A Stream Flowing Through the City

By Lynne M. Baab
published in Refresh: A Journal of Contemplative Spirituality. Winter 2010

The only sermon I remember from my childhood involved a dramatic action. The minister was talking about people living up to the purpose for which God created them. He took off the watch he was wearing and told us it was broken so it could no longer fulfill its purpose. Then he threw it into the congregation. I vividly remember that watch flying through the air.

The only sermon I remember from the decade of my twenties involved a powerful verbal metaphor. The sermon was an exposition of Psalm 46, and the part I remember focused on verses 4 and 5: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God . . . God is in the midst of the city” (NRSV). That river, the preacher said, is simply the presence of God. Like the river flowing through the city, God’s presence in the centre of our lives is the only certain source of joy and gladness. The preacher described that river in such a vivid way that I have never forgotten his main point.

The watch flying through the air, and the mental picture of a beautiful river bringing joy and gladness, have stuck with me for decades. Why?

The watch episode happened when I was 11 years old, right at adolescence. Perhaps I was thinking about my purpose and function as I was making the transition from childhood to youth, so the topic of the sermon may have been significant to me at that time. I heard the Psalm 46 sermon when I was 27 and pregnant with my first child. Perhaps I was particularly hungry to hear about God as a river in my life as I was making another significant transition, this time the shift to being a mother. Perhaps I remember those sermons because they met me in a profound way and addressed my concerns.

But it is also possible that I remember those sermons because of the powerful visual components in both of them. With the first sermon, the visual component is clearly evident. A watch was flying through the air. But is it accurate to call the second sermon visual?

Both the broken watch and God’s presence like a river are powerful metaphors, and metaphors bring visual content to our speaking and writing. In our time, visual forms of communication are proliferating and people are used to seeing photographs and graphics on the internet and television, in magazines, newspapers, films and advertisements. Therefore, communicators need to give careful attention to the ways that words can also have visual punch. Metaphors and stories are the primary forms of written and spoken speech that have an impact similar to photographs and graphics.

Photographs and graphics are engaging because they require interpretation by the viewer. What’s going on in that photo? Is that frowning person in the photo sad, mad or merely irritated? Does the picture give me clues about what happened and why the person feels that way? What might happen next?

We seldom engage with those kinds of questions about a photo on a conscious level, but our brains go through a creative, evaluative process when we look at a photo. That process impresses the scene in our minds. The same is true for metaphors and stories in spoken and written speech.

Because many of the articles in this issue of Refresh address storytelling, I’ll focus the rest of this article on metaphors and their significance.

The word “metaphor” comes from Greek and means “transfer” or “transport.” I’ve heard that in Greece, trucks often have the word “metaphor” painted on their sides. When we use a metaphor, we transport meaning from one word or concept to another. The broken watch that could no longer fulfill its purpose represented the topic of the sermon: people need to be aware of their purpose so they can live it out. The watch was a form of transport, carrying that meaning to the people in the congregation. In that instance, the watch literally carried the meaning out into the congregation as it flew over our heads.

The river in Psalm 46 bringing joy as it streams through the centre of the city carries the meaning of God’s presence flowing through the centre of our lives. The Bible abounds with metaphors. God is our rock, our fortress, a sun and a shield. Jesus is the light of the world, the bread of life, the good shepherd, the gate for the sheep, the true vine, the Alpha and the Omega. The disciples are called to be fishers of people, Christians are God’s adopted children, and the church is the bride of Christ. Jesus’ parables are extended metaphors that teach a lesson.

So often in the modern period the beautiful metaphors of the Bible have been reduced to concepts. So often we take powerful metaphors about God and the church and try to explain them logically and analytically. The vigour of metaphors comes from the challenge to the brain that they present. When a metaphor is used, we have to do the creative mental work of making the comparison between the original concept and the object that carries that meaning. That mental work impresses the idea in our minds. Each of us may have a different perception of the relationship between the original concept and the metaphor. Our understanding of the connection belongs to us, and we remember it. Concepts and analytical explanations are simply not memorable in the same way.

Sometime in the next few days, when you queue at the supermarket, lie in bed trying to fall asleep, or sit in your car in heavy traffic, spend some time meditating on the metaphors of faith that are meaningful to you. Ponder some of the vivid metaphors from the Bible, or dream up your own, and think about the meanings that are carried by those metaphors and why they matter to you.

For further reading:
Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (University of Chicago Press, 1980).