October 10, 2008

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being which has come into being.  In Him was life . . . .” (John 1:1-4a)

Life . . . I have come to see over the years that we humans are all very much alike when it comes right down to it.   It is deceptive, because outwardly we look so different, so unique, so customized.   On the surface, everything is so complex — billions of people, going countless different directions, pursuing everything imaginable.  But underneath it all, in the human heart, we are identical.  We share one longing, one ambition, one thirst — life.  We all want it.  We call it different things — happiness, satisfaction, fulfillment, love, purpose.   And we identify and target specific attributes of it — pleasure, peace, joy, contentment, self esteem.  But we all crave it.  This is the dream that we share in common — the desire to be filled up.  Exactly what this means and what it looks like, we aren’t sure.  If we were sure, we’d have already attained it.  But we know what it would feel like, and we know that we still lack it.  So with one mind, all of us, from every tribe, tongue, and nation continu to dream about and long for one thing . . . utopia . . . paradise . . . heaven . . . life.

Deep down we all know this is true.  We know there is more to this life than we’ve come to understand and experience.  Something big is missing.  Something really, really big.  Down through the centuries, those who came before us tried everything.  There is nothing new under the sun.  As a race, we’ve tried the pursuit of every form of pleasure, popularity and respect, creativity and the arts, technology, recreation, conquest, the acquisition of power, altruism, the accumulation of wealth and “stuff”, philosophy and religion of every form we could dream up, family, politics,  . . . the list could go on for a long, long time.  All of the great minds that have lived on this planet have applied themselves to this pursuit.  And what have we gained from it all?  How much more “filled” are we today, with all of our technological advances, our education, our enlightenment, our wealth, our “stuff”?  Let’s face it — we are no better than those who came before us.  Just like them, we are still left with empty hearts and we no clue what to fill them with.  And worst of all . . . definitely worst of all . . . it appears that no one has the answer.

We are lacking and we know it.  And that makes us vulnerable — to the latest “get happy quick” scheme, to manipulative advertisers, to religious “gurus”, to stupid choices and deception of the worst kind.  Like sheep without a shepherd, we are hungry and thirsty, but we cannot take care of ourselves.  We are in need . . . uncomfortable but undeniable need . . . for help.

But what if . . . just what if . . . help did come . . . but we did not know it . . . or did not understand it . . . or could not accept it?  What if “life” was delivered right to our door, but it looked so different from what we expected it to look like that we dismissed it and left it sitting there on the front steps?  What if our preconceived ideas of what “life” would look like are so wrong, so misplaced, that we couldn’t recognize it if it came up and shook our hand and introduced itself?

“In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men.  The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.”  (John 1:4-5)

What if worse still . . . “life” came to our door and introduced itself, and we rejected it?  What if the inadequate things and false perceptions that we had based our lives on in our vain attempt to find life on our own, prevented us from being able to accept “life” when we looked it in the eye?  What if in order to embrace it, we had to let go of other things that we held too dearly, so we said “no.”  What if we chose “death” over “life” because of our own spiritual blindness . . . ignorance . . . stupidity?

“He came to those who were His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.”  (John 1:11)

Let me ask you a question.  Don’t answer this question quickly.  Think about it.  Be totally honest with yourself?  Do you have “life”?  I’m not asking you theoretically, or theologically, or abstractly.  I’m asking you practically . . . experientially . . . in your daily life.  Do you have “life”?  Do you feel full?  Are the attributes of “life” constant companions in your life?  You know — peace, joy, contentment, satisfaction, purpose, hope, etc.?  Most people will immediately say “no”.  Still others, their theology doesn’t want them to say “no”, because they think that they ought to be able to say “yes”, but if they are totally honest, the answer is “no”.

Do you want to be able to say “yes”?  Do you want “life”?  Abundant life in all of its fullness?

Then I direct you to my favorite author.  His name is John.  His last name is unimportant.  He wrote a short treatise on “life”.  In fact, he uses the word 39 times in his book.  He says that life has come to this planet, and that it is available to all of us — not in the future, but right now — starting today and lasting into eternity.  Here is his expressed purpose for writing:

” . . these have been written . . . so that you may have life . . .”

Let me be humbly honest with you.  I have “life”.  I had “theoretical life” for a long time.  I had “supposed-to-have-it-because-of-what-I-believe” life for a long time.  But I did not have experiential “life”.  That changed when I met John and let him lead me to “life”.   It wasn’t something that I was able to just pick up and have.  I had to dig for it, hunt for it, wrestle with it, and change my mind over it (it was not what I was expecting it to look like).  But in the end, I got it.  Or should I say, I started getting it.  It is something that I’ve grown in over the last two decades of my life, and look forward to growing in more in the future.  Why?  Because it is everything that I (and you, too — all of us humans) have been looking for my entire life.  It makes me feel alive, day-in and day-out.  I want more.  And the beautiful thing about it is — it wants me to have more.

So I leave you with this thought . . . the very words of “life” itself:  “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)

And this challenge . . . don’t quit, don’t relent, don’t ease up for even a moment until you have “life”.  He wants you.  And you’ll find Him, in John’s book — the Gospel of John.  But don’t let it stop in your head, or you’ll miss it.  It’s not “life” when it’s still in your head.  It’s not “life” until it’s in your . . . you guessed it . . . life.


Following Jesus 101

September 19, 2008

For decades, my favorite passage in the Bible has been the “upper room discourse” that is recorded in John chapters 13-17.  Jesus’ discussion with His disciples that final night before He allowed Himself to be arrested and taken to the cross has stuck with me and been imprinted upon me over the years.  It defines my paradigm for following Jesus, for being His disciple.

