I don’t always cry at sad movies, but sometimes I do. I almost always cry when I’ve watched one particular movie, though — and this one less than 30 seconds long. I’m talking about the infamous “Zapruder film” that inadvertently recorded the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963.
I was alive at the time, but just a baby; thus too young “to remember where I was” when I heard the news — though I understand that some sociological studies have confirmed the phenomenon that people who were old enough commonly really did remember exactly where they were when they got the news that the President of the United States had been shot. It’s testimony to the entire U.S. populace that day experiencing something like large-scale PTSD.
I am a blessed man. That’s the truth. I have received from the Lord’s hand far more kindness and protection, more prosperity and success than I deserve. This I know. And to this I testify without qualification.
I also work in a field in which arrogance is common.
It’s true that we train ministers at Biblical Seminary, and missional ones at that; so that the emphasis on taking up one’s cross to follow Jesus (INTO the world no less) provides subject matter that calls for sacrifice, service, and humility.
It’s also true that a seminary is a graduate level academic institution. It’s in the academic arena where arrogance seems naturally to arise. This is the place where highly intelligent, highly accomplished people form carefully crafted critical assessments and forward sharply honed arguments. One of my mentors, a true scholar and founding faculty member at Biblical, once warned me matter-of-factly, “Arrogance is an occupational hazard of this business.”
This I see, but this can also scare me. Because pride is a bigger problem than we think, methinks.
Five observations that can send a little chill up my spine (how about you?) . . . :
1. God despises not just overtly proud actions but pride of heart.
Look at Proverbs 16:5, for example: “The LORD detests all the proud of heart. Be sure of this: They will not go unpunished.” (Cf. Prov. 16:18.) So, I guess that means the Lord is allowed to make even the private thoughts one may have to oneself fair game for discipline? . . . Eesh. (By the way, Jesus doesn’t lighten up on this point one bit; if anything, He screws the point even tighter — see Luke 12:1-5.)
In a number of ways, the Lord has been confronting me recently with the problem of pride. Probably any Christian seeking to love God and who knows themselves will eventually confront the unpleasant recognition of pride lurking in the corners of their own heart. Lately, I’ve run across pointed rebukes of pride in my devotional scriptural reading, it’s surfaced in some of the teaching and preaching I’ve been preparing; and then some personal life circumstances have forced me to peer into the matter more closely and more seriously than I expected or wanted.
I’ve come to believe that pride is at the center of the gospel. And by that I mean: overcoming pride and its toxic fruit is not just one of the things addressed by the gospel. It’s at the center of why there is a gospel at all.
I have found that missional engagement with the world requires a biblical prophetic imagination that enables us to see the world anew. The prophetic imagination doesn’t, however, simply descend out of a transcendent, idealized realm when we open the Scriptures in our secluded, ivory tower studies. It is forged out of a dynamic discourse between our messy context and the text of God; an ongoing wrestling between our lived, concrete situations and the ancient words that reveal the God who created and rules over our world here and now.
Take Genesis 1, for instance. It is the account of a Creator who methodically takes on chaos and desolation in the course of 6 days and utterly triumphs over them. The first 3 days, God orders what was a big, huge mess into separated, differentiated spaces or realms. The next 3 days, God populates each of those spaces with living beings. The end result is the complete defeat of chaos and emptiness, and a world that is beautifully and triumphantly ordered and teeming with joyous life. Humankind is created on the last day in God’s image and placed in this world, as a sign of his victory and life-giving rule over creation, and the whole thing is declared to be “very good.”
How do we read this account in the context of inner city Philadelphia?
I live and minister in the Germantown neighborhood, where since 10 years ago I have been a part of a church-planting effort. Germantown used to be populated by children of German immigrants, but like so many urban neighborhoods in America, experienced white flight and the resulting economic collapse in the latter part of the 20th century. There are rumors of neighborhood renewal, but Germantown’s historic high school was recently shut down, a victim of the troubled Philadelphia School District’s deep financial hole. Many blocks have long been made up of Section 8 (government-subsidized) rental properties and abandoned structures, and many of their residents have lived for generations under the national poverty line.
