A Faith-full Imagination

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The imagination, so one definition says, is “the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses.” With imagination, we see what is not visible to our physical eyes, hear what is audible but not in the moment, and consider what is not tangibly before us, yet is in our mind’s eye or inner thoughts.

Albert Einstein, that wonderful scientist who saw things that were not yet clear, and ushered in breakthroughs with his theories of relativity, once said, “Your imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.”

A lack of imagination is like living in a prison. The inability to grasp things beyond our sense, the inability to move beyond what is available to us, this lack of imagination shuts us inside of our limits. That’s why Muhammad Ali, known for some of his pithy sayings, in reflecting on that, once said: “The man who has no imagination has no wings.”

But with imagination, we can fly beyond our cages. With imagination, we have “the one weapon against reality.”[1]

The New Testament author of the epistle of Hebrews writes:

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. (Hebrews 11:1)

If imagination helps us to see things that are not immediately visible, to fly beyond our limits and the cages of our circumstances, then, in a biblical sense, imagination is important because it is intrinsic to faith. Imagination strengthens us to know the invisible God, to live life with God, and to hope in eternal truth that brings meaning beyond what our senses immediately reveal.

That is why C. S. Lewis wrote:

Reason is the natural organ of truth, imagination is the organ of meaning. [2]

Imagination is important in our spiritual lives because it becomes a resource God uses to help us hear Him in Scripture, pray with faith, and live with endurance beyond what we can see. And that vital place of imagination in our life with God in Scripture, prayer and endurance is what we see in Daniel’s life

Throughout the book, but particularly in his prayer in chapter 9, we find Daniel’s imagination set ablaze by the power of God to fly beyond the cages of his circumstances. Even though Daniel had experienced exile for more than sixty years by the time of his prayer, his vision is not limited by the difficulties in front of him. Instead, he sees with the eyes of faith, with an apocalyptic imagination, who God is and what God can and will do because of His characters and promises.

May God give us a faith-full imagination today, no matter what our senses tell us or how our circumstances threaten to imprison us.

Lord God,
take my imagination
and by the power of the Holy Spirit
set it ablaze with faith,
that the eyes of my heart
might see reality as You see it
and, like Daniel,
rise above my circumstances
in You.

[This material originally appeared in a slightly different form in my message, “Exile Faith at Prayer,” delivered on December 8/9, 2019, at Eastbrook Church.]


[1] Attributed to Jules de Gaultier.

[2] From his essay, “Bluspels and Flalansferes,” in Selected Literary Essays (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).; quoted here.

3 Reasons Daniel’s Visions Matter

image 1 - looking forward.pngAs we have been journeying through a preaching series on the book of Daniel at Eastbrook Church, “Daniel: Apocalyptic Imagination and Exile Faith,” we have come to some of the most difficult parts of the book to understand in the visions of chapters 7-12. Through these visions, God unveils the reality of what is really going on in the midst of the ordinary history of earth. God is writing a story, even in the midst of the beasts of earth.

Amongst all of this, we might wonder why God gave Daniel these visions, and what their significance is for Daniel and the other exiles of Judah. Let me share three reasons God gives Daniel these visions and why they matter:

  1. God grants Daniel these visions so that he and the rest of God’s exiled people will be prepared for what is to come. Empires will rise and kingdoms will fall. Kings will rise and kings will fall. The exiled people will ride the waves of this history and it is God’s grace that gives insight into these shifting waves so that the people can be prepared to ride the currents of these waves.
  2. God also gives Daniel these visions so that the people of God might be encouraged by the reality that God is in charge of human history and there will be an end to suffering and oppression. Many times throughout the second half of the book of Daniel, we hear that God will bring an end to the kingdoms of earth, eventually bringing the fullness of God’s kingdom upon earth. God knows how hard it is to stay encouraged in difficult times, and so God graciously encourages them with the reality that there will be an end.
  3. God, thirdly, gives these visions to Daniel so that the people of God might be watchful for not only what is happening in human history, but for how God is at work in the midst of human history. God knows how easily we as human lose our perspective and stop watching for Him, and it is God’s grace through these apocalyptic visions to startle His people to attentiveness.

The Weekend Wanderer: 1 December 2018

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.

jo saxton“Calling Versus Narcissism” – In this ten-minute message given at Q Ideas, Jo Saxton reflects on the slight difference between calling and narcissism. Building off of the myth of Narcissus and the contemporary discussion of the narcissistic personality disorder, Saxton speaks to Christians about how we can view calling through the eyes of God, and authentically position our service for the good of others.

 

Jean Pierre Gatera“He Led Churches in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp. Now He Waxes Floors” – You will be moved by this powerful account of Jean Pierre Gatera, a bivocational pastor in the US, who is also a refugee. He spent 20 years in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwestern Kenya, where he pastored several congregations.

