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Hopeful Imagination

Part 2: Lighthouse Network – Hopeful Imagination

Now that I have moved into the neighbourhood and taken the first step of being a Faithful Presence, what’s next?

(I write this in my mother tongue of a Christianity that I was raised and immersed in, the traditional Christianity of the 60’s.  It’s the language my brain and soul first thinks in, including the vocabulary and Grand Story of life that shape the way I see and interact with the world.  There are two smaller stories in the Grand Story – one of Jonah the prophet most known by the whale, and Paul the apostle most known by the Damascus Road Experience – that give the metaphors for praying with  ‘hopeful imagination’.

The next step is to dive into the neighbourhood and begin praying with hopeful imagination.  This type of praying is a three person conversation – with our Father in Heaven, ourselves, and our neighbourhood. I liken it to the scuba diver’s experience of the wet-suit. To protect oneself while diving the rubberized covering keeps the body from being affected by the water’s temperature.  There’s a layer of protection between the water and the skin.  But to be a faithful life-giving presence means to risk swimming around in the culture without a wet-suit;  to experience and be impacted by the ‘temperature’ of the neighbourhood.   In the Grand Story God takes on skin and bones and immersed in the particular culture of the Jewish world of identity, religion, traditions, and history.

The opposite metaphor or the metaphor of putting on a wet-suit is to insulate ourselves to the effects of our downtown, to ‘live in’ but not ‘within’. Sometimes the differences we note in the culture we swim in can fear us into a protective mode that creates a distance between us and our neighbours.  We need to resist a wet-suit mentality. Now that I am living on the street I will be purposeful and systematic in my prayer for the neighbourhood. I am listening and opening my eyes for the Spirit of Reconciliation – “Lord what are you up to in this neighbourhood?”

Hopeful Imagination positively speaks a hope or dream for the neighbourhood. We look at the possibilities and gifts of the neighbourhood, moving from negatives or things missing to the positives already there. To do this well we use our eyes to see and ears to hear the fabric of the neighbourhood. And as Followers of Jesus we look for where God is already at work in the neighbourhood and enjoy that conversation as prayer with God.


Practical Tools

01: Walking with Hopeful Imagination

02: Creating a neighbourhood  map


In the Scriptures that  shape our lives there’s a couple well known stories that  about Hopeful Imagination.  The first is Jonah who wears a wet-suit, and the second is Paul who swims in the water of Athens.

Jonah and his wet-suit Chapters 3 & 4

1 Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” 3 Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. 4 Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” 5 The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. 6 When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. 7 This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles:

Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. 8 But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. 9 Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.

4:1 But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”4 But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

5 Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. 6 Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. 7 But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.” 9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” “It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”

10 But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

Jonah’s job was a prophet of Yahweh the God of Israel. He was directed to go to the metropolis of Nineveh and be a prophet. Jonah resisted because he knew God’s character provided a slim possibility of compassion to a people Jonah despised.  The story of being swallowed by the great fish is the first half of his journey.  Getting and preaching to the city is the second half.  Nineveh was so expansive it took a three day journey to walk around it.  Jonah does the minimum and heads into the city for one day, then stops to preach hell-fire and damnation.

He does what he wants God to do – walks around the city preaching judgment. Jonah’s nationalism, his ‘election complex’ as Josh calls it, gets in the way of God’s character and mission. The mission of God is restoration of all creation to himself which flows out of the very character of God – gracious and compassionate.  Jonah limits his immersion so that a partial message is heard and he refuses to allow himself to be affected by the very characteristics of his God.

After he has done the minimum he sits outside the city and waits for what he hopes for. It’s a ‘hopeless imagination’, longing for the destruction of his enemies. Jonah’s prayer is one of destruction, looking only at the damaging characteristics  of Nineveh that he chooses.  He does not want to see a people that God loves. He prays in his heart, separated from the culture, alone on the hill overlooking the city.  He prays alone until God pushes into the conversation and extends grace to the miserable, cantankerous Jonah, pastorally directing him towards mirroring the Father’s character, hoping that he would see God’s compassion for Nineveh. God has a hopeful imagination for Jonah as well as Nineveh!

Imagine if Jonah’s proclamation had been to go to bat for, to imagine a hope-filled response for the Ninevites?  Imagine if instead of outside the city he had camped out in the middle of the city and identified with the people, like Abraham with Sodom, like Phinehas and Moses standing in the gap of God’s judgment?  Imagine the ‘flesh and bones’ model of the unique character of God been sensed by Nineveh through Jonah in the marketplace?   Would the 4th chapter and God’s relenting have transitioned Jonah’s role of reluctant judgmental prophet into gracious shepherd?  Would a chapter 5 have seen a formative city longing in its repentance to be led by Pastor Jonah and shaped by the characteristics that emulates our Father?

