Archive for January, 2009

Think not that I came to send peace on the earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law” Matthew 10:34-35

There is a clear impression of Jesus as being very mild mannered, kind, caring, and a person who reconciles people to one another and to God. There is a certain sense in which that is true. He certainly came to reconcile us to God and one another. Yet in another sense the mission of Jesus is one of division. He says that he came to set men at variance with one another. In some way, because of Jesus, even close family members will be at odds with one another.

When I gave my life to Christ things began to change very quickly in my life. It had a huge impact on my family relationships. The heart of the conflict was that by following Jesus I had adopted a new Lord and Master. My view of the world began to change. My values changed. My priorities changed. My ambitions changed. There was a growing gap that developed between me and my dad in particular. His hopes for my life, to be in business and make lots of money where no longer my hopes. When I had been a Christian for less than two years I sensed God calling me to a life of serving Him. My dad told me that when i came home from college and told him that, I cold not have hurt him more if I had kicked him in the groin. Clearly Jesus had put me at variance with my dad.

If we are going to follow Jesus and have Him truly be our Lord then there will be times when people who do not follow Him will not understand us. There will be times when they will angry with us, hurt by us, argue with us. We must realize that when we follow Jesus we become citizens of His Kingdom. We become exiles in our own communities. We just don’t exactly fit anymore. That misfit will divide us from others. But it need not make us people who lash out against those who are different from us. Paul tells us in Romans 12:18 “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men”. By it’s very nature our following of Jesus puts us at odds. But in spite of that reality, we are to do all that we possibly can to bridge the gap and be reconciled in Christ.

In the case of my dad it took years of my wife and I faithfully living out our relationship with Christ before anything changed. It meant that at times we put ourselves at odds with him. There were times when he just did not understand why we lived as we did. In fact he was certain that we were being irresponsible by not trying to get as rich as possible. But over time he began to see something. He saw that our children were happy even though they did not have all the stuff he thought they should. He saw that our family was content even though our cars were old and out house was the post child of the handyman special. He saw that Barbara and I deeply loved one another in a way that he felt he was missing in his relationships.

Eventually he contracted acute leukemia and within 9 months he died, but not before he came to the realization that he needed the Jesus that I knew. As my father was near death he reached out his hand to me in a sign that he wanted to pray. I took his hand fully expecting to pray in some way for my dad to finally give his life to Christ. Before I ever had a chance to say anything, my dad said these words, “Jesus I am trusting in You. I put my life in your hands and I want to go to be with you”. In that moment the sword between me and my dad was removed. He was reconciled to me but more importantly he was reconciled to Jesus. It was the last time we spoke. A few moments later he said he wanted to sleep. He went to be with the Lord a few hours later.

Yes, by the very nature of who Jesus is, people will be at odds with one another. But also by the very nature of His death on the Cross, his Resurrection, and Ascension, Jesus reconciles people to one another and to Himself. That reconciliation brings us closer to one another than we ever could be without Him. Out role in that is to live out the Gospel with as much passion and devotion as possible.

I admit that to the untrained eye, I am something of a biblical and theological mutt. There is no pedigree to my background. My theology degrees include a Bachelors from a Catholic/Charismatic University, (Yep you read that right) two years of study at a very liberal Presbyterian seminary, a Masters degree from an Evangelical/Anglican school, and a Doctorate from a conservative Reformed/Presbyterian school. I grew up in an unchurched family that had loose connections to the Roman Catholic Church, came to Christ through a ministry called Young Life, was a leader in a fellowship of about 100 people that met as a large group and as house churches. I was pastor of a large Presbyterian church, planted a church from scratch starting with only our family and am now a one of five pastors on staff of a non-denominational mega church of about 10,000 people a week.  Definitely a mongrel. No AKC papers for me giving my lengthy pedigree of church affiliation or listing a family of ministers going back four generations. I am a mutt through and through.

But you know what? I like being a mutt. The right kind of mutt can take full advantage of the best of all the things that make up being a mutt. Granted a mutt can never win the Westminster Kennel Club Championship, but hey, that’s over rate anyway. What self respecting mutt would ever want to be forced to prance around a ring with a bunch of other dogs named things like, Henry Fastidious Excelsior Minor IV just to see which of them is the “perfect” representation of the breed? Give me a dog named Spike who is part German Shepard part Collie any day. He would love you to death and keep annoying sales people away at the same time. The best of both breeds. And as long as you got the short hair of the Shepard you solve the shedding problem too.