For many years, I helped to run a summer street camp for the neighborhood kids. Along the way, I realized that most Bible curriculums didn’t speak to our inner city context—they usually assumed a middle-class, suburban audience. So a friend who also ran his own camp in North Philly and I collaborated to produce our own Bible curriculums that had our neighborhood children in mind. The first Bible book we worked on was Genesis. For the lessons covering creation and fall, I produced two illustrations—one for the very good creation that God had always intended for his image-bearers, and another for the alienation that have corrupted every dimension of life and kind of relationships that we experience.
“The Fall” portrays chaos and desolation. Before God's work of creation, and after the fall, the place is like a warzone, with crumbling, burned up shells of houses; trash and debris spilling out and filling up all the spaces; graffiti and vandalism everywhere; the church is shut up tight like a fortress; the corner store is abandoned; the only economic activity going on is a corner drug deal; a man is a shell of himself; a police helicopter is flying overhead—the place is a police state, where fear rules. The kids could identify with this because they've seen it and lived it in our neighborhood.
But they could also identify with the other picture that portrayed shalom, the state of the world when God is done with his work of creation, his good design for the world. The houses are in good condition for people to live in; people live in safety and in harmony with each other; there is no fear when they interact with each other, only friendliness; kids are playing on the streets and thriving; the streets are clean and bright; the church is open to the community and there is neighboring (missional engagement!) going on right on its doorsteps; the corner store is open for business and employment. Kids see this picture and they resonate with it too because they know what a good community looks like. They've lived through this too, and their heart instinctively longs for shalom.
The gospel of Jesus Christ tells our neighborhood kids that God has once again defeated the powers of chaos and death and brought in order and life because God’s own Son took on all the dark powers and utterly triumphed over them on the cross. One day, God’s people will have shalom, the “very good” creation which we lost but which we have regained in Christ. In the meantime, we can experience his victory as we see people, families, communities, and cities be transformed from places where chaos and desolation reigns to places of life and order. We can have glimpses—not the full thing, but real, substantial occurrences—of the kingdom of God that Jesus has secured for us. God’s good design for his creation will be realized fully one day; but we can taste it and see it today in our inner city community.
This kind of reading can, I believe, help us become a better missional community of Christ in our contexts. The gospel that has transformed us is also at work transforming this fallen world into a redeemed world. The church’s imagination will need to be captured by this biblical vision so that we might faithfully, courageously, and joyfully engage our hurting, chaotic, and desolate but also joyous, God’s-glory-reflecting, and groaning-for-redemption world.
The is the second installment on teaching at a missional seminary. A year ago Biblical’s faculty reflected on how we teach our missional curriculum. The impetus for the project was to give careful attention to the delivery of theological education and how it is shaped by theological commitments. Here are some more responses of the faculty to the question “How do your missional commitments shape your teaching?”
In Teaching Hebrew
For my Hebrew classes, I highlight the idea that learning a different language can be a missional endeavor. Languages have a way of giving us a window into the culture of its native speakers, which can help us to begin seeing things through their perspective. Hence, it helps us to be more incarnational. Learning an ancient language is not the same as learning a living language, as we can’t interact with native speakers (e.g., to ask for clarification, etc.). However, it does allow us get inside the culture a little bit, which is valuable for understanding scripture in its own context. And hopefully the exercise itself, along with the insights that come from it, transfers to incarnational ministry today. - Rick Houseknecht, ThM
In Teaching Theology
First, God’s being “a Trinitarian community of unity amidst diversity” in Himself impacts how I understand and teach the importance of the community of faith (the church) and the family (husband, wife, and kids). These communal entities are identified biblically as modeling the Trinitarian God. It is God expressing, conveying, and portraying His own harmonious character and being that accounts for biblical teaching regarding the image of God (imago Dei), interpersonal relationships in marriage, home, community of faith, neighbor/neighborhood, and restoring the interpersonal harmony that emblemizes God Himself that is the fundamental point of God’s mission of which we are a part.
In a similar vein, “generous orthodoxy” is included as a critical part of what we conceive God’s mission to be. We emphasize both “orthodoxy” (being concerned for truth) and “generosity” (being concerned with cooperating and living harmoniously with fellow believers) in accordance with what Jesus says in His final prayer to the Father is the mission (John 17). Included in this mission is “that they [we] may be one” even as Father and Son are “one.” For us, “generous orthodoxy” is not just a pragmatic concern for greater cooperation and ministerial effectiveness; generous orthodoxy is rooted in biblical teaching, portraying who God is qua God. - Todd Mangum, PhD
In Teaching the Old Testament
The mission is God’s and he invites us to get involved wherever we are. I emphasize in a variety of ways. One way I do this is by focusing on the many call narratives (Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Jonah, etc.), as God invites his people to get involved in his mission. Many students are looking to hear from God about their future during their time in seminary. It’s good for them to realize that God is calling them to engage now in his mission, and not to simply wait until they graduate.
