Category Archives: Talks

New Talk: “Seeing a Tree and Remembering the Forest”

It took a while to hammer this one out, but I’m excited to finally share this 26-minute talk on Bible study strategies with you.  Originally commissioned for a Bible study conference in October of 2016, this is my whimsical way of getting people up to speed on the difference between “doing our devotions” and studying a passage of Scripture.  I walk through Isaiah 61 to demonstrate different detailed and big-picture study strategies, illustrating everything with lots of gorgeous shots of TREES (mainly thanks to our local photographer extraordinaire, Missy Herr!).

If you’re a Bible teacher working with teens or others who are new to a “studied” reading of Scripture, or if you would like to brush up on your own Bible reading practices, or if you are my good friend and you want to make my day, please listen along and share this!  (The video slides just supplement the audio, but they aren’t important if you just want to listen to it.)

The page of Paige’s Quirky Symbols mentioned in this talk can be found here.

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Filed under Biblical Genres, Biblical Literacy, Body of Christ, Instructing the Body, Isaiah, Jesus, Messiah, Old Testament, Prophets, Redemptive History, Talks, Women in the Word

Race Matters, Ch. 1: Defining White Privilege

This month I had the honor of participating in a panel on “Race, the Church, and a Way Forward,” held at a Presbyterian church in Langhorne, PA.  My friend Marcos Ortega invited me, two pastors, and a professor to speak out of our knowledge of (and, in their cases, their experience of) race/racism in America, giving us a chance to talk about the taboo subject of race in a Christian setting.  The other three panelists were powerhouses. I wish I could have captured their many wise words while they spoke, but I didn’t even remember to bring a pen up front with me.

I’m sure I’ll gradually remember some of the excellent things these brothers taught us that evening, and those ideas will make their way into a few “Race Matters” posts here at the Library.  I would love to share with my readers a robust vision for loving our neighbors of color knowledgeably, so I’ll start that project here with an introduction to the two terms that Marcos asked me to define during our panel conversation: White Privilege and White Supremacy.  If these terms have ever bothered or confused you, read on. (I treat White Privilege in this post, and I’ll cover White Supremacy in another one soon.)

To begin, I should explain that I am white, and my presence on the panel came about because my friend Marcos had noticed that I have been diligently seeking input for several years about African American history and the black experience in America.  Paying attention to these new sources and voices has paid off in a dramatic shift in my perspective on American history, the contemporary American experience, and my own life.  To illustrate how profoundly my perspective has changed, I like to use the analogy of viewing a printed optical illusion:*

optical-illusion

 

At first your eyes see only random lines, but then (if you’re lucky!) the lines resolve into meaning, and you perceive the word or picture that was previously hidden.  And after that, you can’t go back to unseeing the meaning.  That’s how it’s been for me, regarding my perspective on these matters of race:  I can’t unsee what I’ve come to perceive about our history and present situation.

Early in the panel discussion, Marcos asked me to define these two troublesome terms, White Privilege and White Supremacy.  As I explained that evening, the first thing to observe is that we white people are mostly coming to this conversation late—you might say we’re a couple hundred years late; but even in terms of the past few decades or half-century, we’re late.  And that means that there are some words and terms that have been in use for a while, and we need to learn their meaning in context.  White Privilege and White Supremacy are two such terms. In fact, our incorrect assumptions about their respective definitions can lead us to shut down or shy away from conversations where they are in use, either because we feel offended or because we figure they have nothing to do with us.

For example, when we hear or read the phrase White Privilege, our minds typically fasten on the word “privilege,” which we associate with wealth, power, and influence.  We’re likely to compare ourselves to those we deem privileged, people like the Kennedys, or even the Trumps, whose vast personal wealth means that they don’t have to work very hard to get what they want.  By contrast, we are hardworking people, keeping wary eyes on our bank balance; as a matter of fact, sometimes we’re barely scraping by.  How could the word “privilege” describe us?

