Hearing the Story (4)
Hearing the story means listening so that the story empowers us
This happens for two reasons. The first is that the event was then, while the story is now. Whatever happened on that occasion, and regardless of whether or not the accounts we have are accurate as historical records of it, the fact remains that the event is history. It happened to other people in another place, long ago. It is past. However, the story is present. It has travelled here from the past; it is travelling with us; and it will travel on beyond us into the future. Here and now, the story is our companion. We are travelling alongside it, and as we do so, we can engage with it. The story is here with us. Here and now. In the present moment. It addresses us, here and now. Here and now, we can enter into it, using our imaginations. Here and now, the story can shape our thinking, open our eyes to new possibilities, show us a way of proceeding, lead us where we had not thought to go. The story has come to us, not to tell us about the past, but to connect with us here, in the present moment, as we walk towards the future. Here and now, the story shows us how things might be, what we could do, who we might become.
Focusing on the event traps us in the past. The story cannot feed us, because no connection is made between the worlds. Between the Evangelist’s mind and our own. Between Jesus’ mind - as understood and related by the Evangelist - and our own. The living bread leaves Jesus’ hands, but it falls to the ground before it can reach our hands.
Focusing on the story allows us to remain focused on the present moment, and this is vital - literally, life-giving - because God can only meet us in the present moment. The present moment is where we live, breathing, thinking, imagining, feeling, choosing, speaking, acting. The present moment is where we dream dreams and make decisions. The future is not determined by our past: it is formed by the choices and actions of the present moment. Any given moment. In this moment, we can speak, we can act, we can make something change.
Here and now is the only place where something can change. We cannot change things in the past, because this is closed to us. We cannot change things in the future, because we have not reached it yet. The only place where we can make something happen is here and now. The present moment is the only place where God can speak, and we can listen.
If we focus on the story, rather than the event, then the story can speak to us here and now. It can show us how to be alert to the present moment, pay attention to what is happening around us here and now, and dealing with what is actually here. This is important because a second way we become distracted is by allowing our focus to be deflected from what we have, to what we do not have, have never had, or might never have. This makes a huge difference to our potential and effectiveness. If we remain focused on what we have, there is a possibility that we can make something creative out of it, whereas if we are constantly being distracted by thoughts of what we do not have, we become increasingly entangled in regrets and resentments.
Wondering how the multiplication happened is useful if it helps us engage with the story, so that we begin to relate to it as a narrative that is alive because it is dynamic and because it is relevant to our situation today. It is not helpful if it turns our attention from listening to what we are actually hearing - and responding to it - to an irresolvable speculation about something we are not being told. Listening to what we are hearing, and responding to that, are the prelude to action, and it is taking action that changes things. Speculating about what we are not being told leads us nowhere because it does not lead us into action. So nothing happens as a result of our hearing the story. Nothing changes. Everything stays the same, or worse, deteriorates still further.
What we receive from a story depends on how we hear it. To hear in it what the author intended it to convey, we must hear it as it is written. Having “ears to hear” the stories of Jesus does not only mean approaching them with an open mind and a willingness to believe. It also means that we listen for what the Evangelist particularly wished to communicate.
Unfortunately, few of us learn to do this, because few of us receive any instruction or guidance as to what we are listening for. What are we supposed to be hearing? No one tells us. So we are left to listen in an unfocused manner, picking up whatever we can from the text, absorbing and reflecting upon odd fragments that lodge in our memories, the vague impression that forms in our minds as the story rolls through us. We latch onto any detail that helps us relate to what we are hearing. Much of the time, we receive nothing at all.
Or we listen to the text for information, in the way that we listen to other forms of broadcast news or conversation. This gives us more to chew on, but not necessarily the food we need. Because when we listen so as to absorb information, that is what we absorb. Information. And there is nothing wrong with that, from one point of view. But the Evangelists are not giving us information. Not for its own sake. And listening to the Gospel so as to gather information will lead us astray.
There are two ways this can happen. We may listen for information about the event, which leads us to speculate about the event, and draw conclusions from this about the events of our own lives. We build up an image of the way events unfold and the way that people respond to them and from this image we make deductions about ourselves and others and how we can respond to the events in which we are involved. This way of hearing the text is not necessarily wrong: it is just inadequate. It limits what the story can do for us, and what the Holy Spirit can do for us through the story. The tale has caught our interest, and can encourage us through the engagement of our rational faculties.
In this context, speculating about what actually happened can help us relate the story to our own circumstances. But it does not necessarily strengthen us to make a creative response to those circumstances, especially if they are difficult. Indeed, if our situation is harsh and resources are few, we may be further discouraged by the gap between the way things worked for Jesus and the way they work - or fail to work - for us. Consequently, there is a limit to the extent that the story can feed us by this means alone. Unless we respond to it whole, the story cannot strengthen us. This way of listening - or reading - makes us keen but powerless.
