Metaphorically Speaking

This year I was privileged to be invited to join an interdisciplinary group of scholars.  Together we will study the intersections of economics and metaphor and how using certain metaphors may help not only ordinary folks better to understand the function of the economy but might help also economists themselves to frame their work in more accurate ways.  The group has barely gotten off the ground yet, but I can tell already that the discussions will be fascinating. 

One book we are looking at is a kind of mini-classic from just over 30 years ago: the Lakoff-Johnson volume Metaphors We Live By.  Most of the first chapters of this book bombard the reader with a nearly dizzying array of everyday speech that is substantially--and at times completely--structured by metaphors.  These metaphorical ways of describing reality are, in fact, so entrenched in our language that most of the time we are wholly unaware of the fact that we are engaging in metaphorical talk.  True, when we use more obvious metaphorical expressions like, "He's two sheets to the wind" or "She's a tough old bird," we are more conscious of the presence of metaphors.

But what about when we describe a conversation in which we note, "His criticisms were right on target."   As it turns out, for most of us our entire conception of arguments or of argumentative conversations is premised on the meta-metaphor that "Argument is war."   That's why criticisms can be "on target" even as certain other ideas can be "blown out of the sky" or "demolished" or "attacked."  

Or what about the ways in which spatial orientation becomes associated with positive or negative things?   Generally speaking good and positive things are "up" for us: "He's on cloud nine," "Hearing from her always gives me a lift," "He is at the peak of health."  Then again, the negative or less-than-desirable are things that are "down" for us: "He fell into depression," "My heart just sank," "He got laid out with a horrible cold."

Lists of examples like this go on and on: we refer to our minds as sometimes machines ("The wheels are turning in my head now") and sometimes as brittle objects ("His mind just went to pieces").   Time is often a commodity ("Don't waste my time"), love is a physical force ("They gravitated toward each other and there was real electricity between them when they got close").   We personify impersonal facts or feelings ("I could just see the fear in his eyes.") and let the part stand for the whole ("The Tigers need a better glove in center field").

So far the most remarkable thing I have noted in reading all this is the way by which speech that is by definition metaphorically structured morphs into speech we regard as, in fact, literal.   Maybe we are structured in such a way that the metaphorical is what gives us access to literal reality.  

It got me to thinking about the Bible, too, and the parables of Jesus in particular.   Most of Jesus' parables probably count more as simile ("The kingdom of God is like . . .") than metaphor.  But what is curious is how even Jesus' similes--not to mention his parables and statements that were more extended metaphors to begin with--have for Christians now also passed into what we regard as literal ways to expose how life and salvation work.   Jesus may have made a simile of the kingdom of God being like a mustard seed, but now the very mention of "mustard seed" in Christian circles raises up a whole cloud of meaning.  If we refer to some ordinary person in a congregation as being a real "mustard seed person," we all know that something of the kingdom's surprising ways is being seen in the life of one small person through whom God is growing huge kingdom results.  We can note the same phenomenon over and over as the teachings of Jesus now pass into how we talk about the church and discipleship: Good Samaritan, Prodigal Son, Lost Sheep, Talents, Good Shepherd, Bread of Life, Light of the World.

Most of Jesus' parabolic similes (now turned metaphors) and his outright metaphors ("I am the gate") are so common to us we don't even blink at the fact that originally, some of them may have sounded odd.  What would we make of a person today, for instance, who consistently spouted lines like, "I am the antibody that protects my family from the virus of secularism" or "I am the oil in my company's crankcase"?   

Years ago the singer Paul Simon was being interviewed on the TV news show 60 Minutes and he told Mike Wallace of the funny reaction he got from former baseball legend Joe DiMaggio following the now-famous line from the song "Mrs. Robinson" in which Simon & Garfunkel sang, "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you."   DiMaggio wrote Paul Simon to ask, "What do you mean 'where have you gone'?  I am still here and I am selling Mr. Coffee machines on TV."

"Obviously" Paul Simon then dryly noted, "Mr. DiMaggio is not used to thinking of himself as a metaphor."

