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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The unseen

I saw this in an old issue of Image. It's very long, so here is about half of it .......


Reversing Entropy
- Luci Shaw

The following homily was given on Sunday, November 9, 2003, at the conclusion of Image's annual conference, “A Narratable Word: The Theological Implications of Story.” The event was sponsored by a grant from the Lilly Fellows Program. Except where otherwise noted, the poems that appear in text are Shaw's own.

I love to tell the story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.

THIS Sunday school song that echoes from my earliest memories suggests a question: just how do we tell the story of the unseen? The song says it's about Jesus and his glory—but how and when have we witnessed heavenly glory? We can perhaps speak of Jesus's love with great personal authenticity, but without viewing Jesus in the flesh, we find that words fail us again. Without the visuals, how do we know enough to form a narrative? Is imagination useful here, or might it lead us into dangerous waters?

Narrative is a word originally derived from the Latin noscer—to know—and a related word, gnarus —knowing . Perhaps that is another way of saying that story is how we come to know the world.

As the theme of this conference suggests, we live in a world susceptible to narrative. We all find ourselves, without ever asking for it, part of a cosmic story that continually unfolds as future becomes present and present becomes past. I sometimes think of our lives as open-ended novels, with our calendars, journals, correspondence, photo albums, computer files, and our grown children and grandchildren marking the work-in-progress as the plot develops and the characters evolve. Who knows what change-points of circumstance or relationship will transform us in the next weeks or months or years?

We try, in the moment, to make sense out of what may often seem horrifying, incongruous, paradoxical, irrelevant, or absurd, while retaining a kind of eschatological hope that God's order, peace, design, or glory, will fill all the spaces in our widely scattered personal and cosmic jigsaw puzzles. We look forward to a time when, like Moses's did after his Sinai encounter with Yahweh, our faces will shine in a way that no earthly story could make them do. We watch and wait for the fulfillment of the prophecy that assures us, “The earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea!”

They asked, and he brought quails,
And gave them food from heaven.

—Psalm 105:40

I'm not asking for quails for dinner
and if they flew in my window at mealtime,
in a torrent of wind, I would think
panic, not miracle.

Time is so multiple and fluid. I lose a day
flying west, and gain it back returning.
I am ravenous to know where I am today.
And who. And how am I to be fed? And if
the prayer I offered this morning at first light
was known and answered last week
am I in some horizontal pleat of time,
some rock crevice in the mountain's shoulder
with a great hand shielding me from
the tempest of too much knowledge?

You never know what a simple request
will get you. So, no expectation of birds
from heaven. Rather, I will commit myself
to this quotidian wilderness, watching for what
the wind may bring me next—
perhaps a small wafer tasting like honey
that I can pick up with my fingers
and lay on my tongue
to ease, for this day, my hunger to know.

Meanwhile, here we are, caught in time and rooted in space. Time, multiple and fluid as it is, is an essential part of story. And, as we might guess, the word story is linked with the word history (from the Greek word historia, the learning that comes by narrative telling) . Without a sense of time, the forward movement of living and growing, of purpose and events and progress and change, the shape of history and living would be without meaning. And as a Christian I do believe that life has meaning, that we are heading somewhere.

The story of the world is imprinted everywhere—the growth rings widening in the boles of trees, the wind-and water-carved art of coastal sandstone rocks, sharp, young mountains like the Tetons contrasted with the older Appalachians the up-ended strata of geological shift, inscribed parchments and tablets, the artifacts discovered in archeological digs, the fossil evidence, and the eroding edges of continents that cannot be reclaimed any more than lost innocence.

We may be trapped in time, but God is not. Charles Williams believed in the kind of retroactive prayer that was effective regardless of chronology, that the Almighty could change the outcome of, say, the Battle of Hastings, as a result of our prayers in the twenty-first century. Whether or not you believe in petitioning the Almighty for a more propitious outcome from past events, it is a dictum of physics that at the speed of light (and to the timeless God who is not, as we are, bound by time), the now of the on-going present includes all the pivotal moments in history of creation: the exodus, the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, and the arrival of the Holy Spirit to be our pathfinder into truth.

At light-speed, God-speed,
time collapses into now so that
we may see Christ's wounds as
still bleeding, his torso,
that ready sponge, still
absorbing our vice, our toxic shame.

