Saturday, 2 August 2014

A good story, hymn or poem stimulates through imagination

The words were to a well-known hymn from the United Church’s Voices United.

My life flows on in endless song,


above earth's lamentation.

I hear the sweet, though far off hymn

that hails a new creation.

Below the words was a black and white picture of a newborn child. The poster of the projected image in social media asked if this wasn’t a powerful way of communicating the Christian message.

The discussion about the relevance of using projection for singing in Christian worship has been ongoing for years.

It’s a highly polarizing conversation, with deep and strong feelings on either side. I won’t repeat the arguments here, except to suggest that I believe we are really talking about the difference between communication and imagination.

Communication tells us information. In the case of the hymn and image, it points out that the far-off sound of a child crying at birth is a sign of the creation of new life and a way of understanding God in creation.

But the image didn’t connect with me, at all.

As I lay in bed this morning I heard the sound of birds in the trees; owls and then bluejays and then crows. I heard the sound of surf crashing on the beach of Lake Huron and I knew that forces far stronger than me were at work in the world. This morning I knew would find that the sand would have a new configuration, a new creation, as I walked along the shore.

That’s imagination.

The hymn is called "How Can I Keep From Singing". It dates from 1869 and was written by Robert S. Lowrey. The third verse was added in 1957, as a tribute to those who were imprisoned for their political views in the US in during the McCarthy era.


When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,

and hear their death knells ringing:

when friends rejoice both far and near,

how can I keep from singing?

In prison cell and dungeon vile

our thoughts to them are winging:

when friends by shame are undefiled,

how can I keep from singing?

The hymn was also one of the favourites sung in the 1960's during the American civil rights struggle among those who were jailed with Martin Luther King.

None of that history and story could be communicated by any kind of projected image. Yet the story and the hymn together stimulate the imagination to greater things.

I suspect that is what resonates with Canadians when they see the images of the Group of Seven and especially our own Tom Thompson. His images stimulate our imagination of what might be and recall for us that which we have seen, even in passing.

I remember the first time I saw Tom Thompson’s sketch of Lake Scugog. It’s not one of his more notable paintings but it resonated with me. It touched my soul because I not only knew the place from were he had painted it, I recognized the colours and the background. I was drawn in and drawn back into my memory and my imagination for a few glorious moments.

That is what a good hymn, poem, story or painting does for us. It draws us in and stimulates our imagination. It takes us beyond communication. It takes us out of ourselves into something and someplace special. Losing our imagination by substituting communication is a real risk for us in our data-centred world. We lose our imagination and all that it gives us at our peril.

Projection communicates, but does not stimulate. Our imagination dies. We are the poorer.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County, Cable 53.