We forget, then, how odd some of Jesus' own self-referential metaphors must have sounded the first time people heard them (and long before they got turned into stained glass windows).   But maybe just maybe Jesus knew (and knows) that human thought really is formed and structured by metaphorical speech--non-literal expressions that help us to get a handle on the literal world. 

It would make sense if Jesus knew that.   After all, he was the "Word of God" (metaphor) who was made flesh (literally) and so as he tried to teach us about the profound mysteries of God, salvation, and the kingdom, he knew that we'd understand all that best on a literal level if he helped us to access it through that powerfully mysterious linguistic force that just is metaphor.  If so, it would be yet another reason to fall back in wonder at the majesty and power of Jesus as teacher.

"I am the way, the truth, and the life" Jesus once said.  A triplet of metaphors!    And the truest, most literal thing anybody has ever said, too.



Gracious Residue

This blog post will appear on a Tuesday but I am writing it on a Monday morning and so am in a post-Sunday reflective mood when it comes to preaching.   I heard a good sermon yesterday morning and was even able to detail the sermon's highlights--and several of its specific salient details--to a colleague who popped by my office an hour ago.  I am glad when that happens--glad when I hear a good sermon and glad when I can remember enough of it to talk about it.   But a week from now--or next month--things will have gotten a bit foggier regarding yesterday's sermon.  And there are any number of good sermons I have heard and been blessed by that . . . well, that I could not summon to mind if I tried.

I confess as a preacher who used to preach 2 new sermons just about every Sunday that come Monday or Tuesday--when I had to write down in my sermon log book what I had preached the day or two previous--sometimes it happened I'd find myself with my pen poised over the log book page and . . . nothing came to me.  I could not recall the passage, I could not recall the sermon title.   Sometimes I'd shake my head, let out an exasperated "Oh for Pete's sake," and finally dig out the bulletin to look up the sermon that I MYSELF HAD WORKED ON FOR A WEEK AND HAD PREACHED!!    Now, of course, once I looked it up, it came back to me but the point is: if sometimes we preachers get foggy on what we had just done, we should not fall down in despair in case we find parishioners who forget sermons.

Some years ago at Calvin Church in Grand Rapids I preached a sermon on the sacraments from Genesis 17.  As it happened, I had preached that same sermon in my previous congregation in Fremont some years before and a friend of mine--who belonged to Calvin Church--had been there the Sunday I preached it.  So when, after the Calvin Church service, this friend said that sermon sounded familiar, I assured him it was because he had heard it in Fremont.   "Hmmm," he replied, "seems I heard it even more recently than that."  I assured him he hadn't but then . . . something started to bug me.  I went home.  I took out the sermon log book.    And as it turned out, well, I had indeed preached a version of this Genesis 17 sermon at Calvin Church only 2 years earlier.  I had forgotten.   But so, apparently, had everyone else as only this ONE person said it had rung any bells.

Moreover, this was a sermon people said they liked.   But then, I also had the experience of preaching a mission emphasis sermon at an evening service and it was a sermon that the head of the missions committee liked so much, he insisted that some day I preach it again but at a morning service when more people would be present.   Two or three years later I did this at a morning service and this same man came up to me to compliment the sermon to the skies.   "Well, that's why you asked me to re-preach it, right?" I asked.   "You've never preached that before" said the man (confidently) who had asked for the encore presentation!

Of course, it is also true that now and then I am taken aback by how well a given sermon stuck with someone.  I've had people mention things to me that I cannot ever remember having said.   Mostly, though, I tell my students to get used to the fact that individual sermons--yes, even the ones that go over really well--may not be remembered long.

Should preachers despair over this?  Not at all.   Because as much as anything, it is the overall arc of a given preacher's sermons that over time build up a kind of happy, gracious residue in people's souls.  People learn to think like a Christian, to parse their pains and difficulties in theologically smart and biblically informed ways.  Preachers who take care (as all preachers should) again and again to proclaim grace and hope and joy convey over time that grace and hope and joy are the main items of the faith.   It's not about doom-and-gloom, hellfire-and-brimstone--not firstly and not at the end of the Gospel day.  It's about noticing the marginalized, about forgiving each other again and again, about holding on to hope even when life's dodgiest and toughest questions are staring us right in the face.  It's about resurrection and new beginnings and fresh hope all the time.

