1 Tapping Hidden Streams: Receiving the Spirit through the Discipline of the Imagination

Thomas H. Troeger

Preachers and homilists[1] sometimes tell me the “spring has run dry,” meaning the creative juices that used to feed their hearts and minds are no longer flowing. But sometimes that is, in fact, not the case. Instead of thinking the well has “run dry,” I suggest shifting the metaphor and thinking “the well has become clogged.” There is plenty of creative juice. The question is how to get to it.

I think of a small cabin that my wife and I owned in the wilderness of Maine. We brought water into the cabin in large plastic jugs until a native told us there was a well above our cabin that had been used to give horses water in the days when there was a stage coach route through the area. Our friend was sure it would flow again if I would dig it out.

The next day I took a pick axe, a shovel, a pry bar and a rake and went up the hill to where the native had directed me. The area was covered with leaves, branches and rocks that had fallen in. It did not look promising, but I trusted my friend was right and started raking and then digging and prying out the larger rocks.

At first there was only the slightest dampness, but I kept at it. Eventually, there was a little trickle, black as ink, then brown as chocolate milk, then the color of tepid tea and, finally, clear, cold, excellent water. It had been there all along, and it simply needed to get unclogged.

How can homilists unclog their imagination and get the creative juices flowing once again? Sometimes listening to music helps or walking or doing some other activity that stimulates the brain in a way other than sitting at a computer or thinking in words. But in the last analysis, a homily requires words, lively, life giving words. So how then can preachers awaken anew their imaginations?

The response to that question requires something profounder than homiletical methods or writers’ gimmicks. Homilists need a spiritual and theological understanding of the imagination. We need such an understanding because the very word “imagination” is often suspect in popular speech. We dismiss people’s fears saying, “It is all in your imagination” or “You are just imagining that.” But, in fact, the imagination is a complex and essential activity of the human mind and heart.

There are at least three different kinds of imagination: the conventional, the empathic and the visionary. By the term “conventional imagination,” I mean the system of established symbols, meanings and values that allow us to participate in a particular culture: for example, the rituals of standing for the singing of the national anthem before a baseball game or dipping our hand in a baptismal fountain and making the sign of the cross.

In calling it “conventional,” I am not dismissing it as inconsequential. Indeed, the conventional imagination is immensely helpful to us in creating some sense of stable, meaningful corporate life in our churches and our society. Our families and the communities to which we belong begin to shape our conventional imagination from early childhood. Clifford Geertz, an anthropologist, observes that, “Humanity is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.”[2] For me, those “webs of significance” are the product of the conventional imagination. Everyone has an imagination, at least a conventional one.

This imagination is expressed through the metaphoric character of language. We are often under the impression that language is primarily literalistic and rational, and metaphor is ornamental: it adds poetry to the basic brew of prose.

But as W.V. Quine points out: “It is a mistake, then, to think of linguistic usage as literalistic in its main body and metaphorical in its trimming. Metaphor, or something like it, governs both the growth of language and our acquisition of it. What comes as a subsequent refinement is rather cognitive discourse itself, at its most dryly literal. The neatly worked inner stretches of science are an open space in the tropical jungle, created by clearing tropes away.”[3]

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have demonstrated at length the power of metaphors to shape the character of our relationships.[4] For example, when people debate with one another, the dominant metaphors are often drawn from war, as in, “He blew his opponent out of the water” or “She demolished him.” What would happen if we changed the metaphor to a dance? Maybe we would say, “I do not hear the same music as you do” or “We are not in sync with one another.” The shift in metaphor shifts the terms and tenor or how we relate.

There are in the Bible shifts in metaphor that transform our understanding of God. For example, King David proposes building God a temple. Nathan the prophet initially accedes to the idea, but later dreams that God, who has always lived in a tent, does not need nor desire a temple (2 Samuel 7:2-7).

Scholars believe what may lie behind Nathan’s reversal on the issue was a debate about whether or not a temple was an appropriate way of honoring the divine presence. Changing from God in a tent to God in a temple would require a major shift in the way the conventional imagination understood the deity. Jesus Himself will later shift the metaphor again when He says of Himself: “I tell you something greater than the temple is here” (Matthew 12:6).

