Richard Adam’s beloved novel, Watership Down, tells the story of a warren of rabbits setting out to make their home in a new place.
That’s right, I’m telling you a story about a story about rabbits.
Bear with me.
Fiver, a small, nervous rabbit, develops what can only be called a messianic intuition, convinced by a hunch that something dreadful is about to befall their Sandleford warren.
Fiver confides his fear to his brother, Hazel, and together they attempt to warn the elder Chief Rabbit, Threarah. Their ministrations prove unsuccessful, and Fiver and Hazel are dismissed as doomsayers.
Marginalized for their belief, the brother rabbits decide to leave their warren. They are joined in their journey by other rabbits like: Dandelion, Pipkin, Hawbit, Blackberry, Buckthorn, Speedwell, Acorn, Bigwig, and Silver.
As the group departs, their former home is destroyed under a housing developer’s bulldozer.
They set out to make the long journey to what will be the new location for their community: Watership Down. Along the way, the group of rabbits encounter challenges rabbits seldom encounter. They must cross a stream, navigate an open road, sneak through a fox-infested bean field.
Never having made a community in a new location, their challenges go against the grain of everything rabbits know about being rabbits. They long to stop running, to dig deep down into the earth and stay in one place.
How do the rabbits tackle the obstacles and challenges in their path?
The answer turns out to be a surprising one.
The one thing that unites the rabbits and fills them with hope and courage are their stories- the stories their parents told them, the stories of their past, the stories about their forebears.
[What stories did you learn in your family? Growing up, what stories about your family were you taught?]
The rabbits of Adams’ novel tell especially stories of the clever rabbit hero, El- ahrairah.
Yep, the ‘El’ in the hero’s name is neither accidental nor coincidental. This is meant to be a primal, transcendent story.
With fur and floppy ears.
The first story they learned and the first story they tell is the ‘Blessing of El-ahrairah.’ In it, Frith, the god of the rabbits, allocates gifts and attributes to each species. Frith gives cleverness to the foxes, for example, and sight to the cats.
According to the story, El-ahrairah is so distracted with dining, dancing and mating that he misses out on the best gifts so Frith, realizing rabbits will now be at the mercy of other animals, gives El-ahrairah the gift of strong, hind legs.
Frith tells El-ahrairah, “be cunning and full of tricks and your people will never be destroyed.”
Fiver, Hazel and their community of rabbits hear in such a story their reason for being.
It’s their creation story and their ground of hope.
As they set out to make their lives in a new place, this story reminds them of why they exist at all and how they are to practice and embody that existence.
More than simply “explaining” why rabbits have strong legs, the story illuminates the rabbit’s task in life: to live in the world by trusting their stories and speed.
And each other.
As the rabbits make their journey to their new location, they’re frequently confronted by a challenge and, each time, they stop and seek a way forward by narrating their core stories of El-ahrairah.
The stories remind them of their identity and their purpose.
New places, in other words, point out the importance of old stories.
So not only have I just told you a story about a story about rabbits, I’m now going to tell you that floppy-eared story is actually a bible story.
Yep. A bible story starring rabbits.
Almost 600 years before Jesus was born, Judah’s King Josiah died just as the Babylonian Empire was ascending in power. After a long siege, Babylon finally razed the city of Jerusalem in 587 and topped that destruction with the added humiliation of exiling Israel’s citizens to live in a foreign land.
In a new place.
In that new place, the Jews were allowed to live in their own communities. They were free to build homes, earn a living, practice their own customs and religion.
They just couldn’t return home.
Much like rabbits, making their way in a new place, God’s People turned to their stories.
As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says, exiles are driven back to rediscover their most shaping memories and to practice their most critical commitments.
In a new location and the challenges it brings, Brueggemann writes, the stakes are too high. It’s not surprising then that you would turn to the elemental stories to guide your actions and let the unessential fall by the wayside.
As theologian Stanley Hauerwas, commenting on Watership Down, observes:
“…all new communities must remind themselves of their origin.
A people are formed by a story which places their history in the texture of the world.
Such stories make the world our home by providing us with the skills to negotiate the dangers in our environment…”
[What scripture story or stories have helped you ‘negotiate’ a particularly challenging moment in your life?]
New communities need to remember their core stories.
Those core stories remind new communities how they’re to negotiate the challenges of their new environment.
You see, a story about rabbits is really a story about God’s People.
It’s a story about the exile.
But it’s a story about any new faith community too.
Having made the long journey to a new location in Babylon, the Jews turned to their stories of ‘journey’ for identity and purpose. The stories of Abraham and Sarah’s journey into an unknown future, of Moses’ long journey in the wilderness, of Joseph’s journey away from home and back again and of Jacob’s journey away from God and back again- in exile those stories reminded Israel what it meant to trust God alone.
Not El-ahrairah but Elohim.
What about us?
Setting off for a new location.
