Free Advent Reading Guides for 2023

The season of Advent has just begun. Advent is a time for the Church to anticipate the Christmas celebration of Jesus' birth as we also look ahead in anticipation of His return.

If you've not already started one, an Advent reading guide may help encourage you to keep this focus during what is so often a busy time of year.

New for 2023, "The Weary World Rejoices" is now available as a free e-book from the Gospel Coalition.

For other downloadable options, "Good News of Great Joy" and "The Dawning of Indestructible Joy" are available in various formats from Desiring God.

A 31-day Advent Scripture reading plan is available to follow with a free ESV.org account.

For kids, "The Jesus Storybook Bible" has a free downloadable Advent kit, which includes music, coloring pages, ornaments, memory verse cards and more.

Whether you utilize any of these options, or simply enjoy your own time with the Lord in Scripture, I pray you find great joy and encouragement in remembering all we have in Christ today and forever. Praise the Father for the birth and forthcoming return of His Son, Jesus.


From Fragile to Forever: Where the Best of Health Is Found // Easter 2023

It can be a confounding thing to encore a summer of excellent health with a sudden, headlong dive into a new season of medical office visits. They become those kinds of places you’d rather avoid where everybody knows your name. And while it’s rough enough trying to determine the roots of any ailment, one might also fall further down the rabbit hole of navigating a money hungry health industry in search of reasonable rates sans standard healthcare. The entire endeavor grows tiring and time consuming, yet the phrase “be your own advocate” perhaps never rings more true.

While the stories, of course, play out differently, medical misadventures seem recently rampant in sections of my circle. From the obnoxious sinus issue or stomach bug to full-blown hospital stays, health concerns are an unfortunately, if unsurprisingly, common topic. Through it all, the fragility of our physical nature and the frailty of life itself can cross the mind. But this also brings to mind the promise of a cure even beyond any we might hope for now.

It’s in the Easter story this hope is found, but in the most unimaginable way possible. It’s there we see the injury of God’s own Son, Jesus, leading to His death. Somehow, we’re told, He had to be hurt so we could be healed. But since illness and injury abound, and the death rate clearly still stands at one per person, healed how? And in what way?

Looking ahead to what Jesus would do, Isaiah writes, “...he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” And looking back, Peter puts it like this, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”

Beyond physical healing, these words speak to our relationship with our Creator. We all neglect to live and love God and each other perfectly (a.k.a. “sin”), and we experience all sorts of struggles in our world because of this, including the physical. We owe a debt to the Lord we can’t even pay, and often the more we try to fix things, the more things go wrong. It can all seem utterly hopeless.

Thankfully, Jesus’ death was followed by His return to life. He did live perfectly, and He was willing to be our guarantor, taking the debt we owe on Himself so our relationship with God can be healed. No need to be our own advocates: Jesus stands in that place, even praying for His people. Plus, His physical healing points to the possibility of total healing and resurrection for us too.

Perhaps you’re familiar with the miracles of Jesus, several of which were physical healings. From the blind to the lame, the anemic to the leprous, people’s bodies were restored. In some cases, even people whose hearts had stopped beating altogether. These rare and temporary healings provide glimpses of that greater, eternal healing to come through this particularly Great Physician.

Just before calling his friend, Lazarus, back to life, Jesus says to the man’s sister, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” It’s a great question for us, too.

Undeserved advocacy. Comprehensive healing. Payment in full. All this for those who simply believe and trust Him. And, so, I pray for you the very best of health found only in Jesus Christ.

Scripture: Isaiah 53:5, 1 Peter 2:24, John 11:25-26 (ESV.org)
Art: unsplash.com


Marking A Year of War in Ukraine Under the Arch

On Friday, February 24, a year to the day since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a group of Ukrainians gathered at the St. Louis Arch grounds. They joined in solidarity to share their stories, to celebrate their culture, and to pray for their people and an end to the violence in their homeland.



Christmas 2022: A Wonder One Can Never Outgrow

As a kid, I heard plenty of culturally familiar Christmastime tales you might also recall. But there was one unique to my family that my grandpa who raised ponies would tell. He claimed that starting at the stroke of midnight, as Christmas officially began, he could go out to the barn and speak with those ponies for exactly 1 hour. I always wanted to know what they had to say, but somehow never got to experience this phenomenon myself.

Meanwhile, there was always some ruckus coming from the rooftop near the chimney of our other grandparents’ home on Christmas Eve, as my brother and I eagerly awaited that grandpa’s appearance following his annual private conversation with a jolly visitor.

