Work Hard, At (Dragon) Play

Boy playing with dragons

Whatever you do, don’t breathe a word of this post to Gabe. He has no idea I took these pictures. He’d be mortified if he knew you knew that he did battle with a dragon yesterday.

Gabe started sixth grade last week and Gabe still works hard at his play. At imagination. And as much as I pray his imagination thrives until the day he dies, I’m aware that there probably won’t be too many more dragon battles.

That’s why I had wet eyes.

Never Laugh at a Live Dragon

I don’t laugh at dragons. Yesterday I almost cried, but I wouldn’t dare laugh. The full quote is “Never laugh at live dragons, Bilbo you fool! he said to himself and it became favorite saying of his later, and passed into a proverb.” If you haven’t guessed, it’s from The Hobbit.

Saturday night Gabe said he couldn’t put his figures away because he hadn’t finished the battle. He’d assembled the Playmobil warriors Friday morning. Then life took over, the fair and friends came, and the army waited, helmets on, swords in hand- for 48 hours on the couch in the back room.

Until Gabe woke early Sunday morning to do the great work of imagination: to make dragon and men do battle.

Too many of us grow up and we forget about imagination. We forget that we still need imagination to grow spiritually. Reality can be beaten, G.K. Chesterton said, with imagination.  I still believe it.

So last night when Gabe asked, not really out of the blue, “Mom do you think there really were dragons, that even breathed fire?” I paused.

“Gabe, I think maybe there were.”

Not Too Old Too Imagine

You’re not too old. A sixth-grader is not too old to fight a dragon battle and you’re not too old to set your mind on things unseen. You are not too old to imagine. In fact, you might say, that’s part of your “calling” if you’re a Christian. It’s what we’re supposed to do.

Because imagination is not mere pretending. Merriam-Webster says it is the power of the mind to form images of things not present to the senses or within the actual experience of the person involved. Imagination is the ability to form an image in the mind, to see in the mind’s eye what is not present to the physical eyeTo these ears, that sounds remarkably Pauline!

  • As in 2 Corinthians 4:18: Look not to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen. For the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.
  • Or Ephesians 1:18: Having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints. 
  • And Colossians 3:2: Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 

You are not too old for this.

Narnia’s No Dream

One of my first and favorite JoyPrO posts was about imagination. It started with a 4 year old Sam making a face out of flower petals. But it ended with one of my favorite scenes in all of the chronicles of Narnia.

Eustace, Jill and Puddleglum the lanky, languid Marshwiggle are closing in on their rescue of Prince Rilian. The Prince had been captured and held hostage by the evil Queen of the Underworld who had him under her spell, believing there was no other world.

The Queen’s

…steady, monotonous thrumming…you didn’t notice after a few minutes. But the less you noticed it, the more it got into your brain and your blood.  This also made it hard to think.  

Narnia, said the witch thrumming, is all a dream.  There is no sun.  The lamp is the real thing, the rest is a children’s tale. And Aslan?  Why, he’s only a big, make-believe cat. (The Silver Chair, p. 182)

Then, just as the enchantment was almost complete, Puddleglum did a very courageous thing. He stomped his webbed Marshwiggle foot in the Queen’s enchanted fire. And there’s nothing like a good shock of pain for dissolving certain kinds of magic. 

Live Like A Narnian

Puddleglum’s mind became perfectly clear, and this is what he said:

Suppose we have made it up.  All I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seems a good deal more important than the real ones.  Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right.  I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it.  I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.  (p. 190-191).

If you’re “into” Narnia, maybe you’ve already adopted this  as your battle cry: Live like a Narnian!

Maybe you’ve already make it your battle to shake off dull sloth and joyful rise, and set your imagination on things above.

That is labor! Some of the most effortful work I do happens the first few minutes after my alarm clock goes off.

Do Battle (For Joy) Every Morning

Exertion is just as necessary for us as it was for Puddleglum if we’re to break free from the evil enchantment of the Underworld. We need to exert our minds to form images of what we can’t see right now. Imagination can break the spell of worldliness.

