It was my honor to speak at Fellowship Church (in Holden, Ma.) again today. I think I did a better than average job of getting out of God’s way today. Last I checked, the video from this morning wasn’t up. For anybody who cares, here’s the written version:
It all began with a death. More specifially, it began with the death of Jonah Elliot.
Jonah Elliot was a good man. He was kind, but more importantly, he was good. Jonah’s faith was a powerful thing, and impacted his decisions and the world around him.
But this is not his story. It is the story, in part, of Jonah’s son. Jonah’s son is named Tom. Tom is also a good man. He is kind. His optimism is almost legendary. Tom, though, he’s still working out some of the things his father seemed to know. Tom doesn’t have faith in much specific, he just has a general belief that things often work out.
It is also the story of Jonah’s grandson, Tom’s son. Sam Elliot is in his late teens. At his grandfather’s funeral, Sam Elliot was introduced to his grandfather’s pastor, Rick. Some time later, Tom was sorting through his grandparents basement. He found a journal of his grandfathers and kept it.
The journal and the tenative friendship with Pastor Rick began to lead Tom down a path. It was a path his mother, Hilary Elliot, had mixed feelings about. Hilary carried around hurt caused by the church… and animosity toward Pastor Rick, who had been her pastor in college.
Where we left off with Tom Elliot, he was preparing to tell his wife that he’d quit his job. This is not new for Tom: looking before he leaps. Usually, it works out for him. This time is no exception.
Tom ends up getting connected to an organization that helps the child-soldiers of Rwanda. He is doing good for the world. He is feeling good about himself. And it appears to him that everything is falling into place.
Before long, Tom is faced with a difficult decision, though. His new boss, Lawson, has some skeletons in a closet. These are threatening to be brought out to the light of day. Many years before, Tom was involved with embezzling money from another non-profit.
As the public relations officer, Tom has to decide: how will they respond. He considers the good they are doing. He considers the harm that could be done if the scandal is brought to light. He decides the right thing to do is the thing that the most good will result from.
He throws himself into crafting a campaign to protect his boss and discredit the people who seek to bring the old scandal to light. Tom agnowledges something he’s long lived by: what people believe is more important than what actually happens.
In the middle of all this, Tom is forced to put off his annual icefishing trip with his son, Sam. This is just one of many actions that contribute to a growing rift between the father and the son. Partially as a result, Sam grows increasingly fond of Pastor Rick. He decides that he wants the man to baptize him.
Hilary’s ambivalence at this runs deep. Many years before, Pastor Rick had been her college pastor. Through a series of unwise events, the pair ended up involved in extramaritial relations. When they were found out, Hillary was made to feel like the only one who sinned. The whole thing was handled beuaracratically, efficiently, coldly. Hillary was told that it was for the good of the church that it was handled this way. She new that they believed that by brushing it under the rug, more good would result.
Pastor Rick is not without his own reservations. Jonah Elliot, whose death kicked off the story, asked Rick to spiritually mentor his son. Rick did not feel like he could deny this last request, nor did he feel like he could explain the situation to Hilary’s father-in-law.
And then? Well, then, as Winter nears it’s end, Tom finally finds the time to go icefishing with Sam. Ironically enough, it is the very day the boy was to be baptized. The teenaged boy looks at the ice. And he asks his father, “Is it safe?”
Later, Tom will see that this is the moment that it all fell apart. Because Tom? He said to his son, “Yes, it’s safe.”
As they begin drilling that first whole, there is a sound, an eerie cracking.
And later that day, there will be the baptisms. Pastor Rick will bring people down, into the water, into death, and pulls those people out and into a new life. Though he was meant to be there, Sam won’t be among them.
Because during that ice fishing trip, Sam also plunged down into the water. Tom saw it happen, and he new that the water itself was death. The current pushed him away from the hole. Father and son, both terrified, made a terrible moment of eye contact through the ice itself. Tom will later think that this is the moment that he finally realized it: our best, happiest thoughts, they don’t change reality itself. There is more to life than just glibly worrying about perceptions and trudging on.
Later, he won’t remember how he smashed the ice out. His hands will be bloody and frost bitten. He won’t allow them to treat him until the doctors give him a sedative.
By then, Hillary is there. And Pastor Rick. And Sam’s grandmother. And his almost-girlfriend, Laney.
Laney had taken to reading the journal of Jonah Elliot. She does this to pass the time in the waiting room, where Sam clings to life. She finds that Jonah new about the indiscretions between Hillary and Pastor Rick. She finds that part of Jonah’s motivation was to give them a chance to rectify the old hurts. She does not tell the others about this.
And she watches it happen: The tragedy forces Rick and the Elliot parents into close quarters. Gives him a perspective. He approaches Hilary, and Tom, and he asks their forgiveness. And Hillary? Hillary says that she’ll try to forgive him.
