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Back during the long ago time period when the internet was still in its infancy, when cell phones were the size of shoe boxes and when people were transitioning from musical cassette tapes to compact discs, the music industry faced a crisis. New technology was allowing people to copy CD’s onto their computers and then give away songs, for free, to friends and family. The new internet was even allowing people to transmit copied music to complete strangers – all for no charge. If music could be had for free, why bother buying a cassette or CD? The entire multi-billion dollar music industry was at risk of financial ruin.
One man, however, had a different image of how things could be. The public wanted cheap music but it also wanted simplicity, easy access and quality ways to listen to it. While digital music players had already been invented, they were clunky and difficult to use. Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple, envisioned an entirely different scenario. He imagined a simple and easy storage and playback device that could acquire the digital music – for a nominal price – from an internet based store. The IPod digital music player and ITunes internet store were born of his imagination. Since the debut of the device and the new way to sell music, the recording industry has experienced a resurgence and the idea was born that almost any form of artistic content could be bought and delivered instantly via the Internet.
It’s reported that Steve Jobs was always a visionary – a person with the imagination to see in his mind situations and products that were totally new in ways that upended the status quo. He was inspired by growing up in a Joseph Eichler designed house – one that was reasonably priced for average families like his, simple in design, and elegant in its clean lines and basic utility. When he and Steve Wozniak built the first Apple computer, it was Jobs who dreamed how to market it with the now familiar logo, saw its potential as a device of great utility and how to design it in a way that was pleasant to look at and highly functional. Wozniak was a technical genius but his vision was limited – he wanted to give the computer away to other scientists and techies.
The personal computer – a device that was inexpensive and available to anyone – changed our world. Suddenly, computers and their immense data storage and computational abilities were accessible to all. Without the personal computer, none of the technological advances like the internet or smartphone would have been possible. It is not hyperbole to say that the imagination of Steve Jobs fundamentally changed human history for the good – much like Robert Fulton, Thomas Edison, or Alexander Graham Bell did.
Great persons in history have all been visionaries – from Plato to Jesus to Marie Curie to Martin Luther King to Steve Jobs. Imagination involves thinking of something that is not presently perceived but which has the potential to become reality. It is not idle dreaming or fantasy. It involves a creative effort and mental ability to envision something no others can foresee. Everyone has the capability to imagine but only a few have trained their minds to consciously and regularly step outside the past and the present – to see creative potential.
For this month of September, I want to explore with you the power and importance of imagination in our lives and our thinking. It is a function of the mind that is vital to our progress as individuals, communities, nations and as a species. Imagination is a progressive characteristic. In its positive form, it is rooted in love and the divine force of goodness. Fear, on the other hand, is the enemy of imagination and progress – it holds back, it clings to the past, it imprisons one in seemingly safe thinking that can harbor seeds of hatred or prejudice. Love and imagination take us forward. They envision the possible and the good. Albert Einstein said it best, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For while knowledge defines all we currently know and understand, imagination points to all we might yet discover and create.”
And so, over the next three Sunday mornings, we will embark on a journey to imagine three scenarios about ourselves and our lives. In two weeks I will ask, “have you ever dared to imagine that every experience in your life has happened, and will happen, for a good reason?” Next Sunday, “have you ever dared to imagine that home is where you presently are?” Today, I ask, “have you ever dared to imagine that YOU are the light of the world?”
And that last question echoes what Jesus taught to his many followers. As an itinerant rabbi and preacher, Jesus stood out from many others who travelled and spoke to crowds. As a visionary, he painted pictures in the minds of his listeners that were dramatically different from anything previously heard. His parables, aphorisms and word images were masterful ways to teach and they were used in ways that could be remembered and retold to exponentially greater numbers of people. Whether or not we believe he was the Christ, it is clear Jesus taught ideas that resonated. Despite his humble background, his lack of wealth and holding no formal means of power, his teachings captured the imagination of people in such ways that a lasting movement was created. Countless other persons have taught in profound ways but Jesus totally revolutionized human thinking. It’s clear that almost immediately after his execution, followers formed a narrative about him that soon became mythological in nature. Within three hundred years, his teachings – both authentic and mythological – became the predominant spiritual philosophy throughout the known world. We often take for granted the immense influence of his visionary ways – even if we reject his alleged miracles and supernatural attributes.
