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What have we heard?

ICETE Triennial Listening Team report

2 November 2018

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein. (Ps. 24.1 ESV)

This is the note that has been sounded, at least as the psalmist might well have expressed it were he listening in, during these days together in Panama.

While that note has rung, in plenary addresses and workshops and mealtime conversations and walks along this ocean that YHWH has created for his enjoyment and for ours, a group of your friends has been listening in as well.

I think I’d better explain …

Among the curious thoughts banging about inside Riad’s febrile brain over the past year has been the notion that for the second ICETE triennial in a row, a Listening Group should attempt to discern God’s voice amid the warp and woof of presentation and conversation … and then to dare the unthinkable ambition of reporting back to you on what we think you … that is, we … have heard.

It has been a labor of love carried out somewhat clandestinely by these otherwise very un-spy-like people.


Shadi Fatehi, Pars Theological Centre

Elias Ghazal, Middle East and North African Association for Theological Education

Evan Hunter, ScholarLeaders International

Mardochée Nadoumngar, Overseas Council

Daniel Owens, Hanoi Bible College & reSource Leadership International

Ivan Rusin, Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary

Prabhu Singh, South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies

Joanna Feliciano-Soberano, Asian Theological Seminary

Mariel Deluca Voth, Global Associates for Transformative Education


Although these wonderful friends have made this a boisterously pleasant task, it has not been a simple one.

What image, after all, captures the task of summarizing what five days of conversation have wrought?

  • Is this a ‘striving after the wind’—Qohelet/Ecclesiates—a grasping at the fleeting thing that does not allow its own capture?
  • Is it a narrow impoverishment of what has in fact been a broad abundance?
  • In the light of my appearance and accent, is this a neo-colonialist appropriation of other people’s stories and then a retelling in my own interests?
  • Is it a behavior very much unlikethat of David Corbin’s ant, one which does not know its own limitations and so engages in self-destructive behavior and even community-destroying conduct?
  • Or, after five long days of words, it is tropical pelting of the ground with more and more rain long after the soil has exhausted its capacity for absorption?

Well, I hope it is none of these things.

Instead, I hope that what you will hear from me on behalf of ten sisters and brothers who have listened for you is a little bit like the task of a delightful United World Mission colleague of mine who is among us in these days.

Jocabed Solano is a Panamanian follower of Jesus. Like a few of the hotel workers who have looked after us this week, Jocabed is also a member of the Cuna Nation, a people who once owned the land on which this hotel is built.

Jocabed works for Memoria IndígenaIndigenous Memory. She visits with the communities of her people and of other indigenous people in this part of the Lord’s world and they recount to her their collective memory of the indigenous Christian workers who have sown, watered, nourished and harvested the grace of Jesus among them. Because most of these people do not write, Jocabed listens very carefully and then writes down the stories they have told her. Although she is the writerof these wonderful narratives that come to her in spoken form, she is not the authorof the stories that these narratives bear. She has merely captured and then given to her people a record of what they have known.

Jocabed’s ministry—the exercise of her vocation—rescues the story of thisAmerica’s indigenous peoples from the vagaries of declining memory. More importantly, it provides each community with a shared version of its own story. Jocabed says the very best thing is that her work helps the communities of her people to recover and then hold fast to their own identity.

Jocabed’s loving labors are not unlike what our … well, your … Listening Team has attempted to do this week. I would now like to tell you about what we think you have known … so that you can consider it, contest it, debate it, celebrate it, refute it, ponder it … and so remember who you … well,we … are becoming.

So here is what we have heard: seven things.

One: We’re all on the same side.

This worries me a little.

I wonder how many of you participated in our ICETE Triennial in 2015.

In Turkey we debated whether the end results of theological education can be measured … should be measured … whether assessment is a cancer invading the sacred heart of what we do … or a necessary obedience to assure its fruitfulness.

As we pursued the argument, I felt as though my heart was being torn out. Every loud declaration seemed to require a qualification.  Every bold pass of the brush and its color felt like it could only be looked at if first seasoned with nuance … every point seemed like it could be debated, must be debated, and that the very debate of it was both essential for our survival as theological educators … and the potential seed of polarization among us who carry our vocation around like a birthmark.

The air, as I recall it, was thick with three words: ‘Well, yes, but …’

Not so the Secular-Sacred Divide.

Who is for it? Where are its partisans and cheerleaders and intellectual defenders?

Where are the desperate cries that something precious will be lost if we make the tragic misstep of actually preparing our students for the world outside, if we actually mold their lives to the calling that occupies them Monday through Saturday?

We all agree on this one, we’re all on the same side. We may need help with means, but the end, it would seem, is a blissful consensus.

History is over. Let’s just figure out our methods.

This worries me a little.

There is much to celebrate in this Hallelujah Choir of ours. Few among us will regret the demise of impassioned arguments about the priority of evangelism over social action … what was that? Who would hold up to an admiring light some of the evangelical escapism that abandoned our Abrahamic vocation in YHWH’s world in favor of lifeboat survival plans? That was a malady that has taken some of us decades to outgrow. Who could be found insisting that it really is a better and more important thing to be a preacher or a biblical scholar than an engineer or a nurse or a gardener?

As a veteran of the Antalya Listening Group, I can tell you that our gathering on one side of the matter here in Panama—at least our gathering there in theory— has changed the nature of our task this time around.  But more of that as we move ahead.

Now of course history has notended. We have much to learn and a world of challenges to face, methods to change, and opportunities to redeem.

We have so very much to discover, plenty of which to repent, and lifetimes or significant portions of them to invest in a world whose very fulness testifies to the Creator’s glory.

But let us not miss the small detail … or is it a very large one? … that nasty dragons hang out in places where we all think we agree.


Two: We (still) don’t integrate enough.

Maybe paradoxically, this was the point that was heard at highest volume by our Listening Group. It generated some very earnest self-criticism on your behalf.

As a community, we don’t believe in false dichotomies involving sacred and secular, yet we keep practicing them as though we do.

Here’s where I think the soul of the matter rests: we don’t need to be persuaded to integrate. We need to be shown how …to integrate.

This, I think, is why Ruth’s language of towers of power and eradication—and Ruth, you know I say this with great respect—fails to convince some of us. Those words sound us-and-them-ishwhen in fact our failings are internal and much regretted.  The enemy is not at the gates. He is in fact inside of us, as daughters and sons of cultures that are afflicted with false dichotomies that are, arguably, the very definition of ‘sin’.

So even though we heard that the topic of the Secular-Sacred Divide may not have had the legs to run well for the full four and a half days that were loaded into it … we detected a certain hunger for the kinds of ‘here’s how you could do it’ examplingthat came in some plenaries and not a few workshops.

Perhaps our truest prayer is this: Lord, we believe in bridging the SSD. Help our unbelief.

Three: Tell Us Why and How

Maybe this thirst for exampling explains why Gordon blew us away with his plenary address. Gordon spoke as a man in full discovery mode as he chronicled a kind of Gordonian break-out in Calgary.

If you’ll pardon a bit of rat-a-tat delivery,

  1. Learn how to preach for Monday morning.
  2. Develop the capacity to speak hope against the backdrop of lament.
  3. We witness to the in-breaking of the kingdom in word and deed.
  4. Learn how to navigate the political sphere // how to engage in principled compromise.
  5. When a society becomes more secularized, it becomes more and more polarized/fragmented. May we be known as peacemakers.
  6. We won’t be instruments of transformative change as long as we stay in our own spheres of theological and spiritual conviction. Let’s learn the skills of engaging ecumenism.

Then this: ‘Will we have the courage … will we be the Daniels and Esthers of our day?  … our students come to us riddled with fear … Yet we know that Christ sits on the throne of the universe …’

Gordon on faculty recruitment: ‘Will this person lower the anxiety level in our house?’

Somehow, Gordon’s talk struck us as … will you pardon me a bit of jargon … actionable data. We felt as though we could do that thing that Gordon said.

I still do, as I stand here.

This very morning, Terry’s slide ‘Can we Imagine Practical Solutions?’ is as provocative a slide as I have ever seen on a screen. I intend to take Terry’s paper back to Medellín, Colombia to an informal conversation circle that I shepherd along among a few colleagues on my patio.

This is not rocket science, it seems to me. Yet Terry’s presentation is fulsome with viable possibilities that seem to be very much within reach.


Four. Theology is an action formed in community for the sake of obedience.

Our Listening Group was about the most non-sloganish group of human beings you could imagine assembling. Still, we loved this phrase from Ruth’s community in Costa Rica.

