Lectionary resources for worship, faith formation, and service
Excerpt from “Nurting an Imaginative, Inquiring Spirit” from Faith Forward: Children, Youth, and a New Kind of Christianity (2013), eds. David M. Csinos & Melvin Bray. 119.
We live in exciting times, times that are variously described as postmodern, postcolonial, post-Christendom, peri-emergent, liminal, and transitional. This is a restless time of radical change of all kinds – cultural, political, social, spiritual, environmental. Inundated with information about global climate change, environmental catastrophes, and economic crises, people are looking to build a better world – from the grassroots up. New ways of being in the world, in community, with each other, and with the environment are emerging. Within the Christian faith, where there are concerns for diminishing numbers and the relevancy of faith and church for new generations, we are motivated by an emerging vision that embraces search and meaning rather than certainty; questions rather than answers.
“There is a new story emerging in consciousness, one that evokes awe, wonder, and reverence as it expands our notion of God.”1 The power of imagination to take us to this place of awe, wonder, and reverence is captured beautifully by a young child in the opening scene of Gratitude, a short film by Louie Schwartzberg.
When I watch TV, it’s just some show that you just…pretend. But when you explore, you get more imagination than you already had, and when you get more imagination, it makes you want to go deeper in so you can get more and see beautifuller things. Like…if it’s a path it could lead you to a beach or something, and it could be beautiful.2
Imagination, not passive engagement, opens the world to this young girl, takes her deeper into it, and leads her to things not yet discovered. How might imagination in children be awakened, nurtured, and nourished so they “enter imaginatively into scripture, experiencing the message that transcends the printed words ”?3
The human imagination is awakened, nurtured, and nourished in many ways: when we play and explore; when we practice hospitality, stillness and silence, care and compassion; when we observe or participate in the arts (literature, music, visual art, dance, drama); and when we enter imaginatively into scripture, experiencing the message that transcends the printed words”?3
The human imagination is awakened, nurtured, and nourished in many ways: when we play and explore; when we practice hospitality, stillness and silence, care and compassion; when we observe or participate in the arts (literature, music, visual art, dance, drama); and when we enter the world of the story and the world view of the storyteller. While much can be said about any of these ways, I set my gaze on how we might nurture the imagination of young people by breathing new life into familiar stories. As we consider the power of imagination and story to build and liberate, or destroy and oppress, we are reminded that words, images, didactic teaching, and closed answers can stifle, diminish, shut down, and impoverish imaginative, inquiring spirits and bring harm rather than life and good news. When we learn to use our imaginations, we experience new life in the old stories of our faith.
When did a story provoke your enquiry, engage your senses, stir your imagination, take you deeper into something “beautifuller”? What made it so? When was enquiry suppressed, senses dulled, imagination wounded, paralyzed, or diminished? What made it so?
I was once asked to exegete Mark 7:24–30 and Matthew 15:21–28, which tell the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman. My first reaction to this request reminded me how this story had impacted my childhood emotions; how it had shut down, silenced, and diminished my imaginative, inquiring spirit.
When I was a child, I did not like the story and I did not want to spend time with it. My life experience of being on the receiving end of name-calling shaped how I imagined this story. To me, calling the woman a dog made Jesus seem mean and uncaring. How different my first experience of this story would have been if the questions and wonderings it raised in me were welcomed, and if I had been encouraged to focus not only on Jesus, but also on the woman and her actions and words, her power and tenacity. Instead I had been boxed in by barriers and boundaries set by poor attempts at didactic teaching, teaching that had distilled everything down to one meaning, providing an answer, and closing the text to the imagination. We all enter story from the known – our life experience – and it takes skill, care, and understanding to help us move into the unknown, uncover new truths, and recognize how our own life experiences/stories intersect and connect with the stories of our faith.
It is crucial that those of us who seek to nurture young imaginations frame our questions so they don’t suggest there is a right or wrong answer. Questions or wondering that might be offered for the story of the Syrophonecian woman might include: What surprised you about that story? I wonder why Jesus changed his mind? I wonder what gave the woman such power to speak? I wonder what the woman’s expression was? I wonder how she sounded? I wonder what the disciples said to Jesus after the woman left? What do you think the disciples learned that day? I wonder what Jesus learned? I wonder what the woman said to her friends, to her daughter? I wonder what the daughter said and thought? Without encouragement to wander around the story, to wonder, to pull back the layers and look, children can be led on a straight, narrow, and soul-stifling path. But stories are not straight and narrow paths.
A story is like a labyrinth into which we step and move at whatever pace we choose; listening, wondering, questioning, reflecting, circling back and then forward as we discover new truths. We reach the centre, wait, and find meaning for ourselves in a particular time and place. As we travel back to engage in the world, we find praxis changes as well, influenced by our engagement with the story. The story becomes our own, and we live it. But the story does not remain the same, for we will enter the labyrinth again and the story will speak to us in new ways. Like ripples of water, a story is not contained. Drop a pebble into water and ripples move out and out and out. There are circles within a circle, stories within a story.
Jewish tradition says that the Torah is written “black fire on white fire.” The black fire refers to the words, the writing; the white fire refers to the space, the gaps between the words, what is not written. Some say that what the writer does not say matters more than what is written. Words are limited and fixed; they might be dissected, discussed, highlighted, defined. But others believe that an “aha moment” is more likely to come when what is between the words – what is in the spaces and silences- is questioned and imagined. 4 In these moments, the fires give heat and light, warming the spirit and illuminating the imagination.
The Bible is full of characters who seem to exist within the gaps of the written word. They want and need a voice. They want to be embodied and liberated. They want their stories told.
Three more parts to follow (Monday, March 21st, Monday, March 28th & Monday, April 4th)
Susan Burt is Managing Editor of Seasons of the Spirit, an international, ecumenical, and lectionary-based Christian education and worship resource. She has served as the Australian editor of The Whole People of God and has worked in children’s ministry for the Uniting Church in Australia. Susan lives in Adelaide, South Australia, where she is a member of the Christ Church Uniting Church, a theologically progressive community that seeks to celebrate the best of the old with the possibility of the new.
Footnotes 1 Michael Morwood, Praying a New Story (Melbourne: Spectrum, 2003), 6.
2From a 2011 TED talk, available at http://www.ted.com/talks/louie_schwartzberg_nature_beauty_gratitude.html.
3 Seasons of the Spirit, “Theological and Education Foundation: The Vision of Seasons of the Spirit,” http://www.seasonsonline.ca/files/TEF-paper.pdf, accessed May 26,2013.
4 Avi Weiss, “Shabbat Forshpeis: A Taste of Torah in Honor of Shabbat,” http://www.hir.org/a_weekly_gallery/8.16.02-weekly.html, accessed May 26, 2013.