It’s only a paper moon, sailing over a cardboard sea, but it wouldn’t be make believe if you believed in me.—Paper Moon, 1933
Make believe. Those two words have been sticking in my head ever since I read this excerpt last week from Wishful Thinking by Frederick Buechner:
“You make believe that the tasteless wafer and cheap port are his flesh and blood. You make believe that by swallowing them you are swallowing his life into your life and that there is nothing in earth or heaven more important for you to do than this. It is a game you play because he said to play it. ” Do this in remembrance of me.” Do this. Play that it makes a difference. Play that it makes sense. If it seems a childish thing to do, do it in remembrance that you are a child.”
Make believe. It’s not exactly the same thing as pretending, though I admit that the line between the two is sometimes very thin. When we pretend, we know we are engaged in something false, that we are embracing a pretense. But when we make believe, we are entering, for a time at least, a different reality. When I pretend, I may adopt a different persona for awhile, knowing all the time that it’s not the real me. When I make believe, I become a different person for at least awhile. There is no pretense. This is the difference between a great actor and a bad actor. The great actors make believe, they become the character. The bad ones pretend, they play at being the character.
Children are naturally adept at make believe; so many of the world’s hard edges are still permeable to them. When my grandsons, Gus and Elijah and Casey, pick up their styrene swords and cardboard shields they become Jedi Knights, and they stay Jedi Knights right up to the moment when the rules of their imaginary world are violated or the pain of banging into the corner of a table brings them back to this world. They are not pretending. In their minds’ eyes those styrene swords glow and hum like light sabers and they are clothed in Jedi capes. While they are in that make believe land they are no longer little boys struggling with their own coordination, they are bold and skilled and fearless warriors battling evil.
There is a lot about our faith that requires us to make believe. Maybe that’s why Jesus said that we had to become like little children. Maybe it’s necessary for us to find our way back to a place where the hard edges of our daily reality are more permeable so that we can enter that other realm he described in such elusive yet inviting parables, the Kingdom of God. Maybe it’s necessary for us to take on the serious business of cultivating a playful faith where we use our God-given imaginations to see ourselves as God’s children, divine princes and princesses, who live in a divine alternate reality where we can stand up to the dragons of the world with boldness, skill and fearless hearts. And maybe sometimes we can find that we don’t have to fight them at all. Maybe we can tickle them helpless or hold up a mirror and make them either laugh at their own fiery silliness or face the shame of their own bullying.
Maybe we should make believe that we are deep-cover spies who have sworn eternal allegiance directly to our Sovereign. Maybe we can make believe our congregations are sleeper cells carrying out covert operations of grace, generosity, and love, quietly fomenting peace and camaraderie wherever we go, scattering holy jokes like mustard seeds, speaking in code until everyone around us is dying to be let in on the secret. “The Domain of God? The realm we live in? Well… it’s like finding the Hope Diamond in a tray of costume jewelry at K-Mart. It’s like picking up a scrap of litter on the sidewalk and discovering that it’s the winning Lotto ticket. It’s like a little bit of sourdough starter that gets passed from person to person for generations, until every home in the world has had a taste of deliciousness.”
It takes some imagination, some make believe, to enter the realm where these pictures make sense. You have to enter a different reality to say, “Blessed are the poor. No, really. Blessed are those who mourn. Trust me,” and not only believe it yourself but say it in a way that shows whomever might be listening that you are not only deadly serious but also that you’re finding great joy in saying it because you can already see how that blessing, that comfort can happen and because you know you’ll do whatever you can to make it happen. It takes some powerful make believe to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” and not only really mean it but be committed to the depths of your soul to making it happen, to know that in those words you are signing up to do your best to “subvert the dominant paradigm” as we used to say in our radical youth, back when the vision of a God-transformed world was still clearer in our own imaginations, back when we still understood that the annoying yammerings about how much it might cost were a ploy, a survival mechanism of the status quo, an attempt to make us feel that resistance is futile so that we would give up without really trying. And yet we still pray the prayer, and here and there those words we say without paying much attention turn into little mustard seeds of make believe taking root in unexpected ways and places.
Make believe. It’s why the Holy Spirit has the young seeing visions and the old dreaming dreams. It’s God’s way of slipping us into a new reality where justice flows like rivers and fairness is spread out like an ocean and swords are beaten into plowshares, where the playing field is not only leveled but made playful once again. God knows if we can envision it, if we can dream it, if we can make believe we are part of it already, then we can make it happen on earth as it is in heaven.