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The book of I John is shining in Advent at Blanchard Warrenville this year. As we move ever closer to Christmas, I’m amazed at the mystery and wonder of what Christ accomplished that night he was born in Bethlehem.

It’s a wonder which A.W. Tozer spoke on many years ago at Southwest Alliance Church in Chicago. As he reflected on the text of I John, he marvels at “that light”, a powerful descriptor of God as if He’s a luminous mountain, a bright presence so wholly other, so purely full of light and life–that any of us who confess our sin and darkness have access “this light”, thus restoring our broken relationship with God.

This, Tozer preaches, is the wonder of Christmas. In his message from I John, The Theology of Christmas, which I encourage you to stream or download here from sermonindex.net, is captured in its seven points below…

1.  The wonder of “that” eternal light
2.  The wonder of “that light” manifested
3.  The wonder of the nature of God:  “God is light, in him there is no darkness at all.”
4.  The mystery of iniquity
5.  The wonder of sin forgiven when confessed
6.  The wonder of cleansing from unrighteousness
7.  The wonder of “restored moral innocence” by the blood of Jesus.

May the wonder of the Light of Christ burn in our hearts anew like the two walking on the road to Emmaus experienced after He met them and explained everything about himself in the Scripture on that great day of His resurrection.

God save us from complacency this Advent season–move us to wonder and be filled with Your light anew…

A closing prayer:
As each day passes, the end of my life becomes ever nearer, and my sins increase in number. You, Lord, my [light], know how feeble I am, and in my weakness, strengthen me; when I suffer, uphold me, and I will glorify you, my Lord and my God.  –Ephrem the Syrian

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Well, despite the best of intentions to report on our trip to Cambodia and Malaysia along the way, we’ve been safely back home a week now, and I don’t want to let the story get cold; so while it’s still fresh, I want to tell you all about it, albeit in summary form.  Karyn and I enjoyed rock solid health, little jet lag there (although it’s been tough to get back up to speed since we’ve come home…).

Thanks to so many of you who prayed and contributed to the trip financially.  You went before us and God blessed your partnership.  Thank you!

As we’ve returned to Chicago and dropped right into the intense busyness of the Advent season, we’ve so enjoyed being back together with our girls and are so thankful for Karyn’s parents who poured themselves out to watch them over Thanksgiving break while we were gone.

Here are some bullet point highlights of the trip:

  • The satisfaction of re-connecting with friends in Cambodia, including at the Cell Church of Christ in Phnom Penh and with former colleagues and fellow international workers–felt like we hit the ground running.  Phnom Penh was a whirlwind of change–we could barely distinguish landmarks in our old neighborhood of Tuol Kork, but managed to find our former nanny and cook’s apartment complex through calf-high flood waters.  We thoroughly enjoyed the shopping at the Russian Market–best little market in Asia, IMHO–cramped, hot, smelly, full of friendly people and great bargains, just the way we like it!

A fine Cambodia curry lunch with bread shared with our friends from the leadership team of the Cell Church of Christ…

Curry Lunch Cell Church Leaders

  • The gift of quality time with my wife and sharing ministry together.  I’m blessed to have such a great traveling partner and life companion in Karyn–we relished revisiting Asia, loved the adventure of it all and the gift of serving together–the only thing I would have changed would have been to be able to bring our girls along with us–maybe next time?  And, best of all, Karyn only had 2 flights where people next to her got airsick!

Enjoying a fancy lunch on the riverfront in Phnom Penh…

Lunch on the Riverfront

Coming home in a “tuk tuk” after one of our many market runs.

Tuk Tuk Ride

  • The fun of revisiting Dalat 23 years after I graduated and bringing Karyn to see it–still very much the same, but VERY DIFFERENT, too.  The four lane road in front of campus was a little unsettling (let alone the 2 monstrous hotels towering overhead right next door), but we still enjoyed the Hillside stalls and even got a free burger from the burger man (still the same guy!).

Dalat has been well-maintained–but who put those huge hotels up in the back yard?

