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Taking her cue from 29,000 cycling enthusiasts

The Rev. DeEtte Decker leads Synod School’s opening worship after pedaling down the center aisle

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. DeEtte Decker, communications director for the Presbyterian Mission Agency, turned up for opening worship at Synod School Sunday on a borrowed bicycle. (Photo by Mike Ferguson)

STORM LAKE, Iowa — With a nod to the 29,000 or so RAGBRAI riders who’d arrived in Storm Lake, Iowa, a few hours earlier, the Rev. DeEtte Decker showed up for opening worship at the 69th Annual Synod School on a borrowed bicycle that she pedaled down the center aisle of Buena Vista University’s Schaller Memorial Chapel.

Decker, communications director for the Presbyterian Mission Agency, will lead worship all week at the event held annually by the Synod of Lakes and Prairies. More than 500 people are attending Synod School, the last of its kind in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This year’s theme is “Our Family Story.”

“What would you say if I told you the Holy Bible is a library?” Decker told children gathered to think and learn along with the adults who brought them. “Some folks think of the Bible as a library of our family stories.”

“There’s stories of anything you can think of!” one child responded.

With 2 Timothy 3:14-17 as her selected text, Decker went back to a cherished memory from childhood, spending time with her maternal grandmother who’d serve up “a big bowl of burnt popcorn,” let her granddaughter have a soda, then sit down to play cards and tell stories.

“I hung on every word. I learned about her chicken named Charles. She told me how she used to ride bareback through the hills of Muhlenberg County [in western Kentucky]. She told me stories of her faith and how it had transformed her life,” Decker said. “She was always sure to let me know our family story included Jesus, about our faith family as found in the Bible — stories of justice, love, mercy and forgiveness.”

When we’re wondering where we came from or why anything matters, “our answers come from this uniquely human thing we do, and that’s telling stories,” Decker said. “When we tell stories, especially to groups, we get collective agency, a shared understanding of who we are and where we came from and what we can do together.”

To the surprise of more than 500 people, the Rev. DeEtte Decker entered Schaller Memorial Chapel on a borrowed bicycle Sunday. (Photo by Mike Ferguson)

Decker knows people who read the Bible through a variety of lenses: like it’s a history book, like it’s an inkblot “as a means of affirming who they are,” as a law book laying down what we can and cannot do, and “as a collection of myths and fables that doesn’t have a lot of relevance in my life today.”

“For me, it can feel like a puzzle. I’m trying to figure out the missing piece so I can make sense of the whole picture,” Decker said. “Sometimes I feel like I need the decipher ring that used to come in Cracker Jack boxes.”

Decker wondered: Rather than reading the Bible like it’s a puzzle, what if we read it as a mystery? “We have plenty of information on hand. The problem is how to figure out what it all means … When we read the Bible and reflect on our family stories, it can provoke us to see the kin-dom of heaven and propel us on how we are to live our lives here on Earth.”

Decker’s seminary advisor taught her that family stories can be interpreted using three chairs, which Decker used as props.

The first chair, the historical chair, stands behind the text. We ask, who is the author? What was the cultural and political climate? What were the family dynamics? Using this model, we stand behind the text looking through a historical lens.

The second chair is the literary chair, a model we’re actually sitting in the text, Decker said, looking at its type: poetry, a letter, wisdom literature, the priestly code. “Who is speaking and who’s not speaking?” she asked. “We look at the rhythm and the metaphors. We are in the text.”

The third chair is the theological chair. Here we’re standing in front of the text. Meaning is based on how the audience receives the text. “In our Presbyterian Reformed theology, we read and receive things in a certain way,” she said, a different way from her Assembly of God upbringing. You’ll receive the text differently if you’re a liberation theologian or a womanist theologian.

“A lot of folks have a favorite chair. My advisor taught me it’s OK to have a favorite, but what we really need to get the most out of the text, to really understand the mystery,” she said, is to lie down on all three at the same time, which Decker did. “That’s how you get the meaning behind the mystery.”

Decker offered a pair of questions for reflection Sunday evening:

  • What would it look like for you to approach scripture using the three chairs to interpret the meaning behind the mystery?
  • When was the last time our faith story propelled you to live out the kin-dom of heaven here on Earth?

“Our family story has a lot to tell us about our past, a whole lot to tell us about our present and how we can order our steps into the future,” she said.

High-energy music under the direction of the Rev. Burns Stanfield helped drive worship forward Sunday at Synod School. (Photo by Mike Ferguson)

Sunday’s worship was punctuated by offerings from a quality band of musicians led by the Rev. Burns Stanfield, the senior pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Boston and professional keyboardist. Upbeat song selections for opening worship included “Here in This Place,” “We are Family” by Sister Sledge and “Guide my Feet.”

Synod School continues Monday through Friday with convocation speaker the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, the PC(USA)’s advocacy director. His book, “Unbroken and Unbowed,” was published last year by Westminster John Knox Press.

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