The Doc File

The online journal of Luke Dockery

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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.

Sacred Moments, Holy Ground

In Exodus 3 we encounter the famous story of God appearing to Moses for the purpose of recruiting him to liberate the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. One of the most interesting aspects of the story is the way that God appears to Moses: in the form of a fiery bush that is not consumed by the flames that engulf it. As Moses draws near, God tells him to remove his sandals, because he is standing on holy ground. What made the ground holy? It was not that there was something inherently special about the bush. As a shepherd, Moses spent a lot of time leading his flock in the wilderness, and I think it’s possible that he had been by this same spot before, and had maybe even seen the same bush.

There was nothing particularly holy about it at those other times, but it was different now: it was a sacred moment…it was holy ground.

God’s presence made it that way.

We have had a rough time at our house for the last several weeks. Over the last several months, Kinsley’s seizures have gotten more difficult to control, which has led us to trying additional seizure medications and a special diet (you can read more about Kinsley’s story here and here). These efforts have not led to long-term improvement, and at the same time, Kinsley has been more withdrawn: she is often lethargic, sleeps a lot, and plays and interacts with us less. It is difficult to discern if this is caused by the many medications she is on, her seizures, some other factor, or some combination of all of the above.

Even more recently, Kinsley, who has always been a champ at taking her medicine, has become very stubborn about doing so: she will hold it in her mouth for a long time, sometimes eventually swallowing it, and at other times spitting it out. Obviously she does not get any benefit from seizure medicine that she refuses to take, so this aggravates the problem.

Last night as I was getting her ready for bed, I broke down. Kinsley again spit out one of her doses and I got incredibly frustrated and spoke to her in an exasperated tone. She just looked at me, with her beautiful, innocent, loving eyes. Immediately, my emotions changed, and I told her how truly and deeply sorry I was that she has to deal with all of the stuff and difficulties that she does, more than any little girl should ever have to.

And my nonverbal little princess, who has hardly communicated at all over the last several days, looked at me, put her hand on my chest, laid her head against me to snuggle, and reached out and held onto my arm.

What a powerful message she communicated! Even now, I can hardly write about it without becoming overwhelmed by emotion.

There we were, sitting on the floor by her bed, a place I have been countless times. But it was different now: it was a sacred moment…it was holy ground.

God’s presence made it that way: in His grace, God reached out to me and used my infirmed daughter as an instrument of healing.

P.S. We are going to Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock tomorrow to consult with a neurosurgeon about a procedure that could potentially help with Kinsley’s seizures. We would greatly appreciate your prayers as we continue to look for ways to help our little girl.

Creation and New Creation: Connections Between Genesis and Revelation

Introduction: The Bible as Literature

I recently preached a sermon in which I was discussing literary techniques that we see in Scripture. Sometimes people read the Bible in a flat, wooden sort of way, almost like they were reading a police report or something similar, where all you have is a list of facts and no sort of interpretation.

I think that is unfortunate, because the Bible is really a library of books all telling the same grand Story, and within that library, there are various types or genres of literature, and different genres of literature need to be read in certain ways if we are to understand and apply them faithfully. Much could be written both about different types of literature that we see in the Bible—wisdom literature, history, ancient biography, prophecy, poetry, apocalypse, epistles, etc.—and also different types of literary devices that biblical authors used to tell their stories in more powerful ways.*

Examining either of those in detail is beyond the scope of this post, but one literary technique that I do want to focus on here is what I call echoing, or the frequent practice of the authors of Scripture to refer back to an earlier event in the Bible by repeating certain language, or telling stories in similar ways, or comparing certain characters.

Creation and New Creation

One powerful example of echoing can be seen in a comparison between Genesis 1-3, which talks the Creation of the heavens and the earth, and Revelation 21-22, which talks about the New Creation of the New Heavens and New Earth. I shared this particular example in the sermon that I mentioned above, and considering the feedback I got from people who had never noticed these strong connections before, I thought it would be worth sharing here.