The language helped us to register the fact that theology is directional. It is purposeful rather than simply there. It is dynamic rather than static. It is, as we have learned to observe under the tutelage of Chris Wright and others, missional.

Aligned with Ruth’s words, theology is a verb rather than a noun. Those of us whose souls naturally grin to Latin Americantunes will be reminded of Arjona’s ‘Jesús,hermanos míos,es verbo, no sustantivo.’ (translation: Jesus, my brothers is a verb not a noun.)

Furthermore, theology is communal property and communal activity.

Now a guy like me who eats caveats for breakfast is always going to battle to find an honored space for the individual scholarwho is jolted awake at 3:15 a.m. with an explanation for that particular Hebrew infinitive absolute right there where it seems never to have belonged …!

Yet the steady rhythm of theology as a community affair that we’ve heard … or at least we think we’ve heard … is essential to the wresting of the community’s faith and identity from clergy hands in those places—high church and very, very low—where it has too long been the property of our priests. And more importantly, since many of those priests will be happy to be relieved of their burden, this theology must be placed in the hands of the avocado salesman and the architect and the stay-at-home mother and the civil servant and the bright young philosophy student who plays the drums in church on Sundays.


Five: It takes grit.

We found encouragement somehow, in the prospect of steady advance towards the dismantling of the secular-sacred divide.

There were Mark & Ian, reminding us that overcoming SSD will take ‘determination and skill over many years’ … something like digging a really big canal in order to join two oceans in a country with a little land and a lot of water.

That had the ring of reality to it. It sounded like a long campaign we could commit to.

After Ian had used that delectable phrase about ‘inducing change in our students without starting a revolution’, an African brother leaned over to Listening Group member Evan Hunter and asked ‘What, can’t we have revolutions now?’ or words to that effect.

I suspect our Listening Group would agree with me that bridging theological education’s secular-sacred divide will require a revolution or two … but that most of the heavy lifting will be done by sheer grit. If this is so, then we may be more helpfully supported along our journey by our sages thanby our prophets. Terry Halliday’s superb—in fact, stirring—address this morning encourages this intuition.


Six: Marvin should pray more.

I feel like I should explain that I don’t actually mean that Marvin doesn’t pray enough. Even if I knew Marvin well enough to think that, I probably wouldn’t address it in this context.

What I refer to is that prayer… on Thursday morning. He thanked our Maker and Divine Blesser for all those foods … and all that human ingenuity … all that Common Grace.

Maybe this dot connects with the earlier one about needing examples and some hand-holding. When Marvin prayed like that, I felt that, ‘Hey, I could pray like that, too ….’.

It wouldn’t be in Italian and so the food parts wouldn’t sound nearly as good, but I could deploy the liturgical exercise of prayer as gratitude for God’s Monday-through-Sunday blessings … and my students, if they heard me pray like Marvin, could do that, too.

Maybe we’d win a small victory … Maybe the Lord would be elevated on the praises of his people … Maybe the sacred-secular divide would slip just a little bit into our history. Maybe the earth really is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.

And maybe it’s on the tip of our tongues to say so. To God. To each other. And to a sad and tired world.


Seven: Secularism is shot through with paradoxes.

I thought of my beautiful Christian brothers and sisters in the little Pennsylvania German community where I grew up, scared to death at losing what they would call ‘the Christian values that have sustained our nation’, when I heard … for example ….

  • a German-speaking Russian Mennonite say ‘secularism is a great blessing to the Free Churches …’
  • an Indian seminary principal say ‘In India, we always want a secular culture’.

Rooted in their context, my dear Pennsylvanian friends would have no idea what these two brothers were talking about …

So let us not imagine when we talk about secularism as self-conscious participants in a global church that we are agreeing with each other … at least not until we have had a good, long conversation sufficient to make ourselves understood.

Indeed, members of our Listening Group got a real charge out of hearing the stories of our brothers and sisters in exploration of the many facets of secularism … and of God’s presence with them in places where ‘secular’ is a many-splendored thing.

Sometimes, when the sacred has become life-denying, there is deep Providence in the secular.

Secularism is shot through with paradoxes.


What we didn’t hear …

Not what I have delivered myself of those seven things we’ve heard, our Listening Group has met the lion’s share of its obligations.

Yet it would be irresponsible to stop here, since some of our observations fit best into the category of things we did not hear. These are things we expected to hear, but in the course of our week together, our listening for them was met with silence.

Just two things, and then a concluding thought …


One: We didn’t hear adequate definitions of terms.

Over and over, I heard members of our Listening Group say that too many assumptions were being made about words like ‘secular’, ‘sacred’, and the ‘secular-sacred divide’.

It was almost as though the conference topic was pregnant with more than one baby, and the quintuplets all spilled out at the same time. There they were, squirming around and pooping on the carpet, and we were chasing them in circles without really ever catching up with any one of them.

For example …

  • Does ‘SSD’ refer to a regrettable retreat into a small and exclusive piety that denies the fullness of God’s world?
  • Or ought the reference lead us rather to strategizing about how to live in a world where Christian privilege is absent and the biblical saints that come most to mind are the Jeremiahs, the Esthers, and the Daniels?
  • Or is the enemy to be confronted a Western weed that has grown prolifically in the soil of non-western landscapes? One that makes it easy to regret the arrival of the missionary boots that carried the germ?
  • Or is a creation-denying dualism the problem, one that invites us to await the destruction of earth that is really little more than the stage upon which personal redemptive drama is rehearsed?
  • Or is secularism rather a malady that afflicts followers of Jesus in all places, but which takes a different form in each of them, a kind of rough approximation to ‘sin’ or to something like it?
  • Or is it more, as one Listening Group member suggested, that we’re simply not yet very good at reading our context(s)?
  • Or are we referring to our disappointment that the church in countries with lots of Christians is not having a greater impact on society in those places, many of which remain as corrupt and dehumanizing as ever?

Different speakers seemed to us to make their own assumptions about the topic at hand. We missed what might have been an orienting definition of terms at the outset.


Two: What about the Bible’s own secular-sacred divide?

Agreement and consensus can be a very beautiful thing indeed.

But ‘groupspeak’, if I may for a moment deploy that pejorative adjective in a community as beautiful as this one, always leads eventually to smug self-confidence.

So I wonder: On what flanks are we open to risks to which we are blind, particularly because the biblical witness itself is shot through with the categories of sacred and profane?

… and profane does not often mean ‘bad’, ‘evil’, or ‘ugly.’ It means ‘common’ and can mean ‘good’ … even those familiar words ‘the common good’.

One member wondered about the ingrained differentiating notion of biblical concepts like priesthood and of those ‘dedicated to ministering the Word of God’.

What does this biblical current aim to teach us about reality when it traffics in its own sacred-profane distinctions? And do we run any risks to ourselves and others by happily ‘moving beyond’ the possibility that such distinctions have any enduring pertinence for the people of God in our day?

You’ll understand that this is a question rather than an accusation. But it is a genuine question. We listened … but we didn’t hear anything about that.

It strikes me as something other than a fruitful silence. Perhaps it is one that begs filling up with careful deliberation.


Conclusion: What do the seraphim see?

For some years, I’ve been fascinated by Isaiah’s throne-room vision in chapter six of the book that bears his name.

In that vision, the Seraphim—thundering, burning figures who seem somehow to stand in as princes of Creation itself—cry endlessly together about a reality that is difficult to see in this torn, dark, thrusting world here below.

The Seraphim seem never to tire of declaring that Yahweh—whose supremacy their own greatness does not challenge—is Qadosh, Qadosh, Qadosh … Holy, Holy, Holy.

Then they say this of creation. ‘The whole earth is full of his glory.’

The problem is that it is not self-evident that the text actually says that. The Hebrew grammar and the syntax are strange. Although it taxes conventional understanding, it is more than possible that the second half of the Seraphims’ unending declaration is that ‘The fulness of the earth is his glory.’

In my opinion, this meaning would accord well with the long prophetic book’s juxtaposition of the glory of fulness, on the one hand, with the tragedy of disintegration and negation and emptiness, on the other…

Every flurry of biodiversity, every engineer’s fresh insight, every gardener’s loving touch of leaf and petal, every baby nursing at her mother’s breast, every student’s wide-eyed discovery, every geneticists’s pregnant intuition, every tree growing unobserved by human eyes to and through the canopy of a Panamanian rain forest, every Colombian vallenato, every life-giving hallway conversation, every lover’s sigh, every Onesimus’ principled subservience, every Monday-morning commute, every theologian’s response to Terry’s Macedonian Call, every …

Well, you get the picture.

‘Holy … Holy … Holy … the fulness of the earth is his glory.’

