Note to readers: This is a slightly edited version of what I posted in the Northwood Presbyterian Newsletter The Breezeway for the month of March.
Have you ever heard someone speak with absolute certainty about who God is, based on a verse or two from the Bible? I have to admit, whenever I hear someone says “The Bible clearly says…” I get a little nervous. After all, the Bible is a complex collection of books written with profound historical, cultural and literary layers. Sometimes what the Bible says doesn’t appear to be clear at all. Often there are passages that are confusing and complicated. Christians have wrestled with particular passages of the Bible for thousands of years. Different cultures wrestle wtih different passages at times, and our understanding of what is, and is not, acceptable (according to scripture) has changed, often in line with the ways in which culture has changed. At one time in our Christian history, slavery was justified and accepted, on Biblical grounds. Folks came to change their mind on that issue based on an understanding of justice and a careful listening to the Holy Spirit. Christians still have deep disagreement on biblical matters. One of the things I most treasure about our Presbyterian and Reformed heritage are the principles we use to interpret scripture. I listed these in a recent sermon, but they are so impotant, I felt I should share them here as well. Take a look and let’s chat about which of these principles are the most interesting or challenging to you.
Rules for Biblical Interpretation in the Reformed Tradition*
- Scripture is to be interpreted with confidence in and openness to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
- The scripture principle: Scripture is to be interpreted in light of scripture, comparing scripture with scripture, with openness to hear the whole Word of God, not just selected parts of it.
- The Christological principle: Scripture is to be interpreted in light of God’s central self-revelation in Jesus Christ.
- The rule of love: scripture is to be interpreted in light of the one commandment of God that summarizes all other commandments, love for God and for all our neighbors.
- The rule of faith: Scripture is to be interpreted with respect for the church’s past and present interpretation of scripture.
- Scripture in to be interpreted in light of the literary forms and historical context in which it was written.
- Scripture is to be interpreted seeking the word and work of the living God in our time and place.
- Scripture is to be interpreted with awareness of our limitations and fallibility and with openness to change our mind and be corrected. “Reformed” means always being reformed afresh by the Word of God.
* Found HERE complete with links to relevant creeds.
I also recommend and love Rob Bell’s series What is the Bible? You can start with part one HERE.
Flowers in memory of the saints in our lives. Photo Credit: Melissa Johnson
Today is All Saints’ Sunday, a day when we remember the community of saints who have gone before us and reflect on their meaning in our lives. I love All Saints’ Day for so many reasons. Today at Northwood Presbyterian Church we each brought up flowers and laid them on the front table, remembering and naming saints who have a special place in our hearts. Today I told the story of three saints that mean something special to me this year, 2014.
Junia – Junia is an apostle whose appearance in the Bible is limited to one important verse. Romans 16:7 in which the apostle Paul says, “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” Junia is clearly and convincingly a woman’s name and in the oldest New Testament manuscripts we have, her name is preserved. Later, though, Junia was changed to Junias, a man’s name. There’s a whole book dedicated to this small (but so important) change. It feels plain to me. Junia was erased. There’s so much I could say about women’s identities and voices being erased throughout history and today, but I’ll leave it where I left it this morning: I know what it’s like to be erased because of my gender, and I’m grateful that those who said “Yes, you are called” and “yes we believe in you” were louder than the voices that said “Women can’t be ministers.” See also: JuniaProject.com
John – John was a colleague in my Presbytery. We didn’t know each other very well, but we had a few important things in common. We were (are) both European-Americans married to Colombian-Americans, we both love(d) to dance and laugh. We were(are) both deeply concerned about the suffering of Central American Refugees in the United States. On John’s last day on earth he opened a meeting with this prayer for refugees.. It feels like a sort of gift and also a challenge. More about John here.
Clayton – Clayton was my grandpa. (Readers of this blog know that this is also my son’s name). As I told the church this morning, grandpa Clayton understood faith in a very different way than I do. His was a quiet and personal faith. My grandpa kept a diary every day (or nearly every day) from 1933 until the mid 90s (they started getting more sporadic when his memory started to fail.) I, too, keep journals. The difference between Clayton’s journals and my journals are stark. Whereas my journals are emotional and rambling, his are concise and non-emotional. Got a haircut. Listened to Moody Bible preaching on the radio. There are lots of entries about the car. Oil changes. Even so, the entries reveal a person of deep and inspiring faith. On one particular day, he is reflecting on the death of a family member and writes simply “XXX died. The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh Away.” Powerful.
