What if . . . ?

The haunting tones of the opening credits captivated me as a fleeting reference to a big screen masterpiece with very similar themes flashed in my head. The Man in the High Castle’s producers chose to use an eerie, breathy rendition of Edelweiss to remind us, the viewers, of another story where the Third Reich lost a war. However, not so in this series. Set in 1962, The Man in the High Castle asks the question (and poses a highly credible answer to the same): What if America and its allies lost the Second World War?

Imagine a division of theHighCastle United States into west coast Japanese Pacific States and east coast Nazi-controlled Greater Third Reich. Hitler is still in command. Americans have lost most of their freedoms. The dreaded thought of another H-bomb being dropped (in addition to the war-ending wipe out of Washington D.C.) hangs over everyone’s head. What’s more is that the first adults who have known nothing but occupation are now making their way into the world.

The metaphor isn’t lost on me; many have asked the same kind of questions in recent days.

But this has always been a very present theme in almost every story, movie, play and piece of music since very early days.

What if? sparks the imagination of a young Dorothy caught in a dull black-and-white rural Kansas farm, and she wakes up in Oz.

What if? drives a chained Nelson Mandela to dream of a better South Africa.

What if? is the motivating force of every great scientist who has ever tirelessly flogged themselves to find a way, a cure, an answer or a technological revolution.

Every dream of ours is a What if? question.

Every hope for the future is a What if? question.

Every prayer we pray is a What if? question.

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More often than not, however, is the other–negative–side of the question: “What if that event hadn’t happened?” “What if I didn’t say that?” “What if I did this instead of that?”

We long for someone to invent a magical DeLorean time machine to take us back in time so we can undo our past mistakes.

There are so many self-help books on specifically this topic that they could fill up any town library. TV Shows abound. YouTube is filled with a well-rehearsed crowd of people offering their wisdom on this topic.

But whatever well-meaning help is given, the past remains untouchable. It is gone. That moment will never come again. No hi-tech time-travelling car will appear to whisk me off to where I can reset my clock or rewrite a few days of upheaval.

I find, though, in an often-used, simple toss-away line, the most helpful words I can find to get me through any past-pity-party: “When you knew better, you did better.” We all have mistakes we would rather change to moments of glory. Given the same circumstances, with the same understanding–not having the advantage of hindsight–we would most likely do the same things, given the chance.

The same holds true for those who offended us, abused us, or shamed us. While some choose willingly to continue a life of hurting others, most folks, when they come to a higher level of thinking or a greater understanding of our inter-relatedness and the forces that work within us, tend to do better than in their previous ignorant state. There are times when I too come to a higher level of thinking, when I see from a new perspective that something I had suffered at the hands of another was done to me not out of malice, but out of whatever understanding that person possessed at the time. This doesn’t lessen the pain of what happened, but it does help with the healing.

Sometimes it takes a trained therapist or a qualified professional to help us work through past traumas. By all means, make that appointment, talk things through, seek help in dealing with your personal pain and in building your own emotional wellbeing. That call may be the most important first step you can ever take.*

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It is, I believe, a necessary exercise to ask ourselves the What if? questions. Often this refocuses our perspective and enlightens us to ways we can avoid repeating the same mistakes–or repeating, as a nation, the great mistakes of history.

In the case of The Man in the High Castle, we weave our prayers through the story line–prayers that we may never experience such diabolical authoritarianism in our lifetime, nor leave such a legacy to our children and their children.  Sometimes we need stories like this to help us strengthen our resolve to be the kind of people who have embedded in them the noble character traits of those who stand up for what is true, right and just.

Our imagination is an amazing (and undervalued) tool, but we must now, more than ever before, harness its power to tell better stories, dream bigger dreams and have the courage to let these transform us into the better people we need to be.

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* In Australia, Lifeline Crisis Support 13 11 14, or Beyond Blue http://www.beyondblue.org.au are both great places to start. There are also numerous qualified counsellors, psychologists and mental health professionals available. Check your local Yellow Pages for listings of those who are members of and recommended by registered professional associations.

 

The Book of Mormon, Salt Lake City, Heaven & Imagination

I have a confession to make.

I am a Book of Mormon junkie.

No, no no! Not THAT Book of Mormon. Not at all!

I’m a huge fan of the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon.

