Though I never would have expected it, the triple play of books this week sent me on a journey down memory lane, and I was left with days of smiling. Context theology! Public theology! Practical theology! Oh My! If you’ll allow me (as if you had a choice), I would like to share my memories with you, as they related to each text.
A memorable quote from Stephen Bevans in Models of Contextual Theology is, “As our cultural context plays a part in the construction of the reality in which we live, so our context influences the understanding of God and the expression of our faith.” The Gospels are a perfect example of this. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each had a different perspective dependent upon how they personally experienced Christ, and they each wrote in a different context to a different audience. They chose the stories they knew would relate to their audience the most. Another of my favorite authors, Duane Elmer, wrote in Cross Cultural Servanthood, “It is not up to us to offend but instead to connect.”
It never fails. No matter where I am in the world, Friday or Saturday night before Sunday morning worship, the pastor of the church will come up to me and say, “You know, we would love to have you deliver the message on Sunday morning.” This has happened in Mexico, Russia, Cuba, Uganda, and probably other places I have blocked out! The one I remember the most, however, was in August 2011 – the first time I preached in Haiti. It was Saturday afternoon when the Episcopal priest handed me the Scripture lessons he wished for me to teach on Sunday morning. Not only was I nervous, I felt inept to deliver a message to people I had only met days before, in a culture I knew hardly nothing about, and in a language I barely understood. I scribbled notes on the back of instructions for a water system, and my Haitian brother looked over the message. After all, he would be translating for me, and he would need to understand. An hour later, my brother found me, and he had a worried look on his face. He said something to the effect of, “Sister, I am afraid there is a problem. There are things in your message I don’t understand. You speak of the future, yet these people do not know if they will be alive tomorrow. They are simply trying to survive today. You speak of God as a loving father, yet many of them have never met their own earthly fathers. We need to make this so they will understand.” My dad had always said, “know your audience,” but I had written a message from my own context – the context of a young white female, from the southern United States, who lived in a comfortable home, and had a job and food to eat most any time. The community to which I would be speaking were middle-aged black Haitians, who lived in small shacks made of tarps with no jobs and never knew when their next meals would be. Their community had suffered unspeakable losses during the 2010 earthquake, and many still lived in fear. There was no connection, or as Stephen Bevans would say, there was no sense of contextual theology. Realizing the culture, the history, the situation of the moment, the message needed a redraft to fit the audience.
David Neville in The Bible, Justice and Public Theology used the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son as brilliant examples of varying interpretations of the same message based on cultural understanding. This reminded me of a conference we used the Good Samaritan as the theme for the weekend, but the group attending had extensive Bible knowledge and training. They had heard the parable of the Good Samaritan many times over the course of their lives, and when we hear things over and over, we have a tendency to hear it with dull ears or study it from the same viewpoint we always have. Many had even memorized the story and could recite it verbatim. We wanted to tell the parable from a new point-of-view to encourage fresh ears to hear the story…and so, we read the Parable of the Good Samaritan in three different formats – a poem, a contemporary version, and my favorite, a TONGUE TWISTER! This worked extremely well and gave way to lengthy discussion; however, trying to repeat it in Haiti was a disaster. The creativity was lost, and the translator was thoroughly confused! And thus I learned yet again, it really is about finding the context, understanding the history, and knowing your audience.
Reading Spirit in the Cities: Searching for Soul in the Urban Landscape by Kathryn Tanner, especially her description of La Habana, took me back to my trip to Cuba in 2013. The thorough airport check. The people. The 1950s cars. The Russian 4-seaters. The billboards. The ration booklets. It was exactly as I remembered. Sunday morning, we worshiped at a Quaker meeting house in the city square of Holguin. Though the service was in Spanish, there was an overwhelming sense of connection and excitement. They sang Amazing Grace in Spanish, and I sang along in English. They read from Psalm 51, and I recited the verses from memory. A young woman gave her testimony, and though I only pieced together parts of the message, her feelings resonated in my heart. Tanner wrote, “The social human person who needs to relate to others and needs to be keenly aware that we live and move and have our being within and in relation to the rest of creation.” Our understandings may emerge from our cultures and countries of origin, but during this time in Cuba, though from different cultures, contexts, and histories, I felt as one body of Christ. As individuals, we exist as part of the whole, and in that moment, I felt as though I was a member of this community. In that moment, we were living, moving, and breathing in relation to the rest of our beings. I gained a better understanding of who I am as a member of the body of Christ in relation to this community and our world. And now I fully realize how my worldview is skewed. Through the reality of lived experiences in cultures near and far, and through embedded understandings, I see the world.
 Stephen B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2002), Loc. 223.
 David J. Neville, ed. The Bible, Justice and Public Theology (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014).
 Kathryn Tanner, Spirit in the Cities: Searching for Soul in the Urban Landscape (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), Loc. 1322.