October 14, 2010

15 October 2010

We’ve just returned from a welcome get-away over our mid-term break to a beautiful house perched on the edge of the Great Rift Valley. For me (Bill), this involved clambering over boulders and sending rock hyraxes and dik-diks scrambling out of the way of an unexpected visitor, and jogging through wind-blown grasses and groves of whistling acacia, past clusters of curious Thompson’s gazelles. For Stephanie it involved lounging on the veranda, a good book competing with the stunning view for her attention. We went with longtime friends from Ethiopia who are in the country for a conference. The chance to thoroughly debrief our current life with old friends was immensely helpful.

But now we are back, exactly half way through a busy first term at the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology (NEGST). Stephanie is working with another colleague to orient the new cohort of PhD students to the daunting task of becoming true research scholars. She’s also teaching the second-year Greek students. Over the summer she started a biweekly Bible study for women at church, which has blossomed into a significant opportunity to disciple Kenyan women. The pastor has also just called on her to lead several sessions at this weekend’s church retreat, as the main speaker was forced to cancel at the last minute due to illness. And Stephanie also had the opportunity to travel to a conference in Accra, Ghana, in September, where she represented the Accrediting Council for Theological Education (ACTEA)—a great opportunity for her to talk about accreditation of theological institutions with the leaders of theological schools from across West Africa. She’ll be traveling again at the end of this month to Zambia to meet with her ACTEA staff colleagues, and is eagerly looking forward to her first trip to Angola at the end of January.

By contrast, I’ve managed to stay fairly close to home. For me the new term means two courses to teach. One is called ‘Church’s Mission and Ministry’ and the other is the core Systematic Theology cycle covering three terms, which I really enjoy doing again this year. I have all of the second-year students, as Systematic Theology is a required set of courses for most of our masters students. It means I get to go over every controversial theological issue and challenge my students about what they believe. I find that most students have never actually examined what they believe; they have been content to carry whatever beliefs they inherited from home or church or conferences or TV preachers, packed much like a suitcase that accompanies them wherever they go, never mind the fact that they have never actually opened it and looked to see what’s there or why. So we have fun. Actually, I have fun; the students are mainly appalled, until they begin to realize that there is a method to the apparent madness. This usually happens at some point towards the end of the first term. But in the meantime, they are trying to cope with having their fundamental assumptions challenged and proved wanting.

Right now I’m in the midst of trying to help them understand the Trinity. Actually, that sentence is a perfect example of how we in the West have approached the Trinitarian perspective of our New Testament. We Westerners have since medieval times attempted to understand and explain the threeness and oneness of God. This has caused no end of problems and controversy because, to be honest, it just doesn’t make sense. 18th century Deists like Thomas Jefferson and 21st century atheists like Richard Dawkins have made similar points in their own efforts to discredit Christians and their Christianity. Our confusion is seen most clearly in how we pray, or, more precisely, to whom we pray. Mostly we pray to ‘the Lord’ or ‘God’ or ‘Jesus’. Our mental map of God rarely includes Trinity, and if we do think about it, it’s something we tack on because we’re supposed to.

The problem is that the Trinity isn’t a kind of attribute of the one God that we can sort of deemphasize if we have to lead prayers at a multi-faith event. It’s not like we talk about ‘the Lord’ and pray to ‘God’ and then at some point remember the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (we are extremely good at using words without thinking about what we are actually saying, or even worse, praying!). Trinity is the essence of who our God is. And when we don’t think about God as God the Trinity, it affects the way we perceive just about everything, including salvation, which means how we understand the gospel itself.

What drives Christians to take on this nonsensical (to the rest of the world) doctrine of the Trinity is Jesus himself. Historically, Christians tried a number of different ways to explain Jesus. Most of the efforts produced clever attempts that preserved either his humanity or his divinity, but ended up producing a Jesus that could not accomplish the salvation preached by the early church. In the end, the 'Trinity' is not so much a precise theological definition, but rather the 'area' considered by later Christians both to do justice to the witness of the apostles and also to preserve the gospel from being undone by the various alternative versions of Christianity in circulation. Christians have been around for a long time, and you can bet that if we could have come up with a less incomprehensible way to explain our faith than ‘Trinity’, we would have done so by now. The problem is, every effort to that end has ended up compromising the gospel.