So what does that have to do with House Churches and Mega Churches? Simply this, I think the picture of the church in the New Testament is more mutt than pure bred. Sadly most of us approach it as if it is pure bred and that our version is clearly the “perfect” representation of the breed. We prance around our theological and ecclesiastical show rings hoping to win the prize. I experienced this first hand one day when I asked a group of House Church leaders if they called their group a House Church, or Simple Church, or Organic Church, all terms in common use. One of the guys looked me square in the eye and said, we call it Real Church. Okay, then I guess what I have is fake church. On the other side of things I have heard numerous pastors of more conventional churches say that house churches are “not really churches”. I am convinced neither of those responses are Biblical.

What I saw in the New Testament the first time I read it in 1974 was an incredible variety in the way ministry and “church” was done. Sometimes they met in large groups of hundreds and thousands. Sometimes, often times they met in small settings of homes. Sometimes they met in public places like the Temple, or the local community center that they called a gymnasium. In larger cities it was different from smaller cities. In places where there were lots of believers it was different from places with only a few. The church in the first few centuries was far from being a monolithic pure bred. It was way more like a mutt than most of us are comfortable with.

In a recent round table discussion with about to dozen leaders of Mega Churches and House Churches it became obvious that none of us has it right. None of us are the “perfect” representation of this thing we call Church. There are lots of things we can learn from one another. There are lots of things we can do together if we focus not on our “breed” but on King Jesus and His Kingdom.

In listening to these various leaders, both in the context of the meeting and as we shared meals together I learned a lot about how much we are alike and how much we need each other. How are we alike? Well we all need to be given huge amounts of grace from others because we are not one anothers enemy. We are one anothers family. We might think that the other is more like our crazy uncle Larry, but they are still family. The tactic of our real enemy is always to bring division and then pick off the weakest member of the pack. I learned that neither group is very good at discipleship. House Churches are good at community but that is not the same thing. Mega Churches are good at classes and the like, but that is not discipleship either. Growing radical followers for Jesus who are sold out to Him by pouring our lives into them so they pass that on to others, now that is discipleship.

I also learned how we need one another and can take the best of both and make a difference for Jesus. Mega Churches need to learn how to have community and care for people on a personal level better than they do. House Churches need to learn how to serve beyond the boundaries of their group and be part of a global church. Mega Churches can bring some of the best teaching, resources, and logistical support that we could ever hope for as we work to serve the King. House Churches bring a nimbleness, an openess to the move of the Spirit that allows us to see and hear what God is doing that might not fit our strategic plan.

What is important in all this is that we begin to realize that we are all “mutts” and that we need each other for the sake of the King and His Kingdom. There is no “perfect” representation of the “breed”. There is however a perfect representation of the “Bride”. It is a Bride that Jesus is perfecting to present to Himself in glory. I think it is about time that we the Bride start getting our act together and cooperate with one another for the sake of the Groom.

“But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” Matthew 5:39

Many people want to bypass these provocative words from Jesus because they seem to imply that we are to allow people to just beat the tar out of us and not resist physical violence and injury. Having a sense of what I think Jesus really meant by these words causes me to wonder at how easily we get deceived into believing that it means something that is impossible to obey. God does not give us commands that are impossible to obey. He certainly gives us ones that are difficult and that challenge us but never ones that are impossible.

In order to understand what God wants of us, it is important to catch key details. Anytime the Bible gives a particularly vivid detail we need to pay attention. There is a vivid key detail in this verse that speaks volumes. Jesus said, if someone “strikes you on the right cheek” then you are to turn your face to him in such a way as to present your left cheek. The implication being that he may hit you again. What is the significance of the “right” cheek. Why not the left cheek? Picture someone getting hit on the right cheek. What is the most likely way for that to happen? Since most people are right handed and would hit someone with the right hand, then the only way for them to hit someone on the right cheek is to do it as a backhanded slap. What Jesus is speaking about here is not letting someone pummel you into a pile of broken bones. Rather He is talking about taking an insult. I backhanded slap is just that. It is an insult that challenges you to retaliate. It is an attempt to shame you and get you to either back down in utter humiliation or lash out and escalate the conflict. 

