Christmas Makes Prayer Possible

“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life. And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.” -1 John 5:13-15

It’s not uncommon in our culture to hear words like “thoughts and prayers.” Related sentiments are often expressed with the best intentions and genuine care, especially following personal crisis or major catastrophe. But at times a sense of helplessness and hopelessness may lead to frustration with such words. When desires are not soon fulfilled the question may arise: What good does prayer really do?

The celebration of the birth of Jesus can also bring the birth of hope for such a question. The entire trajectory of this tiny baby’s life, ultimately leading to His death and astounding resurrection, was to show us who God is and make it possible to know Him very personally. That knowing includes being able to talk with Him anytime, expressing both fears and joys, needs and thanks.

In Jesus we see God act on our behalf, proving we can trust Him to act for us today. While we should take action when possible—either for ourselves or in the lives of others as God may even use us to respond to a request—prayer now becomes an extraordinary act in itself. This is communication with our very real God who has actually lived among us, experienced pain like us and can affect all the things we cannot. While the Lord makes very clear that His ways are not our ways, and He may not respond precisely when and how we expect, He does hear those who believe in Him and we can trust Him in any circumstance.

This year I’ve had the privilege to participate in some big prayer events in and around St. Louis, and I’ve clearly seen God respond to the prayers of His people in amazing ways. But we can also see this in simple, everyday communication as we trust the Lord and watch for His responses. We can begin to see He truly is “able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think.” (Ephesians 3:20)

While I am glad to pray for you anytime, my prayer for you this season is that you do trust in the name of Jesus, the Son of God who makes prayer possible, and experience the true comfort and joy of knowing and speaking with Him each day.

Art: unsplash.com


10 Days of Prayer in St. Louis

I just spent 10 extraordinary days praying all across the St. Louis region, from South City to North City to far West County, and all points between. This was an unusual opportunity, and an incredible experience to share.

I was privileged earlier this year to join the organizers of 10 Days of Prayer St. Louis in prayer and planning for many months leading up to these 10 days in October. 10 Days is a movement that's been adopted and adapted in several cities, but this was the first time any such effort had taken place in St. Louis. Lead organizers here decided rather than creating special meetings for a 10 day period, why not find out who's already praying in our city and join them? And so we did. I was personally able to attend 15 individual events, and am beyond thankful for all I experienced in this time.

St. Louis, as you may know, is having a mix of good and bad happening in our city. We're making national headlines for our Stanley Cup winning Blues and having our Cardinals playing ball in October again (and in our sports enthusiasm we are remarkably united), while simultaneously gaining infamy for the horrific fact that several young children became shooting victims in our city this year. Beyond crime stats, we who live here are also well aware of the ways our city is divided—along ethnic, economical and even ecclesial lines, among many others. We desperately need these things to change.

So for these 10 Days we did war in prayer alongside many others who've been fighting the same battle for years. And for all our differences, I heard so many similar threads that weren't just sparked by a unified theme or prayer guide, but the fact that we love our city, and we want to see our city know and love Jesus, the only one who can ultimately make those changes we seek.

We worshiped. We repented. We walked and we wept. We prayed over places where strongholds still exist and saw powerful examples of the walls of division coming down. And every place we went, we saw the Lord at work in power through His people. We saw real desire for change, true hope for change, actual change in progress, and every bit of that rooted in Jesus Christ, our King. Because of Him, we do not lose heart.

Here are just a few moments captured from the events I was able to attend.

Day 1 meeting in a thrift shop ministry at Grand and Chippewa.
Here county residents prayed over city residents.

Day 2 Speak to the City event for the first time in the county at the far west edge.
Praying for our entire region.

Day 2 afternoon prayer outside Crave Coffeehouse after the rain.

On my drive here, I was reminded that we were not far from where a tornado hit in the 1800s, utterly destroying many areas of the town. And yet, the city had to come together to rebuild from that event. Lord, unite us to build this place back up, especially those areas that are currently laid so low. As you were laid low on the cross for our sin and returned to life, we want to see the new life you give infused into our city. Raise this place up in your power, Lord.

Day 3 prayer at the temporary home of Refuge and Restoration,
which plans to create a center in Dellwood.

Day 4 prayer walk in Bevo, praying especially for our Bosnian neighbors.

Day 4 night of worship and teaching at Memorial Pres. near Wash U.

