Meaning Makers

Photo by Krivec Ales on

It’s kind of striking that in asking and answering the question at the head of these reflections [“What do you make of all this?”] each of us is channeling, more or less unknowingly, a mass of assumptions about anthropology, ontology, teleology, providence and the doctrine of God. And it is for this reason that the other interesting aspect of the question comes into focus. Since these various so-called “intellectual” assumptions are operating as we see and reflect on our experience in the world, they touch rock bottom (an insufficiently foundationalist metaphor to be sure) upon our creatureliness or our made-in-the-image-of-God-ness. Our making meaning or making sense or making something out of a tough situation is an aspect of our participation in the triune God who made us. Making meaning out of our experience, imaginatively looking for links and drawing out significance, brings about newness: a new view of whatever situation, yes, but more than that, a new person, insofar as we are no longer who we were before this experience and act of making meaning, but also a new opportunity for meaning-making for those who interact with our meaning-making (and, depending on the strength or weakness of your Pneumatology, this type of meaning-making could be classed as revelation).

I’ve had a front row seat to this act of making meaning in the midst of our COVID-19 crisis by dialoging with some really faithful and wise Christians, both in my role at the CPT but more generally as I’ve interacted with my Christian community in my home and on Zoom, iMessage, WhatsApp, FaceTime or whatever. The instinct on display in these conversations is to broaden the field of vision, quickly moving to speaking about…

  • the benefits of this situation for families, who sadly don’t get a lot of regular time together, but are now having meals together, learning together through “home schooling”, playing together and worshiping together;

  • or the helpful by-product of being, in some cases, forced to utilize technology for our churches, often causing those previously opposed to streaming and other various approaches to soften a bit, at least as an emergency measure to accommodate Christian worship of some kind;

  • or the joy of realizing that something as routine as going to church each week is indeed, once it’s taken away, a gift to be received rather than simply reducing it to an aspect of routine;

  • or the salutary awareness of the possibility of some kind of national unity as countries work together to contain and prevent the spread of the virus;

  • or – for pastors – some welcome perspective, reacquainting them with the basic elements of their pastoral vocation, weaning them away from the excess that, barnacle-like, attaches to pastoral ministry and church life over time;

We make meaning; that’s what we do as humans.

– Jameson Ross at The Center for Pastor Theologians, “Making Meaning

Jameson Ross is saying that human beings seek patterns and attempt to establish coherence, to make order from chaos. We are map makers. For Christians, our meaning making incorporates elements which are invariably drawn together from our theological convictions, which is why it is so vital for us to have sound and well measured doctrines of God, of anthropology, and other subdisciplines. But meaning making does not operate in isolation. There is also a transformative aspect of this process. As beings situated within history it is not only the events themselves that shape us, but what we make of those events. We narrate, and as we do so, by God’s grace we learn, change and grow.

I pulled this quote primarily for the items Ross chose to bullet, for I think all five observations are accurate and worthy of thought. [Visit the article for his handling of the reflexive (and refining) critiques of these benefits.] Our family is enjoying our time together, the institutions I serve (both church and university) are learning and gaining further expertise in the use of technology, my fellow congregants are expressing love for one another and a longing to be together again, there is a sense among friends that America is a wonderful place to be, and (oh Lord, I hope!) I have pastor friends who are reconnecting with the most essential and vital aspects of pastoral ministry. The showy stuff has been put aside, and we’re being stripped down to extending care, listening, gently and humbly offering the Word, creatively meeting needs, expressing concern for our neighbors (entire communities; not only congregants) and, of greatest importance, I have witnessed a renewed emphasis on prayer.

As for the meaning making I’ve been engaged in, I’ve been reminded that I am very small and the world is a very large, that God is beyond my comprehension (yet God is personal; not beyond knowledge), that life is very fragile, that I am thankful for a place, that I am temporal and daily passing away, death is an enemy, that kindness is paramount, that the fellowship of the saints is a gift, that the gospel is a comfort and a source of power, and…that’s enough for now. Those are just a few.