Taking Time to Look

For two weeks on this program, I have been talking about the imagination--that distinctly human faculty that makes time and space travelers out of all of us-and its role in making us more humane. For until we imagine what it is like, what it is really like to be the other person, we cannot love them wisely or well.

The imagination is a fantastic thing. It can take us anywhere, like mental stowaways, or what the airline industry calls "un-ticketed travelers," without having to leave the spot we are standing on. Long before there was something called cyberspace, the imagination could log us on to any address in the universe-across the street or across the galaxy.

I began the series by saying that the essential premise of the gospel is that when we are born we are locked into a prison of sorts, a prison of self, and that the empathic imagination is the key that can unlock the door and set us free. In fact, the same premise is assumed in the words of Jesus when he says, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free."

This assumes that most human problems result from our failure to embrace what we "cannot imagine," or what may seem impossible. We might all be well advised to recover some of the child-like quality that Lewis Carroll recommends in his classic, "Through the Looking Glass." In it, the White Queen advises Alice to practice believing six impossible things before breakfast.

Lucky for us, the Bible was written before television, especially before reality TV, when people still paid a lot of attention to their dreams, and to what they imagined that these visions meant.

Jacob, for example, was a real go-getter, who stole a blessing from his blind father that was meant for his brother Esau, and then ran off to conquer the world. He does quite nicely and becomes fabulously rich. The only problem is, he isn't happy because all is not well with his soul. One night, just before he has to see his brother again for the first time in 20 years, he has a vision in which he is wrestling with an angel, and then at a place called Bethel, he sees a ladder set down to earth on which the angels of heaven were climbing up and down.

You may have noticed in your study of the Hebrew Scriptures that prophets are always seeing things that connect heaven and earth: ladders, spinning wheels, winged creatures speeding back and forth. But I think the imagination can be understood no other way-it's the essential link between what is and what might be, what is beyond ordinary sight, what the heart yearns for because only the heart can see it.

Every semester, I remind my students that E. M. Forester's life motto was only two words long: Only connect. It's the reason that I require a journal in so many of my classes, to see if students can connect the class to their everyday lives, or if we are dealing only in short-term memory exercises in the service of soon-to-be-forgotten examinations.

Just because we have new words to describe things does not mean that there is anything new under the sun. "Multitasking"-Mothers have been doing that since the dawn of time. "Networking"-God's been doing that since the first reluctant prophet heard the voice of the Divine telling him that the Creator and the created must form an everlasting covenant to survive.

Icons-they're not new. Downloading and uplinking-God's been doing that ever since She created this worldwide web of a universe.

The unity of all things is the essential message of all the mystics who have ever lived. But we often forget that to see these things, we have to slow down, lie on a blanket under a blanket of summer stars and say nothing, or smell the top of a newborn baby's head to know that everything is connected.

So this morning I want to add a final recommendation for developing the empathic imagination: You've got to make time for it. It takes time, like all good things. If you are incredibly busy, then chances are, you will only see what is, not what might be.
So by all means, if you want to avoid anything and everything that is good for your soul, then stay so busy that at the end of the day, all you have time to do is fall into bed exhausted--thinking you have been a very good boy or a very good girl because of all that you accomplished.

Sometimes I think people "keep moving" in order not to be "moved in on." If they slowed down for just a moment, they might start asking themselves some very important questions about what their life is all about, anyway. They might even start imagining a different one. Remember the ancient advice from the Hebrews about the beginning of all spirituality: Be still, and know that I am God.

Barbara Brown Taylor, my favorite Episcopal priest, put it this way:

"We are all dreamers, but dreamers have fallen upon hard times. . .We belong to a people whose sense of reality is much more limited. We have been schooled in science and philosophy; we have learned to trust what we can handle and prove. We have been taught to think, not to dream, and we have lived long enough to watch many of our dreams die hard. Only saints and children still believe their dreams will come true. The rest of us are adults who know the difference between fact and fantasy. Our dreams rise to our lips and we tamp them down again, remembering how often we have been disappointed by them, reminding ourselves that there is real work to be done in the real world where dreams cannot bandage a wound or buy a loaf of bread.
"So we give ourselves to that work, many of us finding real satisfaction in it. We put in long hours. We keep good records and produce measurable results: fifteen telephone calls returned, twelve more initiated, eighteen letters written for two new accounts this week; four car pools executed, six loads of laundry done, eight bags of groceries brought in under the food budget. These are facts, not fantasy. You can add them up and write them down and put them under your pillow at night when you limp home from another twelve hour day and fall exhausted into your bed, a refugee of your own wrecked economy."

A few years ago, I built a treehouse for my youngest son, Cass. At least I told myself it was for Cass. The truth is, I think of a treehouse as a great escape, because we're not talking about a platform in a tree, mind you, but a perch, a retreat, a place where you could see the word from a different perspective.

It's fun for the same reason it's fun to be on the roof. Once, not so long ago, my whole family had a meal on top of our roof. It was warm summer night and we thought it sounded like fun. We took all our dishes up there, spread out a blanket, and the neighbors never blinked. We've lived in the same house for 20 years-and the neighbors know we are a bit strange. "Look, honey, the Meyers are eating on their roof again. . .damn liberals!"

But don't you remember that song sung by James Taylor, "Up on the Roof"? He said it was a good place to go if you wanted to forget the cares of the world. As children, you used to watch people from the roof, and they couldn't see you. You didn't have to talk to them. You could even make plans to ambush them.

If you've ever eaten food in a tree house, you know that everything tastes better up there. And if you're really brave, you can spend the night up there, provided you don't walk in your sleep. You can sit for hours and stare at tree bark up close-it looks like very dry skin, rivers of cracking and growing. So this is why birds build their nests up high-look down there at those cats and dogs.

