October 16, 2018

Another Look: Living in God’s Story

Note from CM: For many in evangelical traditions, the celebration of a special season around Christmas leads into a long period before the next special season of the church around Holy Week and Easter. There is little appreciation for seasons such as Epiphany. In my opinion, this is a great loss, for it is in seasons such as Epiphany that we focus on emphases that are sorely lacking in much American Christian religion. Our focus on “truth” and dogmatic theology rather than on narrative theology and the power of story betrays our lack of acceptance of the Bible as it is actually written and given to us as God’s people.

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Living in God’s Story

Spiritual theology, using Scripture as text, does not so much present us with a moral code and tell us, “Live up to this,” nor does it set out a system of doctrine and say, “Think like this.” The biblical way is to tell a story and invite us, “Live into this – this is what it looks like to be human in this God-made and God-ruled world; this is what is involved in becoming and maturing as a human being.” We don’t have to fit into prefabricated moral and mental or religious boxes before we are admitted into the company of God. We are taken seriously just as we are and given place in his story – for it is, after all, God’s story. None of us is the leading character in the story of our lives. God is the larger context and plot in which all our stories find themselves. (Eugene Peterson)

God created humans, so the old Jewish saying goes, because he loved stories so much. What we have in the Bible is His Story; as Peterson calls it, God’s “immense, sprawling, capacious narrative.”

How did God make the world into a place fit for humankind? People may want to analyze and come up with scientific models, but God tells stories. Why is the world in the shape it’s in, filled with selfishness, conflict, and trouble? Social scientists study data and develop social theory and then policy. God tells us stories about people — people who hide from God in shame, people who refuse to accept that they are their brothers’ keepers, individuals, families, and nations that live for money, sex, and power. Do you want to know how God works to turn the world around? Look at this gaggle of slaves, set free from the world’s powers, and how God shapes them through a journey home. Stories. About people. About life. Stories that, together, become the Story.

Oh sure, there are sayings too. Commandments. Instructions. Warnings. Promises. Reassurances. Propositional truth is spoken, sages impart wisdom, prophets spout diatribes, psalmists chant inspired lyrics, apostles write Gospels and epistles, but these words are spoken always and ever in the context of what God is doing on the ground, in the lives of people, as the Story plays out.

When the Promised One came in the Story’s decisive act, he too told stories. What is God like? Let me tell you about this father who had two sons. What is his Kingdom like? The kingdom of God is like a farmer, who went out to sow seeds in his field…. What will it be like when the Kingdom comes in fullness? Well, let’s hear a story about a great banquet. His own life, in fact, becomes the greatest story ever told — an unforgettable narrative played out in familiar locales: Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Galilee, Golgotha, the Garden.

And when Jesus disappears from human sight, exalted to heaven, the Story goes on. From Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria, and even to the uttermost parts of the earth.

The simplest answer to the question, “What does it mean to live a Christian life?” is: It means to take our place in God’s Story.

Just like the people of Israel in every generation are taught to view themselves as those who have Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as their patriarchs, as those who have been redeemed from slavery in Egypt, who are cared for by God in the wilderness, made a holy nation at Sinai, and led into the Promised Land, so Christians see themselves as the new Israel, the people of God formed by the Story of Israel’s Messiah. Called by Jesus to follow him, we walk with him among the poor and needy, we scratch our heads and try to figure out his teaching, we receive fish and bread from his hands and distribute it to the hungry, we turn to him when our boat is overwhelmed by the storm, in awe we see him transfigured in glory on the Mount, when he stoops to wash our feet we blush in shame, we sense impending doom in Gethsemane, we weep helplessly and feel all hope leave our hearts as he breathes his last on the Cross, our mouths drop open in bewilderment when he appears alive and transformed among us.

This is our Family Story, our heritage. It is who we are. We are Christ-ians. In each generation, we tell our children the family name and what it’s all about. We recall the stories. We celebrate the family holidays and mark the special occasions. We practice the family rituals. In baptism we relive every Biblical story about how God brought his people safely through the waters, from life to death, from chaos to new creation. At the Lord’s Table, we give thanks for God’s provision and receive sustenance as we feast together in love and fellowship. When we marry, we speak of Cana, remember water turned to wine, and share the joy. At the grave, our grief is tempered by hope of resurrection and new creation — concepts made real by the fact that it happened before — in our family! It is our Story!

