Excerpt: We shall be as a City upon a Hill . . . we must be knit together in this work as one man.
I just want to feel good, don’t want to hurt nobody. I just want to get a good time out of my life.
Can You Even Imagine?
John Winthrop’s lay sermon on the Puritan flagship bound for America
Alternative rocker Bob Schneider, “Captain Kirk”
We shall be as a City upon a Hill . . . we must be knit together in this work as one man.
I just want to feel good, don’t want to hurt nobody. I just want to get a good time out of my life.
If you could edit together a highlights reel of your imagination— snippets of your fondest dreams—what would it look like? Would it be your own signature version of the American dream, a foundingfather epic vision of building a better life, becoming the “best you” you can be, striving from goal to goal? A Seinfeld/Friends one-day-at-a-timesized series featuring a tight circle of kindred spirits who shrug and smile together at life’s slings and arrows? Some comfortable but slightly more energetic suburban dream in-between? What about when you were younger? How did the imagination of your youth feed the dreams of your future? I’ve never sold tickets, but there’s always been quite a show playing on the screen of my imagination.
The earliest was a dollhouse soap opera where the mother fell down the stairs, and the father fell off the roof, and the baby fell off the balcony, and the pink-dressed little girl jumped off everything to save them so many times that her arm fell off. It made her life so painful and yet ever more heroic, like I wanted to be.
As I grew older, the curtain closed on the dollhouse and opened on Barbie. Somehow the plots always revolved around Barbie needing to change clothes. The more outfits she had, the more elaborate the story. In a clothes-driven plot, the scenes you can play are limited by the outfits you have available. So it took a great deal of shopping and sewing to keep the series on the air.
But the Barbie stories had to alternate showings with my horses. We didn’t own a horse, although my mother offered to buy me a burro. I don’t think she understood the horse movies in my head. A burro could never serve as understudy for the Black Stallion. When I ran out of Walter Farley’s books, I wrote my own. I used my mother’s spoons to dig a maze of tunnels in the island dirt of my backyard so my plastic stallion could hide his mares from the thieving intruders that washed ashore.
I played the organ and guitar, but there was rarely a time when I practiced alone in the living room. I played for audiences of thousands. That’s why scales were a nonstarter. What audience wants to hear scales when they are breathlessly waiting to hear “I Could Have Danced All Night”?
When I was a child, I imagined as a child. When I became a teenager, I put away childish imagination. I shifted from present-tense fantasy play to future-tense reality movies. College . . . marriage . . . home and family—the Beach Boys sang the sound track—“Wouldn’t it be nice?” to be older so we could be married and not have to say goodnight— a refreshing lyric for today’s world. I can remember praying soft little pleading prayers: “Oh, Lord, I love you, but please don’t let Jesus return until I get married.”
And then I was married and surveying the late-basement, early- Holiday Inn decor of our first home with the eyes of budget-busting imagination. I could just see the new wallpaper, new couch, new chairs, new coffee table. Then I had a child and began producing his future-tense movie.
In my professional life the youth leader in me dreamed of being the cool first-year teacher who would attract kids like free pizza. And they came, partying in my room, hanging off the rafters until my new dream was to teach just one orderly, uninterrupted lesson. College faculty, conference speaker, author—the titles I aspired to opened one door after another into sacred circles of which I had dreamed of being a part.
As I sit here in my dark study sipping cherry limeade and watching old reruns of House Beautiful dreams and Barbie fantasies, something wells up in my chest—gratitude! I am astonished at how God has changed my dreams. I have spent all the life I remember as a child of the King. But until the more recent past, the dreams that played in my imagination were not, for the most part, his highest. I see a girl, a teen, a young woman whose imagination was much less enthralled by God and his kingdom than by what C. S. Lewis calls “the evil enchantment of worldliness.” Only it didn’t look evil because it was such a nice Christian variation on the American dream of success.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve known the gospel story. God has always been the foundation of my life. But foundations don’t inspire movies. The plotlines in my head, my dreams, the best of everything I could imagine was downsized by the enchanted voice that whispers, The life you want most is here in this world. The nice family, good job, fun weekends, lovely home, two cars, friends to enjoy it with—it’s all here. Even a nice church.
