Saints, Sinners, Strangers and a Savior

“God is in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us when we are with them.” ~ Bono

It was just like any other Saturday. Meet with a few buddies first thing in the morning and then get on with my day. More often than not I wind up driving to the office, and then to the “homeless hangout.” The owner of a pest control company noticed my car in that area so often that he offered me my own parking space in his lot right next to this unique “community.” It’s the only place I’ve ever “worked” where I get my own parking spot.

I spot an open seat. Pat, a colorful character, brilliant and street savvy, perhaps more familiar with this homeless family than anyone there, drops the heavy sack off his shoulders, plops down in the plastic chair, looks up and smiles. “Hey Stefan, I’m going for seconds, can I get you something?” He returns with a Styrofoam cup I’m convinced may have been more “Living water,” than just plain H2O. (Man, that’s supposed to be part of my mission.)

A Google search for the term “Homeless Community” turns up more hits than Catholic Community, Baptist Community, Methodist Community, Hispanic Community, Missional Community… and the list goes on. Who in the world decided “homeless” and “community” belong together? Well, maybe God.

My friend Hugh Holowell, Director of Love Wins, and a strong advocate for the poor and marginalized told me today how a homeless man actually taught him to pray. He says, “I offered to pray for this guy at the end of his rope, but he insisted on praying for me! He said, “Hugh, you go to the refrigerator or restaurants for every meal, but I have to pray every morning, not sure where the next meal is coming from.” Hugh powerfully explains how transformational these relationships can be. 

Real community dismantles the walls of “us and them” creating an environment of simply…us. 

I felt this last week stepping through the door of the soup kitchen around the corner from my office. I was handed a ticket at the door. My meal ticket. Hey, cool…but wait. Do I “look” homeless? Oh, who cares? I was actually looking for a friend that day, not lunch, but I noticed the beauty of the conversations around the table, relationships forged, guys giving thanks for their food and even someone pounding out a few songs on the piano. 

It hit me! I’m witnessing “God’s Missional Community.” We think we’re going downtown to serve a stranger soup, but God uses them to serve us Jesus. We “reach out” and offer them a few bucks but God uses them to “reach in” offering us faith of gold.

Who’s teaching whom? Who’s feeding whom? Well, God knows. But I’m sure of this: Our homeless brothers and sisters, the poor and the outcast, often mistaken for the takers, are often the givers. In God’s divine economy we may be on their mission field.

Jesus never once wandered into a building or a synagogue with the religious people of His day yelling out, “Hey ya’ll, I’m in here!” He DID say, in essence, “I’m over here.”  “When you feed the hungry, visit the sick and the prisoner, cloth the naked, and open your door to the stranger, well…Surprise!!! That Was Me.” (OK, He didn’t say “Surprise” but you get the point)

Life is about community. Community about belonging. Belonging about acceptance. Acceptance starts with “For God so loved the whole world that He gave His only Son…” Don’t wait till the holiday season to give.

There’s no place like HOPE,

Stefan

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Big Buts

Got a big but? Move it!


I wanna exercise but…

I want to write a book but…

I wanna learn Russian, but… blah, blah, blah!

Big buts are everywhere. Most people just learn to live with their buts. Some people have multiple buts.
I had a but last year: “I want go to Nepal and climb to Mt Everest Base Camp, but…” 

This year, with the help of friends, family, supporters, a Hindu Sherpa and a growing trust in God’s power, I made it. So, goodbye to that but, but there’s always another but behind that one. (No pun intended)

Ever been in conversations where someone kept trying to interject, “Yeah but?” In fact, I’ve probably thought it hundreds of times as I’ve read inspiring stories, watched challenging “Ted-Talks” and even listened to some of the greatest preachers on earth.

I wanna have a more routine time of meditating and reading God’s word, but…”

“I want to live a purposeful life, but…

“I wanna believe God loves me, but…”

Get the idea? Big buts all over the place. Mine of course. (Not yours)
It’s time for more, “I CAN do all things through Christ who strengthens me” and less of, “Well, um, see, I could, but…”

A very successful businessman approached me as I got up from the piano and stepped off the stage the other day after church. He commented on how he saw me really living out my purpose in leading people in worship and encouraging them to wholeheartedly follow Jesus. This guy saw me on stage but didn’t see the myriad of obstacles I faced that very morning before stumbling up to the piano to “sing for Jesus.” Uncomfortable with all the kind words, I tried interjecting my “Yeah buts” everywhere I could, but he wasn’t having it. It’s like he couldn’t hear my resistance. 

I bet if we could hear God speak clearly to us (and He does, all the time) we’d hear words of grace and hope drown out every but that rears (OK, pun intended) its ugly head.

