In-Sight: Expansive Living

I never thought that a song I learned in Vacation Bible School nearly seventy years ago would be one that can take us where we need to go today, but it is. “Deep and Wide” is about as good as it gets for singing about the expansive life God is calling us to live as we move out of our little-story fortresses. and Into Big Story freedom (Galatians 5:1). Making this move is the great need of our time. We must be expansive people. Jesus called it abundant living.

I call it being an expansive person because our “future and hope” (Jeremiah 29:11) will be shaped by those who are deep…and…wide. The key word is ‘and,’—the rejection of either/or thinking by replacing it with both/and thinking. Dualistic thinking helps us differentiate, but when it divides, it must be abandoned. Our age has devolved onto darkness because we have done the opposite of what Isaiah said we must do in order to be the people God intends for us to be. Instead of turning our swords onto plows (Isaiah 2:4), we have turned our plows into swords, with a global military-industrial complex that threatens our existence. Our partisanships have become poisons.

The need is not either/or…either becoming deeper or wider. Yet, that is what many people are choosing. ‘Deeper life” people are bunkering, separating themselves from others. “Wider life” people are abandoning, leaving specific religious identities behind in favor of amorphous spiritualties. Neither option will take us where we need to go. If our future is to be godly, it will be shaped by expansive people, people who are deep…and…wide.

Years ago, Jurgen Moltmann cast the vision for expansive living in his book, ‘The Way of Jesus Christ.’ [1] But most people never read it. Neither did I until recently. It is high-powered theology, and that kind of writing does not attract a wide audience, even though it should. Now that I have read it, I see that Moltmann is God’s prophet (among others) trying to get us to stop building walls and start building bridges. He is a Big Story person.

But even before him there were others calling us to get out of the boxes which little-story living creates. E. Stanley Jones did it in his book, ‘The Way.’ [2] I am grateful that I read it decades ago, even though it has only borne the fruit in me that it should have in the past few years. Taking Jones and Moltmann together, I describe expansive living this way..

Deep….the first step into expansive living is to go deeply onto your particular faith tradition. This is paradox, but it is true. We first go down, and then we can go up. The way to become an expansive person is to become a devoted person. Both Jones and Moltmann personify deep Christian commitment. This is where we begin (if we are Christian) on the way to expansive living. This is precisely what people like the Dalai Lama are saying outside of Christianity: be the best Hindu, Buddhist, Jew, Taoist, Muslim, etc. that you can be. [3] Dig your well deeply, and drink from it profusely. When we dig deeply into our faith we are not only enriched it, we also come to see that our chosen faith is part of something larger. Paradoxically, it is in the depth of our faith where we discover its breadth.

We draw the water from our well with our bucket, but we recognize that the water does not originate in the well. And that brings us to the second feature of expansive living…

Wide…the movement into breadth is natural. It is the discovery that the water coming out of our well is coming from something beyond the water in the well itself. And more, the water I take out bucket by bucket is replenished from that larger source.

Beneath every well there is an aquifer. We get our taste for God and the spiritual life from our particular well, but we get our reverence (the sense of wonder) from our recognition that the well is part of the Source from which everyone drinks. [4] Without this wider sense, reverence can turn arrogant, and we can act as if our drink is the whole of Water.

Another image of wideness is light. In the first creation story (Genesis 1:1—2:4), we note the first word of God: “Let there be light.” It goes everywhere, reaching and influencing everyone and everything. This light is the giver of life and the bearer of love. [5]

As I write this, light is coming through the windows of our house. It is the light that illuminates me and my surroundings. But it is only a part of an exponentially greater Light. My light is from Light.

Images of water and light communicate the depth and breadth of faith, which in turn forms the deep-and-wide life.

When we bring the ideas of depth and breadth together and describe it in Christian language, the single word for this expansive experience is Christ. Christ is the depth and breadth. Christ is the water of life (John 5:13) and the light of the world (John 8:12). To use Richard Rohr’s phrase, Christ is the Christian word for everything. [6] It is what Paul was declaring when he wrote, “Christ is all and in all” (Colossiansn3:11).