To turn the other cheek is neither humiliating nor retaliation. It is rather a response of strength that says, “I will not seek revenge because I am stronger than that”. It also says, I will not respond in shame because I have dignity in Christ. My dignity is not found in if I can hit you back and hurt you. My dignity is found in Christ and I will respond in just the way He would respond. 

In practice there are very few times in ones life when another person would give you an actual backhanded slap. There are times when they might give you a verbal one, or show great disrespect for you in some other way. It is those things that get people all worked up and excited. Think of how often you see people arguing and fighting because someone “disrespected” them. What they are looking for is dignity. They want an acknowledgement that they are a person of substance and importance. If someone does not give them that respect then they feel somehow violated. The means to get that respect and dignity is to exert power over the other person and show that you are stronger, better, more significant than they are. So instead of turning the other cheek, you strike back, preferably with even more force. If that is what you need to do to get respect and dignity then you will never have it.

Our dignity comes because we are made in the image of God. Our significance comes because we are called by Jesus to be world changers. Our power and strength comes because we are filled with the Holy Spirit who gives us the ability to receive the insults of others and respond with as Christ responded to those who hurled insults at Him. 

Black athletes who broke the color barrier in professional sports understood this. People like Jackie Robinson knew that they would face insult after insult. Those insults were intended to humiliate and incite an even more violent response. The hope was that such a response would then justify the impression of the black man as out of control and uncivilized. But when the response was a quiet dignity that came from within it changed the world. Racial barriers began to fall and reconciliation started to take place.

It is no different for Christians. When we respond to insults with the same kind of vindictiveness then we affirm for the world that Christianity is a sham and a joke. But when we respond in quiet dignity, drawing on the power of Christ, we provoke a response of respect and wonder and we compel people to want to learn more about Jesus. Turning the other cheek is not impossible, but it is difficult. But when we do respond with the gentle dignity of Jesus, then we bring glory to Him.

But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” 1 Peter 3:15

When is the last time, if ever, that someone who did not follow Christ asked you why you were always so hopeful? It seems to me that it rarely happens. A vast majority of people I know have never had someone approach them and ask about their faith after seeing in them a life of hope and joy. How sad is that. Peter seems to think that this should be a common occurrence. It should be something that happens with such frequency that we are always ready with an explanation. It is this verse that is at the heart of what it means to be a Provocative Christian. Our lives should be so running over with hope that people are drawn to us and want to have that hope. Our lives should provoke the question, “why are you so hopeful, or loving, or joyful, or kind, or whatever?”

In the off chance that we get asked, Peter says that we must be prepared. If this verse ever gets dealt with in sermons and Bible studies it is usually to focus on this part. Usually we focus on what kinds of answers to give people to convince them to follow Jesus. Sadly we usually focus on answers to questions that nobody is asking. Trust me, the average person who is not following Jesus really doesn’t care about things like, the rapture, how Jesus is present in communion, or if the King James is the only reliable translation. Don’t get me wrong. Truth in all it forms is important. But arguments about truth is not what attracts most people to Jesus. Lives well lived, following Him who is the Way, Truth, and Life, will attract people and provoke them to ask questions about our hope.

So why doesn’t it happen much? Part of the answer is in the first phrase, “in your hearts set Christ apart as Lord”. If we really loved the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength then our hope would be assured and it would shine through. So if no one is asking about the hope you have, maybe you need to take a closer look at whether or not Jesus is in fact set apart in your heart as Lord. Is your day filled with thoughts of how to serve Him and love him and serve and love others in His name? If so, your hope will be obvious. Do you find yourself thinking of Jesus and talking to Him throughout your day? If so, your hope will be contagious.

Another reason why people may not be asking you the question is found in the last phrase, “do this with gentleness and respect”. Far too many people have the picture of Christians, not as people of hope, but of angry people who are mad at the world. We have got to learn how to disagree with someone and be gentle and respectful. If you want a role model for that just look at Jesus when we dealt with people like the woman at the well, or the one caught in adultery, or Peter after the denial. I think that often the person who argues the loudest and goes on the attack is the person who is most insecure in what they believe. I think we have a lot of insecure Christians out there. The person who is prepared in their faith and has Christ set apart in their hearts is a person who can be gentle and show respect.

