Models for Christian Living: Lessons from Surfing and St. Paul

What kind of person do I need to become to serve as a model of Christlike character for others?

A Lesson from Surfing

I took up surfing the year before I turned 40 years old. I had watched surfers from the safety of the seashore for many years. I figured it was now or never. My daughters were elementary school age at the time and they eagerly took up the sport with me. My progress was hard won. It took well over a hundred attempts before I ever caught my first wave. My youngest daughter showed me up on her first attempt. She was seven years old. She was petite for her age. She was small enough that she did not even need a full sized surf board. I taught her using a four foot body board.

She caught her first wave just south of Port Canaveral, Florida. We were about thirty yards offshore. She was light enough that she balanced on the body board while I held it steady as we awaited the next set of waves. The perfect one approached. I pushed the board into the wave. My daughter kept her balance and glided down the face of the wave. At this moment, she did something extraordinary. She was so proud of her triumph that while she surfed the wave she began sharing her joy with everyone within shouting distance. She cried out, “Look at me! Everyone, look at me!”

I remember chuckling to myself at her lack of humility and thinking that she would grow out of this. Yet, while reading Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Paul’s exhortation in 3:17 reminded me of my daughter’s words. Paul wrote, “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.”

Paul’s Challenge to the Philippians

In Philippians, Paul calls believers to live as citizens worthy of the gospel of Christ (1:27–30, 3:20). Paul writes to empower the Philippian Christ followers to serve as witnesses of the good news for their city. Of course the principal model for the Christian life is Jesus himself (2:1–18). Yet Paul offers Jesus as the first model of four that he includes from 2:1–3:16 as examples of what a citizen worthy of the Gospel looks like.

The issue in Philippians was the status of the believers within the Roman world. Many of the Christians in Philippi (like Paul himself) were Roman citizens. Roman citizenship offered substantial privileges within the Empire and was not common in the provinces. The city of Philippi was a Roman colony so Philippi enjoyed a standing within the Empire that other cities outside of Rome did not.

A fundamental insight in 1:27-4:1 is this: the status that one embraces sets the limits of one’s capacity to reach others with the gospel. Roman citizenship is a set of privileges that one enjoys and is able to exploit for his or her own benefit. Gospel citizenship is a privileged relationship with God that unleashes one to lay aside personal benefits for the sake of God’s mission and for the good of others.

Paul begins with Jesus. The hymn in 2:6–11 captures the core message of gospel citizenship. Although (or perhaps because) Jesus shares equality with God, Jesus did not exploit this status for his personal gain (2:6). Instead, Jesus renounced the status of divinity and embraced the status of a slave (2:7). This was a profound subversion of the Roman social ladder. Slaves were at the bottom far below the gods (and well below the status of a Roman citizen). In fact, Jesus embraced his slave status to the extent that he was obedient to death on a cross (2:8). This is a significant statement. Jesus could have died in a variety of ways to atone for sin. He took up the cross in part because crucifixion was reserved only for those of no status such as slaves. Yet what happened to Jesus (2:9–11)? God highly exalted him and gave him the name above all names.

This is the first model for citizenship. The Philippians are to work out their salvation (2:12) in light of Jesus’ life and shine as stars within their generation (2:15). But it is easy to point to Jesus as the model because Jesus is no longer physically present. His story is aspirational, but Paul offers something profoundly incarnational.

Paul moves to include three humans whom the Philippians know intimately as contemporary examples of Christlike character and action: Timothy (1:1, 2:19–24), Epaphroditus (2:25–30), and himself (1:1–26, 3:1–16). Timothy demonstrated a genuine other centered outlook in the way that he ministered among the Philippians. Epaphroditus was a member of the Philippian community. He faced death in order to serve in the mission of the gospel when the Philippians sent him to help the imprisoned Paul. Paul himself suffered in prison (1:12–26) and modeled the reality that knowing Christ Jesus as Lord was a greater gain than any mere human accomplishment (3:1–16).

The Philippians knew these men. Paul could not distort their character. Paul took this risk to teach us the importance of our personal lives in the advance of the gospel. Paul could say with integrity, “If you want to see what the Christian life looks like, look at me as well as the lives of my co-workers Timothy and Epaphroditus.”

Implications for Living

This text calls us to remember and give thanks for the women and men in our lives from whom we’ve learned how to live out the gospel. Who are yours?

More importantly, it challenges us to recognize the necessity of nurturing personal holiness as an integral part of how God advances his mission in the world. Who is watching and learning from me?

As I think about Paul’s words to the Philippians, I see and hear my daughter surfing and crying out, “Look at me! Everyone, look at me!”

What kind of person do I need to become in order to serve as a model of Christlike character for others?

The Danger of Scripture as an Object for Study

As we engage Scripture we must constantly be on guard against the subtle temptation to reduce the Bible to an object of study. The iconic temptation scene in the Garden illustrates this danger. In Gen 3:1, the serpent begins by asking, “Did God really say….?” Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this the “first conversation about God” (Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1–3, trans. Douglas Stephen Bax, ed. John W. de Gruchy, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 3 [Fortress, 2004], 111). In the previous chapter, God had enjoyed unfettered fellowship with the first humans and conversed with them. Now, at a pivotal moment, God’s previous command becomes the object of study and reflection rather than a natural part of a subjective ongoing relationship with humanity. Imagine how this story would have turned out if the woman had said, “Great question. Let’s invite God into this discussion.”

