February 8, 2015
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
TELLING OUR STORIES
“You can argue all you want with my theology, but you can’t argue with my story.”
I attended theological school at Iliff. IliffSchool of Theology in Denver, Colorado. My theology professor was a man named Harvey Potthoff. He was my faculty advisor. He retired the year I graduated. In that final year I was privileged to be part of his final class — “The Theology of Harvey Potthoff.” He was a very humble man and he was a little embarrassed by the name of the class. He insisted it had not been his idea.
The last time I saw him he was getting up in years. He always had a quick wit and I discovered that day he still had it. I said, “Dr. Potthoff, you’re looking great!” He said, “What did you expect?”
Dr. Potthoff would have liked that saying, “You can argue all you want with my theology, but you can’t argue with my story.”
He taught speculative theology. That’s where you speculate about what God is like. You take the Bible. You take the best thinking of the brightest people who have studied the Bible and written about God. You add your own best thinking. You reason it all out and you come up with your best understanding. But it’s a speculative understanding of God. It’s not certainty.
You get the best scientists together in one room and they would agree with each other, more or less. Except on global warming. We have a scientific method that is pretty good at eventually reaching the truth. But you get the best theologians together and they would spend all their time arguing. Even the theologians who limit their thinking to what the Bible says. They would be arguing with each other, too. They might even be getting into fist fights. For no one knows everything there is to know about God. God is too big and too great and too wonderful for our small minds to take it all in.
So Dr. Potthoff was big on experiential theology. God is at work in our life experiences. God can be known in the experiences of our lives. As we grow in our faith we get better at seeing what God is up to. Sometimes we can even see God doing things in real time, while God is still doing these things. But it’s always easier to see as we look back. It can be confusing when you’re in the middle of it, especially if you’re in the middle of something that is real hard. It’s common even for people with a strong faith to feel abandoned by God in those moments. But you look back and you see that God was there. Even if it didn’t turn out the way you wanted it to, God still was there. Maybe to give you strength you didn’t have. Maybe to teach you something you’ll need later on. Maybe in some person who was there in God’s place. You didn’t know it at the time. Like Jacob. “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”
Or like the blind man Jesus healed in John chapter 9. I remember specifically Dr. Potthoff using this in one of his classes. Jesus had done the miracle. This man who had been blind from birth now could see. And the enemies of Jesus are right there to make sure Jesus gets in trouble over it. They conduct interviews. First with the man, then with his parents, then again with the man who had been blind. They try to get him to incriminate Jesus in some way. They try to get him to agree with them that Jesus is a sinner. He won’t take the bait. He says, “Whether he is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see” (John 9:25).
They can argue with him about his theology of Jesus. But they can’t argue with his story. They can’t argue with what God has done in his life. He was there. He knows. He knows he was blind. And now he knows that he can see.
We all have stories. Most all of us enjoy telling our stories. And the stories we as Christians especially need to be telling are the ones about what God has done for us. Telling these stories brings back those memories and strengthens our faith. Hearing these stories encourages us and reminds us of what God can do. And whether we are doing the telling or doing the listening, the sharing of these stories brings God glory.
We have some stories this morning. I want to thank those who have offered to share. We might argue with you later about other things, but we can’t and we won’t argue with your story.
(stories are shared)
The Bible is full of stories. There’s a lot of good theology in the Bible. Serious Bible students mine the Bible for that. But to tell you the truth, I much prefer the stories. There are some great ones. Jacob’s is one of the best.
He was something of a scoundrel. No. He was a scoundrel. Of the first order. He and Esau were twin brothers. Jacob was born second, which meant Esau got the birthright that goes to the first born. He cheated Esau out of that birthright. Esau vowed to kill him. So Jacob ran away. He met Rachel, fell in love, but Rachel’s father, Laban said he had to work for him seven years before he could marry her. After seven years Laban changed his mind. He really meant seven more years. Jacob had finally met his match when it came to scoundrels. But after 14 years of work and finally getting to marry the woman of his dreams, Jacob got his revenge by stealing Laban blind and running away with Rachel and their children.
Only one problem. He had no place to go but back home and back home was Esau who still wanted to kill him. And probably now his family, too. But the story ends with a beautiful scene. There is reconciliation between these two brothers. Jacob got far better than he deserved. Which is pretty much true with all of us.
And somewhere in the middle of this long and twisted story, is the passage we read for today. Jacob is running away from Esau. He’s running away from God. He’s running away from the life God intended for him. But eventually runners have to sleep. And as he sleeps, with a rock for a pillow, he has this dream of a ladder leading to heaven. And from heaven he hears God’s voice promising him a future filled with blessings. Promising to bring him back to the land from which he was running. Promising to be with him and to never leave him.
Then Jacob wakes up. It was just a dream. No, it was not just a dream. It was God. It was a moment of experiential theology. God is real. Now he knows. Now he is ready to pick up the story of his life and live out the rest of his days. “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”
I’m glad God has stories for us in the Bible. We find ourselves in these stories and they encourage us. But I’m even more glad for the stories God is writing today in your life and in mine. Let’s not keep these stories to ourselves.
Dear God, thank you for those moments when we see you and hear you and know that you are there. May these moments, rare though they may be, become less rare. More common. As we grow in you, may we see you not just now and then and here and there. There is nowhere we can go to escape your presence. To escape your love. May we know that and may we make that known, not just once in a while but constantly. In Jesus’ name, Amen.