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Preacher at Vital Congregations gathering: ‘Rehearse Scripture together’

Anna Carter Florence encourages church leaders to discover together ‘the script in Scripture’

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. Anna Carter Florence, the Peter Marshall Professor of Preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary, was in conversation Tuesday with church leaders attending the East Coast Vital Congregations gathering following morning devotions. (Photo by Paul Seebeck)

ATLANTA — During Tuesday’s devotion/reflection at the Vital Congregations East Coast gathering in Atlanta, Dr. Anna Carter Florence, preaching professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, shared a personal experience that she said changed her life.

As a 19-year old in college she signed up for a theater class.  The once-a-week lectures were so dense that she needed a dictionary and thought about dropping the class. But the rest of the week was brilliant because the professor stopped talking about plays.

“Go unearth the scene,” he told his students. “Come back when you’ve found something true.”

That phrase opened a whole new world for Carter Florence. It left her knowing that some texts need to be practiced.

“Scripture was meant for us to encounter it to find something true,” she said, “We do this best when we do it together.”

What she’s discovered is that even when people who fundamentally disagree gather to encounter Scripture together, they enjoy it.  They stop fighting.  As they listen to Scripture, they start listening to each other, she said.

“Their focus is on finding something true,” she said, “rather that deciding what to do.”

One of the ways Carter Florence reads Scripture in community is to highlight the verbs in a text because it leads to a discovery together —  the script of Scripture, she said. And in the biblical text, she says, “there are more scripts than we could rehearse in a lifetime.”

Then the 100 mid-council and church leaders gathered here read together from Gen. 3:7-8, describing what happened to Adam and Eve after they ate of the fruit of the tree that God told them to not to eat:

“Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.” 

Focusing on the verbs, Carter Florence called them out, one by one: “Were opened,” “knew,” “sewed,” “made,” “heard,” “walking” and “hid.”

Opening up Scripture this way, Carter Florence said she was doing what she believes, after 21 years of teaching, is her primary job — helping preachers fall in love with Scripture.

Pointing out that “were opened’ is a passive verb, Carter Florence admitted she would’ve preferred an active verb, noting that when she opens her eyes, it is most often to see what she wants to see.

“That may not be enough for me,” she says. “It takes a fair amount of effort to get us to open our eyes.”

“Try it with each other,” she added to laughter. “It takes quite a bit of maneuvering.”

And so it went, verb by verb, echoing that phrase she learned as a 19-year-old: “Come back when you find something true.”

The verb “knew,” she said, is defining — there’s no wiggle room.  In truth, Adam and Eve were naked.  They’d always been this way, but now they were exposed.  Unprotected, they were vulnerable. There was no getting out.

“What happens next?” she asked.  “They sewed and they made (fig leaves and loincloths).”

Calling this crisis management that is “fitting of the whole human enterprise,” Carter Florence described how her class discovered this, when they spent an afternoon together doing what Adam and Eve did: constructing cover-ups together.

“Figuratively and literally it was clear that cover-ups take effort,” she said. “Takes hours to sew one cloth, and fig leaves aren’t a good choice for clothes. They wilt and they itch.”

“it shows how far human beings will go,” she said, “to cover up shame.”

Then Adam and Eve heard God walking.  Normally, Carter Florence said, this would have been a comforting sound. An evening breeze, God out for an evening stroll, watering flowers, getting ready to sit down with them to catch up on the day’s news, perhaps.

“But familiar rituals have no meaning or power when you have to own, ‘How could you?’ Why would you?’”  she said.  “Far from reassuring, you feel like an explosion is imminent.”

Now Adam and Eve have only a moment to decide. God is on the move.  Will they step out and tell the truth?  In an ideal world, yes.  But their fear trumps faith.  They hid from God.

“They attempt what is theologically impossible,” says Carter Florence. “But if we’re honest, don’t we all try this anyway? We think, ‘Who are we? What have we done? What has the world done to us?’”

Yet instead of abandoning them, God calls out, “Where are you?” — leaving them to come out by themselves.

For Carter Florence it’s like the image of a parent playing hide-and-seek with a 2-year-old, crying out, “Where are you?” even though the parent has already seen part of the child hiding, wanting to be found.

“The biblical text is a collection of scripts God has given us to rehearse until something gorgeous happens,” she said. “When we read Scripture in community, we have no idea where it will take us, or what will happen. But God’s reign is breaking its way in.”

The Rev. Dr. Kathryn Threadgill, the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s coordinator for Vital Congregations, speaks with church leaders about both the theory and theology behind the Vital Congregations initiative. (Photo by Paul Seebeck)

The East Coast Vital Congregations gathering continues through Thursday morning. Leaders from eight presbyteries are here to pray, plan and worship together as they prepare to launch the two-year Vital Congregations initiative in their presbyteries and churches in 2020.

During the first year of revitalization process, churches study together seven marks of vital congregations (click here to read), assessing and then discerning what new thing God might be calling them to do. The second year is about joining God in the new thing taking place and living faithfully into the change

The Office of Vital Congregations is part of the PC(USA)’s Theology, Formation & Evangelism ministry.


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