Using the Tools of the Trade
Playhouse Building 101
When I was a kid, one of the coolest things I remember is camping out with my friend Daniel in his backyard. He was best friend growing up and we spent a lot of time together in school and out. Daniel is probably the smartest person I have ever known, born with a kind of raw intelligence that allows him to think his way through most anything. He was good at drawing, especially sci-fi ships from late seventies-early eighties movies and TV, and good with computers, which would become his career as an adult. But one of the coolest things he did, with some help from his dad, was create this system of platforms and walkways through the trees in his backyard. You could climb up on one of the platforms and walk across parts of his yard from tree to tree, kind of like the Ewok village in Return of the Jedi.
When we left for seminary in 2012, I met a man at my church in Kentucky who ran a print shop and had lots of leftover wooden skids and pallets. My wife had developed a habit of looking at projects for such things and one of them was a treehouse. Our next-door neighbor was handy with home repair and improvement, so I tried to reach back into my past and recreate a bit of my childhood. There were no trees to work with, so we made a foundation of pallets with a large skid for the second level base. Eventually, we added an open platform to the side and a roof over the main platform. By the time we were finished, we had a nice two-story playhouse for our kids that lasted three years until we moved out at graduation.
Whether you are dealing with the wooden city in the trees or the house of leftover wood scraps, neither works without hard work and creativity. Daniel and his dad probably spent several days nailing boards together and then nailing them to trees and supports to create their tree platforms. Jason and I spent the better part of a week getting the tree house together after we went through a lot of skids and pallets to find just the right ones. In both cases, a lot of sweat equity was put into getting things from the idea to the final form. There were also plans for how to go about it, even if they were nothing more than crude sketches or conversations about how to go about things.
Last week, we talked about Our Theological Task. There were a lot of words used to describe it directly from the Book of Discipline and quite honestly, I think it was a bit of an information dump. That’s when you feel like someone backed a dump truck full of words next to you and dumped them out on your head. As I thought about it this week, I found what I think is a better to say it. We should be asking good questions to get to better questions rather than answers so that we deepen our understanding of who God is and how we relate to God. In short, we have the task of taking theology – our efforts to reflect on the grace-filled action of God in our lives – and doing some serious study on it. The question is how?
When I talk about serious study, I mean we must take many things outside the Bible into consideration while reading the Bible as opposed to assuming it always has a literal interpretation. This week, we are going to get into the nitty gritty of how we, as United Methodist, approach this study using scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. In the same way that we might build a structure, we also must build an understanding of what has been preserved for us as Scripture or literally, the writings about God and those who have tried to follow God. John Wesley saw these four things – scripture, tradition, reason, and experience – as the tools to build that understanding. Today is kind of a quick introduction to these things with the encouragement that you will go out and give them a try.
The Nitty Gritty
One thing to remember about our Methodist heritage is that it was a renewal movement, intending to bring the Anglican church back to its historical and scriptural roots. As a group, Methodists were born out of an intense desire to preach and live what they called scriptural holiness, matter of being as well as believing the gospel. The way that Methodists approached this was to follow the Wesleyan model of reading scripture as necessary for salvation; having respect for the traditions, teachers, and teachings of the church; using our God given faculties to reason; and recognizing the work of the Holy Spirit in our experience and the experience of others. Each of these is a sort of raw building material for putting together our understanding used to help us better understand God and the Kingdom of God.
Scripture is the first and most important of these materials, revealing an understanding of God “so far as it is necessary for our salvation.” Because of this, we focus most of our attention, where study is concerned, on the literature we call the Bible. It is our introduction to the Living Word of God, Jesus the Christ. According to our Discipline,
Our standards affirm the Bible as the source of all that is “necessary” and “sufficient” unto salvation (Articles of Religion) and “is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice” (Confession of Faith).
What this means is that scripture hold within it everything we need to begin following in the Way of Jesus when we receive it through the wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
We properly read Scripture as part of a community and its traditions, looking at individual pieces as part of a whole. The Holy Spirit guides our scholarly inquiry and personal insight, as we work with each text, we consider what we have been able to learn about where it came from, who wrote it, and why. We see Scripture as primary, but our attempts to understand it always involve tradition, experience, and reason. Like Scripture, these may become creative vehicles of the Holy Spirit as they function within the Church. They quicken our faith, open our eyes to the wonder of God’s love, and clarify our understanding.
