An Expensive Gift

I’m sitting in the teacher’s chair in front of a handful of students at a local church’s classroom. I’m teaching how to craft Bible stories, and right now we’re working on the story of the Demon Possessed Man from Mark 5. But the roles have been reversed. The teacher has become the student.

If you’re not familiar, Mark 5 tells the story of a wild man, possessed by an army of spirits, living among the dead with self-destructive behavior that means he’ll have his own grave soon. His family tried to stop him, but he can’t, won’t be stopped. Then Jesus shows up and the spirits start groveling before the all-powerful. Long-story short, The demons are exorcised and the guy gets his life back.

When we teaching a Bible story, we tell the story several times and then ask a series of questions to get people talking and thinking. I have already asked the question, “Was there anything you didn’t understand about the story?” No one responds. “Was there anything unclear in the story?” Still nothing. The terror of looking stupid is global problem.

So, I opened my mouth to get us talking. “Many times I’ve told this story, people struggle with why Jesus allows 2,000 pigs to die and the village to suffer such a financial loss. I don’t know about you all, but I don’t really understand this . . .” Short-story long, the army of dead afflicting this guy need a new home. They ask to possess the herd of nearby pigs. Jesus consents. Chaos ensues. The fallout is so bad that, once news gets out, the entire village shows up and ask Jesus to kick rocks; the implication being that Jesus may be bad for their health and bad for business, no matter who he saved.

The students were honestly dumbstruck that I was asking the question. I’m no stranger to playing devil’s advocate, so I insisted this really was unclear. The look on their face was the look of people accustomed to incompetence. If translated, I think the verbalized look would be , “Sheesh! Another one?” They instructed me this was the whole point of the story, that Jesus would rather 2,000 pigs die than this man—this man’s life is that valuable to Jesus.

Now it was this dummy that was struck. From my perspective, the 2,000 pigs are completely arbitrary. But my students-turned-instructors were right. Our salvation comes at a cost. The danger is we (Westerners at least) abstract salvation to the point we often think of it as a muttered prayer or a couple of lifehacks that cost us nothing. Untrue. Evil, true, unfettered malevolence, does not go quietly. These spirits were not going away until they completed their chaos with killing. Evil’s lust for destruction cannot be satiated without a ransom: something on which to pour out their violence.

C. S. Lewis famously illustrated this “ransom theory” when Aslan, the great lion, is killed by the White Witch. Aslan’s at the hands of his enemy breaks the long winter spell. Dietrich Bonhoeffer who ended up paying the ultimate cost for resisting evil, also taught that grace is not cheap: it is a costly discipleship. My
Malagasy students understand this. And Jesus considers the economic tragedy of 2,000 dead pigs a cost worthy of a man’s life. A person past the point of no return, no less. Yet, the true tragedy is that most of us, like the townspeople in the story, if we’re really honest, think it’s too high a price to pay for anyone’s life.

I thanked the students for reminding me of this. Salvation is a gift, but it is not cheap or free. 

Crafting Bible Stories: Crafting

Before we started, I had someone pray. Rock One. Then, I wrote these six words on the blackboard:

  • Short 
  • Clear 
  • Understandable 
  • Repeatable 
  • Biblical  
  • Contextualized 

I didn’t explain anything about these words. I simply wrote them and then moved on to Rock Two. I played our Bible story, taken from Mark 5, in multiple dialects. Thankfully, we have two crafted Bible stories recorded from story-tellers we have trained. Plus, Wycliffe has been working for many years, translating the Bible into local dialects. I then had us read Mark 5 in the Bible. Think of this as them reading Beowulf. It’s an old translation and in a way of speaking that is predominant in the capital. I asked them if they could read that and it be understood by the farmer way off the road. They said no. And then, they all began to explain that the stories and Bible translations they heard before would be understood by people where they’re from. “It’s the way we speak,” they say. That’s the power of familiarity and contextualized communication.  

I started asking questions. Third Rock. Now these questions are different from the 6 we use to get people talking about the story. At this stage we ask them questions to help them analyze the story in the form they have it and then craft it in a way that will make sense to their audience. As we walked through the passage of Mark 5, Jesus casting spirits out of a possessed man, I asked what differences they noticed from the written text and the translation recordings or the stories. They’re quick to point out the story is exactly the same; the way it’s delivered at the words used vary. I asked them what do the words Decapolis and Legion mean? They didn’t know. How would anyone know these days? I pointed them back to the Greek New Testament. These are just Greek words brought over into English, Malagasy and so on, I explained. Decapolis just means “ten towns” (deka = 10, polis = towns). Legion was just a military expression. “We don’t have to repeat these words, how would you all tell the story in your own words?” I ask. “Oh! That’s why the demons say we are Many or we are Several Soldiers, or we are Uncountable.” Every story-teller or translation had a different way of expressing the same idea. 