Working to plant a new community.
Facing new challenges.
In Brueggemann’s terms:
What are the most important memories to which we should turn on our journey?
What are the promises given in those memories which we should practice during our journey and even after we’ve arrived?
[Which stories of scripture do you think are essential for our identity and purpose?]
While we don’t have a floppy-eared forebear, we do have Jesus.
The memories to which we turn for identity, purpose and guidance are the stories of Jesus. And the stories about Jesus.
And the promise we should practice- well, the first promise at least- is the promise found in the Church’s very first memory of Jesus.
Literally, God taking on ‘carne.’
The Holy becoming Meat.
As Paul puts it, quoting an ancient hymn:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Very often the Incarnation is a doctrine employed to ‘prove’ Jesus’ divinity. It’s a dogma that reminds us that ‘this Jesus is really God.’
But like much in theology, the inverse is true too.
The Incarnation is a way of reminding us that ‘Because God is Jesus, Jesus is really human.’
To make it plain: Jesus is how God decides to incarnate what it means to be human.
Jesus is our model for genuine, God-intended-designed-humanness.
Jesus is the prototype.
And here’s the stop-you-in-your-tracks kicker: God was in Jesus, embodying and modeling what it means to be human, a good 30 years before Jesus began his official ministry.
That is, God was in Jesus for 30 years before anyone took notice that Jesus was in any way unique.
That is, God was in Jesus in such ordinary, everyday ways no one noticed that this Jesus was actually God.
Like many things in theology, the inverse is also true.
God was in Jesus in many ordinary, everyday ways that were true even if they escaped people’s official notice.
Allow me an ‘ergo.’
Ergo, God is present in the many ordinary, everyday things we do in Jesus’ name.
[What is one ordinary way you’ve experience God’s presence through another?]
If one of our most elemental memories as Christians is that God was incarnate in and as Christ, then one of the first promises we’re called to practice together:
We promise to be incarnational.
We pledge to use our ‘flesh’ to convey the love and presence of God in the most ordinary, everyday things we do.
With others. And with ourselves.
You see, according to the logic of incarnation, it’s not that ‘worship’ is where the God stuff happens. Rather, all stuff is where God happens…if we take time to notice and name it. Meetings, small groups, passing out bulletins, welcoming a visitor are all acts- potentially- of worship. A handshake to a newcomer is- potentially- as sacramental as bread and wine.
Incarnation means we treat everyone and everything we do as holy, as receptacles of God’s presence but, even more so, Incarnation means we take Jesus’ way of life as the blueprint for how we are to embody God to, for and with another.
And when you look to what Jesus would do:
You find a willingness to relinquish all desires and interests in the service of others.
You find an openness to go where people are rather than wait for them to come to you.
You find an awareness that the ‘mode’ of ministry is every bit as important as the ministry’s ‘message.’
As Michael Frost outlines it, Incarnational Christianity entails:
An active and open sharing of our lives with the community and the invitation to others share their lives with us. Incarnation is the opposite of putting up facades.
An employment of the language and thought forms of those with whom we seek to share Jesus. Jesus used common speech and stories that were accessible to all. He seldom used jargon, technical terms or insider speech. To be incarnational means we presume the presence of outsiders, newcomers and unbelievers.
A preparedness to go to people, not expecting them to come to you. Jesus was unique among ancient rabbis. He didn’t wait for people to come to him. He went out and sought and called followers. To be incarnational is to be invitational in everything we do as Christian community, which of course requires we plan so as to make it easy to invite others.
A confidence that the Gospel can be communicated in ordinary ways, through acts of servanthood, loving relationships and good deeds. Volunteer activities are not means to the ‘real ministry’ of the Church; they are ministry and worship in and of themselves.
Michael Frost clarifies Incarnational Christianity further by stressing how Christians can learn from the success of what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls ‘third places.’
Rather than the home or work, third places are those additional spaces in people’s lives where they can easily interact, make friends, discuss issues and develop community.
It’s in third places, says Ray Oldenburg, that we let our guard down and allow people to know us more fully, to share and discuss subjects that truly matter. Starbucks or the traditional British pub are obvious examples of ‘3rd places.’
[What are your 3rd places? Where are you most ‘you?’
What ‘works’ about that 3rd place?]
Needless to say, 3rd places become even more important for Christian communities who do not have a building of their own.
For Christians to be incarnational, Frost argues, they must relearn how to engage others- as Christians- in the 3rd places in their lives. To compartmentalize our faith into something we do in private, in a sanctuary, on a Sunday morning goes against the very essence of incarnation.
Frost also suggests that Incarnational Christianity requires churches to learn from the success of 3rd places in our culture.
[Why is it, for example, that a 3rd place like Starbucks is often better than the Church at developing community and connection?]
[Or perhaps a better way of putting the question: what gets in the way of Church being a viable 3rd place for more people?]