Gabe did battle with dragon Sunday morning. Every morning I have to do my own battle.

Most often it’s against discouragement, selfishness, and the pervasive pride of self-pity. If you wage war in bed first thing in the morning, you’re in good company.

John Piper explains the fight of faith as a fight for joy in the Lord; a battle “to continually recognize, see, savor, receive Jesus as more valuable” than anything in this world.

I get up every morning and fight that fight. Every morning, that’s my war. Am I wanting to look at Twitter before I look at Jesus? Sounds stupid. That’s how stupid sin is. So every morning, there’s war in the Piper household. It’s not against my family; it’s against me, and my old man that I have to reckon dead over and over again (Ephesians 4:22) and pray that the Holy Spirit that would poured out on me, that my eyes would be opened; I would see and savor Christ as supreme. That’s war. That’s called the life of faith. Faith is seeing, savoring, the supreme treasure of Christ.

Give Thanks First

George Mueller, a great man of faith, famously said,

Above all things see to it that your souls are happy in the Lord. Other things may press upon you…But I deliberately repeat, it is of supreme and paramount importance that you should seek above all things to have your souls happy in God Himself…Day by day, seek to make this the most important business of your life.

It’s effortful. Other things will press upon you. But God’s grace has been teaching me to make this my first labor each day. So, I thank God- sometimes I force my selfish self- to thank God for 5 things before I roll out of bed.

That’s usually how my battle with the joy-stealing dragon begins.

Labor Each Day: Imagine Dragons. Fight For Joy.

G. K. Chesterton had a way with words. Some of my favorite quotes come from him, including this one: “Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.

I did some digging and the quote is not exact. But it seems to be based on this bit from his essay “The Red Angel“: 

Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.

Gabe was St. George on Sunday. Defeating the evil and the ugly. I was him this Labor Day- fighting evil and ugly- and pray I’ll be everyday.

But defeating an evil dragon is work. It’s noisy work sometimes.

Can You Handle The Noise?

After I snapped the pictures yesterday, I walked in, Bible and journal in hand,

Gabe, would you mind if I sit out here and read for a little while?

I was ready to leave and give him battle space, the pause was so long. Then the shrug,

Well mom, if you can handle the noise, it’s okay. 

I sighed the happiest of sighs. Doing dragon battle is noisy, but Gabe wasn’t ashamed.

Oh yeah, Gabe, I can handle the noise.

In fact, I love the noise. Because it’s the noise of real life.

Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God.

Colossians 3:1-3, NLT

Have Sympathy

The quickest way to a heart is through a wound.

Weep with those who weep.

Romans 12:15b

The ring of the phone didn’t stop the sobs. But the compassion I heard in Mary’s voice did.

How are you doing, Ab? Please know my heart was breaking for you the second Sarah shared her happy news. I am so sorry you haven’t been able to share news of your own. I love you. I’m praying. 

Mary just knew. She wasn’t even in boat. She had two gorgeous kids of her own. But twelve years older and a state away, Mary still felt the ache of my empty womb. She knew my pain. She knew that after five years of trying, the news of each sister and friend and sister’s friend who conceived was a huge blow.

Feeling Sympathy

Some people naturally bleed sympathy. They’re the ones who know just when to hug and don’t pat your back when they do and always have tissues and ice packs and band aids all ready. They’re the ones like Mary. Pricked by others’ pain, they bleed compassion.

Our word sympathy comes from two Greek words. The first means to be affected or to feel something. The other word simply means with. Sympathy, therefore, means to feel something with. It might include words, as did Mary’s. But sympathy always goes deeper than words.

Sympathetic friends don’t often say, “I know how you feel,” since they truly do know how you feel, they know it’s not so helpful to say it. Lots of times, sitting in silence is truest mark of the sympathetic soul. Job’s friends sat in silence with him for seven days and seven nights, because they saw his suffering was great. And more silence might have been golden.

