John Lennon’s Imagine was very popular when I lived in Japan over twenty years ago. I’d hum along when I heard it playing in department stores –after all, it was in English. I could understand it. One day, I listened more closely to the words and realized I had been merrily singing along with the phrase, so wistfully sung, about “no religion, too.”
Wait. No religion? At that point in my life, I had just gone through a bit of a faith shake-up. Living alone in Japan, I was learning for myself what I truly believed in. And what I was finally learning was that I didn’t just believe in God–I could truly and actually depend on him. Even in very difficult times, I could trust him. The further I get from those days, some of which seemed so dark, the clearer I can actually see the many ways God was with me and how he has used that time to make my life what it is today.
There are times, however, when it is tempting to say with John Lennon something to the effect of, “If only there was no religion! Then, there’d be peace!” This week was one of those times. I learned that one of my neighbors was literally caught up in a recent hostage situation in the Philippines. Really. Muslim extremists were trying to take over the part of the Philippines that they were visiting, and they were stuck in a house for over two weeks with only a bag of rice to eat. They could hear occasional gun shots and knew people were being hurt and killed. They didn’t dare leave the house. I read in an article that the terrorists would stop people on the street, and if they couldn’t quote from the Koran, they were taken away. It was happening at the same time as the very dramatic and highly publicized and terrible situation at a mall in Kenya–again, with Muslim extremists choosing violence–and so it didn’t make the news as much as that event. All in the name of religion.
Before we go shaking our fingers, however, people who have studied church history know that Christians don’t have nearly a spotless record, either. The Inquisition. Witch hunts. The Crusades. Child abuse by priests. The list of wrongs done in the name of many religions could go on and on. Would “no religion” solve the world’s problems, like John Lennon was suggesting?
JK Rowling is one of the world’s best “imaginers” today. Anyone who has read through Book 7 of the Harry Potter series can’t miss the Christian themes of sacrifice and resurrection as she imagined them in the wizarding world. In a commencement speech at Harvard University a few years ago, she said that imagining, asking “What if?” is not just for authors, but for everyone. Basically, if you can see from someone else’s “point of view,” you can imagine what it feels like to be hungry, or scared, or opressed. You will be more empathetic and generous with your time and money and talents. You can change the world.
Going one step further, what if we realized that everyone, including the extremists, are literally made in the image of God, as the Bible says? That we’ve been commanded to love them, our neighbors, as ourselves? (See the Sept. 15th blog post, “Everyone is Everywhere,” for a good reason why we can all consider ourselves neighbors, no matter where we live). Following God doesn’t seem very easy, then. Wouldn’t John Lennon’s way be easier? There’s a catch, though, with that choice. What if God, who is so nonchalantly dismissed in the song, actually exists and desires a relationship with us, and deserves our worship?
Like I asked myself to imagine before writing Bon Voyage, Sophie Topfeather, What if there is an actual God who fashioned a great horned owl’s wings so exquisitely? What if that God can communicate with his creation? What if that God wants us to trust him? What if that God loves us so much that he sent his only Son, Jesus, to literally die for us?
God generously gave us Jesus, and then generously gave us the freedom to choose him or not. What if everyone, everywhere, gave all people the same love and the same freedom? Now that’s a world to imagine!