Maybe … just maybe … our flawed and awkward efforts at meaningful reflection this week … limping representatives of Jesus’ global church … have made the Seraphims’ creed a little less ludicrous … a little more plausible … a little more to be longed-for and made real here below … in word and in deed.

May it be so, dear ICETE family.

These are the things we think that we have heard.


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By way of his ambitious Living as the People of God (1983), Christopher Wright attempted61B2R7pA2mL._SY346_
to address the paucity of serious reflection on Old Testament ethics by providing ‘a comprehensive framework within which Old Testament ethics can be organized and understood.’ The intervening two decades between the book’s original publication and the 2004 updating of that work as Old Testament Ethics for the People of God had witnessed a florescence of writing on the topic. While the reawakening of popular and scholarly interest in Old Testament ethics is to be welcomed, no part of it lessens the value of Wright’s enduring ‘comprehensive framework’.

Wright has inherited from his mentor, the late John R.W. Stott, the knack for wrestling complexity into clarity without lurching into simplistic reductions. Already in the book’s introduction, we see evidence of this in Wright’s ‘ethical triangle’: 

God, Israel and the land—these were the three pillars of Israel’s worldview, the primary factors of their theology and ethics. We may conceptualize these as a triangle of relationships, each of which affected and interacted with both the others. So we can take each ‘corner’ of this triangle in turn and examine Old Testament ethical teaching from the theological angle (God), the social angle (Israel), and the economic angle (the land).

Wright apologizes, even if not fervently, for the absence of the individual that some readers will note in this schema. Yet in this reader’s estimation, that missing individual will show his or her face often enough in the pages that follow, particularly when one is poised at the ‘social angle’ corner of Wright’s admittedly artificial but nonetheless instructive triangle.

Wright alerts us that he intends to seek an underlying worldview, ‘a comprehensive set of assumptions that a person or culture make in order to answer several fundamental questions that face humans everywhere. Those questions will include “Where are we? … Who are we? … What’s gone wrong … and, What’s the solution?”.’



Wright begins, if not surprisingly then directionally, with the claim that Old Testament ethics ‘is fundamentally theological. That is, ethical issues are at every point related to God—to his character, his will, his actions and his purpose.’

Yet the ‘God’ in question is neither naively nor intentionally left undefined. The deity in question has a name (YHWH) and a character that involves constant divine initiative ‘in grace and redeeming action … This then becomes a matter of response and gratitude within a personal relationship, not of blind obedience to rules or adherence to timeless principles.’

Old Testament law is embedded in the story of YHWH’s interaction with his people Israel; indeed, ‘Israel’s response to the LORD is meant to be, in broad social terms, a mirroring of the LORD’s own actions toward Israel.’ Any abstraction of ‘law’ from this relational matrix is then a distortion, combatted as much by the Old Testament prophets as by the New Testament’s apostle Paul. Further, this YHWH who redeems also forgives and speaks. 

YHWH speaks and acts in the past, but he also promises to continue speaking and to act into the future, indeed to the end of time. In calling out these features of Old Testament ethics in the book’s earliest pages, Wright has hurled a corrective shot across the bow of most popular modern and post-modern understanding of biblical laws and ethics. To mix metaphors somewhat turbulently, he has established a dense relational matrix for all that he will say about law and ethics in pages that still await their turning:

Old Testament ethics, based on history and bound for renewed creation, is thus slung like a hammock between grace and glory.

  1. The Social Angle

Even if ethics begin with God, Wright argues, they do not flow ‘directly into the consciousness of individuals’, nor do they arrange themselves as a sequence of abstract principles. Rather, the God with whom such ethics originates chooses the messy, historical route of creating a people and then giving himself in relationship to them. Nor does God simply choose and redeem individuals. Wright describes a deity who is highly committed to a people-project, from the earliest days of Abraham’s calling:

In the structure as well as the theology of [Genesis 18.19], ethics stands as the middle term between election and mission. The distinctive ethical quality of life of the people of God (‘keeping the way of the LORD’, ‘doing righteousness and justice’) stands as the purpose of election on the one hand and the means to mission on the other. It is the fulcrum and heartbeat of the verse.

Wright is eloquent on Israel’s experience, purpose, and destiny. Exegeting Deuteronomy 4:32-40, he finds the passage pregnant with the unique experience of God’s revelation and redemption, the unique knowledge of the LORD, the unique responsibility to live in the midst of nations in a way that is constant with this experience and knowledge. Indeed, it is the author’s capacity to distill Old Testament ethical instruction into such dense and pithy arrangement without the reductionism that often accompanies the exercise that accounts for the surprising accessibility of the book.

Wright finds in the trajectory of Israelite ethics an insistent concern for the well-being of the most vulnerable rather than the opportunistic maximization of wealth. There is a corresponding strong resistance to the centralization of power, paired with a ‘preference for diverse and participatory politics, which tolerated—and indeed sought—the voice of criticism and opposition from the prophets, even if some of them paid a heavy price.’ The transition to monarchy was fraught, for the very reason that monarchy would tend to take its clues from the surrounding nations, where these foundation principles were not in play.

Wright wants us to regard the society and laws of Israel as a paradigm, for it is in this paradigmatic reading that we find the legacy of Old Testament ethics to be supple and responsive enough to allow us to envisage a society in which its foundational principles become or at least inform our own. Yet Israel is both particular and unique. How then can such paradigms relate to our own ambition to live in their light? Here Wright is at pains to demonstrate how paradigms can fruitfully work, with a few attendant cautions about how their use can fail. His claim is that a paradigmatic approach respects context and its idiosyncracies in a way that attempting to derive ‘principles’ too often does not. Wright argues that ‘the concept of paradigm includes the isolation and articulation of principles, but is not reducible to them alone.’ Indeed, even within the boundaries of the Old Testament, paradigmatic thinking is in evidence, not least in the frequent reflection that is found there upon the ongoing relevance of Israel’s foundational Exodus experience.

  1. The Economic Angle

It seems a native implulse of Wright’s anti-gnostic campaign (nowhere does the author call it this) that he should place strong emphasis on the social angle and then proceed without hesitation to the economic angle. His starting point, the theological angle, fuels rather than restrains movement in these directions. Wright is keen to push back against some Anglo-Saxon views of land, property, and money that would abstract these matters and so remove them from the relational context which Wright finds a matter of insistence in the biblical witness.

Indeed the notion of relationship is so central to biblical ethics in Wright’s portrayal that land functions ‘as a kind of covenantal thermometer—measuring Israel’s relationship with God at any one time.’ Here Wright’s argument leans hard against facile assumptions of a ‘land gift’ that is abstracted both from the relational matrix in which the land is assigned to Israel and the paradox of YHWH’s giving of a land to Israel even as it remains in important respects YHWH’s land.

In the biblical presentation, land is an item of great suspense. Because it is both God’s gift and subject to God’s ownership, it can be given and it can be taken back. And it can be promised in ways that do not remove the recipients of the promise from accountability for the way in which they take possession of and live within the land. Israel has no ‘natural, autochthonous claim to their land’:

So many of the detailed instructions of the law come into this category of responsibility in respect of the land, directly or indirectly, that is easily the most comprehensive of the ethical and theological principles governing the law. It is the belief that the LORD owns the land and demands accountability in the use of it from his tenants that generates the literal earthiness of Old Testament ethics. Nothing you can do in, on, or with the land is outside the sphere of God’s moral inspection. From major issues of the defense of the national territory down to how you prune your fruit trees, every area of life is included. Based on such a principle, so simply stated (the land belongs to the LORD), Old Testament ethics could be both comprehensive and yet deeply practical and particular. This, in turn, gives enormous paradigmatic power to this dimension of the Old Testament texts.

It is not difficult to see how a biblical theologian who comes to the matter of biblical prophecy by this path (an avenue, importantly, that reflects the Bible’s own general presentation of law, then prophecy) would find himself at odds with an unreflective ‘Christian Zionism’, which too easily misses the evident contingency of Old Testament treatment of the land. But this comment takes me well ahead of Wright’s argument.


  1. Ecology and the Earth

Turning to the fraught transition between Old Testament land theology and what these days (though not when Wright was writing this work) is called ‘creation care’, Wright discovers that the same twin themes that pervade Old Testament engagement with ‘the land’ also permeate its claims about the earth: divine ownership and divine gift.  Further, Wright’s paradigmatic approach opens the way to mapping the values of Old Testament ethics onto matters (such as the environment) that were not of obvious concern to its writers in a contact very different from our own.