I returned to what I had written on the board at the beginning. We have to tell the story in a way people will understand. It has to be short. They should be able to repeat the story. It should be contextualized to their everyday life. But we’re not changing the Bible; we’re telling the story clearly. I referred back to our discussion from the previous week about the pigs. It’s true that a barrier for people receiving the story in this culture may be the pigs. For one thing, there are tribes who do not eat pork. That might be a problem for them. Also, many people do ask why Jesus didn’t care about the loss of wealth the death of the pigs represents. However, as they had pointed out to me last week, that is the point of the story. So then, we cannot refuse to tell that part of the story in the name of being culturally relevant or contextual. The story must remain biblical for us to appropriately contextualize it. 

Two of the students practiced, on the spot, to retell the story in a way they thought would makes sense to others in their town (Rock 4). During this time we discussed the difference between story-telling and explaining. One of the students had begun explaining the meaning of discipleship as he told the part of the story about Jesus traveling with his disciples. I encouraged them to use the questions after the story to explore any further explanation. We ask questions to gauge what people understood and so they can ask us what they didn’t understand. At that point, we are free to go back and clarify the story from God’s Word without confusing people about the difference between our explanations and the story itself. We closed as I encouraged everyone to prepare to tell the story next week when we met again next week. 

Four Rocks



Ask for God to help you understand His Word.



Listen to the story being told by someone and then read it as a group. It’s even better if it’s told and/or read several times.



Ask several kinds of questions to help everyone understand the story.



Obey what God is saying in the story and share it with others.

Crafting Bible Stories: Four Rocks

There are a lot of aspects to crafting Bible stories. We often say it’s something you can’t explain, you have to experience it to understand it. I (Nathan) recently started teaching weekly at a local school for pastors. We thought it might be helpful to do a series of posts walking through the process of training others to tell and craft Bible stories. Would you like to see behind the curtain?

Continue reading “Crafting Bible Stories: Four Rocks”

Why Bible Stories?

I was sitting in a Bible story-crafting group. Pastors and members from three different Baptist churches meet together weekly here in our city, slowly meditating, discussing, telling and retelling, and then finally recording certain passages of Scripture. These are the stories they then tell to others throughout the week, as sermons, in evangelistic conversations, and counseling one another. As we began our time, others in the group had already told about five different stories, just shooting the breeze and catching up on local news and events. Per usual, many of these stories centered on the use of charms.

One of the pastors spoke up, adding his own story:

There’s a group of huts near us I visit almost every week. The families that live there have such vulgar mouths most people can’t stand to go through there. I’ve even had people on the road question my motives. They’ll ask me, “Why do you keep coming over here? What are you looking for? Don’t you know these people have charms buried all over this yard?”

I tell them I’m just interested in talking with the people there, getting to know them better. People tell me it is a waste of time. Many church-folk have made their way back there and they always stop coming after a while because they just can’t stand those people. It’s true, they disrespect people and berate them day in and day out, even they do it to one another.

But one day I was sitting with them. I usually don’t say much because you can’t possibly respond to all of the nonsense. They’re constantly trying to pull you into debates. But one of the girls sitting there attends the local Lutheran church. Her mother and her grandmother are well-known church-folk, and she goes to church every Sunday. She was telling everyone sitting there about the sermon from Sunday. It was about not serving two masters. The girl recounted, “The pastor said, ‘You cannot serve two masters. You will hate one of them and love the other one.’ But I don’t really know what he meant.”

I told her the story of Jesus’ temptation. Even after Jesus had his confirmation and was baptized, God led him into the wilderness to be tested. And the devil tested his spirit. When he couldn’t deceive him with food or possessions or power, he turned to the holy writings themselves to deceive him. That is how the devil tries to get you to serve two masters.

Haven’t you seen people who go to church and take off their charms. Then, once they returned, they put the charms back on again. And when people bury charms here, do they pray Jesus’ name over them? No. They know that the master of the charms and the master of the church are enemies. That is what your pastor means when he says you cannot serve two masters.

She went and got her family and they burned their charms right then and there.


His story was, of course, a huge encouragement. Praise God for this pastor’s faithfulness and these changed lives! Also, though, our pastor’s story struck me as a poignant illustration for why we do Bible story-crafting in the first place.

Stories acknowledge and resource the local church

I’ll start with perhaps the subtext of this example. Our presence as foreign missionaries here in Toliara, or even in Southern Madagascar, is not the only Christian witness. There are many, many Malagasy believers and many Christian churches. True, their theology–the ways these believers understand and interact with God–is sometimes very different from our own. Yet many of these Christians show in the good fruit of their lives they are our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Bible story-crafting is then a way that we can come alongside these Malagasy brothers and sisters and give them an additional resources as God’s primary witnesses in Madagascar. For example, this little community, vulgar and lost in idol worship as they may be, has a witness to God’s Word and love. However, even though there is a church in walking distance, even though they preach God’s Word, even though this young woman heard God’s Word proclaimed in that church, she still did not understand.