He is still being pierced
by every hateful nail
we hammer home. In this
Golgotha moment his body—
chalice for the dark tears
of the whole world—brims,

spilling over as his life blood
drains. His dying into the earth
begins the great reversal—
as blood from a vein leaps
into the needle, so with his rising,
we surge into light.

Story has the power to grasp bits of the past and carry them into the imaginative present, rescuing us from the pitfalls of abstraction. It is not insignificant that much of the Bible, including the deuterocanonical books, is narrative in form, and that the characters and plots revealed on the sacred pages are not so different from those that surround and involve us today. As Eugene Peterson writes in Leap over a Wall:

Story is the primary way in which the revelation of God is given to us. The Holy Spirit's literary genre of choice is story.... The biblical story comprises other literary forms, sermons and genealogies, prayers and letters, poems and proverbs, but story carries them all in its capacious and organically intricate plot....

Somewhere along the way, most of us pick up bad habits of extracting from the Bible what we pretentiously call “spiritual principles” or “moral guidelines,” or “theological truths” and then corseting ourselves in them in order to force a godly shape on our lives.... Mighty uncomfortable, [but] it's not the gospel way. Story is the gospel way. Story isn't imposed on our lives; it invites us into its life. As we enter and imaginatively participate, we find ourselves in a more spacious, freer, and more coherent world. We didn't know all this was going on! We had never noticed all this significance! Story brings us into more reality, not less, expands horizons, sharpens both sight and insight. Story is the primary means we have for learning what the world is, and what it means to be a human being in it. No wonder that from the time we acquire the rudiments of language, we demand stories....

God isn't a doctrine David talks about but a person by whom he's led and cared for. God isn't a remote abstraction that distances him from the conditions of his actual life but an intimate presence who confirms his daily life as the very stuff of salvation.

There we have it: the God who is other but in whom we live and have being. The God who is both transcendent as well as immanent, both there and here. The Lion and the Lamb. Story continually attempts to fill the unsearchable spaces left by mystery and paradox. Mrs. Blake said of her husband, William, “I miss the company of my husband; he is so often in Paradise.” Unlike Blake, most of us are not mystics. We are earthbound, but with the longing for an occasional glimpse of a wider, more profound understanding of our existence.

Story is the most familiar and accessible way for human beings to understand the world. Despite the tenets of postmodernism—itself a meta-narrative, a horizonless landscape—again and again, through story, this world relaxes into coherence, in the process becoming less inchoate or disjunctive. Every time we tell a story or write a poem or compose an essay, we give chaos a way of reintegrating back into order; we reverse entropy; pattern and meaning begin to overcome randomness and decay. We find satisfaction in juxtaposition and linkage and succession and resolution as things split and differentiate and flow together again.

Not that it's all pre-packaged and programmed. I like to think that the uncertainty principle allows for surprises. Freshness and new insights happen in a continuous stream as we learn from our own stories, and beyond. How many of us novelists and poets are taught by the words and images that come to us as unexpected gifts, without our even trying, from quite literally God knows where? A poem fragment of mine, “Holy Ghost”:

My imagination has always been a window for you
to open. Sometimes it's like this: a drab day, and then
a little dance begins in the brain—bubbles rising like yeast,
a quickening spirit hovering over the waters. Dreams begin
to come in three or more dimensions, rhythms pulse in waves,

phrases nudge me like little fists, sounds begin to click
together, green turns real enough to be written as a word
on paper. Skeptic, and no scientist, I am being tuned
the narrative of heaven. My own poems persuade me the way
an available womb, and labor, persuade a baby to be born.

This element of the transcendent, what C.S. Lewis called “patches of God-light,” what many of us have experienced as epiphany, hints to us that this is not just our story (we realize, perhaps ruefully, that we are only a minuscule part of it). Just as a bicyclist riding along a country road through the woods may be dappled from time to time with the bright light of the sun, so we, in the course of everyday living, may be made aware of a brightness and a vision of what is above and beyond us, and so find ourselves, along with other travelers, linked into that larger universe. Described variously as “cosmic consciousness,” or by Aldous Huxley as “mystic experience,” examples are everywhere. A recent poem in the New Yorker, “Analogue,” by Maurice Manning, said it like this:

Oh, revelation only ever comes
at sudden crossings—the heart hopping like a happy frog.

