Hope grows in a nourished imagination

Editor’s Note: The following is taken from Dr. Ben Sells’ address to students, faculty and staff during Ouachita’s August 2022 Convocation ceremony. See his full, original remarks at obu.edu/stories. 

I like Chapel and seldom miss attending. I like being with students in Chapel and appreciate how they respect and engage with this unique opportunity. There are probably fewer than 100 universities in the country where essentially the entire student body can be together at once. I believe it’s an important part of what makes Ouachita, Ouachita.   

We choose a theme to mark each academic year and develop a complementary commemorative patch. This year, our theme is “Love God and Love Learning” from our vision statement. 

In preparing for Convocation – our first Chapel service of the new school year – I reviewed a devotion from Oswald Chambers’ “My Utmost for His Highest.” 

Published in 1935, “My Utmost for His Highest” contains 365 devotions based on talks given to college-age students by Chambers from 1911 to 1917. I have a 1963 edition of “My Utmost for His Highest” that belonged to my parents. It is especially meaningful to me because they wrote on every page. Duct tape holds it together – my father thought duct tape could fix everything. 

One devotion is titled, “Is Your Imagination of God Starved?” It begins with Scripture from Isaiah 40:26 – “Lift up your eyes on high, and behold who hath created these things.” The first sentence reads, “The people of God in Isaiah’s day had starved their imagination by looking upon the face of idols, and Isaiah made them look up at the heavens; that is, he made them begin to use their imagination aright.” (1) 

Over the summer, I kept returning to Chambers’ words about imagination and the Christian life. This passage captivated my interest; three things especially shaped my own imagination and prayer life during the past couple of months.  

First, human imagination is a gift from God, meant for good, and that’s encouraging.  

We use our imagination all the time. As a child, seeing a tomato for the first time, I imagined it tasted terrible. When I finally ate one, it was better than imagined. 

Our new students have imagined being at Ouachita – and now they’re here! Our seniors are imagining life after graduation – and they can count on us to help them prepare.  

Human imagination lets us connect to a creative, beautiful, loving and just God. He imagined and created the universe from nothing. We can imagine something beautiful and then create it. We can imagine overcoming a problem and then solving it. We can imagine winning a competition, helping us play at a higher level. We can imagine helping someone who enables us to actually help them.  

Our students’ education and experience at Ouachita this year will stir their imaginations in wonderful ways. I’m grateful for the gift of imagination – for our good and the good of others. 

But second, because we live in a broken world, the human imagination can be starved – and that’s a warning we must heed. 

Part of the human condition is using our imagination in ugly, harmful, sinful ways. We’ve all done it. Chambers’ words inspired a new thought for me: We can “starve our imagination.” When we starve something, it wastes away and slowly dies. Chambers’ devotional says we can starve our imagination by giving attention to idols. 

“Idol” isn’t a word we often use. Pastor and author Tim Keller defines an “idol” as “anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.” (2) 

All of us have made some things more important than God. We’re prone to take God-created good things and imagine and then live like they’re the best way – maybe the only way – to find a fulfilled life. They do bring a measure of fulfillment but be warned: If they absorb our heart and imagination more than God, they become addictive – demanding more and more, and giving back less and less. That starves our imagination, which threatens our very lives.  

So finally, rather than starving our imagination, we can nourish it, and that gives us hope. 

The writer says, “look into the heavens.” Remember, this is 800 BC in the Middle East without pollution and electricity. When they looked up at the stars, it was brilliant. 

And the people of God were reminded that their God – the God of the universe – was so much bigger and better than they could ever imagine; that the God who formed each star also formed them. 

A hundred years ago, we thought there was just one galaxy. In 1995, the Hubble Space Telescope helped us realize there are thousands of galaxies. Now, some scientists estimate there are a trillion. (3)   

Maybe you’ve seen the brilliant pictures this summer from the James Webb Space Telescope, which orbits one million miles from earth. The images are stunning. When I saw them, Isaiah 40:26 came to mind: “Lift up your eyes on high, and behold who hath created these things.” 

And then I thought of Psalms 8:3-4: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” 

That God cares for us. For you. 

With God’s help, our imaginations can be nourished and used for our personal good and the good of others.  

At Ouachita, we are beginning our 137th academic year. If we will give ourselves to loving God and learning and live in ways that nourish rather than starve our imaginations, we will experience a year that will exceed our imagination. 

By Ouachita Baptist University President Ben. R. Sells, Ph.D.  

Sources

  1. Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1963), 41. 
  1. Tim Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), xix
  1. Philip Yancey, “When you feel small, look to the cosmos and the cross.” Christianity Today, August 24, 2022. 

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