The Work of Reclaiming Imagination

Boucher, Nafziger
PC: Tim Nafziger

By Michael Boucher (right), from a letter to spiritual communities within Spiritus Christi Church in Rochester, NY

In our faith community, our pastoral leaders encourage people to spend 10 minutes/day in prayer/quiet with a candle, cup of coffee or tea (the beverage is not crucial but as it gets colder it kind of is!) and no distractions. While 10 minutes may not sound like much (and many of you, perhaps, already do this), it is amazing what can happen when we get more disciplined about creating intentional quiet space.

I have always loved in books when they print in the middle of a page, “This space left intentionally blank.” We might all need a bit more of that…

I am also cautious as I write those words, however. I know that many people have a lot of “blank space” in their lives already – and often not by choice.   Sickness, disability, depression, loss and other forces have brought life to a screeching halt. If you’re in this situation, a more active Advent practice may be in order – especially if you feel a sense of disconnection to others and the world. Just don’t stay alone in it. Please tell someone who will appreciate what you’re saying.

As is happening more frequently in my life, I find myself asking more questions than having specific answers and this Advent is no exception. I was reflecting in the beginning about the two themes that had been on my mind lately with respect to imagination and tear-gassed children at our border.

With respect to imagination, adrienne maree brown has been quite helpful to me and her book Emergent Strategy is one that has reshaped my perspective in recent months. She writes and speaks from the margins of being a queer woman of color and says that people on the margins have always been forced to imagine a different world because the current one has almost no space for them. She says (and I am paraphrasing) that the world that people on the margins imagine can include everyone – it just does not privilege the ones who have been held at the center of the story for so long.

In so many ways, this is the essence of the gospel story. What was cast aside, looked down upon, rejected, mocked and deemed useless, in fact, holds the vision for wholeness. And when what has been left out returns to the center, we have a chance to be whole again. Voices on the margins have been telling us this for years.

What is feared or rejected in any society emerges out of the imagination of the architects of that society. Our biblical traditions show us that the Israelite community had to keep examining its social architecture and imagination because it kept straying from the path of wholeness. We see in the biblical tradition that the role of the prophets was to bring the community back to a bigger, wider and more expansive imagination which would then translate into social practices of justice and equity.

Walter Brueggemann in his brilliant book, The Prophetic Imagination, says

The prophet engages in futuring fantasy. The prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined. The imagination must come before the implementation. Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing. The same royal consciousness that make it possible to implement anything and everything is the one that shrinks imagination because imagination is a danger. Thus every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist. It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.

Just sit with that for a minute.

And after I sit with it, it gets me wondering:

So what would a queer, femme, non-hierarchical, cooperative, just world look like?

Is that a world I am prepared to or want to live in? What comforts me about that world? What would make me afraid of that world?

How attached am I to this current imagination of society – especially if I benefit pretty regularly from it?

What kinds of practices would I need to be developing in order to be connected to that kind of world in a meaningful way?

What would I need to unlearn, grieve, boycott or withdraw myself from in order to get closer to it? What or who would I need to grow closer to, engage or be around in order to get closer to that vision?

Where or who is ALREADY articulating and living out this new vision?

And these questions help to lead me to my ponderings about what is happening at the US/Mexico border right now in Tijuana.

While I know that it is not that clear cut, there is some deep wisdom in the statement that we cannot simultaneously worship the child in the manger (who in the scriptures will be fleeing and oppressive and dangerous situation with his parents soon after his birth) and tear gas children who are fleeing oppressive and dangerous situations.

In a conversation with a friend the other day, they said (somewhat exasperated), “What do you expect, that we accept everyone who wants to come in to the United States? Who will pay for that? We can’t even take care of the poor we already have, how are we going to take care of more?”

And while I heard their points, I also thought about Brueggemann’s assertion that the prophetic does not concern itself with implementation as a first step. Can we even imagine a world where those who sought safety were offered it – even for a little while.

So often what blocks our imagination (which is a higher order process in the brain) is fear (which is a lower order process in the brain). It’s really hard to be imaginative and creative if we’re afraid or defensive. Part of the work of reclaiming imagination is addressing our fears – personally and collectively – and for many of us that means doing some healing work for what historically hurt us.[1] And the reality is that certain entities who benefit from the current imagination of society, want us to be afraid and actively stoke those fires. Listen to the rhetoric. Watch how things unfold.

Walls and borders are part of someone else’s imagination. Tear gas is part of someone else’s imagination. A military presence is part of someone else’s imagination. But they are not part of Jesus’ imagination – at least not the Jesus of the gospels.

If Paul is correct in his assertion that our work is “smashing warped philosophies [and] tearing down barriers,” then this cannot only happen privately. As followers of Jesus, it is our work to do this in public spaces and as a community of people. If we’re going to be about “demolishing that entire massively corrupt culture,” then it cannot be done with only wishful thinking and pious beliefs. Resistance will be required. Not violence – but resistance.

adrienne maree brown who I mentioned earlier says in one of her blog posts called “living through the unveiling” that there are multiple things that we must be doing. In addition to increasing our capacity to hear and embrace the truth of the moment, increasing our capacity to feel our full range of feelings and deeply supporting one another in the process, she says,

we must divest. i am still trying to figure out what this looks like in real time. i know part of it is boycotts and buycotts and I am excited to see the lists of places we can stop putting our money and where to redirect it already moving around the internet. i know part of it is really being willing to stop financially supporting all of these things we so viscerally disagree with.

Our faith is political, and economic, because we as people are immersed in political and economic systems. And so we must continue to find ways to enable our faith response to have public and economic ramifications. And please hear me correctly on this, I am not saying that our political and economic systems should be based in one faith belief or another. I am saying that if we are going to be “followers of Jesus” then the pattern is one of public involvement – even at the risk of personal safety – for those that are left out, forgotten, outcast, harmed, etc. And I would submit that if we’re going to be and act that way for each other, we simultaneously need a community of people around us and need to do our own deep inner work.

Which brings me back to Advent…

My friend and local pastor, Rev. Matthew Nickeloff, wrote a sermon about Advent a few years back with some words that have haunted me since I read them. In it he said,

Advent should terrify us. Because in it, we await the day when Christ will come again. To set right not only what we could not set right ourselves. But to set right what we refused to set right ourselves.

There is much to be “set right” in ourselves and in this world.

Advent is a time to be still and take a long, loving look at what is real. This will require us to face some difficult truths about ourselves and about the world around us. Yet this truth telling is really a part of the healing. It begins the process of getting us back on track so that we can find our way home. In so many ways this reminds me of the first step of Alcoholics Anonymous where we admit that our lives and the situation is out of control. Only then do we start seeking to restore sanity.

The wonderful Quaker educator Parker Palmer tells a great story of how, in the Midwest where the snow can be so intense, people have been known to get disoriented and lose their way walking from their house to wood barn and die in the snow. People living in that region often tied a rope from their house to the barn so that they would not lose their way in case they got caught in a snowstorm.

Advent practices are a kind of rope that can carry us home. They will guide us to where we need to go. It is my hope that we have the courage and humility and imagination in order to see what must be set right and work towards making it right. And while I know that this is a complicated and messy process, it is our vocation (as prophets) to “keep on conjuring and proposing futures” which provide a world where EVERYONE lives well and fully.

[1] Do you think it is any coincidence that he most often used phrase in the Christian scriptures is a form of “do not be afraid”?

Mike Boucher is a social worker, counselor and part-time minister who lives in Rochester, NY, with his wife, Lynne.

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