Henri J.M. Nouwen must have had sympathetic friends too. He describes them, the ones 

[W]ho, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares. (Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life)

Replaying Mary’s message in my mind chokes me up still. She left that message fifteen years ago. And that’s not to mention all the times in that decade of waiting when Mary sat silent beside me. Neither of us even knew if God would ever open my womb, if I’d ever share that happy news.

Regardless, sympathy melts hearts faster than summer sun melts ice cream and Mary locked her place in my heart with a single phone call. With and without words, Mary walked beside me in that barren land and her sympathy went straight to my heart.

Maybe you are one of those sympathetic souls like Mary who ooze comfort and sympathy.

I’m not naturally that way.

All Call To Compassion

I’m Irish for sure. But I’m German, too. And wir Deutsche- well, you know what they say. We don’t wear our emotions on our sleeve and we keep a stiff upper lip. And we expect others to, too.

But German ancestry aside, sympathetic simply isn’t in the top ten words I’d pick to describe myself. In parenting- and I fear in friendship-I’m more of the deal with it type. You’ve made your bed. You lie in it. Bear up. Carry on. Not that I don’t give hugs and cry with friends who cry, from time to time. But it doesn’t always come naturally.

But that doesn’t really matter, if it’s natural or not, because all Christians are called to it. In Ephesians 5:29-30 Paul describes how Christ nourishes and cherishes us, his church, because we are members of his body. And If one member suffers, all suffer together

In light of Christ’s concern for his Body, it’s no wonder that Peter the Rock on whose confession the church was built, would sound this clarion call that we have tender concern for each other. Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart and a humble mind. All of you. Hard or easy, natural or not. Have sympathy.

And sympathy has its rewards.

Sympathy’s Rewards

Is it bad to say, Have sympathy so? To motivate compassion by sharing its perks? I’m not sure, but the God who created us knows us inside and out. And He did build in some perks for his Body to have sympathy.

1. Having sympathy pleases God.
Our compassion for God’s other children, makes our Heavenly Father happy, Sympathy gently mortifies our selfishness. Having sympathy means we are like Timothy, of whom Paul gave this high praise, I have no one like him, who is genuinely concerned for your welfare

Having sympathy looks a lot like the Son of God. Hebrews 4:15 describes Jesus as a sympathetic high priest. God loves to see us looking more and more like Jesus. Sympathy conforms us to the image of his Son.

2. Having sympathy can keep pain from getting proud
Oswald Chambers, author of My Utmost For His Highest famously wrote, Self-pity is of the devil, and if I wallow in it I cannot be used by God for his purpose in the world. 
Pastor Chris Brooks recently observed that fractious separatist movements start when people don’t get sympathy. I don’t fully understand #BlackLivesMatter, but probably somewhere back there was a lack of sympathy. Rather than enable self-pity and victimhood, sitting with a suffering soul might actually reduce the odds of both. Sorrows shared are sorrows halved. 

3. Having sympathy forges strong friendships. 
I will never forget Mary’s sympathy. Odds are, your closest friends have sat silent or cried with you. They’ve shown you sympathy. Genuine sympathy builds trust like not much else can. 

And strong friendships are are platforms for influence. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. If the time should come when hard words must come, a foundation of love has already been laid.

The quickest way to a heart, I’ve heard it saidis through a wound.

Commanding A Feeling

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 1 Peter 3:8

How can Peter do that? How can he command us to have a feeling? How can you force yourself to care for someone else’s concerns? Behavior? Sure. We can do the deed: Show hospitality. Give to needy. Pray.  

But feelings? Can we change those? Can we possibly muster up feelings of compassion and concern and pity?

We can. If God commands, it, he he will enable it. We work out as he works in. Nature can be changed when God is involved. Pastor H. C. Atwool explains,

There is nothing truer than the common saying that habit is a sort of second nature, and we all know that we have it in our power to contract very much such habits as we wish. This fact is at the bottom of all our plans for bringing up our children, that is to say, if we try to bring them up after any sensible plan at all…The fact of being less disposed to feel for other people is no excuse for not trying to do it. We many cultivate it like any other habit, only far more effectually by the grace of God, till it almost seems natural to us to have compassion one of another.  