Alternatively, we may listen for information about Jesus. Here, we may feel that we are on surer ground. We may not feel it necessary to speculate about how the events unfolded: what happened was a miracle, and that is the end of the matter. What is to be gained by further inquiry and discussion? We are listening so as to learn about Jesus, marvel at his power, and draw conclusions about his identity and status. We build up an image of the man that commands our awe. We worship him. We watch his every move. We hang on his every word. We follow him around. We are utterly devoted and pour ourselves into doing what he tells us to do.
This way of listening allows the story to appeal to the heart, and enables us to become devoted. But to what? And why? Listening like this allows us to build up a picture of Jesus as someone who was not a human being like the rest of us, but a special super-human being in a category of his own, with power we cannot possibly understand or emulate. Indeed, we may resist any attempt to investigate his power, seeing this as tantamount to dismissing Jesus’ divinity and his identity as the Son of God.
When people become devotees of Jesus, they undergo a dramatic change in the way they think, speak, act and behave. Their attitudes, lifestyle and many aspects of their personality may be transformed as they shape themselves to reflect him. They experience a new energy as they do this, an energy that springs from their relationship to Jesus as they imagine him, and from their conversion to a healthier, happier and more optimistic way of living.
As devotees, we want to connect with the object of our devotion. He is resourceful and powerful: we immerse ourselves in anything and everything that is related to him, because these activities and things connect us to him: as we connect with him we are energised: if we live close to him, we can draw on that power day by day. We feed on him, and we express our devotion by giving ourselves utterly to what we believe he requires of us. If he says “Jump!” our only question is: “How high?” We alter our thinking to think like him, our words to echo his, our actions to copy him. In all sorts of ways, we identify with him, and to the outside world we do indeed look like him. We are witnesses to his greatness and reflections of his glory.
However, devotees draw energy from the one they worship, because they do not know how to find that energy within their own hearts, circumstances, relationships and lives. They feed off the life of another because they do not have lives of their own. Devotees are like groupies: they are drawn to the energy of the artist: they are not artists themselves. Or rather, they do have the potential to be artists, but they lack the confidence to develop their own creative abilities, so rather than attempt it, they feed on the creativity of another.
Devotees are essentially parasites. They find a source of nourishment, lock on, burrow in and feed. Parasites are very loyal to their hosts. They stay close because that way they stay connected. They stay keen as long as they are fed. They make useful servants because they make the wellbeing of their host their highest priority. They are effective ambassadors and advocates for the host because his work is their life’s work, too. Indeed that life’s work may be extensive, but it is, essentially, an extension of the life that they are drawing from the host. They extend that life, but they do not magnify it because they do not know how to generate and deploy the transforming power themselves.
There is a distinction between devotion and discipleship. There is a difference between maximising and magnifying the glory and the grace of God. Being a devotee of Jesus is not the same as being a disciple of Jesus.
Listening to the story for information about events may turn us into followers of Jesus, and continued listening may feed us enough so that we remain followers throughout our ministry and all our days. Followers make good people and good ministers: interested and interesting, intellectually curious and alive. But I know many ministers who struggle with a debilitating discouragement that drains satisfaction from their work and joy from their personal lives. They feel that they have failed; that for any number of reasons the star that led them into their vocation has yet to sparkle in their eyes.
Followers go on pilgrimage… Toronto. Walsingham. If you do not travel with the one you seek, you will not find him at your destination. Going on pilgrimage is useful, but only because it helps us to discover what we have at home. It encourages us to see afresh who we are and what we have. And we can learn to do that without leaving home. Without leaving our room. Go into your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.
Listening to the story for information about Jesus may turn us into devotees of Jesus, and continued listening can feed us enough to keep us as a devotee throughout our ministry and all our days. Devotees also make good people and good ministers: enthusiastic and committed, passionate and generous. But I know many ministers who struggle with a subtle sense that however much they are giving, they are not yet giving enough. Even though they do not see how they could possibly give any more, they still feel that something, somewhere, is amiss. The flame that once burned in their hearts is battered by strong draughts and they fear that it is about to blow out entirely.
Devotees become more extreme in their devotion. Must give more. 1 Corinthians 13.
I have described these characters in their extreme forms. Most of us are neither followers or devotees, but a varying, and variable, mixture of the two. We struggle because we have not been taught how to listen to the story/stories of the Gospel for the one thing that would not only inform us and inspire us but also empower us. As a consequence, when we feel that our response is inadequate, we assume that we need more data, or we need to get closer to Jesus, or we need to apply what we know to another context, or we are under judgement and need to confess. And yes, any or all of these factors may be relevant at different times, but even when we have ticked all these boxes we can still left with a sense that our response is insufficient. Sadly, we may conclude that the problem is ministry itself. Or the people. Or the Church. Or God.