Day 5 worship with staff at New City Fellowship offices.
This was followed by a prayer walk in the surrounding neighborhood.

Our prayer walk took us to areas with both dilapidated and restored homes,
areas of prostitution and a community garden planted by immigrants.
Hurt and hope all around this area.

Day 5 prayer with a small and quiet gathering near Brentwood...

...and a large and loud gathering in West County.
Many styles of worship expressed to our One Great God.

Day 6 in North City, with many on their knees in the pews.

Gathering in a circle for prayer to close the night...

...hand in hand before the Throne.

Day 7 in Maryland Heights.
We prayed for many of the estimated 4,000 congregations in our region by name.

Day 7 eve, on our knees in Creve Coeur.

As we prayed on day 6 for "our daily bread," the Lord brought to mind that we live in a city where many are starving. Some physically, yes, but many more mentally, emotionally and spiritually. God, let us in the Church not also inadvertently starve ourselves by ignoring you, because all this begins in the house of the Lord. We are to be the houses helping to feed our city, and, Jesus, you are the true and better Bread. You are the Bread of Life. Feed us with the Bread of your Word. Fill us with the Bread of your Presence, with your Spirit guiding us in ways we can serve our neighbors. Give this city manna that it's never seen before, Lord. Let this city taste and see you.

Day 8 with One City/Won City for prayer and worship
at the Holiday Inn downtown.

Day 9 with Pastoral Fellowship of St. Louis for a conference on Arsenal,
including some great stories of racial unity in Christ.

Day 10 with North County pastors praying over their people
at their fourth annual Unity Sunday service,
uniting several predominantly black and predominantly white congregations.
These photos and descriptions are mere glimpses into all that went on during these 10 Days, and they can't begin to express all the Lord is doing in me through this time. Just being in His presence with His people is always amazing, but I've also learned so much more of different traditions, different styles of prayer and worship. I got to meet many people who love Jesus and St. Louis as much as I do. We don't all look and act and pray the same way, but we ultimately want the same thing—to see God bring His glory and healing to our city.

Now that 10 Days of Prayer STL is behind us, we'll talk through what the Lord did here. More importantly, we'll look forward to what He has to come as we see Him answer our prayers. Now that many of our prayer movements know about one another, we hope this will continue to improve unity among the churches of our region. And we know there are new ideas in development, such as Pray for the Lou Day next year on 3/14 (that being in reference to our "314" area code).

Whether you're a resident of the St. Louis region or any other city, always be on the lookout for the things the Lord is doing where you live. And never ever stop lifting your city up to Him in prayer. By His cross, Jesus is making all things new, even now.


Faith in Ferguson 5 Years On

It is now 5 years since the events that erupted out of Ferguson, MO. It's been a while since I've written about my history there and the many things the Lord has taught me around this event, which you can find in my reconciliation and development thread. And he definitely continues to do so.

This year on August 9 and 10 I unexpectedly found myself back in that familiar part of town. I've been praying and working with 10 Days of Prayer St. Louis, and through them learned just days before of a morning prayer meeting I felt compelled to attend. Led by the organization Civil Righteousness, we had a time of reflection and then a longer time of prayer, crying out to the Lord on behalf of the city of Ferguson and the entire region for the peace and unity only Jesus can give.

Ministry Leaders Prayer Gathering
While some of that deep sadness came rushing back on many of us, it remains important to really feel, to care deeply and to bring that sorrow to the Lord, knowing only He can cause the changes we want to see. I am also thankful for the positives and connections that continue to happen as a result, and for ways we do see the Lord working even now.

At this morning of prayer I also learned of several other weekend events, and was able to return later on Friday for a tent meeting on Canfield near West Florissant called "Fragrance Ferguson." This was a time of worship and prayer, again for the city, but also for physical healing for any who requested it, which really paralleled at an individual level exactly what we were praying for the region.

Jonathan Tremaine Thomas speaks inside the tent

Police did request we end a bit early due to "intel" they received, but we were thankful to later hear there were only a few protestors over at the police station, and just a handful arrested for blocking traffic. Overall a very peaceful evening.

