Mary at the Feet of Jesus

One day Jesus was invited to the house of a woman named Martha, along with a number of his disciples.  The disciples sat on the floor in the main room, and Jesus began his instruction. Martha and her sister were not rich. They could not pass on the duties of preparation to the servants— servants they did not have. So Martha and Mary began to prepare the meal for their very special guests. It was a great honor, but also a great amount of work.

Mary, however, had heard second-hand some of the strange and exciting stories and teachings of Jesus. Thus, she would strain her ear to hear what Jesus and His disciples were saying inside the house. She would find reasons to linger by the door to listen. Jesus began to tell a story, and Mary did not want to walk away in the middle and not know the ending, or what the story means. She stood in the doorway for the entire story. But as the story ended the discussion began and she did not want to leave. She knew, however, that there was work to do. Regretfully, she began to back out to continue preparation; but Jesus looked at her and with a subtle motion of His hand beckoned her to sit down.

questions of her own but wasn’t sure if it was right and good to ask.

Before she had resolved this in her mind, her sister peaked into the room and attempted to wave her to come out. Martha gave her an exasperated look and tried to mouth silently to her to leave the guests alone.

Jesus looked up at Martha and said, “Oh, don’t be worried Martha. I invited her to join our little group. I hope you don’t mind.”

Martha responded, “I apologize to disturb you Lord. But don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Could you tell her to help me?”

Jesus then said, “Martha, Martha. You are worried and upset about many things. If we eat now, or two hours from now doesn’t matter. If you truly need help, we all can help prepare the meal. None of that is vital. I am here not to eat or to sleep, but to teach and proclaim. That is what is most important and Mary has chosen the more important thing. I will not send her away, and I ask you not to pull her away either. In fact, if you want to join us, there is room in the circle f

She was nervous to do so, but she did want to listen if she could, and it certainly seemed right to do as their special guest requested. So she moved toward the corner of the room farthest from Jesus and prepared to sit down. Jesus responded, “No Mary. I want you to join the group, not hide in the back.” He motioned His disciples to make room in the circle, and Mary,  feeling out of place, sat down in the circle. This was foreign to her— other rabbis would not have allowed her to join in such a way. It was exciting to hear the words of Jesus directly and listen to the discussion and explanations and questions. She started to have or you as well.”

 

 

 

 

Update to Theo-Storying

I finally got around to revising Theo-Storying: Reflections on God, Narrative and Culture. I expanded one chapter, and added an entirely new chapter. The new chapter is on the use of stories for theological reflection. I alsotheostorying fixed a number of little errors from the earlier edition. Curiously, I was able to keep it the same number of pages because I adjusted the formatting slightly. This allowed me to keep the same cover. I don’t know why… but I like the cover.

For some reason I had a bit more trouble with Amazon this go-around. For the E-book version, it wasn’t accepting my .doc file. I ended up sending my .pdf file. Amazon Kindle doesn’t really recommend using .pdf because the results apparently can be a bit “wonky.” However, I saw no more “wonkiness” with this version than the normal e-book result. But hopefully later we can solve that problem. With the paperback version, it was different. Everything went in smoothly, but then Amazon said I need to verify that I hold the copyright. I don’t think I gave them any reason to doubt that, so not sure the problem. Then I found that the Edit button is disabled… so I can’t (yet) fix things. However, when I went onto Amazon, it looks like the new version of my book is there. So not sure what is going on… but it seems like it doesn’t really matter to the end user— just me.

In some ways, Theo-Storying is my favorite book. That is because it is the only book that I wrote because I wanted to write it. This is not strictly true. It is the only book that I wrote because I wanted to THAT I FINISHED. Other books I finished I wrote because of it being my dissertation, or because my wife or I are teaching a course and we wanted a book for students here in Asia that covers the topics in a way that is appropriate for the trainees.