Prayer has a priestly function in it. As we pray we are bringing our community to God’s attention.  Then we in turn express the longings of God to the people. Jonah fails to priestly represent God and the people – he fails to understand or represent God’s self-definition – “The Lord, the Lord is compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in love.”  Hopeful Imagination looks for the particular ways God’s restoration is at work. It asks and imagines – what does restoration look like on my street? In the homes of our neighbours?

Paul Skinny-dipping in Acts 17

16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. 24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’…

In contrast to Jonah we have the premiere documentation of the Apostle Paul’s immersion in a culture that is not his mother tongue.  Paul was raised a straight laced pharisee.  The culture of Athens has him swimming in a pool that is out of his element. His immersion has an effect on him – he is disturbed, upset, greatly distressed. Swimming in the culture without a wet-suit to protect will hurt us.  This is in fact a godly response. For compassion is ‘suffering with’ and to be god-like is to suffer with our neighbour. Paul’s wet-suit, like Jonah’s, would have been to get behind the practices of his morally and ethically precise upbringing, horde God to his own kind, and avoid wrestling with the dominant culture. But Paul’s response is to resist the wet-suit and be affected or ‘distressed’ by his interaction with Athens. 

Instead Paul prays with Hopeful Imagination. The  prayer he enters into is an ongoing conversation with God, his soul, and the city. He takes the time to observe and pray before speaking. He listens to God through the conversations he has with the Jews and God-fearers in the synagogue. This is a community that has lived and figured out the compromises, assets and deficits of years living in the culture.  He listens while walking the streets observing the culture of the Athenians, their language, poetry, arts, religion.  He moves into the everyday places that shape the Athenians.  His initial abhorrence of their idols gives way to a richer awareness that they are a religiously devout community. He interacted in the marketplace, and love their arts and culture.  Paul then walks about the city observing those things deep in the psyche of his neighbourhood – what are they longing for that is expressed in their religion, the arts of poetry and philosophy, their economy of business and daily life that he absorbs immersed in the marketplace? He is looking for the hope, using his full faculties to envision and communicate with them, help them imagine a richer life – what it would look like if God moved into their neighbourhood. And he’s trying to hear three things – the longing of God’s heart, the longing of the community, and the common bonds he shares with them.   Where Jonah gave the least, Paul listened until he was questioned by his neighbours.

Paul’s prayer is shaped in a three way conversation between himself, God, and the culture he swims in.  His distress is acknowledgement of the deficits. Those deficits are seen through the lens of God’s reconciling mission.  Unlike Jonah Paul did not condemn or stop his focus on the deficits. Rather he imagined the possibilities based on the context of what he experienced.  He looked for connecting points between the longings of the Athenians and God’s intentions.  He is priestly – being the intermediary between God and world – interceding for the culture before God and then presenting God to the culture.

Hopeful imagination, a prayer, a triangular conversation with self, God, and neighbourhood became the preparatory groundwork for his proclamation of Good News.  As Faithful Presence our next step into our neighbourhoods is to pray, not as Jonah, rather Paul is our model.


  1. Hopeful Imagination:  Set a common frequency of exercising through walking in your neighbourhood.  It could be with the dog or with a friend.   Enjoy the neighbourhood, look for the things that are hopeful – a freshly painted front porch, kids playing hockey in the street, a well cared for garden.  Acknowledge those things – to oneself or with God.  They are signs of ‘a good place to grow up and a good place to grow old’.   For those things that distress you – the drug dealing house, the unkempt front lawn, the argument overheard – avoid the Jonah like condemnation, rather imagine out loud what a restorative situation would be – if God moved into that situation what could it look like?   Allow compassion to be the driver of your thoughts, emotions and words.  This is a discipline that confronts the insidious nature of criticism and death thoughts.
  1. Fridge Neighbourhood Map:  On a plain sheet of paper draw your streets that you like to walk regularly.  As you meet people and their stories map them on your sheet.  We always have a hard time remembering names and stories and this is a good practice for becoming what we long for – able to remember.  Add the dog’s name, children and special events – things that Good Neighbours remember.  There are incredibly diverse gifts all through our neighbourhoods – add them on the sheet – where are the places where people gather?  Who has skills that we all need – plumbers, and piano teachers, artists and connectors.

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