Tom, poor Tom, feels another corner of his world crumble. Tom comes to realize that his decision with Lawson, to lie in the name of the greater good? It’s not much different than what the church did to the wife he loves.
Things go from bad to worse for Sam Elliot. His loved ones are gathered around his bed. Distantly, vaguely conscious, he sense them all there. He hears the hushed voices, feels the hands squeeze his.
And then he realizes quite suddenly that he is standing behind them. And yet his body? His body is still there, across the room. And they are all still gathered around his body.
But Sam is not there anymore, in that hospital bed. His body, of course is there. But not the rest of him. Not the essential parts of Sam. He realizes that there is someone else, nearer to him. A presence, familiar.
“Grandpa?” he says “Grandpa Jonah? You look different.”
Jonah smiles at him. “Everything is different. Come and see.”
And so Sam does.
So…. I’m in an awkward position today. I’m in a position today, because I’ve created a story. And I’m here to wrap that story up. But I’m also here to talk about what that story meant.
So I began to prepare these remarks, about how perception and reality are not the same thing. I started looking up bible verses to quote about the nature of baptism. I was going to hint at all this symbolism, all this meaning. And in the middle of it all, I was reminded of that cinematic masterpiece of the early 1980’s, Back to School. As some of us remember, Back to School is this Rodney Dangerfield movie. As one might guess based on the title, he’s an older guy who decides to go back to college. In the scene that came to my mind, Rodney is struggling in his English class reading a Kurt Vonegut story. So he hires Kurt Vonegut to write the paper… about his own work. The punchline to this whole series of scenes is that the professor, not knowing that the author wrote the paper, thinks that the paper is all wrong.
That’s the most obvious absurdity: the idea that Vonnegut could get his own writing wrong. But there’s something else, equally abusrd at work. And that’s the idea that somebody might tell a story and then, after writing it, that the person might go about explaining what that story means. This leads to a question: If the story was just a masquerade to convey a few sentences, what’s the point? Why not just write those few sentences—the thing you really wanted to get across—and be done with it?
Now, I’m no Kurt Vonegut. But the truth is, regarding I am The Elliots. What it comes down to, is 2 possibilities.
Once possibility is that the story didn’t engage you. And if this is so, I’m sorry. But if we messed it all up, if it wasn’t your thing, then me standing here, and telling you the ideas that we wanted to share with you from it: those ideas just won’t mean very much.
The other possibility is that maybe you liked it, just a little bit. Maybe it pulled you in, become some little tiny part of you. If this is the case, the last thing I want to do is steal the process away from you. The act of working out what a story means is such an important thing to go through. The last thing I’d want to imply about any story is that the value of it all can be boiled down to some essence of a few sentences.
Which brings me back to why I’m here today. Instead of talking about one specific story, I’d like to talk to you about the idea of story in general. Partially, I want to explain why we chose to tell a story in the way we did. But more than that, I’d like to submit that stories are incredibly important to God.
This right here, is a pretty cool book. One thing that might be said about this book is that it is a collection of stories. An anthology, if you will. But it is more than that. It is not only a collection of stand-alone independent chapters, but at the same time, it is also, a novel, a complete work unto itself.
If you take out a few lineages, a few lists of laws like Leviticus, and a few letters in the back, this book is nothing but story. And this leads to a question:
Why is the bible almost exclusively story? Why did God choose to communicate this way? When Jesus spoke to his followers, why did he communicate through story? Why are the accounts of Jesus the stories told from the perspective of four different men?
And here’s an equally important question:
What if you didn’t know anything about the bible first hand? When you hear other people talk about scripture, do they pay enough attention, do they offer enough respect to the stories?
In my experience, people talk a lot about what the bible says. And even more about what it means. And it might be that some of them are right.
But to judge by the way people quote scripture, you’d think it was a list of rules, laws, and expectations. You’d think that were no stories at all. You’d think it was all black and white, predigiested, specific instructions.
One of my favorite writers is this guy named Billy Collins. He wrote this poem about how to read poetry. I think it’s relevant though, to the way we read story. More importantly, it’s relevant to the way we read scripture.
Introduction to Poetry
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
The idea is that a story is like a bunch of grapes. We just put it into a press and squeeze the truths out. And then discard the rest. Or better yet, it’s like Collins says: We tie the story down, and we beat the truth out of it. Those 4 or 5 morals, or principals, or whatever, they the true essence of what the story is. The husk that is left over, after we squish it, or beat it, that can be discarded.
Have we ever really worked out the profound arrogance in this? The beginning and the end, the A through the z, the author and the sustainer of the universe, he shared with us truths in the form of a story. But only we are qualified to extract the important nuggets out of those stories. It’s like we say “I wish I’d been with God at the beginning. Then, when he started conveying all these stories to people, I could have interupted God, exerted the important parts, and saved everybody a lot of money in bible printing costs. The version of the bible I co-wrote with God would have been much more succint than this fluffy thing he handed us.”
