Telling the Story

I can always count on a deep theological conversation when my father-in-law visits.  I admire Stan for keeping his mind sharp in his retirement years by constantly asking what Karyn and I are reading, borrowing the books for himself (like Jack Deere’s Surprised By the Power of the Spirit), and then, upon returning them, engaging me in a conversation of what he’s learned.

Lately, we’ve been discussing the dearth of teaching in the Church on the power of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life–His critical role to help us have the strength and authority to become mature and like Christ ourselves.  I think we’re often afraid or uncomfortable with the more miraculous gifts of the Spirit: miracles, healing, speaking in tongues, words of prophecy, because we may have grown up in churches that act as if the Spirit simply doesn’t operate that way anymore.  And because we don’t see them or, in this case, Him, we assume the Holy Spirit doesn’t do these things today.

Too often, our human experience trumps Scriptural teaching.

The Alliance’s beliefs on the Holy Spirit’s very active role in the life of the believer and the Church are some of the most defining aspects of our denomination’s history and theology.

This past Sunday, James Grout shared an important message on Blanchard Alliance Church’s Identity Series at Warrenville from 2 Cor 5:17-21, reminding us of Paul’s words that anyone who is “in Christ”  is a new creation.  And, as a result of being made new, Christ in us calls us all into a life as “missionaries”–ambassadors of  reconciliation.

This identity transformation is so remarkable, says Paul, that Christ makes his appeal to the world to be reconciled to Christ through us as his missionaries–that those of us “in Christ” have become the righteousness of Christ to the world.  

Really?  I wish this statement more honestly described not only me but the Church as well.  Why is it so hard to stay centered in our identities in Christ?  

I believe practicing the presence of the infilling Holy Spirit in my everyday life is critical to growing mature as a believer in Jesus and my commitment to being an “everyday missionary”.  How do we do that?  Paul tells us to “be continually filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Eph. 5:18)  That’s why D.L. Moody once warned in a sermon that we’re all like “leaky [buckets]”:

“…we have to keep right under the fountain all the time to keep full of Christ, and so have a fresh supply. I believe this is a mistake a great many of us are making; we are trying to do God’s work with the grace God gave us ten years ago. We say, if it is necessary, we will go on with the same grace. Now, what we want is a fresh supply, a fresh anointing and fresh power, and if we seek it, and seek it with all our hearts, we will obtain it.”

Read the Moody’s full sermon transcript here.  It’s worth the time.

As James continued to share what it means to find his own identity in Christ as a missionary, I’m reminded of the value of sharing our story of when we as Christians chose to follow Jesus.  Chad Smith from our District Office often sends out e-mails with links from different resources he’s found online that he thinks will be helpful to us as church leaders.  This week, he sent a link to Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church with a whole series of video stories of Christians sharing how they chose to become followers of Jesus.

They’re all worth watching, but I think this story about an actress named Ellie Ellsworth is especially apropos as I think about my identity in Christ.  Listen to how she found everything she had been looking for in life–after years of searching–in the love and presence of Christ.


I hope you don’t tire of me using my daughters as muses for my blogs.  Because they’re brilliant at it.

It happened again last night at the dinner table–one of my favorite times of the day.  It’s like warming your hands at a fire at the end of these longer, colder fall days, after being busily scattered in five different directions: at school, teaching English classes with refugees, sharing a great sub from Mario’s at Rick Imbordino’s house over lunch, playing soccer in the rain, then coming back together to share our stories around the warmth of God’s presence at our table.  As a dad and teacher, I often try to take advantage of these times by asking questions to nudge us beyond the light, lovely and often silly conversations which can characterize our mealtimes together.  My wife’s been reading Skye Jethani’s book With lately–through our discussions together about it, we’ve been especially challenged to consider how we choose to live out our relationship with Christ:  under Him, over Him, for Him or with Him.

So, in light of Skye’s book, I asked my girls to think about their day and how they experienced God with them.  Without a moment’s hesitation, Ellie piped up first:  she said she felt God helping her to figure out how to spell the word “beginning” in class yesterday–what a simple, meaningful way for a first grader to acknowledge God’s help in her life–when I think, so often as proud parents, we’re prone to fawning over “how smart she is”, letting her take all the credit.  Anna then responded by sharing how God helped her to make a friend and be a friend.  Finally, Maggie commented how, on the bus ride home, she noticed a particularly beautiful stand of trees, aflame with the colors of fall, moving her to admire God’s beautiful creation.  All three girls, within a few minutes, able to clearly articulate beautifully appropriate examples of their Immanuel–“God with them”.

