The liberating power of a good story (a guest post by Cindy Brandt)

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Today I’m thrilled to host my first guest post on this blog, and I’m even more thrilled that it’s from Cindy Brandt. Over the past year or so, Cindy has regularly challenged and inspired me with her writing, especially her widely-read post “How I Kissed Evangelizing Goodbye,” in which she calls on us to “listen to other people’s stories as if your salvation depended on it.”

Cindy has a new ebook, Outside In, highlighting some of the voices we need to start listening to—and making space for in our churches. Read her post below, then get her book.

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I have never met Ben IRL (in real life) before. There is the small challenge of seven-thousand-six-hundred-and-eight-point-oh-seven miles between my city in Taiwan and his in midwestern America. Yet the modern marvel of the internet connects us despite geographical distance. Because of blogging we have had opportunities to engage with each other’s writing, and over social media, I know he has adorable little ones and that he leaves his Christmas lights up until March.*

I won’t speak for Ben, but our interactions online have enriched my life as our stories intersect one another in these small ways, whether it’s delighting in the pictures of his little Oliver’s meme or in celebrating his beautiful Bible storybook.

We are writing new stories all the time. I bring my mosaic of accumulated life experiences into every interaction with other dynamic people I encounter in life, and when our stories connect with one another, we create new ones together. As we listen and learn from each other’s experiences, our hearts open a bit larger, our understanding grows a bit deeper, and our lives get a lot richer. This is the magic of stories. When the storyteller speaks their story, it serves to elaborate someone else’s story. Good stories don’t demand or take from their audience, they add value to their lives, empowering them to live more fully into their own stories.

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As Christians, I believe our best chance of impacting other people’s lives is to intersect God’s Story with theirs. Doctrines and systematic theology tell us about God, while God’s Story shows us how to enter into life with God. Propositions and agendas demand a decision, while a good story compels and woos one’ heart.

The Story of God is a living, ongoing narrative, embodied both in the text of Scripture and in the context of faithful communities. It doesn’t remain static, but evolves and expands as it touches lives and creates new stories.

However, sometimes we have not told this story in the right way. We have used it not as a living story, but as a definitive script. We have said, if you want to be part of the story, you must become a character and read the lines. People are not liberated into living their own stories more fully, they are flattened and captured into a confined narrative. We limit the gospel when we require people to act a certain way, speak certain words, and even believe certain things in order to be part of God’s story.

An encounter with a living God’s story never erases or diminishes the story of the person who approaches it. That’s not how it works. God’s story affirms, validates, and celebrates the beauty of each individual story as they are. But our lives never remain the same after we intersect another story—the power of stories is such that it affects profound change in our lives. It doesn’t strip us of the rich history and mosaic of our accumulated life experiences, it makes us, as Dr. Seuss says, “you-er than you”. Somehow transforming us into more fully human, more fully ourselves.

As stewards of God’s story, we must take care to not misuse the story of God as a way of diminishing individual experiences, or absorbing them into a dominant script. This does grave injustice to the stories we bring.

In my book, Outside In, I identify ten different kinds of people, those who doubt and those who grieve; people who are sarcastic or intellectuals, those who are single or disabled, or any combination of the above and I examine how they could have had their experiences marginalized by the community of God. My hope is that we can work to ensure God’s story is one that affirms the real experiences of every person, and allow their unique and beautiful stories to encounter God’s story in a way that transforms all of our stories—moving forward the Story of God in all its vibrant diversity.

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_MG_9851_2aCindy Brandt writes about faith in the irreverent, miracles in the ordinary, and beauty in the margins. She is more interested in being evangelized than evangelizing, a social justice Christian, and a feminist. She blogs at cindywords.com, tapping words out from the 33rd floor of a high rise in Taiwan, where she lives with her husband, two children, and a miniature Yorkie.

 


*Yes, it’s true. I left the Christmas lights up till March. Here is photographic proof of my shame…

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But IN MY DEFENSE, this is March in Michigan we’re talking about. If you want to take down the lights any sooner, you have to bring a crowbar because they will be frozen to the roof.