Yes, I know it is quite crude–it’s got lots of bad language, inappropriate references to God, seedy plot lines, and goes too far sometimes (just like its cousin South Park). But I love the idea of the story: two young Mormon missionaries are sent to Uganda for their Mormon evangelistic ‘mission’ and are intent on making a difference in the village in which they find themselves. What follows is a comedy of epic proportions as they misunderstand the villagers and the villagers fall for their ’embellished’ story of the American prophet (complete with Brigham Young’s nose being turned into a female anatomical part by a God who also cured Joseph Smith’s AIDS).

But what I love the most is the way the writers have so cleverly sent up a religious system and its eccentricities. From the Opening number ‘Hello’ which introduces the missionaries to the approved doorstep dialogue to the positive, forward-looking ‘Tomorrow is a Latter Day,’ I laugh (until I cry, maybe) at the way strange Mormon beliefs are woven into common, stereotypical Christian creed (Speaking of creed, have a look at the performance of ‘I Believe’ from this year’s Tony Awards here. This is The Book of Mormon’s equivalent to The Sound of Music’s ‘I Have Confidence.’ Even the phrasing is the same. Language warning.)

Here’s one of my favourite parts: the song Sal Tlay Ka Siti (read: ‘Salt Lake City’)

My mama once told me of a place
With waterfalls and unicorns flying
Where there was no suffering, no pain
Where there was laughter instead of dying
I always thought she’d made it up
To comfort me in times of pain
But now I know that place is real
Now I know its name

Sal Tlay Ka Siti
Not just a story mama told
But a village in Ooh-Tah
Where the roofs are thatched with gold
If I could let myself believe
I know just where I’d be
Right on the next bus to paradise
Sal Tlay Ka Siti

I can imagine what it must be like
This perfect, happy place
I’ll bet the goat-meat there is plentiful
And they have vitamin injections by the case
The war-lords there are friendly
They help you cross the street
And there’s a Red Cross on every corner
With all the flour you can eat!

Sal Tlay Ka Siti
The most perfect place on Earth
Where flies don’t bite your eyeballs
And human life has worth
It isn’t a place of fairytales
It’s as real as it can be
A land where evil doesn’t exist
Sal Tlay Ka Siti

And I’ll bet the people are open-minded
And don’t care who you’ve been
And all I hope is that when I find it
I’m able to fit in
Will I fit in?

Sal Tlay Ka Siti
A land of hope and joy
And if I want to get there
I just have to follow that white boy
You were right, mama
You didn’t lie
The place is real
And I’m gonna fly!
I’m on way

Soon life won’t be so shitty
Now salvation has a name
Sal Tlay Ka Siti

How misguided! How totally misinformed, naive, ignorant . . . trusting.

I want to grab her and give her a good shake and tell her ‘That’s not real. They’re having you on.’ Oh, it’s just a play. (Ahem…) Moving on…

Yet . . . how many times have I (and possibly you too?) heard the same sort of talk?

Not about Salt Lake City. No. Another ‘city’—or at least another place which has entered the imagination of many as being a city.

Streets of gold.

Gates of pearl.

Mansions.

Paradise.

Home of the tree of life.

Nothing made by humans contained therein.

Angels.

White robes.

Bejewelled crowns.

Choirs singing.

No pain, sadness, death.

Unicorns.

(OK. I haven’t actually heard that last one . . .)

How much is real? How much is interpretation of the little we think is in the Bible? How much is fiction?

Are we like the natives in The Book of Mormon (I’m still talking about the musical) who have envisioned paradise from the context of their own experience: unlimited goat meat and vitamin shots, friendly war-lords, and a ever-present Red Cross with plenty of flour for everyone? Is what we imagine paradise to be simply an extension of our own human experience? This is possible, else how could we comprehend it without some point of reference?

I think the afterlife must be something far better, far beyond our grandest imagination, so fully not-of-this-world that we cannot even imagine such a place. I won’t know this with any certainty in this life because I can’t talk to someone who has been there. There are no eyewitnesses. (And don’t start with St John because I haven’t got the time to go through the historical context and Jewish apocalyptic nature of The Revelation.)

Truth is, we all want to believe that there is some utopian paradise, a place like Sal Tlay Ka Siti. We all wish to be in a place of joy, peace and prosperity. And we have a name for that: heaven. And there is nothing wrong with that.

But perhaps we should be less dogmatic about the picture we paint for ourselves and more at rest in the knowledge that God has promised to be with us now and into eternity–and that is enough. We do not know with any certainty what form eternity in God will take. But we trust.

And whatever it is, it surely will be better than Sal Tlay Ka Siti.

