Story Matters

A powerful story about care, compassion, and redemption among the poor in La Paz, Bolivia

A powerful story about care, compassion, and redemption among the poor in La Paz, Bolivia

This is an essay I wrote for a class on church renewal and evangelism responding to the question: What are the characteristics, elements, approaches, as well as practices to avoid, in telling our faith story? I’m posting it now after experiencing the power of story firsthand over this weekend. During a meeting of community group leaders at my church, we took about an hour to hear each others stories. Two people shared their stories and, after each one, we sat in holy silence simply to revere and regard what they had shared. We then offered words of encouragement and held a time of prayer for each person. In light of that experience, I thought I would share why I think story matters.

Our stories are valuable because they reveal God’s personal presence in our lives and the way God desires to be in redemptive relationship with all people as they communally share in the love of God, the grace of Christ, and the fellowship of the Spirit.

As the Trinity of Parent, Christ, and Spirit, God’s life affirms relationship in communion as the ground of all being. The Persons of the Trinity exist in eternal relationships with one another in which each co-inheres and interpenetrates the other such that it becomes impossible to conceive of the Trinitarian Persons apart from their relations.

However, even in the mysterious depths of these relationships, each Person maintains their unique, ineffable identity; without their personal otherness, the dynamic community of Trinitarian relations would collapse into a static mass of uniformity and sameness. This Trinitarian life is the One who is always reaching out towards others in grace and inviting them into God’s communion. God as Trinity is the God who is for others and all creation.

God’s life as Triune Persons who live as saving communion is the story that comes before, mingles within, and goes beyond all our stories; it is the “big” story in which our stories find their origin and meaning. Our stories need to be told because they narrate our unique otherness which constitutes our personhood and enable us to be in loving relationships with God and others.

In his book True Story, James Choung develops a very helpful paradigm for telling God’s “big” story. It uses four circles which represent the four major turning points in the narrative of God’s salvation: (1) God created the world good; (2) Humans marred the world’s goodness and introduced brokenness into their relationships with God, each other, and the planet when they rebelled against God so they could be in charge; (3) In Jesus Christ, God comes to restore this brokenness and inaugurate a new way of abundant life for all creation; (4) God calls those who follow Jesus to be sent out together into the world to work for its healing and restoration by the power of God’s Spirit.

Evangelism – bearing witness to the “good news” of God’s story – can be understood as an invitation to God’s story through the telling and living of our personal stories. Telling our stories is a profoundly powerful act and one which must be done with care – both for ourselves and others.

First, stories need to be told in way that recognizes and celebrates our unique, yet limited perspectives. Our stories are not the whole story, but that does not make any story less valuable. Second, our stories should attempt to reveal the common ground between ourselves and those who listen. If our stories are totally strange and foreign to others, they will not understand who we are and our relationships with them will be strained. Third, when we tell our stories, it is important that we be honest with ourselves and others about our intentions. Our stories do not reveal the God who welcomes all just as they are when they are told for manipulative reasons. If our stories are told in ways which belittle others or glorify ourselves and our achievements, they will be of little use for inviting others into the story of a God who emptied Godself to become a servant to all.

Finally, we need to understand and articulate how our stories are being shaped and guided and transformed by the “big” story of Trinity lest we lead others down a path that ends with our limited experience. “Our” stories are not just about us; they are about all the others in our lives who have made our lives possible – most notably: God. Because God’s life is the source and destination of our lives, our stories can become means of grace that open up and put flesh on the story of God.

Trinity: A Credo

I believe that God is Trinity; the Parent, Child, and Spirit who exist as communion because they exist as persons. A person is an absolutely unique identity who cannot exist apart from relation to an-other person. Therefore, persons live as community because they are oriented towards distinct others who they freely celebrate, embrace, and love. This Triune community is characterized by movements of equal, mutual, reciprocal self-giving and other-receiving among, between, and within the persons of Parent, Child and Spirit. Because God is Triune, God is relational and God is reaching out to be in relation with that which is not-God. Parent, Child, and Spirit are reaching out through creation, redemption, and consummation in order to gather all creatures together to share in the mystery of their perfect communion. Trinity means that God is Love eternal and unending; that God is none other than the God who has created us in love, who has come to redeem us in the grace of Jesus Christ, and who continues to reach out for us and draw us closer to Godself and each other by the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

I believe that this story of Triune persons who live as saving communion is the story that comes before, mingles within, and goes beyond  all human stories and the story in which all other stories find their origin and meaning; that salvation is the comprehensive, holistic process of creatures being incorporated into and participating with the Parent, Child, and Spirit which brings healing, restoration, and transformation; that persons who participate with Trinity are liberating and embracing those who are suffering from evil and sin which divides, desecrates, and destroys that which belongs to the life of the Parent, Child, and Spirit. Trinity creates communities of “disciples” who welcome into their body of unity-in-diversity; who provide a place of refuge, peace, and healing that becomes a place of teaching, wisdom, and power as they gather to worship the Triune God; who are sent out as witnesses to this Love they have seen, felt, and known in order to make their community more complete; who are a community of hope in a world of despair because of their participation with the Parent, Child, and Spirit who together constitute life itself.

