A week ago, when I knew nothing and hated tangible metaphors, I was at a camp experience which delved deeply into our pasts, traumas, shame, and beliefs. For the first three days of the camp, we were instructed to carry a large rock (bread loaf size) around with us everywhere, including the bathroom.
On the third day, we were told to make a list of lies we believed — things which made us feel shame or worthless — and write them all on the rock.
Then later, with our small groups, we went out into the woods and could do whatever we wanted to the rock. Some people smashed them with a hammer. Others buried them. Some did both. Some peed on their rock. Some laid their rock gently at the base of a tree, symbolizing relinquishing their shame and false beliefs to the foot of the cross of Christ.
I decided to smash mine, put it in a hole, pee on it (mainly because I had to go), bury it, and then do an embarrassing dance on top of it.
The thing is, all the other dudes in my group cried while obliterating theirs. Others got angry while smashing them. But all of them were emotional. Except me. I didn’t see a connection between words written in Sharpie on a rock, and an action I took against the rock, as having any real effect on my own life or self or thoughts or beliefs.
The exercise, which was so powerful to some people, meant almost nothing to me, because I couldn’t grasp how the idea of metaphor doesn’t just help us understand reality; metaphor is reality.
You can’t describe God.
We can anthropomorphize Him, of course. We can use phrases like,
the hand of God has touched my heart.
The mouth of God speaks truth.
The eyes of God are upon you.
God show Moses His backside in Exodus 33.
The psalms tell us that God is all sorts of things:
a rock (what?)
To describe the spiritual world in any sort of detail necessarily demands metaphor. And for years of my life, I thought, I don’t want metaphor in my life, I simply want to know about God; I simply want to talk of actual spiritual things. But then, how do we go about this? What sort of language can we employ which is not ultimately metaphorical?
How can we get “closer” to a God who is omnipresent? Do we walk north a little bit? Do we take a hot air balloon to get nearer? Or is it a spacial metaphor and we have once again located language inside of our own experiential categories?
Try to say something about God, or about your relationship with God, without using a metaphor.
I remember hearing marriage discussed as a sign of God and His people, the way a spouse will stay faithful to their spouse. I thought, ok, cool, but that’s just a symbol. What’s the real meaning of it?
But suddenly, this past week, as if a light switch turned on, I realized that everything is a metaphor. It’s unescapable. There is nothing that we can do, no action or decision we can do that is more real than a metaphor being acted out on a global stage before the spiritual dimension. C. Baxter Kreuger said that all of human life and history is a theater in which the Spirit acts out the perichoresis (divine dance of the Trinitarian love) in a tangible, physical manner. And the invitation of the Christian is to act out our spirit-filled roles in a participatory way, entering into the drama of God, rather than as an observer.
In other words, being a Christian doesn’t mean that one shows up, passively attends church, and then goes on with ‘the rest of’ their lives. The ‘real’ part of their lives.
Rather, it’s an invitation to participate in this theater by acting out a role written for us and only us. Except, perhaps ‘acting’ implies the wrong thing here. There should be no acting when the individual is honest about their place in the story, knows themself, and listens to the gentle Spirit of God, moving in tandem with the movement of the eternal story.
There is nothing more spiritual than actively participating in this metaphor.
It seems that maybe God gave us all things physical as a means of helping us understand all things spiritual.
It makes me think that Christians and atheists alike who spend so much time arguing about the scientific arguments for or against God are missing the point wildly. Instead, what if we thought about questions like, how does it feel to sing songs surrounded by fellow believers? How does it feel to marvel at an ancient tree while on a hike? How does it feel to embrace a spouse whose body is growing old alongside yours, as you act out the metaphor of covenantal commitment?
Even the prophets in the Old Testament didn’t just say words to people; they often acted out messages in very symbolic ways. They were performance artists of the highest order.
That means that perhaps writing out our shame on a rock and then smashing the rock might actually DO something for us.
It means that when we eat some bread and juice in church, we may actually be acting something out with our bodies — which need physical demonstrations more than we often realize — that does something spiritual and real.
So I’m trying to figure out what it means to embrace the metaphor.
May we all grow more into God as we experience the depths of the life He gave us.