not scary: halloween & the Gospel

Alright, Christian, once again, we have an incredible opportunity and time to plan for it. So here's my ever refining Franken-article to help get you motivated. Read on...

“You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
-Matthew 5:14-16 (NKJV)

Once a year we have the world coming right to our own doorsteps begging for treats. So we encourage Christians to do something incredibly easy—on Halloween night, turn your porch light on and share the love of Jesus along with your treats. In other words, be present with people.

Remember, this is as simple or complex as you want it to be. (We tend to go a bit on the complex side, but here's some inspiration if you like: All Hallow's Garage)

Need more ideas? Have a few:
• Dress up your goodies. Buy plastic bags, plain or decorated. Add a small toy or something fun. Give the best treats on the block.

• Provide hot chocolate for your guests. Kids and adults love this. It can lead to time spent together and potential for deeper discussion.

• Set up a fire pit and roast marshmallows or make s’mores. Same effect as above.

• Do something big at your house to draw attention. Set up spotlights, games, fun scenes, whatever. People tend to remember these houses, and what you gave them.

• Use your skills, or those of a friend, and do magic tricks, balloon animals, music or something else fun and entertaining.

• Invite the neighbors to your house for a “getting to know you” party early in the evening or a day or two in advance. Pass out invites that week to let them know.

• Invite Christian friends to help out, especially if they have fewer children in their neighborhood. That way, you can double your efforts.

• Alternately, if you don’t have many children in your neighborhood, actively find someone who does and work with them. Or maybe go to a party. Be where people are.
• Consider having some Bibles available to give away as appropriate in case the opportunity arises.
• Pray, both before and after the evening, for the people you will meet and for a true love for your neighbors.
Whatever you do, don’t hide behind closed doors. The world is coming to us. Let’s give them something “sweeter than honey.” (Psalm 119:103)

“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of
power and of love and of a sound mind.” -2 Timothy 1:7 (NKJV)


Sharing the Gospel on Halloween (or any time) 

The Gospel is all about what Jesus has done, is doing and will do. Throughout Scripture we see reminders of the Gospel given to believers, or those who claim to be (e.g. 1 Corinthians 15:1-5). So don’t forget, the Gospel is for everyone all the time, Christian or non, not just a one-time event in which we hope someone responds and we move on. This is what our salvation is based on, and we need to remind ourselves and each other of that every day.

As a summary, we might say:
• God is perfect, and He says we have to be perfect too. Unfortunately none of us are perfect. We think and say and do things God says not to, or ignore things He says to do, all the time. For that, God says we can’t be with Him.
• Jesus lived the perfect life we couldn’t, took on punishment by dying for imperfect people like us, and came to life again, proving He’s God. Only He could repair our relationship with Him.
• God calls us to stop focusing on ourselves and what we want, and to focus on Him, trusting Jesus as Lord and God, the One who does everything we can’t.
• Through faith in Jesus alone we can have eternal life with Him in a renewed Heavens and Earth forever.
(This example limits religious language and jargon. Always explain words such as “sin” or “repent.”) 

If you choose to include printed handouts with your treats it’s important they include the basic truths stated above. Don’t go for handouts designed to draw attention without sharing the true Gospel, never give out tracts instead of treats, and don't use paper in place of relationships when you have a chance to engage people in person.

While summaries such as this can be useful, especially for review, they by no means express all the depth and richness that is the Gospel of Jesus seen through all of Scripture. There is a lot of theology behind the statements above that disciples need to have explained. There are also many ways to draw people more personally into the wonder of Christ and His beauty. Consider creation. Listen for ways the individual might see the Lord’s work or provision in life. Ask how they are doing and how you can pray for them. The possibilities are as endless and amazing as Jesus Himself.