Finally, if you feel like you have set Christ apart in your heart and you are gentle and respectful, and you do shine forth hope and still no one is asking about it, there may be a very simple solution. Stop hanging out with so many Christians all the time. Let me put it another way. Start rubbing elbows with people who do not know Jesus. Most people who have been following Jesus for more than two years, have no significant relationships with non-Christians. Oh you may know some and have a passing acquaintance, but you don’t share life with them. People aren’t asking because they don’t see enough of your life to see the hope in times of trouble, or the love for others in time of suffering. You need to get closer to them and let them see your life. Invite them over for a barbecue. Get tickets for a sporting event and make them your guest. Offer to babysit their kids so they can have a date night. Find some way to serve them in Christs love and build a relationship. Oh, and make sure you are ready with an answer for the hope you have, because trust me, if you live that way, the questions will come.

“For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places”  Ephesians 6:12

What is it that binds people together into the type of community that the Bible refers to as “koinonia – a sharing of life”? What is it that causes people to be willing to lay down their lives for one another, to serve one another, to sacrifice, forgive, encourage, support, and build one another up? The classic trilogy, Lord of the Rings (LOTR) from J.R.R. Tolkien gives us amazing insight into some biblical truth. It does so by showing us how that kind of community is possible between men who previously distrusted one another, Elves and Dwarves who hated one another, and Halflings who would prefer nothing better than to avoid them all while staying home eating salted pork and smoking a pipe filled with Longbottom Leaf.

Key to understanding how this incredibly diverse group was knit together into a Band of Brothers, sacrificing their all for one another is that they knew they were in a war together. And it was not a small, minor skirmish. It was a war for the fate of the world. It was a war in which the most hideous evil to ever exist was seeking to enslave, torture, and crush all people of goodwill. They knew that they were together in a struggle to the death between good and evil. If you ever speak to, or read about soldiers who together faced an enemy that sought to destroy them then you have learned about the bond that can only come in the face of such danger. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, you King Henry speaks to his vastly outnumbered men on the eve of battle. He inspires them with the recognition that back in England there is a multitude of men who will one day wish they had been part of that “lonely few”, that “band of brothers”. There is something about facing danger together that forges a bond that nothing else has the fire to accomplish.

Followers of Christ are engaged in such an epic struggle. Paul says that we are in a wrestling match that is a life and death struggle. We are wrestling against a spiritual evil that is wicked and wants to destroy us. In order to face that enemy we must buckle on our helmets and breastplate, take up our sword and our shield and go to battle. It is serious business. What is truly fascinating is that Paul’s call to arms in Ephesians 6 comes directly on the heals of his call to all of us to be in right relationships with one another in which we submit to one another out of love for Christ. We are NOT to go into this battle alone. We are to go into this battle locked arm and arm with other followers of Christ, other fellow soldiers.

The Fellowship of Ring, those nine disparate characters, quickly came to realize that despite all their significant differences, they were not one anothers enemies. They were in fact one anothers brothers with a common enemy. Followers of Christ must realize those same two things. No matter how significant our differences we are not one anothers enemies. We are in fact one anothers brothers and sisters in Christ and we have a common enemy. That enemy is the “devil who prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour’ 1 Peter 5:8.

Perhaps for those followers of Christ who have been raised in a western culture, the problem is that our enemy is not a flesh and blood enemy. It is a spiritual enemy. We tend to ignore the spiritual reality around us and focus on the material world. As a result we forget that we are actually in a battle. The more we come to realize that we are in a battle together and that we must trust one another to guard each others back, the more we will see the kind of community that the world longs for. We will begin to see people ask to become a part of our shared life. True Christian community, forged in spiritual battle will provoke the world to want to join us.


The classic trilogy written by J.R.R. Tolkien has been dissected countless times as people have sought to plumb its philosophical and theological depths. There have been volumes written on the world view presented by Tolkien, on the nature of good and evil, on the place of sacrifice and honor, on courage and fear, and a host of other things. What strikes me is that I have never seen anything that deals with the nature of community or what the Bible calls fellowship. What surprises me about this is that the first book in the trilogy is called, “The Fellowship of the Ring”. So that got me thinking, “What can we learn about fellowship or community from the writings of Tolkien?”

