Thinking Through Scripture

"but the word of the Lord remains forever"

Month: January, 2018

The Sacred Art of Apologizing

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“True love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Hopefully, you’ve heard or read something about the absurdity of that sentiment. True love actually means quite the opposite.  In order for any loving relationship to work, the phrase “I’m sorry” should probably be a fairly common part of it. In fact, that’s probably not enough. I’d say true love means having to say much more than “I’m sorry.”

There are times I’ve playfully given fake apologies. My wife can attest to this. If there were some minor infraction that she wasn’t reaaallly upset about, I may say something like, “You know, I owe you an apology.” And then leave it right there. Which is a way of saying, “I should apologize” buuuuut I’m not actually going to. It’s my clever little way to get around apologizing. And oddly, Lauren is never as amused as she should be.

But there are much more serious times when people try to get by with “fake apologies.” What I mean by a “fake apology” is something like this: “I’m sorry you got upset.” Think about that. In that statement there is no remorse for anything I have done. I’m sorry only for what You have done, namely, getting upset. Basically, that’s a way of saying, “I wish you were different.”

Or, consider an apology that sounds a bit like this, “Look, I’m sorry, but you were the one who…” Any apology that serves only as the introduction to a polemic about how I’m not really sorry and it’s your fault, probably shouldn’t ever be uttered. Save some time and just skip the customary apology and get right into the argument. That’s really all you’re wanting anyway. You want to argue and make your point, but still be able to say, “Hey, I apologized!”

Apologizing is an essential part of any relationship, but it must be done well. It must be done sincerely and it must lead to a change in behavior. The only way that happens is with a serious dose of humility. I’ve had to apologize several times in my life. As a minister I have made mistakes. As a husband I have made mistakes. As a friend, as a brother, as a son, I’ve made mistakes. There are times I’ve been thoughtless. Times when I focused on my own life or family or work or school and it never even occurred to me that I was hurting someone else. And I doubt I’m alone in this.

There are times I’ve needed to apologize. If you ever find yourself with that need, let me make a few suggestions.

First, do not defend yourself. Even if you do have legitimate excuses, do not make them. Keep them to yourself. Most of the time, people do not want to hear them. They want to hear remorse. This takes biting the tongue and swallowing your pride. But give them what they deserve; a simple and humble apology.

Second, be sincere about it. This one is harder because if you’re not really sorry, how do you just conjure up fake sincerity? Fake sincerity isn’t even a thing. So how do you do this? The key is to consider the other person’s feelings. Don’t make it about yourself. Don’t think about the fact that they’re upset at you. Don’t think about your excuses. Don’t think about their failures. Think about the fact that they are hurting and at the very least, you didn’t do more to help. Scenarios don’t exist where you couldn’t have possibly done anything better. And most of the time, we could have done a whole lot better. Focus on their pain and on what you could have done. And sincerely apologize.

Third, try to make an active change. Apologies always deal with things in the past. You are sorry for something that has already occurred. You cannot change what has already occurred. But you can make sure you are more aware, more conscientious, more helpful in the future. You can be kinder, more selfless, and more like Jesus. That’s a goal we can all always strive for. Since you can’t change the past, that’s really all you can do. But it’s essential.

Will this always repair the damage? Not always. And that’s a tragedy. But make sure you take it seriously and do all that you can. Don’t give up if healing takes time. Make sure that any hard feelings are not lingering because of you. “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18).

2018 Theme: Community of the Cross

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The cross was one of the most shameful and disgusting symbols of the ancient world. It was how the Romans would quell insurrections and it served as a powerful message: the Roman Empire is not to be trifled with. In 73 BC, if you were to walk the Appian Way, a highway leading from Rome to Capua, you would have encountered 6,000 bodies writhing in agony on wooden crosses.  This was the conclusion of the famous slave revolt lead by Spartacus.  And this is what happened when you took on Rome. This is the message Rome wanted you to hear. Bodies were often left on the cross until they completely deteriorated so that all who passed by would see, smell, and never forget this message. The cross was the symbol of the power and might of the Roman Empire. It was a vivid illustration of the power of death.

The cross was a huge hurdle to overcome in early Christian evangelism because it was the very symbol of failure, defeat, and death.  The cross meant you lost to Rome. It meant the world won. And this is the symbol that Christians adopted as their own.  Paul writes, “we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24). The success of early Christian evangelism is one of the greatest evidences of the Spirit’s power to convict through the Christian message. The cross was not an easy message to accept.