When speaking to someone, we need to remember we aren’t doing the saving work, nor is the person saving himself with a response. God is Savior, and He knows who He has enabled to respond and when they will. Ask questions to understand where the person is spiritually. Don’t do all the talking, and certainly don’t aggressively attempt to force someone to “seal the deal” with an on-the-spot prayer. This creates confusion and could end in false assurance, especially if you can’t or don’t follow up. We are to make disciples by sharing who Jesus is and what He’s done, encouraging others to trust and believe Him, and to further encourage love of and joy in Christ for those responsive to Him.

Never forget the importance of listening and relating. If someone feels they can trust you, they will often tell you a lot about their life. This can help you discern where they are spiritually and how ready they are to hear more. Rather than approaching with a formulaic method, listen for concerns and needs, and consider how Christ meets that need. (Example: They’ve been unemployed for months. Jesus is Provider of both physical and spiritual needs. How have they seen Him provide?) Be ready to pray with them while present. Many people are touched by this act alone. Pray the Lord gives you a heart of compassion for anyone you meet.

If someone claims to be a believer but you feel unsure, you might ask them to explain the Gospel to you. Then you can commend or gently correct as necessary.

Should a person truly be ready to receive Christ as Lord and feel compelled to pray in repentance to Him, let them pick the words and see how He leads. Ask for their information as they are comfortable so they can be discipled. 

Even simple discussions with neighbors just letting them know you are a believer could easily lead to deeper relationships born on Halloween night. Be ready to follow up with your neighbors in any way necessary to show them the love of Christ throughout the whole year.

More treats for you:
>> Check out some additional related articles by Verge Network.

>> Also, an excellent 3 minute video by Jeff Vanderstelt, who encourages us to "Open the Door to Halloween" in order to engage our neighbors.


From the Mountaintop to the Valley: Reflections on #MLK50

Seeing the Memphis forecast on a stormy April night in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. nearly didn't bother to attend a church speaking engagement. He didn't feel well, and given the rain and severe weather he assumed low attendance. Yet a phone call convinced him to go, and King gave his now famous Mountaintop Speech that evening to an over packed house.

"I’ve been to the mountaintop... I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

Fifty years later to the day, April 3, 2018, the warm Memphis air grew similarly thick outside, with severe weather forecast yet again. But this didn't stop a crowd of about 4,000 gathered in the Memphis Convention Center. Only this time, rather than anticipating King's arrival, we mourned his passing and joined together to consider his dream of unity, still looking for a greater fulfillment of that proverbial Promised Land.

The MLK50 Conference was a 2-day gathering of Christian leaders to reflect on Dr. King's life and work, the Gospel implications of that dream, where we've come and where we need to go from here. I first heard of the event at last year's Gospel Coalition Conference, and knew then I needed to be there. I did not, however, know at that time all the events happening in the city or the sheer number of people who would arrive on April 4, exactly 50 years from the day MLK was shot while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel—the very day after that great speech.

Conference Highlights
I won't try to restate the entire conference here. You can watch or listen to keynotes and workshops at this link:
MLK50: Gospel Reflections from the Mountaintop

Instead, I'll hit some of the highlights and themes throughout:
• The Gospel directly impacts every area discussed in racial unity, justice, equity and more. These aren't political issues, they're Gospel issues. Jesus died to bring restoration and make His people one.
• It's easy to honor people who've died and can no longer speak directly to us. Thankfully, Jesus is alive. We must truly honor Him.
• We need to learn from previous generations. Don't ignore the impact of the past on the present. Predominantly white churches need to speak openly and frankly about historic and ongoing systematic issues.
• Don't idolize or demonize historical Christian leaders, downplay moral failings of some or intentionally seek to discredit others. We all sin. Jesus deals with His people not according to their behavior but His grace. We never excuse sin, but must see it in context.
• We must all repent of any areas in which we claim superiority. Watch out for spiritual blind spots, such as Peter had, and resist cultural individualism. Repentance is necessary for reconciliation.
• Take social suffering seriously enough to get involved, and hope seriously enough to stay involved. Don't dismiss, deny or downplay anyone's suffering, especially that of other Christians.
• We need to share and sacrifice. If your church has resources another church can use, share with them to increase Kingdom impact. When you can, share resources with area schools.
• We need more real relationships. We need to work together. We need to really listen. We need to be able to push each other in uncomfortable ways.
• We must love one another. If you don't know where to start, start by simply being nice, in person AND online.
• Pray for unity as Jesus did. We don't do unity/diversity for the sake of it, but because of the Gospel. It's also not something we manufacture. We have unity and diversity in Christ.