Our local team composes stories that allow people to hear God’s Word crafted to their daily life experience (missiologists call this contextualization). The stories are told in the dialect(s) they are used to hearing and communicating in every day. They do not use Christian lingo or Bible words. They do not include a lot of names or titles people cannot understand let alone pronounce. And because they are not crafted by foreigners but endlessly workshopped by indigenous believers, they are a faithful retelling of God’s Word from a Malagasy perspective. Essentially, stories allow people to bear witness to God’s continuing story in a way that is not foreign but very natural to them.

Bible story-crafting group meeting

People can understand and apply stories

The more overt lesson borne out in the pastor’s story is that people here (and I believe everywhere) simply understand stories better. The girl had heard someone preaching verses from God’s written Word, but still needed someone to flesh out the meaning before she was ready to apply it. If you don’t understand what God is saying (or why), you’re going to have a hard time obeying. Like Philip, whom God used to explain to the Ethiopian the meaning of what he had read from Scripture, stories equip people with ways to understand the Bible, even after they’ve read it or (more likely in our context) heard it read aloud (in a language not quite their own).

There is a lot that could be said about this principle, in terms of communication theory, culture, etc. However, suffice to say that content (what is said) is incomprehensible outside of context (how, when, to whom, and for what purpose something is said). “It hurts!” is a simple enough sentence to understand. But your reaction will vary greatly depending on whether it’s someone who just broke their finger, or your starved-for-attention four-year-old drama queen, or the character of Gollum as you host your annual Lord of the Rings marathon.

The girl in the pastor’s story did not understand the principle, “You cannot worship two masters” without the context of the story of Jesus’ Temptation, and then that story applied to her own context. I venture to say, if this article was simply the header above, “People can understand and apply stories,” it would make a lot less sense than it does when you understand the story behind that observation.

And don’t forget, this was story number six in our group. Stories are by far the most natural way people communicate here. Does that mean people cannot learn from a three-point sermon? It does not. But it is not the most natural way for people to learn, or communicate that information to others. While I have seen people listen to a story once to then turn around retell the whole thing perfectly, I have never seen anyone repeat a sermon after hearing it. Speaking of that, you might be surprised to learn that this particular pastor, who was telling this story, is an oral learner. The sermons he shares on Sundays are stories. He asks congregation members to read relevant passages aloud to the group, or memorizes key passages ahead of time with his wife, as he doesn’t read at all. And yet, through storying and story-crafting, he is equipped to bring God’s Word to bear on the everyday lives of the people in his community.

If you want to know more about the Bible story-crafting movement, you should follow along with the podcast That Reminds Me of a Story. They do a good job of walking through the different elements of the process, explaining origins, and how methods have developed over time.

Mahafaly Bible Stories: Priests

It’s me, the Traveler, and I have a story to tell you. It’s a story from a book of holy writings called the Bible. This book is a collection of many stories, and they have all been brought together to tell the whole story. It is the story of our ancestors, and our story. Let me tell it to you.

This story is called, Priests . . .

When the Prince of Creation chose Moses to be the leader for those tribes of Abraham, he also appointed Aaron, to be a a sacrificer, the one to carry the curse of those tribes of Abraham to the Prince of Creation. So then, the Prince appeared to Moses: “Mosesy! Say this to Arona . . . ‘When he will do this work, let him shower. He will have one male zebu secured. It will be killed by him in order to cleanse by blood the his own curse because of the curse upon his household.

After, he will have two male goats secured. And the one, slit the one’s throat, in order to cleanse by blood the curse of those tribes of Abraham. And the blood of this male goat and the blood of this male zebu sprinkle around that taboo place of sacrifice there. After, one male goat will be taken by him, the second. This male goat, do not kill this one, but there on the head of this male goat his two hands will be placed, the curses of those tribes of Abraham, all of them then and there, will be narrated by him. If that is done, this male goat will be thrown out by him to wander far away out there. With that their curse will be far away from them, and with that will be their relationship with the Prince.

But this also will be a rite that must be done by them, year after year after year that they may pass down this work through the generations, the tribes of Arona will pass it down through the generations, that’s down through his household.'”

“Yes,” said Moses. And so, you see, Moses went, the Prince’s decree was narrated to Aaron by him. Aaron also did what followed the rite made by the Prince.

But those tribes of Abraham, they grew and they became many. And the wrong they did became even greater still. So, Aaron sacrificed year after year and his offspring also passed that work down through the generations.

That is the story taken from there in the Holy Writings, so that the Prince had relationship with those tribes of Abraham.

Resource Spotlight: CRT

CRT became a must-read topic for us when the SBC seminary presidents issued a statement that announced CRT to be at odds with the SBC confession of faith. I read this book so that I could get a something more than a second-hand account of CRT (this book is not technically a primary source but a primer). 

This is not a book review. If you want to know more about CRT, I would suggest finding someone who ascribes to it or even reading this book to find more primary sources. Our evangelical tribe has shown an astounding ability to listen to one of our own dismantle CRT without a definition of it or having ever even listened to someone who actually holds that opinion.

If we don’t like people forming opinions about us before they’ve ever asked us a honest, open-ended question, then we can’t to the same to others. I think Jesus said something like that.

