Jul 23

Shaped by Story

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“We are creatures who live by our stories. From early on we are told stories by our parents, which help us interpret how life is or how life ought to be. We are naturally drawn to stories and must follow them to their conclusion because

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We are creatures who live by our stories. From early on we are told stories by our parents, which help us interpret how life is or how life ought to be. We are naturally drawn to stories and must follow them to their conclusion because stories are exciting. Jesus taught primarily in story form. One reason might be that stories are memorable. We may not be able to remember many (or any) of the Beatitudes, but we all can remember the story of the prodigal son.

When we have a significant experience—one that shapes us—we turn it into a story. For example, a powerful experience from childhood may have been a special birthday party where you got the gift you had been hoping for. You do not remember the event in exact detail. You remember it as a narrative—who was there, what was said, how you felt, what the cake looked like.

Narrative is “the central function . . . of the human mind.” We turn everything into a story in order to make sense of life. We “dream in narrative, day-dream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate and love by narrative.” In fact, we cannot avoid it. We are storied creatures. Our stories help us navigate our world, to understand right and wrong, and to provide meaning (“So the moral of the story is . . .”).

There are all kinds of narratives. Family narratives are the stories we learn from our immediate families. Our parents impart to us their worldview and their ethical system through stories. Key questions such as Who am I? Why am I here? Am I valuable? are answered early on in the form of narrative. There are cultural narratives that we learn from growing up in a particular region of the world. From our culture we learn values (what is important, who is successful) in the form of stories and images. Americans, for example, are taught the value of “rugged individualism” through the stories of our past (the Revolution, the pioneers). There are religious narratives— stories we hear from the pulpit, the classroom and religious books that help us understand who God is, what God wants of us and how we ought to live. Finally, there are Jesus’ narratives, the stories and images Jesus tells to reveal the character of God.

We are shaped by our stories. In fact, our stories, once in place, determine much of our behavior without regard to their accuracy or helpfulness. Once these stories are stored in our minds, they stay there largely unchallenged until we die. And here is the main point: these narratives are running (and often ruining) our lives. That is why it is crucial to get the right narratives.

Soul Training Exercises:

Read and reflect on Luke 7:36-50

Which character do you most identify with? Why?

If you are familiar with this passage, has the character you identify with changed over time?

How does this story impact the way you think about God?

 

Taken from The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith. Copyright(c) 2009 by James Bryan Smith. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com


Dr. James Bryan Smith (M.Div., Yale University Divinity School; DMin Fuller Seminary) is the Executive Director of the Apprentice Institute. Dr. Smith is currently a theology professor at Friends University, in Wichita, Kansas, and an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. He is the author of eight books, most notably The Apprentice Series (InterVarsity Press), which continue to shape the work of the Apprentice Institute. Dr. Smith’s other titles include Devotional Classics (with Richard J. Foster), Embracing the Love of God, Room of Marvels, and Hidden in Christ.

Join Dr. Smith and other Christian Formation authors and speakers this October for The Apprentice Gathering 2015 – The Joy of Kingdom Living.  Learn more at www.apprenticegathering.org.

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May 19

The Scrambler

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When my son, Jacob, was six years old, I took him to an amusement park. There were only a few people in the park that day, so we went from ride to ride without having to wait. We came upon a ride that I had

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When my son, Jacob, was six years old, I took him to an amusement park. There were only a few people in the park that day, so we went from ride to ride without having to wait. We came upon a ride that I had never ridden before but I assumed was fun. After all, we were in an amusement park. We got in our seats and a teenaged boy buckled us in. Soon the ride started whirling and spinning us, faster and faster, jerking us around and up and down. I held on to Jacob as hard as I could, afraid that he would fly out of his seat. With white knuckles and gritted teeth I prayed the entire ninety seconds for the ride to end. I looked over at Jacob, who was laughing and having a great time.

When we got off the ride, I saw the name of it in bright red paint: the Scrambler, which was appropriate. Jacob said, “that was fun, let’s do it again!” I said no. (What I felt like saying was, “Not a chance! ever again! I am the worst father ever! Please forgive me.”) We sat down on a nearby park bench, and I asked, “Weren’t you scared? that ride was pretty wild. Why did you get on a ride like that?” he answered with childlike honesty, “Because you did, Dad.” Right or wrong, that little guy trusted me. I was and am clearly not worthy of such trust. I love him and would do anything for him, and I would never put him in harm’s way intentionally. But I am a limited, finite, ignorant human being. In his eyes, however, being with me meant he was completely safe.

