‘Can you imagine that’: imagination and faith

Mary Poppins dolphin

Mary Poppins Returns, 2018, Walt Disney Pictures

Throughout Lent we are exploring themes drawn from the film ‘Mary Poppins Returns’. This was released in cinemas around Christmas last year. It’s not necessary to have seen the film to follow these sermons, each of the themes can stand on its own, though there may be some cross over. Last week we began with a grown up Michael Banks – the young boy in the first film. He married and lives with his three children – Annabel, John and Georgie – in the old family home, 17 Cherry Tree Lane. Tragedy struck when his wife Kate died about 6 months earlier and the strain is showing. They all miss her deeply. Last week we used this to explore grief and loss, the pain of the long silence that the death of someone close brings. This provided an opportunity to look at what we think happens when someone dies, where they go and what the Christian hope is. Today the film moves on.

The youngest child, Georgie, about the same age as Michael was in the first film, goes out to fly his kite on a windy day. It is at this moment that the nanny who stays until the wind changes, until she is no longer needed, decides to make her entrance floating in on the tail of Georgie’s kite. He runs home and bursting through the front door announces to his bewildered father that his kite got caught on a nanny. The look of surprise and disbelief turns to amazement when Michael finds himself once more face to face with the nanny who is practically perfect in every way.

Michael’s sister, Jane, has come round to visit and so with mouths wide open they greet the nanny who has come to look after the Banks’ children once more – Jane and Michael of course, oh and the other three too. Why use the stairs when you can slide up the bannister? Bathtime for the children today brings a new magic. With somersaulting dolphins in the bubbles, they slide into an underwater world of imagination, defying logic. They enter a world where it is possible to move beyond the impossible and explore reality through different eyes – the eyes of imagination and fun. The children need fun and play, the ability to push boundaries from the known to the unknown, the logical to the outrageously fantastical, to explore new possibilities. Cold logic without the imagination is cold indeed.

There is a world of difference between imagination and delusion. And the world of faith can touch both. What is real, what is true, what is beyond our imagination, what is disturbing and destructive? These questions play with us if we let them, torment us if we let them, send us down blind allies of delusion if we let them and excite us with previously unseen possibilities if we let them. Faith and imagination are good friends. Imagination always starts with what we know and then makes leaps into what is possible, even stretches what we regard as being probable. Faith is a leap of the imagination from the known world into a glimpse, even a sense that there is something deeper behind it, even between the bonds that hold together the atoms. Last week we touched on the physical sphere being made up of space dust, and so we are made of the same space dust as everything else. When we say ‘remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return’, as we did on Ash Wednesday, we know that what it means to be physical and human is to be part of a world of physics and chemistry. The cosmic is part of who we are.

But the cosmic is far from being cold and dull. Between the atoms there are spaces and it is in the bonds between the atoms that holds them together that the elements are made. What we think of as solid is actually not as solid as we think and without the bonds holding those elements together would not be so. So there are dimensions we can’t see, and some of what we call laws of science are actually working theories to make sense of what we know by leaping with imaginative logic. The theory will stand until someone disproves or challenges it with an alternative theory. Scientific theory actually uses the imagination far more than we tend to think. Push this too far though for the world of faith and the danger is that we make God into a god of the gaps – a placeholder until we have a better understanding that fills it, rather like dark matter stands for what is not known but sensed to be present. It does though remind us that all of our pronouncements about God have a provisional nature to them, we may well have to change them. ‘Now we see through a glass, dimly, then we will see face to face’ (1 Corinthians 13:12). What is remarkable is that despite so many advances and giant leaps in understanding, faith persists. So many times God has been declared to be dead, an unnecessary ‘placeholder’ and a redundant idea, but God refuses to play dead. Faith in God is as alive today as it has ever been, but what is meant by God has changed from an old man in the sky to something much more nebulous and harder to grasp.

Imagination is our brain at play and it is how we explore reality. It is through play that children learn and explore the world, find out where the boundaries and what new possibilities there are. So if we are going to explore more deeply into God we have to allow our imagination to flourish. And here our first reading invites us to dream (Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18). Abram has a vision in the night of an ancient covenant-making ritual. Animals are cut in two and someone is invited to walk between the portions, in this case it is a flaming torch. The message is stark, if you break this covenant you will become like these portions of meat, cut in half and torn open. It is vivid and blunt. The bond that has been made in the covenant, unites so strongly that it affects our very being – break it and you break yourself. It is of course picture language and so much of faith is actually picture language, where we use what we can describe to talk about what we can’t. In this case carcasses to stand for the bond between Abram and God where breaking this will be like splitting your very self in two. This is the power of story and poetry to enter into the cracks of logic to lift our gaze and be inspired.

Here we find the power of myth, which our ancestors knew so well. Myths are not fairytales; they are stories trying to express a profound truth about the deeper mysteries of life using imaginative stories. The Book of Genesis begins with creation myths and these are good examples. The first one uses the image of a series of days and God making things, splitting waters, sending stars and planets into their orbit, bringing life into being and delighting in the task. No one, when it was written, thought this is actually how the world came into being, in just 6 days, they had no idea about it. It is an imaginative story to express a deep belief that God made the world, is the beginning and the end, the source and goal of creation.  Later a talking snake slithers and whispers into the heart bringing rebellion. This imaginative and rich story tells us that there are consequences to being creatures who know and can understand. To know comes with being mortal, being able to decide courses of actions which may bring destruction and upset. Here we confront what it means to be autonomous and not merely robots with artificial intelligence. Real intelligence is imaginative, creative and part of our mortal condition.

There are stories about creation being God’s flight of the imagination. Drawing pictures with an amazing colour pallet, modeling planets and creatures out of clay and sparkle; creation is a true work of creativity with space dust. Things leap, things fly, electrons buzz and breath is breathed into living beings who can move with autonomy, feel and be passionate, love and form such deep bonds. It is a wonderful, awe-inspiring world of beauty and marvel. This awe and wonder is the beginning of faith because from it and through it, through contemplating all there is and its intricate, dynamic playfulness, human beings start to ask questions and wonder at what might be. The imagination, leaping from what we know to what we think can be possible, is the place where creative spark is encountered and let loose. It is the place where faith and the deeper questions are born, because it is a place where we let our minds see something new and fresh, be opened to possibilities we would otherwise be closed to.

So today, with the nanny caught on a flying kite, somersaulting dolphins and a swim in an underwater magical world – a dive into the imagination – we enter the roots of faith. Creation is playful, though it can be dark at times, but it is also awe-inspiring and wonderful. The imagination is the gateway to the mystical and all that brings faith alive. It opens our minds to fresh possibilities. Creation is the product of God’s imagination so it should not surprise us that our faith is born in the same place.

Second Sermon in a series for Lent based on themes drawn from the film Mary Poppins Returns, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 17th March 2019

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About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus' (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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