For those who love the church without loving everything about the church: a review of Searching for Sunday

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Depending on which headline you read about Rachel Held Evans’ newest book, Searching for Sunday, she has either exited, departed, abandoned, or rejected evangelical Christianity. (To which Charisma Magazine replied with a gentle “don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”)

My spiritual journey is similar to Rachel’s in many ways. We both have evangelical roots. We both grew up believing you had to think a certain way about science and the Bible, vote a certain way in elections, and fight a certain way in the culture wars. We both grew up playing chubby bunny in youth group, somewhat against our will. (I still can’t look at a marshmallow the same way.) As adults, we both found a new spiritual home in the Episcopal Church.

Firing off a list of grievances with the church is easy. (In fairness, lots of people have good reason—more so than I—to be truly and heartbreakingly disillusioned with church.) My problem is that I can talk about how the churches of my past have let me down. But can I celebrate what they did right? Can I embrace my past without necessarily living in it? Can I leave behind what I need to without discarding everything?

This was weighing on my mind as I opened Rachel’s book. A few chapters in, one thing was clear: Searching for Sunday is NOT another how-the-church-let-me-down memoir. True, Rachel writes honestly about the pain she and others have experienced at the hands of the church. But her book is more a love letter to the church. As love matures, it sees its object for what it is—imperfections, failures, and all. That’s how Rachel sees the church.

Each [church] stays with us, even after we’ve left, adding layer after layer to the palimpsest of our faith.
        —Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday

Rachel took a risk by organizing her book around the seven sacraments. (There’s one section for each sacrament.) In the hands of a lesser writer, it might have been one of those clever ideas that works better in theory than in practice. Yet it’s one of my favorite things about Searching for Sunday. The sacraments provide the perfect canvas on which Rachel paints a beautiful but honest portrait of the church to whom these sacraments—these gifts of grace—were given.

I do have to agree with Daniel Kirk, who notes in his review that some of Rachel’s best writing is found in the opening chapters of each section. Here she offers short but rich theological reflections on each sacrament. In the one on confirmation, for example, Rachel unpacks the various scriptural metaphors for the Holy Spirit. This chapter was more thoughtful—and more beautiful—than any description of the Spirit I read in my theological studies.

In the end, Searching for Sunday is not just about Rachel’s quest to find a spiritual home for herself. It’s about her desire to see the church—in all its forms—become a refuge for everyone:

The gospel doesn’t need a coalition devoted to keeping the wrong people out. It needs a family of sinners, saved by grace, committed to tearing down the walls, throwing open the doors, and shouting, “Welcome! There’s bread and wine. Come eat with us and talk.” This isn’t a kingdom for the worthy; it’s a kingdom for the hungry.
        —Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday

The way to do this is not through clever programming or marketing gimmicks. It’s not by tailoring church to felt needs as defined by surveys and focus groups. It’s something far more elemental:

After all those years of attending youth events with light shows and bands, after all the contemporary Christian music and contemporary Christian books, after all the updated technology and dynamic speakers and missional enterprises and relevant marketing strategies designed to make Christianity cool, all I wanted from the church when I was ready to give it up was a quiet sanctuary and some candles. All I wanted was a safe place to be.
        —Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday

Searching for Sunday helped me understand my own spiritual journey better. It gave me a new lens for making sense of my relationship with the church.

This book is for anyone who loves the church without necessarily loving everything about the church.

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Disclosure: I received an advance review copy of this book. I did not receive any compensation for writing this review, nor was I required to write a review (positive or otherwise) in exchange for my copy.

Telling the story well: God’s good world

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About this series: I believe “getting the gospel right” means telling the story well. This idea inspired me as I wrote my book for kids, The Story of King Jesus.  In this series, I’m sharing a few aspects of the story that I believe are key to telling it well. 

God made the very first people
so he could share his home with them. 

He gave them a job to do:
take care of his good world. 

                                    – from The Story of King Jesus

Last year, we bought a kids’ worship album for the car. My daughter wants to listen to it ALL the time. She knows every song by heart—including the popular Hillsong Anthem, “Forever Reign,” which opens with the line, “You are good, you are good / when there’s nothing good in me…”

Let me tell you, there’s something jarring about hearing your 4-year-old daughter sing, “There is nothing good in me.”

Yet when it comes to the gospel, that’s how we typically start, with the idea that our sin defines our whole identity. It’s the first letter of the Reformed mnemonic, TULIP. Total depravity. It’s the first way station on the “Romans Road” plan of salvation. For all have sinned and fall short.

But that’s not where our story begins.

Our story begins in Genesis 1, not Genesis 3. And, yes, it matters where we begin.

