Listen to article
Carol Cook: You had mentioned at the beginning that one of the distinctive features of the Reformed tradition, at least at its best, is that it continues to be open to reformation. As you reflect on the course of your lifetime, are there some significant ways you have witnessed the Reformed tradition in this process of reforming itself?
Freda Gardner: Well at one level, we certainly could think about the role of the church in changing our minds about slavery, about the role of women, and about giving greater significance to the place and role of children in the church. These are three that come quickly to mind. Through Bible study and theological reflection we have come to realize that God’s intention for us is different from what we thought it was at one particular time. There is the idea of being a chosen people and thinking that that meant a special and closer relationship with God. Today many recognize more and more that it means being chosen for something, not chosen as a status category, but chosen for carrying out Christ’s ministry throughout the world. That is hard to want to believe because it means sacrifice, and discipline, and being less self-centered than those of us who are more affluent in America have become.
I also think the very processes by which we change are an enormous threat to a lot of people. I think even to say that we could change our minds or that the jury is still out on something is a major threat to some people. I have struggled with this ever since Jim Fowler’s work on “stages of faith” came out, stating that some people never move to the place where they can tolerate ambiguity or paradox. I was very, very resistant to that. His claim seemed to me to be such a final word on a lot of people. But I do find people who, not because they are evil, simply cannot imagine that we can believe that the Bible is the word of God and interpret it differently from the way it has always been interpreted before. They cannot hold those two things together. If it is the word of God they take it, and ignore the parts that they don’t take. You say to them “Do you think you should bash your children’s heads into the rocks?” “Well, of course I don’t believe that.” They can’t make the leap to say that you can read the Bible in a different way, and it can still be the word of God. That is a tension I think that we face. Some people are stubborn just because they are afraid or it serves their own choices best to stay where they are. I think that some people honestly can’t imagine another possibility. I don’t know what the answer to that is. I don’t think the answer is to run roughshod over them, but on the other hand I don’t think it’s our place to ignore what we believe to be God’s intention for humankind simply because some people cannot get on board.
CC: Are there things that have frustrated you about living in the Reformed tradition?
FG: I get frustrated at the very human level with the slowness with which we make changes. But I believe that God is sovereign and that God’s good time may not be my time. All I hope is that the next life includes the possibility of seeing what happens to humankind as the years unfold. I hope it just doesn’t all go away. Maybe we just don’t care in the next life or whatever, but it’s important to remember that God has been working with God’s people for millennia. If God chooses to continue to work with us and through us then my frustration is my frustration and I have to say to myself, “Wait a minute; it doesn’t have to happen in your lifetime.” But it does call me on the one hand to stay open to new insights, and on the other hand to keep holding up the possibility of seeing, as part of the community of faith, that something better, more faithful is occurring. It is frustrating, no doubt about it.
I want to go back to that phrase about the Reformed tradition being a thinking tradition. Not to say other traditions are not thinking, but the mind is important in the Reformed tradition. The Reformed tradition grew out of people reflecting and thinking and conceptualizing and articulating certain understandings. Thinking doesn’t mean you have to be a profound thinker or a scholar but that our minds must be engaged as well as our hearts. It’s probably our minds that get us into more trouble, more difficulties.
I struggle myself with some things which I want to believe but am not sure about. For example, I have always been a pro-choice person with regard to abortion. But I am against capital punishment, and those two things do not fit together nicely. I have to keep wrestling with that. Part of my being pro-choice is being pro-woman. Yet I am not sure that my pushing pro-choice can be done at the same time that I am pushing against capital punishment. I guess that’s the price you pay for thinking about what you believe and it is not always comfortable.
I think there are a lot of factors that enter into trying to decide to continue the way you’re thinking or to change your mind and take a stand on another side. This has happened in the Presbyterian Church over the issue of ordination of gay and lesbian people. When somebody changes his or her mind about that question, especially someone who is known to a lot of people, they are ostracized and condemned by those with whom they agreed just a while ago. I think that applies to me in the pro-choice thing. If I were to suddenly become pro-life many of my friends would feel that I had betrayed them. I don’t know whether I am hesitating on the grounds of “I don’t want to be a betrayer” or on the grounds of “I truly don’t know how to discern between the two.” So I think it’s tough to be Reformed. It’s not easy and sometimes I think it would be better to be mindless and follow somebody’s set of ten rules and say, “If I do these I will be in God’s good favor and that’s all I am worried about.”
