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Re-post: Back to the Future: A Sankofa Moment

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on December 27, 2013. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

by Paul Roberts

17 If you say to yourself, “These nations are more numerous than I; how can I dispossess them?” 18 do not be afraid of them. Just remember what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt, 19 the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs and wonders, the mighty hand and the outstretched arm by which the Lord your God brought you out. (Deuteronomy 7:17-19)

13 So in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in open places, I stationed the people according to their families, with their swords, their spears, and their bows. 14 After I looked these things over, I stood up and said to the nobles and the officials and the rest of the people, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your kin, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes. (Nehemiah 4:13-14)

And Stephen replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me. The God of glory appeared to our ancestor Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran” (Acts 7:2)

These are just a few snapshots in the life of Israel, moments when they are commanded to go forward into new and sometimes dangerous places and circumstances. Each time, the people of God are challenged to first look back, to remember, to be confident not in themselves but in the God who is constantly sending and rescuing and delivering and saving and calling and loving.

sankofaIn the African-American community, we have embraced the concept of SANKOFA, from a West African proverb. SANKOFA teaches us that we must go back to our roots in order to move forward. That is, we should reach back and gather the best of what our past has to teach us, so that we can achieve our full potential as we move forward. SANKOFA is visually represented by a bird that is in forward flight while looking back, with the egg of the future in its mouth.

At Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, our tag line is “called to create what’s next.” But to create what’s next, I believe we do well to first look back, gather all the best in preparation for exploring what’s next. Should theological education today resemble that represented in scripture? Many would question whether that is even reasonable, but, if it should, then it seems that that education must be less about the accumulation of knowledge and more about the formation of a way of life, of being.

Pastoral education should not take place in an isolated academic environment, but in the midst of the world for which the disciple is being prepared. It should, at least in part, take place at a point within which there is a seamless integration of spiritual, intellectual and practical concerns; there should be strong mentoring/partnering relationships with individuals who have not just experience, but are themselves active learners, willing to push against and test the status quo, who themselves embody faith rather than just imbibe knowledge about faith. These mentors should be men and women who can exegete the culture as effectively as they can exegete Scripture and are able to guide the disciple in how to weave both exegeses together.  So, pedagogy should move outside the walls of academe and into the world of the missioning God where people live and work and worship. The interaction between academy, church and community should be always in flux.

Looking back for one more moment, Gregory of Nazianzus (who fled the pastorate four times and was finally forcibly ordained by his congregation) noted that pastoral formation is a life-long endeavor: “Not even extreme old age would be too long a limit to assign.”). Becoming a pastor is the work of a lifetime. Theological education needs to give pastors a better start on becoming a pastor.


Roberts

Paul Timothy Roberts is president-dean of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary and a member of the NEXT Church Strategy Team. You can watch his keynote to the 2013 NEXT Gathering here.

Communities of Interpretation

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating a series on officer training. We’ll hear from various perspectives about how churches might best equip those they call to the ministry of ruling elder for that service. How might we feed, encourage, and enable the imagination of our church officers? How can we balance the role of officers as discerners of the Spirit alongside church polity? How might we all learn how to fail — and learn from it? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Robert Williamson Jr.

When it comes to officer training, I imagine reading the Bible is pretty far down the list of tasks most of us consider urgent. There are issues that seem more pressing, like understanding our polity, or evangelism and church growth, or balancing the budget. Besides, we often think of pastors as the only “legitimate” interpreters of the Bible, leaving church officers and members to tend to other, more practical matters.

Yet the stories of the Bible are foundational to everything else we do. The Bible teaches us the language of the faith. It shows us how to be the people of God, living in the world and yet refusing to be conformed to it. It exposes false narratives that would keep us enthralled to Pharaoh. It declares the good news of resurrection life made possible in Jesus Christ, who came to let the oppressed go free and to declare the year of the Lord’s favor. In short, the Bible reminds us who — and whose — we are.

As such, immersion in the Bible is imperative for the life of faith. Without it, we cannot know what it means to be the church. We cannot understand the greater purpose that animates our polity, our budgets, our worship life, and our participation in God’s mission. We — all of us — need to become interpreters of the Bible.

