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How Did I Miss That?

Part 30: Words are Metaphors

 Welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. James 1:21b-22

There are many words that, when spoken to another, create a visual sense of shared meaning, at least in general terms. For example, if I say, “I see a large rock,” you would envision something hard, inanimate, and bigger than a watermelon. The word rock is a metaphor for the broad swath of reality that we call rocks, but the word is not the reality. There is another category of words that point to something less tangible. For example, if I say, “I love her,” or “That is a beautiful tree,” you might be able to imagine the emotion I express but there will be little or no shared visualization of the detail behind the word. The important point here is that words are metaphors, or our names for different things we encounter in our environment. Words are not the things themselves. Much of the Bible falls into the latter category of words – those that point us in a direction, but cannot give us the individualistic experience they describe. We see this manifesting in our relationships, where I use certain words to express something and my partner hears those same words, but envisions something very different.

While many believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, as 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us, God did not dictate the Bible to its writers. I believe the writers had a wordless God-encounter that they graciously put into words for our sake. The words recorded were their own, however, not God’s. Verbally, our God is mostly silent; yet God inspires us with regularity. Trying to contain that inspiration in words to share with others is difficult at best. Trying to describe that inspiration in a way that allows others to attain the experience is essentially impossible.

So, if words are only metaphors, dare we believe anything in the Bible? Certainly so! Metaphors are full of meaning and truth, providing important context for facts, which too often leave us feeling alone and confused. Being a metaphor does not mean something is not true – in fact, metaphors may express truth more accurately and on several different levels. Attempting to understand something deep and powerful from a verbal description, as opposed to an actual experience, often leads to a shallow and partial understanding. We may understand the letter of the communication but completely miss its meaning. We must work to understand a metaphor. It invites us to wrestle with it, pondering what it says about God, about life, and about us. Seldom will answers come quickly or easily, and our understandings may change at different stages of our lives. The beauty and purpose of metaphor is that it leads us on a journey of discovery, as opposed to a one-time destination. The goal of spiritual development is not to attain an intellectual understanding of the words, but to experience the divine Living Word to which the words point. Metaphors are much better suited to this latter task. The Living Word is implanted within every being, as the writer of James tells us. We need not understand it so much as allow it to express.

 

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 8: The Bible is My Story

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16-17

The Bible is difficult for me to read. It is hard to relate to, and harder yet to apply to my life. I am troubled by the violence that is sought and celebrated in the Old Testament, not to mention the apparent support for slavery, the lack of standing for women and children, and the over-the-top laws governing human behavior. Even the New Testament seems dated. I find myself justifying my casual attitude by saying it was written for another time, and times have changed. I now believe the problem is not the Bible, however; the problem is that I have not recognized myself in its pages. I have always read it as someone else’s story.

The first decades of my life were spent building my identity – who I am, what I do, my place in the world. It has been about me, me, and me. This is a common and necessary focus for most of us early in our lives. I shared the life of Greg with others, of course – my wife and children, co-workers, and friends, but it was still my kingdom I was building, my nation, if you will. I dedicated significant energies to winning, even with the awareness that for me to win, others would lose. I believe the Old Testament can be read as the metaphorical story of the first half of our lives. The focus is on nation-building. It is full of win-lose scenarios. A nation is either the conqueror or the conquered, the persecutor or the persecuted, the slaveholder or the slave. I am not proud to confess that has been my story, too, constantly seeking to triumph over others. The Old Testament is my story whether I claim it or not. The Old Testament is also the story of our world today, as is illustrated daily at sporting events, in board rooms, elections, international relations, and on our streets.

The Christian Bible, however, moves to a new covenant, an invitation to abandon nation-building, past win-lose situations, and on to something greater than the individual. It invites me into us. The New Testament is about community and what we can accomplish together. It invites us to look to the good of the group – the family, the community, and the world, and to trust that as the group prospers, so will each member. It encourages us to join a larger body which the apostle Paul calls the Body of Christ. We are each gifted in different ways to serve as various parts of the body, and when we all do our part, the entire body prospers. We need to be careful, however, how we limit our definition of the collective body or we fall back into our Old Testament ways. For the promise of the New Testament to manifest, the body must be all-inclusive or it will be incomplete and vulnerable. As soon as we begin excluding other groups, we tear away parts of the body. It does not matter if they are LGBTQ, Muslim, communist, or left-handed, inclusion is necessary. Some behavioral accommodation will be required on all sides, but not excommunication. Whenever we wonder if someone is worthy of inclusion, we can ask, “Who would Jesus exclude?”

In the second half of my life, I find I am not so much interested in the nation of Greg as I am the Body of Christ. The nation of Greg will fall, as do all nations, and another nation will consume it for its own narcissistic purposes, unless the nation of Greg surrenders and devotes its resources to building the Body, as described in the New Testament. We can and must do better. One place to begin is to accept the Bible as our story.

The Bible is my story. It is your story, too. How did I miss that?

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