Maybe that businessman had learned the secret of changing, “Yeah buts…” to “Yeah, but God…”

Perhaps there’s a reason, “But God…” appears over 40 times in scripture

Here’s a few:

~ “But God will redeem my life from the grave; he will surely take me to himself.” Psalm 49:15

~ “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” Genesis 50:20
~ “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” Psalm 73:26

So shake your buts off and start applying your own “But God can…” verses. This is the first and last blog I’ll close with…

The end.

There’s no place like Hope,

Stefan Youngblood

Those Are Fightin’ Words

Ok, devil…this battle’s on now! 

Time to call on Jesus and tell the enemy, “We ain’t takin’ it!” 


A dear friend, speaking of my job at church, remarked to me the other day, “But Stefan, you work with God.” Kinda funny in a way, but the opposite is also true. You work against the devil. (Yeah, there is a devil…and he is not your friend) If you sense no adversity, only comfortable blue water, smooth sailing and unicorns, I suggest you wake up. Ask any disciple and they’ll tell you that contrary to popular thinking, everyday is NOT a Friday. Your adversity may seem great but God is greater. 

Four months ago I traveled to Nepal and made the trek up to Mt Everest Base Camp at 18,000 feet. On the days (and there were many) when my strength was depleted, I held on to one thing: The Word of God. 

If there’s anything that I’m sure of…100% sure of, it’s God’s word. Chances are, this week you’re inundated with pressures, commitments, deadlines and just basic life. Try to live out that stuff you heard Sunday and watch the arrows flying your way. But friend, you are a warrior and you’re gonna win this battle. Take a moment and speak out these verses. (Meditate on them. Shout them if it helps! #whateverittakes) I’ve even put together a playlist below to get you through this week. 


~ For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. (2 Cor. 10)

~ There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)


~ Nothing can ever separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:38-39)


~ In all things God works for the good of those who love him. (Romans 8:28)


~ God is faithful. He will not let me be tempted beyond what I can bear. (1 Corinthians 10:13)


~ God has not given me a spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind. (2 Timothy 1:7)


~ My light and momentary troubles are achieving for me an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. (2 Corinthians 4:17)


~ He is able to do immeasurably more than all I ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within me. (Ephesians 3:20)


~ God is for me! Who can be against me? (Romans 8:31)


Here’s the music that for me is both worship and warfare. 


“Hope Can Change Everything”


“Mercy Me: “Greater”


“Fighting For Me”


There’s no place like HOPE,


Stefan 

Your Anchor is Secure

My friend Gavin said, “ Stefan, just jump overboard and swim down to see if the anchor is secure.”


We were in his 25 foot powerboat getting ready for our spearfishing dive a in pristine water just outside the most beautiful underwater wall of coral. I couldn’t wait to start hunting gamefish in this particular spot, but I did as the captain said and threw on my snorkel. I grabbed my mask, and fins and swam down 30 or so feet only to see the anchor floating along the bottom…attached to nothing. 
It wasn’t holding the boat secure at all. The waves were in control of our boat, not the anchor. I swam back to the surface and told Gavin, “Our anchor’s not secure.” We pulled the boat into a better area, let out more rope and set our anchor secure under a huge rock. 


Do you feel like today, in your life, the waves are in control, and not the anchor? Well, I’ve got good news. They’re not and never will be. God controls the waves, the winds, and the sea.

It’s been said there are four anchors of your soul that will keep you on course as you grow weary from fighting the storms of life.  They are:

Anchor #1:  Reading and memorizing the Word of God –  “I wait for the Lord, my soul does wait, and in His Word do I hope.” – Psalm 130:5

Anchor #2:  Worship – “Hope in God for I shall praise Him!” – Psalm 42:5

Anchor #3: An active and vibrant prayer life – “They ought to pray and not lose hope…” – Luke 18:1

Anchor #4:  Choosing to be a hopeful Christian –  “Take hold of the hope set before you.  This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which entered within the veil.” – Hebrews 6:18, 19

Jim Laffoon writes, “If you have been reduced to God being your only hope, You are in a good place.” 

“Hope is patiently waiting expectantly for the intangible to become reality.” – Avery D. Miller

I pray today that God grants, restores, and sustains your hope in His promises and in His Son Jesus. He will NOT LET YOU GO!!! 

There’s no place HOPE,

Stefan


Noah and the Rem-Ark

“Mr. Stefan, I got a new Bible.” ~ Noah 6 3/4 years old

Undecided an hour before church Sunday morning what verse God wanted me to read (They’re all pretty good) I veered away from my first inclination (Psalm 91) which I had planned all week, and landed first in Psalm 121 and then in Ephesians. 

