Incandescent Imagination

“Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground. When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.’ Elisha said, ‘Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.’”

2 Kings 2:8-10

Here’s the situation—the prophet Elijah is on the verge of being whisked up to heaven in a whirlwind.

His disciple Elisha has been chosen to succeed him as the one who will proclaim Yaweh’s saving truth to the people of Israel.

We might assume that Elisha is suffering a crisis of confidence if not a full blown panic attack as he contemplates trying to fill Elijah’s gigantic shoes.

Because Elisha has been shadowing the prophet for some time and has observed first hand the wonder-working authority of Elijah’s ministry—for example, he has witnessed Elijah bringing down two corrupt kings through the sheer force of his words and he has seen him resuscitate a widow’s deceased son.

As Elijah prepares to depart, he says to Elisha: “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.”

And Elisha, knowing that his own meager talents are overmatched by his new job description, says, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.”

He wants Elijah to give him the power and vision of the prophetic spirit—but Elijah tells him this gift is not his to give, that only Yaweh can make a prophet, that only the wind of Yaweh can breathe into Elisha the prophetic spirit, the prophetic imagination.

Now we may tend to think of the imagination as a lesser function of the mind, a kind of second class citizen, subordinate and inferior to the processes of reason such as analyzing and organizing, managing and problem-solving.

But for Jesus and the prophets, the imagination is an incandescent force that is the primary medium for proclaiming the Kingdom of God.

The philosopher Paul Ricouer defines imagination as the power to redescribe reality.

Which is what Jesus and the prophets do—they redescribe our usual, humdrum, flat, one dimensional sense of reality by imagining a new realm of depth and vastness in which, as the Magnificat declares, a strange, mysterious power is tirelessly working behind the scenes to “scatter the proud in their conceit” and “lift up the lowly.”

Jesus and the prophets introduce us to a version of reality that is as different from our customary take on how things are as the Wonderland into which Alice tumbles after falling down the rabbit hole.

Jesus and the prophets imagine a new kingdom in which “the blind receive their sight”, the lame leap for joy, the deaf hear, “and the poor have good news preached to them.”

What the prophetic imagination presents to us is not some escapist fantasy, some unreal, in the sweet bye and bye fabrication, but an astonishing new vision of reality that is infinitely more real, more truthful, and more hopeful than the shallow, sensationalist picture of reality served up to us by so called “reality shows.”

The rite of Holy Baptism contains this prayer for the newly baptized: “O Lord, give this thy servant an inquiring and discerning heart….”

In this prayer we acknowledge that an inquiring and discerning heart is a divinely inspired gift—in other words, we’re recognizing that curiosity and imagination are gifts of the Spirit.

Each of us is endowed from the beginning with the spiritual gifts of curiosity and imagination.

One of the privileges of living with a five year old is to witness the daily spectacle of an unfettered imagination at work—within the space of a few hours, our small, dull apartment living room can be magically transformed into one adventure zone after another—an exercise gym, a pre-K classroom with stuffed animals filling in for students, a concert stage, a swimming pool featuring high dives off the coffee table into a large stuffed footstool.

But what happens to this rambunctious imagination, this unbridled curiosity, that are so evident in young children but seem to be such a rare commodity in adults?

How does a world-weary adult keep the flame of the imagination alive?

When you have gone up and down the aisles of Kroger’s or WalMart, have you noticed how many adult faces appear dull, blank, listless, glazed over?

The tough slog of making one’s way in this rough and tumble, jagged world can snuff out the flame of imagination or at least reduce it to the barest flicker.

But we have all known certain conspicuous exceptions— certain tough minded realists who have somehow managed to keep the flame of curiosity and imagination well lit.

Charles Kettering once paid this tribute to the Wright Brothers: “They flew right through the smokescreen of impossibility.”

Imagination is the capacity to envision a possibility beyond what is presently available, beyond the current state of affairs.

Azar Nafisi is Iranian by birth and before and after the Islamic Revolution she taught English literature at several universities in Tehran—after prolonged harassment by the Islamic hard-liners for exposing her students to heretical books and ideas, she gave up teaching and eventually immigrated to this country where she is now a professor at Johns Hopkins University.

I heard her give a talk at the University of Dayton, and I found myself hanging on every word.

Dr. Nafisi has something important to say—she delivers her message with passion, urgency, and humor, and the fact that she’s quite lovely doesn’t hurt.

The subject of her talk was “The Republic of the Imagination.”

She described how, after she had given up formal teaching and was still residing in Tehran, she invited seven young women who had been her students to meet her at her house every Thursday morning.

They read and discussed works of Western literature which the government had placed on the forbidden list—they read Mark Twain, Jane Austen, Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lewis Carroll—Dr. Nafisi has a special fondness for the Alice books.

Politics was not on the agenda—the focus of their discussion was always on a particular work of fiction.

But this was surely one of the most subversive gatherings in all of Iran.

