Wednesday, July 6, 2016

metaphors matter (and so do similes)

Image from www.planet-science.com

Finish this sentence: Life is like...

If you have ever seen the movie Forrest Gump, you might have answered "a box of chocolates." Some people say that life is like a game of chance. Both of these similes infer that you never really know what you will get in life; there is no guarantee that things will go well. You take your chances and hope for the best. In essence, this outlook is a form of fatalism and it gives us little hope. Others say that life is like a battlefield and we have to fight to overcome obstacles and adversaries. This does seem true at times, but this simile lands us in an "us and them" mentality which pits us against circumstances, people, systems, and even ourselves. This mindset breeds competition instead of cooperation, and because we are always trying to come out on top, to be the winner, we will have little compassion for the underdog or the less fortunate.

Jesus used similes and metaphors a lot. In Matthew 13 we find him comparing the kingdom of heaven to many things: a sower scattering seeds, a farmer who plants good seed and weeds come up, a mustard seed which grows into a large plant, yeast in bread, a treasure hidden in a field, a merchant looking for a pearl, and a net thrown into the sea which gathers all kinds of fish. Though not all of Jesus' metaphors and similes were agricultural, a good proportion of them were. And I don't believe it was solely because that was the context of his day; his metaphors were drawn in large part from creation because he wanted to draw attention to how the Creator orders life.

I recently read Parker Palmer's excellent book on vocation called Listen to Your Life Speak. He observes that the master metaphor of our era is not from agriculture but from manufacturing. We do not speak of growing our lives, but about making them. We make time, make friends, make meaning, make money, make a living, and make love. It is interesting to note that a Chinese child will ask, "How does a baby grow?" while an American child will ask, "How do you make a baby?" Palmer concludes that "We absorb our culture's arrogant conviction that we manufacture everything, reducing the world to mere 'raw material' that lacks all value until we impose our designs and labor on it." [1]

Metaphors matter because they form how we think. Agriculture and nature metaphors position us not as masters of our own destiny, but as participants in a larger community or ecosystem. They cast us as stewards, a mediating role which requires both following and leading. In agriculture, we are subject to the limitations of this earth, therefore we need to discern its seasons and times. The wise farmer or fisher seeks to cooperate with creation; he sees no need to break free of its boundaries and prove his superiority. Our society is not very good at working with nature. When the sun goes down, we don't take that as a sign to rest; no, we turn on the lights and get on with our work and play. Even more troubling is the way we exert our dominance over creation with practices such as genetically modifying our crops and harvesting fuel through fracking.

Jesus' agricultural metaphors steer clear of a superiority/conquering dynamic, even when they include some harsh realities. Instead, he inserts himself into the metaphor as part of nature. "I am the Real Vine and my Father is the Farmer. He cuts off every branch of me that doesn't bear grapes. And every branch that is grape-bearing he prunes back so it will bear even more. ... In the same way that a branch can't bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can't bear fruit unless you are joined with me" (John 15:1-4, The Voice).

Palmer suggests that an appropriate metaphor for life is the cycle of seasons. We are perhaps more used to measuring our efforts by profit growth charts, always looking for a steady upward trend. However, when we look at the seasons, there is no line snaking toward higher and higher outcomes. Spring starts out muddy and wet. Plants which have decayed over the winter mix with the soil to create rich conditions for rebirth. Spring is a time for small beginnings and tentative growth, and it also carries a bit of unpredictability (will there be another frost?). Summer is the season of abundance when there is growth everywhere. Fruit ripens and near the end of the season, the crops are harvested. Autumn begins a period of decline and dying, but there is great beauty in this season. Glory and dying are closely associated in creation. As the plants fade away, they scatter their seeds for future growth. In winter, there is stillness, dormancy, and a deep rest. It is also a season of clarity because the plants are stripped to their branches, making views unobscured. In winter, nature goes underground. If you look closely, you can see several seasons in this messianic metaphor found in Isaiah: "A shoot (spring) shall come out from the stump (winter) of Jesse, and a branch shall grow (summer) out of his roots" (Isaiah 11:1).

Because we have been so influenced by capitalism, many of us associate abundance with excess, private ownership, self-determination, and the notion of unlimited potential. We believe everyone can succeed if they just work hard, take advantage of every opportunity, and do their best. And by succeed we mean gain power and wealth. This is not how Jesus describes the kingdom of God and not the picture we see in creation. Elder Thaddeus, a monk from Vitovnica, observes: “Animals have the joy of living, but we have taken it away from them. They have joy, and we have so much besides joy, yet we are never satisfied. The animals never worry about the future, they do not stack food in granaries or barns, yet the Lord always feeds them. They nibble a twig here, peck at a seed there, they find protection in a hole or a burrow, and they are grateful to God. Not so us men. The birds are always singing praises to the Lord. They begin their song early, at three o'clock in the morning, and don't stop until nine. At nine they calm down a little bit - it's only then that they go looking for food to feed their young. Then they start singing again. Nobody tells them to sing - they just do. And what about us? We're always frowning, always pouting; we don't feel like singing or doing anything else. We should follow the example of the birds. They're always joyful whereas we're always bothered by something."

If we look to the metaphor of seasons, we recognise that abundance is but one of the stages of life; it is not continual nor is it something we control. We till the ground and plant seeds and trust that creation will do what it is meant to do: produce a harvest. But as much as we love abundance (and summer), we must also be willing to embrace the seasons of muddy, small beginnings, the times of dormancy and rest and going underground, and the bittersweet intertwining of decline and glory. Jesus said, "Anyone who serves Me must follow My path" (John 12:26) and the path of Jesus, his life, death and resurrection, reveals every splendid season found in creation.

There is another way to think about abundance and that is as shared life. We find this aspect central to the metaphor of the church as the body of Christ. Parker Palmer explains: "In the human world, abundance does not happen automatically. It is created when we have the sense to choose community, to come together to celebrate and share our common store. Whether the scarce resource is money or love or power or words, the true law of life is that we generate more of whatever seems scarce by trusting its supply and passing it around. Authentic abundance does not lie in secured stockpiles of food or cash or influence or affection but in belonging to a community where we can give those goods to others who need them - and receive them from others when we are in need. .. Community doesn't just create abundance - community is abundance." [2]

I recently came across something which compared the kingdom of heaven to a corporation where Jesus is the CEO and we are his employees. That is a troublesome metaphor for many reasons, but I will name just a few. It sets up a hierarchy of power, it infers that profit is the ultimate goal, and it casts us as merit-based wage-earners. If you have read the gospels, you know that the kingdom of heaven is not like that. It is about sacrifice, about humble service, about embracing the outcast, about receiving the gift of God's mercy, and ultimately, about loving God and your neighbour. Metaphors matter. Over and over again, Jesus points us to creation, to birds and plants and animals, to shepherds and fishermen and farmers. Why? Because all creation speaks of the nature and glory of God. It is there for all to observe, if we have eyes to see.


[1] Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 97.
[2] Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, 108.

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