales, there is always an “if”. You may go to the ball IF you return by midnight. You may marry the princess IF you never let her see a cow.
All the dizzy and colossal things conceded depend on one small thing withheld. All the wild and whirling things that are let loose depend upon one thing that is forbidden. ~ Chesterton
Everything beautiful and glorious that cannot be understood is dependent upon a condition that equally cannot be understood.
In fairy tales, this does not seem unjust. If Cinderella asks her Fairy Godmother why she has to be home by midnight, the Godmother may reply “why should you go to the ball for any amount of time?” If the miller asks “why can’t I let the princess see a cow?” the fairy may reply “why should you get to marry the princess at all?”
Fairy tales never focus on the condition. The condition is so small as to seem irrelevant. The focus is on the dazzling, the wild, the fantastic vision.
We don’t focus on the vision. We focus on the limitation. We wonder why we must not get drunk instead of marveling at the beauty, the deep color, the richness of the wine. We wonder why we must only marry one person instead of living in wonder at the existence of sex.
No restriction on sex seemed so odd and unexpected as sex itself…keeping to one woman is a small price for so much as seeing one woman…It showed, not an exaggerated sensibility to sex, but a curious insensibility to it. A man is a fool who complains that he cannot enter Eden by five gates at once. ~ Chesterton
What a beautiful change of viewpoint! To look not at the limitation but at the wonder of the permission. To not complain about being asked to keep our words pure but to wonder at the startling glory of language. To not gripe of not being allowed to eat all that we desire but to be astonished at the wild and vast expanse of color and taste of food. To look upon the dazzling, wild, fantastic vision.
In Christ, all is made sacred, so search for Him everywhere. Look for Him in the stories and fables, in the myths and fairy tales that you read. You will find Him there.
Those who follow Jesus are, I fear, often suspicious of reason.
Some believe that the spiritual is far above intellect and cannot be discerned by the mind. Some are simply afraid that those who are deemed intellectual will produce proof after proof to debunk their cherished beliefs.
It seems a paradox that we can know God by reason and we can know God only by revelation.
Yet our faith is full of paradoxes: the last will be first; the King came as a servant; you live by dying; you gain by giving away. It is one of the things I love about this Christ-filled life. One can never get bored; there will never be a dearth of things to discover.
I love a good mystery novel. I adore following the clues and trying to figure out the solution. The best mystery authors are the ones who can lead you on, doling out all of the necessary clues and handing you a surprise twist at the end, a twist that you never saw coming but one that perfectly fulfills all of the clues that came before.
This is our faith. The Old Testament prophets gave all of the necessary clues to finding the Messiah yet when He finally arrived, the way in which He perfectly agreed with their descriptions was a complete surprise.
I imagine that this is how it will be at the end of our own times. The final revelation of God will perfectly complete all that we have reasoned out, yet in a beautifully surprising way.
Our Creator gave us reason, gave us intellect, gave us curiosity for a purpose. I suspect that He delights in surprising us, in crafting intricate puzzles that lead us on ever new adventures of discovery.
**Be gentle with me, my friends. I’m experimenting with a different style…just for the fun of it!**
Once upon a time, there existed the town of Villacor. It was a beautiful town, full of beautiful people. The townspeople of Villacor loved each other and loved their town. They were lovely because they loved.
This town was ruled by a king. He had lived in the town at one time, but now was absent, having returned to his own country for a time. The townspeople didn’t remember him very well, but they loved each other and loved their town, so they tried to care for each other the best they could. All was lovely because they loved.
Over time, the townspeople began to feel a strange kind of burning inside of them. They weren’t sure that they were very important to the king anymore. He hadn’t been to visit them in such a long time, perhaps he didn’t care anymore, maybe he wasn’t ever coming back. Besides, they reasoned that if he did ever return, surely he would take them away to his own country, which must be perfection itself, rather than forcing them to stay in their own place.
As they wondered these things, the townspeople of Villacor began to love not quite so well. It showed up in small things at first: an unkind look, a piece of trash, a little less food left for the animals. Yet as time went on and the king did not return to look after his town, this not-loving grew bigger and bigger. And things began to look less lovely because they were less loved.
The town grew dirtier and more cluttered. Even the people began to look ugly. The people began hating each other and hurting each other, which left scars. The animals were neglected and began to turn on themselves and to destroy the plants for food. All was ugly because they were not loved.