According to Jesus, there is one and only one way to follow Him.  There is one and only one way to be His disciple.  He explained that night how it was all to work — what their lives following Him should look like as He returned to His Father and they remained in the world to do the works He had sent them to do.  He was not going to leave them as orphans.  He would be returning to them, and they would be able to do greater works than even He had done.  He would send the Spirit, who would be in them and empower them.  But in the end, they had to choose.  They had to hear what He had to say, believe it, and obey it.

Here’s what He told them.  “Abide in Me.”  (John 15:4)  That is a word that we don’t use much these days.  But it communicates a very simple and clear concept — remain in Me, continue on in Me, set up your tent and stay with Me.  Jesus had spent most of the previous three years instructing them, training them, showing and teaching them how to live life.  His final words before He went to the cross were “keep it up.”  Continue on as I’ve shown you, taught you, commanded you.

But how?  What specifically did that mean?  John records three instructions that Jesus gave them about abiding in Him —  three different aspects of what “abiding” would look like.  And He repeated each of those instructions over and over and over.  Here they are . . .

1.  keep My word (“If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (14:15), “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me” (14:21), “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word” (14:23), “He who does not love Me does not keep My words” (14:24), “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love” (15:10), “You are My friends if you do what I command you” (15:14))

2.  love one another as I have loved you (“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have loved you” (13:34), “This is my commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you” (15:12), “This I command you, that you love one another.” (15:17)

3. ask in My name (“Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do” (14:13), “If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it” (14:14), “ask whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you” (15:7), “that whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He may give you” (15:16), “if you shall ask the Father for anything, He will give it to you in My name” (16:23), “ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be made full” (16:24), “in that day you will ask in My name” (16:26))

Interestingly enough, John does not record the fourth thing that we know Jesus’ instructed His disciples to do that night.  But the other gospel writers did.  Here it is from Luke’s gospel:

4.  do this in remembrance of Me (“And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’  And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.”  (Luke 22:19-20)

Stop right here.  Reread that list.  And then reread it again.  This is what it means to abide in Jesus . . . to walk with Jesus . . . to be a disciple of Jesus.  On the one hand, isn’t it really really basic . . . almost simple . . . almost too simple?  But ask this question . . . “What is missing?”  If you are like me, you will be unable to come up with any aspect of being a Christ-follower which does not fit under one or more of these four instructions.

Now ask yourself a more important question, “Do I do this?  Does this describe me?  If this is what it means to abide in Jesus, am I abiding in Jesus?  Do I know and obey His words?  Do I love my brothers and sisters as He loves me?  Do I ask Him for the things I need to obey Him, regularly and often?  Do I break my bread in remembrance of Him as I go throughout my week?”

How do you think the disciples took this instruction?  What affect do you think it had on them?  You don’t have to go far to find out.  Acts chapter 2 – the Day of Pentacost – the Holy Spirit came – Peter explained to the gathered crowd what was happening – 3000 souls were saved – the church of Jesus Christ was born.  So what did they do?  Their first day as “the church”, what did they do?  Read this very slowly.  Treat it like one of those huge, round lollipops that you could work on all day.  It is only one verse, but it is loaded.

“And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”  (Acts 2:42)

Look at those first six words.  Contemplate them one word at a time.  “they . . . themselves” – it was a community thing.  “continually”.  “devoting”.  Think about that.  Continually devoting themselves.  And to what?  Jesus four aspects of “abiding” in Him — His word (the apostles’ teaching), loving one another (fellowship), remembering Him (the breaking of bread), and asking (prayer).  Is it no wonder that they turned the world upside down.  Humble simple obedience to the basics of the faith.  Following Jesus 101.

It is time we return to these simple instructions that Jesus has called us to.  Forget about all of the mess and fuss and culture and “Christian” stuff.  Before you do anything else . . . abide.  Make sure you are firmly grafted into the vine.  Make sure those around you are firmly grafted into the vine.  All of the other things we can do in Jesus’ name amount to nothing if we aren’t first and foremost His disciples.  ” . . . apart from Me, you can do nothing.”  (John 15:5)

House Rule #6 – forgive as the Father forgave

August 17, 2008

“Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” (Ephesians 4:32)

The house rule has been established.  The bar has been set.  There is to be absolutely no unforgiveness in the household of God.  The family of God is to be a reflection of Him, and this is who He is.  As He announced to Moses on Mt. Sinai in Exodus 34:6-7, “The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin . . . .” Forgiveness is part of His very nature.  It is an aspect of lovingkindness, which He abounds in.  Lovingkindness wants to pour out its goodness on others.  It wants to bless.  It wants to give joy.  In the presence of sin, that requires forgiveness.

That may be true of God, but how can you say “no unforgiveness” amongst His family?  It would be unreasonable for Him to hold us to the same standards that He lives up to, wouldn’t it?  Certainly there must some offenses for which we are justified to not forgive.  This only seems reasonable.  I mean, if a person keeps sinning against me, don’t I eventually have the right to hold a grudge?  The apostle Peter himself had this question.  But look at the answer.

Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”  (Matthew 18:21-22)

Seventy times seven.  I.e., never.  You don’t even keep track.  You just keep forgiving.  Jesus taught us this, when He taught us to pray.

Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come, Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.’ For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.”  (Matthew 6:9-15)

But more than just teaching us to do this, Jesus showed us how to do this during His brief life on this planet.  No one has ever been more mistreated than He, even though He deserved exactly the opposite.  Yet He forgave again and again and again.  Remarkably, He even forgave His disciples in advance for the way they would abandon Him and doubt Him when He needed them most.  But His forgiving nature shone forth most brightly from the cross.  Remember what He said, looking down at the men who had spent the last twelve or more hours beating Him, mistreating Him, sentencing Him to death, and nailing Him to that cross?  “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing “ (Luke 23:34)

Wow!  That sets the standard.  There is no crime that cannot and should not be forgiven.  For those of us who call ourselves followers of Christ, no one can commit a sin against us that we cannot and should not forgive.  No matter how horrible, how unfair, how undeserved it may seem, we are called to forgive one another “just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.”

It’s time to be honest with ourselves.  We have a hard time doing this.  Somehow, even though we ourselves have failed other plenty of times, we still have a hard time when others fail us.  When another person hurts us, it is so easy to hang onto it, to hold a grudge, to want to see the other person get theirs.  Even when we realize that Christ has called us to follow His example, and we  believe Him when He says He has given us the ability to do it, and we commit ourselves to doing so, it can still be so hard to actually forgive our brothers sometimes.  How do we do forgive one another?  When it comes down to crunch time, and I’m hurt (or worse, angry) at you for what you did, how do I reach the point of actually letting you off the hook.  Because that is what forgiveness is.  Forgivness says to the perceived offender, “Even though I charge you guilty of committing that crime, I let you off the hook with no further payment.  Go in peace.”  That is what God in Christ has done for us.  How do we do it for one another?

This is a deep subject, and there are no pat answers.  There is often emotion involved.  Sometimes there is great injustice.  But in the end, as is true with most of the difficult yet beautiful things in life, it all comes down to the cross.  God doesn’t forgive everyone’s sins – even though He is forgiving in nature.  In fact, most of those who have lived on this earth will end up paying for their sins for all of eternity in hell.  They will not be forgiven, because God is also just.  His justice requires that all sin be paid for.  But because of His great love for us, God has provided the means for our sins to be forgiven, and that means was the cross.  When He intentionally allowed Himself to be falsely condemned and put to death on the cross, Jesus took upon Himself all of the sins of mankind.  He had no sin of His own to pay for, so He was able to offer Himself as a substitute for us.  To anyone who will humbly turn from their rebellion against Him, and seek to get right with Him, God offers Jesus’ substitutionary death as payment for their sins.  If they will place their trust in Christ and become His disciple, God looks at Jesus’ death on the cross and says, “It is enough.  Your sins are paid in full.  You are now deemed righteous in my sight.  I forgive every wrong you’ve ever done – past, present, and future.”  That is the basis for God’s forgiveness.  In Christ, God has forgiven the sins of everyone who has turned to Him in faith, and He has adopted them into His family.

Think about that.  What Jesus Christ did on the cross was sufficient for the 100% morally perfect and totally holy, righteous, and just and God of the universe to completely forgive the sins of all believers of all time.  How can you and I possibly be arrogant enough to say that it was not enough to for us to forgive one another?

Who is the person that you just cannot seem to bring yourself to forgive?  . . . that perhaps you do not want to forgive?  Do this.  It has always worked for me.  Get down on your knees.  Close your eyes.  Imagine yourself kneeling there at the foot of the cross.  You aren’t going to want to, but make yourself look up at that cross.  Look into the eyes of the One hanging there.  And just try to tell Him that what He is doing is not enough.  That it is still not enough for you to forgive your brother.  That you require more payment than that.  You can’t do it.  You will break down and be humbled.  It was enough.  What Jesus did on the cross was enough.  There is nothing that anyone could ever do to you that you could not forgive based on what Jesus did on their behalf on the cross.  Whatever punishment they deserve, He’s already taken it upon Himself.  There is nothing more to be paid.  If you or I think otherwise, we are deceived.  We are proud.

In the end, isn’t that often what unforgiveness comes down?  Pride?  Don’t let your silly human pride separate you from the liberation of forgiveness.  It is at the core of true love for one another.  We are God’s kids.  He’s adopted each of us.  And He doesn’t want us to treat each other with unforgiveness.  So let us join with our big brother, the first-born son in this family, Christ Jesus Himself, and follow His example in what He has done and continues to do day in and day out for all of the rest of us in His family.  He forgives us.  And aren’t we thankful?  Let’s make sure we extend that same love to one another.

Here it is — House Rule #6.

Forgive one another (always and completely), just as God has forgiven us, based on what Jesus did on the cross.

House Rule #5 – actively build up one another

July 28, 2008

“Little children, let us not love with word or tongue but in deed and truth.” (1 John 3:18 )

Love is not passive. Love cannot and will not sit back and do nothing. If you love, you act on it. Love is the greatest motivating force to action known to mankind. Look at how Paul describes it. At its core . . .

“Love is patient. Love is kind.” (1 Corinthians 13:4)

How does love react? Patience. How does love act? Kindness. We can see this very clearly when we look at God Himself. God is love (1 John 4:8 & 16). So when we see how He acts, we know that is how love acts. Psalm 145:17 says “The Lord is righteous in all of His ways, and kind in all of His deeds.” All of His DEEDS. All of His ACTIONS. He is constantly doing kind deeds. They flow from Him, because He is love. Love is kind. Love acts. Love initiates. Kindness does not exist unless it is expressed in deed and truth. “God so loved the world that He GAVE . . .”

Where did we get the idea that we can passively sit back and think that we are a loving person. Love doesn’t sit back and passively think nice thoughts. Love acts. Love is not passive. The “one another” commands in the New Testament make this clear. Christ calls His family, His church, to act upon one another in a significant number of ways as a manifestation of their love for one another. Listen to this one given to us by the writer of Hebrews:

“Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good deeds; not neglecting to meet together as is the habit of some, but encourage one another, and all the more as we see the day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)

This is not a suggestion. It is a command. It is a house rule for God’s family. Look at it carefully. Meditate it through. It is a beautiful house rule that all of us who call ourselves disciples of Christ should devote ourselves to.

