Should We Give to the Poor?

Should we give to the poor? Doesn’t it just reinforce their dependence upon others rather than becoming independent contributors to society? John Barclay gives a riveting explanation of why the early church gave, and gave so sacrificially:

In our Annual Theology Conference (hbu.edu/theologyconference) last spring, we had a number of lively speakers and papers about The Church in Early Christianity. One of our plenary speakers was John Barclay, an eminent NT scholar from Durham University. His lecture reveals the highest level of scholarship which is also accessible to non-specialists.

As explained last week, our next Theology Conference (hbu.edu/theologyconference) will be in February. Definitely plan to attend and to bring others.

Do also come hear our annual A.O. Collins lecture on Thursday, October 29:
Dr. Nicholas Perrin, “From Stories to Scriptures: When Did the Gospels Become Authoritative?”
Thursday, October 29, 7:30pm, Belin Chapel

Is the End of the World Near?

The question, “Is the end of the world near?” would conjure up a host of reflections and emotions in people. It would, no doubt, remind people of the recent natural disasters. It was barely two weeks ago when, on April 25, 2015, an earthquake which measured 7.9 on the Richter scale hit Nepal. As of today, the death toll stands at over 8,100, thousands are still nursing their wounds, and hundreds of Nepal nationals and foreigners are still reportedly missing and presumed dead. Even as I was writing this note, it was being reported that another earthquake of magnitude 7.4 on the Richter scale had just hit Nepal, with the death toll on this one being lower but still undetermined! There is not a day when there is no war in some place on earth. Earthquakes, tornadoes, forest fires, mudslides, hurricanes, tsunamis, etc., seem to be more frequent now than ever before. NBC News reported this morning that in the last six days alone there have been 131 tornadoes from South Dakota to Texas. Unthinkable things are happening too! On March 24, 2015, the co-pilot of Germanwings Flight 9525 deliberately flew the plane into the French Alps, killing himself and 149 innocent people. The Malaysia Airlines plane MH 370 disappeared from the skies over a year ago, and there is still no trace of it, no debris of any kind. These and other events should remind us of the words of our Lord:

And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains (Matthew 24:6-8).

How people lead their lives in connection with the notion of the end of the world can be classified under four headings.

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Reflections on 40 years in theological education

The plan is that I will be retiring from Houston Baptist University in a few weeks. This is not retirement to a rocking chair, but more like retirement to church ministry: I plan to be very involved in church ministry, including formation programs for clergy, I will do some limited teaching for theological institutions, and, of course, I have writing and editing project, but with respect to HBU and with respect to funding it will be retirement. I am already quite excited about this new phase of life, this new adventure. Ordination 236 Recessional starting DSC_0236

However, this shift of focus gives me a chance to reflect on the changes that I have seen in university-level theological education over the 40+ years that such education has been my major focus. Please note that none of what I write is specifically about Houston Baptist University; I have made my own observations in many institutions and also read a number of articles in such publications as the Chronicle of Higher Education. These changes are far bigger than one institution in Houston, Texas.
TSM Campus
First, there has been a shift from the collegial model to the business model. When I entered theological education the ideal of the college had not yet faded. Faculty of whatever rank were mostly full time. The faculty meeting was where the business of the theological institution got done, often with faculty also serving various official capacities such as dean, registrar, and the like (at least in smaller institutions). In the larger institutions, of course, it was the senior faculty, members of a faculty senate, who had the real authority. Now the model has, for the most part, changed. To a large extent theological institutions or departments of institutions are in the education business. There is a board who holds a CEO accountable for reaching the agreed-upon goals of the institution. The CEO directs the business through various officers. Faculty committees exist, but usually to advise those who run the business or to implement their policies.

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Theology Conference on the Church – April 16-18

The Department of Theology  here at Houston Baptist University is hosting a conference next week on “The Church and Early Christianity” on April 16-18, 2015, and we want to invite you to attend. You can find out more details at hbu.edu/theologyconference.

In addition to a number of short papers, which you can see at the Conference Schedule, our plenary speakers are

  • Thursday (7:30p): John Barclay (Durham University) – “‘The Poor You Will Always Have with You’: Why It Mattered to the Church to Give to the Poor”
  • Friday (7:30p): Ben Witherington (Asbury Theological Seminary) – “The Social Identity of the Earliest Christians”
  • Saturday (9:00a): Everett Ferguson(Abilene Christian University) – “Images of the Church in Early Christian Literature”

Admission to the plenary lectures is free of charge, and each will be offered in Belin Chapel (in the Morris Cultural Arts Center).

The cost to attend the whole conference is $40. We would love to see you there, so please come out to hear these great scholars and invite others to come with you.

Spontaneous Prayer

I come from a tradition that privileges “spontaneous prayer” and looks Oranssuspiciously on scripted prayers or prayers written beforehand.  According to this perspective, spontaneous prayer means prayer from the heart while prescribed prayers or prayers written down beforehand are not from the heart.  I accepted this myself for many years until I met some remarkable Christians and began to read and reflect on Scripture.