On Saturday I returned to the tent. The sounds of worship music and prayer filled the air of that street corner throughout the day. In stark contrast, I was able to participate in The Wall, a mostly silent time of prayer in which each of us wrote a one or two word prayer on a piece of white tape and covered our mouths. Instead of a silent protest, we walked up Canfield to the apartments and stood lined up on either side of the street around the memorial for Mike Brown to silently pray. Occasionally, Civil Righteousness leader Jonathan Tremaine Thomas read Scripture or prayed aloud, but most of our hour there was without commentary. No shouts. No opinions. Just prayer. There was a great show of appreciation in honks and thank yous as vehicles passed by.

A simple prayer.
Walking to the apartments.

Afterward, we gathered to pray aloud together in a large group on the side of the road. Here we met several residents and individuals significant to the events of 5 years ago. It was a privilege to hear their stories and pray for them now.


Once The Wall prayer time was done, we returned to the tent. Several of us, which included a number from Alabama and Tennessee, then dispersed either to walk the streets or sit at smaller tents to speak and pray with people passing by. I was able to spend about 4 hours at a tent on W. Florissant, where we passed out water, plus offered some food packets donated by another group across the street, and had the privilege to pray with several individuals. We could also point them later in the afternoon to the tent area for sno-cones and face painting, while inviting them back to an evening prayer time. Again, so many people, even those who did not request prayer, said, "Thank you for doing this."

The canopy out on West Florissant.
Worship continued throughout the day.
I was unable to stay for the evening, but I've since heard some great testimonies coming out of that prayer and healing service on Saturday night as well.
Our positive presence in the community may have been felt on the surface, but this was also a way to let a community forever changed and still hurting know that God's people have not forgotten them. God has not forgotten this city, and in fact His presence was most certainly there. I'm so grateful He led me to join this group to bring people before the Lord. It also struck me that while many who caused trouble during the initial riots were not from this area, many in this group trying to bring healing came from different parts of the country as well, indicating a broader restorative theme.

As always, please continue to pray for the Lord's work and healing in and around Ferguson, also remembering Dellwood, and the entire St. Louis area. Pray for the Gospel of Jesus to change this place from the inside out, and give thanks for all God is doing here that you simply won't hear on the news. He really is working.


What God Does With Broken Things // Easter 2019

What do you do when something you own gets broken? We usually try to repair or replace, or, if all hope is lost, we recycle what we can. Things break around us all the time, and this expands beyond mere stuff. We see it in situations and systems, people and our planet, things often far too big for us to try to “fix” on our own.

That’s why it’s amazing to consider what God does with broken things, and how He has a remarkable way of working with and through them.

Broken Bread Multiplied
The Bible tells us Jesus frequently used bread as a visual aid to teach greater truths. On two occasions he used a few broken loaves of bread and some fish to feed thousands. To one crowd who wanted more of this miracle meal, Jesus told them this was about more than their growling stomachs, stating, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35)

Broken Bodies Healed
When people around Jesus were broken, He could simply touch them or say a word and their bodies and minds would be healed. Yet even that physical healing was pointing toward a greater spiritual healing. All this dysfunction and disrepair actually points to our broken relationship with God. But Jesus was about to repair even this by being broken Himself.

Broken Lord Restored
Shortly before being arrested, Jesus broke bread in front of His closest followers as part of a Passover meal, telling them it represented His broken body. Days later the Bread of Life Himself was broken on a cross and placed in a tomb. When Jesus stepped out of that tomb 3 days later, well, you might imagine even His closest followers had a hard time believing.

As a couple of them were walking home, Jesus caught up and walked alongside. Yet they had no idea it was Him until He did something very familiar, blessing and breaking bread in front of them. Suddenly they knew the once broken Bread of Life was now restored! And if He was restored from death to life, He can restore us too.

Broken People Renewed
It really is amazing to see God work with broken things, especially people. Even though we contribute to the mess anytime we choose not to love God or others, He continually invites us to the table, offering something more satisfying than we’ve ever known. For whoever comes to Him, He’s ready to give real life, renew our relationships and even bring us into a fully rebuilt world one day.

He sure didn’t have to take on another project, but I’m beyond thankful the Lord continues to work even on a broken mess like me. (“Under restoration,” as I like to say.) And if you haven’t yet accepted the offer, I’d like to invite you to His table to see all the amazing ways Jesus, the broken and restored Bread of Life, is able to multiply, heal, restore and renew.


