Saturday, September 3, 2016

Preparing our Hearts and Minds to Read Scripture

Preparing our Hearts and Minds: Conversations with Scripture (Intro)

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 before it:

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 is not 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 is 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 is therefore vital that we consciously avoid treating the text as an object that we gain control over via study. The moment that 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 Psalm 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” (James 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 is not 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 cannot 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’ name: Amen

© 2016 Brian D. Russell

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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Missional Insights from Israel's Story (Genesis–Nehemiah)

Learning to Live as God’s Missional People: Missional Insights from Israel’s Story (Genesis–Nehemiah)
            Many readers of the Bible struggle integrating the Old Testament 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 set 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 (Genesis 1–2) describe God 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 Genesis 3–11 human sin ruptures creation. Humanity is lost and creation itself is broken. Paul aptly summarizes Genesis 3–11 in Romans 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 Genesis 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 (Genesis 12:3b). After the deliverance from Egypt, this calling becomes embedded into 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 Old Testament 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 longtime 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.

© 2016 Brian D. Russell

For more exploration of missional readings of the Bible, see my books (re)Aligning with God: Reading Scripture for Church and World (Cascade, 2016) and Invitation: A Ten Week Bible Study (Invitation, 2015).

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Starting Points for Biblical Interpretation: Part One (Luke 24:44–49)

Learning to read Scripture involves a commitment to understanding how the entire Bible fits together. My two recent books Invitation (Seedbed, 2015) and (re)Aligning with God: Reading Scripture for Church and World (Cascade, 2016) have reflected on the narrative of the Bible as a coherent story from Creation to New Creation.

NIV Luke 24:44-49 He said to them, "This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms." 45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high."

This text occurs in the climactic section of Luke’s Gospel. The risen Jesus meets with his astonished band of disciples and begins to prepare them for their ministry as apostles. Here are some of the highlights:

1) Jesus views his life, death, and resurrection as the fulfillment of Scripture. Notice Jesus’ use of the phrase “Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.” This is shorthand for the totality of Israel’s Scriptures. Jesus taught his followers to read the Scriptures messianically. In other words, Jesus’ followers read the whole Bible as a witness to the mission of God as fulfilled in Jesus. This does not mean, as it has in some quarters of the Church, that the Old Testament becomes a mere pool of proof texts for the coming of Jesus. For example, the whole purpose of the book of Micah was not to predict that Bethlehem would be the place from which the messiah would come (Mic 5:2). Rather the Church is to listen to the witness of the Old Testament on its own terms and to recognize a trajectory that points beyond its witness to the coming of God’s Messiah to usher in the age of salvation.

2) Scripture is to be read missionally. If most Churches do a good job recognizing and teaching Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament, it struggles in emphasizing the missional implications of this. Look again at verses 47-48. As a result of recognizing Jesus as the long-awaited messiah from God, the apostles are unleashed into the nations to be God’s witnesses. In other words, learning to read the Old Testament as a witness to Jesus is not about mere information it is about being transformed into a missional community with good news to share with the world. This will impact our reading of the Bible because it invites us to read Scripture missionally. That is we read the Bible not merely as a guide to personal piety or to create theological systems, but most profoundly in order to shape our own missional practice as we seek to live faithfully in our world as Jesus’ witnesses. The starting point for a missional reading of the Bible is the recognition of this reality. Christopher Wright in his essay “Mission as a Matrix for Hermeneutics and Biblical Theology” on page 109 asks, “Is it possible, is it valid, is it profitable for Christians to read the Bible as a whole from a missional perspective, and what happens when they do?” Wright, of course, believes that this is indeed the proper approach. Perhaps the pages of the New Testament bear witness to what happens when Christians do indeed read and act on the Scripture’s missional message. Wright's most comprehensive work on missional reading can be found in his seminal work The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative.

