Note: I have more to say about the PCUSA issues, but am away speaking at a conference right now. So I’ll put up an interesting interview I recently did with Chris Smith. I’ll get back to the PCUSA soon.
This is the final part of my interview of Chris Smith, a pastor, scholar, and old friend from college. We’ve been talking about a fantastic project, The Books of the Bible. The last part of this interview is more personal. As you read about Chris’s search for God’s direction, you might find some encouragement for your own life.
Mark: Chris, let’s conclude on a more personal note. You’ve told me that you read my recent series on “discerning God’s call to ministry,” and that you recognized in your own story some of the “seeds” I discussed. Please tell us what those seeds are, particularly as they relate to your participation in the Bible Design Project.
Chris: Well, I recognize most of them, actually. But let me concentrate on the ones like sovereignty, surprise, blessing, and redemption that speak of how we see God stepping into our lives to make connections, open doors, and arrange circumstances that allow us to fulfill the calling He has given us. I think I truly was trying to use the gifts and pursue the interests God had given me. That would relate to “seeds” like stewardship, obedience and whole-heartedness. But for me the really exciting part is when we see how God has been at work and it becomes apparent that we’re not just trying to do things on our own.
Mark: Yes, that is exciting. And scary sometimes, too. It takes lots of trust in God and his sovereignty.
Chris: Indeed. I certainly see God’s sovereignty in my family background, which I mentioned earlier. If God’s plan was for me one day to help reformat the Bible along literary lines, it’s hard to think of a better set of parents than a pastor and a literature professor. As someone said to me recently, “You’ve got the DNA for this.”
I also see God’s sovereignty in a combination of experiences I had in college. In my courses, we were studying the concept of the “shaping principle” of a work of literature. The idea was to try to identify what overriding goal had determined an author’s choices in genre, plot, themes, characterization, etc. At the same time, I was introduced to the method of manuscript Bible study that you mentioned earlier. This helped me recognize that the Bible wasn’t a compendium of short devotional passages or pithy sayings, as chapters and verses suggest it is. It was a collection of great literary works, and I could appreciate, investigate and experience them as such, looking for their “shaping principles,” just as I did for other writings.
Mark: It’s funny how such a relatively simple change in the biblical text, such as taking away familiar chapters and verse numbers, makes such a large difference. And, of course, you’re not tampering with the actual text of Scripture, only with the things that human editors have added to God’s inspired Word.
So, any other ways you have sensed God’s sovereignty in your life?
Chris: I can also see God’s sovereignty at other significant places along the way. When I taught my course on “The Bible Without Chapters and Verses” at Regent College, the students and summer school administrators encouraged me to write up the material as a book. I did, but for various reasons, I wasn’t able to find a publisher. My wife and I finally said to each other, “Well, God has our address, and if He wants to make use of this, He knows where to find us.” So I posted the book on the Internet. I told various friends that it was out there. Only a few days later, I heard back from a friend who had been in a Sunday School class where Glenn Paauw was the guest teacher. Based on what Glenn was saying, this friend recognized he would be interested in my work. He got Glenn to read the book online, and Glenn then asked me to join the Bible Design Group. The disappointment of not finding a publisher was redeemed by the surprise of being connected with a group that had already developed a vision for the kind of format changes I was advocating, and which had the resources to make a new format a reality. (And my book finally was published as The Beauty Behind the Mask.) (Photo: from left: Glenn Paauw, Jim Oraker, who introduced Glenn to Chris Smith, on right)
Mark: That is a great story. God’s “coincidences” are amazing sometimes, aren’t they? So where are you in your journey of discipleship right now?
Chris: Right now I’m waiting for the next “surprise” God has for me. I felt last summer that the time was coming for me to move on from University Baptist Church because I’ve been more and more attracted to postdenominational expressions of American Christianity. There are lots of energetic and forward-looking things happening in the denominations today, but I also see some new forms emerging that I’d like to explore and help develop. I fully expected that by the time I finished my ministry at University Baptist this spring, I would know what my next long-term kingdom assignment was going to be. But I still don’t. This, in itself, is something of a surprise. But as you wrote in your series on discerning God’s call to ministry, we need to “submit to God again and again.” When the assignment is to wait patiently and trustingly, we have to accept that, and believe that the sovereign God is still at work in us “to will and to do to His good pleasure.” In the meantime, I’m having the opportunity to do some writing and consulting, which I’m really enjoying. Whatever my next longer-term assignment turns out to be, my goal will be to continue helping people experience the life-changing message of God’s word, in a form that allows its literary beauties and theological truths to shine through more clearly.
Mark: Your situation reminds me of that of Buddy Owens, a dear friend who once worked for Marantha! Music. He and I worked closely on a Bible project, actually, The NIV Worship Bible. Anyway, Buddy sensed that it was time for him to leave Maranatha!, but he wasn’t sure what God had in store for him. For several months he walked with faith but not sight, trusting God for the next step. Finally, God opened an amazing door for Buddy, giving him a major leadership position in Purpose-Driven Ministries, at just the time when everything there was about to explode because of the publication of The Purpose-Driven Life. I was thrilled to see what God did in Buddy’s life, and through him in the kingdom of God.
Chris, I have no doubt that God has incredible things in store for you. I’ll be praying about this, to be sure. I expect some of my readers will join me.
In the meanwhile, thanks for doing this fascinating interview. I’ve enjoyed hearing about your project, and will be sure to recommend The Books of the Bible and The Beauty Behind the Mask.
Thanks so much, Chris, for doing this interview!