A Parable of Three Cars

My wife and I were having an a somewhat impromptu conversation with a couple of our ministry partners (they know who they are). As we talked the issue of achieving one’s dreams (or failure to do so) came up, along with issue of regret. That led me into what I hoped was a somewhat inspirational speech of sorts. Well, with some further reflection, I think maybe I should have said it this way instead.

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John and Bill were next-door neighbors and were in their 60s. Bill came over to John’s yard where John was working on his car. John had a sports car. It was pretty obvious that it once was a sleek powerful machine. But now it looked quite beat up, and the oil stain on the driveway suggested that this car was really struggling. Bill asked him about his car.

John said, “Oh I have had this baby since soon after I could drive. I loved to go out cruise through town in it. I loved to go out into remote stretches of and floor it. I just loved it. I, ummm, still love it, but it seems like I spend more time now trying to keep it running and held together than I do driving it.  I see,” looking at Bill’s car in his driveway, “that you have a nice— practical car.”

And Bill’s car was practical. Safe. Reliable. It was the type of car one might expect of a man entering his retirement years.

Bill replied, “Yeah, it is nothing fancy, but it really works for what I need it for. I use it to get around town, go out with my wife, and the grand kids. It’s really what I need. But I do have a sports car as well. I also got it soon after I could drive.”

John wanted to see it, so Bill invited him over to look in his garage where there were in fact two vehicles. The first car was a fiery beast much like what John’s car used to be. But while John’s car was falling apart, Bill’s looked to be in excellent condition. John expressed admiration of it.

“I don’t drive it much anymore,” said Bill. “Once in awhile I will bring it out of the garage for old time’s sake. But you know, when I started getting into my upper 30s, the car didn’t really suit me very much. I had a wife and kids, and a sport’s car isn’t very practical– too small for the whole family. Also a sport’s car works great for the open road and for cruising around town, but sometimes one wants to get off the beaten path, so one need’s something a bit different. So I got the SUV.”

Bill pointed to the second vehicle in the garage. It could hold a family, and get off-road when needed. It also looked to be in pretty good condition.

Bill continued. “This car,” pointing to the SUV, “treated me well for many years, but when the kids grew up and moved out, and my wife and I began to slow down just a bit, we decided to get the car we now use most of the time. But, there are still times to bring out both the sports car and the SUV. Not much of a point to keep them if I don’t, you know?

Let’s consider those three cars.

The first car is AMBITION. When we are young, we have big exciting dreams. These dreams drive us forward, like a powerful sports car drive us where we want to go. But, much like a sports car, youthful ambition tends to take people on the well-used roads— quests for love, success, wealth, and fame. But this sports car, ambition, starts to become a problem as years go by. As one begins to have others joining, spouse, children, friends, community, and such, the car is simply too small. It lacks the seating to bring others along. Also, the car only works well on the smooth roads that many others have gone before. But the less traveled paths, dirt roads with bumps and holes, as well as places with no roads at all, cannot be handled well by this car. Further, often upon reflection, the dreams of youth are found not practical, or not feasible, or no longer desirable. The sports car just doesn’t run like it used to. It doesn’t meet needs anymore.

So many consider a second car. Some as they enter their middle years choose to get another sports car, seeking to recapture the former thrill of youthful ambition even if it does not meet one’s real needs anymore. Other’s however, go for a different vehicle. This vehicle is REEVALUATION. One has family and community that one wants to travel with. Speed and thrill are not so important now. Upon consideration, where one now wants to go may not be the roads that average people choose. One wants to go off-road, the road less taken. One still has dreams, but these dreams are more in line with where one is in life today, based on one’s present true aptitudes and passion, rather than 20 years before. Fame, Money, and Success, as they are commonly understood, may not be so important anymore. Now one wants to find Meaning and Purpose. One wants to find one’s personal niche or place in the world. One wants to be connected with others. This second vehicle allows others to join in the journey to places that others ignore.

And some people stay there in either their sports car or SUV. But some reach a point that they need a third car. That car is SATISFACTION. One has found one’s purpose, and achieved at least some of the goals of youth or the middle years. Now one doesn’t need to fly down the road at breakneck speed. And one does not need to blaze new trails. One needs a practical vehicle for self and family, and to go to the places that one really needs to go today.

