Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Labor of Imagination

The Third World nature of the images from the Gulf Coast are almost beyond description: they paint a scene of destruction, desolation, despair, chaos and hopelessness – all coming with oppressive tropical heat that adds a veneer of sweat to the misery.
Underneath it all runs a current of outrage as survivors begin to raise questions that the nation must address in the days to come – questions of racial justice, economic justice, budget priorities, security choices. As is typical, James Carrol offers some of the sharpest and most eloquently phrased response to such questions. His words provide context for the images that continue to emerge. As is also typical, David Corn offers a less eloquent, more pointed critique in his response. Both are worth the read.
Where, in all of this volatile mix of fear, despair and anger, do we find images of hope? What now will call forth and inspire the labor of imagination? To ask the peculiarly Christian question: Where in all of this can we find resurrection?
I hope people of faith found a bit of it when they gathered in worship in recent days. There were undoubtedly some voices in some pulpits last weekend speaking of God’s judgement and wrath. But the God of resurrection hope is not the author of human suffering. Only those of too limited imagination – and of too short memory – would make such claims in response to the images of suffering coming from the Gulf Coast in the past days.
No, now is not the time to speak of God’s judgment – at least not in such simplistic terms. Instead, let people of faith and hope speak together of the memory of God’s infinite imagination and the call to us to participate in such times as this in the Godly labor of imagination. For only through such imaginative work can we move beyond paralyzing fear. As Alan Jones, dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, insists, “the work of imagination is serious business because through it we build or destroy the world.”
There has been more than enough destruction; now is the time to build.
In his memoir, The Story of a Life, the Israeli writer and Holocaust survivor Aharon Appelfeld writes, “memory pulled toward the now and imagination sailed toward the unknown.”
In times of crisis we are challenged to hold these two together – memory and imagination. As a people of faith, a people called, shaped and informed by a particular story, a particular collection of memories, we gather strength from the memory of God’s transformative power and of its work in the lives of those who have come before us. Exodus reminds us that the water was parted to transform a people – to liberate captives and found a new people shaped and formed around the memory of justice.
A people shaped and formed by justice cannot turn their backs on injustice anywhere. However, when we ask, “what is the work of justice in this context” our discernment calls us into the labor of imagination as we cast a vision of a future otherwise, a future in which the poor are not consigned to the most dangerous living conditions and resigned to the back of every line for assistance in times of crisis.
The gospel stories of Jesus calming the seas remind us of Jesus’ transforming presence in the lives of the disciples, calming the storms around them and encouraging them to live without fear. A people shaped and formed by the love which casts out all fear cannot ignore the cries of those living in the midst of such fearful conditions. However, when we ask, “what is the work of such love in this context” our discernment calls us into the labor of imagination as we cast a vision of a future otherwise, a future in which refugees find a welcome and hospitality casts out fear.
And even – especially – in the midst of such a time as this, the words of the psalmist call us to sing: and to sing a more profound hallelujah, to lift our voices in praise, to join the chorus of creation and to worship with imagination. When we recall the apostle Paul’s admonition to make of our very lives a worship, we begin to move toward the labor of imagination that is required of us if we are to look at the images from New Orleans and imagine those waters parted, those communities rebuilt, those lives restored, those homeless welcomed, those mourning comforted, those naked clothed and hungry fed.
The memory of stories of transformation should not leave us wallowing in nostalgia, but rather they should and must and will pull us toward the now and help us imagine a future of restoration. What lies immediately before and around is horror. Lives and communities have been dis-membered; now they must be re-membered. They must be rebuilt, restored, reformed, reimagined.
For, if imagination sails toward the unknown, it sails toward a future that is, nonetheless, shaped by the play of memory and imagination.
The images that have touched us so deeply during these past few days leave us profoundly unsettled. It is as if the present moment is the unknown. Powerful images work on us that way. As the poet Adrienne Rich said, art isn’t “enough as something to be appreciated, finely figured; it [can] be a fierce, destabilizing force, a wave pulling you further out than you thought you wanted to be.”
Di Bartolo’s Crucifixion works that way on me. For in drawing me in, it pushes me out further than I want to be – out to where I encounter compassion that is almost beyond my imagination.
Jesus eyes, from which I want to turn away, beckon me into a landscape of suffering and of suffering with that does soul work on my imagination.
Vincent Van Gogh once wrote, “I prefer painting people’s eyes rather than cathedrals, for there is something in the eyes that is not in the cathedral – a human soul, be it that of a poor beggar or of a street walker.”
During the past few days I have tried not to turn my eyes away from the eyes of those on the Gulf Coast. They are tired, full of despair. They are like the eyes of warriors who have witnessed too much death, too much destruction. They are like the eyes of Jesus on the cross.
If, as they say, the eyes are windows to the soul, these eyes remind us that the human soul is sacred space. These eyes beckon us into the present moment and call us to the labor of imagining and constructing a future otherwise.
When I confront the eyes of the people in the pictures overwhelming us these days, I encounter a suffering almost beyond imagining. Nevertheless, when I remember the work of Christ on the cross, when I look into those eyes, I encounter a compassion that is far beyond my own limited capacity to imagine – except for the story that I recall – or, that recalls me. The story of a love so immeasureable as to encompass all my fears and despair and all of those of creation itself. The story of a love from which nothing will ever separate us: not heights of smashing waves, not depths of stagnant water, not rulers who are inept or unjust, not powers of awesome wind, not present images of chaos, not even death itself – nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.The story of the cross insists that we encounter a God whose imagination soars far beyond our limits – even our limits of death. For even where Jesus, as depicted by di Bartolo and reflected by the gospels, experiences utter abandonment, isolation and alienation, God imagines new life, new community, new hope. As we give of our time and treasure in the days to come – in response to this and other suffering as well – may our labor be imaginative, may it be shaped by the memories of our faith, and may it be labor filled with faith, hope and love enough to shape a future otherwise for those dwelling now in despair.

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