Seeking A World Without a Map: Some Reflections on Preaching


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Dominic in a tree

By Derek Penwell

A Course in Creative Writing

They want a wilderness with a map—
but how about errors that give a new start?—
or leaves that are edging into the light?—
or the many places a road can’t find?

Maybe there’s a land where you have to sing
to explain anything: you blow a little whistle
just right and the next tree you meet is itself.
(And many a tree is not there yet.)

Things come toward you when you walk.
You go along singing a song that says
where you are going becomes its own
because you start. You blow a little whistle—

And a world begins under the map.

~Willam Stafford


“They want a wilderness with a map.”

Boy, ain’t that the truth?  In a world that seems constantly to be shifting beneath our feet, ministers feel that unspoken expectation every time they step into the pulpit.

“They want a wilderness with a map.”

I think that’s why bumper stickers are so popular.  There’s a sense that if we could just get a few things nailed-down, if we could just see a few markers that would point us through the briars, through the overgrown brambles, through the violence, and uncertainty, and senselessness of it all, we might somehow survive another day in the wilderness.

Straight-line, discursive speech that tells us where to put our feet next.  We all know about preachers only too anxious to give it to them.  The sermon as self-help, as moral disquisition, as prosaic orienteering.  “I’m okay, you’re okay.”

“Five easy steps to a better prayer life.”

“God helps them who help themselves.”

“Do this.  Avoid that.  Don’t talk back to your mother.  Brush your teeth after every meal.  A penny saved is a penny earned.  Wash your hands after you go to the bathroom.”

“Be careful little feet where you go.”

“It’s so hard out here.  Tell us something that allows us to believe the whole thing isn’t so unpredictable, isn’t about to blow up in our faces.”

We preachers understand it.  We know the diminished expectations.  Such deflated speech, however, bridles all complexity, all nuance, all mystery.  In our rush to have a manageable reality, a tractable existence we lose the “errors that give a new start/or leaves that are edging into the light/or the many places a road can’t find.”

The temptation of preaching is to smooth the rough edges, to iron out the wrinkles, to fill in the cracks and gaps with caulk, to be assuring and affirming, to opt always for the palliative, rather than the curative.

But this attenuated speech begs the question of why anyone would need to come to church to receive such thin gruel?  You can buy that sort of non-confrontational, low-cost reassurance anywhere.  Daytime television is busy dishing this stuff out in much more convenient doses, which don’t even require you to get out of bed to partake.

The problem with all this tiny talk for tiny Christians is that bumper stickers are too small to make good maps.  If you tame the wilderness, it’s no longer wilderness; it may be easier to move about in an illusion, but you don’t really get anywhere—and it’s not near as exciting.

“Maybe there’s a land where you have to sing/to explain anything.”

Maybe, like Walter Brueggemann has argued, the job of the preacher is not to circumscribe the known world with bromides and banalities—but to render a world heretofore unimagined, to break open a reality that has gone unobserved because we didn’t have the resources to name it, to speak it—by the grace of God—into being, a world where “you blow a little whistle/just right and the next tree you meet is itself./(And many a tree is not there yet.)”

If you ask Jesus, the reign of God is too huge, too grand, too paradoxical ever to be contained by our pedestrian prose; it’s a world so inimical to the way we’re conventionally trained to see things that often the only way we have to speak about it is poetry and parable and story; it’s “a land where you have to sing/to explain anything.”

And in Christ, we’re finally given the words to sing the tree.  As we sing the truth, we see that it was a tree all along, and not just a stick with green attachments shooting off in every direction, or a large birdnest, or an inconvenient obstruction to new housing development.

And by singing that one tree into existence in all of its wooded glory, maybe we can begin to understand that there are forests of other trees standing before us, and beside us, and beyond us that we formerly saw as merely wilderness to be traversed as efficiently and painlessly as possible, by whatever map promised the easiest route.

The very act of singing this world sets you on a journey into the heart of the mysterious wilderness.  Who would be callow enough, stupid enough to claim that it’s an easy journey to walk?  Only those with a pretend map of a pretend land that exists in an illusion called reality, utility, fact—conjured up by people with inexaustable fear, but limited vision.

“Things come toward you when you walk.”

The fact that you begin the journey at all means that you’ll run into obstacles that you would otherwise have avoided if you’d only stayed home and watched Jeopardy.

Beginning the journey at all means that you’ve surrendered the notion that you possess a way to map the wilderness, that it’s possible to have any real understanding as an antecedent to actually taking the first step.  In the same way it is impossible to learn to swim without ever getting in the water, it is impossible to know the terrain, to understand the wilderness, while sitting at home in your Barcalounger with a map in one hand and a Budweiser in the other.

“You go along singing a song that says/where you are going becomes its own/because you start.”

Following Jesus is a contact— not a spectator — sport.

“You blow a little whistle—/And a world begins under the map.”

Sing a little bit, take a few baby steps and soon you see that the prosaic maps of thebumper sticker producers, the map-makers only serve to cover up the reality that’s there beneath the surface of a different reality contained in the words the church uses to name that world, and thereby call it into being—a radical, crazy wilderness in which it makes sense to turn the other cheek, to pray for those who persecute you, to sell everything you have and give it to the poor.

Those sorts of big, unwieldy truths don’t much lend themselves to bumper stickers, or to maps . . . or unfortunately for us all . . . to many sermons.

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About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity, dmergent.org, and blogs at his own site at derekpenwell.net.

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