Lessons from Detroit: The Adjacent Possible

“Lessons from Detroit: The Adjacent Possible
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
May 8, 2022

Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. God makes me lie down in green pastures: God leads me beside still waters. God restores my soul and leads me in the paths of righteousness for the sake of God’s name. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies: you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

John 10:11-16
Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as God knows me and I know God. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

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Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. Last week Mike talked about Jesus asking Peter to tend his sheep, so it connects well – and we’ll talk about how in a moment.

But first, let’s talk about that 1995 classic talking animal movie – Babe!

We watched Babe a few weeks ago during vacation at my parents’ house (it was a VHS, so that tells you how long ago this movie was made). For those of you who haven’t seen it, or, like me until recently, haven’t seen it in well over 20 years and might need a refresher, it’s about a piglet who ends up on a farm after being won as a prize at the county fair. At first Babe seems destined to be fattened up for Christmas dinner, but then he is adopted by Fly, the sheep dog, who tells him about working with the sheep. “Remember, you have to dominate them,” she tells him. “They’re sheep. They’re inferior. We are their masters. Let them doubt it for a second and they’ll walk all over you. Make them feel inferior. Abuse them. Insult them. …bite them. Be ruthless. Whatever it takes [to b]end them to your will.”

But Babe has befriended the sheep and thinks they should be respected. And he defends them not once, but twice – first from sheep rustlers trying to steal them, and then from wild dogs who want to kill the sheep. Sounds a bit scriptural, doesn’t it?

And Farmer Hoggett begins to get an idea. Maybe this pig…maybe this pig could do what his adoptive mother, Fly, does. Maybe this pig could be a sheep dog…or, well, a sheep pig. 

So he begins to train Babe, and by the end of the movie – despite the disbelief and scorn of everyone from his own family to sheep dog trial judges to the entire crowd of people watching Babe maneuver the sheep through the trial course flawlessly, without one bark or bite but with simple courtesy and kindness – it becomes clear that Farmer Hoggett’s idea was brilliant, that Babe was born to be a sheep dog…er, pig.

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Last weekend I was away in Detroit for the twice-annual gathering of my denominational leadership program, NGLI, or Next Generation Leadership Initiative. Our weekend was a lot of fun – there was clergy bowling, and power thrift-shopping, and ukulele singalongs, and a chilly dip in the Detroit River – but it was also powerful. You see, NGLI brings together young(ish) pastors in the early years of our careers and not only creates a network of close-knit colleagues who help each other through the ups and downs of ministry, it also teaches us powerful ideas and tools that help us help our congregations – that’s you all – to thrive. This past weekend, our theme was Creativity and Innovation, and we spent time learning about all the ways that Detroit is working to come back from the devastation of decades of neglect and demise that culminated in the city declaring bankruptcy in 2013, and all the ways its people are trying to rebuild while not losing the heart of the city to gentrification.

I’ll share more about what we learned in the weeks to come, but today I want to talk about one concept from a book we read in preparation for our time together, Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. In it, Johnson talks about “the adjacent possible,” an idea first articulated by scientist Stuart Kauffman to describe everything that’s a possible next step from where we are now. Kauffman came up with this idea of the “adjacent possible” to describe the “primordial soup” that existed on earth before life began: all the different ways that atoms floating around in the prehistoric ocean could potentially combine, some of which were the organic compounds that would lead to life. “Sunflowers and mosquitoes and brains exist[ed] outside that circle of possibility,” Johnson writes in his book, they were too far of a leap; but the proteins necessary to form the boundaries of cells and the sugar molecules crucial to the nucleic acids in our DNA? Yes, with a little bit of lightning or a jolt of heat from an undersea vent, those crucial building blocks were a next possible step from what was already there. They were in “the adjacent possible.” 

Another way to think about the adjacent possible is “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 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,” Johnson writes. Open enough doors – explore enough of the adjacent possible – “and eventually you’ll have built a palace.”

In other words, when it comes to innovation, whether it’s the primordial soup or a church, you can’t leap ahead to a brilliant idea that isn’t achievable yet. But you can figure out the innovation that’s possible right now, given the set of raw materials already in front of you. In fact, Johnson argues, the most important facet of innovation isn’t a brilliant mind thinking in isolated splendor in an ivory tower or a laboratory – it’s an environment where, not unlike the atoms in that primordial soup, people are floating good, adjacent-possible ideas past each other, bouncing them off others’ good, adjacent-possible ideas, until something sticks, and a new innovation is born. From there, a whole new set of developments become possible, and suddenly you are looking at an environment or a church culture that isn’t stagnant or dying, but that is adapting to the world around it and is, in fact, thriving.

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Farmer Hoggett had what looked to the people around him like an insane idea. And indeed, if he had woken up one morning before Babe’s arrival at the farm and said to himself, “You know, I think I’ll see if I can train a pig to be a sheep dog,” he would have seemed out of his mind. But when Babe came to the farm, his friendships with both the sheep and the sheep dog were suddenly in the adjacent possible. And once those friendships had become a reality, his ability to learn to herd the sheep in a new, unique way – which before was not even a thought in anyone’s head – was suddenly in the adjacent possible. Because Farmer Hoggett had a smart, sheep-friendly pig on his farm who got to watch experienced sheep dogs doing their thing, he began to think about what might be in the adjacent possible – and discovered a whole new way of herding sheep that was not only more efficient, but safer and kinder to the sheep.

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Before they met Jesus, I imagine his disciples had no plans to lead people or teach them about a new way of seeing God or to innovate in any other way than perhaps trying out a new knot for their fishing nets. But after three years on the road with their rabbi, watching him preach, and heal, and turn people’s ideas about God inside out in a spectacularly life-giving way – suddenly there were new things in their adjacent possible. They had watched this good shepherd lead his people not by scaring them or intimidating them or by leading them astray for his own gain, but with radical compassion and deep dignity for each person, and a sense that we all have more goodness in us than we necessarily act on, that we can all be a part of God’s kindom made real.

So when it was their turn – when Jesus turns to Peter and asks him to “feed my sheep” and “tend my lambs” as he did in last week’s scripture – suddenly, even though they never would have thought of it before, it now seemed possible.

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I wonder what, for us, is in the adjacent possible. We have such great raw materials on the table: deep love and care for one another; smart, creative people with a huge breadth of skills and a well of enthusiasm; a history of finding causes we care about and doing something to make a difference. And we have the deep love and care of the Good Shepherd for his flock – the very best building block for any kind of innovation. Because when we are grounded in that kind of belonging and compassion, when we know deep in our bones that Jesus will lead us to places that restore and revive us, suddenly feeding his sheep – caring for those within and beyond our walls instead of just being cared for – is in our adjacent possible.

May it be so. Amen.