One day I was looking for a guitar pick in the guitar case of a friend of mine.  He was a well known Christian recording artist.  Because I was a musician too, I looked up to him not only for his talent but also because he was a man of faith.  As I looked in  his guitar case, I found a stack of papers on which my friend had written out a series of prayers to God.  Later he told me that he found that writing out his prayers helped him focus and pray more faithfully.  Often when he prayed silently or spontaneously, he said, he found his mind wandering.  One minute he was praying.  The next he was thinking about something else entirely.   I knew well what he meant and think you probably do too.  What was clear to me is that the prayers he had written truly reflected his heart, much like love letters written to one you love.

On another occasion I heard a deacon pray before collecting the evening offering and the sermon.  The prayer went something like this:  “God, we thank you for this day. We thank you for your many blessings.  Be with the missionaries in foreign fields.  Be with the preacher as he brings the message this evening.  Bless the gift and the giver.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.”   This was a spontaneous prayer—it was from the heart of a kind, generous Christian—but it was also in many ways a collection of thoughts and prayers we had heard many times before.  As I have listened to others pray publically, I realize that in many ways spontaneous prayers are not that different than prayers scripted beforehand.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus instructed his disciples to pray:

Our Father in heaven,

let Your name remain holy.

Bring about Your Kingdom,

Manifest Your will here on earth,

as it is manifest in heaven.

Give us each day that day’s bread—

no more, no less—

And forgive us our debts

as we forgive those who owe us something.

Lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:9-13; The Voice)

Any good commentary on Matthew 6 and Luke 11 will advocate that Jesus wanted his disciples to pray this prayer and he also wanted his followers to pray prayers like this.  One is scripted.  The other is more spontaneous.

One pastor I admire claims that prayer is the hardest work he does.  Perhaps you will agree.  I have come to appreciate both kinds of public prayers: spontaneous prayers spoken from the heart that collect bits and pieces of earlier prayers and scripted prayers written from the heart that reflect someone’s desire to speak honestly before a gracious God.

Here is a good prayer exercise.  Read a biblical psalm through several times and then turn it into your own prayer.  It may help to write it down on a piece of paper.  In any case make it your own.   There are many wonderful prayers in the Bible that can be models for us.

Locusts and Honey

I want to float an idea but don’t have time to develop it into a full-fledged argument. Still I want to propose a reading for an unusual text we find in the Synoptic Gospels. Since Mark is likely the first Gospel written, I’ll work from there recognizing that what is true for Mark is also true for Matthew and Luke.0417locusts

For years I’ve puzzled over the description of the John the baptizer as eating locust and honey (Mark 1:6).   Translations differ. Some seem to underscore that John’s diet consisted of locust and honey as if that was all he could get in the wilderness (NLT, The Voice). Other versions don’t interpret it at all.   Many commentaries notice the statement but have little to say about it. I’ve wondered why we are given this bit of information in a hard-hitting, fast-moving Gospel like Mark’s. After all we’re not told Jesus’ diet, and he’s the main character in the story. Is the statement about John eating (present participle; Mark 1:6) designed to present him as a desert-dwelling ascetic with odd habits? If so, that seems to fail since locusts are kosher and though most westerners cringe at the thought of biting into one, it would not strike a person of John’s day as strange. Then there is honey, a desirable natural sweetener on everybody’s wish-list.

So what is the point? Well let me suggest a reason. The description of John and his activities (living in the wilderness, preaching, baptizing, and his manner of dress) are part of John’s prophetic message. Where he was, what he was doing and how he did it were key aspects of his person and mission.

Prophets were known not only for speaking a message but also acting it out on occasion. This is uncontroversial. Isaiah (ch. 20) walks naked for two years to portray what would happen to the Assyrian captives of Egypt and Cush. Jeremiah (ch. 32) buys real estate as the barbarians are at the gate to depict a hopeful future after the exile. Ezekiel (ch. 4) famously constructs a small model of Jerusalem, portrays a siege against it, lies down on his left side for 390 days as a sign to Israel of things to come. Then God instructs him to lie on his right side for 40 more days and prophesy against it. Prophetic words were certainly memorable but prophetic actions garnered even more attention.

My proposal is this: John ate locust and honey as part of his message. So we shouldn’t imagine John sitting behind a rock snacking on locust and honey right before a big sermon. Rather, I suggest he makes eating locusts and wild honey part of his sermon.

So what would/could this mean? Well consider the prophetic record and what locusts represent. Joel may be the best place to look. An invasion of locusts offers a sign of things to come when an army invades from the north and strips the land bare. Locusts then are a sign of judgement. God’s people have behaved badly now disaster was going to come upon them. Yet even as judgment is announced there is a conditional promise of salvation. If God’s people will repent, return to God, and plead with God to deliver then, then God will restore to them everything the locusts have stripped away (Joel 2:12-27). Joel 2 ends with a triumphant declaration of God’s salvation when he pours out his Spirit (Joel 2:28-32). As many will recognize this passage is picked up in Acts 2 as Peter’s interpretation of the day of Pentecost: “This is what was spoke of through the prophet Joel” (Acts 2:16).