The distinction between subjective and objective in the study of Scripture flows from the first family’s objectification of God. Philosopher and writer Peter Rollins tells the story of an infantry unit preparing to launch an attack during World War One. As the battle opened, the men hunched down, sheltered by a trench. As the moment arrived for them to join in the assault, their commander yelled out the order, “All right lads. Over the top!” The men failed to follow the order. A second time he bellowed, “Lads, over the top!” Still there was no movement by the troops. Finally, a third time the commanders yelled out in a deep guttural tone, “All right lads. Over the top!” The men looked at each other, looked at the commander, and said, “What a wonderful voice he has! What a wonderful voice!” (“An Introduction to Love”). Clearly the commander expected a response to his order rather than commentary on its delivery.

This comical anecdote reminds us that the interpretation of Scripture for the church can never remain merely an objective or descriptive task. Action by the reader is required. The goal of interpretation is to understand the message of the Bible and respond to its teaching and the expectations it has for our lives. In short, Scripture desires to convert us in every encounter that it has with us. In his classic Eat This Book, Eugene Peterson wrote, “Exegesis is simply noticing and responding adequately (which is not simple) to the demand that the words make on us, that language makes on us” ([Eerdmans, 2006], 51).

As interpreters, we must use all of the skills and techniques honed throughout the history of biblical interpretation. This means defining terms, navigating ancient cultures and customs, and understanding classical genres and rhetoric. But observing, translating, and transmitting this information is never enough for the nourishment of God’s people. Pastors and commentators must avoid merely teaching their audiences interesting facts about the Bible. Scripture desires to shape us by molding our thinking, changing what we care about most deeply, and driving us to action in God’s mission. Of course, our subjective response to Scripture must be rooted in our objective study. But Scripture desires to craft and unleash God’s holy people as a missional movement to share good news across our planet.

How do we achieve a robust conversation with the Bible that is both objective and subjective?

First, as interpreters we must remain open to astonishment. Thomas Merton wrote, “There is, in a word, nothing comfortable about the Bible – until we manage to get so used to it that we make it comfortable for ourselves. But then we are perhaps too used to it and too at home in it. Let us not be too sure we know the Bible just because we have learned not to be astonished at it, just because we have learned not to have problems with it” (Opening the Bible: With an Introduction by Rob Stone [Liturgical Press, 1986], 37). I’ve found it helpful to begin by praying, “Lord, astonish me anew with the riches of your word. Speak to me I am listening. Amen.”

Second, let us remember that the goal of interpretation is not to master the text but to open ourselves to the text’s mastering us. We must be the first convert to each text before we share its demands and message with others. If we remain only engaged objectively with the text, our attempts to share its subjective demands with others will lack bite.

Last, take delight in the work Scripture does in our lives and share it with the world. Psalm 19 ends memorably with a prayer, “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you O Lord my Rock and my Redeemer” (v. 14). How does this prayer relate to the rest of the psalm? It flows from the psalmist’s recognition of the profound prescriptive power of the Scriptures in vv. 7–13. Unlike the witness of the heavens (vv. 1–6), Scripture alone contains the Lord’s Instructions and is capable of bringing about transformation in its hearers. This transformation leads the psalmist to join in God’s mission by speaking the good news to others. This mission remains ours as modern readers of the Bible.

Sabbath and Work: Conversations with Scripture

A couple of years ago, my then 16-year-old daughter asked me, “Dad, why do you work so much?” She asked this innocently. She had observed how fatigued I was driving home from work and asked this out of a deep concern for her dad. I had taken on multiple new roles and was struggling to juggle all of my responsibilities.

My initial response was purely defensive. I said, “To buy you all of the stuff that you ask me to purchase for you.” I quickly apologized but I found that I didn’t have a real answer. At this point, it would have been easy to say, “I work so much because God wants me too.” Those of us who live out our vocations as pastors, teachers, and religious professionals can easily mask a compulsion to work by appealing to a sense of calling. But what happens when the work I believe I’m doing for God begins to feel like its eroding the work that God desires to do in me?

When I open the Bible, its initial words challenge my assumptions about Christian calling, vocation, and work. Genesis 1:1–2:3 sets the tone and agenda for life as God intends. In sweeping language, Genesis narrates God’s effortless work of creation. God speaks creation into existence over six days. Then God rests. This rest is called sabbath. It establishes the rhythm of creation for those open to Scripture’s revelation.

The God who created the universe and all that is in it stitched rest into the fabric of our existence. But this is even better than you think. Ponder Gen 1:1–2:3 anew. You may notice some patterns. First, Gen 1:2 begins with a description of chaotic beginnings. God doesn’t begin with a clean and polished, finished product. God begins with a chaotic mess: formless, empty, dark. But God’s Spirit is there at the beginning. God hovers over the mess, poised and ready to act. This is a powerful reminder for all who seek the God of Scripture. We don’t have to appear before God at our best. We only have to open ourselves to God’s work. In Genesis, God may begin with a raw collection of shapeless stuff, but God doesn’t end there. God will transform this chaos into a very good world. This is true of our lives too. With God, there is always hope of a beautiful tomorrow.

Second, the six days of creation unfold calmly and without drama. God’s work appears almost effortless. There are no hiccups. There are no false starts. Everything goes as God intends. God simply imagines the elements of creation and speaks them into existence. All of us know that creative work of any kind is difficult. It is toilsome. It is tiring. But God makes it look easy in Gen 1 and God still pauses to rest on the seventh day. God doesn’t keep on creating. God works for six days and then rests. God is powerful enough to make the work of creation seem simple, but still takes sabbath and embeds rest into the contours of creation.

Third, the work of creation advances from chaos and darkness to order, beauty, and light – from work to rest. This timing challenges our modern rhythms. We tend to think of a day as moving from day to night. Yet in Genesis the flow is this: “there was evening; there was morning.” We often rest so that we can work, rather than embrace God’s model of work that culminates in rest. These differences may appear subtle on the surface, but with reflection we find a radical challenge to our lives. Life’s end is not darkness or endless work. It is light and rest. The future is better than the past.

