The Doc File

The online journal of Luke Dockery

Author: Luke (page 2 of 136)

(Not) Praying in the Garden

On the night Jesus was arrested, the Gospels tell a familiar story (Matthew 26.36-46; Mark 14.32-42; Luke 22.39-46). Jesus, in great distress about what He knows will soon happen to him, takes Peter, James, and John with Him into the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus asks them to be in prayer and then withdraws to pray by Himself.

Jesus’ prayer is famously filled with agony and desperation: “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” He comes back to check on his friends, and finds them all asleep. He rebukes them, and withdraws again, praying the same prayer. Then He returns to find them asleep again, and the pattern repeats again a third time.

After the third time, a mob arrives and arrests Jesus, and as He predicted, His disciples flee in fear.

Conjecture: might it be that Jesus was strengthened by His night in prayer with the Father, and was thus now steeled to face the ordeal of mockery, torture, and death that loomed before Him? And as the same time, could it be that in their slumber, the disciples deprived themselves of the means to remain faithful to Jesus during the hour of trial?

As Christians, we pray to change circumstances and events around us, but we also pray (or maybe even, we primarily pray) to change us. Prayer helps to bring our wills in line with God’s will, to strengthen our resolve, and to quiet our fears. I have a hunch that if Peter, James, and John had heeded Jesus’s request to pray with Him on that fateful night, their behavior during the trying times that followed might have been very different.

James A. Harding once said, “[Prayer] is an enormous power, the mightiest that can be used by a mortal, that few of us use as we could and should.”[1] When we sleep (literally or metaphorically) instead of pray, what transformation do we miss out on? In what moments of trial do we desert our Lord because our resolve has not been strengthened in prayer as it could be?


[1] James A. Harding, “Does God Answer Prayer?” Christian Leader and the Way 19 (September 19, 1905), 8.

Abolition & the Stone-Campbell Movement: James O’Kelly’s Essay on Negro-Slavery

I have written before about the unfortunate fact that there were some Christians in the antebellum South who used the Bible to justify the practice of slavery. I argued that they were wrong to do so on at least two grounds:

  1. They failed to see a distinction between the ancient slavery described and regulated in the bible and the race-based chattel slavery of the U.S. colonies and Southern states that was basically “man-stealing,” something the Bible expressly forbade (Exodus 21.16).
  2. They failed to see the profound argument set forth by Paul in the Letter to Philemon. Here, he does not seek to abolish all slavery in the Roman Empire, but instead seeks to get one man to understand the radical implications of the Christian message: slave owners should view their slaves as Christian brothers and sisters (or at least, as potential brothers and sisters) in the family of God, and to treat them accordingly. In such a family where all are equally servants of God, there is no place for slavery.

Thankfully, many Christians were not wrong on these points, and were actually at the forefront of the fight for the abolition of slavery. One prominent abolitionist (in fact, he was one of the first clergymen to write an anti-slavery publication) was James O’Kelly (1735-1826), who is of particular interest to me (and many of my readers) because of his connection to the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement.

O’Kelly was a circuit-riding Methodist preacher in North Carolina in the 1770s and 1780s. O’Kelly withdrew from the Methodist Church in 1792 over matters of church polity, and founded the Republican Methodist Church, which later became a part of the Christian Connexion. Some of the members of this group later became a part of the Stone-Campbell Movement (though O’Kelly himself died before the Stone and Campbell groups united). You can read more about him here.

In 1789, O’Kelly wrote Essay on Negro-Slavery, in which he published his strong anti-slavery views. Abilene Christian University has a digital scan of this work available for free download, and I enjoyed reading this short publication last summer. O’Kelly writes forcefully and well. I have included some quotations from the work below, along with some of my own thoughts.