CC: So there is some awareness of the things that don’t fit together neatly and that don’t obviously reconcile themselves at a conceptual level.
FG: In a way that’s a good thing because it continually forces you back to say, “Who do I think God is? What am I honoring? And is that of God as we know God and Jesus Christ or is it not of God?” It’s a wonderful form of continuing education that God has given us. We didn’t have to sign up or pay any dues, but there it is. It’s good to have to keep thinking that way, although frustrating too.
CC: One last question. Through the unique work and church-related positions you have had in your life, I know you’ve worked with and loved people of all generations. Are there some things you would most want to pass on to other generations about the Reformed tradition?
FG: It’s going to be pretty hard for me to separate the Reformed tradition from other convictions that might be equally valid. But there are a couple of things. I think the youth of today and maybe young adults of today, need more order in their lives. I think life is relatively chaotic and episodic and I think the Reformed tradition has an order about it. Some people would say that all we are is order people. I don’t think order rules out ardor. I think both of those things go together. You can be passionate and ordered. I think there is more possibility in some kind of ordered life that includes the gifts that God has given us of worship and prayer and reflection and Sabbath that would benefit younger generations.
I think that the Reformed tradition, along with other traditions, but especially ours, emphasizes the whole notion of being called by God in Jesus Christ to a life of discipleship and ministry. This is something that older adults need to know and would benefit from. I am tired of hearing people say “I can’t do this because I am retired,” meaning “I can’t serve the church in mission activities.” (I don’t mean, “Can you teach Sunday School?” “No, I can’t.” Although that’s one of them.) I’m thinking of people who have bought into the culture’s picture of retirement as total leisure and total self-service. You do what you want to do for yourself. I think that is a waste of a lot of good years of life in which they could be so much more fulfilled. Eventually you get tired of playing golf every day or of traveling nonstop.
There is the whole notion that when you are called to discipleship, you don’t ever retire from it, that God has given you gifts and you still have gifts in the later years of life. People need to know that the things that they do with their gifts are ministries. I think for too long we have said that ministry belongs to a particular order of people who “do” ministry and they need to know that all through their lives as they are using their gifts, they are involved in ministry. They especially need to know this in their later years of life.
I have just read a wonderful book which is called Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America. It’s not a religious book, but is a whole treatise on the few experiments that have really taken root in this country where they are using the experience, which I would translate to the word gifts, of the older generation to serve younger generations and to serve themselves in all kinds of voluntary activity. It’s an inspiration, for example, to read about retired medical people who can’t cope with the way medicine is done today. They don’t want to deal with the bureaucratic stuff but still have the healing touch and want to be healing. So they are setting up clinics for people who cannot afford medical health in America today and are serving maybe twenty hours a week or two afternoons a week using their expertise, making connections with hospitals for the things they cannot do, but giving people an entrée to better health. There are so many things that are needful that I would love for the older generation to engage the possibilities for discipleship that are within the Christian community. So those are two age groups.
CC: Perhaps a message there for the younger generation is that the Reformed tradition is a life-long tradition that can sustain them through all the ages of life and be enriching from infancy until death.
FG: The church has an opportunity to help young people see that. I was talking to a person last week going into high school and I said, “Do you have any idea what you want to do when you finish your education?” She mentioned five totally disparate occupations with no sense of “I will bring something special that will be expressed in my occupation. I am a unique person, not just a stamped out version of a young person who could go any which way.” I think the church needs to help young people to really name and appreciate the particular kinds of things that they’re interested in and care about and have the skills for, or want to develop the skills for, in order to do a, b, c, or d. It’s a wide-open thing for the church. It will be interesting to see where it goes in the future.