Stepping back from the whole of Gen 1:1–2:3, notice the overarching movement. In 1:2 we encounter a messy chaos. On days 1–6, God orders, shapes, and fills the created world. On days 1–5, God remarks that his work on each day was “good.” So on days 1–5, God moves creation from a mess to one that is good. Then on day 6 God finishes God’s work by filling the earth with all types of animals and then creates men and women in God’s image. At the end of day 6, God evaluates the whole of creation as “very good” (1:31). So now creation has moved from a mess to good, and from good to very good. The good news gets better as Scripture announces something even better than “very good.” This something is called sabbath (2:1–3).

Sabbath is a space in which all striving and work ceases. It’s where our identity depends not on what we do or have done, but who we actually are – people created in God’s image for relationship with the true Lord of Creation who invites us to rest with and in him.

This is the promise that Jesus offers his followers in Matt 11:28: “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

Sometimes we justify our endless work for God by appealing to Jesus’s actions. Since Jesus did good on the sabbath and helped others, so should we. It’s easy to cite Jesus’s words in support of this: “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27–28) or “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm; to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4). In both of these contexts, Jesus is being provocative. Jesus didn’t break sabbath in order to advocate for 24/7, ceaseless activity by his followers. Jesus broke sabbath to prevent religious authorities from thwarting the true meaning of sabbath by suffocating those most desperate for God. If we use Jesus’s example to justify our lack of sabbath, we’re missing the point.

I continue to ponder my daughter’s question. If God who effortlessly created this universe through words alone modeled rest on the seventh day, why do I feel the need to work so much? Perhaps I have something to prove. Maybe it’s to cover up the dull ache on the inside that reminds me of past failings, disappointments, or regrets. Is it a deep longing for absolute certainty and security that depends more on my abilities and strengths (or lack thereof) apart from a deep trust in God? Or maybe it’s simply that I don’t believe I’m enough.

This thought brings me back to the opening chapter of Genesis again. God began with a mess, brought it to very goodness, and then added rest on the other side of very goodness. Perhaps Gen 1:1–2:3 is not merely a story about creation. Instead, maybe it’s an invitation to true life and rest. Maybe Scripture wants to tell me that God is enough for me and I am enough for God. Maybe then I’ll find the rest and abundance that God has offered us from the beginning. What do you think? Will you join me in finding out?

Conversations with Scripture (4): Idolatry

The Bible is an invitation to experience liberation from all the powers that bind us. What if the goal of spirituality is to free us to live fully as the people we were created to be?

One of the core confessions in Scripture is the Shema:

“Hear O Israel. The Lord is our God; the Lord is one. You will love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deut 6:4-5)

Verse 4 begins with the exhortation: “Hear.” To hear is to listen and take action. True hearing assumes a faithful response. To listen is to hear and take action.

The remainder of v. 4 may be translated several different ways. For example, the above translation follows the ESV, NASB, and NIV (among others). The CEB reads “Our God is the Lord! Only the Lord!” This is close to NRSV’s “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” These are various attempts to render the Hebrew focus on the meaning of “one.” Is it a statement of God’s uniqueness, Israel’s singular exclusive commitment, or God’s unity (see S. Dean McBride Jr., “The Yoke of the Kingdom: An Exposition of Deuteronomy 6:4-5,” Int 27, no. 3 [1973]: 273–306)? Each of the possible English translations struggle to highlight one of these dimensions. R. W. L. Moberly has advanced the issue by suggesting that the idea may be expressed by thinking of the Lord as Israel’s “one and only” (Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture [Baker Academic, 2013], 7–40). The same word translated “one” appears in Song of Songs 6:8–9. The emphasis in the Song is on the selection of the beloved out of all competing options available for the writer.

The issue at stake in Deuteronomy is twofold. First, there are competing gods in the Near East. At minimum, Deut 6:4–5 calls for allegiance to the Lord. Israel is to choose the Lord for exclusive service over all others. Second, the Lord is incomparable to any other deity. This is the reason for Deuteronomy’s adamant opposition to idolatry in any form. The Lord is unique as Israel’s “one and only.” There may be claims about the existence of other gods, but if the incomparable Lord is indeed god, there cannot be any other God for God’s people (cf. Deut 4:35, 39). The Lord is qualitatively different and thus must be embraced exclusively by God’s people.

Following the declaration of the Lord as our “one and only,” v. 5 calls for a response of full devotion and commitment with the totality of who we are as people. Faithful commitment rather than sentimentalism captures the meaning of love here. This is not to deny an emotional response to God, but the emphasis falls on a moment-by-moment decision to live faithfully. Our faithfulness in terms of exclusive commitment is the means of expressing love for God. “All your heart, all your soul, and all your strength” form a triad that emphasizes a whole-person response to the Lord. “Heart” refers to the will or thinking center of a person. “All your soul” covers all aspects of a person as a living being. “All your might” is a magnifier that emphatically restates the need for a full commitment. Together this triad calls for an “all in” response by us to the Lord as our “one and only.”

The language of “one and only” is helpful as we seek to live as the people whom God created us to be. As modern believers, the challenge of idolatry is not diminished. 1 John 5:21 ends with a warning, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” For readers of 1 John, this is the sole time that John addresses explicitly the issue of idolatry. As I read through Scripture, idolatry is a common topic. What if spirituality involved freeing ourselves from idols? What if John’s concluding advice is the key to our growth?