Wright surveys a good creation that represents the product and artists of a good God. He glimpses as well that its purpose is good, no matter how we construct an understand of the death and decay that he assumes are hard-wired into creation rather than an unfortunate consequence of ‘the Fall’. This reader finds the goodness angle (supported without doubt by Wright’s insistence on viewing such things from a theological angle), in combination with his recognition of the Bible’s de-divinization of nature, to be solid, orienting, and even refreshing. Yet he pushes back against an extreme version of the de-divinization theory which would claim the Israel’s ‘desacralized’ nature to the point of rendering it an object to be harnessed for human benefit with no restricting strings attached. Because nature is treated by the Old Testament authors in its relationship to YHWH, there is room to allow something sacred in nature without claiming that it is divine.

Wright recognizes that science’s characteristic aversion to teleology drains creation of its sense of purpose. Scientism (rather than science) becomes deaf to what nature declares about its Maker and its consequent goodness in the past, in the present, and in those eschatological thoughts that it discloses about creation’s future.

When he turns to the role of humans within and as part of creation, Wright expertly teases out the biblical nuances of servant-kingship even as he tackles matters relating to man’s having been made ‘in the image of God’ and having been entrusted with ‘dominion’ over creation in a way that no non-human beings are so commissioned.

Wright has done his readers a service not only by offering us the content of this very fine chapter, but also by the surprising and as far as I can see unprecedented decision to place ‘ecology and the earth’ at the head of the ‘themes in Old Testament ethics’ that the book’s second of three chapters engage.

  1. Economics and the Poor

Neither will Wright loosen his grip on the theological lens when he turns to ‘Economics and the Poor’ in his fifth chapter. His opening lines subordinate non-theological economic calculation to what he considers to be a deeper truth, theological and inevitably economic:

(S)uch individual property rights, even when legitimate always remain subordinate to the prior right of all people to have access to, and use of, the resources of the earth. In other words ‘I (or we) own it’ is never a final answer in the economic moral argument. For, ultimately, God owns all things and I (or we) hold them only in trust. And God holds us answerable to himself for others who might have greater need of that which is in our possession.

Christian readers who are inclined to free-market logic—like this one—sit up straight at such words, wondering where they will lead.

In Wright’s hand, they lead to an argument for pragmatic (rather than ideological) arrangements that owe their flexibility to the author’s paradigmatic construction of ethical solutions based on the commitment of the biblical materials to equitable distribution, contingent ownership, the meaningfulness of work, the reality of the curse, the expectation of redemption, and then the maximal freedom that such prior commitments will allow to economic actors. 

Always, there is a careful leaning towards the biblical voice:

Biblical justice, however, goes beyond a calculus of rights and deserts. Because it is fundamentally relational it always blends into compassion for those who are vulnerable. So, in biblical economics, wealth that God has enabled us to produce must always be held and used with a compassionate heart and hand.

This chapter—the reader may weary of my repetition—repays repeated and careful reading, leaving this reviewer longing only for some words about how such a view of biblical economics should take the shapes of advocacy and realization within a democratic political process.

  1. The Land and Christian Ethics

Wright’s sixth chapter (‘The Land and Christian Ethics’) asks whether the threads of land theology, ecological perspectives and economic laws and institutions ‘can be drawn through into Christian ethics. What hermeneutical methods are available to enable us to use Old Testament teaching regarding the land within a Christian framework that is, of course, governed by the New Testament?’ The author’s response to this query takes note of paradigmatic, eschatological, and typological approaches, wishing to underscore that the three approaches are complementary rather than mutually exclusive. Indeed, he treats them almost as overlapping maps that can regularly be overlaid upon the same Old Testament ethical instruction.

Inevitably, Wright plunges into the ‘theology’ of that particular land which is among this earth’s most contested turf:

In one sense the land is almost completely absent from the New Testament. The physical territory of Palestine is nowhere referred to with any theological significance in the New Testament. The land as a holy place has ceased to have relevance. The vocabulary of blessing, holiness, promise, gift, inheritance and so on is never used of the territory inhabited by the Jewish people anywhere in the New Testament as it so frequently is in the Old. This is partly because the Christian churches rapidly spread beyond its borders to other lands throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. But much more importantly it is because the holiness of the land, and indeed all its other attributes in Old Testament thinking, was transferred to Christ himself. The spiritual presence of the living Christ sanctifies any place where believers are present.

However, far from comprising a doctrinaire supercessionism, this is where Wright’s approach becomes both subtle and eminently useful. That the land of Palestine becomes a kind of non-issue in the New Testament does not drain the matter of land of its theological significance, for it self-evidently was a matter of great and even theological significance in the Old Testament. Wright’s paradigmatic approach draws him back to the biblical material when land is in view and motivates him to seek the ‘ends’ of Old Testament land theology and to consider how the stewardship of land as an economic given today might move Christians to responsible and fruitful engagement with economic and environmental care. For these reasons, Wright exhibits a reticence toward the language of ‘replacement theology’ and a preference for the vocabulary of ‘extension’ or ‘fulfillment’ theology. Neither Marcion nor the Docetists will not be found stalking these pages.

Along the way, Wright deconstructs airy notions of ‘fellowship’, which he replaces with a definition that finds concrete socio-economic content in this New Testament notion of shared life.

Wright wants his readers to experience his paradigmatic approach producing useful principles, while the typological and eschatological methods make ethical thought and action to be matters of promise. He sketches a matrix of human activity with which God participates and interferes transcendently in the drawing forward of history towards divine ends and outcomes. Aware that his audience may need to see these three overlapping approaches in action, Wright provides an extensive discourses on how the Old Testament Jubilee—as the subject of a case study—might fare in Christian hands.

  1. Politics and the Nations

In ‘Politics and the Nations’, Wright seeks to rehabilitate the political from the marginal or even despised slice of modern Christian attention that it often occupies. His argument quickly becomes both covenantal and trinitarian, as one would expect from a Christian biblical theologian, even if that expectation is in the hands of some such writers one that is disappointed. Wright probes the expected Genesis texts and finds in them both demographic plurality and divine intentionality vis-à-vis not only Israel but also ‘the nations’. The author’s treatment here is not highly original and yet it loses no value for that reason, since Wright’s argument rehearses solid ‘evangelical’ biblical theology that has with dazzling uniformity failed to impact popular Christian conscience, at least in the West in the first quarter of the twenty-first century.

In this chapter, Wright lives by his own rules, for he has insisted that the Christian reader of the (largely Pentateuchal and Deuteronomistic) texts that he tackles here must take history seriously. And he does so. When he graduates into Israel’s struggle with and in exile and post-exilic restoration, Wright’s argument remains nuanced and respectful of the vexing circumstances from which the biblical literature emerged. Everywhere there is light cast into the shadows of modern Christian dealing with (or failure to deal with) political understanding and engagement in a world of many nations in which no Israelite or Christian theocracy exists. His paradigmatic approach, though he uses the terminology less here than heretofore, finds a diversity of models of the state and yet seeks a norm that can at the very least enlighten and orient our own sometimes puzzling thrusts at political responsibility in a context where reading prescriptions off the biblical page has no hope of success.

  1. Justice and Righteousness

Wrights discussion of ‘justice’ in his eight chapter (‘Justice and Righteousness’) place the matter not simply within the context of instruction for the good society but also at the very core of creation itself. If justice were to perish, Wright avers on behalf of the biblical witness, the very foundations of creation would crumble. Yet ‘righteousness’ in common discourse often sounds out a kind of good behavior in the abstract. Wright reminds us that justice and righteous very frequently occur together, forming ‘a simple complex idea expressed through the use of two words’. As he leads us through the linguistic map upon which this complex notion finds its native terrain, Wright is still pressing us into the concrete historical reality of Old Testament ethics. He has few harsh words for those who approach ethical principles as abstractions, but he clearly has no stomach for this way of taking up matters that for him are somehow earthier than all that.

Like an investor diversifying his ‘puts’, Wright scans the multiple genres of the Old Testament in a way that demonstrates that the priority which the entire corpus places on justice depends on no small cluster of isolated verses. Just as before but even more so—if one may put things in this way—Wright demonstrates that justice is so near to the core of the Lord’s persona that all that he creates must certainly be infused but and all upon whom he places responsibility must surely be commanded and shaped by justice. Israel knew this to be true, at least in her better moments, and Wright’s recurrent ‘leap(s) to universality’ demonstrate that the author believes the claims of justice to be incumbent upon modern human beings and the institutions and aggregations they create as well.

Eloquently closing the chapter with a reflection upon Psalm 33, Wright nearly sings and so I shall allow him to bellow on here at some length:

The final word, however, must go to those great forgers of the faith of Israel—their worship songwriters. For it is indeed in the Psalms that we find this great, heart-bursting anticipation of the LORD as the God who comes. And the fact that God is going, inexorably coming, is a summons to rejoicing and praise, not only among his people, but throughout all the earth, and indeed in all creation. Why? Why is it a matter of cosmic rejoicing that God is coming?

