Imagination: God’s Greatest Gift

By Eugene C. Scott

My mom was proof that, though humans were cast out and barred from the Garden, we took a piece of Eden with us, like dirt lodged under our fingernails. For nearly twenty-five years my mother lived in an ugly two-story brick apartment building in a part of the city that no longer had much going for it. No parks, few trees–buggy elms–and only the constant rush of cars going elsewhere surrounded her. Surely no garden.

Yet mom transformed that place. She had a wonderful imagination, an artist specializing in raising rose bushes. Every summer on the canvas of dirt between the apartments and where the cars nosed in to park she created a masterpiece of color and beauty. By mid July, red, yellow, white, burgundy, pink, and multicolored roses splashed their colors against the pale brick and rusted iron railing of that old building. Summer after summer people from all over the neighborhood streamed by to see what mom’s horticultural imagination had wrought.

When mom passed away in 2003, the whole neighborhood groaned in grief. For comfort, my family and I imagined mom, now healed of her emphysema, planting a rose garden in heaven, taking God’s best and giving it her own unique twist. Between tears we laughed and smiled at that picture.

Then at the memorial service, mom’s well-meaning and beloved pastor decided it was time to dispel that notion. We don’t know that there is gardening–or are even roses–in heaven, he said. He read a passage about heaven (I don’t remember which one) and told us heaven is not about continuing what we loved doing here but about being forgiven of our sins. He continued, Only what is true, not what is imagined can bring you comfort.

On one level he was right, of course. Even what we imagine heaven or God–or anything really wonderful–to be like will pale in light of God’s reality. My mom may well have gladly chucked her spade upon entering the Pearly Gates.

But . . .

Imagination is one of God’s greatest gifts. Imagine what life would be like without it (sorry).

Just think. Robert Adler imagined not having to get up from the couch to change the television channel. Viola, the remote control.

But seriously, you name it. If it exists, someone imagined it. Leif Enger’s surprising, glorious novel, “Peace Like a River,” “Star Wars,” the Internet, the artificial heart, my mom’s rose garden in the middle of a concrete jungle.

Imagination is also what infuses faith. As a matter of fact, faith would not be possible without God’s gift of imagination. By imagination I don’t mean only dreaming up Easter Bunnies. That’s only the starting place. I mean seeing something real that is not yet there–or is not there on the surface of things.

For example, some see the cross only as so much misused lumber or–today–mere jewelry. But Jesus imagined it as the ultimate instrument of healing. His death and resurrection made it so. Our God-given imaginations then let us see into the past as Jesus hung on that cross and at the same time gaze into the future as Jesus welcomes us back to the Garden.

This is the kind of imagination that thrilled atheist C. S. Lewis and made him see that “Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.” He read books, like George MacDonald’s fantasy, “Phantastes,” and found faith and Christ buried in the poetry and prose. His imagination was the tool God used to dig out those truths. Later, moving from atheism to belief in Christ, Lewis said his new faith came from having his imagination baptized. We know the end of that story. Lewis then used his baptized imagination to write stories that helped thousands believe in a God who came down into a weedy, overgrown garden to bring it back to its original state. Without an imagination Lewis, and you and I, would never believe.

Traditionally Lent is about fasting, giving up for a time what we think we have to help us yearn for and realize what we don’t yet believe we really do have. This Lent let God baptize your imagination. As Crystal Lewis sings, let God give you “beauty for ashes, strength for fear, gladness for mourning, peace for despair.”

God can and will show you the truth that he has planted beautiful roses even among the harsh, concrete reality of day-to-day life. As Paul said, God can do far more than we can hope or imagine.

So, what was that piece of the Garden, stuck under our fingernails, we took with us from Eden that day? Our ability to imagine what it once was and what it one day will be. And no matter what my mom’s pastor said, I can still imagine mom in the Garden–sleeves rolled up, dirt smeared face, smile a mile wide, pruning back a red rose. One day I’ll join her, I imagine.

