The Doc File

The online journal of Luke Dockery

Category: Grad School (page 1 of 10)

Two Graduations: What My Special Needs Daughter Taught Me About Following Jesus

It’s June, which means that we have just completed another graduation season. As a youth minister, I go to a lot of graduations, but this year there were a couple of graduation ceremonies that were more significant to me.

First was my own graduation from Harding School of Theology. This one was a long time coming. It was an extensive program (a 78-hour degree, which is more coursework than many master’s and doctorate programs combined), and add to that the fact that I completed it while working full time, figuring out how to be a dad, and living hundreds of miles away, and I can say with only minimal chagrin that I started the program way back in 2010. Finishing a program that you have been engaged in for so long is certainly an accomplishment of sorts, and I’ve had a lot of people ask me how it feels to be done. I definitely feel grateful for all that I have learned and for all who made it possible (HST faculty and staff, my wife, my elders at church, etc.). I am also pleased to be done. But my overwhelming emotion is a little more difficult to explain, and that’s what this post is about.

About 10 days after my graduation, I went to another graduation ceremony—Kinsley’s Kindergarten graduation. I have written in different places about how the last 18 months or so have been very difficult for my little girl. Increased seizure activity has been hard to control and has led to several regressions (i.e., she has lost abilities that she once had). Nevertheless, during this past school year, she started Kindergarten in a self-contained class. Kinsley’s academic goals were made with her special needs in mind and were very modest by the standards of “typical” children, but still, due to the regressions, she didn’t hit those goals. In some sense, you could even say that her graduation from Kindergarten was something of a formality. But I can tell you this: I am far prouder of her graduation than my own.

•  •  •

I have always been a high achiever. I have always gotten good grades and done well in school. I was involved in a bunch of extracurricular activities to beef up my college résumé. I was a good (not great) athlete who worked hard and was, at times, pretty successful.

When I started grad school, I began to work even harder. I had become convinced that doing my best was a spiritual requirement (I still believe this, by the way), but “doing my best” easily became a justification for obsessive perfectionism. In school, I wanted every research paper to be perfect. In ministry, I wanted every teenager to be faithful and every sermon to be excellent. In my personal faith and theology, I wanted to be right on every issue and know the answer to every question. Some of this obsessive perfectionism I come by naturally (it runs in my family), but also, it was a core component of my faith. To be clear, I was never taught works righteousness growing up, or that God’s love for me was tied to my achievements and accomplishments, but somewhere along the way this became a big part of what following Jesus was for me.

When Kinsley came into my life (and more specifically, when she began to miss developmental milestones and we received her diagnosis), everything began to change for me. The reality is that I have a beautiful, wonderful daughter who, from a worldly perspective, will never achieve much of anything. And while I lament the ways in which her horrible disease has placed limitations upon her life, the reality is this: I don’t care about her achievements. I love her because she is my daughter, and I delight in her.

This realization and the implications of it have significantly affected my life. I don’t really care about achievement anymore. I don’t care about intelligence or talent. When parents talk about how clever their children are, or when friends speak of their accomplishments, I smile and try to be affirming, but it simply doesn’t matter much to me. And from that perspective, my own graduation doesn’t matter much to me either.

I still work hard, because I believe it is a spiritual imperative to do so—in all things I work as if I am working for Jesus because, really, I am. But I don’t work hard so God will love me more, or because my value is tied to my achievements. God loves me because I am His child, and that is enough.

•  •  •

I grew up in the church, have been a Christian for 20 years, a minister for 12, and I have a graduate degree in theology. But it was my daughter who taught me about grace simply by being her perfect, disabled self.

On second thought, that’s quite an achievement.

 

Book Review: The Reasonableness of Christianity

This semester I am in a church history class for grad school and as part of my reading for that class I recently finished John Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity. Locke is well-known to many people as a key thinker in the Enlightenment and specifically in the school of thought known as empiricism. His thoughts were very influential to the founding fathers of the United States, and he was also a great influence on Alexander Campbell, one of the leading early figures of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement.