3) The Spirit of God empowers the Church. Verse 49 promises the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the disciples. This of course was fulfilled at Pentecost in Acts 2, but I want to suggest that this on-going reality has implications for our reading of the Bible. We do not read the Bible merely out of our own intellect, experience, education, and setting. Since the Spirit of God abides in each believer, it is important to recognize the role of the Holy Spirit in biblical interpretation. We do not read alone. Prayer for illumination is vital so that the Spirit of Truth may lead his people into the truth. I don’t want to overemphasize this aspect and I don’t see the indwelling of the Spirit as somehow legitimizing any or every reading of a text offered by a believer as there is a profound synergy involved in the interpretive process. But a text such as Luke 24 promises the empowerment of the Spirit in the life of the Church on mission. This implies, I think, guidance for the Church in its reading of the text as it seeks to bear faithful witness to the world about the salvation that God offers in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Let us apply this promise by continually praying that the Lord would astonish us anew with the richness of the Word.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Ps 29: A Missional Reading

   Psalm 29 announces the eternal reign of the LORD. It portrays the revelation of the LORD's power through the imagery of a thunder storm. By doing so, Ps 29 subverts the claims of the Canaanite god Baal who was the storm god. This psalm models a missional use of culture to teach the truth about reality and God using the language of Israel's religious context.
Psalm 29
Ascribe to the Lord, you heavenly beings,
    ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
    worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness.
The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
    the God of glory thunders,
    the Lord thunders over the mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
    the voice of the Lord is majestic.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
    the Lord breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon leap like a calf,
    Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the Lord strikes
    with flashes of lightning.
The voice of the Lord shakes the desert;
    the Lord shakes the Desert of Kadesh.
The voice of the Lord twists the oaks
    and strips the forests bare.
And in his temple all cry, “Glory!”
10 The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
    the Lord is enthroned as King forever.
11 The Lord gives strength to his people;
    the Lord blesses his people with peace.

Psalm 29 is a hymn of praise that serves to declare the eternal kingship of the LORD. This is a psalm of orientation. It reminds us of the power, grandeur and prestige of God. It uses imagery drawn from its ancient Near Eastern context. It uses the imagery of creation and a thunderstorm. This language evoked feelings of awe for its original readers because it touched on core elements of Ancient Near Eastern religious thought. We need to read between the lines to hear its rich message in our 21st century world.

In Israel’s day, all nations worshiped and served different gods and goddesses. One of the key ways of demonstrating the power of a god or goddess was through stories of the gods controlling and shaping creation. If a god had power over creation, this god could claim to be the true King. Another important element to show a God’s strength was the ability to create and sustain life. Rain was central to the well being of ancient people who depended on rainfall for the growing of food. For the ancient Canaanites, one of the most powerful gods was Baal. If you read through the Old Testament, Baal is one of the foreign deities that God’s people often turned to during times of apostasy (e.g., 1 Kings 18:20–40). Baal was the Story god and thus served as a god of fertility. The rain that he sent fertilized the earth and brought forth crops for the ancients.

In Psalm 29, the psalmist draws on language that is similar to the type of images associated with Baal and other similar gods. But there is one major difference. This is a psalm that declares boldly that it is the LORD who is the true king.

As we’ve been reading through the laments of Book 1 of the Psalter (Pss 1–41), we’ve repeatedly read prayers for protection from enemies. As part of these prayers, the psalmists have proclaimed their own integrity, devotion, and commitment to the LORD. We need to read these statements of integrity against the competing religions of the day. If the psalmists had lost their trust in the LORD, it would not mean that they would have become atheists as some do in our day. Instead they would have turned to some other god or goddess—perhaps the god or goddess of the people who were oppressing them.
Psalm 29 works against this by subverting the claims of competing gods. The Scriptures declare that the LORD is incomparable to any other god and in fact by the time of Isaiah the prophets declared of the LORD, “Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other” (Isa 45:22). Yet the false worship of idols continued in Israel. Psalm 29 thus uses imagery that others used to worship Baal and shifted the language to make it about the LORD. The psalmist does this to lift up the LORD as our true source of security in the world. He is King. He alone can be trusted with our lives. 

Commentary on Psalm 29

Psalm 29 unfolds in three movements: vv. 1-2 is an invitation to the hosts of heaven to worship the LORD, vv. 3–9 describes the coming of the LORD in a storm, and vv. 10–11 contains God’s blessing on God’s people.

