Sermon: The Adjacent Possible
A few years back, I read a book by Steven Johnson called, “Where Good Ideas Come From?” In his book, Johnson introduced me to the concept of the adjacent possible. He borrowed the phrase from research in prebiotic chemistry being done by Stuart Kaufmann. For Johnson and Kaufmann, the adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edge of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.
Johnson helps explain the concept with this fascinating metaphor:
“Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Those four rooms are the adjacent possible. But once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point. . . . The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.” (pp. 31-33).
As Chapter Twelve of Genesis opens, we meet Sarai and Abram for the first time. So far, in Genesis, all the stories have been a series of disappointments. Adam and Eve are promised the good life, but opt for wanting more. Cain kills his brother out of jealousy. Noah is rescued from the great flood only to stumble off the boat in a drunken stupor. The world is united by one common language, but when they reach beyond their means, babel results.
As readers, we do not expect too much from Abram and Sarai when God instructs them to: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” So far in Genesis, human behavior has been all too predictable; no one has been willing to step into God’s adjacent possible.
After an invitation to enter into God’s adjacent possible, I can imagine Abram and Sarai having one of those difficult “couple’s conversations” during which temperatures rise and voices soar:
“Abram, if you think I’m leaving home and family to head off to God knows where, well, you’ve got another think coming!”
“You say that it was ‘God’ inviting us to pull up stakes, leave our friends behind, and head to destinations unknown. And, I say, ‘You and God have a nice trip’.”
And, if not a “couple’s conversation,” I can imagine one of those “crossroads conversations,” especially since the city Haran from which Abram and Sarai are called to leave, literally means “highway” or “crossroads”:
“Sarai, maybe we should go, but if I am honest, I am not even sure what I believe about God, much less believing promises from God about life on the other side of Haran.”
“God seems to have more confidence in us than we have in ourselves. Maybe God is making a mistake choosing us?”
The remarkable thing about the story is not that Abram and Sarai are invited to walk into God’s adjacent possible, several characters in Genesis have already declined the invitation. The remarkable thing about this couple is that they choose to walk forward through the mysterious door of possibility that God holds opens for them, having absolutely no clue what awaits them on the other side of that door. On the journey ahead, they will walk into rooms that look as expansive as a starlit sky on a crystal clear night, but also into rooms that will make them wonder why they ever left Haran. Into each room, they will walk into a future about which they have only God’s promise.
It is no surprise, then, that years later, when the Apostle Paul talks about faith, he points to Abram and Sarai, who pack their bags, leave their expansive homestead, and walk into God’s promised future. On their journey, they learn what the scientist discovered in his research in prebiotic chemistry; you cannot leapfrog the adjacent possible. You cannot leapfrog from God’s promise of land and progeny into the reality of land and progeny. Doors have to be opened, rooms explored, and trust maintained.
By the time we meet Abram and Sarai, they are long past their childbearing years. What God holds out to this aging couple is well beyond their estimate of what is possible. God invites them on a journey into new rooms of promise that will lead them far beyond being “barren” into God’s fecund future. In a decision that comes as a surprise to everyone, Abram and Sarai accept the invitation and set out into God’s adjacent possible.
The season of Lent has long been pictured as a journey into God’sadjacent possible, but this season, I find myself stuck in the Lenten starting blocks, stuck in Ash Wednesday, unable to find the door into the adjacent possible, much less to walk through it. I find myself stuck in sorrow over the violence being done to mosques and synagogues across the nation and the violence we never hear about being done in the depths of our inner cities. I am stuck in bewilderment at how quickly and easily we use social media as a launching pad for vicious assaults on others with complete impunity. I am stuck in grief over national attitudes that punish the victim for being female or gay, bi-sexual or transgender, a person of color or a person who lives on the streets.
To speak of God’s adjacent possible on this second Sunday in Lent feels a little hollow, maybe like telling a barren couple that they were going to have the world’s largest family. And, yet, this is the very couple to whom we tie our hopes when we follow Jesus on the Lenten journey into God’sadjacent possible. This is the very couple that inspired Jesus to resist the temptation to leapfrog rooms of deprivation and suffering, as if he could ever know his full humanity without walking into the same rooms of suffering and grief that Sarai and Abram and you and I walk and walk with others all too often.
In many ways, it is easy for a comfortable, white, male to opine about walking into God’s adjacent possible. The obstacles before me are so few. It is so much harder for many of my friends to dare to do so. On our recent drive to the Outer Banks, Jennell and I passed two enormous Confederate flags, prominently placed next to the highway. As I looked at those flags that were not waving for National Confederate History Month, but as a visual sign of intimidation to people of color, I was reminded of a poem by Langston Hughes, a black poet from Joplin, Missouri, who dreamed about walking across the landmines of racism to enter into God’s adjacent possible.
In his poem, “I, Too,” Langston dreams:
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll sit at the table.
When company comes
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen.”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed –
I, too, am America.
I wish I had the faith fortitude of Abram and Sarai and Langston. I do not. I need you to help me get unstuck, so together we can walk into God’sadjacent possible. I need you to remind me that God is calling us into new rooms, into new possibilities of mercy and love, forgiveness and forbearance, new rooms that expand with our faith and imagination.
What would it mean to pray FULLY: “O God, may I have the courage, resilience, and imagination to walk into God’s beautiful, and sometimes terrifying, but always trustworthy, adjacent possible? I intend to find out, for that is my Lenten prayer.