In The Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke basically sets forth the Christian faith as he sees it. Scripture teaches that Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden and, as a result, lost bliss and immortality. Humanity inherits Adam’s immortality, although we are punished only for our own misdeeds. Unfortunately, all sin and fall short of God’s glory and thus, are in need of a Savior. Jesus Christ is this Savior, the Messiah of whom the prophets spoke.

God judges us according to the law of faith, and considers believers to be righteous, granting them life and immortality. Specifically, the faith that is necessary for justification is the belief that Jesus is the Messiah, and obedience to the moral and ethical standards that he set forth. Beyond this, Locke is open to differences of opinion on a variety of doctrines, and emphasizes the importance of tolerance in view of the fact that we have limited abilities and make mistakes about what we believe.

Here are some quotations that I particularly enjoyed and would like to share, along with some of my own thoughts:

“Nay, if God afford them a temporary, mortal life, ’tis his gift they owe to his bounty, they could not claim it as their right, nor does he injure them when he takes it from them.” (27)

We frequently pay lip service to the notion of our lives being a gift from God, but do we really believe that? I wonder, sometimes, when you hear the language we use when someone dies prematurely—it seems so unjust and tragic to us. I think Locke’s perspective is a better one: each day that we live is a gift from God, and from that perspective, however long we live is more than we have any right to expect or deserve.

“For if they believed him to be the Messiah, their King, but would not obey his laws, and would not have him reign over them, they were but the greater rebels…” (46)

This seems to me to be particularly relevant to the legions of nominal Christians that exist in our society who profess Jesus as Lord with their lips but deny Him with their lives. Those who reject Jesus live in rebellion to Him, but this is only to be expected. How much greater is the rebellion from those who claim Him as Lord but ignore His demands on their lives?

“‘Tis too hard a task for unassisted reason, to establish morality, in all its parts, upon its true foundations, with a clear and convincing light.” (60)

“…But yet some parts of that truth lie too deep for our natural powers easily to reach, and make plain and visible to mankind, without some light from above to direct them.” (65)

I expected Locke to hold human reason up as the ultimate source of knowledge and truth, but as the quotations above clearly show, he doesn’t do this. Rather, he is candid about the limitations of human reason, and ultimately holds that something greater that reason—revelation—is required for the establishment of universal moral truth.

Perhaps I approached The Reasonableness of Christianity with caricatures of Deism in my mind, but I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by what I read. There are certainly points I would quibble with, but on the whole, I thought Locke gave a succinct and fairly orthodox summation of the Christian faith. He does place significant value on reason, but this was actually less than I expected, and did not seem excessive to me. Locke does not dismiss Jesus’ miracles, but instead holds them to be essential (and reasonable) evidence that Jesus is exactly who He claims to be—the Messiah. Locke also asserts that Jesus’ ethical teachings are reasonable, but even these teachings ultimately required revelation. Left to its own reason, humanity had never been able to produce a universal moral law on its own.

Finally, although it was not the focus of this writing, I appreciated Locke’s emphasis on tolerance and the allowance for some diversity of opinion while at the same time upholding key fundamental doctrines about which all Christians must be in agreement. For Locke, the essentials are faith in Jesus as the Messiah and living a good moral life in accordance with His teachings.

In the context of the bitterly divided religious world in which Locke lived (and in which we still live today), such a call for tolerance seems like a hopeful basis for unity in God’s church. Of course, the difficulty always comes in determining which doctrines are fundamental and which are matters of opinion.

Reading in 2017

I have enjoyed seeing several people post lists of the books that they read in 2017, or their top books from the past year. As someone who likes to read and keep track of what I read, it is fun to see what other people are reading as well.