But in the context of discussions about race, White Privilege has a very specific meaning.  It’s a term that was coined in 1989 by a white sociologist, Peggy McIntosh, who wrote an article that came to be known as “White Privilege, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”  (Her figure of the “invisible knapsack” is supposed to convey the idea that it’s something that white people carry around without even realizing it.)

As sociologists will do, Peggy McIntosh observed human behavior and then wrote about it, trying to make sense of it.  In this case, she began with something she had noticed while out shopping with African American friends: they were likely to be followed by staff in the stores, or even harassed, because they were suspected of being potential shoplifters.  This had never happened to Peggy, and when she asked her friends about the experience they confirmed that this was typical; they pretty much expected it whenever they went shopping.  She also noticed that her black friends had to be deliberate about shopping for beauty products, while she could easily walk into the local grocery store and find the hair care products or makeup that she needed.

From these small beginnings, Peggy McIntosh made a list of many, many areas of American life that she, as a white woman, sailed through easily, relative to her neighbors of color.  (You can read over a summary of the list here.)  In everything from assuming that her race would be represented in movies and television shows, to never wondering whether the color of her skin would interfere with her getting a bank loan or buying a house, Peggy saw that her white skin gave her an advantage: she was privileged, just by virtue of having been born white.

Of course, the other key element of her observation was the invisible nature of this privilege, at least to the white folks that carry it around.  Usually we are oblivious to the difference, until someone points it out and we begin to perceive it.  My own metaphor for this phenomenon is that it’s as if we white people have an invisible EZ-pass stuck to our foreheads, permitting us to sail blithely through the toll plaza while our neighbors of color have to stop and fish for quarters.  Then we wonder why they can’t keep up with our achievements and progress, and fault them for not trying hard enough.

Here’s an apt illustration of White Privilege to round out this summary:  Those of us who are white can go away from a panel discussion like this one, or from a blog post like this one, and not think about the topic again for a week . . . or a year . . . or ever.  If we are white, the subject of race is one that we can decide to think about, or not; since it doesn’t intersect with our daily lived experience, we have the privilege of choosing to forget about it.

Not so for our neighbors of color, who cannot ignore an aspect of their existence that is constantly being brought to their attention as they navigate life in this country.* Cultivating an awareness that this is so is part of the challenging work of loving our neighbors knowledgeably.*

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langhorne-race-panel-2017

Participating in this panel, from left to right, were Marcos Ortega, Joe Kim, me, Luke Mason, and Keith Plummer.

*This optical illusion was found at http://www.opticalspy.com/opticals/category/interesting

*And the reason why it’s constantly in their face will be the subject of my next Race Matters post: White Supremacy.

*A good friend pointed out that terms like White Privilege and White Supremacy often come packaged with the message (spoken or implied) that individual white people are inherently guilty (blameworthy) for their position of privilege.  Sometime I will write more about the subject of White Guilt (where it comes from, what we do with it, and how we might sidestep the blame game in Christian love).  But for now let me say that bringing up these topics is not inevitably tied to that message, something that was stressed by the participants on our panel. These definitions of terms are offered as instruction about our neighbors’ experience, so we can begin to love these neighbors knowledgeably.

 

For the panel we prepared a resource list of books, films, podcasts, and topics to Google for those who want to learn more about the subject of race in America.

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Before Speaking, Listen

[Text:  Acts 17]

This is the text of a short talk I gave last spring for Q-Commons in Lancaster, where the themes included neighborliness, leadership, and the relevance of faith.  I chose as my topic the neighborly art of listening before speaking, as exemplified by Paul in Athens.  I’m re-posting this today in anticipation of my participation on a panel discussing race in America a couple of weeks from now, where I plan again to emphasize the courteous decision to listen well to our neighbors.

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Hello, neighbors,

I want to lift up for you an ancient idea, and then give you a biblical picture of it to remember it by.

