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Prayer and the Imagination

The alarm on my clock radio was going off way too early. Hadn’t I just gone to sleep? I’d spent a few too many late nights getting my school alarm-clock-ringingassessments done. My stomach was achy and my yawns were insistent.

But, habit is a routine hard to break, and I got up and went to my daily quiet time with scripture and prayer. As soon as I sat down, a cynical thought greeted me that morning. “Why are you even doing this prayer thing? It’s foolish not to be sleeping instead. It doesn’t change anything anyways.”

My disbelieving thought stayed with me for a moment. It felt so logical and I considered heading straight back to bead, but another thought kept me there. Unbidden, my friends in the faith came to my imagination, and I realized they’d never agree with the skeptic. They would (and do) encourage me to stick with the discipline of prayer, believing, as C.S Lewis once famously said, “we were made for another world.”

I stayed with the prayer time. I usually pray for my faith community, my family and others who come to mind, but that morning, I just imagined them in a circle with me, joining hands, united in a purpose beyond the logic of the world.

That prayer time, as with many others, came to me as a gift that morning and despite feeling hemmed in by the demands of the job, the day felt expansive. My cynical thought had insisted that prayer doesn’t change anything, but my experience proved otherwise. It stayed with me all week, and deepened a sense of gratitude even as I  took deep breaths trying to get everything done.

Present-Perfect-CoverPrompted by a book I read this year called Present Perfect by Gregory Boyd, I have been imagining Jesus with me during my prayer time. Boyd says that this practice helps us rest in God instead of making prayer an obligation. Jesus sits with me in my imagination, and encouraged by the verse which says to “cast all our anxieties on him”, I imagine giving all my worries to him. I literally take them and dump them on Jesus’ lap.  Boyd writes that this sense of resting in God is not just a technique, but is how we stay awake to what is true.

Over the months since I’ve been doing this, I’ve noticed a few things. First of all, it helps lighten what is weighing me down. I remember often that I’ve given things to God and it’s like resetting a computer or erasing my whiteboard at school at the end of the day. Jesus has become more real; Someone I love rather than an idea. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but I have also been noticing far less bodily aches and pains in the months since I’ve begun this practice.

Earlier in his life, C.S. Lewis had quite an inner battle of the use of imagination vs. the use of reason. He used to think that reason trumped the imagination and became an atheist as a result. It began to dawn on him that everything that his mind came to solely through reason produced only a dull and unhappy life, whereas the places that his imagination led him produced joy. He began to see that while reason was the natural organ of truth, “imagination [was] the organ of meaning.”  His friend Owen Barfield, introduced him to the notion that reason and imagination could co-exist and it changed his world forever. Giving up his atheism, he gave his life to God, then Jesus and the world is much the richer for it.

It’s this sense of meaning that has accompanied me in my journey of imaginative prayer. I’m the furthest thing from an expert. I am often distracted by what the Buddhists call “monkey mind”, and my imagination clearly is often limited by mistrust and doubts. But I have tasted enough of Jesus’ presence to feel encouraged to continue; to steep my life in the reality that I am not alone in this universe.

When I was a teenager, our youth group painted the walls of a room at church with murals. Though the walls no longer exist since the church was circlesdestroyed by fire in 1998, one mural has always stayed with me. The mural depicted 2 thrones. On one throne was a great big S, which stood for a life where the Self directs life, and on the other throne was a cross. Here, the Self is not in charge anymore and the Self yields to Christ.

In both circles, the dots represent our interests. When self-directed, our interests result in discord and frustration, but given to God, they result in harmony.

It is a simple depiction of my deepest desire. I want always to sit with Jesus, giving everything to God’s care and serving God’s purposes. In the words of Bishop Desmond Tutu, “I want what God wants.” And on the days when my imagination is clouded by self-direction, when I am fighting this release, I give my scattered-ness to God, asking to “want to want” a life touched by God’s imagination. It is the only life I want.

Be Thou My Vision

“I want what God wants, that is why I’m so happy.” Desmond Tutu

This week I experienced God through an image which guided me and kept me on the path of faith.

It was Sunday morning and our community had gathered for worship. We’re a small group, less than 20, and we meet in Dave and Lorna’s living room. Just a motley bunch of very ordinary people but it never fails to be one of the highlights of my week.  Talking about what matters most in life with this group is always like a fire that warms the heart and gives us “words to live by”, as we often say.

