Archive for September, 2012

Did Abraham exist? John Goldingay tackles the question

September 18, 2012

As I’ve indicated before, Old Testament scholar John Goldingay is a blessing to the Church. I try to use his For Everyone commentaries whenever I preach or teach on the Old Testament. (N.T. Wright, you may recall, wrote the equivalent New Testament series.) In his commentary on the call of Abraham in Genesis 12, which I preached on last Sunday, Goldingay tackles a thorny question in academic circles: Did Abraham really exist, or was his story a parable?

Of course, most of us have no trouble believing that Abraham was an historical person, myself included. But in the world of scholarship, where the rules of evidence are far more stringent, nothing is taken for granted. If you say, “The Bible tells me so,” you’ll be laughed out of the building. Goldingay is aware of these rules. From a purely academic point of view, he describes the problem as follows: “Abraham lived over three thousand years ago in an area and a culture that left no historical records. There is never going to be the kind of evidence that will make definitive judgments possible about his life on purely historical grounds.”

But Goldingay points to some intriguing indirect evidence for the historicity of Abraham:

Having said that, a striking feature of [Abraham’s] story is for me the strongest piece of evidence of a historical kind that it is more than a parable. There is a big difference between the way Genesis pictures Abraham’s faith and the way Israel’s later faith works. The reference here to the oak at Moreh illustrates the point; we will also read of Abraham’s living by the oaks of Mamre, further south. Why should that be mentioned? The Old Testament later attacks Israel for offering sacrifices “under oak, polar, and terebinth, because its shade is good” (Hosea 4:13). Such worship styles are too like the traditional worship practices of Canaan. The Torah likewise prohibits the Israelites from erecting sacred posts or pillars, yet Genesis records Israel’s ancestors doing so without implying any criticism. In general, people such as Abraham are much friendlier in relationships with other peoples in Canaan than the Old Testament later encourages Israel to be. If the authors of Genesis were making up a story, it seems more likely they would portray Abraham’s relating to God in the way they do themselves, and less likely they would portray him acting in a way the Torah will see as unorthodox. This is not a knockdown argument to prove the Genesis stories are factual, but it does suggest that they are unlikely to be simply made up.[†]

John Goldingay, Genesis for Everyone, Part One (Louisville: WJK, 2010), 141-2.

The theological implications of stolen pastries

September 17, 2012

In this photo, I just finished eating mandazi with tea, a Kenyan custom I could get used to!

In Vinebranch yesterday, I showed this short video of the Kenyan worship service from the previous week. One part of the worship service, as you can see from the video, featured testimonies. One pastor described a recent experience in which thieves broke into his house while he and his wife were gone. They were relieved to discover that the only thing missing was the mandazi that his wife had cooked the night before. (Mandazi is a puffy fried bread similar to beignets, but without the powdered sugar. Kenyans often eat it with tea.) He concluded his testimony by saying how thankful to God he is that God is “taking care of us pastors.”

One person I talked to objected to this testimony. She didn’t believe that God had intervened in the manner implied by his testimony. In other words, she didn’t believe that God prevented the thieves from stealing more valuable possessions—or even doing much worse harm. After all, it’s easy to imagine all the evil that God allows to happen every day. Why should he intervene in one instance and not another?

It’s a good question that every thoughtful believer must deal with. I remember listening to a Christian radio station back in 1989, the morning after an earthquake struck San Francisco (during the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s). The DJ, when discussing the earthquake, said that he had some friends in the Bay area, and he was relieved that they were unharmed by the quake. He said, “I just thank God that they’re all right!”

Even as a 19 year old Christian, I had a theological problem with this response. If you thank God for sparing the lives of your friends, then it follows logically that you blame God (or, in some perverse Calvinist way, “thank” God) for allowing people to die—or for killing people. (Same difference, I guess.) A more Christian response to such a natural disaster would be to thank God for giving you these friendships and, possibly, for reminding you through this disaster that life is fragile, and we shouldn’t take it for granted.

Getting back to the objection at hand, my friend asked, “What if the thieves didn’t only steal the mandazi. What if something much worse happened? Would the pastor be offering a testimony thanking God for that?”

My first response is that this is a hypothetical that didn’t happen. By all means, if something much worse had happened to this pastor, then his testimony would be different.  I suspect, given the man’s faith, that he would see God’s hand in it somewhere—not (I hope) in causing the evil, but in bringing something good out of it. As with the San Francisco earthquake, it’s helpful that God uses bad things to remind us of how precious life is. Even in this more trivial case of robbery, I’m sure that God used the experience to teach this pastor something. The pastor’s gratitude to God is probably related to this.

What’s at stake in my friend’s objection, however, is the question of God’s providence and the extent to which God is active in our world. We post-Enlightenment Westerners easily fall victim to a kind of Deism that severely limits God’s involvement in our universe. God winds up the universe like a clock and lets it run on its own—maybe occasionally intervening with a miracle here and there, but those occasions are rare.

