The Sweet Spot

Within Christianity, there is always a tension between prophecy and culture.  In the playing out of this tension, faith runs the risk of accommodating itself to cultural expectations, bestowing a spiritual imprimatur upon them. When it resists this tendency and is faithful to its prophetic responsibility, faith poses a challenge to prevailing cultural assumptions that conflict with the gospel message of love-justice and tenderness-inclusion.

Prophecy can be likened to the unimpeded free-flowing movement of the Spirit, which like a natural spring of water gushes and spills out everywhere. Organized religion creates a walled reservoir collecting the gushing spiritual spring water of the Spirit, channeling it to become a flow of spiritual energy to irrigate civic and cultural life. This is an essential function but herein also lies the danger of faith jettisoning its prophetic mission in order to compromise with the values of a surrounding culture. When this boundary between spiritual and cultural values is blurred, Christian faith becomes cultural religion. Cultural religion not only suppresses prophecy but becomes its greatest opposition.

When religion puts on cultural blinkers, the journey from Christian faith to cultural religion is but a very short detour.

In the pages of the Old Testament, we witness this age-old struggle between the divine vision for Israel expressed in its covenant with God and its adoption of the cultural values of the world around it. The history of ancient Israel is a rollercoaster ride, a record of the ups and downs in a struggle that finds no simple solution.

The first lesson for this Sunday, the call of Samuel, is set in an age when: the word of the Lord was rare, and visions were not widespread.  This is a description of a society in which God’s voice is no longer heard or even expected to be heard.

Samuel grew up to become the last of the great charismatic Judges who ruled in Israel before the age of monarchy. In his call, we see God repudiating a religion corrupted by the misuse of power as identified with the hereditary priest Ely and his corrupt sons.

The period of Samuel’s judgeship is a liminal period between Israel’s tribal confederacy led by a charismatic leader and the emergence of monarchy. This was a period of huge political and social change, which Samuel at first tried to resist. Eventually, under pressure, he finally gave way to the people’s demand to: give us a king like all the other nations around us. Against his better judgment he anointed first Saul, and then David, to be kings over Israel.

Susan Beaumont’s in How To Lead When You Don’t Know Where You Are Going – writes about the leadership challenges in a liminal season. To capture the essence of liminality she quotes Ed Catmull of Pixar: 

There is a sweet spot between the known and the unknown where originality happens; the key is to be able to linger there without panicking. 

A liminal season is a place on the threshold between the ending of what has been known and the arrival of what is yet to become known.

Samuel personifies liminality. He is the last judge but also the first prophet. With the advent of the monarchy, Hebrew religion becomes corrupted by the cult of divine kingship. As a result, the office of the prophet arises to speak out against the cultural corruption of Israel’s covenant faith which was always in danger of giving way before a cultural religion that no longer blessed God, but blessed kings who acted as if they were God.

In the politics of ancient Israel, prophecy becomes the constitutional counterpoint story to that of authoritarian kingship.

We are in the season after the Epiphany. 10 days ago, on January 6th, the Epiphany of Jesus, we awoke to an epiphany of another sort – a stark revealing of America’s dark side. This coming week will see Joe Biden become the 46th President of the Republic. His incoming administration will face no greater challenge than the challenge of leadership in a liminal season. For America is at a point of transition from the known which no longer works to the unknown yet to be tested.  

In a liminal season the present moment pivots through an openness to new directions -and the tight spot becomes the sweet spot – the place where originality happens.

With Ed Catmull in mind again – one might say the situation facing the new administration seems hardly a sweet spot – more like a tight spot.   The danger will lie in any attempt to go back to a status quo before Donald Trump’s presidency. The temptation will be to promise solutions that ceased to work a long time before.

The present moment is the point at which the past remembered becomes the future reshaped. The present moment in a liminal season has the potential to pivot between being a tight spot and a sweet spot. In a liminal season the present moment pivots through an openness to new directions -and the tight spot becomes the sweet spot – the place where originality happens.

The key is to be able to linger in the liminal space long enough without panicking.

In these days following the events of January 6th I went back to what I wrote in on the call of Samuel text in 2018. I then quoted Ross Douthat who in a NYT op-ed asked the prescient question:

Now that you know something new and troubling and even terrible about your leaders or your institutions, what will you do with this knowledge?

Douthat concluded that for all of us the direction of history will be determined by our freely chosen answer.

For Christian faith in today’s America, there is a clear litmus test to determine the vibrancy of its prophetic health. On the eve of the commemoration of Dr Martin Luther King’s birth, that great prophet and agitator for social justice in our time, this litmus test remains simple, clear, and uncompromising. Our Christian faith reminds us that love is the key. A great phrase! But what does this actually look like in practice?  Cornel West has reminded us that justice is what love looks like in the public sphere and tenderness is what love feels like in private.

For all of us, the direction of history will be determined by our freely chosen answer. As people of faith in this liminal season our task is to sit in the sweet spot between the known and the unknown where originality happens – without panicking. When we remain alive to the dangers of jettisoning our prophetic responsibility for accommodation with prevailing cultural assumptions, we become a beacon of hope and force for good; the exponents of justice and practitioners of tenderness in the world.

But as Douthat reminds us the choice is ours.

Stories Thick and Thin

Baptism of Christ 2021: Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Identity is always a moving target. We discover, rediscover, and affirm our identity through the stories we give allegiance to. Our minds are story making machines. The meaning and purpose of life comes to us through the stories we tell. Meaning is missed, purpose is squandered when we get locked into telling the wrong story.

