What if... the kingdom of God where at hand?

You need to watch this presentation by Amy Smith to the Technology, Entertainment and Design awards about the changes she and her MIT students are bringing to Haiti, Ghana, India, and elsewhere. 

If we believed that all were becoming new we would put our stock in this kind of work.  She and her generous co-inventors humble me.

Ricoeur reads Jesus

Here is some intergrative work between notes for a sermon on the wedding of Cana and notes on Paul Ricoeur’s “Pastoral Praxeology, Hermeneutics, and Identity” from Figuring the Sacred, (Minneapolis: Augsberg Fortress Press, 1995) 303-314.  Come play with me...

Your mind is spinning. You see dark face after light face after dirty face after clean face. There are people from all over the region.  They have traveled to this party unknowing that you will be there.  You haven’t been able to sleep for days now.  Its been about three days since you met your first fellow sojourner.  You grabbed him because he was ready to try something new.  His brother was nearby and after a few quick calls he had joined you.  As the three of you travel you pointed out the futility of life to a few other folks and they decide to travel with you as well.  One person is an idealist, the kind that could kill a party with his politics, his better-than-Ezra speak, his certainty.  And so you point out your place in what he’s so sure about and suddenly he’s on the wagon with the rest of y’all. 

You show up at the party and y’all blend right in.  It’s a Grecian environment, expansive space, marble floors, large clay jars to wash your hands in.  They remind you of the bowls of holy water outside cathedrals, like the one your parents talk about.  You vaguely remember being washed in them as a child when the wrinkled hands of a gray priest received you from your parent’s arms and held you up in front of the congregation.  But that was a long time ago now. 

The party is what everyone came here for but the marriage ceremony came first.  You sit through the rituals but your mind is somewhere else…

You notice some of the other guests and the solutes, the mozle tov, the cheers ensue. 

Then you are at the bar and your mom overhears that the crowd are heavier drinkers than they had planned on.

Then it hits, your mom says it is time to do something… the limit experience hits and you choose to lean into the future that you’ve known all along or you chose to wait for it.  Not seeing equality with God as something to hold on to you chose to be a servant, to humble yourself in the form of

But now is the time and suddenly the plot thickens, it turns, you are a different character than ten minuets before.  The servants, the baptismal water jars we all washed our hands in, grab them, fill them back up with water.

But wait, they are set aside for holy purposes.  They are god’s provision, they aren’t supposed to be used for this.

Uh, now tell them to bring it out there, lets not leave the water here.  If this is going to work, it has to be the servants, not me or any of us.  When the servant is doing this I will not be given credit, the groom will.  The people will see a new day and enjoy the hospitality, the benevolence of God, and thank their host, the organizer of the event.

And for twenty centuries since, Jesus has been writing us into the script to take the risk of bringing recycled vestments and elements into the party.  Who changed the water, who was changed?  Who served as narrators of the story?  Who served as author of the event?  Who participated in the closed story of the master of the party? Did any of them look like authors? (yes the one throwing the party).  Did any of them feel like narrators (yes the servants of the party). 


To create is a sticky subject with evangelicals.  We want to see that God as "the maker" and to protect ourselves from the offense of changing God or God's text.  So what roles do Mary, Jesus, the newly recruited discisples, the servant, the MC of the party play? Who is made, who is being made?  Or is it that simple?

Much of this is rooted in our understanding of self through Cartesian and Kantian categories.  We see a character’s self-hood as “sameness”  whatever belongs permanently to someone/thing.  Kant sent this knowledge into the non-personal space of thinking.  Descartes’ immutable and reflexive self. 

And so when something new is introduced it must have already existed so as not to threaten the sameness of that character.  This is seen best in theater, literature, and movies.  The character development requires a “limit experience” where the character’s sameness is threatened and the “self” the “who am I” is laid bare.

Heidegger said it this way:  Self hood is a question of who, who did this, who did that.  Hannah Arendt, said that all things labor, and that some labor is work, and that some work is action.  Action, the highest level of the three is distinguished from these three basic human activities by the function of story and history in telling us about the who/actor of action. 

If Kant was right that the permantent part of the individual is the substance of one's self-hood, then Nietzsche must also have been right in saying that the only substantial difference between people are their unique piles of meat and sinews.  So I am persuaded by Ricoeur that maybe Kant was not completely right here.


“Narrativity” is “the intelligibility brought about by the plot of a narrative.” (Ricoeur, 308) Narrative unity (a post structuralism perspective) is a stronger vantage point in differentiating meaning than the movable rationales of structuralists and their counter point, irrationalism.  Narrative unity is constituted through the identification of an actor the objects/subjects of his intervention.  Changes or reversals of fortune that threaten concordance of plot are made significant by the plot.  When these changes are applied to characters their identity or self-hood is revised, this is called the “emplotment of character.”  In this act we recognize in ourselves/others the working of the plot.

The challenge to ministry, however, is that the plot seems open ended because life is open ended.  We do not know the last page.  We are always revising, being replotted, and changing the plots of other’s narratives.  We are simultaneously in several narratives from several point of view. 