If God was the foundation of my life, then the unseen reality of God’s kingdom was the wallpaper. Enjoyable. Comforting. Neatly covering the walls of my world, wrapping around me in times of need, but mostly it was just there. Served as a nice background on which to hang the big plasma screen of my imagination. The stories that played on it were more often about making a good life here than building a kingdom. To me they seemed one and the same.
Most of the characters in my movies were Christians. We loved God. But you might not see much of a spark of passion in our eyes or hear an intensity of desire in our voices when we talked about him.
We went to church and Christian camps and conferences. But we did not wake up thinking, Today we have a kingdom to build. Thy kingdom come, Lord, one cup of water at a time, one listening ear at a time, as we pour ourselves into building the one thing that lasts with the trowel and mortar of our gifts.
We enjoyed studying our Bibles, but we did not see our lives as playing a significant part in a continuing story that stretches back to the cross and before that to creation, and sweeps past us to end in the defeat of God’s enemies and our wedding party with the Lover of our souls.
And lost people? Occasionally my dreams and passion would be directed toward rescuing the hurting or deceived. Not too many plots centered on my personal, heart-to-heart involvement with the one listening to the truth I had to offer.
I wonder if what we have here, in my life, in the lives of other sincere Christians, in an age absolutely glutted with powerful images, is a failure of imagination. In a popular passage from “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis wrote: “If we consider the staggering nature of the rewards promised . . . it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea” (emphasis mine).1
And it doesn’t have to be mud pies in the slum, although I’ve made my share. A nice Christian life of playing sensibly in your yard still doesn’t compare to a holiday at the sea. Somehow we can grow up in Christian families and good churches and still find ourselves unable to imagine the beauty, wonder, and splendor of God and his dreams for us.
Our imaginations are starved for Godsight.
Like righteous Job we are wonder challenged.
While we strolled the mall one evening with our friends Leighton and Karen, discussing the latest in Cabela’s camouflage and the meaning of life, Leighton asked me, “Of what did Job repent?”
I thought of Job’s litany of intense loss and physical pain. I remembered how, at the end of Job’s story, God showed him the full measure of his majesty and the glory of his heart poured out in creation, and I recalled Job’s halting, awestruck response: “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.”
Leighton tucked the scene into a neat little phrase: “His wonder was too small.”
Our failure of desire for God and his kingdom naturally flows from a failure of imagination of the splendor and beauty of our rewards, our promised kingdom, and the God who gives them and himself to us as gifts.
Perhaps, like me, you could say you grew up with a passion for God’s truth. In churches with a modern mind-set perhaps we overdosed on TMI—too much information. Strong on the lectures, weak on the missional labs. But perhaps, like mine, your imagination has been so focused on knowing God’s Word and doing his commands that you can miss the glory of his pictures and his story. Your mind processes the information, but it doesn’t stir your passion. You believe things, really believe things in your head. But the reality doesn’t flow out of your heart, and you wonder why your time with God is scattered and pleasant at best, boring at worst.2
You may even find yourself in a place where hope has given way to resignation, the fizz of delight for God and life has faded into a warm, flat glass of duty. You can’t imagine what it would take to get the sparkle back; so you are settling for living small. Perhaps you even find yourself escaping that small place, pouring what you vaguely suspect might be too much energy into good-life dreams, entertainment, and fantasies—the “safe” distractions that stay privately confined to our screens and imagination.
Maybe your imagination has always romped in fields of entertainment and shopping dreams. Perhaps your vision is lasered in on how to make your quota or finish your degree. Or maybe you are focused on relationships and the care of the soul. You dream of being a good friend, good wife, good parent.
No matter what images are playing in your imagination, maybe the shows of family, career, and entertainment have taken over the entire screen, squeezing out the pictures of something bigger and higher that you long to be a part of. You yearn for a larger mission in life, but you get lost in the dailiness of all the mess that work and school and people track into your life.
Perhaps, rather than dreams and dailiness, your imagination is gripped by fears that add terror to terror—the homeland security kind or perhaps the domestic terror of abandonment, the waywardness of a child. Perhaps just the specter of another lonely weekend stalks your quiet moments. You long for a peace and a Presence that deeply comforts.
Brent Curtis and John Eldredge remind us in The Sacred Romance that we need a new way of seeing, that “desire is kept alive by imagination— the antidote to resignation.” If your imagination and desire for God and the kingdom kind of life need an infusion of light and color and passion, then I invite you to Godsight—an opening of the eyes of the heart, a study and an experience of how God can grow our vision, our new way of seeing him and his kingdom.
