Sunday, February 21, 2016

Imaginative Listeners

Today I’m going to take a leap. I suggest that the discipline of spiritual listening includes tools that take us beyond words into realms of visual imagination. It's a suggestion fraught with potential for misunderstanding. So (my mind roams the minefield) I will need to include some “this is not what I’m talking about here.”

I start with a confession. I am a WORD person. I love words and all their power to inform and evoke. I love shades of meaning, word play, and analysis. I love old words, and I even delight in pondering how the way words take on new meaning over time and reflect the changes in human perceptions of self and identity.

When I think of listening, I think of words, conversation, story-telling, explanation. I think of turning memory, image, feeling, idea into words. When I think of listening in prayer, my primary go-to is the Word of God, and then to words of spoken prayer.

So I had to be taught other ways of listening, other tools to help the speaker to get the story, the feelings, the truth of a thing out. Because, I have learned, not everyone relates as I do to words. Not everyone finds it easy or natural to pin down some interior movement into clear verbal thought and language. Many people perceive and communicate much more truly and effectively through images and sensory experience. Along the way I have also discovered that, from time to time, listening and watching for wordless communication can touch even me on a level that words do not reach.

Let's explore some examples.

Picture Jesus

Recently I was with a friend who described herself as “stuck” in pain, anger and resistance. After days of journaling, reading and prayer she had not found her way through. It occurred to me to suggest that she might move away from words, and ask Jesus for a visual, experiential sense of Himself. A way of prayer that at first sounded a little crazy to me, it is an invitation to “picture” Jesus. Or, better said, to ask Him to give an image of Himself located and active in my current situation. As with any prayer, it is one He may or may not answer in the moment. When He does, I am usually surprised to see Him in that way.

I will illustrate with personal experience, just to flesh out what I mean. The first time I prayed this prayer (timidly, having had it suggested to me by a mentor), all at once all the hand-crafted old things around me started to vibrate and pulse in my imagination. If you’ve been to my house, you know that I love the stuff of artisans, the practical old pots, furnishings and rugs of an earlier way of life; the artistry worked into mundane tools of daily existence: a carrier for water, a place to sit, a bag to stuff with goods and load onto the camel. Contrary to any expectation I brought with me into the prayer, I experienced in my imagination not a visual person, but that creative energy that formed this world, and the way it has been, in measure, imparted to us made in His image. I was surrounded by power and joy and, yes, energy and life. As though Jesus invited me to witness a piece of His delight in creative beauty. It still resides with me as sheer gift to have enjoyed His presence in that way that day.

Memik is a modern-day metal artisan of great skill

Once it was His eyes, close and gently focused on me. But I only remember one time when I was the focus. Another time, and more than once I was surprised to “see” Jesus standing at the balcony window overlooking Abu Dhabi. He was watching, longing, brooding. He wasn’t looking at me, but seemed comfortable there in my living room. Comfortable enough to include me in that bit of what was on His heart.

Later, from the balcony of our place here in Turkey, over time again and again, I sensed Him next to me as I stood watch during the mosque call to prayer. Again, I was deeply met, this time with the realization that I didn’t need to find a lot of perceptive words to pray for this place. Rather, Jesus wants my companionship there with Him, my willingness to stand there and share His heart of love and longing.

Here’s the first caveat, what I am not suggesting. As with every other form of true prayer, the purpose is to quiet ourselves and wait. We watch, open to the possibility that the Lord may reveal Himself, His heart, in a way that our human minds can grasp hold of in some small way. The danger, which is the same with word-based (or even Word-based) prayer is that we don’t so much listen as free-associate, insert our own story into the conversation, manufacture an answer that suits our desire to hear something, or give credence to spirits other than the Spirit of God. For me, I don’t pray the “picture Jesus” prayer often. I don’t always sense any response. But from time to time, He has chosen to take me out of myself and into a space of the reality in which He moves, and the things are on His mind that have nothing to do with what is on mine.