It was no surprise that much of this was so familiar. It's exactly the kind of Gospel understanding the Lord's been developing in me through all the trips and events of recent years, the entire thread of which I continue to share under "Reconciliation & Development."

One thing I hadn't processed before this week was that private schools, including those calling themselves "Christian" at the time, largely developed in response to desegregation. If white people couldn't have their own schools, they just created them. Often, this created additional educational disparity and classism in many ways, and among both ethnicities, including white students whose parents couldn't afford private school. A similar story continues to this day in many places.

A speaker with a slightly different angle was Trip Lee, sharing the pros and cons of art and music in racial reconciliation. It can be helpful in some ways, such as pushing the conversation forward, but diversity at a concert certainly won't solve the problem, as some have strangely believed. I recommend his talk for more.

I was also glad to say a quick hello to "Grandpa" John Perkins, who himself expressed some recognition from our week with him in 2012. I remain grateful for his teaching on forgiveness even for those who preach and practice racism, as this mindset even subtly expressed can invoke great anger in me. Hearing from one who suffered physically at the hands of such men, yet with a clear Gospel response, has been invaluable. I grabbed his new book "One Blood" on its day of release along with some other recent writings.

Walking in Memphis
We took a conference break on April 4 allowing time to visit the Lorraine Hotel. Lots of speaking and singing was happening throughout the day, and that afternoon we made our way through the crowd of thousands attending this and other events in the city.
Crowds make their way to and from the Lorraine Hotel.
A wreath presentation ceremony.
Crowd and media beneath the hotel sign.
A choir performance.
An "I AM A MAN" sign similar to those used during the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike following the deaths of two workers.

My goal was especially to join the city for a bell ringing ceremony at 6:01 p.m., the precise moment the shot rang out 50 years before. The bell tolled 39 times, indicating King's age at the time of his passing. With all the previous noise and fanfare, the crowd turned respectfully quiet during this time.

The 120-year-old historic bell rung at 6:01 p.m. It originally hung at Clayborn Temple in Memphis, which served as Sanitation Strike headquarters. (Source: USA Today)
The red and white wreath was shrouded until the bell tolled.
The bell ringing was followed almost immediately by a joyfully jazzy rendition of "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," a gospel song Dr. King requested just moments before the shooting.

Al Green performs "Precious Lord, Take My Hand."
Before heading back to finish the conference, and as the crowd began to move again, I wanted to grab a photo in front of the hotel. As I was expressing I was not the most important object in the shot, a new friend stepped alongside and said, "We're gonna get a picture together." In all the excitement I never learned her name, but we all felt the significance of that little act.

A small picture of the dream continuing to grow.
MLK50 banner above an "I AM A MAN" street mural on the walk back.

We also took the opportunity to visit the National Civil Rights Museum inside the renovated hotel on April 5. After the massive crowds the day before, the streets felt strangely empty, but the museum had a fair number of visitors also taking advantage of their time here before returning home.

This was my second visit to the museum, which underwent significant renovations since our time here in 2012, but it really helped to revisit and give more clarity to all I'd processed in the days, and years, before.

The day after. Crews began picking up and tearing down.
Still hoping this becomes the true "American Dream."

We took a lunch break on Beale (Silky O'Sullivan's, for those keeping score at home) and headed back to finish up on the legacy side of the museum. An announcement soon requested we move to a lower floor, and we were briefly detained due to concerns of some threat. Thankfully, nothing eventful occurred at any time on our trip, but this moment and heavy security all around were constant reminders of the continued vigilance needed in our day. 