Here is my list from 2017:

  1. Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Supetys
  2. Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy, by Kevin J. Youngblood
  3. Wild in the Hollow: On Chasing Desire & Finding the Broken Way Home, by Amber C. Haines
  4. Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding, by John Mark Hicks and Bobby Valentine
  5. City of Thieves, by David Benioff
  6. The Case for Easter: A Journalist Investigates the Evidence for the Resurrection, by Lee Strobel
  7. Digging Deeper Into the Word: The Relevance of Archaeology to Christian Apologetics, by Dale W. Manor
  8. Paul, by Edgar J. Goodspeed
  9. Babe: The Legend Comes to Life, by Robert W. Creamer
  10. Truth Speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture, by Walter Brueggemann
  11. The Need For College Ministry: Awakening the Church to One of the Most Receptive Mission Fields in the World, by Neil Reynolds
  12. The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster
  13. The Rule of Faith: A Guide, by Everett Ferguson
  14. Hear Me Out, by Philip Jenkins, et. al
  15. All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
  16. The Teammates: A Portrait of a Friendship, by David Halberstam
  17. Radical Restoration: A Call for Pure and Simple Christianity, by F. LaGard Smith
  18. Murder at Fenway Park, by Troy Soos
  19. Little League Confidential, by Bill Geist
  20. The Big Four, by Agatha Christie
  21. The Sticky Faith Guide for your Family, by Kara Powell
  22. Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith, by Rob Bell
  23. A Biblical Pattern for Church Growth: A Study of Ephesians 4.1-16, by Earl Lavender
  24. With the Old Breed, by E. B. Sledge
  25. Ballplayer, by Chipper Jones with Carroll Rogers Walton
  26. Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance
  27. Lead Small: Five Big Ideas Every Small Group Leader Needs to Know, by Reggie Joiner and Tom Shefchunas
  28. The Didache
  29. First Apology, by Justin Martyr
  30. Against Heresies, by Irenaeus*
  31. Prescription Against Heretics, by Tertullian
  32. The Stone-Campbell Movement, by Leroy Garrett
  33. On First Principles, by Origen*
  34. Oration in Praise of the Emperor Constantine, by Eusebius
  35. Conference 1, by St. John Cassian
  36. The Rule of St. Benedict
  37. The Trinitarian Controversy, ed. by William G. Rusch*
  38. Ten Tips To Preaching To Students, by Frank Gil
  39. Confessions, by Augustine*
  40. The Distraction Slayer, by Michael Hyatt
  41. The Christological Controversy, ed. by Richard A. Norris, Jr.*
  42. I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story, by Hank Aaron with Lonnie Wheeler
  43. Proslogion, by Anselm of Canterbury
  44. Why God Became Man, by Anselm of Canterbury
  45. Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith
  46. The Bridge of Sighs, by Olen Steinhauer
  47. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling
  48. Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World: A Hopeful Wake-Up Call, by Brock Morgan
  49. The Story of Christianity, Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, by Justo L. González
  50. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J.K. Rowling
  51. Advent: Seasonal Readings, by N.T. Wright
  52. Your First Two Years in Youth Ministry, by Doug Fields

A few major observations before I talk about a couple of specific books:

  • My reading total increased from 51 books in 2016 to 52 books in 2017. And this included a couple of very large volumes of 700-800 pages.
  • I really enjoyed my reading in 2016, and felt that 2017 was a little bit of a step down. My Top 10 books for the year are highlighted in bold above, but there are several in the list above that did not make that cut that I still enjoyed.
  • My reading was a little more varied this year, which probably reflects that I wasn’t in grad school until August, and thus had more free time to read what I wanted.

Some of my favorite books from 2017.

Regarding my Top 10 books for the year, here are some brief thoughts on those (presented in order of when I read them, not ranked 1-10):

  • Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys: This is a novel, set in the closing days of WWII, with the interesting narrative device of four different characters who alternate as narrators with different perspectives and individual stories that converge into the main plot of  he book. The characters are interesting, the story is compelling, and the short chapters made it a compelling read that was hard to put down.
  • Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding, by John Mark Hicks and Bobby Valentine: Maybe this is cheating because this was actually a re-read for me, but Kingdom Come was still one of my favorite books of the year. As regular readers of this blog are aware, I am a bit of a Restoration Movement history buff, and this book does a great job of telling the stories of two second generation Restoration leaders, and suggesting ways in which embracing some of their ideas can be beneficial to Churches of Christ moving forward.
  • The Rule of Faith: A Guide, by Everett Ferguson: This is a short book, but somewhat dense, and it provides a series of excerpts from early church fathers in which they describe the “rule of faith”—the basic content of Christian belief that had been received from the apostles. This was not a formalized creed that would later be required for catechumens or accompany baptism, but was simply the basic contours of Christian orthodoxy that had been handed down from one generation to the next. This is a fascinating read especially for those who (like me) believe that Christian unity is important, that unity must be based on at least some certain common beliefs, and that those beliefs should be present in the early, historical manifestations of Christianity.
  • Radical Restoration: A Call for Pure and Simple Christianity, by F. LaGard Smith: Smith is always worth reading to me, because he is such a keen and original thinker. This book is especially intended for those who see the value in attempting to emulate the practices of the early church, and boldly confronts a lot of current practices that would be very foreign to the biblical worldview. I actually wrote about this book a bit earlier in the year, and described it as an “endearing combination of brilliant insights and prolonged axe-grinding,” which I still think is the best description I can give it.
  • The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family, by Kara Powell: I have written about Sticky Faith (the “parent” of this book) many times over the years, and this is a worthy companion to the original volume. Based on the same research, it is slightly different in emphasis: if Sticky Faith is 2/3 theory and commentary and 1/3 practical ideas, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family is the reverse. Simply put, it is filled with ideas of practical steps you can take at home with your kid to build a faith that will “stick” with them throughout their lives.
  • With the Old Breed, by E. B. Sledge: This is a WWII memoir that focuses specifically on the Pacific Theatre. The battle accounts are a punch in the gut, but Sledge provides thoughtful reflection throughout as he wrestles with the horrors of war while maintaining the necessity of it, at times.
  • Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance: This book has been criticized in some quarters, and perhaps rightly so in that at times it paints with too broad a brush, and perhaps make claims that can’t truly be justified based on the anecdotal evidence of one family. At the same time, the story is remarkably poignant, and undoubtedly unveils important truths about certain swaths of American society. As the descendant of Ozark hillbillies, the story certainly resonated with me.
  • I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story, by Hank Aaron with Lonnie Wheeler: I tend to like baseball biographies and have read several over the years, but this was one of the better ones. From Aaron’s unflinching evaluations of his teammates, to his discussion of his transformation into a true home run hitter, to his singleminded focus on race, I found this to be a book filled with new and fascinating information. In particular, despite being a baseball history buff and a lifelong Braves fan, I had never realized the degree to which Aaron considered himself a race man, with the specific task of carrying on the legacy of Jackie Robinson.
  • The Story of Christianity, Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, by Justo L. González:  I took a church history course as part of my grad school program this past fall, and this was one of the texts we used. You can probably find something to quibble with in any text that covers 1500 years, but on the whole I thought this provided an excellent overview and was an enjoyable read. I am a nerd, but I don’t generally sit around reading textbooks, but this one was so good that I even went back and read chapters that weren’t assigned. If you are looking for a thorough and solid overview of church history, I highly recommend this book.
  • Your First Two Years in Youth Ministry, by Doug Fields: This is a youth ministry classic, and shame on me for reading it after being a youth minister for a decade! I was still able to learn new things from it, but boy, I wish I would have read it back when I started. This is simply a must-read for any new youth minister (or foolish veteran like myself who missed it early on!).

So, that was my reading for 2017. For comparison’s sake if you are interested, you can see my reading lists from previous years:

I have already laid out the first 15 or so books that I am hoping to read in 2018, and after I (knock on wood) graduate in May, I should have more control over how I choose to spend my reading time. I am looking forward to that.

What are some of the best books you read this past year?

*Books that I did not read in their entirety, but read significant portions of.

Glorifying God in Conflict

Introduction

Last summer and fall, I spent six months teaching through the Sermon on the Mount in a couple of different classes at church; at the same time, I also took a graduate school class called “Managing Conflict in Ministry.” Together, these two sources caused me to re-think the way I look at conflict.