Just as the cross was foolishness to the Greeks and a stone of stumbling to the Jews, even though it was in God’s economy the very wisdom and power of God for salvation, so the Trinity is reviled as intellectual idiocy by the academy, dismissed as blasphemy by Jews and Muslims and written off as incomprehensible by many otherwise religious people. But it bears noting that the God of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures is revealed as a God of love, that love implies a relationship, and that humanity is created in the image of God as a plurality – male and female and with the capacity and call to love. And when humanity exercised our free will not to love and went on to create the mess we now inhabit, and became estranged from one another and from God and subject to death, it was the Trinity’s rescue plan that became the subject of what we call the Scriptures. The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are in fact all present and active in the New Testament accounts, and the gospel therein described is above all the revelation of the Trinity’s saving love. The incarnation and resurrection of God the Son recreates humanity as the image of the Trinity in its relationships of love. And our own salvation is participation in that love, with one another and with God the Trinity.

The Trinity may be fundamentally incomprehensible, but it doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. It just means that God the Trinity is bigger than we are, which, to be honest, is a relief.

Well, that’s a glimpse of the sorts of things I’m up to in Systematic Theology, and that sums up the news from us Blacks in Nairobi. Here are some ways that you can be praying for us and our work here:
  • Praise for a very good beginning to the new year and for our new classes of students at the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology (NEGST).
  • Prayer for Stephanie, that her Monday Bible study may continue to have an impact on these church women in their knowledge of the Bible and their relationship with Christ.
  • Pray for Bill as he teaches, that the Spirit may use these classes to deepen his students’ understanding and love of God, and that this in turn would have a positive impact on their lives and future ministries.
  • Prayer for Stephanie in her role as Accreditation Officer with the Accrediting Council for Theological Education (ACTEA)—currently working on plans for leadership training events in Ethiopia, Kenya and Zimbabwe in early 2011, as well as trying to keep up with accreditation requests from a growing number of schools.
  • Prayer that Stephanie’s parents’ house in Virginia Beach, VA would finally sell. We’re now into year four of this ordeal and it continues to stress our finances.
  • Praise that God has provided the additional funds above our normal missionary support we needed for our family contribution towards this year’s costs at the University of Virginia for Linnea (22, in her final year) & Caroline (20)! (And a big thank you to those who helped!)
By grace,

(for Stephanie, Linnea and Caroline Black)

Sorry it’s been so long since you’ve heard from us! Here are a few photos of things we’ve been doing…

Caroline (20) made a return trip to Africa for five weeks in July-August, including both time here in Nairobi…

…and a ‘homecoming’ visit to Addis Ababa—her first time back in Ethiopia since she graduated from high school in 2008.

Reuniting with best friends and good Ethiopian food!

While Caroline was with us we made a driving circuit of western Kenya, starting with an ACTEA presentation I (Stephanie) needed to give at a theological school in the area.

Then we wandered around western Kenya for a few days. A lot of it looks pretty much like this through the car window:

Sharing the road (That’s sugar cane)

On the way home we visited Nakuru National Park, known for its flamingoes…

and rhino conservation program…

…and Rothschild giraffes.

We also made a special stop to visit our Kenyan ‘mom and dad’, who Bill first stayed with as a university student in 1980. We’re so privileged to have been friends now for 30 years.

(Bill left Kermit the frog with them for safekeeping way back when… and they have!)

September brought the beginning of the academic year at NEGST and new classes to teach. Here’s the new cohort of PhD students I’m working with:

They’re from Kenya, Sudan, Rwanda, DR Congo, Eritrea, and Mali.

Later in September I travelled to a conference in Ghana, where my main responsibility was ACTEA networking with leaders of theological colleges in West Africa. So I spent a lot of time doing stuff like this:

It’s not hard to pick me out in the group photos at these conferences!

After a busy six weeks of class prep and teaching we were more than ready for NEGST mid-term break this past weekend—which we spent at a gorgeous holiday house we rented with friends on the edge of the Rift Valley escarpment. (That’s Bill in the orange shirt, returning from a hike.)

Wonderful relaxation…

beautiful scenery…

…and (my favorite!) zebras.

Come visit us and maybe we can take you there, too.  :)