As I think about God with me this morning, I’m inspired by:

  • the simple joy of lighting three candles in the front of Warrenville’s sanctuary, celebrating a dad (after 40 plus years!), a daughter and a son-in-law, committing their lives to following Christ in the last two weeks.
  • a man named Vince calling me at the church office last week to ask for prayer for his recently diagnosed lymphoma and celebrating the good news today that his throat tumor has noticeably shrunk
  • the good news that God is using dear Sally Miller as a prayer minister at a local hospital, in the midst of a demanding internship, to help people in crisis remember God with them in some of their darkest moments
  • receiving an e-mail from former colleagues who met in Cambodia, now married, and joyfully serving both God and children with facial deformities at Koutiala Hospital in Mali
  • the growing burden in me to pray for the people of Blanchard Alliance Church and to inspire them to do the same as they live their life with God everyday where they are.

How has God been with you lately?

Maybe you can warm somebody’s hands with your good news around the table tonight.

With the one year anniversary of my brain surgery for an undetected Grade 2 cancerous brain tumor approaching on June 20, sleep has been fleeting for me, to say the least. As much as I want to be strong, confident and faith-filled about Jesus’ healing in my life–it’s when the sun sets each day that my anxiety subconsciously climbs.

Of all the wonders of my rapid recovery from surgery this past year, that’s really the only thing I can physiologically note as being different–I have a much harder time sleeping now than I ever have–waking up much more often in the night, lying on my pillow, tossing and turning...chasing sleep.  In the past, when my head hit the pillow at the end of the day, I was gone for the night.  With our kids getting older now, it’s pretty uncommon for Karyn and I to be unexpectedly woken up for a nighttime crisis for them.  They’re all pretty good sleepers most of the time–which is pretty amazing considering the amount of anxiety I’ve caused them as their Dad in the past year.

The other day Anna was crying pretty hard about feeling sick–much harder than I thought a few weird spots in her mouth merited–but then it dawned on me, “Could she be crying like this about sickness because of me?”  That the reality of mortality has reared is ugly head in my family too soon–through the tears of my kids?  My tumor has harshly taught my children that the life they live today is only temporary–as Peter once wrote,

All flesh is like grass
and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
and the flower falls,
but the word of the Lord remains forever.”
And this word is the good news that was preached to you. (I Pet. 1:24-25 ESV)

This is the good news?  Yes, it is.  Despite my health crisis having intruded on my kids’ collective childhood–as a family, we are certainly much more aware of the wonder of a God who is mindful of us as fading flowers, dressing us even more majestically than all of Solomon’s finery, watching over us like the birds of the field, knowing that they need to eat to survive.  While I chase sleep at night caught up in a cycle of despair and fear, my Father takes care of me and quiets me with his love–he even sings over me (Zeph. 3:17)–just wish I would let Him sing me to sleep more often these days…

I definitely understand this kind of Father love so much more intimately since my cancer diagnosis, I just wish I rested in this reality more regularly every day.  But I can’t see underneath the new scar on the right side of my forehead, can’t look through my skull to tell if the cancer’s back or not.  So instead of being content and quiet in God’s real compassion for me, I embody my discontent by tossing and turning through the night.

I expect good news when my latest MRI gets read by my doctor on June 22 at the University of Chicago, I really do.  And even if it’s not, I’ll be okay–just a reminder of not getting too invested in this temporary life, tempting though it may be to believe like so many that this life is so much more important than that life, the eternal, amazing one coming someday (perhaps sooner than I wished…)

So, on the start of this good day, after a good night’s sleep as I get ready to go on a field trip with my daughter Anna to the Shedd Aquarium downtown, I’m grateful and excited about today.  I’m reminded of Solomon’s words in Psalm 127–words which Karyn prayed over me earlier this week when sleep was fleeting…for even sleep is a gift from my Father.