That illustrated for me why it is so essential that we understand that God is trustworthy. The God Jesus reveals would never do anything to harm us. He has no malice or evil intentions. He is completely good. And the fact that God is also all-knowing and all-powerful makes his goodness even better. I can trust God, even if things look bleak. It does not matter that God is all-powerful or all-knowing if he is not all-good. If he isn’t all-good, I will never be able to love and trust him.

 

Soul Training – Use the following Bible Passages for Reflection:

1 John 1:5 “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” NIV

2 Samuel 7:28 “Sovereign Lord, you are God! Your covenant is trustworthy, and you have promised these good things to your servant.” NIV

Psalm 91

 

Taken from The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith. Copyright(c) 2009 by James Bryan Smith. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com


Dr. James Bryan Smith (M.Div., Yale University Divinity School; DMin Fuller Seminary) is the Executive Director of the Apprentice Institute. Dr. Smith is currently a theology professor at Friends University, in Wichita, Kansas, and an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. He is the author of eight books, most notably The Apprentice Series (InterVarsity Press), which continue to shape the work of the Apprentice Institute. Dr. Smith’s other titles include Devotional Classics (with Richard J. Foster), Embracing the Love of God, Room of Marvels, and Hidden in Christ.

 

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May 12

Growing Requires Daring to Look at Who We Really Are

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“Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Psalm 139 1-4; 23-24 (NRSV) I have been an enabler (now recovering) most of my life: I looked

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“Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.

See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.”

Psalm 139 1-4; 23-24 (NRSV)

I have been an enabler (now recovering) most of my life: I looked for and attracted needy people and proceeded to try to “fix them.”  I felt responsible for other people’s feelings, thoughts, actions, needs, and well-being. I was happiest when I was busily attempting to bring calm to chaotic situations.  I did this even in the face of logic which clearly demonstrated that this behavior was foolhardy and even dangerous and in spite of the objections of my family and friends. Those actions had severe consequences which still affect my life. And all the while I was convinced that this lifestyle was what God was calling me to do.

This behavior controlled my life because I was unable to step outside myself and observe my own behavior. Until a counselor helped me to look at myself and discern the motivation of my actions and reactions, I saw no need to change, although my life was falling apart all around me.

What I am describing here is a lack of consciousness.   Consciousness is “me seeing me seeing” (Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water, Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, p. 85).  Consciousness is the awareness that empowers me to:

  • step outside myself
  • discern my behavior
  • choose to change my behavior or go ahead with that behavior

The opposite of consciousness is acting out of instinct or from thoughts and experiences of which we are unaware.  An example of this “unconscious” behavior would be sudden anger or violence that makes us think, “Where in the world did that come from?” or crippling fear that we cannot explain.

When my enabling controlled me, I could/would not see that I was choosing to be manipulated.  I could/would not understand or see that I was taking actions that hurt me as well as the person I was trying to fix.  When I took a young man just released from jail to my home to stay because his parents wouldn’t let him return to their home, I couldn’t see that his parents may have had good reason to keep him away. Being “unconscious” kept me in denial of the dangers of my own behavior.

As I began my spiritual formation journey years later, I discovered that God used that counselor to help me understand and change my behavior, but that the Holy Spirit was the power behind my transformation from someone interested only in codependent relationships to someone who could form and enjoy healthy relationships.  My perception is that consciousness is the conduit the Holy Spirit uses to speak into our lives.  If we are willing to practice stepping out- side of ourselves, the Holy Spirit can guide, comfort, teach, remind, and empower us, as Scripture teaches he will (John 14).

“Consciousness” is an awareness we can learn and practice.  A counselor who was in one of the classes I teach told the group that looking back on our past to see how our parents or grandparents may have influenced our lives is one way of learning to step outside ourselves and become observers. Learning about “false narratives” also gives us a framework to observe and assess our own perceptions of the world.

The spiritual discipline of “detachment” is also a way that we can learn to develop consciousness. Ignatius of Loyola talks about “making use of those things that help bring us closer to God and leaving aside those things that don’t” (In First Principal and Foundation quoted by Margaret Silf in her book Inner Compass).  Silf uses the image of God as a midwife to help us picture what detachment means:

For all of us, our first experience of the pain and promise of detachment was the hour we left our mother’s womb and, screaming with shock,  entered human life on earth.  In the seemingly brutal act of cutting the umbilical cord, which separated us from the prenatal food supply, we were in fact set free to live our own lives.