Of course, SATISFACTION may not be the only car of later years. One may still choose to find new goals and explore the unknown and so needs to go back into REEVALUATION at times. And perhaps once in awhile have the excitement of youthful AMBITION. After all, no matter how old one is, the child, teen, young adult, and middle-ager are present. They never completely go away.

What is not healthy, however, is to hold onto youthful dreams that no longer fit later in life. It is also not healthy to keep reevaluating and look for new purposes and goals, without finding some level of satisfaction where one presently resides.

What car(s) do you have? What does it (or they) look like. Does your transportation meet your needs now?

 

 

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Story Arcs and Ministry

Nice little article in the Atlantic Magazine,  “The Six Main Arcs in Storytelling, as Identified by an A.I.” by Adrienne Lafrance. (Click Here). It looks at some interesting research as far as how stories flow in terms of emotional arcs. That particular research can be seen HERE. There are many ways to categorize stories, but one can look at six main ones from an emotional standpoint.

Story Arcs

This is not the total limit of possibilities. For example, there can be Quadro-directional or more. In fact, many novels can look like a rollercoaster. Still many of them trend towards one of these types— or a long story with many sub-arcs.

Additionally, some stories can be seen as different depending on more specific details of the flow. For example, on www.honorshame.com, they talk about two common types of stories in the Bible: Guilt-Innocence Arc, and Shame-Honor Arc. Both of these stories are essentially variations of the “Man in a Hole” arc. In the case of Guilt-Innocence, the story restores the main character to the same condition as the start (same normal). In the case of Shame-Honor, the story brings the main character to a new, higher normal. Likewise, Kurt Vonnegut, in a youtube presentation referenced and attached to Lafrance’s article describes two types of stories: “Boy Meets Girl” and “Cinderella” stories. However, both would be described in the graph above as “Cinderella” Arcs. With “Boy Meets Girl” the main character starts out neutral and in the second movement dips below neutral. With “Cinderella” the main character starts low, and in the second movement probably does not dip below the starting condition.

Curiously, in the research referenced above, based on Project Gutenburg downloads, the three favorite arcs are:

Icarus

Oedipus

Man in a Hole

Man in a Hole is classic because it describes the classic plot. Normal, Problem, Resolution to the Problem, Normal. We love people who get into trouble and then get out of it.

Oedipus and Icarus are harder to understand because the end is “sad.” But people do like cautionary tales, as well as people who “get what’s coming to them.”

Rags to Riches and Riches to Rags are less popular, perhaps because they lack the classic tension of a normal plot. In one the problem exists before the beginning of the story. In the second, the problem comes into the middle of the story, but without a resolution. Or perhaps the issue is that they are just too simple. They don’t resonate with real life. Good things happen to good people may seem “right” but doesn’t feel that much in touch with reality… or even if viewed as normative, is not all that interesting. The same can be said about bad things happening to bad people. Real life ebbs and flows more. A athletic event is one in which the winner appears to be in doubt until the very end.

One reason that parables in the Bible appear to be successful is that they avoid the unidirectional story— the first become the last, and the last become the first. The one who is supposed to be the hero acts like the villain– while the one we expect to be the villain, becomes the hero.

Stories that are told for purposes of ministry should take this to heart. A lot of preachers like unidirectional stories (Victory stories… essentially Rags-to-Riches). Perhaps they think the listener cannot handle more complexity or nuances than this… but they would be wrong. The story should not be unidirectional— simple and expected. The story should resonate with the interests of the hearer. This resonance doesn’t necessarily mean giving the hearer what he or she expects. After all, one thing the hearer wants is to be surprised.

Preaching is a bit of a dying art… but its death is more of an act of murder than of natural causes. Preachers remove the narrative from sermons to be replaced by propositional statements, along with a few very predictable unidirectional illustrations to “drive the point home.”

I remember a sermon/lecture in which the speaker was speaking on raising up children to follow God. It was a propositional sermon with several bits of advice. The illustrations were all built on the same story line:  I did the right thing and my children became better than they were. My only real memory of the sermon was how uninteresting and uninspiring it was.

There is a better way.