Any given sermon might teach some or all of this but it is when over many years of preaching to a congregation that all of these key sensibilities are touched upon that people start to "get it," that the main things of the faith are not so much taught to them but caught by them.

The longest I preached in one place was Calvin Church across 12 years and about 900 sermons.  I suppose I could be pretty disappointed were I to quiz any given parishioner as to the specifics of this or that sermon or sermon series.   But sometimes I meet up with these people and they will say something like, "One thing I remember about your preaching is that you were a 'grace guy.'  You always brought us back to grace and hope.  I liked that."

So do I.   But it's the Holy Spirit who does this, not the preacher.  As William Willimon once noted in a lecture, every Sunday all over the world the Spirit meets the preacher just before he goes into the pulpit, grabs the sermon out of the preacher's hands and says, "Let me see that thing, son.   Well, I'll see what I can do with it."   And every time in every church where that Spirit is blowing, that sermon wings its way into people's hearts in about as many different ways as there are people listening.

It's an amazing thing the Spirit does, building up a gracious residue of faith and knowledge in people one sermon at a time.   The specifics may not linger.  It's the grace that sticks.    Good thing, too, because in the end, it's that grace that saves.





My son started college last week and a couple days prior, he and I were out and about running last-minute errands to get him ready for the move to the dorm.  In between stops, the news on NPR came on the car radio, including a report from that day's funeral for Michael Brown.   An excerpt of Rev. Al Sharpton's message was played and at one point we heard Sharpton say something to the effect that it says something about our society when local police forces can get decked out by the government with military grade equipment even as local public schools cannot get the funds they need to deliver top-flight education to every child.

That comment prompted my otherwise fairly quiet son to say out loud, "Game, set, and match."

Sharpton's comment reminds me of the bumper sticker many of us have seen (but that I first saw on my niece's car years ago): "Won't It Be a Great Day When Schools Have All They Need and the Military Has to Hold Bake Sales to Buy Tanks."  

There are lots of ways--scores of ways for all I know--by which to evaluate any given society's values and priorities but the old adage "follow the money" works as well here as in many other areas of life.  And if we follow the money in America, we know that so much money goes toward building military equipment that the government ends up with too much of the stuff.  And so after 9/11, apparently, it began to offer local police departments tanks and other high tech warfare hardware on the odd chance that Al Qaeda would make an incursion into Nebraska or Missouri that would require the police to fight back with the weapons of war.  Of course, Al Qaeda has not made such incursions anywhere on any level of society that is policed by regular cops.  But you know how it goes when you have all this really cool gear lying around: what's the sense of having it if you never use it?   And so the equipment meant to fight Al Qaeda fights, instead, the very citizens of a place like Ferguson whose lives and wellbeing we supposedly want to protect from the threats of Al Qaeda (or ISIS or whomever).

And meanwhile Sharpton's point remains: the schools of this country still need massive work, require significant infusions of capital, and require long-term commitments from politicians on all levels of government to give all students a sense of meaning and purpose in life even as they receive as top-flight an education as we can give them.

Ultimately this is not an either-or, nor would I want to frame it as such.   In this fallen world--a world whose dangers and treacheries have been on such sickening display in the summer of 2014--a nation like the United States needs its military and though I may lament some of the amounts that get spent or some of the waste inherent in so many military projects, you won't find me to be such a pacifist that I want the Pentagon dismantled and every dollar for military spending re-routed to something else.  But we also need to take care of our children, including the education of them and the nurturing of them at every level of society, and on that score we fail too often as a society.

