You may have noticed that things have been quiet lately here at “Theology in Overalls.” Allow me to explain.
In early August, Amy and I returned from Africa following 23 years of missionary service with the Church of the Nazarene. For various reasons, it was time to move along, and I am now serving as a chaplaincy resident at a hospital in the Austin, Texas area. I’m continuing as on ordained minister in the Church of the Nazarene (South Texas District), but in a role that differs significantly from that of a theological educator.
Nearly 1 million strong, Austin is a very diverse and growing city, part of the Austin-San Antonio-Houston “triangle” here in Texas that is drawing so many. Amy and I are urbanites, and enjoy city living and all the amenities it has to offer. On the church front, the Wesleyan understanding of the Gospel has yet to gain a strong foothold here in greater Austin. I believe that God will use our gifting in winsome ways in a location where many have yet to follow Christ or experience the reality of holiness of heart and life.
I’m not sure yet what the change of ministry assignments (from theological educator to chaplain) will mean for “Theology in Overalls.” Because of privacy laws, I will not be able to write about interactions with patients or others at the hospital. In 18 months or so, once I am established in a permanent health care chaplaincy position (the Lord willing), I am likely to have more time to post regularly. Meanwhile, I keep reading widely and will still need a way to process ideas or react to events in church and life, especially here in the U.S. Bear with me; the learning curve for health care chaplaincy is steep, and the emotional energy needed on a daily basis is high. Thank you for your prayers for us during this daunting but promising time.
I preached this sermon at the chapel of Africa Nazarene University (L.T. Marangu campus) on Thursday, May 30.
Text: Ecclesiastes 7:1-12 (New Living Translation)
This year, our theme is “With Christ on the Way.” If we could step into a time machine and travel back and join Jesus on the dusty roads of Galilee, Judea, and Samaria, what would he teach us?
We know that Jesus loved the Scriptures. Often, he cited Deuteronomy. What we call the New Testament didn’t yet exist. For Jesus, the Scriptures were the 39 books of our Old Testament.
Today, I’d like to look at a passage from one of those books in Jesus’ Bible. Let’s take a look at Ecclesiastes 7:1-12. From this portion of the Jewish Wisdom Literature, we draw the title for this message: “Solomon’s 8 Lessons for the Journey.”
Lesson # 1 – Guard your reputation.
Verse 1 ends with a depressing statement: “The day of death is better than the day of birth” (1b, NIV). Here’s a good example of the Bible not requiring that we always have to be in a cheerful mood. The Bible is real; sometimes we’re just discouraged, and that’s O.K. With God’s help and the help of others, work through those tough times. Things do get better!
But what I’d like to focus on is the first half of the verse. The New Living Translation puts it this way: “A good reputation is better than fine perfume” (Ecc. 1:1a).
I’ve worn a white shirt before and spilled spaghetti sauce on it. It takes a lot of effort to get rid of the stain. I’ve had to learn the hard way that the best policy when it comes to white shirts and spaghetti sauce is to cover myself first with a towel or serviette.
And so it is with our reputation. Once it’s stained, it’s hard to get the stain out. We all need to think twice before we join in activities that will tarnish our reputation.
Lesson # 2 — Tough times have a way of refining us.
There’s a little ditty that I learned somewhere along the way:
Every party needs a pooper, that’s why we invited you!
Verses 2-4 sound very much like that song. In v. 2, Solomon recommends funerals over parties. In v. 3, he ranks sorrow above laughter, then in v. 4, he compliments the person who thinks about death as being wise, while the fool thinks only about having a good time.
For the record, I don’t think we need to feel guilty about having a good time. Proverbs 17:22 says that “a joyful heart is good medicine” (NASB) and Ecclesiastes 3:4 insists that there is a time to laugh. It’s always a danger for Christians to take themselves too seriously. Laughter isn’t a sin.
So what is Solomon getting at? He’s reminding his readers that God allows death and sorrow as a means to strengthenus. Tough times have a way of refining us.