Choosing our Words Carefully in Ministry

I watched a TED talk, as well as the 2016 movie “Arrival” recently. Both of them had a somewhat similar theme… that the way we think is guided strongly by the language and labels we use.

TED talk, Keith Chen’s “Could Your Language Affect the Way You Save Money,” noted a strange correlation between health and saving practicestimeless of people who are first language speakers in “tenseless” languages, versus those in “tense” languages. That is, looking at those in which verbs change based on past, present, and future (tense) and those in which verbs do not change (tenseless). The theory seems a bit far-fetched but there is a fairly strong correlation. For example, English has tenses for time:

I went to the store

I go to the store

I will go to the store

Some other languages, like in fact most other Germanic languages, are tenseless. Time is still addressed but not in the verb:

I go to the store yesterday

I go to the store now.

I go to the store next week.

Tenseless languages tend to have users that save better and have practices that lead to better health later in life. This correlation has a tantalizing theory as far as causation. Could it be that for tenseless languages, action is seen in more of a timeless way? Therefore, subconsciously there is a slightly lesser tendency to disconnect our activity today from the future. In other words, perhaps those from tenseless languages don’t feel that the sowing of today is as disconnected from the reaping of tomorrow.

Of course, this can be overdone. Benjamin Whorf suggested a time relativism of language where a culture that has a “timeless” worldview may have a timeless language. He used the example of the Hopi language. However, the example appears to be misguided a bit since the Hopi language can still distinguish between past, present, and future. Rather, language and thought connection tends to be more subtle..

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis suggests that how mfhsutq24qdiyjw767fx0tawe structure and use language will guide or influence how we think and how we behave. A classic example comes from fire investigations. A man is in a room that is suddenly engulfed in flames. Luckily he survived and when the investigator talks to him, he discovers that the survivor was smoking when the fire started. The investigator asks him if the lit cigarette could have caused the fire, the man replies, “I don’t see how, there was nothing in that room but a bunch of empty cans.” But what does it really mean “empty cans?” Is anything truly empty? In fact, those cans were full of highly flammable fumes. That and the lit cigarette came together to cause the fire. The man labelled the cans as empty, and in common usage he used the term “empty” correctly. However, the term in his mind was connected with “harmless” or “safe” and that led to behavior that was foolhardy.

Again though, one must avoid taking this too far. Some OT scholars had in the past suggested that the ancient Hebrews only thought in concrete terms… did not think abstractly… because the Hebrew language is built on concrete, rather than abstract, terms. That’s flawed. Every language, as far as we know, still deals with issues of time because we as humans need to separate activities of planning/preparation, from action, from recall/remembrance. Likewise all humans need to deal with abstract concepts whether we know it or not. Languages that do not have abstract terms have no problem with abstract concepts— that’s what metaphors do. Read Psalm 1 or Psalm 23 to see how concrete terms can be used to address highly abstract thoughts. In the movie Arrival, aliens give a timeless language to humans that is supposed to open one’s mind to timeless thought. One can think and recall timelessly (including “remember the future”) because the language “reprograms” the mind (if done early enough) to think timelessly.That also seems to take things too far (as far as we can tell) even though time in some ways is a mental construct. Language nudges our behavior and thought… and our behavior and thought nudges our language, but the causation is not normally dramatic.

What about us in ministry? I teach at a Protestant seminary in the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic nation. I said in my class, “Interreligious Dialogue with Asian Religions”:

“Please, I ask you, stop saying things like this to other people– ‘I used to be Catholic, but now I am Christian.’ Just stop saying that. People of other faiths around the world think that Christians are a strange disconnected, fighting lot. Why reinforce that?  If you want to say ‘I used to be a Catholic Christian, but now I am a _________ Christian,” that is fine. Choose your words carefully.

I know people that like the fact that the People’s Republic of China recognizes several religions, and two of those recognized are ‘Catholics’ and ‘Christians.’ Why feel good that a nation has legislated division of our faith? And why feel good that we came to China with such animosity that Chinese non-Christians figured that we are two distinct faiths? If we think that keeping a line of demarcation in China is good, wouldn’t it be better at least to support new labels such as “Catholic Christians” and “Protestant Christians”?

