The Imagination of Faith
In the summer of 2001, on Father’s Day Greg and I hosted a picnic. We had a new house and exciting news to share. We invited family and friends and I read a poem I wrote for all the dads. What no one realized was the poem was also for Greg. As I read the last line about Greg celebrating his first Father’s Day the following year recognition caught like a wave, first my mother who shrieked, then her friend next to her and then our close family friend ,Nancy reached over to grab my mothers’ hand. Greg’s mother and sister caught on and the excitement grew until the room was bouncing with joy. The room itself carrying an electrical current and giving me the sense that I was the first woman to ever deliver such astounding news. To be fair I had, for years, been quite vocal about my dream of being a mother. In truth, I would not call it a dream but rather it was a fact for me. Before becoming a mother, I thought that being one meant you had reached the pinnacle of adulthood and perhaps nirvana. Clearly, I did not know what I was asking for and still had much to learn. But in that moment, sharing that news I felt as though I had finally done it, reached my goal, found my purpose. I could rest easy in the months and even years to come. ( Oh yes what we don’t know when we are so young)
Six weeks later, Greg and I found ourselves in the hospital in the middle of a humid summer night, being told we would not be parents, at least not yet. It was the first of many miscarriages. My heart was broken, my spirit lost between what I thought I was meant to be and what was at that moment, my reality. I wallowed in misery for months. I felt anguish each time another friend became pregnant or had a baby. On the way to visit friends who had just had their first baby a few weeks later I had to constantly take deep breaths and while with them had to stay focused on their joy. It was exhausting. I collapsed in tears on the drive home. I wondered where am I to go from here? My dream of myself as an adult always had a family in it. A husband, a home and children.
It was that summer that I started attending a church in our new neighborhood. In part because I could walk to it and in part because it was a congregational church and up to that point in my late twenties, that denomination had felt like a good fit. In my earlier twenties as I travelled as a staff relief nurse, I would pick a church, any church nearby and attend a Sunday service, more than one if I felt comfortable. In New Jersey I was a Lutheran, in Maryland I was Episcopalian, in Arizona I gave the Lutherans another shot but the church I chose because of location was nearly a mega church causing me to feel lost in the rows and rows of pews. In Georgia I gave the Methodists a try but it was in South Carolina in a small congregational church that I felt most at home. The minister even made a home visit after I filled out a visitor’s card. He showed up on my doorstep that Sunday afternoon and while football played in the background and stew simmered on my stove we talked or perhaps I talked and he listened. All the same I had appreciated the gesture. It felt welcoming. But in all those visits I didn’t understand that just choosing a church does not make you religious or spiritual, it doesn’t grow your faith. Perhaps because I was only going sporadically and having not had a childhood filled with Sunday School and church, I didn’t have much to go on. Without a stepping stone to place my feet gently into the somewhat murky looking water of religion, I had to take a leap from the dock straight into the undulating waves of my own spiritual journey.
It was after that first miscarriage that I started that journey. Although at the time I did not recognize it as such. Looking back now I can see that church became a beacon. Each Sunday morning, I would go where there were friendly people and an inspirational message. I began to take my mother with me and her approval of the church bolstered me, moving me forward with a motion so gentle it was like being rocked to sleep. I listened and I read and I became more aware. Aware that my emotions were getting the better of me, aware that just because something doesn’t go as planned doesn’t mean it is not meant to be. Aware that I had very little control over many things. Months after that lonely night in the hospital I had a friend casually ask how “the baby thing” was going. I said simply “It isn’t but I am not going to worry about it. What will be, will be” The words just fell out of my mouth. I remember it distinctly because we were at a yogilates class and in a most uncomfortable pose and also because I didn’t recognize myself in that moment. The misery was gone. The feeling of failure and despair had dissipated. What had begun to sink in, slowly and osmotically was that faith was the belief in what we cannot see. What had begun to take hold was the very idea that our imagination allows us to have faith and, in my imagination, I was still a mother. My imagination was holding firm and it was time to allow faith to take over.
Theologian Francis Schaeffer said “The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.” I would change that slightly since I do not believe Christians hold a monopoly on faith but anyone who has faith in the divine should also have imagination that takes us beyond what we can see into what is possible.
When we are children our lives are filled with imagination. Stories abound with talking animals, fantastical places that do not exist. There is Narnia in the “Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe, Middle Earth in Tolkien’s “The Ring”, Camozotz in “A Wrinkle in Time”. We thrive on our imagination when we are children. So, at what point do we lose faith in it?
When we are read stories from the Bible as children do, we read them as fact or do we understand them as stories? Is it the same imagination that allows us to see Narnia that also allows us to see Jonah in the belly of a large fish or Noah collecting animals two by two? Do we start to question these stories because we are older and wiser? Barbara Taylor Brown, Episcopalian minister and professor writes in her book “Holy Envy- Finding God in the Faith of Others” -
“There are times when I read the Bible literally- as when Moses complains about what a royal pain it is to be a religious leader or when Jesus nails an inquisitor on his or her own iniquity- but on the whole I read it literarily as the consummate work of divinely inspired human memory and imagination that I believe it is.”
It takes imagination to allow any story to make sense. It takes imagination to allow our faith to take root.
I agree with Rev Brown. I have grappled with David taking down a giant with s stone and Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt. I am not so sure about Noah and Jonah, sometimes these stories feel as fantastical as Narnia and a talking Lion. I would like some hard evidence. I would like a video replay of these events so that I can witness and take hold with my eyes. To see the events as concrete instead of something abstract but then where would faith go? What would be the purpose of faith if we always had proof and evidence? And if everything always worked out exactly as we planned.
In Karen Armstrong’s book “In the beginning- a new interpretation of Genesis” she breaks down the book of Genesis and helps us to understand how the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Able, Abraham and Lot ,help us relate to our own struggles and understand how the challenges in our life are worth it even if we do not attain our goal. She explains the difference between Lot and Abraham as such, “Lot failed to develop the inner resources to cope with the fearful things he had seen, without the imagination of Faith, he could not share the blessing of Abraham and therefore was unable to live robustly and confidently. He was no longer at home any where in the world.” She goes on to say that Genesis shows us it is the function of faith to make us productive, creative and more at ease in the world.
Think of what we can accomplish as individuals, as a collective, a community if we just allow our imagination to fuel our faith and our faith to fuel our imagination. If we view ourselves as part of a long story, one that does not always have a video replay but has the invisible twine of faith weaving us together then we can see ourselves and others as God sees us, as beautiful creative beings who all have a purpose.
We can choose which camp to settle in. We can camp with Lot and his lack of imagination and faith or we can hang out with Abraham who was able to see in his mind’s eye what his future could be. I could not have told you all those years ago that I was choosing Abraham’s camp. But I did choose to believe that I would be a mother someday. I allowed my imagination to fuel my faith and my faith to take root in my imagination.