In March I traveled to South Africa to speak at the 1st International Conference on the
New Testament Text, Meaning & Cognition, held at North-West University in
Potchefstroom. The conferees were evangelical biblical scholars – master’s and doctoral students, and a few post-docs and professors from South Africa, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and Namibia. I was honored by the invitation and eager to share what I could, but what I hoped more than anything was that they would show me something important about reading and understanding Scripture and about faithful biblical scholarship. I was not
On the third and last day of the conference, Dr. Aldred Genade gave the morning
devotional. He chose as his text Philippians 2:12-17 – words comprising Paul’s commentary on and application of the kenosis hymn he has just recited. Paul concludes, “But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you – in the same way you must be glad and rejoice with me.”
Dr. Genade reminded us that Paul’s Master, the Lord Jesus Christ, emptied himself – and yet that emptying resulted in glory and indescribable joy. It is this emptying that Paul seeks to emulate as he ponders in prison the mutual joy he shares with the Philippian believers. Professor Genade, Aldred, helped this room full of biblical scholars make the connections. Ministry, including the ministry of biblical scholarship, can be a grind. It can be isolating and exhausting. Some of us (some of you!) know what it feels like to be
“poured out daily.” And yet with Paul, and with our brother Aldred in South Africa, do we not also derive incredible joy? To delight in and relish this work in service of the faithful brings joy. A mentor of Aldred’s articulated his own vision for Christian
ministry: “to die empty.” That could be taken the wrong way. We are not to seek martyrdom or to develop a martyr complex. Biblical scholars (and all of us) need to allow ourselves to rest and to be replenished. But “to die empty” can also be taken in a good way: To be embraced by the love of God revealed to us in Scripture frees us to go full throttle, to give freely as we have been given, not in some grim and grinding regimen, but suffused with delight and joy.
I recall pastor David McKeithen’s challenge, “Live life large!” But at the same time he reminded us that if we wanted to see Jesus, we’d have to “go down and down and down,” to where people were suffering and hurting. For me, Dr. Genade’s message also resonated with a prayer Dr. Bill Dyrness voiced decades ago in an especially deep New College Berkeley class discussion on Old Testament theology. Bill prayed that we would not hoard what we had just discovered, that we would freely share it. That attitude toward scholarship evokes images of pouring out and being poured out, rather than of clutching and holding tight, keeping to ourselves what we have been given.
Aldred showed me something else, too. Six kilometers outside the university town of
Potchefstroom is a township of corrugated tin shacks and huts, a place the Black
inhabitants named, Ikageng, “We Built for Ourselves.” As we drove into a newer extension of Ikageng Township, Aldred remarked that this part of the township is called in Afrikaans, “Sonder Water,” meaning “No Water.” The name describes conditions there: no potable water is provided by the city. And yet on that Sunday afternoon I saw people of all ages in “No Water” walking home from church with broad smiles on their faces, talking and laughing and singing – full of joy.
Make no mistake: The “no water” conditions are unacceptable. I do not wish to sugar-coat this tragic situation or to deny the real suffering there. In fact, I want you to know of this suffering. But also at the conference I met an Afrikaner woman who is studying systematic theology. Trained as a lawyer, she was healed of a brain tumor four years ago. In the aftermath she heard a call to devote the rest of her life to combining labor law with liberation theology “to upliftthe poor in South Africa.” She spoke with intensity, with fervor, and with joy. God is stirring hearts and moving men and women in Africa to study deeply, to write carefully, to speak with conviction, and this empties them. At the same time it results in amazing joy as the poor have Good News and a greater measure of justice brought to them.
“To be poured out” and “to die empty” is to live and die like Jesus and with Jesus –allowing grace to pour out through us into the lives of others, having risked living not for ourselves alone, in service to a God not of our own making. And that, Paul tells us, is to live in joy and delight!
Ken said it best as we lingered over evening coffee, sharing our lives. He and Helen told us they’d left their Berkeley home of many years and moved to San Francisco. They loved the City with its opera, symphony, art museums, beaches, and amazing neighborhoods. It was a great place to retire‐‐an adventure. "Like a prolonged vacation," I ventured. The honeymoon lasted 8 years. "But what brought you here to Oakland, to Piedmont Gardens?" I asked.
"Well," Ken, told me " San Francisco is also a very fast city, and it was finally too fast for me with my canes. When a muni driver drove off before I could get seated I was thrown to the floor. I got the message.
We sat quietly for a few minutes. The sudden shock of limits. How well my husband and I knew the experience! Change was demanded after an unexpected slowdown in our high speed lives. We were no longer in control, no longer the rising stars. We sat in silence
reflecting on our experience against the backdrop of jokes and assumptions about aging.
"It isn't all bad. . ." I reflected tentatively. Living in the Piedmont Gardens retirement community was the most citified living experience of my life. We can walk to everything--bank, market, library, pharmacy, even a movie theater. I thought of Piedmont Avenue, it's wacky shops, small businesses, movie theater, library, and post office.
"In a way this is a little like a vacation. I mean we don't even have to cook," I said. "Everything is a new experience. Oakland is such an interesting city."
Then Ken nailed it. "I keep waiting for when it's time to go home," Ken paused, "and not to San Francisco either, but to our house in Berkeley."
There it was. We were here in Piedmont Gardens with excellent support, quality care until death, good people with great conversation, lots to do, a fascinating neighborhood, but we are people who had loved our lives. Loved our homes. We didn't exactly want it all back with our new physical limits. But we were facing the price of loving what we did, where we lived. Grief will have its way. But grieving is not too high a price for having loved our lives.
Certainly we will miss what is gone but I hope we’ll also recognize the gift of having lived meaningful lives. My prayer is that, as the grief recedes, we may be flooded with
gratitude for all that we’ve received.