Here in the Philippines the term ‘Born Again’ gets thrown around a bit loosely. There is nothing wrong with the term I guess. It is a metaphor for the rebirth (another metaphor) associated with following Christ. The problem is that the term has drifted over time so that often “born again” now means, “individuals or denominational groups that associate being a Christian with saying the Sinner’s Prayer.” There is no Biblical correlation with saying a specific prayer and being recognized by God as His child. I am not against the Sinner’s Prayer… it encapsulates the declaration of repentance and allegiance to Christ. However, because of the reinterpretation of “Born Again,” it is often assumed that those that don’t use that term, or those that don’t associate following Christ to the Sinner’s Prayer, are not saved… are not Christians. And likewise, those who have said the Sinner’s Prayer, regardless of their age, understanding, motivation, or interpretation, are often believed to be regenerated, regardless of evidence to the contrary. The term “Born Again” is not bad, but it’s careless usage has led to incorrect thoughts and behavior.

More humorously, people sometimes ask, “Is your denomination ‘Spirit-filled?'” I am tempted to say, “No my denomination is Spirit-empty,” or perhaps “Spirit-filling” or “Spirit-sharing.” After all, the concept of the Holy Spirit indwelling, to say nothing of ‘filling,’ an institution is so far away from sound theology that it doesn’t really deserve a serious response. What they mean by the question, really however, is “Does your church promote upbeat and ecstatic worship, and theologize such behavior suggesting that it directly correlates to one’s relationship with God?” In that case I could simply say, No and No. But the sloppiness of the language results in such a corresponding sloppiness of thought that there is no way to answer it both truthfully, and in such a way that the questioner would understand. Language can both clarify and obfuscate.

Consider a different case. What about language we use for non-Christians. Are there undesirable ramifications for the language we use… often unwittingly? Consider a few… some are commonly used, and some far less. But what pictures come into your mind when you read these. And if those labels are used for THEM, do those labels affect how we picture US?

  • The Unsaved
  • The Lost
  • The Unregenerate
  • Pagans
  • Heathens
  • The non-Elect
  • Sinners
  • The Unreached
  • Those Jesus Misses Most
  • The Mission Field
  • The World
  • Children of Darkness
  • Seekers

Some of terms are quite pejorative. If I was speaking in church and said,

“We are surrounded by Sinners, children of darkness,” versus

“We are surrounded by our mission field of the unreached, those Jesus misses most,”

does the imagery in our head, the attitude in our heart, or the motivation toward action change?

 

Theostorying as Creative Reflection

Excerpt from Chapter two of Theo-Storying:

Theostorying is “the act of creative reflection on God, and our associated relationships with Him and each other, crafted artistically into the medium of the story, so as to allow the listener to join in the reflection through experiencing the story, being challenged by the story, and inspiring further questions.”

Let’s work through the proposed definition.

1.  Creative reflection. Theostorying should neither be a rehashing of dogma, nor be (inherently) heterodox. It should, however, push and challenge our understanding of truth. It should look at theology from a different perspective. It should provide a new voice to old questions, as well as new questions.

2. Crafted artistically. Storying (both the creation of stories and the telling of stories) is an art. Storying in this case would normally be a short story or anecdote rather than a novel or epic. It should draw interest and entice the listener. But regardless of the form, creativity and imagination are required to create the story and transmit the story.

3. Medium of the story. The story is the medium but it is also inextricably intertwined with the message. If one ends with “the moral of the story is” or “the lesson we can learn from this is,” such a lesson would only be one prepackaged idea drawn from the story… not the total sum of all possibilities of the story. If the story could be adequately summed up in one sentence, the story, does not adequately inspire theological reflection.

4. Experiencing the story. We are given the opportunity to be drawn into the story. We tend to learn best through reflection on our own life experiences (and sometimes through the life experiences of others). A good story allows us to join into the story… often from the perspective of different characters. Doing so, we experience, reflect, and learn.

5. Challenged by the story. A good story doesn’t just tell us what we already know, or what we already believe, or what we already believe we know. It challenges us culturally, theologically, and personally. An example of a personal challenge: The parable of the ewe lamb, challenged King David. The story did not challenge him culturally or theologically… he knew theologically and culturally what should be done and the story did not question that. Rather, it challenged him personally when he was told that he was experiencing the story from the wrong perspective. He was experiencing it as the kingly judge, when he should be experiencing it in the role of the rich neighbor.

