Dear John: Thoughts on the 40th anniversary of the death of John Lennon December 8, 2020

Dear John,

After all these years I owe you an apology. I must admit I just didn’t get it.  I never liked your song “Imagine”.  To me it was just another utopian fantasy by a wacked-out rock star, a kind of chic nihilism, another example of you pointing your finger in our collective faces, pulling our chains like you always did so well.  It worked, too, because a lot of people, especially church people, got really angry about your song.  At a church down the road (and a liberal one, to boot) folks complained to the pastor when your song was sung.  And this was during the contemporary service, not the traditional one where they like to sing “Nearer My God to Thee” and “The Old Rugged Cross”.  They were almost as angry as the time you said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus.  Boy, that did it.  I can almost smell the burning vinyl from those bonfires the kids in the Midwest lit with your albums.  If you knew that was going to happen, would you have changed your mind?  Probably not.  After all, this was the sixties, when we were supposed to let it all hang out.  Well, as far as I can see, you never stopped letting it hang out, and you paid the price for it.  Like when the INS (with the encouragement of Nixon) almost had you deported, so even when I didn’t like your song, I admired your honesty, because a lot of people develop saying what they really don’t mean into a fine art, something I’ll talk about later.  Our world today is full of manipulation with words—words that enslave us instead of making us free.

I’ll tell you what changed my mind.  I was teaching some music lyrics to my English as a Second Language class, and I used your song.  It really resonated with them, and they did a great job singing it.  Then it hit me—this was a persona (literally a face or a mask) you were using to speak to us.  You became a Buddhist monk, one who challenges us with koans, like the one that says, “If by change you should meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”  Wisdom like this gets us to think beyond the form to the substance.  This requires a lot of spiritual maturity, which, let’s face it, a lot of us Christians need more of.  So I’ll try to explain what the song means to me in this post.  I know that you’re up there in that Spiritual Sky, so say hi to George and other the others you meet there that left us their music and words.

Signed,

Tom

Imagine there’s no Heaven. I’s easy if you try. No Hell below us. Above us only sky

We spend a lot of time talking about Heaven.  We think of our departed loved ones being there.  It’s a lovely place, we’re told.  But can we really describe it, or Hell for that matter?  The problem as I see it is that Heaven and Hell are used as a reward and punishment to get people in line, and it works.  But sometimes it gets them to do terrible things to each other in search of that reward, like those terrorists who were told that when they died as martyrs for Allah each of them would receive seventy beautiful virgins in the afterlife.  I for one with that they had taken care of  that fornication here on earth so that thousands of lives in the World Trade Center could have been spared.  It’s the misapplied concept of  Heaven, you see, that turns us into mean, judgmental, selfish, cruel people, and if that’s the result, what’s heaven for?  Reverend Milton Gabrielson used to say that the Kingdom of God ideal of Jesus expressed in the Beattitudes is to be lived here and now.  It is entirely within our power to create Heaven, or Hell for that matter, and we need to be serious about what we were put on this earth to do, not, in Gabrielson’s words, to describe “the furniture of Heaven or the temperature of hell”.  This message hit me seriously as a young man, and I don’t think it’s that far from what John Lennon is challenging us to think about.

Imagine all the people, living for today

This echoes the theme of Quaker mystic Thomas Kelly’s book The Eternal Now and others written about present living.  This is a true spiritual discipline.  It takes real practice to live in the present, but the rewards are great. 

Imagine no more countries. It isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for, And no religion too. Imagine all the people Living life in peace

The benefit of cyberspace and international trade is that they are breaking down the old borders.  Cooperation occurs not only because it is morally advisable but because it is beneficial.  A new world held together by invisible electronic and commercial links holds great possibilities if it is not split by ethnic, religious, and national warfare (now known as nativism, an updating of Ayn Rand’s term “balkanization”).  We are reminded by a Tom Brokaw Memorial Day special on the terrible cost paid by those who fought, as well as noncombatants, in World War II, a total of more than 125,000,000 men, women, and children.  This alone should bear witness that such a spectacle should never again be repeated.

And no religion too?  Many people have had problems with religion, including Jesus himself.  Those Pharisees were always in his face trying to tell him what’s up, actually blocking the way to the deeper spirituality which he taught and practiced.  Like condemning his healing on the Sabbath.  It was the emptiness of a religion of doctrinal theories that drove Albert Schweitzer to Africa to express his philosophy of “Reverence for Life” through service to others.  The path of devotion to God through devotion to living beings is being practiced, and has been practiced, by many through the years, yielding true spiritual fruit.  

The problem with religion is that it can become a power structure having little to do with the worship and love of God.  Institutional religion, like all power structures, must be viewed critically lest it break out of control.  It is no less evil than political ideologies such as Marxism which themselves bear all the trappings of religion.  They demand worship of a value greater than oneself whose principles must be taken on faith.  That kind of blind obedience drove Soviet society to its knees.  The church can learn from this example.  In the Roman Catholic Church, along with several others, the specter of sexual abuse was compounded by the reaction of the Bishops to protect themselves and their institution rather than the victims.  When Cardinal Bernard Law’s defense claimed that the plaintiffs were not in the exercise of due care (or in plain language, “the boy and his parents allowed it to happen”) he placed himself in the same league with corporate executives who defraud customers, endanger human health, and despoil the environment.  Again, this is problem of Roman Catholicism only.  Religious structures which tolerate abuse and demand blind obedience to an authority cult will not avail.  The Christian church began as an assembly of faithful followers, sharing their belief in the Resurrection.  People of faith must empower themselves to take their churches back and resist the influence of those shepherds who would lead the flock astray. 

Imagine no possessions. I wonder if you can. No need for greed or hunger. A brotherhood of man. Imagine all the people Sharing all the world

Now more than ever we are struck with the necessity to act as a people of one planet, for if we think of the world’s resources as only our own, there will soon be nothing left for any of us.  The United Nations study of the number of animal species which could disappear in 20 years is a frightening reality, because extinct is gone forever.  And it is not just the beauty and wonder of these animals (and plants).  All are links in the fragile chain of life that sustains us.  We do not even know how many of these mechanisms work, but by the time we do know it may be too late.  We have seen examples of the destruction of life that occurs when that chain is broken.  For example, when carnivores disappear from the top of the food chain, other species overpopulate, then sicken and die. 

The old paradigm of private versus public investment is being challenged by “third stream” organizations which funnel voluntary labor and capital into goals which benefit the planet as a whole.  The African Wildlife Foundation, Doctors Without Borders, Habitat for Humanity, World Vision, Amnesty International, and so many others—these are but a few examples of powerful and effective non-profit organizations which affect the world for good.  This is the brightest development yet, and may be the one that may make the difference between our survival and destruction.  It is also an example of creating our Heaven here and now instead of waiting for the one to come.  This is echoed in a passage from a Jewish prayerbook, Gates of Prayer:

“To pass each day simply and solely in the eager pursuit of money or fame, this also seems like living with shadows when one might take one’s part with realities.  Surely when death is at hand we should desire to say, ‘I have contributed my grain to the great sore of the eternal.  I have borne my part in the struggle for goodness.’  And let no man or woman suppose that the smallest act of social goodness is wasted for society at large.  All our help, petty though it be, is needed; and though we know not the manner, the fruit of every faithful service is gathered in.  Let the true and noble words of a great teacher ring in conclusion upon our ears: ‘The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithful a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.’ ”

You may think I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one. I hope some day you’ll join us. And the world will live as one

Imagine…

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