Personal Reflections
With more unsettling headlines and rampant "opinions" in recent weeks, it seems we remain in the valley, still trying to trudge through, hoping to reach and realize that "Promised Land." But even with all the frustrations and apparent backward steps, many of which have actually prompted the dialogue needed to help move us forward, it's my continued desire to challenge and encourage you as God is teaching me on the way.

On this stretch of my journey, I'm starting to process areas where I may have benefited from historical events which shaped the St. Louis area and continue to have effects today. This includes my family following the city to county pattern of white migration that left particular regions increasingly impoverished while blocking families from living in others, or how the church where I now find employment moved further into the county from an area which was racially shifting in the 1960s.

Those are just a couple examples, but past events affect the present in ways we often don't see, many times because we don't really want to. I'm happy to say the areas of the county where I live and work are now far more diverse, but there's no denying those kinds of movements and motivations continue to create different outcomes for future generations, and this is the reality we're up against today.

The week's events are also helping me think through ways we as a church are now hoping to address issues of racial unity, economic and educational equity, and more. I'm excited we're having these conversations and trying new approaches, and I pray we stay Gospel focused while pursuing these concerns as best we can. We will stumble, and there must be no savior mentality here. But how can we be servants in these areas, providing real and effective assistance to meet needs? What will it cost us? These are important and prayerful questions we must ask as we move forward.

I'll close with an encouragement, similar to one given at the conference. If you are also in this fight, don't give up. I consider there was a time when it would have been dangerous to even snap a photo with our friend above. But change has happened, and changes are happening, slow though they may be. The Lord will continue to work in His Church, and through us into our respective communities. Pray for that, and for those resisting the goal of Gospel unity in various ways. We continue to fight the good fight on all fronts with the glory of God in mind.

Even in the valley, in this brokenness, it's still worth dreaming. MLK died looking down in hope from that mountaintop. But Jesus died on Mount Calvary, entered the valley of the shadow of death, and rose again to make a unified people a reality. Through Him, that Promised Land is already ours. Let's show the world His Kingdom here on earth.


Our Only Hope in Life & Death // Easter 2018

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.”
-Luke 24:1–7 (ESV)

Since December, I’ve attended several funerals and memorials, being directly involved in two, and even in the presence of one friend’s passing. Many have lost loved ones in our church family and among childhood friends, and I’m aware of others going through similar times of loss, or who have in recent memory.

Death isn’t something most of us linger on unless we’re confronted with it in some way, and for good reason. We say it’s “part of life,” but it doesn’t feel right when it hits us. It’s something we all know will happen, but remains impossible to “get used to.” Even if we somehow numb ourselves or explain it away, one day it will sting our emotions again when it becomes personal, for us or someone we love. If we’re honest, death feels like an enemy, because it is.

That’s why I’m so excited for the hope celebrated at Easter. Remembering the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ gives reason to celebrate the ultimate hope, even in the face of death.

In His life, Jesus defeats death by choosing the way of life, living just as God says we should. The rest of us prefer to do things our own way, fracturing our relationships with God and others. This is the hopeless way of separation, and the ultimate separation is death.

In His death, Jesus meets death head on. He did nothing wrong. He doesn’t deserve it. But He’s willing to take what we deserve instead, to experience that ultimate separation Himself so, hopefully, we won’t have to.

In His resurrection,
Jesus soundly defeats death. The enemy is conquered. It can’t keep Him down. And His return to life and restored body shows us a better life might be possible for us. We can have hope for resurrection and restoration as well.

Now Jesus invites you and me to His way of life, to a restored relationship with God, to a place where death no longer has its sting or any lasting power over us. Taking that invitation, trusting Him, changes the way we understand life and death, giving a hope that can’t be broken because Jesus, who was broken and died, is very much alive.

