December 15, 2017

Whose Christmas Story?

Christmas greetings from Charlottesville! So, what did that first Christmas actually look like? We Americans tend to visualize Joseph, Mary and a donkey trudging tiredly to Bethlehem, only to find themselves on their own in a barn once it’s time for the baby to be born. Because that’s how it happened, right? But in one of my favorite how-to-study-the-Bible textbooks the author, a former Ethiopia missionary, describes what he saw in a Christmas pageant in rural Ethiopia. In this pageant:

Joseph and Mary did not travel alone. Mary, quite big in her last month of pregnancy, was accompanied by over a dozen aunts and female cousins. Joseph walked alone in front, followed by all of these women, who were chatting and giggling merrily about babies and ‘motherly’ things… A few minutes later the noisy entourage arrived in Bethlehem and were directed to the ‘sheep pen’ crowded with sheep. Soon Mary started labor. Joseph paced nervously back and forth in front of the stable while the women, several of them midwives, crowded around Mary to help deliver the baby. A short labor ensued, and soon the women all began a high shrill vibrating cry – the typical Ethiopian joy cry that announces the birth of every child in Ethiopia… Hearing the cry, Joseph ran into the sheep pen to see the newborn baby. (Duvall & Hays, Grasping God’s Word, 3rd edn, Zondervan, 2012)

Makes perfect sense… to an Ethiopian. Duvall & Hays explain, “As we in America portray the story, we fill in the silent gaps in the text with an Americanized point of view. In our world we deal primarily with nuclear family units (Mom, Dad, children), and so we have no problem with Joseph and Mary traveling by themselves… We are familiar in our culture with the scene of a young man and his pregnant wife rushing off alone to the hospital by themselves as she starts into labor… The Ethiopians, by contrast, have a different cultural experience with childbirth… The birth of a baby … is an extended family affair. Ethiopian relatives or neighborhood midwives (friends of the family) deliver the baby. To send the young mother on a trip without her female relatives is unthinkable, as is the thought of the young, inexperienced Joseph somehow doubling as an obstetrician.”

This is why I’m committed to doing theological education in places like Africa and India, rather than send emerging global church leaders to seminaries in the West. Because whose story, whose reading of the Bible, should they be taught? Duvall & Hays point out that both Americans and Ethiopians take liberties with the Christmas story to fill in what’s not said in the text with things that make sense in our own cultural context. As we read the Bible we inevitably read it through our own cultural lenses. It's challenging enough to help seminary students learn to separate what the text of God’s Word actually says from their cultural expectations of what it ‘should’ say and mean. But it’s even harder for African and Indian students if they have to grapple with American or European versions of those expectations. So much better to study the Bible against the background of each student’s own culture and the needs of their own Christian community. (And in fact, as Duvall & Hays point out, “Whose culture, do you suppose, is closer to that of the Bible?”)

As you know, after many years teaching in seminaries in Africa and India I’m now to be based with Serge’s team in Dublin, Ireland – the least evangelized English-speaking country in the world – as international Theological Education Specialist traveling out to teach in theological schools and advise in theological training alongside Serge's church planting outreach in Africa, Asia and post-Christian Europe. My passion is to help train emerging church leaders for Christ-centered, biblically-informed missional ministry, growing out of our shared experience of God’s overwhelming grace in our weakness.

No matter how you and others in your own community tell the story of Jesus' birth, may you enjoy the deep blessing of Christmas this year – the hope of rescue, reconciliation, and renewal that that vulnerable yet all-powerful baby brings to this broken world. He is Emmanuel, ‘God with us’ (Matt 1:23).

November 17, 2017

A taste of Africa

Thanksgiving greetings from… well, today it's Virginia. Last weekend it was North Carolina, and this weekend it'll be South Carolina. It's what missionaries do. But the week before last it was California – for a very intriguing meeting of African Christian scholars hosted by Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

Fuller invited a group of African scholars from seminaries in the US and Canada, along with a handful of North Americans who work in the area of African Christianity. We got together to explore the possibility of some sort of African Christian Scholarship program at Fuller as a resource for people studying African Christianity, especially African faculty members and PhD students at North American schools. Plus there’s need for an ongoing network connecting African researchers in North America with each other and with the seminaries and Christian universities in Africa. And I particularly appreciated another value stated in the planning paper: “It is also hoped that the program would be a center for enriching the Global North with the gifts of God from African Christianity.”

So there I was. Not entirely sure how I got invited or what I could contribute, but reveling in the opportunity to immerse myself for several days in this lovely gathering of people who care about the same things that move my heart. I talked with eminent African leaders (Tite Tienou! I’d never met him), reconnected with several colleagues and students I knew from Nairobi, met some gifted emerging young leaders especially among the African PhD students who came from various parts of the US, and got some great feedback and suggestions on my presentation summarizing my ideas about African biblical interpretation. (You can click here to read the article I wrote about this topic in Fuller's magazine.) If I can't be in a classroom in Africa right now teaching students about Jesus and the Bible, this was the next best thing.

Through it all the Lord was reminding me, “Yes, this is important. These young leaders are the way I’m building my global church. This is where I’ve called you to serve.” I came away with my heart filled and re-motivated for the hard work of raising the financial support to stay engaged with this sort of ministry.

And that’s what the rest of my month looked like: visiting churches and small groups to tell people my story and invite them to partner with me in global theological education. Picture me driving my Toyota Camry up and down the mid-Atlantic, with a pile of audio books on the passenger seat, stopping every so often to stretch my legs, fill the gas tank and stock up on junk food!

I love all the visiting and meeting people. And I love helping people understand more about what God's doing in the church worldwide. But seriously, I have no idea how God is going to supply the rest of the funding to get me back to Ireland and my work as Serge’s international Theological Education Specialist – hopefully by March 2018. We’re still hovering at about 70% of the ongoing financial support needed. I just keep reminding myself that my job is to tell the story and God’s job is to supply the resources. Please pray with me that God confirms his call to this ministry by providing everything needed to make it happen – in whatever way he wants to do that, for his own glory. Thank you for praying!

Meanwhile I’m looking forward to celebrating Thanksgiving next week with my daughter and son-in-law and their friends and relations. I’m feeling thankful for my first grandbaby, who’s due to arrive in mid-January! And I’m so very thankful for the many of you who’ve prayed, given, and encouraged me in this work all through this year. You are truly a gift from God in my life.


Having way too much fun at Fuller Seminary's African Christian Scholars Consultation - connecting with old and new colleagues and friends...

...and looking very scholarly as I give my presentation!