Whatever your tradition, certainly some of the story and spectacle that so enthralled us in childhood is only right to outgrow. (Well, maybe not the talking ponies.) Still, a danger lies in outgrowing wonder altogether. I’m excited to see amazement reignited for many as we capture new photos from deep space. Yet even in this amazing tech age, such newness can fade fast as we get caught up in daily life or lost in screens—true for both adults and kids.

In thinking about wonder, I can’t help but recall a rather remarkable birth announcement no modern day gender reveal display could top. As some shepherds were out in the field, “...an angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For 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.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’”

This incredible display of light and sound and glory definitely rocked these guys out of a standard night of sheep herding, so much they ran off the job just to find a baby and managed to stir up wonder in everyone who heard their story. But it’s an announcement that should move us to wonder too. This is obviously no ordinary birth, and it’s just at the start of an amazing story of God loving the world so much He came to be with us. The one with the power to create those distant galaxies we’re just glimpsing showed us miracles here on Earth. He taught us what it means to love your enemies, of which we all could be counted as we turn from the wonder of knowing and trusting Him. He displayed self-sacrifice, His life for all who would trust and believe in Him, and in returning to life showed us the new life and peace that can be ours with Him. Those shepherds found an infant named Jesus, and His is a story we who know Him can ultimately never outgrow.

If this sort of wonder is something you’d like, or even something you’ve lost, don’t be afraid to ask for it. Ask God to show you His peace and presence through this good news of great joy. And in this season, I pray you do experience the true wonder of knowing Jesus.

Scripture: Luke 2:9-14, ESV • Art: unsplash.com


Of Mice and Minerals: Unexpected Lessons of a Prayer Retreat

Rock beneath me. Rock above me.
This summer, loaded down with a variety of stressors and noticing my last actual trip to anywhere was in 2019, I desperately needed a vacation. Long road trips tend to help clear my head. But where to go?

During an insomnia-driven 3 a.m. skim of social media, I noted a favorite band's upcoming Hollywood tour date, checked the calendar and realized "we could actually do that." So, despite soaring fuel prices, we hit the road 3 weeks later, trekking from St. Louis as far as Santa Monica on a brand new set of Continentals. It was a fantastic and picturesque trip that helped me shake off the last couple years to some degree. But it clearly wasn't far enough, as we hit the ocean and had to turn back around. I still needed a little something more.
Turns out Route 66 only goes so far. Hello, the Pacific.
Now recognizing the need for some extended alone time with the Lord, I began processing plans for a prayer retreat. A private retreat would be a new experience for me, and I was again unsure exactly how this might look, so I asked Him for direction. After several Missouri spots came up short, I suddenly recalled rumors of some beautiful destinations in Southern Illinois' Shawnee National Forest, a place I'd yet to experience. A brief search yielded cabin lodging available on my choice dates, complete with friendly farm animals and trails right on property. Bonus opps to visit recently relocated friends and a favorite eatery along the way basically sealed the deal. Just a couple days out, I booked a 2 night stay.

I really didn't go with much agenda, other than to pray and do some hiking. Following a visit with the farm animals on that first afternoon, I took a hike around the perimeter and came to my first rock formations, for which the area is known. It was here the Lord brought Psalm 61 to mind, and particularly verse 2, "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I." This became my theme. From worshiping in song inside Cave-In-Rock with its fantastic acoustics, to the breathtaking beauty of Garden of the Gods at sunset, the psalm was a perfect meditation to pray through at each stop. Long solo hikes during the days, complemented by nights filled with mesmerizing campfires and magnificent stars, kept me solidly focused on the astoundingly creative majesty of Jesus.

From inside Cave-In-Rock, opposite the view above.
Garden of the Gods at sunset. Massive rock structures in this old sea bed.
On my first night in the cabin after quiet time, I sat down to read a book our church was going through thinking this might be a chance to get caught up. After a few sweet moments of quiet, I thought I heard rustling. Seeing nothing, I returned to my reading. The sound came again, and I replaced my glasses just in time to spot it: A mouse! I caught the tiny rodent climbing its way out of a bucket of tchotchkes and fire starter kits on the far side of the room only to scamper toward the bed.

Not knowing quite how to extract said mouse from cabin, I made a quick call to alert my otherwise elusive hosts to the situation. However, before the kind man could arrive, the mouse and I had an encounter somehow ending with its tail in a glue trap, making it an easy catch. With few reasonable options, I placed the helpless creature in a kitchen pot and presented it to my host, who restated, as had his wife, that this had been their first rough season with rodent kind. Offering some additional traps and his promise to try a few preventive measures outside, we departed with apologies. No worries, said I. Mice get into everything.