It’s my prayer that you come to know the hope of life in Jesus in ways you never before imagined. And if you are one of the many who has recently lost a loved one, I pray you’ll find comfort in Him as well.
Art: unsplash.com


"The Bible Project:" A Tool to Enhance Your Reading

I often share an article about starting a Scripture reading plan, especially around the new year, which you can find here: "Resolved to Read God's Word."

This year, I want to share a great resource to help people better understand just what they're reading.

The Bible Project has created beautifully illustrated summaries of every book in the Bible, plus lots of series and theme videos to help you understand particular topics. And at this point they're still creating, with much of their content being crowd funded.

The site does offer a reading plan, which you can follow via an app, get notifications for by e-mail or even download in print (scroll toward the bottom of the main page for more on this). Below is an intro to their Read Scripture experience for a general understanding of their plan, but you can definitely use their videos to enhance any plan you choose.

I've also included the first half of Genesis here just so you can get a feel for their riveting style. Or, go ahead and get started there if that's your pick.

However you choose to get reading, I hope these videos are a great help as you get to know the Lord through His Word.


Christmas 2017: Gentleness in a Jarring World

“...unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
-Luke 2:11–12

People I talk to seem to agree this year’s headlines have felt more than a little jarring. Watching disaster, scandal and tragedy unfold, with something new and often unexpected each week, leaves us wondering what could happen next. The realm of social media seems to argue at every turn of events, seeking someone to blame, making the collective experience that much worse. There’s nothing gentle in the way the world is trending.

All this has me considering the unexpected gentleness of what Christians celebrate at Christmas. God Himself comes into the world, very personally present. But He doesn’t come with a great amount of fanfare. There’s certainly some, especially as angels make their announcement, partly quoted above, to initially shaken shepherds, but even this isn’t a widespread broadcast.

What’s more, who do they run off to find? A very unintimidating newborn baby. And where do they find Him? Among animals off the beaten path in an overcrowded city, where the family aren’t exactly expecting visitors.

Even a few years later when men from the East show up to find the same child, they locate Him by way of astronomy, an unusual celestial event perhaps unnoticed by many. It’s not until they inquire of the local authority that someone takes new notice, and in a jarring act of jealousy tries to end his perceived competition.

Clearly if the God of all creation wanted to enter the world, He could have done so any way He chose. Yet He chose this way, coming not as some angry, destroying deity, but one humble and helpless, protected by others in a dangerous world. This is the picture of the Mighty God who is the Prince of Peace, one who grew up like us and can personally relate to us, one who would subject Himself to evil and even death so we could know God. Jesus gives us the ultimate picture of gentleness in a world that’s increasingly jarring.

Perhaps more unexpectedly, He invites us to know true gentleness, to know peace through Him, even in our world today. In Matthew 11, Jesus gives an invitation, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” This is far more than just a break from crazy headlines. For anyone who trusts Him, Jesus is offering rest from the weights and struggles each one of us carries inside. To truly know Him is to know peace with God, and to receive all He’s ready to give.

Praying this holiday season you discover new hope through the gentleness of Jesus.

(Scripture: ESV • Art: unsplash.com)


Mission: St. Louis 2017 - The Move North

A couple weeks ago we took a team to serve with Mission: St. Louis. A lot's changed since serving with them in 2014, for the organization and the city, so this provided new opportunities to learn.

Before diving in, this is a continuation of my reconciliation and development series. You can click those words to see all related posts and how God's guiding an STL lifer through these concerns. With that in mind, here's where He took me next...

On our last trip we served in The Grove. Founder Josh Wilson told me that neighborhood gentrified (read: the trendy spots got middle class popular), families they'd connected with moved out and they had to develop a more regional approach. In November M:STL moved into the old YMCA building on Grand Ave. in North City's JeffVanderLou neighborhood, and the former home of World Impact. While they're partially renting with hopes to purchase the structure, they just had a grand opening May 11.

