Subversive is not a word which figures often in my vocabulary. Chloe is the quiet one, the one who prefers the way of peace and generally opts for compliance. Though some of you think me unafraid to say it like it is, I hold back. More than you’d know. I find a way to silence my own heart and to comply with the preferences of those around me. To fit in. Not rock the boat. Not draw attention to myself.
Subversive is surely not me. Yet I think about it more and more these days. Jesus’ mastery of the art of subversion. His truth-telling ability in stories so ordinary that they can surely mean no more than the words themselves suggest. Homely tales about people we know, people echoed in our neighbours and friends. Exactly the kind of yarns that we love to hear, that we laugh along with. Until.
Until, lodged in our imagination, they explode like a timebomb in our unprotected hearts.*
Yes, Jesus told parables which sear truth on the hearts of those with ears to hear yet hide it from those who, believing they see, are never perceiving. And I’ve been thinking about this lately. In a conversation with Eugene Peterson which I feel I’m living out loud, a conversation being played out in front of my very eyes, I have been noticing that some words cannot be spoken out loud. Some words must be wrapped in parable, open to the wise and hidden to those who refuse to sit at Jesus’ feet.
The girl who was brought up on truth as proposition, who loves the codification of statute, whose due diligence reports were a grand flourishing of autonumbering, executive summaries and sub-sub-clauses abounding, this girl, is learning the parables beloved of Jesus and the prophets before him. What was until now on the pages of theology books, commentaries on Mark 4, is vibrant reality. She’s becoming versed in the language of subversion. What she believes she’s sensed she’s learning to cloak with the power of story and allusion, wisps of revelation woven into tapestry of prophetic meaning which is open secret, wide open even, to those who will hear.
And to those who are ever hearing and not understanding – to them a reality hidden. But how, on her better days, she wishes it were not so. That they would but turn and hear. That parable would be not the sealing of judgment but invitation to kneel at Jesus’ feet, submitted in order to understand.
Prayer and parable are the stock-in-trade tools of the subversive… The quiet…closet life of prayer enters into partnership with the Spirit that strives still with every human heart, a wrestling match in holiness. And parables of consciousness-altering words that slip past falsifying platitude and invade the human spirit with Christ-truth.
(Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor)
Subversive work indeed, this labour of words.
A work of words flourishing quietly though all other recourse is exhausted, the travail of subversives who overthrow the kingdom by other means. Of prophets who do not show their hand but remain hidden at Cherith until the King again sends them to the king.
A wrestling by which – when hope fails and others speak in endless repetitions only the void they see – a wrestling by which, nevertheless, as in heaven so on earth.
Prayer words which partner with Spirit. Parable words, their prophetic sharp half-hidden in swirl of story, allusion and ancient echo of a still more ancient Word. A work of words which, though perhaps now our last weapon, may yet join in the Spirit’s striving for hearts, may yet invade world with truth.
For the good of this people, may it be so.
* Any sentence here which sounds too good to be mine is probably Eugene Peterson’s (The Contemplative Pastor). I’ve quoted in some detail here but somehow he’s wound his way even deeper into this writing until my phrases are echoing his. An example perhaps of the power of even his writing to subvert mine?!