Relentlesly Pursued by "The Hound of Heaven"

I have been overwhelmed lately as I consider God's unrelenting pursuit in my life, and unable to get the concepts of this classic poem, "The Hound of Heaven," out of my head. While my story isn't identical to the opium addicted author's, when the Lord called me to Himself He commanded me to stop pursuing the sin in which I was so entangled. But in part it was a place of comfort, coping, identity and far more He was asking me to give up. So even though I heard His voice distinctly, I didn't want the disruption and tried to fight Him. God, forgive me, I said "no."

Little did I know the Lord always wins the wrestling match.

As I think on this now, new realizations come to mind. How much must Jesus love me to keep pursuing in spite of this in-His-face denial? It literally turns my stomach now to confess I did not want His love. The notion of "love" never even occurred to me. I simply wanted to go on ignoring Him and live my own life my own way. And yet "no" was not an option here. Jesus will have all the Father has given Him. (John 6:37-40; 17:1-26) He had, in fact, already died even for this betrayal. And though I fled Him, He pursued, and pursues me to this day with a love that will not let me go.

O my God, thank you for never giving up, never letting go.

This 182 line poem is both lengthy and written in older English, so I share the full text below, but also an intriguing modern adaptation here that may help your understanding.

Additionally, here's a version with the text read along in case you're more the auditory type.

Keep scrolling and you'll also find the preview for a documentary with a bit more of Thompson's story just after the poem below.

 The Hound of Heaven
by Francis Thompson (1890)

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’

I pleaded, outlaw-wise,
By many a hearted casement, curtained red,
Trellised with intertwining charities;
(For, though I knew His love Who followèd,
Yet was I sore adread
Lest having Him, I must have naught beside).
But, if one little casement parted wide,
The gust of His approach would clash it to.
Fear wist not to evade, as Love wist to pursue.
Across the margent of the world I fled,
And troubled the gold gateways of the stars,
Smiting for shelter on their clangèd bars;
Fretted to dulcet jars
And silvern chatter the pale ports o’ the moon.
I said to Dawn: Be sudden—to Eve: Be soon;
With thy young skiey blossoms heap me over
From this tremendous Lover—
Float thy vague veil about me, lest He see!
I tempted all His servitors, but to find
My own betrayal in their constancy,
In faith to Him their fickleness to me,
Their traitorous trueness, and their loyal deceit.
To all swift things for swiftness did I sue;
Clung to the whistling mane of every wind.
But whether they swept, smoothly fleet,
The long savannahs of the blue;
Or whether, Thunder-driven,
They clanged his chariot ’thwart a heaven,
Plashy with flying lightnings round the spurn o’ theirfeet:—
Fear wist not to evade as Love wist to pursue.
Still with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
Came on the following Feet,
And a Voice above their beat—
‘Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter Me.’

I sought no more that after which I strayed
In face of man or maid;
But still within the little children’s eyes
Seems something, something that replies;
They at least are for me, surely for me!
I turned me to them very wistfully;
But just as their young eyes grew sudden fair
With dawning answers there,
Their angel plucked them from me by the hair.
‘Come then, ye other children, Nature’s—share
With me’ (said I) ‘your delicate fellowship;
Let me greet you lip to lip,
Let me twine with you caresses,
With our Lady-Mother’s vagrant tresses,
With her in her wind-walled palace,
Underneath her azured daïs,
Quaffing, as your taintless way is,
From a chalice
Lucent-weeping out of the dayspring.’
So it was done:
I in their delicate fellowship was one—
Drew the bolt of Nature’s secrecies.
I knew all the swift importings
On the wilful face of skies;
I knew how the clouds arise
Spumèd of the wild sea-snortings;
All that’s born or dies
Rose and drooped with; made them shapers
Of mine own moods, or wailful or divine;
With them joyed and was bereaven.
I was heavy with the even,
When she lit her glimmering tapers
Round the day’s dead sanctities.
I laughed in the morning’s eyes.

I triumphed and I saddened with all weather,
Heaven and I wept together,
And its sweet tears were salt with mortal mine;
Against the red throb of its sunset-heart
I laid my own to beat,
And share commingling heat;
But not by that, by that, was eased my human smart.
In vain my tears were wet on Heaven’s gray cheek.
For ah! we know not what each other says,
These things and I; in sound I speak—
Their sound is but their stir, they speak by silences.
Nature, poor stepdame, cannot slake my drouth;
Let her, if she would owe me,
Drop yon blue bosom-veil of sky, and show me
The breasts o’ her tenderness:
Never did any milk of hers once bless
My thirsting mouth.
Nigh and nigh draws the chase,
With unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy;
And past those noisèd Feet
A voice comes yet more fleet—
‘Lo! naught contents thee, who content’st
not Me.’