There are plenty of YouTube videos and blog posts nay-saying CRT and their proponents. They probably even have a point. But they are chemists and ministers. Are they smarter than me? I’m sure they are (another reason I’m not trying to review this book). But I’m not going to tell you why you shouldn’t embrace CRT or why it’s incompatible with Christianity. I’m just going to tell you what struck me and leave the Holy Spirit one less impersonator. You’re in good hands.

Based on reading this book that serves as an introduction to the topic, I’d have to suggest Derrick Bell as a good, first primary source as much as his name comes up.

What is CRT?

Consider this quote, “The critical race theory (CRT) movement is a collection of activists and scholars engaged in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power. The movement considers many of the same issues that conventional civil rights and ethnic studies discourses take up but places them in a broader perspective that includes economics, history, setting, group and self-interest, and emotions and the unconscious. Unlike traditional civil rights discourse, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law” (pg 3).

Two quick insights to glean from the above introduction to CRT: (1) CRT does a lot of historical work to set (especially legal) decisions and actions within their wider context, (2) CRT is not only not interested in status quo but is distinct from civil rights discourse because it deconstructs status quo in search of systemic answers. To me it’s as simple as this: if you were already convinced there were some big things that needed to change, you’re going to be open to CRT, because it is transparently trying to shake things up.

Among self-proclaimed influences they list:

  • critical legal studies and radical feminism
  • European philosophers such as Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida
  • American radicals such as Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, MLK Jr., Cesar Chavez
  • and the Black Power and Chianco movements

Now there’s probably at least one name on here that makes your heart race. But hang on. I don’t know how many times I have had people tell me “CRT goes straight back to Marxism!” But it at least made me stop and think to see the Americans on this list. Black, Christian prophets like Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and MLK Jr. are forerunners to CRT, and MLK Jr. was unfairly labeled a Marxist in his time. So let’s just remember, these brothers and sisters of ours, also all challenged the status quo and said our institutions were rife with and founded on sin. For crying out loud, Frederick Douglass (among a lot of other things) said American Christianity and Christianity proper were incompatible! (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 94-95). I’ve gotta give credit where credit is due; CRT has Christian roots as well.

Does CRT have it out for “whites”?

What white people need to understand is that out of all racialized groups (of which whites were primarily the ones doing the racializing), people designated as white in the last 400 years have not been persecuted or oppressed, and definitely not in the same way as other racial groups by “white people.” I have heard people complain that acknowledging this reality brings division and only compares suffering. If we’re arguing about subjective suffering, I agree that can get tricky. But CRT, at least at this level, is just working from objective historical fact.

White people and white culture are definitely being singled out. But it’s not because of the color of our skin, or “reverse racism.” I believe we all still agree (but I may be going out on a limb here) it was clearly “white people” who invented the illusion of race and who were doing the oppressing in slavery, Jim Crow, and through the Civil Rights movement. So even if you want to exclude everything from the 1960’s to present, “white people” specifically deserve to be talked to about racism. Not because you as an individual are a racist, though I have certainly acted like one in my life, but because our ancestors built things to favor people that looked like them, and often on the backs of others.

Why don’t we just stick with the Bible? I would ask, does the Bible contain the history of world civilization from the last 400 years? No. So while it calls out supremacy, “don’t consider yourself more highly than you ought,” (Rom. 12:13) and makes God’s judgment against injustice and marginalization clear (Amos 5:10-24), it doesn’t specifically call out white supremacy. But if we still think the holocaust was evil and clearly against the teachings of scripture, then why would we not evaluate our own country’s white supremacy? Again, Jesus said something like that.

Why does CRT prioritize the voice of non-whites?

It is also true, even though they want to deconstruct generalities of identity, Crits (as CRT activists call themselves) hold to an “unique voice of color” because of our specific historical context. They explain, “because of their different histories and experiences with oppression, black, American Indian, Asian, and Latino writers and thinkers may (emphasis mine) be able to communicate to their white counterparts matters that the whites are unlikely to know. Minority status, in other words, brings with it a presumed competence to speak about race and racism” (pg 11).

I emphasized that “may” in the quote above because, as I read this primer, I was struck by the circumspection and honesty with which they introduce the reader to CRT. We are told that CRT has an internal tension between materialism and idealism, economics and identity, practice and theory, etc. We are told of the disagreements external and internal to this movement. The authors describe how not all people of color agree, and how people of color have even oppressed each other. They are attaching, for the reader’s benefit, the relevant court cases and decisions that have prompted these debates. You do not have to agree with them. They don’t all agree with each other. But they do a very good job, in my opinion, of giving the lay of the land.

However, people in our tribe have essentially said the voice of color doesn’t exist. We all have access to objective facts, so it doesn’t matter if it’s six white guys making a decision that primarily affects people of color. Only that’s not true, we don’t all have equal access to the truth. We all have blindspots. And, again, if you read Frederick Douglass (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 31) it becomes apparent that white, Christian Americans spent a lot of effort blocking people of color access to the truth and the voice to express it.

