Christopher Wren was an English scientist and mathematician. He was also a distinguished architect. He is best known for designing 51 churches. That includes rebuilding St. Paul’s cathedral after London was leveled in the great fire of 1661. There is a story about Wren that came from the rebuilding of St. Paul’s. The story has been passed along as a parable, which has taken various forms, and which you may have heard before.
One morning, walking to work, Wren saw some scaffolding and stopped to ask three individuals what they were doing.
Wren asked the first worker, “What are you doing?” The worker replied, “I’m laying bricks.” He asked the second one, “What are you doing? and got a different answer. The worker responded, “I’m putting up a wall.” He asked the third worker, “What are you doing?” and got yet another answer. This worker said with a gleam in the eye, “I’m building a cathedral to God.” (multiple sources: www.thecathedralinstitute.com/2012/05/13/the-recovering-bricklayer/, https://storlietelling.com/2013/08/14/bricks-walls-cathedrals-a-story-bi...)
How would you answer if asked, “What are you doing?” What are you doing as a member or friend of the church? What are you doing in terms of creating a home life or and in your work life? Are you laying bricks, putting up walls, or building a cathedral?
The three workers who Wren spoke to were all doing the same job. The difference among them is a difference of perspective. Their answers reflect the difference between, on the one hand, being focused on a task without a sense of a larger goal, and, on the other, being able to imagine a larger vision for one’s action. In some ways, the story reflects the difference between being mired in the mundane and being inspired by the sublime.
To hold out that larger vision requires exercising imagination. It means seeing what is not yet there and possibly may never be. Having a vision is sometimes described as the intentional practice of imagination. Bringing the practice of imagination to what we do can motivate and inspire us—particularly when we might otherwise feel discouraged, challenged, bored or beleaguered. Imagination can lift our eyes from the mundane.
I have to remind myself sometimes that when I am doing chores or projects that I don’t like to do that there is a larger purpose for what I’m doing. I had some work done on my kitchen recently. Some of it was to make needed repairs, and some for aesthetic reasons. In my mind, the project was small because my kitchen is pretty small.
It ended up being more work than I anticipated. There were far more steps along the way than I realized there would be. There were a lot more tasks and details that required my attention than I had expected. Looking at pictures in magazines and on Pinterest and Houzz (pronounced HOWZ) was fun. But trying to get quotes from different contractors almost caused me to give up. Actually, trying to get contractors to return my phone calls was the most challenging part.
There were a few points in the process when I thought maybe I should cut some corners because it felt easier than getting all the work done. I didn’t account for how long it would be from when I began the process to actually completing the project. Nor did I realize that such a seemingly small project would involve so many days of contractors in and out of my house.
Listening to demolition, sawing, and hammering quickly grew old. As they were putting in the flooring I was attempting to work on this sermon. So I was preaching to myself about how they weren’t installing a floor but crafting a kitchen. They weren’t laying bricks but building a chapel.
At those points when I felt most frustrated by the details, I just kept trying to focus on the dream I had for what my kitchen would be like when it was all done. Now the work is thankfully completed, and I’m pretty sure it’ll be a long time if ever before I take on a project like that. But I have a lovely contemporary and functional kitchen now.
That same intentional practice of imagination is needed for us to grow spiritually. We need to be able to hold out an image of what does not yet exist Bill Whitson, a retired minister of the Church of Scotland and a religious studies teacher, says that “Religion lives on imagination. . . . At its best,” he says, religion “operates precisely through the exercise of the imagination.” Creeds, dogma, and anything that seeks to curb this freedom is anathema to the true religious spirit. To the exercise of imagination.
James Mackey, a Presbyterian minister and educator, describes this another way. He says that imagination must captivate the heart. “Imagination in its artistry seeks to enchant rather than to coerce, to haunt rather than to conclude, to tug at the heart rather than to beat about the head.” (www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2008/nov/22/religion-imagination, November 22, 2008)
When exploring imagination in religion, another spiritual teacher, the Franciscan spiritual writer Richard Rohr, refers to the imaginarium. Isn’t that a great word? I’m a word wonk, so I love it. You just kind of know what it is by hearing it. But I’ll give you the quick definition too. An imaginarium is a place devoted to the imagination. A house of worship can be one of those places. Our Unitarian Universalist community is one of those places.