Naked I wait Thy love’s uplifted stroke!
My harness piece by piece Thou hast hewn from me,
And smitten me to my knee;
I am defenceless utterly.
I slept, methinks, and woke,
And, slowly gazing, find me stripped in sleep.
In the rash lustihead of my young powers,
I shook the pillaring hours
And pulled my life upon me; grimed with smears,
I stand amid the dust o’ the mounded years—
My mangled youth lies dead beneath the heap.
My days have crackled and gone up in smoke,
Have puffed and burst as sun-starts on a stream.
Yea, faileth now even dream
The dreamer, and the lute the lutanist;
Even the linked fantasies, in whose blossomy twist
I swung the earth a trinket at my wrist,
Are yielding; cords of all too weak account
For earth with heavy griefs so overplussed.
Ah! is Thy love indeed
A weed, albeit an amaranthine weed,
Suffering no flowers except its own to mount?
Ah! must—
Designer infinite!—
Ah! must Thou char the wood ere Thou canst limn
with it?
My freshness spent its wavering shower i’ the dust;
And now my heart is as a broken fount,
Wherein tear-drippings stagnate, spilt down ever
From the dank thoughts that shiver
Upon the sighful branches of my mind.
Such is; what is to be?
The pulp so bitter, how shall taste the rind?
I dimly guess what Time in mists confounds;
Yet ever and anon a trumpet sounds
From the hid battlements of Eternity;
Those shaken mists a space unsettle, then
Round the half-glimpsèd turrets slowly wash again.
But not ere him who summoneth
I first have seen, enwound
With glooming robes purpureal, cypress-crowned;
His name I know, and what his trumpet saith.
Whether man’s heart or life it be which yields
Thee harvest, must Thy harvest-fields
Be dunged with rotten death?

Now of that long pursuit
Comes on at hand the bruit;
That Voice is round me like a bursting sea:
‘And is thy earth so marred,
Shattered in shard on shard?
Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest Me!
Strange, piteous, futile thing!
Wherefore should any set thee love apart?
Seeing none but I makes much of naught’ (He said),
‘And human love needs human meriting:
How hast thou merited—
Of all man’s clotted clay the dingiest clot?
Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!’
Halts by me that footfall:
Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
‘Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.’


"One: Still the Loneliest Number" – A Conversation On Loneliness

Loneliness, and discussion of it, seem increasingly common in recent years. I often see articles on the subject popping up in news feeds. The "Sunday Morning" television show aired a story about loneliness just this week. England recently appointed a "Minister for Loneliness," and various officials are concerned it may even be a public health epidemic.

All this talk and concern while we are more connected to people than ever before, thanks to the state of our technology. But our numbers of "friends" and "likes" online apparently aren't as fulfilling as we might have hoped. For all our texting and tweeting, we somehow remain a society expressing a profound disconnect.

As it happens, this is exactly the kind of topic you might hear about at a monthly public discussion called Theology at the Bottleworks hosted by Midrash St. Louis. TATB is a place to come together for civil discussion of various hot topics in a room full of diverse backgrounds, opinions and views—and a fantastic way to break out of the "one of us" bubble to learn how others process life.

So back in December loneliness was the very topic we took on. I was able to participate in several additional meetings around the Bottleworks discussion as well, and as it's percolating in my own mind I want to share some related resources and thoughts.

>> One is an article I posted a few years back which some have found helpful for their own struggles with loneliness:
"Eight Questions to Address Loneliness"

>> We also did a follow up podcast about the TATB discussion you can hear via Soundcloud.

While the causes of and responses to loneliness may vary widely, there should be serious consideration how we as individuals, and Christians/the Church in particular, might better address the issue. So here are some points which developed in and around the conversation.

Never abandoned, always pursued
The Lord keeps reminding us, "I'll never leave you," and, "I'm always with you." Jesus pursued His people to His own death. We have to believe this first. Then we can image God by pursuing others. How are we doing here?