Today I named Junia, John & Clayton. Who are the saints you name this day?
Last Sunday we read the story of Bartimaeus who stands at the side of the road and asks Jesus for healing. “Son of David,” he cries “have mercy on me.”
The crowd tries to shush him, but this makes him even more determined. (Anybody ever had that happen to you? The more you are asked to be quiet, the more you must speak up?)
And so Jesus calls to him.
Bartimaeus throws of his cloak.
And Jesus asks what seems to be an obvious question “What do you want?” and Bartimaeus gives what seems to be an obvious answer (I want to see.)
But I wondered out loud on Sunday if it isn’t actually the opposite, if it isn’t that what Bartimaeus wants is not as much to see, but to be seen.
After all…. who is the blind one in this story, really?
We’re left to think on this a bit, and to ponder it, and then we hear what happens next, B, healed and seeing well begins to
“follow Jesus on the way.”
In today’s sermon about belief, I referenced Marcus Borg’s book Speaking Christian. I read this specific quote:
“Believe comes from the old english be loef which means ‘to hold dear.” To believe meant not only confidence and trust in a person but also to hold that person dear — to belove that person. Believing and beloving were synonyms. Thus until the 1600s, to believe in God and Jesus meant to belove God and Jesus. Think of the difference this makes. To believe in God does not mean believing that a set statements about God are true, but to belove God. To believe in Jesus does not mean to believe that a set of statements about him are true, but to belove Jesus. This meaning goes back to ancient Christianity”
I also retold the incredible story of Anna Bagenholm who was trapped in freezing, icy waters for over 80 minutes. The head of emergency medicine at the hospital she was treated at said this: “She has completely dilated pupils. She is ashen, flaxen white. She’s wet. She’s ice cold when I touch her skin, and she looks absolutely dead,” Gilbert said. “On the ECG [electrocardiogram], which the doctor on the helicopter has connected her to, there is a completely flat line. Like you could have drawn it with a ruler. No signs of life whatsoever. And the decision was made. We will not declare her dead until she is warm and dead.” I wondered out loud what it would mean to say about something in our lives: it’s not dead until it’s warm and dead. What happened to Anna Bagenholm is incredible. She was hooked up to a heart/lung bipass machine, and her blood was warmed up outside her body before it was put back. Though it was many months and a long recovery, she lived. If it hadn’t been for the faith and skill of the doctors that decision to not declare her dead until she was warm and dead, there would be no story here.
I came upon Anna Bagenholm’s story via an interview on the program Fresh Air. That entire interview is worth listening to. It features Dr. Kevin Fong, author of a book called Extreme Medicine. I was struck when Dr. Fong was talking about this story and was asked “Is it fair to say she was dead?” He paused for a little and hesitated and then said “Her condition was indistinguishable from the condition of death.” Wow. Anna Bagenholm’s story is just one of many fascinating stories in that interview.
For further reading and watching:
Video summary of Anna Bagenholm’s incredible story
Summary/Review of Borg’s Speaking Christian
On Sunday we concluded our sermon series on the creeds by concluding with the Brief Statement of Faith. I highlighted the beauty in the phrase “In a broken and fearful world” and concluded by offering my own retelling of the parable of the pot.
Bonus link. I’ve really been enjoying this version of Take My Life and Let it Be, by Chris Tomlin
Karl who? Does Barth rhyme with hearth?
When I decided to do a sermon series on creeds of the Presbyterian Church, I knew I’d be including the Barmen Declaration. I love the story behind it. Written in 1934 by a number of people, most notably Swiss Theologian (and Princeton Theological Seminary’s patron saint) Karl Barth. The creed was written with a particular context and political situation in mind: Nazi Germany. The writers got together and drafted a document that said, essentially, no.
This Sunday I challenged the congregation to think about when it’s appropriate for Christians to say “God is not…” I asked each person to think of one way they can confidently finish the sentence “God is not______.” Mine was probably similar to a lot of others: God is not hate.
In my research this week I was charmed by this two minute video of Karl Barth (does not rhyme with hearth, rhymes with cart) talking about the confessing church. Such carefully chosen and pointed words and his manner seems humble and confident:
We speak a lot about what God is but there are times, it seems, when it’s important to speak about what God is not. What do you think?