Psalm 29:1–2 exhort the hosts of heaven to give the LORD the honor due his name and worship him in all of his splendor. Psalm 29 begins not with God’s people on the earth but with the beings in the presence of God in his heavenly courtroom. We saw a similar exhortation in Ps 148:1–2. The scope of the worship implied in Ps 29 will be all inclusive: everyone everywhere will grant the LORD the honor and glory due his name.

The imagery for the LORD is majestic and emphasizes his overall awesomeness. The phrase “splendor of his holiness” emphasizes distinctiveness of the LORD as ethically perfect, the one who stands above and beyond creation, and who acts rightly in all circumstances.

Verses 3–9 give the basis for this call to praise. In these verses, the coming of the LORD is portrayed through the imagery of a powerful thunderstorm that is roaring and coming off the sea toward the temple. The thunder is likened to the voice of the LORD. It shatters the silence and echoes out across the waters. In the ancient world, the waters of the sea represented a chaotic and destructive force. Here the LORD’s voice in the thunder demonstrates God’s superiority over all other forces (vv. 3-4).

In verses 6–9a, the voice of the LORD subdues and strikes mighty trees, nations, and deserts. All of the place names in these verses stand outside of Israel proper. The implication is that the LORD is not merely the true King of Israel, but is indeed the King of all Creation. The storm imagery is vivid. Imagine the most severe thunderstorm you’ve experienced and feel the power of the language here as the psalmist helps us to feel coming of the LORD.

Verse 9b gives the only fitting response to the awe-inspiring arrival of the LORD in the storm. All who have gathered cry out, “Glory!” Glory is the perceived awesomeness and weightiness of God’s presence. It is an acknowledgement of God’s greatness and our smallness in his presence. It is the feeling that we get when we stand before a majestic mountain or a huge waterfall or come other wonder of the world.

Verses 10–11 make explicit the message of the storm imagery. The LORD is King of Creation and rules forever. The earth is secure for God’s people. The LORD strengthens them and extends his blessings to them.
This psalm invites us to ground our security in the knowledge and assurance that the God of Creation is alive and well. He sustains our world, but more importantly for us as we seek to live faithfully, he promises to sustain us as we journey through this world on mission.   
© 2016 Brian D. Russell  

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Mission and Holiness

In 1 Corinthians 9:19-22, the Apostle Paul describes his method of reaching the Mediterranean world with the Gospel.

NRSV 1 Corinthians 9:19 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.

Paul describes an outreach strategy that modern thinkers would describe as contextual or indigenous. Paul worked to offer Christ to persons in terms of their own culture and thinking. Paul’s encounter with Greeks on Mars Hill is a classic example of this strategy. Paul’s conversation with a group of people on the Areopagus is recorded in Acts 17:16-34. He uses one of the Athenian’s own religious altars—one ascribed “To an Unknown God” as a vehicle for the proclamation of the good news about Jesus. In other words, Paul attempted to use some aspect of his target audiences own culture and belief system as a starting point or doorway into a conversation about Jesus Christ.

At least on the surface, most of us gravitate toward Paul’s strategy of “becoming all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” If we wish to live an evangelistic and missional lifestyle, there is much to learn here. This is a key element to learning to speak human.
For me, there is a key question: How does one embody such a mission strategy and stay true to the Gospel? Common answers such as, “I just follow Jesus” (though true) do not quite cut it because they are overly simplistic. In order to be the sort of persons who can follow in the footsteps of Paul and his co-workers (let alone the footprints of Jesus), we need to be profoundly touched by God. We need to be so rooted in God’s character that we are capable of adapting ourselves to new challenges, structures, and circumstances without losing the substance of who we are in Jesus. This means that deep character is more important than surface character.

Have you ever heard the phrase, “The clothes make the (wo)man.” In my thinking, this is completely backwards. If we want to be adaptable so that God can use us to reach the many, then we need to embody an ethos in which “the man [or woman] makes the clothes.”

This is not easy. It is even dangerous. In fact, Paul immediately follows up the above text with two strong warnings:

1) Paul uses an athletic metaphor to describe the seriousness of the danger:
NRS 1 Corinthians 9:24 Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. 25 Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. 26 So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; 27 but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.