So the church is an emplotment environment.  We re-text, reshape the identity of our self, the body of Christ as character interacting with others not in body, and the greater world as part of God’s work. 

The problem then is who are ministers, who is the church?  Are we a character, narrator, or author?  This very ambiguity creates an opening… it is a limit experience.  The ambiguity of who is in charge between Mary, Jesus, the servants, and the MC is the same ambiguity of being God's people, the church.

Ricoeur writes, “Surely we are a character but it is we who tell the story therefore we are its author.  But we cannot simply be the author because we are already caught in narrativity of enacted narratives. We are also characters in other’s stories and histories… Being caught up in others’ stories is what create an inextricable aspect to our lives” (310).

“We are caught up in stories, in histories, and in large scale narratives of salvation where one is a partner, a character who is partially a narrator and partially and author” (310).

And so we participate in life’s revisions, examining life to consider if a “closed” part of our character is to be “reopened”. In this sense we are be converted, re-emplotted, transformed by the renewing of our plot-making minds.  In this sense all of life is a potential limit experience. 

Elaine Scary writes in On Beauty and Being Just of the role of "precedence" in perceiving beauty. As such we encounter a remembered plot, a precedent,and change our character or we are surprised by an other actor or event that has no precedence- unprecedented, and are then emplotted, as it were, for the first time.  To learn then, to place ourselves in line with new meanings and to risk re-emplotment is to risk limit experiences by seeking (placing ourselves under a plot- being a community) and by being aware (finding limit experiences and trusting they are from the narrator/author and not a threat). 

With Darrell Guder we see our regular re-emplotment as the call to "continual conversion".  Like Elizabeth Barret Browning we see the potential limit experiences as “bushes ablaze…”  like Peter Mayer, we sing, “everything is holy now.”  And then we realize that everything cannot possibly emplot, we must sort out the plotters.  And then we face the challenge again of learning, we need a place where we seek emplotment. 

Imagination is a key part of this leap from a closed to a reopened self.  It is the only way to structure or adapt the plot.  The function of imagination, then, is to separate “self” from “same” to lay bare the question of “who am I.” 

This is where this brings us: to lose ourselves is to find ourselves.  To allow ourselves to be impacted by the "other" (persons or world) is to risk being in control of ourselves. A habit that Jesus demonstrates.  Moreover, to participate in another’s story is to become an actor once again.  We transform the world by our relationship to it.  Descartes was wrong, we are never detached.

And so the church is called to be a character- authored by God as God's change met in the world

And the church is called to be a narrator- heard by creation about God's change to come

And the church is called to be an author (objective) finding our lives as co-creation, as we participate in the closed/opened stories/histories of God’s created world.

This certainly is quite the drama, this thing of being church in emerging culture!

painting "and"

In the last half of the twentieth century many churches have drawn new confession or symbols of faith.  As early as the Nicean Creed (worked on for over a hundred years between 325 and 451 A.D.), confessions were seen as symbols of the unity of the church.  They were a practice of reconciliation between differing opinions portrayed by new images or sketches for churches to share with eachother.  They were the historical equivalents of Christian Hutus and Christian Tutsis agreeing to draw together a new sketch of what they believed the faith-from-the-future taught through the texts-of-the-past called them to do-that-day. They were Jim Wallis, Jesse Jackson, and Beth Moore asking for God to equip them to live today by drawing upon the Spirit’s inspiration of their experiences of scripture to compare the historical work of God “and” the promises from God of what is to come.  So you can only imagine how long process must take.
Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth’s biographer, has written an article reviewing these new confessions made for the most part by two-thirds world churches.   Busch’s article appears at the very end of a book of articles, Toward the Future of Reformed Theology.   I probably picked this article up because of my own personal encounters with Dr. Busch at Columbia Seminary, where he taught a semester seminar on Barth and joined us afterwards for beers and pipes.  He and Shirlie Guthrie were the reason I kept after the class and began to take seriously the reading and writing of theology. I can remember his eyes lighting up as we’d make comments and motioning us with his hands to “keep-rolling” when, as young students, we grew uncertain of our arguments.  He was my first German friend.

Unfortunately Dr. Busch grew ill and could not return to Columbia a year later as he had planned.  I had heard the stroke rendered his speaking and reasoning incapable of teaching.  Somehow I had put together the news that he had passed away.  And then two years ago I was on Columbia’s campus and saw him again.  It was the first time in my life that I thought I saw a ghost.  I didn’t know how exactly to say, “I thought you were dead” so I just said I was glad to see him, told him a bit about the work I was doing with emergent and in the inner-city and that was that.