Shifts in the primary metaphors we live by are seldom easy. They often meet great resistance because the conventional imagination is a powerful reality. I think of Martin Luther King Jr. Think of what it took to overcome the reality of segregation. Or consider the rise of feminism and the immense resistance to women overcoming the stereotypes of sexism.

Or recall Vatican II and its liturgical reforms. I have spoken with many older priests who recounted how difficult it was to stand at the altar facing the assembly when they had been taught as young ordinands not to engage eye contact with people as they served the host.

In Protestantism, a lot of the conventional imagination is carried by its hymns. In recent years, many denominations have been publishing new hymn books, and there has been strong resistance to changes in the language to make the hymns more inclusive of women and more sensitive to people with physical disabilities.

Also, there have been efforts to eliminate metaphors drawn from war. When the United Methodists proposed eliminating the beloved hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers,” they received a massive amount of mail in opposition, more than they had ever received on any other issue. This is significant data for us who preach. It indicates what a deep grip the conventional imagination has on people. It is sometimes for good and sometimes for ill, but it is a part of life that homilists cannot avoid.

The second kind of imagination that I want to consider is the  empathic imagination: the ability to enter the world of another: another individual or culture or community. The empathic imagination is a prerequisite to helping others. We recognize this in popular speech when we ask, “Can we stand in someone else’s shoes?”

Sometimes when we read a first-person account of an experience unlike any we have ever known or dreamed, we leave ourselves behind and we begin to see and feel things in the world that we never even suspected existed. Our empathic imagination takes us to the nerve of another’s experience.

A keen empathic imagination is essential to being an effective homilist. One of the greatest developments in the last 25 years in homiletical scholarship has been much more attentiveness to how homilies are received and processed by the assembly. Instead of focusing exclusively on the role of the preacher in creating and delivering sermons, there is an ever-growing understanding of the complex act of communication between homilist and congregation.

The third form of imagination, the visionary imagination, draws on the first two but includes the capacity to perceive, understand and reshape the world in ways that extend beyond the conventional imagination, often challenging its distortions and inequities. The exercise of the visionary imagination is not to be confused with changing another’s world in order to fit the preacher’s own conventional predilections and tastes.

Milton Crum, who taught homiletics at Virginia Theological Seminary for many years, used to counsel his students that when they arrived in a new parish, they should initially treat it as though they were visiting someone’s home for a meal. He pointed out that upon first entering the house, they would not think of instructing their hosts in how to rearrange the furniture and what art to dispose of.

Likewise, there is a need for new pastors to get some sense, some feeling, some intuitive grasp of the conventional imagination that they have entered. For without that, they will not be able to exercise their visionary imagination in effective ways.

It is revealing to note how commonly we judge speakers to be good by how well “they captured our imagination.” When a homily captures our imagination, it has the theological potential for doing something much greater than merely holding our attention. Garrett Greene believes that God redeems the world by capturing our imagination for the divine purposes of saving and restoring us.[5] The preacher’s imaginative work is in the service of God’s imagining what we human creatures can be, do and say at our best.

Television and the World Wide Web are always trying to capture our imaginations for commercial purposes, to create a hunger in us for what we do not need. They are stiff competition for us homilists who are trying to be vessels of the living Spirit in an effort to win the human imagination for what is holy, gracious and utterly essential for the abundant life of the Gospel. This means that the work of preachers has to be rooted in a mature and enduring spirituality.

Garrett Greene believes the task of homilists is to develop a “link” between the imagination of the hearers and Scripture. I agree with Greene, but I ultimately prefer to think of it as a link between the hearer and God, not just the Bible. For to be biblical, we need to move beyond the Bible to the Holy One to whom the Bible gives witness. I am wary of the biblical world enforcing a stultifying conventional imagination that is closed to the Spirit, whose movements are as free and sovereign as the wind (John 3:8).

Marjorie Hudson, a character in my novella, The Parable of Ten Preachers, puts the matter this way:

Before there was a Bible, there was God. If we can’t find in the Bible what we need for a sermon, the Bible teaches God is loving enough to help us find it somewhere else. That is what I like best about the Bible; it is not as limited as the people who want to limit God to the Bible. The Bible keeps pointing beyond itself to stars, to mountains, to rivers, to wind and flame, to Jesus who won’t stay put between the covers of a book. So if you want to be biblical you have to get outside the Bible in the same way the Bible gets outside itself.[6]

Marjorie understands revelation to be greater than Scripture alone. Hers is a Catholic theology that honors the resources for faith found in experience, reason, tradition and the magisterium of the Church. Drawing upon these realities, I find the Bible itself to be more dynamic than a sheaf of pages between two covers.