We live in a globally connected world. There are competing narratives about the divine. Is the material world all that exists or is there a divine presence? Are the Universe, Mother Nature, and God all the same realities? Is there one God or many gods? If there is only one, who is the true God?

Whether we choose to believe in the existence of the universe, gods, or God, the reality that they represent is real. In the ancient world, there were many gods. Each tended to function within a specific sphere of life, with separate gods for sex, wealth, war, health, and wine, among others. Some present-day religions, such as Hinduism, still work within such a polytheistic framework. I want to suggest however that many of us are at minimum practical polytheists. If we think of gods as spheres of life, we can make a list of the gods that exist in our secular world: sexuality, family, work, affluence, security, sickness, health, pleasure, beauty, and fitness. For some of us, our political ideologies take on the role of a god. Many of us cannot separate our allegiances to the Democratic or Republican Parties from our self-identity.

Whatever is the name of the god or gods who hold our allegiance we must recognize that this choice matters. The god(s) we choose to embrace define(s) the chains that bind us. The Bible makes exclusive claims about the uniqueness of God, but more often it is subtle. For much of Scripture, its authors do not deny the reality of other gods. Instead, they deny that any other “god” is truly worthy of the title God. This is an important distinction especially in the twenty-first century where there are so many competing claims to truth.

Is the Lord truly our “one and only”? What would it look like if we de-elevated all other gods and lifted up King Jesus? Is this not the heart of the confession “Jesus is Lord”? This is a conversation that Scripture desires to have with us.

Conversations with Scripture (3): Scripture’s Invitation to Our Truest Humanity

Deep down each of us desires to find meaning for our lives. I can trace my own search to my middle school years.

My grandfather’s memory burns deep inside of me. He served honorably in WWII. He even took a bullet from a Japanese sniper in the Pacific theatre. After the war, like many men of his generation he began working in the factories of the industrial Midwest. He joined the ranks on an assembly line at Goodyear Tire and Rubber company. This job enabled him to raise a family of six, including his beloved wife.

The family lived in a modest home in a working-class neighborhood. My grandparents were empty nesters by the time I have memories of them. My grandfather always drove a late model American-made car and spent each weekend keeping it clean and shiny. He also loved to take my brother and me to breakfast at a local diner during our summer breaks. In some ways, my grandfather’s story narrates the American dream.

But I have an enduring memory of his lack of contentment. He disliked the repetitive nature of his job on the assembly line. It was boring and slowly drained his life energy. As he neared retirement age, I remember his longing to receive his pension, travel, and finally enjoy life.

Sadly, tragedy struck before he could retire. First, his wife of 40+ years learned that she had advanced liver cancer. She died within months of the diagnosis. Second, my grandfather was heartbroken by the loss of his partner. Moreover, years of cigarettes and alcohol caught up with him. He had self-medicated for too long over the unhappiness that he felt in his vocational life. Facing life without his wife, he lacked the strength to battle on and he died less than a year after she had.

The death of my grandparents pushed me to contemplate purpose and meaning in life early on. My grandfather was always looking ahead to retirement without attempting to find meaning for his life in the present.

Anthony Robbins often says, “Success without fulfillment is the ultimate failure.” This is an indictment of any attempt to live apart from understanding our mission in life. To experience a sense of fulfillment requires our participation in a mission bigger than ourselves. My grandfather never learned this. Early in my teens, I began reading Scripture and made the decision to follow Jesus. As a Christ follower, I’ve sought to pursue the question of God’s will for my life as the means to finding fulfillment. My life has unfolded as a journey. Since my teen years, Phil 3:14 has guided me: “I press on continually to win the prize of the upward calling of God in Christ Jesus.”

The more that I read Scripture I find that Scripture invites us to a conversation about personal purpose and mission. This conversation begins on the opening pages.

The book of Genesis begins with stories about the creation of the world in general and about humanity’s role in particular. Genesis 1:1 opens memorably, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

Genesis 1:1–2:3 describes a God who creates by word alone and does so in an orderly fashion. There are no other gods involved in this work. In fact, many of the entities worshiped in the ancient world, such as the sun, moon, and stars, are merely parts of creation imagined and fashioned by God.

This God also created humanity. In Gen 1:26, we learn that God made women and men in the image of God: “Then God said, “Let us make humanity in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

The word translated “image” in Hebrew is tselem. Tselem refers to a visible representation of something or someone else. In other words, to be created in God’s image means that humanity serves as visible representatives of God to the rest of creation. Throughout the Scriptures, creating images of God is prohibited. In such places, tselem translates as “idol.” Yet, in Gen 1, God created people to serve as visible images of the divine. We are God’s representative agents. Human beings, men and women, are the only idols allowed in creation. This embeds purpose, meaning, and mission into the essence of what the Bible says is humanity.

Humanity stands before the rest of creation as a witness to the God who fashioned the heavens and the earth. Thus, from the beginning of creation, humans were born for a purpose. This mission was to represent the character of God before the rest of creation.

Humanity’s mission is to reflect God’s character and prerogatives in its exercise of authority. We don’t act for ourselves, but for God and for others. We love others including enemies as well as the created world as an outflow of our love for God. An authority rooted in love is the only dominion that Genesis envisions. In its wider context, Gen 2:15 confirms this reality, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”

There are two elements present in this missional function: holiness and community. Genesis 1 assumes that humanity will achieve its mission of representing God through two means. Humanity represents God to the world by reflecting God’s character. This is the essence of holiness. Related to this is the reality that God did not create a solitary human creature, but differentiated humanity into its two sexes – male and female. Humanity thus was created to live in genuine community with one another.