I am convinced we have the money to do this but do we see this as a value high enough to follow through and channel that money to where it needs to go?   I have not always agreed with Al Sharpton but it is to a large extent indeed "game, set, and match" when the government proves itself capable of going through all the effort and expense needed to arm local police forces with the kind of equipment we saw rolled out in Ferguson but cannot consistently get its act together to reach out to all the children of this nation in building an education system second to none.  Militarily we outstrip most every nation on earth.  Educationally the U.S. loses out to Ireland, Germany, Russia, Finland, Poland, and about ten other countries on rankings of education achievement. 

Or to put it another way: what does it profit a nation if it can blow away the whole world but has forfeited the minds and hearts of its children?



You Will Laugh

My last few posts have been on the heavy side, though the last one in particular struck a chord for lots of folks--indeed, I've never had a post on The Twelve that was subsequently mentioned as often by my fellow bloggers as that last one on this "sad summer."  So maybe something a bit lighter, albeit relating to something that in and of itself is not light: the death of Robin Williams.

I wish Mr. Williams were still alive for all kinds of human and Christian reasons.  But I am surely glad he came our way.  Oh, I know, he had lots of personal problems and was not above cutting loose with language that offends us religious folks.   But he was natively funny and he made us laugh, and that is a gift I think we sometimes undervalue.  Even some comedians downplay their role in the grander scheme of things, acknowledging that what they do is not exactly akin to cancer research, the work of heart surgeons, or relief workers in disaster zones.  Still, laughter is a gift and even the Bible--and Jesus himself--are funnier than most Christians tend to realize or acknowledge. 

So let me share the biggest laugh Robin Williams ever gave me.   It came in a scene from the movie Mrs. Doubtfire.  Robin's character, Daniel Hillard, is in disguise as the housekeeper Mrs. Doubtfire and is having a conversation with his ex-wife,  Miranda, who, of course, has no idea she is putting the groceries away with her ex-husband.   At one point Mrs. Doubtfire is putting away some plastic-wrapped packages of hamburger and says, "Ohhh, handling this cold meat reminds me of my dead husband, Winston."

"How did he die?" Miranda asks.

"Well, you see, he was quite fond of the drink.  In fact, it was the drink that killed him."

"Ah, he was an alcoholic?"

"No, he was hit by a Guinness truck.    So you see it was quite literally the drink that killed him."

My wife and I watched this movie on a VHS rental tape a few years after it came out.   But my wife had to stop the tape for a couple of minutes following this scene because I had fallen off the sofa and was convulsed with mirth on the den floor. 

Laughter like that may not be the most important thing in life.  But as it happened, at the time we watched Mrs. Doubtfire, I was going through a very turbulent time in the congregation I was serving.  Stinging missives, barbed emails, and cutting comments had been coming my way fast and furious for a while until I was feeling pretty well beat down--it was a "smoldering wick and bruised reed" time in ministry. 

Not only did it feel good, then, to laugh as hard as I did at this silly scene, it was somehow restorative.  I felt better after the movie.   Laughter does that.  Over the years my family and I have watched over and over again a few other VHS tapes that feature Johnny Carson's favorite moments from his years of hosting The Tonight Show.  Like Robin Williams, Johnny had his problems in life and was in many ways hardly a moral role model.  But he was funny and made me laugh, and the antics with animals and funny guests he helped to foster have made my whole family howl together in laughter (even when watching some of them for the 15th time).   And I somehow think that laughing together as a family is, to riff on a Raymond Carver line, "a small good thing."

Though I cannot approve of everything Robin Williams said and did in his career, I am glad he made us laugh because wherever the ability to be funny fits in the grand scheme of things, it is a gift in its own way.

On a more sober note (after all), one thing I have not seen anyone pick up on is how another Robin Williams film ends.  In Dead Poets Society one of the young men who comes under the influence of the teacher, Mr. Keating, commits suicide at the end of the film after his stern, cruel, and controlling father makes it clear he will crush his son's every ambition to be an actor.  Mr. Keating gets blamed for the death and becomes the school's fall guy.   He is summarily fired.   But as he cleans out his stuff from the classroom cloakroom, his remaining students catch a glimpse of him and in a now-famous scene, many of them signal their support of Keating by standing on their desks and shouting the Whitman line Keating had taught them, "O Captain, my Captain!"