In Genesis 1, with each successive act of creation, God delights in the inherent goodness of what he’s made. On the sixth day, God surveys everything and sees that it’s not just good, it’s very good. Seven times God sees that it’s good—which, for the discerning Jewish reader, signaled something. The number seven signaled completion. In Genesis, it signaled the complete, utter goodness of God’s creation.

That includes us, by the way. Whatever else may be true about us, God made us good.

Obviously, a lot happened after Genesis 1. But why do we skip this part of the story when sharing the gospel? Why do we bypass Genesis 1 and go straight to Genesis 3?

Is it because we’re afraid of thinking too highly of ourselves by saying that God made us “good”? Is it because we think our salvation depends on our willingness to grovel, to confess utter worthlessness before a reluctantly forgiving God?

Some Christians seem to almost revel in their portrait of human depravity, as if trying to outdo one another in capturing the wretchedness of our natural state—as if thinking the more we beat ourselves down, the more God will somehow be lifted up.

Except it’s not our natural state, and acting as if it is actually leads to a diminished view of God. In Genesis 1, we see that we are good—not because of anything we did, but because God made us that way. Our goodness is not something we came to on our own; it’s a gift. It’s the very first gift, the very first act of grace.

In God’s story, grace precedes sin.

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Starting with the world as God made it also helps us to see where the story is going.

If God made the world good, then he can make it good again.

If God made the world good, then salvation—whatever else it may entail—is going to involve this world, its rescue, its remaking.

If God made the world good, then it changes how we understand our role as citizens of his kingdom. To return to God—to renounce sin and exile—is to return to our original mission: to take care of God’s good world.

If God made the world good, then our salvation is not from this world; it’s for this world.

Of course, the story doesn’t stop at Genesis 1, and neither should we. We cannot skip right over Genesis 3. We should not underestimate its impact on the rest of the story. To paraphrase N.T. Wright, we cannot whistle in the face of darkness when confronted with Hiroshima or Auschwitz… or (we might add) Ferguson. Guantanamo. Bhopal. ISIS.

The darkness is real. Our sin is real. It’s why the world needs saving.

But telling the story well means starting in Genesis 1, not Genesis 3. God made the world good, and he is making it good again.

This is where we should begin when sharing the story with our kids.

Next up: Making the world right and good again…

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The Story of King Jesus: Easter Sunday

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Then God did something wonderful.

The same God who made the world,
rescued Israel, and sent Jesus—
he did the most wonderful, surprising thing of all.

God raised Jesus from the dead.

But Jesus didn’t just rise from the dead;
he defeated death
so it wouldn’t have power over us any longer.

Jesus made it possible for us to be God’s people again.
He made it possible for us to live the way God wants.

                                    – from The Story of King Jesus

The Story of King Jesus: Holy Saturday

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The powerful people thought they had won.
They thought they had beaten God’s chosen one.
They thought they had stopped Jesus
from becoming king.

But there was something they didn’t understand:
Jesus didn’t have to die.

Jesus chose to die
for the powerful people
and for the very first people
and for all of us too.

Jesus, the one true king, died in our place.
He died to make the world right and good again.

But no one understood.

                                    – from The Story of King Jesus

Continued tomorrow…

The Story of King Jesus: Good Friday

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Jesus did good things everywhere he went.
He healed the sick. He fed the hungry.
He rescued people from all sorts of problems.

Jesus did everything God wanted.

But some people still didn’t want to do things God’s way.
They didn’t want Jesus to be their king.
They wanted to be in charge for themselves.

So one day, some powerful people decided to stop Jesus
before he could take away their power.

They arrested Jesus. They took off his clothes.
They nailed him to a wooden cross
and watched him die.

Jesus never fought back. He never raised a sword.
He never even raised a finger.

                                    – from The Story of King Jesus

Continued tomorrow…

Passing on our faith like Moses

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Today I’m writing for More to Life Magazine about how the Israelites shared their faith, how it can shape the way we share our faith with our kids, and how it inspired my book, The Story of King Jesus.

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Last year, my daughter turned four. As a parent, I feel the same burden many Christian parents feel: I want to pass my faith to my children. I want my daughter to know Christ. I want her to walk with him for the rest of her life.

But I also know the odds are against her.

Research shows that a majority of young people who grow up in church disconnect from their faith or their church—or both—later in life (source: Barna). Let that sink in: more than half of those who make a decision for Christ as children will exhibit no meaningful sign of it by the time they reach adulthood.