First, O’Kelly didn’t actually desire to write about such a topic, but felt compelled to do so:

“Not that I looked upon it as difficult to prove the injustice of slavery, for a man of half sense can see that; but I was reluctant to become an author. Yet the word of the Lord, whenever I thought of declining, would burn like fire in my bones, and rob me of my sleep.” [“To the Reader”]

He seeks to help his audience feel empathy, as he describes the horrible practice of the breaking up of families in slave markets, and the inhumane treatment that slaves at times received from their masters:

“O husbands, who have tender wives and precious children, can you acquiesce with a law that tolerates a practices so inhuman, which enslaves human creatures who have as much right to their natural liberty as to their common air?” [9]

“A master who drank to excess, one morning, lately, took his man-slave, and hoisted and weighed him by a tobacco-beam fixed between his legs, another standing on the beam to increase the pain; beat, cut, and lashed him, till the blood poured down in streams: the slave begged for mercy, but in vain; then spake in a soft manner to the tyrant, saying, master, you have killed me. He then lifted up his eyes to Heaven and expired.” [9]

Beyond an emotional level, O’Kelly addresses the issue of slavery from a theological perspective:

“When GOD called Abraham (Gen. xii) he preached the gospel to him, saying, “In thy seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed,”—Africa not excepted.” [15]

“The Son of GOD did not come to destroy lives, but to save. Neither did he come to enslave men’s persons, but to preach the great jubilee. Involuntary slavery directly opposes the benevolent purposes of the Christian religion. The Christian religion is the pure undefiled religion, gathering proselytes from every nation into one fold. The Christian, who through the Spirit hath received a divine nature, even the mind of Christ, hath learned of his great master to be meek to his countrymen, neighbors and brethren, and the inhabitants of the remotest regions as well as of the nearest. He calls no man common or unclean. He is like his Father and his Master, whose sun shines upon the evil and the good, and who sends rain on the just and the unjust.” [17]

O’Kelly also does not shy away from the difficult issue of the practical consequences of emancipation. With blacks subjugated for so long and deprived of education and a means of building up personal wealth, what would happen to them if they were suddenly freed? O’Kelly acknowledges this problem and suggests that a gradual emancipation would be best, but with the clear understanding that the very people who have created this problem through enslaving others need to be involved in helping former slaves to live as independent, self-sufficient free people:

“You say, “they are poor and having to begin upon, how can they live, if free?” This objection is stronger than all. They are the poorest people that mine eyes ever saw. you shall take every rag of clothing that is on a thousand, and put them in the road as free plunder, and hardly a free-man would alight from his horse to pick them up! But why such poverty? Where is all their labour that you have got? Your objections make your injustice only more glaring. You are the cause of their poverty. Will you rob a man of his all, and then out of pity make a slave of him, because he has nothing to begin upon? Perhaps the grand objection lies here. “What shall we do?” Only let a gradual emancipation commence, from the pure love of GOD and man in our christian brethren, and that glorious example will influence the civil powers. Reward them for their labour; encourage good behaviour; subject them to your laws; let them have interest to study, and our country will not want hands to till the earth with comfort; their minds will be no longer so contracted: the activity of the magistrates will suppress the flagitiousness of white and black. The natural genius of the people will soon appear.” [26]

“If your present situation is such that you cannot liberate your captives without defrauding your creditors, or reducing your family into deep distress; acknowledge the wrong detention, converse with your dear preachers who feel for you, and emancipate them in a more gradual manner; and we shall rejoice in your sincerity, and acknowledge you as dear brethren in Christ.” [31]

 

In many ways this was not an enjoyable read, as it described and decried a terrible practice in a dark period of our national history. However, it was inspiring to read the thoughts of someone like O’Kelly who, thoroughly infused with the principles of the Gospel, was willing to buck the trends of his time and take a stand for justice and righteousness. Furthermore, the knowledge that he was in some sense a spiritual ancestor of mine was a simultaneous source of pride and hope.