Around that magic hour of 3 a.m., I half-awoke and soon noted again the sounds of scampering. Another mouse. Toward the beginning of what would be an hour-long, Tom and Jerry style pursuit of Mouse Number Two, I began to wonder what was happening. Wasn't this supposed to be a restful retreat time with the Lord where perhaps I could actually sleep through the night? Instead, I was near to becoming a quite contradictory animal-loving hardened mouse hunter.

It was at this moment the thought occurred: "There will always be a mouse."

Even during what might have been an otherwise peaceful and quiet retreat, there was something disruptive, something to deal with, something to cause incredible distraction. And here I was, quite as I often am, sleeplessly attempting to work out clever ways to resolve the problem. But a critical question was also raised: Could I still keep my focus on the Lord in the midst of it all?

The hunt finally ended with Mouse Number Two caught in the same location as my previous friend and placed in a new kitchen pot on the screened porch outside to be dealt with in the morning.

The next day, I addressed my captive and worked to assist my hosts by various means, including an attempt to block a possible mouse entry point. Even with some delay, I still made it to all desired destinations, continuing my consideration of Psalm 61 and conversing with the Lord.

That afternoon, I reentered the cabin and headed toward the kitchen, pausing as I looked into the restroom. "Oh, hello there," I calmly said to a very-shocked-to-see-me Mouse Number Three, who eventually unfroze and skittered behind the commode. This time I gave a mental shrug and went about my business.

A while later, as I sat at a table to prayer-write through Psalm 61 and journal some of my experience, Mouse Number Three finally came out of hiding and headed for the living area. As it passed I continued writing, noting at some point, "I literally just heard a squeak. Time to pray." In short order, my third little friend ended up caught in the exact same spot as the other two and was similarly collected.

While it first seemed strange that the Lord would present these tiny disruptions among the more substantive rocks, the mice became such a powerful metaphor that people I've shared the story with now keep reminding me of it as they consider their own proverbial "mice" and reactions to distraction.

Personally, this event seemed to highlight the difference between over-processing and trust. I may be able to clever my way through many problems, but the Lord is provider of both the intellect and the means to solution. (For those wondering, taking mercy on helpless creatures became part of the story too. Unable to fully achieve "hardened hunter" status, I soon learned the secret to extracting creatures from glue traps: Vegetable oil. And of course the coconut oil was packed.)

However, despite any success or failure to clear the daily "mice" of life, the Lord also made clear He arranges each situation and I must not lose sight of Him, which can contribute to much of the overwhelm I was feeling just weeks before. There may "always be a mouse," or several, but even if some should appear to be Rodents of Unusual Size, I can always call to Jesus, that high rock and strong tower in whom I can find rest and refuge.

Whatever "mice" you might be dealing with today, I pray you too can see the God who rules over and is present in every circumstance.
Certainly the One who once walked out of a rock-cut tomb has more than proven He can be trusted in any situation.

Praise the Lord for the creative ways He shows Himself through all things, whether road trips, rocks or even rodents.


Resources for Study: The Book of Revelation

This weekend, our church is joining together for a 24-Hour Prayer Vigil, which involves continual prayer at our building as we pray through the Book of Revelation, with focus on a different chapter each hour, and culminating in our worship service on Sunday.

This book can be intimidating or confusing to some, and there are many different interpretations of the text. However, I love this ultimate summary of Revelation from one of my distance mentors, Ed Welch, who fairly expressed it is not a puzzle to be solved, but a picture shouting, quite simply: “Jesus wins."

If you’ve never read Revelation before, or even if you've read it many times, here are a few resources to help you better navigate and pray your way through this amazing book, all about the great King of Kings who was and is and is to come.

The Bible Project Overview: Revelation 1-11

The Bible Project Overview: Revelation 12-22

Nancy Guthrie: “Don’t Fear the Book of Revelation”


The "Uniting for Ukraine" Experience: Guide & Resources

Last Update: 12/4/2023

Before You Read On: If you would like to help a Ukrainian family but are unable to act as a sponsor, we welcome you to join us in supporting our sponsored friends by giving at onrealm.org/chatham/give/ukrainefamily.

You can also help support a family just relocating in 2023 at jcpchurch.org/prokhodov.

Thank you for your support and prayers!

▸ Read and hear more of our story as featured on St. Louis Public Radio

SPONSORS ARE STILL CRITICALLY NEEDED. If you would like to connect with Ukrainians seeking sponsors or are a Ukrainian looking for a U.S. sponsor, please visit ukraine.welcome.us/connect.

A few months ago, I shared an article regarding the war in Ukraine and the need to process this event biblically and prayerfully. Such processing should also move us to action as the Lord directs and allows. Consequently, I now find myself, along with my church, in a unique position to directly support Ukrainian friends via the Uniting for Ukraine (U4U) program.