One of the most striking things that I get from the book when it comes to community is that real community requires forgiveness. It requires forgiveness even in the face of the most painful of trespasses. There are two instances where this truth is revealed. One is in the betrayal and death of Boromir and the other is the friendship that develops over time between Gimli the Dwarf and Legolas the Elf.

Nine very diverse characters set out on a journey that will seal the fate of the world. They must take a magic ring to a distant volcano and throw it in so that it, and the evil that inhabits it, will be destroyed. Failure to do so will mean that evil will, in all likelihood, dominate the world and destroy all men. The evil of the ring is alive and it tempts people to make use of it. It deceives people into thinking that they can use the power of the ring for good when in fact the power of the ring will use them for evil. The warrior Boromir falls to this temptation. He thinks that if he can take the ring from Frodo, the bearer of the ring, then he can use its power to save his people.  His attempt to take the ring fractures the fellowship. When Boromir quickly realizes his error, his sin against the others, he repents to the point of his own death while protecting the two Halflings, Merry and Pippin. The surviving members of the fellowship could have easily remained bitter towards the dying Boromir. As a result of his attempt to take the ring it looks as if their mission will fail. But instead they give him compassion and forgiveness and honor him in death.

For Gimli and Legolas the issue runs far deeper. Their two races have been suspicious of one another for generations. Past clashes and betrayals and misunderstandings have built a huge wall of division between two peoples who once were allies. During the course of their journey and their life and death struggles together, these two mismatched characters become the closest of friends, willing and ready to die for one another. It is truly a demonstration of the words of Jesus, “greater love has no man than this, that he lays down his life for his friends”. Gimli and Legolas become that kind of friend to one another because they learn to forgive and to trust.

In both cases forgiveness does not come easy or cheap. In order to forgive Boromir the group had to recognize that they could have just as easily come under the tempting spell of the ring. They understood the truth of the proverb, “There but for the grace of God, go I”. Looking deep into your own soul and seeing your own short-comings and even brokenness is not a pleasant exercise. But it must be done if we are to have the strength and motivation to forgive others. In the case of Legolas and Gimli they both had to admit their own sin and repent of it. They both had to acknowledge that they were wrong about the other and that their actions and attitudes were wrong. They had to in some way reject generations of heritage that they were raised in, rejecting the things taught them by their own people. Any one of those things is a painful task. To have to do all of it seems nearly impossible.

There is a part of me that wonders if some measure of the popularity of Lord of the Rings isn’t to be found in our unexpressed longing for community and fellowship like that of Tolkien’s characters. Somehow there is a recognition that we are far too alone and isolated, our relationships are too shallow. We long for a world of relationships where people do forgive one another and they do sacrifice for one another and the do love one another to the point of ultimate sacrifice. Ever since Adam and Eve and the division that sin brought into human/divine relationships, we have had this ache in our souls for real community. How wonderful is it that Jesus promises to restore those relationships through the cross and by faith. The Cross opens the door for them, but we must be willing to do the hard work of forgiving others because we too have been forgiven. The Holy Spirit gives us the true power that we need in order to face our own sin and forgive the sin of others.

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:48

Nobody is perfect is one of the few remaining truisms that has nearly universal agreement among people of every cultural milieu, philosophical system, or religious ideology. It is the standard way of accounting for our short comings both major and minor. We may want to do better and we may want others to do better but there is always the caveat that we know perfection is impossible.

Yet here comes Jesus again with one of his incredibly uncomfortable statements, “Be perfect just like God is perfect”. Talk about raising the bar to a ridiculous level! At least it certainly seems that way. How in the world are we supposed to be perfect like God the Father when we already know that as human beings we can’t be perfect. Jesus Himself seems to acknowledge that we will continue to sin when He teaches the disciples to pray and tells the to ask to be forgiven just as we forgive others. A prayer like that assumes that sin will be an ongoing reality even in the life of the most dedicated of Christ-followers. If that is the case, then how are we to be “perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect”.

