10 December 2007

The Subversion of our Life Stories: the Coming of the Kingdom.

In reflecting on the Lord's Prayer this Advent, I came to understand the Kingdom of God as an ongoing, but yet-to-be-realized event, and that, with the particular character of story. Still, it is not simply a story talked about or narrated to others (though this may also occur); it is a story enacted, a Word event enfleshed, the dabar or Logos of God incarnated in human history. The challenge for each of us I think, is to make this story our own --- or rather, to accept the place in it which God offers and calls us to accept. The problem? We already reside rather securely in other stories, other controlling narratives and myths which define who we are and what is success and failure, piety and impiety, truth and untruth, poverty and enrichedness, etc, etc. The story which is God's Kingdom promises to subvert these other narratives and myths; conversion means embracing this process and accepting a place in this parable of God with its new perspectives, new way of seeing, understanding, valuing and loving, etc.

Human beings are storytelling and storylistening beings. We are "hardwired" for stories. It is part of the fabric of our very being. We belong to and long for story because story contextualizes our lives, and contextualization gives meaning to them, or better, allows them in one way and another to realize the meaningfulness they are capable of. It gives our lives a trajectory and aim to follow or accomplish, values to embody, a role or roles to act out. But this means that some stories serve us better than others. Some will distort us, or allow us to develop in only this way or that while ignoring other potentials for meaning we have. And, because we really are part of a larger story and MADE FOR story, it means also that we will naturally embrace or adopt some unworthy controlling myths and narratives unconsciously as well as consciously, and be relatively unaware of their role in defining us.

When Jesus told parables he did so for two related reasons: first, to identify and subvert some of the less than authentic controlling myths people had adopted as their own, and second to offer the opportunity to make a choice for an alternative story by which one could live an authentically human and holy life. Parables, Jesus' parables that is, throw down two sets of values, two perspectives beside one another (para = alongside, and balein = to throw down). One set represents the Kingdom of God; one the kingdom where God is not sovereign. The resulting clash disorients us; it is unexpected and while first freeing us to some extent from our embeddedness in other narratives, summons us to choose which reality we will inhabit, which story will define us, which sovereign will author us. Will (to whatever extent) we affirm the status quo, the normal cultural or religious narrative, or will (to whatever extent) we instead allow our minds and hearts to be remade and adopt a different story as our own? Who will author us, the dominant culture, or the God who relativizes it?

In church each year we begin the narrative again. We recount God's own story in the Christ event beginning with the history preceding the nativity and culminating in it as the first chapter of the incarnation. A God who comes to us, to actually dwell with us in obscurity and littleness is a scandalous God, and yet, the story is not yet so threatening as it becomes at Lent. Still, we are invited to allow it to begin to shape us and our expectations of what is truly human and what is truly divine. We are invited to allow it to begin to subvert the stories by which we have made sense of our lives up until now. But this will mean spending some time identifying the non-Christian stories which are or have been operative in our lives up until this point.

And here we begin to see the purpose of Advent: to allow us time to do this kind of identifying, to locate the values we have embraced, the themes and characters which mark a successful life apart from Christ, the goals and purposes which have devoured our energies and claimed our love where something other than God was sovereign, the definitions of central human realities (e.g., justice, peace, success, failure, freedom, bondage, richness, poverty, strength, weakness, holiness, piety, godlessness, etc) which have captured our minds and hearts and which God's reign contradicts and redefines. God's Kingdom comes as a story we can accept or reject, trivialize and sentimentalize or respect and elaborate appropriately. It comes with sets of values we may find unpalatable and unpopular, and a protagonist we may find either scandalous or foolish depending upon whether we are conventionally religious or commonly wise or intelligent. It comes to us clothed in swaddling and proclaiming majesty in a manger. And it comes to us offering a context for our lives we cannot create for ourselves, a context which will make meaningful or senseless so much of who we already are and are called to become.

Personally, I will be spending the rest of this Advent trying to identify the elements of my story which still define me apart from Christ: the bits of script which recur from childhood even now, the values I have never fully let go of, the expectations which this culture both blatantly and insidiously inculcates on a daily basis and which I have allowed to shape my own mind and heart. To some extent the Kingdom of God IS my story; it has adopted me, and I have embraced it as well. But, like rereading a familiar and well-loved book, it can always be more completely appropriated and elements of alien controlling myths more completely relinquished. Make straight the paths of the Lord, we are told: let the valleys be raised, and the hills be made low. But the prophet might as well have said, "Listen! Examine your stories! Time to cut a few chapters, characters, themes, and restructure the plotline! Time to make this God's OWN story, not a tale he has a bit part in or no real ongoing role as author! Time to let him subvert the story you have been living and make a parable out of your life! Time to become aware of all those things which no longer (or never did) serve the REAL story! Time to enflesh the NAME God has called you by from all eternity. Time to be HIS story.