We may summarize humanity’s role as God’s visible representatives to Creation with three words:

Mission – humanity serves as the mediator/ambassador between God and creation

Holiness – humanity embodies and reflects God’s character

Community – humanity lives in authentic and intimate community as part of its reflection of God’s character in fulfillment of God’s mission

Every single person who has ever lived was created for this purpose. Scripture calls us to be part of a missional community that reflects God’s character to, for, and in the world.

I find this vision of life compelling. It gets me out of bed each day and fills me with gratitude for the opportunity to live daily for God’s work in the world. As I read Scripture, the conversation about purpose is ongoing, but I find myself continually shaped as I ponder and live out my response to its good news. I wish that I could have shared my discoveries with my grandfather. I’m grateful for the chance to share them with you.

Conversations with Scripture (2): Growing through Questions

“The quality of your life is the quality of your questions.” (Anthony Robbins)

The courage to ask questions is the pathway to deep insight and growth. Children instinctively understand this. One of the first signs of intellectual development in a toddler is when she begins to question her surroundings. “What is that, daddy?” is the easy question for a parent, but the more difficult “Why?” is never far behind.

A series of maxims greeted visitors to the ancient Delphic oracle in Greece. The most famous reads, “Know yourself.” This is an exhortation to shift from the external to the internal. To grow we must move beyond the expectations and explanations of others. We must engage in a search for truth driven by a thirst from within rather than from a desire for conformity to externals or approval from others.

The harder questions begin when we ponder our feelings and thoughts. What am I feeling? What am I thinking about right now? How can I quiet my racing mind? Will the dull ache that I feel inside ever go away? When we ask such questions, we become observers of our lives. We are no longer mere participants along for the ride.

Most of us gain a certain level of mastery of our external world as we grow. We learn to drive. We earn diplomas and degrees. We start careers. We marry and begin to raise families. We’re able to navigate career and culture easily. We’re comfortable in our spiritual lives. We become competent at the givens and what’s of life.

But at some point, we hit a wall and realize that we’ve lost the plot. For many of us it takes a crisis moment: poor health, the death of a loved one, the loss of a relationship, a financial crisis, or disillusionment with our faith. These are times when we long for meaning and fulfillment over easy answers and the typical road maps for life and faith. At such times, we may turn to Scripture afresh.

People often describe the Bible as an answer book. This is certainly true, but we must take care not to reduce it to an answer key such as one we’d find in the back of a high school math text. As we live, we discover that life is messier and blurrier than a straightforward math equation. Rarely is the answer we seek simply the solution, 2 + 2 = 4. When we face complexity, questions tend to be more helpful than simple answers.

In fact, Scripture is full of questions. Often these questions take us further down the rabbit hole than any answer would. Here are some examples:

The serpent asks Eve and Adam, “Did God really say…? (Gen 3:1).

God asks the first humans, “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9).

Cain asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4:9).

Moses asks God, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and bring out the Israelites?” (Exod 3:11) and “What is your name?” (3:13).

The psalmist asks, “My god, my god, why have you forsaken me? (Ps 22:1).

God asks Jonah, “Is your anger a good thing?” (Jonah 4:4).

A lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29).

The Philippians jailer asks Paul and Silas, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30).

In each case, the careful reader gains insight and wisdom by reflecting on the question and then reading to see if and how answers emerge through textual conversation. These scriptural examples suggest that questions are part of an authentic relationship with God. God does not demand that seekers become unthinking “yes men” or “yes women.” There is a give and take to faith. God desires to ask us penetrating questions to aid us in transformation, but we also are free to challenge God and ask questions of our own.

In the end, reading Scripture is about asking questions. Our questions serve to open our hearts and minds to the questions that the Bible desires to ask each of us. Any question may be brought to the text, but ultimately the Bible desires to confront us with the reality of God’s claims on our lives. It intends to raise questions for us to ponder. Here are some that I’ve sensed when I’ve spent time in the Scriptures:

Do I trust that God has my best interests at heart?

How does the Bible invite me to live differently than I currently am?

What kind of person do I need to become to live out the truth I am reading?

As you open the Scriptures with new questions, try using this prayer from the early church leader Origen (c. 185–c. 254):

Lord, inspire us to read your Scriptures and meditate upon them day and night. We beg you to give us real understanding of what we need, that we in turn may put its precepts into practice. Yet we know that understanding and good intentions are worthless, unless rooted in your graceful love. So we ask that the words of Scripture may also be not just signs on a page, but channels of grace into our hearts. Amen.

Preparing our Hearts and Minds: Conversations with Scripture

We must learn to read the Bible for transformation. As we seek to follow Jesus into the world on mission, Scripture serves as our interactive guide for the journey. We may think of it as a map to the life of God’s dreams. Yet unlike directions that seek to guide us to a particular geographical location, the Bible’s goal is to shape us into the kind of persons that God created us to be. The journey of faith involves growth in our missional activity, personal holiness, and community. The Bible desires to convert us to its perspective and propel us into the world as witnesses to new creation.

To read and study Scripture in this manner involves learning to adopt and practice a set of postures.

(1) Be open to hearing the voice of God and being astonished. When we read Scripture, we are engaging a sacred set of writings that the church affirms as inspired by God and foundational for our faith and practice. It isn’t enough to lift up Scripture as an authoritative artifact from the past. We need to approach our reading and reflection with an expectation of astonishment in the present moment. When Scripture astonishes us personally, we are ready to live and move in ways that will astonish the world with the love and grace of Jesus Christ. I find that prayer helps me to enter into a space where I’m ready to receive all that God has for me. Here is one that I’ve found helpful: “Lord, astonish me anew with the riches and good news of your word. Amen.”