By nature, I’m not someone who enjoys conflict. I basically hate it, and my natural inclination is to go out of my way to avoid it. But really, I don’t think it’s possible to always avoid conflict, nor is it healthy to do so. In reality, conflict is inevitable, and this is true in the world, and it’s true in the church as well:

(1) God created us as unique individuals who are meant to live in community. We each have our own thoughts, desires, and preferences. We each think that certain things should happen in certain ways. We have differences of opinions. Combine that with the fact that God does not expect us to live our lives as hermits; we are to live in community. God calls us to live as the church with our different personalities and perspectives, and it’s inevitable that those  things are going to bring us into disagreement and conflict with one another at some point.

(2) We live in very anxious times. There was a famous psychiatrist named Dr. Murray Bowen, who suggested that societies go through periods of regression where the amount of anxiety in the culture spikes upward. When these spikes of anxiety occur, the symptoms in society include a rise in crime, violence, terrorism, high divorce rate, willingness to take people to court, racial division, less principled decision-making by leaders, and a focus on rights over responsibilities.[1]

Now, Dr. Bowen proposed his theory in the 1960s, but it’s almost prophetic in describing our own time: if you look around at our world, I don’t think you need me to convince you that we live in anxious times! And when you have a lot of anxious people who are worried and uptight about things, it naturally follows that you’re going to have a lot of conflict to deal with.

So I really do believe that conflict is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean that it’s inherently a bad thing. In fact, I think we could benefit greatly from changing the way we look at conflict, and viewing it as an opportunity to glorify God. A lot of time conflict happens not because anyone has done anything wrong, but simply because, as we mentioned above, we have differences of opinion about things, and when that occurs, we have an opportunity to glorify God by dealing with the conflict in a way that shows love for one another and honors the things that Jesus has commanded us to do. Now, sometimes we are brought into conflict with one another because one party has sinned, and I’ll refer to that below, but even in those instances, we have the opportunity to address the sin in a way that glorifies God.

When it comes to addressing conflict, there are four different steps or ideas that I would like to suggest. Sometimes only one of these ideas will be necessary, while other times, more of a combination will be needed.[2]

Get Over It

We should begin by noting that not everything is a big deal, and sometimes we just need to get over things.

Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.

(Proverbs 19.11)

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

(Matthew 5.5)

The proverb is probably straightforward enough, but this beatitude has an Old Testament background in Psalm 37.11, and refers to those who don’t worry about what others do to them because they put their trust in God instead. Meekness describes those who are able to remain patient and composed in the face of insult and injury. It is not the surrender of our rights, but it is the ability to overlook slights, knowing that God is sovereign and will ultimately vindicate us.

I hinted at this in the introduction, but we live in a society that is highly anxious, where everyone seems to be constantly offended by everything, and that naturally leads to a lot of conflict. In such a climate, it may seem a brave thing to constantly shout about how everyone is annoying you, but really, it is a very weak position: you are admitting that other people have constant control over your emotions and responses. Those who are meek, on the other hand, boldly refuse to give others control over their responses.

Now, there are times that we shouldn’t overlook things: if someone does something that seriously dishonors God, or hurts another person, or harms themselves…not everything should be overlooked. But I submit to you that a lot of conflict happens or, at least, is escalated, because we get involved in situations when we really should just get over it instead.

I want to emphasize that this is not what the world suggests. The way of the world is about retaliation, about getting what we are owed, getting satisfaction. Nevertheless, the way of Jesus calls us to sometimes just get over it. And in conflict situations, we glorify God when we follow the way of Jesus.

Get The Log Out Of Your Own Eye

This second principle comes from Matthew 7.1-5:

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

In context, Jesus is limiting the way we are to judge one another. In 21st century America, Matthew 7.1 might be the most well-known verse in all of Scripture. Since our society values tolerance so highly, it is no wonder that a verse which at first glance seems to indicate that Christians have no place telling other people how to live would be very popular.