 

Jephthah

Some would talk and some wouldn’t. Mr. James, however, would always have something to say. As I did my rounds, I knocked discreetly before entering.

“I didn’t do it!” he stated emphatically as soon as both of my feet were inside the door. “They think I did it. But I would NEVER do it.

By Vincent van Gogh – https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/d0378V1962, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18416421

 

The old man was sitting in the lone chair in his almost barren room, facing away from the window and towards the door that I entered. As always he was somewhat disheveled, but with still with an air of authority to him. He reminded me of a man I worked for in the military— arrogant and pitiable at the same time. I wanted to help him. I always wanted to help him.

“Do what?” I asked, even though I knew exactly what ‘it’ is.

“They think I did it. But I know the law… maybe better than anyone else. Promise or no promise… evil is evil. You know that, right Chaplain?”

“Yes, evil is evil,” I agreed. “But I am more interested in how you are doing.”

“They weren’t there. They wouldn’t know. You wouldn’t know either. But you think you do, don’t you?”

I agreed with him that I didn’t know. I know what others had told me, nothing more.

“You got that right. You think you do. I know you think you do—- but you don’t know anything….” His voice trailed off at the end. Then he buried his face in his hands and ignored me.

Awkward silence would follow. Or at least it did when I first started working there. But I soon understood that I was being dismissed. This was our ritual. The pattern varied only in the smallest of details. I wanted to think that this ritual was a comfort and a help for him. I doubted it however.

“Well it was nice talking to you Mr. James,” I said. How many times before had I said those exact words? “You know I am available if you need someone to talk to.”

He ignored me as always. So I stepped out and closed the door behind me.

Rejecting Christ in a Rejected Land

Jesus was traveling with his core Image result for fire from heavendisciples to Jerusalem for the final time. As was his practice, he traveled through Samaria rather than avoiding it. Having to stay overnight in that region, he sent a couple of His disciples ahead to prepare a place for them to stay. As these two arrived at the village gates, a group of elders stopped them and began to question them. They wanted to know where they were going. They wanted to know why Galileans would be traveling in this part of Samaria. They wanted to know why they should show hospitality to these Jewish travelers.

The elders said, “Why should we show hospitality to you? You are traveling to your beautiful temple in Jerusalem, walking right by the mountain on which the ruins of our temple resides— destroyed by YOUR people generations ago. You treat us as unclean… worse than the Greeks that bring their sinful practices into your land, and the Romans that bring heavy taxes and all sorts of misery.  Would you welcome us into your own village? …Into your own house? Ridiculous! Push off.”

The two disciples were shocked. They have been treated with disrespect before. But these were Samaritans! It was like these Samaritans were considering themselves superior to them! Ridiculous indeed.

Returning to the group, they passed on to Jesus and the disciples what happened. James and John, the fiery and protective brothers, reacted the strongest.

James said, “Samaritans! Treating us like dogs?”

John chimed in. “Yes. And such a miserable village. Rejecting the Lord’s anointed… something should be done.”

Putting their heads together for a moment, they strode over to Jesus with determination and fire in their eyes.

“Lord,” they said. “Do you want us to call down fire to destroy this village?”

Amusement and anger danced across the face of Jesus. But He knew that His time was short and so this learning moment could not be lost.

Jesus called the others over and said to them, “James and John here want to bring down fire on this village. What do you think about this idea?”

The disciples looked at each other awkwardly. Some nodded but then stopped uncertain what was the appropriate response. Not waiting for a response, Jesus pushed forward.

“We have been rejected. Do they deserve death because of this? Should we hate them because they hate us?”

More uncertain looks but the disciples were starting to see where this was going.

Jesus continued. “But do they hate us? They don’t even know us. And we don’t know them. All they know is that our ancestors fought with their ancestors. I can assure you that our ancestors and their ancestors are done fighting. And we should stop fighting as well. So I have a better plan. Let’s go to a different village.”

Everyone nodded, even James and John. It was a much better plan.