Checking out the classic original pool.
This area was once very active and fairly wealthy. The YMCA was built in 1918 across from Sportsman's Park, a former home of the St. Louis Cardinals. It's near Fairground Park, which has its own intriguing history, including the 1949 race riot when the pool was racially integrated. We also weren't far from Grand Center, a popular arts and entertainment district. On a personal note, my grandparents and at least three great grandparents once lived on streets like Penrose and Kossuth, giving me specific ties to the region.
The old Sportsman's Park across the street.
It's also an area I've generally learned to avoid, either via negative news reports or stories that if you're white the police think you're only around for illicit reasons. So though we'd often pass this way when I was younger, I hadn't been through in years and was excited to see all this history with an adult understanding.

Monday: Foundations
On our first morning we heard from Josh Wilson, who shared how Mission: St. Louis came to be. Josh was once moved by a student's answer to the question of who she'd like to spend time with, dead or alive. She wanted more time with her brother who had died in her arms in their front yard. While this shocked him, he sadly realized it was not shocking to other students, but was reality for many. This motivated him to want to do something in the city.
Josh Wilson
Josh gathered 200 volunteers but quickly burned them out, doing more harm than good in just 3 months by working with a charity model, spewing out resources with no plan or understanding of needs. A principal at Adams Elementary in The Grove helped him better understand this, and a partnership was formed with the school. He developed relationships with guys in that neighborhood, and listening to their needs created Beyond Jobs as a bridge between businesses and those who might be considered unemployable due to troubled histories. The hope is to cultivate the next generation, changing families and neighborhoods over time, leading to the healing of our city.

Josh said if we understand the Gospel of Jesus rightly, it will change how we view the world and our city. We who are wrecked by our sin and changed by God's grace should want to be part of God's restoration in our world today. Gospel transformation includes being involved, loving culture and city while holding fast to biblical truth.
What they do now: The M:STL Program Map
Josh also told us teams like ours are relationship ambassadors for M:STL in the community, plus we would help in the building as they get set up in this 90,000 square foot space.

And that we did. Our guide, Beau, gave us a partial tour and cut us loose to start painting, clearing rooms, and moving an incredible amount of furniture, tools and equipment to different floors. Despite dust and sweat, most of us found this organizational work pretty satisfying.
Stuff got put "wherever" during the move.
We made short work of this area at least. (See left side above.)
Tools and equipment began being sorted on a higher floor.
Later groups will continue to organize and inventory.
Tuesday: Systemic Issues
Katie Bench, AmeriCorps VISTA Services Manager, spoke today. AmeriCorps is the Peace Corps in the U.S. through which M:STL gets many short term employees. Katie, a New Jersey native, quickly noticed the race problem in St. Louis, and primarily discussed some history of systematic issues here.
Katie Bench
Katie highlighted that St. Louis was the country's crown jewel during westward expansion as everyone stopped on their way, and the 1904 World's Fair kept us on the map. In 1876, the city split from the county over tax and other concerns. In time, wealth began moving to the county. African Americans were largely relegated north where they were allowed to buy property. In the 1950s, white folks began leaving the city for suburbs. Red lining, or only showing certain properties to black families, was heavily practiced by realtors in the 60s and 70s. The county today has 90 municipalities and 10 unincorporated census-designated places, creating issues in resource sharing. The Ferguson Commission specifically called for "consolidation of police departments and municipal courts" among other reforms. (For more history, visit the City of St. Louis website, especially the "African-American Experience.")
A view of downtown St. Louis and our iconic gateway symbol.
Katie then focused on some encouraging areas of change.

• Schools - City schools are now accredited and doing well financially, but are primarily affected by poverty. Kids often come from less educated families and are not as cognitively ready when they start school. The Beyond School program can help kids gain 3 months of reading skill level for every month a student is involved. They also provide any physical resources students need.

• Economic Opportunity - For those who need employment but did not learn job skills, the Beyond Jobs program provides training.