However, it is clear that in context, Jesus doesn’t mean for this to be an absolute statement: later on He will talk about how we are to judge people by the fruits they bear, and even here He says that we will be judged in the same way we judge others, and that argument assumes that we will, in fact, judge other people in certain ways. The point of what Jesus is saying here is that we should be gentle and grace-filled in our judgments of others (because that’s how we want God to judge us!) and that we should always begin by looking at ourselves first. And Jesus illustrates that with a humorous picture of a guy who has a massive log sticking out of his eye but who has the audacity to try to remove a splinter from a friend’s eye.

I think this is a really important idea for conflict situations as well.

When we have an issue with someone, maybe they hurt our feelings or we just have a disagreement about something, it’s so easy to focus only on what the other person is doing, and to ignore our own contribution to the problem. But a key first step in conflict is to give ourselves a hard look in the mirror to make sure we don’t have any logs sticking out of our own eyes: how much of the conflict comes from our own stubbornness, poor attitude, or unwillingness to work toward reconciliation?

It’s always easy and tempting to blame any conflict on the other person, but the reality is that we ourselves are almost never as innocent as we’d like to think. It’s essential that you get the log out of your own eye first.

I want to emphasize that this is not what the world suggests. The way of the world doesn’t really call for a lot of careful self evaluation, and it assumes the problem is with someone else rather than ourselves. Nevertheless, the way of Jesus calls us to get the log out of our own eye. And in conflict situations, we glorify God when we follow the way of Jesus.

Go And Be Reconciled

The next principle for glorifying God in conflict comes from Matthew 5.23-24:

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

This comes in a section of the Sermon on the Mount that deals with our relationships with other people and it is very important that we notice how strongly Jesus emphasizes that when we become aware of a problem we have with another brother or sister, another believer, we stop what we are doing and go to seek reconciliation with that person. Consider this—Jesus places the urgency of reconciliation before even worship! He says to leave your offering at the altar and first go and seek reconciliation.

That’s how important Jesus sees the resolution of conflict to be, and yet, I wonder if we view things the same way. When you have a problem with a brother or sister in Christ—some disagreement or hard feelings over something—do you stop what you’re doing immediately to go and work things out with that person, or do you hold a grudge and develop a long-lasting feud?

Jesus instills an urgency in a need to be reconciled with others. He also instructs a directness. Later in Matthew 18.15-17, He says:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

Here, Jesus outlines the process for how we should deal with sin within the community of faith. We could probably spend quite a bit of time dealing with this, but I really want to focus on the first part. What is the first thing Jesus tells us to do when a fellow Christian sins against us? “Go to your brother, just you and he alone.” We are supposed to go directly to the offending party.

Just like we struggle to appreciate the urgency of reconciliation, we also struggle with the directness. Be honest: when you are upset with someone or feel like they are in the wrong about something, what is your natural reaction? Do you go directly to the person? Or do you go talk to about the situation to someone else?

I’ve had people at church come to me before to complain about the wrong they feel someone else has done to them. When that happens, I try to encourage them to go directly to the person, as Matthew 18 teaches, and to be honest with you, that advice is rarely appreciated!

Again, I want to emphasize that this is not what the world suggests. The way of the world is to hold grudges against people and to talk about people who have wronged us and make them look bad. Nevertheless, the way of Jesus calls us to go directly to the person, immediately, and seek reconciliation. And in conflict situations, we glorify God when we follow the way of Jesus.

Grant Forgiveness

In Matthew 6.14-15, at the end of the Lord’s prayer, Jesus says:

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, either will your Father forgive your trespasses.

The implication here is clear: if we want God to be forgiving toward us, we need to have an attitude of forgiveness toward others. In fact, our willingness to forgive others should be only natural in light of the forgiveness that God offers us.

Jesus teaches a parable on that specific idea in Matthew 18.21-35. It starts with Peter trying to figure out the limit of forgiveness: Lord, how many times do I have to forgive my brother? Up to seven times? And Jesus sets about to describe the limitless nature of forgiveness. He tells the story of a king who had a servant who owed him 10,000 talents, which is an amount of money that he would never be able to repay. The servant asks the king to take pity on him, and the king forgives the debt. But then that same servant goes out to a fellow servant who owes him a relatively insignificant amount, and mercilessly throws him into prison because he can’t pay. And the king finds out and is furious and throws the first servant into prison, because how dare he not offer forgiveness when such amazing forgiveness had been offered to him?