The short-story writer Dorothy Canfield talked of “a generally intensified emotional sensibility.... Everybody knows such occasional hours or days of freshened emotional responses when events that usually pass almost unnoticed, suddenly move you deeply.... I have no idea whence this tide comes...but when it begins to rise in my heart I know that a story is hovering in the offing.”

Even Sylvia Plath, whose name is in the news again, in print and film, argued:

Miracles occur,
If you care to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance miracles. The wait's begun again,
For that rare, random descent.

In an imaginative sense we are invaded by mystery and transported into a place of even greater and more persistent reality than the “real” world we know. Jesus welcomes us, in his parabolic stories, into a realm of truth that would be otherwise impenetrable to us. What Jesus had to say about transcendent truths may be literally unspeakable but metaphorically suggestive and rich with insight. Metaphor bridges the gap between unknown and known. The stories Jesus told are, to varying degrees, metaphorical. Annie Dillard comments, in Living by Fiction, that the parables are “a hermeneutic of the world.”

In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 13, Jesus's friends ask him, “Why do you tell stories?” It's a good question. Often a gospel parable will start out with the words, “The kingdom of God is like...,” and then proceeds to sketch a story that may be hard for us to comprehend. Have you ever wondered why some of Jesus's stories seem to complicate or even obscure truth rather than clarify or simplify it? Perhaps it's that God, who knows us better than we know ourselves, is not content to speak simply to the rational intelligence, but informs us instead through imagination, intuition, wonder, and epiphany.

Though theologians draw principles out of these narratives that seem logical, those principles are abstract. The Bible wasn't written as systematic theology. We can talk in broad terms about soteriology or atonement, but until such ideas are fleshed out to us in story and imagery, say in the life of Christ who “purchased” our salvation (another metaphor), or the bloodletting of sacrifice to achieve atonement, such considerations do not touch us deeply. But images and stories print themselves on our minds (and even our senses) in such brilliant color and texture that time and distraction cannot obliterate them.

The parables were never meant to be dissected analytically; they were designed to be absorbed by the senses and the imagination and felt, the subtext of ideal, principle, and truth taken in almost unconsciously as the mental image and the quickening power of narrative suffuse the understanding over a period of time, a kind of divine soft-sell. And this, in our time, is the Spirit's work. Another fragment, from a poem titled “Ghostly”:

the third
person is a ghost. Sometimes
he silvers for a moment, a moon sliver
between moving leaves. We aren't sure.

What to make of this.... How
to see breath?...
This for sure—he finds
enough masks to keep us guessing:
Is it really you? Is this you also?

It's a cracked, crossover world, waiting
for bridges. He escapes our categories,
choosing his shapes—fire, dove,
wind, water, oil—closing the breach
in figures that flicker within
the closed eye, tongue the brain, sting
and tutor the soul. Once incarnate
in Judea , now he is present
(in us, in the present tense),
occupying our bodies—shells to be
reshaped—houses for this holy ghost.
In our special flesh he thrives into something
too frequent to deny, too real to see.

God does not always speak openly, plainly, directly, as he did to and through Noah and Moses and Jonah. While figurative language often leaves us with vivid impressions, or teaches by analogy, it may also cause puzzlement about what is being meant. Metaphor not only enlivens and suggests, but it furnishes a kind of screen between the object and what it is being compared with. Can we ask Why?

First, there is the difficulty of myopic, fragile human beings facing the reality of the God of glory. We all know Emily Dickinson's succinct dictum: “The truth must dazzle gradually / or every man be blind.” In C.S. Lewis's words: “God is the only comfort; he is also the supreme terror; the thing we most need and the thing we most want to hide from. He is our only ally, and we have made ourselves his enemies.” And so a full frontal view of the Almighty, swift as light, sharper and more intense than a laser, with the energy of the universe flashing out of him, would paralyze, flatten, and annihilate us.

Perhaps that is why God gives us imagery, instilling his ideas and truths, his grace and love, into our minds through story and psalm and prophetic vision and dynamic illustration so that the truth dazzles us gradually ...........



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