When my uncle from Saskatchewan came to visit I took him to one of my favourite lookouts to see the mountains. I asked him what he thought. He thoughtfully stroked the stubble on his cheeks that reminded me of the stubble covering his flat fields after harvest.
“They’re okay I guess, but they kind of block the view, ” he said.
A talented musician I once worked with told me she had a similar reaction. She grew up in The Netherlands and although she had seen pictures of mountains she never actually climbed even a hill until a visit to Scotland when she was eighteen.
“The mountains in Canada make me feel claustrophobic,” she said. “I miss the sky.”
I must admit that when I take trips back to the prairies I appreciate the sky and the marvelous sunsets, but I feel so exposed. My Dad joked that on his childhood farm he could see the train coming two days away and it was this environment that necessitated the invention of the outhouse.
Communication involves so much more than the facts of terrain and topology. Words and images don’t always contain the same meanings to different beholders.
I loved the annual “Missionary Convention” at my church when I was a kid. The missionaries on furlough brought costumes and articles from far away exotic cultures and told stories of eating local comfort foods that made kids raised on Jello and Wonder bread gag. I remember one guy telling us the problems he had translating the Bible into the language of a society whose only previous outside contacts had been oil and mining company workers and anthropologists. He wondered how to translate, “Behold the lamb of God.” Somehow “Behold the fuzzy creature of God” didn’t seem appropriate. “Behold the little pig-sized animal covered with curly whiskers like the ones on Jake the geologist’s face” seemed too cumbersome to repeat more than once. He finally went with “Behold the piglet of God” because these people raised pigs and often took the little ones into their homes as pets. He knew that word could be shocking in other cultures, but it conveyed the meaning of something innocent, valued and loved. A lamb, in a way, was like their piglet, but then again, not really. There are limits to how far an analogy can go. Sometimes you need more than one.
Jesus told stories to explain a kingdom outside the experience of the people who gathered around him. “The kingdom of God is like a pearl. It’s like a coin. It’s like…”
“The disciples came up and asked, “Why do you tell stories?”
He replied, “You’ve been given insight into God’s kingdom. You know how it works. Not everybody has this gift, this insight; it hasn’t been given to them. Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That’s why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight. In their present state they can stare till doomsday and not see it, listen till they’re blue in the face and not get it. I don’t want Isaiah’s forecast repeated all over again:
Your ears are open but you don’t hear a thing.
Your eyes are awake but you don’t see a thing.
The people are blockheads!
They stick their fingers in their ears
so they won’t have to listen;
They screw their eyes shut
so they won’t have to look,
so they won’t have to deal with me face-to-face
and let me heal them.”
(Matthew 13: 10-15 The Message paraphrase in modern clichés)
God still speaks to us today in stories and similes that come from our own cultures. His language is not always English nor any other spoken language. He can speak through nature and pop music and babies and even international politics – and many other ways that connect us with his heart – but most people don’t hear because his imagery means little without a desire to understand the story-teller. His language is relationship. He is the Word.
I’ll be honest and say that I enjoy poetry and I write poetry, but I don’t read a lot of it. It’s work and I want to know the poet has something of value to say before I invest mental energy in interpreting the imagery. You can’t read poetry (except perhaps limericks) without taking time to ponder over what the writer is trying to communicate. Taking time to listen to God develops eyes to see and ears to hear what the kingdom of God is like, but more importantly what the Lover of our Soul is like.
“But you have God-blessed eyes—eyes that see! And God-blessed ears—ears that hear! A lot of people, prophets and humble believers among them, would have given anything to see what you are seeing, to hear what you are hearing, but never had the chance.” (verses 16-17)
“Oh Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all… I see… I hear… Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to Thee.” (How Great Thou Art)