Kids love imaginative play. They create new ways to interact with their world on playgrounds, in their bedrooms or in neighborhood backyards. They jump, flail their arms, fall in the grass, climb, get down on their knees and look at bugs, play dress up. They get sunburned, scrape their knees and have splinters pulled from their fingers, a small price for the fun of exploring. Imaginative play is essential to their maturation and growth.
Is imagination any less important to adults in our growth as Christians?
The Bible commands us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind (Matthew 22:37). We know the difference between the "right brained," or creative side, and "left brained," analytical side, description of brain function. We are to love God with both sides of our brain, including our imagination. Often we're suspicious of that faculty, concerned its use might lead us away from God. The Scriptures talk about the error of those who follow their own imaginations. "This is what the Sovereign Lord says: What sorrow awaits the false prophets who are following their own imaginations and have seen nothing at all!" (Ezekiel 13:3).
Even though one of God's gifts has been perverted does not mean it should be denigrated and shuffled off to the sidelines of our lives. Imagination allowed the skilled craftsmen who built the tabernacle to envision God's plans for its construction. They had to "see" it in their minds in order to create the tabernacle, bringing his plans to physical reality. Imagination and creativity are gifts from God we can trust, use, and enjoy in our lives for his service. We have to rediscover their power and use them effectively.
I'd like to offer some ways to recapture our important God-given skills, and to make room in our lives for imagination and creativity. Here are some suggestions for incorporating those gifts into our days:
1. Know that you already imagine and create. Think of all the ways you visualize your daily activities. You have tasks at work that you visualize performing. Then you create ways to accomplish them! If you get tired, you visualize a nap or an earlier bedtime as a welcome respite, and create space to do it. You schedule a day for yourself; you visualize working on a creative hobby that rejuvenates you. On the negative side, when we worry, we create mental pictures of a negative possibility, and those images create negative emotions of fear and distrust.
2. Practice observation skills that fuel your imagination. Buy a wildflower, bird, or tree identification book and practice noticing the characteristics of that segment of nature. Exactly what shade of pink/red/yellow is that petal? What is that bird's flight pattern? What does its call or song sound like? How do you distinguish one maple leaf from another? You could create a great family activity from these exercises. Paying attention to details makes you notice your surroundings, and noticing is a first step in interacting with your world in imaginative and creative ways.
3. Work on developing all your senses. What does a certain smell remind you of? I still remember what my grandmother's pantry smelled like: burlap, flour, and a hay scent carried in on jackets hung on a nail. What textures attract you? In northwest Pennsylvania where I live, during the autumn season the world is a cornucopia of textures: dried weeds and flowers, bark, thistles, crunchy leaves and frosted grass underfoot. What do they feel like? What do they sound like? Making associations between one thing and another (e.g. The jacket smells like _____, The thistle felt like _____) helps you think in images, the bridge builders of imagination. Those pictures help our eager listeners connect to our experiences by giving them connections to their own lives. Imagery adds zest to our conversations and helps us tell our stories.
4. Ask "what if" questions. Questions lead us in new directions. "What would happen if I _____?" "What would _____ look like/smell like/taste like/feel like/sound like if I _____?" "How can I do _____ differently?" Allow yourself the freedom to experiment, to take the time to creatively accomplish a task. Imagination broadens our perspective, including ways God, our Creator, can speak to or lead us. Perhaps he is waiting to open a new door, but we are so locked into the familiar, we aren't sensing his leading. Jesus asked many questions to generate creative thinking with his disciples. Curiosity is an essential element in imagination.
5. Allow an element of "play." Play allows for experimentation, trial and error in the daily grind. There's liberation in the sense that not all of life is determined by or encased in "right" or "wrong" decisions. For example, I tried rearranging my desk at work to include objects of beauty that I enjoy. I used flour instead of cornstarch in my homemade pie filling and discovered a new texture. I took a wrong turn on a bike trail and got lost for a while. I enjoyed the new scenery, and rose to the challenge of finding a new way back home.
Imagination and creativity allow us to take risks, even small ones, to experiment with this or that, to add some flavor and "juice" to our everyday routines.
Put on some music and dance.
Get out an old recipe and change some ingredients or dress up its presentation.
Approach a problem at work in a creative way.
Buy some drawing pencils and doodle, experimenting with shades and shapes and outlines.
You don't have to be "skilled" to enjoy imaginative and creative activities. The point is to be engaged—not that you become the next Van Gogh. Once we open our thinking to new ideas and possibilities, God will be able to breathe the fresh wind of his Spirit into our lives. Above all, imagination and creativity are gifts from God we can trust, use, and enjoy.
Lora Zill is a writer and artist from Pennsylvania.