Poet Robert Browning Hamilton wrote a poem entitled “Along the Way.” Here’s what Browning observed about sorrow:
I walked a mile with Pleasure,
She chattered all the way;
But left me none the wiser,
For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with Sorrow,
And ne’er a word said she;
But oh, the things I learned from her
When Sorrow walked with me!
(cited by Stephen J. Bennett, Ecclesiastes/Lamentations: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition (Kansas City, Missouri: Beacon Hill Press, 2010), 123.
Lesson # 3 — Accept a critique given in love, but beware of fawning.
A third lesson appears in verses 5-6: “It is better to be criticized by a wise person than to be praised by a fool! Indeed, a fool’s laughter is quickly gone, like thorns crackling in a fire. This also is meaningless.”
I looked up the word “fawning.” The Oxford Online Dictionary defines it as “displaying exaggerated flattery or affection; obsequious.”
And sometimes that comes in the form of laughter. You tell a joke, and this is the person who laughs longer than anyone else, and you wonder why. Finally, you realize that there’s some kind of a hidden agenda. It’s not that you’re so funny, it’s that they’re for some reason trying to get on your good side.
But there is a kind of criticism that is healthy. It’s a critique given from someone because they have your best interest in-mind. Solomon calls this being criticized by a wise person.
I can think of times when I was growing up that my parents offered words of critique. They saw something in my character that they knew was not healthy and that would limit my own success in-life. It was love that motivated them to speak up.
It can be painful to hear those kinds of words, but if we listen and take them to-heart, God can use them to refine us.
Abortion legislation is coming fast-and-furious in the U.S. setting. Multiple state legislatures have been emboldened to pass restrictions, since the compositon of the U.S. Supreme seems to have recently shifted in a conservative direction, calling into question whether the landmark 1973 decision, Roe v. Wade, will be overturned. At such a time, it’s helpful to review what our Nazarene Manual (2017-2021) has to say about abortion.
[Note: For those not part of the denomination, a bit of context is in order. Every four years, the Church of the Nazarene around the world sends delegates to a General Assembly. At the GA, decisions are made that govern the church. These decisions are codified in the Manual, the current version being for 2017-2021. The Manual also contains statements on social issues.]
Here’s the relevant section, from Manual 30.1, under the larger heading of “The Sanctity of Human Life”:
30.1. Induced Abortion. The Church of the Nazarene affirms the sanctity of human life as established by God the Creator and believes that such sanctity extends to the child not yet born. Life is a gift from God. All human life, including life developing in the womb, is created by God in His image and is, therefore, to be nurtured, supported, and protected. From the moment of conception, a child is a human being with all of the developing characteristics of human life, and this life is dependent on the mother for its continued development. Therefore, we believe that human life must be respected and protected from the moment of conception. We oppose induced abortion by any means, when used for either personal convenience or population control. We oppose laws that allow abortion. Realizing that there are rare, but real medical conditions wherein the mother or the unborn child, or both, could not survive the pregnancy, termination of the pregnancy should only be made after sound medical and Christian counseling.
Responsible opposition to abortion requires our commitment to the initiation and support of programs designed to provide care for mothers and children. The crisis of an unwanted pregnancy calls for the community of believers (represented only by those for whom knowledge of the crisis is appropriate) to provide a context of love, prayer, and counsel. In such instances, support can take the form of counseling centers, homes for expectant mothers, and the creation or utilization of Christian adoption services.
The Church of the Nazarene recognizes that consideration of abortion as a means of ending an unwanted pregnancy often occurs because Christian standards of sexual responsibility have been ignored. Therefore the church calls for persons to practice the ethic of the New Testament as it bears upon human sexuality and to deal with the issue of abortion by placing it within the larger framework of biblical principles that provide guidance for moral decision making.
The Church of the Nazarene also recognizes that many have been affected by the tragedy of abortion. Each local congregation and individual believer is urged to offer the message of forgiveness by God for each person who has experienced abortion. Our local congregations are to be communities of redemption and hope to all who suffer physical, emotional, and spiritual pain as a result of the willful termination of a pregnancy.
Matthew 3:4 portrays a wilderness dweller clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. His food? Locusts and wild honey.