<A somewhat speculative reflection on Luke 9:51-56>

 

Rizpah– A Short Reflection

She stayed when others ran away. She stayed while others mocked and derided. She stayed while others (filled with shame perhaps?) stayed on the periphery and then snuck off. A man hung above her… and he was not alone. Her son did no wrong. He died because of the sins of others. He died because of political expediency. He died because of what he represented, not for what he did.

And the man was not alone. 0x0_10756834There were others with the condemned man. Were they innocent or were they guilty? It is not really for us to say. But even if they were guilty of wrongdoing, that hardly allows those directly or indirectly  involved with their executions to walk away hands washed of all responsibility.

She stays there… the mother. She will be faithful when no one else is. She will honor as others heap dishonor. One day she, whose own past behavior was questioned,  will be vindicated. This woman of low estate will bring even the mighty to self-doubt.

And one day, she will be honored in a manner that few have. But she did not do it because of that. Her actions came from a mother’s love— and because it was right.

-II Samuel 21:1-14

An additional website that relates to this story, and speaks of the Jewish practice of “shmirah,” is “Rizpah, Guardian of the Dead

Solomon’s 2nd Dream (a Speculative Story)

In Gibeon Solomon had his first dream. As he slept, God appeaed to him, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” Solomon replied, “… Now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?”Image result for wisdom and suffering

God was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. He replied, “Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, not have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart.” God also promised him riches and honor. Then God added, “And if you walk in my ways and obey my statutes and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life.”

Solomon rapidly grew in wisdom, not only gaining understanding of governance,  but also the ability to discern the true nature of matters that he had to deal with. And he was successful— wildly successful.   But in his personal reflections, he was confused. God granted wisdom, and he promised future wealth and honor. However, he did not promise a long life, but only said that Solomon would have this if he was obedient to God. But if one was wise, one would know that the obeying God is the key wisdom. To disobey God is to be the fool.  Could one be wise and a fool at the same time?

And Solomon dwelt on this matter a long time. One day, many years into his reign he was sitting in his palace, the only building in all the land more opulent than the Great Temple of Yahweh, he felt that he now understood the matter. He called out to God… but God did not answer. Many days he called out to God, but with no response. One night, however, close to giving up God returned to him in a dream.

God said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”

Solomon responded, “O Lord my God. Your humble servant has served as king over Your people. You granted me wisdom, and I have sought to lead with wisdom and discernment. Yet I find failings in me. I believe I know what I should do for the good of the people, but far too often I find that what I do is guided more by what will give me pleasure, wealth, and honor. But then I recalled when you came to me the first time that obedience to your commands is not an automatic result of wisdom. A wise man can still disobey you, and thus makes himself the fool. So as Your humble servant, I ask for strength of character, a disciplined heart and mind, to live and act wisely, not just be wise.”

The Lord was pleased that Solomon asked for this. He replied, “You have asked for something great… much greater than wisdom. It is also a much more difficult thing. A man’s character is like a boat— it moves easily as the current and the wind drive it. But to move against the wind and the water takes great labor”

God continued. “I do not gift character any more than do I make a waterfall flow upward. But if you truly desire good character, this is what I will do. I will give you suffering. I will take away what gives you pleasure, and what I leave you will not bring you satisfaction. I will give you dishonor, and grant your honor to fools.  I will scatter your wealth to those who did not earn it. It is a difficult path, and very few choose it voluntarily, but it is out of the seeds of suffering that discipline can slowly grow, and out of this growth, character  may bear fruit. Think on this.”

Solomon awoke, and meditated on his dream for many days, each day becoming more disconsolate. Finally, he called his scribe and began to speak,

“With much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.”

