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Morning Worship: Reinvention of metaphors leads to conversion

“There is no getting away from stories. There is a movie going on in our heads and we don’t understand that it is not the real world,” said the Very Rev. Alan Jones at the 9:15 a.m. Thursday morning worship service.

His sermon title was “Your Brain on Metaphors: Everyone is Wired to Invent Stories by Which to Live!” The Scripture lessons were Ezekiel 33:7-11 and Romans 13:8-14.

“I chose these Scriptures on purpose to show how impossible the Christian life is,” he said. “There is no getting away except by grace and stories. Love trumps everything.”

“This is Your Brain on Metaphors” was the title of an essay written by Robert Sapolsky for The New York Times’ “The Stone” forum in 2010. The human brain does not differentiate between the literal and the metaphorical, between the real and the symbolic, according to Sapolsky.

“What are the consequences of the fact that evolution is a tinkerer and not an inventor, and has duct-taped metaphors and symbols to whichever pre-existing brain areas provided the closest fit?” Sapolsky wrote.

Jones cited this sentence and quoted an example from Sapolsky that during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the Hutu propagandists called the Tutsis “cockroaches” and called for their eradication.

“The emotional contagion in Rwanda was that by iconically using this term, people were primed for genocide,” Jones said.

He also cited an example where metaphor can bring peace. Nelson Mandela had entered into secret negotiations with an Afrikaans general who had committed many crimes against black Africans. When they met, the general expected to sit at a conference table and have strained negotiations. Mandela brought him into his living room, sat the general on his sofa, sat down beside him and spoke to him in Afrikaans. Mandela understood the power of metaphor.

“We need to reimagine America and get away from the image of the self-made man who worships his creator,” Jones said. “We can have connection and community or destruction and confusion. The brain on metaphors pushes us to make choices.”

We are talking about meaning, Jones said. In talking with a friend, a doctor from a family of Holocaust survivors — Jewish by birth, atheist by belief — the friend said, “The only meaning is survival.”

“Meaning is not cheap,” Jones said. “It totters on the edge of meaninglessness. It is easy to be inventive if you have resources but meaning is only glimpsed out of the corner of the eye.”

The reading from Ezekiel, he said, reminds us that we are more bound up with one another than we may be comfortable with. In this passage, God tells the prophet that there is no pleasure in the death of the wicked. The prophet is called to tell them to turn back and live.

To be human is to have responsibility for our neighbors; that is the primary metaphor.

“God created us this way,” Jones said. “The Anglican monks who trained me said, ‘It is disgusting; God has no sense of taste, God loves everybody.’ ”

Spirituality is the art of making connections. Writer and philosopher Iris Murdoch said that the good consists of tiny, dense connections, and evil doesn’t see connections.

“We can have hospitality or hostility, a fortress or a banquet,” Jones said.

We live by the movies in our heads but we can choose to change them, he said. Eric Lomax was tortured in a Japanese prison camp for having a clandestine radio. He chose to seek out the man who tortured him, and together they went to the memorial in Nagasaki for those who died in the atomic bomb blast because the torturer lost relatives in that attack.

“Lomax chose a costly act of reconciliation,” Jones said. “The reinvention of metaphors opens us up to conversion. No one is forced to take part in the drama of reinvention. We can freely choose futility or to live an edited, sentimental view of life.”

Our world, he continued, believes that one choice is as good as another. William Faulkner’s book The Sound and the Fury begins and ends in the mind of an idiot, and the author quotes Shakespeare that life is full of sound and fury, told by an idiot and signifying nothing. Or one could choose Dante’s Divine Comedy, which ends with the soul encountering God.

“What metaphors dominate your life?” he asked. “We have the freedom to choose the movie of our mind — the mind of an idiot or the mind of God. It is easy to love people at their best but the trick is to love them at their worst.”

The Scripture from Romans says that we owe nothing to anyone but to love one another.

“We live in a funny culture where everything is permitted and nothing is forgiven,” he said. “We like to keep the rules but God’s generosity transcends the rules. God’s generosity gets up our nose.”

Jones told the story of a young Hasidic man who married a woman whose family had assimilated to the surrounding culture. The marriage did not last, and the father-in-law threw the young man out. Since he had left the Hasidic community, he had nowhere to go and died. At the Last Judgment, the question was raised as to who was responsible for his death.

The father-in-law had consulted with his rabbi and said that the rabbi was responsible. The rabbi had consulted the law and said the law was responsible. The Messiah said that the father-in-law was right, the rabbi was right and the law was right, but “I have come for those who are not right.” He took the young man into eternal life.

“Everyone matters and we are all in this together,” Jones said. “This is a doctrine that vibrates with everyone. God created us to be neighbors and calls us to act accordingly. We are all just walking each other home.”

The Rev. George Wirth presided. Rebecca DeLee, a math major at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, and a scholarship student with the International Order of the King’s Daughters and Sons at Chautauqua, read the Scripture. Joseph Musser, piano and George Wolfe, soprano saxophone, played Georg Philipp Telemann’s “Sonata in C Minor,” for the prelude. The Motet Choir sang “Clap Your Hands” by John Rutter. Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, directed the choir. The Samuel M. and Mary E. Hazlett Memorial Fund and the J. Everett Hall Memorial Chaplaincy support this week’s services.

Tags : 9:15 AMmorning worshipVery Rev. Alan Jones
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The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the Morning Worship column. A Presbyterian minister, she preaches at the Seneca Reservation in Irving. She is the deputy managing director of People Helping People International. Her latest book is Chautauqua’s Heart, the first full history of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle. She lives in Chautauqua with her dog, Max, and is beginning her second term as a member of the Board of Education of Chautauqua Lake Central School District.