Monday, July 10, 2017

How to Experience Joy and Peace in All Circumstances (Dear Kittens #44)

(I write my daughters aka "kittens" a short letter each week under the pseudonym "TOC"="The Old Cat". We've always had cats so this rubric works for us. My daughters are both in high school. I try to distill the wisdom gained from my 48 years that I wish I'd have learned when I was a teen.)
 

Dear Kittens,
 

One of the keys to experiencing joy is to learn to understand the difference between the things that we can control and the things that we can’t control. In Discourses and Selected Writings (Penguin Classics), Epictetus taught, “It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgments concerning them.” In other words, how we feel or think about an event in our lives depends less on the event itself and more on the meaning that we give to it. Jack Canfield, author of The Success Principles(TM) - 10th Anniversary Edition: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be offers a formula to help us understand the way of thinking advocated by Epictetus. Canfield suggests that we view life this way: Event (whatever happens) + Our Response = Outcome. If we reflect on this principle, we can recognize the part of each outcome that we can control. Of course, this means our response to the events that happen to us rather than the events themselves.
 

Once we gain this wisdom we can experience a deep joy that does not depend on our circumstances. We can find joy in the good times and the challenging ones. The apostle Paul adds a critical teaching that reminds us of God’s role in our response to events.
 

One of my favorite passages from Paul is Philippians 4:4–7: Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!  Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
 

In these verses, Paul teaches us how to respond to events in a way that leads to joy and peace. Paul begins with joy and ends with peace. These are related. We can find joy in all circumstances by experiencing the inner peace and calmness that God can give to us. Paul wrote these words while awaiting trial under house arrest in Rome. His life was on the line and he faced possible execution. Yet, he can write about joy and peace in all circumstances. Kittens, I hope that your ears just perked up.
 

Here is what Paul says about how to respond to any event. I’ve put Paul’s teaching from Philippians 4:4–7 into a formula: Remember God’s provisions (“the Lord is near”) + release of anxiety in prayer + practicing gratitude in all circumstances = peace that passes all understanding. When faced with wonderful events or challenging events, we must remember that Jesus who experienced both death on a cross and Resurrection is present with us. Moreover Jesus has all futures under his control. Once we recognize this when we face an event that triggers our anxiety we must release our anxiety and fears to God in prayer. If you struggle releasing anxiety and find your mind racing, add a list of things for which you are grateful into the prayer. Gratitude is critical for grounding us in the present and pushing aside our anxiety about what an event means for our future. When we take these steps, we can experience God’s peace.
 

Then our gentleness can be evident to all. Paul is not advocating wimpiness or weakness. Gentleness is patient resilience. It is a cool confidence in the abundance of the future regardless of what happens. A response from a God-shaped gentleness rooted in joy and peace creates a much better outcome for us.
 

Kittens, life has highs and lows in it. This is unavoidable. The good news is that God provides a way to experience joy and peace for our journey. Jesus once said this to a raging storm: “Peace, be still.” 
This is a calmness we can experience too.
 

With much love,
TOC aka "The Old Cat"


If you would like to be added to the Dear Kittens email list to receive future notes from TOC, send me an email: brian.russell9113 at gmail.com



Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Work, Life, and Sabbath: A Personal Reflection

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 did not 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 over 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. Go back and ponder Genesis 1:1–2:3 anew. You may notice some patterns. First, verse 2 begins with a description of chaotic beginnings. God does not 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 do not 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 does not 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 Genesis 1 and God still pauses to rest on the seventh day. God does not 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.” Also we often rest so that we can work instead of 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.
 

Finally, stepping back from the whole of Genesis 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 to very good. But 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 is 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 Matthew 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’ actions. Since Jesus did good on the sabbath and helped others, so should we. It is easy to cite Jesus’ words in support of this: “The Sabbath was made for man not man 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 these contexts, Jesus is being provocative. Jesus did not 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’ example to justify our lack of Sabbath, we are 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 its 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 its 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 Genesis 1:1–2:3 is not merely a story about creation. Instead, maybe its 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?


© 2017 Brian D. Russell

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Monday, May 29, 2017

Reading Psalm 51 for Transformation


Psalms 51–72 offer a Davidic core at the heart of Books II–III. Most of the psalms include “Of David” or are untitled except for Ps 72 (“of Solomon”). Ps 72 concludes with “The prayers of David son of Jesse are ended” (72:20).  Moreover, eight of these psalms (Pss 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, and 63) include in the heading references to challenges in David’s life from the books of Samuel.  By linking psalms to difficult episodes in David’s life, the Psalms remind us that even godly kings such as David still faced challenging seasons. As we seek to live out God’s missional in the world, we must recognize that this commitment will not translate into a worry free or storm less life. For the next two weeks, we will explore these Davidic prayers as models for our own during times of need.

