Once upon a time, there was a very little girl who lived in a tiny little house on the corner of two streets in the country, Clark street and Otway street. And she lived there with her mother and her father and her brother, but not her sister, because she hadn’t been born yet.
But this little girl it seemed had been born with a few things wrong. Some things wrong with her eyes and her ears.
When this little girl used her eyes to see the world, all of the things and shapes and colours and movements formed themselves into stories.
Stories, as you know, never stand still. Stories are always moving. Clever people sometimes talk of ‘advancing the plot’ of a story, or ‘driving the narrative’.
This little girl’s dad was a mechanic, a fixer of cars, and she had seen him strip a gearbox, replace headgaskets and safely push a cracked windscreen out using the gentle pressure of his feet, all well before she went to school. She knew intuitively that moving and driving were not simple and surface affairs – but that there was a great deal of intricate systemic reaction and interaction that went on. Somehow, she also knew this of stories and plots.
As her eyes beheld the world-as-story it became for her a way of things reacting and interacting (under the bonnet, as it were) as well as going forward and having purpose and direction.
As she grew older she realized this was the thing that was wrong with her eyes. That some other people didn’t see everything in stories, moving and turning constantly. She heard people speak of seeing and understanding things called ‘propositions’ and she came to recognize that they were talking about ideas that stood still.
How did they do that? What magic did they have that they could make an idea stand still? How did they bolt it down?
But what was wrong with the little girl’s ears? Her ears were filled with music –all of the time. Every sound was a song or a symphony or a shanty. Every sound: the hum of the heater, the ping of spoon on the cup, the fizz of the tap, the pulse of engines on the road, the rumble of the chair across the floor, the punctuations of a door that closes, and of course, the everyday operatic ensembles of birds. There was always the company and conversation and colour and content of sound. Every act of speech she encountered entered this symphonic world like a soloist over the tutti. Like the entrance of a new character in the second act of the opera. Like the fruiterer who calls out above the competing buskers and business of crowds in the teeming marketplace.
As she grew older she realized that this was the thing that was wrong with her ears. That some other people had quietness in their ears. That a sentence spoken could be like a herald in an empty street. She heard people speaking as if they were starting a speech alone on a stage. She heard people speaking as if there were no other voices.
How did they do that? What magic did they have that they could make everyone and everything else silent, an audience? As if the lights were dimmed over everyone else, conforming them into a faceless characterless crowd sitting passively in seats.
Sometimes the little girl would find herself in such a crowd, being spoken to as if she were not alive, and even worse, as if all the songs and stories and characters of colour in her head were white, or grey, or silent or dead.
There was always a little oddness in this. Sometimes this even happened in church, which was especially odd.
But just speaking to the world as if it is all white and grey and silent and dead does not make it so.
The stories and songs, the colours and shapes and sounds remained very much alive. They made her wriggle, they made her write, they made her draw. But they did not stop or sleep or fade or forsake her.
And it made the little girl look around and wonder – at all the other people. She knew that not everyone had a company of troubadours in their heads, but she wondered if some others did. Or maybe they had an office of journalists and editors, clacking away on keyboards, or maybe they had a team of chefs, with abundant pantries combining ingredients, mixing stirring, testing, baking, waiting, or a company of dancers always moving, stretching, balancing, leaping, spinning.
Meanwhile in her own ballads, terror and sadness came often.
When she heard about the ideas that stood still she was dismayed. Ideas that would sit down and stay. That would not budge. That reached out their frozen, rasped concrete hands of mischief and gripped without letting go.
Nevertheless these ideas stood in the midst of the whirling stories and shifting shapes. Like a child watching the skipping rope loop over and over and over, waiting for the space to run in and jump.
The stories went on. Some of them terrible. Some of them wonderful.
With her eyes and ears that were somehow wrong, she found that the ideas that stood still were not as strong as the stories and songs, which were always being refueled. Each morning new sounds, new colours and shapes appeared.
When she tried to remember the ideas that stood still, she found them hard. She found them hard to remember, she found them not so much hard to believe, as hard to know. Hard to make friends with. Hard to make useful.
No doubt it could possibly be done. She read stories of people who did. And she knew that the church thought it could be done too.
Churches did seem to have successfully hammered in some large, now immovable, concrete post ideas. Cold and hard and grey and lifeless and obstructive. Meanwhile, large basketfulls of stories piled up like laundry in every corner, begging to be rifled through, tipped out, tried on or at least pegged up to flap a spirited dance in the breeze.