Having walked through the process of sponsorship, I continue to learn the many complexities of navigating the U4U humanitarian parole program and assisting beneficiaries in the best ways possible. Below, I’ve documented various steps of the program, plus requirements and considerations for sponsors and refugees, in part as a guide for anyone who would like to serve and support Ukrainians through the present crisis.

Since I was able to co-sponsor this family with my church, I am also hopeful some details might provide a model for other churches wishing to serve immigrant and refugee families. A new and similar group model for refugees from other nations is being launched at welcomecorps.org. And I will continue to provide any appropriate updates as we continue learning ways to navigate government systems while monitoring program updates.

What is Uniting for Ukraine?
Per the Uniting for Ukraine page: “Uniting for Ukraine provides a pathway for Ukrainian citizens and their immediate family members who are outside the United States to come to the United States and stay temporarily in a two-year period of parole. Ukrainians participating in Uniting for Ukraine must have a supporter in the United States who agrees to provide them with financial support for the duration of their stay in the United States.”

My answer might be: “Uniting for Ukraine is quite an experience.” It’s also an unexpected privilege. I want to begin by encouraging all who are already engaged in this process, along with those considering getting involved with Ukrainian refugees as we welcome them into the U.S. Thank you for your willingness to serve those in need.

Topics are broken into the following sections below:



When the Fighting Is Finally Finished // Easter 2022

As news of war once again dominates headlines, many of us find ourselves longing for real peace. Faced with the reality of yet another unnecessary tragedy, voices are again raised with desire for justice and an end to evil, oppression and death.

Even for those of us not in the middle of a war zone, these desires can be familiar. We all experience various types of battles in our lives. These might stem from issues or disagreements with others, or even from within ourselves. In recent years, we’ve seen a notable increase in general rudeness, lack of love or simple kindness, and even overt lawlessness. Regardless of our circumstances, real peace may feel a far way off.

I appreciate that Jesus is realistic about such trouble. He reminds His followers, “In the world you will have tribulation.” Yet He precedes this statement by encouraging them to find peace in Him, and follows with, “But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) And this overcoming happened in a way those who were with Him never imagined.

While those followers might have expected Jesus to lead them into battle against Roman occupiers, He takes a decidedly different tactic. When one attacks a servant in the garden just before His arrest, trial and execution, Jesus not only says enough to their aggression, but brings healing into the situation. This was a different type of battle—one that He would fight alone and to the death.

“It Is Finished.”
Jesus spoke these words as He died, the fight he had entered now done. His was a battle not simply for an end to human conflict, but to end the conflict between us and God. In our warring on Earth, we see reflected our lack of love for God and even anger against Him. Yet, rather than destroy His enemies, we see the love of God as Jesus allows the sacrifice of Himself instead. And in His return to life, He stands victorious even over death, ready to offer us new life and friendship with Him. This alone is a peace greater than we could have dreamed.

“It Is Done!”

Now we wait to hear these words as we anticipate the end of all battles among humans as well. We find these words in the biblical Book of Revelation 21, where Jesus tells us He is “making all things new.” God will again be with His people, and, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” When the fighting is finally finished, all our longings for real peace and justice, for the end of evil and death, are fulfilled beyond our greatest expectations.

As we wait, and as many of us pray, comfort can be found in Jesus’ victory for anyone who stops fighting God and surrenders to Him. His first cry of completion guarantees His declaration to come. And as Jesus promises His followers, both then and now, we truly can take heart and find peace in Him, the Prince of Peace, who has already overcome and will come to heal our world.

Scripture: ESV.org • Photo: Unsplash.com

Enjoy a related video from bibleproject.com.


Pray for the Lou's "21 Days of Prayer" Guide & Videos

God, tear down wickedness,
raise up righteousness,
send revival
and heal St. Louis.

This was our cry each day for the last 3 weeks.

Pray for the Lou just wrapped up 21 Days of Prayer, an opportunity to learn about different aspects of St. Louis history, and to lament and pray over this region, with focus on the story of Nehemiah chapter 1.

Whether you're just learning about the 21 days or you'd like to revisit any of these snapshots of history, the link to sign up for the prayer guide and videos from each day are shared below.

This is a great resource for anyone wanting to learn a little more about how our past has affected our present, informing our prayers and even showing us ways the Lord might involve us in the city's healing today.

On a personal note, I experienced much disruption from the start of PFTL this year, including vehicle and garage door issues, days of severe leg pain unexplained by doctors, a GPS malfunction and other unusual situations. The theme especially of hindering mobility became too consistent to be coincidental. Yet the Lord was gracious to allow me to push through, most notably during topics of particular significance to me. Many of us involved even peripherally with these prayer movements have experienced various kinds of spiritual warfare, which should serve to remind us that what we are doing is truly significant.

