The Tough Sayings of Jesus II comes from Threads via Lifeway and is authored by Michael Kelley. The leader book and media kit ($69.95) enables a conversation about following Jesus with the material written in a way that spurs the small group that interacts with the material to think deeper, peeling the proverbial onion. The style is informal, but the content is not shallow. The points are simple, yet they are difficult to acquire into life. After all, I think this really is a lot how Christian life really is. There is no formula to grease our path as a student of Jesus and The Tough Sayings of Jesus II refreshingly facilitates that honest struggle and questioning disciples engage in. Obviously, I like this material.
Here is a conversation I had with author Michael Kelley:
RKWL: It seems very hard for young adults to connect with church these days more than ever. What is the deepest need for younger adults that you see that a church ministry most effectively addressing today?
Michael Kelley: I observe the same thing, Rich. It’s probably dangerous to say categorically this is the biggest need, but what the heck – I’ll give it a shot. I think a big one is depth. That’s a little ambiguous because depth may mean different things to different people, but as a whole, I think it means engaging faith with the whole self – intellectually, emotionally, and even physically. So many times "church" is alot like a sitcom; you come, there’s a little comedy, then there’s an issue, then it’s resolved neatly in the span of 30 minutes. Problem is faith doesn’t work like that. Faith is a struggle. It’s hard. It’s taxing. And some days, it’s drudgery. And even in the good days, there is still the inherent mystery to contend with. We know this, and when we don’t find it at church, the only conclusion we can draw is those people in church don’t live in the real world. And they treat me like I’m 4.
RKWL: I live in a very unchurched, west coast culture and my church ministry is very concerned with reaching people who are at the beginning of their following of Jesus. How does your book and approach address this uninitiated person?
Michael Kelley: I think these studies encourage people, from the very beginning, to fully engage Jesus. Walking through these passages encourages people to know that asking questions isn’t wrong. It isn’t wrong to wrestle. In fact, that mechanism is an essential one to growing in faith. So studies like this, in my opinion, establish a process of deeply engaging the Bible from the very beginning.
RKWL: It appears to me that a lot of material traditionally is designed to show us how we do not measure up as Christians and then use that and its motivating factor to transfer a list of things to do to correct that. How is your book similar or different from this approach?
Michael Kelley: I do hope these books are radically different than that. As I look around the evangelical landscape, I see alot of the same thing, Rich – it’s like we practice a hybrid of grace / legalism. Maybe it’s Christian legalism, where we believe we are initially saved by grace, but our relationship with Jesus is maintained and progress through works. I think this seriously devalues the fullness of the cross. It’s by grace we are saved, and it’s by grace we live. But if we do practice the hybrid, then we have a model of spiritual transformation that looks like this: "believe, behave, become." I think the gospel is this: "believe, become, behave." The difference is that my behavior comes from the firm belief that I am already righteous because of Christ. Then my righteous choices are an expression of who I already am, not an effort to become something else. I spend a whole session on this topic in volume II, walking through Jesus’ statement from Matthew 5 that you have to be more righteous than the Pharisees.
RKWL: Some of these passages have competing interpretations. How did you come to settle on your interpretation and was that a struggle in and of itself?
Michael Kelley: It was and is a struggle. All of us, I think, have a certain set of lenses through which we view the Bible. Those lenses are made up of our own culture and experiences. So the best thing we can do as we study is try to take off those lenses, see the text through the eyes of the original audience, isolate the abiding principle, and then try and reintegrate into our own cultural context. So that’s what I tried to do. Maybe it worked.
RKWL: Honesty in our Christian life really seems attractive to the people of today and I appreciate how you weave that in all of your writing. How do you embrace that in your writing and ministry? Does it work for you?
Michael Kelley: That’s kind of you to say, friend. My seminary prof used to say, "You can’t preach a text until the text has preached you." I agree whole-heartedly. A teacher or writer, to be ultimately effective, must first have wrestled with his or her own insecurities, failings, and difficulties that a text brings to light before they are prepared to present it to someone else. To take it a step further, I think the presentation of the text needs to showcase that struggle. That’s what I try to do. It feels real, and that’s the only way I know to be authentic in doing it.