After traveling together in Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Uganda, and the States, Cindi and I have realized that our best vacations (the ones where we are most personally and maritally refreshed) are when we take short trips to new places and spend full days exploring. We find cheap hotels, patch together transportation, see the major sights and attractions, get tips on a few local favorites, and sometimes visit an old friend or two.
Last summer I took her to New York City and Boston for eight days as a post-M.Div. thank-you and a pre-Judah vacation. This summer we chose St. Louis since we could drive up and spend a weekend there in the middle of our 12-day trip home to Tulsa to see family. I’m under no illusion that the details of our city explorations warrant widespread public interest, but I still find it enjoyable to re-tell the story.
We left South Tulsa on Saturday morning (June 14) and hopped on I-44 East running through Joplin and Springfield. The six-hour drive was softened by the beauty above and around us. The sky is bigger in the midwest because there are no mountains preempting the horizon and because distant clouds paint perspective into the blueness. The rolling landscape in the Ozarks would’ve been impressive even without the recent inundation throughout the midwest, but the thunderstorms and constant rain gave it a lushness that I probably haven’t seen since Uganda.
We passed under what used to be world’s largest McDonald’s in Vinita, Oklahoma (photo by Tom Trinko), but our lunch destination was already well-planned and much-anticipated: Lambert’s Cafe, “Home of Throwed Rolls,” just south of Springfield in Ozark, Missouri. A detour on I-44 put us at Lambert’s an hour after it opened, so by the time we pulled up the massive parking lot was already overflowing with two tour buses idling out front and 100+ people sitting outside. But this is normal fare for Lambert’s, so we put our name in and were seated within thirty minutes.
Early in 1976, Norman Lambert (son of the founder) was distributing hot rolls in the traditional way during a busy lunch hour. Tired of waiting for Norm to bustle his way through the crowd, an impatient diner yelled out, “Just throw the thing!” Norm chucked it, and they’ve been throwing hot rolls ever since. Just raise your hand and catch the thrower’s eye and you’ll get a hot roll tossed underhand from a few feet away or slung across the entire room. You might think that this tradition serves to mask average-quality food, but it’s actually just a fun event in the midst of an outstanding midwestern/southern meal. Satisfied and entertained, we took off from Lambert’s for the remaining three hours to St. Louis.
St. Louis sidles up to the western bank of the Mississippi River which divides Missouri and Illinois as it runs south toward the Gulf of Mexico. We approached from the west and drove eastward toward downtown to check into the Hyatt which had astonished us by anonymously accepting our first (and very low) Priceline offer a few weaks earlier. This Hyatt is an older hotel connected to Union Station a few blocks from the center of downtown, giving it an old, semi-industrial feel.
One of my goals in these city-excursions is to visit churches that I’ve heard about but have never attended, so we quickly headed back out the door and drove west a few miles to the Saturday evening service at The Journey, an Acts29 Network church pastored by Darrin Patrick. Acts29 Director Scott Thomas says that this network “exists to start churches that plant churches. God is significantly using our network to influence and shape the church planting culture through both rock-solid theology and contextualizing the gospel. We will not waver on either of these commitments. We won’t water down our theology to reach more people and we won’t attack the culture in the name of Christianity.” Some examples of Acts29 churches are The Village Church in north Texas (Matt Chandler), Mars Hill Church in Seattle (Mark Driscoll), and Copperhill Community Church near us in Valencia, California (Brian Howard). Some may be waiting for me to make some comments about the hot-button issues of culture, contextualization, relevance, and ministry methodology, but this isn’t the post for that. I also won’t make many evaluative comments about The Journey itself because (1) I was mainly there to worship and only secondarily to observe and analyze and (2) we only attended one out of five services that are held at three separate locations. But I will share some bare details because I know that some are interested in the structures and styles of newer church plants that are trying to be culturally informed. (I will also say that I very much appreciate Copperhill Community Church and highly regard Pastor Brian Howard. It would be one of several local churches that I would be very happy to join if we weren’t already at Placerita Baptist Church which we love.)
The Tower Grove campus of The Journey meets in the old Holy Innocence Catholic Church which they’ve bought and revamped. Though the building itself has the old, traditional look of a cathedral, the renovations have rendered the inside simple, sleek, undistracting, and not overdone. The musicians were young and artsy but didn’t act like performers. We sang several hymns and several newer songs, heard a number of announcements given by the campus pastor, and watched a video announcement about summer activities. The campus pastor asked the fathers to stand and prayed for us after charging us to be men of God who raise our children with the guidance of the Word. I glanced behind me and noticed that there were very few fathers among the gathering of 200-300 people, indicating that it was a very young crowd (whether due to location, service time, or the make-up of the church as a whole).