J.H. Jowett preached in England at the end of the 19th century. He reached the same conclusion when he considered Peter’s all call for us to have a feeling which doesn’t always come so easy. He describes a sort of two-part process- two God-ordained means, if you will, to grow sympathy.

These can take us from Be strong and carry on, to having genuine sympathy.

Commune And Imagine

Let our piety be the basis of our pity; let our imagination extend our vision; and from this area of hallowed outlook there will arise rivers of gracious sympathy. 

John H. Jowett

1. Commune with God. That’s the first step in growing sympathy in our own souls. When we abide in his Word,  the Holy Spirit renews us. He is our Refiner and Counselor and Comforter. The Helper is with us and His purpose, Jowett reminds, is to renew us from the inside out.

“We are renewed by His Spirit in the inner man.” The Refiner renews our spiritual substance, takes away our drossy coarseness, and makes our spirits the ministers of refinement. And what are the conditions of obtaining refinement? The conditions are found in communion: “His Spirit in the inner man”: it is fellowship between man and his Maker; it is the companionship of the soul and God. All lofty communion is refining! All elevated companionships tend to make me chaste! We can see its ministry in the lives of the saints. Lay your hand upon any one, man or woman, who walks in closest fellowship with the risen Lord, and you will find that the texture of their life is as the choicest porcelain, compared with which all irreligious lives are as coarse and common clay. In fellowship we find the secret of spiritual refinement, and in spiritual refinement are found the springs of sympathy. 

So, the first “step” to having more sympathy is taking time with God. The more time we spend in Christ’s company the more we become like him. Our pity, our sympathy, is born of our piety. 

But then there is this second step. It might surprise you.

2. Work your imagination. Disciplined imagination grows sympathy in our souls. We must use the power God has given us to imagine what our eyes have not seen. Mary must have worked get imagination so hard, to sympathize so tenderly with me.

“Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.” Such vision calls for the exercise of the imagination. “Put yourself in his place.” Such transposition demands the ministry of the imagination…Imagination is second sight. Imagination is the eye which sees the unseen. Imagination does for the absent what the eye does for the present. Imagination does for the distant what the eye does for the near. 

Then Jowett gives an example of putting sanctified imagination to work. Let’s say we read a sad fact, say a newspaper headline. It might say,

 “Total of patients treated in the Queen’s Hospital… 31,064.” The eye observes the surface fact and passes on, and pity is unstirred. The imagination pauses at the surface, lingers long, if perchance she may comprehend something of its saddening significance. Imagination turns the figures over; 31,064! Then these afflicted folk would fill twenty buildings, each of them the size of the chapel at Carrs Lane. 

Says Imagination, “I will marshal the pain-ridden, bruised crowd in procession, and they shall pass my window and door, one a minute, one a minute, one a minute! How long will it take the procession to pass? Twenty-one days!” But what of the units of the dark and tearful procession? Imagination gets to work again. Have you a child down? They are like him. Have you a brother falling, or a sister faint and spent? They are like them. Have you known a mother torn and agonised with pain, or a father crushed and broken in his prime? They are like him…This is how refined imagination works, and, while she works, her sister, sympathy, awakes and weeps!  

In some ways, it’s embarrassingly obvious. But how many of us are oblivious or aloof to others’ pain? We grow our sympathy by spending time with our sympathetic High Priest, who is also our friend and our Lord. And then we get intentional about imagining what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes.

It really is that simple.

The more we do it, the more sympathy we have. The easier it will be to weep with those who weep about things we’ve never even thought, much less, cried about.

And, God knows, at one time or another we’ve all needed sympathy.

*        *       *        *        *    

Paul told the Corinthian church that the Father of mercies and God of all comfort comforts us so that we can comfort others in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. Jowett wrote“God does not comfort us to make us comfortable, but to make us comforters.” 