Back to Dalat

We enjoyed SAB, the new Indian restaurant right across the street from the school!

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We asked the students to write ways they were challenged to see God differently through our talks…
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The retreat ended with a 30-minute time of solitude meditating on Zeph. 3:17, being quieted by God’s love and envisioning what it feels like to have the Father’s love singing over us…

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  • The joy of watching Brian and Valerie Weidemann, dorm supervisors at Dalat International School, serving together in their “sweet spot” as a couple–thriving as lovely, gifted complements to one another as “Dad and Mom” to the sweet kids in Jaffray Dorm.

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  • The deep satisfaction of serving fully in ministry, while being equally filled by the Holy Spirit to restore us as we worked.  Our series of retreat talks with the seventy dorm students were simple but challenging to apply.  As we encouraged the students to DISconnect from technology, we challenged them to Be There, to be fully present with their existing friendships at school and in the dorm, to Belong–to be intentionally devoted to their immediate family, both in the dorm and with their parents and siblings, to Be Rooted–to grow in their confidence of the non-negotiable foundations of their faith in Christ and to Be Still, to learn the spiritual disciplines of Sabbath and solitude as a regular practice in their lives as students (something I didn’t practice as a kid at Dalat.)

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So, in the midst of a busy ministry trip, Karyn and I have returned in the thick of Advent at Blanchard, renewed and refreshed by the quiet of God’s presence and the rich satisfaction of his Light breaking into our lives to give us hope and life.  May the words of Zephaniah 3:17 refresh and quiet you this season as much as it has for me.

The Lord your God is with you,
he is mighty to save.
He will take great delight in you,
he will quiet you with his love,
he will rejoice over you with singing.”

The breath prayer which I taught the Dalat students (Do it like this:  Inhale and exhale deeply, then say “God quiets me with His love” at least ten times) has blessed me richly as I’ve returned home.  Maybe it will for you as well this Advent season, too?

Ever owned an under-powered electronic gadget?  The whole process starts slowly…the laptop doesn’t seem to last as long on battery power as it used to…and once the battery drain starts, it progresses quickly to the point where it barely holds a charge altogether.  I have an iPod that dies in a day simply by staying connected to WiFi.

It’s a senseless waste to be a piece of electronics and under-powered.  All those resources and apps with so much potential, made useless by a lack of battery capacity.

There is one thing that’s worse, though–an under-powered follower of Christ.

As we continue in our study of the book of Ephesians this fall at Blanchard Warrenville, the Apostle Paul makes it very clear that everyone who believes in Christ has total and complete access to all the power we’ll ever need for our lives today.

Let me summarize some of the many incredible promises from Ephesians Chapters 1 & 2.  As you read them (slowly!), let them soak in and fill you up with power:

  • “we are blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ…” (1:3)
  • “we are chosen to be holy and blameless in his sight”(1:4)
  • “anyone who believes is redeemed, forgiven and lavished with God’s wisdom and discernment” (1:7-8)
  • “anyone who believes is included in Christ”(1:13)
  • “anyone who believes receives the mighty Holy Spirit as a deposit guaranteeing our hope” (1:14)
  • “we (the Church) are the fullness of Christ, who fills everything in every way” (1:22)
  • “because of God’s great love for us, we are made alive in Christ.” (2:5)
  • “believers in Christ are raised up to rule with him today to be a testimony of his kindness and rich grace” (2:7)
  • “as loved ones, Jesus freely saves us by his grace” (2:8-9)
  • “we are God’s masterpieces, empowered to do good works which God prepared in advance for us to do” (2:10)

Overwhelming isn’t it?  At the beginning of Ephesians 2, Paul makes it very clear that we are all faced with a stark choice.  Will we be consumed by our own fleshly passions and desires, thereby submitting to the devil’s authority, or will we obey Christ and fill ourselves up to the full of his riches?  I’ve attached the Powerpoint slide I created for my message last Sunday which summarizes the essence of Paul’s argument:

I’m particularly struck by the immediate consequences of which self we choose to live for.  The description of the kind of person who obeys the devil is pretty exhausting, miserable and toxic–we’re like animals consumed all day long by our own selfish passions which will kill us.  The terrible irony is that the devil doesn’t even have to destroy us–we destroy ourselves–he just gives us enough leash that we walk off the edge of the cliff to hang by our own selfish choices.