This Deism is far removed from the biblical and Christian understanding of providence. As Paul tells the Athenians in Acts 17, God is the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.” God sustains the universe, including every life within it, at every moment, by the power of the Holy Spirit. If God removed his Spirit from us, we would cease to exist. In this sense, every moment of life we enjoy—every heartbeat, every breath—is a ongoing gift from a God who is closer to us than we are to ourselves.

It’s also clear from scripture (as in Romans 8:28, for example) that God directs the universe toward the good, while at the same time respecting human freedom. He isn’t sitting on the sidelines, helpless to do anything about evil. We pray, “deliver us from evil,” believing that God actually has the power to do so. Although this doesn’t mean that God delivers us from all evil, we still have hope: through the cross of his Son Jesus, he has defeated the forces of evil—a victory that will be made manifest on the other side of resurrection.

From my perspective, then, miracles are not exceptional events; they happen all the time—even if they don’t break the laws of physics.

So, did God intervene to limit the harm caused by these thieves? I have no theological reason to doubt it.

The fact is that God blesses us. As scripture and common sense show us, he doesn’t distribute his blessings impartially or equitably. We human beings don’t like this. Didn’t Cain murder Abel because he perceived the “unfairness” of God’s blessings? As I preached yesterday, however, we’re not meant to horde our blessings; we’re meant to share them with others. (We obviously don’t like that, either!)

Getting back to our hypothetical situation: Suppose the pastor’s house had been completely ransacked. His most valuable possessions were stolen. He lost everything. Further suppose that his friends, neighbors, and fellow church members gathered their resources together to support and provide for him and his family in the aftermath of the crisis. Through their efforts, this crime—as evil as it was—didn’t bring him to ruin. Instead, it reminded him in a powerful way of God’s love and grace.

By all means, had this happened, his testimony would have been different. But he would have had as much reason to be thankful. He could still thank God that “God is taking care of us pastors.”

Finishing up our work in Kenya

September 13, 2012

I thought that teaching church history, Wesleyan theology, and Methodist doctrine to a group of indigenous pastors in Kenya would be difficult. Instead, it was easy—and one of the greatest joys of my  life. God is good. Yesterday, we completed our work and led the pastors in a worship service. We reaffirmed our baptism, celebrated Holy Communion, and gave out course completion certificates.

Susan and I taught these pastors the equivalent of our United Methodist “License to Preach” curriculum. We believe strongly that these pastors are now well-equipped to perform all the duties of a local pastor—including the sacraments. With their bishop’s approval, which we expect to happen, they will soon be able to baptize and preside over the Lord’s Supper. Whatever they do, they will be able to minister on a strong Methodist foundation.

I hope to share more photos and video of my trip in the next several days. (I look forward to having reliable wi-fi again!) Here’s a screen grab of our reaffirmation of baptism service yesterday.

Worship in Kenya

September 11, 2012

As promised, here is a 4-minute video documenting the amazing worship service that I experienced last Sunday. I was moved to tears during the service. Heck, I was moved to tears re-watching the video footage when I edited this! I hope you get a sense of what a powerful experience it was. The white guy speaking in the video is Bill Coble, a United Methodist Volunteer in Mission whose work in Kenya made a way for me to be here. He and his fiancee, Chat (also seen in the video), are, literally, my new heroes.

Blessing upon blessing

September 10, 2012

Sorry for no blog entry yesterday. The wi-fi at our hotel in Nakuru isn’t working. In order to have internet, we have to share this USB cellular internet thingie. By the time I had unfettered access to it—last night after a long day of worship and teaching—I was wiped out. I went back to my room at 10:00 last night, turned the TV on, and fell asleep quickly to an episode of Saturday Night Live from last year. (Maya Rudolph was guest host, and the opening sketch related to Jeremy Lin and “Linsanity.” The parental caution before the broadcast warned that the show contained adult language and “prejudice.”)

Believe it or not, my drawing of our Wesleyan understanding of the way of salvation was a big hit.

This trip so far has been blessing upon blessing. Before I left, you couldn’t have convinced me it would be this good. Prior to my coming here, there have been sacred and precious moments during my pastoral ministry when I know—I feel in the deepest recesses of my heart—that I am exactly where I’m supposed to be, that I have been put into a certain place for such a time as this, that my gifts are being used to their fullest extent. I have felt that way every time I’ve stood before this group of fellow pastors and taught! And I’m sure that my colleague, the Rev. Dr. Susan Taylor, would say the same.

I overheard one of my students say to another, “I like the way he preaches when he talks!” I consider that a compliment.

In my next post, I hope to include a short video featuring yesterday’s worship service. At over two hours long, the service felt short, if you can believe it. When the district superintendent welcomed me, Susan, and the rest of the mission team from Peachtree Road UMC, I told the group of pastors and family, “If I can bless you with a small fraction of the blessing with which you’ve blessed me, my work here will be successful.”

I said that knowing already that my work here was successful. Thank God!

With my new friend, Pastor Joseph.

Day 2: “When Jesus say yes, nobody can say no”

September 8, 2012

We began teaching our pastor training class yesterday. The people attending the class—about 40 of them—are mostly already serving churches as United Methodist lay pastors.

