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."
My last blog, Volunteering is for Suckers was titled from the saying of a personal friend who is not a Christian. That piece was written with an objective tone in response to the recent challenges caused by the decline of volunteerism in the U.S. Since Biblical’s faculty is blogging with an emphasis on missional themes, I wanted to use this post to tease out the issue of volunteering with an emphasis on its significance for Christians living missionally.
According to federal statistics, the current rate of volunteering through religious organizations decreases with each younger generation. That is, the percentage of Americans volunteering through religious organizations steadily decreases with 45.9% of Older Adults volunteering through religious organizations to 38.2% for Baby Boomers to 28.5% for Gen Xers to 28.4% for Millennials. Since the rate of volunteering is also decreasing during this same period (2002-2011), this rules out that the percentage for volunteering through religious organizations is decreasing due to more people choosing to volunteer in other sectors. Thus, not only are there less volunteers, but fewer existing volunteers are choosing to do so through religious organizations. Given the widely known fact that church attendance has been declining steadily for the past decade, theses statistics should not be surprising.
While these statistics are not surprising, they should be disturbing and of great concern for the missional church. To be missional is to be actively participating in God’s mission to reconcile others to Him through Christ. To do this well, Christians are called to exercise their faith through word and deed. We do this by sharing and teaching the Gospel and by demonstrating it through our actions.
Jesus summed the Law up in two commandments (Matt 22:37-39), "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Love requires engagement and service; it is relational and relationships with our neighbors require investment of our time to engage in conversations and shared activities where we serve one another’s needs as if it was as important as our own needs. In the parable of the sheep and goats (Matt. 25:31-46), Jesus emphasizes the point that it is especially important for His followers who have an abundance of resources to share with those who are lacking the basic necessities of life or those who are in need due to illness or imprisonment. When we provide food, water, clothing and shelter or give care to the sick or visit those in prison, Jesus states that we are worthy to be counted among those He has chosen.
According to dictionary definitions, a volunteer is a person who renders aid, performs a service, or assumes an obligation of one’s own free will and without pay. Thus, to be an effective missional Christian, it is important that one be intentional about dedicating one’s time in studying God’s word, sharing the Gospel message with others, and finding avenues to volunteer in matters that are important to serving the church and the needs of others. Give of yourself, your skills, your time, and your love in a way that is compassionate and effective in communicating the Gospel and meeting the needs of your neighbor. Pastors and missional leaders create and facilitate such avenues that will help Christians under your care to volunteer their commitment to such missional pursuits.
Dan LaValla is Director of Library Services and Development Associate at Biblical. He is Chair of the Endowment Committee for the American Theological Library Association and is very active in his church and community, coaching youth baseball and football and has served on several community boards. Click here to see Dan's faculty bio.
This month we visit with Gabe Wang-Herrera, a very recent graduate. Gabe is planting a church in the Frankford section of Philly; I walked past the building every day walking from the el to Frankford High. If you would like to learn more about Gabe’s ministry, please contact him.
What years did you attend at Biblical, and what degree(s) did you receive?
My first class at Biblical Seminary was in the winter session of 2009, it was with Dr. Zimmerman and it really sealed the deal for me to stay the course. I graduated in 2012 with a Master of Divinity degree from the LEAD Urban Concentration Program. At graduation, I was given the distinct honor of receiving the President’s Award for Excellence in the Master of Divinity Program.
What have you been doing since then?
Since 2005, I have been pastoring a small church plant in the Frankford area of Philadelphia. During my years at seminary (from 2009-2012) I was able to make personal use of a lot of what I was learning from my professors and from the resources to which they exposed us. And I was also able to apply my learning to my congregation and to our context. But all throughout my 39 months of seminary my congregation stayed at a certain level: small.
However, after graduation I was able to see God grow the people He had entrusted to me both spiritually and numerically. I get excited thinking about how he is redeeming and reconciling more and more folks in the inner city who are reflecting his glory day by day.
And a huge part of “my” ministry is my family. My wife (Pearl) and two beautiful daughters (Mia and Juliet) are my primary ministry and they have been instrumental in keeping me fired up instead of burned out in the ministry. My wife is amazingly resourceful and has done a fantastic job of directing our children’s ministry and delegating our women’s ministry. My two girls (Mia – 10 & Juliet – 8) are also growing up in the ministry and I consistently invite them to be a part of people’s lives as they learn to love God and love others.
Share a favorite memory from your Biblical days.
I have many amazing memories from my time at Biblical Seminary. From the pre-class conversations that would occur right before the professor would begin his discussion on “all things missional” to the very short breaks we would have (which I would consistently use to refine my Ping Pong skills) to the 45 minute carpool ride home that I would take with my brothers-in-arms from Philadelphia (Rob, Ben and Tommy) as we would discuss how we were being “broke up” from the spiritual depth of our classes. Those rides home would also entail times of prayer for one another and for our families. Rich, rich memories.
I don’t know if I have one, single favorite memory, they are really all that good. But I do have a memorable one. It was the day that I committed to being a student at Biblical seminary. Dr. Anderson was leading an open house for some perspective students and their spouses and as I soaked in the information regarding the distinctiveness of Biblical Seminary, I sensed the Holy Spirit’s prompting that this was the right place and the right time for me to be stretched and challenged by His Word in community. While I am no longer an active student at Biblical, I am no less a student and learner in life; prepared that much more by an exceptional institution.
Cell phone: 610-283-2969l; email: BGAFrankford@gmail.com; Facebook: Gabriel Wang-Herrera
In a moment of weakness during one of those never-ending negotiating moments with my son, I agreed to sign up for Facebook. My son gave me a brief tutorial and after a few moments I was emerging from my relational cave into the world of communicating with thousands of people online.
What a rush!
It was so encouraging to see immediately that ten people were requesting to be my “friend”, until I realized that my son has over 100 friends on his page and that is low for a guy his age. Anyway, after a week of swimming in the deep water of social media, here are some things I have learned.
No event is too mundane for Facebook. Part of the reason I signed up for Facebook was to provide a salve for my existential loneliness. But within the first day, I had received recipes, gardening tips and a detailed narration of someone’s trip to the mall. Really?
People talk in sound bites (lots of them). Communication is really different on Facebook. Most posts are one or two sentences. Maybe we should require some politicians to communicate only on Facebook.
Many of our counseling graduates are thriving (Praise God!). It is such an encouragement to reconnect with them and to see where they have landed and how they are living out the gospel in many different settings.
Some of my relatives must have barren lives (See #1).
The term “friend” has to be seriously redefined. It has nothing to do with knowing or being known. Rather I think it means that they can free-associate on your page and you can return the favor.
My first date in middle school does not remember our date. This is too painful to elaborate on.
Facebook can be addicting. At least cigarette smokers limit themselves often to a pack (20 cigarettes) a day. Things I never cared about a week ago suddenly occupy way too much of my frontal lobes.
My son is much more skilled in Facebook that I ever will be. On the one hand this is exciting to think that at least someone in our family understands how people communicate in the 21stcentury. On the other hand it makes me feel old. Very old.
Facebook can be a great tool (used properly). Overall, I think will be a good learning experience for me. Now run to your computer and friend me so I can have as many friends as my son.
Bryan Maier, Psy. D. is an Associate Professor of Counseling & Psychology in the Masters of Arts in Counseling Program at Biblical. He maintains a private practice at Diane Langberg & Associates.