“Let us consider”, set our minds, focus our thoughts, direct our attention, to how we can act upon one another. And what is that action? We are “how to stir up”, provoke, cause one another to have a reaction. And what is that reaction? “to love and good deeds”, to want to demonstrate unconditional (agape) love and do good deeds. Now put it all together. We are to intentionally initiate with and upon each other for the purpose of making each other want to love more and do more good. Wow! Who doesn’t need that? We all need that. And Christ directs us to provide that to one another as part of His family.

“Not neglecting to meet together”. Love delights in meeting together. Love requires it. Look at the early church in Acts chapter 2. It is true that we can and should initiate with one another to love one another many other times throughout the week than just when we get together, but our times of meeting together are already dedicated to that purpose. That is when love has the greatest opportunity to pour out kindness on not just one brother or sister, or a few brothers and sisters, but on everyone who is there. How can I love on you if I don’t show up when it’s time for the church family to get together? Rather than neglecting to meet together, love makes it a priority.

“But encouraging one another”. In God’s family, encouragement is all of our responsibility to one another. If any one of us is discouraged, it is a family problem. Not that discouragement shouldn’t happen. It can and does. But encouragement should be constantly given. The Greek word Paul uses here means to come along side of a person and embolden them, empower them, fan the flames of faith alive within them, give them the courage to press on confidently in the obedience of faith. Love does that. Love wants that for those it loves. It wants its the one it loves to see God more clearly, trust Him more completely, and obey Him more fully. So rather than neglecting to meet together, love seizes its opportunities to meet together so that it can come alongside and encourage.

Can I be blunt? Our involvement in one another’s lives is usually too passive. Some of us are “shy” and so we don’t have many relationships in the first place. We are passive about evening getting to know people, let alone building them up. Others of us do not have any problem having lots of relationships, but we keep them shallow. We are passive when it comes to doing what needs to be done to build up others. Either way, it’s passivity. We justify our passivity by making excuses like “I’m too busy”, “I’m too shy”, “I don’t know how”, “I don’t feel comfortable”, “I’m too tired”, “I’m too hurt from past relationships”, etc. Let’s just be honest. Repeat after me. “I’m too selfish.” Or how about this one, “I don’t love you enough to take the risk.” Saying it that doesn’t feel good, does it. But it is true. Love initiates. If you and I do not initiate, we do not love.

But you and I don’t have to remain passive. We don’t have to remain selfish. We can become more like Christ. If we are in Him, His Spirit is in us working toward that end. We can learn to love, not just in good intentions but in affective actions. Don’t let yourself rest until you are taking active steps in this direction. No matter how well you love today, “excel still more.” (1 Thessalonians 4:9-10)

The day is drawing near. Our Savior’s return is imminent. When He does arrive, let’s be caught by Him actively loving one another.

“Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.” (1 John 3:18 )

Excel Still More

July 27, 2008

For those who asked – here’s an outline of the message that was cut short.

Love matters. If there is one thing that we don’t want to be mediocre at, it’s love (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). And yet we all fall short. We all have lots of room to improve.

How do I “excel still more” at loving my brothers and sisters in Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:9-10)? It is a long, deep, and somewhat mysterious subject, but four of the key ingredients are:

1. Live in the Word

John 3:30-32, 1 Peter 2:2, James 1:21, Hebrews 4:12, 2 Timothy 3:16-17

Main point – We do not and cannot grow and change on our own. Spiritual growth is conditional. We need the living and active Word of God to be flowing in and through our lives so the Spirit can use it to change us.

2. Be transformed one choice at a time

1 Corinthians 13:4-8a, Romans 6:16

Main Point – We are the product of our choices. We become the slave of whichever master we choose to obey — either sin or righteousness. If the Word is flowing through our lives, the Spirit will use it to make us aware of the choices that are making (many of which are often made by our automatic pilot so we aren’t even aware of them); and He will remind us of the truth that should guide us in making those choices. He will do all that He can to help us make our choices differently, and through that become different people. If we are to grow in love, we must become aware of and make different choices (to be patient, to be kind, to not take offense, to not rejoice in unrighteousness, etc.)

3. Become a properly functioning part of the church family (not just the campus ministry but the church family)

Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 4:15-16

Main Point – We are meant to grow and mature individually as part of a growing and maturing church family. This is especially true when it comes to love. Love who? One another! Christ’s design is for His body to build itself up in love. It is not for each individual part of the body to be built up separately, or for a segment of the body to be built up separately. If we each strive to be a properly functioning part of the body, the body will be built up in love and we will mature with it.

4. Embrace (don’t run from) hardship

James 1:2-4

It speaks for itself.

House Rule #4 – only edifying words

May 20, 2008

“Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians 4:29)

Let’s be real honest. Words are powerful. You and I know this. We’ve all been lifted off of the ground because of beautiful words that someone has said to us. We also been wounded deeply. Words do this. Words contain this power. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” (Proverbs 18:21) Yet in spite of our knowledge of the power of words, we still so often treat them as if they were innocent little toys for us to play with. And then when their power harms another person, we are surprised. This happens much more than any of us like.

God understands the power of words. He invented them. He uses them to communicate with us. He wants us to use them as well, both to communicate with Him and to communicate with each other. Understanding the nature of words, however, He has established guidelines for how those in His family use them with each other. Here it is, House Rule #4 for the family of God . . .

