Celebrating the New Year
Tuesday, September 5th
9:50 AM, Calvin Fieldhouse
Caught up in God’s Story
God’s people live by stories. After the miraculous crossing of the Jordon River near Jericho, God commanded his people to set up twelve stones from the river so that when their children would ask them “What do these stones mean?” they would be prompted to tell the story of God’s deliverance. (Joshua 4)
We are surrounded by reminders of stories, like stones that invite us to ask questions, to hear stories, and then to find our place in God’s story. This will be the focus of our campus worship this year — hearing the story God is telling and letting it shape us.
Calvin students, faculty, and staff gather together from 11 AM to 2 PM on the Commons Lawn for the Convocation cookout!
Stories and Faith: The Roles of Narrative in Christian Life and Witness
Dr. Gaylen J. Byker, President, Calvin College
Students, faculty, staff and friends of Calvin College: It is my privilege to welcome you to a promising new academic year. And a special welcome to first-year students and others who are just joining the Calvin community. In the coming months and years, you will make friendships that will last a lifetime and meet professors who will stretch your minds—you will stretch their minds too. You will work hard and have fun. You will be living out stories that you will tell for the rest of your lives. I am grateful that each of you is here and has chosen to make Calvin College part of your story.
Today I will talk about the stories that shape our lives, ask you to remember the stories that have shaped you, and encourage you to participate in the daily chapel program that will focus this year on Christian stories, both old and new.
At commencement last May, Professor Nicholas Wolterstorff, who taught philosophy for many years, at Calvin and then Yale, spoke in this arena to the graduates of the Class of 2006 on the topic, “You Need Two Eyes.” He began with this story:
Some years back, when I was doing some teaching at the Free University of Amsterdam, my wife and I had a discussion with an obstetrician on the academic staff of the Hospital. The question arose of how he taught prospective nurses to deal with mothers whose babies were still-born or died shortly after birth. “I tell them,” he said, “that when you go into the room, you need two eyes. With one eye you have to check the I V; with the other you must cry. I tell them one eye is not enough. You need two eyes.”
He said that Calvin graduates need to have one eye of the mind--the eye of knowledge and discernment, and one eye of the heart-- the eye of compassion. His powerful anecdote illustrated the role of stories in the Christian life. Our lives are true stories. So is the Gospel. Much of what we do at Calvin connects our own life stories to God’s story of Creation, Fall and Redemption. Jesus used stories called parables to shake up and teach people.
Let me tell you one of my stories. Our family lived in Beirut, Lebanon in the 1980s, during the civil war. After spending a week in the basement of our apartment building while intense fighting and artillery shelling occurred in our neighborhood near the American University, my wife and I and our two young daughters fled to the beach with other foreigners early on a Saturday morning to be evacuated by U.S. Marine helicopters. As the first helicopters appeared on the horizon above the Mediterranean, however, militiamen in the hills above Beirut started firing mortar shells at the helicopters. In near panic, everyone first lay down along the stone wall at the edge of the beach. But soon we had to scurry to the basement of the nearby British Embassy. Our six year old daughter, Gayle, who had recently listened to and discussed C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, tugged on my wife Susan’s sleeve as we entered the Embassy. She whispered, “Mom, do you know why I’m not crying anymore? It’s because Jesus is right here with us.” She could not change the circumstances around us any more than we adults could, but her child’s faith reminded us to put ourselves back into God’s story, where the one who was flogged, murdered and resurrected reminds us that he will always be with us.
But it isn’t only six-year-olds who know that because of stories. When he was 75 years old, Karl Barth, one of the leading theologians of the twentieth century, was asked “Of all the theological insights you have ever had, which do you consider the greatest of them all?” It was a perfect question for a man who had written many thousands of pages of some of the most sophisticated theology ever put into print. After a long, reflective pause, Barth answered, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
Stories and narratives give structure to reality and help us make sense of the world. They illustrate and explain why things are the way they are. They make us laugh, they make us cry. They probe pain and sorrow, forgiveness and reconciliation, generosity and grace. They can change us, make us willing to take risks. They can become part of our very beings. Stories explain a person’s encounters with other people, with the physical world and with God. They are a link between personal experience and divine reality—an essential part of the process of revelation. Our common Christian faith is one grand narrative, made up of many stories—and each of us becomes part of that narrative, and adds to it.