ESV Bibles were conveniently placed between every other seat. The current sermon series is entitled “The Search: Finding Jesus in the Old Testament,” and one of the campus pastors was preaching on Hosea. He gave some helpful historical background on Hosea and quoted C. S. Lewis, John Piper, J. I. Packer, Martin Lloyd-Jones, Augustine, and Vivian from Pretty Woman along the way. The sermon ended up being more topical and practical than historical-redemptive (which is more what I was looking forward to), but the personal application was generally helpful as he emphasized four common God-substitutes to guard against. These four idols, he said, have antidotes: Those who love approval need to worship. Those who love power need to serve. Those who love comfort need to suffer and fast. And those who love control need to pray.
At the end of the service we sang and shared in communion. After an accurate and encouraging explanation of this biblical ritual including its rarely-mentioned eschatological significance (Matthew 26:29), six servants of the church (both men and women) lined up across the front of the room, each holding a large clear goblet of juice and a large unbroken loaf of bread. Those in Christ were invited to come to the front, tear off a piece of bread and dip it in the juice, and eat it as we returned to our seats. It was sober, informative, and meaningful. We talked with an older couple for awhile before leaving, grateful to have the opportunity to worship God among a different gathering of His family in a different place.
After leaving The Journey, we meandered our way north and ended up alongside Forest Park, a beautiful 1,293-acre park which is 50% larger than New York’s Central Park. It houses the Missouri History Museum, the St. Louis Art Museum, a multitude of sporting options, the Boathouse Restaurant, the 1904 World’s Fair Convention and Jewel Box, the nationally recognized St. Louis Zoo, and “The Muny,” an 11,000-seat outdoor musical theatre (mistakenly listed as an amphitheatre).
After orienting ourselves at the Visitor’s Center, we stopped momentarily to take in the splendid view of the Art Museum crowning the great sloped lawn behind the Grand Basin and its fountains. Hoping to make good on our paddleboat recommendation before dark, we headed over to the Boathouse and rented one of the last few paddleboats on a busy Saturday night. The lively weekend atmosphere on the dock faded as we peddled in unison onto Post Dispatch Lake and toward the channels that would take us toward the Grand Basin. The street-sized waterways hugged small islands as they curved their way along, creating a wonderful habitat for all kinds of animals. We enjoyed the birds, otters, frogs, and ducks, though we never saw the turtle we were hoping to see. We passed within arms reach of baby birds tucked away in mud nests built on the underside of stone bridges and watched a duck leading her four chicks across the placid water and onto the densely-wooded shore.
The sun was nestling into the horizon as the waterway opened up onto the Grand Basin so we stilled the engines to take in the view: the Art Museum above, majestically enthroned at the top of the manicured, panoramic lawn; families in the middle, traipsing along the lawn and flirtatiously risking their frisbees by playing catch along the water’s walled edge; and fountains below, throwing water skyward like children playing beneath a grand sight whose proximity has turned beauty into familiarity.
Around sunset we made our way back along the northern waterways, counting the frogs squatting chest-deep every few yards along the shore and enjoying our minute-long race with an otter swimming parallel to us several feet away. By the time we were crossing Post Dispatch Lake and nearing the Boathouse, the moon’s reflection had painted itself onto the water with the ripples doing their best to turn it into a silver-white blur. We made our way back to the dock, discussed our list of observed wildlife with the attendants, and walked back to the car calmed and peaceful. As we left the park around nine o’clock we realized why both sides of the roads were lined with cars: Shakespeare was being performed under the stars at The Muny in front of thousands of people.
We arrived back at the hotel and soon left again to get the late-night dinner whose normal time had been postponed due to our massive lunch at Lambert’s ten hours earlier. Not wanting to travel far, we crossed the street to Maggie O’Brien’s where we enjoyed an unhurried dinner together across the room from the happy pub-goers who were celebrating some kind of decades night.
This was a good day — a very good day — and a good reminder that sin and not earthiness is the cause of the world’s misery and bondage. It is not parks and paddleboats and pleasure that should be blamed for the sin and suffering that we have chosen for ourselves, and therefore it is not the parks and the paddleboats and the pleasure that should be inherently avoided as the way to be right again with God and man. Christians are not (supposed to be) dualists, because our Father is not a dualist. He made the world and called it good, He will one day re-make the world and call it good again, and in between He sent His only Son to redeem His people who live in the world so that we will be set free from sin and death and will live new lives of freedom and righteousness in anticipation of the day when He will make everything new. And if all that we enjoyed on this day in St. Louis is only a cursed shadow of what we will enjoy when the glory of Jesus Christ is the unsetting sun illuminating the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21:23), then we are rich people indeed.