Most detect the explicit part of his message. We must repent, turning away from our sins. He warned the crowds who traveled out to gawk at this Elijah-like prophet:
Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven! (Matt. 3:3, CEB)
Yet there’s an often overlooked element to his fiery preaching. Repentance alone is insufficient. Once we have repented, there is a second step: “Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives” (3:8, CEB; italics added).
John the Baptist’s two-step sermon that day squares with a word from the prophet Ezekiel centuries earlier. God called Ezekiel a “lookout” to warn Israel about a “sword” that the LORD was about to bring against them — see Ezekiel 33:1-16. God had pronounced a “death sentence” upon them since they were a “wicked people” (v. 8). Yet this sentence was not inevitable. How could it be averted?
And even if I have pronounced a death sentence on the wicked, if they turn from sin and do what is just and right – if they return pledges, make restitution for robbery, and walk in life-giving regulations in order not to sin – they will live and not die (Ezek. 33:14-15, CEB).
Repentance alone was not sufficient. Israel was required to produce evidence of repentance by paying back what they had stolen. The vital second step was restitution.
We’re in the middle of the Lenten season, a time when Christ followers reflect on the sacrifice of our Lord.
Isaac Watts in 1707 penned the immortal lyrics to “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” The first verse reads:
When I survey the wondrous Cross
On which the Prince of glory died;
My richest gain I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride.
His invitation is fresh today, challenging us to ponder again the meaning of that sacrifice outside Jerusalem’s walls.
What are the lessons of the Cross?
No good deed goes unpunished. Christian do-gooders, beware! There are forces who are invested in the status quo. Shine your light, but don’t be surprised when lots of people would prefer to douse it. Jesus said to Nicodemus: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19, NIV). Some things haven’t changed.
Christianity was never meant to be a feel-good faith.Dietrich Bonhoeffer insisted: “When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die.” It’s no accident that prosperity preachers rarely feature the Cross prominently in their sanctuaries or sermons. The Cross is a bloody instrument of torture, a reminder of what awaits every person who would follow in the footsteps of the Master.
God doesn’t treat sin lightly.Sin is a tear in the moral fabric of the universe, one that isn’t easily mended. Hebrews 9:22b (ESV) reminds us that “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins.” When Jesus came to be baptized by his cousin, John cried out: “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29, ESV). The severity of sin is underscored by the costly nature of the sacrifice necessary to atone for it.
Non-resistance is a powerful force.This is the paradox of the Cross. Jesus, who could have called a legion of angels to his defense (Matthew 26:53), chose the much more difficult but infinitely more powerful course of non-resistance. It was his chance to practice what he had taught his followers: “But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also” (Matthew 5:39, NLT). Our instinct is to meet force with force, like Peter who drew his sword and lopped off the ear of Malchus when he came with the soliders to arrest him (John 18:10). Jesus shows us a better way.
Love is stronger than hate. Michael Card poetically asks: “Why did they nail his feet and hands, when his love would have held him there?” This is the most amazing of all spiritual insights at the foot of the Cross. The sacrifice of Christ is a demonstration of God’s love, and not because we earned it. Paul writes: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, NIV, italics added). Perhaps Paul was thinking of the Cross when he wote to the Romans: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21, NIV). In the Cross, we have a picture of God’s love for us, a love that was willing to die that we might live.
These are just a few lessons of the Cross. These lessons are radical in an age when we’ve convinced ourselves that God exists to serve us and not the other way around. May the Cross remind us of the Cause we serve, One far greater than ourselves. May we cherish the promise of the eternal life reserved for those who dare follow Jesus all the way to Golgotha.
Note to the reader: I preached this sermon on Sunday, February 10, 2019 at University Church of the Nazarene, at the close of “Green Week” at Africa Nazarene University.
Text: Genesis 2:15 — “The Lord God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it.”
On my last birthday, my younger son gifted me with a black Cross™ pen. For me, it has sentimental value, besides being a sleek pen. Now suppose that Simon (the interpreter) had no pen, and asked to borrow mine. Then a week later, he brought it back to me. But instead of returning the pen to me as he found it, in good condition, it is badly scratched. The eraser is bitten off and the ink cartridge is missing. How would I feel? You’re right. I wouldn’t feel very good about it all!
