Re(learning) the story

In his monumental work “After Virtue,” Alasdair MacIntyre wrote;

I can only answer the question “What am I to do?” if I can answer the prior question “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?[1]

As followers of Jesus we situate ourselves within the beautiful story of Father, Son and Spirit making and remaking the world. Spiritual formation takes place when we inhabit the story of God, expressed in the life of Jesus. Empowered by the Holy Spirit we are changed inwardly making the world a better place to the glory of God.

In the letter to the Ephesians the apostle Paul wrote, “But that is not the way you learned Christ!”(4:20)

This verse makes me wonder, how do we learn Christ? MacIntyre’s emphases on story gives me a clue because learning Christ has much more to do with inhabiting a specific kind of story than just reciting some prepositions.

 MORE THAN BLANKS

A few weeks ago an old school friend posted a Sunday school test on his Facebook page. One of the sections asks questions with a fill in the blank space. The question was: They arrested Jesus, cuffed him and led him to _________ he was the father in law of _____________. My friend answered that he was led to Pilate and that he was the father in law of “Julea Ceaser.”Julia Child, anyone? In my book Raw Spirituality I reflected on the tendency to reduce learning Christ to prepositions,

“Some versions of spiritual formation are built on the myth that all we need is the right answers, and that the answers have to come easily. Fill-in-the -blank spirituality might be great for parrots, but it won’t form a person into the fullness of Jesus.”[2]

 My wife and I have the sacred privilege of raising two children, a boy and a girl. One of the joys on this parenting journey is to see how children revel in story. When a story captures their imagination it changes everything. During the South African winter holidays we decided to introduce them to some of our favorite childhood stories. One of these stories was Karate Kid. Not the remake, but the original. As we watched the movie we saw an immediate effect on the children.

Our kids became very frustrated with Mister Miyagi teaching the young Karate Kid.[3] Daniel Son was led through a seemingly senseless regime of practices that for all appearance’s sake had nothing to do with learning karate. At one point during the movie one of our kids exclaimed, “The wax on wax off stuff is stupid!” and gasped, “When will Miyagi teach him real karate?”

Through washing the car, sanding a floor and painting the house Daniel Son was learning what James Bryan Smith calls the principle of indirection. Smith notes, “We change not by mustering up willpower but by changing the way we think, which will also involve changing our actions and our social environment. We change indirectly. We do what we can in order to enable us to do what we can’t do directly. We change by the process of indirection.”[4]

All the seemingly senseless disciplines formed Daniel Son in specific ways enabling him to inhabit the story of karate. Without the story the disciplines would not make sense, but without the disciplines the story could not move forward.

As the children watched the movie, they also started to inhabit the story. When Daniel Son trained for the Crane kick our daughter mimicked the moves standing in front of the television. She mirrored what she saw. When the movie ended my wife and I got a startling reminder of the power of stories. As the final credits rolled over the screen our son sprinted down the hallway into our room and gave a deft roundhouse kick into our bedroom mirror. He inhabited the story with an immediacy that cost us $80 and him a few weeks’ allowance.

The power of a good story is that it pulls us into becoming participants. A good story brings synchronicity between limbs and imagination. It invites us into new rhythms. Listen to Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Matthew 11:28-30,

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

RE-ENTERING THE KINGDOM ADVENTURE

In the eighties there was a genre of books that offered alternative story lines. One of these series was called, “Choose your own adventure”. The book would give you choices to turn to a specific page with different outcomes than the path you were currently on.

I grew up in a form of Christianity that reduced the Jesus story to just one ending and not a lot of focus on this life. The only choice was to “accept Jesus” and then you “turn-to-page XX to go to heaven after you die.” This story wasn’t an adventurous story that involved this life, and it failed to capture my imagination or activate my limbs.

Thankfully, through the writings of some subversives the story of Christianity that had been reduced to a lifeless and one-dimensional ending blew open into an odyssey with Jesus as the truth, the way and the life. Through the work of Dallas Willard, Renovaré, and Eugene Peterson (to name a few) I reconnected with an ancient form of Christianity that lived the Jesus life as an adventure. Just listen to the contours of this beautiful adventure,

“The aim of God in history is the creation of an all-inclusive community of loving persons, with Himself included in that community as its prime sustainer and most glorious inhabitant.”

These subversives helped me to understand the story of God in a different way. They gave me alternatives to the stale commercialized version of the story. Through their writings I discovered new “turn-to-page” adventures that led me back into the joy of following Christ. I will mention two of these.

WHAT KINGDOM MEANS

One of the ways I used to read the story was to read the word “kingdom” as a synonym for heaven. “Kingdom” meant “turn-to-page XX for life after death.” But then I realized that “kingdom” is not shorthand for heaven or life after death. In Raw Spirituality I wrote,

When Jesus uses kingdom language it is not just a synonym for heaven. God’s kingdom is the reality where what God wants to happen happens. Or to quote Dallas Willard, “The kingdom of God is the range of God’s effective will, where what God wants done is done.[5]” We are invited to now live within the wild adventurous kingdom of our loving Father in an intimate relationship with Jesus empowered by the Spirit. [6]

So instead of reading kingdom as “turn-to-page XX, you are now dead and in heaven” it becomes “turn-to-page XX, what would it look like for the kingdom to come in my life and neighborhood now?” As a way to re-enter this part of the adventure story I find the Lord’s Prayer helpful, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10).

THE ADVENTURE OF GRACE

Another alternative reading was the one given for the word “grace”. Whenever I read “grace” I used to move into the direction of “turn-to-page XX, you are a sinner and will stay this way but thankfully you are saved by grace”. Through the writings of my previously mentioned subversive friends, I found an alternative adventure:

The classic word to explain God’s unconditional love is grace. Imagine with me that the gymnasium of God is grace-filled. It is all grace. Unfortunately this rich and textured word has been reduced and flattened to describe only the forgiveness of sins. In this flattened state grace becomes the operative word for God’s forgiveness. Grace as forgiveness is already “amazing grace,” but that is not all there is to grace. I sometimes ask church groups if Jesus needed grace. The temperature in the room usually rises. I see how people struggle with the question. Many of them process it in the following way: “We need grace to save us from sin. Jesus never sinned so he surely didn’t need grace.” But then they tap into all their experiences of pastors and teachers asking trick questions. A long, pregnant pause follows. Did Jesus need grace? In Luke we read that Jesus grew in grace and favor with God and humanity (Luke 2: 40). Jesus didn’t sin, so we can safely say that grace is more than just the forgiveness of sins. If I think of grace only as God’s salvation coming to me as unearned favor, then I will not know how to live in grace in other areas of my life. Many people place grace in opposition to works. This thinking paralyzes many Christians and eliminates the effort to train naked. Dallas Willard notes “grace is opposed to earning” but that “grace is not opposed to effort.[7]” We are saved by grace from our sins, but we are then empowered by grace to train naked and grow in godliness[8].

 So instead of reading grace as “turn-to-page XX, you are only a sinner saved by grace”, I now read it as “turn-to-page XX, you are forgiven and empowered by God to become fully human.

I am on a journey with a group of friends training to become the kind of people who inhabit this exciting Story of God with all its possibilities. Like our children, we want to inhabit the story by mimicking Jesus. Together we are training in our everyday, ordinary lives – “our sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life” (Rom 12:1, The Message). Through these wax on wax off moments we are slowly learning Christ. Our everyday life is the place where we practice indirection or what I described as training naked.


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