Just after Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, when he extolled the virtues of the meek, the poor, the humble, the persecuted and the peacemakers, he immediately told those very same people that they are lights to the world. Such a statement flies in the face of common sense. Poor nobodies, outcasts, thieves, prostitutes and those struggling to eke out survival in a backwater area – they are lights to the world? Such an idea would be laughable if it was not supported by Jesus’ implicit message – that each human has a god-light within, a power and potential to touch other lives, change the world and envision new possibilities. Our individual life purpose must be, according to Jesus, to uncover our light – whatever that might be – and figuratively let it shine.
Our failure and our problem is that we listen to the narrative that plays in our heads and that we often hear from others – that we are weak, that we are deficient, that we will be laughed at, scorned, and not taken seriously. Our fears of our own abilities, our fear of failure, and our fears of how others will judge us act like prisons. But so too does our fear of success. Shining our light is frightening to many of us.
Marianne Williamson, a well-known author and commentator on all things spiritual, wrote in one of her books, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? Your playing small does not serve the world…And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Williamson touches on a vital point about the human condition – one that Jesus spoke to in his Sermon on the Mount and following comments. We are weakened by our fears. The source of any of our neuroses, flaws, compulsions, depressions, addictions, prejudices and angers is fear. We fear success. We fear the unknown. We fear the other tribe. We fear progress. We fear emotional intimacy. We fear love. We fear death. Ultimately, we fear life itself.
And so we dim our lights. We hide them. We fail to try new things. We fail to move to new places, undertake new endeavors, speak to large crowds, try a new job, fall in love, forgive someone, extend ourselves in service, draw meaningfully close to another, etc, etc. All of our outward flaws and personal issues are ways we react to those failures. Fear is the cause. Inaction is the result. Harmful behaviors and thoughts are the cover up.
To the poor in spirit, meek, humble and persecuted – to everyone dealing with inner demons, Jesus had a simple cure. Let your light shine.
As trivial and cliche as that might sound, it is profound advice because it got to the cause of most human misery. In a threatening world, humans naturally react to threats with fear. Instead, we must counter-intuitively react with love – with our inner light. And that light can be shined and expressed in countless different ways but it is our calling as individual human beings to discover what our light is and then shine it. As Jesus taught, we are not candles to be placed under a bowl. We are bright beacons born to be raised high.
The specific ways we shine our light to the world is something we must discover. What are my gifts, what are my passions, what are my unique abilities that enable me to impact other lives for the better? Even more, what are the normal human expressions of love that I can shine to the world that will help? How can I teach a child, feed the hungry, defend a victim?
As most of you know who have been here since I began four years ago as Pastor, I undertook this role with experience and training in pastoral care, in leading outreach efforts and in church administration. But I had limited experience as a Sunday morning speaker. And, in my first weeks and months, it showed. I’m sure it still does! What held me back in the past was my fear of public speaking, of being judged, criticized and ultimately failing – the kinds of fears Pastors should not have.
But confronting my fears and allowing my light to shine was not as easy as simply saying I must do them. Because of a few friends at the time, and because I had a vision of myself serving and succeeding here, I was able to apply for, accept and find a level of capability in this role – things that never would have happened otherwise. And being a Pastor is a role that fits my abilities and passions. I’m practicing a profession that I once imagined doing – and I’m shining whatever light I have.
And that is precisely the message I hope to convey today. Shining our light into the world is not just a matter of saying it should be done. We must take the leap of imagination to see ourselves as a light for change and goodness. We must see ourselves in ways nobody else might see – acting, doing and then succeeding at whatever it is that we can imagine succeeding at – in love, in new work, in our relationships, in serving, in new friendships, self-improvement, or being a person that makes a positive impact.
Every time Jesus told a parable or painted a word picture, he was asking his listeners to imagine themselves in that role – and to imagine others in that role too. Those we forgive are much like the woman caught in adultery. Those we love and treasure are like a lost sheep. Unconditional love is like that of a father who smothers his wayward child with hugs and kisses. Freely opening our arms and our hearts to others is much like the man in one of Jesus’ parables who goes out to the streets to invite the dirty, diseased, disabled and immoral into his home for a lavish banquet. Jesus painted the pictures – he cast the visions – and then asked his listeners to imagine themselves as characters playing those roles – to imagine they are a shepherd who has lost a lamb, a poor widow searching for a lost coin, or a parent overwhelmed with tears, joy and love when a rebellious child returns. Imagine, he asked, the feelings and the hunger to be a force of goodness.