Boff on the Image of Trinity in Human Persons

12-03-08-leonardo-boff-novSeeing people as image and likeness of the Trinity implies always setting them in open relationship with others; it is only through being with others, understanding themselves as others see them, being through others, that they can build their own identities. Personal incommunicability exists only so as to allow communion with other people. In the light of the Trinity, being a person in the image and likeness of the divine Persons means acting as a permanently active web of relationships: relating backwards and upwards to one’s origin in the unfathomable mystery of the Father, relating outwards to one’s fellow human beings by revealing oneself to them and welcoming the revelation of them in the mystery of the Son, relating inwards to the depths of one’s own personality in the mystery of the Spirit… Personalization through communion must not lead to a personalism alienated from the conflicts and processes of social change, but must seek to establish new, more participatory and humanizing relationships… the community has to place itself within a greater whole, since it cannot exist as a closed and reconciled little world of its own.

LaCugna on the Perfection of God

The perfection of God is the perfection of love, of communion, of personhood. Divine perfection is the antithesis of self-sufficiency, rather it is the absolute capacity to be who and what one is by being for and from another. The living God is the God who is alive in relationship, alive in communion with the creature, alive with desire for union with every creature. God is so thoroughly involved in every last detail of creation that if we could truly grasp this it would altogether change how we approach each moment of our lives. For everything that exists – insect, agate, galaxy – manifests the mystery of the living God. While divine simplicity means that God is not composed of parts, everything points to the absolutely diverse relatedness of God who is alive as communion, who is constantly seeking to touch the creature, even if our senses are numbed by sin.

Catherine Mowry LaCugna in God For Us: The Trinity & Christian Life

The Dancing God

Trinity by Farid De La Osa

Throughout my life, the Trinity has been taught as an abstract concept that claimed to explain how the one, true God could be three persons: Parent, Child, and Spirit. While God was said to exist as three persons, God’s unity was trumpeted over God’s diversity by emphasizing how the three persons were equal in position, singular in purpose, and alike in character. These persons were only differentiated by their functions: the Parent created the world, the Child redeemed the world, and Spirit indwelt God’s people to guarantee their salvation. However, these functions were taught without connection to a broader conception of God as Trinity. This separation meant that the doctrine of Trinity could only focus on explaining the nature of God’s being in Godself. This singular task virtually guaranteed that any teaching on Trinity would end in confusion or frustration because my context assumed that God’s nature was beyond human understanding. As a result, teaching on Trinity functioned only as a means to deepen worship and encourage further submission to God by inspiring a heightened sense of humility and awe.

My understanding of God as Trinity was transformed when I learned of the early church’s primary concern in their formulation of Trinitarian doctrine: the nature of their salvation in Jesus Christ.1 When this same soteriological concern became the foundation for my own understanding of Trinity, I was compelled to examine God’s saving actions within human history as the primary source for constructing a renewed Trinitarian doctrine. In stark contrast to the transcendent focus of my embedded Trinitarian doctrine, this new focus on salvation history created a profound connection between the life of the Trinity and my everyday experience in relation to God, myself, and others. In more concise theological terms, my understanding of Trinity made a dramatic shift from a static, inconsequential tradition to a dynamic, saving reality because oikonomia – “the self-communication of God in the person of Christ and the activity of the Holy Spirit”2became the foundation for my thinking on theologia –God’s ‘inner’ life.”3Instead of “looking up” in attempts to perceive God as existing apart from my everyday reality, I was freed to “look around,” to “taste and see,”4how God has acted in the past, is acting in the present, and will continue to act in the future to bring about salvation for all creation.

