The Reformed tradition is much broader and more diverse than many of us realize, and since we’ve already featured the more conservative Justin Taylor for “Ask a Calvinist…” I thought it was time to interview someone from the progressive end of the Reformed spectrum for our “Ask a…” series. And I think we found the perfect interviewee.
The Reverend Jes Kast-Keat is a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Reformed Church in America. She currently serves as the Associate Pastor at West End Collegiate Church in Manhattan. Jes is one of the twelve voices that writes for "The Twelve. Reformed. Done Daily" which is a collaborative project of diverse theologically Reformed voices. Her theological inspirations include John Calvin, Serene Jones, Oscar Romero, Teresa of Avila, and the countless everyday theologians who ask questions and "ponder anew what the Almighty can do". Preaching the grace of God and administering the sacraments is what gives life to Jes. You can follow her on Twitter here.
You asked some fantastic questions, and Jes has responded with great thought and care. Enjoy!
From Jes: The grace and peace of the Triune God is yours!
Let’s rewind a few hundred years before we get to today’s questions, shall we? Imagine that it’s the year 1563 and we are living in a region of Germany called the Palatinate. The ruler of our land, Elector Frederick II, thanks to his wife, Princess Marie of Brandenburg-Kulmbach, is a new convert to the ideas of Calvin. He decides to gather a large group of ministers and commission them to write a Reformed confession in the form of 129 questions and answers that would serve the people as a devotional tool for preaching and teaching of Scripture. Little do we realize that some hundred years later this tool, called the Heidelberg Catechism, would be one of the most influential catechisms in the Reformed tradition.
Fast-forward to the year 2013 and let’s allow the Heidelberg Catechism to open up and frame our conversation for today:
Q 1. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.
Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
Wandering pilgrim, resistant doubter, joy-filled believer – by the grace of Jesus, we belong to God. It is in that spirit that I offer my words.
From Ouisi: “When you're doing pastoral care, you encounter suffering and sin in an upfront, here-and-now, personal and communal way. How does your Reformed faith impact your approach to human brokenness?”
Anytime I am in pastoral care with someone, I begin with the realization that I am sitting next to someone who is beloved of Christ. I am sitting next to someone who has the divine spark of God in them. Whatever suffering is brought into a pastoral care situations, I am reminded of Colossians 1:17, “In [Christ] all things hold together.” God is present; I am not God, but my role is to be keenly watching for where God is on the move, even (or especially) if that means God is crying with us in the immense pain that is present in our stories.
I am also not shocked by the ways things are not right. Systematically and personally, goodness has been thwarted. This doesn’t mean that we aren’t capable of goodness and holiness; it just means that things are much more vulnerable than we like to realize. My job is to communicate the presence of God’s grace in the midst of things gone array. I’m constantly looking for the presence of God in unexpected moments and people.
RHE asks “So I guess my question is this: How do you understand election? Is it about individual salvation from hell or something else? And how is this compatible with the otherwise inclusive posture of so many progressive Reformed churches.”
Election is about mission. Election is about the type of people we are called to be in this world and not so much about the world after this. To be potentially cliché, election isn’t so much about what I’m saved from but what I’m saved for. Election is about being called to be lovers of the world. For God so loved the world, we are now to go and do likewise.
Or to directly link the two words from your question that everyone’s eyes immediately darted to (“election” and “hell”), election is about saving people from hell. But it’s not a furnace-in-the-future type of dystopia. The elect – that is, the people of God – are called to join God in working for the redemption of all things. This means quenching the thirst of those who spend every day on this earth in a hell without access to clean water and the myriad of other hell-on-earth realities that so many people are born into.
Election isn’t just Reformed fire-insurance. It’s a free gift of God’s grace for all the people of God. We don’t do anything to earn it or deserve it. But we receive it with gratitude. And it is from this gratitude, fueled by the grace of God, that we live lives as the called and chosen (but not frozen-chosen) and elect people of God in this world.
This is why a progressive Reformed church will be so inclusive: our radical welcome is a reflection of God’s radical welcome. A God who lovingly welcomes all calls us to do the very same.
(Also, check out Nathan’s comments the first time you asked this. I don’t know who he is but his words are beautiful and accurately reflect how many of us in the Reformed tradition make sense of this!)
The following questions is from a colleague who I went to seminary with and is someone I recommend you all follow on twitter (@NatePyle79). He is a generous voice in the Reformed tradition.: What of the Reformed tradition do you struggle with most and how do you live with, and enter into, that struggle? What does the Reformed tradition uniquely offer the church and Christian thought?”
I struggle when “Reformed” is past tense rather than present tense and we forget the living God is in our midst “doing a new thing” (Isaiah 43:19). My friend, Reverend Gretchen Schoon-Tanis, reminded me that our liturgy says, “I thirst for God for the living God, where shall I go?” I struggle when we forget this, when we disengage from the world, and when we forget that God is alive in our midst in places that some are quick to dismiss. The whole world is thick of the presence of the Holy.
I think we uniquely offer the marriage of the heart and head in worship, a unique liturgy and approach to scripture, and a sacramental worldview that implicitly cares for creation.
The marriage of the heart and head in worship: Reformed theology helped me realize I didn’t have to check my intellect at the door but it opened the door that all my questions/doubts/beliefs are held in grace.