Because when God comes, things will be put right. God comes to judge—in the authentic Old Testament sense of that word—to right wrongs, destroy wickedness, vindicate the righteous and finally establish justice, right relationships between God and people, among people, and between people and the created order.

No wonder then, that the whole of creation is invited to join the song of joy. This again, like Psalm 33, is a world-transforming vision, setting before the faith-imagination of the worshipper not a dream of what might be but a vision of what will be. And this future is such a reality even now to the eyes of faith that it can be celebrated in advance, and proclaimed to the nations as the good news of the kingdom of God. For this is what it will be like when God, YHWH, the biblical LORD GOD, finally establishes his reign …’.

  1. Law and the Legal System

In ‘Law and the Legal System’ (chapter 9), Wright begins helpfully by noting the ‘paeans of praise’ of the law of which Psalm 19 is a parade example. People who could talk like that, indeed sing in that way, were not groaning under a burden of legalism, as too much Protestant reading of Paul might suggest. Rather …

Holiness is … a way of being: a way of being with God in covenant relationship, a way of being like God in clean and wholesome living, a way of being God’s people in the midst of an unholy and unclean world. Preserving that holy cleanness among God’s people—ritually, morally, physically, socially, symbolically—is the primary thrust of the laws in the book of Leviticus.

If Wright’s reference is narrowly to Leviticus in the section just quoted, he walks the reader of this chapter through the major sections and the sub-genres of law in the Old Testament. Wright eases us away from rigid and superficial readings of biblical law as monochromatic, nothing for example as he surveys ‘family-focused justice’ the ‘fluidity between families acting to administer justice and public authorities acting to do so.

In my judgment, the care with which Wright treats pluriform legal instruction and prescription in its lived context paves the way for his rather extensive treatment of how we can read such material paradigmatically with a view towards nourishing the good life in our own legally needy moment(s) without overlooking ‘the prior necessity of experiencing God’s grace, redemptive or restorative, if genuine social justice is to be established, maintained, or restored.’

  1. Culture and family

In ‘Culture and family’ (chapter 10), Wright dares to cross the minefield involving distinctives that marked Israelite ways and means off from those of the cultural milieu in which they lived, moved, and had their being. He finds a spectrum of Israelite views about the established practice of other peoples. They range from ‘rejection and prohibition’ to ‘qualified toleration’; examples (e.g. idolatry, child sacrifice, divorce, polygamy, slavery) are provided for each, with the corresponding nuances.

Curiously, but with crescendoing plausibility as one advances in this chapter, Wright is on his way to speak of the centrality of the family in Israelite society and life:

So deeply embedded is the family in Israel’s covenantal self-understanding and socioreligious practice that Waldemar Janzen argues that what he calls ‘The Familial Paradigm’ was the dominant motif in the ethical consciousness of Israel. From a variety of narratives (which he regards as of equal, if not greater, importance to Torah laws) he lists the major components of the familial paradigm as the gift, continuance and enhancement of life; the possession of land, as the prerequisite of familial viability; and the ethical imperative of hospitality—especially to those beyond the kinship boundaries.

Having placed family as the core context of Israelite shared life and perhaps suggested that here lies one of the critical distinctives of the nation in its milieu, Wright gives us an extended treatment of the family’s ups and downs in the Old Testament materials, followed by a rather extended ‘application’ (the word now sounds thin and insufficient) for the Christian believer of (a) the nuanced view of surrounding practices as was earlier discussed in Israelite terms and (b) the ways (plural) in which family does, can, or should figure paradigmatically at the core of Christian life and purpose.

  1. The Way of the Individual

Wright purposely begins with communitarian ethics, then in time narrows the lines of the conversation to the individual. The sequence is representative of his understanding of what biblical ethics pretends to be:

Now if that is the kind of society God wants, this is the kind of person you must be if you belong to it. Individual ethics are thus derived from the theology of the redeemed people of God. Put another way, individual ethics in the Old Testament, just as much as social ethics, are covenantal. The covenant was established between God and Israel as a people, but its moral implications affected every person with it.

It doesn’t require an extremely discerning reader to guess that Wright will display an aversion to ethics that are thin and arbitrary in terms of individual conduct. That is, he’ll want us to know why the way we behave serves the construction of a shalom-infused community rather than simply ‘how a Christian is supposed to act’.

Yet it is possible—indeed, trendy—to allow community-speak to crowd out the rigorous demands that biblical ethics place upon that individual. Wright avoids doing so, in part by leveraging the conventional observation that Deuteronomic mandate oscillates between the plural and the singular, that is, the community and the individual. It seems as though the author senses that correct ‘balance’—if that is the proper word—will emerge as readers see with acuity how demanding even grace-based covenantal ethics are on both the community and its enveloped individuals. And this awareness flourishes best when it is nourished by worship, another communitarian practice that shapes its constituent individuals.


  1. A Survey of Historical Approaches

In a chapter that some authors might have placed at the outset of a work like this, Wright borrows Richard Longenecker’s three-part typology of Christian engagement with Old Testament law and ethics via ‘Marcionite’, ‘Alexandrian’, and ‘Antiochene’ categories. These three inclinations recur throughout the history of Christian thought and practice. Wright works not only through the usual suspects who appear in similar conventional lineups but also engages more recent phenomena such as dispensationalism, theogony, Messianic Judaism, and the UK’s Jubilee Centre.

  1. Contemporary Scholarship: A Bibliographical Essay

A thirteenth chapter surveys some three dozen contributors to the literature on Old Testament Ethics in the quarter century since the work was first published. Wright is methodologically generous in not apply a theological filter in selecting the cadre of contemporary scholars he deems worthy of note.

  1. Hermeneutics and Authority in Old Testament Ethics

In his final chapter, Wright tackles the vexed hermeneutical problems inherent in any effort to find normative guidance from the Old Testament. He sketches a three-stage task, the first of which is to ‘get there’; that is, ‘to project ourselves by some means into the world of Israel of the Old Testament, and to ask ethical questions of the environment we find ourselves in.’

If that is possible, then we must ‘get back from there’; that is, ‘to ask how we in our world should respond to what we have been confronted with in our exploration of the biblical world.’

Finally, ‘we shall have to have to answer the question as to whether and how anything we bring back from the world of ] Old Testament Israel carries ethical authority in our own day.

Clearly, the fact that Wright has produced a work of Old Testament ethics of this girth does not suggest that he believes that task is facile or suitable for the faint of heart. Nor is this evangelical writer inclined to perform his craft behind ideological wall that shield him from the inconvenient questions of those who do not approach matters from his theological stance. The questions of authority and relevance are never far from hand in this extended and, one might say, cautiously bold essay. 

An excursus asks ‘What about the Canaanites?’, a question about violence so notorious that one cannot avoid it and must ask it even when many other ethical conundrums can await their turn in silence.

Wright places the Israelite conquest of the Canaanites within the restricted dimensions and ethical context in which the biblical texts present it, then argues that YHWH’s final purpose of blessing all nations does not eradicate judgement, specifically that judgment by which he ‘harnesses unfairness’ (Goldingay) for eventual justice. He notes as well that Israel is threatened with similar judgement should her injustice reach Canaanite proportions.

An extensive bibliography draws the book to its conclusion.

As I prepare to post this review of Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, I am currently teaching a course in biblical theology at the Biblical Seminary of Colombia, where it is my privilege to teach. I have taken the slightly adventurous step of deploying the Spanish translation of Wright’s more recent and better-selling The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative as the core text for our semestral ruminations. As emerging Colombian leaders join me in wrestling these more than 700 pages into subservience, I cannot help but observe the genetic relationship between Wright’s older Ethics and the recent Mission of God.

In both, motivated readers will find the kind of integration between academic rigor and pastoral-missional concern that has become this prolific author’s signature. Only on the rarest occasion does one sniff suspiciously that Wright may be engaging in a bit of reductionism in order to bolster a hobby-esque topic. Rather, Wright takes his time from the beginning to the end of a chapter, counting on the interest and tenacity of his reader without any evident need to show his scholarly back-office work more than the matter at hand requires.

It might be argued that Old Testament Ethics for the People of God engages early 21st-century readers regarding two of their children who are among others most easily abandoned: the Old Testament, on one hand, and theologically grounded ethics on the other.

This book is strong medicine, likely to be taken at its intended dose only by those who most genuinely fear the disease it battles and most robustly celebrate the health and strength that it heralds as God’s good gift to God’s missional people on God’s good earth.