But look at how focused and powerful we are when we obey Christ!  By God’s grace, he empowers us to proactively create and establish Christ’s kingdom rule as forgiven ones along with him in our everyday lives rather than lurking around like reactive creatures at the mercy of our sinful habits.  With Christ at the center of all things we have unlimited capacity through the unbelievable gift of his empowering grace, power and presence.

Perhaps this post has helped you to identify areas in which you lack focus or where you are frustratingly under-powered, like my old iPod.  Accept the free gift of Christ’s salvation, then, and believe Christ’s promises to define your Today with Christ’s all-powerful authority.  Just ask for it–the power’s available right now.  And if the asking’s too much, pray like Paul did for the church in Ephesus:  He prayed that they might:

  1. through His Spirit, know Jesus better
  2. the eyes of their hearts would be enlightened to know the hope they have
  3. believe and experience his incomparably great power.

“The Future is, of all things, the thing least like eternity. It is the most temporal part of time–for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays.”
― C.S. LewisThe Screwtape Letters

The present is suffuse with brilliant opportunity. That’s Lewis’ point.  Carpe diem–seize the day!  But there’s the rub.  It’s incredibly challenging as a Christ-follower to be fully present in The Present. Today isn’t the greatest day we’ve ever known (to misquote Billy Corgan) because we’re stuck in a hurt from the frozen, unchangeable past or completely stressed out about the credit card bill coming or how our kids are getting along at school.

As we continue in our study of the book of Ephesians at Blanchard Warrenville, Paul extols promise after promise about Our Immanently Present God who is available to us through the incomparable power of Father, Son and Holy Spirit–blessing us with “every spiritual blessing in Christ”.  Even the work we do today has been “pre-ordained” and “pre-powered” for his good pleasure.  So will we light up today as Christ’s light wherever we are and with whomever we spend time with?

Let’s think about the kind of “todays” some of our friends are facing.  The Martinezes’ neighbors lost their home last weekend–and almost their lives–in that raging fire.  Let’s light up their neighborhood fundraiser at the VFW in Warrenville this Friday night.  As God’s empowered, loved people, how can be fully present with their neighbors today?  As one of our very own, Marcia, enters into six months of chemo for lymphoma, how can we “Be Light”?  Some of my neighbors are recently laid-off.  I’m not quite sure how I’ll be light, but my presence brings Light because the ever-present Christ is with me.  So I’m choosing to spend time with them at a local bowling league this Friday–just to love them, laugh with them (and spend the following four days recovering from the aches and pains in my out-of-shape 41-year-old body).

The Present is all lit up with eternal rays, indeed.

Mary Ellen Slefinger popped her head into my office yesterday as she was passing and said, “Look out!  God’s up to something.”  She’s exactly right.  With our heads still swirling from John Casey’s transition from Blanchard as our senior pastor, and now with the announcement of James Grout’s incredible promotion to become the National Youth Director for the Christian & Missionary Alliance–God’s definitely up to something.

So, the Church of Jesus Christ at Blanchard Alliance, how will we respond?  Let’s pray expectantly.  

That’s what Skye encouraged us to do on Sunday during the Caseys’ farewell service.  Regarding our “tomorrows”, he challenged us to do two things: to pray and to trust your leaders.

In regard to prayer, I’m instructed by the three ways Paul prays for the church in Ephesus in Ephesians chapter 1:15-20 (read it for yourself..).

  1. that God would bless the Church with the Spirit of wisdom that we might know Jesus better.
  2. that the Spirit would open the eyes of our heart to know the riches of the hope which Jesus calls us to.
  3. that we would know Christ’s incomparably great power, demonstrated dramatically in his resurrection from the dead and his ascension to be established as supreme ruler and authority over all created things.