OWNERS, OR STEWARDS?
God has loaned us something far more important than a pen. God as the owner of all creation has loaned us the Earth. It doesn’t belong to us; it belongs to God.
Psalm 24:1-2 (CEB) affirms:
The Earth is the LORD’s and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants, too. Because God is the one who established it on the seas; God set it firmly on the waters.
Turn to your neighbor and say: “The earth is the Lord’s.”
If God is the owner, then what does that make us? We are the caretakers, the stewards.
This becomes clear in the second creation account. Michael Lodahl calls it the “worm’s eye view.” No longer is it the “bird’s eye view” of Genesis 1, with God high above the creation. In Genesis 2, God is down in the dirt. It is there that God creates the human being (Adam) after he had previously created everything else.
And now in Genesis 2:15, God – the owner of the trees and the birds, the animals and the fish – entrusts their care into the hands of the steward, the human being:
The LORD God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it (CEB).
To take care of something that belongs to someone else is called stewardship. We’re accustomed to hearing that word in relation to other things. Often, we say that our money, time, and talents are on-loan to us from God. In fact, 1 Corinthians 6:20 goes as far as to say that even our bodies belong to God:
You have been bought and paid for, so honor God with your body (CEB).
Yet we may forget that besides money, time, talents and our bodies, God has entrusted something else to us as stewards. God has entrusted to us the Earth. That’s why we speak of “Creation Care.”
Sadly, we have sometimes used the Bible as an excuse not to care for the Earth but to exploit it. The old King James Version of Genesis 1:28 speaks of “having dominion” over the Earth and “subduing” it. And historically, some took that as a license to exploit nature, to cut down trees without replanting, to pollute the Earth’s waters and foul its air. But modern translations are better. The New Living Translation says:
Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the seas, the birds in the sky, and the small animals that scurry along the ground – everything that has life. And that is what happened (Gen. 1:29-30, NLT).
Adam and Eve take care of the Garden. (painting by Katherine Roundtree)
To “govern” is not to exploit. God calls humans to practice good governance, a benevolent reign.
So there you have it. We are not the owners. God is the owner of the Earth. Turn to your neighbor and say: “God is the owner.”
Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen) published Out of Africa in 1937. In this classic memoir, she reflects upon her time as a small-time coffee farmer and expatriate living west of Nairobi, Kenya. Many know of Blixen thanks to the 1985 movie, “Out of Africa,” starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, which is based upon Blixen’s account.
As one who lives and works only a few kilometers away from the community now called “Karen” (the upscale Nairobi suburb bearing Blixen’s name), some of the places she describes are places I’ve been. Her old tractor and the mammoth rusted coffee dryer sit adjacent to her old farmhouse, now a museum open to tourists. The Ngong Hills that she praises poetically also greet me each morning a century later, unchanged in their glory, though now hemmed-in by dwellings and businesses spilling over from Nairobi.
The reader is soon aware that Blixen’s workers and the squatters on her farm became for her like the children she never birthed, and she the matriarch. Her love for them is evident, though there is always a measure of condescension. Nowhere does she describe a “Native” (now an unacceptable descriptor) as an equal. Perhaps this stems in-part from her own high birth as a Danish baroness? A Kenyan reading the book today may take offense at some of the sweeping character generalizations she makes about Kikuyus, the Maasai, and others. The colonialist worldview tolerated in the early 20th century – which shows up in Blixen’s occasional use of the term “savage” and talk about “two races” (white and black) – sounds a false note in a book whose words-pictures otherwise let the account soar to orchestral levels.
Karen Blixen home
Despite these shortcomings, Out of Africa, when considered as a snapshot-in-time, provides a fascinating portrayal of an era that is no more. Visitors to the museum should first read the book. This will provide context to better appreciate the compelling story of an intrepid European woman who – thanks to a 17 year sojourn – came to fondly view Kenya and its hospitable people as her second home.