Stuart Higginbotham: Imagination plays a key role in hope and faith

This article was published in the Gainesville Times on July 24, 2016.

When I was a kid, some of my older relatives would always tell me, “You have a big imagination.”

I smiled until I realized they weren’t giving me a compliment. It turns out having an imagination somehow meant I was making things up, pretending, or worse, lying.

As I have grown older, I continue to notice others saying this same line to children with the point being they eventually need to “grow up” and get ready for “the real world.” Sometimes I catch myself doing this to our daughter.

I think we have had it backward.

In the Episcopal Church, a helpful (and sometimes overused) image describes how we engage the text of the Bible in the world today: We see a “three-legged stool” of scripture, tradition and reason.

Our Scriptures are the texts (both Old and New Testament) that were gathered over the centuries as witnesses to the Holy Spirit’s presence and guidance in the lives of people of faith.

The tradition of the church is the complex conversation that has taken place over millennia as we have reflected on the Scriptures in many different places.

As Christians, we not only have the writings of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, we have Paul’s letters and other writings as well. We also can reflect on how God’s promises are found within the richness of the Hebrew/Jewish texts.

With all of this, we have been given reason, our faculties of understanding, questioning, wondering and seeking.

How do we seek and recognize God’s presence in our lives today?

As you may have guessed, imagination plays a critical role in how we become more aware of the presence of Christ in our midst. Given what we face in our lives, how can our eyes be opened to see something more, something hopeful?

I think of the prophet Isaiah and the way he can imagine God’s saving presence within the reality of oppression and exile in Babylon. I think of the lament Psalms, those lyrical jewels giving us permission to feel and be honest about how we struggle to find hope in the midst of loss and pain. And I think of blessed Mary, and the way her fiat, her “let it be with me according to your will,” is itself such an embodiment of imagination. Only through her imagination could she come to trust this radical new thing God was doing in her life and in the life of the world. We see in the prophets, Mary and others that imagination and faith dance beautifully together.

So, one of the greatest challenges we have within not only the Christian community but among all people of faith is to encourage a deep capacity for spiritual imagination.

How can we see beyond or through the circumstances of life to discern God’s compassionate presence with us? Given the fear and anxiety that surrounds us — and which so many stir up and use to manipulate and incite — what might hope look like in our world today?

Imagination isn’t escaping the reality of the struggles we face; rather, it is having the spiritual courage and faith, as one of my professors at Sewanee once said, “to tilt our lives toward God.” 

It turns out imagination might end up being the thing that saves us all.

The Rev. Stuart Higginbotham is the rector at Grace Episcopal Church in downtown Gainesville. He can be reached at stuart@gracechurchgainesville.org.