A Dialogue with Nancy E. Petty & Laura Foley
Text: 2 Timothy 3:14-17
Nancy Petty: I’ve been thinking, Laura, about why this scripture passage feels a bit difficult to read and hear. I think the lectionary group this past week named well some of the reasons. At first reading, this passage can sound somewhat dictatorial—“But as for you…” as if someone is pointing a finger at the reader. It also feels static, offering little room for movement or growth in new directions. “Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed…” Those words go against the affirmation that learning is gained from experience over time and that constructing a belief system is a process—one that is also developed over a lifetime of learning, unlearning and re-learning; of defining, dissolving and re-defining relationship; and of seeking and finding and living in community. This passage also brings to light the question of what constitutes sacred writings and the question of what it means when one says that, “all scripture is inspired by God.” Scripture—is that only the Christian Bible or does it include the Quran and other ancient sacred writings? Are those words “all scripture is inspired by God” simply the foundation for the argument of the inerrancy of scripture that has divided the church; or might the writer of this text be saying something very different from what our ears tend to hear. What might the intentions of the writer of these words be that we haven’t yet considered?
Laura Foley: I agree. Paul or Timothy, or Paul and Timothy’s distant second cousin’s friend who thought it’d be fine to write a letter and just happen to address it to Timothy and sign it from Paul – (oh if only they knew other communities, MANY other communities would be reading it) either way, WHOEVER wrote the letter appears to have been interested in instructing the reader or READERS on how to deal with the expansiveness of the world – all the good and bad out there, how to keep faith, how to remember important things, how to read scripture. While I can’t say for sure, perhaps this author’s advice was pretty good in its context – perhaps for a group of people who thought Jesus was coming back in like a week a two and the world would then be over – this was good advice. But make no mistake – I agree, trying to use this exact literal advice for the 66 books we have today would be a train wreck… and yes, not to even mention the multiplicity of legitimate and beautiful “wisdom teachings” out there but I’m not sure that has to be the point – what if the point were that WE (collectively) TODAY ought to be doing what Paul/Timothy/distant second cousin’s friend – was doing back then – and the point was for us to take a real honest to goodness, authentic stab, at teaching folks in our community how to deal with the expansiveness of the world – all the good and bad out there, how to keep faith, how to remember important things, how to read scripture. Maybe it’s possible for us today to do WHAT the author was doing – though I feel pretty sure it’ll be a little different.
I am now a 13-year-old and I don’t mean to sound rude, but I just don’t get it. I really don’t. Thanks to my time in the children’s program I am fairly familiar with the story of David and Goliath, Ruth and Naomi, and even a few psalms – but now that I’ve read a lot of books, made it to 8th grade, and even have a decent grasp on how God and love are kind of like the same thing: why the Bible? What is the big deal? I feel like I watch adults and churches get so worked up over what the Bible says that I find myself thinking, has anyone actually read this book – because I have and it’s not very good. Not good like Harry Potter, and The Hunger Games. If the Bible has been so mean to women, if things are so different now than they were back then, and it just seems to cause arguments – why still read it? Can you help me understand what the big deal is?
Dear Pullen youth,
I always know I can count on the youth to keep it real and ask the hard questions! Your question is a good one. The saints of Pullen past would be proud of you for such a question. It is for certain that the Bible is not an easy read. It speaks of a time in history that culturally and religiously is very different from 21st century America. Ethics were more about how one slaughtered their dinner than whether or not one leaks classified documents of national security for the higher purpose of protecting civil liberties. The ancient Israelites had a very different worldview. They faced different issues and challenges. Their understanding of nature and science and the human body was different. And yet, human nature has changed very little from 2nd century BCE to the present.
We are still a people looking for meaning in our lives. We are still a people who get jealous and betray one another. We are still a people who deeply desire to give name to that something that is beyond us and yet within us. We are still a people who seek power and who abuse the power entrusted to us. We are still a people who seek hope and justice. We are still a people who long to live in community and yet seek to protect what is ours. We are still human beings, flawed and broken, whom God continues to use to reveal love in the world.
Here at Pullen, we speak of the Bible as the story and stories of people just like us seeking an understanding of God in their lives. It includes the stories of a particular person named Jesus who, we believe, taught us something important about wholeness (salvation) and about how to live in this world—what it means to love and forgive, to seek justice and mercy, to be people who seek reconciliation with one another, to practice peace not war, to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, to feed the poor and care for the oppressed, to see ourselves as God’s beloved people. We choose to read the Bible here at Pullen and we even make it central to our life together because we feel and affirm that it teaches us how we are to live in relationship with one another. We don’t take its teachings literally. Rather, we wrestle with the scriptures and seek to understand how they shape us to be people of faith in the world we live in. We choose to read the Bible because it reflects to us our own humanity—the worst and the best of who we can be. It is not just the story of ancient Israel. It is also our story as we seek to be God’s people in the world. We see it not as the ultimate authority alone but as the guiding story of our faith that invites along with it the wisdom of the ages and that of our own experience. We do not understand it as a rulebook with black and white answers to life’s questions but rather as a living document that is guiding, informing, inspiring and challenging us to be God in the world. We choose to live into its complexity and its contradictions; its messiness and its clarity; its humanity and its divineness.
Wow, I’ve gone on for too long. But I love your question. Keep asking it. I close by saying, keep reading Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. I remember when The Chronicles of Narnia was my bible. These books teach important life lessons too. But also keep wrestling with the stories of the Bible like Cain and Able that will teach you something important about your relationship with your siblings and about jealousy. Keep listening to the story of Moses and the burning bush and think about how God can use you even when you think God can’t. Go look for the story about Shiprah and Puah, those ancient midwives, and think about where you are subverting the system for a just cause. Like Harry Potter, they too, are people who take a risk for something larger than themselves. We choose to read the Bible here at Pullen because it is our story and not just a story of people and places of long ago.