6. Inspire further questions. Good theostories don’t just give the full answer. They inspire questions. They might inspire questions because the story seems unfinished, or because the story doesn’t explain why things went in one direction versus another, or because it suggests conclusions that are personally uncomfortable.

What are some good questions associated with theostories?

  • What next? In the Bible, we don’t know what happens to Jonah after chapter 4 of the book. We don’t know (for sure) what happens to Japheth’s daughter. What did the Prodigal Son’s elder brother do next? In missions we often do case studies where the situation is set up but the ending is intentionally unfinished. We are supposed to place ourselves within a specified role in the story and say what we would do next and why. It is highly educational and far superior to memorizing a bunch of rules.

  • What if? What if pharoah had let Moses and the people of Israel go without a fight? What if Judas had confessed and asked for forgiveness? What if Job did curse God? What if Zedekiah had stood up to the power elite in Judah?

  • Why? Why did Judas decide to betray Christ? Why did God place enticing fruit in the garden and then tell His inquisitive creations not to eat it? Why did God save us through a blood sacrifice? (Was God “handcuffed” into doing it that way, or did He choose that way as a lesson for us?)tumblr_inline_mij0dqjvoi1qz4rgp

  • Who? Whose perspective do you connect to in the story. What if you placed yourself in a different perspective. What if you were not one of the Israelites invading Canaan, but a person living in Jericho desperately trying to protect your family? What if you were the Levite, in the story of the Good Samaritan, hurrying to your next appointment… perhaps afraid of being attacked, with no medical skills)… how would you respond seeing the dying (possible dead) man… honestly?

But there is more. Stories are part of the message. In this, one is going along with the popular Marshall McLuhan statement that “The Medium is the Message,” the idea that the message as it is received is an amalgamation of the medium used and the purposed content. There is a growing belief that theology is inadequately handled by propositional truths. Stories are not merely a vehicle to transmit a propositional truth. If stories were transporting truth without affecting truth or being a part of that truth, at the end of the storying process, the hearer or reader could simply extract that truth and discard the story, like the waxed paper that can be discarded from a fast food lunch. However, the story IS part of the truth. Narrative Theology and Asian Theologies place a greater focus on the story over just “facts.” Likewise, new ways of interpreting the Bible, to a large extent a book of stories, sees the story as part of the teaching.

Joshua on the Plains of Jericho

A reflective story loosely based on Joshua chapter 5.

When Joshua was near Jericho,religion-war-cartoon-02_slideshow he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in His hand. Joshua approached Him and asked, “Are You for us or for our enemies?”

“Neither,” He replied. “I have now come as commander of the Lord’s army.”

“Ah,” said Joshua, “We are the chosen people of the Lord. So you are for us.”

“No!” responded the man.

“Then you are for the enemy!” declared Joshua, readying his sword.

“Listen to me. I will say it again. ‘Neither. I have now come as commander of the Lord’s army.'”

The man continued. “The fool speculates whose side does the Lord favor. The wise rejects such nonsense and declares, ‘I will serve the Lord.’  I have now come as a commander of the Lord’s army. Who do YOU side with?”

Then Joshua bowed with his face to the ground in worship and asked Him, “What does my Lord want to say to His servant?”

 

Parable of the Lost Pearl (Reprise)

I would like to take the Parable of the Lost Pearl, as used by Patriarch Timothy I in 781 AD, and give it a few twists to suggest different theological views. The parable can be seen in the original form in THIS PREVIOUS POST.

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Consider the parable this way…

“Long ago, a royal expedition returned from years at sea. The captain was invited to a great banquet held by the king in honor of the safe, and apparently successful, return of his fleet. The captain as a guest of honor had a special gift to present to the king… a rare and perfect pearl that had no equal in all the world. At the height of the feast it had been determined that the captain would present the king with this perfect pearl.