In times of apparent uncertainty like these, when surprises come which rock our confidence about tomorrow, let’s pray like Paul teaches us to and trust the leaders that God foreknew would be in this position long before the creation of the world.  As one of those leaders, I’m trusting my incomparably great Leader to shepherd the Church He loves into a time of expectant renewal unlike Blanchard has ever known in its existence.  Together, let’s prayerfully expect great things!

I conclude with another great word from Paul in Philippians 4:6-7:

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present our requests to God.  And the peace of God which transcends all understanding will renew your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”

People of Blanchard Alliance Church, Mary Ellen’s right.  God’s up to something!  Pray…full of God’s Spiritwith great hope and power.

So, it’s Wednesday morning already, and how are we progressing in our commitment at Blanchard Warrenville this fall to memorize all of Ephesians chapter 1? Yup, get used to it:  I’m invading your personal space.

At home, we’ve started the work at dinnertime, breakfast and bedtime with our kids.  I think I’ve got verses 1-2 down, the preamble of the letter, so to speak, where Paul introduces himself to the people in the early church he’s writing to.  Many biblical scholars believe the letter to the Ephesians was more of a “circuit letter”, a letter Paul wrote from his prison cell in Rome to the churches in the area of Ephesus who would read it in their local context, then share it with another church in the area–it might have even been written to the church in Laodicea, because the earliest copies of this letter don’t reference Ephesus directly–and were probably added later.

Either way, I hope to more directly relate my blog posts this fall during our study of the book of Ephesians to the homework I’m inviting to you to take with you Monday through Saturday at home, at work, while training for your next marathon…wherever!

I hope my mid-week letters to you can help to break down the compartments we build in our lives which make it so difficult to position Christ in His rightful place in our lives, reigning over every aspect of our everyday human existence, not as a burden or “buzzkill”, but as the awesome, loving, purposeful Creator who from before the creation of the world had His redeeming purpose in mind to rescue anyone who might dare to believe in His incredible, life-giving authority to rule over all things.

As I raised the trouble with our compartments during my sermon last Sunday, have you been honest about yours?

Which compartment is the most difficult for you to cede control to Jesus’ reign and rule?  If you’ve forgotten or weren’t in church on Sunday, you can stream my sermon here:

Here’s the list of compartments I asked you to think about:  children, Church, job/career, health/fitness, fun (anything we do to entertain ourselves…the media choices we make from music to TV to movies…), money, neighbors (how are we purposefully demonstrating Christ’s rule over our lives with our neighbors?), spouse.  I asked you to evaluate if any one of these compartment pull or tug your heart more than your worship of Christ.  And if they do, I believe that’s a clear indicator of our need for realignment.

We have to be so careful as Christians to not like our lives worshiping at the altar of self-rule rather than Christ’s rule.  This is in fact one of the primary reasons why secular culture and even our children are so skeptical of Christianity in North America today.

We don’t look any different than they do, we just happen to have an extra box in our life–the Church box (which they think is pretty weird, to be honest).  Like Mark Ashton said,

There are two types of human beings on earth, followers of Christ and normal people.

Unfortunately, I’m way too normal for my own liking.  I know I have a long way to go in ceding control of my life’s compartments to the majestic power of Jesus Christ.  That’s where the “homework hymn” comes in from my sermon.  I won’t attempt to match the scope of Paul’s hymn to Christ in Eph. 1:3-14, but there’s wisdom in disciplining myself to write an honest hymn of praise to Christ. So here’s mine for today…

“For Your infinite patience with me
For Your never-ending pursuit of this lost sheep,
You amaze me, Lord Jesus.
Your kindness does lead me to repentance, O Lord.

That Your plan had me in mind before you created this majestic world steals my words, stills my tongue.
What can I say to You in return?
‘Glory, glory, Lord Jesus Christ,
You deserve all the honor!’