E. Stanley Jones made the same point through his teaching about the excarnate Christ. [7] For him, the excarnate Christ is none other than the eternal second person of the Holy Trinity, the one through whom all things were made (John 1:3). As the Word made flesh (John 1:14), Jesus personified the expansive life and offered it to us (John 10:10). In the Book of Revelation the excarnate Christ says it clearly, “I am the Alpha and the Omega” (1:8).

Returning to the image of the well, the expansive life reveals that life in Christ is not drinking well water (i.e. water from one place), it is drinking the Water of Life (i.e. water from every place). Returning to the image of light, the expansive life shows that as Christ lights my path, he simultaneously illuminates everyone’s path. The world receives its light from many lamps, each of which is from Christ, the light that illuminates everyone (John 1:9).

In following Christ, we follow the One who leads us into the depth and breadth we must have if we are to live as God intends and act in ways that overcome evil with good. God’s call is to live deep… and… wide—to be Water people, not just well people–to be Light people, not lamp people.

One of my spiritual formation joys these days is finding Christ beyond Christianity. As E. Stanley Jones put it, Christ is in every cell, nerve, tissue, fiber, and blood stream of our being, “written into the total organization of our life.” [8] Over and over I find myself exclaiming “Wow! There you are!” And in response, he says, “Of course, before Abraham was, I AM. I am the maker of all things. I am the Alpha and Omega (John 8:58 John 1:3, Revelation 1:8). Christ is the Absolute deep-and-wide person, and following him, I experience expansive living.

I have written at length today, because I believe becoming expansive people is the great need of our day. Our partisanships are poisoning us. Our divisions are destroying us. Our silos are suffocating us. We must transcend them and recover life together. We must restore our common humanity. It takes deep-and-wide people for this to happen.

This kind of life does not happen accidentally. We must give ourselves to it. It is what Paul referred to as training ourselves in all godliness (1Timothy 4:7 NRSV). Note the word ‘all.’ Godliness has to do with all of life, not just the “religious” part.

I believe the coming days are going to require us to live expansively. Our challenges will demand life beyond business as usual. There are some things we must not return to. There are recoveries we must make. More than anything else, there are new discoveries to be made. The life we need to sustain us is “fresh water” coming from the aquifer and “new light” coming from the sun. This is deep-and-wide living, creating the pervasive oneness captured in the words, “In God we live, move, and exist” (Acts 17:28). [9]

As difficult as these days are, I believe it is a time of hope. Walt Whitman’s words capture how I feel, “Be not discouraged, keep on, there are divine things well enveloped. I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.” [10] God is doing a new thing. God is raising up deep-and-wide people. God is inviting each of us to be one of them.

[1] Jurgen Moltmann, ‘The Way of Jesus Christ’ (Fortress Press, 1993).

[2] E. Stanley Jones, ‘The Way’ (Abingdon Press, 1946).

[3] Mary Craig, ed., ‘The Pocket Dalai Lama’ (Shambala, 2002), 17-33.

[4] This Source is often referred to as the Perennial Tradition. I recommend Bede Griffith’s book, ‘Universal Wisdom’ (the introduction) as a good overview of the Perennial Tradition.

[5] John Philip Newell, ‘The Book of Creation’ (Paulist Press, 1999), chapter 2.

[6] Richard Rohr, ‘The Universal Christ’ (Convergent Books, 2019), 5.

[7] E. Stanley Jones, ‘The Way,’ Sunday, Week 50….and….’Mastery,’ Wednesday, Week 25. Abingdon Press has republished this book on paperback and ebook formats.

[8] E. Stanley Jones, ‘Abundant Living’ (Whitmore & Stone, 1942), Week Two, Wednesday. Abingdon Press has republished this book in paperback and ebook formats.

[9] After I wrote this post, I came upon the final words Father Thomas Keating spoke shortly before he died. He awoke briefly from a coma to share them. They are about deep-and-wide living. I want you to know about them. They are found on YouTube in a 2.5 minute audio entitled, “Fr. Thomas Keating’s Last Oracle.”

[10] The Daily Good e-letter, October 26, 2020.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
This entry was posted in Deep and Wide, In-Sight. Bookmark the permalink.