We begin with one of the most well known psalms from Book II: Psalm 51. Psalm 51 is a penitential prayer (prayer for forgiveness). The others are Pss 6, 32, 38, 102, 130, and 143.

Ps 51 is a model prayer of repentance, sorrow, restoration and renewal. In 2 Samuel 11–12, David sinned greatly, but turned wholeheartedly to the LORD. Israel’s great king committed adultery with a woman named Bathsheba. Then after Bathsheba became pregnant with David’s child, he ordered her husband Uriah murdered. The words in Ps 51 attempt to capture the spirit of his prayer as a model for all God’s people on how to pray when we have sinned. It serves as a reminder of the grave burden and consequences of sin, but also of the great mercy of God.

God desires for us to walk faithfully in love of God and neighbor, but when we do sin, God invites us to pray.  As Jesus’ followers, we have this promise, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

The psalmist cuts to the heart of the matter in vv. 1–2:
Ps 51
To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.

51 Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin!

There are no excuses, hedging, or nuances in the psalmist’s words. He opens immediately with a request for God’s mercy and grace. The psalmist can pray boldly because he knows God’s character. He bases his request on God’s faithful love and abundant compassion. These are God’s core characteristics. The psalmist recognizes his guilt and uncleanness before God. God is his only hope. Verse two imagines sin and transgression as a filthy contamination that needs to be cleansed in the same way that dirty cloths must be washed.

The opening verses of Psalm 51 may remind readers of the prayer of the tax collector in Luke 18:13, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” This was a prayer that Jesus affirmed as one that God answers. So it will be with those who pray Ps 51.

How do verses 1–2 teach us about praying to God for forgiveness?
What are areas in your life for which you need to ask for God’s mercy and grace?

Now let's look at the rest of Psalm 51:
3 For I know my transgressions,
 and my sin is ever before me.
 4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
 and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
 and blameless in your judgment. 
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
 and in sin did my mother conceive me.
 6 Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
 and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.
 

7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
 wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
 8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
 let the bones that you have broken rejoice. 
9 Hide your face from my sins,
 and blot out all my iniquities.
 10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
 and renew a right spirit within me.
 11 Cast me not away from your presence,
 and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
 and uphold me with a willing spirit.
 

13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
 and sinners will return to you.
 14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
 O God of my salvation,
    and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
 15 O Lord, open my lips,
 and my mouth will declare your praise.
 16 For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
 you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
 17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
 a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
 

18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
 build up the walls of Jerusalem;
 19 then will you delight in right sacrifices,
 in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
 then bulls will be offered on your altar.
 

 The psalmist’s remaining prayer breaks up into three sections: vv. 3–9, 10–17, and 18–19.
 

Verses 3–5 summarizes the psalmist’s sorrow. There are no excuses—just confession of guilt. The psalmist does not attempt to hide wrongdoing, but admits that they are ever present burdens (v. 3). Moreover, the psalmist recognizes that these sins are against God. Yes, when we sin, we hurt others and ourselves, but our sins are ultimately against our loving Creator (v. 4). It is to God we will answer. The psalmist ends this section with a categorical confession of lostness (v. 5). His recent failures are recurring patterns. He has been trapped in sinful cycles since conception. The psalmist recognizes his inability to save himself. There is only one solution: the mercy, grace, and unfailing love of God. Often God’s greatest work begins on the ruin of our lives when we turn to him fully.
 

In verses 6–8, the psalmist again requests cleansing. The psalmist continues his view of his sinfulness as a stain that needed removed (cf. v. 2). The psalmist recognizes that his inner life does not line up with the expectations and will of God (v. 6). He asks  for God’s cleansing (v. 7) so that he can return to a life of joy and fulfillment. Sin will weary us. We must be sensitive to our need for God’s grace and turn to the LORD whenever we stray from God’s ways.
 

Verses 9–17 focus on specific for renewal and include vows of actions that the restored psalmist will take. Verses 9–12 lyrically capture the heart and passion of this prayer. The link to David is powerful. The great king has sinned and the stakes are sky high. David throws himself fully into the arms of God knowing that only God can restore him. He wants his sins and inquity removed (v. 9), but more importantly he wants his moment by moment relationship with God to be healed (vv. 10–12). This requires a work beginning in his inner core—his heart. Remember that heart refers to the will, intentions, and thinking center of a person.
 

