I’ve come to understand that having an imagination is essential to our spiritual growth.
I have been told that my propensity towards ‘child-like’ behaviour embarrasses my professional daughter. If I cared, I would take this as a compliment. Wasn’t it St. Paul who said, “Let us be fools for Christ?” Are not the Gospels explicit about the fact that what we cherish in our Christian faith appears as foolishness to the rest of the world. Isn’t that why, for thousands of years, we Christians have been involved in apologetics, trying to the get the rest of the world to understand our foolishness? “To give is to receive. In the sacrifice there is blessing.” Their response? We hear such patronizing words as, “All this loving your neighbour stuff is a nice thought but it is just not the way things are.”
How many times have those words been spoken to a child? One of the greatest gifts of a child, along with being their most annoying trait, is their innocent ability to wonder about everything and their incessant need to ask, “Why!” “Why is my bedtime 8:00? How come Billy gets to stay up? Why do I have to brush my teeth? Why can’t I eat all my Halloween candy right now?” “Why, why, why”, until the exhausted parents’ bag of tricks is empty and they revert to, “Because that’s just the way it is.” or they resort to parental authority, “Because I told you to.”
Do you hear what is happening here? We pull our trump card (no pun intended). The power card. “I am older than you, I am wiser than you, and I know better than you. I’m the parent here so just do what you’re told.” “But why?”
I believe Jesus was watching this drama unfold upon a world stage and it frightened him. Those leaders who hold all the parental authority and power, who don’t want the underlings asking why, dismiss our theology and beliefs as myths, and pronounce, “That is just not the way things are. It’s not very realistic.” And when pressed, they will defiantly say to those questioning them, “Because we told you so.”
To this, Jesus says, “Woe to you.” WOE. Sounds like a strong condemnation with a harsh consequence. “Woe to you who are rich. Woe to you who are full.” And listen very carefully to this last one. “Woe to you when all people speak well of you.” Isn’t it interesting he would say that? “Woe to you when all people speak well of you.” Isn’t that what we all desire, to be well liked? Yet, Jesus says “If people are speaking well of you, judging that admiration upon the values of this world, you may want to think about that. If you are idolized as a winner amid a world of losers, if your own barns that are full due to a life spent upon self-interest while others have no barn at all, you may want to think about why people are admiring of you. But, before you folks start thinking that Jesus is pounding the pulpit of hellfire and brimstone, threatening a fiery reprisal, let’s take a step back here.
The Greek word Jesus uses for woe is ‘ouai’ which does not mean curses, or being unhappy, and does not certainly hold the threat of damnation. It’s like Jesus is saying, ‘yikes!’ The word is meant to be an attention getter. Jesus is saying to the rich, to the ones who never hunger, to the ones looking for applause of the crowd, “Be careful.” Yet, in childlike innocence, we ask, “Why?” What’s wrong with being healthy, financially secure, and happy? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. At the risk of putting words into God’s mouth, I believe that God could care less what we own. Is there one palace in all the world which compares to the Rocky Mountains? Or any landscape lighting that can outshine the Northern Lights? I don’t think God is easily impressed.
What God is concerned with is what we DO with what we own. If our lives become so preoccupied with our gathering and harvesting that they come to exclude our ability to see beyond our own little kingdoms so we can extend mercy to others, then I think we have a problem.
Jesus’ warning about being careful is directed towards a world that can so dominate us, so preoccupy us, that we no longer have the ability to see beyond its limits; to dream dreams and see visions of another world, another way of being.
Nancy and I often find ourselves saying to each other, “Does life really have to be this complicated?” I had to buy a new printer for our house the other day. Nothing fancy. I don’t need a machine that can spit out 100 sheets per minute. I can wait. Yet it took me an hour and a half just to sync all the drivers and enhanced programs I needed just so I could use the thing. I still had two more computers to sync. Nancy had to renew her Nexus card. So, these two relatively intelligent people sat down and pushed the ‘fast and easy’ renewal tab on the Nexus website.
More than 2 hours later of securing all the various obscure information they seem to need, the flowing back and forth between this screen and that, we finally celebrated as the “Finished” tab flashed before us. But how naïve were we? For two days later, Nancy gets an email from Nexus requesting even more information. And this is their fast and easy renewal process. This world so preoccupies us with quantifying our lives, it is a wonder we have time to do anything else. So we end up wandering through our lives with a bit in our mouths and blinders on our eyes, with the rider’s crop slapping our haunches to keep us on a track built for us.
Jesus wonders in this world if it is not the ones who live on the margins, the ones who are hungry, those who are poor, and especially those who are persecuted for his name’s sake, if they are not the blessed ones. the ones who live unfettered by expectation or requirement, ones who are free to dream dreams, and owe their strength to survive on nothing more than the hope of a new tomorrow.
So, if my childlike behaviour embarrasses my daughter or others, so be it. To be honest, I would rather sit with Linus in the most sincere pumpkin patch we can find, waiting for the ‘Great Pumpkin’ to arise, than allow the science of fact and probability to rob me of the excitement and anticipation of experiencing a mystery. I would rather read Green Eggs and Ham any day than dusty Christian apologetics. I would rather spend my time immersed with little Elijah over his joy of patting bunnies than renewing a Nexus card. I would rather sit with my brother on the floor while his granddaughters dress up what is left of his hair in ribbons and bows, than sit with a committee that simply wants to do the same things over and over again. I would rather kneel with a grandfather and his grandson on a busy city street in an act of worship, as they watch how a single plant reaches from a crack in the sidewalk to touch the sun, than I would wish to join that throng running past, plastered to their cell phones, stressed about making their appointments.
When I look at the night sky I don’t need to know all the names to the constellations. I just need to sit there and wonder what is beyond the stars, and then what is beyond that, and beyond that again, and be awed and humbled by the magnitude of God and my unique place in this creation. As Hamlet proclaimed, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Hamlet (1.5.167-8) I realize that childlike behaviour can become annoying, even in the church. Throughout my journey with different churches, I know that my constant questioning ‘why’ in committee and council meetings can become really annoying. Especially when my wondering why is not supported by research or maybe even common sense. When it is so, I am often met with the response, “But that is how we always did it.” which is second cousin to “Because that is just the way it is.” It always seemed to me that this famous church dictum was uttered by people more interested in securing what they know than those blessed enough to imagine that God may be leading us mysteriously into new ways and new ministries.
In the months and years ahead, Wesley will be facing a new future. It is your future. It is one I cannot, and should not, walk with you.
That may make you feel abandoned, but you are not. Do you face that future trying to hang on what is, by grieving what will be lost, or do you dream dreams, envision new beginnings, risk trusting your imaginations by stepping into the wonder and mystery of God?
And just to be clear, this family of God will not be the only ones stepping into a new future, a little anxious of the new life set before them. To no longer be a man of the cloth as I have been for almost 40 years, to discover a new sense of who I am, is to recognize that this will not be an easy journey but one made better if I travel it open to the mysteries and wonders and the possibilities God sets before me. As Jesus said, in order to enter the kingdom of God, one must have the faith of a child. If Jesus’s life and sacrifice has taught us anything at all, it is this: there is no resurrection without there first being a death. Nothing is impossible with God if we are blessed with imagination and faith.
So, as annoying as it might become, let us both have a faith deep enough to keep asking ‘why’.