Choose what you say carefully in order to maximize the potential for edification. Speak only words which will build up the others who hear them. Never speak words that tear down.

The passages quoted above from Ephesians 4 lays this out clearly. Look at these phrases:

  • “no unwholesome words”
  • “only words that are good for edification”
  • “according to the need of the moment”
  • the goal = “give grace to all who hear”

Now that’s a high standard. Look at how absolute it is. How many unwholesome words may we use? None. Period. “Only” words that edify. Only words that contribute to the need of the moment. Only words that give grace to “all”.

Isn’t that unrealistic? I mean, seriously, how many of us have that kind of control over our mouths? But stop and think for a moment. Isn’t that exactly what we all really want? Don’t we want others to speak love to us? To build us up? To say the things that we most need to hear? To speak truth to us, even if it hurts? Of course it is. This is the golden rule at its very best — speak to others the way that you’d like for them to speak to you.

The implications of this instruction are many, and I encourage you to meditate on them. But for the sake of brevity, let me tell you where this hits me. For the most part, I moved away from harsh words, angry words, foul words, and intentionally hurtful words years ago. If you haven’t, then you should. Such words do not belong in the household of God. But this passage isn’t just saying what not to do. It is saying what to do. It is saying to maximize your words. That is where it hits me. I “under” say a lot of things. For example – sarcasm. I like to express affection to people. But somehow I learned a long time ago that it is safer and funnier to express your affection through sarcasm. Rather than being direct (and most edifying) and saying, “Wow, I’m excited to see you. I’m glad you are here. Being with you makes me happy.” I’ll say, “Oh no, if I knew you were gonna be here, I’d have gone somewhere else.” The person knows what I mean (hopefully) because of my nonverbal communication that goes with it, but it cheats everyone who hears. Love is best expressed in clear, honest, direct words. Anything less than that cloaks it and reduces its impact.

I’ve got to have a different goal. And what is that? To give grace to all who hear. To edify, build up, encourage, strengthen those involved in or overhearing the conversation. And not just partially. As much as I possibly can. As much as I enjoy it, and have decades of practice with it, sarcasm does not do that. It is at best a cheap imitation. At worst, it can cause misunderstanding and hurt. Sarcasm fails our Father’s house rules. So with His help (it’s going to take a lot of grace), I will remove sarcasm from my vocabulary — at least when it comes to speaking to people.

Like little sheep, we are so quick to imitate the world in our communication. We parrot the latest “cool” and “funny” phrases and styles from secular entertainment. We want to be cool, with it, noticed by others. We want to make people laugh. Let’s be honest – so much of the time what we do with words is about us and our fun and our attempt to control our “image”. God has a very different standard for His family. He says, stop being conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2) He also says “lay aside that old self . . . and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” (Ephesians 4:22-24) And that definitely includes how we speak to one another.

So I ask you, how does your speech measure up to this standard that God has established for His family? Are you prone to “unwholesome” words? Is your goal to build up all who hear? Do you carefully choose your words to maximize their affect, or do you just blurt out whatever comes to your mind? Is your speech all about you, or all about others. What needs to change in your verbal habits? This is one area in which we can all grow. And if we do, I’m convinced that the edifying affect of our relationships with one another will increase exponentially.

House Rules in real life – the “Barrett Standard”

April 25, 2008

I consider this post to be a special treat.

Every Christ-following family has “house rules”. Those rules reflect the character and values of the parents, as they seek to be an example and raise their children up as other-centered lovers of people. God has given us “house rule” in His word for how He wants us, his children, to relate with one another. And while it is one thing to read and think theoretically about those “house rules” which are recorded in the bible, it is another thing altogether to see examples of what it takes to follow those principles lived out in real life.

One example that I’ve been aware of for a few years comes from the Brad & Annette Barrett family. They established a “house rule” for their family which gives us a look at how to practically put “brotherly love” into practice. I’ve heard the oldest two (Amy and Jenna) of their four daughters both refer to this particular practice as something positive in their life that has helped them learn to get along with people – even hard to love people. It must work – Amy and Jenna have now lived together almost an entire school year without bloodshed.

Here it is for you – in the words of Amy Barrett. Think about what she says. There is way too much drama and unfinished business floating around in our midst. In order to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”, we must make the tough-but-Christ-pleasing choice to resolve all of our conflicts in a timely fashion. Thank you, Amy, for sharing this with us.


The “Barrett Standard”

Growing up with three sisters you can imagine that there was a lot of fighting. I fought constantly with my sister who is two years younger than I am. We were always arguing about something, taking something that wasn’t ours, or just picking a fight because we were bored.

Even now, when we are both out of our teen years and living together with a couple of roommates, we still fight. The coolest thing about our relationship is that even when we do fight, we know how to resolve it. We may be really mad at each other, but usually within ten minutes one of us has apologized to the other and asked for forgiveness. I don’t think we would do that if we hadn’t been trained early by our parents in conflict resolution.

My parents based their instruction on this verse: “Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam, so drop the matter before the dispute breaks out.” Proverbs 17:14

Any time we were fighting and took it to our parents they would ask us these questions:

  1. Did you work it out peacefully?
  2. Did you drop the matter?
  3. Did you bring it to mom or dad?

The answers were usually “no,” so they would tell us to go back and choose one of the three options. We usually worked it out ourselves, because bringing it to our parents would usually mean that they would make us do something for our sister. They based this on Romans 12:21—“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

After we had resolved the issue we would have to choose something nice to do for our sister—doing one of her chores, letting her use something of yours, etc. The idea was that when you are serving someone and sacrificing for them it is a lot harder to be mad at them.