Then one day a small group of Villacorians looked around at each other and at their town and decided to trust what the king had told them. If the king had promised to return, then he would one day return. If the king had said that he loved them and loved their town, then it must be so. And if the king loved their town, then he must mean for them to remain in it. This little group of people looked around at the town that was loved by the king and they began to love it too, for his sake, even though it was still ugly for having been so unloved.
This little group began caring for the town and for each other. They treated their fellow townspeople with kindness and gave grace in return for hate. They picked up trash where they found it and tended the plants and animals. The town and its people began to look a little more lovely because they were once again being loved.
Time continued to pass, and even though the king still had not returned, the little group of townspeople worked hard at loving their town as their group grew and grew until finally, once again, the town was beautiful, full of beautiful people who loved each other and loved their town. They didn’t know when the king would return, but they trusted that he would someday return because he had promised that he would always love them. They were lovely because they loved.
Finally the day came. Trumpets sounded over the trees and lakes as the sun burst over the hilltop. The townspeople of Villacor rushed out of the town into the countryside to greet their king. They surrounded him and brought him back into their town to show him how they had cared for their town. They showed the king the beauty and cleanliness of the town, the well-tended plants and animals, and demonstrated the acts of kindness that they showed to each other.
One small girl asked the king why it had taken so long for him to return. Another little boy asked if the king was going to carry them all back to his own country. The king smiled at them all and said, “My children, I was waiting for you. It was only when you began to care for the town and each other that everything grew into the way that I had intended all along. When you began loving each other and loving your town, you changed into a new people and a new town, as beautiful as you were in the beginning. Now I have come, and rather than take you away from this town you have learned to love, I will now make my home with you.”
And the king’s love became a physical shining that encompassed them all and made everything it touched even more beautiful than it had been before. They were lovely because they were loved.
I half-heartedly tried to keep them from jumping (because half-hearted discipline works so well in parenting) until their bed frame broke. Now their bed consists of just the bedsprings and mattress on the floor.
At which point, I couldn’t think of a reason to keep them from jumping anymore, so I told them to jump their hearts out.
Now, they don’t JUST jump, mind you. Oh, no. That would be much too tame for them.
They put on entire jumping musicals for my viewing entertainment. Usually this consists of my eldest jumping with gazelle-like leaps in circles around the perimeter of the bed, making up songs about God and Jesus and angels, while my middle follows right behind her, echoing whatever odd combination of words that had just come out of her sister’s mouth.
Often, the girls are the angels (although sometimes they are Mary and Jofus…that’s “Joseph” for those who are unacquainted with toddler-speak) and they sing about Baby Jesus (around Whom they are apparently jumping). They make giant leaps into heaven and back, leap up and land in “worshipful poses”, and (my personal favorite) wave magic wands to transport us all into heaven to be with God.
I was sitting on the recliner, watching them perform (which is usually all that is required of me, thankfully!), when I had a sudden image of God, looking down at them from heaven, being delighted in their creativity, delighted in their desire to be a part of His story, delighted in their wish to be in heaven with Him.
You know that feeling when your heart is so full it feels as though it will burst? That is what I felt (after I got past the potential sacrilege of it all) right then, watching my little ones jump for God’s pleasure. It made me wish that I could see God, see His enjoyment of them.
In that moment, I was so very grateful that I, too, am allowed to be a part of God’s story. In that moment, I loved God because He loves my girls so very much. I loved Him because He loves me and delights in me just as I delight in my girls.
This week’s guest essay is written by another college friend, Tiffany Yecke (now Tiffany Brooks). Tiffany and I spent a semester together in Greece, where I learned how very smart and fun she is, and how beautiful her heart is. Tiffany is incredibly talented and works full-time as a writer, so I was very grateful that she agreed to write a little something for my blog space! If you want to read more of her musings, you can find her at Preach Write Act (www.preachwriteact.blogspot.com)
By Tiffany Yecke Brooks
Imagine and describe an animal you’ve never seen. Easy enough, right? We’ve all done that at one point or another in our childhoods. Now imagine and describe a food or dish you’ve never had. This one may be a little harder, since it involves having the figure out what the taste or texture or aroma might be in terms of mixing ingredients and mode of cooking—but it’s still doable with a little effort. Now, imagine and describe a color you’ve never seen. Whoa—what?
Go on, just give it a try.