In verses 13–17, the psalmist vows to teach others the way of the LORD and to confess publicly the praise of God. Experiences of God’s grace must always be spread and shared with others. Moreover, v. 17 reminds us of the posture with which we must approach God. Confession must be authentic. The psalmist is shattered by his sin. He approaches God not with sacrifices, but by freely admitting brokenness and lostness.
 

Psalm 51 concludes with a prayer that moves beyond the sorrowful psalmist to include blessings for Jerusalem/Zion (vv. 18–19). This is a reminder that our prayers must move beyond ourselves. Sin is subtle. It continually attempts to guide us into a deeper sense of individual entitlement and self-centered focus. The mark of the truly repentant in part is the ability to pray beyond our personal needs for the good of the community around us.

How specifically does Psalm 51 teach you to pray when you have sinned?
 

Describe how the psalmist understands restoration, renewal, and forgiveness.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Defining Truth

Fake news thrives in a world that longs for certainty apart from a deep trust in God. The fundamental question of truth will never be answered in a culture shaped by spin and talking points. The danger of our day is the temptation to root identity and truth in political ideologies of the left or right rather than in a moment-by-moment relationship with God.

This temptation finds in roots in the opening chapters of Genesis. In Genesis 3, we encounter the narrative of Eve, Adam, and the Serpent. Genesis 3 opens with the Serpent asking a probing question: “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” Bonhoeffer described this exchange as the “first conversation about God.”[1] In other words, the loss of truth emerges at the moment when humanity makes God an object of reflection and conversation rather than the principal subject of relational connection. 


In Genesis 3, Eve and Adam quickly succumb to the serpent’s words and eat the fruit of the tree that God had forbidden them from consuming. This changes the future for all humanity and marks the entrance of sin and death into the world (Rom 5:12–21). Once relationship is broken alternative truths become engaging. At the heart of the Genesis 3 story is a question that we must answer: Do I trust that a loving God has my best interests at heart as well as the interests of those whom I love deeply?


For Adam and Eve, they ultimately answered “No.” The rest was history. Yet Adam and Eve’s story is also a tale of our lives. It explains the origins of sin, but it also serves as a warning to us. When trust with the Creator is broken, we are left to find alternative pathways to certainty. This often leads us to trust our instincts, ideologies, and interests apart from a moment-by-moment relationship with the LORD. 


In the Old Testament, truth is anchored in the LORD (Deut 32:6, Isa 25:1, Ps 119:30). The Hebrew word is ’emunah. This word may be translated as “true”, “truth”, “reliable”, or “faithful.” What does it mean to be “true” or to be “truth”? It means that one is reliable, dependable, and faithful. Truth is found in the character of the LORD. Thus, it is relational because truth is defined in relationship with the LORD who is faithful and true. The LORD does and acts rightly, at the right time, every time. The LORD is dependable. The LORD is trustworthy. The LORD embodies faithfulness and stands over all human claims to truth. 


Scripture testifies to this truth from Genesis to Revelation. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus lived out the truth and invites us to walk in its light. The way forward for us today is a moment by moment relationship with God.


Ask yourself: Do I trust that a loving God has my best interests at heart as well as those of the people whom I love deeply? When we can say “yes,” we have embraced the truth that truly makes us free.


This essay appeared originally in the Spring 2017 issue of the Asbury Herald.





[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1–3. (Translated by Douglas Stephen Bax. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 3. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2004), 111.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Conversations with Scripture and the Temptation of 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 verse four may be translated several different ways. For example, the above translation follows the ESV, NASB, and NIV (among others). The CEV reads “Our God is the LORD! Only the LORD.” This is close to NRSV’s “The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.” 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?[1] Each of the possible English translations struggle to highlight one of these dimensions.

Moberly has advanced the issue by suggesting that the idea may be expressed by thinking of the LORD as Israel’s “one and only.[2]” The same word translated “one” appears in Song of Songs 6:8–9. The emphasis in the Song was on the selection of the beloved out of all competing options available for the writer.

The issue at stake in Deuteronomy is two fold. First, there are competing gods in the Near East. At minimum, 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”, verse 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 the 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 that 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? Is 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 of these tends to function within a specific sphere of life. There are 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 21st 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.
 
