Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Worship and Imagination
distributed 3/15/13 - ©2013

Through Lent this year, Eco-Justice Notes will be exploring several qualities of worship that is richly ecological and transformational.

The qualities of worship that I've outlined in the last few weeks may not seem very appealing. Why make the trip to church on Sunday morning if it is all about lament and confession? Where's the joy and celebration in that?

Indeed, if worship stalls at those necessary but painful stages, then we've missed the point. The next step in the process -- imagination -- is where we discover, explore and appropriate the good news that is central to the Christian faith.

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The imagination that we need to infuse and energize worship is very specifically theological. This imagination fills out the promise that we can be different -- individually, in community, and as a society. That possibility of transformational change provides the hope which is a joyful contrast to our lament and confession about how things are now.

The richness of theological imagination is not being brought into play when we lift up fairly conventional good news. Helpful changes in technology are good, but higher fuel economy standards for cars and more power from renewable sources just skim the surface of real imagination. Behavior changes are helpful and necessary, but biking to work and recycling don't begin to describe the transformative promise of faith.

At the very core of the Christian faith is the proclamation that we can be transformed, that we can be made new. By God's grace, we can turn from the sin that we confess and live by a completely different set of values and priorities. The realm of God upends the principles and incentives that now dominate us. God's shalom of peace and right relationship provides the vision of a world that is socially and ecologically restored.

The power of imagination allows us to believe, not just that we can do a few things differently, but that we can tell a new story about who we are. The promise of the gospel is not that we can be better consumers, it is that we can stop seeing ourselves primarily as consumers in the first place. Transformation lets us shift from a fixation on ourselves as individuals, and adopt a new identity where we are members of God's Earth community, living in relationship with all creatures now, and far into the future.

Worship that simply reminds us to do the basics of environmental responsibility, or to push the boundaries a bit with some political advocacy, is not providing the transformational imagination that we need in this time of great crisis. The hope and promise that we lift up in worship must be adequate to the despair and wrong that surround us. When we gather to praise the God who makes all things new, we need to be bold in imagining what that newness involves. We must imagine real transformation, personally and of our cultures.

About a month ago, Canadian Mennonite University held what appears to have been a marvelous symposium titled "Worship+Imagination". The introduction on their website shows the necessity of connecting these two themes:

For Christians, it's only by means of imagination that we can see reality whole, complete; that we can see the shalom imagined by God. Otherwise we are left only with fragments and brokenness. ... In worship, imagination ushers us into wonder and praise and into the mysteries of God. Worship as an act of imagination enables us to make connections ... Worship helps us to imagine the whole amidst the brokenness. Like Jesus did. Through worship we rediscover our lives, our world, and the whole of creation as God's imaginative work.

Josh Anway made a similar assertion at Seattle Pacific Seminary. "I think that when we worship we are entering into a vast landscape of imagination, and it is the most powerful engine of our transformation." He continued:

to orient our desires in the right direction, we place the vibrant power of our imagination in line with what God has promised us as real, over and over again ... One of the reasons imagination is so powerful is that it allows us to hold the tension of the already and the not yet in one place. What we imagine becomes real to us, and gradually shapes the way we live. And worship is one of the ways that we nurture that imagination.

The phrase "another world is possible" is a powerful affirmation of imagination. The phrase has informed the Occupy movement, it has been the slogan of the annual World Social Forum, and it has long been used by the Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ. It announces a transformational imagination that resonates both within the church and outside it.

Blogger Matt Wiebe wrote, "The type of imagination that the Gospel should engender within us is that another world is possible, and we should be trying much harder to cultivate that imagination." John Allen wrote, "Paul exhorts us to understand that, as Children of God, we have been torn from slavish adherence to common discourse and given the capacity to imagine that other worlds are possible."

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Our theological imagination, if it is to be helpful in calling us toward faithful transformation, must be vivid and specific. The way we celebrate the realm of shalom has to go beyond vague platitudes, but theological imagination is very different from a policy statement. As Walter Brueggemann has described the prophetic imagination, "We need to ask not whether it is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is imaginable."

Can we imagine that a society living in justice and peace is actually good news? The delightful description of God's shalom provided in Zechariah 8 opens our ability to envision such a thing with some enticing detail.

Can we imagine -- as we align ourselves with God's purposes -- that it is possible to slash our culture's use of fossil fuels by 80% or more? I don't expect pastors and educators to delve into the technical details of energy policies, but church programs can invite us to image how our personal and collective lives might be different and more faithful in the presence of such dramatic change.

Can we imagine the theological promise that the good life is found in community and relationship, and not in a chasing after more and better things? Can we imagine that there is real joy in profoundly simplifying our lives so that God's creation can thrive?

This type of creative thinking can be cultivated. In a Notes several years ago, I outlined some specific and practical ways to stimulate our imagination. Included in that list is the need to draw on the vivid, challenging and transformational imagination that flows through scripture. The Bible excels in describing both the troubles of the world and the hope for the different world that is God's reality.

N.T. Wright said, "The Bible helps us, enables us, to understand, to re-appropriate, to celebrate the role of the imagination as part of our redeemed, renewed, image-bearing humanness. You need imagination to live in God's world. The Christian church has often been bad at encouraging imagination."

If our worship is to be faithful and relevant in this time of great crisis, if we are to honestly and fully open ourselves to the transformative love and grace of God, then our worship must be filled with imagination. In this world that drives us to lament and confession, our worship will be filled with hope and joy when we begin to imagine how to claim dramatically new identities for ourselves and our culture.

Without imagination, our worship stalls in grief and hopelessness. With imagination, worship draws us into new identities and new ways of living in relationship.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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