Hectic Youth Ministry

Things have been pretty quiet around The Doc File recently, largely because I am now squarely in the middle of the summer youth ministry grind. Looking back, I actually didn’t write a single post in the month of June, but that is not too surprising when I reflect on what my June looked like:

  • Portions of three different weeks were taken up by three different camps that we participated in: NWA Work Camp, Uplift at Harding University, and Green Valley Bible Camp.
  • Four different speaking engagements (one at Farmington, one at camp, one at a retreat, and one at an out-of-town summer series), all over different material.
  • A youth group lock-in the day after we got back from camp (I have been a youth minister for too long to make such a rookie scheduling mistake!).
  • Teaching two bible classes and/or making arrangements and leaving plans for substitute teachers on evenings when I have been away.
  • Making plans for our Vacation Bible School in July,  working toward several changes to our education program beginning in September, and organizing the 2017 Deeper Youth Conference in November.
  • In addition to these ministry responsibilities, we also made two trips to Little Rock in June for follow-up appointments related to Kinsley’s surgery.

It has been a busy month, and the reality is that things won’t slow down too much for a while. I am currently in Alabama for a few days of vacation surrounding Independence Day, but as soon as I return we will be back at it with 10 days or so of prepping and then doing VBS, followed by our summer youth trip.

I don’t say any of this to be whiney or to complain, and honestly, most of the youth ministers I know have summer schedules that are this bad or even worse. Spouses of youth ministers sometimes joke about being “youth ministry widows” or “summer widows” because they go so long without seeing their spouses who are continually jetting from one event to another. I do wonder, though: is having a hectic summer packed with constant activities the best way to do youth ministry? What I am about to say may seem self-serving since I would like to slow down a bit in the summer, but I am seriously starting to think that the answer is “no”:

Hectic summer youth ministry is expensive.

This is the most practical consideration on the list, but it shouldn’t be overlooked. I try really hard to keep our youth ministry activities affordable, but the reality is that, the more you do, the more you spend, especially when you start talking about camps and extended trips, or families with more than one student the youth group.

We have a policy in place where we never want a student to miss an event because of cost, and thus, we make provision for students who can’t afford a certain event; at the same time, just because we have that policy in place doesn’t mean that students and parents always take advantage of it, and I am confident that some students miss out on certain events due to cost without telling me.

Hectic summer youth ministry separates children from their families.

I have written before and also spoken many times about how I believe that youth ministry should be built upon the twin pillars of the physical family and the faith family (where “physical family” refers to moms, dads, brothers, sisters, grandparents, etc. and “faith family” refers to the church congregation), and that it is these two groups that, ideally, pass on faith to young people. This means that youth ministry should work hard to strengthen the ties between a student, that student’s physical family, and the student’s faith family.

Unfortunately, the hectic summer youth ministry model that we have been talking about doesn’t necessarily do a great job of that. Sure, constant youth activities can work wonders to strengthen ties within a youth group, but unless you are very intentional about about including parents and other adults from church in meaningful ways, what you can end up doing is providing a full list of activities that cause your students to largely check out on their families and their church family for a couple of months, which is never good.

Hectic summer youth ministry encourages activity without reflection.

When I think about it, having an overwhelmingly busy slate of summer youth activities makes perfect sense in light of our larger cultural problem of constant busyness. People seem to be busier now than ever before. We have made being busy in some sort of virtue or badge of pride, as if it is healthy to constantly be burning the candle at both ends, rushing around from one activity to another without time to catch our collective breath. A hectic brand of youth ministry fits right in with the surrounding culture.

Part of the problem with such busyness is that it deprives us of the time for reflection (and in time, I think it progressively deprives us of the desire to reflect and then even the ability to do so): how can you sit and process the experiences you have just had when you have to immediately turn around and run to the next thing? I don’t want to make too much of this, but isn’t it possible that continually going from one thing to the next without ever reflecting on what we have done actually makes us shallow, attention-deficient humans?

Concluding Thoughts

To be honest, at this point I have more questions than answers. Considering our own youth ministry schedule, I think we have done a pretty good job of not overloading students throughout the year, but I think the summer is undoubtedly hectic at times.

I have tried to mitigate that somewhat by providing some down times during the summer where there is not much going on. June is crazy, and July ends that way, so I intentionally don’t schedule much around the 4th of July (hence, me being on vacation for a few days!) or after the first few days of August, in hopes of giving students time to catch their breath and be around family. Perhaps these down periods are sufficient, but I am also planning on critically evaluating our summer schedule for next year, and seeing if it would be beneficial to pare down a little bit in an effort to make the summer a little less hectic for our students.

