Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A parable about a paradox

The city grew up around the source of the river. Her walls were tall and stately, her gates shining, wide and glorious. Within were spacious squares, lush gardens, warm dwellings; there were statues, and fountains, and libraries filled with the writings of the wise.

The city had stood for many years, a wonder in the world, and a destination of pilgrims.

Some saw the walls as the city’s chief glory: reaching for the heavens, both impregnable and beautiful. Rumour had it these walls were fashioned from pure gold, and certainly none could deny they shone with an ethereal brilliance, visible from many miles around.

Others could speak of nothing but the wonder of the city’s gates. Gleaming and expansive, they were open night and day, such was the great hospitality of the city, such her great heart to welcome all, to take the multitudes to her breast.

There came a time when a dispute broke out which – if it were possible – threatened the tranquillity of this wondrous habitation. The argument was between gatekeepers, on the one hand, and the watchmen, on the other.

The gatekeepers, ardent to spread their city’s fame and eager to extend her welcome to ever more travellers, had conceived of plans to widen the gates. Some had even drawn up plans to breach certain sections of the wall in order to erect new gates. “Open to every point of the compass” was their cry, such was their great passion for their city. Their hearts swelled at the thought of the shining eyes and open mouths of the pilgrims who would enter in their new widened gates, to breathe in the city’s sweet air and drink from her refreshing springs.

The watchmen, those eagle-eyed keepers of the walls’ towers and ramparts, knowing in their hearts that the city’s fame and glory depended ultimately upon the strength and purity of her walls, were uneasy at the ambitions of the gatekeepers. Widened gates too easily lead to compromised walls. And when the plans of the more impatient gatekeepers came to their ears, their alarm swelled to something akin to fury – and to fear. For these noble watchmen loved the city from the depths of their hearts, yet well they knew that a city without walls was in terrible peril. “Breach the wall, soon to fall” was their awful watchword.

Long were the debates in the guildhall and tempers were not always kept in the conflict. After much dissension, the matter had to be taken before the highest authority, and it was with confidence and the expectation of vindication – yet not without trembling in both camps – that the question was brought before the throne of the king.

There was silence as the gatekeepers and the watchmen awaited the verdict of their sovereign.

Thus he spoke:

“There shall be no breaches in my walls,” said the king (and great was the trembling of the gatekeepers as he spoke, and relief and pride coursed through the veins of the watchmen). Yet, without seeming so much as to pause for breath, the king continued, “There shall be no walls.” (Hope flared within the hearts of the gatekeepers, and swift came dismay on the faces of the watchmen.)

“No breaches,” sighed the watchmen, seeing in their hearts the vision of the city’s strength unsullied. “No walls,” breathed the gatekeepers, imagining all the nations streaming in. Yet a shadow was over both companies also, for the king had uttered both these dooms and contradicted neither.

There was a silence before the king spoke again.

“Long has it been told,” spoke he, “that the walls of my city are of gold. Yet hearken unto me as I tell you, yes even you O wise watchmen, even you O ardent gatekeepers: my walls are not of gold, but of flame; flame unbroken and unimpaired.”

And, even as he spoke, it seemed to them a wonder took place. For the walls of that resplendent city were suddenly become all fire in the eyes of their beholders. (Whether they were transformed at that moment or whether they were seen, at last, in their true nature no-one could say.)

And as the flames towered around the city, shining with beauty and brilliance, behold: from every direction, from north and south, and east and west, and north north west, and south south east, and from every degree of the compass, flowed a multitude.

Drawn like moths to the flame they came. And when they reached that fiery barrier, they did not stop, but plunged straight in, straight through, running, flying, dancing into the heart of that great city.

For behold: the walls of fire were all gate; and the gates of flame were all wall.


pierscjc said...

Let me see. Man made walls (rules to preserve our form) and gates (outreach, emphasis on welcoming all), in tension, and walls of fire that mean Hly Spirit life which achieves both. Interesting. So we seek God for his answer in those terms...

rob said...

Matthew 7:13,14

n0rma1 said...

Thanks Rob. That scripture - from the mouth of Jesus, no less - brings a vital truth; a truth, indeed, which the watchmen may have found resonant with their own insights. The gatekeepers, of course, wouldn't deny such truth, but the pages of scripture that they'd have likely thumbed more readily would have been those that speak of great multitudes beyond counting and the express will of God that none should perish. And who among us can say that either party were wrong - or right?

s0upy said...

A somewhat narrow interpretation from pierscjc.

A much narrower one from rob.

Rearing its head in many guises, paradox strikes again. Caught between the good and the opposite good; the right and the right; God's will on the one hand versus, one the other hand - God's will.

Balance wouldn't, couldn't have worked here, no no. Only a discovery of the possibility of the co-existence of two paradoxical truths, and the true wisdom of living in them both at the same time - and with one another too (that's the real challenge).

A good parable.

At the risk of placing you between a rock and a hard place, can we have a Chapter Two about how it actually worked out in practice after, say, 35 years or so?


s0upy said...

There's another good parable here if you're interested.

Not one of mine; written by a friend.

oftherain said...

"If we are open, we rarely resort to either-or: either creation or evolution, liberty or law, sacred or secular, Beethoven or Madonna. We focus on both-and, fully aware that God's truth cannot be imprisoned in a small definition." (Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel)

rob (enduring) said...

I only pointed to words from Jesus, not mine. I think the article is more allegory than parable. We do have to face that Scripture ultimately keeps bringing us to hard either/or choices. My real concern is what are our sources? There is more than enough that is clear for us to be getting on with (for example Jude verse 3).

s0upy said...

I didn't read it as being just allegory about our church, but as being a parable about paradox generally.

I know I've often been caught between two things that are right and had to seek wisdom for which to choose at which moment. Leave a son to make a wrong choice in order to learn - or step in and head things off? Both can be right, but not always. Just one example, but it seems to come up again and again.

Plenty of wisdom in the scriptures, for which I'm really grateful, but it doesn't always clearly prescribe how I should choose to act - and occasionally it can seem to point in two paradoxical directions at the same time.

I think I might be learning wisdom but I'm not there yet. :-)

Andy Crisp said...

Really interesting parable. I think that almost every difficulty I have with leadership indecision and almost every disagreement I have with my fellow Christians stems from working out whether we should be watchmen or gatekeepers.
Gallant tells me that Zion has high walls and wide gates.