 

 

 

 

Counter-cultural Contextual Storying

From Chapter of Same Name in Theo-Storying: Reflections on God, Narrative and Culture
I believe that Counter-cultural contextualization best describes making the Christian message relevant and resonant in a specific cultural setting. The goal is to contrast the Christian message to the surrounding culture, but without being “anti-culture.” Counterculture suggests a critical agency to use the culture, esteeming the good, while challenging that which is false.
Tied to this is the idea of the “subversive fulfillment” of symbols and cultural characteristics. By this is meant that each culture has good in it and the symbols/metaphors that are within the culture can be used to tear down (subvert) aspects of the culture that are destructive, fulfilling the potential of that culture to be a holy environment of God’s people. As noted in Endnote 1 for Chapter 7, Crossan described parables as narrative that subverts the world. If that is accurate, then parables are perhaps the best form of narrative for subversive fulfillment and counter-cultural contextualization.
The idea that the Gospel comes as “subversive fulfillment” of a culture was put forward by Hendrick Kraemer, where the Gospel fulfills the needs found in cultures while also challenges much of the worldview and underlying beliefs. The same can be said of symbols and concepts. The following is a quote by Willem A. Visser ‘t ‘Hooft,
Key-words from other religions when taken over by the Christian Church are like displaced persons, uprooted and unassimilated until they are naturalised. The uncritical introduction of such words into Christian terminology can only lead to that syncretism that denies the uniqueness and specific character of the different religions and creates a grey relativism. What is needed is to re-interpret the traditional concepts, to set them in a new context, to fill them with biblical content. Kraemer uses the term ―subversive fulfillment and in the same way we could speak of subversive accommodation. Words from the traditional culture and religion must be used, but they must be converted in the way in which Paul and John converted Greek philosophical and religious concepts.
If the message of Christ is presented as an attack on the entire culture, it will be rejected, or accepted as a foreign faith acting as a thin veneer over the underlying worldview. Paul Hiebert would call this non-contextualization. One is reminded of the Jehovah’s Witness religion where anything that is labelled as having “pagan roots” is rejected. Since almost everything has pagan roots at some point, one can quickly be straight-jacketed by such a principle. Or one can look to the Islamic practice of diffusion of faith (as described by Lamin Sanneh, contrasting translation of faith) Both viewpoints in the end tend to bless a specific culture, whether it be New Testament Greek Christian culture, or 7th century Western Arabic culture.
If the message of Christ is not presented so that it is subversive or counter-cultural, if it is presented to be compatible with the broad culture (both good and bad), there is a tendency to create a syncretistic faith. Hiebert would describe this as uncritical contextualization.
What is needed, using again Hiebert’s terminology, is “critical contextualization.” While others may disagree (and do disagree) I see critical contextualization as best related to counter-cultural contextualization. Stephen Bevans in “Models of Contextual Theology” classifies the different forms of contextualization into six broad categories. It seems to me that the one that is the closest to the truth is the category he describes as “Counter-cultural contextualization.” He notes that some describe this form as “encounter contextualization” or “prophetic contextualization.” I don’t care for those terms since they appear to over-spiritualize a process that may or may not do justice to the term.
Repeating what was said before, Counter-culture is not Anti-culture. An anti-cultural attitude rejects a culture without making the effort to recognize and redeem the good. A counter-cultural attitude rejects failings in a culture while living with and within, and even affirming other aspects of, that culture. This suggests that a counter-cultural contextualization requires:
1. Understand the symbols of the culture. If the basic characteristic of culture is its formation and utilization of symbols to provide the interface between individuals in society with the natural world, one cannot understand a culture without understanding its symbols…. its values, stories, myths, priorities.
2. Analyze the culture through the eyes of Scripture. This process requires solid exegesis to avoid the extremes of cultural imperialism on one side and excessive accommodation on the other. In some cases, the analysis may lead to modest rejection of surface behaviors. In other cases, important aspects of the worldview must be challenged. However, the good should always be affirmed.
3. Utilize the symbols of the culture to challenge it. This should be done sympathetically, affirming of the good within the culture.
