This six-part series draws on Kara Carter’s PhD studies, for which she conducted five focus groups with Mennonite Church Eastern Canada pastors.
Metaphors and images provide vivid word pictures which help God’s people make meaning and make sense of a complex and changing context.
Jesus routinely drew upon the ordinary and mundane from his surroundings to teach rich spiritual truths. Metaphorically describing the kingdom of God, Jesus said the kingdom is like a mustard seed, a farmer who sowed some seed, a net, yeast and like a person who had a treasure hidden in a field.
The author of Acts likened the early church to “living stones” to communicate that the presence of God was no longer contained within the temple in Jerusalem, a central locale, but rather amongst and within the community of Jesus’s followers.
Metaphors are a rich spiritual resource, useful for facilitating the imaginative and faithful work of journeying in an uncertain and unsettled time. Indeed, attentiveness to the metaphors we draw upon enables congregations to make connections between the biblical story and our communal and individual stories.
Overwhelmingly, pastoral colleagues describe their congregational or leadership “journey” metaphorically as “wilderness wandering.”
The major storyline of the Old Testament, as told in Exodus, involves the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery and their 40-year journey through the wilderness.
Recounting a painful episode as a “wilderness” experience has helped one congregation locate itself theologically and biblically within God’s story, and experientially identify with God’s people in a liminal moment across time and place.
Another pastor said, “When you first hit the wilderness, it’s faster and easier to go back to the fleshpots of Egypt than it is to wait the 40 years and get to the promised land.”
One colleague related “40 years in the wilderness” to their congregation’s nearly 40-year building project process. He stated that after years of planning, preparation and anticipation, ground-
breaking for construction occurred right at a time when attendance began to wane and younger people were saying they were not “really into an institutional church model.”
Young adults were expressing that they preferred to give money to the poor and not to buildings and budgets. Subsequently, the “promised land” looked quite different from what was expected.
Wandering the wilderness is not a new experience for God’s people but rather a recurring biblical theme in which the provision of God and the faithful presence of the divine is revealed. It is good spiritual work for a congregation to dig into and explore the metaphors and images that emerge.
Related to the wilderness, can a congregation identify where they experience God providing streams of water in the desert? How is the Spirit’s sustaining and liberating power witnessed? What spiritual growth or transformed congregational or individual identity can be identified for having journeyed through the wilderness?
Images beautifully articulate lived experience. One pastor described a particular congregational experience as “spiritual growth with our feet to the fire.” While painful and challenging, the congregational spiritual growth had been rich.
Another colleague likened leadership amidst a changing context to “hiking at night with no flashlight.” The pastor suggested he just happens “to be going first and stepping over things first.” He cannot see any better than anyone else. Rather, he just happens to be out front.
The metaphors and images the church draws upon to help us understand and communicate our current context serve as a powerful eliciting technique in that they provide a common reference point for a faith community.
Not only do metaphors and images help us to challenge a current concern or context, but they are also a powerful tool that can help guide us into a wider space, providing language to reflect upon our lived experience.
The use of metaphors and images also enables the church to normalize what we are collectively experiencing, including naming our feelings. These feelings might include sadness, disorientation, frustration, fear and despair.
When imaginations are engaged, when word-pictures provide helpful language, and when limiting metaphors or images are identified, together God’s people discover sacred ways to make the road while walking it.
Kara Carter is pastor of Wellesley Mennonite Church.