Friday, January 08, 2016

Sacred Imagination: Becoming a Dreamer for the Sake of the Kingdom

Below is an old piece I found in my files from nearly a decade ago, but it's one I've never posted here. Enjoy! 


Observing people is one of my favorite things to do. They are an absurd bunch, really, a bizarre agglomeration of personalities, shapes, and sizes that always strike me as a bit extraordinary. Where else can you find a species so fascinatingly diverse, so similar and yet so different?
I am told that all animals can be told apart from one another, even within a species. To differentiate between rhinoceroses, one must examine the pattern of wrinkles on the nose. For zebras, it’s the way the stripes come together at the shoulder.
But let’s be honest. No two rhinos look different the way any two people look different from each other. Human beings are somehow set apart, brilliantly bizarre in their uniqueness. We need not examine wrinkles to distinguish our friends from one another. The entire pattern of face and shape and manner screams of wild individuality.
It’s the sum of all these peculiar differences that make people worth watching. Perhaps it’s a strange form of narcissism, but I never tire of discovering how unbelievably different other people are from me. Sometimes I would like to be more like the person I’m observing; other people make me sincerely glad of who I am.
Today I drove down to the local auto body shop for an oil change. The fellow who owns the place is a recent acquaintance of mine but a fairly good friend of my grandfather. He’s one of those people who seems entirely sincere and unpretentious, a rough-edged character who somehow inspires trust.
His teenage son helps him out at the shop, and I exchange a few greetings with him. He nods his response, a bit more subdued today because Rachel, my newlywed bride, is with me. Last time I was here he opened right up and started talking about drinking and casual sex and the kind of women he likes. He’s certainly different than I am, but somehow I can’t help but like him. There’s a rustic earthiness about him that makes him very real.
I think that part of why I like him is that he dreams. His dreams right now are a bit self-centered, but he still hasn’t lost the ability to imagine. His father is the same way, dreaming about upcoming trips to Italy and Ireland. He loves castles, he says. So do I. I can’t explain it, but my heart begins to soar when I see a castle. There’s something akin in our spirits, this dusty mechanic and I.
And as I observe people, I begin to notice the boundaries of their dreams. Eventually, people tend to accept the nature of the reality they’ve been given. My mechanic friend dreams of traveling to see castles, because, he tells me, it’s now within his means. But the dreams of children are not quite so restrained. A boy will not only delight in seeing a castle; a boy will, for a moment, become a heroic knight to defend those long-deserted ramparts. But this lasts only for a moment, because children grow up. And in part, these changes are good. We begin to understand more fully where we are and what we can do. We accept the limits of possibility and focus on attaining the dreams that are within reach.
However, I believe that most of us fail to realize that there are dreams of staggering proportions, ambitions of imaginative zeal, within our grasp even now. I’m not speaking of our own little dreams and ambitions, the things we do to satisfy ourselves. I’m speaking of a dream so big that it shatters and reorders all of those things.
The psalmist writes that if we delight ourselves in the Lord, he will give us the desires of our hearts (Ps. 37:4). Does this mean that God will give us that Caribbean cruise we’ve been dreaming of? That beautiful new house? I don’t think so. If we are truly delighting ourselves in the Lord, what will the deepest desires of our hearts be? They will be for him. We will yearn for more of God, and we will begin to dream his dreams. The possibilities of this dream are endless. To be passionately caught up in the desires and the mission of God is beyond anything our experience can compare to. It is the wildest ride on earth.
Jesus said that the kingdom of God is near. This doesn’t simply mean that it is close at hand time-wise. I don’t think he’s saying, “Get ready, it’s coming!” Rather, Jesus is pointing to himself and extending an invitation: “Here I am! The kingdom of God is among you! Even now you can enter in!” It is the unending wonder of this kingdom-life in Christ that keeps me dreaming.
There is an old missions book on my shelf with this title: Give Up Your Small Ambitions. I love those words. They speak of the hope and passion of finding a bigger ambition, something that will carry me beyond the tyranny of my own little desires. Sometimes I get so caught up in what I’m trying to do, in all my petty projects and hopes, that I miss out on the incredible adventure of joining the missio Dei—God’s mission. But he calls out to me, over and over again: Give up your small ambitions! Lay down your nets and follow me! Step out onto these waves and come and dance through the storm!
This call to begin dreaming God’s dreams is not just for the unbeliever. Too many Christians, myself included, settle for far less than we should. C.S. Lewis’ old analogy strikes true: we are like children content to play in a mud puddle when our Father is offering us a holiday at the sea. Too many followers of Christ are trudging along on their own little trails, ignoring the ceaseless call to come and join the Maker’s dance around the wedding-table.
So what are these dreams? What is this sacred imagination that gives wings to the soul? It begins, as everything in the Christian life does, with knowing God. If the truth of Christianity really is the foundational story of our existence, then to embrace God is to embrace reality itself. To be alive to God is to be more spectacularly alive than we could have thought possible. Christ himself said it: “I have come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.” When once we begin to pursue God’s dreams for ourselves and for the world, something within our hearts will begin to sing. This truly is what we were made for, the image-bearers of the Almighty God.