All these principles have been really important to me as I have grown up—I’ve learned that sitting on a problem doesn’t make it any better—you either need to work it out with that person, drop it, and/or bring it to God, and see what he would have you do.

Another great, but really hard, way to learn to love those people you don’t really like is to pray for their success and to serve them. I’ve seen my heart change for people—it’s hard to be mad at someone when you are praying that God will bless them and make them successful.

Those three little “rules” that my parents taught us growing up have been invaluable to me—they look different now than when I was six and fighting about a doll with my sister, but learning to resolve conflicts is one of our basic skills—and we need to know how to do it.

House Rule #3 – assume 100% responsibility

April 21, 2008

I find Romans 12:9-21 to be an incredibly challenging passage to try to live. It sets the bar so high. But honestly, would we expect anything less? Paul is describing how our Father wants us to view and treat each other in His family. He wants His family to be a reflection Him. He is perfect. He loves perfectly. I.e., the bar is high.

There is one verse in this passage that challenges me like no other. Honestly, I don’t like it; at least in my flesh I don’t. There are many things in this passage that I cherish greatly, and strive for. But there is one from which my flesh recoils — one that God has had to teach me the hard way. Vs. 18 . . .

“If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men”

On the surface, that may seem tame to you, but there are two phrases that make it not so. This phrase is the killer — “so far as it depends on you.” Notice that it is absolute. There are no conditions. Where’s the “if” clause? I could handle “do your part”, or “meet them halfway”, or even “be a really great guy and go more than halfway when you have to.” But that’s not what it says.

The older I get, the more I understand what it takes to maintain harmonious relationships with everyone. And the more I understand that, the more I realize that what God is asking me to do in this passage is amazingly huge. He’s asking me to do everything — absolutely everything — that I possibly can to be at peace with others — no matter whether it is my fault or not, fair or not, reasonable or not, no matter how the other person responds, no matter how they treat me, no matter what others looking on think. Love and unity matter to our Father. He does not want me to accept anything that gets in the way of that — anything. Obviously I cannot control the other person and make things right on their end, but that is not the issue. The issue is whether I’m doing everything on my end. He wants me to assume 100% of the responsibility for the quality of each of my relationships.

The second phrase in this verse is almost as bad as the first. The phrase I’m talking about is “all men.” Why not “most men?” Why not “everyone who is reasonable and willing to do their part?” Why not at least “all Christians?” We know the answer to this. Our Father loves all men. He extends His love and grace unconditionally to all men moment by moment throughout every day. He wants us to do the same. He wants His family to imitate Him. But let’s be honest. We find some people much harder to love than others. In fact, we find some of our brothers in God’s family downright annoying. They get under our skin. And then they don’t do anything (or not nearly enough) to resolve it. They go on as if nothing ever happened, or they make excuses, or they blame it all on us, or worst of all (in God’s eyes), they back away and leave the relationship in a damaged condition and are unwilling to do anything to bring reconciliation.

With people like that in the family of God, how are we to maintain an atmosphere of love and unity? Not to mention trying to be at peace with all those who are not part of God’s household? Here’s how. Are you ready for this?

House Rule #3 – assume 100% of the responsibility to have harmonious relationships with everyone else

“Bless those who curse you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep [even if you don’t want to]. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge . . . .”

That is heavy. It defies our definitions of “fair” and “just” and “reasonable.” But it does not defy a true definition of love. Love is God. Love is how He views and treats others. And this is exactly how He views and treats us. It is not a matter of us deserving it. He assumed 100% of the responsibility to mend His relationship with us. It is “unfair” to Him that He should have to do this. But then again, that’s just the point. He doesn’t have to. He wants to. The breach in our relationship with Him is entirely our fault, not His. He would be entirely just to stand at a distance and wait for us to humble ourselves and come to Him. But He does not. He humbles Himself, and comes 100% of the distance to us, and does everything that He possibly can to get us to enter back into a proper relationship with Him. If He had met us halfway, we’d still be lost. We would have no relationship with Him. But that was unacceptable to Him. So “as far at it depended on Him,” He made peace with each of us. And now He asks us to do the same for one another. Not because we deserve it. We do not. But because it is the way of love – it is His way – and we are His family. We are to imitate Him by putting our love and unity above fault and blame and pride.

This is definitely one of the keys to having a good marriage. This is one of the keys to being a good parent. This is one of the keys to having any long lasting, deep relationship. We are so good at making excuses, looking the other way and pretending nothing is wrong, waiting for the other person to act first, or putting conditions on it. I’ll talk to them again “as soon as they apologize,” or “when they admit what they did,” or “when they get over their problem,” or “when they start treating me the way that I want to be treated.” That is what our flesh says. And that is quite reasonable in the eyes of the world. But it is not the way of Christ. Clearly, the One who went to the cross, and then while hanging upon it, said “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” was not waiting for us to make the first move, or to meet Him halfway, or even to make a move toward Him at all. He assumed 100% of the responsibility to try to have a harmonious relationship with each of us.

So I ask you, are you willing to do the same? Do you have any relationships which are not at 100%? Relationships where “stuff” has happened and has left things not quite right? You know what I mean. I’m not talking about what happened, or whose fault, or what’s fair. I’m talking about love, flowing from a humble heart, with an unwavering commitment to unity. Your flesh will say, “Well what about him/her?” “Why do I have to be the one to go 100% of the way.” “Why can’t I just wait for them to take some initiative?” Take your eyes off of the other person. It is not about them. Your Father is speaking to you. Look Him in the eye. He loves you. He’s asking you to love your brother.