For further reading: Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth by George Hunsinger
At Northwood, we’re continuing our study of the Creeds. Last week we finished week 2, “The Apostles’ Creed.” We talked about how the creed has a long history and wasn’t written in one “working session” like the Nicene Creed was. After learning a little bit about the creed and its history, we used it as a launch pad for a discussion about our core beliefs. What are three things we know to be true in our own lives? Each person was challenged to write down three things they knew were true about anything, science, art, faith. These were my three:
- I know my name, Traci Smith, is a very common name and that when you google it, a lot of other Traci Smiths come up.
- I know that Northwood served pancakes on Sunday to the entire church.
- I know that Clayton and Samuel bring immeasurable joy to my life.
After we wrote our three things we knew to be true in life we were challenged to write just one thing that we knew to be true about our faith. I wrote this:
One of the things I love about “remixing” the sermon for this blog every week is the ability to link up some of the things that were an inspiration to me in the creative process that didn’t exactly fit in to the final sermon or the worship service. The idea of stating “three things I know to be true” came from a Ted Talk by a fantastic spoken word poet whose work I greatly admire, Sarah Kay.
The final challenge for the week was to think not just of one thing you know to be true about faith, but ten things. If you put them all together, you have your own personal creed. I would love to see what people have come up with this week.
Creed by Rich Mullins (The Apostles’ Creed set to music)
Manifesto by The City Harmonic (a modern/rock interpretation of a creed)
For the next four weeks we’re studying creeds at Northwood. We’re getting a little academic (in today’s sermon alone we learned about ousia, orthodoxy and the council of Nicea. We also talked about Constantine and Arianism. (Basically, we tried to cover a semester’s worth of Church History 101 class in approximately 10 minutes. What!? It can be done!) In our exploration of the creeds, we’re also going to be thinking about what it means to use the creeds as a launchpad for personal devotion, and to look at these ancient words and be open to where the spirit might be speaking to us.
If you were at NPC today and want to dive into some of the history of the creeds, I urge you to take a little spin around the wikipedia and other articles above as well as some of the sources cited. They give a great overview.
For the second part of thinking about the creeds, that is, picking a word or phrase and using it to let your spiritual imagination wander, I talked for a few minutes about the phrase “We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.”
This idea has been rolling around in my head for awhile. What does it mean to be seen, to let others see us as we really are? I had a friend staying with me this week who was attending a training with Dr. Brene Brown. As we chatted about what she was learning this week, that theme came up several times. Dr. Brown researches this very question and tries to help people overcome some of the barriers to being fully seen. I talked, too, about this fascinating study about why young children cover their eyes when they hide. The easy answer is that they’re not able to see things from the point of view of another person. In other words, if they can’t see you, they assume you can’t see them either. This leads to some really hilarious photos of children who think they are winning at the game of hide and seek, when, in fact, they are in plain view. I also read from this lovely post about what happens when people let their guard down for a photography session.
What does it mean to be seen?
It’s probably not surprising that ministers and funeral directors cross paths a lot. I guess it’s probably like produce growers and chefs, or teachers and crossing guards. We’re often in the same place at the same time. Though I’m admittedly painting with a very broad brush here, in my experience, funeral directors are often deeply compassionate, caring, and empathetic people who view their work as a calling. Day in and day out they sit with people in their deepest hour of grief and pain. I love to ask them about how they got into their line of work, what they most enjoy about it and what they think I can do to help families in my congregation when they are dealing with fresh grief. Time and again, they mention the importance of ritual or symbolism: placing a flower on the grave, placing a stone there, pouring sand over the casket. It’s important, it seems, to do something at that moment, to mark it, to honor it, to make sure it doesn’t just pass by like any other day. One funeral director recently told me about one of the funeral rituals she finds truly meaningful “I don’t know what all of it means,” she said, “But I know that at the end, they come up and everybody shovels three shovels full of dirt onto the grave and then they put the shovel back in the ground. They do that because…” and she stopped and swallowed hard and blinked her eyes quickly and then said, voice cracking “They do that because you’re not supposed to pass your grief on to anybody else” and then she put her head down and let the tears roll down her cheeks for just a second before she wiped them away quickly. “Anyway,” she said “It’s really special.”
Note: Because of the way I preach (sort of a strange hybrid of written manuscript and notes) I can’t really reproduce my sermons on this blog. This post was originally part of a sermon I preached at Northwood, just like this one and this one and this one. I like taking a piece of a sermon I’ve already preached, thinking about it and telling it in a different way. I’m going to plan to do it from time to time, and when I do, I’ll call it “Sermon Remix” so my parishioners at Northwood can start to get used to finding these reflections in this way. Hope you enjoy!