Those of us who wish to reach out with God’s love to all persons need to realize the level of commitment necessary. Just as the athlete must continue her or his training to stay on top, so must we who follow Jesus be intentional and consistent in the nurturing our own relationship with God. To be an elite athlete requires a commitment to a training regimen that empowers the athlete to improve performance over time.

2) Then, in chapter 10 of 1 Corinthians, Paul reminds his readers of the unfaithfulness of Israel despite the fact that the Israelites were eyewitnesses of incredible acts of God.

The lesson is clear: our past history with God is no guarantee of our future faithfulness. Reflecting on Israel’s past tendency to be unfaithful in spite of God’s faithfulness, Paul warning in 1 Cor 10:14 “If you think you are standing strong, be careful that you don’t fall.”

The conclusion is this: our own personal holiness cannot be separated from the mission that God calls us to fulfill. Character matters. When the character of Jesus truly resides in us, we can adapt ourselves to new contexts and God will use us to reach others who desperately need the good news that is found only in Jesus. If we follow Jesus boldly, he will lead us into the darkest places in the world so that we can serve as light as Jesus shines through us.

1) How adaptable am I to new situations?

2) Am I more likely to be influenced by culture or to influence the culture for good?
3) What habits do I keep that help to nurture my soul and replenish me so that I am ready to reach out and serve others?
4) Reflect on your own understanding of the relationship between a missional lifestyle and personal holiness.

© 2006 Brian D. Russell, Revised 2016.

My latest book (re)Aligning with God: Reading Scripture for Church and World offers reflections on how to read Scripture in light of God's mission to bless all people.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Interview with Alex McManus, Author of Makers of Fire: The Spirituality of Leading from the Future

I've known Alex McManus since January 2005. We became friends after I heard him speak at a Origins Conference in Orlando FL. Everytime that we've talked Alex has stretched my thinking and inspired my missional imagination. I'm grateful for the opportunity to offer my friends and readers an interview with Alex regarding his recent book Makers of Fire: The Spirituality of Leading from the Future.

What is the inspiration for the title, Makers of Fire?

Over the course of my life, I've had several enduring interests. The first of these is an interest in the future. As a young boy of five or six years old, I remember speaking with my grandfather about Thomas Malthus' predictions that the world would have a global water crisis. He also once said to me that he wanted to live until the year 2000 because there would be dancing in the streets. Ever since then, I’ve enjoyed thinking about the things to come.

A second enduring interest is reading history, especially deep history. When it comes to our species, I’ve enjoyed readings in paleoanthropology and thinking about what life must have been like for the first humans. Brian, have you ever tried to start a fire sans the aid of modern technologies like matches and such?  Can you imagine our existence in the world before we domesticated fire? As I say in the book, In the beginning, the world was dark.

Then came the change.

Somewhere in the prehistorical mist of our ancient past, the first humans unlocked the mystery of fire. What a creative leap it must have been to first imagine making fire. The power of the human imagination coupled with urgent need pushed the limits of human capacity. Rather than waiting for lightning to start a fire, some ancient person stood in lightning's place and provided the heat of ignition. They harnessed that which was once wild and domesticated it. And they made the world better for themselves and for others. This was our breakthrough technology. Everything we enjoy today, was built on this discovery. To me this becomes a symbol, a representation, of human ingenuity, creativity, and innovation. I chose the image of making fire for the book in hopes of burning into our minds the fact that the human imagination is our infinite resource.

So, by Makers of Fire, I mean the entire human enterprise of seeing a need and filling it, the insatiable hunger of human curiosity, the human drive to engage the world and rule it. The human imagination is the well from which we will make the world better for ourselves and for others. So, by Makers of Fire, I hope to point to the human capacity to shape the world for generations to come.

Makers of Fire is also primal. When I speak of making fire, I imagine bleeding fingers and broken fingernails, sweat dripping from the brow, a simple stick of wood spinning into a nest of dry material, a flow of nurturing oxygen, a sense of urgent need. Making Fire is about dreaming --an act of the imagination -- and doing --the primal act of trying and trying again. Makers of Fire is a calling to all of us. How can each of us act, individually and together, to make the world better for others?