With my Ellie at bedtime, we can’t wait for that day in heaven
When you’ll be our light at the center of that great city forever.
Hold us fast till that day by the power of your life-giving Spirit within us.
I can’t believe I’m your son and she’s your daughter.
What an awesome God You are!”

As you are part of the Blanchard Warrenville congregation (or wherever you are when you read this…), I’m calling you to envision our future together as God’s people at Blanchard Warrenville by:

  1. Believing Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God
  2. Naming your life’s compartments
  3. By the Spirit’s power, ceding complete control of them to Jesus
  4. Out of profound gratitude, writing a hymn of praise to what Jesus means to you (maybe even as a response to this blog?)
  5. Living like you mean it–as the tangible “not normal” expression of Christ’s Kingdom everywhere you are.

Can’t wait to see what else God has in store for us this fall as we move further in to the Book of Ephesians!

At Blanchard Warrenville tomorrow morning, we’ll be looking at Paul’s amazing challenge to the Philippian church in Philippians 3:7-14.  As a small, start-up church, we’ve had our fair share of challenges–as all start-ups do–to get moving in the same direction and focused clearly on our future together.  We’ve been stretched by significant leadership changes (Pastor John’s upcoming transition as our senior pastor notwithstanding…), along with people coming and going for all kinds of reasons, volunteer fatigue from the burden of wearing three or four hats to staff the various ministry needs required for our weekly worship gatherings, and the list goes on…

I think Paul’s letter from prison to the church in Philippi can really encourage us at Warrenville today.  Stuck in his chains in Rome, his firm confidence and conviction in the gospel of Jesus Christ is breathtaking, summarized no more succinctly than in the verse which powerfully captures the theme of the entire letter,

being confident of this, He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Phil. 1:6)

His imprisonment preventing Him from completing the missionary work God had called him to, ever-determined Paul affirms his affection for the Philippian church by reminding them that the Church is never dependent on people to complete the work, but Christ Himself.

He goes on in chapter 2 to encourage them to let “likemindedness” characterize their relationships with one another, led by the gracious, humility of Jesus Christ.  (2:1-18)

The crescendo of Paul’s confidence in Christ builds into chapter 3 as he powerfully refuses to claim any credit for any trophy or prize he could take pride in as “a Pharisee of Pharisees”, considering them all as a putrid, rank pile of manure, casting all the titles, power and accolades aside in exchange for the pursuit of knowing Christ.

With his vision set upon Christ and fully mindful of the incredible grace bestowed upon him, a murderer and persecutors of Christians, he forgets what’s behind him to strain with all his might for the finish line ahead of him…

I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

In remembering Paul’s words to the young Philippian church, I understand Jesus’ plan to meet treacherous Saul on the road to Damascus.  Just looking at his ruthless determination to fulfill Christ’s mission is so humbling, revealing my own lack of focus on my calling as a much-to-learn pastor of  a church start-up.  While Paul had a “thorn in the flesh”, my brain cancer and the fits & starts of helping a young church find its footing has nothing on the true nature of suffering.  There are many days I need to be reminded of the encouragement that Christ will not be denied–he will complete his work of making me and us like Christ.  When I want to belly-ache and complain because the race I’m on is just too hard to keep straining for the finish line, Paul’s words quiet my heart and still my tongue to remember that Jesus is trustworthy and will do what He says He will do.

It might seem funny to you, but in this stillness, I’m reminded of an old Steve Taylor song, which captures Paul’s sentiments in Philippians perfectly.  In “The Finish Line”, Taylor sets up a comparison of a runner in Christ’s race with two different outcomes, sort of like those books I used to read as a kid where you could choose the story’s path at the end of each chapter.  On the first path, the boy on the race starts strong, but gets distracted and tempted along the way only to become “deaf and joyless and full of it”.  On the second path, the boy stays focused, despite the odds and the “gilded gods” and falls into the arms of his Father at the finish line.  You can stream the song with lyrics on YouTube here.  As you listen and ponder your own race, which one are you?

I have faith that all of us, like Paul, can remember Christ’s sure promise to complete His work in us, dust ourselves off and strain for the finish line.