Imaginative scripture reading

What I have just shared here is an entry into the possibilities listening not so much for words as with our imaginations, to reach beyond the words on the page or the words of analysis and explanation that I or another can pull out of our minds. Another form of imaginative listening to the Lord includes staying with a piece of scripture long enough to get to know fact, context and ready meaning, and then to prayerfully imagine oneself present in the situation. Take, for example, Zacchaeus up that  sycamore tree in Luke 19. One way to “listen” to that story is to picture oneself there. From content clues, what might it have sounded like, smelt like, felt like? One might simply enter the scene in imagination, stay awhile, and then ask oneself things. Like in which character’s role does one find oneself? Zacchaeus? Jesus? One of the disciples? A member of the crowd? A watcher from the fringe? How does that unconscious choice of place speak to one's current relationship with Jesus or with the community? As the scene unfolds, from whatever viewpoint, what does that person see, feel, want to do? Is there joy, hesitation, fear, curiosity? In prayer, what might that be about? Is there an invitation from Jesus to come closer, to come down, to up-end one’s understanding of who He cares for? And does the listener find himself or herself responding with gladness, hesitation, or even resistance?

Again, a caveat. Imagination is a tool, just like reading. All spiritual listening is aimed at entering another’s story with empathy and compassion. It is about watching for Jesus, for where His heart is turned, and moving toward that place with our hearts, minds and souls. While we may discern things, important things, about ourselves as we listen, we are not the center of the story. To listen is to refuse to manufacture images that simply accord with what we want or we already think we know.

Listening to those who are not "word" people

Which takes me to the third form of imaginative listening I want to take up today. What I’ve spoken of above is cast in terms of listening for Jesus in prayer. But tools of the spiritual discipline of listening apply both to listening for Jesus and to listening to another person. In fact, consistent practice of the tools of this discipline will, in time, lead to a blurring of the lines so that as we listen to people, we are constantly listening for, watching for, Jesus in the story.

This third tool is again grounded in the understanding that not everyone is a “word person.” Some of us process in words, ideas, analysis, language. Others of us process in images and experiences: color, light, smell, feels of space and place.

Which means that there are other ways to help someone get his story out than to ask him to verbalize what is going on inside. My husband, Curt, is of this sort; and there are a lot of others: visual people for who images tell the story. So that to “listen” is to invite the speaker to show things that mean something to him and to talk about that. Vivid in my memory of this discovery is a day I spent with a friend. We were talking, talking, talking when I noticed pictures floating by on her screen saver. Horses, fields, barbed-wire fences foreign to the place I knew her in. “Tell me about these,” I invited. What unfolded in her telling was a deep geography of her spirit, and of her life with Jesus, that she does not reach in any straightforward telling of her story. In that hour, I came to know my friend’s heart as I had not done in years of shared words.

This photo "images" several pieces of this article for me. Curt, with his two cameras, feeling his way into worship in this ancient church-space. The visual imagery of saints and angels in the thousand-year-old frescos. The image this place evokes for me in prayer as I imagine something that is true but that I cannot see, that great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us.

This is why, when we built Spa for the Soul, we included an art studio, a place to play with paint and paper and glass and wood and fabric. For along with the realization that sometimes the way into another’s story is through exploring images and activities they love, is the companion understanding that, for some, visual and physical endeavors can serve as the entry into the sort of prayer that listens for the Lord.

Final caveat. I understand that, for some believers, imagination is a threatening tool. It conjures fear of magic arts, demonic influence, distance from reality, or manufactured spirituality. There are those who go so far as to reject fiction, poetry, film, and other works of imagination as a waste of time, or worse, as a worldliness fraught with demonic potential. And yet. Here we are, created in the image of an imaginative God. Imagination is a gift, a good gift. JRR Tolkien saw imaginative creativity (particularly fantasy and faerie), rightly employed, as the highest form of glory and praise to God. As with all gifts, we can use it well and wisely, or we can run down paths of misuse and abuse.

Paul comes to mind as I cast around for how to close this. As we contemplate ways of listening for the Lord, and to others with hearts and ears informed by His Spirit:

The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Philippians 4:5-8 (ESV)--emphasis mine.

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