All of Us Together

Our church structures can communicate that interpreting scripture is a task reserved for pastors and scholars. Too often, we hear the Bible read and proclaimed from the pulpit for 20 minutes on Sunday and scarcely think about it the rest of the week. But, properly understood, biblical interpretation is the work of the whole community, permeating our life together. We all have something to contribute and something to learn. While pastors and scholars have specialized knowledge that can illuminate the Bible in certain ways, each of us has our own experiences, insights, and questions that can enrich our common reading of the Bible in other ways. We read better when we read together.

In my work with Mercy Community Church of Little Rock, a 1001 New Worshipping Community whose members are mostly homeless, we engage together in Bible studies that invite that insights and experience of every reader in the room. We spend about 45 minutes to an hour reading the week’s lectionary passage. We read slowly, paying attention to the details of the text, asking whatever questions occur to us, and finding the places where the text connects to our own experience. We open it up and walk around inside it just to see what we might see.

For instance, one afternoon we studied the story of Jesus healing the Gerasene demoniac as told in Mark 5:1-20. As a biblical scholar, I wanted to focus on the political implications of the demons calling themselves “Legion,” a term for a Roman military cohort. My Mercy friends, by contrast, related personally to the demon-possessed man. They understood what it was like to be inhabited by demons, though theirs had names like “Addiction,” “Depression,” and “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” They understood what it felt like to be cast out of society and left to wander among the tombs.

Reading the story together helped us all to understand it—and each other—more deeply. I came to know more about what it’s like to struggle with demons. I even came to identify some of the demons that animate me in destructive ways — demons with names like Comfort, Success, and Prestige. In turn, my Mercy friends thought more about how their demons may themselves be manifestations of the political and economic structures of our time.

More than that, reading the Bible together helped us imagine what it means to be the church together. Like the Gerasenes, we have too often been taught to marginalize, shackle, and abandon those who struggle with their demons. Yet Jesus immediately set the man free, despite the protests of those in the community who were more concerned for their financial well-being than for the man’s restoration to wholeness. Like Jesus, we decided, the church should show compassion for the marginalized, even if it means being banished by those invested in the status quo.

But my Mercy friends saw something else in the passage that I had missed. They recognized that Jesus refused the newly-healed man’s request to follow him, instead sending him off to proclaim the good news among his own people. They suggested that those who have “been down through it” and have come out the other side have a special mission. As the healed man could proclaim the Gospel in a region where Jesus could not go, so too could my homeless friends witness to the good news in places and among people who would not listen to someone like me.

Becoming Communities of Interpretation

I tell this story simply to say this: reading the Bible with each other can change us for the better. It can help us see the world differently. It can help us to understand ourselves differently. It can shape us more fully into the people of God, bearing witness to resurrection life in a world too often shrouded by the shadow of death.

As church leaders — whether pastors, scholars, ruling elders, or deacons — we owe it to ourselves and to our communities to be immersed in the world of scripture on a regular basis. We need to find ways of reading the Bible together, letting the words of Scripture shape our sense of ourselves and our conception of what it means to be the church. As communities of faith, we need to live in the stories of the Bible, and we need the stories of the Bible to live in us.


Robert Williamson Jr. is associate professor of religious studies at Hendrix College and founding pastor of Mercy Community Church of Little Rock, a multi-denominational worshiping community welcoming all people, especially those who live on the streets. His latest book is The Forgotten Books of the Bible: Recovering the Five Scrolls for Today (Fortress Press, 2018).

Encountering God in Tyrannical Texts

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Sarah Dianne Jones is curating a series written by our workshop leaders at the 2017 National Gathering. What excites them about the Gathering? What are they looking forward to sharing and discussing during their workshop? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Frances Taylor Gench

I have been spending a good bit of my time of late in the company of biblical texts that raise my blood pressure—mulling over the question of what to do with problematic, offensive, downright tyrannical texts in a book we describe as “holy” and revere as “authoritative” and “normative” in some sense for Christian faith and practice. The Bible is full of such texts—texts that have proved to be “texts of terror” for women, slaves, Jews, Palestinians, Native Americans, gays (to mention but a few); instruments of oppression—and they present serious interpretive challenges for contemporary Christian faith and practice. Should they be repudiated? Discarded? Silenced? Or are there perhaps more effective and faithful ways of handling them?