Following the Church Year is how we do it. The seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost form our family traditions.

  • In Advent, we take our place in the Story alongside the people of the First Covenant, who longed for God to rend the heavens and come down that this groaning world might give birth to a new creation.
  • In Christmas, we celebrate the Incarnation of the Promised One, who joined us in our poverty that we might have our Father’s eternal riches.
  • In Epiphany, we follow and watch as Jesus is baptized and set apart for ministry. We walk with him through the villages and towns of Palestine, amazed at each word and act which shows the compassion and glory of God.
  • In Lent, we learn that following him means taking up our own cross. He bids us come and die with him. We know this death has arisen from our willfulness; we recognize our failures, weakness, our sins, and utter hopelessness apart from him. Without Jesus, our story is “ashes to ashes.”
  • In Holy Week, we join him in the streets, in the Temple, in the upper room, in Gethsemane. We stand at a distance in stunned disbelief as Roman soldiers nail him to the Cross. Overwhelmed by the shock of grief, we return home in silence.
  • On Easter Sunday, and for fifty days following, it is suddenly and unexpectedly springtime. Light breaks through — Jesus is alive! God raised him from the dead. We see him, we hear him, we touch him — we try to take it in. He ascends to his Father, and bids us wait for the next part of the Story to begin.
  • On Pentecost, it does. Fire falls from heaven! Good News is proclaimed to all people, in their own languages! Jerusalem is shaken. The Church is born. No matter who you are, or what you’ve done, you can join the family. Come, take your place in the Story! It’s all about Jesus! For everyone, everywhere.

Practicing the Church Year is one of the best ways by which we can live in the Story.

The concept should not be unusual to us. Our families, communities, and nations celebrate special days and seasons annually. We follow a pattern of life that forms our identity. These commemorations reinforce who we are, what we believe, how we live, and what our values are.

Just so, in God’s family, the cycle of the Church Year has been developed so that we might live in the story of the God who created us, redeemed us, and is making us new in Christ forever.

Comments

  1. “It means to take our place in God’s Story.”
    That means some novelty in the ages long tale. That means we don’t simply repeat what has gone on through the centuries by rote but that some new twist to the tale must be told if it’s a “living“ story. Something that heartens the heavens. Also, by necessity, it characterizes the story as evolutionary. It also requires us to be creators. As a living story it makes demands on who we are, not just our cognition. As always, it’s the cross. Our lives can’t be a rereading. By that I mean that we must relate in the present. This brings so much to mind that I really can’t begin to elaborate what’s running through my mind without running on for many paragraphs. I just want to say that we are the unique, never seen before, living and breathing expression of the body of Christ in space and time. The Implications of that so far reaching but I think we miss it. Do we pray uniquely? In a way that none of the apostles had the opportunity to pray because of the place and way of things at that time? Are we broadening what it means to relate to the living God or are we aping centuries of souls who are right now groaning and aching for us to grow up into him in all things? This is not a diatribe against liturgy or prewritten prayers. Those are fine and good but is the Lord tickled by this batch of hatchlings in a fresh and living way? What are we bringing to the table that hasn’t been served before? Our heroes of note took chances. We must be willing to fail in taking chances in how we relate to God with who we are. Then we grow and the fountain of living water has meaning because it starts seeping out. Right now, in this moment, we are the story. Tag! We’re it.

    • Christiane says:

      When I think of ‘the Body of Christ’, I think of its timelessness.

      • One age is built upon another. Nothing is cast aside. Everything remains and is incorporated in this moment. We are the cutting edge in flesh and bone of centuries that have gone before. “See I make all things new.” Our current response and ability to be the expression of the Holy Spirit is what is essential now and what always has been in the past. Rite and ritual are the basis for agility and fluidity. The new is born of the old, not apart from it.

        • I guess I’m not really saying much of anything here. Simply put, we can be open to new ways of communing with God as she impresses them upon our spirit. Funny. Auto correct typed “she”, not me. Maybe that’s just the point.