Some of us have echoed this now following Williams's own real-life suicide.   "O Captain, my Captain--thanks for passing this way.   And remember as Someone once said: Blessed are you who mourn now, for you will laugh."



This Sad Summer

Well we've slid into August now and so we're just a few blinks away from Labor Day and the semi-official end of all things summer.  For those who can enjoy a different cadence of life during summertime months and look forward at some point to an extended vacation period, summer's demise is always accompanied with a bit of melancholy.   Soon enough schoolday routines will take over our households again even as piano lessons and soccer practices and what-all-not will start to hurtle us toward the year's end and winter's return.

But in some other ways this summer cannot end too quickly, and no one reading this needs me to detail why (though I will anyway).  Lately every time I click on the CNN or New York Times websites, I hold my breath a little to see what grim story will be this hour's "Breaking News."  This summer has featured stories of children left to suffocate in hot cars, airliners shot out of the sky and raining down people and pieces of people, other planes disappearing over an African desert or in Taiwan, an Ebola outbreak which is properly alarming, refugee children from Honduras coming to the U.S. for help and being met with sneers and epithets, and a war between Israel and Hamas that is every day reducing ordinary civilians--including so very, very many little children--to smears of blood on pavement.  And just to keep everything partisan and ugly on the homefront, Congress voted to sue the President before going home for some election year campainging--rallies and speeches that are sure to be more about spewing hatred and fomenting divisiveness than doing anything to help this be a better, more just nation.

In all of this, it is the suffering and the death of the children that all but smother my spirit.   Last week in her first blog since returning from a bit of maternity leave, Theresa Latini wrote a lyric piece on the wonder of being a mother and the splendor of a new child.   And what Theresa wrote there is very much how life is supposed to be.   But in too many parts of this world children are in a very different situation.  As Pulitzer-prize winning author Sonia Nazario (author of the newly relevant Enrique's Journey) has reminded us, the children fleeing to the U.S. from Honduras really are fleeing for their lives as the drug cartels have taken over and are now forcing 12-year-olds to become either junkies or drug dealers or both.  And instead of helping these desperate kids, we have turned them into a political football who have a good chance of being shot by Rick Perry's National Guard troops or ballyhooed as criminals and worse by Tea Party folks whose "America First" attitude puts a big piece of duct tape over Lady Liberty's "Give me your tired, your poor" plaque. 

Meanwhile, why do children have to be blown to bits while hiding out in a school?  Why do they have to fall 33,000 feet because someone thought it was a good idea to give idiots one of the world's most sophisticated missiles? 

The scene you most want to forget from The Brothers Karamazov is the report of the cruelty of Turkish soldiers who let innocent babies play with the barrel of a pistol as though it were a toy only to then pull the trigger and blast the baby's skull to pieces.   But such cruelty to innocent children gets repeated all the time as wars rage, injustice reigns, and selfishness coarsens people to the suffering of others, including that of little ones.

The so-called "problem of evil" exists on many levels but the evil of little ones suffering and dying casts this "problem" into the boldest possible relief.  

It has been noted that the more comfortable any person's--or any group's--life is, the less often that person or group ponders the coming of God's kingdom or what is often referred to as "heaven" in popular parlance.   Where life is nasty and brutish (and sometimes short), longing for heaven is sharpened (think of African-American spirituals that emerged from slavery: "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot").   Even in the early years of the 20th century sermons and hymns that referred to heaven were much more frequent than in recent years when such a focus has all-but disappeared in some traditions.  We are less likely to cry "Maranatha, Come, Lord Jesus" when things are good and we have any number of upcoming events to which we are looking forward.

But at the end of this sad summer of carnage and injustice, of bickering and cruelty, we do well to cry out for God's justice, both now and in the long run of Jesus' return to make all things new.  If we don't pine for this for ourselves, then we pine for it for the world's children: for the refugee, the orphan, the abused, the terrorized, the injured, the dead.   For them, then, Maranatha, Come, Lord Jesus.  Come with healing in your wings.