Honest Thoughts from a Hospital Room

I am writing from my daughter’s room at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, following her successful VNS surgery this morning. It is well after midnight; Caroline is asleep, and Kinsley is trying to be. It is an excellent time for reflection.

I am not writing the following to elicit sympathy from those who read it, nor am I seeking “cheering up”. I don’t want to come across as whiny or depressing; rather, I write in the hope that my (honest) ramblings may provide some encouragement to others.


Over the last few years, our ongoing struggles with Kinsley—learning about her brain abnormalities, receiving a diagnosis, traveling extensively to see specialists, attempting to manage her seizures, dealing with her daily special needs—have led to countless people telling us something to the effect of, “You guys are such amazing parents,” or “Your faith is such a great example to us.”

Those are kind words with kind intentions behind them, but sometimes they can be frustrating as well. You see, we didn’t ask to have the opportunity to be such wonderful parents, or to have the platform to wrestle with our faith in such a way that we can be good examples for others. And furthermore, to be frank, sometimes we really don’t feel like wonderful parents or great examples at all. We feel that we do no more than anyone else would in our shoes, we feel helpless—completely unable to do anything to help our little girl, and we feel so very, very tired—tired of seizures, tired of doctor appointments, and tired of our sweet princess having to deal with more than she should ever have to.

And yet…if God can somehow use our helpless and tired efforts to bring encouragement to someone else or to shine a ray of light into a dark world…praise the Lord. Truly, what wondrous things He accomplishes through human weakness.

What a blessing!


Although I do not find myself particularly inclined to do so, it sometimes can be tempting for those in full-time ministry to look down upon those who engage in “secular” work (you may even hear that terminology from time to time).

Over the last few years, as we have been on the receiving end of such amazing care from so many therapists (basically our favorite people ever), nurses, doctors, teachers, aides, etc., it has deeply reinforced in my own mind how sacred it is to use your vocation as a means of blessing others. God’s work is done in all sorts of places, and I am deeply grateful for those who have so clearly shown me that as we have traveled this journey.

What a blessing!


Throughout this process, there are times when I feel that I am at my wit’s end. Completely overwhelmed. Barely able to keep my head above water. Emotionally stressed. Spiritually fatigued. Physically exhausted.

Increasingly, I have come to suspect that we are sustained by prayer. Certainly our own prayers, but, in light of the spiritual fatigue I mentioned above, my prayers are not exactly great right now—they consist of a lot of sighs and pleadings and persistence and “groanings too deep for words”.

No, I believe that we are especially sustained by the prayers of others. From the beginning, it has been overwhelming to me the way that others have responded to our situation. It is beyond humbling to know that people from all over the world, including many we don’t even personally know, are praying for us. More than that, more people than I can count have told me that they pray for Kinsley and our family every day. How can I even respond to that? What a gift that is!

I am so deeply, deeply grateful. And beyond the prayers—every single kindness means so much: the kind words and messages we receive, the concerned questions people ask, the social media well-wishings, the silent hugs, the money for travel expenses slipped into a handshake—all of it. People extend us so much love so frequently, that it is all I can do to refrain from constantly bursting into tears (because that would be awkward, right?).

But those are healing tears—tears belonging to a Kingdom that seeks to restore the goodness of a broken world.

What a blessing!

Radical Conversion(?)

I recently finished reading Radical Restoration by F. LaGard Smith, and found it to be an endearing combination of brilliant insights and prolonged axe-grinding. However, one quotation in particular really struck me:

The pernicious effects of a spiritual body composed mostly of second-generation Christians whose early-youth baptisms were, in the main, more convention than conversion are more spiritually devastating than we might ever imagine. Why are we not more evangelistic? Because we ourselves were never radically converted. Why do spiritual matters not hold center place in our busy, work-a-day lives? Because a merely “mentalized” faith can too easily become a compartmentalized faith. Why are we just as materialistic, worldly, and secular as our irreligious (or religious!) next-door neighbors? Because we have been duly initiated into a worldly church, but never properly introduced to an other-worldly Kingdom.