Well like all verses in the Bible, context is everything. We need to read the first 47 verses in Chapter 5, the beginning of what know of as The Sermon on the Mount. It is Jesus’ most complete teaching on what the life of a Christ-follower should look like. In what He has already said He has consistently raised the bar. Murder is not just physically killing someone, it is also hating them from the heart. Adultery follows a similar ideal. Retaliating against a person who slaps us, loving our enemies, and being a person who forgives are among the hard things Jesus calls us to in those verses. Each of those things follows on the heels of Jesus saying that He came not to abolish but to fulfill the law. So in some way, what He is teaching has always been the intent of God’s law. There is a sense that what Jesus is saying is that we have stopped short of understanding what the Father has always called for. We have restricted our definitions of what is right and wrong to what we can accomplish with a minimal of effort. What Jesus is saying is that we can not and must not sell ourselves or God short.

This idea of not coming up short is found in the word He uses for “perfect”. It is the Greek word, “telos”. Among other things it has the idea of reaching the goal or the end. A “tele-vision” is something that sends a picture to an end user, just as a tele-phone sends a voice to the end or goal. Telos also has the idea of something being complete. So when Jesus tells us to be perfect as the Father is perfect we need to understand that He is placing before us a goal. There is something that we are striving for. The goal is in fact to become complete in Christ. In order for that to happen there must be no halfway measures. We can’t say, “I never killed someone so I must be okay”. We must ask about our heart and our attitude towards others, not just the external appearance or action. We can’t be content with a little cleaning up of our lives that is better than most. We must always be looking to the Father for the model of how we live.

There are two dangers however that we must be aware of. One is pride. We can easily become spiritually proud thinking that we have accomplished perfection on our own. This was the sin of so many of the Pharisees in Jesus day. The second danger is despair and a feeling that we can’t be good enough to be perfect like God so we give up. I think in both cases that Philippians 1:6 guards us against both these errors, “He who began a good work in you, will bring it to completion at the Day of Christ Jesus”. The word for completion in that verse is the root word “telos”. God is working in you to bring you to complete perfection in Christ. So you need not despair because He WILL see it through and you can not be proud because HE will see it through.

Of course as in all things in our walk with Christ, we are required to put our whole self in. There are no halfway measure or efforts that are acceptable. We are to be radically, provocatively, sold out 100% for Jesus. Yet in being sold to Jesus, we will all the while know that when we fail, He forgives us and carries us on to the goal and that when we succeed, it is ultimately because of His grace and for His glory.

“the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.” Romans 8:7

One of my favorite shows when I was growing up was The Three Stooges. It is a sign of my wife’s love for me that she married me in spite of this fact. She can’t stand the Stooges. One of the more common parts of the Stooges was the slap-stick comedy in which somebody was getting their head squeezed in a vice, or nose twisted by pliers, or head spun around three or four times like something out of the exorcist. At some point the person under duress would yell “uncle”. At that time in American slang it meant that you gave up, you surrendered, you submitted to the stronger person.

Of course the Stooges borrowed the phrase from the culture. Kids would wrestle with one another for all they were worth, but when someone got the upper hand and the one loosing was willing to give up all he had to do was say “uncle”. If you were the one winning you would keep prodding your opponent, “SAY UNCLE!” until they finally gave in. To hear your opponent say uncle was to know the thrill of victory. To be forced to say uncle was to know agony of defeat.

The false impression that people have is of some weak, mindless, almost lemming-like following of another, no matter what they say or do. Submission is seen as giving up your voice and having no say in what happens. Many people who have demanded submission of this variety have pointed to the Bible for their justification. They point to verses like Hebrews 13:17 “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority” or Colossians 3:18 “Wives, submit to your husbands”. They demand a submission that is complete and total and unquestioning.

That is not what the Bible means when it tells us to submit to our leaders or even to submit to God. The Greek word that the Bible uses for submit has the idea behind it of yielding to someone after a debate or engagement. Think of Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the Lord and eventually yielding or submitting. Think of the Hebrew understanding of the word for woman, which carries with it the idea of “one who talks back”. (insert joke here) The wife was not expected to yield mindlessly to the husband, but to in fact be in a complementary relationship that offers another alternative. The yielding or submission comes once you have expressed your thoughts and wrestled with those of the other person. At some point you must submit yourself to what they decide.

Healthy relationships are ones in which there is a kind of wrestling and debate about issues of importance. People express their ideas. Options are explored. Everything is put on the table and sometimes passionately. We even need to do this in our relationship with God, but in the end we yield to His will. This is what Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane. He wrestled with the Father.  He proposed other options. He did so with passion and agony. But in the end, he yielded to the Father. The result of the kind of wrestling that results in saying “uncle” is that you then own the decision. You have put forth your idea to the best of your ability. But in the end, you agree with the one in charge. It becomes perfectly clear that you must submit because it is the best possible thing to do.

