As I sat in The Stupe with our youth intern from Wheaton College this past Monday during our bi-weekly meetings, I checked in to see how she was doing with the recent devastating news that one of her profs had been arrested.

She quickly affirmed her surprise, her profound sadness and disappointment that one of her teachers had apparently run afoul of the law in such a fashion.  As the coffee brewed and the lively conversation buzzed all around us, she solemnly shared observing two primary reactions from her fellow students–either indifference or condemnation–both of which bothered her.  As she prayed for her prof and thought about his predicament,

out of compassion for him, a part of her just wanted to bake him some cookies and deliver them to him in jail.  She shared that although she didn’t endorse his behavior, she hoped the Church wouldn’t abandon him at his greatest time of need.

The thought of those fresh-baked cookies reminds me of when I was a student at Wheaton and my favorite prof, Dr. Lyle Dorsett, often hosted what he would call “cookie pushes” at his house just off campus–an evening where he and his gracious wife, Mary, would open their home, to welcome his students with the warmth of Christ’s hospitality, good conversation and fresh-baked cookies all around.  I loved those gatherings at the Dorsett’s!

In the case of this young student’s beautiful, impulsive reaction to the news of her prof’s apparent fall from grace, warm cookies from the oven certainly can’t cover the devastating consequences of sin, but they do quietly affirm what we believe to be absolutely true of Christ:  his restorative, forgiving heart of compassion for all of us sinners–“he emptied himself of all but love” (Charles Wesley, “And Can It Be?”).   Dallas Willard once wrote that we don’t need bigger churches but bigger Christians, “flush w/ Christ’s character.” (Foreward to The Renovation of the Church, Carlson & Lueken, IVP, 2011; p. 10)

I’m so pleased to see God graciously at work in this young intern, filling her to the “whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13 NIV).  Given the same set of discouraging circumstances, may I be as mindful of what Christ’s reaction would be to those in need around me.

And please pass (or “push”) those cookies.

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I hope I’m as vital at 80 as Eugene Peterson is.  I’ve been enjoying the two interviews which Gabe Lyons had with him on qIdeas this past week.  One is on the discipline of Sabbath and the other is on immersing ourselves in Scripture.

During these rich, insightful conversations, Peterson shared the process he went through in writing his paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, and explained how intimidated he was at the beginning of his work, starting with the book of Psalms.  Two other men in the 20th century who wrote paraphrases, J.B. Phillips and Ken Taylor, were criticized–even vilified–for their efforts to translate Scripture into  everyday colloquial English–so much so that Phillips never finished more than the New Testament.

Peterson went on to say that, without much intense criticism like these men, he went on to translate the whole Bible at the slow and steady pace of

five pages a day for twelve years!

It’s in light of Peterson’s “long obedience in the same direction” that I consider my own journey with Christ as His follower today.  Unlike Eugene, I readily recognize my fits and starts, my unpredictable lurching toward maturity in Christ.  Still, whether I wait for Him or not, the Holy Spirit will not be denied His work in me–He has promised to make me more like Christ–even if He’s just writing a sentence or two in the book of my spiritual journey.

I’m instructed by Eugene Peterson’s steadfast, steady discipline to complete the pastoral work of finishing the Message, page by page over twelve years.  I need lessons from my elders like Eugene because, unlike him,  I’m often in too much of a hurry for God.  My hurry leads to impatience.  My impatience certainly leads me to miss the proverbial “Samaritan on the roadside” whom God puts in my path to slow me down, steady my pace and recognize His faithful, daily empowerment to lead and guide me where I need to go.  But the apostolic in me–the urgency of my self-imposed burden to equip the Church to be more matureinstantly (let alone within me as Christ’s disciple…)–tends to push me too far out in front of God’s good people.

I can tell the Holy Spirit has been speaking to me about being patient with his process of perfecting me because I got irritated when I first listened to Audrey Assad’s new song, “Slow”, on her lovely new album, “Heart”“Why can’t my faith just grow faster?” I gripe subconsciously. “Get me to the head of the pack!”, I mentally push people aside as Audrey sweetly sings in the background…

You’ve drawn so close
That it’s hard to see you
And you speak so softly
That it’s hard to hear you
And I guess that’s what I get
For inviting you in
Because you took me at my word
And now I know

Faith is not a fire
As much as it’s a glow
A quiet lovely burning
Underneath the snow
And it’s not too much
It’s just enough to get me home

I heard that faith moves mountains
I know it moves my feet
To follow you
And maybe I’m a mountain
Because it’s moving me
To follow you.”

