In Paul Murray’s novel Skippy Dies, there’s a point where the main character, Howard, has an existential crisis. “It’s just not how I expected my life would be,” he says. “What did you expect?” a friend responds. After pondering, Howard replies, “I suppose—this sounds stupid, but I suppose I thought there’d be more of a story to my life.”
If you strung the facts of someone’s life end to end, they might not resemble a story to an outside observer, yet we do live in a story. We live by a story of origins (our families), a story of discovery (our youth), a story of idealism and identity crisis (young adulthood), and a story of dashed hopes and learning how to love (adulthood). It’s not just the events of our life that explain us, it’s the arc—the narrative that gives description to who we’ve become and who we’re on our way to becoming. A person’s life story is not a Wikipedia biography of choices and events; it is the way a person internally takes those choices and events and weaves them together to make meaning.
We Long to Live by Story
I see this in my little boy, who, living in his head, re-enacts great scenes in which he’s a superhero doing great things. I may look at him and think, “Stories are for kids,” but deep within me is a longing to live within a grand story, to sense significance in my life’s unfolding plot. I am almost forty years old now, and that childhood whimsy is asking to be remembered and resurrected. It must not be ignored.
[Tweet “deep within is a longing to live in a grand story, to sense significance in life’s unfolding plot”] Sometimes music brings this out in us. It happens when the words and melodies of a song suddenly surprise us, unlocking feelings that are deeply connected to the pains and aches associated with where our lives have been. Sometimes movies provoke it, compelling us (or even depressing us) into an awareness that we are not living boldly into a story that matters.
This longing for narrative is basic to the human psyche. When we are not satisfied with or if there is shame around our life’s story we medicate ourselves with things so that we don’t have to face ourselves. We may isolate, binge watch, eat too much, hide out in books, or even live a sort of surrogate life on social media. All of us have our own ways of avoiding an awareness of who we are and what our story is telling the world.
I.D. Me Please
More than ever, what I need, what we all need, is to know, feel, hear, and be called into the truest story pulsing at the heart of God’s world. Our imaginations have been wearied by a Western societal structure that has been shocked by the bombings of the World Trade Center, the collapse of the economy, the increasingly unreachable nature of the American dream, and the technological decentralization of relationships. Rather than finding ourselves in a carnival of prosperity, we find ourselves discouraged by dashed hopes, secluded from each other, and strangely detached from contentment—even though we have more at our fingertips than ever.
We are struggling to apprehend a sense of self. So many are grasping in the vacuous space of labeled identity: video gamer, granola mom, starving musician, environmental activist, Jesus freak, popular blogger, gym rat, Republican, Democrat, etc. These descriptors offer some bobbing life-ring in our turbulent social ocean, but deep inside there’s dissonance. We know it, we feel it—these identities don’t offer us a story to live by. They merely offer us a temporary, anxiety-ridden status scribbled on a name tag.
The church’s contextual mission at this time doesn’t need us to blast out more propositional truths in order to sure up our identities. I cannot live by, be sustained by, be nourished by propositional truth. Although I believe in orthodoxy and historic doctrines, they are not enough to sustain me. We will run out of energy to live a life centered on Jesus in the complexity of the world if all we have are sermons stuffed with doctrines to feed on and trendy music to sing along to.
I was struck recently by how little impact correct doctrines actually have on causing us to live tethered to a better story. Here in my neck of the woods (Central New York) a counseling session turned physical at Word of Life Christian Church in New Hartford, resulting in the death of a young man and serious injuries to his brother. The boys’ parents each face one count of first-degree manslaughter. Four other church members were charged with second-degree assault. Church members took Lucas Leonard, nineteen, and assaulted him for hours in “God’s name.” Christopher, seventeen, was hospitalized in serious condition after suffering blunt force trauma. My heart grieves for those young men.
I decided to see if I could get a hold of the doctrinal statement for Word of Life in New Hartford. Here are some excerpts:
“We believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are verbally inspired of God, they are the supreme authority for faith and life. We believe God has eternally existed in three persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We believe in the Deity of Jesus Christ, His virgin birth, sinless life, His death to pay the penalty for everyone’s sins, His bodily resurrection, His exaltation at God’s right hand. We believe that all who by faith receive Jesus Christ are born again of the Holy Spirit, therefore children of God, and the Holy Spirit dwells within every believer to enlighten, guide, and enable the believer in life, testimony, and service.”