The expectation of Jesus for those who would be His followers is clear: since God has forgiven us for so much, how dare we not extend forgiveness to others? Here are, perhaps, the hardest words of this post: it doesn’t matter what the conflict is, it doesn’t matter what the source of disagreement is, it doesn’t matter what sin a brother or sister has committed against you. Jesus makes no exceptions; forgiveness is the only answer.

And when I say forgiveness, I mean real forgiveness. Sometimes you’ll hear people say things like, “I’ve forgiven, but I haven’t forgotten.” Guess what? That’s not forgiveness. Or you might hear someone say, “I forgave her, but I don’t speak to her anymore.” That’s not forgiveness either!

Forgiveness means that you don’t dwell on the incident. It means that you don’t bring it up again to use against the other person. It means that you don’t talk about the conflict with other people. And it means that you won’t let the incident stand between you and the other person moving forward.

Something I heard the other day that I thought was really good: a good indication of whether or not you have forgiven someone is whether or not you would be willing to accept that same level of forgiveness from God. If you’re not comfortable with that level of forgiveness from God, then you still have work to do.

Forgiveness is not what the world suggests; it’s not something the world even understands. Nevertheless, the way of Jesus calls us to forgive, no matter what. And in conflict situations, we glorify God when we follow the way of Jesus.

Conclusion

Whether or not you or I like it, conflict is inevitable. We don’t really have a choice about whether or not we will ever have to face it. We do have a choice, however, about how we will face it. Conflict can be an environment for sin; it can lead to destroyed relationships, and hard feelings.

But it can also be an opportunity for glorifying God:

  • We glorify God when we just get over things that don’t really matter.
  • We glorify God when we look at ourselves in conflict situations and see how we are contributing to them, and get the log out of our own eye before we try to correct other people.
  • We glorify God when we go to the other party to seek reconciliation and when we do this with urgency and directness.
  • We glorify God when we grant forgiveness to the other person, no matter what.

These are not easy things to do, but they are what Jesus commands. And if we’re going to be followers of Jesus, He’s the one who gets to tells us what that looks like.


[1] I was introduced to Bowen’s theory of Societal Regression by Dr. Carlus Gupton in Managing Conflict in Ministry. 

[2] These points were partially informed by Ken Sande and Ted Kober, Guiding People Through Conflict (Peacemaker Ministries, 2005), 9-13.

Book Review: Embracing Creation

At the end of December, I finished one of the better books I read in 2016: Embracing Creation: God’s Forgotten Mission, by John Mark Hicks, Bobby Valentine, and Mark Wilson. Dr. Hicks is a former professor of mine, and I “know” Bobby through social media. Both men have written much that has challenged me, and I have been blessed by their thoughts on the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement (Hicks and Valentine), suffering and the problem of evil (Hicks), and the “Jewishness” of Christianity (Valentine). I had not previously read anything by Wilson.

I will go ahead and jump to my overall conclusion and recommendation: this is an important book, deserving of a wide readership (especially within Churches of Christ, which is the primary intended audience). Although Embracing Creation is more complex than I am indicating here, it largely comes down to two significant arguments, which are both based on the biblical reality that God cares deeply about what He has created.

First, humans are to reflect God’s care and concern for creation, and should practice thoughtful stewardship of our planet. Truly, this should not be a controversial claim, but because conversations surrounding care for the environment are frequently hijacked for political purposes, it often is made out to be controversial. Embracing Creation does not argue for a godless environmentalism that holds up nature as something to be worshipped; it does encourage a deep, biblical care for a creation that God calls good, but has been too often treated as expendable and unimportant by humans.