As we continue looking to Jesus to bring His healing and change, my prayers have also been changing. Perhaps especially in the last year, I've increasingly asked the Lord to allow us to really see clear change in St. Louis, and I hear others requesting the same. While any change can take the patience of generations, I've been encouraged by stories I've heard even during these 21 days. As others have prayed for our city before us, the Lord has now called us to care, pray and act in our day. It is a privilege to be even a small part of what He is doing here.

Of our many needs, clearly the greatest has always been to love one another. If only this command had been kept, so many atrocities would have never occurred. So I also pray we begin to genuinely understand, express and experience the love of God within the Church and to our neighbors as we move into what the Lord has next for our city.

Truly, there is Nothing Impossible with Jesus. Keep praying, St. Louis!


Pray for the Lou 2022: Now Entering 21 Days of Prayer

We've just finished up Pray for the Lou Kickoff Week, and it's been an exciting time to pray with believers across our region, culminating this morning in prayer walking in and around STL, with 60 area churches represented, followed by an Outdoor Worship Gathering in Ferguson's January Wabash Park. Highlights from all this are shared below.

This is the third year for Pray for the Lou, which started on 3/14/20 as a single day, last year becoming a week of prayer, and this year we are just about to launch into 21 Days of Prayer.

From March 13 to April 2 will be a time to learn, lament and pray over places of St. Louis history that affect us still today, with focus on the story of Nehemiah chapter 1. You can also sign up for a downloadable prayer guide called "Tears for St. Louis."

Each day includes the following opportunities, in which anyone is welcome to participate:
‣ Morning: Live Prayer + Devotional Video, 9 a.m. available on the PFTL Facebook page.
‣ Noon: Prayer Walking, 12 p.m. Find location details here.
‣ Night: Corporate Prayer + Worship Time, 7 p.m. at the following locations:

• Nights 1-7 (March 13-19) - First Baptist of Ferguson, 333 N. Florissant Rd.
• Nights 8-21 (March 20-April 2) - Gateway House of Prayer, 4646 S Lindbergh Blvd.
• Live stream also available on the PFTL Facebook page.

Please take advantage of these opportunities as you are able. We continue to see God move in St. Louis, and even today I heard stories of and personally experienced unexpected connections among His people. Even through the bad, we see the good of the Lord moving here.

A motto from our 1904 World's Fair, which became one for the city, was "Nothing Impossible." Pray for the Lou has adopted this motto, as we know with God, all things are possible. We look to the resurrection power of Jesus to heal the broken places of our city. Join us as we continue to pray for St. Louis.

Here are those Kickoff Week highlights...


From Cold War to Communion: A Psalm for Ukraine

As briefly stated in my previous post, the present situation in Ukraine has deeply affected me in unanticipated ways, and through some increasingly clearly God-ordered circumstances.

My generation, as others before, grew up with constant talk of the Soviet threat. It permeated our pop culture, from less than subtle representation in even our cartoon bad guys to overt mentions by artists like Sting, whose 1985 release has been on replay in my head for days. As children, we were convinced of a common enemy. Yet by high school, we were enthralled with news of change happening on the other side of the world surrounding the fall of the Iron Curtain. We were ready for new exchanges of ideas and culture. Ready to be friends. Ready for peace. Among other artifacts, I even had the t-shirt to prove it. "мир и дружба," it read. "Peace and friendship."

At that point, I had little to no direct connection to that part of the world. It would also be some years before I truly believed in Christ. So I could have never imagined the Lord might be using those youthful concerns and more as a precursor for things much later to come. I am the last person who then would have expected the privilege of working in ministry for now nearing 20 years. Nor could I have anticipated the last several serving alongside one Ukrainian born, getting to exchange stories of what it was like growing up in a parallel time, getting to share uniquely cultural concepts and celebrations, getting to know family and friends who once lived or still serve there. Suddenly, the дружба was real.

Now we find ourselves thrown into a new era, one filled with echoes of the old, mourning together an unprovoked war that we, along with so much of the world, understand simply should not be. What were once the general concerns of youth are now specifically personal, with names and faces attached. And while I grieve, I find myself thankful not only for this unanticipated connection in crisis, but the equally unexpected ability I never had as a kid to pray and process these events as a Christian and with other Christians, all bringing significant views to bear as we look to the Lord.