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Servicio religioso FUSBC, 26 julio, 2018


¡Qué profundas son las riquezas de la sabiduría y del conocimiento de Dios! ¡Qué indescifrables sus juicios e impenetrables sus caminos! (Nuestra amiga la Reina Valera ofrece una alternativa a esta última exclamación del apóstol: ‘¡Cuán insondables son sus juicios e inescrutables sus caminos!’) «¿Quién ha conocido la mente del Señor, o quién ha sido su consejero?» «¿Quién le ha dado primero a Dios, para que luego Dios le pague?» Porque todas las cosas proceden de él, y existen por él y para él. ¡A él sea la gloria por siempre! Amén.

(Romanos 11:33–36 NVI)

    *       *       *

Pareciera que la realidad y el dialecto de la Biblia Hebrea cobran mucha fuerza en la vida del apóstol Pablo. Lo digo porque, a la luz de su experiencia de Cristo, él apóstol no puede sino replicar la cadencia poética de tantos brotes de alabanza que él conoce a partir de esos rollos antiguos.

¡Qué indescifrables sus juicios e impenetrables sus caminos! … dice con paralelismo hebreo a pesar de estar escribiendo en griego … ¡Cuán insondables—sabroso el vocablo … ¡Cuán insondables son sus juicios e inescrutables sus caminos!

Y, sin embargo, aquí estamos … estudiantes, profesores, administradores de un seminario bíblico, donde semana en semana … asignatura en asignatura … a lo largo de nueve semestres (o diez … u once …) sudamos precisamente para sondar sus juicios y sujetar sus caminos a nuestro escrutinio. (more…)

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There is one in every class.

In my experience, this student is almost always a man, a slightly needy eagerness written across his face from the first minute. His name might be Carlos. Or Abdel. Or Phil.

He talks a lot. Too much, to be honest.

His hand is darting upwards in the middle of too many of my sentences as I try to craft the class, to shepherd a cohort of minds in the same conceptual direction, to establish an environment in which contributions from all parties are welcomed, even expected.

Nervous looks become meaningful glances as Carlos, or Abdel, or Phil speaks up for a third time and a fourth. Then we lose count.

There is a strong argument, advanced most firmly by this student’s fellow students, for shutting him down in the interest of the entire class. The learning experience of all, after all, outweighs the needs of the one to be heard, even to curry favor from the prof.

They have a point. I feel it deeply as Carlos, Abdel, or Phil unconsciously steers the class towards being his own session of self-esteem therapy.

Still, I choose gentle persuasion rather than pulling rank, no matter how just and community-minded the latter approach might sound.

Let me explain.

Carlos makes up his comment as he goes along, not sure at the beginning what he intends to say. Abdel is regularly hindered by a poor upbringing, sometimes involving an absent or belittling father. Phil is a tortured soul, needing someone—it’s even better if a captive audience is listening in—to tell him that he’s doing well, that he’s insightful, that he’s just asked a great question.

But here’s the thing: These guys and their future are not defined by who they are today, in my classroom. In our classroom. They are on their way to something else.

Sometimes it’s a remarkable good place. Even a fruitful place, from which we will be hard pressed to recall the immaturity that is awkwardly evident in my classroom—in our classroom—today.

I’m betting on that future, or at least on allowing it a space to take shape.

This means I’ll pay the political cost in our little class of directing Carlos gently towards an appropriate participation rather than shutting him down, even at the cost of optimal classroom dynamics.

It’s a moment, as I see it, for professorial humility. If that’s a thing.

I take some courage from the apostle Paul’s instructions to the Christian community at Ephesus, which—we might wager—had its own awkward members.

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1–3 ESV)

I don’t mean to trump all push-back against my classroom logic by quoting Scripture. I just think the shoe fits.

Because, over the decades of teaching and learning—the walls of which are spattered with some spectacularly boring failures and a small, bread-crumbed trail of minor successes—I’ve watched a knot of former students to which Carlos, Abdel, and Phil belong grow into life-long friends, thoughtful writers, and respected leaders.

Who knew?

So I discipline myself, or try to do so, to deal gently with these needy men who could take my best-laid classroom plans with them into a roadside ditch. As best as this sometimes self-absorbed old professor can, I bear with them in love. I see them as they might become, rather than as they quite painfully are.

I risk the class. Indeed, I place their fellow students’ experience at some degree of calculated risk, on that hunch that it may just be worth it.

Someday, Abdel may be in my church’s pulpit, week on week shaping the heart and mind of a community whose weal and woe are my business. I may be devouring every incisive word that Carlos writes. Pastor Phil may stand at my hospital bedside, a steadying presence as my weakening pulse tells family and friends that goodbyes are imminent.

No one will remember, then, their unpromising start.

You never know.


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Some thoughts offered to the students of the Honors College at LeTorneau University, 23 February 2017

My wife Karen is studying Spanish, because we’re moving to Colombia in a little bit. She spreads out her grammar books on the table, asks me to explain to her one more time about the difference between a direct and an indirect object, fires up Duolingo on the computer, and declares truths to her laptop like ‘My little dog eats food’ and ‘I am a horse’ with incredible emphasis. I chisel away silently at my work in the next room.

Then she starts her two-hour classes via Skype with Magdalena, her wonderful Spanish teacher in Colombia. Karen turns up the volume on her laptop and—again—speaks at Magdalena on her computer screen with an overflowing passion. Things like …

¡Yo vivo en una casa! (I live in a house!)

¡Yo tengo un esposo! (I have a husband!)

¡Él se llama David! (His name is Dave!)

¡Él también vive en una casa! (He also lives in a house!)

She follows this up with a number of additional transcendent truths, which she speaks with world-changing fervor as though the survival of our human race depended upon these things.

Then, when it’s all over, and Karen and Magdalena have exchanged all the small-talk that the minuscule command of the other’s language that each of these magnificent women manages will allow, my wife closes her laptop and pads into the room where I’m working.

As the kind of attentive husband about whom entire books are written, I ask …

So how did it go?

She always feels like she’s failing …

Because she is.

Let me explain.

But before I do … and some of you are saying to yourselves, How can he talk about his wife that way …?, let me tell you about my friend Matt.

Matt is my personal trainer at the YMCA. When I mentioned to Dr. Liebengood that I might bring this up in my talk, he said to me with that straight face of his and that boyish twinkle in his eye, ‘Oh, Dave … please don’t tell them you work out … you’ll lose all credibility right up front …’

Matt is a hulking, scowling, personal-training phenomenon. I drag myself into the YMCA at regular intervals and submit to Matt’s training regimen. More accurately, I go in there for my ritual butt-kicking. Matt’s favorite lines are …

Shall we put a little more weight on that … ? GOOD! … 5 pounds or 10?

In spite of the torment, Matt has become my friend, though I alternately love him and loathe him as he forces me to do more than I know I can do.

When I was getting used to Matt’s method, I was frustrated that I could never seem to finish the third of three sets on any given lift. I would actually say to Matt, just after he’d kept some brain-crushing amount of weight from falling on my skull or merely—in less extreme cases—taking out all my teeth …

Sorry …

‘Cuz I thought I was supposed to finish all three sets. I mean, What else was I supposed to think?

Then my youngest son came home from the Army for a break and we went to the Y to ‘lift’ together. Now Johnny is also a hulking, speeding, athletic phenomenon. It is my peculiar late-middle-aged torture to be surrounded by such people. Dr. Liebengood was actually Johnny’s youth group leader when he was a young teenager but—happily—my son was able to get on with his life without obvious signs of irremediable damage.

Somewhere along the line John explained to me that working the weights is all about failing. In fact, you ‘work to failure’. It actually has a name!

It’s the only way you can advance. The spotter is there to spot precisely because you’re expected to fail. I had thought the spotter was like a guardrail, just there for safety in the unlikely event that you ran off the road. But you’re actually supposed to need your spotter because you will fail. Your spotter is a normal part of the process, not a margin of safety against the abnormal. Failure is what you work towards, because it’s how you get stronger. It’s the whole point. If you don’t fail, you remain a wimp for life and your survivors write on your tombstone …

‘He was a nice guy, I guess, but what a wimp …’

Just a word about Karen and her Spanish learning: Evaluators of language learning push the student to the point of Linguistic Collapse.

I’m not kidding you. It’s really a thing, and that’s what they call it. It’s a freakin’ technical term. The only reliable way for them to assess how much you’ve achieved is to push you to your point of failure. Then they say, ‘Well done. You’re proficient to level A or B’, or whatever it happens to be.