God’s mission emphasizes that Christians are blessed to be a blessing. This is huge theme in Genesis, but I emphasize it in other books as well. Christians are to be outward focused, looking for ways to bless the people around us. At the end of the Genesis course, students pray prayers of blessing upon their fellow classmates.
God’s mission involves a concern for the marginalized, the poor, the oppressed, the foreigner, the orphan, the widow, and the disabled. Evangelical Christians haven’t always done well in this regard. In my Isaiah course (where injustice is of course a major theme), students visit a justice ministry and get involved in practical service, and then they write up a summary of their experience.
God’s mission involves working together with all Christians, even ones we might not agree with theologically. Missional Christian movements will be characterized by diversity: ethnic, gender, theological, sociological. We model this in classes by listening to all participants and valuing their perspective, even when we disagree. - David Lamb, PhD
This week Forbes released another top 10 list based on surveys by E-Poll Market Research -- this one touting (of all things) the NFL's Most-Disliked Players and crowning Eagles' starting quarterback, Michael Vick, as number one.
To be sure, Michael Vick has made some mistakes -- some serious mistakes. Being promoted as the "next big thing" can go to the head of any young athlete. That seems to have been the case with Mr. Vick. However, I am flummoxed that after four years on the straight and narrow he would top the list of the NFL's most disliked players.
I happen to love stories of redemption. One of the hallmarks of Christianity is the message of redemption. In the broad sense, the Bible is largely a collection of one redemptive story after another. If one gets nothing else from reading the Bible they cannot miss the overarching theme that there is always hope no matter how far a person has fallen.
Consider Judah, for example, son number four of the patriarch Jacob. According to patriarchal practices a man's firstborn son is privileged with a double inheritance and priority in rank over younger siblings. Judah is outraged when his father Jacob flagrantly violates ancient patriarchal protocol and bypasses ten older sons in favor of Joseph, son of his second wife Rachel. Judah comes unhinged and actually sells his younger half-brother to slave traders. We call that human trafficking today.
Then there is the Apostle Paul who in his pre-apostolic days was a religious terrorist--tracking down, terrorizing, and persecuting Christians, then agreeing to their murders.
Compose a list of the "Most Disliked Men in the Bible" and Judah and Paul are both in the running -- significantly outdistancing any NFL player considered by Forbes.
But God's redemptive powers are at work in both stories, and both men make dramatic U-turns. Judah later puts his own life on the line to rescue the youngest of Jacob's sons. Paul becomes the great apostle of the Christian gospel and will eventually suffer martyrdom in the movement he once fought to crush.
The reversals are staggering, but much needed reminders that no one is beyond hope.
Redemptive powers are at work in the Michael Vick story too. Animal lovers (who presumably are well-represented among the 1,100 fans polled) may have a long memory, but the lovers of redemptive stories will find much to celebrate here.
I don't think it's overstating things to say Michael Vick's story is possibly the most significant story playing out in the NFL today.
Naming Vick as the most disliked NFL player of 2013 serves no useful purpose and cheats us all of the kind of hope his story offers -- the kind of hope we need to hear when there is so much in the news to dishearten.
Vick's U-turn sends a message of hope to countless young men who have gotten off-track and need a story like this to remind them there is hope for them too. The beautiful father-son relationship between Vick and the highly esteemed Super Bowl winning coach, Tony Dungy, is a welcome breath of fresh air in our father-hungry culture. The Philadelphia Eagles' offer of a second chance to a gifted athlete underscores the possibility that there can be new beginnings. With God's help, Vick is turning his life around. Four years and counting, he is moving steadily forward.
Rather than pointing to the past, wouldn't we all be better served to be cheering him on? For that matter, maybe Forbes could use a little redemption too -- a polling U-turn by throwing out the "Most Disliked NFL Players" poll to consider polling the "Most Redemptive Stories of 2013."