Knowing and being known
The sad fact is that many people feel they aren't truly known by anyone. Thankfully, no one knows us better than our Creator, another truth to which we can cling. But when it comes to human companionship, we can dodge depth. We share the day's mood online to rouse responses, then stare at some device in the presence of others rather than spending time in real conversation. Not helpful. Neither is asking, "How are you?," as a greeting and ignoring an honest response. Our knowledge of each other can't grow unless we all move out of the shallow end of the pool. Are we actively interacting?
Patience before appropriate authenticity
I'm amused at how online curation is often criticized with annoyance that people are just painting the picture of a "perfect" life that's really not. Sure it can happen, but suddenly we're not being "authentic" if we just share our fantastic travel pix without all our bad stuff too, never mind the appropriateness of sharing every detail in the public square. Unfortunately, some have countered with the "authenticity" of chronic complaints or angry opinions... Definitely not better than your lovely vacation photos. Ironically, no matter what persona we post, we do the exact same stuff in person all the time. We always start with a certain public face. No one shows every side of their life in a first or even fifth interchange, nor should we. Too much too soon can push others away. There really is a time to speak and a time to hold that thought. While we can share anything with the Lord anytime, we need patience with ourselves and others to grow in and gauge a relationship before revealing our inmost thoughts and struggles. It takes time to go deeper. Are we willing to put in that time?

Hearing and being heard
Are we making ourselves available to hear other people's concerns and points of view? Are we ready to take turns in a conversation and let the other guy actually speak? Are we responsive when someone sincerely asks for our time, help or friendship? Are we willing to listen with discernment and without immediate judgment? James 1:19–20 reminds us to "be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger..." Otherwise we can immediately ostracize others, especially those who don't look or sound like us, rather than listening to love them well. (So glad TATB gives the opportunity to put all this into practice. We even ended this night early to allow people to spend more time together. And they did. Genius.)

Community and belonging
Another common thread is the need for a place to belong. The places where past generations spent time together aren't as readily available. But the Church again has something unique to offer. We know God is making a new people group, a collection of those who love Him coming from all nations and persuasions. Psalm 68 reminds us God is "father to the fatherless" and "defender of widows." If He really "sets the lonely in families" (NIV) or "settles the solitary in a home" (with others - ESV), then the Church should be that family and home, a welcoming community doing all the above just because we love Jesus and want the people around us to love Him too. Are we fully inviting others in? Do we invite even familiar believers into deeper community? Is the invitation on the Lord's terms or ours? Are we loving as He's loved us?

Loneliness is a complex issue, and these are just a few points to process as we think about ways to help the many it affects every day. What other ways can we help ease the sting of loneliness? Feel free to share ideas in comments—and, more importantly, in person!


A Christmas Invitation

It’s been a year where the next big news story quickly overshadowed the last, so much that late in the year the internet has filled with memes reminding us of major events which seem already forgotten. Through quick and frequent change, I’ve felt an increasing need for a place of stability and rest, and it’s clear I’m not alone. Everyone’s looking for these things in different places and many ways.

As I navigated 2018, that kind of rest wasn’t found in entertainment, though we thoroughly enjoyed our share of concerts and such. It definitely was not found in politics, though I do appreciate that right to vote. (And the end of the endless advertising... Who’s with me?) It wasn’t in media (social or otherwise), or the gym, or social gatherings, though there was opportunity to enjoy all those. It wasn’t even found in my own house, though I am thankful for a place to call home.

But when the Christmas tunes started rolling out this season, I found myself latching onto the words of the hymn above. Familiar words for me now rang with new hope and invitation.

Those words certainly remind us of what’s celebrated at Christmas by looking back to Jesus’ birth. As we’re told, “...when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” (Galatians 4:4–5) From birth to death to resurrection, everything Jesus did was providing His people the way to be free from our fears and sins (“sin” meaning all the ways we ignore God and His law) so we can truly know God and be made part of His family.

But the hymn also points ahead. As we trust Him for what He’s already done we can look forward to the next truly big story, the day Jesus will return. “...so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (Hebrews 9:28) His first appearance now makes way for His second, giving hope for a world He will make right again.

So whether looking back in celebration or forward with anticipation, the song expresses an invitation for Jesus to “come.” But what’s mind blowing is when He invites us to come to Him. His common invitation is simply, “Follow me.” He persists in inviting with, “Come to me... I will give you rest.” Jesus Himself is that stable place of rest we fail to find anywhere else.

This Christmastime, I invite you to consider who Jesus is and to hear His invitation to you.

All the best to you this holiday season!


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.