Meanderings . . . Imagination, Relevance, Nonviolence & Lemonade

Jana Riess on Religion News Service posted (a few months back now) an interview with Eugene Peterson in which she asked this question:

You’ve written often about the importance of storytelling, even to the point of suggesting that first-year divinity students should read a diet entirely of fiction — Flannery O’Connor, the Russian novelists, Faulkner. Wonderful idea. How are people transformed by fiction?

“I think that their imaginations are transformed. When you’re reading a novel, you’re following a plot and character development. The best writers leave a lot to your imagination. The task of a writer is to get participation from the reader, and you can’t do that by telling them everything. The Bible is that kind of literature. There’s very little explanation—almost no explanation, no definitions. And the writers of Scripture were also, as they were telling these stories, aware of all the other voices that were in the air—Moses, Isaiah, Daniel, Jesus, Paul.

“Our school curriculum teaches you how to study. You learn facts. But they don’t do much to help you read in an imaginative way to help you enter the story. That’s what novelists do. So I think a basic immersion in fiction is almost a prerequisite to reading the Bible, to preaching sermons, to teaching classes. Poetry does the same thing, but it takes a different route to do it.” (Read the full interview here.)

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“The unfaithful witness is the one who simply transmits the conventional and familiar, unchanged and undigested.  He is unfaithful, in the first place, because he is lazy.  For the labor of interpretation and contemporization, the work of ‘translation,’ is grueling work and it is never done without abortive trials and breath-taking risks. . . . He who simply repeats the old phrases takes no risks; it is easy to remain orthodox and hew to the old line.  But he who speaks to this hour’s need and translates the message will always be skirting the edge of heresy. He, however, is the man who is given this promise (and I really believe this promise exists): Only he who risks heresies can gain the truth.” (Helmut Thielicke, inThe Trouble with the Church).

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I’m told that the word “nonviolence” did not exist (at least in the English and German languages) until the 1950s. There’s a reason for that: the notion didn’t exist in our consciousness. We didn’t create a word for it because we didn’t get it yet! When Gandhi came along, he pointed out that every religion in the world knows that Jesus of Nazareth taught and lived nonviolence except one religion—Christianity. In very short order, after Gandhi, this became obvious to many wise people throughout the world.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was the one who most influenced our American culture regarding nonviolence. That’s why I speak of it as a recovery of nonviolence. We had it, but we couldn’t hear it, especially after Christianity became the imperial religion. When you’re imperial, you can’t hear any talk of nonviolence. You have to be violent to be an empire. So after 313 AD, we pretty much lost the nonviolent teaching of Jesus and it was not recovered until the twentieth century. It’s sort of unbelievable, but in between, nonviolence was almost universally forgotten, denied, or ignored as Christianity needed to justify its own violence. (Richard Rohr, from CAC daily email)

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In an age of information overload, when a vast variety of media delivers news faster than most of us can digest – when many of us have at least two email addresses, two telephone numbers, and one fax number – the last thing any of us need is more information about God. We need the practice of incarnation, by which God saves the lives of those whose intellectual assent has turned as dry as dust, who have run  frighteningly low on the bread of life, who are dying to know more God in their  bodies. Not more about God. More God. – Barbara Brown Taylor:

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Lemonade

A Reflection by Donna Schaper

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him.” (Colossians 1:15-16)

Many of the best stories are stories of origin.  The best conversation-starter is how did you meet?  When did you meet?  How do you know each other?  The second best is how some kind of problem turned into some kind of opportunity.  People love reversal stories.  The letter to the people at Colosse is very much one of origin and of reversal.  The invisible, original God became visible and present in the now.

I love the way some English-speaking people have funny language for things.  Like the way a thrift shop in Australia is either an opportunity shop or a reject shop, depending on your social location.  Or the way a car that we call a lemon is called a “defect” car in Britain.  A pastor tells me that someone parked a “defect” in front of his church outside London.  Because such parking is illegal and the owner of the abandoned car was being fined every day – adding poverty to poverty upon poverty – the pastor decided to push the car into the church parking lot.  A few days later, another defect showed up, followed by a third and fourth.  Clearly things were getting out of hand.  That’s when one of the laymen decided it was time to start a microbusiness at the church.  The business was fixing up cars.  The church made money, people got their wheels back and everybody knew they had turned a lemon into lemonade.

Sometimes I think this is why the invisible God became visible.  To remove the defect in our eye.  To show us a glimpse of how wonderful life could be, even after the parking tickets arrive. (from UCC’s StillSpeaking)

Back to the Future?