It kind of boggles the mind once you start really thinking about it, doesn’t it? I mean, we’ve all seen the color wheel, which encompasses every hue of visible light. We have seen every color that exists, and we know from basic color theory what combining different colors will produce (blue and yellow make green; green and blue make turquoise or teal depending on how much white or black is also involved; blue and red make purple; purple and green make a gross, muddy brown, etc.). But the fact is, there really isn’t any way for the human mind of conceive of a brand-new-never-before-made color or color mix or shade or tint or anything else because we have already exhausted our ability to see color in all of its various hues. Such a thing as a “new color” simply does not exist given our finite spectrum of visible light.
Without going into a complex explanation of the anatomy of the human eye (mainly because, for some unknown reason, they don’t cover that in English major courses in college so I don’t really know that much about it myself), sight is possible through a complex series of rods and cones that absorb and reflect light onto receptors, which our mind then registers as colors. Human eyes have cones that register red, blue, and green as our primary colors, and then mix the intervening hues accordingly and automatically—almost like autocorrect on your phone or auto-formatting in text documents. If colors are opposite one another on the color wheel or visible light spectrum, like red and green, they render one another nil and instead of mixing, just descend into the dull, muddy family of browns.
[Side note: You probably learned that yellow is one of the three primary colors, not green. And this is true when speaking of a color as a fixed hue. But light exists as both a particle AND a wave, so yellow is the third primary as a particle but green is the third primary when it is a wave. Yeah, I know. I don’t really understand it either. We’re getting into some fairly complex physics here, but you can look it up on Wikipedia if you’re interested in learning more; just trust me that this is a very basic explanation of light theory.]
God invented the whole system of the inner-workings of the eye, and it’s pretty impressive. But here’s the thing: There are colors that exist that we can’t see.
I’m not talking about infra-red camera images or ultra violet lights in those fascinating-but-horrifying exposes about the hidden germs in hotel rooms or on shopping carts or whatever. I mean that there are colors that exist that the rods and cones of the human eye are not capable of mixing, such as red and green, but that are visible to other creatures with different ocular anatomy, such as birds. But that doesn’t make those colors any less real—it simply means that they do not exist on our spectrum of visible light.
There is a fascinating article, which you can read here, that explains this all much better than I can; but, essentially, in 1983, researchers Hewitt Crane and Thomas Piantanida conducted a study published in the journal Science wherein they were able to hold the human eye so precisely steady that the waves of both red and green light were able to hit the subjects’ eyes’ microscopic light receptors individually so that only red and only green as individual colors were registered, without any of the mixing and subsequent cancelling out that would normally occur and result in brown. As the above article states:
The color they saw was “simultaneously red and green” Crane and Piantanida wrote in their paper. Furthermore, “some observers indicated that although they were aware that what they were viewing was a color (that is, the field was not achromatic), they were unable to name or describe the color. One of these observers was an artist with a large color vocabulary.” . . . It seemed that forbidden colors were realizable—and glorious to behold.
Just stop and let that sink in for a minute. Can you imagine what that must have been like to witness a whole new realm of color for which your mind does not even have a category to express, let along to fully fathom?
I wonder if this was part of Paul’s experience, when he writes in II Corinthians, 12:2-4, “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.”
Maybe this is part of what John attempts to capture in his description of his vision of the heavenly city in Revelation:
He took me in spirit to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It gleamed with the splendor of God. Its radiance was like that of a precious stone, like jasper, clear as crystal . . . The foundations of the city wall were decorated with every precious stone; the first course of stones was jasper, the second sapphire, the third chalcedony, the fourth emerald, the fifth sardonyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh hyacinth, and the twelfth amethyst. The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made from a single pearl; and the street of the city was of pure gold, transparent as glass . . . The city had no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb.
There is no way to know for sure, of course—not in this life, anyway—just what it was those men witnessed that transcended description in human words. But it is incredibly humbling, is it not, to think of the realm of the unseen, the magnificent and inexpressible splendor of the fullness of creation and God’s majesty? To behold the awesome, dazzling, indescribably glorious presence of God, unencumbered by the limitations of our earthly bodies and minds? To see with the fullness of the universe? And not just with the fullness of colors, but with the fullness of time, of possibility, of reason, of understanding? The completeness of God’s works, His plan, His love?
Let us cling to this knowledge—that there is a realm outside of our ability to glimpse or comprehend, but no less real—when all the possibilities of our visible lives seem exhausted. That is our hope and our salvation. That is our ultimate goal. As Paul reminds us in I Corinthians 13:12, “Now we see but a poor 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.”