Week after week, the little girl sat in church and wondered how much attention anyone else was paying to the big concrete post ideas. She looked around and tried to sense who, like her, might be hankering for some storying. Perhaps the lady with enormous feather hat; the man with gold chains and hairy chest; the lady with orange lipstick and the colourful kaftan; the man in the grey suit and glasses on his nose and a wicked twinkle in his eye.
Little girls are brave at wondering and imagining, but fearful of talking to grownups. So, week after week, she sat with her songs and stories in her mind and stared into the huge bright colourful window of shapes and symbols and stories.
A man kneeling in water among reeds and fish, other standing by, one holding keys, while a boat and a lamb and a star drifted in the sky above. She knew all these stories and the others that strung between them like netting. She felt the cold water and the gritty sand under the knees of the man. She felt his dimpled damp fingertips and palms pressing together in a prayer – and the anticipation and hope and holiness of that moment made her tremble. For long, long, long minutes she would stare into that face. That calm, knowing, open face that seemed to hold no unkindness or wickedness or exasperation or scowling or pity or mocking that she knew in other faces.
This was a face that met her gaze. He never flinched. He was made of glass, for sure. But she felt that from the stories told of this man, had the light melted the glass and the image miraculously animated, he still would not have flinched.
His stories were, it seemed like hers.
Moving, wheeling around, taking the corners a bit fast, hard to keep up with.
But in time she learned how to use her ears, like her dad did – to listen in and recognize the sounds of the different moving parts. Her dad could hear a worn bearing deep in the belly of a car and tell you exactly where it was. He knew the pitch of every whir and how long it would be before that part needed replacing. Listening – listening close – listening and imagining – listening and questioning – listening and testing – listening and investigating – listening and adjusting: these were the skills that made her dad a good mechanic; and so she learned too, were the same skills directed towards the stories of the faith that made him a good exegete, a gifted story teller, a great meaning maker, and a go-the-distance disciple.
So she took her wrong ears. And her wrong eyes and she too, looking at the colours and shapes and listening to the stories, learned:
She learned listening – listening close to the text– listening and imagining the text – listening and questioning the text – listening and testing the text – listening and investigating the text – listening and adjusting life and faith to the text.
And she learned to see. To look close and stand back from the text – to see and imagine the shapes and colours of the text – to look and test our visions, her visions of the text – to see and test the outlines and forms and tones of the text – to look deeper, into the cracks and interrogate and investigate the text – and seeing all this, to adjust – to adjust faith and life to the text, to the mobile, moving, many parts of the stories that carry our faith.
In these ways she found the stories of faith no easier to believe. (After all faith is not to be the click of the fingers, or the flick of a switch, or the tick of a box).
Stories were still no easier to believe, but with this listening and looking, they were easier to know, to make useful, to make friends with.
These stories with their warm hands outstretched to her, waving hello, comforting her shoulder, holding her shaking hand in times of fear, pointing out wonders to see, wiping her tears, made friends with her own stories. These stories and her stories found common ground, same-same snaps, and deep resonances. And where her ears heard the clanging of dissonance, the rumble of a rough ride, the crunch and grind of misalignment, she knew the arts of imagining, questioning, testing, investigating and adjusting to the stories of faith. Listening and looking afresh would see her running smoothly and set her again towards the go-the-distance life she longed for.
30 years later I sat again staring at this window, as I peered around the remnants of some of those concrete posts, still standing, but with more of the clothes tipped out of the baskets as stories animated the gath
I looked again at the hand of John the Baptists open palmed before Jesus. All my years as a child I had seen in the design of the art glass the image of a church in the palm of John’s hand. I had thought in that moment of baptism that John was prophetically showing Jesus the future of the church – clearly I could see the sloped roofline of the church rising to a steeple and several arched windows.I identified myself in that image too – that John the Baptist was showing Jesus the ministry of the church that was being launched in the ministry of Jesus, that included little me.
As an adult, looking again at the art, I realised that the dark stain on John’s hand was simply to indicate his palm creases and fingers. No church. No Beth.
It was a moment in which my songs fell silent. And then they stirred again. And the Stories were moving and flexing and turning and beckoning, and I was looking again, listening closer, looking and imagining, listening and questioning, looking and testing, listening and investigating, looking and adjusting.
Of course John is showing Jesus the future church – it is not the architecture of walls and roofline and steeple and windows – this is not the future nor the past nor the present form of continuity of the ministry of Jesus launched in water and spirit.
No. What better symbol of the ministry and mission of the church of Jesus, baptised Jesus, Spirit-filled Jesus, than a simple open human hand.
Let it be so.