(2) Take the stance of a learner rather than expert. There’s an irony in our lifelong reading of Scripture. Over time, texts become so familiar that we speed through them, assuming that we already know their message. This is dangerous to our spiritual formation. It’s vital that we consciously avoid treating the text as an object that we gain control over via study. The moment we reckon ourselves experts will mark the time when our voice becomes the authority rather than God’s. Don’t pray, “Lord, help me to master this text.” Instead assume the posture of a learner and say, “Lord, I open myself to hear all that you have for me. Master me through my conversation with your word.”

(3) Embrace listening over demanding. Our conversation with Scripture requires patient and persistent listening. We cannot control the speed of illumination and insight. Some passages will release their riches quickly and easily. Others will only do so slowly and with difficulty. In either case, we must be willing to be fully present with God and the text in a spirit of humility and dogged resilience. We cannot demand a word from God. We can only receive one gratefully with open hands, hearts, and minds. Remember the mark of the happy person in Ps 1: “He or she meditates on the law of the Lord day and night” (1:3).

(4) Align with the text and take action. To listen to Scripture involves realigning with its message continually. Our conversation with Scripture must lead to tangible change and action. As James reminds us, “But be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like” (Jas 1:22–24).

How do we become “doers”? We become “doers” by taking action based on our reading. Here are some questions that help me (this isn’t meant as an exhaustive list):

  • How does this text challenge my current way of life as well as that of my community of faith?
  • How does this passage stand in tension with my current thinking or understanding of the gospel?
  • Who or what is this text calling me to care about?
  • What kind of person do I need to become to live out this text?
  • How does my community need to shift to embody this text?

We can’t treat this stage as merely rhetorical. We need to write down or journal the key actions that we need to take. Then, go out and live the gospel for the world.

Thank you God for the gift of Scripture. Give us the hearts and minds to listen and meditate on it so that we may encounter you the living Lord of the text. Grant us the courage to dare to realign with its message and live it out before a world that desperately needs its good news. In Jesus’s name: Amen.

Learning to Live as God’s Missional People: Missional Insights from Israel’s Story (Genesis–Nehemiah)

Many readers of the Bible struggle with integrating the OT into their understanding of the Christian life and mission. Yet Israel’s Scriptures are ripe with insight for understanding God’s mission and role of God’s people in it. In this essay, I will sketch out key takeaways from Israel’s story to help guide us as we follow Jesus today.

(1) Genesis 1–11 sets the stage for God’s mission by describing the universe as God intended for it to be and by acknowledging the profound lostness of people and brokenness of creation due to human rebellion.

Israel’s creation accounts (Gen 1–2) describe God’s carefully and deliberately crafting a very good creation. Humanity stands at the pinnacle of God’s creative activity and at the center of God’s missional plans. In God’s original plan, humanity was to fill the earth and serve as the invisible creator God’s visible representatives. Men and women were to live as a community that embodied God’s character and served God’s mission of caring for God’s world.

In Gen 3–11 human sin ruptures creation. Humanity is lost and creation itself is broken. Paul aptly summarizes Gen 3–11 in Rom 3:23, “All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory….” The iconic narratives of the Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah’s Flood, and the Tower of Babel serve as warnings against humanity’s hubris and injustice by demonstrating the costliness of sin.

Genesis 1–11 is crucial for understanding the rest of the Bible. It sets Israel’s story in the context of all nations and as part of God’s answer to the brokenness of the world.

(2) God’s answer to the chaos and tragedy of Gen 3–11 is to call a new humanity to serve as his missional people to reflect his character to the world.

God calls Abraham and his descendants to be agents of blessing to all people (Gen 12:3b). After the deliverance from Egypt, this calling becomes embedded in God’s vision for his liberated people (Exod 19:4–6): they will serve as a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” God’s actions in saving God’s people are for the purpose of extending blessing to all nations. This gives us a critical perspective for understanding Israel’s story. God is for Israel for the sake of all people rather than against all people for the sake of Israel. God continues to call God’s people to serve as embodiments of grace to the world.

(3) God is faithful to his promises and powerful to save.

This theme reverberates from God’s interactions with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the exodus from Egypt, settlement in Canaan, protection from enemies, and the return from exile. Israel’s story is one of audacious hope. The future is ultimately secure because the Creator God has a mission to bless the nations and restore creation. This future does not depend on human ingenuity or power, but on God alone. This is good news.

(4) God’s faithfulness and grace is the final word.

God’s people repeatedly act unfaithfully in the OT but this does not negate God’s ability to advance his kingdom in advance of the arrival of Jesus the Messiah. Exile to Babylon was well deserved, but it was a long time coming as God’s mercy and patience prolonged its arrival. Even when exile came in 587 BC, it lasted only 50 years before God led God’s people a second time to the promised land. Israel’s story testifies to a hope and restoration on the other side of sin and judgment.

(5) Faithful obedience is the proper response to God’s grace and faithfulness to God’s people.

How do God’s people respond to grace? Israel’s story teaches us that it is with faithful living that reflects the character and mission of God. Israel’s obedience is not the precondition of relationship with God, but the result of the experience of salvation. Faithful living is the means by which God’s people witness to the nations the goodness and greatness of God.

(6) Israel’s story demonstrates the potential and snares of living as God’s people among the nations.

The key takeaway is the necessity of faithfulness as God’s people embody a missional holiness for the nations. When we read Scripture’s portrayal of Israel, we are often struck by the repeated failures of Israel to practice faithfulness. This stands in contrast to the mission that God has called Israel to embody for the sake of the world. Israel’s potential and failings serve as a witness to God’s people today.

(7) Idolatry and injustice are the principal impediments to faithfulness.