Often we “try on” biblical stories, allowing them to become “live options” for us. We interpret our personal identities through narratives a well as through theology and the history and traditions of the Church. When we share in the Lord’s Supper we retell and re-enact the story of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples just before the events of Good Friday and Easter. We use the narrative of Jesus gathered with his disciples in the Upper Room, breaking the bread, passing the cup, listening to his instructions in order to experience his presence, to relive the Gospel and, by grace, make it our own. We remember and believe that the Lord’s sacrifice was “for us,” and we promise to “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again.” We leave with hope for the future and motivation to live lives of service.
In our first scripture reading Joshua tells the Israelites to build a memorial of stones to remind themselves and their children of the deliverance and guidance that their faithful God had granted them as they left Egypt and moved to the Promised Land. The Israelites passed on to succeeding generations the story of their relationship with God and their obligations to be thankful and to obey God’s will for their lives. Such stories are an important part of the Church’s collective memory. Biographies of pivotal characters like the Apostle Paul, Saint Augustine and Mother Theresa help to define what the Church and the Christian tradition are all about. This is the reason Calvin’s dormitories are named to remind us of the lives and work of faithful missionaries like Johanna Veenstra and Lee Huizenga.
The overarching theme of the biblical world story has God as the main character with human beings and the rest of creation in supporting roles. The biblical world story describes human nature and God’s intentions and the strong, but sometimes confusing, threads that bind the two together. The movement over time and place takes us from creation to the second coming of Christ, with the mystery of sin and evil, the horror of the cross, the victory of Easter and the promise of fulfillment. At the center are the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This biblical world story has a crucial role in the life of the Christian community which holds it to be authoritative and normative. It makes truth claims that Christians acknowledge, and it calls for individuals and communities to respond with life altering commitments.
Truth claims like, “Our world belongs to God,” or, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God,” come directly from the biblical world story. They call upon us to acknowledge that we are not our own and challenge us to act: to submit ourselves to the Lord of life and be good stewards of his world. The promises embedded in the narratives also give us hope for the future. We can look with hope for the partial fulfillment of the promise of redemption in our lives and its eventual complete fulfillment.
In an intriguing article entitled, “My Story and ‘The Story,’” theologian Robert Brown says that:
A story . . . must reach me on some level to which I can respond, but it must also “stretch” me, pull me beyond where I now am . . . . One of the most telling aspects of “The Story” may be this very unexpectedness intruding upon the familiar. We know about kings, for example, but we do not know about kings who come as servants.
Jesus told these kinds of stories. Time after time he compared the Kingdom of God to a character in a story. He talked about lost sheep and lost coins, about wineskins and houses built on sand. But Jesus’ parables were not simple morality tales. They were complex, often unsettling, stories about God, human nature and the realities and beliefs under girding human life. As our scripture reading from Matthew says, Jesus’ parables contain keys to ancient mysteries.
Good stories confront us with questions like, “What kind of person am I, and why am I this way?” Our engagement with a story, by identifying with a character or tendency—our “trying on” various roles and responses, can have a powerful influence on our spiritual and ethical core. And as our Christian characters mature, we also develop better ethical sensitivities and habits. Think of Jesus’ parable about the Good Samaritan. The kinds of persons that the priest, the Levite and the Samaritan are—their spiritual identities—influence their behaviors. Each shows what kind of person he is. Where are you in that story?