So, in the hurry of your life, I encourage you to slow down and savor the good conversation between Peterson and Lyons in the next couple of days.  It’s so rich, I actually created a file for all the memorable quotes shared.

Maybe you’d like to note some of your own and add them as a comment to this post?

So let’s slow down today and, like Peterson, savor the goodness and the favor of Christ as he graciously makes us more and more like Himself.

A dynamic praying church must be built from the inside out, employing all four levels of prayer: the secret closet, the family altar, small group praying and finally, the congregational setting. (Developing your Secret Closet of Prayer, Richard Burr, p 19.)

The members of our Warrenville Leadership Team have been asking a great question lately:  What is a biblically effective church?  

How might you answer that question?  And how would you ground your answer from Scripture?

Today’s post is my attempt to unpack one key marker of effectiveness in a biblical church:  a belief in and commitment in the power of corporate prayer…

A few weeks ago at our Blanchard Warrenville campus, I preached a sermon on Jonah 3, which I believe God is directing us to apply not just in the near term but out of the ancient Christian conviction that  “devotion to prayer of all kinds” is a defining character trait of effective churches.

With prayer being our chosen spiritual practice during Lent this year at Blanchard, I’m hoping we’ll be able to grow particularly in the discipline of corporate prayer.  I believe corporate prayer has the potential for so many positive impacts on a young congregation like Warrenville which, although we’re over five years into our development, we’re still trying to articulate an inspiring corporate identity.

With Lent upon us and our annual Solemn Assembly gathering fresh in our minds from this past Sunday night, I’m thinking about my own commitments to prayer as a follower of Jesus and a pastor.  I’m also wanting to ask more boldly for things in prayer through the lens of the beautiful example of the Ninevites compelling and radical reaction to Jonah’s harsh prophecy from God in chapter 3.  Jonah’s “message from the Lord” reminded those “wicked” Ninevites (and all of us who, in reality, are far more like them than we choose to admit…), perhaps for the first time, of the awesome greatness of God–our need to fully believe his Word and obey it–humbling ourselves in desperation before Him and asking for his grace and mercy that God might stay His hand of destruction due to our wickedness. James instructs us to “confess [our] sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.” (5:17)

Like prayer, humility is a great source of power in the Christian life.  Quoting Paul as he speaks of his great Savior, Jesus Christ, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness. So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me.”

So, like “weak”, powerful Paul, let’s devote ourselves to corporate prayer as God’s people at Blanchard Warrenville in this Lenten season, believing our great God hears us and will transform us by His power.

Here are some additional reasons I believe corporate prayer is so powerful for us as Christians:

  • It’s inconvenient (breaking our selfish cycles of doing what we want when we want to do it!)
  • It’s countercultural (instead of feeding the well-fed beast of self-indulgence and the “me first” mentality coveted all over the U.S., we put other’s needs before our own when we choose to be in prayer with Christian community over personal satisfaction and fulfillment)
  • It encourages “like-mindedness” (when we agree with each other in prayer—not even having to say it out loud; see Phil 2:1-4)
  • Historically, it is a way God has moved His people and started revivals all over the world.
  • It’s an opportunity for corporate confession, another humbling and empowering spiritual discipline (James 5:16)
  • It’s a source of great power in the Holy Spirit’s work of forming us fully into Christ’s likeness (Lk. 11:9-11; Eph. 4:11-13

I’m really looking forward to our joint prayer service at Living Water Alliance Church with Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Warrenville on March 14 at 7pm.  Pastor Mitch Kim from Living Water recently shared with me how his leaders regard their weekly Wednesday evening prayer service as a critical way for them to find rest, empowerment and restoration for their lives and work in ministry at Living Water Alliance.  What a lovely perspective on the power of prayer within everyday laypeople using their gifts to equip the church!