That’s staggering. God comforts us, sympathizes with us, so that we can comfort others. Timothy Keller wrote, “Christ literally walked in our shoes and entered into our affliction. Those who will not help others until they are destitute reveal that Christ’s love has not yet turned them into the sympathetic persons the gospel should make them.”

When we abide in him, and train our imaginations to really ponder the pain of others, then we get beyond ourselves and sympathize with others. We allow the gospel to shape us.

And we look a little more like Jesus.

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.

Isaiah 53:4a

Not too Old

“Reality can be beaten with enough imagination.”  -Mark Twain

If your imagination is starved, do not look back to your own experience; it is God whom you need. Go right out of yourself, away from the face of your idols, away from everything that has been starving your imagination. Rouse yourself, and deliberately turn your imagination to God.  -Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for his Highest, February 10

Did you wake up bleary-eyed, weary this morning? 

Some days I do. Some days my mind’s eye is starved dim. Forty feels old and dull when these eyes are blurred with sleep. My imagination must be roused. 

Maybe it was the turn to March and winter’s-end wanderlust. And Lottie Lies Among the Flowers trilled by a tender young lass. All abask in laundry nook sunshine even as a fixture from church fades into glory.

Then, the day’s reading: And He will circumcise your hearts and the heart of your offspring. And we will return and hold fast and obey. And the LORD will take great delight in this; God will gather, restore, and go with his people (Deuteronomy 30).

Vision cleared vivid; I saw the dragon in the clouds. 

What wondrous love is this, O my soul? And can it be?

Imagination, Spirit-fed full. The Spirit and the Word gave new sight. Revived; no longer starved and bleary-eyed. I look right-out-of myself and see things unseen. Eternal unseen things. Imagination turns-is turned?- to see the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. Aroused awake, with child’s keen eyes I saw

“A Second Childhood.” 

-G.K. Chesterton, The Collected Poems of G.K. Chesterton 

When all my days are ending
And I have no song to sing,
I think that I shall not be too old
To stare at everything;
As I stared once at a nursery door
Or a tall tree and a swing.

Wherein God’s ponderous mercy hangs
On all my sins and me,
Because He does not take away
The terror from the tree
And stones still shine along the road
That are and cannot be.

Men grow too old for love, my love,
Men grow too old for wine,
But I shall not grow too old to see
Unearthly daylight shine,
Changing my chamber’s dust to snow
Till I doubt if it be mine.

Behold, the crowning mercies melt,
The first surprises stay;
And in my dross is dropped a gift
For which I dare not pray:
That a man grow used to grief and joy
But not to night and day.

Men grow too old for love, my love,
Men grow too old for lies;
But I shall not grow too old to see
Enormous night arise,
A cloud that is larger than the world
And a monster made of eyes.

Nor am I worthy to unloose
The latchet of my shoe;
Or shake the dust from off my feet
Or the staff that bears me through
On ground that is too good to last,
Too solid to be true.

Men grow too old to woo, my love,
Men grow too old to wed;
But I shall not grow too old to see
Hung crazily overhead
Incredible rafters when I wake
And I find that I am not dead.

A thrill of thunder in my hair:
Though blackening clouds be plain,
Still I am stung and startled
By the first drop of the rain:
Romance and pride and passion pass
And these are what remain.

Strange crawling carpets of the grass,
Wide windows of the sky;
So in this perilous grace of God
With all my sins go I:
And things grow new though I grow old,
Though I grow old and die.” 

Some days I wake up feeling old. It’s too much work to see, I say. I need a rousing Helper to turn my gaze from me away. Otherwise the eyes stay dim; imagination starves that day. I’ve grown too old to see. 

Do you feel too old and dim, too tired and frail to look beyond the fall?  To dull to be awestruck by the sheer impossibility of being alive at all

Good news. 

If you’re in Christ, you’re not. 

“No eye has seen, nor ear has heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him,”
–These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit.
1 Corinthians 2:9-10