I open the Bible and the wind and fire of the Spirit leap out and make me eager to find out where in our world are they blowing and burning now? I discover the living Spirit of God is often in places and issues that the Bible and the conventional imagination of faith ignore or address in an antiquated manner.

For example, several years ago, a good colleague, who had worked as a therapist with abusers, asked me if I knew any hymns dealing with abuse. He wanted to preach a sermon and preside at a service on the issue. There were hymns for Good Friday and the abuse of Christ, but that was not what he wanted. He wanted a text that dealt directly with the violence perpetuated in our day upon women, and so he commissioned me to write one.

Our conversation revealed that the conventional imagination did not adequately deal with physical violence against women. My friend was asking me to engage my empathic and visionary imagination to produce a poetic text that could be sung as a hymn, thus expanding the Church’s conventional imagination. Here is what I wrote:

Holy and good is the gift of desire.
God made our bodies for passion and fire,
intending that love would draw from the flame
lives that would shine with God’s image and name.

God weeps for all people
abandoned, abused.
God weeps for the women
whose bodies are bruised.
God weeps when the flame
that God has infused
is turned from its purpose
and brutally used.

Holy and good is the gift of desire …

God calls to the women,
God calls to the men:
“Don’t hide from the terror
or terror will win.
I made you for love,
but love must begin
by facing the violence
without and within.”

Holy and good is the gift of desire …

God knows that our violence
is mixed with our dust:
God’s son was a victim
of violence and lust,
for Jesus revealed
that women will trust
a man who in action
is tender and just.

Holy and good is the gift of desire …[7]

I begin the hymn with a positive affirmation of the gift of sexual desire, because if the Church is only negative about human sexuality, it will not be able to proclaim an attractive alternative to the egregious use of gratuitous sex in advertising and entertainment. The hymn text represents an effort to expand the Church’s conventional imagination so that it sees and engages the reality of abuse that cries out for the compassion of the Gospel.

Looking back on the creation of this hymn, I am reminded of Paul Scott Wilson’s work, Imagination of the Heart, in which he develops the metaphor of the gap between two electric wires holding opposite charges and the spark that leaps between them. In a way, the two opposite wires in the hymn are the brutality of abuse and the divine intention that the gift of desire would produce “lives that would shine with God’s image and name.”

Here is a simple way a homilist might work with Wilson’s theory in creating sermons: read the lections for the coming Sunday all week long as if they were captions beneath the stories and commercials you watch on the morning news or the blogs you visit each day. Sparks will fly.

Most of the time, however, acts of visionary imagination arise from more complex processes that we may not be consciously aware of in the act of creation. The visionary imagination thrives at the confluence of many streams. I want to demonstrate this with another hymn text. I use hymns because they are compressed and obviate the need to make this article too long by illustrating it with the full texts of homilies. I wrote the following poem when one of my dearest friends was dying an agonizing death at the age of 37.

Risen Christ, may death be swift
for a friend whose fight is done –
not as winter dusk
bleeding darkened light
from a vanished sun,

not as slow as your own death
but as swift as your last prayer,
“Abba, I commend
all I am to you
trusting in your care,”

and as swift as earth to thrill
when God’s trumpet breaks the skies
and restored by you
all our broken flesh
healed and whole shall rise.[8]

Where did the poem come from? Of course, it came from grief, profound grief, and I was aware of that while I wrote it. But years later as I look back on it, I can see that it was also fed by a number of different sources that preceded the immediate occasion of its writing.

In the same way, homilists, if they study their best homilies, will discover that they were fed not only by the need to get up and preach, but by the deepest currents in their souls, the energies set off by being immersed in the conventional imagination, by exercising the empathic imagination and by an experience that pulled them beyond the boundaries of their familiar world to behold a new landscape in the heart.

In the case of this hymn text, I believe that one of the subconscious influences was the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in which Orpheus descends to the underworld and bargains with Hermes to let Eurydice return to the world of the living. Hermes agrees on the sole condition that Orpheus will walk in front of Eurydice but never – not even once – turn back to see if she is following him. Orpheus starts up the path to return to the land of the living, but just as he is about to enter it, he looks over his shoulder to see if Eurydice is behind him, and she fades back into the underworld, utterly lost to him.