It seems to me an important question for mainline Christians to consider. It is one with which I have wrestled my whole life. Early on in my relationship with the Bible, during my teenage years, I found myself tremendously insulted by what I thought at the time to be the apostle Paul’s view of women (e.g., 1 Timothy 2:8-15; Ephesians 5:21-33; 1 Corinthians 11:2-16; 1 Corinthians 14:33-36). At the time, it seemed to me that the best solution to this problem was to get out the scissors and perform radical surgery on the canon. Other, less drastic strategies with much the same effect were surely available, and are more often employed by mainline Christians confronted with such texts: we can simply ignore them, or dismiss them as antiquated relics and their authors as benighted savages. But these no longer seem to me to be the most constructive ways of wrestling with tyrannical texts, for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, it behooves us to stay engaged with such texts, to wrestle with them publicly and be part of the conversations they evoke, rather than relinquish our opportunity—and our responsibility, I think—to make a contribution to them, for a lot of people out there are talking about such texts, rather loudly. If we dismiss them, if we are not engaging them seriously and setting forth alternative interpretations, we are not likely to be heard or to make any impact on conversations about texts that continue to circumscribe the lives of women (and others) around the globe to this day.

Moreover, one of the most helpful things about wrestling with problematic texts is that they force us to articulate clearly how we understand the nature and authority of Scripture. When we avoid such texts we deprive ourselves, and our congregations, of the opportunity to think through, and to think deeply, about our relationship with the Bible and how God is present in our engagement with it. We deprive ourselves of opportunities to grow in understanding, to mature in faith.  

In this workshop we will address the importance of engaging tyrannical texts directly and publicly, with the expectation that we may encounter the living God in conversation with them. Indeed, the most important reason to wrestle with these texts turns out to be that God is present in all our engagement with them, forming in us the mind of Jesus Christ. We will consider interpretive strategies for engaging them with integrity, and think together about how to help our congregations grapple with the nature and authority of Scripture. Leave your scissors at home!

Encountering God in Tyrannical Texts: Helping Congregations Wrestle with Biblical Authority” is offered on Tuesday of the 2017 National Gathering during workshop block 2. 


Frances Taylor Gench is Herbert Worth and Annie H. Jackson Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, and a parish associate at The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. Her most recent publication is Encountering God in Tyrannical Texts: Reflections on Paul, Women, and the Authority of Scripture (WJKP, 2015).

Telling the Stories of God

This month, our blog series is actually a vlog series – a video blog, that is! We’re calling it “The NEXT Few Minutes.” Over the next several weeks, we’ll share with you short, 2-3 minute videos from a variety of folks around the country with the hopes they spark your own imagination. We hope you’ll learn about some trends, ask questions, and think deeply about the practice of ministry in your own setting.

Casey FitzGerald, pastor and biblical storyteller, considers what might happen if we all learned to tell God’s stories by heart. What if everyone in your context learned the stories of God such that they could tell them? How do you communicate God’s story to God’s people? Join the conversation by commenting on this blog post or on our Facebook/Twitter pages!

To see all of our videos in our “The NEXT Few Minutes” series, check out our playlist on Youtube.

How Strange Is Our Bible

This month, our blog series is actually a vlog series – a video blog, that is! We’re calling it “The NEXT Few Minutes.” Over the next several weeks, we’ll share with you short, 2-3 minute videos from a variety of folks around the country with the hopes they spark your own imagination. We hope you’ll learn about some trends, ask questions, and think deeply about the practice of ministry in your own setting.

Aric Clark reflects on the Bible and our understanding – or lack thereof – of its context. Join the conversation by commenting on this blog post or on our Facebook/Twitter pages!

To see all of our videos in our “The NEXT Few Minutes” series, check out our playlist on Youtube.