Come, follow me.
What is it you want?
I used to think I wasn’t supposed to think about what I wanted. Growing up in church, I was taught that it really didn’t matter what I wanted, that the only thing that mattered was what God wanted. It is true that what God wants is better, more beautiful, and more life-giving than we could ever imagine. But God also meets us where we are, working in us so that God might also work through us.
So have you ever thought about the question of what you want? Have you ever considered what you want from life: a good job, some good friends, a spouse or family to come home to every day, a safe place to raise your kids, a stable income? How about what you want for your life? What kind of life do you want to live? A good life, a happy life, a contented life, an adventurous life, an exciting life, the kind of life that would look good on social media? Come to think of it, what kind of life are you living now?
We live in a world that seems very full — of things to do, people to see, demands on our time, goings-on in the news. Technology, and the world available to us through it, is right at our fingertips, from the moment we wake up and check our email or social media, to the moment we fall asleep doing the same. We’re promised greater connectedness, greater opportunities, and greater experiences, while at the same time being exposed to greater tragedy, greater pain, and greater distractions.
And yet, for all of us, there remains a discontent somewhere inside — some might refer to this as their ‘soul’ — that stirs the ember of a thought: there must be more to life than this. There is a longing for something greater — something deeper — than the rat race of achievement and constant connectivity; the endless hustle of living and working; the desperate striving to satisfy our ambitions, our appetites, and our need for approval; even the exhausting grind for justice and a better world. There must be more to life than getting by.
Jesus often spoke of something called “the kingdom of God.” Once, he described it as so good and so wonderful that a person would sell everything in order to attain it; and he specifically invited those who were weary and burdened to him and his restful way of life. He said his purpose was that we might have a full, rich, good life; and he said that this life is possible and that this life can change the world.
What if “the good life” is not what the world has sold us but what Jesus has shown us? What if we were created to live full lives, and Jesus is the clearest example of that? What if it is possible to live well in this life, and following Jesus is how we do that?
Over the course of eleven weeks, I invite you to walk with me in learning to live like Jesus, with Jesus, and in Jesus. Individually and communally, we’ll discover what we were made for, the power of sharing our stories, the ways God works his transformation in us and through us, and the practices that will help us experience the joy of everyday life with God; we’ll also discover what we’re called to, the exciting work and mission God invites us into.
Learning to Live is not going to solve all your problems; it’s not going to remove all of the busyness or stress or anxiety from your life. But Jesus didn’t offer the eternal kind of life only to those who have it all together or who have a lot of time or margin. Jesus says, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope.” You are who he came for. You are who he came to bring life to. You are who he invites to learn to live from him.
Before we begin, I want to be clear upfront about two things. First, I write as an Asian-American pastor of a multiethnic church in Washington, D.C. in the twenty-first century. I write as a person of color in a country with a complicated and tragic racial history — and present — about a topic — spiritual formation — that has largely been cultivated and commented on by white men, many of whom I owe a debt of gratitude as mentors in the faith.
I want to be explicit about naming my context and my perspective because, as theologian James Cone wrote, “one’s social and historical context decides not only the questions we address to God but also the mode or form of the answers to the questions.” In other words, context and perspective are the unavoidable lenses through which we see and the filters by which we interpret. If we are unaware of our context and perspective, it is not that they will not affect us; it is that we will not know how they are affecting us, even leaving us in the dangerous position of thinking we hold some ‘pure’ form of the truth. Jesus meets all of us where we are, no matter our ethnicity or race, no matter our background or baggage, no matter our sex, sexual orientation or gender identity, but he meets all of us with all of who we are, not in spite of it, and he offers to live his transformational life in our lives — in our particular, unique lives.
I first wrote Learning to Live in late 2015. At the time, I was just starting my doctoral studies, I was on staff at The District Church, and we were pursuing ways to live into our calling to be and to make disciples of Jesus. The project was originally inspired by a partnership we had with Mavuno Church in Nairobi, Kenya. In fact, the structure of Learning to Live was based on Mavuno’s discipleship experience, Mizizi, which means ‘roots.’ It was important for us to be learning from siblings in the faith from across the world.
Even so, it became evident over the last few years, that it was equally important for a curriculum of discipleship and spiritual formation that addressed specifically the context of the United States. Race, for instance, is a very different proposition in America than it is in Africa, and the ongoing legacy of racial injustice in our country is something that must be named and addressed in light of our faith. Context matters.
Second, I want to be clear about the cost that is involved. Everything that is worth doing demands something of us; no transformation comes without effort. The journey toward the good, God-filled life will require you to give of your time, as you show up to weekly small group gatherings and three weekend experiences, and work through the daily readings and reflections; your money, to cover the workbook; and your comfort, as you make new friends, as you share your own story, and even as you encounter thoughts or concepts or perspectives you may not agree with.
But I have seen and come to believe that the benefits of pursuing God far outweigh the costs, that the eternal kind of life we are invited into is worth the effort, and that the journey of Learning to Live will pay back all that you put into it and more. I believe God can change your life — and through you, the world around you.
What to Expect
There are five daily devotional pieces per week. Each devotional can take as little as ten minutes or as much as you want to go deep. My hope is that you see these times not as “homework” but as “soul-work.” Your soul is you — all of you — and our souls were made to be with God, so think of this soul-work as creating some space in your life to intentionally pause and be present to God — to what he may be saying to you, to how he might be challenging you, and to where he might be leading you. As we’ll learn, transformation happens when we engage with God individually and when God engages with us through others in community.
So there are weekly verses from the Bible that encapsulate the theme of the week, which I’d encourage you to memorize; and weekly small group gatherings, where you can dig a little deeper, share your experiences from the week, and learn from others as well. We’ll also look at a different spiritual practice each week, a way to tangibly and concretely live out your faith and what you’re learning; and we’ll participate together in three weekend experiences: you’ll spend a half-day sharing your story and hearing others’ stories, a half-day practicing prayer, and a half-day serving with your group.
How to Engage
The Learning to Live (L2L) format is structured for adult learning — it assumes that you are studying the material, and that you will ask questions about anything you do not understand. Be sure to read your daily devotional passages every day, and to note down any questions you might have so you can ask them during the small group sessions. There is space in this workbook both to doodle and to write your thoughts, responses, and reflections. Each week, please come to the small group gathering with your Learning to Live book, your journal, a pen to write with, and an expectant heart.
Let me also suggest you have at least one person who isn’t part of the group (or even part of the church) with whom you can talk through what you’re learning on a regular basis. Having an outside voice to talk and listen to can be tremendously helpful; it’ll also help you to think about how to communicate what you’re learning and experiencing.
Pastor, author, and philosopher Dallas Willard wrote, “The most important thing in your life is not what you do; it’s who you become. That’s what you will take into eternity.” We are all invited to become disciples of Jesus, to follow him on a journey from death to life. Are you ready for this?
Justin B. Fung