Forgive me for a stupid illustration: if you love seafood, you may not be aware that you always try to take your wife to seafood restaurants. But your wife, you does not like seafood, is keenly aware of your blindspot, and is in a better position to let you know about it.

It’s up to us to listen to people who can see our own blindspots much more clearly.

Is CRT going to destroy our identity?

I have heard CRT described as a “trojan horse,” meaning once we let it infiltrate our institutions, it’s game over (i.e. we will lose what it means to be SBC, for example). I think it’s fair to point out you can’t really have a trojan horse when everyone rejects it out of hand because it makes them uncomfortable. CRT is more of a black sheep than a trojan horse for most of us.

As I understood, (just reading a book, not an expert here), CRT is concerned with generalizations, but specifically racialized generalizations. Of course, they acknowledge that race has no scientific basis in fact. But the context of American history and European colonization reveals that, while fictional, race has been a very powerful generalization in our recent, global history. Even Intersectionality and antiessentialism, tenets or offshoots of the CRT discussion, are pushing back, or eliminating altogether, the generalities that constitute individual identities. So for instance, “I’m more than just Christian. I’m a Baptist, a Southern Baptist, actually. And a man, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like candles!” Even that is an example of how CRT is trying to get at what I am and what I’m not.

I would argue that, sure, if we started teaching CRT in our institutions, people will definitely continue (it’s already happening) questioning their identities. Now, I always thought the goal of higher education was to honestly question and evaluate all perspectives. And let’s not forget, on this day last year, a group of light-skinned Americans, many identifying themselves as Christians, stormed our nation’s Capitol. Surely our Christian identity in America is far too unexamined.

Conclusion . . .

This book provided a very helpful overview of CRT. It also helped me realize that our problem as white people and, especially in my tribe, is not understanding the wider context (race, economics, hegemonies, social dynamics, etc.) of our own history. The reason for this reticence is that to honestly investigate the wider context will implicate our socially-constructed group (white people) in oppression. An example of this would be how SBC history never evaluates the damning words of Frederick Douglass alongside the inception of the SBC (formed over sending slave-owners as missionaries), even though they are a mere month apart.

Now, CRT is absolutely open to the accusation that they deconstruct more than they construct. I do believe there is great potential for people in this movement to lose sight of the importance of an essential identity. As in, I can envision someone saying, “I’m not all the things you say I am,” but still left wondering, “Then what or who am I?”

I think Jesus, not majority culture, has an answer for that. I think it is inevitable these conversations will be taking place more and more, especially in the wider culture and especially as the world grows more diverse and less white. Christians have the opportunity to model a Christian essentialism that places Jesus at the center of their lives . . . while the world fights off the vestiges of white supremacy and builds a new tomorrow.

Mahafaly Bible Stories: Moses

Hello, it’s me again, the Traveler, and I have a story to tell you. It’s a story from a book of holy writings called the Bible. This book is a collection of many stories, and they have all been brought together to tell the whole story. It is the story of our ancestors, and our story. Let me tell it to you.

This story is called, The Calling of Moses . . .

The Calling of Moses

It came true what the Prince of Creation had said to Abraham: those from Abraham’s heart, his tribe, settled and grew. But, these from the tribe of Abraham, at that point, did not stay in the land given to Abraham by the Prince. Instead, the settled in a land inhabited by other people. And they suffered in that land, enslaved and suffering badly. Just then, the Prince of Creation made a plan to take them from there, leave that place, and finally go home to the land given to Abraham. So he chose someone, one person, to lead them there. Moses is the name of this person.

So there was Moses. Then one day, Moses went to shepherd out there. So there he was out there, shepherding. And when he was out there, he saw a bush in flames! But the bush did not make any ashes, it did not turn to ash at all! So befuddled by all this was Moses, he went and visited this bush.

A voice, then, spoke from out of that fire there, “Mosesy! Mosesy! Slip out of your cow-hides there. This is holy ground.”

Moses took off his cow-hide sandals. Moses got closer to the plant. Again, there was a voice, “Mosesy! You’re going to be sent by me. You will go to the land of Egypt where the lineage of Abraham is suffering. They are ensalved by that land. And you will lead them to get them out of there, to not be there anyone. And you will lead them to the land I gave to their ancestor . . . that’s Abraham.

“Aha,” said Moses. “Look, I, even though you’re sending me to go there, those people don’t miss the sound of my voice. They won’t take me seriously, but this is what they’ll say, “Hey! What God and from where said all this to this guy? I’m a person who doesn’t know how to talk. So you just pick another person.”

“Aha,” said this voice. “You look, I am the Prince of Creation who is said to have always been from ages past. That’s me. I am the Prince of your ancestors. Abraham’s God. Isaac’s God. And if you speak this, my name, to them they will be afraid and they will believe what you say. All this that you’ve said, like, ‘I don’t know how to talk.’ Look, I made the mouth. And I will put want I want to say in that mouth of yours, and the same thing will be done to the mouth of your brother, Aaron. You two guys are gonna go over there. “You all,” said the Prince, “I will be send with three signs.”