I love the idea of nurturing my children’s imaginations to be used for God.
Imagination is beautiful. The way in which we use our imagination makes it sacred.
I was reading Isaiah 6, the chapter in which Isaiah receives his call from God, and I saw something I hadn’t noticed before.
Before Isaiah gives his famous plea, “Here am I. Send me!”, even before God calls for someone to go for Him, Isaiah is given a vision of God on His throne.
I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of His robe filled the temple.
Do you see it?
The vision preceded the call.
The vision of God is what changed Isaiah, what inspired him to take on the enormously difficult task of delivering God’s message.
Vision requires imagination. Sacred imagination.
Too often we want to go straight to the take-away, straight to our to-do list.
Instead, perhaps we should pause. Let God inspire us and change our hearts by filling our imaginations with a vision of Him.
Have you heard of lectio divina? I heard it mentioned in a Mars Hill interview recently, so I started digging for information.
It is the practice of Scripture reading, meditation and prayer intended to promote communion with God and to increase the knowledge of God’s Living Word. It was practiced by church fathers such as Ambrose and Augustine.
Meditative contemplation. Find a quiet space and something on which to focus. Scripture, something visual like nature or art, anything will do.
Contemplate God. Let the vision of who God is fill up your imagination. It is only the glimpse of the glory of God that can truly change us and give us what we need to fulfill whatever task has been asked of us.
God makes sacred our imaginations by filling us with a glimpse of Himself that changes us forever.
…among the lampstands was someone “like a son of man,” dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance. ~ Revelation 1
…there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian. A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne…From the throne came flashes of lightening, rumblings and peals of thunder…”Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come”…They lay their crowns before the throne and say: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” ~ Revelation 4
“Take a drink, Mommy!” My eldest daughter offers me a sip from her little tin tea cup.
“Mmmm! Delicious! What is it?” “Applesauce. I made it myself.”
I love watching my eldest’s imagination blossom and flourish. Already, her younger sister is joining in the pretend play, offering me a bite from her fork or a sip from her cup. Our imaginations are a beautiful gift from God.
Imagination helps us to create inviting homes, solve difficult problems, invent new ways of doing things, build beautiful buildings, plan delicious gardens, come up with ways of serving others. Imagination is what allows us to create…anything. But does it belong in our God-life? Does imagination belong in our prayer, our Bible reading, our relationship with our Father? Many would say no. Many would say that using our imagination when it comes to Scripture or to God is dangerous, allowing our own selves to take precedence over what God has spoken. When God looked at what He had made, His earth and His man, He declared it to be good. Very good. I presume that He did not mean “it is all very good except for that imagination piece of man’s soul”. In fact, God asked Adam to use his imagination right away when He asked him to give names to all of the animals. Our imagination, along with everything else in our lives, is to be made sacred. How? How can we use our imagination in our God-life in a way that is good and sacred?
In his book, Resounding Truth, Jeremy Begbie says that using imagination is required when thinking through issues of theology. He is quick, of course, to offer the qualification that
this is not an invitation to uncontrolled fantasy or fiction, as if we should conjure up ideas out of thin air. By imagination here I am speaking of the ability to perceive connections between things that are not spelled out, not immediately apparent on the surface, as well as between what we see now in the present and what we could or will see in the future.
Begbie says that our imagination should be applied to our reading of Scripture:
…trying to perceive broad patterns and unifying threads and to be alert to the themes and counter-themes that crisscross its pages and that together throw into relief guiding convictions about who this Creator God is, what kind of world He has created and relates to, and what our place within this world might be.
He also says that imagination helps us to discern connections between what we perceive in the world and what we perceive in Scripture. One more aspect of what I wrote about last week! The third way that Begbie discusses the sacred use of imagination is in living in and living out the connections between Scripture and the world:
The Bible does not spell out the details of Christian behavior for all times, prescribing exact courses of action for every circumstance…Because not all is given to us now, imagination is needed. The church needs to improvise imaginatively – that is, to be so schooled in these texts and scriptural tradition that it can…act in ways that are true to the texts yet engage with the world as it now is, responding in ever fresh and fruitful ways to whatever life throws at us.
What do you think of these ideas? Are these sacred ways of using our imagination or is this too dangerous, having too much potential for abuse?