Simply put, in the description of the New Heavens and New Earth in Revelation 21-22, over and over again you have echoes of what occurred in the creation of the heavens and earth  Genesis 1-3:

  • In Genesis 1.4, there is a division of light and darkness; in Revelation 21.25, there is no night.
  • In Genesis 1.10, there is a division of land and sea; in Revelation 21.1, there is no more sea.
  • In Genesis 1.16, the rule of the sun and moon is described; in Revelation 21.23, we learn that there is no need for the sun or moon.
  • In Genesis 2.10, we are told about a river flowing out of the Garden of Eden; in Revelation 22.1, we are told about a river flowing from God’s throne.
  • Genesis 2.9 describes the Tree of Life in the midst of the garden; Revelation 22.2 describes the Tree of Life throughout the city.
  • Genesis 2.12 tells us that God and precious stones are in the land; Revelation 21.19 tells us that gold and precious stones are throughout.
  • God walks in the garden, among His creation as described in Genesis 3.8; Revelation 21.3 states that God’s dwelling will be with His people.
  • Following Adam and Eve’s sin, Genesis 3.17 states that the ground itself will be cursed; in the New Creation, there will be no more curse (Revelation 22.3).
  • As a result of sin and the curse, life in creation is characterized by pain and sorrow (Genesis 3.17-19); in the new creation, there will be no more sorrow, pain, or tears (Revelation 21.1-4).
  • Additionally, the sin results in death, described as a returning to the dust (Genesis 3.19); in the New Heavens and New Earth, there is no more death (Revelation 21.4).
  • Adam and Eve are banished from the garden, and cherubim guard the entrance to it (Genesis 3.24); angels actively invite into the city in Revelation 21.9.

There are actually many more points of comparison that could be made, but I think these are sufficient to prove the point: in Revelation, John is clearly describing the eternity that God’s people will spend with Him in the New Heavens and New Earth in language that echoes back to the story of creation and fall in Genesis 1-3.

In making these connections between Revelation and Genesis, John is making a significant and profound theological point: the creation that God created good but that was tainted by sin, He is going to redeem, recreate, and perfect!


*When I discuss Scripture as literature or as story, I am not suggesting that these characteristics somehow diminish its truth. I believe the Bible relates the truest Story of all, but it is still told as story, and employs a variety of literary techniques in the telling of it.

Choosing to be Healthy

Over the last few years, I have become increasingly convicted that I need to channel more effort toward being healthier in my life. I began working out regularly a couple of years ago, and now, in addition to that, I also, count calories using my FitBit app. Since the beginning of the year, I have lost about ten pounds (while gaining significant strength), and I am hoping to continue to lose some of my remaining unhelpful weight.

A lot of people give me a hard time when they find out that I am doing this (“Why are you counting calories?”, “You don’t need to lose weight!”), which is completely fine, but after some reflection, I thought it might be helpful—both for my own processing and for others as well—to share reasons for why I am working so hard (and truly, it has been hard work for me) to be healthier.

I Care About Creation

The first reason is basically theological. Through various books and studies, I have increasingly come to place value on creation. Scripture teaches that God created all that is and called it good, and the overarching Story of Scripture is the tale of what God is doing to rescue and redeem what He has created (including, significantly, humanity).

The conviction that creation care matters has impacted me in multiple ways—increased care about recycling, taking the same water bottle to work everyday instead of drinking bottled water or using styrofoam cups, driving a hybrid car, etc. More recently, though, I have also realized that valuing creation also means valuing the physical body that God has given me: (1) it is valuable because God says it is, and (2) because it is a dwelling place for God’s Spirit.[1]

Religious people have long made arguments that practices like smoking, excessive drinking, and drug use should be avoided because they damage the body—the same principle easily applies in reverse for diet and exercise.

I Care About My Marriage

Caroline is a wonderful person. She is spiritually devout, supportive, intelligent, funny, caring, and beautiful. She is a wonderful mother to our kids, and she loves me unconditionally. I am blessed to have her in my life.

Because I love my wife, and because I care deeply about our relationship, I want to be in good physical shape. This enables me to have more physical energy to contribute around the house, and, frankly, it helps me to be more physically attractive to my wife.

