Someone observed that in these extraordinary lockdown circumstances, the days tend to drag on, but the weeks fly by. That’s certainly how ‘College time’ has felt to me. On the one hand, the term seemed to have stretched into forever. There are memories of the life ‘before’ with the usual intensity of the beginning of the new learning season, making sure everybody settles in OK and the learning can start in earnest. Then there were our first conversations about the possible challenges looming ahead. I remember the mornings together (in the classroom! queueing for a drink! mingling around! huddling together for our prayer times!) when we reflected on the possible sea change facing the church locally and globally. As staff, we put mechanisms in place for switching to a different mode of teaching and learning. We held our Open Day just 24 hours before the university announced that the premises were to be closed to face-to-face teaching.
But here is the thing: although we were able to describe what may likely happen, and indeed prepare for it in as much detail as possible, truly imagining those changes was a much more difficult task. That was true until those changes took place, and suddenly we were all inhabiting the ‘new normal’. At that point our imagination had to catch up with the new reality.
Which it did, as smoothly as possible. We moved to real-time classes and meetings online, many of us staring at computer screens for most of the day. Exhausting as they felt at times, those screens have also been a source of life and support in the midst of restricted movement, especially for those painfully aware of their sudden isolation. We ‘gathered’ for classes, for prayers and also for informal social times. It was tough at times, especially when people fell ill, struggled with combining studies with other tasks suddenly thrust upon them, experienced various losses and wondered how on earth they were going to finish all the assignments. It was also fun at other times, as we virtually visited each others’ homes and chatted about daily habits, experimented with our virtual backgrounds, and practiced all sorts of silliness necessitated by the demands of the day.
And then, it was suddenly over. On May 21st, the Ascension Day, we gathered online one more time to give thanks for the past academic year, and to pray especially for those who have completed their studies and were now trying to imagine their next steps in these uncertain times.
It got me thinking of Walter Brueggemann’s encouragement to practice subversive, prophetic imagination—or indeed, re-imagination. Our imaginations are so easily captured by what surrounds us: by the limitations of today and by the story which is being told and re-told by the principalities and powers (or empires of this world, to use Brueggemann’s language). And yet we are called to live by another narrative, to inhabit God’s story, which requires a serious and continuous exercise in re-imagination. It is the same kind of imagination that was offered both by the prophets and the gospel of Jesus Christ: a picture of a new world that is possible; a message that the world can be different; a call to a new life that is willed by God.
I suspect that it is this kind of prophetic re-imagination that we greatly need in these long days and short weeks, even as things slowly start changing again. We have already been jolted out of our ‘old normal’, and whatever is ahead will feel—and be—different. Can we resist the temptation to long for things to be ‘just like they were before’, and can we, even through grief, anger or apathy, begin to discern the new thing which God is creating (Is 43), the new that comes in Christ (2 Cor 5)? Nothing is beyond the reach of that newness, of that re-imagined reality. It includes our politics as well as our involvement in church life. It is about our inner life and our centeredness as well as it is about various ways we may reach out and connect with others, however close or far they may be from us. That re-imagination involves looking at our past differently, so that today can be lived differently too. And it certainly involves holding onto, clinging, yearning for the vision of God’s realm which Jesus came to announce. It may not be here yet in its fullness, but its shoots are certainly here, and there, and everywhere. Prophetic imagination is not under lockdown: it is ever free, and it makes visible to us that which is seen by the eye of God.