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I have been reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s book The Preaching Life and thinking a lot recently about the role of imagination in faith and preaching. In a chapter on imagination she quotes the theologian James Whitehead: ‘Faith is the enduring ability to imagine life in a certain way’.

I have always been drawn to the line in Eucharistic Prayer V in the Scottish 1982 Liturgy: ‘Your Spirit lives in us so that we can look at the world with your eyes’. I don’t ask myself often enough what God sees when God looks at the world, at us, at those we love, at those we find difficult, at those we do not see. That is why I need the daily office and the Eucharist; when I wander, they draw me back and back and back again to images of God and the Kingdom and God’s vision for the world.

But even at that invitation to see the world differently, my imagination often fails. I find myself looking at lectionary texts for a Sunday morning and they are just words. I read commentaries and occasionally other people’s sermons but they rarely help other than providing some context. My anxiety builds as Sunday approaches. The philosophy or abstract theology are there, but there is no relationship, nothing to engage the senses, nothing incarnational. The words lie flat and lifeless, and in my desperation, I grasp at anything I can reach to try to pry them off the page, to make them do something.

At Godly Play training over the summer, I found it interesting that the parable stories immediately acknowledge both how precious and inaccessible parables are. The stories are presented in a gold box, offered like a special gift, but with a lid which hides what lies within. ‘A lid is like a closed door’, the storyteller says. ‘Sometimes parables seem closed to us, even if we are ready to enter them. You need to keep coming back for them, and one day they will open.’

And before the story is told, a creative process must take place, unlocking the imaginations of those listening. A large piece of felt, the underlay for the story, is taken out of the box, shaken out or thrown on the floor. Everyone is invited to guess what it might be. And so a circle of brown fabric becomes a frisbee, a round baby blanket, a newly ploughed field, a muddy puddle, a huge flattened cow pat, a giant’s chocolate button. The guesses get more and more absurd. And it is only then that the parable can start. Because it is only then that we can begin to possibly begin to see the absurd perspective of God when Jesus says ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is like a…’.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes that faith ‘is a way of seeing – a way of living – that requires a certain loosening of the grip, a willingness to be surprised, confused, amazed by the undreamt-of ways that God chooses to be revealed to us.’


Every time I preach, I have to go through a process similar to Godly Play. I have to shake out the texts, letting the Spirit blow the dust from the book. Her breath frees the words to dance and play until the images emerge, rearrange themselves and become more than a series of black marks on a white page. I slowly learn yet again to trust in the absurd.

Aided by the wisdom and imagination of poets, artists, musicians, I turn to the stories and find the words no longer need to be pried off the page. The shadow of a shape appears in my peripheral vision, the air quickens, and I wait, conscious always of the fact that, as Annie Dillard says, ‘the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then – and only then – it is handed to you.’

To be honest, I’m not quite sure where I’m going with this blog post (and maybe all I’m doing is revealing my own lack of imagination), except that maybe what I’m trying to say is that while scripture, reason and tradition (and experience, if you wish) all should have their place in theological reflection, teaching, training and preaching, I can’t help but feel that without allowing – encouraging – the curious creativity of the imagination to play amongst them, what we’re left with is something a bit hollow. The Word risks being reduced to word. Faith risks being reduced to a set of propositions. And God’s gloriously absurd view of, love for and activity in the world risk going unseen.

One thought on “unmerited grace: imagination & preaching

  1. That is so very very good. You apologised last night for being busy writing a blog post. Never be sorry when you churn out stuff like this. I read and re-read it. Think it should go on my wall so I look at it before preparing any sermon. In fact, I feel pretty humble just to know a theologian like you. Thank you so very much.

    [I’ll come back, maybe, and engage with the text later]


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