Unless the LORD builds the house,
the builders labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city,
the guards stand watch in vain.
2 In vain you rise early
and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat—
for he grants sleep to those he loves.

My heart is full of gratitude today, in spite of the fact that the swell of my existential ocean is rising and I see a line of breakers bearing down on me.  On behalf of the people of Blanchard Alliance Church–despite incredible opposition, in the midst of a bankrupt culture and a horrendous recession–by God’s power and grace, Blanchard Alliance Church has established a healthy, expectant second campus in Warrenville.  It’s already been five years since our original launch in April of 2006!

We’re a little tired of the waves crashing in, mind you, but we haven’t lost hope–it’s hard work to do great things for God! 

Sure, our leaders (including myself) have made plenty of mistakes along the way–we’re far from perfect–but, in spite of all that, look what God has graciously done among us!  We now have 120 adults attending regularly (half whom are parents!) and around 80 kids from newbies to high school students.  Over 80 percent (!) of our parents have faithfully served in childcare for the last five years, choosing to miss worship services for the greater good of blessing others at Warrenville.

Sure, we have a $900,000 debt load remaining on our property and building–but we have paid more than $3 million off already–UNBELIEVABLE–all in the midst of a brutal recession!

We have experienced multiple leadership changes (which caused significant anxiety and uncertainty about our future…).  We’re moving more and more toward fully integrating our families together in worship services–encouraging our amazing children to lift their voices in praise of our great God during our gatherings.

Even better, a significant number of people, both kids and adults, have accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior since our launch (may this never stop, but GROW). We are getting a clearer sense of what it means to be Christ in the community of Warrenville (including tomorrow’s National Day of Prayer Gathering at the gazebo outside City Hall at 11:30, as well as CareFest at Johnson Elementary on the 15th)  I have a growing sense of anticipation as God births a renewed commitment to prayer at the Warrenville campus–it’s been a beautiful thing to watch people being prayed for regularly during our worship services.  Their eager expectancy testifies to our belief that God is mightily present to heal and restore us as God’s people serve together in unity.

I’m thankful for our leaders who have kept their commitment to rotate the teaching team between our two campuses, instead of defaulting to satellite messages.  It’s not always been pretty or perfect, but we’re learning.  I don’t have the stats, but I know we lost a significant percentage of our original launch team within the first two years of Warrenville’s establishment. Birthing a second site hasn’t been easy but I have great affection and gratitude for those of you who’ve hung on to ride out the waves!

While we haven’t done the greatest job of keeping our Wheaton campus fully engaged and informed on the good things that have been happening in Warrenville, I bless our Wheaton campus for having the courage to step out in faith by launching Warrenville in the first place!  So what’s a crumbling Wheaton parking lot in light of that?  Sure, it will cost money to fix,

but as long as we remember that we are the capacity and God is the supply, we’ll be fine.  Obstacles are good for our faith.  So let’s keep wading into the water, staring down the waves coming at us, setting our chins firmly forward and dive right into those breakers!  Bring it on.  God is on our side. 

Mightier than the thunder of the great waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea–the LORD on high is mighty. Psalm 93:4 (NIV)

God loves the Church and will never abandon us in the deep end.  We are more than conquerors through Him who loves us!

What about you, Warrenville-ites?  You’ve read my song of encouragement to us all at Blanchard today (and I could say SO MUCH MORE…) What encouragement would you speak to your church in these days?

How has God been with you at Warrenville these past five years?

How is God growing your expectancy for our future?

I invite you to share your story as a comment to this post.

This is not an endorsement of dog leashes, dog collars, dog obedience training etc.  But we bought a walking leash for our outrageously enthusiastic dog, Penny.  She loves walks, but, unfortunately, she also loves people and other dogs, too–and just wants to jump on them and smell them as quickly as possible.

Pulling…straining…choking.  Gotta go faster. (repeat ad naseum)

This is what a walk used to look like with Penny–until we got the “Gentle Leader” leash.  It’s very unassuming, really.  It’s not a muzzle–just a strap that goes over her snout just below her eyes that gets snapped up snugly at the crown of the back of her coppery head.  All I can say is that, when we put “The Gentle Leader” on her–it’s like magic!  Instant submission.   Ragged panting and the clatter of excited nails skittering on Pergo get transformed into a quiet, sweet dog sitting there in the living room on her haunches, watching you and patiently waiting for her walk.  Walking Penny suddenly becomes a point of grace in my day–instead of a quick, joint-rattling fifteen minutes on the “random” setting of the treadmill.

