I’m a teacher. My tools are metaphor, analogy, and the recognition of relationship. My job requires me to take things people don’t already know (or, sometimes, only think they don’t know), and give them something familiar to hang their thoughts on.
“You can understand this, because it’s just the same thing as when we talked about that—only with a few more wrinkles that I’ll explain along the way.
My inclination, if I’m going to explain something, is to tell a story—most likely from my past. Stories are like meta-mataphors—giving us access to things we can understand by offering reference points in narrative form.
We give parents a hard time about that, don’t we?
“Oh, sure Dad. Of course you had to ford a river and battle the Demogorgon in the Upside Down everyday just to get to fifth grade. Whatevs.”
“We know we have it easy; we never had to chop a cord of wood before lunch, or repair a faulty fan belt with dental floss and some WD40.”
“Oh please do tell us about how you used to make your own clothes as a child out of discarded boxes from the liquor store and old bits of lint.”
But our stories are an important part not only of who we are, but of how we see the world. Our ability to connect the past to the present helps us learn, helps give us confidence that if we’ve survived the past, that we can keep going, that we’ll find the future—and that it’ll look much like that which has gone before.
It’s an eminently human characteristic. We’re always comparing the past, trying to make some sense of the present, trying to get a line on the future, aren’t we?
You know how this works. It’s simple really. Try this one on: The Iraq War was this generation’s Viet Nam.
The collapse of the financial markets in 2008 is a modern Great Depression .
The Cubs winning the World Series is like … um, the best thing ever. No. Wait. Sorry.
We like to think of the past as a guide to the future. This impulse is generally a good one. We can understand a great deal of what the world is like by referring to the way the world used to be.
But what if the past is discontinuous with the future? What if the world we want isn’t like any world for which we have a story?
What if the present leaves too many people terrified of the future, no really good reference points in common experience?
That’s an especially important question just now, isn’t it?
This is the problem Isaiah’s got. In our passage for today God is laying out a new future that completely explodes our understanding of what the world should look like. We don’t have anywhere to look over our shoulders for a referent.
The stuff in the past is past. No going back. In fact, God says, “I am going to create a new heaven and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind” (65:17).
But that’s the problem, isn’t it? How do you describe a world you’ve never seen before? How do you begin to put words to a reality that has no corresponding precedent?
I had a dream one time. I dreamt that I was in church, the light pouring through the stained glass. The sanctuary was hazy, as in dreams things tend to be, and I was on my way to the pulpit.
I began to ascend the steps to the chancel, when someone came to me. Now, this someone was just out of my peripheral vision, so I’m not sure who it was (although, in retrospect I have my hunches). This voice came to me in my dream and said, “The church needs a new minister.”
I, of course, didn’t particularly like this idea. I thought, “But I’ve worked so hard. I love my job. I don’t want to leave.”
And the voice said, “The church needs a new minister.”
I said, “But we already have a bunch of people doing ministry.”
And the voice said, becoming (if that’s possible) even more calm, “The church needs a new minister … a minister of poetry.”
At first I argued that the church had more important business to which it must attend. We had youth to teach, disciples to make, prayers to pray, budgets to budgets, and sermons to preach. We had mouths to feed and people to clothe. We had the sick to whom we must attend. We had people living in fear of being deported, people scared to be stopped by a police car, people who didn’t know if it was safe to go into a public restroom, women afraid to walk down the street alone or go into a the break room by themselves. We had, to my mind, much bigger fish to fry.
“Poetry is nice, but the reign of God won’t be ushered in by a poet,” I replied.
“The church needs a new minister,” the voice insisted, “a minister of poetry.”
Then, as in dreams it often happens, I suddenly got it. I glimpsed the world that the voice was calling me to envision. And all of a sudden, for whatever odd reason that things happen in dreams, a minister of poetry made all the sense in the world to me.
I remember seeing my face in the dream after hearing these words for the third time. I was smiling … smiling both because it was apparently not my job the voice was after, but also because the whole idea made such outlandish, ridiculous sense.
The idea had never occurred to me. And in my dream, I was certain that the idea had probably never occurred to anyone. I thought, “We look for ministers of education, ministers of youth. The church is constantly trying to find music ministers.
We hire ministers of counseling, evangelism, shepherding, pastoral care, and even ministers of “Christian Finance”—whatever that is. But it’s never occurred to the church that perhaps what we need most is a minister of poetry.”
The dream woke me up. I was shocked and amused by it. I found myself in bed smiling at the notion of a minister of poetry.
As I was lying there, the line from Walt Whitman’s poem, A Passage to India, came to mind:
After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seem already cross’d,) After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work, After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemists, the geologist, ethnologist, Finally shall come the poet worthy of that name, The true child of God shall come singing God’s songs.
Finally comes the Poet. That’s also the title of a book on preaching by Walter Brueggeman some years back, who contended that the world has been flattened, reduced and is in need of poets to sing it back to life. That is to say, the world we inhabit is a prosaic world, often devoid of dreams and vision and creativity—which is to say, often devoid of poetry.
It’s a world that insists on realism and shuns imagination.
It’s a world that has settled on violence and pride and self-seeking as an inevitability.
It’s a world that takes for granted that there will always be weeping and infants who live but a few days.