It’s not for a lack of effort on our part. Over the years, we’ve come up with a host of tools to help us share the gospel—the Sinner’s Prayer, Four Spiritual Laws, the Romans Road…

Anyone remember the Wordless Book—or its relatively more recent incarnation, the Wordless Bracelet?

But our tools and methods for passing on our faith are failing us. More importantly, they’re failing our children.

So what do we do? The answer might just be closer than we think…

Read the rest at More to Life Magazine.

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Telling the story well: “God made the world to be his home”

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About this series: As I shared in the introductory post, I believe “getting the gospel right” means telling the story well. This is what inspired me to write my book for kids, The Story of King Jesus. Over the next few posts, I want to share a few aspects of this story that I believe are key to telling it well. 

It all began with God.

God made everything you can see.
(And even things you can’t see!)

God made the world to be his home.

                                    – from The Story of King Jesus

Growing up, I thought this world was doomed.

Like many Christians, I thought it was destined for the furnace. I looked forward to the day when I would be evacuated from this world, along with my fellow believers, and ushered into an ethereal paradise.

Actually, I wasn’t looking forward to it all that much. As a teenager I would ask God to delay his return long enough for me to experience what life has to offer: getting married, having a family… OK, that’s a pretty noble way of describing what it was I didn’t want to miss out on.

Then I would beat myself up for praying this way, for treasuring “worldly” things over “spiritual” things. Maybe I didn’t deserve that one-way ticket to heaven after all.

My gospel was mainly about escaping this world.

I had the end hope of the gospel wrong because I didn’t understand how the story began. My gospel began with the world gone wrong—and therefore a world not worth saving—not the world as God made it.

If we understood how our story begins, we’ll end up with a very different view of where it’s going. (Plus I could’ve  saved myself a lot of needless teenage guilt.)

So let’s go back to the beginning.

Many of us read Genesis 1 with an eye toward the mechanics of creation. But the biblical origin story is far more interested in the why of creation than the how.

Genesis 1 depicts God giving order and purpose to creation. The land is “good” not simply because it’s there, but because it produces vegetation. The stars, sun, and moon are “good” not simply because they’re there, but because they help mark sacred times, days, and years. They give light to the earth.

Created elements are introduced in order of increasing complexity and importance. Vegetation, then animals, then people. And then it stops. Chapter 1 comes to a close at day 6, with human beings seemingly the pinnacle of God’s creative work.

Except the story continues into the first few lines of chapter 2, which briefly mentions day 7 before turning to a second account of creation. But day 7 is more than an epilogue to the previous story. Remember, things have been moving in increasing order of importance, which means day 7 is the whole point of the story. The seventh day is the day God “blessed” and “made holy,” not days 1-6. The seventh day is what it’s all about.

The seventh day is when God rests—and that is the high point of creation.

Observing the parallels between Genesis and other ancient creation stories, Old Testament scholar John Walton notes that creation was typically followed by divine rest. In these stories, deities always rested in temples.

“Rest” in this case was not the cessation of activity but the beginning of something. It was like a king taking his seat on the throne after his coronation. The hard work of becoming king was done, but the even greater work of ruling was yet before him.

However, there was one crucial difference between Genesis and these other stories: other deities needed someone to build a temple for them. Their houses were crafted by human hands. Not so with God and his temple, to the apostle Paul later declared. God doesn’t need anyone to build him a temple because he’s already built one.

Where is God’s temple in the Genesis story? Where does God rest?

It’s all around us. The cosmos, heaven and earth, is God’s temple.

“Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool,” God declares through the prophet Isaiah. Throne, footstool… these were temple artifacts. This is temple language.

In other words, God made the world to be his home, his temple. Then he invited us to share it with him.

(If anyone says the Old Testament is where we find law and the New Testament is where we find grace, remember what God did at the beginning when he invited us to share his home—his world, his temple—with him.)

This changes how we understand the gospel.

This changes the trajectory, the end goal, of the gospel: it’s about God dwelling with us again.

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We see it over and again throughout the story. First, in the primeval garden, where God walks in the garden, his temple, in the cool of the day. Humans are exiled from the garden after the fall, but in some ways it’s as much an exile for God as it is for us. God’s creation—his very home—is turned against him. Heaven and earth are temporarily severed from each other. But God won’t give up on his creation.