This book is about how God takes the vision for life we absorb from our families, our group, the American dream, Oprah, Hollywood, and even our modern church programs so focused on Bible study and activities—God takes this vision and begins to refocus our mud-pie imagination to see the glory of his holiday-at-the-sea. Godsight is about how God shows himself to us and exchanges our dreams for his dreams . . .
. . . through the pain he allows,
. . . through the enablement to choose his dreams when everything within us wants our own,
. . . through the people he sends to cast his vision into our lives,
. . . through a renewed mission of taking Jesus to the world,
. . . through seeking him with intensity and finding him face to face,
. . . through a refreshed vision of eternity.
Along the way I offer the story of my own journey—not because I have such an extraordinary tale to tell but because God looks so good in the telling of it. And because the way God has captured my imagination and changed my dreams is a case study deeply true to Scripture of how he shows himself to us . . .
. . . though the emptiness of achieving our small dreams,
. . . through the pain of losing the dreams that he denies,
. . . through the discovery of our highest dreams enfolded within his larger dreams of kingdom mission.
Of course no eyes, including mine, have really seen or fully imagined the wonder of God or the holiday at the sea, but we catch glimpses through the dark glass. In these pages I want to hand you the nightvision goggles and point out more places to look.
We will take a creative look at how the seductive images that surround us shrink-wrap our vision. We’ll turn our imaginations to the infinitely terrible beauty of God on the throne, God on the cross. We are so oblivious to the unseen half of the universe. We need the bigbang and big-burn visions, metaphors, parables, and drama of the prophets to smack our imaginations: “Hey! Snap out of it! What does this mean for you?”
We’ll take a look at our own private field of dreams—our daydreams and fantasies and the hours we spend in front of our screens. We’ll ask the right questions like, What does it matter if the life we enjoy in distraction and fantasy isn’t real? We’ll compare our dreams to what the Bible tells us about both God’s dreams and Satan’s dreams and think about the direction in which our own dreams are moving. We’ll discover some answers from God’s Word together. I’ll share with you some answers I’ve learned on my journey. Others you will find on your own.
Nothing fires our imaginations like a good story because we were made to be a part of one. This book is a deeper imagining of God’s kingdom story, the one that has always been my sure foundation. My fallback position. But what does it really mean to my everyday life? How does an understanding of God’s story connect my heart to his? We’ll see how the setting, characters, plotline, flashbacks, and suspense that God has scripted show us his heart. How that vision can ignite our passion to live our crucial role and free us from living small and distracted. How it can deliver us from the daily taffy pull between what our hearts want over here and what God wants over there, leaving our souls feeling thin and stringy in the middle.
More than an account of my journey, what follows is an invitation to make your own journey . . .
Beyond the goodness of duty
to the richness of desire.
From living small in distraction and resignation,
to living large in God’s kingdom story.
Beyond the beauty of seeking God’s truth so our minds can understand,
to the fullness of seeking his face so our hearts can worship.
From the indulgence of our illusions
to the reformation of our imaginations.
It is an invitation to Godsight.
We collectors of diplomas and degrees tend to exalt the queen of reason and banish imagination and emotion, like unruly stepchildren, to the cellar of our souls. Like C. S. Lewis we may feel the threat of an imagination that “far exceeds (our) obedience.” In Mere Christianity he wrote, “It is not reason that is taking away my faith; on the contrary, my faith is based on reason. It is my imagination and emotions. The battle is between faith and reason on one hand and emotion and imagination on the other.”3
For the longest time I thought Christianity was about turning off the bad pictures and tamping down the negative emotions, bolting them behind the cellar door and doing my duty. God wired me to be more of a thinker than a feeler, and I focused on living, loving, and teaching worldview from the head. But God and life have taught me what that great New England preacher Jonathan Edwards once observed, “The nature of human beings is to be inactive unless influenced by some affection: love, hatred, desire, hope, fear, etc. These affections are the spring of action.” It’s true.
We live from our affections—our desire, our passion.
Our imaginations stir our desires, and our desires make our lives go ’round. They write checks on our bank accounts and entries into our day-timers.
We ignore the power of turning our imagination toward God at our peril.