Here’s the old idea, from the biblical book of Proverbs: Prov.18.13

“To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.”  (Proverbs 18:13)

Listening before speaking is slow, patient work that requires both self-control and self-denial.  It comprises both a stepping back from the stage and the honoring of a speaker who is not you.  I’d suggest, and maybe you have observed, that we in America are not characterized by either self-control or self-denial, and as a result we typically make very poor listeners, especially to those people we deem very much different than ourselves.

I’ve heard frustration about American listening expressed by some voices that I’ve been trying hard to listen to recently, the voices of my African-American neighbors.  As I’ve listened and read, I’ve realized that this is nothing new.  Here’s W.E.B. DuBois, writing in 1903 (so he’s using an older vocabulary):

“We must not forget that most Americans answer all queries regarding the Negro a priori, and that the least that human courtesy can do is to listen to evidence.”

I am hearing the same idea expressed in modern terms by my black neighbors today.  Here’s Ekemini Uwan, a graduate student at Westminster Seminary, writing her frustration just this past November:

“Either talk about race with some level of aptitude, precision, and intelligence or don’t speak on it at all.  Anything less is patronizing.”

And from Jemar Tisby, a pastor and educator, speaking this January about the past year of racial tension in our country:

“It reeks of paternalism to come to the table that you haven’t been sitting at, listen for a second, if that, and then offer suggestions or solutions.”

To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.  Surely we can do better.  This is our challenge, as citizens in a complex and multifaceted country, as neighbors in a diverse community.  So here’s a biblical picture of how we might make courteous listening (before speaking) a reality in our own neighborhoods and conversations.

When I say “a biblical picture,” don’t think I’m going to tell you anything particularly spiritual or religious.  It’s just that I know a good story that illustrates this ancient idea, and it’s found in one of the books of the Christian Bible, the one we call Acts.

As you may know, Acts was written by a Greek doctor named Luke, who actually was himself a very good listener—he took the time to sit down with a lot of eyewitnesses and came away with two volumes of investigative journalism.  One of these books, Acts, tells the story of the first followers of “the Way,” a strange new offshoot of Judaism that centered on a man named Jesus.  And one of the leaders of that new movement was a Middle-Eastern man named Paul.

Now, Paul was a man on a mission, a mission of communication.  He was burdened with a message that he wanted to get out to people in all the diverse communities of the Greco-Roman world.  And it’s in one of his encounters with people who were to him significantly “other,” the Athenians, that Paul’s skills as a listener truly shine.

You probably realize that Paul’s message about his savior Jesus would have been both alien and challenging to these Athenians.  For one thing, Paul’s singular, personal deity bore little resemblance to their multiple (and moody) gods and goddesses, or to the impersonal divine force conceived of by many of the philosophers in this urbane cultural center.  And grasping Jesus’ significance in human history required the back-story of the Hebrew Scriptures, which Paul’s audience in the Areopagus likely did not have.

So Paul needed to build bridges of communication to get his very foreign message across, at least to make a start; and what is suggested in Luke’s narrative is that he did so—first—by listening carefully.  Basically, he was observant, and he did his homework.  What he came up with is a fascinating bit of apologetic discourse, but it’s also worth knowing as an excellent illustration of considerate listening.

Stuck in this city on an unplanned vacation, waiting for his friends, Paul puts the time to good use and even comes away from the tourist attractions with the opening lines of a sermon.  As he begins speaking, he shows right away that he’s taken the time to observe their context:

“Men of Athens, he says, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.  For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’  What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

Paul proceeds then to introduce his theological beliefs very tactfully, aware that this audience wouldn’t be familiar with the vocabulary that he might naturally use among his Jewish brethren in a synagogue.  He speaks of creation, of providence, of the sovereignty of God—all ideas that his Athenian neighbors can track with in a general sense:

He says, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”

And then, quite unusually for something recorded in the Christian Scriptures, Paul does a riff on a couple pieces of pagan literature:

“He is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’”

Note that he didn’t have time on this visit to duck into the local library and bone up on Greek poetry.   These quotes are the fruit of his previous study—this man has done his homework well before he even encountered these global neighbors, and he has listened well enough – paid attention well enough – that these poetic details have lodged in his mind.