One last thought:  as I prepared to publish this post, my friend, Jon Graf, of Pray!  magazine, posted these challenging, rich comments from A.W. Tozer (through the Prayerconnect magazine) on what prevents revival from sweeping through the Church once again.

It’s an important concluding caution that prayer–without obedience–is just more Christian busy work.

Therefore, as James challenges us so beautifully in his letter, “You do not have because you do not ask God”.

Let’s put that good advice into practice and become more effective churches and Christians by praying and asking boldly.

On this Ash Wednesday, as a missionary kid growing up in the Christian & Missionary Alliance, following the liturgical Church calendar simply wasn’t a primary way I understood the practice of Christianity (other than celebrating Christmas and Easter…).

For the next forty days, Lent will be practiced by millions of Christians around the world:  a stripping away and simplifying of the “muchness and manyness” of our earthly existence–particularly for those of us in the Western world who have so much–in order to devote more time to consider our own neediness of Christ’s gracious forgiveness of our sin.   (There’s a challenging Lenten question:  What’s a Syrian Christian to give up these days?)

Whether it’s fasting from food (or entertainment, or meat or alcohol…), we purpose to be filled instead with Living Bread & Water–Christ and the Scriptures.  We desire to be more intentional, more confessional and repentant about our own attitude toward sin.  I couldn’t be more enthusiastic about the biblical need for this difficult, costly behavior as we prepare to remember Christ’s death on Good Friday and his amazing resurrection that Easter morning.

But, to be honest, the forty days of Lent wear like that irritating, itchy, too-tight, unbearably hot wool sweater I wear only once a winter in Chicago when its -20 outside.  These “mourning clothes” just fit funny.

It’s almost as if I’m regressing in my progressive sanctification.  

I serve a risen Savior, whose Spirit fills me to give me life, set me free and is on mission to transform me more and more every day into “the whole measure of the fullness of Christ”(Eph. 4:13).  I wish we would spend just as much time in church encouraging one another to celebrate the transforming power of Christ within us to make us holy, pure and powerful–shining “cities on a hill”.  [According to the rest of the 325 days on the liturgical calendar, you could argue that we do, because after Easter we’re on to Ascension Day through to Pentecost, then celebrating Christ’s incarnation at Christmas, then finally back to Ash Wednesday…]

I just don’t want to get so caught up in the past that I fail to thrive in the life-changing, joy-filled Real Presence of the Risen Christ with me today (Lent or not).   So at Blanchard Warrenville this year, we’re going to do our best to model this very present spirit of celebration during Lent.

Did you know Sundays don’t count in the forty days of Lent?

Praying, mourning, repenting, confessing and giving up Monday through Saturday; but come Sunday morning this year, let’s throw off those old, mournful graveclothes and colorfully dress ourselves with  the celebration of gathering (we’re even doing a baby dedication on March 4!), proclaiming Christ’s tranforming presence to forgive, cleanse and empower us to give us the hope to become like Christ.  I long for a God-drenched spirit of Joy to define our gatherings at Warrenville during these five Sundays of Lent.

I’ve probably just offended a whole bunch of you with this post today:  that’s really not my intent.  I can’t wait for the Solemn Assembly this coming Sunday evening at 5:30pm at our Wheaton Campus.  It’s one of the highlights of my spiritual journey every year.  I need to mourn this Lent–to truly confess and repent of my very real sin.  But I won’t get stuck there.

You’re welcome to wait till Easter to put on your “Sunday best”, I just can’t wait that long…

Do your kids consistently overfill their glasses in an effort to defy gravity (or to raise your parental blood pressure), just to see how much they can liquid they can get in there?   It’s like each time they pour anything liquid, they intend to experiment with the scientific limitations of surface tension.  Who knew liquids could be mounded so consistently up over the lip of their cups…that with just the slightest touch of the hand or the lips, gravity wins and the contents gush down the side of the glass all over the table?

I’d like to think this is the Holy Spirit’s vision for His filling in every Christian–filled so full of Christ that we defy the physical capacity of our souls–brimming over–that at that slightest interaction with another human being, the surface tension breaks and Christ spills out.

Maggie and I had that experience at breakfast recently.  In our sweet conversation as dad and daughter together she would often pause to wipe away a tear brimming in her eyes–just over little things about her everyday life as a kid and our everyday experiences as a family.  It doesn’t take very long for us to be reminded with gratitude that I’m still able to take my daughter out for breakfast–that’s probably why that meal was so tender between us.  A bump and a spill.