What was obvious to me was that I could personally sign this doctrinal statement. I truly believe these very same things. Everything that has been stated I would call truth, yet those truths became static, lifeless, and did not call Lucas and Christopher’s parents into a new story.
True, doctrine does help us know what stakes have been driven down, but story calls us into a continuous imagination of who we are, where we are, and where we are headed. Being a Jesus follower is not simply a matter of deciding to adopt a particular set of morals and beliefs and digging deep within oneself to have the capability to live an obedient life. It is so much more than that!
[Tweet “story calls us into a continuous imagination of who we are, where we are, and where we are headed”]
New Mind, New Imagination
The Apostle Paul invites us to have a renewed mind, a renovated imagination about where we find ourselves. A new world with a new humanity is being birthed in the soil of the ground.
“For the Messiah has been revealed, the one who is your life, who is revealing His glory in you. So lay to rest the Old World in your bodies and in your minds, and see the New World coming about and put on the New Humanity… From now see everyone as defined by Christ, for all things are being renewed according to the image of the Creator” (Colossians 3:4-5, 9-10. Paraphr.).
The world looks different because it’s becoming different. The old telos of self-rule is being replaced by God’s rule. NT Wright explains, “Paul’s mind and body know it’s already daytime, while the rest of the world is still turning over in bed.” The Apostle Paul understood the plutonium power of imagination because he understood the challenges that his churches faced. The victory of God in Christ might not have felt as though it had been installed for first-century Christians given that they were running for their lives under Pagan rulers. Their circumstances challenged their imagination. Paul’s words poked, prodded, and powerfully unsettled the Church’s natural vision. Paul wanted the Church to see—really see—how King Jesus deconstructs and reconstructs the world.
The same is true today. The only way to live on mission in God’s world is to have a deep, pulsing, epic sense of this Story. Thus, our first task is to live in the Story of God and have God’s Story live in us. Living in the story of God’s in-breaking kingdom requires constant stimulation of the imagination. The place and time in which we live, the natural world, conceals as much about God as it reveals.
The task of discipleship is placing mud on the eyes so that we may see daily, weekly…
- what God is doing in the world,
- where His Kingdom is at hand in our neighborhoods,
- where the new heaven and the new earth are coming together, and
- how the Lord’s Table is extending into the rest of our lives.
Everything around us is shaping our imagination for how to play a role in the world, whether it is watching cable news and allowing it to shape our imagination for hating our enemies, or perusing Facebook and allowing it to shape our imagination for envy, or glancing at magazines in the checkout aisle of the grocery store and letting them shape our imagination for vanity, or watching sitcoms and allow them to shape our imagination for sexuality. So we must be alert and ever mindful of a new imagination.
Discipleship and the New Imagination
We cannot escape the natural world as the Gnostics attempted. We must seek an imagination that increasingly sees how ordinary life connects with the extraordinary story of God’s rule constantly breaking into our world. We tend to confine heaven to a fenced-in area, one relegated to overt church activities, but the world is charged with God’s grandeur. I envision the Trinity scheming up fresh ways to plant seeds of the Kingdom in the most unassuming spaces of our neighborhoods and workplaces and waiting with delight for us to discover them.
[Tweet “”Imagination plays a vital role in equipping disciples to perceive reality.” @danwhitejr”] Imagination plays a vital role in equipping disciples to perceive reality. The theologian Walter Brueggemann talks about reading the Bible as a process of “cultivating historical imagination,” seeking to breathe in the Bible’s “peculiar memory and promise” in order that we may responsibly participate in unfolding the great covenantal story in our own time.
Beyond possessing a mere historical awareness of Biblical doctrines, we need to cultivate, marinate, stimulate, and evaluate our imaginations so that we may be able to detect the Spirit of Christ and apply His wisdom in new contexts and circumstances. Christians animated in this manner seek to incarnate Christ’s Kingdom in every square inch of ordinary life.
The core of discipleship is helping followers of Jesus make the daily life sacramental, which, literally speaking, means to keep the sacred (sacra) in mind (mental). In other words, our task is mindfulness – a mind full of God’s presence in the world.
So go and stir up the imagination! Call people into a new way of seeing the world.
[Tweet “”The core of discipleship is helping followers of Jesus make the daily life sacramental” @danwhitejr”] Live the Larger Story–Partner with V3 to Plant a Missional Church
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