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.

Heschel on Ecstasy, Poetry, and How Prophecy is like the Now but Not Yet Reign of God

In his well-known book, The Prophets, Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel defends the Hebrew prophets against claims of modern psychology (in the 1960s) which tried to explain the “enigma” of prophecy using the “theory of ecstasy.” Basically, “ecstasy” is an out of body experience in which the soul is united with divine being; sometimes ecstasy came in a wild, crazy, dancing form and sometimes its quiet, reserved, and sublime. Heschel goes to great lengths to show that the Hebrew prophets were not ecstatics.

Ecstasy requires a loss of consciousness; the Hebrew prophets always retained their ability to respond to God’s word. Ecstasy was associated with ANE religions which practiced alcoholic orgies, which were consistently opposed throughout the Biblical narrative. Ecstasy calls for union with God; the prophets knew that God was holy, transcendent, and should be feared. Ecstasy destroys genuine human personality; the prophets always retained a sense of self as they were empowered to dialogue with God. Ecstasy was a state willfully pursued by worshipers of orgiastic cults; the prophets were ones called by God against their wills.

Ecstasy takes the worshipper out of their consciousness into a state of detachment from the world; the prophets were profoundly concerned with the dealings of their world. Ecstasy leads to an experience which cannot be communicated; prophecy is not prophecy unless the word of God is spoken and heard. Ecstasy is a private affair; prophecy is fully public and designed to speak into the life of a people. Ecstasy has its end in itself; prophecy’s end is a people’s obedience to the will of God. Ecstasy is concerned only about spiritual, heavenly matters; the prophets were concerned about the everyday lives of people in the marketplaces, the courts, and the fields.

Ecstasy is based on a theology of “radical transcendence” which leads to a desire for complete “union” of humanity with God. However, the God of the prophets, the God of pathos, is not inaccessible and does not desire union. The God of pathos desires fellowship and community. The prophets have no need to strive for God’s presence because God is always and already approaching them. Yes, God is transcendent but God is not distant. This chapter was important for me because it reinforced God’s desire for me to become all that God has created me to be, to grow into more complete personhood so that I can fully participate with God – not simply be “used” by God like a shovel – in God’s mission of justice and righteousness. God desires personal wholeness and embodied integrity; not a fragmented, disembodied mind who must deny his “flesh” in order to be “holy.”

After dismantling the theory of ecstasy as an explanation for prophetic experience, Heschel changes his direction to take on yet another theory which attempts to solve the “enigma” of the biblical prophets: poetic inspiration. If the theory of ecstasy tried to limit the prophets to a totally transcendent, other-worldly sphere of existence, the theory of poetic inspiration takes the opposite approach by completely demythologizing the prophetic revelation and removing all traces of divine activity.

As poets, the prophets are merely exercising the power of their imaginations – albeit to a degree that set them apart from their peers. Heschel admits that the prophetic literature does at times take on the form and beauty of poetry, but he adamantly rejects the idea that the prophet’s message is simply poetic – originating within their own imaginations. The prophet’s spoke and acted because they had knowingly encountered the person of God; not because they were overwhelmed with a mysterious, faceless gust of creative energy. The prophets were not poets.

By examining both of these theories – ecstasy and poetry, Heschel brings up the “either-or” tendency in human thinking. In their attempts to explain prophecy, the theories of ecstasy and poetic inspiration reveal how difficult it can be to hold two seemingly opposite ideas in tension. The truth is that prophecy is simultaneously natural and divine; it has elements of the poetic and the ecstatic. As followers of Christ through the Spirit, the church’s existence is defined by this “either-or” tension as it lives in the “now but not yet” of God’s reign. Too often, I fail to hold this tension by losing track of the “not yet” of God’s new creation. I forget that neither I, nor anyone else, can “build” or “expand” God’s reign as if the saving of the world depended entirely on human effort and progress. The reign of God is a reality I am invited to “receive and enter” (Luke 18:17) — not “build.” On the other hand, it is one that I must “make every effort to enter” (Hebrews 4:11). Like prophecy, God’s reign is – for now – an enigma: not something to be solved, but a reality – a person (three persons actually!) – to be experienced and known in a community of pilgrims on the way.

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.

Trinity, Ecstatic Love, and Isla

isla

Freedom is not from but for something other than ourselves. This makes the [Trinitarian] Person ecstatic, i.e., going outside and beyond the boundaries of the “self.” But this ecstasis is not to be understood as a movement towards the unknown and the infinite; it is a movement of affirmation of the other.

This drive of personhood towards the affirmation of the other is so strong that it is not limited to the “other” that already exists, but wants to affirm an “other” which is the totally free grace of the person. Just as God created the world totally as free grace, so the person wants to create its own “other”… [A person is] a creator that brings about a totally other identity as an act of freedom and communion.

John Zizioulas, “Communion and Otherness,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly

Lartey on a Trinitarian formulation of human personhood

Every human person is in certain respects:

  1. LIKE ALL OTHERS
  2. LIKE SOME OTHERS
  3. LIKE NO OTHER

Interculturality, alternatively, speaks of living in intersection of the three spheres – being centered in the intersection of the universal, the cultural, and the individual within living, colourful persons.

From In Living Color by Emmanuel Lartey.