A Navajo Calvin alum, who served on our Board of Trustees, uses a story about making turquoise jewelry as a metaphor for the process of forming Christian character. She says that the beauty of the stones, their color, their lines and their patterns, are hidden deeply within the original rock. Raw turquoise is chalky and fragile. It must be submerged in a waxy liquid and placed under pressure. The porous stone soaks up the substance and is stabilized so that it can be cut, ground and polished. Finally it is ready to be set in silver to display its full beauty. Through this process, much like the one Christians go through, the stones become strong and beautiful and useable.
Stories also make us to think about the big picture—the overarching themes of life. J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, was written in England during the bleak days of World War II, when it seemed like God had lost control. Tolkien, who was a devout Christian, used the techniques of “high fantasy” to create a “parallel world” that mirrors our own in important respects. The story begins in a Garden of Eden-like setting in The Fellowship of the Ring. Then evil and major troubles appear and continue in The Two Towers. In the final book, The Return of the King, Frodo, the main character, accomplishes his mission and experiences a kind of redemption, even though the world is not yet rid of evil. The narrative arc of the trilogy parallels the narrative arc of the Christian story, Creation, Fall and Redemption. And these elements are given shape and content. In addition to entertaining us, Tolkien’s story can help us think in concrete ways about what the Christian story means in history and in our own lives.
Today, grand, all-encompassing explanations of history and reality, called
“Meta-narratives,” are out of favor in many academic circles. Some say that life—and history—are a meaningless succession of unrelated events. Others maintain that all knowledge is socially constructed, and that truth means different things for different individuals and different cultures. No meta-narrative is thought to be large and open enough to include the experiences and realities of all peoples. Yet, we Christians claim, with a heritage of thousands of years of belief and experience, that the biblical world story, the story about God and his dealings with his world and his creatures, is as true and relevant today as it was 2000 years ago. The Christian Church believes that this story, this meta-narrative, is authoritative and describes proper human conduct and proper responses to God’s grace.
Our exploration of the meaning and theology of Christianity is the process of our faith seeking understanding. Christian stories illumine and amplify the nature of the understanding that faith seeks. They help us make “The Story” part of our own stories. We must be careful, however, to keep our priorities straight. I must, for example, as far as I can, make the Christian story my normative or controlling story. For me, this means keeping my masculine story, my white story and my American story subordinate to it. And, for me, it also means being sensitive to other people’s stories that might include being female, being black or living in the developing world.
These are all things that you will explore during your time at Calvin College. You first-year students will be studying Dr. Neal Plantinga’s book Engaging God’s World. It deals with the reality of Creation, the Fall into sin, Redemption in Christ and the Transforming power of God’s work in his people and in his world gives us the hope and reason to live as God wants us to live. Don’t let these terms become mere jargon for you. Use stories and the various disciplines you will be studying to illustrate and amplify these central themes of the Christian story and help make “the Story” your own.
When, the Lord willing, you return to Calvin College years after you graduate, if we have served you well, stories will come to mind from every corner of this campus. You’ll remember stories of courses and papers, of athletics, of late night talks, of romance, of laughter and, perhaps, of sorrow, of professors and friends who helped you see more depth in your story than you knew was there, but also, we pray, you will remember how this place helped join your story to the great story that is so simple that anyone can tell it, yet so deep that our lifetimes cannot exhaust it.
Joshua 4:19-24 (NIV)
19 On the tenth day of the first month the people went up from the Jordan and camped at Gilgal on the eastern border of Jericho. 20 And Joshua set up at Gilgal the twelve stones they had taken out of the Jordan. 21 He said to the Israelites, "In the future when your descendants ask their fathers, 'What do these stones mean?' 22 tell them, 'Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.' 23 For the LORD your God dried up the Jordan before you until you had crossed over. The LORD your God did to the Jordan just what he had done to the Red Sea when he dried it up before us until we had crossed over. 24 He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the LORD is powerful and so that you might always fear the LORD your God."
Matthew 13:1-9, 34-35 (NIV)
1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. 2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: "A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 He who has ears, let him hear."
34 Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. 35 So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet:
"I will open my mouth in parables,
I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world."