So then, after all that, Moses left and met with his brother, Aaron, took him with him and the two guys went there. And when they arrived there in that town, they gathered the tribe of Abraham there. They told them the story of what God had said, how he would get them out of that land, and go to the land the Prince had given to Abraham. And, they also did there, those three signs. After that, the tribe of Abraham was good and scared and they believed the Prince and trusted Moses.

Then, the tribe of Abraham was happy and thanked the Prince and they were saying, “Would you look at that! God sees our suffering and he’s gonna get us out of this suffering to the land there that he gave our ancestor Abraham.

And that is the story taken from the holy writings, and it’s all true.

Theology Tuesday: God and Unsolved Mysteries

Recently, we gave the revitalized Unsolved Mysteries a try. The first episode is about Rey Rivera, a guy who goes missing suddenly after he runs out unexpectedly one night, only to be found days later in an old, hotel conference room where he has, supposedly, plummeted to his death. Props to the show, it pulls you in immediately and gets your mind to working.

But I was disturbed by the time the show ended. Obviously, Rivera’s case is unsolved; but there are so many things that stick out like and cry foul-play (would someone please decode that freaky, little note he left!). It leaves you dissatisfied because you know Rey and his family didn’t get justice and don’t have the peace of mind knowing the bad buys were exposed. Theologically, there’s actually a lot that could be said for this. Our insatiable impulse for justice in unsolved mysteries and foul-play coverups speaks to God’s character, the need for every act to be held to account at some point, and what God is doing in the meantime.

I don’t think it was running at the time, but Job could very well have been the subject of an Unsolved Mysteries episode back in the day. In fact, if we didn’t have the supernatural backstory of how a shadowy figure is running Job through the gauntlet to challenge his trust in God, Job’s story would be every bit dissatisfying as Rey Rivera’s. He’s goes from a respectable, wise leader to a deranged, homeless guy. And from Job’s perspective it’s actually God abusing him.

Job doesn’t get enough credit. In chapter 19:25-27, he burst out with his fundamental belief in God:

But I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the end he will stand on the dust.
Even after my skin has been destroyed,
yet I will see God in my flesh.
I will see him myself; 
my eyes will look at him, and not as a stranger.
My heart longs within me.

What is kinda crazy is that Job has been railing against God for treating him like an enemy. Job trusted him and this is how God treats him? And what is Job supposed to do? God’s too powerful and too smart for Job to get anywhere lamenting his situation with him (9:19). But here, Job tells us what he believe deep-down about God. He pushes past his present suffering to say the God he believes is hurting him is still the God who is good enough to save him.

As one scholar puts it, “Job is beseeching the God is whom he has faith to help him against the God who is punishing him. While this view seems irrational, this paradox lies at the core of Job’s struggle. These two conflicting views of God are at war in his own mind. Although he believes that God is just, he is overwhelmed . . .”

Is Job crazy? To be honest, this sounds more like the excuses of an abuse victim than it does sound logic. However, I think Job is just honestly struggling with two sets of experiences (1) God’s proven track record, with him personally and in history, of personal love and care, and (2) God’s present indifference to his suffering and impersonal silence to Job’s injustice. Which one is the real God? Someone like Luther would say God #2 is not God wearing the mask of evil but actually evil posing as God. Still, Job fundamentally believes that even in God is responsible for his suffering, he will personally come and sort things out.

The resurrection is the ultimate evidence of God’s personable love and care even in the face of horrible injustice. His love and justice can never be too late; they extend beyond the grave.

For Job, this clearly meant he believed God would restore him before death. But Job also sets the stage for Jesus, the who suffers injustice (seemingly at the hands of God) and yet is restored even after death. The resurrection is the ultimate evidence of God’s personable love and care even in the face of horrible injustice. His love and justice can never be too late; they extend beyond the grave.

Although Job’s confession as interpreted does not explicitly support the doctrine of resurrection, it is built on the same logic that will lead to that doctrine becoming the cornerstone of NT faith. Job is working with the same logic of redemption that stands as the premise of the NT doctrine of resurrection. Both hold to the dogma that God is just even though he permits unrequited injustices and the suffering of the innocent. God, himself, identified with Job’s sufferings in the sufferings of his Son, Jesus Christ, who suffered unto death even though he was innocent. Jesus overcame his ignominious death by rising from the grave. In his victory he, as God’s Son and mankind’s kinsman-redeemer, secured redemption for all who believe on him. While his followers may suffer in this life, he is their Redeemer, their Advocate before the Father. In this way Job’s confidence in God as his Redeemer amidst excruciating suffering stands as a model for all Christians

John E. Hartley, The Book of Job (NICOT), 297.

