After a recent trip to Disney World, I realized that my daughter may in fact be getting a bit ahead of herself. As we approached our day at the park, we talked about all the characters we would see and how we would take pictures with the characters. She was excited, but then offered this commentary:
They're not real though. They're just people dressed up.
While this line of thinking helps when confronted with a costumed fairy tale villain (frankly Maleficent gives me the creeps-can I get a witness?), it shows that in our quest to know reality in concrete and tangible terms we misplace long-celebrated treasures of life.
The spiritual life, the life of becoming like Christ, is one that should be filled with the goodness of reality but not simply touchable, tastable, measurable reality - it should be reality filled with Christ. This requires the one God-given gift that our progressive intelligence sometimes strips from us: imagination.
Eugene Peterson reminded me, firmly but lovingly, of this idea in his book Under the Unpredictable Plant:
We who are made in the "image" of God have, as a consequence, imag-ination. Imagination is the capacity to make connections between the visible and the invisible, between heaven and earth, between present and past, between present and future. For Christians, whose largest investment is in the invisible, the imagination is indispensable, for it is only by means of the imagination that we can see reality whole, in context. (169-170, emphasis mine)
The imagination is that creative place where we can discover God in what we believe is normal, average, mundane life and in the process have our spirit formed through everyday movements. The imagination is where the disciplines we use to open ourselves to God's grace receive a less workmanlike quality and become more of an art form. The imagination is where we actually begin to believe and then to know that there are thin places where the reign of God is bleeding over into the kingdom of man.
How do we recover this imagination, in practical ways?
1. Place yourself in the Scriptures - One of the best tools for exercising our spiritual imagination is to read a passage of Scripture and imagine we are among the witnesses or characters present. For example, the story of blind Bartimaeus in Mark 10:46ff starts to sing to us when we imagine ourselves as Bartimaeus, or as one of the crowd telling him to shut up, or as one of the disciples watching Jesus (once again) do something we aren't expecting. We also find that God is teaching us something beyond the printed page when we exercise our brains to meet Him there.
2. Visualize your prayers - At one of the most difficult times in my walk with Christ, I started imagining a table and two cups of coffee where Jesus and I would meet. At a particular moment, I would imagine myself sitting down at the table with Him and He would look and listen with compassion and fire as I talked to Him. The most healing moment for me was when I felt exhausted and imagined myself laying my head on the table. Quietly, Jesus placed His hand on my head. It was a transformational moment.
3. Engage in creative play - If you have children, this could be the easiest of the three. If you don't, there are still great venues for engaging in games where creativity is important. The play is partially to awaken us to God by voluntarily experiencing joy in escape. You can't play with a dollhouse without imagining lives and voices and personalities for the characters. You can't do any of that without putting down the "adult" to-do list and duties and letting your mind wander into another world. If you don't have children, then engage in play as an adult. Read a novel, paint, or draw something - skill is not important, but what is important is that you are tapping into that part of you that shapes things that aren't there and does so for no practical reason at all.
The great gift of play is that it reminds us of God's all-encompassing control of the world that helps us realize we don't have to take ourselves too seriously.
Any one of these three will have a tremendous impact on reminding you that as someone in God's image, you are free to imagine and in so doing you will discover the deep and joyous life God wants to provide.
By the way, my daughter got past the Disney-characters-aren't-real program. Soon we were creating houses and neighborhoods in our heads where they all would live. There is hope yet...