This new foundation for my Trinitarian thought begins with God’s salvific work in the world. This work is accomplished by God entering the world on a mission of redemption and sanctification as the incarnate Child alongside the indwelling Spirit respectively.5 While the full nature of God is present in these missions, they reveal God’s multiplicity: the Child is God but not the same as the God who sends the Child and the Spirit is God but not the same as the God who sends the Spirit.6

This plurality of God, witnessed in oikonomia,necessitates a discussion of theologia because “theologia and oikonomia, the mystery of God and the mystery of salvation, are inseparable”7. What is said about God’s internal nature in light of God’s self-differentiated missions describes God as three persons – Parent, Child, and Spirit. The Trinitarian persons are not individuals – they are relations that cannot exist apart from their communion with one another8: the Parent is Parent by relation to the Child and Spirit, the Child is Child by relation to the Parent and Spirit, and the Spirit is Spirit in relation to Parent and Child. As persons, these three have freedom to be “other”; the Parent is not Child, and the Child is not Parent, and the Spirit is not Parent or Child.9However, this freedom must be for the other and never from the other because isolation violates personhood.10As a result, these Trinitarian persons are essentially ecstatic relations – existing on behalf of another and always moving out beyond themselves towards the other.11

These three ecstatic, free relations that define Trinity are also one God. The best explanation for how these three persons are one is captured in the idea known as perichoresis. This term, literally meaning “dancing around,”12evokes an image of Parent, Child, and Spirit bound together in an eternal dance of “encircling, encompassing, permeating, enveloping, [and] outstretching”13one another. This inter-Trinitarian reality of communion characterized by “relationships of equality, mutuality, and reciprocity”14cannot be contained in Godself: theologia fades into oikonomia as thePerichoresis proceeds as Parent, Child, and Spirit into creation in order that all may join in the dance.

God as ecstatic, perichoretic Trinity has serious implications for the broad sweep of middle class, North America to which I belong. At its core, this context is driven by rampant individualism. The individual – not the person – is of utmost importance. Entire political and economic systems are built upon this core principle. The freedoms of individual choice are enshrined and praised in our laws. Our markets inundate us with an overwhelming array of products to appease our every desire. In this context, the only rule is the individual’s freedom from the other. This rule requires that there be no explicit telosfor society; as long as the individual has the freedom to choose, the end result is irrelevant.

Into this mass conglomeration of lonely, anxious individuals, the Triune God cries out for community. Over against North Americans’ insistence on individual liberties, the life of the Trinity calls for the giving up of our rights for the sake of communion with others.15 In opposition to an over-consumption that fuels a false sense of independence and self-reliance, Trinity reminds us that we are persons, not just individuals, who “flourish in friendship at its deepest and most real…[and] depend upon courtesy, mutual commitment and love.”16

Markedly different from prevailing North American deontology, the doctrine of Trinity demands a rule of radical inclusion opposed to all ways of life that undermine, exclude, or dehumanize others.17Individual freedom cannot be allowed to keep others from equal participation as persons in all facets of life. For example, Delores Williams reminds us that a Trinitarian ideal challenges even the dominant symbolism of our culture because of its tendency to exalt one group and devalue another.18

Trinity also provides a stark contrast in teleology: all human endeavors should be judged based on their contribution to the construction of a human community characterized by “equitable and egalitarian political structures… and respect for difference and diversity among people and groups.”19 All societal systems – political, economic, cultural, and ecclesial – that tend to exalt individuals over community or force community onto individuals are called into question by this Trinitarian telos.

In conclusion, God as Trinity completely overthrows the North American idol of the individual and reveals a new ethic of life based in perichoresis: all are invited to the dance of friendship, interdependence, and shared joy as persons created in the image of a personal, communal God.

 1 Catherine Mowry LaCugna, The Practical Trinity,” Christian Century 109, no 22 (July 15-22 1992): 678.

2 Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity & Christian Life (San Francisco: Harper, 1973),2.

3 Ibid.

4 Ps. 34:8, New Revised Standard Version.

5 David S. Cunningham, “The Doctrine of the Trinity: A Thumbnail Sketch,” in Essentials of Christian Theology, ed. William C. Placher (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 87.

6 Ibid., 88.

7 LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity & Christian Life, 4.

8 John Zizioulas, “Communion and Otherness,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly38, no. 4 (1994): 358.

9 Ibid.

10 Zizioulas, 358.

11 Ibid., 359.

12 Loida I. Martell-Otero, “Doctrine of the Trinity.” Lecture, Systematic Theology and Ethics THLE 520, Palmer Theological Seminary, King of Prussia, PA, September 18, 2012.

13 LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity & Christian Life, 272.

14 Anne Hunt, What Are They Saying About the Trinity? (New York: Paulist Press, 1998), 11.

15 Zizioulas, 353.

16 Kenneth Wilson, Methodist Theology ( London: T&T Clark International, 2011),66.

17 Hunt, 25.

18 Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1993), 85.

19 Hunt, 12.