Liturgy/Scripture: Our liturgical practices centralize around a rigorous engagement of Scripture. I’ve arrived to my progressive views in part because of Scripture, not in spite of it. The congregation I serve is welcoming and affirming of the LGBTQ community because of Scripture, we are involved in alleviating hunger because of Scripture, we think God calls all sorts of genders to preach because of Scripture, etc… I ask questions of the text and the text asks questions of my life; I love that.
Sacramental Worldview/Creation Care: Look, it’s the Reformed tradition where I was first introduced to a theological framework of creation care. In John Calvin’s Commentary on the Psalms he writes: “It is no small honour that God for our sake has so magnificently adorned the world, in order that we may not only be spectators of this beauteous theatre, but also enjoy the multiplied abundance and variety of good things which are presented to us in it.”
Put another way, the entire earth is full of the steadfast love of God (Psalm 33). The Reformed tradition provides a theological framework for caring for ground we walk upon!
From Aaron: I'll pickpocket Roger Olson and ask: "Do you believe God 'designed, ordained, and governs' sin and innocent suffering for his glory?"
Essentially this question is one of theodicy: why is there suffering and evil in this world? It’s a particularly fitting question for a Reformed theologian as our tradition is one that relishes in God’s sovereignty – all things are under God’s authority.
Simply put, no, I do not believe that God ordains suffering. So what do I do with suffering? How do we make sense of it?
The great Reformed theologian Karl Barth reminds us not to mistake God’s providence with an omnicausality, meaning that God is the cause of evil. There are so many theories on evil that I’m not sure always benefit us; there is a difficult mystery on this topic. Here’s what I do believe: I believe God suffers with us. I believe, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Letters and Papers from Prison, “The Bible directs us to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.” A God who suffers with us is a God who is intimately connected to our personal and systematic liberation. God is not a divine puppeteer removed from creation wishing us luck. God is with us and for us. A Reformed theologian I highly respect, the Reverend Carol Howard Merrit, has a fantastic little piece on this idea of God being for us that I encourage you to check out.
While I struggle with the brutality of the cross, I find that this is the time and place to talk about the cross. For in this horrific moment we know a God who grieves. The cross shows us a God who suffers with us when the hands of humans enact injustice.
From William: My question: How do you cope, as a female minister in the broadly "Reformed" spectrum, with the conservative-types in your tradition who neither value nor validate you as a genuine minister or even as being genuinely "Reformed"?
I’ve been baptized. I’ve known I’ve been called to ministry since I was a child and played pastor with my stuffed animals by giving them pieces of bread and grape juice enacting the Sacrament. The greater church confirmed that inward call when I was ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament. How do I cope? I remember my baptism and I dance in those waters of grace fiercely!
It sure as hell ain’t easy. I lean into the spiritual practice of lament, often. (Did you know that just fewer than 50% of the Psalms have lament themes in them?) Lament is a way we can honestly tell God how things are disappointing and how we long for the full reign of God in the midst of the brokenness we experience. I’m really good at honest and raw prayers (that whole “I love Jesus but I swear a little” is true in how I pray). I lament and find hope again and again each time.
When I was ordained my Pastor, the Reverend Jill Russell, charged me to remember my baptism on the days it was hard and remember I am from dust and to dust I shall return on the days my pride becomes my anthem. I live between water and dust.
From Ben: People outside the Reformed tradition often write about it as if it were synonymous with "Calvinism." (I've probably been guilty of this a time or two.) What do you wish the rest of us knew about Reformed theology that's bigger than just Calvin, Five Points, etc? (And conversely, what do you appreciate most about Calvin?)
I personally identify as a theologian and minister in the Reformed tradition and usually not just a Calvinist (though I do love much of Calvin). Why? Because there are so many voices between the Reformation and today that nuance this tradition so beautifully. I think the Reformed tradition is wide and deep. It was because of the book Feminist and Womanist Essays in Reformed Dogmatics that I first became a feminist theologian. I remember writing a paper on traditional views of atonement in light of feminist theology in seminary and thinking “I love this stuff!” (I got a 100% on that paper, still proud of that!) Imagine that, Reformed theology helped me become a feminist! I also suggest checking out Serene Jones’ book Feminist Theory and Christian Theology for a Reformed perspective.
I think John Calvin was more of a mystic than what many know of him today. He writes about our mystical union with Christ, particularly in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. We are raised up to God and Christ meets us. Something mystical happens in the feast of grace. Wine and bread, these are the gifts of God for the people of God, Amen!
What do I hope I leave you with?
1) I am one voice in a large stream and do not represent the totality of progressive Reformed theology.
2) Bread, wine, water. Gifts of grace for you.
3) Simply, Jesus loves you.
Thank you for your questions! I also want to thank Reverend’s Wayne Bowerman, Stacey Midge, and Jim Kast-Keat for their conversations with me in responding to your questions. I believe in the collective voice of the church! Know God is with each of you in your questions, thoughts, and beliefs.
Reverend Jes Kast-Keat
Note: Kelly Youngblood is facilitating a conversation around the question, "What does it mean to be Reformed?" featuring a member of a church in the RCA, a CRC pastor, and a UMC pastor. Be sure to check that out!