How do you do it? I remember spending a fair amount of my time growing up being pretty sure about God, pretty sure of God’s feelings about certain things – like that first party I went to, and pretty sure about God’s actions in the world. Though it’s hard to admit today, I would talk to God at particular times of desperation or when I was feeling super introspective and decided to journal. But now as an adult, more than just a little bit aware of the atrocities of war, the inevitability of tragedy, the sheer multiplicity of religions and cultures out there with their own moral codes and interpretations of life that honestly seem no worse or better than anyone else’s – I just can no longer say with the same surety that there’s even some divine being, or at least not anything like what I grew up imagining. I’ve heard too much about science and the universe and the natural decomposition of the human body to not just wonder if this whole “God” notion is narrative of days past – days of old, days before we knew what we know today. Holding onto a concept of God while at the same time really seeing what I see today feels like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole – how do you do it?
Dear Pullen Young Adult,
Pullen has a rich history of living into the questions and confessing that any attempt to define God is limited and incomplete. Wisdom teaches us that God is not to be defined but rather engaged. But your question about the concept of God—of knowing God—hints at a larger question that I suspect is on your mind. You ask the question this way, “How do you do it?” What I hear in your question is, “Will I ever get to a place of doing it right?” I want to tell you a story.
When I came to Pullen in 1992 I was your age—28 years old. I was idealistic and for a moment thought I knew all that I needed to know to be a good minister. My first six months I worked so hard to prove that I was competent I honestly think I spent 20 out of 24 hours at this church. Before the anniversary of my first year, I went into Mahan’s office, the former pastor, and laid out my plan for Christian Education at Pullen Church. It was a blue ribbon plan. I remember sitting in Mahan’s office going through my list. If I can get this in place, then this will fall in place and then this can happen and that will make it so that x can happen and on and on I went. After about 30 minutes of non-stop talking I took a breath. Out of that brief moment of silence, Mahan began to laugh hysterically. I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes. Finally, with a quiver in my voice I spoke, “Why are you laughing at me?” Mahan said, “Oh my Nancy. Ministry is not like that. It’s not something you neatly package in a box and place a pretty bow on top. Ministry is messy and it moves around on you. It’s not to be contained in neat programs and concepts. It is always forming and shaping and reforming and reshaping. Ministry is about learning and asking the questions. Not so much so about answers.” I would say the same about religion and faith.
So back to your question: “How do we do it?” We stay open to learning. That is the only thing that never fails…That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you. (T.H. White, The Once and Future King)
So don’t worry about fitting that square peg in that round hole or getting that pretty bow on top of the box. Don’t exhaust yourself with needing to know or having an answer. Affirm what you can about God today. Be open to learning more. And tomorrow you will find yourself where you need to be.
I am grateful for my experiences here, but somewhat conflicted about my role now. I feel pretty sure my grandparents and even parents would not look fondly on me sharing that, or even feeling it, but it is true. I needed and appreciated the role of church as I raised my children – the structure of the programs, the fellowship of other young parents struggling to make sense of it all. And, now, I am comforted by the routine and ritual of Sunday worship and Wednesday night dinners. But I am only now finding myself, my voice! I used to believe there would come a day when I would know, when my ambivalence would quiet and I would have the confidence and conviction of my parents. But now I believe the world has changed, and that kind of certainty isn’t an option for my generation. So I hold this place– wanting to hold the memories, the tradition, the past, but I hold it lightly – needing the freedom to stray, if I need to, to explore, and hopefully to return. I’m here. And that feels like enough right now for me. But it doesn’t feel like enough for the church. What do you need from me?
Dear Pullen Mid-Lifer,
You have been constant. Your families have brought hope to Pullen. Your babies, as you have presented them to the church, has reminded us of the promise of new life. Your children have been an image of what it means to be vulnerable and innocent when approaching God and faith. Your teenagers have made us proud while challenging us to be authentic in our faith. And you…you have been the wheels on the bus. You have made sure that we have a ministry to children and youth. You have taught us what it means to have faith in one another as you taught us what community looks like—supporting one another in times of grief and celebrating with one another in times of joy.
You have lived long enough to know great joy and deep pain. You know that life can be fragile. And you also know there are no easy answers to life complexities. Now you need some space. Space to think about the second half of your life. Space to reconnect with yourself. Space to ponder what has been, what is and what is yet to come.
You ask, “What does the church need from you?” The church needs you to honor where you are on your journey. Take the time you need. Live the questions in your heart. Allow the church to support you where we can. Your presence and wisdom is important to the church. Your leadership is valued. Rest, reflect and renew. And no matter how far you may stray or how much space you need to take, your place in this family is secure. You are enough. You are enough.
I have been with you for over half of your nearly 130-year life and you have been a witness to God’s justice and love in the world. As each decade and generation passes you both re-imagine God and hold to the work you have been called to. And so to all I say, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed (as a church), knowing from whom (the stories and saints) you learned it, and how from your (early community beginnings) you have known sacred writings (stories from the Torah, stories about Jesus, writings of mother Teresa and MLK, early sermons from John T. Pullen, and mission statements – original and revised) these are all there to instruct you for freedom through faith in God who was, is, and continues to be made flesh. All these sacred writings were inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training. This is so everyone may be proficient, and equipped for every good work. Continue your good work Pullen, continue to be a community and a home for those who question. For it is by their questions that you both discover and embody the ever-expanding God.