Imagination as a spiritual discipline

On Wednesday evenings at my congregation’s meeting place, we share dinner and have a prayer service. The themes for this fall’s prayer times are a number of spiritual disciplines: beauty, being present, connections, enthusiasm, imagination, nurturing, openness, questing, vision, and yearning. Each week, one of the participants is asked to reflect and share on one of these disciplines. Last night, I shared some reflections about imagination.


Preparation for sharing tonight has really been a bit of a learning process for me. When I saw that we’d be considering “spiritual practices” this fall, I immediately thought of Richard Foster’s book, “Celebration of Discipline”. You may be familiar with the disciplines in that book – things like prayer, fasting, service, and worship. But the list for our Wednesday evening prayer series was different – the disciplines listed were things like beauty, connections, enthusiasm, and others – including my topic for tonight: imagination. Now – I’m sure that others have thought about these things before. For me, however, considering the list  from a spiritual context was new. And so, I didn’t immediately respond to the email requesting our contributions.

Setting that aside for a moment, let’s take a little detour…

It was about a week after we received that list of practices when I came across an interesting photographic technique called ‘forced perspective’. The photographer places the subject matter within a photo in such a way that the viewer has to consider things from a certain (often odd) vantage point. It may be easier to understand the concept if you see the same images that I found to be interesting.

Well – I thought these were pretty cool, and I showed them to my daughters. The older two immediately “got it”. They understood what the photographer had to do – how all the people had to be positioned – and they wanted to try things out for themselves. So we spent one Saturday morning trying out different things. We had a lot of fun with this, and I decided to put them on my blog. (Note that these are actual photographs. I photoshopped the shadows slightly, but none of the subjects have been rearranged!)

At some point, the person who organizes our Wednesday services saw the entry and commented that this project might be construed as a spiritual discipline. That’s when something clicked for me, and I went back and looked at her list again in light of our little photographic exercise:

Beauty? Check.

Being present? Yes.

Enthusiasm? Imagination? Nurturing? Vision? They’re all there.

Eventually, I decided to consider imagination for this evening. Why is imagination a discipline to be nurtured? I came up with a couple answers.

First, I thought about how my girls got really excited about our little project and how nearly all of these spiritual practices were present as we did our work. And I thought about how Jesus was always linking the Kingdom of Heaven to the children around him. “For such is the kingdom of heaven.” Imagination helps us to approach God with child-like joy. Imagination makes us creative and helps us understand and appreciate God’s creativity. I think about God creating the animals and then bringing them to Adam to be named. Genesis chapter two is a tour de force in imaginative cooperation between God and Adam.

As a scientist, I feel a special affinity for this aspect of imagination. For one thing, biologists are still doing what Adam did – naming the creatures. My father is a biologist and has just retired from his teaching position after 38 years. Over the course of his career, he has named a few beetle-inhabiting mites. And in my own work, it takes a certain amount of imagination to design good experiments – to set things up in a way that will provide the desired answers.

The other spiritual dimension of imagination that I’ve considered in the last few days is its relationship to wisdom, especially when it is used to resolve conflicts. Most of us are probably familiar with the fight or flight response. When confronted with danger, we can choose to run or to get defensive. At least, that is what animals do. But I think that part of being human and part of living in the Kingdom of God is that we can choose a third option: transformation. The last option is hard, but imagination can make it much simpler.

Let me share just one example – in Mark 12, some people try to trap Jesus with a question…

Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?’ But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, ‘Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.’ And they brought one. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were utterly amazed at him.

Mark 12.13-17, NRSV

I wonder if a little imaginative wisdom will serve our congregation well in the coming months.

And this is where I’m going to stop, since (as I indicated) I’m still very much in the exploration stage of this spiritual practice. I’m looking forward to hearing your reflections in the coming weeks.

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