This is the cost to preserve love and unity in any family comprised of imperfect people. Guess what? That includes us. It doesn’t just happen. Remember, “love covers a multitude of sins.” So put on love and be a peace maker in this family. We need you.

House Rule #2 – brotherly love

April 18, 2008

I recently joined the “Renovation” Rock ministry team. You can’t imagine how thrilled I was last Sunday (my first time to participate in the team meeting) to find that they were in the process of memorizing Romans 12:9-21. What an amazing passage for a ministry team to memorize and discuss and put into practice together. In my humble opinion, it is one of the core passages in the New Testament that lay out the “house rules” — i.e., the guidelines that Christ wants us to follow as we relate with each other in His household. I’ve studied this passage for years, I’ve taught it, and I’ve probably been more influenced by it than by any other when it comes to my expectations for how I should view and relate with others in the family of God.

This is one passage that we should all be familiar with. Just look at the first verse-and-a-half of this passage . . .

“Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love . . .”

Wow! Stop and think about that for a minute. Is that setting the bar high or what? Without hypocrisy, the real deal, no act, no show, no pretense – pure, undefiled love. That is easier said than done. What does love without hypocrisy look like?

(parenthetical note: If you want to study this passage for yourself, here’s the structure: 12:9 – the main theme – love without hypocrisy; 12:9 & 12:21 – the bookends (hate what is evil, cling to what is good); 12:10-13 – the good that we are to cling to; 12:14-20 – the evil that we are to hate)

12:9&21 give us the core of what pure love looks like — it hates what is evil (in relationships), and it clings to what is good (in relationships). In fact, it overcomes the evil in relationships with good. And what are those good things that genuine love clings to? Read vs. 10-13. And what are those evil things that unhypocritical love hates and overcomes? Read vs. 14-20.

But check out this next phrase. I’ve got to be honest. The image in this next phrase has marked me for life. From the moment that I first understood it, I realized that I was home. I did not have to look any further. God understood the deepest yearnings of my heart and had provided me with a true family to practice them with. Here is the phrase I’m talking about — “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.” (NASB) That may be the single most powerful statement of the “House Rules” in the entire Bible. If you and I were to grasp this one concept and put it into practice, it would revolutionize all of our relationships with one another.

There is a powerful word picture in this phrase that is a little clouded in the English. Paul uses a Greek word in this sentence that is used nowhere else in the Bible. In fact, he combines two Greek words into one in order to make his point. The first is the word from which the city of Philadelphia (the city of brotherly love) gets its name. It literally refers to the committed love of brothers — you know — close family, nothing comes between us, together until the end. That in itself would be a powerful thing for Paul to tell us to emulate in the church. But he adds to it another word. The second word was used in secular Greek culture to refer to the tender affection which exists between close family members, like you see between a parent and child, or a mother and her baby, or any two family members who have strong feelings of affection for one another. The King James version of the bible may actually do the best job of translating this phrase when it says “be kindly affectioned to one another with brother love.” There are two critical elements here that mark all mature family love — (1) a permanent, uncompromising devotion to one another, and (2) a tender affection for one another. The absence of either leaves it lacking.

This is the paradigm that God gives us for our relationships with one another in His household. We are family — literally. We are brothers — literally. We’ve been adopted by the same Father. We have the same older Brother (Jesus). We’re going to spend eternity together in the same kingdom. And it is God’s will that we start acting like it now. He wants us to relate like an ideal family. What other kind of family would He have? Everyone wants to have a perfect family — an environment where there is unconditional acceptance, freedom to be who you are, no fear of being rejected, genuine love, free flowing affection. God has placed the yearning for such relationships in the heart of every person. You can see this in every small child. The church is meant to be exactly that — as close as you can get to an ideal family this side of heaven.

There are two central characteristics of this “brotherly love” in an ideal family that we are to have for one another. First, in God’s ideal family, the family members are totally committed to each other, and nothing can come between them. “We’re together come hell or higher water,” my grandmother used to say. Separation is out of the question. No problem is too big. No conflict is too major. Second, in God’s ideal family, the affection flows. Family members realize that they belong to each other, and they enjoy each other. There is a playfulness, a tenderness, a kindness, an intentional demonstration of “I like you” and “I love you” that cannot be missed. It is both verbal and physical (in only wholesome and appropriate ways, of course, because love hates evil).

Here is House Rule #2 – be devoted to one another and tenderly affectionate to one another just like close brothers, because you are.

It is to our shame that this is not what the church of Jesus Christ is usually known for today. So many people who claim to follow Christ are very worldly in their commitment to His family. Too often, our commitment to one another lasts only as long as we agree and get along. Too often our affection for one another is limited to begin with and turns downright cold at the slightest provocation. Brothers, this should not be. This ought to be our trademark.

Are you devoted to God’s family? Are you committed to the specific local church that you are a part of? Let me be more blunt and specific with you. Is there anyone (and I mean anyone) in that group that you are not committed to? Anyone that you wish would just leave? Anyone that you wish you wouldn’t have to be around, deal with, face, try to be nice to? We all can struggle with that at times (out of our selfishness), but it should not be a state in which you or I remain. If you are in that state at this time, it’s time to repent. By separating yourself from a brother, do you realize what you are doing? Do you think it pleases the Father to have His children not get along? Do you think He is training us to mistreat one another? Do you think He would even listen to us if we approached Him about voting one of His kids off of the island? We’re His kids. He’s adopted each of us. He paid the same price for each one of us — Jesus’ death on the cross. He is totally devoted to us. We don’t have the right to not be devoted to one another. If anyone has the right to disown anyone in the family of God, it is the oldest brother — Jesus. We are all misfits compare with Him. Yet He not only welcomes each of us with loving arms, but He has gone out of His way to serve us and sacrifice for us without conditions. He’s our example. In this family, everyone belongs . . . period.