Six (and 3/4) year old Noah comes to the side of the stage and says, “Mr. Stefan, I got a new Bible.” Before I had the chance to ask who wrote it, he was sitting on the bench next to me at the piano. He then starts reading a verse in Jeremiah 7 when he gets stuck on the word “Hananiah. “How do you say that word?” he asks. He then suggests I read with him in my Bible. Uh, okay. Sure. “It’s on page 552” he says. I kinda laughed on the inside, but did as I was told. I flip back to page 552 in my Bible. He says, “It’s on the left page…and you have to go to the bottom right corner. Well, lo and behold, it’s exactly the page, exactly the spot where my original verse of Psalm 91 begins. 

A picture tells a thousand words, so I’ve included the 2 versions. 


I can’t tell you that God’s always gonna lead in such a way. He doesn’t. But I can say, for sure, that He’s ALWAYS speaking, and always reaching out to us.

Three weeks ago I cleaned out a closet of about 12 pairs of shoes, threw them into a box, and headed to The Salvation Army to drop them off. On the way, I decided to keep driving and check out a new area as they served lunch to the homeless. I really didn’t know who I’d find there so I just stood there for a second, until a smiling man stood up and said, “Stefan!” It was my old friend Kenny, who used to sleep on the doorstep of our church. After a bit of catching up, and being introduced to all his friends there, he asked, “Hey Stefan, what size shoe do you wear?” I said “10.” As he said “Wow! Me too” I got a look at the tight fitting women’s shoes on his feet. It’s all he had. I said “Kenny, you’re not gonna believe this, but outside in my car, I have a whole box of size 10 shoes, boots, and sneakers. You can have anything you want.” We walked to the car and he found exactly what he needed.

I only mention these 2 recent happenings because they’re just glimpse of the unique, God ordained moments that I often see around me. My job is to just obey, trust, and follow. My pastor read from Ruth 1:6 this past week, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” Lord, in Jesus name, help us to follow, trust and walk wherever You lead. 

If you haven’t heard it yet, here’s 18 year old Sam Russell affirming his own faith as he sings during our worship this past week, “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.”

God’s Not Done With You

“Today I thank God for second chances.”  -Eli, 8 years old


At a time when the very bottom fell out of the bottom in my life, I grabbed for the phone book and went in search of a church…any church…with something called a “Stephen’s Ministry.” (A special lay-led ministry designed to help those going through a tough season in life.) Thumbing through the yellow pages (remember those?), I landed on some place called Edenton Street United Methodist Church. I called the office, and after explaining my situation, a lady on the phone said something like, “Oh my, I think you might need to speak to the director, Pastor Kay Johnson.” 



In my mind I heard over a blaring loudspeaker, “Cleanup on aisle seven please! I repeat! Code blue! Huge mess on aisle seven. Manager’s help needed!”


After a long face to face meeting with the Rev. she said, “Oh, Stefan, God’s not done with you yet. Some church will have a place for you. He gives second chances all the time.” She then grabbed a business card, jotted down a number and said, “Here, call this number.”  (I did, with no luck.) I left her office with a glimpse of hope and clinging to a mustard seed of faith that I might one day be used by God again, scars and all. She had no idea that “some church” would soon be her church.

Fast forward a year, and ironically, after hearing I was out of the ministry and had returned to teaching in the public school system, Jonathan Jeffries, a pastor at the same church invited me to check them out. I did.

One hundred forty people sparsely filled the front of the room that morning. Tables filled the back of the hall where kids would feel free to color and, well— just feel free. (Who wouldn’t want that?) Small beginnings. Who knew this church would become a conduit of the grace of God to me. Couriers of second chances. (Worth a listen)


Recently an email I received called those days “The Miracle at Kerr Hall.”  It read, “We saw the magnificent transformation of a group of ‘broken, disheartened, unknowledgeable, sinners, holy, misfits and knowledgeable Christians.’ What made us converge at The Gathering was the welcoming, non-judgmental, inclusive, forgiving, unpretentious, non-threatening environment where the broken could come to be healed, the sinner to seek forgiveness, the stinky to be embraced, the homeless to get spiritual shelter, and where rich and pauper were one!” We studied a book back then called “Messy Spirituality,” and the untamed, undomesticated, untidy, and downright unpolished faith it offered spilled into our Kerr Hall services and permeated our everyday lives. 

Another one of the men from those early days, whom I still meet with in a group each Saturday, summed up the “second chances” idea perfectly, when after a joint confession time where I spilled details of my past, simply replied, “I DON’T CARE.” Now, that’s a real friend and real grace.