(p.42)

I have had discussions before about how adult converts perceive a lot of things differently than those who have “grown up in the church,” but never before had I really considered the effect of having churches comprised largely of second (or third, or fourth) generation Christians who became Christians largely as a matter of convention: it was just what they were raised to do.

Before I go any further, I should point out what a tremendous blessing it is to be raised in the church, and to have Christian parents who are devoted to the idea of passing faith on to their kids. So please do not hear me as saying that it is a bad thing to be raised in the church. It is not. But at the same time, I think there is a lot of validity to what Smith suggests above. In biblical examples of conversion (think, for example, of Saul of Tarsus), we see a radical change in people when they come to know Jesus. Their lives are very different than they were previously.

When I look at my own life, I see a very different story. I can never remember a time when I didn’t know Jesus. I was a good kid who tried to do good things. To be sure, I had sin in my life, but becoming a Christian didn’t entail a massive lifestyle change. In fact, the main difference in my life that I can remember is that following my baptism and commitment to Christ, I began taking Communion on Sundays! The point that I’m trying to make here is not that partaking of the Lord’s Supper is not important (it is), but rather, to underscore that my life was not significantly different than it had been previously: my life course was not radically altered by my decision to become a Christian.

Last fall, I attended a youth conference where the speaker did an excellent job of making the point that before you are prepared to share the Story of Jesus, you need to understand and be able to articulate how the Story has impacted your own life. A helpful way to verbalize this is simply by completing the statement, “Before Jesus, I was ____________; now I am ____________.” The problem is, based on my conversations with a lot of students raised in the church, they are unable to determine any difference! They can’t tell how their lives changed after they became Christians. This is a big problem.

This problem is further underscored by my conversations with young people prior to their baptism. Especially with younger kids, I always want to ask something like, “How will your life change once you are a Christian?” Generally, they have no idea!

Truly, I think Smith has hit upon a major issue, and I think the implications of this issue are, perhaps, as significant as he makes them out to be. The reality of “Christians” who look entirely too much like the world is pervasive in American Christianity, and maybe this is the root of the problem: people are not truly being converted.

That necessarily leads to the question, what should we do about it? Honestly, I am not sure, but here are three tentative suggestions:

Talk to kids about the cost of discipleship before they make a commitment to Christ. Becoming a Christian is not about joining a social club, or slightly cleaning up your spiritual self. It constitutes a radical change of dying to self and following Jesus instead. Increasingly, I try to have these sorts of conversations with children and teens who express a desire to be baptized in an order to get them to see (even in a limited way) the magnitude of the commitment they are making.

As the Church, do a better job of embodying the radical expectations of Jesus. How are young people going to figure out how to live as salt and light in the world if older Christians are not modeling this sort of lifestyle for them? If we have long-time Christians…and elders…and ministers who are markedly worldly in their thinking and practice, how will our children move beyond that. Read the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus demands radical living. Isn’t it about time that we hold ourselves up to the standards that Jesus sets for following Him?

Make the conversion experience more of an event. If becoming a Christian is the most important decision that one makes (and I absolutely believe it is), shouldn’t we make a really big deal about it? People go through great time and expense planning weddings, birthday parties, retirement parties, etc., because we recognize that these are significant milestones that deserve to be celebrated. I realize that because of the nature of conversion (people make a commitment in the moment), the same sort of upfront planning might not be possible, but couldn’t churches plan celebrations after the fact? Couldn’t we eat together and sing and talk and laugh and celebrate the new birth that has happened, and talk about the reality that everything has now changed? Couldn’t we, at least within our church fellowships, pay more attention to celebrating baptismal birthdays than physical birthdays?

Perhaps these are helpful suggestions; perhaps not. For my part, I am convinced that Smith has struck upon a legitimate problem, so certainly something needs to be done.

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