In reading this article last night it seems to me that he is just as surprised to discover confessing churches.  As if meeting a ghost he meets churches that “confess not because they hold to a specials Calvinistic tradition, nor because they wish to define what ‘Reformed’ actually means.  They confess because they (alone as Reformed, or with other denominations in the frequently occurring case of a merger of churches) find themselves called to confess their identity in the church of God and of Jesus Christ.”   In contrast, over the last two centuries, Busch writes, there emerged “in the place of the freedom at times to confess and at other times to enact one’s confession… a freedom to do nothing, a freedom from confession… At the root of this lay a problematic conception of God, in which God’s freedom was thought of as a despotic regime which did not tolerate human freedom.”

In Atlanta in 2006 there exists a similar domesticated image of God as one contained to the scriptures and the confessions and the buildings of churches.  God has gotten trapped in sacred space consequentially loosing humanity into a spiral of capricious relationship with God.  Because we don’t know for sure, and because we assume that ordained folks like Troy might know better than us, we resign ourselves to a life of conscription or contradiction.  We’ve lost the ability to see God in action and ourselves in action.  We’ve lost the confidence to say “and.”

When faced with this dilemma, the church historically has landed on confessing (witnessing or stating, not simply apologizing or saying confession).  On drawing a new “and” a kind of creed, a new testimony.  The church does this as one congregation in its place and time but with universal intent, a belief that they are not an exception-to-the-rule but a specific location of God’s active spirit.  They speak as “the church.”  And they do this with an unique art.  The art of “and” is learned through contemplation upon the incarnation of Christ both human and divine.  Like Calvin, the church today practices that “that which the one Word of God has communicated to us by pure grace in the one mediator, Christ, we cannot say in one word but always rather in two.”  The following is a list of such twos drawn from historical and emerging confessions.  Busch describes these as the “characteristic doubling of assertions, in which throughout both are united yet remain unmixed; both are differentiated yet remain undivided, let alone made into opposite.”

    God’s majesty and God’s abasement
    the glory of God and the salvation of humanity
    Christ as truly divine and truly human
    Word and Spirit
    gospel and law
    eternal life and ordering of temporal existence
    justification and sanctification
    faith and obedience
    Old and New Testaments
        witness to the “norm” of faith and of life
    God in love and justice
        in grace and power
    Jesus Christ as crucified reconciler and victorious Lord and Judge
        thus justification occurs by:
        grace alone, excluding all self redemption,
it is nevertheless inseparable from human sanctification, renewal, and discipleship

    The church must be determined both
        by gathering and by sending,

        by preservation of its identity
by engaged openness to the world around it

        by the calling of Christians to serve and through the ministerial office
    thus in the sacraments:
        both God’s grace and human response are manifested
    thus regarding the relationship to state and society:
        both loyal cooperation and obedience to God more than human

    the law of God:
        reveals to us sinners our inability to redeem ourselves and shows those freed by Christ concretely the shape of our freedom

Do you get the point?  Incase you don’t, allow me to illustrate through visual metaphors.  Trevor Hart (Begbie, Beholding the Glory) does this in his description of mixing paint.  When you add yellow to red you do not get a “compromise.”  You make something that did not before exist, some sort of orange.  But it is made on purpose and with things that did previously exist.  When God was made flesh, we did not only experience one being as the Other, but an Other-possibility came into existence: the incarnation-idea.  The created “and.”  And yet, with out a paintbrush of “divinity” at our disposal we can only learn and watch this new phenomena.  The concepts of redemption are redefined, Paul sees new, that the old is gone-forever. A material world once filled with divine interruptions is now a material world redefined by the existence of “orange” incarnate interruptions.  “The word of God made his dwelling among us.  We have seen his glory.  Out if his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given.” (NIV for “grace upon grace”), now all this material is assumed, brought into the divine revelation of Christ and through the cross and resurrection- forever changed.

But if it weren’t enough to see orange for the first time and look toward the horizon with hope that a deeper orange would arrive.  The Son of God made flesh breaths the Holy Spirit on his disciples and paints the vision of their becoming orangeness, “as the father sends me, so I send you.”  The Spirit of God ushers in an new day, an 8th day of creation, when more and more of creation will not only be given eyes to see and ears to hear such an orange but hands to paint, feet to carry, and imaginations and swords and plowshares and tongues to create (or crucify) orange again and again. John places this at the end of that upperoom account, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Now if my metaphor hasn’t gotten us in enough trouble I want to clarify what I am saying.  There are some of you (if you have been patient enough to keep plodding through this post) who’s yellow flags have gone up.  “If we make orange, you are forgetting the left side of one of the above “Ands”: excluding all self redemption.” To this I propose we do not make green, but always orange.  Here is where my metaphor breaks down and it begins to look like all we do as ambassadors of reconciliation is paint until the world looks like a 1970s TV with the color knob askew- monochromatic.  So I will work on some more elaboration but I’d love some of you own input.
How is the church to continue confessing with universal intent but to do so in a changing world where the gospel is suddenly informing us to believe differently than before.  How do we think about this difference in light of the one incarnation and not confuse ourselves as the “inventors” of orange or of the “new orange.”  How are we like John the Baptist who "himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light" while "the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”  And how do we handle that the true light that “was coming” has come and yet is still not completely here in fullness?  I think we would find some help in rethinking “and”…