Do you see my point? Nearly all worthy human pursuits require that we become accustomed to failing … even to failing regularly.

Dr. Liebengood might well remark that I’ve become particularly adept at failing, which may explain his strange invitation to come out to LeTorneau and talk with all of you about this topic.

You know what’s extraordinary about this?

Loads of people spend their whole lives working as hard as they can never to fail.

They never dare to dream big. They never imagine things that are not.

They do small things in small ways over and over and, as a result, they become little people.

They never say what they really think. Or they always say what they really think. But, either way, they never enter that dangerous space of actually engaging human beings and shaping the future.

In times when we are all desperate for someone to step up and lead, they never do.

You know why?

Because they might fail!

Well of course they’ll fail. And so will you. And, if you fail on the path to becoming stronger, then as our Australian friends would say, ‘Good onya!’

Because, especially if you ever want to lead anything or anybody, failure is an option. In fact, it’s a requirement. You’d all better get real good at it. It’s often the only evidence that you’ve wisely engaged challenges that are bigger than you are.

And that’s the only way to live.

I’ve done my share of failing, that’s for sure. And here are some things, humbly offered to you today, that I think I’ve learned from my penchant for failing.


For years, I’ve actually had these three words on a StickyNote on the screen of my laptop so that I’ll see them all the time.

You know why? Because I love to look away.

I usually feel that I want to run from interpersonal conflict, financial shortfalls, underperforming colleagues, political differences, difficult conversations, etc. I am fully in touch with my Inner Coward. Looking Away is my most authentic impulse. It comes from deep within. It requires no encouragement to take control of a situation and quickly resolve it. I am never truer to myself than when I am looking away.

I can tell you that I have done damage to organizations I’ve led and to the human beings within them by Looking Away. It’s one of the ways I’ve failed, mostly because I have not summoned the strength to look the problem square in the eyes and hold it in my gaze until it’s dealt with and put behind us.

One of my all-time favorite movie moments happens in the film Apollo 13. Maybe you remember it.

The Apollo 13 crew never made it to the moon because of that explosion in their craft as they were headed in that direction. Long story short, they and the people down at Mission Control in Houston had to improvise a way to bring them home. Gene Kranz is the storied director of the White Team that worked one of the long shifts at Mission Control during the entire Apollo 13 mission. Kranz orders up a box of all the objects and implements that the astronauts on the stricken craft have available to them. Then he gathers his team leaders in a work room, dumps the box out on a table, and tells them ‘This is what we have to work with. Let’s find a solution.’

All hell breaks lose in that room. Up above, the spacecraft is breaking up. The three astronauts seem sure to die. The sky is falling. People are yelling, arguing, despairing, spinning their wheels.

Kranz (played by Ed Harris) says these phenomenal words:

Let’s work the problem, people.

Everyone calms down and begins to do just that. And somehow, almost unbelievably—except that it really happened—they get those three guys home.

That’s what leaders learn how to do: look unforgivingly at what is real and true, and work the problem in that environment and not in some other more pleasant environment that they can imagine.

Leaders don’t get there overnight. At least I haven’t.

But I’ve learned this from failing: When difficulty strikes, Don’t you dare look away.


I want to read to you a passage from Rowan Williams’ recently published book, Being Disciples, that I find quite powerful. Williams was the until just a few years ago the Archbishop of Canterbury, and therefore the head of the worldwide Anglican community. He’s now the Master of Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge, an institution to which Dr. Liebengood was not offered admission.

Williams writes that being a disciple of Jesus Christ is at its core a matter of awareness. It’s a matter of being able to pause prayerfully and attentively in the midst of the chaos and ask …

What is God doing right here, right now?

It’s a kind of contextual awareness that only comes with full engagement and usually with the accumulation of years and wisdom.

Rowan Williams combines this awareness with expectancy. This what he writes:

And for us today, trying to be Christ’s disciples, awareness and expectancy are still central. We are not precisely where those first disciples were. We are post-resurrection believers and we ought to understand a little more than Christ’s first disciples in the gospels did. In theory at least. We have the Holy Spirit to direct and inform, to energize our awareness, to kindle our expectancy. Like those first disciples, we look as well as listen. We watch with expectancy the world in which live. We listen for the word to come alive for us in scripture. We look at the great self-identifying actions of the Church in the sacraments, asking the Spirit to make the connection come alive.

But not only that; we look at one another as Christians with expectancy—an aspect of discipleship that is not aways easy to hold to. Yet it can’t be said too often, the first thing we ought to think of when we are in the presence of another Christian individual or Christian community is: what is Christ giving me through this person, this group? Given that we may not always see eye to eye with other Christians we mix with, that can be hard work (and no doubt it’s at least equally hard work for them looking at us). Nonetheless, Jesus has brought us together precisely so that we approach one another with that degree of expectancy. It doesn’t mean that you will agree with everything the other Christian says; simply that you begin by asking, ‘What is Jesus Christ giving me here and now?’ Never mind the politics, the hidden agenda, or anything else of that kind, just ask that question and it will move you forward a tiny bit in discipleship. Can we live in a Church characterized by expectancy towards one another of that kind? It would be a very deeply biblical  and gospel-shaped experience of the Church if we could.

I love that: awareness and expectancy.

I am learning through failing at leadership and—more generally—through the ongoing process of maturing in leadership, that these qualities of discipleship require the discipline of making eye contact. You really need to engage with your world and with other human beings and with other Christians in a way that subjugates the tyranny of the urgent as well as your passion for your own projects in order to receive from the world and from those around you all that Jesus Christ has to give to you through them.

May I get a little practical?

I have the bad habit of waking up in the morning dreading some of the encounters that are on my schedule for that day. I’ve discovered that many bad habits respond to early prayer, and this is one of them. I try to discipline my heart and mind to begin the day by thanking God for what this person and that person and my 3:30 appointment will bring to me … that is, what Jesus Christ will give to me through that person. Sometimes I know a confrontation is brewing. Sometimes I know the conversation is unlikely to be aesthetically pleasing. But I am learning that in almost every encounter of that kind, if I truly make eye contact and engage, there is a gift for me waiting to be received.

I am learning to live and to lead with awareness and expectancy. This has taken me a long time, and I can’t say I’m very far across the border on this one.

Leaders who make eye contact are too scarce in our world. Our culture prizes the powerful man or woman who is capable of imposing his or her will on others and, in those venerable words that are our culture’s own Scripture, getting things done.

Such leaders are seldom loved and their output often fails to endure.

It is, rather, leaders who make eye contact who shift our world in one direction or another in enduring ways that become part of the fabric of our shared life.

I dare to hope that among you there are some leaders like that.


You have come of age in a pragmatic culture that insists on measuring the Return on Investment (ROI) of everything you choose to do and then on predicting what will be worthwhile for you based on those measures.

While you swim in that tsunami of culture-based instruction, let me be for the moment a lonely voice with a different message. I happen to think it’s good news.

I’ll abbreviate it in this way:

Nothing gets wasted.

Now like all attempts to cram truth into an aphorism, this one can be exaggerated and even misdirected until it means the opposite of what I want to communicate. So let me unpack those three words—nothing gets wasted—just a little.

If you engage God’s world with zest and curiosity and delight and discipline, you will be amazed at how much of what you learn comes round to help you out in practical ways when you least expect it. I can’t explain why this should be, other than to say that I suspect the Lord of Creation honors our honoring of his world by making it pay off in ways we could not predict. That’s a theological hunch, but I stand by it.

Now why do I say that this claim comes from a lonely voice?

Because a whole generation of self-designated experts on what education is for will tell you that, especially as adult learners, you know exactly what you want to learn and that what you want to learn is what you should learn.

I beg to differ.

I don’t think we know what we should learn. I think that biblical wisdom and popular wisdom and grandparents and Great Books curricula and professors of Latin and math teachers and great magazines (The Atlantic, First Things, The Economist, the late, great Books & Culture …), and all sorts of other sources know that there are things we would never pursue if left to our own devices because the frontiers where our ignorance meets the world are simply unmarked.

A quick decision that ‘I don’t need to learn that!—sometimes articulated with dangerous arrogance as ‘What do I need to learn that for?!’—very easily cuts off our organic development as human beings who lead.

And, please, may I beg you to avoid one stupid statement that you will be tempted to make in your first five years out of LeTorneau University?:

They never taught me how to do this at LeTorneau!

The statement assumes that this university’s job is to teach you how to face every challenge that you will confront five, ten, and thirty years down the road. No competent educator at LeTorneau would ever buy that vision for this school.

Nor should you.

The principal reason for universities like this one is to shape you as a human being who will continue to learn through what may well be a turbulent lifetime with vigor, discipline, and delight.