As I consider various perspectives, it seems no surprise the Book of Psalms has been a great source of focus and encouragement for many, as so much of it gives voice to such emotions as sadness, distress and anger alongside trust in the Lord, particularly in times of evil and unjust attack. A friend has shared snippets of Psalm 36 and Psalm 37 while attempting to head west away from heavy fighting. As the country began to anticipate the reality of an impending invasion, others reported a run on Bibles to the point that demand outpaced supply altogether. One man said he was sharing especially Psalm 31:21 with anyone he could, and I share this psalm in its entirety below as I too spend time with these words.

It's valuable to read any psalm from a variety of angles, including the author's and certainly our own. These might be helpful words to guide our prayers especially for Christians caught up in this war. But even more significantly, so much here anticipates Jesus' own story of unjust attack, including words He said on the cross. Even as we ask and wait for His rescue and vindication, it is in Christ's ultimate, resurrected victory against evil and death that we now find the hope in God expressed throughout. And just as the man sharing with others in Ukraine did, I hope my friends and many others find encouragement here as well.

Psalm 31 (ESV)
    In you, O LORD, do I take refuge;
        let me never be put to shame;
        in your righteousness deliver me!
    Incline your ear to me;
        rescue me speedily!
    Be a rock of refuge for me,
        a strong fortress to save me!
    For you are my rock and my fortress;
        and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me;
    you take me out of the net they have hidden for me,
        for you are my refuge.
    Into your hand I commit my spirit;
        you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God.
    I hate those who pay regard to worthless idols,
        but I trust in the LORD.
    I will rejoice and be glad in your steadfast love,
        because you have seen my affliction;
        you have known the distress of my soul,
    and you have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy;
        you have set my feet in a broad place.
    Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress;
        my eye is wasted from grief;
        my soul and my body also.
    For my life is spent with sorrow,
        and my years with sighing;
    my strength fails because of my iniquity,
        and my bones waste away.
    Because of all my adversaries I have become a reproach,
        especially to my neighbors,
    and an object of dread to my acquaintances;
        those who see me in the street flee from me.
    I have been forgotten like one who is dead;
        I have become like a broken vessel.
    For I hear the whispering of many—
        terror on every side!—
    as they scheme together against me,
        as they plot to take my life.
    But I trust in you, O LORD;
        I say, “You are my God.”
    My times are in your hand;
        rescue me from the hand of my enemies and from my persecutors!
    Make your face shine on your servant;
        save me in your steadfast love!
    O LORD, let me not be put to shame,
        for I call upon you;
    let the wicked be put to shame;
        let them go silently to Sheol.
    Let the lying lips be mute,
        which speak insolently against the righteous
        in pride and contempt.
    Oh, how abundant is your goodness,
        which you have stored up for those who fear you
    and worked for those who take refuge in you,
        in the sight of the children of mankind!
    In the cover of your presence you hide them
        from the plots of men;
    you store them in your shelter
        from the strife of tongues.
    Blessed be the LORD,
        for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me
        when I was in a besieged city.
    I had said in my alarm,
        “I am cut off from your sight.”
    But you heard the voice of my pleas for mercy
        when I cried to you for help.
    Love the LORD, all you his saints!
        The LORD preserves the faithful
        but abundantly repays the one who acts in pride.
    Be strong, and let your heart take courage,
        all you who wait for the LORD!

We wait on Him alone, friends. As evil again disrupts the peace we so long for, the cries of His people do not go unheard by the Prince of Peace, who will bring His rule and justice. Be strong, and let your hearts take courage in Jesus as together in the Lord we cry out for Ukraine.

Top art: Ukrainian Field by Olga Subach on Unsplash


Pray for Ukraine: Reflections From a Friend

As I have watched events unfold in Ukraine these past few days and weeks, I've experienced a few familiar feelings. Any incidence of violence or unrest has always deeply disturbed me, even half a world away. But it is a starkly different thing to experience such events alongside people you love and care for who are directly affected, people present in the U.S. and others stuck in the middle of a war zone. Of course your heart hurts more. Your prayers go deeper. You might understand a little more the desire to lay down your life for your friends.

As we trust the Lord for what we see, especially at a distance, often word and prayer are our primary weapons to help in battle, and we should wield both well. The words below were shared to our congregation yesterday by my friend, co-laborer and pastor of our church here in St. Louis, Sergei Marchenko. Born and raised in Kiev, his unique perspective is all the more profound in this time, and may help you to process and pray differently as well. 

The following is shared unedited and by permission.

Pray for Ukraine

This has been a surreal experience for me. I am here in St. Louis, a U.S. citizen (as of last June), a pastor of an American church watching on the screen of my laptop as historic events unfold in the country of my youth. What is happening was impossible to imagine despite all the warnings. It is still hard to believe. There is a war happening on the European soil involving an imperial power attempting to occupy and control a free peaceful nation. There are tanks on the ground, ballistic missiles targeting major cities, bombed-out schools, air raid sirens, weeping mothers, and evil, real evil.