As you might expect, Paul’s punchline in this speech is about Jesus; but there’s something UNexpected about the way he puts it.  He ends his intro to Christian theology with a provocative statement about judgment and immortality—two more categories of thought that would have been shared by these Athenians:

“[God] has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

That’s the Jesus part of this speech—that’s all he gives—blink and you’ll miss it.  But how considerate of Paul here, not to burden his audience with unfamiliar words like Christ and sin—there would be time to fill in the blanks later.

How kind of him also to avoid the condescending tones, the disregard and dismissal that might have colored his speech to these “others.”  Paul did not speak shameful folly, because he listened, well before he ever opened his mouth.  He was observant, and he did his homework.  And by this, he earned the right to speak in their neighborhood.

To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.  Be the difference, neighbors. Be observant; do your homework. And before speaking, always have the courtesy to listen.

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All biblical quotations are from the ESV.

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The Messiah in the Old Testament

In two previous posts I outlined how the word “Christ” changed in its reference over the course of the books of the New Testament and those of the Old.  The big-picture sweep of that change goes like this:

Slide18

So in the Old Testament Christ (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Mashiach), with its literal meaning of “anointed one,” mainly referred to kings – sometimes specific kings, like David or Solomon or even Cyrus of Persia; sometimes any king of David’s line; and rarely, with much mystery, to a particular figure who would come in the unspecified future and set everything to rights.

But by the time we get to the Gospel accounts, the reference of the term Christ has obviously narrowed from this broad OT usage.  At this point, whenever anybody uses this word he or she is consciously referring to that mysterious Coming One, on whom all of Israel’s hope seems to depend for defeating the Roman overlords and reestablishing the Davidic monarchy in the Land.  Those who interact with Jesus, both enemies and friends, must contend with his claim to the title and decide if he is the one who fits the bill.  As we advance into the Epistles in our Bibles, we see that Christian believers, at least, have made that judgment in the affirmative:  for now the word Christ is used as a shorthand name-title for Jesus, who, they assert, has powerfully proven himself worthy of it.

The question I want to consider in this post is how the word Christ (or Messiah) gained this specific, exciting meaning in the Gospels, given the rarity of the term itself being used in the OT to describe what a special Coming One would be or do.  How had the people in Jesus’ day gotten to the point where they all agreed (in its broad outlines, at least) on a job description for THE Christ?  They must have had some idea in their minds already of what to expect, before they could connect the dots and decide whether Jesus matched that expectation.  So where did their mental “Wanted” poster come from?  How did they get from “king” to “Expected One”?

Apparently, it was sometime during the centuries in between the end of the OT and the beginning of the events described in the Gospels, this “Intertestamental Period” of about 400 years (see the lavender bar on the timeline above), that the word Christos or Mashiach began to take on that full-fledged, pregnant meaning, so that when people wrote or spoke the word they were consciously referring to that Expected Figure, the Jewish Messiah.  That’s when this idea seems to have congealed in history around the term, during this time when the Jews labored under so many oppressive conquering regimes.

And for the most part, the first-century idea of the Christ or Jewish Messiah wasn’t tied to the word Mashiach or Christos, but was an amalgam of different descriptions and expectations found throughout the Scriptures.  I invite you to listen to my 2015 talk “Traces of the Christ” to hear a creative rendering of this big sweep of messianic expectation in the Hebrew Scriptures, narrated as if Jesus were “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets” to explain himself to his despondent disciples on the road to Emmaus.  Here’s just a sketch of some of the things he might have told them, giving them a picture of the Messiah from the Old Testament:

  • In the Garden we learned that the Coming One was to be a human being who would suffer but have the victory;
  • from Abraham’s time and Jacob’s and Judah’s, that he would be Jewish, and royalty, and a blessing to many nations;
  • from Moses’ day, that he would be a prophet who would speak the very words of God;
  • from David’s story that he would be of this particular kingly line;
  • from Isaiah, that he would bring forgiveness through suffering.*

Remember, too, that by Jesus’ day, whatever had been the biblical expectation of the Christ had become encrusted with folk legend and popular yearnings for a powerful political and military leader — maybe somebody like Judas Maccabeus and his brother Simon, who for an all-too-brief time had managed to restore to Israel an independent monarchy about 160 years before Jesus. This event is fresh in the people’s historical imagination by Jesus’ day; and it turns out that, even for Jesus’ followers, unless someone set those imaginings aside and were steeped in the words of the Scriptures instead, they might well miss seeing how Jesus fit the bill for the Lord’s Christ – and so the seeming end of his story would be especially shocking for them.

The key piece that people tended to miss was Isaiah’s, this idea that the Expected One, THE Christ, would be a king who would suffer.  But for those who grasped this crucial element of the Messiah’s job description – usually after the fact, with some help from Jesus himself or his messengers – the details of Jesus’ story clicked into place and revealed his worthiness to bear the title.  And this is, ultimately, the Christian confession:  that Jesus of Nazareth truly did meet all of the scriptural requirements, even the ones that had dropped off the popular radar.

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*The verses that supply these ideas are, respectively: Gen. 3:15; 17:6; 49:10; Deut. 18:18; 2 Sam. 7:13; and Is. 53:5. Note that this list of messianic references is representative, not comprehensive.

Parts of this post were adapted from my 2015 talk “Traces of the Christ.”

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Filed under Biblical Theology, Christ, Epistles, Gospel of John, Historical Context, Instructing the Body, Messiah, Old Testament, Prophets, Redemptive History, Synoptic Gospels, Talks

New Talk: Traces of the Christ

I’m excited to share with you the final product of a lot of research, writing, and talking to the furniture in my office!  This is a 36-minute talk that offers a sense of the historical continuity of the Christian Scriptures, observed through the lens of “the Lord’s Christ.”  The talk was originally commissioned by and delivered to participants in the 2015 Women in the Word Workshop, a Bible study conference held in Willow Grove, PA in October of this year.  (Please note that while the context was a women’s Bible conference, the content is not gender-specific!)  It’s on YouTube not because it’s a video of me speaking, but because I made some snazzy slides to illustrate it.  Enjoy!

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Filed under Acts, Biblical Genres, Biblical Theology, Christ, Epistles, Gospel of John, Historical Context, Instructing the Body, Messiah, Prophets, Redemptive History, Synoptic Gospels, Talks, Women in the Word

A Friendly Intro to Biblical Theology

Three talks that introduce the “big-picture” of biblical history…

 “Beginning With Moses:  Jesus’ Story from Genesis to Revelation”  — MP3– (Oct. 2012, Women in the Word:  A Workshop)

“Connecting the Dots: Preaching the Big Picture in Acts 13” –MP3– (Oct. 2013, Women in the Word: A Workshop)

“God’s Blessing to the Nations:  Connecting the Dots in redemptive History” –MP3– (Oct. 2014, Women in the Word: A Workshop)

I’m pleased to be able to share these resources with those of you who are involved in Christian instruction at your churches.  In October 2012, 2013, and 2014 I had the privilege of giving a thirty-minute overview of biblical theology as a plenary speaker for World Reformed Fellowship’s Women in the Word Workshop, held at Calvary PCA in Willow Grove, PA.  (Note that though the context was a women’s conference, the content of my talks was not gender-specific!)  These little talks, and the pages I created to go with them, might be useful to someone you know who is not familiar with the redemptive-historical approach to reading the Bible, but is ready to learn more.  Give one or more a listen and see what you think, and then please pass it along.

These are the handouts that I reference in the first talk:

Soli Deo Gloria!

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