Before we began the class, as these pastors arrived at the conference center, we asked them about the challenges facing them in their ministries. One recurring theme was a lack of resources. Some pastors have nothing by our standards—no church building, no musical instruments, and, in some cases, no salary(!). They have nothing except their call from God, the gospel they proclaim, and the spiritually hungry people who stand ready and eager to respond to it.

“Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee.” These lay pastors are living out these words every day.

Listening to their challenges, I felt deeply humbled. What do I have to offer them? Theology?

And then I started teaching… I had nothing to worry about! They are hungry for a deeper understanding of their theological, doctrinal, and historical heritage as Methodists.

As you can see from the video above, they are good Methodists who, as Wesley admonished, “sing lustily and with good courage.”

Nairobi this morning

September 7, 2012

I’m in Nairobi this morning. We’re headed to a town called Nakuru in a little while. Our first class on Wesleyan theology and church history starts this afternoon. We have 40 United Methodist pastors coming to the class.

This morning I read Matthew 14:22-33 during my prayer time, the story of Peter’s attempting to walk out to Jesus on the water. What struck me this morning is Peter’s words to Jesus after he sees Jesus walking on the water toward him and the other disciples: “Lord, if it’s you, order me to come to you on the water.” Isn’t this a strange test of Jesus? If Jesus proves false and fails the test, Peter drowns. If Jesus proves true and passes the test, Peter lives.

We can’t know whether Jesus will take care of us or not until we take that first, risky step of faith. So here I am, here in Kenya of all places, doing something far outside of my comfort zone. Jesus is taking care of me!

At the airport in Nairobi last night, after about 16 hours of flying.

With my friends and fellow teachers, Leslie Watkins and Susan Taylor. We’re in the courtyard of the Hampton House, a Baptist mission house in Nairobi.

Bound for Kenya

September 6, 2012

I’m currently at the Amsterdam airport en route to Kenya. For the next eight days or so, I’ll be teaching Wesleyan theology and Methodist history to a group of 40 indigenous United Methodist pastors. The United Methodist Church is growing explosively in Kenya. We can’t start churches fast enough or train and equip pastors fast enough. I’m a part of the training and equipping effort.

If the wi-fi works, I’ll post updates each day on my blog.

My 12-year-old daughter is a little worried about my travels, as you can see.

Following up on Sunday’s sermon

September 4, 2012

On presenting our bodies as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1), John Stott wrote the following, with eloquence:

So we are to offer different parts of our bodies not to sin as ‘instruments of wickedness’ but to God as ‘instruments of righteousness’ (6:13, 16, 19). Then our feet will walk in his paths, our lips will speak the truth and spread the gospel, our tongues will bring healing, our hands will lift up those who have fallen, and perform many mundane tasks as well like cooking and cleaning, typing and mending; our arms will embrace the lonely and the unloved, our ears will listen to the cries of the distressed, and our eyes will look humbly and patiently towards God. [†]

John W. Stott, The Message of Romans (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 1994), 322.

The gospel according to conspiracy theorists

September 4, 2012

Philip Jenkins, a church historian and an expert on trends in global Christianity, debunks a popular recent myth that says that the Church Fathers covered up the “real” truth about Jesus and his disciples—as revealed in the many non-canonical gospels—in order to suit its political agenda. Not that I’ve read it, but I assume that Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code trades in these sorts of conspiracy theories.

By all means, there were plenty of other gospels, but all of them—even the famous Gnostic text, The Gospel According to Thomas—came much later than the four in our New Testament. As Jenkins writes:

As I discussed some years ago in my book Hidden Gospels, the fact that a text circulated among the “early Christians” (anywhere from the first through fourth centuries) is irrelevant to what it can tell us about Jesus or his world. Contrary to the Telegraph account – and good grief, this is a conservative paper – the reason early church leaders privileged those particular four gospels was that they were so evidently the earliest and most authoritative texts, without serious competition. No body of cranky patriarchs sat around and said, “Well, we have to vote out Mary because it’s, um, a tad sexual. John can stay because it spiritualizes everything, and that’ll be useful in a century or so when we get political power.” If you read the actual church debates over which texts should be canonized or excluded, you will be deeply impressed by the historical logic and good sense they demonstrate, and their powerful sense of history and chronology.

Forgive me for the obvious remark, but they never seriously contemplated adding most of the Nag Hammadi texts because they had not even been written in the mid-second century, and in any case, these relied on the Big Four for any historical descriptions. I can point confidently to chains of historical evidence and authority linking the apostles to Mark, and on to the other synoptics, and John has its distinctive foundations. Literally no other gospel – including Thomas – has anything vaguely comparable.

In other words, we have the Big Four gospels that we have because they are, by far, the oldest and most reliable accounts of Jesus, not because there were dozens and dozens floating around at the same time, all of which were equally well-attested, and the Church chose the four that it liked the most.

What would a gospel written at least 80 years after the earliest gospel (Mark), which relies not on apostolic and other eyewitness testimony but on the Big Four gospels themselves, have to teach us about Jesus that we ought to know?

Not a thing.