But there were thieves in the midst of the group. They hatched a plan. Three would snuff the flames that provided light in the room. One would take the pearl from the captain in the darkness and one would spill stones that were similar in size to the pearl on the ground to add to the great confusion. Hopefully, in the confusion, the thieves could escape.

The plan almost worked. The lights went out and the stones were dropped… but the one thief who was to take the pearl misjudged in the dark and only succeeded in knocking the pearl out of the hand of the captain.

In this utter darkness, the captain cries out for everyone to be careful because this priceless pearl is on the ground somewhere. Each reached down to feel around and found a pearl-sized object. Each stood up excited at his or her find. Some hoped to hide it successfully and sneak away, but also didn’t want to be implicated in the theft due to their absence. Some on the other hand wanted to tell others excitedly how they have found the one true pearl… only to discover that others believe that they have that one same pearl.

For a long time the people stood in the room in a stalemate. No one can leave without risking being branded a thief… but no one can completely convince another as to who has the real pearl. They must wait until the light of day.”

This story has more than one potential ending, and the ending one chooses speaks much about one’s worldview.

  1.  Pluralist/Universalist. A view akin to John Hick may end the story with the sun rising to discover that everyone is holding an incomparable pearl.  In this case, the point is that no one has a unique find that others lack. All have the truth.
  2. “Heavy” Post-modernist. If one holds to a Jacques Derrida form of post-modernism, I suppose the story would end with the discovery that no one has a pearl. In fact, there is no pearl… it was a deception of the captain. This would point to the rejection of authority and “real” absolute truth.
  3. Modernist. The ending would drift towards a “whodunit.” One wise person figures out a way to identify who has the true pearl, and, perhaps, who the thieves are. This would perpetuate the belief in a wise authority figure who is able to identify what is really true while everyone else is still in the dark.
  4. Pre-modernist. I am not so sure about this. I suppose that maybe the pearl would reveal itself (or there would be some other miraculous revealing) without waiting for the daylight. This might suggest that the true faith has a self-evident quality that cannot be hidden or confused with fakes (much like in the “Princess and the Pea” where royal blood ultimately reveals itself).
  5. “Light” Post-modernist. In this case, I think the story would stop right where it is. This view does not deny the possibility of that there is a true pearl (absolute objective reality). Rather, there is doubt about the ability of people to be able to identify such reality, discerning it from that which is not real. Therefore, the story ends in a state of doubt. Eventually there may be light to know what is TRUE, but for now, we can only guess and hope.

You will note that as the parable (similar but different to how I told it) was related by Patriarch Timothy I, ends where I ended it. He noted that one could relate the pearl to religious truth. Each person believes he/she is right and others wrong, but until the end of the age, we cannot know for sure. That being said, one may have evidences of having the true faith, much as a person may have reasons to suspect that he/she has the true pearl (weight, size, density, “warmth,” and surface texture, for example). postmodernism

In the story, then, Timothy comes closest to a “light” post-modernist position. We have the inability to be absolutely confident that we hold true beliefs and that others do not. We must accept a certain amount of doubt, meaning that we must maintain a certain amount of faith if we are to hold onto the potential pearl we are holding. However, Timothy goes on to say that one has the possibility of figuring out whether it is likely that one’s beliefs (much like the “pearl” one is holding) is likely to be real or not. As such, he takes a somewhat more positive “modernist” view of the ability to evaluate the one’s subjective perceptions than a typical post-modernist. At the same time, the evaluation is not left to an “expert” but to the individual… this is also more post-modern than modern.

So what? Well, if Patriarch Timothy is expressing Christian faith in 781 AD, there is more in line with a light form of post-modernism. Objective truth/reality exists, but we must accept that we lack the ability to perceive this reality without risk of deception. We however, in line more with modernists, can analyze to see if it is likely that what we believe is true. Still, until God reveals all truth to the light at the end of time, we must live in a state of faith (and doubt).

It is good that Christian faith appears to have much in common with a light version of post-modernism (not rejecting objective or ultimate reality, but questioning our ability to discern such reality). It seems as if relatively few people accept the ‘heavy’ form of post-modernism, although many, without much thought to the justification, seem to accept the implications of that view. If there is considerable common ground with this light version of post-modernism, there should be plenty of room for respectful honest discussions between Christians and this particular worldview.