I refer to stories in the plural because while we really only have one life story, nevertheless, we can tell it in lots of different ways. Depending on life stage and context our story changes as we hash and rehash elements in our history – some remembered, some misremembered, others suppressed and seemingly forgotten.

Our experience of living in the expanse of time and space is structured around the stories we tell because it’s through story that the world around us is given shape with meaning and purpose. The question we need to ask about the stories we tell – and story more generally – is not are they true or false but are they thick or thin stories? Thick stories are made up of an interweaving of multiple strands – weaving a rich technicolored picture of experience that fosters human flourishing. Thin stories by contrast weave a threadbare monochrome picture – a picture of experience that is too small for our needs – often too fear driven – confining us and stifling our ability to thrive.

It’s the thickness or the quality and complexity of stories that matters!

Our minds are story making machines. It’s the thickness or thinness of our stories that matter. The meaning and purpose of life comes to us through the stories we tell. Meaning is missed, purpose is squandered when we get locked into telling the wrong story.

On Wednesday of this week, we reached a turning point – a pivotal juncture in the current cycle of a resurgent very thin story in our national life. This is a story of domination, not of flourishing. It’s a story driven by fear – a story in which the thin strands of misremembered nostalgia are woven together to form a fearful story in which domination is empowered and maintained through violence, fear is stoked by conspiracy. This is not a new story for America. It’s a recurring one – periodically resurfacing during times of change as a conduit for the repressed paranoia in our collective national consciousness.  

America is not exceptional in this regard. As Robert Willis, Dean of Canterbury reminded us in his message of solidarity with the American people – many nations also have sorry experience of similar thin national stories resurfacing from time to time.

This last week however, we have witnessed the true nature of the particular American story. It is the quality of this story which earns us the epithet exceptional.

This week we saw the final showdown – at least in its current cycle of resurgence – between a thin rendition of our national story and the thick and abiding story of the Constitution. Many of us over the last four years had come to wonder whether when the final showdown came – as we knew it must – the thick story of national identity given to us by the Constitution would prevail in the face of the paranoid imbued strands of a thin story of domination and oppression –supported by the violence inherent in all forms of despotism. And to our relief we discovered – yet again – that thick stories eventually prevail – because they show us a more fruitful way for the remembrance of our past to become our future reshaped.

In 1792, The father of the nation, George Washington, delivered these words in his farewell address to Congress.

 The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.  All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.  However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion. 

Washington sounds a further warning:

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

We catch more than a glimpse in Washington’s words of the motivating story behind them. The Constitution – like the Bible is often mischaracterized as simply a document. In reality – like that Bible – the Constitution is the transcription of a thick story giving shape and substance to a picture of a people constituted as a republic of citizens empowered to elect their own government according to the guiding principles of a foundational story.

Between our thick and thin national stories, it may often seem the contest is a close-run thing. This week we once again witnessed how the thickness of our founding story preserved a picture of national life characterized by equality in diversity against the attacks of an increasingly undisguised thin alternative.

I’ve noted the events of this past week to demonstrate how stories operate at our national level and how crucial it is which stories we give allegiance to. Choice is everything.

The Christian Kalendar plays havoc with the chronology of time – moving from infancy to adulthood in a matter of weeks. Today we celebrate the story of Jesus’ baptism – a story reported by all three of the synoptic gospel writers. Yet, whereas Matthew and Luke begin their gospels with the story of Jesus birth, Mark begins with Jesus– seemingly out of the mists of childhood and adolescence striding onto center stage as a fully grown man – a man who has come to begin the active phase of God’s purpose for him.

By beginning with his baptism, Mark offers us a different story lens through which to view Jesus. Mark’s Jesus is not born into divine sonship, he is chosen through adoption into his identity of divine son – although Mark, writing earlier than the other gospel writers sticks more faithfully to the Jewish messianic title Son of Man.

The New Testament contains four Jesus origin stories. They differ markedly. From the birth stories of Matthew and Luke to Mark’s baptism story and John’s cosmic story of pre-existence. Even when the same story is being told as in the case of Matthew and Luke’s birth stories, each writer gives it their own characteristic spin.

Likewise, we tell our own individual stories differently influenced by time and context. We can emphasis our identity through birth, and for some – such as members of dynastic families, privileged classes or elites, the birth story is the primary source bestowing identity. Yet for most of us identity is shaped less by birth and more by adoption. We become ourselves through multiple experiences of adoption; each adoption experience shaping the persons we have been destined to become.

The human Jesus at his baptism is adopted by God as the divine son. The story of this event conjures images of a dramatic tearing open of the heavens as the Holy Spirit – the divine breath of God breathes into Jesus – loudly proclaiming his sonship – an action that echoes image given us in the first reading from Genesis where the wind-breath of God swept over the face of the waters.

The story of the Constitution is the foundational story of our nation. The baptism of Jesus is in a very special way our foundational story as Christians. As he was adopted by baptism into his inheritance as the divine son, so through him we too have been adopted by baptism as daughters and sons of God. As God chose and embraced Jesus, so through our baptism God chooses and embraces us as divine children. And like Jesus, we bring God pleasure. As the breath of God enters into us, we become renewed and empowered as Jesus was – to fulfil the purpose God calls us to.

There are times, as this past week has revealed to us, when the outcome of competing and at times clashing stories within us can be a close-run thing.

Stories articulate the core themes of identity. This past week’s political drama represents the struggle over which story will we allow to define our identity as a nation – which story will we draw upon to tell us who we are. Through the story to which we give our ultimate allegiance, we rediscover and reconfirm that identity over and over again in response to new as well as some very old challenges. There are times, as this past week has revealed to us, when the outcome of competing and at times clashing stories within us can be a close-run thing.

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