But today when we think of the cross, we don’t usually view it with such difficulty. When we see a cross we don’t think of the greatness and fierceness of Rome.  We don’t think of the failure of Jesus. Rather, we are reminded of Jesus’ love and sacrifice.  We think of the grace of God. We think of a revolution that changed the world. The cross, which was Rome’s symbol of power, became their very undoing. Jesus hijacked the cross and changed its meaning entirely.

In 2018, at the Jackson Street church of Christ, we will focus on the cross of Jesus. But we will try to emphasize it in a way that is sometimes tragically neglected. Absolutely, the cross is our hope of salvation and forgiveness. On the cross, Jesus died for our sins. This is an essential, foundational Christian message. But the cross also came to be something else. The cross became the paradigm in which early Christian communities lived.  The cross became the symbol, not only of our forgiveness before God, but also for how we ought to treat one another.

Ephesians 4:32-5:2, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.”

Ephesians 5:25, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.”

Philippians 2:3-11, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for our own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

1 John 3:16-18, “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.”

Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

These are just a sampling of the many passages where the death of Jesus is used as the example that we are to follow in the way we treat others. The cross is certainly the means by which we are forgiven.  But it is also the means by which we forgive others. The cross is how husbands ought to treat their wives. The cross is how to solve disputes in the Lord’s body. The cross is the way of unity between Jew and Gentile. The cross is how we show our love for each other.

The cross is the ultimate display of living out the Sermon on the Mount. It is the foundational Christian ethic. It is the most sincere presentation of self-sacrificial love that the world has ever seen. And that love is the foundation of our Christian community.  We want to grow as a community in 2018. We want to grow in our love. That only happens when we become a “Community of the Cross.”

2018 Book Recommendations

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It’s been a little while since I last posted. Finishing up and defending my thesis and the rest of my school work took priority the last few months. But I wanted to start back by wishing everyone a Happy New Year! I hope 2018 is the best one yet. Speaking of 2018, hopefully you are thinking about some goals or resolutions you would like to peruse. If reading is one of them, I have a few suggestions.

Of the books I read (or audiobooked while driving/doing the dishes/running) in 2017, I have selected a few of my favorites to pass along to you.  Obviously, a recommendation of a book in no way implies I agreed with everything in it (or even much in it) or that I approve of everything an author has ever said or done.  Rather, it means I enjoyed the read. I was challenged by it, learned something valuable from it, found it thought provoking or spiritually beneficial, etc. Hopefully you will too. So, here goes:

  1. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation by Dr. Richard B. Hays. Over the last few years I’ve come to realize that anything written by Richard Hays is going to be absolutely fantastic. His Moral Vision of the New Testament is no exception. It was not only my favorite read of 2017, but one of my favorite books ever, on any subject. Dr. Hays is one of my favorite interpreters of Scripture and his application of the New Testament witness to modern ethical issues is the best I have read. This book serves as an introduction to Christian ethics as they can be learned from the New Testament. After examining the ethical teachings of each of the New Testament writers (which itself is well worth the price of the book), Dr. Hays proposes a methodology for understanding the ethical teachings of the New Testament through 3 focal images: Community, Cross, and New Creation. These focal images are then used to discuss five major ethical issues the church is facing today: Violence in Defense of Justice, Divorce and Remarriage, Homosexuality, Anti-Judaism and Ethnic Conflict, and Abortion. Dr. Hays’ insight into the New Testament and the ethical dilemmas facing the church will be a blessing to any who reads this book.
  2. The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel’s Scriptures by Dr. Richard B. Hays. I’ll limit it to two Richard Hays books. But, honestly, this one is really best read in tandem with Dr. Hays’ Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. And if you read that, you might as well check out Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (And I’ll also recommend Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness, which I have not read yet, but am looking forward to soon). These books will transform the way you read the New Testament, in a very good way. The Conversion of the Imagination is a series of essays that investigate Paul’s method of referencing and exegeting the Hebrew Scriptures, and illustrating how heavily influenced he was by them.
  3. The Reason for God by Tim Keller. If you are interested in apologetics there are many good sources to choose from with a lot of great information. You can find books that are more in-depth and cover more arguments and counter arguments. But not many are as accessible and enjoyable to read as Keller’s The Reason for God. He offers a great foundation for the truth of the Christian religion and beneficial responses to many of the common reasons given for rejecting Christianity. He does this with solid reasoning and kindness. I’d highly recommend, especially as an introduction to apologetics.
  4. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin. This was a fun read filled with interesting history, humorous stories, and a great look into the personality of Benjamin Franklin. Some of my favorite themes that pops up several times are Franklin’s battle with pride and humility and his constant quest for knowledge. One time, during an outdoor sermon by the famed 18th century preacher George Whitefield, Franklin, in true enlightenment fashion, got an idea to test some claims he had heard many times before but often doubted. Claims like, Whitefield had preached to 25,000 in a field, or that ancient generals could audibly address an entire army. Surely it is impossible for one voice to be heard by a crowd that large! So, during the sermon, Franklin began to walk away, as far as he could while still hearing Whitefield’s voice. He writes, “I found his voice distinct till I came near Front-Street, when some noise in that street obscur’d it. Imagining then a semi-circle, of which my distance should be the radius, and that it were fill’d with auditors, to each of whom I allow’d two square feet, I computed that he might well be heard by more than thirty thousand.” I guess if Benjamin Franklin is doing all that during a George Whitefield sermon, I can’t be too offended when someone is daydreaming during mine.
  5. Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking by Malcolm Blackwell. For preachers or teachers who hunt for good illustrations and relevant studies, this book is full of them. Blink is primarily about the split-second decisions we all make every day. These types of decisions effect the way that we view the world and can have extremely powerful consequences in our lives, marriages, and attitudes toward others. Gladwell provides helpful insights into marketing, relationships, racism, the value of expertise, the value of height, and how to make good decisions. It is full of studies and stories from police shootings to the Coke vs Pepsi controversy and everything in-between. I’d also just tack on here at the end that you may also enjoy Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.