• Food Deserts - Many city areas lack convenient grocery stores. VISTAs are working to get farmers markets in the area to provide better access to fresh fruits and vegetables, while offering food training classes. I was also excited to learn the International Institute has purchased city land to allow farming immigrants to raise crops.

After her talk, the team visited South City to work at St. Louis College Prep, a free charter school for middle and high school students. Executive Director Mike Malone told us when they inherited the building they also inherited a lot of stuff. We moved much of that stuff from garage to dumpster, then collected gym equipment to organize in the garage. We also hauled things out of their amazing (and deep) boiler room and assembled furniture.
Most of the contents of the garage at back ended up in the dumpster.
A scrapper was happy to take as much as he could haul too.
At lunch, we heard from Erin Malone, Director of Youth Development for Beyond School and wife of Mike. They give a hand up in education by partnering students with success coaches, who form deep relationships with the families, helping kids get on track for high school. To decrease drop outs, they give individualized academic support, intentional social and emotional support, community service learning and enrichment experiences, along with eliminating as many barriers to education as possible.
Erin Malone and success coaches.
As we learned and worked, students went about their school day, allowing us to see some of the faces we were quietly supporting with our labor. I pray for the success of every one, and through them future strengthening of families and communities.

Wednesday: Engagement
Beyond Jobs Director Jason Watson, known in the rap world as Json, shared his story. An STL native, Jason began selling drugs at 12, was kicked out of school and did some jail time. When he became a Christian at 21, he wanted to help guys with similar backgrounds. He returned to St. Louis 2 years ago and was asked by the former director to work at M:STL. He now works primarily with guys 22-35 who get paired with a mentor and work a paid 8-week internship. If they prove themselves, they're often employed full time. Mentors continue with them for 10 to 12 months, developing authentic relationships. He loves seeing these guys overcome so many obstacles.
Jason Watson
Jason discussed the need to enter into other people's narratives. Get to know them. Differences between city and county or worship styles aren't right or wrong, just different. Ask questions to understand someone's context and why they feel/think/act as they do. He suggested using the internet to learn how others think, or documentaries and books that give snapshots of people's lives. Better yet, really be with people and do what they do. Racial reconciliation is when you really enter into someone else's world. It's not just a church service with people from different backgrounds, but knowing them in their world.

For our work today, we went back and finished up what we could at the school, including the assembly of some rather frustrating tables. Afterward, we toured more of the YMCA building, checking out the former World Impact apartment which they hope will house work teams, and spent some time on the old, elevated gym track. Every bit of that 90K square feet has so much potential, as does every person we encountered, each one created in God's image.
Assembling those complicated tables. Or trying to.
Hanging out on the elevated track.
Those rails just don't seem quite high enough for today's standards.
Thursday: Fatherhood
Today we heard from Chris Hill, Beyond Jobs Student Relations Coordinator who serves as Jason's right hand man. Requested to speak on fatherhood, Chris was hesitant as he approached, but his story was powerful.

Having gone from career thief to drug dealer to rapper, Chris explained how Jesus called Him through some amazing circumstances. Now 41, he didn't expect to make it past 25. He said much of what he went through came from not having a father around. He wanted guidance from the man he knew as dad, but got a poor example instead. He hated the man, but obeyed when he felt God saying to tell him he loved him. When he developed cancer, Chris cared for him and they grew close. Chris was able to treat and forgive him the way God had treated and forgiven Chris.
Chris Hill
He later learned this man was actually his adopted father, and wanted to find his biological dad. Chris located him about 3 years ago and began a surface relationship. They recently reconnected through a deeper discussion, and he was so relieved to hear his dad say he loved and was proud of him. He was hopeful to get to know him better. Sadly, just days later he learned his father passed away.

"Honor your parents, cause once they're gone, they're gone," Chris said, reminding us to tell people we love them while we can. He's trying to do right by his own kids now, two of which didn't see him much when they were young either. Don't wait until it's too late to have that relationship.