Plus, a few hours spent in a tree house with a child counts for more than a hundred video games. In fact, the secret to spending so-called "quality time" with children turns out to be doing something that the child wants to do, rather than something you want the child to do. Nobody knew that better than the late, great Fred Rogers-Mr. Rogers-he lived in the neighborhood of make-believe-and took the biblical imperative to become as a little child so seriously that he overcame the entire distance between big people and what Jesus called "little ones."

One night I built a small campfire in the backyard and roasted marshmallows with Cass. He was about 9 at the time, and I don't know what it is about fire that triggers something ancient and primal in children. Stories are better when told around a fire, so is the conversation. We poked at the embers, and we imagined that this was all we had to stay warm, and all we had to cook our food. We even talked about fire itself and wondered if we had any idea what makes the flame-the tongues of fire.

Just before we went in, Cass looked at me and said, "Dad, this is greatest night of my life." It was such a spontaneous and unexpected comment that it took me completely by surprise. No road trip to Six Flags, no summer camp, no catered birthday party with paint-ball or laser tag. Just a fire in the backyard, and a chance to imagine things with your dad. It made me think about parenting. All our kids really want from us is more of our time. No more stuff; not more chances to compete and make their parents proud. More time to hang out and do nothing but imagine.

I remember a painful moment from my early childhood in which a teacher lacked imagination and literally walked over my psyche and wiped her feet. I was in the second grade, and I was in love with a girl named Rosemary. At least I thought I was. She said she just wanted to be friends. That was fine with me, as long we could make progress.
I imagined that she would eventually fall in love with me; we would date for about 15 years, and then get married and have lots of kids. She had long blonde hair that flew out away from her head on the merry-go-round and seemed to defy gravity. She didn't walk, she floated. She didn't speak, she sang. She was a vision who inspired visions. So one day I decided that I just had to let her know how I felt about her.

I was a practical child in some ways, so I devised a method to quickly uncover her true feelings for me. Actually, I would simply force them out of her. It was a simple note, which I had devised carefully, and planned to deliver even more carefully. No poetry, no romance. It was, come to think of it, a rather crude little questionnaire. In block letters, it said across the top, DO YOU LOVE ME? And then, underneath, two boxes, one marked YES, the other NO.

It was a kind of simplistic love ballot without much nuance-a kind of precursor to those pollsters who call and say, "If the election were held today. . .

Notice, there was no box marked, JUST WANT TO BE FRIENDS. I didn't find that possibility particularly inspiring, so like the males of the species are wont to do, I called for a thumbs up or a thumbs down. (Guys do this, very early. We set ourselves up for misery.)

I had everything figured out except how to pass the note without getting caught. The teacher intercepted it, then walked to the front of the class with the note in her hand, and said this right out loud: "Robin, shall I read this to the class?"

I remember thinking that time itself stood still. I felt the blood rise in my throat and I felt dizzy. My ears were hot. I could feel the eyes of everyone in the class fixed upon me, which when you're a kid feels like an actual force exerting itself. "Please," I said, "don't read it."

But she did. She unfolded it, and very slowly and very deliberately read it to the class. And they laughed, of course. Everyone laughed-and the sound of my friends laughing was the worse thing I could ever imagine.

I couldn't bring myself to look at Rosemary, but I remember thinking that even the box marked NO would be preferable to this. Why would any teacher do this? I can't imagine. But then, neither could she.
That was the problem. She had all the credentials to teach, I suppose. But she lacked imagination. For there is never a reason never, ever a reason to shame or embarrass a child. When the powerful have the powerless at their mercy, they need to show mercy-or get into some other line of work.

Multiply that incident a million times, and you begin to see how lack of imagination is in fact the precursor to most of the evil in the world. Hearts that never leave home. Souls that never venture out, or climb Jacob's ladder.

Frederick Buechner put it this way:

"Imagining is perhaps as close as humans get to creating something out of nothing the way God is said to. It is a power that to one degree or another everybody has or can develop, like whistling. Like muscles, it can be strengthened through practice and exercise. Keep at it until you can actually hear your grandfather's voice, for instance, or feel the rush of hot air when you open the four hundred and fifty degree oven.
" . . .If you want to know what loving your neighbors is all about, look at them with more than just your eyes. The bag lady settling down for the night on the hot-air grating. The two children chirping like birds in the sandbox. The bride as she walks down the aisle on her father's arm. The old man staring into space in the nursing home TV room. Try to know them for who they are inside their skins. Hear not just the words they speak but the words they do not speak. . .When Jesus said '[Come] all ye that labor and are heavy laden,' he was seeing the rich as well as the poor, the lucky as well as the unlucky, the idle as well as the industrious. He was seeing the bride on her wedding day. He was seeing the old man in front of the TV. He was seeing all of us. The highest work of the imagination is to have eyes like that."

To have eyes like that, indeed. God's eyes. The One who imagined the world, and it was so-and then gave us both eyes and heart to see with. For once you have imagined the kingdom, it never leaves you. Once you have imagined the world reconciled, you cannot keep silent.

That's why some of us preach; we can't help ourselves. And that's why some you listen-to feed your soul, and nourish the imagination of your hearts.
Thanks be to God.

Dear Lord, who imagined the world into being and dreamed that we would all some day be reconciled one to another, open our hearts by giving us the gift of the empathic imagination. Help us not just to look, but to see and help those whose hearts are hardened to see also, Help us not to look away as the death toll rises, while we live by lies instead of by the truth which sets us free. May the scales fall from the eyes of our hearts, and may we begin the long, slow journey toward peace and justice. We have imagined it. And now we cannot be silent. We must not be silent. In Christ's name we pray, Amen.