When we fail to wrestle before we submit there is a tendency to hold on to rebellion in our hearts. We still hold out that we are right and we go along with a grudging attitude. There remains that little voice saying that we are smarter, we know better, we would do it differently. Our submitting to God must be such that with our whole heart we are able to say that His way is right, we have no alternatives that could compare, and we gladly follow Him because we recognize that He is Lord and not us. He has won the wrestling match and we say “uncle”.

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. Luke 14:26

What in the world are we supposed to make of these words from Jesus? It seems to be a pretty clear and simple statement but does Jesus really want us to hate our families? When I was a new Christian there was a group that made this verse one of the foundations of their ministry. They convinced thousands of young people to renounce their parents, family and friends and run off and join their group. Most people intuitively sensed that this was NOT was Jesus had in mind but at the same time they didn’t know how to respond to what seemed to be a pretty cut and dried understanding of some clear words from Jesus. As a result lots of folks simply dismissed these words as something we just don’t understand and they instead moved on to more familiar, safe verse about who much God loved them.

But we can’t just ignore what Jesus said. The enemy, Satan, would like nothing more than for us to blow off such provocative verses and refuse to get any deeper in our faith that having a some vague sense that God thinks we are okay. We need to wrestle with what Jesus meant. In order to do that we must first understand what He did not mean. Clearly Jesus would not teach that we are to hate anyone in the way that we normally think of hatred. After all, it was Jesus who commanded that we not even hate our enemies but instead love them. (See  https://provocativechristian.wordpress.com/2008/12/19/provocative-bible-verses-love-your-enemies/) It was also Jesus who said the two most important things you could do were to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. Surely we are not expected to love our neighbor as we love ourselves and at the same time, detest our parent and siblings.

Some people try to use this as an example of a contradiction in the Bible and an excuse to ignore all of it. But there is no contradiction. When Jesus says to hate your parents He uses the Greek word,miseo. It is a word that has duel usage. It can in fact mean to despise or detest someone. But it is also used in the Bible and other ancient literature to mean “love less”. Numerous scholars of the Bible concur that in this an many other casesmiseo is used in to mean love one thing less than another. It is a matter of placing higher priority over one thing than another.

With that in mind the meaning of Jesus becomes easy to grasp but harder to live. What Jesus is saying is that there whould be nothing in this world that we love more than we love Him. We are not to love our parents more than we love Jesus. We are not to love our brothers and sisters more than we love Jesus. We are not to love our children, or spouse, or cousins, or next door neighbor more than we love Jesus. In fact He says that we are not to love our own life more than we love Jesus. That shouldn’t surprise us for two reasons. First, God said in the Ten Commandments that we are to have no other gods before Him. In other words, nothing in life is to have more devotion from us than the Lord our God. Secondly, Jesus said that we are to love God with ALL that we have and ALL that we are. The implication is simple, nothing and no one should have a greater place in our heart, and in our devotion, and in our love, than the Lord.

To emphasize the fact that we are to love nothing so much as we love the Lord, Jesus goes on in Luke 14:27 and says “And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Those folks who heard those words come from His mouth had to have been stunned to the point of being frozen in their tracks. The image of carrying a cross was vivid to them. Anytime someone was carrying a cross they were on their way to their own execution. They were going to death, just as Jesus was when He carried His own cross. By saying that we are to love Jesus more than we love our parents and that we are to carry our cross for Him or else we are unworthy of being His disciples, Jesus is saying that when it comes to following Him, He wants your all. There is no halfway measure with Jesus. It is full and complete devotion or nothing. It is Jesus first or not at all. It is give Him your life even to the point of death, or not at all.

Sometimes your love for the Lord might mean that you have to say no to your family and yes to Jesus. Sometimes your love for the Lord might mean that you have to turn down a promotion because even though it will mean more money and prestige you know that it will have a negative impact on your relationship with Jesus. Sometimes your love for the Lord might mean that you must sacrifice your comfort and open your home to someone without a home. Sometimes your love for the Lord means you must live with rejection from people whom you care about, or face ridicule from others. You must love them and their acceptance and your comfort and your promotion and your prestige, less than you love Jesus.