Just a few intentional minutes alone with my lovely daughter draws up deeply satisfying joy within me.

This is all part of my master plan as a dad this new year.  Still inspired by Case Seymour’s Legacy Parenting talk from last year’s Men’s Retreat here at Blanchard–I’ve finally “put my money where my mouth is” and have started the process of, as Seymour urged, taking each of my girls out for alone time with me at least once a month.   I’ve bought each of them a journal as well, with the intent of teaching them how to write down their own personal interactions with God and Scripture down so we can talk about them as we get together.

During our first breakfast together, I encouraged Maggie to take a Psalm she could read while inviting the Holy Spirit to speak to her each day–maybe before she turns on anything electronic in the house– a good discipline even for her techie dad.

Later that night as I tucked Maggie in bed and she said her prayers, she beautifully weaved a promise she had read that day in Psalm 17 into her conversation with her heavenly Father, asking God to hide her ‘”Opa” in the shadow of His wings”‘ as he continues to recover from his stroke.  Another bump and a beautiful spill.

I’ve been discussing the topic of “church effectiveness” with several key leaders at Blanchard Warrenville lately.   Inspired by my breakfasts with my daughter and my experience in ministry, I deeply believe the more intentionally we choose to “bump up” into one another and spill out Christ’s abundance, our church will continually grow in effectiveness–not only by growing up as more and more mature followers of Christ, but spilling over with our neighbors, co-workers and friends who don’t know Jesus yet.

The statistics are brutal at our church and many others when we avoid the mess of relationship–it (and we) won’t survive.

When we resist being in intentional, discipling relationships with one another, whether out of fear, our past, our pride or our busyness; we fail to live life as God intended it. We wither.  We drift.  We disengage within our own ghostly emptiness.  We dodge and weave to avoid the messy spills.  We die of thirst with water all around us.

How wonderful and pleasant it is when [God’s people] live together in harmony! For harmony is as precious as the anointing oil that was poured over Aaron’s head, that ran down his beard and onto the border of his robe. (Ps. 133:1-2 NLV) 

Jesus replied, “Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again.  But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.” (Jn. 4:13-14 NLV)

How’s the quality of your relationships these days?  What changes can you make to purposefully spill over into someone’s life?  It’s a beautiful mess.

Don’t look at other Christians tonight.  They’ll just disappoint you by failing you, because, like me, they’re just sinful people saved by God’s grace.  Don’t look at them.  Look at Jesus, out of His love [to save] you, coming from the glories of heaven to be that weak, little baby in the manger!

That quote from my Christmas Eve message at Blanchard Warrenville is true–but it sticks in my craw, nonetheless.  There is no more common excuse to refuse to believe in Christ in the western world today than to look at Christians. “They’re hypocrites”, say the disenchanted twenty and thirty-somethings leaving the organized Church in droves all across this nation.  “They’re not believable.”  “They don’t look any different than anyone else.”  Our critics in society may be right in visual observation.  But that’s not the way it’s supposed to be…

It’s clear Christ meant for Christians to be inspiring, contagious, devoted disciplemakers.  But most of the time, we’re not.  We’re just normal, imperfect, weighed down, preoccupied human beings with a unique difference from all other human beings–the mind-bending capacity and Scriptural assurance that we are all, by the Holy Spirit’s power, in the process of being fully formed into Christ’s likeness.

And while the work is guaranteed, I don’t think it’s always meant to be shouted from the rooftops or the pulpit (but it is for some…).  God has other very quiet, compelling ways to declare his maturing work in people.  That’s why being in relationships with people who don’t know him is so very important to the saturation of the Christ’s saving gospel throughout societies and cultures.  When skeptics point the finger of disbelief, it’s probably an indicator that they aren’t in a meaningful relationship with a  Christian who’s humble, Spirit-filled, or committed to practicing the disciplines of the faith–like Bible reading, prayer, fasting, solitude and Sabbath.  I know some people who are like this at Blanchard Alliance Church. They inspire me all the time as a pastor and fellow disciple.