God’s missional people must be vigilant against all practices that negate their witness by obstructing their love for God (idolatry) and love for neighbor including a love for creation (injustice). Israel’s story focuses on the ongoing danger of idolatry and injustice for God’s people. As we seek to live faithfully as God’s witnesses in the world, the temptation to elevate “gods” over the one true Creator and Savior remains as does the human tendency to practice injustice to elevate our own sense of power, influence or importance.

Critical Shifts for Embracing God’s 21st Century Mission (3)

In my first two installments of “Critical Shifts for Embracing God’s 21st Century Mission,” we explored the need to move “From Preaching to the Choir to Communicating with Cultural Clarity” and “From Waiting for Rock Stars to Unleashing the Overlooked.”

Shift #3:
From a Community of the Comfortable to a Community of the Desperate and Committed

“You have nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work. And go always, not only to those that want you, but to those that want you most.” (John Wesley)

The third and final critical shift involves realigning our community in light of the missional realities of our day. It is a shift from viewing our churches as dispensers of religious goods and services to reimaging our communities of faith as kingdom outposts from which the good news of the gospel flows. Over time, faith communities tend to lose their original missional vibrancy and focus their resources on members and on the maintenance of the status quo. We become comfortable when in reality the gospel is for the desperate and the fully committed.

Missiologist and writer Alex McManus summarizes the outward call of the gospel this way: “The gospel comes to us on its way to someone else. The gospel comes to us on its way to someplace else.” This happens naturally when a community of faith is made up of people desperate for what only God can do and who are eager to share their testimony of God’s work in their lives.

Consider Michael Beck

Pastor Michael Beck, one of my students who currently serves in the Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, has modeled a missional understanding of the gospel as a pastor in two formerly struggling Methodist congregations. While attending seminary, Michael became the part-time pastor of a small rural congregation averaging less than ten in Sunday worship. One year later the church’s worship had grown to an average of 100 people. The conference then appointed Beck to another struggling church averaging less than 30 in worship. One year later this community had to add an additional service and now averages 200 people in worship. Growth in both of these communities of faith resulted from engaging those outside the church with the good news.

Beck has a dynamic testimony. As a recipient of God’s grace, Beck exhibits a burning desire to share this grace with others. On the ground, this means that Beck focuses his time and energizes his congregations to engage those in need in the neighborhoods surrounding the church property. He has specialized in offering recovery ministries for those struggling with addictions. He has also started Bible studies in local restaurants and even in a tattoo parlor. Being in the community has allowed Beck and his church members to serve those on the outside and created a welcoming culture in which former outsiders become insiders and new ambassadors of God’s grace. By moving outside of the existing church, Beck has embodied the “go to” ethos of the earliest followers of Jesus. Beck’s focus is simple. He reaches out to those who are most desperate for what only God can do. This is a model that can be implemented anywhere.

The power of this dynamic pattern of outsiders becoming insiders is crucial for creating a missional ethos in existing communities of faith. It must be said that this model will create challenges for churches. When new disciples come to faith, they often don’t act like lifelong Christians, their children tend to be loud, and they may not be able to immediately contribute in any substantial way financially to the community. Of course, these problems are good ones to have and long term are much better ones to face than the challenges of atrophy, apathy, and decline — ones that too many existing congregations know all too well.

Take Action Today

Dare to be counted among those who take the leap and make these critical shifts for the sake of the gospel in our day. There are people all around us desperate for what only the gospel of Jesus Christ delivers. They are waiting for churches that (1) speak “plain truth for plain people,” (2) model and teach the ways of Jesus’s kingdom in order to unleash disciples into the world, and (3) stay mission-focused for the sake of the world and to the glory of God.

To embrace these critical shifts in our communities, let us ask a series of questions to help us move forward.

First, who is our mission? The mission of the church always focuses on people, so begin to pray, “Lord, who is our mission?” Allow God to reveal to you the faces of those whom your community is called to serve with the gospel.

Second, how does our community need to shift to be able live out God’s mission?

Last, what kind of people do we need to become to create a community that shifts and mobilizes to embrace God’s mission in the 21st century?

Write down your answers. Share them with others. Imagine your life if you lived out your answers. Pray. Act.

[For more on creating a missional ethos within churches, see Brian D. Russell, (re)Aligning with God: Reading Scripture for Church and World (Cascade, 2016).]

Critical Shifts for Embracing God’s 21st Century Mission (3)

In my first two installments of “Critical Shifts for Embracing God’s 21st Century Mission,” we explored the need to move “From Preaching to the Choir to Communicating with Cultural Clarity” and “From Waiting for Rock Stars to Unleashing the Overlooked.”

Shift #3:
From a Community of the Comfortable to a Community of the Desperate and Committed

“You have nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work. And go always, not only to those that want you, but to those that want you most.” (John Wesley)

The third and final critical shift involves realigning our community in light of the missional realities of our day. It is a shift from viewing our churches as dispensers of religious goods and services to reimaging our communities of faith as kingdom outposts from which the good news of the gospel flows. Over time, faith communities tend to lose their original missional vibrancy and focus their resources on members and on the maintenance of the status quo. We become comfortable when in reality the gospel is for the desperate and the fully committed.

Missiologist and writer Alex McManus summarizes the outward call of the gospel this way: “The gospel comes to us on its way to someone else. The gospel comes to us on its way to someplace else.” This happens naturally when a community of faith is made up of people desperate for what only God can do and who are eager to share their testimony of God’s work in their lives.