Are you affectionate toward your brothers in Christ? You’ve may have heard it said, “I know I have to love him, but I don’t have to like him.” Wrong! You won’t find that in the Bible. In this passage, we are commanded to demonstrate the tender affection of close family members. Look at Jesus. Look at His tender, kind, affectionate manner. He’s our example. So let me be blunt again? Do you like the members of your church family? Is there anyone (and I mean anyone) that you simply do not like. Is there anyone that you are not warm and kind and affectionate toward? You won’t always have warm feelings toward all of them, but don’t let that stop you. Your feelings follow your thoughts and your actions. If your thoughts and actions towards your brothers are loving, your feelings will follow. If you are harming the family dynamic by disliking or being cold toward a brother, it’s time to repent. Do you think it pleases the Father for us to not like each other? Do you think He is training us to be cold to one another? May it never be! He is tenderly in love with each of us, and He wants us to view and treat each other the way that He does. He wants us to imitate Him. We don’t have the right to dislike each other, to stand aloof from one another — not in God’s family.

House Rule #2 in God’s household – love each other like true brothers — the tender, affectionate, uncompromisingly devoted love of close brothers.

It’s a tall order, my brothers. But walking together in Christ, with the power of the Spirit inside of us, it is a goal we can aspire to and make progress toward. We should settle for nothing less.

House Rule #1 – step down from the pedestal

April 15, 2008

I have a question for you. If you were to write a short description of how we ought to relate with one another in Christ’s family, where would you start? What do you consider the starting point for Christ-like love? Where does “love without hypocrisy” begin in a person’s life?

Our Master has not left us to have to figure this our for ourselves. First He gave us His own perfect life as the example to follow — “A new commandment I give to you. Love one another as I have loved You.” (John 13:34) And second, He had His apostles provide us with lots of clear, specific instructions in their letters to the churches. In their letters to us, the apostles have defined the “house rules” for the family of God. Every household has rules. God’s family is no different. He has standards for how He expects us to relate with one another in His household (which is what we are). If we are going to truly follow Jesus by doing what He says, we must familiarize ourselves with these instructions.

Perhaps the two most significant passages (in their sheer breadth) in the New Testament regarding
the “house rules” are Romans 12 and Ephesians 4. They both give us the big picture of “why”, and they get very specific in telling us “how”. These are two passages that every Christ-follower ought to be intimately familiar with. Both contain a lot of individual instructions, none of which are prioritized above any other. The implication seems to be that they are all important. The absence of any one of them leaves our love for one another lacking — incomplete.

One thing that I find fascinating about these passages is that they both start with the same instruction. Paul doesn’t tell us that it is the most important instruction, but he lists it first in each passage. I am, therefore, calling it “house rule #1”. Not because it is most important, but because it is the one that Paul gives us first. That must be significant. After calling on the believers to give themselves completely to live in a manner worthy of their calling (Rom 12:1-2, Eph 4:1), Paul says . . .

“I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think” (in Romans 12:3), and more succinctly “With all humility . . . .” (Ephesians 4:2)

Think about that . . . . Is that where you would start explaining to people how to truly love others? As he is about to launch into an amazingly beautiful and detailed description of how God intends for His household to view and relate with one another, this is where He starts — be completely humble. Don’t be proud. Have an accurate view of yourself. Don’t be full of yourself. Remove yourself from the pedestal.

The more I think about it, the more sense it makes. What so often gets in the way of our willingness to do what it takes to love others? Ourselves! What I want. What I think I deserve. My comfort. My pleasure. Why do we so easily get upset with one another? I don’t deserve to be treated that way! You can’t do that to me, say that about me, displease me, get in my way of what I want! My opinions are right, my perceptions are right, my assumptions are right, my interpretation of all that has occurred between us is right, my understanding of your motives is right. We are so proud. We are so full of ourselves. It is at the very heart of our sin against God, and yes, it is also at the very heart of our sin against one another. We have placed ourselves on a pedestal, and everything in our little worlds revolves around us.

This is House Rule #1 in the family of Christ. I’ve got to step down off of the pedestal. It is not about me. It’s about Christ. We are His body. It’s not about my rights. I have none. It’s not about what I deserve. That has already been settled at the cross, thank God, or I’d be in hell right now. It’s not about what I want. It’s about what my Master wants of me. It’s not about what I feel like, or what makes me comfortable. It’s about what my Master feels and what pleases Him. And here is what He wants me to do — He wants me to love you.

I do not know if it is the starting point, but I am convinced that it is awfully close. How successful we are at loving one another as Christ loves us depends to a large degree on how much we are willing to humble ourselves. Think about it . . . if I take myself out of the picture, I can love you now matter what happens, and no matter how you respond. By this one trait alone, we would mark ourselves as a people that the rest of the world would be shocked by — true humility. Look at Christ — our perfect model of this. He emptied Himself. And because He rid Himself of His own rights, and agenda, and deservedness, He was free to do exactly what His Father asked Him to, completely, and without reservation. He was love in action. He took Himself out of the picture, and if we are to follow in His footsteps, we must do the same.

So ask yourself the question — how much of my life revolves around me? In my relationships with others, how much of what I do and do not do revolves around how they treat me, how they do at giving me what I want, how fun/pleasant/satisfying it is to me, how it feels to me, how comfortable it is for me, how far I should have to go, how much it costs me, whether it is fair to me, what others might think of me?

Who is on your pedestal? Christ stepped down off of His to love you. Are you willing to do the same to love your brothers and sisters in Christ?