I have long loved a poem by Rilke based on this story and since high school I have performed the haunting flute solo from Gluck’s opera based on the story. It has often been a way of my expressing sorrow and lament, including in many church services. Furthermore, I am aware of how much early Christian iconography portrays Christ as Orpheus, and I recall there are early Church fathers, among them Eusebius and Clement, who imagine Christ as Orpheus, bringing the music of grace to the instrument of our humanity.

In other words, long before I wrote the poem, I was immersed in the conventional imagination of the Greek myth and the way it had been used in the early Church and the European musical tradition. It was a part of my being and, I am sure that in ways I do not know, influenced my creating the hymn text.

Another hidden stream was probably my growing up in upstate New York on a mountain lake where the winters were long, dark and cold and where I used to watch the last lingering light fade from the sky in the early evening. I was not thinking of that when I wrote the poem, but somehow it came out: “not as winter dusk/bleeding darkened light/from a vanished sun.”

The novelist Barbara Pym makes a similar observation about the impact of climate and geographic setting upon the imagination: “Back at my own church, on a cool greeny-grey English Sunday. We start with a George Herbert hymn – ‘King of Glory, King of Peace’ – very English, like a damp overgrown churchyard. What different conceptions one could have of God according to the country one was in – those sun baked cemeteries in Marseilles.”[9]

People often ask me where I get so many ideas for homilies and poems. They want to know if I have a method for turning on the creative process. I cannot point to a program that I run in my brain, but I can say there appear to be at least three conditions that facilitate imagination:

  • Immersion in the conventional imagination that celebrates its positive functions
  • A willingness to reinterpret the conventional imagination in ways that correct its limitations and distortions
  • A conviction that reality is much more open and unpredictable than we currently imagine.

Each of these three qualities is found in the biblical accounts of Christ. Christ was immersed in the conventional imagination of His own community: He regularly attended synagogue and knew the Scriptures intimately. Christ was willing to reinterpret the tradition to claim its true purpose, as when He affirms the Sabbath is made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.

And the conviction that reality is more open and unpredictable than we imagine finds confirmation in the resurrection and Pentecost. Both point to the astonishing openness of a world whose possibilities for renewal are far greater than we dare to believe.

Who would have thought that the victim of a calloused religious establishment and a brutal political regime would arise to empower his followers? Surely not the disciples on the road to Emmaus or the others cowering behind closed doors or Mary thinking the risen Christ was a gardener. And who would have thought that a little band of disciples who had run for cover at the crucifixion would be empowered by the wind and fire of the Spirit to spread the Gospel around the world?

The creative energies that can empower homilists to capture the human imagination for the purposes of God are alive in the Bible’s witness to Christ. There God speaks to us as a friend who sees possibilities in us that we do not see ourselves.

Through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, God says: “I imagine you as loving and generous and just and at peace with one another. I imagine you as living in harmony with the rest of my creation. I imagine you as claiming the imagination I gave you when I made you in my image. I imagine you redeemed and whole, fully alive with the abundant life of the Gospel. I imagine you as a witness to my glory and to the grace of Christ and to the fire and wind of the Spirit.”

If we homilists capture the imaginations of our listeners with the great and holy imagining of God, then their hearts will become unclogged and they will taste and feel “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14).

  1. I use the following pairings interchangeably in order to honor the ecumenical character of my audience: homily and sermon, homilists and preachers, assembly and congregation.
  2. For a discussion of this concept in light of the development of the World Wide Web, something which did not exist when Geertz wrote his famous description, see http://carbon.ucdenver.edu/~mryder/iscrat_99.html.
  3. “A Postscript on Metaphor” http://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu/issues/v5/v5n1.quine.html
  4. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980.
  5. Garrett Greene, Imagining God: Theology and the Religious Imagination, W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.
  6. Thomas H. Troeger, The Parable of Ten Preachers, Nashville: Abingdon, 1992, pp. 43-44.
  7. Thomas H. Troeger, Borrowed Light: Hymn texts, prayers, and poems, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 81.
  8. Borrowed Light, p. 166.
  9. Barbara Pym, A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters, eds., Hazel Holt and Hilary Pym, New York: E. P. Dutton, Inc., 1984, p. 195.