Every child of God experiences the tension between two warring realms of the imagination: Satan wants us to focus on imaginary fears or our dreams of rising in influence and importance in a material world we can see and touch. God invites us to imagine, with the eyes of our hearts, the reality of his life and kingdom, both now and especially in the future. We don’t need to just turn off the bad pictures.
We need Godsight—a refreshed, renewed, redeemed imagination for our journey.
What I’ve been able to see, I have desired. That vision has touched my heart and moved me to action. If we look through Hebrews 11, we can’t miss the way the living-color vision of people like Abraham and Moses moved them to leave the comforts of the ancient Near East suburbs and palaces to seek a City, to look for their reward. Or perhaps we can miss it if we don’t really take the time to enter their stories in our imaginations . . .
In the heat of the day, Abraham sat at the entrance to his tent listening to the children’s laughter rippling out from his servants’ tents. Sarah heard it too and caught his eye, silent as a stone. Slowly she stood up and paused, giving her worn-out joints time to settle; then she disappeared through the flap behind him. Abraham rose and drifted over the empty ground surrounding his tent. His hips ached, and his forearms, he noticed, were still shrinking beneath his spotted, crinkly hide. He straightened, shaking the dust out of his robe, and stared into the middle distance. Through the shimmering glare he could see the City, gates open. A huge City on massive, multiple foundations. It would have to be great to welcome the millions whom God promised would bear a part of his soul. His eyes settled again upon the vacant lots. But his ears heard the laughter that would crack the emptiness and gush life into their tent.
It was the splash of Isaac’s laughter he remembered years later, as he sweated up the mountain in Moriah. Playing with the servants’ children. Telling stories by the fire. Laughter mixed with awe the night the meteors streaked past the moon.
A few steps ahead, his boy’s bare arms glistened in the heat, the wood for the sacrifice strapped on his back. And if God didn’t break in? His ears strained, listening for a rescue, an alternative to what waited at the top of this rock. Could he plunge his knife into that laughing throat? If he could, would God stop the bleeding? Breathe life back into that body?
Abraham’s gaze glanced off the knife tucked in his belt and reached past the boy’s head to the City. Though distant, it was more real than the look in Isaac’s eyes when he raised his knife.
From the far side of the Nile Moses looked back at the sun setting behind Pharaoh’s palace, backlighting the massive buildings, radiating gold halos from the stone heads of Ra and Osiris. Slaves emerged from the palace and, in a slow, almost choreographed fire dance, worked their way down both sides of the giant staircase, lighting torches that sparkled off the gold trim on the columns and the royal barge tethered below. The rays reached for him, and the breeze brushed his face with the aroma of fine wines and sizzling meats. First a trickle, then a steady stream of Egypt’s finest floated down between the columns to the water’s edge, the women in their gauzy cotton gowns and gold crescent jewelry, his brothers baring their strength and watching the women.
Turning, Moses stared at the huts of the Hebrews squatting on the edge of the wilderness. Caught in the full illumination of the sunset, their mud and straw bricks swallowed the light whole. Not a crumb of glimmer to draw him. For forty years of privilege his complete incuriosity about the people in those huts had been proof that he belonged. But he bore their mark, and that mark was connecting him not just to the weary faces, but to a rising Presence who loved those faces. He dropped his head and raked the dusty ground with his sandal. Beyond the huts, in the recesses of the darkening eastern sky, the invisible One held out a calling and a promise that blazed more brightly than the treasures behind him. Moses drew a deep breath and made his way toward the huts.
We live by faith. Faith sees things that are unseen, seen only in our imaginations. We remember and are comforted and inspired by God’s great works in the past. When my manuscript due date is barreling down the tracks, and I’m frozen in the headlight, blinking and wondering how little sleep does it really take to keep thinking and writing, I am comforted by the remembrance that on a deadline past God miraculously healed my fizzled computer, and just weeks ago he protected my life in a wreck that totaled my car. And I am deeply grateful. But faith is what carries me to the next deadline.
Faith is future-oriented. “The evidence of things hoped for.” It imagines and believes all that God will be for us in the next few moments, tomorrow, and in our future life, reigning with Christ forever. Most of what we hope and long for is yet to come. Most of the joy God holds out for us is still “set before us,” in the future. In Future Grace, John Piper says, “The key to faith’s power is that it embraces the future grace promised by God and is more satisfied with this than the pleasures promised by sin.”