This is what Jesus did in the form of parables. Jesus used relevant symbols within the 1st century Jewish culture to challenge aspects of that culture. Wine, vines, shepherds, sheep, marriage feasts, light, salt, slavery, and other items ingrained in Jewish culture were used to challenge common perceptions and values in that culture.
Since parables are stories rooted firmly in the symbolic structure of a culture and attacks certain beliefs within that culture, parables are an important part in counter-cultural contextualization. Counter-cultural contextualization is grounded in solid hermeneutics. However, its application is definitely dependent on the creative and artistic.
Great, But Now What?
How can this be done? It is difficult to train to be artistic. But a few things come to mind.
A. Learn the stories that people in a culture enjoy to discover cultural themes. In the US, a dominant cultural trait is achievement (the Horatio Alger, “rags to riches” motif). Another is the American Dream (economic ascendancy of a family over succeeding generations). Another could be the underdog as victor (David over Goliath). In the Philippines luck (suarte) and fatalism (bahala na) appears to be a major concern. Another could be the Philippine dream (Educating children so they can get good jobs overseas and send money back home). An additional one could be the appreciation of getting along with one another despite substantive disagreement (pakikisama). Another one (although starting to reduce) is the (unwarranted) sense of inferiority to foreigners. These traits provide the language of stories, but also the areas to challenge.
B. Read and watch stories that practice the form of the parable. This can be uncomfortable. A story that challenges an important part of American culture is likely to be considered Un-American. Such
writers may be thought of as being Un-American, or troublemakers. The same is true of writers who act in the counter-culture of other cultures and nations. Christians in a particular culture tend to strongy distrust the counter-culture, because it impinges on their own comfort zone. But even if one ultimately rejects the messages of the counter-culture after critical reflection, there is value in listening. A story such as “Citizen Kane” or “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” can challenge materialism, for example. Listening to news from other countries (or other viewpoints within one’s own country) may attack excessive nationalism or mono-culturalism.
C. Master the short-story. I enjoy reading O Henry stories although they are decades old. They are often humorous, short, and have a twist at the end. Even today, “The Gift of the Magi” (O Henry) and “A Christmas Carol” (Dickens) are remembered and provide a challenge (if one takes the time to hear the challenge in the story). A good parable can be harsh or dramatic, such as “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” but can also be given in humous form (a similar message is provided in the movie “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” for example). Seek competence in the narrative form over the didactic, or polemic forms. Entertainment value is a real value. A good story with a good message that has little to no entertainment value is, simply, not a good story.
D. Practice. One can look at existing stories and parables and see which ones can be used or modified for a new culture. For example, I have seen the story of the Prodigal Son reinterpreted very successfully for the Highlands of Luzon. The tribal groups here have seen far too many of their children leave the rice terraces, lured into the Lowlands and the big cities (such as Manila or Baguio City) and the corresponding vices there.4 The parable of the Prodigal Son only needs modest changes to be very relevant in showing the father who overlooks the shamelessness (walang hiya) of the son and risks personal status to forgive and restore him into the tightly knit family and village. Taking a well established story or story form and changing perspective or roles can greatly surprise and change the message.
E. Live it.  Jesus created stories by living them. Jesus challenged legalistic cultural rules of His time by violating them. These violations (grabbing wheat berries on Saturday, or not ritually washing) may not be understood in a different culture, but they were easy to recognize in that culture. Stories are not simply told… they are lived out.
Final Thought
It has often been said that the pen is mightier than the sword. Is this true? The jury is still out on that one. Sometimes, the sword has won out over ideas and writing. However, the impact of ideas and great storytellers has typically been greater than great warriors. Warriors must train well to use the tools of their trade well, and be sure of their targets and objectives. Those who are involved with “theo-storying” must, then, be even that much more concerned with their training and objectives. The research into the culture and the care in crafting illustrations, revelations, myths, and parables should be considered to be as much part of ministry as preaching, evangelizing, and discipling.