I Care About My Kids

I have a 5-year old daughter (Kinsley) and an 8-month old son (Seth). I do not know what tomorrow brings, and I am not under the illusion that I can somehow control the future, but I know that my odds of sticking around long enough to see my children grow up are influenced by the way that I choose to live now.

In other words, if I want to be there for my kids tomorrow, then I need to try to be healthy today. Furthermore, Kinsley has a wide array of special needs, and she needs her Daddy to be physically strong enough to give her the care and support she requires.

I Care About How I Feel

A lot of times when we talk about ourselves, we might refer to physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual components as if these were compartmentalized aspects of who we are as people that don’t really influence one another.

One thing that I have come to really appreciate only recently is how interconnected we are as people: God did not create us as disjointed entities, but as embodied persons. Our physical health (or lack thereof) can influence our emotional state; our mental health (or lack thereof) can have spiritual repercussions.

Put simply, I feel better about things when I am in good shape. I have more confidence, I am happier, and I think I am kinder to others as well.

I Care About My Hobbies

I started playing ultimate frisbee over 15 years ago, and I never could have predicted how much it would influence my life (or for how long). I still continue to play it regularly, and more than that, I actively train in order to play it better.

A lot of people cannot understand why a 33-year old husband, father, and minister would continue to devote so much time and energy to a hobby, but for me, it is a necessity: I carry a lot of stress in my life, and having an enjoyable physical outlet where I can expend energy and frustrations is an absolutely essential form of self-care. I enjoy playing more when I am actually good, and at my age, my ability to play well is directly linked to the shape I am in.

Conclusion

In my journey to being healthier, there is still room for improvement. I am not a particularly healthy eater (just because I consume fewer calories than I burn doesn’t mean the calories I take in are good calories!), and I know that I don’t get as much sleep as I should (I blame my 8-month old), but I have seen positive results from my efforts thus far, and that, combined with the reasons above, help motivate me to continue this course.


[1] In 1 Corinthians 6.12-20, Paul uses the fact that are bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit as an argument for why Christians should abstain from sexual immorality. I do not think that it does violence to the text to extend this principle to general care for our bodies since they are locations for the Spirit’s presence.

“Do Thy Work”

In my last post, I lamented the fact that so many Christians seem to be so unconcerned about seeking unity with other believers, despite this being something that Jesus Himself specifically prayed for.

This is something that frustrates me greatly, but to be honest, there are a lot of issues that frustrate me greatly which I face regularly as a minister:

  • Why does a particular parent seem less concerned about their child’s faith than am?
  • If Christians really believe what they claim to believe, why aren’t they more committed to Christ and His church?
  • How can people who have supposedly been following Jesus for decades be so immature and unChristian in the ways they deal with other people?
  • How can Christians get more stirred up about their political views than their faith? Related: why do so many American Christians seem to feel more loyalty toward America than Christ?
  • Why do we pick and choose which sinful behaviors we will address and condemn?

The list could go on and on; really, I just picked random problems as they occurred to me. When I focus on all of these problems and the way that they frustrate me, it can be exasperating: at times, I am tempted to throw up my hands and throw in the towel.

But then, I remember one of my favorite quotations from George MacDonald, the Scottish author, minister, and theologian:

“Heed not thy feeling; do thy work.”

In other words, the frustration I feel in response to these problems actually has no bearing on my own responsibility to do what I know that I have been called to do. I am to tend the garden in which God has planted me, take up my cross daily and follow Jesus, and seek to live out the behavior in my own life that I hope to see in the lives of others.

Jesus expresses a similar idea in John 21.18-22. He is speaking to Peter, and says:

“Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”

Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then He said to him, “Follow Me!”

Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray You?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”

Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow Me.”

Jesus tells Peter that it really wasn’t his place to worry about what happened to the other disciple (probably John); Peter’s job was to follow Jesus.

Whether in ministry, or in life in general, there are many things that may bother me greatly. I may pray about those things, study and plan ways to address the problems, strive to teach others to live in better and more godly ways, etc. But ultimately, it is not my job to fix the world’s problems or feel depressed when I’m unable to do so; my job is to follow Jesus.

As He said to Peter, Jesus says to me: “What is that to you? You must follow Me.”

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