Who is the ideal reader of Makers of Fire? I wrote makers of fire as a companion text for the IMN’s certificate course in Strategic and Ideational Leadership. The kinds of people who take this certificate course are future-oriented thinkers and activists. They tend to think differently. They tend to be as engaged with the world outside the church as they are with the world inside the church.

What is the key idea in the book? The book is a calling to embrace fully the reality that we are each and all creators of the future. The first section of the book touches on some of the changes we are experiencing in our present day world. The second section touches on how these changes are creating a hunger for meaning. The third section touches on how we are beginning to explore anew what it means to be a people on a mission to create the future.

How will Makers of Fire help 21st-century leaders? I think the book offers some useful devices to help 21st-century leaders organize their thinking. For example, I describe the task of leadership as comprising of three elements that correspond to the triangle of combustion. In order to make fire, you need three things; fuel, oxygen, and the heat of ignition. In order to Make Fire and “lead from the future”, a leader must be able to do three things: fearlessly describe the present, discern the search for meaning in the moment, and discover pathways forward. Another tool I touch on is the plausibility cone, which describes how the futures are created. The feedback I get, when I share this tool in our certificate course, is that it really helps leaders understand how their work and efforts help shape the future.

Why is it important for Christ-following leaders to be interested in the ideas of futurists? In a professional sense, not everyone works in the strategic foresight industry. But in the personal sense, every human being is a futurist. The emergence of the multi-chambered brain which gave rise to the human imagination. Our imagination gave humans a capacity to imagine worlds that could be. In that sense, every man, woman, and child thinks about the future. In the same way, that we humans are taught to think historically, we can be taught to think “futuristically”.

Related specifically to the Christ following faith, the scriptures themselves seem to be, in my reading, future-oriented. Just to be clear, when I speak about the future I don't mean the eschatological future, I don't mean the end of all things. When I think about the future I'm talking about futurity: that which may  happen among us and become history. In that sense thinking about the future is not about predicting the future but about understanding our place and role in the present.

So even though the church is a conserving institution, and even though we dedicate ourselves to reading ancient texts and reciting ancient creeds and participating in ancient practices, something is missing if our minds and hearts are not also oriented towards the future.

Where can people find a copy of my book? You can find Makers of Fire: The Spirituality of Leading from the Future on Amazon. And your readers can connect with me online through my website: They can find a link to the certificate courses we offer and a link for our newsletter, dispatches from the future of faith.

Thank you Alex. 

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Invitation to Awaken our Humanity: The Image of God and Mission

I am becoming convinced that in order to fully understand the work that God accomplishes through Jesus the Messiah on behalf of all humanity we must reflect on God’s original plans for humanity. At minimum, salvation is God’s actions to restore humanity to His original designs for women and men

This essay will reflect principally on Genesis 1:26-31:

NIV Genesis 1:26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” 29 Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.

This text is profound and continues to spark conversations about the essence and purpose of humanity. This passage clearly affirms that every single human being has been created in the image of God (Latin: imago dei). This fact alone raises the implications of any study of this text. Yet, most attempts at penetrating the account of the creation of humanity make the mistake of trying to explain ontologically the meaning of the image of God – in other words, most try to explain the essence of humanity. This text however is more interested in the function and purpose of humanity. Below I will explore briefly two movements in this text and end with some theological reflection in light of the coming of Jesus Christ.

1) Humanity as the Pinnacle of God’s Creative Activity
Creation reaches its zenith in God’s crafting of humanity – women and men in His image. There are a number of clues to this reality. First, more verses are devoted to the making of people than to any other part of Creation. Second, “let us” language suggest the care and deliberation of God in the forging of humanity in God’s image. Much ink has been spilled over the precise meaning of the plural. The most plausible explanation is that “let us” is either a plural of majesty (God is so awesome that He speaks as a “We”) or it is God addressing the heavenly court. Regardless, this language clearly raises the importance of this section. Third, God appoints humanity to serve as God's regents and ambassadors. No other creature or created thing exercises authority over humanity. Instead, humanity is to reign over creation as God’s stewards or regents. Last, in 1:31 God offers a final evaluation of his creative activity. He previously reckoned Days 1 to 5 to be “good.” Now with the creation of humanity, God elevates his self-evaluation to “very good.”