Now if this all sounds very earnest and maybe a little harsh, let me turn myself around and engage this matter from a different direction, a positive direction:

For some bizarre reason, almost nothing gets wasted.

If you truly learn, if you expose your heart and mind to areas of human endeavor that may or may not hold intrinsic interest for you, I promise you—I’m way out on a limb here, but aware of my environs—that almost every bit of it will come back around to you as a gift or a tool.

Your math class will give you entree into a conversation with a businessman with whom you are seeking common cause. You probings at psychology will provide you a place to stand when a friend has entrusted to you that she has thoughts of taking her own life. Your Latin class will set you up for a life of delighting in the sheer, extraordinary gift of words. Your summers spent scraping out the bottom of industrial barrels will mean you’ll never underestimate the battle of a 61-year-old working man who has only ever done that.

Your encounters with your own ignorance, your own crossing of cultural boundaries will help you feel … help you actually feel … something of what it means to be an immigrant or a refugee in a land as strange as this land. Your memorization of Scripture—sure, you could just look it up on your smartphone—will provide you with a reservoir of reality that bubbles up from inside you by day and by night.

And so on … and so forth … for a lifetime.

It’s the strangest thing:

Nothing gets wasted.

And, frankly, no one wants to be led by somebody who has only ever learned one thing, somebody who only knows one thing.

I don’t. You don’t. Nobody does.

The world is full of people who only know … one thing … people who never imagined that nothing gets wasted. People who are deeply, sadly un-curious.

I have had to lead some of them. You will have to lead some of your own.

But you don’t have to be one.

So don’t test out of that math test if you’re borderline on numbers. Sign up for Latin. Take that literature elective. Learn how to lay bricks or plant trees or fix a Harley.

Then when you fail at leadership, as you will, you’ll have all manner of resources to sustain your heart and your mind as you bounce back. You’ll be a happier person,  a less cynical person, too.


Speaking of bouncing back … I’d like to talk with you about being resilient.

You’re going to need to be resilient.

Failing profitably at leadership only happens when the leader himself or herself is resilient.

The important thing is not really how badly you feel on the day …

√ you bomb that exam.

√ your students hate you.

√ your business goes bankrupt.

√ your board of directors beats you up.

√ your employer lays you off.

√ your spouse walks out on you.

What really matters is who you are the next morning.

I think I’ve learned this over the years, and I hope you’ll hear me out on it.

I’m almost tempted to say, in the light of the provocative title I’ve forced upon you today, that resilience is everything. I won’t say it, because it would be an exaggeration. But not a very big exaggeration. It would almost be true. Resilience really is almost everything.

For those of us who attempt to engage life from the angle of faith in Jesus Christ, resilience is the power of God in us. The Scriptures teach us that God is strong and that he does not hoard his strength, but apportions it to us. More often than not, I have become convinced, we experience God’s strength as what we would call resilience.

We are often knocked down: Karen speaks all the Spanish she knows and cannot come out with another word. I flame out half-way through the third set of Matt’s training regimen. Or much harder blows than these are landed upon is. It almost crushes us, but somehow it does not crush us.

We bounce back. We face another day. We wake up stronger. We re-enter the arena.

I once gave a back-of-the-envelope talk to a group of South Asian pastors on this very topic. I called it ‘9 things I’ve learned about resilience’.

This is what I shared with them:

  1. Resilience does not require super-human strength.
  2. Resilience is a symptom of God’s own strength in us.
  3. We can train ourselves to expect resilience.
  4. Resilience comes in small doses.
  5. The night-time must precede the morning.
  6. We don’t always need to ‘show our work’.
  7. Worship postures us for resilience.
  8. People will mistake resilience for high spirituality, special strength, or immunity to pain.
  9. It’s not smart to tempt resilience.

As I look back on that somewhat impromptu talk from the angle of today’s topic, I think I learned those things by failing at leadership. By exhausting my own capacity over and over again, by suffering deep loss and then coming back the next day to start over.

I hope you have become resilient, too. Or, if you have not, that you will.


When you lead, you translate 24/7. The non-leader has the luxury of speaking in, listening in, and mastering a single dialect, a single way of speaking, a single way of thinking, a single vocabulary.

After failing at getting people to understand his or her native dialect, the leader renounces this luxury and takes up the task of being an always-on translator.

Let me see whether I can explain what I mean.

When in 2004 I moved back to the USA after sixteen years of working in and eventually leading a seminary in Costa Rica, I did so in order to take the position of President & CEO of Overseas Council (OC). OC is an organization that works very effectively at building capacity in about 300 theological seminaries in the Majority World.

A major part of my responsibility was to get to know businessmen and women who showed an interest in Overseas Council and to make the case that they should become or remain donors to this cause. Although I generally love meeting new people, I often came away from these meetings with a full stomach and a vague sense of irritation. ‘They just don’t get it’, I thought.

I felt as though I was failing to connect, and that this failure was caused in the main by the inability of my conversation partners to ‘get’ how riveting a thing training Christian leaders is in the parts of the world where the church is experiencing explosive growth.

I managed to discover enough resilience to keep it up, to keep engaging these conversations. Some of them were fun and productive, others were not.

Eventually, I came to understand I was not failing as a friend or as a persuader. I was failing as a translator, and my foremost task was essentially that: the duty of a translator. I learned, over time, to speak the language of the business professional, the vocabulary of the entrepreneur, the jargon of the theological educator, and the patois of the pastor.

Now here’s where the key learning was for me: in learning to speak the same truth in these different dialects, I was not becoming a traitor to myself or to my cause. I was simply coming to understand the inevitable reality that the leader must learn to speak his or her truth to many kinds of people, including to his bosses and to those who answer to him.

It’s hard work. It takes extraordinary patience and constantly growing prowess.

About the time I was beginning to understand this, I sought some mentoring from a retired U.S. seminary president. He shared with me that experience of giving up or at least putting on hold his academic work in order to serve an institution as its chief executive. I lamented to him the fact that I was ‘no longer teaching’.

He didn’t let me get away with it for a second. He said, ‘Oh, but you haven’t given up your life as an educator. You are an educator in every moment. When you’re with your staff, you’re educating them. When you’re in the boardroom, you’re educating your trustees. When you’re having lunch with a donor, you’re educating your donor. You are always and everywhere still an educator.’

He could have been saying ‘translator’ instead of ‘educator’ and he’d have been just as right as he was.

I learned this truth by failing. I could never have learned it otherwise.

  *   *   *

I hate to think of you as people destined for failure. But you are. Hallelujah, you will fail!

And in the failing, you will grow strong, wise, resilient, and fruitful.

You will learn so many things from failing at leadership that these little home truths I’ve stumbled upon will soon be in your rear view mirror.

It doesn’t matter, my friends, how you feel at the end of a brutal day, or a brutal semester, or a brutal year, or a brutal decade.

It matters who you are in the morning.

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Back on October 29, dear friends Maureen and Timmy Laniak sent me a link to a talk that the New York Times columnist David Brooks did at the 2013 Aspen Ideas Festival. Today, December 31st, I’ve finally made the space to watch and listen.david-brooks

Titled The Inverse Logic of Life, Brooks’ relaxed reflection on humility and character leave me breathless.

In fact, this talk has me unexpectedly leaning into 2017 with hope, expectation, and resolve.

You know how sometimes the cry of your heart is echoed by someone’s articulation of reality in a way you could never have done? That’s what Brooks’ talk does for me.

If you only have have fifty-five minutes and fifty seconds for one thing in 2017, start here.



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A conversation with the Wheaton College Chinese Students Fellowship

16 September 2016

Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up.If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. (1 Corinthians 8:1–3 ESV)

  • You must believe that knowledge is a good thing
  • You must understand that ‘knowledge’ that denigrates another person is not true ‘knowledge’. It is folly masquerading as knowledge.
  • You must acknowledge that the opportunity to dedicate a portion of your life to acquiring knowledge at Wheaton College is a precious and unusual gift.
  • You will carry around the ‘burden’ of knowing more in your area of expertise than most of the people with whom you’ll interact … as well as the ‘burden’ of an inquisitive spirit.
  • You should internalize the fact that knowledge is ‘merely on the way’ to deeper knowledge.
  • You will learn to translate your knowledge for the benefit of those who lack the vocabulary and the abstract concepts that have become natural to you.
  • You must embrace the fact that there are many kinds of intelligence: emotional, intuitive, abstract, concrete, etc. You must not exalt your own strength of knowing over others.
  • You will become more and more contextually aware.
  • You must recall that knowledge proceeds from love and thrives best when encased in love.


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