So what does it mean for the prophet to eat the locust as part of his sermon? Well it dramatizes that God is on the move. The Destroyer is being destroyed. The Consumer is being consumed. And finally, the shame of their long exile is coming to an end when YHWH himself returns to his people (Joel 2:27):

Then you will know that I am the midst of Israel,

And that I am the LORD (YHWH) your God

And there is no other;

And my people will never be put to shame.”

Anyone who heard John in those days would have gotten the idea that the current invaders and consumers (the Roman occupiers) were going to meet their match when enough of God’s people repented and submitted to John’s baptism. The long day of judgement was coming to an end.

So what of the honey? Well, when enough Jews repented and turned from their wicked ways, when God himself intervened by destroying the Destroyers and consuming the Consumers, then the land would once again return to its richness for God’s people. Most will recall that when the recently freed Hebrew slaves first peered in from the wilderness, they said of the promised land: “Here is a land flowing with milk and honey.”

I can imagine John lathering his hand in honey, putting it to his mouth and savoring its sweetness as he stood in front of a group of pilgrims from Jerusalem or Judea proclaiming the imminence of God’s kingdom and warning his detractors of the coming judgment if they persisted in their hypocrisy.   John could have simply spoken the message but by dramatically acting it out, it had a much greater influence on those who came to see him in the desert.

Now this is just a proposal. It is not a full-fledged argument. Still it makes sense to me of a puzzling text. I welcome your thoughts and comments.

That They All May Be One

It is very clear from John 17 that Jesus intended his church to be one. Indeed, that is also a theme in Paul. There is not to be a Jewish-Christian people of God and a Gentile-Christian people of God, but one people of God, for all barriers have been removed (see, among other places, Eph 2). But Jesus made it clear that this unity is to be observable. In fact, this unity will indicate to “the world” that God really sent Jesus and will lead to the world believing. If they cannot see it, they cannot believe it. Therefore our thousands of denominations are not just a scandal, but an offense against the spreading of the good news. Yet, granted that this is true, what is someone to do about  it? Let me suggest three hopeful signs that even when we may feel helpless, God is at work doing himself what we have not managed to do (indeed, what we have often messed up).

First, there is the relatively recent news about Pope Francis’ reaching out to the Orthodox, taking steps towards bridging a 1000 year division. This is not new for this pope. He was involved in such bridging before he became pope. But it looks like significant steps forward are being taken. One event spurring these steps on is the persecution of Christians of all types in Syria and Iraq, among other places. Standing together is not a luxury in such a situation.

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CFP: 2015 Theology Conference about the Church

The Department of Theology at Houston Baptist University is pleased to host a conference on “The Church and Early Christianity” on April 16-18, 2015. Our keynote speakers are John Barclay (Durham University), Everett Ferguson (Abilene Christian University), Ben Witherington (Asbury Theological Seminary). You can find out more details at hbu.edu/theologyconference.

Call for Papers: We are inviting papers representing a variety of approaches from scholars and graduate students in this area of study.  We are particularly interested in the development of early Christian communities within their wider theological and cultural contexts in the first two centuries. This includes theological reflections about ecclesiology as well as social relationships with Second Temple Jewish practices and institutions, relationships within early Christian communities, and the relationship of early Christian communities with the wider Greco-Roman culture. Participants will have 25-30 minutes to present papers (inclusive of Q&A). Please submit a 200-300 word abstract to Dr. Ben C. Blackwell at bblackwell@hbu.edu by February 15, 2015.

Thinking about God and Loving God

Well, I’m only a few days behind with this post. But given that I’m the new guy who is still trying to get settled, I’m going to claim that as an excuse. So now I’ve finally find a few minutes to put some thoughts together. At the beginning of any semester, it can be helpful to think about why we study theology. One might claim, ‘Isn’t it sufficient to just love Jesus?’ Why do we need to think about topics like how the New Testament fits into the ancient world, or Trinity, or how salvation is accomplished? Loving God is all that is needed.

Claiming that all we need is to love God is of course true. But we must ask how it is that one loves God, and here Jesus’ words are very helpful. When asked by an expert in the law ‘which is the greatest commandment in the law?’, Jesus answered:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. (Matt 22.36-37; cf. Mark 12.28-31; Luke 10.25-28).

Notice here that loving God involves the mind. That is, in order to love God to the fullest, we must engage our minds in reflection and study on who he is and what he has done. Of course, Jesus doesn’t mean that everyone should become a paid theologian or teacher. Nevertheless, failure to engage our minds as an act of love and worship is to fail in the act of becoming a disciple of Jesus.

So the challenge at the beginning of every new semester is to remind ourselves that in our studies we are worshiping, serving and indeed loving God. Studying shouldn’t led to a separation of the mind from the heart, but rather a full integration of who we are in the process of becoming disciples of the crucified one. The final word can be given to J.A. Bengel, an 18th century scholar, who wrote:

Apply yourself wholly to the text; apply the text wholly to yourself.

(This quote has been made well-known particularly through the NT scholar Douglas Moo.)

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