As we read scripture and try to make sense of it, we are not doing it alone. The church has been telling its story from the time of Pentecost until this very day as thousands of ministers stand up this morning and proclaim a dynamic and historic gospel. We have centuries of writings and experience from those who came before us and offered their understanding of biblical literature. Through their experience and understanding we have shoulders to stand on as we try – with the guidance of the Holy Spirit – to apply their lessons learned to our day and time. And the traditions we have are part of a greater set of traditions that exist as part of the worldwide Body of Christ, whose traditions and expressions are as diverse as the people that God has created around the world.
I have heard it said for most of my life that there is nothing that takes the place of experience. We bring our experience with us when we read scripture. We read Scripture considering the things in life that have helped shape who we are, and we interpret our experience in terms of Scripture. All religious experience affects all human experience; all human experience affects our understanding of religious experience. On the personal level, experience is to the individual as tradition is to the church: It is personally taking part in God’s forgiving and empowering grace. Experience authenticates in our own lives the truths revealed in Scripture and illumined in tradition, enabling us to claim the Christian witness as our own.
We are created to have the ability to think and to reason. I believe we were made that way in order for us to truly be in relationship with God, to truly be open to understanding our connection to God through the Holy Spirit. As United Methodists, we recognize this ability to think and to reason is part of how connect to God through scripture and prayer.
We use reason when we read and interpret Scripture. We use reason to figure out whether people can understand us when we share and live out our faith. We use reason to ask questions and seek understanding about God’s will and work in our life and make sure our understanding of that makes sense. We use reason to test our understanding of the bible and the traditions that we practice and to share that understanding with those around us based on scripture, the traditions, and our experience.
The Book of Discipline states,
Since all truth is from God, efforts to discern the connections between revelation and reason, faith and science, grace and nature, are useful endeavors in developing credible and communicable doctrine. We seek nothing less than a total view of reality that is decisively informed by the promises and imperatives of the Christian gospel, though we know well that such an attempt will always be marred by the limits and distortions characteristic of human knowledge.
What this means is that we use reason to see how God’s Creation is connected together, giving us a total view of our existence and how we might use that to share the message of Jesus.
Putting it all together
I love cultural oddities, those strange little curiosities that we find from time to time in society. One of the oddest is the Winchester House, built by Sarah Winchester. Sarah was the wife and heir to the Winchester Rifle fortune. In here grief after both her husband and child died, she moved out west to California and built the Winchester House, a sort of home for and apology to the spirits of those who died at the hands of her husband’s invention.
There are a lot of oddities about the house itself but one oddity that has some bearing on our sermon is that fact that Sarah never completely stopped construction. She would ask the workers to take long breaks, sometimes for a few months at a time, but she never completely stopped the work. At one time, before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the house was seven stories tall reduced to its current height of four stories only after the natural disaster. The house has “161 rooms, including 40 bedrooms, 2 ballrooms (one completed and one unfinished) as well as 47 fireplaces, over 10,000 panes of glass, 17 chimneys (with evidence of two others), two basements and three elevators” and I imagine it would have been larger had Sarah lived longer.
In the same way that the Winchester House is never finished, our theological task of studying and learning, using the tools of scripture, tradition, experience, and reason, is never finished either. I have heard it said that when a person stops growing as person they begin dying. I think spiritually the same rule applies. We will never be at the place where we know enough about to call it quits. There is always more to learn, more to understand, more to share with others.
So, keep digging. Keep learning. Keep studying.
Once you get an understanding of something, see what else there is to know about it. See what else there is to learn from others, even others that you disagree with.
The wells of God’s wisdom run deeper than we can possibly imagine. Keep drawing from them.
Brown, Francis, S.R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001.
Campbell, Ted A. Methodist Doctrine. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2011.
Hamilton, Adam. Creed: What Christians Believe and Why. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016.
The United Methodist Church. The Book of Disciple of the United Methodist Church. Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 2016.
Willimon, William H. United Methodist Beliefs. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007.
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