 

85361“US Missionary Killed by ‘World’s Most Isolated’ Tribe” – “A 26-year-old American missionary was killed on a remote island off the coast of India, where he attempted to share the gospel with the most isolated tribe in the world. All Nations, a Christian missions agency based in the US, confirmed that John Allen Chau traveled to North Sentinel Island after years of study and training to evangelize its small indigenous population, who remain almost entirely untouched by modern civilization.” You can read the BBC’s initial report here and updates on attempts to retrieve Chau’s body here. You can find out more about the Sentinelese people here. This also gives us an opportunity to reflect on the way that we tell missionary stories. Read Lucy Austen’s article on this dilemma, “From Jim Elliot to John Allen Chau: The Missionary-Martyr Dilemma,” over at Christianity Today.

 

img_3744_slide-6b53600232d81844eff1806355dec33c4a5e739f-s1500-c85“In Iraq, A Race To Protect The Crumbling Bricks Of Ancient Babylon” – In the midst of our series on the book of Daniel at Eastbrook Church, I have spent quite a bit of time researching the history of ancient Babylon. NPR reports here on the challenges of preserving that cultural history as a result of the conflicts that have raged in the midst of Iraq over the past ten years and more.

 

luke-palmer-305434-unsplash.jpg“How to experience the Bible in a digital world” – “Spark and Echo, cofounded in 2010 by the composer Jonathan Roberts and the actor and musician Emily Clare Zempel, aims to “illuminate” every single verse of the King James Bible by the year 2030. The way it works is this: Patrons contribute funding and have a chance to mark with a ‘spark’ particular verses they would like to see ‘echoed’ by an artist, writer or musician. Then, the program commissions—and pays for—an original work based on those verses.”

 

Old-Vintage-Books“8 Works of Fiction Every Christian Should Read”Karen Swallow Prior, author of On Reading Well, shares eight fiction books that every Christian should read. You will find treasures from Charlotte Bronte, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Flannery O’Connor, and Charles Dickens, as well as a few surprises. This is a fantastic list worth taking a look at for your Christmas list or just for adding to your to-read list for 2019.

 

christopher tolkien“The Steward of Middle-Earth” – Speaking of good literature, you might enjoy Hannah Long‘s fascinating reflection on the work of Christopher Tolkien, son of J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. “In 1975, Christopher Tolkien left his fellowship at New College, Oxford, to edit his late father’s massive legendarium. The prospect was daunting. The 50-year-old medievalist found himself confronted with 70 boxes of unpublished work. Thousands of pages of notes and fragments and poems, some dating back more than six decades, were stuffed haphazardly into the boxes. Handwritten texts were hurriedly scrawled in pencil and annotated with a jumble of notes and corrections. One early story was drafted in a high school exercise book.”

 

Andy Crouch“Tech Wise”Andy Crouch, author of Culture Making and The Tech-Wise Family, speaks at Menlo Church about what he calls “the upgrader’s dilemma.” What is that? That dilemma is the simultaneous reality that even as technology is progressing through upgrades that astound us, other things in our world and our lives do not feel like they are progressing at all, but might be getting worse. Crouch explores the possibility that the very things that are progressing are contributing to our failure to progress in other areas.

 

151103120643-italian-elderly-man-exlarge-169“Drug overdoses, suicides cause drop in 2017 US life expectancy; CDC director calls it a ‘wakeup call'” – “Life expectancy in the United States declined from 2016 to 2017, yet the 10 leading causes of death remained the same, according to three government reports released Thursday. Increasing deaths due to drug overdoses and suicides explain this slight downtick in life expectancy, the US Centers for Disease Control says. Overdose deaths reached a new high in 2017, topping 70,000, while the suicide rate increased by 3.7%, the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics reports.” If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please don’t delay in reaching out for help. Find support resources here.

 

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]

Faith and the Baptized Imagination: Biblical Apocalyptic as the Key to Exile Faith

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Apocalyptic literature takes its name from the Greek word ἀποκάλυψις (apokalupsis), which literally means ‘uncovering’ or ‘unveiling.’ As some of us may already know, the last book of the Bible, translated with the title ‘Revelation,’ draws its name from the first word of the book, which is this very word ‘ἀποκάλυψις.’ Unfortunately, our reading of Revelation as speaking of the future often confuses us about apocalyptic literature in general.

Andrew Hill describes apocalyptic literature as:

‘crisis’ literature, typically conveying specific messages to particular groups of people caught in in dire situations. . . . Visionary literature announces an end to the way things are and opens up alternative possibilities to the audience as a result of God’s impending intervention in human affairs. Three types of messages are usually associated with the visionary literature of the Bible: (1) a message of encouragement to the oppressed; (2) a warning to the oppressor; and (3) a call to faith for those wavering between God’s truth and human ‘wisdom.’[1]

Reality is often hidden from our ordinary perception, so apocalyptic literature unveils what is truly happening with the simultaneous aim of encouragement, warning, and exhortation.  Apocalyptic is not primarily about the future; it is primarily about the cosmic reality underlying all of human history. This is why Daniel Block tells us that “the intention of apocalyptic is not to chart out God’s plan for the future so future generations may draw up calendars tub to assure the present generation that — perhaps contrary to appearance — God is still on the throne (cf. Dan 7:18, 21-22, 27; 8:25; 12:1-4), and that the future is firmly in his hands.”[2]