So many emotions… Anger at Putin and the Russian army, admiration for Ukrainian heroes, grief over thousands of people killed and many more thousands displaced, disbelief at blatant lies presented and believed as “the truth,” longing to be in the beautiful city where I grew up, desire to fight, worry over family and friends in bomb shelters and traffic jams, dismay at scheming politicians, hope in God and trust in his sovereign good plan.

Another aspect of my surreal experience is that it came only three days after I finished preaching on the book of Habakkuk. For seven Sundays, I talked about the certainty of the Babylonian invasion of Judah and the possibility of hope in the worst circumstances. I proclaimed that God uses invasions and other evil things to achieve his good purposes for the people he loves. I preached that all evil, including ruthless invaders, will be punished; that justice and peace will come because God will not rest until all creation is restored. I talked about Jesus Christ who experienced the most horrific invasion when he willingly subjected himself to the experience of divine fury for us sinners. And I called my church to live by faith in this crucified and risen Savior and allow our own hearts to be so invaded by his love that we can rejoice no matter what happens. And so now I must remember what I preached. I must believe in Habakkuk 3:17–19:

Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.

In light of what we can learn from Habakkuk, please pray with me

• For God to accomplish his purposes
• For Christians to live by faith
• For a spiritual awakening among unbelievers in Ukraine and Russia
• For justice and peace to prevail
• For violence to stop
• For evil to be punished
• For power to be used for righteousness

I highly recommend the referenced 7-part series "Habbakuk: Trusting God With a Troubled Heart," which can be found here by searching "Habakkuk" under the series droplist and dating from January 9.

Thank you for praying for Ukraine.

Related: "From Cold War to Communion: A Psalm for Ukraine"


Christmas 2021: The Perfect Gift at the Perfect Time

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. -John 3:16

As this year’s holiday season approached, media began sharing images of cargo ships parked off the coast unable to unload. Threats of supply chain disruption and shipping delays prompted announcements that we must “shop early” if we hoped to take delivery on gifts in time for the holidays. Some even went so far as to question if Christmas could be cancelled.

I immediately flashed back to childhood with a smirk, curious if these reporters had ever seen a classic holiday special. I grew up on animated threats of the holidays in peril, yet saved at the last minute by some fanciful change of heart. And, I mean, every Who down in Whoville knows you can celebrate without ribbons, tags, packages, boxes or bags, right?

But beyond the amusing nostalgia, I wondered if they knew of the circumstances surrounding the first celebration of Christ, when Jesus was born. He came in spite of, and even because of, the disruption of imperfect people throughout history, including those in his own family line. And His delivery on Earth would provide a far greater delivery every one of us needs.

“But 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

This gift of God was presented to the world at just the right time, a child celebrated by shepherds, prophets and angels at His birth. He was born into a world that had largely forgotten and ignored God. But God still loved the world so much He came to be with us in the person of Jesus. His perfect life, death and resurrection were also precisely fulfilled, providing that way of redemption and adoption into God’s family for whoever believes in Him.

It’s been a while since that first delivery, but Jesus promises to return right on time again, this time to deliver the joyful restoration of our sadly broken world. Just like before, some wait with anticipation and some ignore Him altogether, but He continues to be patient with us. To quote 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” That is, we have this opportunity to trust Jesus over anything else, and to receive the ultimate change of heart that comes from knowing God’s love forever.

In this world, gifts might get stuck in transit. Plans might go right off the rails. But with Christ, the celebration can never be cancelled. As the holidays roll on, I pray you’ll know the joy of celebrating more deeply, anticipating the greatest gifts still to come in Jesus.

Scripture: ESV / Art: Unsplash.com


Free Options for Advent Reading

The season of Advent is about to begin, a time for the Church to look back in celebration of the birth of Jesus, and to look ahead as we anticipate His return.

A reading plan can be a great guide to help keep focus on the Lord through this often busy time of year. Here are a few free guides we've found online.

For a couple downloadable options, check out "Good News of Great Joy" and "The Dawning of Indestructible Joy," available in various formats from Desiring God. Each one contains 25 meditations.

A 31-day Advent Scripture reading plan is available to follow with a free ESV.org account. You can also receive each day's verses via e-mail.

And for kids, "The Jesus Storybook Bible" has a free downloadable Advent kit, which includes music, coloring pages, ornaments, memory verse cards and more.

Take advantage of any of these resources, or your own daily time in Scripture, to remind yourself, your family and others around you of Who we truly celebrate. I pray you find great joy and encouragement in remembering all we have now and all we have to look forward to in Jesus.