Second, God does not intend that His creation be destroyed, but will redeem and recreate it, and will dwell with creation in the New Heavens and New Earth. This will also be a controversial claim for many, but again, it need not be.* Hicks, Valentine, and Wilson argue (and effectively, in my opinion) that the notion of an annihilated and completely destroyed earth and an eternal existence for God’s saints in an other-worldly heaven is actually a fairly modern notion, and does not reflect the biblical text, the belief of the early church, or the beliefs of pioneers in the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. Instead, these witnesses all point to a redeemed earth, which will be refined and recreated in a way that is analogous to our own resurrection bodies, and will serve as the location of our joyous eternal existence with God. Three texts which are generally brought up to refute this perspective—John 14.2-3, 2 Peter 3.6-7,13; 1 Thessalonians 4.16-17—are all addressed (and quite adequately, I thought).

Here are some of my favorite quotations from the book:

Creation does not belong to human beings. It belongs to God, and it is the Messiah’s inheritance. We are only stewards and junior partners, though we are coheirs with Christ. (16)

Too often we hear “dominion” in tyrannical, oppressive, militaristic, or manipulative ways, but this is not how God rules. As images of God, we rule in the likeness of God. (39)

Above all, Psalm 104 reveals an astounding truth: creation, animate and inanimate, is the object of divine love. If God, like an artist, dotes so tenderly over it, then should not those created in God’s image reflect the same divine delight, love, and care for creation? (53)

The resurrection of Jesus, then, is the pledge of a future harvest, a preview of coming attractions. It is God’s answer to creation’s lament. (91)

Though chaos remains in the old creation, chaos will disappear in the new. (130)

God’s promise is “See, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5). The text does not say that God will make new things. Rather, God will make all things new. This is restoration, healing, and renewal. (131)

Creation is intrinsically good, and this goodness is not based on its utility for humans. (139)

On one level, it does not matter if “global warming” is real or imagined, caused by nature or humans. Caring for God’s good world is a matter of obedience and discipleship…If the Father is mindful of the death of even a single sparrow (Matt. 10:29), then we, who reflect the divine image, will care as well. (140)

Scripture never says heaven, separated from the earth, is the eternal destiny of the redeemed. Forecasting a doomed earth and an eternal celestial abode can result in an escapist outlook that hunkers down until we “fly away,” diminishing support for creation stewardship. (166)

Before closing, there were a couple areas of the book which I thought were weaknesses. First, I think Embracing Creation is a very challenging read for the average Christian. I have spent years (and years!) in grad school reading books on Scripture, theology, and ministry on a regular basis, and felt right at home with this work, but I found myself wondering how well I would have followed it if I had read it as a young minister before I had any sort of seminary training. Now, the exact intended audience of the book is never stated directly (that I can remember), but because I feel the two main points described above are so important and so often neglected, I wish the book would have been written at a somewhat simpler level to make it more accessible.

Second, there is an intriguing chapter at the end of the book entitled, “God’s Restoration Movement: Revisioning the Restoration Plea.” This chapter will be of special interest for readers from Churches of Christ (or other branches of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement), and basically argues that we should view the concept of Restoration not as a return to the practice and beliefs of the first century church (i.e., a look back to restore the church), but rather, a working towards the time when God will come and redeem all of creation (i.e., a look ahead to restore the entire cosmos). This is a thought-provoking proposal, but ultimately, I think it presents an either/or dichotomy which is not necessary: can we not be a people who seek to follow the basic design, practice, and spirit of the early church while also eagerly anticipating and working toward the day when God will make all things new? Interestingly, throughout Embracing Creation, early Restoration pioneers such as Alexander Campbell, Walter Scott, and David Lipscomb are quoted as men who understood God’s plan of Restoration for all creation, and yet they still held to the idea of Restoration as we have typically conceived and discussed itCan we not do the same?

With these gentle critiques in mind, the fact remains that Embracing Creation is a compelling and important book. It is a book that not everyone will agree with, but perhaps for that reason alone, it should be read by many people. And as I described above, I think its two main points are scripturally spot-on, and their understanding is greatly needed in the church today.


*Some will hear this and associate it with some version of Premillennialism or Jehovah’s Witness eschatology. What Embracing Creation proposes has nothing to do with either.

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