Q When you are reading Scripture, do certain passages jump off the page that didn’t yesterday, or a year ago?
A verse that has become very important is from the Letter of James, the first chapter, verse 19. It says “Brothers and sisters, let us be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” We probably ought to inscribe that over the door into the dean’s office, into the faculty conference room, into the meeting rooms in churches.
We tend to be quick to speak, slow to listen, and quick to anger.
As we’ve dealt with the challenges of the last year, I’ve been drawn to two books. The first is the Book of Acts. My colleague Kavin Rowe recently published a book called World Upside Down. It’s a study of the Book of Acts that is fascinating because you are looking at a vibrant new community empowered by the Holy Spirit, but it is traditioned innovation. The Holy Spirit is making all things new in continuity with the people of Israel, except that there has been this interruption called Jesus, and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is posing all sorts of new questions.
I’ve been surprised by how important the Book of Numbers has become for me. Part of the problem is the name; nobody gets too excited about reading a book called Numbers. In the Jewish tradition, it is often called “In the Wilderness.” If that’s the title, what better description is there for where American culture has been for the last year? In many ways, the foundations were shattered, and we have been trying to figure out what to do.
But the story of the Book of Numbers is about the people of God in the wilderness trying to discern where God is calling them, and how to meet the challenges that are presented. Moses sends out the 12 spies to the promised land.
Ten of them say, “We better go back to Egypt. There are obstacles up ahead. They look so large.” Only two of the 12, Joshua and Caleb, call for the people to trust God to lead them to the promised land.
Egypt was suffering … was slavery … was oppression. But Egypt was familiar. My father said every church he’d ever been a part of had a “back to Egypt” committee. Every person I know, myself included, has a back to Egypt part of our soul. So, as I looked at the challenges that we faced, I started to think about obstacles and that those obstacles look like giants. But it’s the calling of Joshua and Caleb that we had better trust that God will lead us faithfully to the future.
Q One of the great challenges we face in our vocation and in our spiritual life is about renewal. There are many times when we want to go back to Egypt. How do Christian leaders continue to bring their faith to the work of leadership?
At the heart, it is about being people of prayer—of not forgetting the end, namely, of bearing witness to the reign of God. Even pastors and seminary deans can get stuck just thinking about the daily, responding to whatever is the latest crisis.
Second, the people I admire most as leaders are those who read widely and ask big questions. I’ve developed a habit of asking really inspiring people, “What are you reading?” That led me to The Opposable Mind, a book by the dean of the business school at the University of Toronto that has rich implications for how we ought to be thinking as Christians.
It led me to the novel Cutting for Stone, which is set in a mission hospital in Ethiopia, and written by Abraham Verghese, a physician at Stanford. The vocation of healing runs as a central theme through there.
When you read things like the Book of Numbers, Cutting for Stone, and The Opposable Mind, the imagination is renewed—I hope always in ways that will keep us freshly thinking about the end.
Dean L. Gregory Jones discusses how Christian institutions can meet the changing needs of the church by drawing upon tradition even as they encourage innovation. Watch the dean’s video interview with Faith & Leadership, the online magazine of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.