When I was a boy, I was most impressed with the power of God. “Wow,” I used to think, “My God can just speak and worlds are created.” I was often times like a little boy thinking “My father can whup your father.” And it’s true. Our God is an “awesome God.” He did create ex nihilo, out of nothing, but it was even more awesome than that.
One day, with boyhood years behind me, something hit me as I was taking a fall walk and praying. I was thanking God for the beauty of His creation, the changes of the seasons, the harvesting of crops… all the things I saw around me: the way the breeze came up, the smells of the ditch flowers, the sounds of birds and rustling leaves.
I was telling God not only how wonderful and beautiful it all was but how amazing it was the way all the diversity of nature was so intricately connected, the way it all worked in such incredible harmony. “And You brought this all into being by Your Word and will alone without even…”
Have you ever been surprised by your own thoughts? That is, when the words came out of your mouth or off your pen have you have just then realized the truth of what you said or wrote; the act of writing or speaking did more than express your thoughts, it actually seemed to create them as you spoke or wrote?
William Makepeace Thackeray once wrote that “There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up a pen to write.” I would include almost any form of art in that, and I would also include prayerful contemplation.
As I was praying that final line, when I got to ‘even’ my voice slowed down, and I listened in delighted surprise as I finished my sentence: “…without even a single frame of reference.” Then I said it again, excitedly: “And You brought this all into being by Your Word and will alone without even a single frame of reference.”
Now, maybe this is a commonplace idea, but it had never occurred to me before. Everything, and I mean every single thing, that human beings have ever created has been the product or amalgamation of what was already created. We know this as children when we give God credit for all we have. A child may say to her parents, “But God didn’t make this house, people did,” and the parents reply: “But God made the trees. He made the metal. He made all the things that people used to build the house.”
But, it applies to the Arts as well. Not one writer or filmmaker or artists or musician ever created something without a frame of reference, without combining what was already here. In fantasy, the griffin, the sphinx, and the dragon are all parts and pieces of other animals.
Forget for the moment that you could not actually create something from nothing because you don’t have the power, but try to imagine creating something even as simple as a daisy without ever having seen one. Try to imagine just imagining something if there was nothing, let alone imagining it and then creating it.
Imagination is hard work, maybe one of the hardest mental obligations we have, but it is an obligation. We can not practice Jesus’ commands without it. How can we do unto others as we would have them do unto us unless we can imagine ourselves in their place? But more than that: “Imagination is the faculty of the mind that God has given us to make the communication of his beauty beautiful.” (John Piper)
Imagination is like a muscle that must be exercised. Far too often we let others do our imagining for us. There’s nothing inherently wrong with technology, but sometimes it makes us mentally lazy. The imagination suffers when we passively and uncritically absorb words and images and sounds.
I think it’s especially hard for adults, so I’d like to share with you a mental exercise that I imagined one day listening to a favorite song of mine. Kenny Loggins wrote a song titled “Return to Pooh Corner” about how as we age we wander much farther away than we should and “can’t seem to make [our] way back to the [hundred acres] woods.”
The second verse goes:
Winnie the Pooh doesn’t know what to do
Got a honey jar stuck on his nose
He came to me asking help and advice
And from here no one knows where he goes
So I sent him to ask of the Owl if he’s there
How to loosen a jar from the nose of a bear
So try this, I do. The next time you’re stressed out, frustrated, caught in the grind, and can’t seem to find your way back to the woods, stop what you’re doing, take a deep breath and try to imagine “how to loosen a jar from the nose of a bear.” And there it is! You just smiled, didn’t you?
So, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get “back to the house at Pooh Corner by one. You’d be surprised there’s so much to be done. Count all the bees in the hive; chase all the clouds from the sky…”
And when I arrive I’ll give thanks and praise to the God who imagined imagination itself, and I’ll remember that Loggins couldn’t have sung about Pooh if Milne hadn’t first imagined and created him , but that Milne couldn’t have created an imaginary bear named Pooh if my awesome God hadn’t first imagined and created a real bear.