The living word and community renewal

August 30th, 2014

A Personal Testimony

Five hundred people were scheduled to come to San Francisco, California, for the 1980 National Convocation of Asian American United Methodists. Three of us were asked to prepare a Bible study for the occasion. One came from Korea, another from Taiwan, and I was born in the US to immigrants from Japan. We focused on our identity as sojourners who were still seeking to establish our home in the US. We turned to the stories of the heroes of our faith in Hebrews 11. We thought we could learn from Abraham and Sarah, as well as Moses, how to establish a new home in a foreign land.

We were encouraged, but disappointed and puzzled. In the end, however, we were challenged and humbled. We were encouraged because God provided the sojourners, Abraham and Sarah, places to flourish and enabled them to live in harmony with neighbors. We were, however, disappointed to find that God did not intend sojourners to become settlers! Abraham and Sarah “confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13). We wondered, then, what to make of the comforting words immigrants found in Ephesians 2:19, that Gentiles were “no longer strangers and aliens.” Further reflections led us to see Abraham and Sarah were strangers in relation to the places where they lived because they desired a better country (Hebrews 11:16) and that Gentiles were no longer strangers in relation to the body of Christ because Christ had “broken down the dividing wall” (Ephesians 2:14).

Moses illustrated what was involved when we desire a better country. Earlier on in Egypt, Joseph may have saved his people from famine, but a pharaoh that reigned after Joseph turned Egypt into a place of bondage. Moses failed to convince the pharaoh to lighten their burdens, so his “desire [for] a better country” (Hebrews 11:16) led him to drastic measures in the Exodus and the arduous journey of forty years to the Promised Land.

Thus, in preparing the Bible study we celebrated provision for sojourners on their journey and a home in the household of faith. We were equally challenged, however, not to become settlers who made peace with this world, but to work tirelessly by God’s grace to “overcome evil with good” wherever we lived (Romans 12:21). In doing so, we “looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10). We were finally humbled by our forebears who “did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39-40).

As is evident, preparation for the Bible study involved a dialogue among us, as well as with the Bible. Because the preparation bound us closer to each other and rejuvenated our faith, our interactions demonstrated what Martin Buber said: “All real living is meeting.” 1

Dialogue With God

In the Bible, we read again and again about people expressing themselves freely in response to God’s word. Sarah laughed at God’s promise of a child in her old age. Abraham bargained with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah. Moses debated with God. In the Psalms, we see startling reactions to what’s happening. They question God—“Why, O LORD?” (10:1), “My God, why?” (22:1)—and dared to complain to God—“How long, O LORD, how long?” (13:1; 79:5). They even prayed for the worst on their enemies (69:22-29; 109:6-15). To walk in the light as God is in the light, means we will be fully visible before God, without hiding what we are thinking, feeling, and wishing. Only by doing so will we have fellowship with each other, and experience the cleansing, transforming work of God in Jesus Christ (1 John 1:7).

When we pray to God, we move from

  • praise and adoration,
  • through confession and supplication,
  • to thanksgiving, intercession, and trust.

To elaborate, when we see in the Bible who God is and what God says and does in what is happening in and around us, we find occasion to praise God. Further meditation on God’s actions and attributes, leads us to adoration. Before this awesome God we openly confess who we actually are, including our frailties and failures, and then offer supplications for God’s grace to become the person God intends. As we then see that “God is good, all the time,” and that “all the time, God is good,” we offer thanks and intercede for the best God intends for others. We close our prayer “in the name of Jesus Christ,” because we trust in who he is and what he will do.

We cannot always classify our prayers in such clear terms. Sometimes our prayers are more akin to sighs and groans too deep for words. The apostle Paul said these are the “first fruits of the Spirit,” which will become a more intelligible expression to God (Romans 8:22-26). However clear or muddied our responses to the God we encounter, this study urges participants intentionally to pause and express themselves to God personally in private and in group processes. Such responses to God, such interactions and dialogues with God, will demonstrate, “All real living is a meeting.”

The Perspective of Sojourners

Finally, a word must be added concerning a particular approach in this study. We will correlate our situations with God’s word. I will begin with the experiences of Asian American immigrants and see what Hebrews has to say about who God is and what God says and does in comparable circumstances. Readers will find themselves prepared to interact with the Bible in the same fashion because we have all become sojourners in our changing neighborhoods.

We as sojourners have struggled to get ahead and find a home. Some goodness has come our way. But so have unsettling times. How can we find our way beyond our quandaries? Several crucial leads to continue our journey appear in Hebrews. This small but significant book of the Bible sets before us an inviting destination, clarifies what we must leave behind, and alerts us to distractions that can lead us astray. Hebrews also urges us to look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith for the journey, and promises sustenance en route for the unrelenting sojourner God intends us to be.

Before we study the heart of the Book of Hebrews, we turn to a general orientation to important features of its contents.

Suggestions for Reflection

  1. Open with prayer, and have participants introduce themselves.
  2. Share experiences you have had with the Bible, individually, in group study, or in worship. If participants can remember a specific passage that touched them, read it aloud and ask them to describe what happened.
  3. Make it a point to read through the Book of Hebrews. Mark up your Bible with question marks, note key words, and write your reactions in a journal.
  4. In preparation for the next session, read Chapter 2, “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews.” It addresses the familiar questions that help us understand books of the Bible: Who wrote what, to whom, why, when, and from where? List or mark the contents of Hebrews that are considered in Chapter 2.
  5. Close with prayer.

excerpt from: Outside the Gate: A Study of the Letter to the Hebrews by Roy I. Sano Copyright © 2014 by Abingdon Press. Used with Permission.

1 Martin Buber, I and Thou, translated by Ronald Gregory Smith (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1937), 11.

from the Preface:

Immigrants are diversifying our neighborhoods. The diversity of people will only intensify because forces driving a massive global migration will persist. The driving forces include poverty and ethnic clashes, ideological rivalries and armed conflicts, and finally, the unfolding climate changes. Even if we remain where we have lived, it feels like the ground under us has moved us to a different place. Some people seem oblivious to the changes, and others live in denial. Those who notice the changes often burrow themselves in gated and guarded communities, or in familiar and homogenous congregations of “their kind of people.” As the diversity heightens the tensions and deepens the conflicts, some of our neighbors are launching attacks on “those other people” who are destroying what is dear to them. Surely there are better ways to respond to new neighbors and build a better community.

The same kind of changes challenged us when I wrote an earlier version of this book in 1982 for United Methodist Women. Before that, my family experienced animosity against foreigners. Fortunately, we also experienced God’s grace through caring and courageous Christians. They left their comfort zones, went “outside the gate,” and bore abuse to practice hospitality toward strangers (Hebrews 13:12-13, RSV). In the deepening diversity around us today, this study draws on the Book of Hebrews in the Bible because it beckons us to build a better city whose maker is God (11:10). Finally, at its core, Hebrews invites us to look to Jesus Christ because he is the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith” for the arduous journey ahead of us (12:2). —Roy I. Sano

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