All of these data suggest that the creation of humanity is the climactic event of God’s creative activity. All that remains for God to do at the conclusion of Day Six is rest (2:1-3).

2) Humanity as the Visible Representatives of the Creator God
A missiological focus is implicit in humanity’s creation in the image of God.

In the Old Testament, the word tselem is translated as image. It tends to refer to that which is visible. In other words, imago dei points to humanity as representatives of God in Creation. Throughout the Scriptures, creating visible representations of God is prohibited. It is striking to recognize that in Genesis 1 God created people to serve as a visible image of the divine. We are God’s representative agents. We may read this as a missiological mandate: God created people to be reflections of the Creator God. Humanity stands before the remainder of Creation as a witness to the God who has fashioned the heavens and the earth. Thus, from the beginning of Creation, we see that humans were born for a purpose. This purpose was to represent the character of God before the rest of Creation.

As a result of being forged in the image of God, humans fulfill a key role for God. Humanity was created to rule over creation. In our day, this has ironically been twisted into a warrant for abusing the earth and devaluing our fellow creatures. Genesis does indeed grant a high place to humanity, but this has to be understood in light of a representational authority. Humanity does rule for its own sake or prerogatives. Humanity exercises dominion over creation on behalf of God. The actions of people are to mirror those of God. 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. This is the only sort of dominion that Genesis envisions. In its wider context, Genesis 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” (italics added). We may even call this dominion through servanthood.

The Apostle Paul will make a similar connection between creation and mission in his Second Letter to the Corinthians. In the same context in which Paul describes those in Christ as part of a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17), he uses the language of diplomacy in stating that as part of the new creation, “so we are God’s ambassadors as though God were making his appeal through us” (2 Cor 5:20).
There are two elements implicit in this missiological function: holiness and community. In Genesis 1, it assumed that humanity will achieve its mission of representing God through two key 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 phrases/themes:

Global/Local Mission – humanity serves as the mediator/ambassador between God and Creation

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

Spiritually Transformed (Holiness/Character) – humanity embodies and reflects God’s character

I call these three themes the GPS for the Bible.

It is worth stating that every single person who has ever lived was created for this purpose. There are thus no worthless people. Everyone has amazing potential. The problem is that humanity corporately and individually has turned away from God and sought to find its own way.

3) Jesus as the Fullest Reflection of Our True Humanity
Jesus came to deliver humanity from sin, injustice, brokenness, and shame. From Genesis 3 onwards, Creation is ruptured by the persistence and pervasiveness of human sinfulness. Jesus came to live the truly human life. He perfectly enacted and fulfilled the mission of God. Jesus, the Word, took on our flesh and made known to humanity the truth and reality of God:

NIV John 1:14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’” 16 From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.

Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus has made it possible for humanity to live out God’s original purposes. By reconciling us to God and filling us with the Holy Spirit, Jesus has awakened humanity to God’s creational purposes and unleashed his people to live the life that God created them to live. We may say that Jesus came to make it possible for us to be fully human again.

God created humanity to serve in a profound role. Humanity is the jewel of God’s creation. God has created each person to serve in God’s mission. As such, humanity lives to connect the reality of God to Creation by reflecting God’s character corporately in community and individually as persons created in God’s image.

We must not read these functions as rigid categories or attempt to straight jacket every human being into some clone or ideal. If God is endlessly creative, why should we attempt to “standardize” humanity? Are not we in the Church often guilty of producing “followers of Jesus” who are too often closer to being protégés or a Mini-Me than true reflections of Jesus? If God created every human being with a distinct set of fingerprints, why would we ever want to limit the creativity and skill set of followers of Jesus? It is time for the Church to call people to discover their true humanity in Jesus Christ. It is time for us to Awaken humanity.

For a more in depth discussion, see my book (re)Aligning with God: Reading Scripture for Church and World .


© 2016 Brian D. Russell