Justice is coming for Rey Rivera, just like it did for Job. How do I know? Because a man named Jesus is representing him. Do we really think Jesus is not interested? Was he not killed in an enormous, political hit-job which was quickly covered up? Did he not die to, in one fell swoop, take down the bad guys and restore the victims? The biblical hope is not that God will magically sweep away all wrongdoing. He’s going to stand in the flesh in front of us all and bring justice for all.

Meantime, Jesus has left us here as his deputies. Whether it’s Rey Rivera or any other silent victim, our job is to represent the Redeemer, advocating and working for justice on behalf of the vulnerable. And if we’re going to look anything like Jesus, we have to be ready to do what he did and stand between evil and the suffering, taking the hit so they have a way out. The boss is still coming, in the flesh, to set everything right. Meantime, we’ve got work to do.

Theology Tuesdays: Wisdom

Tessa and I are trying to communicate more regularly here on more of a schedule. So every other Tuesday we’ll start adding some theological reflections like this one. They say routine and schedule can add some semblance of order to our lives these days. We’ll see!

I’ve been doing what little I can, having a few people over here at the house to pray, reflect on God’s Word and work in the community. That has taken the form of crafting the biblical story of Job to broadcast on the local radio and some community development as we walk through the book of James together.

Job and ill-timed truths

Job has always fascinated me. As a former theatre junkie, it reads like a dramatic production to me every time. Maybe I’m trying to realize some of my dreams with this radio theatre venture now! James, however, I consider a more familiar book . . . except it’s kicking my butt right now. Both are steeped in the biblical, Jewish wisdom tradition. Along with Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, Job is a reflection on how to live. If Proverbs is the optimist and Ecclesiastes the pessimist, Job is the realist of the wisdom books.

We were reading through Job a month ago. It struck me how much more poignant the story is now. I imagined certain people sitting here in the slums or on the side of the road voicing Job’s cries of injustice. I could see their pastors shaking their heads at them, or the local Christian ladies dressed in their Sunday best doing their best to comfort them by telling them to repent so that things would go back to normal, rubbing salt in an angry wound. I could see myself, speaking platitudes about God’s care to them from a place of privilege and health while they wail and moan and dare to ask why this is happening to them.

Derek Kidner, one of my favorite scholars on the Hebrew Writings for his clarity, put something into words I’ve never noticed before about Job’s friends. It’s not that they’re wrong, per se . . .

“A closer look at the material shows that the basic error of Job’s friends is that they overestimate their grasp of truth, misapply the truth they know, and close their minds to any facts that contradict what they assume.”

Derek Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job,& Ecclesiastes, 61.

The Bible has a category, an ensemble of characters even, that teach we can be technically right but contextually, relationally dead-wrong. To say it another way, if I could speak every language that exists, have the solution to every problem down to global poverty, have enough faith that I can actually physically toss mountains into the ocean, but don’t know how to treat people . . . I’ve got zilch, nada–I am nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-2).

How in the world are we any different than Job’s friends right now? It was startling for me to realize early on in this crisis that I did not need the barrage of spiritual encouragement sent my way. Faith over fear? Really!? As if a catchphrase will help me sleep at night or calm my pent-up three-year-old or suddenly open the borders of the country in which I feel stranded without help.

Then I thought about those around me. How many times do I do the same to them. Instead of sitting with them in their pain, I offer trite solutions. It’s not that “Faith over Fear,” or “God’s in control,” “She’s in a better place now,” or “All Lives Matter” are patently false statements. They aren’t. Neither are they helpful when someone is in pain.

Job’s friends all understand something true about God’s character. But then they misapply that truth and use it against one made in God’s image. And God makes it clear he is not cool with how they’ve handled the situation (Job 42:7-8). He calls their words of wisdom, “foolish.” They kept blabbing on about stuff they didn’t understand, making up excuses for God, it seems like, to help themselves feel more in control. Job gets his own remedial wisdom class, but he passes the test because he loves God too much to accept pat answers about him. He knows something’s up and he won’t rest until he figures it out and knows his relationship with God is solid.

The hinge of the book is chapter 28, where Job declares, “Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom! And to depart from evil is understanding” (28:28), which bookends the wisdom books at the opening of Proverbs (1:7) and the close of Ecclesiastes (12:13). This is wisdom distilled: Fear God, flee evil. But as we see with Job, this lesson is refined in the furnace not learned in the classroom; it will take our full attention to maintain the tension of standing in awe before the God of the whirlwind as we sit scraping our sores on the trash heap.

Too often, we fall into the trap of making excuses for God to make ourselves feel better instead of honestly wrestling with him. We either say he is too good to let us suffer (though it clearly happens) or we say he is obviously not good at all (which we clearly owe him our very lives!). But for those who say “maybe . . .” and try to push for answers, struggle to find real footing with God, we show only resentment. For some reason, we (and I am right in the middle of we) seem in short-supply of empathy, and it may be because, just like Job’s friends, we would be better off just sitting, listening, and not getting angry at things that contradict what we assume to be true of the world. In a context where, in real time, no one knows what’s really going on, it’s better to wrestle with God than lean on dogma. Because as Job shows, the world is a confusing place, and we don’t even know how much we don’t know.