This is getting longer than I intended, so I’ll rapid fire some other recommendations that I enjoyed. I’ll classify them by genre:

Biographies: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Eric Metaxas) and Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President (Candice Millard). I am currently in the middle of Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, also by Eric Metaxas, which has been excellent so far. I love the biography on Bonhoeffer. I read Destiny of the Republic because it was about the assassination of James Garfield, who was part of the American Restoration movement. There was not a ton about his spiritual life in the biography, but it was still very enlightening. And as I make my way through it, I’m growing in my appreciation of Wilberforce every day.

Apologetics: I did not read much on apologetics last year, but I did read Genome: Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters by Matt Ridley.  This is in no way intended to be an apologetic or Christian book, but it was an interesting scientific look at our makeup as humans. I just don’t see how you can study that without learning more about God. Also, The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis and Evil and the Justice of God by N.T. Wright, both of which provide excellent insight into one of life’s most difficult problems.

Biblical Exegesis and Interpretation:  The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion by N.T. Wright is pretty standard N.T. Wright. If you have read much Wright, you’ll know what to expect and you know it’ll be good. But he does present the crucifixion in a light that is often neglected in churches since the Reformation, and I think there is value in his perspective. Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church by Karlfried Froehlich will be really interesting if you are interested in ancient exegetical and interpretive practices.  It’s fairly technical and if you aren’t interested in the difference between allegoria and theoria you might not love it. The New Perspective on Paul by James D.G. Dunn is a helpful guide to some of the shifts taking place in Pauline studies over the last half century. It’s also a helpful guide to understanding Paul.

Old Testament Exegesis and Interpretation: Reclaiming the Imagination: The Exodus as Paradigmatic Narrative for Preaching is a collection of sermons and essays on the Exodus by many authors, edited by David Fleer and Dave Bland. Admittedly, along with the biography on William Wilberforce, I am still reading and have not finished. But I’ve enjoyed the essays and sermons so far and some of the ideas have already made their way into my teaching. John H. Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate and Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (which is basically a more in-depth study of the things summarized in The Lost World of Genesis One) both provide a unique perspective on the creation narrative and the way that ancient people thought. Particularly valuable is Walton’s discussion of creation as a temple narrative designed as God’s residence. Finally, I would strongly recommend to church members Sandra Richter’s The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament. This will organize your thoughts on the Old Testament and allow many of the odd stories to make a ton more sense.

Christian Allegory: I only have one in this genre but I finally got around to John Bunyan’s 1678 classic The Pilgrim’s Progress. I audiobooked this and enjoyed the story, but you’d really have to be dedicated to read the whole thing. It tells of an allegorical journey made by a man named “Christian” who meets characters of all kinds, whose names tells you all you need to know about them: Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Evangelist, Pliable, Obstinate, Hypocrisy, Charity, Prudence, Faithful, Talkative, Giant Despair, etc.  Each of these characters either helps or hinders Christian on his journey.

Final Recommendation: Lastly, I want to recommend The Domino Effect: Changing Your Life One Decision at a Time by Tim Lewis of the North MacArthur church of Christ. This short, easy-to-read guide to Biblical and godly decision making can change your life.  It will challenge you to think of the consequences of your actions and how you can best honor God with your life. This book, combined with a seminar by brother Lewis where I preach, was a great benefit and blessing to many in our church. I would encourage anyone to give it a read.

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