Wow! What creativity flows from some people! I am impressed by the olde worlde charm of one Datamancer who re-creates the old-fashioned timeless look with state-of-the-art computer components.

‘Steampunk’ laptop computer (Genuine HP internals)

Not that I’m an antique buff or love the “retro” (if by that you mean the 1890s) look, but I would love to have one of these. This is not to say I reject my iPad and my Acer Notebook. It just seems more ‘special’ to have the stamp of history on something. Perhaps it makes it look more solid, permanent, timeless, long-lasting. Regardless, I don’t think I’ll be getting a Steampunk anytime in the near future (unless the ‘Lotto gods’ smile on me?), but it doesn’t hurt to dream.

The ‘Clacker’

For those of you who don’t like the laptop feel, maybe you can go for the full desktop treatment. The ‘Clacker’ is a prototype, but pre-orders are being taken, so get in quick because with such post-contemporary styling, they’re bound to be snapped up!

The Power of Imagination

I blame my dad for my enjoyment of classical music. When I turned 11, he gave me a record player (Hi-Fi Stereo at that!) With this remarkable piece of equipment, I received 2 records: Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Beethoven’s 6th Symphony.

Symphony No. 6 is also called the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony because of the imagery of a village, shepherds, streams, storms, and country celebrations that inspired its creation. Dad shared this with me and, when we listened to this record together for the first time, he pointed out the various movements and where in this piece I could ‘see’ the beautiful scenes of German pastoral life. I tell you, the music came alive for me. To this day I still prefer music that is based on a drama, a picture, or a work of literature.

‘Seeing’ makes all the difference. This is perhaps why our church songwriters have drawn upon their imaginations extensively, using phraseology that opens up for us vistas of glory we otherwise may have never visited. And this is simply a continuation of the Hebrew psalmist, whose pictures of God as a hiding place, a shelter, a strong tower.

Greg Boyd in his enlightening book Seeing is Believing writes about the power of the imagination particularly in our relationship with Jesus. He encourages us to picture in our minds not only what or who we are praying about, but the scene in which we are meeting with God (Jesus)–it may be a quiet forest, a seashore, or a mountainside. In doing this, we follow the examples of the mystics of old and those who followed in their wake.

Origen, who argued that we are transformed according to that on which we fix our minds.

St Theresa of Avila who saw it fitting that we should envision Jesus in his humanity in order to anchor our prayers in reality.

St Frances de Sales who wrote how our minds do not focus well on abstractions, but need concrete images of what and who we are praying.

And the list goes on: John of Damascus, Gregory of Nyssa, St Ignatius, Charles Finney, Alexander Whyte, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley and A.W. Tozer to name a few.

This is called cataphatic prayer and its essence is this: we become what we see.

And this isn’t something that is best left to our prayer life alone, but energises our worship, our Bible reading and our meditation. Boyd writes about an experience he calls ‘resting in Christ’ which is a form of prayer that is centered in imaginative stillness. In explaining this, he quotes Morton Kelsey:

‘Several times a week I simply stop and wait before Him [Christ], sometimes picturing Him at the time of resurrection, rising victorious from the tomb, or perhaps knocking at the door of my soul. . . . Of all the processes of imagination which have helped me, none has offered half as much value as this approach to Christ. . . . It is out of these encounters that most of my growth in understanding and personality have come. . . . Out of this sense of sharing as well as being cared for, I find encouragement to keep on trying to grow and become what he wants me to become.’ (p.103)

I haven’t the time or space to go into details (I recommend you read the book), but Boyd shares his experience of ‘resting in Christ’ (his term for this type of meditation) as having four key elements:

  • It elevetaes Being over Doing. We experience worth not because we are doing something for God, but simply in being who we are, and realising God’s acceptance of our being.
  • It is not the time for work. In fact it is doing nothing before God.
  • It requires that we cease from pretense and be totally honest with ourselves and God.
  • Lastly, it requires faith in God’s grace. In believing in his total forgiveness, love and acceptance of us-wherever we may now happen to be in our journey–we are empowered and motivated to overcome our failures and sins.

I have used this kind of imaginative prayer and find it is truly energising and empowering. It adds to my spiritual journey a sense of reality and groundedness. Perhaps this is because I am ‘wired’ to enjoy the use of imagination and need to use mental pictures to focus and grow. Perhaps the ancients are on the right track and we all need to see with the ‘eyes of our understanding,’ and in doing so may experience Jesus in fresh, new ways.