          • Christiane says:

            🙂 There are no coincidences . . . it’s about time that we realized the nurturing of God as revealed in the Holy Gospel of St. Matthew 23:37

            “how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings”

            I, for one, am never offended when the pronoun ‘she’ is included in reference to the Creator God . . . . I think it is a lovely tribute when you consider that ALL of the good found in Creation is reflective of the qualities of the Creator, even the expression of motherly nurturing, maybe especially the expression of motherly love in all of its passionate intensity

            Good on ‘auto correct’, I say. 🙂

            • You’re absolutely right! It is about dang time and I really think there is a new thing going on.

  2. This is the best, well-laid our summary of the church year, so thank you. It’s hard to keep it all straight in my mind, so this helps. Even though I’ve been practicing it these last 5 years or so…especially being a part of His story.

    Also, any recommendations for podcasts? Especially those which would be similar to what’s found here at IM.

    I’m sort of a Johnny-come-lately to the podcast world…but am starting to embrace and enjoy it.

  3. As an example, suppose there was a sea change going on. God, at different times, changes His face toward us. Suppose El Shaddai, the God of Abraham and Isaac, the feminine aspect of fruitfulness and multiplication was retaking center stage. ( I have the impression that this is the case) Would we have the vision to see and respond or would it just happen around and in spite of us? Could we distinguish this feminine aspect from mere liberalism? Are we like Anna and Simeon in the temple, looking with eyes open? Being part of the story means looking behind the curtain. Seeing which way the Wind blows. The difficulty is that such vital engagement requires everything of us and frankly, I find it easier a bunch of the time to just sit back and let the wind blow where it will. Today’s post is about being part of the story. The unfolding story. Seeing the unseeable will never come from sitting back. We have to knock on that door. Now I’m going on like I said I didn’t want to so I am stopping and going to my very mundane work.

    • Burro [Mule] says:

      Could we distinguish this feminine aspect from mere liberalism?

      Although I usually brace myself for fashionably progressive, possibly soul-endangering material everytime I see your name at the top of a post, I find myself nodding my head in agreement here. First of all your idea of a “feminine” side of God affirms my belief that there are two “energies” of our human experience that are distinguishable from one another (essential) – to infuriate everyone thoroughly, I agree with Doug Wilson that “A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts.” I don’t care how creepy or wife-beaty Rev Wilson sounds. It’s refreshing for me to hear someone talk sense in a world that is rapidly losing all sense of discrimination and all power of discernment.

      The more accurate rendering is that “the masculine penetrates, acquires, colonizes, plants. The feminine receives, assimilates, nourishes”. Humans of whichever sex have access to both energies, although I believe men find it easier to channel saidin and women will find it more natural to channel saidar but your mileage may vary.

      For the past millenia, Job One for our species has been the taming of our physical environment, at which men have typically excelled. My intuition is that this has gone about as far as it needs to in the sense of availing everyone of a safe and plentiful existence. Now we need to focus on taming our social and psychological environments, tasks that have been traditionally exercised by women. It would not surprise me in the least to see women coming to the forefront inside the Church and out to undertake this.

      • Hey Muley,
        Very interesting characterization of the current time as a time of incorporation (taming) in the psychological and social environments. Also, a very touching characterization of me: “…fashionably progressive and possibly soul-endangering”. Lol! I only take exception to the ‘fashionable’ label. I eschew the crowd to stay out on my own hermitical limb of insanity, thank you very much. It makes me that much more dangerous. Thanks for your thoughts.
        Chris

  4. “God, at different times, changes His face toward us.”

    Or maybe its our perceptions that change. The mystics say that when the student is ready the teacher appears. But that’s because the teacher is always there and the student has only just attained the capacity to see him or her or them or it.

    • Christiane says:

      I was thinking about the development of the awareness of conscience in a child . . . . at a certain age, the child becomes aware and is old enough to reason . . . at that point, when the conscience is developed enough to kick in and the child is aware of right and wrong, that is the beginning of the ability of the conscience to guide the child towards what is good and right and away from what is wrong doing. At a certain point in this development, the young person then can become accountable before God for his/her actions or lack of actions.

    • I suppose you could say one or both are happening and be correct. I think we see new facets on a personal level throughout our life as things dawn upon us. My guess is that the Holy Spirit is the initiator when something dawns on the body en masse. Something that was hidden is revealed and we as a group begin recognizing it together.