Giving Away An "A"
At the New England Conservatory of Music, America's oldest and arguably most prestigious music college, a group of thirty students nervously gathered in class, one Friday in September.
Each student was there to pursue their graduate studies in the art of musical performance, and each was well aware of the high calibre of musicianship that the others possessed. The room was palpable with fearful anticipation, with an attitude of competition already beginning to birth.
The professor of the course, Benjamin Zander, was an accomplish conductor and cellist. He was also well aware that his reputation preceded him - and his presence in the room could cause these young students to freeze in fear and limit themselves to playing only the safest compositions - playing within themselves, to avoid failure.
Over the past years, the competition between students, the prestige of the school and the unrelenting quest for these musicians to achieve an A grade had limited their creativity and connections. Frustrated by this, Zander took a bold and innovative new stance as he addressed this group of thirty.
""Each student in this class will get an A for the course, however, there is one requirement that you must fulfil to earn this grade: Sometime during the next two weeks, you must write me a letter dated next May, which begins with the words, 'Dear Mr. Zander, I got my A because ... ,' and in this letter you are to tell, in as much detail as you can, the story of what will have happened to you by next May that is in line with this extraordinary grade."
Despite some initial confusion and protests, Zander carried on with the course. The students continued to practice, participate and learn - but all under the knowledge that they already had an A. And over the next twelve months, these students displayed an astounding level of improvement, improvisation, creativity and collaboration. Removed from the pressure of earning the grade, these students were free to live and play as A students - and live into this new reality.
One student of Zander's, a young man from Taiwan, reflected on the experience in a profoundly simple yet insightful way, saying: "In Taiwan, I was Number 68 out of 70 student. I come to Boston and Mr. Zander says I am an A. Very confusing. I walk about, three weeks, very confused. I am Number 68, but Mr. Zander says I am an A student . .. I am Number 68, but Mr. Zander says I am an A. One day I discover much happier A than Number 68. So I decide I am an A."
A Flying Imagination
As I think over this story and the comments of this young Taiwanese student, I can't help but note the similarity between Benjamin Zander's gift of the A and the dynamic unfolding of grace that is so central to the Christian faith. Both are free, both are unmerited - but even more exciting - both open up new possibilities of living that begin in our imaginations.
If our memory is how we make sense of the past, then our imagination is how we plan for the future. Mysterious, intangible and often neglected in our rationalistic Western tradition, the imagination is a powerful force for changing our future action and worlds. Although semi-Platonic in his language, Russian novelist Vladimir Nabakov expresses the dynamism of the imagination beautifully, "Our imagination flies - we are its shadow on the earth."
But what value is the imagination to a world of Ebola and ISIS? How pragmatic is the imagination - and what use is it?
Dreaming with Habbakuk
At first glance, our ability to picture and create new futures seems about as helpful as whistling in the dark. It may lift our spirits - but beyond that, it does not make any real difference. Yet even a casual reading of Scripture will see that one of God's primary modes of transformation is through engaging with our imaginations.
Habbakuk is a prime example of this. A mysterious figure with little historical information known about him, Habbakuk was a prophet in Judah before their exile to Babylon. As he looked around Jerusalem, he saw the wicked people prospering through their greed - and cried out to God for an answer.
God's answer was not what he expected. God told Habbakuk that he was sending a nation to destroy Jerusalem, enslave the people and deport them into captivity. Habbakuk is stunned - what is God thinking? But then God speaks again, pronouncing a series of woes on the wicked people, that capture the imagination and speak of another reality.
God invites Habbakuk to imagine a future that God already sees. Habbakuk is captivated by this picture - of where the wealthy wicked are actually poor; the corrupt leaders are actually powerless; the sexual player is actually disgraced and ashamed. His eyes don't see this truth around him, but his inspired imagination perceives a new future, that transforms his actions in the present.
At the conclusion of this experience, Habbakuk responds with one of the most imaginative statements in the Old Testament:
"Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior."
The prophets are full of this transformative imagination, where future judgment and restoration are spoken into the present, with colourful symbols, emotive realities - all opening doors to new possibilities. This is an invitation to a social, collective imagination - for all to come and participate in an alien way of living, that challenges the assumed reality that is around Israel.
Choosing The Real Reality
Jesus follows in this grand tradition, with much of his teachings falling into the realm of the imagination. We see ourselves turning a cheek after being hit, instead of clenching our fists. We see ourselves rushing out from a church service mid-song, seeking reconciliation with someone we have wronged. We see ourselves carrying a cross, dragging it around our daily duties.
And alternatively, we picture ourselves as blind, shells of a human, as we continue to feast on the sickly sweet lies of lust. We see our wealth - our cars, shares and careers - rust and rot away. We see illness and pain as an opportunity to respond with grace and faith; not as a punishment.
The imagination of our world is a behemoth - it has conquered our minds so much, it often feels like the only way - like reality. Sex and money are gods; the powerful inherit the earth; he who knows the most wins.
But God offers a compelling alternative - a subversive, gracious imagination that whispers amidst the noise - and invites us to see reality as it really is, with a new future and a new possibility now, to begin living into.
Jeremy is a student and Innovation Consultant (www.jeremysuisted.com) who talks a better game than he plays.
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