While Chris' story was fresh and painful, it was also full of Gospel redemption. I pray the Lord comforts Chris, using him powerfully in the lives of other men with similar stories who need to know the love of God as Father. This is an important topic, and one of many discussed with guys in the program.

Our work today led us again to the south side. Our team split to weatherproof a couple ADA compliant decks installed by Home Services. We reunited at a home on Chippewa to scrape paint from a large garage. I spent time with resident JoAnn, learning about her life and living in the area. She said it's not so bad as you hear on the news and she loves the community. She even showed off some of her doll collection. I was thankful to engage in ways Jason suggested the day before.
Weatherproofing a ramp.
Paint scraping. Another team will paint after us.
Friday: Local Impact
We went straight to work today, picking up trash around the neighborhood, then doing yard work at local homes. It was amazing to see these old, beautiful houses, some in fine shape and others just shells needing to be torn down. Residents told our group much of the issue in this area is the city needing to provide proper services. Just days later local media covered a forum for residents to speak on the abandoned building problem and need to remove these structures, which are dangerous and attract crime.
A damaged home right next to one well kept.
An unfortunately common sight.
Cleaning the streets in front of a once beautiful home.
Tearing out brush along the fence line.
And all cleared. This team just knocked tasks out.
We got to try some local cuisine at Bing Lau Chop Suey just across the street as recommended by Jason earlier in the week. They serve the STL classic St. Paul sandwich, a large egg foo young on bread. Our food guide was also awesome enough to rap for us a Json verse from "Struggle" off his new album "Foreign." We wrapped up our week with a debrief at M:STL and headed home.
A St. Paul sandwich. In case you're wondering.
Our team spent evenings at four host homes, my own included, and debriefed daily highs, lows and takeaways. We had a more diversified group than one might realize at first glance, with a variety of cultural backgrounds represented, including black, white and hispanic, so it was really interesting to hear everyone's views.
The team mostly represented. Some switched out during the week.
(Photo credit: A. Maxwell.)
I'm thankful to have any part in restoration as informed by the Gospel. Jesus died to give us a relationship with God, to make me new and one day make all things new. How can I help in working toward the restoration of relationships and places around me now? One way seems as simple as sharing stories like these to help others broaden their own views. Another is to enjoy relationships as the Lord brings them, gladly entering into those narratives, plus watching for ways to leverage God-given resources and gifts to help empower others and meet actual need.

Thanks to Mission: St. Louis for allowing us to serve, connect and learn, and for all they're doing to restore our city.


MLK 50 Conference, April 4, 2018

In early April I had the opportunity to attend my first conference by The Gospel Coalition. There they announced an event coming to Memphis on April 4, 2018, the date on which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lost his life. The conference, "MLK 50: Gospel Reflections from the Mountaintop," will reflect on the 50th anniversary of his assassination.

Conference cost is just $50 for the first 50 days (through May 23) using coupon code MLK50 at MLK50Conference.com. Please view the promo video below.


Oh Love That Will Not Let Me Go: Easter 2017

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”
-Jesus, quoted in John 10:27-30


Remembering is so important. Throughout the Bible, God constantly calls His people to remember. Remember His promises. Remember His faithfulness. Remember what He has done.

I was recently surprised to realize it’s actually been 20 years since God unmistakably called me to Himself. Ten years ago I shared that story in an Easter letter, which launched my holiday writing tradition and eventually led to the creation of this site. On this anniversary I wanted to share the story again, now slightly refreshed with a deeper understanding.

I spent days pondering these memories, through which the Lord deeply encouraged me. It’s a story that says nothing good of me, but so much about the faithfulness of God. It struck me to consider the reality that in all this time, despite my stumblings and struggles, He has never let me go.

As the Church remembers Jesus’ death and resurrection this Holy Week, I humbly submit to you the story of how God brought me from death to life in Him. Please read here: “my story, His doing.”

God’s blessings to you this Easter.

Scripture: ESV, Art: creationswap.com