So the right thing to say is not, mom and dad; I love Jesus but I hate you. Instead, it needs to be, mom and dad and anyone or anything else, I love you but I love Jesus most of all.

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice” Philippians 4:4

How in the world does the Apostle Paul expect us to always be joyful? Does he really intend that we are to be like some Christians and walk around life as if we are on some spiritual cloud nine, totally oblivious to the things going on in the world around us? I have seen far too many people who seem like they are living on some spiritual drug, totally unaffected by events taking place around them. They seem to be joyful because they just don’t know how bad things really are. That kind of joy is not very attractive to most thinking people. It will certainly not provoke the kind of responses that we are hoping to get from people. Instead of wanting to find out how to have such “joy” most people flee from what they see as a mindless naiveté.

A mindless sense of well being that ignores what is going on around you is not what Paul has in mind when he tells the Philippians to Rejoice in the Lord always. The letter he writes to them is filled with recognition of difficult circumstances that they are all facing. In the opening words of the letter Paul acknowledges his own situation as a prisoner facing execution. A little later he encourages the Philippians to remain strong in the face of opposition that currently threatens them as well. Yet even in the face of execution, persecution, and suffering, Paul repeatedly calls on them to have joy, to rejoice in the Lord.

So how do we follow this command to rejoice in the Lord always, even when things are going horribly wrong? First we need to understand “joy” and then we need to understand how we live in it. I like the dictionary definition of joy found in Merriam-Websters online dictionary; “the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires”. That is the first great clue to what Paul means by joy. So often our emotions are impacted both positively and negatively by what we are longing and hoping for. If we get it we celebrate and rejoice and even jump up and down getting all excited. Pittsburgh Steeler Super Bowl victories do that for me. When we don’t get what we hope for, what we desire, then we get all depressed and bummed out. A dozen or more straight loosing seasons by the Pittsburgh Pirates seems to bring that on. If what you desire is completely of this world then you will never be able to rejoice the way the Bible calls you to rejoice. One event in life will cause you to celebrate and rejoice and the next will cause you disappointment and heartache.

Fortunately Paul does not tell us to rejoice in our circumstances. He tells us to rejoice in the Lord and he tells us this repeatedly. He even acknowledges that he is repeating himself but says that it is good for us to be reminded again and again to rejoice always. But our rejoicing must be “in the Lord”. Why could Paul rejoice even in the face of his own pending execution? He could rejoice in the Lord because what he desired more than anything else in life was Jesus. What he desired above all things was to be in Christ, close to Christ, content in Christ, and ultimately to be with Christ forever, having run the race of his life in service to Jesus Christ. His rejoicing is not a blind, naive way of smiling at the tragedies of life. His rejoicing came because even as he looked at the chains on his ankles and wrists, as he heard about the persecution of the Philippians, as he was reminded of the fact that he had few to none of the comforts of life that most strove for, he knew that all of that was secondary at best? Why? Because he then thought of Jesus. Paul rejoiced because “in the Lord” he knew that he would in fact obtain eternal life with Christ. He knew that no matter what he suffered in life it would all be for God’s glory and Paul desired to glorify God far more than he desired avoiding hardship or living in comfort.

You see, rejoicing in the Lord is a matter of priority. What do you most desire? What is most important for you in life? What drives you to live and behave in certain ways? Is it recognition from others, or a comfortable lifestyle, or the perfect, healthy body with a lean sexy core and hard abs? Judging from television commercials that last one just might be tops on most peoples priority list. Whatever it is that you desire, that is the thing you are hoping will give you joy. But all of that is fleeting, temporary, and a cheap counterfeit for the true joy that only comes “in the Lord”. If you are striving to live a radical, provocative life for Jesus and want to bring glory to Him in all you do; if you are wanting above all else to be close to Him and serve Him; if your deepest longing from the bottom of your soul is to one day stand before Him and have Him declare, “well done my good and faithful servant, enter my rest”, then you can rejoice always because you will be living for your deepest desire. True joy is found not in the passing things of this world, but in the eternal relationship to be found “in the Lord”. Rejoice in that. Rejoice in the Lord. Rejoice that He loves you. Rejoice that He died for you. Rejoice that He rose from the grave for you. Rejoice that He promised to return one day and take you to be with Him in Glory. Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say, rejoice!