It’s a world that assumes that people die young and children are born for calamity.
It’s a world where conventional wisdom tells us that wolves eat lambs for breakfast.
It’s a world where people live with the lingering fears that their race, their gender, their sexual orientation, their gender expression, their immigration status makes them vulnerable to the whims of those in power, and a target for ordinary bigots and cowards.
I think Brueggeman was right: the church desperately needs someone whose job it is to find the terrible and the beautiful words to speak a new heaven and a new earth.
What the church needs, as it finds itself situated in this lifeless, unvariegated, prosaic world, is a poet … or, as they were construed in the Bible—a prophet—someone who can lead where there is no map, someone who can set aside the noise and articulate what God’s future must hold for all God’s children.
And that’s it, isn’t it? Some things are both too terrible and too beautiful to put into words. But we must try. That’s where poets and prophets come in.
The church, for its part, often finds itself a supporter of a prosaic vision of reality.
You know about realism, don’t you? Reality, according to the flattened world in which we live, views poverty, violence, racism, sexual assault, anti-immigrant hatred as something “you people are just going to have to learn to live with.”
“You people”—which means “other people”—which ultimately means “not me.”
The church—to the extent that it has promoted a version of the gospel concerned primarily only with helping me to get to heaven—has been complicit in allowing Christians to get comfortable with the idea that poverty, xenophobia, racism, sexism, homophobia aren’t a primary matter of concern when it comes to Christian responsibility—that the cries of our sisters and brothers are of interest only after we’ve secured our individual souls.
In our prosaic reality, all that stuff happens to other people who—although we may not make them targets of our open hostility—qualify as perfect candidates for our indifference.
Too often the church’s cries about being “realistic” require it to be concerned with bigger things than with the scattered cries of a marginalized group of “other people.”
In this case, “Let’s be realistic” really means something like, “Let’s don’t rock the boat. Let’s do things that don’t cost us very much and don’t make people really mad at us for doing them. You need to put your personal hurt aside for the good of the whole.”
But Isaiah has a different course of action in mind. He sees a different reality.
What if you’ve spent the last 50+ years sitting in a foreign land, a million miles from anywhere that looks like home, feeling abandoned and forgotten?
What if, when you looked out your front window and all you could see was the unfamiliar and frightening landscape of the wilderness that threatened to swoop into your life and overwhelm you? How do you put that into words?
Or what if, after you get home, all you see is the wasteland your hometown has become in your absence? All the abandoned buildings and old tires strewn about the countryside? What if when you look out the front window, all you see is a darkened landscape that holds for you only the failures of the past?
What do you do in a world like that? How do you find the strength to go on, the strength to hold the hands and bear the burdens of those convinced they can’t make even one more day in a world that seems to have no place for them?
In The Shawshank Redemption, a film that takes place in a prison, one of the prisoners, Andy Dufreine, the prison librarian, gets a call to come to the guard house where he’s finally received boxes of books and records for the prison library—after writing for six years to the state senate for funds. He’s so taken by the moment that he locks a prison guard in the bathroom, then locks himself into the command center with a record player and begins to play an aria from The Marriage of Figarro, which he puts over the loudspeaker for all the prison to hear.
As the prisoners are out in the yard for exercise, some in the shop working, this beautiful music begins to play. Everyone stops, if only for a moment, to listen.
Eventually, of course, the guards break down the door and throw Andy Dufreine in the hole for his stunt. But, Morgan Freeman’s character, observes, “I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t wanna know. Some things are better left unsaid. I like to think they were talking about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you those voices soared, higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream.”
And that’s just it: What if our job is to carve out new worlds, to sing hope into a gray place where nobody dares to dream?
What if, for a world content to be satisfied with things it already takes for granted—that white men should always occupy the top of the food chain and that a person’s money or power ought to be the measure of their worth—our job as God’s children is to unleash the poetry about a “new heaven and a new earth”—a place where crazy, unthinkable things are possible?
A place where there are no more cries of distress, where the work of our hands is not claimed by someone else for their profit, a place where children are blessed and protected, where the wolf poses no threat to the lamb, where people live without fear that those in power can come along and steal their security, or their dignity, or their lives.
“I like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you those voices soared, higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream.”
And for my part, I like to think Isaiah’s singing a song about a new day, a new world where the hope of God’s people will be met by the power of God’s saving hand—where those who’ve been cast aside, abandoned, “othered,” left to die alone with no one to speak terrible and beautiful words over their lifeless bodies will “come to Zion singing”; and “they shall not hurt on all my holy mountain.”
In a gray place where hopelessness seems to rule the day, in a flattened and dry land where walls are built and people are cast aside, and where even in church, we often can’t see our way to welcome one another—we wonder how our perseverance in the struggle to follow Jesus, to live together faithfully makes any difference.
Standing on tiptoes we peer with the eyes of hope into the darkness, awaiting a word from God about the dream of our deliverance from the desert.
After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seem already cross’d,) After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work, After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemists, the geologist, ethnologist, Finally shall come the poet worthy of that name, The true son of God shall come singing his songs.
But what if it’s only just a dream?
In the world in which we live, eating the bread of tears and drinking from wells poisoned by the blood of the powerless and forgotten, a new dream may just be the best thing to happen to us.
I say we find out.