© 2017 Brian D. Russell



[1] See S. Dean McBride, Jr. “The Yoke of the Kingdom: An Exposition of Deuteronomy 6:4-5” Interpretation 27.3 (1973): 273–306.
[2] R. W. L. Moberly, Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture (Baker Academic, 2013), 7–40.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Lessons from the Shack: Perspectives for Enjoying the Book and/or the Film


Key Issues for Reading the Shack and/or Enjoying the Film
The Shack premieres in theaters across the country on March 3, 2017. I studied the original novel carefully and offered lectures and talks on it during 2009. I'm excited to see the movie and hope that it does well.  
Here are some initial thoughts and takeaways on the book/film:

1) The Shack is a work of fiction. It is rooted in life, Christian thought, and Scripture, but it is fiction and its author claims nothing more for it. Through story, The Shack offers a narrative that attempts to interpret key themes of Scripture in fresh and meaningful ways to a 21st century audience. In particular, it attempts to communicate an understanding of the God of the Scriptures that is capable of touching deeply a person who has grown weary of or hardened against a simplistic or naïve faith.
The Shack should not be read (book) or watched (film) as a systematic theology. Young is creative and imaginative in his writing. He deploys well the elements of fiction to craft a compelling and transformational story. This does not mean that every aspect or line will hold up to a rigorous theological critique. I think that Young succeeds in writing a powerful story about God’s missional love for the pinnacle of His Creation—humanity. None of the liberties that Young takes or imaginative illustrations that he deploys is detrimental to the Gospel message underlying The Shack. Ideally, through reading The Shack, men and women will be inspired to (re)engage God in relationship. This will lead inevitably to a return to the Bible itself.
2) The Shack joins a long line of fictional works that engage the riches of Christian theology and tradition. Here are some examples: C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia; Dante, Inferno; John Steinbeck, East of Eden; John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress; Flannery O’Connor’s short stories.
The Shack pushes the envelope through a personification of each person of the Trinity along with the figure Holy Wisdom (Sophia) from the Bible’s Wisdom traditions. Young takes a risk here. This move is made to emphasize the relational side of God. But its unconventional use of feminine and non-European imagery has raised issues for certain readers who forget (in my opinion) that The Shack is fiction and that the majority of the world’s Christians are now of non-European descent. Young’s portrayal of the Trinity is bold and works to put a human and gracious face on the biblical God who too many in our world think of as oppressive, distant, male, and neither loving nor faithful. I think that Young’s move works, but some (traditional) readers may not be able to get past the imagery to hear the good message within The Shack.
3) Reading The Shack is not a substitute for reading and reflecting on Scripture regularly. The Scriptures are God’s gift to humanity and serve as the authoritative guide for faith and life. The Old and New Testaments tell the story of God’s missional interactions with Creation in general and with the creation, fall, and redemption of humanity in particular. In fact, Young would not have been able to write The Shack without his own careful reflection on the Bible. The Biblical portrait of God is the inspiration for The Shack and Young alludes to the Scriptures subtly throughout the novel and screen play. The more that one understands and knows the Bible the more one can appreciate Young’s work. My hope is that The Shack will motivate its readers to read through the Scriptural story that inspired and informed the core of Young’s work.
© 2017 Brian D. Russell

Friday, February 17, 2017

Paradigm Shifts for Ministry and Mission: From Dispensers of Information to Interpreters for Transformation



As leaders in the Christ-following movement in the early 21st century, it has been many years since the public looked to its religious leaders as the primary source of information.  In fact, if the “information age” has brought anything, it has radically decentralized the availability of knowledge. The ivory tower has given way to the laptop and smartphone. We no longer need experts; all we need is Dr. Google. 


In this environment, we need to rethink the role of the body of Christ in teaching about Christianity. Instruction in the faith used to function through catechesis or discipleship training. It centered in local churches in Sunday School or Wednesday evening group studies. The Church trained believers in the basics of the faith including biblical content and an understanding of the theology of the Church. I am in no way against theological or biblical instruction.  It is crucial for followers of Jesus Christ to love God with their whole being—including the mind. It is equally vital that right thinking be demonstrated through right living.


Given the vast information overload that our 24/7 media saturated age has brought (including “fake news”), I want to suggest that the Church needs to concern itself less with adding to the glut of information and more with shaping how people interpret the information that they possess. In other words, we need stop focusing merely on what people should think/know and instead help Christ followers to learn how to think. Our world needs exegetes and interpreters more than experts. I have to credit Erwin McManus with this essential insight. I heard him speaking about this in Orlando back in January 2005. As I have reflected on the shifts that we need to make to keep the missional emphasis in our communities, moving to focusing on leaders as interpreters of information points the way forward. Scripture is more than a source of information; it is revelation from God that functions as a lens through which to understand the world. It is a call to us for ongoing (re)alignment with God’s kingdom.


Our culture does not need another expert or talking head. Instead, I believe that men and women are longing for profound speech that inspires and nourishes their very beings by pointing through the spin and gab of modern life to the true reality.  Will we make the shift to speak a bold and daring Word for God and from God to persons who are desperate for a taste of true reality in their lives?


What do you think?


© 2006 Brian D. Russell (Revised substantially 2017)