So it began, and so it continues in the ongoing call to let go of what is not (or is no longer) leading us closer to God, and to choose instead those ways that for us personally lead us closer to him and to the fulfillment of his dream for us.  (Inner Compass, p. 108)

Richard Rohr says that “for properly detached persons . . . . deeper consciousness comes rather naturally.  They discover their own soul – which is their deepest self – and yet have access to a Larger Knowing beyond themselves.”  He goes on to say that when Jesus speaks of “giving us the Spirit,” he is saying he is “sharing his consciousness with us. One whose soul is thus awakened actually has ‘the mind of Christ’ (I Cor. 2 10-16)  (Breathing Under Water, p. 86-87).

Mulling it Over – Take on the discipline of praying this prayer every day.  “Lord, give me a growing spirit of detachment from anything that separates me from you” (Richard Foster).  Pay attention to the effect it has on your willingness to look at yourself from outside yourself.


Karen Bables is a wife, mother, and grandmother living in Holland, Michigan.  Recently retired from work as a Director of Spiritual Formation, she now spends her time writing.  She blogs at www.livingasapprentices.com.

Posted in A Good and Beautiful Life, Blog, Narrative, Soul Training, Spiritural Growth | Tags: / / / / / / / / /

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Mar 31

A Priest Who Prays

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“Jesus completely finished the work of reconciliation, but that does not mean he is up in heaven taking a long nap. One of the most beautiful parts of the theology of the ascension is that Jesus is now praying for us. Jesus is our great

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“Jesus completely finished the work of reconciliation, but that does not mean he is up in heaven taking a long nap. One of the most beautiful parts of the theology of the ascension is that Jesus is now praying for us. Jesus is our great High Priest who intercedes for us. Having been reconciled with us through his death, Jesus is now laboring for our healing through his prayer: “Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us” (Romans 8:34 nrsv).

What does this mean for you and for me? It means that not only do we stand forever forgiven, but Jesus is also forever praying for us. And what is he praying for? He is praying that you and I would be completely new people, people in whom he can make his home.

When Paul asks the Colossians to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God,” he is urging them to reflect on the wonder of Jesus, the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world (John 1:29), and the splendor of Jesus, the High Priest who now prays for us. This is how God is “making all things new.”

The glorious Trinity (Father, Son and Spirit) is on a mission to transform every one of us. That does not happen by anything we do of ourselves. Jesus did it all. And Jesus does it all—by continuing to pray for each of us. But we do participate in this transformation. We set our minds on these truths: we are forgiven, and Jesus is praying for us. And when Jesus prays, things happen. He will not stop until he has made us all new people.

Soul Training – Changing Narratives:

Make a small notecard today with the following 2 phrases; “I am forgiven” and “Jesus is praying for me”. Place the card in a place that you will see it over the next week. (Examples: Next to Computer Monitor, Refrigerator Door, Bathroom Mirror, Phone Screen Background or Coffee Table)


 

Taken from Hidden in Christ by James Bryan Smith. Copyright(c) 2013 by James Bryan Smith. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com

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Mar 10

IS STUDYING THE OLD TESTAMENT WORTH THE TIME AND EFFORT? (Part Three)

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Scripture

(This is the second blog of a three part blog on the Old Testament and Christian Spiritual Formation by Dr. Stan Harstine, Professor of Religion at Friends University – read his first blog here and second blog here) The previous two posts have given us a reason to look

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Scripture

(This is the second blog of a three part blog on the Old Testament and Christian Spiritual Formation by Dr. Stan Harstine, Professor of Religion at Friends University – read his first blog here and second blog here)

The previous two posts have given us a reason to look to the Old Testament as a place that shaped Jesus’ own perspective and one that could help us ground our own narratives on the character of God. Now we look at how the Old Testament can help us to identify–and join Jesus in living according to–God’s plan and purpose, thus bringing glory to “God, the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth.” (Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds)

God’s Purpose

One of the crucial elements of Jesus’ teaching is His proclamation of the Kingdom of God/Heaven. In the Kingdom of God the purpose of God is fully expressed and fully achieved. Jesus begins and ends the Beatitudes in Matthew mentioned with statements regarding the Kingdom of Heaven.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3, 10, NAS95)

Jesus’ reshaping narratives in this initial element of the Sermon on the Mount serve as a focal point for the many kingdom of heaven parables found within this Gospel. The words, repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand, are familiar to many as the announcement of Jesus in Matthew 4:17. Many don’t realize they are also the words of John the Baptist and Jesus’ command for his disciples’ proclamation (3:2, 10:7). Where does Jesus’ idea of the kingdom of heaven originate if not in His Scripture? The Old Testament is replete with descriptions of what God’s kingdom is to be like and how those within it are to live.