God keeps coming back to earth—first to dwell in buildings made by Israelite hands. Initially he occupies a portable tabernacle in the wilderness. Later his presence fills their temple in Jerusalem. In Ezekiel, God departs the temple shortly before Israel goes into exile—a replay of the earlier scene in the garden.

But still God keeps coming back.

Next, he comes to dwell with us in human form, as Jesus—God in flesh and blood.

According to the scriptures, God will return to dwell with us again, this time bringing a whole city with him (which prompted an interesting conversation with my 4-year-old about how big God’s arms must be).

At the end of all things, God will mend the breach between heaven and earth for good.

This changes how we view the gospel. It means this world matters. It matters to God, so it should matter to us.

It means salvation is not just about me and where I go when I die. Salvation, as seen in the Bible, is all-encompassing. It’s “the renewal of all things, not just individual human souls.

This is the story we should tell our kids—a story in which their lives, their choices, and their participation in this world matter. A story where, instead of pressuring them to renounce “worldly” desires for “spiritual” things, we help them to see and welcome God’s presence in all things. A story where the life of this world is not renounced but redeemed.

If we miss how our story begins, we’ll miss where it’s going. If we settle for an escapist gospel, we might just find ourselves moving in the opposite direction as God.

We keep trying to escape the world; God keeps trying to break into it.

God made the world to be his home. Starting our gospel here will make all the difference in the world.

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Firmament image via Exploring Our Matrix. John Walton quote via Christianity Today.

Getting the gospel right? Or telling the story well?

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When I was in seminary, we talked a lot about “getting the gospel right.” We read books about it. We wrote papers on it. We attended conferences about it. We each had our own (often conflicting) ideas of what it meant.

It’s easy to see why “getting the gospel right” is such a big deal for Christians. We believe the gospel has the power to change everything. So it’s worth making an effort to get it right—or at least try.

Yet the older I get, the less at ease I am with this phrase, for a couple reasons. I’d rather talk about “telling our story well.”

For one thing, I’ve seen firsthand how “getting the gospel right” nurtures a particular kind of arrogance. I’ve seen it in myself. I became convinced that me and my like-minded cohorts were the only ones who had it right. Everyone else was “compromising” the gospel in some way. After a while, even minor theological disagreements were conflated with the gospel itself. Soon, everything was a gospel issue. “Getting the gospel right” became a euphemism for agreeing with me on, well, whatever I decided you had to agree with me on for the sake of the gospel.

Two, we talked about “getting the gospel right” in the same way you’d talk about getting the answers right on a test. “Getting the gospel right” meant ticking the boxes next to a list of propositional statements, making sure we thought the right kind of thoughts about abstract theological concepts.

There’s just one problem. The gospel, as defined by scripture itself, is not a list of abstract concepts. It’s not something you can reduce to a few spiritual laws or sum up with a handful of verses extracted from the book of Romans.

What we often call “the gospel” is really just a set of propositional statements that we’ve separated from the story.

None of which is to say these statements are unimportant. But abstract theological concepts are NOT the gospel.

The gospel is a story.

Which means if we care about “getting the gospel right,” then we need to tell the story well.

This is not a new idea. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the people of Israel were told to share their faith with the next generation by telling their story of rescue. Not by delivering a theological treatise. All the decrees, laws, and rituals—they were not the story itself. They were not “the gospel,” as it were. They were prompts to tell the story:

When your children ask you in time to come, “What is the meaning of the decrees and statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?” then you shall say to your children, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.”

Getting the gospel right means telling the story well. It means telling the whole story. It means it matters what kind of story we tell. For example…

  • Is our story about personal salvation only? Or is it about something bigger?
  • In our story, are we saved from something, or are we also saved for something?
  • Is the story we tell about escaping this world or transforming it?
  • Do we begin our story in Genesis 3 or in Genesis 1?
  • Are we passive agents in our story, or does God invite us to play a meaningful role?

I want to tell the story well for my children, which is what led me to write The Story of King Jesus.

Over the next few posts, I’d like to share some aspects of this story that came alive for me as I wrote. We’ll look a few key phrases from the book, which I believe are central to the story we should be telling our kids:

“God made the world to be his home.”

“Taking care of his good world.”

“Making the world right and good again.”

“Our king gave us a job to do.”    

When we make these things part of the story we tell, I believe we can offer our kids a faith worth living for.

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Image by Nick Lee