A person’s very being is one of those places. Each of us has our own imaginarium. We each have what Rohr describes as:
an unconscious worldview constructed by our individual and group’s experiences, symbols, archetypes, and memories. For example, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Catholics, and Protestants live in quite different imaginaria. . . .
If your inner imaginarium is rich, intelligent, and not overly defended, you will never stop growing spiritually. My advice? Read more poetry and literature; watch movies; listen to music; visit museums. The artist is a prophet, someone who helps us be self-critical and creative so we don’t stay stuck in the status quo.
The prophet models and embodies a new way of thinking and being that allows us to imagine a larger, more inclusive way to live. You cannot even imagine something or do something until you first have an image of it inside you. . . . in order to learn something radically new, we need first to imagine it. . . . (https://cac.org/imagination-2018-05-14/)
This religious community is an imaginarium. It is a place where we model and embody a new way of thinking and being. Together, we practice using our imaginations to envision a larger more inclusive way to live. Humans appear to be the only creatures that have the brain architecture to do this creative work. This imagination of ours helps us dream up new ideas and shift our attitudes.
It leads us to imagine worlds, beings, and possibilities that don’t physically exist—yet or may never exist. It leads people to reflect on what happens after they die and to imagine various ideas of the afterlife. It leads to various understandings of God, as we imagine how existence and we humans came to be and what meaning to ascribe to our living.
One of the things imagination enables us to do is to aspire to idealized values--values such as compassion, liberation, and empowerment that we associate with religion. (www.newscientist.com/article/dn13782-religion-a-figment-of-human-imagina...)
Unitarian Universalism imagines a more inclusive, more just, and more interconnected way to live. Our principles guide us toward transforming ourselves and others as we strive for the dream of Beloved Community. Describing what Unitarian Universalism is doing as building the cathedral is another way to say we are in the business of building the Beloved Community we dream of.
There are a lot of details and tasks that are involved in building a more liberatory, more compassionate and more empowering way of life.
Taking care of our physical space—literally our cathedral--is one of them. It’s a pretty huge undertaking. There’s the day to day cleaning and tidying up, as well as the major projects such as replacing furnaces, roofs, and windows. There are the ongoing upgrades and repairs due to normal wear and tear. Keeping the space beautiful and well-tended involves a lot of bricklaying.
If asked, “What are you doing?” those who devote themselves to this ministry might well answer that they are building a cathedral in which present and future people will be able to worship, learn, grow, and seek justice. They are tending to a physical space where people can hold fast to their dreams.
Taking care of our sound needs on Sunday mornings involves some critical tasks, such as setting up mics, doing sound checks, and staffing the sound board during worship. Those are the tasks, the bricklaying part, if you will. But those who volunteer for this ministry have a larger vision for this work. When asked, “What are you doing?” they might well answer that they are ensuring consistently high-quality sound for everyone. An inclusive experience matters to them.
Taking care of each other by honoring times of struggle and blessing requires a similar vision. Sending cards, making visits, making phone calls, and checking in with people at church is an expression of authentic care.
Those involved in this ministry know that their cards and contacts lift people’s spirits and deepen their sense of connection to their religious community. If asked, “What are you doing?” they might well answer: we are holding a vision of love and wholeness, letting people know they matter and are not alone.
What we do, what you do—from making coffee to teaching children and youth to ushering and greeting to leading study groups to singing in the choir to outreach in the community to supporting people in the neighborhood through our food pantry to offering shelter and food for families who are homeless to visiting people in the immigration detention center—all these are in service of holding fast to dreams.
When we hold fast to dreams, life is a beautiful bird with strong wings to fly. When we hold fast to dreams, life is a gorgeous field flowering with many colors.
When we hold fast to dreams, we build a land where justice shall roll down like waters, and peace like an ever-flowing stream.
May our imaginations be captured. May we choose a vision of a promised land that can be.
Amen. Blessed be.