Judy and I recently watched the ABC special “White House Jazz Celebration,” hosted by the President and First Lady and featuring many great artists, including Aretha Franklin, Herbie Hancock, Buddy Guy, Hugh Masekela, Dianne Reeves and Chick Corea. It was really upbeat and inspiring. . . .If you’d like you can watch the entire program on YouTube.

The final number, involving all the artists, was John Lennon’s “Imagine.” You may say, “That’s not jazz; that’s the Beatles.” Well, they jazzed it up, with questionable success.

I can’t hear that song without feeling once again the effect it had on me the first time I listened to it in 1971. The “dreamer” envisions the world as it could be, and my spirit is lifted by the hopefulness that “someday the world will be as one.” Of course, the lyrics tell us, this can only happen if certain conditions are met. You have to imagine there are “no countries” and “nothing to kill and die for.” You have to imagine there is “no need for greed or hunger” because “all the people are sharing.”

Some said Lennon was promoting communism in dreaming about a world of total sharing. Others point out that when he wrote the line “Imagine no possessions,” he owned and was living with Yoko Ono in a large Georgian mansion on a 72 acre estate, complete with spectacular gardens and a man-made lake. Apparently, he didn’t offer to sell it and distribute the money to poor people.

But the line that slapped me in the face the first time I heard the song still has that effect on me: “and no religion too.” Why did Lennon have to say that? He spoiled everything for me, because religion is my thing. Actually, I get it to a degree. Just as “countries” can be a cause to “kill or die for,” religion can as well. ISIS is a current example, but Christian flags have flown over many battlefields as well.

We may want to say, “Religion can be bad at times, but Jesus is good, and he’s the one I follow.” It is helpful to distinguish between true inner spirituality and institutionalized religion. But I don’t believe this completely responds to the point Lennon was making. When he was interviewed about this, he tried to explain:

“If you can imagine a world at peace, with no denominations of religion — not without religion but without this my God-is-bigger-than-your-God thing — then it can be true … The World Church called me once and asked, ‘Can we use the lyrics to “Imagine” and just change it to “Imagine one religion”?’ That showed [me] they didn’t understand it at all. It would defeat the whole purpose of the song, the whole idea.” Yoko Ono, who now owns the copyright on the song, has consistently refused to allow performers to drop this phrase from the lyrics.

Of course, many atheist and agnostic groups have adopted Lennon’s slogan, such as the organization that posted the sign pictured above along an Alabama highway a few years back. I believe some Christian vigilantes shot at it … in the name of Jesus.

I distinctly remember a conversation with a young man, years ago, who was confident he could see through the phoniness of religion. To him it was self-evident. He stood next to me and pointed in various directions, one at a time: “I don’t see God there, or there, or there, or there.” Everywhere he pointed I saw evidence of God. I’d rather live in my world than his. Imagine that!

— Pastor George