Saturday, October 20, 2012

Portraits of a Mountain

“‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD… that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.” Isa 2:3

Preparing an exposition, lesson or sermon on the Scriptures is like an artist looking out over a great mountainous landscape and preparing to paint. His/her painting will be a selective and limited interpretation of what can be seen. The whole experience cannot be captured on canvas. All that is seen cannot be captured, let alone what is heard and felt, the continuous movement or moment by moment dynamic, or how this all ignites imagination, connecting with past experience and glorious dream.

Only so much can go on the canvas and to put something down is to leave something out, but to put nothing down is to miss it all. So the artist puts down, paints, interprets, and does so with joy and yet a bit of sadness knowing more is released than can be detained. That is to say, as necessary as the interpretation is, this great landscape will always be greater than the interpretation.

So it is to survey the Scriptures. The teacher knows that to present a good lesson one cannot present too much. Too much could ruin a perfect lesson or outline. But sometimes, overcome by what is seen, the teacher/artist looses care for preserving the perfect outline. At times one must sit in awed stillness of the landscape, the exceeding work of the Great Artist, as golden moments pass unrecorded, lost and poured out as an offering. In such moments it is not about the perfect outline. In such moments the best we can do is sit and take in the view – not control it, outline it, or break it in to parts – just take it in as we submit before eminence and beauty, allowing transcendence to delay interpretation.

You might find several artistic renditions of the same mountain painted from the very same viewpoint, but the paintings will differ. The various artists would have viewed the same mountain at different times of day or year with varying degrees of shadow, cloud cover and sunlight. The same mountain, in fact, looks different each changing moment of the day. Perhaps the mountain has not changed, but how it can be seen is in constant flux and relevant to current context. Still, if two artists sat side by side at the same time, painting the same view, the final portraits would contain at least subtle differences because the one scene is filtered through two different sets of eyes. Each artist will highlight different features, fixate on various qualities and the interpretation of what the artists see is nuanced with distinct expression.

The mountain may not change, but how the mountain is seen may change from moment to moment. The same is true for Scripture. Not to advocate independent or private interpretation, but the scene, the mountain, is so very rich. It is not a one dimensional scene, but a dialectical, living moment. One picture is not enough. One final masterful painting cannot completely interpret the mountain or capture it finally on canvas. It will continue to speak and expose itself fresh each new day. The greatest of artists may have painted this, but the new artist must also climb the mountain again, set up easel, canvas and paints and paint fresh this new ancient scene.

As necessary as interpretation is, we must remember it is only that – interpretation. Interpreters and interpretations come and go but the mountain remains. Interpretation can be unjustly skewed. An artist might take unnecessary liberties and abuse free expression until the interpretation sits over against the mountain itself. We must not forget, ultimately the mountain interprets us. Failing to remain humble before the mountain, our interpretation can become exploitation and misrepresentation.

Come to peace with the fact that the mountain cannot be completely possessed. Resist the temptation to oversimplify a scene. Admit to its transcendence. Let what cannot be detained remain free. Hold what you can and let the rest just be. Come to the mountain again and again. Gather up your paints and sit before majesty. Let your eyes take in what your mind cannot completely comprehend and resist the urge to reconcile the two. Understanding comes, but it comes best to those remaining humble before what it greater. As Moses was on the mountain and requested to see God, his desire was honored only in part and part was enough.

As finite sits before the infinite, a tension remains between what is revealed and what is concealed, what is understood and what remains mysterious, what can be grasped and taken home, and what remains independent of us. At times, the best we can do is to take home a souvenir. We cannot posses, but we are possessed by the mountain. Again and again we must come, sit before it and paint.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Subversive Word

The message of the Kingdom and the Word of the Lord are subversive. The message is contrary to current status, a threat to the principal culture and prevailing perceptions. Though we like to put forth a message that never changes, even so, the message itself constantly produces change and creates new. Creating new does not seem threatening on the surface, but new is a threat to the sameness that supplies predictability and control. We prefer a managed view of the world.

When the message subverts, accepted norms may be seen as oppressive. As the Word creates inversion, our rules could be shown to be a means of keeping out the unwanted. With subversion, our reading of scripture may be seen as an editing of scripture. Could it be that a rigid interpretation of a wooden text is subversive the Word of the Lord? But when the Word is enlivened, becomes incarnate, suddenly it is close, immediate and un-managed. Now it is in your business, gets personal and presumes an intimacy with you that is startling. It gets behind the curtains, behind the facade, back where dirty dishes are, and the things we prefer to cover and ignore.

We can establish rules for interpreting scripture and these may be helpful, but the incarnate Word may not keep the rules. For good reason the sword is metaphorical for the Word - It cuts. It brings violence to the hearers. Most often believers use this sword parallel as a weapon against the enemy, but the enemy may be us. The sword pierces the heart of the believer as well as the unbeliever. The Word subverts believer and unbeliever. (See Mt. 10:34-39, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword.”v34)

The message is offensive and the offense is not accidental. We tend to remove the offense from the Gospel, that is, to shield people from its offensiveness, encouraging a hybrid, genetically altered gospel, a gelded version of the message. We know how to make the message socially acceptable and have become diplomatic with the Word – isn’t that nice? We are overly concerned with how the message may offend our unsaved loved ones. In the gospels, however, the offense was often directed at the community of faith. The outsiders seemed to be more receptive than those in the know.

To bring an inoffensive message is to say, “How ‘bout more of the old same?” It is to confess we have nothing new to offer. We have made the way to the cross too easy. We pave the Via Dolorosa, put in a street car, perhaps a trolley and fast track salvation. We just had to domesticate the message, for surely heaven did not intend to be so abrasive. So we display the gospel on the bargain rack with half-priced, buy-one-get-one theology.

“It is a free gift”, we love to say. Like signing up on Facebook, it’s free. Yet this is more than a little deceptive. In fact, there are strings attached. The Gospel doesn’t ask you for something, it asks for everything – not a yard sale, but a complete sellout. Not wholesale, but full price. Not only does it ask you to die – it asks you to “die daily”. The authentic message is not an easy message. It is disruptive. In the kingdom of God the last are first and the first are last. What was above is now below and what was below is now above. The proud are humbled and the humble are lifted up.

But make no mistake; they are “Beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life”. These are words for bright light and hope - words that deliver from grim despair and repel the mugging shadows, bringing unexpected laughter and amazement to the poor and oppressed, suddenly upstaging the lingering taunts of doubt. They open up passage previously unavailable and give sight and clarity of thought, creating faith in our hearts. To the desperate they are lifesaving, allowing not only distant hope, but present joy and peace. Yes, beautiful words, dear and precious, wonderfully powerful and un-managed.