According to Thomas Moore, teacher, psychotherapist, and author of the New York Times bestseller Care of the Soul, slight shifts in imagination have more impact on living than major efforts at change. Deep changes in life follow shifts in imagination. Jesus said the fulfillment of your deepest dreams and God’s greatest promises – the kingdom of God – is at hand (Mark 1:14-15), and the only way you can see it is to be “born from above” (John 3:3). You’ve got to undergo a shift in imagination and see things in a radically different way, like a child (Matt. 18:3).
For example, take last week’s story about the widow and the judge (Luke 18:1-8). We usually assume the disciples would have identified with the widow, and we understand it as a story that encourages us to persevere in prayer – to pound on God’s door till our knuckles bleed – until God heeds us and answers our prayers and grants what we request.
But what if the disciples were to identify with the judge? What if they were overburdened by people who continued to expect of them relief from their situations? What if they felt pestered and put upon by the crowds coming to them for relief from their problems. What if the crowds were expecting that Jesus and his disciples would lead the revolt against the Roman army of occupation? How would a slight shift in imagination change the meaning of the story?
For one thing, it might help us hear more clearly what’s being said in today’s reading from the second letter to Timothy about the trials the church faced early in the second century (2 Tim. 4:6-8, 16-18), and it might help us hear a message that’s relevant to us today. There are three essential elements in what the author said. First, he defined the situation as his “first defense,” referring to his defense of the gospel against false teachings that were undermining the gospel, and he wrote, “no one came to my support, but all deserted me.” The author was standing his ground alone in the face of growing opposition to the gospel.
Second, he wrote that “the Lord stood by me and gave me strength.” Like Paul explained to the Corinthians when he was beset by weakness, he heard God say, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). “Whenever I am weak,” he wrote, “then I am strong” (v. 10). True strength comes not from others but from God. As an old hymn says, “When all around the world gives way, he [God] then is all my hope and stay” (Edward Mote, “My Hope Is Built”).
And third, God gave him strength “so that through [him] the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it.” God did not strengthen him so he would be strong to deal with his personal challenges and burdens; God strengthened him for the sake of the gospel, so the gospel could be effectively shared with those who had not heard it. Before he became Abraham, the patriarch of our faith, God blessed Abram so that he and his descendants would be a blessing for the whole world (Gen. 12:1-3). Christ commissioned the church not to be a lifeboat for its members but to teach the whole world to live as Jesus lived (Matt. 28:18-20). Here the author of Second Timothy understood that God strengthened him so that he could proclaim the gospel to others.
Those who deserted the author of this letter were not the last ones to do so. Today people in the church desert Jesus and his gospel all the time. There’s more than one way to desert the gospel and avoid its changes and implications. We desert the gospel when it challenges the values and choices of the world around us and the world pushes back, and we retreat from the situation. We desert the gospel when we stay in place but disengage from the situation emotionally, becoming a social club rather than a prophetic witness to another way of life. We desert the gospel when we go to sleep and become oblivious to its demanding implications for our social, economic, and political life in community.
But even as others desert us and our vocation from God, God strengthens us so that God’s message to the world, the message of abundant new life, can be heard by those outside the circle of church members who have come to define us.
Where will we find the strength for the hard challenges of our ministry as the body of Christ? We might look to others for strength, believing there is strength in calling the right pastor, or in the number of our members, believing a larger church equates with a stronger church. Or we might look within, to the already-present and always-present God to strengthen us for spreading the message, the gospel, to those outside the church, outside the Christian faith. When we ask from where our help will come, we will know clearly that our “help comes from the Lord, the one who made heaven and earth,” and that “God will not let [our] foot stumble” (Ps. 121:1-2).
Joseph Campbell, the great scholar of myth and the search for meaning, wrote how the idea came to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche of what he called “the love of your fate.” Whatever your fate is, whatever good or bad happens, you say, “This is what I need.” It may look like a wreck, but approach it as though it were an opportunity, a challenge. If you bring love to that moment – not discouragement – you will find the strength is there. Any disaster you can survive is an improvement in your character, your stature, and your life, and your own nature will have a chance to live and flow freely.
God strengthens us when we look at every detail of our life with love. If you bring love to that moment, you’ll find the strength is there. If you look at every detail of your life and every aspect of the world around you through the lens of God’s love, you will find a strength that nothing else can provide. Look long and deeply at the passing traffic on the street, in a shopping plaza, or in your neighborhood; gaze long and deeply at a group of people or at one individual, especially one for whom you have felt stress, anger, or regret; look carefully and deeply at a trying experience or situation in your life, or at what you consider burdensome demands and expectations; and repeat the simple prayer, “God, help me see what you see.”
This Halloween, we’ll be approached by children wearing masks and begging blessings in the form of treats, and most of us will respond by giving them something good. To speak of God “in three persons,” we really speak of God in three masks: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But God also wears many other masks. God wears the masks of the hungry and thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and imprisoned (Matt. 25:37-40). God wears the mask of anyone who needs the most basic resources for life.
God wears the mask of those who benefit from the offerings we collect for the Grand Island Neighbor’s Foundation. And God wears the mask of those who were fed and clothed last weekend by ten members of our congregation in ministry through the Kenmore Alliance. When we allow a slight shift in our imagination, when we survey from a new perspective the community in which we live and the people around us every day, we’ll find the God we seek is there, standing right before us, giving us strength. And we’ll find our best opportunities to proclaim with our lives the good news of what God is doing in the world.
Look at the demands, challenges, and burdens that pound on your door to be dealt with – God, help me see what you see – and see if you recognize the strength God has given you even in the most trying situations.