Jesus spoke in stories that we often call parables. In Mathew 13 he begins with a well-known parable, the parable of the sower. I don’t want to talk about that today. What I want to focus on, is what happens after. In verse 10,
10The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”
11He replied, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 13This is why I speak to them in parables:
“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand
What Jesus says next doesn’t really flow. Because soon, Jesus begins to explain the parable. The wierd thing, is nobody claimed that they need that parable explained. But Jesus explains it anyway. But it’s almost as though Jesus knew that wasn’t the real question that they wanted to ask. Jesus answers the question they ask. But Jesus goes on, as he so often does, to answer the real question: It seems like the he knew what the disciples really wanted to know is What does the parable of the sower mean?
And Over the next several verses, Jesus attempts to explain this. But at the end of his explanation, with out a transition or explanation, almost as if it’s a part of his attempt to explain the parable itself, this is what scripture says.
24Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Look, I can distill out some of what I want you to get out of that story. But there’s some stuff that goes unsaid. There some wisdom left over. Principles and isolated facts are easy. I’ll give you a few of those. But there will be something valuable left behind, if you disregard story. This idea is reinforced by what comes next. After the parable of the weeds comes two more parables: the parable the Mustard Seed and the Parable of the Yeast.
After Jesus shares the parable of weeds, we might see that there’s a little progress. Jesus disciples ask him to explain this parable directly. Atleast they are asking what they really want to know now. And then, It happens again: Jesus begins with an explanation, but then he goes into three more parables to enhance this explanation.
Follow the pattern:
Jesus explains one parable. But its as though his explanation requires another three parables to do it. And then, when he explains one of those parables, he again, takes another three stories to explain that.
One could assume that this pattern continues indefinitely: to fully explain each one is just going to require two more. A couple chapters later comes Jesus’ next parable.
13He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14Leave them; they are blind guides.[e] If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”
15Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.”
16“Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. 17“Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ 19For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.’ ”
It’s interesting that Jesus says that, “Are you still so dull?”
I don’t think he’s calling them dull because they didn’t understand that particular parable. I’d suggest that this is parable is atleast as complicated as the others. Struggling with this particlar story is understandable.
I think it’s not that they want one specific parable explained. It’s a wider issue than that: it’s that they are still wanting Jesus to chew up his stories and then regurgitate them back like a mama bird with her babies.
Our relationship to story is a bit like practice for loving the people around us. And more importantly, it’s a bit like practice for loving God himself.
In preparation for speaking today, I engineered an intensive research study with over one thousand subject… O.K., actually just posted on face book “Tell me what you love about your special someone.” And one person answered. But this is what she said:
This is what I found out ….
I’d like to suggest that these lists about what we love about our special someones… they are a bit like the principles, lessons, and morals we can list after paying careful attention to stories.
Both are lists of facts that are most likely true. By definition they are the things our conscience mind notices, they are things that are easy to put into words. But I’d like to try a little thought experiment.
Come up with your own list of what it is you love about the person most special to you in the world. And ask yourself:
What if the first thing was taken away?
What if the second thing was taken away?
What if they lost the third thing?
What if the fourth list was stolen from?
Would you love them?
Do your feelings run deeper than this surface list?
In fact, suppose we could take all these things in your list, and wrap them up in a box. And we could take everything left of the person and put them in a different box. If we turned this into some kind of demented “let’s make a deal” and said you had to choose one or the other…
Which would you pick? Only the things on the list? Or the total summation of everything not on the list?
As it is with our special someone, so it is doubly with God.
Maybe you could provide a list of what you love best about God. And if you couldn’t… maybe you should get to know God a little better.
But if you could provide a list of what you love about God… and you had to make that same choice… which would you pick? Only the things you could put into words about him? Or all the things that you could never put into words about him?
And so it goes with stories, as well. I’m not denying that stories don’t have lessons, principals, and morals. What I’m saying is that if I had to choise, in a great story between only the things I can say or only the things that can’t be said, I’ll choose the second.
And if this is all true of stories created out of the imagination of knuckleheaded humans, how much more true is it of stories created in the mind of God, and played out in reality itself?
I have this hope for us. It’s a hope that we stop listening to the people who tie scripture to a chair, and beat it with a hose to find out what it really means. I have this hope that we might immerse ourselves directly in these stories, that we might have the courage to be realty challenged and changed by them, that we might ponder, and pray, and meditate, and even argue about these stories.
This story is like God himself. It won’t be simplified or summarized or tamed. It won’t be turned into a tidy little instruction manual. This story is a battle cry, it’s a call to arms, meant to challenge as much as inform.
If we answered this challenge, as individuals, as a community, there would be no stopping us.