Imagination vs. The Manual


Our oldest got his first Lego set for his 6th birthday. It's a big yellow Lego block filled with a bunch of different pieces in all sorts of different colors. EA and I intentionally chose this assortment versus getting him an actual Lego set. As much as he would have loved building Batman and Green Lantern spaceships to attack Sinestro (he has discovered this and already added it to his Christmas list), we wanted to give him something that would let his imagination explore more. That's the beauty of Legos. As long as you have the pieces, you are only limited by your imagination.

Of course the big box of classic assorted Legos still comes with a manual suggesting all of the things you can build. That's why presently sitting on our coffee table are two flowers, a train, a car, an ATV, a windmill, a tiger, an alligator, a toaster, and a ghost (plus a policeman and crook we later added). The manual is actually a good place to start. It helps him to learn the basics of Lego construction and demonstrates the wide variety of objects he can build.

A few times I have suggested that he can build anything he wants with his new Legos. He could try to create anything that his imagination dreams up. Thus far he has been hesitant and I haven't pushed him too much. I can understand the hesitancy. For starters, he put all of that effort into that wild assortment of objects. They look cool. Why would he want to dismantle them?

The manual provides an amount of certainty and comfort. He can look at a step-by-step process and there is a picture that shows exactly what the finished product will look like. Using your imagination takes you completely off the map. You don't know the steps. You don't know what it's going to look like. Sure it could be awesome, but it just as easily could look terrible. Why risk time and effort on what might be a sweet-looking robot when you can definitely have a toaster and a ghost? 

As I was thinking about it, that's really the question that haunts each of us. Isn't it? Life certainly doesn't have as sure a thing as a Lego manual. We don't see a step-by-step process and a picture for a certain career, finding God, or meeting the right person. Yet we still have some sort of plan or some sort of a picture to which we try to hew closely. If it's something that we have not seen, many of us are not willing to build it. We'll opt for the toaster and the ghost instead of the robot. And the toaster and ghost are perfectly acceptable. Yet I wonder if we were meant to build more than what we have seen.

This idea of our imaginations versus the manual touches many different areas of our lives. A purely practical example is the quagmire in which the GOP presently finds themselves. Their presumptive nominee is spouting off offensive and racist things all over the place. They're concerned but at the same time most are saying, "Well, gee, the manual says he's got the most delegates so...uh...I guess we have no choice but to support the toaster." My apologies for all the toasters that I have just offended with that comparison. 

It's the age old problem of "We have always done it that way."  It neuters institutions and stymies lives. It's not that all of the old ways are bad. In fact, our imaginations our indebted to the old ways. If the foundations of our unseen building projects aren't rooted in what we have learned then we'll likely end up with a pile of fallen bricks. At the same time, we need to have the courage to look at what we have, what's working, what's not, and dream it all up again.

All the time we are compromising the building plans that our imaginations have dreamed up because there is too much risk involved. Will we fail? Yes! Perhaps spectacularly. It could be a dumpster fire before we get close to what we're dreaming. It's possible that the robot we imagine never comes to fruition. Maybe you don't have all the pieces you need. Yet in the process we might learn something about ourselves and how to better build whatever may next come our way. Something happens when you chase after the unseen.

Chasing after the unseen reminds me of an area near and dear to my heart where imagination and the manual are in tug of war: the church. Again, there are a lot of wonderful things in the church. I could write an entire post about what I love about the church (and perhaps it would be good to sit down and do that), but it can sometimes be a place where imagination is stymied. I am not even talking about putting up lights, fog machines, and playing more modern music. Though those aspects can be beneficial in contexts (I've written before about how I modern music is my native language), it's really just putting a new coat of paint on an old system. It's not building the new robot, but re-building the toaster with flashier-colored bricks. 

But what can we learn from our nearly two thousand years of existence? What are pieces that are working? What are the bricks that we have forgotten? What might need a rest? What do our times of worship look like? How do we serve our community? How are we educating one another in the faith? And then, trusting in the Author of Creativity and the Unseen, what new thing might we build from all of those pieces? What would happen if we let our imaginations run? Would we fail? Yes! Perhaps spectacularly so. But it would also show the world that we aren't just building the same thing over and over. The spark of creation is still alive and well.

Right now, I'm glad that Jim is learning how to play with his Legos. They really are a fantastic toy. I don't even mind that he's sticking to the manual. But I hope there comes a day when his imagination begins to run wild and he'll see what new things he can build. I hope that for myself too.

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