Eugene C. Scott writes the Wednesday Neighborhood Cafe blog.  If you’re reading this on Facebook and you’d like to join the conversation, click here. Eugene co-pastors The Neighborhood Church in Littleton, CO

Beginning on March 13–the Sunday following Ash Wednesday–we will begin a Lenten series titled “Embrace: Discover, Desire . . . Jesus” at The Neighborhood Church.  During worship we will explore those things of God we can embrace and add to our lives as a response of love to Jesus.  These worship gatherings will also include hands-on opportunities to practice these things God asks us to add to our lives.  Join us.  See for worship times.


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4 responses to “Imagination: God’s Greatest Gift

  1. Georgie-ann

    What comes to mind is the difference between seeing God in “black & white” — i.e., via legalistic definitions — and seeing God in the splendor of full color. Since God is so huge and ultimately undefinable anyway — (although “God is Love” is good!) — perhaps every generation hungers and thirsts for that bit more of God that they can sense just beyond the currently accepted spiritual frontier. We humans are limited and partial — just doin’ and seein’ the best we can.

    I remember a very significant dream I had, as I was being spiritually pulled beyond the definitions of life that were accepted and practiced by my scientifically and atheistically inclined “modern” family (and the respected culture-of-the-day):

    They had just dug up a living bush from the garden soil and turned it upside-down. This was something that in actual fact they would NEVER EVER do! And they were shaking the dirt off the roots — (something that would kill the average bush, in many cases) — and very quizzically examining all these roots, seemingly not understanding what they were looking at. To them, something was “wrong.”

    I understood in the dream that the bush was “me growing in faith” at that time, and that they were trying to understand this “me” that was so strange to them, in this manner that was both dissecting and killing me at the same time. Well, I could surely relate to that!

    I came to respect that not all things pertaining to our life of faith are definable, or even viewable. These “roots of faith” had to be planted trustingly in a protective and nourishing medium that would allow for their life and creative growth to become secure and then flourish.

    How deep and strange are the ways of the Lord to the surface-y vision of poor mortals! Compassion can be very creative and Life-giving.

    Nice story, Eugene. My mother was an avid gardener as well. I like to think that the life and growth and colors and beauty of her beloved plant-life, spoke to her spirit of the miraculous realms of her Creator, God.

    • Georgie:

      Always love your responses. As you probably know, dreams like those often come to us to help us deal with a difficult reality. I have several dreams that-in strange images-explained a situation for me. Is that what yours did?

      I will quibble a bit that God is “ultimately undefinable anyway.” Some theologians have said that God is “totally other” than us, bigger, and ultimately beyond our understanding. The trouble with that idea is that we believe God communicates himself to us in Scripture and in lesser ways through creation, dreams, other people, and even through our imaginations. So God is not ultimately indefinable but our definitions of God are limited by God’s revelation of himself to us and our finite ability to grasp his revelation.

      Otherwise we are without hope. C.S. Lewis used the analogy of how adults communicate with infants and children. At the same time we use “baby talk” and simple words and images we also use full grown language and images to stretch them into what they will be. So it is with God’s communication to us as well.

      Thanks for the response and challenging conversation. Eugene

      • Georgie-ann

        Hi, Eugene!,…Sorry,…I like to condense and crunch words together, but it does become a little too cryptic at times,…I should have added undefinable ultimately “by mortals.” We can’t even look on God face to face and live, it is said, so how could we possibly give an ultimate definition covering it all? I always like “God is Love.” Works for me. But I think we’re just saying the same thing in different ways!

        Yes, it took me awhile actually to “process” that dream, but it was helpful in confirming that even though I was encountering difficulties (and pain) in life in my spiritual “search,” that in fact, I was heading in the right direction. God was confirming what the world was refusing to validate. (Kind of like growing up in Communist Russia as a believer.)

        Happy Ash Wednesday!,…I must be off!,…God Bless! (-:

      • No apology needed. I agree about the same thing in different ways. God bless you too.

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