One of our traditions is the centerpiece, set on the round glass coffee table, which reflects the morning’s theme. Eldon, who is an artist disguised as a mailman, is the one who usually puts this together. The centerpiece is always helpful, especially when the weekend ends and the rubber hits the road at work on Monday. I may not remember the nuances of what we talked, sang and prayed about, but I can remember the centerpiece and be guided back.

On this particular Sunday morning, the centerpiece was simple: a vase of flowers with a pair of glasses on either side. It illustrated the two ways of seeing that scripture often talks about – seeing life through human eyes or seeing life through eyes of faith. We had been talking about the passage for the morning from the gospel of Mark. Jesus is talking to his disciples and they’re trying to figure out who the heck this guy is. In fact, everyone is wondering. Is he God’s son as he claims? Jesus asks them, “Who do people say I am?”

The discussion that follows after Jesus asks them this question is actually humorous. They tell Jesus what others have been saying about him, but Jesus presses them and asks them, “But who do you say I am?” Peter steps in and perfectly illustrates the two glasses of the centerpiece, one minute giving a faith-filled answer, and the next minute losing his faith entirely as he tells Jesus he “shouldn’t talk that way”.

One thing I love about the gospels is how I can relate to the disciples. They are a bunch of dim-wits, “dumber than a bag of hammers” as Paul Patterson likes to say, always getting it wrong. Jesus is incredibly patient with them. It seems he is forever repeating his kingdom vision to them and they keep getting it wrong. They forget his previous miracles and words and act as though Jesus doesn’t know how to turn “the-way-things-seem-to-be” on its head. They keep having one set of glasses on and Jesus urges them to put the lenses of faith on instead.  Like a good teacher, Jesus doesn’t let them get away with sloppy thinking. He keeps admonishing them, “You are thinking like everyone else and not like God!” (Mark 8:33)

I’m right in there with the disciples because I get it wrong so often during the week. Like Peter, I can be full of faith but then the smallest thing happens and I’m doubting. This week I noticed it when a lesson that was supposed to take 10 minutes fell flat. The wind went out of my sails for the rest of the day and my “old way of thinking” set in.  My lenses got all skewed and I lost the vision that had me inspired. I start feeling insecure about myself, doubting all the words of faith I heard earlier. My co-workers probably wouldn’t notice but inwardly I was scrambling for affirmation. “Am I ok?” (and the voice of doubt answered, “No!”). Invariably, this human way of thinking seems very convincing.

I was tempted to think life is small but that evening I remembered the centerpiece and heard Jesus’ voice reminding me alongside Peter, “You are thinking like everyone else not like God”. “Which pair of glasses do you want to wear there kiddo?” I came back to a place of prayer, asking God for help and confessing my slip.   It helped to meet with the group on Wednesday night, this time to talk about C.S. Lewis again.

Desmond Tutu is a South African activist and retired Anglican bishop who became a famous voice against apartheid in the ’80’s. He is a very down to earth man who loves to laugh, and words of his that I heard years ago came back to me this week. “I want what God wants, that is why I am so happy.” He has the right lenses on, I thought. That day, my vision had been corrected and I felt I was saying the words along with him because I experienced how living God’s way restored me. I certainly don’t live this way very consistently, but it is my deepest desire in life to “want what God wants” too. It’s the only desire that has ever led to happiness, that is, deep happiness that doesn’t depend on circumstances.

Sometimes I think the only thing that’s happening as I’m getting older is that I’m learning not to trust my insecurities and doubts. They are like bad friends, not to be trusted. What can be trusted is God’s promises.

During the week, I often ponder what to write for the blog, and at one point my heart felt like it was overflowing and I wanted to write an early Thanksgiving list. This list will be written soon no doubt. Until then, this is my declaration of where God has been this week, repeatedly correcting my vision, being the World’s Best Coach as I am guided back to my deepest desire. That is why, no matter what the weather, I find myself echoing Desmond Tutu, more often than I used to, that I am so happy.

Week after week, God stitches me back together this way and it’s as though an unseen Hand gently takes off my human glasses and corrects my vision again and again.

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