10 Days of Prayer: St. Louis in 2021

In late summer, 10 Days of Prayer: St. Louis again met in various locations around the region. This was the third year for 10 Days in St. Louis, and it's worth taking a look at what the Lord is doing as we lift up this city to Him.

For some context, and in case you're just learning about 10 Days, I also documented the events of 2019. Last year was, of course, largely virtual due to pandemic mitigation measures. However, if you'd like a more detailed historical overview, you can check out the new archive page to get an idea of how we've seen Jesus moving here.

In 2021, we began to see the Lord’s work in new ways as we considered the active obedience that must follow prayer. From September 7-16, our theme was “Reliving Acts Today,” emboldening us to follow the threads of prayer and obedience found in the Book of Acts. Each day included a unique area of focus through which God has moved His Church in St. Louis as we were encouraged to “pray and go.” This seemed a logical next step, taking us in an increasingly outward focused direction.

As a desire for unity among churches and believers has been a core tenant from the beginning, we have been encouraged to see new partner churches and locations each year, along with several area pastor groups becoming more involved as they work together to address significant needs in their respective regions.

Below are highlights from each of the 10 days, plus a more recent follow up event.


Not Scary: The Gospel and Halloween

Alright, Christian, if you live in a place that culturally gets excited about Halloween, then 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 set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” -Matthew 5:14-16

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. Purchase some 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 15:1-8). 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. Our relationship with God, others and our world is broken.
• 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 relationships.
• God calls us to stop focusing on ourselves and what we want, and to focus on Him, trusting Jesus as Lord, and the One who does everything we can’t.
• Through faith in Jesus alone we can live with him in a renewed 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 believe and obey 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 if they are comfortable with follow up so they can be continue to 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.


Easter 2021: Epic Garden Battles

With spring having sprung, gardening is a hot topic at our place. After last year’s bumper crop, and the very long winter that followed, the spouse is all-in on getting the food stuffs growing again. And while he obviously loves it, so much of his focus sounds like all-out war. Guarding against adorable vermin or undesirable pests, overgrowth or underwatering, he’s ready to protect this new plant life at all costs. And as the celebration of Easter approaches, I’m reminded of a few garden battles of biblical proportions.

Battle Lost
Genesis 2:8-9: “And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

The Bible starts out in a perfect garden. Just imagine: No weeds, no disruptive creatures, no drought or floods. Better yet, no issues even between people. Humans and the rest of God’s creation humming along harmoniously. But the story takes a turn with a sudden battle for control. Should we trust the one who first planted the garden and its tree of life, or ignore him in an effort to gain more? Caving to greed, the humans harvest from the wrong tree and lose it all—the garden, their trust in each other and their friendship with God. As overfertilization leads to plant death, the battle is lost. Sickness spreads. Thorn and thistle now dominate the landscape.

Battle Won
Isaiah 11:1-2: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him…”

As years of thorny battles wear on, one day a new shoot comes up. A baby grows to be a man, and that man turns out to be the ultimate gardener. He arrives to show us how to cultivate our relationships again. Expected by some, yet unrecognizable to others, he is ready to fight with his own blood, sweat and tears for his people in his garden, even as we decide to fight against him. In a garden called Gethsemane, he’s arrested. Despite no fault being found, he is prosecuted and placed on a wooden cross, sometimes referred to as a “tree.” Crowned with thorns on this tree of death he does not deserve, this man called Jesus dies...

While this looks like no victory, no one even imagined that 3 days later, life would emerge from a tomb. Even a woman finding the grave empty and seeing a man nearby thinks he's just the local gardener—until he calls her by name. But as a seed falls into the ground and dies to reproduce exponentially, Jesus died and rose to bring new life into the world. The garden battle is won! As the original gardener, he naturally knew what was needed to help it heal. And to each of us, He asks an old, familiar question: “Will you trust me to heal you too?”

Battle Done
Revelation 22:1-2: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”

Much as it began, the Biblical story closes with a perfected future garden. We get a glimpse of renewal to come, of a world growing complete and healthy again, of harmony between God and people restored. The thorns have gone, and the tree of life we once rejected now heals us. For all who trust that ultimate gardener, the garden battles are done.

Anyone who gardens is positioned for a unique perspective on loss, triumph and restoration as you guard and nurture your own vegetation. Yet even if you lack a green thumb, every new bud and petal can call to mind these garden battles lost, won and done, even as we navigate the thorns of life that still remain. So as the flowers bloom this spring, I pray you do trust Jesus, the ultimate gardener, for the complete nurture and healing only he can bring.

Enjoy the greenery and happy Easter!