On my imaginary friend Diana and what we need
Many years ago – I actually can tell you it was March of 1985, to be precise – I got into a rather heated discussion about Christianity with a classmate at university named Greg. This was, naturally, before having the opportunity to have vitriolic arguments with complete strangers on Facebook and Twitter, and long before having a President of the United States who, let's just say, doesn't have shoes exactly worn out from taking the moral high ground. In those days one's arguments tended to be in person, less nasty, and more respectful. Although our discussion did get heated, we ended up in a pub together, so open-mindedness and common sense prevailed, even if we couldn't exactly see eye-to-eye on everything. O, to return to those halcyon days of 1985 …
At several points in our conversation, Greg referred to Jesus as my “imaginary friend.” I'm sure he probably meant it as a challenge if not an insult, but what he had no way of knowing is that I had actually had an imaginary friend for a few years when I was a little boy, so each time I heard him place Jesus in that category, it brought to mind being a child and loved and made me smile – probably not the response Greg wanted.
My imaginary friend's name was Diana Robinson, and she came into my life when I was four years old, when my mother's battle with cancer was shading my world with the haze of suffering. Whenever my grandmother would put me down for a nap, I used to insist that she put my Aunt Mary Kay's Diana Ross and the Supremes records on as background music, and I saw the smiling Miss Ross on album covers so many times that I psychologically must have willed her into existence in my own life. My Diana was a dead ringer for that more famous Diana: a beautiful coffee-coloured woman with an upturned hairdo, a captivating smile with the whitest of teeth, and decked in a silver lamé dress with a slit up the side (unless she was playing outside the house with me, at which point she was usually vested in a tartan miniskirt with an ivory cable-knit jumper and black patent leather go-go boots). It's not uncommon for children to have imaginary friends, and it can even be beneficial, as studies have shown that children with imaginary friends tend to exhibit superior social cognition, more sociability, boosted creativity, better coping strategies, and increased emotional understanding. My mother – an educator – knew this, so welcomed Diana into the family and would even have a place set for her at table if she was going to be dining with us. (Which she did often, except when we had fish or meatloaf; Diana hated those particular dishes.) Diana was frequently in the car with us and gave us all quite a fright once when my Dad rolled down his window and she fell out right onto Illinois Route 4, causing my father to have to screech to a halt on the side of the road so that she could jump back in the car. (She was unharmed, in case you're wondering – not even the hint of a tear on that fabulous gown of hers.)
Dear, dear Diana! As a battle with cancer meant more frequent hospitalisations and decreasing strength for my mother, Diana helped me, if not make sense of it all, then at least to be able to believe and trust that though there was certainly pain and confusion in my world, there was also goodness and love. When I could not run to my mother for reassurance, I had Diana. Imagining her beside me strengthened me to see goodness and love, challenged me to be a child of goodness and love myself. As the real Diana Ross sang let my love protect you from all harm, I'll be your shelter when you want me to, I'll be your comfort when you need me to my imaginary friend was doing just that; she was who I needed her to be. And my life was never the same.
I am always struck by the tenderness that I feel is present in this morning's Gospel passage (Luke 9.18-22) in which Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is. I think it offers an insight into Jesus as, though he is using it as a set-up to draw some Messianic awareness out of the disciples, it also shows a real human face. (Many of us in ministry have perhaps wondered what people think of us.)
But perhaps more than that it also offers us insight into the disciples themselves, whose answers in part express who they need Jesus to be. And how did they answer? Some said John the Baptist. And who was John the Baptist? He was exciting, revolutionary, a real man's man, running around in animal skins, munching down on locusts, dunking people under the waters of the River Jordan and bringing them back up again so that the first air they would breathe into their lungs was the air of possibility, the air of a kingdom which was to come, a kingdom of promise and hope that would offer so much more than the sad kingdoms the world had to offer. And so the people who said that Jesus was John the Baptist, needed this promise, this hope, needed the solace of a kingdom to come. Some said Elijah. And who was Elijah? He was visionary, pure-intentioned, dedicated. Knowing what horrors can come when people stray and follow the wrong path, he showed them that the only true way was the Hebrew God with the unutterable name, not the flashy and fleshy Baal. Knowing the sorrow that clings to grief like mould, he offered the poor widow of Zarephath a guarantee in the word and love of this God, restoring her dead son to life. Knowing that big, bombastic manifestations might play to the crowd but don't always bring insight, he crouched in a lonely cave, and heard God speaking to him in a still small voice, a whisper that contained all the words ever uttered and all the songs ever sung. And so the people who said that Jesus was Elijah needed someone to follow, someone to help them make sense of suffering and grief, someone who would help them listen to the quiet voice of God.
Some said Jesus was one of the prophets. And who were the prophets? Men and women whose very voices were given over to God, people who promised and prodded and proffered righteousness and justice and holiness. And so the people who said that Jesus was one of the prophets needed to hear God speaking to them, thirsted for righteousness and justice and holiness and desired these things, even if at times they failed to recognise the precious presence of these things in their midst.
But then we have dear Saint Peter. And when he is asked who Jesus is, who it is that he needs Jesus to be, he says the Messiah. And who is the Messiah? Someone who would fulfil the promise of the Kingdom preached by The Baptist, someone would would lead people to the true God and guarantee His faithfulness and teach us to listen to him in the still quiet of our hearts like Elijah, someone who would teach what righteousness and justice and holiness was all about like the prophets. But more than any of this, much more, who is the Messiah? Someone who would put the divine story as played out in their daily lives in context, who would save Peter and the Twelve and Israel and all of us from our sins. This, we know having heard of Peter's chequered story in regard to the Lord, is who he really needed Jesus to be. Peter the Rock, thick as mud sometimes, knew that the only hope for the salvation promised by The Baptist and Elijah and the Prophets, the only sense which could be made of his life, rested in the arrival of the Messiah, and he knew with an astounding faith that the one whom he needed was standing right in front of him. And his life was never the same.
And what about us? Who do we say that Jesus is? Or, another way of asking would be Who do we need Jesus to be? It bears reflection, especially in these particularly difficult and fearful times. We hope to find in Jesus the ability to believe and trust that though there is certainly pain and confusion in our world, there is also goodness and love. Imagining him beside us can strengthen us to see goodness and love and challenges us to be children of goodness and love ourselves. In asking who we need Jesus to be, perhaps not all of us will arrive with great certainty at the realisation that the one we need is in our midst, but the sheer asking of the question can have far-reaching effects.
So, to Greg from all those years ago I say: I am not offended that you referred to Jesus as my imaginary friend, mainly because his Spirit does, indeed, live in my imagination and challenges me to see so much more than my world can sometimes offer. That's who I need Jesus to be.
But also, in part, I'm not offended because I know what it is to be a child living in a world frequently shaded by the haze of suffering who is nevertheless in possession of an imagination which allows me to see so much more. I might not always be able to make sense of it all, but I can believe and trust that, though there is certainly pain and confusion in my world, there is also goodness and love. And I need to strive more and more to be a child of goodness and love myself.
I think we all do: You. Me. Diana Robinson. And, yes, even Diana Ross.