The heroes of Hebrews 11 were sure and absolutely certain of God’s promises. With the eyes of his heart, in his faith-lit imagination, Abraham could see the future City, opening its gates to his family, too large to count. Moses could see his future reward from the One who is invisible. I read their stories and think, How would my life be different if I could see God like Moses did? Or see the City like Abraham could?
For instance, picture yourself looking around at lunchtime traffic. Without a flying De Lorean it will be impossible to get everything done. You begin re-ranking your to-do list on the “tyranny of the urgent” scale. The gas tank bell dings again for the #1 spot, and your cell phone pleads for a substitution.
Driving from #2 to #3, you take the bottom ranked items off the lunchtime to-do list and insert them at the top of your on-the-wayhome list. You replay your mental voice messages, while the radio commercials compete for your attention:
I need a clean uniform . . .
Buy me . . .
Your father’s PSA count shot up . . .
We’d love for you to lead a small group . . .
Please, buy me . . .
Your pictures are ready . . .
Hey, can you take us to the . . .
BUY ME, BUY ME, BUY ME . . .
As you drive along in the midst of your lists and your dailiness and the voices peddling their vision of the good life, what if you could look up and see not the glare of the sun, but the glow of a City much closer than the sun? What if you could see the Shekinah glory of God reflecting off a magnificent skyline of golden buildings shimmering in the rainbow radiance John described in Revelation 21, rising above their topaz, emerald, sapphire, and amethyst foundations? What if you could sit at the stoplight and look up over the traffic to see it suspended in the sky, more real than the moon or the sun? Watch the ripples and pulses of its living radiance the way you watch the flicker of a candle in a distant window?
Can you even imagine?
Or picture yourself walking into the empty homestead after the funeral of a widowed grandparent. You tour the rooms of your family museum that echo with the hum of conversation and dishwashing clatter after family feasts and the laughter as you and your cousins jumped on the beds. You tour the collections of your grandmother’s treasures: teacups, spoons, and everybody’s “paintings,” including your pathetic paint-by-number kitten that she actually framed and hung. And something rises in your throat because you suspect (you really know but you can’t admit to such finality), you suspect that this is the last time this family will be together under this roof. At some point you’ll return with your children or your brother to rescue the things you love and even many lesser treasures from the second death of the estate sale, but this is the final gathering in.
What if the family could draw together on the back porch one last time and look up and see the City shimmering in the twilight? What if you could sit in the old swing and fix your eyes upon it and see where your granddad was, present with the King? Would the grownups point out the wall and foundations and the great pearl gates that never shut? Would the children smile up at the City and wave and blow kisses across the miles?
Can you even imagine?
Abraham and Moses could. They lived extraordinary lives of purpose, risk, and impact because they could see God and their future with the eyes of faith. Their imaginations played movies of God’s promises.
When, from the God-breathed words of Scripture and the depth of our worship and prayers, we catch a vision of God’s beauty shining into a heart that wants to obey, we build a kingdom. We chase a city. We do the things our heroes did in Hebrews 11.
I’ve rarely seen people in Scripture who, when they saw the reality of the majesty and beauty of God, didn’t give up their own vision of life and sign on to build his kingdom. I’ve rarely seen anyone who, like an Isaiah or an Ezekiel, saw the throne and heard the voice like rushing waters and afterwards spent their lives sort of diddling around, playing video games or hanging out at the mall. From Abraham to Moses, Daniel to Paul, those who could see it were enthralled. Their passion ignited. From the wellspring of their affections flowed great actions in the kingdom story.
God has changed my dreams from black-and-white 8mm’s of playing “mud pies in the slum” to a Technicolor omni-vision of a “holiday at the sea” with him. He wants to do the same thing for you. His Spirit wants to take God’s pictures and story and do a miracle—show us the Father’s heart and bind our hearts to his and, like the heroes of our faith, lift us above the dailiness of our lives and inspire us with the same passion and purpose.
I’ve lived far too much of my life under “the evil enchantment of worldliness” where the monotony of my to-do lists or the chronic hurt of my illness or my smaller dreams of being a “success” crowd my screen. In his mercy the King breaks in with Godsight—pictures of the holiday at the sea. Pictures of his kingdom story come to dispel the enchantment and grab my heart.
Can you even imagine?