Today, there are no room for tables, the one service is two, and soon to be three. Now I’m the one with the blessing of carrying my own granddaughter, London, to the back, letting her feel free to grab a few pieces of crayon or chalk and to— just feel free. Thank you, Eli, for reminding me to thank God for second chances. Thank you, London, for helping me to stay on my knees…and play. And thank you, God for Your promise that He who the Son sets free is free indeed…gratuitously pardoned, and eternally kept.


There’s no place like HOPE,

Stefan

Too Soon To Give Up

Have you ever Skyped someone or sent a video message and found yourself carefully cropping and editing just what you wanted them to see in the picture? Pretty soon someone will invent an app that only shows what’s in the background. 

Who hasn’t been there? We edit and crop stuff we don’t like about ourselves and try and show a constant smiley face to the world. Well, you’re in good company. Almost everyone’s in a battle to control thoughts and ultimately actions. A blogger on one of my favorite sites, “People of The Second Chance” puts it this way:
“It is often said a man is his worst critic. But I think the truer statement is this: a man is his own bully. All day long under the yoke of comparison and shame, we speak cruelties to ourselves.
“You really blew that!”
“Why are you even here? No one even cares.”
“That’s a stupid idea.”
“You look horrible today. What a mess!”
That’s not criticism. It’s flat out injury. It is not a loving correction; it is verbal MMA cage fight. Tiny little sucker punches all day long. Jab. Jab. Knock out!
If we bully ourselves long enough, whether out loud or in our head, we willfully drain out every last ounce of confidence, love and hope with words that eat away at the way we actually see ourselves.
It’s time to kick the bully out of your head. It is time to call the browbeaten by name… even if it is your name.” ~ Scott Pace 
There’s an enemy that doesn’t want you winning this fight. Paul says, “Our battles are not against flesh and blood but against powers and principalities and rulers in this dark world.” Jesus conquered sin, death and the grave, and that means in Him we can too. 2 Corinthians 2:14 states, “But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place.”  Romans 8:37 says, “But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.” A new popular chorus I’ve been singing declares, “My one defense, my righteousness, O God how I need You.”
Fight back with the Word today. Be set free through the Word. Be healed by the Word, and for goodness sake, trust in Jesus to empower you to live by the Word. Don’t Give Up. 
There’s no place like Hope,
Stefan

Pinterest, People and Steeples

Yesterday was a perfect day to take a walk through downtown Raleigh to a new juice and salad joint I’ve been eyeing.  (They had “juiced beets with kale”, which up to that point I’ve been making at home but never had the idea you could actually sell to anyone.) You notice a lot of things when you make the choice to skip the car and hoof it a few blocks. One glaring observation was that there are church buildings everywhere. From steeples to storefronts and everything in-between. I only found one actually open, with a big sidewalk sign reading, “Come on in…we’re open.” The hospitality crew, a homeless man, (or an angel in disguise) slept soundly there in the shade of the old stone steps.


Maybe the church buildings stuck out to me because, as a person who’s worked in churches for over 33 years, I seem to keep bumping into Jesus outside the church. (I actually bumped into my pastor on the way…so, if you’re reading this…if the shoe fits…) Anyhoo, I read a brief article by New York Times Best Selling Author, Donald Miller, where he’s almost defending his position that during this season in life he’s not tied to one local church. He writes, “I’d say half of the most impactful people I know, who love Jesus and tear up at the mention of His name, who reach out to the poor and lonely and are fundamentally sound in their theology, who create institutions that feed hundreds of thousands, do not attend a traditional church service.” I guess he encounters Jesus outside church walls as well.

I stumbled upon a webpage the other day simply called “Beautiful Churches.” (There’s also a page called Beautiful Abandoned Churches…that’s another blog) It’s a Pinterest page with some of the most beautiful, rich, colorful, diverse churches you’ll ever see. The photos were extraordinary, but I noticed one glaring omission. People. These were all churches in the traditional sense, as in buildings. But in actuality, the church is…people. So, I decided to start my own Pinterest page and call it, “The Beautiful Church.” I’m asking my friends around the world to send me pictures of their church. Not building stuff, but people.

When trying to describe the page I was reminded of the old rhyme we all taught our kids, “Here’s the church, here is the steeple…” But, here’s the twist. Instead of the people being locked inside two tightly clasped hands, this church would be all about the people. So, here goes. If you have pictures you would consider “the church” you could send them my way and together we’ll help shift the perspective of beautiful buildings to “The Beautiful Church.”

Jesus prayed: “that they may be one as we are one, I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” John 17

 There’s no place like HOPE,

Stefan