James and double-talk

Speaking of being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry (1:19), James stands out as the wisdom book of the New Testament. Reflecting on various proverbs, psalms, the storyline of the Old Testament and also Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” James is giving the first Jewish church in Jerusalem Wisdom 2.0, in light of “glorious Lord Jesus Messiah” (2:1). He even references Job . . .

As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.

James 5:11 (NIV)

I recommend James to you as a 2020 read, especially in light of the vitriol, double-talk, and double-mindedness that we’re seeing. James is concerned the church has double-standards:

  • They pray for wisdom, but don’t actually want to be given any (1:5-8)
  • They blame God for the bad without thanking him for the good (1:12-18)
  • They think everyone should hear their opinions, but don’t listen to any others (1:19-27)
  • They help out the upstanding, yet stand on the downtrodden (2:1-13)
  • They claim to follow Jesus, but never do anything for others (2:14-26)

And that’s just the first two chapters!

The wisdom of James is to not forget our history in the faith, the wisdom of God’s word, but to live our lives in gratitude before king Jesus. Re-verbalizing Jesus’ own teaching, his little brother says, “Say what you mean, do what is true, and love others like you want God to love you.” Most of the time, we say, do, and love only in a way that benefits me, myself, and I.

Last week, me and the guys were looking at James 1:19-27; this week we were in 2:1-13. Both times I’m struck by what I’ve never noticed there. James clearly is talking to a stratified congregation of Haves and Have-nots. He says it several times (1:9-11; 2:1-7; 2:13-17; 5:1-6). Let that sink in, because it permeates the whole book. I’ve never understood that being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger are conversation guidelines for Christians in different socioeconomic positions. But it clearly is, as some people were claiming to know Jesus yet hadn’t been listening to the needs in their own community. They were listening to the sermons on Sunday but they hadn’t visited with the poor (1:27). Is there a more Jesus-like thing to do?!

In 2:1-13, James lays down the law (literally), saying “Don’t have faith in Jesus and partiality.” Partiality, discrimination, favoritism, racism, they’re all talking about the same reality. And the passage that I have used as an apologetic for how all sin is equal in the eyes of God (2:10-11) is actually making a much different point in context. As Craig Blomberg, another of my favorite Bible scholars, writes:

Discrimination is sin and breaks the law. The word here for “show favoritism” is the verb from the same root as the noun in 2:1, again with the connotation of viewing people’s external appearances only instead of seeing them as whole persons.

Craig Blomberg, James; ZECNT

God hates our unequal treatment of any person as much as he hates murder and adultery. It doesn’t matter if they have Corona virus, it doesn’t matter if they are or are not wearing a mask. If we are going to take Jesus’ name, we better start treating all people as “whole persons.” Not to improve our position, not just people who agree with us, not just people who look like us. The “law of the kingdom,” as James calls it, is a law of freedom based on the mercy of Jesus who did not come to yell at us but loved us, even as broken people. At a deep level, James is saying to the extent we have a distorted view of others we are distorted ourselves. We have become double-minded.

Wisdom is the opposite. Wisdom is an integrative principle. It is the truth of the living God lived out in loving relationships between God and his image bearers. It is a truth that survives the strongest scrutiny in the worst circumstances, and it is a truth that pulls us together instead of fracturing us. It derives from the fact that how we love all humans has direct bearing on how we love God and even ourselves. But we’ll save that for another Tuesday.


For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been meeting with a couple young guys here in Toliara. We’re studying through the book of James as well as planning how to help the community in this crisis. I wanted to give them a chance to encourage you as well with what we’re learning. Here’s Manuely . . .

Transcript: Good morning, everyone! We thank God for this wonderful day he has given us, so that I can share with you what I have learned from God’s Word. I have been studying with Nathan Baker. Thanks to Nathan Baker for teaching me in English. If it wasn’t for God’s Spirit using Nathan, I wouldn’t be speaking English. I hope that you can understand me now.

The one thing I want to share with you today is about temptation. You know that we have a problem around the word because of this COVID-19, right? But that doesn’t mean we should stop preaching the gospel. Instead, we should communicate with our family and take advantage of this time to share God’s Word. Especially, we have a lot of churches not open because of this virus. Worshippers of God are discouraged, because you do not understand what has happened. People are asking, “Is this from God, or from evil?” But if you worship God, don’t be afraid.

James says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted by evil. And he himself does not tempt anyone.” What does that mean? That means, He is not testing you. Instead, he gives you a choice, to trust him or to blame him. But you should know, like James says, the good things you have are from God. Even if you blame him, he is good and he does not change.

For proof of that, you can read 1 Corinthians 10:13. It says, “No temptation has seized you except that which is common to man. God is faithful, he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can do. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way so that you can stand up under it.”

So for us, we should have courage and remember, God has given us a way out in Jesus. And even in COVID-19, we can stand strong in him. I guess, that’s all today. Thank you for listening and watching me. God bless you wherever you go and whatever you do. Bye!