The Gospel is intended to feed us, but we are not listening to it in a way that allows it to do so. This is not our fault - I want to emphasise that - because we have not been taught how to listen to the story in the way it was written. Nor is it the fault of our tutors, for most of them were not taught this either. The problem goes back generations, and has existed, in various forms, since the beginning. There is evidence of it in the Christian scriptures. Even Jesus himself had problems getting his disciples to understand this.
The Gospel is intended to feed us. If we feel our response is inadequate, we are probably right, but that does not mean that we are supposed to look elsewhere or give more. Neither of these responses will generate the energy we are searching for. Neither of them will, of themselves, generate resources that are sufficient for the need. They will not take our inadequate response and make it adequate.
I felt the power that was hidden within the story. I sensed it, even though I could not express what I was feeling. Not then, and not for many years afterwards.
Because of this, none of the rational explanations of the story was sufficient as a response to the story. None of them expressed what I experienced when the story was read. I mean, yes, they made sense by helping me to imagine how events might have unfolded: how the problem might have been solved on the ground in Jesus’ day. But they did not make sense as a way of describing what the story was offering me in the second half of the Twentieth century in north-west London.
Something was going on here. Something was being offered. Something would be given, if I knew how to access it.
Indeed, by focusing our attention on finding a rational explanation for the event, they prevent us listening to the story as a story. They deflect us from interrogating the story to interrogating the event, which is something else entirely.
If we focus on the event, rather than the story, we are no longer listening to the story as it is written, as it was designed to be heard. We are allowing ourselves to become distracted from receiving the truth that the Evangelist wants us to hear and the power that he wants the story to convey.
It not only means doing the same sort of things that Jesus did. Or even doing the same sort of things amongst the same sort of people and for the same sort of reasons.
If we tend towards being a follower, our focus will tend to be on the events and projects we are developing, the people to whom we are ministering, and the context in which we have been placed. We are involved in an energy exchange with our context, feeding energy and creativity into the situation and drawing energy and creativity from everything that is going on. This is fine if there is plenty of energy in the situation and that energy is harnessed effectively to appropriate ends. Being part of a positive movement does sustain us. Being part of a good team does energise us.
But if our context is undergoing change, so that resources are in doubt, or must be realigned; or if our context is impoverished, so that resources are diminishing without hope of replacement - then we are in trouble. We are still locked into an energy exchange with our context, but now the context is drawing from us more than we can supply. We become discouraged, drained, exhausted, burned out. We feel that we have nothing to offer, that there is nothing we can do, and nothing we can give. Because what can we possibly offer that will ever be enough?
If we tend towards being a devotee, then we know what - or rather, who - we must offer. We give them Jesus. Only Jesus can help. Only Jesus can be enough. If those around us accept Jesus, accept him with a whole heart, then
Seeking rational explanations for the Feeding of the 5,000 focuses our attention on the event and the context. Reading the text in this way turns us into interested, but largely powerless, followers. Regarding the Feeding as a miracle that only Jesus could have performed focuses our attention on Jesus himself. Reading the text in this way turns us into dedicated - but distracted - devotees.
Of course, at the age of ten, I would not have thought like this, let alone expressed it in those terms, but I remember feeling, even then, that to describe an event as a miracle was the beginning of a conversation, not a device for ending one. Indeed, I have come to believe that we are intended to interrogate these events and the power they display: that our quest to discover what happened, or what might have happened, and how it might have happened, is part of the response that the Gospel writers hoped to stimulate; even that our journey, our quest, our pursuit of the treasure, is part of the event itself. They are meant to feed us, energise us, rouse us, get us thinking, make us want to be able to do the same ourselves. This is one reason they happened in the first place. And this is certainly why they were written down, and written in the form they have come down to us. They are Signs.
Jesus is the One who gives the bread of life. He is the bread of life. We need the bread of life. So we are drawn to the image of the all-providing Jesus who gives the bread of life to us. The story assures us that Jesus feeds us, because Jesus feeds everyone.
This distinction between the story and the event is a product of modern thinking. The Evangelists would never have separated the two. For them, the event itself and the story of the event were connected, related, even fused, in a manner that no longer makes sense to us. And yet, we cannot ignore or deny modern thinking. It has shaped us, whether we like it or not. Pre-modern thinking is no longer possible for us. Post-modernism accepts and uses and builds on modern thinking. It does not pretend that modernism did not happen, or that it can be circumvented.