What often leads us into the drafting of calendars and the drawing of charts from apocalyptic literature is the dramatic symbolism and the critique that does exist of kings and kingdoms. As adults, particularly in a results-oriented, project-management culture, we often lose our imagination about life. This diminishment of imagination ruins us for hearing the voice of God in the midst of apocalyptic. With apocalyptic literature in His hands, God wants to blow a hole in our stultified imagination so that we can see reality with apocalyptic eyes and consider reality with apocalyptic minds and hearts. Daniel, Ezekiel, and John the Revelator all stand as guides into the apocalyptic imagination necessary to live out our faith as exiles in a world and cultures where we are most definitely not at home.

Tremper Longman, in his commentary on Daniel, outlines six key themes of Daniel’s apocalyptic visions, found in the second half of the book:

  • the horror of human evil, particularly as it is concentrated in the state
  • the announcement of a specific time of deliverance
  • repentance that leads to deliverance
  • the revelation that a cosmic war stands behind human conflict
  • judgment as certain for those who resist God and oppress his people
  • the equally certain truth that God’s people, downtrodden in the present, will experience new life in the fullest sense[3]

Those themes spin around like the wheels of Ezekiel’s visions in the metaphors and images, the dreams and the visions, of Daniel, chapters 7-12. As we read through those chapters we want to keep these themes in mind and let God enliven our imagination through what we encounter. While we should rightly grapple with what each symbol or metaphor represents, we also do not want to become rigorously attached to either outlining plans that are not clearly in the book or woodenly interpreting symbolism that intends to destabilize our ability comprehend. Instead, let us, to borrow a phrase from C. S. Lewis’ description of how George MacDonald’s fantasy writing in Phantastes affected him, allow Daniel to “baptize our imagination” into grasping exilic faith with a force and freshness we have not yet known.

 


[1] Andrew E. Hill, “Daniel,” in Daniel-Malachi, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Rev. Ed., Vol. 8 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 131.

[2] Daniel I. Block, “Preaching Old Testament Apocalyptic,” CTJ 41/1 (2006), 52.

[3] Tremper Longman III, Daniel NIVAC (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 178-179.

Kathleen Norris on Apocalyptic

Kathleen-NorrisIn her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Kathleen Norris writes a chapter entitled “Apocalypse,” that sheds light on the journey we have been on at Eastbrook in our series, “Daniel: Apocalyptic Imagination and Exile Faith.” She begins with a quotation by poet Czeslaw Milosz: “I have lived in apocalyptic times, in an apocalyptic century . . . My work to a large extent belongs to that stream of catastrophist literature that attempts to overcome despair” (from an interview by Robert Faggen, “An Approval of Being,” in Books and Culture).

Not long ago, I found myself preaching to well over a thousand people on the apocalyptic texts in Daniel 12 and Mark 13. I would not have chosen to do this, but in a sense the words chose me. I use the lectionary when I preach; I find that it’s good discipline, as it forces me into situations such as this, having to confront hard Bible texts that I would just as soon skip over.

The literature of apocalypse is scary stuff, the kind of thing that can give religion a bad name, because people so often use it as a means of controlling others, instilling dread by invoking a boogeyman God. Thinking about the people who would be in church that morning, I knew that many of them would very likely be survivors of such painful childhood images of God and would find the readings hard to take. So I decided to talk about what apocalyptic literature is and is not. It is not a detailed prediction of the future, or an invitation to withdraw from the concerns of the world. It is a wake-up call, one that uses intensely poetic language and imagery to sharpen our awareness of God’s presence in and promise for the world.

The word ‘apocalypse’ comes from the Greek for ‘uncovering’ or ‘revealing,’ which makes it a word about possibilities. And while uncovering something we’d just as soon keep hidden is a frightening prospect, the point of apocalypse is not to frighten us into submission. Although it is often criticized as ‘pie-in-the-sky’ fantasizing, I believe its purpose is to teach us to think about ‘next-year-country’ in a way that sanctifies our lives here and now. ‘Next-year-country’ is a treasured idiom of the western Dakotas, an accurate description of the landscape that farmers and ranchers dwell in—next year rains will come at the right time; next year I won’t get hailed out; next year winter won’t set in before I have my hay hauled in for winter feeding. I don’t know a single person on the land who uses the idea of ‘next year’ as an excuse not to keep on reading the earth, not to look for the signs that mean you’ve got to get out and do the field work when the time is right. Maybe we’re meant to use apocalyptic literature in the same way: not as an allowance to indulge in an otherworldly fixation but as an injunction to pay closer attention to the world around us. When I am disturbed by the images of apocalypse, I find it helpful to remember the words of a fourth-century monk about the task of reading scripture as ‘working the earth of the heart,’ for it is only in a disturbed, ploughed-up ground that the seeds we plant for grain can grow.

[Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 318-319.]