Consider Michael Beck

Pastor Michael Beck, one of my students who currently serves in the Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, has modeled a missional understanding of the gospel as a pastor in two formerly struggling Methodist congregations. While attending seminary, Michael became the part-time pastor of a small rural congregation averaging less than ten in Sunday worship. One year later the church’s worship had grown to an average of 100 people. The conference then appointed Beck to another struggling church averaging less than 30 in worship. One year later this community had to add an additional service and now averages 200 people in worship. Growth in both of these communities of faith resulted from engaging those outside the church with the good news.

Beck has a dynamic testimony. As a recipient of God’s grace, Beck exhibits a burning desire to share this grace with others. On the ground, this means that Beck focuses his time and energizes his congregations to engage those in need in the neighborhoods surrounding the church property. He has specialized in offering recovery ministries for those struggling with addictions. He has also started Bible studies in local restaurants and even in a tattoo parlor. Being in the community has allowed Beck and his church members to serve those on the outside and created a welcoming culture in which former outsiders become insiders and new ambassadors of God’s grace. By moving outside of the existing church, Beck has embodied the “go to” ethos of the earliest followers of Jesus. Beck’s focus is simple. He reaches out to those who are most desperate for what only God can do. This is a model that can be implemented anywhere.

The power of this dynamic pattern of outsiders becoming insiders is crucial for creating a missional ethos in existing communities of faith. It must be said that this model will create challenges for churches. When new disciples come to faith, they often don’t act like lifelong Christians, their children tend to be loud, and they may not be able to immediately contribute in any substantial way financially to the community. Of course, these problems are good ones to have and long term are much better ones to face than the challenges of atrophy, apathy, and decline — ones that too many existing congregations know all too well.

Take Action Today

Dare to be counted among those who take the leap and make these critical shifts for the sake of the gospel in our day. There are people all around us desperate for what only the gospel of Jesus Christ delivers. They are waiting for churches that (1) speak “plain truth for plain people,” (2) model and teach the ways of Jesus’s kingdom in order to unleash disciples into the world, and (3) stay mission-focused for the sake of the world and to the glory of God.

To embrace these critical shifts in our communities, let us ask a series of questions to help us move forward.

First, who is our mission? The mission of the church always focuses on people, so begin to pray, “Lord, who is our mission?” Allow God to reveal to you the faces of those whom your community is called to serve with the gospel.

Second, how does our community need to shift to be able live out God’s mission?

Last, what kind of people do we need to become to create a community that shifts and mobilizes to embrace God’s mission in the 21st century?

Write down your answers. Share them with others. Imagine your life if you lived out your answers. Pray. Act.

[For more on creating a missional ethos within churches, see Brian D. Russell, (re)Aligning with God: Reading Scripture for Church and World (Cascade, 2016).]

Critical Shifts for Embracing God’s 21st Century Mission (Part 2)

In part one of my series on Critical Shifts for Embracing God’s 21st Century Mission, we discussed the need for moving From Preaching to the Choir to Communicating with Cultural Clarity. In this new installment, I want to suggest a second shift: From Waiting for Rock Stars to Unleashing the Overlooked.

We live in a culture of the celebrity. Bigger is better. Money talks. We value experts. Super hero movies routinely dominate the charts.

As we as Christ’s followers seek to advance God’s mission in our day, we can sometimes fall prey to the idea that we need a hero or celebrity to lead us forward. Instead of focusing on forming and developing the people whom God sends to our communities, we wait for experts and already-formed leaders to walk through our doors to solve the problems in our churches. Yet the power of the Wesleyan revival of the 18th and 19th centuries was in part found in its ability to reduplicate itself and expand through the common women and men who responded to the gospel.

John Wesley made a critical decision. As a leader, he chose to be a river rather than a reservoir. He did not build a wall around his expertise and giftedness. Instead, he freely shared his knowledge and poured his life into creating a network of lay preachers and small groups led also by the laity.

The lesson for us is this: we need to focus on the women and men whom God leads to our parishes rather than on the people that we might wish would walk through our doors. Wesley modeled an imaginative, creative, and organic structure that unleashed the spiritual gifts of others for the advancement of God’s kingdom.

The film Apollo 13 modeled the type of thinking that we need to embrace. If you recall the plot, the mission to the moon encountered a serious problem and the lives of the astronauts were at risk. The original mission was aborted, and the new mission became a rescue mission in which the astronauts and the Houston-based support team had to rely only on the people and materials available to them on the spaceship. There were no fatalities and the Apollo 13 crew returned safely to earth through the creative team work and ingenious reenvisioning of the equipment and supplies on the craft. What if we as pastors and teachers adopted the posture of the Apollo 13 mission with respect to our existing communities of faith? Brainstorm, nurture, and unleash our communities’ gifts for the advancement of the kingdom in our day.

To do this will require a new sense of vocation and calling. Instead of embracing a vocation as a professional clergyperson or older models such as pastor as resident theologian, let’s take on a new calling as missiologists, dream awakeners, and unleashers of the overlooked. Wesley did this type of work, but he was only following in the footsteps of Jesus, who called and sent out fishermen, tax collectors, and former lepers and demon-possessed persons as well as culturally undervalued women to serve as heralds of the gospel.

August Toplady, a 19th century critic of Wesley, completely missed the point of Wesley’s method with this ironic critique:

Let his cobblers keep to their stalls. Let his tinkers mend their vessels. Let his barbers confine themselves to their blocks and basons. Let his bakers stand to their kneading-troughs. Let his blacksmiths blow more suitable coals than those of controversy.

Wesley trusted the non-clergy and non-seminary trained men and women of his day to lead the church of Jesus Christ into the world on mission. We must too.

Who may I have overlooked within my existing spheres of influence?

How well do I serve as an awakener of God-sized dreams?

What kind of person do I need to become to shift from being a reservoir of religious good and services to a river of inspiration and empowerment of others?

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