Because the books these young women were reading unleashed their imaginations, and, in the midst of totalitarian restrictions, inspired them to dream and imagine how things could be otherwise than what they were—to create among themselves in this living room a more bountiful, spacious, humane commonwealth, a “republic of the imagination.”

This gathering of women celebrated the imagination while the government was trying to extinguish the imagination.

These women reveled in the playful, serendipitous romp of the imagination which flew in the face of the government’s never deviating, deadly serious mood.

Dr. Nafisi recounts how one day she and her seven students suddenly realized that they owed a debt of gratitude to the Islamic Republic for making them appreciate afresh simple pleasures and delights which they had long taken for granted but which were now punishable offenses that could only be indulged in secretly if at all—pleasures like eating a ham and cheese sandwich, laughing in public, holding hands, wearing lipstick, eating ice cream in public, reading a forbidden book, watching a Marx Brothers movie.

The kingdom Jesus proclaimed might also be called “a republic of the imagination.”

Jesus imagines this fantastic kingdom in which every “Ugly Betty” is the toast of the town, a kingdom in which we shock our enemies by forgiving them, a kingdom in which we jaded adults are reborn into a kind of second innocence and rediscover, without relinquishing our critical judgment, the curiosity, wonderment, and mirth which we once had in abundance but which along the way have taken a battering.

The Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov once said, “Curiosity is the purest form of insubordination.”

Curiosity, set free to roam, is a dangerous thing, because curiosity does not hesitate to question conventional wisdom , received opinion, and every kind of authority.

Well, you and I are baptized into Jesus’ dangerous curiosity.

You and I are baptized into Jesus’ prophetic imagination.

So we come here of a Sunday to immerse ourselves anew in the texts and narratives of the prophetic imagination of Jesus and the prophets.

For in letting the images of the prophetic imagination wash over us, we are reminded of who we are—we are reminded of our baptismal identity which we are so prone to forget.

We are reminded when we come here that we are not a Social Security number, we are not what we buy or wear, we are not the sum of our net worth, we are not a cell phone user whose status depends on the number of text messages received—did you know, according to a recent study, that the practice of faking a cell phone conversation to impress by standers has become an increasingly common practice?

We are reminded when we come here of our true baptismal identity—that each of us is a child of God whose mystery and complexity is beyond any category or definition that society assigns to us.

After Alice has fallen down the rabbit hole and has shrunk to a mere ten inches, she meets up with a three inch caterpillar.

They look each other over for a while, and then the caterpillar says: “Who are you?”

And Alice, unaccustomed to being interrogated by a caterpillar, stammers: “I—I hardly know, sir, just at present….”

And the caterpillar tartly says: “Explain yourself!”

And Alice answers, “I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir….”

And perhaps we as readers realize that we can’t explain ourselves either—that we are as befuddled as Alice when we try to answer the caterpillar’s question, “Who are you?”

Because, beneath our obvious biographical data, we are this inexplicable, indescribable mystery, a mystery both to ourselves and others which is what it means to be a child of God.

When our imagination is charged and rejuvenated by the prophetic imagination of Jesus and the prophets, we are able to imagine the suffering of others, even those whose circumstances are very different from our own.

In the novel, “Deaf Sentence,” by David Lodge, a retired linguistics professor named Desmond Bates is becoming increasingly deaf—he’s also becoming increasingly testy, resentful of those who intrude on his privacy, and discontented with his marriage.

He accepts an invitation to give a lecture at a university in Poland and, in spite of much trepidation, decides to make a side trip to Auschwitz.

And strangely enough, given his impediment, it is the silence of Auschwitz that most conveys the horror of the place and that most overwhelms him.

Among the objects that have been preserved, Desmond comes across a letter dug out of a mound of human ashes; it is a letter written by a prisoner to his wife in which he asks her “forgiveness for not sufficiently appreciating their life together.”

One sentence in particular leaps out at him; the prisoner writes: “If there have been, at various times, trifling misunderstandings in our life, now I see how one was unable to value the passing time.”

Jolted by this sentence, Desmond returns home with a renewed generosity toward his wife and others with whom he’s been less than patient as he vows “to value the passing time.”

By imagining the anguish and fate of this prisoner, Desmond receives a posthumous gift that is life-altering.

We might think of worship as an exercise in imagination—as we absorb the texts, narratives, and songs of the prophetic imagination, we are invited to imagine and reclaim our baptismal identity and imagine our neighbor who hungers, aspires, hurts, and hopes just as we do.

And speaking of hope, the prophetic imagination is immensely hopeful because it imagines help that has not yet arrived, it imagines help that has not yet appeared—so when we are in exile, when we are stuck in the wilderness, when we are wedged between the impossible and the intolerable, Jesus and the prophets urge us to imagine help that is not yet evident and available, to imagine help that has not yet arrived, to imagine possibilities of grace that are not yet even faintly visible.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
Last Sunday After Epiphany
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
2/22/09

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