And countless experts and psychologists agree with his solution. Imagination is a form of self-empowerment. It confirms the adage that as we think, so we are. Studies say that those who can actively imagine themselves thinner, they succeed in losing weight far more than those who do not regularly so imagine themselves. Beyond being a visual motivational cue, maintaining an image of a thinner or more successful you casts away self doubts and narratives of defeat. A self-image of success creates success.
Carl Jung, the great psychoanalyst, encouraged this form of what he called “active imagination.” By casting wonderful visions of ourselves in new and different ways, we can examine who we are now and what we want to become – and thus find the steps to do so. We will find the self-realization we have been too afraid to become.
Jung encouraged a form of inner dialogue with our imaginations. He asked that people imagine alternative, but positive, scenarios, selves or beings. By conducting an imagined conversation with the subject of our imagination, we can discover clues to who and what we are now and how we might change. The process is not easy or simple and it must be regularly undertaken. Therapists are usually needed to help guide one in the imagination process and in asking the right questions. For persons beset with stress and self doubt, a therapist might ask one to imagine a more peaceful self, free of worry. What would that feel like? What is it about this imagined, peace filled you that does not have stress? Why does the imagined you feel so secure? Much like Jesus did with his word pictures, we are asked to imagine our feelings and our thoughts in our alternative, better selves. One question that might be asked of the imagined, stress free you is if that alternative you can accept what can be controlled in life, and what cannot? If so, you might determine that this is one key to your current dilemma and to your goal to be stress free – to accept the few things that you have control over and let go of the many things you don’t – like death, illness or the actions of others. And that is but one simplistic example of how the process might work.
The key to Jung’s form of psychology, one that has many advocates, is the ability to see and imagine beyond one’s present condition to envision a better situation – the kind of you that you want to be, the kind of you that is not afraid, the kind of you that is self-realized and lives up to your potential.
As our nation celebrated this past Wednesday the 50 year anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, we are reminded of the power of imagination. That march and that speech were focused on the imperative of achieving Civil Rights for African Americans, but they were, ultimately, much more than that. In its size and in its breadth of people from all races, religions and genders, the March cast a vision of what America can be. Invoking the ideals of Jefferson and Lincoln, Martin Luther King entered the pantheon of history’s great prophets with his plea for imagination, with his yearning words calling America to be America. His dream became our dream – one that did not simply envision a nation of greater racial justice but a nation true to its high ideals and true to the human spirit of equality, liberty, opportunity. By imagining the vision that King cast, America could imagine its better self and understand how far it had yet to grow and mature. And in President Obama’s speech this past Wednesday, when he invoked King’s words that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice but, as Obama said, it does not bend on its own, we are reminded of our purpose and of the eternal teaching of Jesus: our lights must shine.
George Bernard Shaw famously said that the fearful look at the current world, its many problems and ask “why?” The visionary, however, looks at things that never were and asks, “why not?” Let us each imagine, let us each continue to dream, and then let us together build for all humanity a shining heaven on earth, right here, right now.
I wish you all much peace and joy…
As an alternative to our regular talk back time and celebration of communion, I ask that you – and those listening online – to indulge me and engage in just a few minutes of reflection, meditation and imagination. In just a moment, I will ask that you close your eyes, listen to Don’s playing of a Nocturne piece, and ease your minds into a place where it is free to dream and imagine. As you do so, begin to imagine an image of yourself or your life that you want to be. Imagine your better self, imagine you are guided by your better angels, imagine your life that is completely at peace, perfectly content, and active in doing the things that give you meaning and a sense of accomplishment. Imagine yourself in that life, what you will do, how you will speak and, importantly, how you will feel.
If you have time, ask that imagined and better you why it is so happy? Why is it so fulfilled? And then imagine what your imagined self would answer. Remember those answers and write them down later. You can engage in this process at a later time when you have more time to fully analyze your imagination, your questions and the answers. Most importantly for this time, see if you can imagine the you that you deeply want to become – the you that fully shines your beautiful light. Hold onto that image of yourself, remember it and go back to it often. That image of yourself is the you that can become a reality if you take the time to not only believe it is possible but also to explore ways to grow from who you are now.
Let us engage in this time of meditation and imagination – for around four minutes. I ask that everyone please refrain from talking or making noise during this time so that all can peacefully engage in this process. Please close your eyes, remain quiet and begin…