In light of these “salt-of-the-earth” people, I’ve compiled a list of key verses that encourage me about the work God has promised to do in me to help me become like Jesus.  As you read them, I hope it’s clear that it’s God work–on his timetable.  Perhaps you’re stuck and discouraged and a bit of a skeptic about Christians today, too.  I hope these verses of Scripture inspire you, reinvigorate you, remind you of God’s promised work in you to help you get back on track with your faith.

  • It is for freedom that Christ came to set you free.  Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. (Gal. 5:1)
  • Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. (Gal. 5:25)
  • It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Eph. 4:11-13)
  • Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. (Gal. 6:9)
  • And you also were included in Christ, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation.  Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession–to the praise of His glory.” (Eph. 1:13-14)

What Christian do you know right now that you can observe and even document this mysterious, mystical transformation toward Christlikeness?

By all means, look at them.  Be inspired by them.  Remember the maturation process is not a race, it’s at God’s pace.  Your progression toward maturity will look different than another Christian’s.

I hope you see this transformation in yourself.  How do you see God’s maturing work in your own life?  Is there sin that’s tripping you up?  Confess it, get help from a growing Christian and rely on the Holy Spirit to keep his promises.  And always be inspired by Christ’s example and, in faith, be confident in what he’s come to transform you to become.

I’m often baffled by my nagging, lifelong quest to earn God’s favor.  As I celebrate Christmas year after year, you’d think the real truth of Christ’s birth would sink deep, deep, down into the corners of my heart.  Jesus loved me so much that he gave up the glory of heaven for the filth of a stable and the dishonor of needing “diaper changes” and his mother Mary’s milk to survive.  The Uncreated God, born in a stable, laid in a  manger, wrapped in crude swaddling clothes–the first son of peasant parents.

And I continue to question whether God favors me?

The sweet refugees in my wife’s ESL classes well understood the mysteriousness of it all when she shared the Christmas story with them recently.  She told  me the shocking circumstances of Jesus’ birth was palpable in her classroom.  “What?, they muttered and shook their heads in disbelief.”  “A king born in a stable?  That’s nonsense!”  No “king” should be born that way!  They deserve better.

Yet this is the depth of Christ’s love for me.  He submitted to the will of His Father by obediently coming to earth to become the Perfect Man.  This is the wonder of Christmas.  How dare I question Christ’s affection for me?  His favor extends to me 2000 years later, ever forgiving, ever transforming me into His likeness.

Mary understood Christ’s favor.  I’m often moved by her response to the angel Gabriel’s message.  “My soul glorifies the LORD, for he has been mindful of His humble servant”  That God even thought of Mary enough to send his own angelic emissary to prepare her for her pregnancy speaks loudly of  His great compassion for humanity.

But we’re jaded in North America, aren’t we?  Jesus is just a tool in an SNL sketch with Tim Tebow.  We mock the Truth that sets us free. We crucify Christians for their hypocritical, “holier-than-thou” behavior and mock Christ as a caricature of Himself: a bearded, white-robed Anglo with a fog machine for effect as he interacts with people.  We probably put more effort into helping our kids to believe in Santa than we do to lead them to discover the wonder of embracing the depth and breadth of Christ’s gracious saving love gifted to us that Bethlehem night.

I had a special experience this past week where I was reminded of what it feels like to receive God’s favor.  As I anticipated my third MRI to check on the status of my brain surgery a year and a half ago, I could feel the anxiety crawling up the roots of my soul.   To find solace, I sat down with my Bible to hear from God, reading in the quiet of the morning before all the kids were up.  While some might simply label it as psychological self-delusion, Christ’s peace and favor settled over me as I ate that Living Bread.  In just a few minutes, a beautiful stillness and quietness settled upon me that cannot be explained rationally.

In the final few days leading up to our Christmas celebrations in the Church around the world, I encourage you to take some time to gauge your own sense of God’s favor resting upon you.  How can you testify to His favor and delight in you?  If you’re a parent like me, how can we help our children to embrace God’s favor upon them:  perhaps blessing them with words and actions that reflect our own favor toward them as “Mom” or “Dad”?

For his anger lasts only a moment, 
  but his favor lasts a lifetime; 
weeping may stay for the night, 
   but rejoicing comes in the morning. Psalm 30:5 (NIV)