So, you might be asking at this point in my latest blog post–what in the world does this have to do with  the church, parenting, recovering from brain cancer–or even Holy Week–some of the more recent topics which occupy my thoughts for Second Campus?

Well, I’ve been doing some experimentation with my preaching of late at Blanchard Warrenville.  Shorter messages (15 minutes…) with a student giving a 1-2 minute summary of God’s Word to them at the end, which then leads to an open discussion with the entire congregation.  After two cracks at it over the last month–at least the experiments haven’t gone awry–they’ve been beautiful and instructive.

But this last Sunday, as I preached on a passage from Luke 20, discussing one of Jesus’ final exchanges with Jewish leaders challenging his authority in the Temple after the triumphal entry. I encouraged my listeners to submit to Jesus’ authority as their rightful King.  It’s really quite remarkable that Jesus spent such a significant amount of time at the temple in Jerusalem preaching the gospel and making repeated attempts to convince the murderous Jewish leaders of his authority as Messiah.  Didn’t he have more important things to do just a few days before his death?

After I finished my message and my nephew succinctly summarized my message, a dear, Spirit-filled woman from my congregation stood and shared her fears about how difficult it is for her to submit to God’s authority, because of her own experiences with abuse of power and authority in her own life–that even the notion of submission to God’s authority is hard to receive because of so many bad examples all around us.  Even though that’s not been my experience, I’m slowly starting to get that submitting to God’s authority is overwhelming and terrifying for some people.  But in reflecting on Jesus’ example–is there any more gentle, humble example of submission than his?  Despite knowing all the gory details about his upcoming death on the cross, he struggled, resisted, strained and objected in the garden in Gethsamane, but, ultimately, submitted to his Father’s will.

I can calmly submit to the authority of  a gentle Leader like that.  Because I do trust that Christ, despite my sin, has nothing but goodwill and love for me.  He proved it by dying for me that Good Friday.  As Paul so beautifully declares in his hymn to Christ from Philippians 2:

In your relationships with each other
Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus,
Who being in very nature God did not consider equality with God
Something to be used to His own advantage
Rather, he made himself nothing
Taking the very nature of a servant
Being found in human likeness
And being found in appearance as a man
He humbled himself
By becoming obedient to death
–even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth
And every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord
to the glory of God the Father.   (NIV 2011)

There’s no fear in submitting to Jesus’ kind of gentle authority and life.  Have you?

is Arbol de Vida’s driving mission, says Paul Moshesh.

Paul, one of the co-pastors of Arbol de Vida (Tree of Life), the Hispanic Congregation which has been sharing space with us at Blanchard Warrenville since last February, met with me this week here at the church office.

He’s an inspiring Christian:  a gifted culture-blending leader who listens carefully to God’s voice and believes He is on the move in our community with the power to radically transform people lost in darkness without the hope of Christ.  Recently laid off from his job of six years, he believes God is using this to move him toward full-time ministry as Arbol de Vida’s pastor.

Paul’s had a lifetime’s worth of sorrow, too.  He lost his dear wife, Irma, after a protracted five-year battle with colon cancer a little over a year ago.  So when I explain my anxieties over my recent brain surgery with him, we share an instant affinity.  Although he’s not experienced significant illness himself (though it’s been an all-too-close companion in his life’s journey);  I treasure his understanding counsel and his prayer.

Paul is what I would call a prototypical leader for the contemporary American Church in the 21st century.

As a South African immigrant, fluent in both English and Spanish, his own story enables him to nimbly maneuver between cultures, with an intuitive (and beautifully humble!) understanding of what it feels like to be an “alien and a stranger” in this world–a world reflective of the ongoing demographic changes in our society right here in these Western suburbs of Chicago.

Both the Church and I desperately need Spirit-led partners in ministry like Paul and his co-pastor Fernando at Arbol de Vida.