Many individuals who read through the Old Testament are often attracted to the stories of terror and horror inflicted by the Israelites on their surrounding nations. Other readers focus narrowly on the David and Bathsheba story or that of Jephthah and his daughter in Judges 11. But such a focus misses the point of the Old Testament, to recount the activity of Yahweh, God of creation among humanity. The more important passages often seem to be less frequently proclaimed than the scandalous many, but remain more important nonetheless.

There are several key passages of the Old Testament that encapsulate the timeless purpose of God.

God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. (Genesis 1:31, NAS95)

Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. (Genesis 2:15)

And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed. (Genesis 12:3)

As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive. (Genesis 50:20)

Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:5-6)

“[T]hey will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the LORD, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” (Jeremiah 31:34)

It would appear that the purpose of God is for humanity rather than against it. It would also appear that the purpose of God encompasses blessing for others through the very ones who are in relationship with God.

Two narratives intertwine throughout the Old Testament regarding God’s purpose. The first informs us of God’s relationship with humanity and the creation. Despite attempts to narrowly limit the use of Genesis 1 to scientific debate, it serves a larger purpose, especially when cast against other stories of creation. One element of the creation is that the world; the land, the seas, the birds of the sky and the animals of land and even male and female, are viewed through God’s perspective as “very good.” The later scandalous stories of disobedience and discontent accounted in the Old Testament are unable to mask the reality that God looks upon all that he has done with great delight and pleasure. This attitude of God is not solely toward humanity. When we attempt to live like Jesus in our relationship to creation we must take God’s perspective into complete consideration.

The second narrative relates to God’s intended consequences for humanity. From Adam through Noah and vocalized clearly with Abram, God seeks to bless the nations of this created world, who one may recall are separated by discord at Babel. God is not looking for reasons to destroy but to preserve, not to keep in poverty but to distribute bountiful blessings. The sin that separates humanity from God is being addressed by God so as to tear down the walls of separation. Selfishness rears its ugly head in our lives as often as the dandelions of spring, summer, and fall appear. The Old Testament consistently reminds the people of God that they do not own or possess God, but that God possesses them. He is not for their use, but they for His.

In 539 B.C. the covenant people of God were permitted to return to their land from exile. Not all returned, but those who did reflected many false narratives. When 17 years had passed in the land, God spoke another message of reminder through the prophet Haggai.

Thus says the LORD of hosts, “ Consider your ways! Go up to the mountains, bring wood and rebuild the temple, that I may be pleased with it and be glorified,” says the LORD. “ You look for much, but behold, it comes to little; when you bring it home, I blow it away. Why?” declares the LORD of hosts, “Because of My house which lies desolate, while each of you runs to his own house. Therefore, because of you the sky has withheld its dew and the earth has withheld its produce. I called for a drought on the land, on the mountains, on the grain, on the new wine, on the oil, on what the ground produces, on men, on cattle, and on all the labor of your hands.” (Haggai 1:7-11, NAS95)

These people of God looked for God’s blessings in life while ignoring God’s purpose. The Old Testament continues to communicate clearly that God is to be glorified among his creation. When we remember and our lives reflect that narrative as a driving purpose, then God works through creation to multiply our efforts and provide bountifully for our needs. When we forget and seek to glorify the work of our hands, then those same provisions can wither and disappear.

No one reflects the purpose of living to bring glory to God the Father better than Jesus the Son. His life activities are reflected best in the prayer recorded before his arrest.

“Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You, even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life. This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do. (John 17:1-4, NAS95)

Jesus understood His purpose because his narratives were formed and shaped by study of His Scripture, our Old Testament. He understood God’s character and taught God’s character to those following Him. He kept God’s purpose central in His own life, understanding the folly and failures of past generations who departed from this path. If we are to be apprentices of Jesus, we would do well to reshape our narratives concerning God’s character and purpose until they rested on solid foundations and could not be shaken, despite the storms of life.

For the apprentice of Jesus the Old Testament is a rich depository of narrative changing accounts. Many of these narratives teach positive lessons while others teach using negative example. An apprentice of Jesus ignores these teachings to his or her own peril. The normal result of minimizing the writings shared by Jew and Christian is to somehow perceive God in this world through a warped lens. If I truly wish to live like Jesus I must think like Jesus, who “emptied Himself” and “humbled Himself” so that “God highly exalted Him” above all those “in heaven and on earth and under the earth” and in so doing all Jesus does is “to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:7-11).

 

Feature Image Photo Credit: Rachel Titriga


 

harstine

An educator since 1984, Stan Harstine is convinced that his career consists of “teaching students to think.” He has engaged in this career since 2002 at Friends University using biblical studies as his medium. His greatest accomplishment for 2014 was having 3 sons graduated from college, gainfully employed and not living at home.

 

 

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