As an Anglo-American pastor, I am prone to propagate my own culture’s assumptions of what the Church should look like–though I have been a missionary to Cambodia, I still tend to make unintentional and, sometimes, harmful and inhibiting assumptions about what the Church should look like.  It’s a subtle, slippery slope–assuming that one’s own upbringing within the Church is the most natural depiction of what God’s Church looks like.  But what makes my white, Anglo perspective more genuine than Paul’s Afro-Latino tapestry?  It doesn’t take but a moment to recognize that all three are equally an articulation of God’s unfathomable creating personality.  In a very real and important sense, I can deceive myself into believing that, as an Anglo-American, my own cultural glasses capture a richer sense of God’s implicit character rather than seeing God through the intertwining prism of multiple Christian cultures in worship of their Creator coming together as one–much like that penultimate worship service depicted in Revelation Chapter 7:9 (NIV)

After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe , people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.  They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.  And they cried out in a loud voice [notice it’s only one voice despite the rainbow of cultures represented] “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

Paul and I spent some time this week syncing our church calendars for 2011. I already know that one of next year’s highlights will be our second joint Good Friday Service.  It’s hard work to be real partners but it keeps us on our toes. Here’s another example:  while Arbol de Vida holds an important Easter Vigil on Saturday, April 23rd, which requires the full use of our sanctuary stage, they’ve already offered to help us at Blanchard by setting up our hot tub/baptistry late that Saturday evening for our morning baptism service the following Easter morning.  We’ll serve each other and be better for it in the end– presenting a more well-rounded, future-minded vision of the Church for the people of Warrenville, I believe: and  better understand the colorful complexity of our awesome God, too. The need is the call, indeed.

Over the last four Sundays at Blanchard Warrenville, we’ve had the opportunity/blessing during our worship services to go forward to  little tables set up in the corner of our sanctuary to express our gratitude to God for his goodness, kindness, mercy and healing in our lives in this season of Thanksgiving.  We sang the “We Will Remember” by Tommy Walker every Sunday and I sensed the Holy Spirit really connecting those lyrics with our everyday lives–for me,  the third verse was powerful:

I still remember the day You saved me
The day I heard You call out my name
You said You loved me and would never leave me
And I’ve never been the same…

I do remember that day.  I was eight years old.  I was on summer vacation in Indonesia with my family.  We had just finished watching the only English language TV series on for the day.  That night it was EmergencyI don’t remember all the details but, obviously, Mom and Dad had let me stay up late to watch with the rest of my sisters.  In hindsight, I’m really glad they did, because, after watching the show, I crawled into bed terrified.  Somebody in the show had died.  And as I tried to close those eight-year-old eyes, they wouldn’t let me.  Deep in the  background of my sleepy subconscious I heard laughter–that I attributed to the devil.  He was laughing at me that night because, though I had grown up in a Christian home, I was his.  I hadn’t given my life over to become a devoted follower of Jesus yet. And, in that moment, I wanted to change my eternal position forever–to claim all the great stories about Jesus from the Bible  I had learned growing up and make them my own.  Feeling a strong sense of urgency to talk to my older sister, Beth, I got out of bed and crossed the hallway to knock on her door.  I told her I wanted to invite Jesus into my heart and have him become Lord of my life.  She happily agreed to help me.  So I prayed and invited Jesus in.  And the laughter stopped.

Satan had no power over me anymore.  I was now a child of the King forever.

How about you?  Do you still remember the day Jesus found you and called out your name?  And If you haven’t heard Him yet–just listen–He’s calling.

With Thanksgiving coming tomorrow, and thanks to our season of remembering at Blanchard Warrenville, I remember that day with gratitude–especially the peace and healing I’ve experienced over the last five months as I’ve recovered from brain surgery.  Jesus has been wonderfully close to me, given me a peace that passes all understanding.

I’m so glad I listened when he called out my name that scary night in Indonesia.  And I’m thankful for all the ways we had a chance to say “thank you” to him on our tree in Warrenville over the month of November, too.  

One of the things I added to the tree last Sunday?  That I was able to go to the table with Anna, my daughter, and be able to return to my seat, healthy and well–brain cancer and seizure-free.  Unlike on Father’s Day when, after returning to my seat from taking Anna, my initial seizure started.  And my life changed forever after that.  But I’m still and always will be a child of the King because of that day Jesus called out my name.

Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good, His love endures forever! (Psalm 136:1 NIV)


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