Dear Church: What Not To Do…

The weekend finds me nestled in a friend’s home in Goodyear, Arizona. April has graciously allowed some time away to study and write my dissertation proposal that I’ll submit in the next few weeks. I’m tired after a fruitful season of ministry in 2022 and a joyous Easter. But I’m excited to be surrounded by my books and articles. The sheer smell of the pages enlivens the mind. How I miss uninterrupted hours just to read. And think. And write.

I came across one proposal (I’m reading a bunch of old ones to make sure my apples don’t fall to far from the tree) that syphoned off some wisdom from Thom Rainer. Every preacher knows Thom and his great work largely targeted to ‘normal’ pastors (200 members or less). And if they don’t they should. He wrote a book some years ago entitled, Autopsy of a Deceased Church. Thom said there’s essentially 4 factors that proved significant in the closing of most churches. As I read through these I thought about the churches I’ve witnessed fail. And how I truly will pray for Southwest Church, where April and I are stationed, that we will watch out for these red flags:

  1. “The Past Is the Hero.” Necessity is the mother of invention they say. And sometimes we hold on to inventions that were great for the generation in which they were innovated but may not be so great for the generation we are in now. The old church used to say, “Be anchored to the rock but geared to the times.” Jesus Himself warned us about new wine in old wineskins. A reluctance to change is often an acceptance of decline. What happens here is that a congregation’s memory of the past becomes an idol that they’re unwilling to move away from or even consider new ways of doing things in order to achieve the same purpose. We can’t forget the past. Because if we do we’ll never understand where we’re going. But what got us ‘here’ doesn’t necessarily get us ‘there.’
  2. “The Church Refused to Look Like the Community.” The Christian movement was sparked by empathy. Ours is a tradition of peasants who crossed their racial, socioeconomic, and political barriers to follow a Jewish carpenter from Nazareth. We were nutzoid’s by definition in the Roman Empire in our first few decades of existence. But empathy and love put the Romans on alert that there was a new way to do life — the Gospel. Saying all that to say, this empathy drew EVERYONE to the fold of Christ. Not just people who looked like ‘we looked.’ Given the cultural moment, now more than ever the local church ought to care deeply about the problems real people in the real community have and show the empathy and love of Jesus. I pray Southwest will continue to increasingly reflect the Valley she’s nestled in.
  3. “The Church rarely prayed together.” Late last year our church called a Sunday night prayer meeting. I’m not sure there were even 70 of us. But it remains the best night of the year. We prayed. And wept. And encouraged one another. And that was it. Sadly we’ve not done nearly enough of that. Prayer is THE essential rhythm of the corporate worship experience. And it is often neglected in today’s evangelical circles. And when there is no prayer, no wonder there is not much power either. The fires just dwindle.
  4. “The Budget Moved Inwardly.” This one is hard for me to hear. But it’s true nonetheless. As churches go through hard seasons resources, that are already low, tend to be directed to the pain points as opposed to the gospel points. Sure those lines can sometimes by blurred. But often the discussion is lacking meaning there’s an assumption that it’s okay to direct all of God’s money towards ‘us’ instead of towards ‘them.’

Thanks Thom for the continued good word. And thanks Southwest for being a church that has carefully withstood these temptations. May we only thrive all the more as the future wears on.

Those Green & Yellow Robes…

“Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” — Matthew 24:44

For the next few weeks at our church I’ll be preaching about the Second Coming of Jesus Christ in a new series entitled, “The Return of the King: The PREPARED Life.” I’m the farthest thing from an expert when it comes to eschatology (the study of last things). So I’ve signed up for the stretching as I prayerfully consider how not only to introduce our people to what Scripture has to say about the 2nd Advent, but ultimately why and how that should shape our lives in the here and now. It is a dark world out there that got darker last year. And when people can’t see hope in the midst of the darkness they look to a promised hope that is yet to come. In some ways I am thankful for these dark days—for they make us look to those hills from whence has always come our one and true help. 

This weekend I’ll preach on “The Certainty of His Coming” from Matthew ch. 24. It is quite the chapter. And it’d be a fool’s errand to exhaust it all in the 30 minutes I have (I’ll take 40 easy). But the last time I preached God had to do it if it would be worth anything. And so I’ll take the same perspective heading into this weekend as well. His word shall not return to Him void. He has promised me don’t you see? Hallelujah to His Great & Marvelous Name. 

The coming of Jesus has me thinking about my own testimony and how the Lord found me and made me His own. You see I was shaped by this news that some day, Jesus is coming again. Let me take the long way to tell you how the Lord saved me through this good news that He is coming agin.

My dear Aunt Roberta has a voice that, even at a tender young age, truly pierced my soul. My father was the minister of music at our little church in Pearl, MS. This meant that there is hardly a choir rehearsal on Thursday nights I can remember missing. While my Dad (the pianist), my Uncle Gene (the drummer), and a host of tenors, altos, and sopranos rehearsed songs for the coming Sunday, my brother and I along with the other children would run around the church as much as our parents’ graces would allow. I can faintly remember how, even in rehearsal, there’d be a song that would strike not just the chords of their voices but the strings of their heart. Hands would be lifted up, tears would roll down some faces, and those folks would sing praises to their King. 

One such song, led by my Aunt Roberta, was entitled, “Will You Be Ready When Jesus Comes?” And sure enough, on that following Sunday, the choir would “march in” with those fantastic, early 80s Sharp Green and Sharp Yellow robes (these were popular kitchen colors too). Then Auntie’s soprano’d tones washed the hearts of our congregation as the choir sang, and that repeatedly, “I want to be ready when Jesus comes!” 

I knew little of the gospel as I know it today. But even the Lost know hope when they see it. And I can still see the old Saints rejoicing in a hope and a deliverance that was not yet theirs, but was most certainly coming. It was as if this promise of a future hope was what they needed to transcend their right-now pain. That’s it I think. The coming of our Lord is a future hope that helps us navigate the current storms of life. 

The first day of the year makes me all sentimental. I took an extra long walk on the morning of New Year’s Day. And I listened to negro spirituals performed at Carnegie Hall (yeah, that’s on my bucket list). One such song they performed was, “Great Day!” This song was the heart’s cry of generations of slaves toiling beneath the sweltering heat of sun and oppression picking the master’s cotton. They would not know deliverance. They would not know freedom. They would not know an end to their pain. How did they survive? By looking forward to a future hope where there would be, for all God’s children, deliverance, and liberty, and freedom for all eternity. So they’d sing, “Great day! Great day, the righteous marching; Great day! God’s going to build up Zion’s walls!” The walls of their lives would be broken for their lifetimes. So they anticipated a day when everything would be made right and all would be at peace. And it’d be that day that the King of Kings would crack the sky, bring upon the world the end of days, press play on eternity, and rule forevermore. Hallelujah! 

I think my whole point is this—the 2nd coming of Jesus that is yet future should shape how we live our lives today.

I remember being a 7yr old, sitting at HYPU (Holiness Young People’s Union—it’s like Sunday school at night because two morning services and one night service on a Sunday is not nearly enough for Holiness Children—you betta ask somebody!). My Dad was teaching. Of course I KNEW Jesus had come and that I ought to do something about that reality. But I can remember hearing my Daddy say, “And then one day Jesus is coming again.” That fascinated me in ways I shall never forget. You see that changed me. That marked me. That stopped me in my tracks. My 7 yr old brain who knew Jesus to be this great person who’d come many years ago realized, for the first time, that He’s coming again…which means I’ll meet Him! I’ll see Him! And for whatever reason I understood that day that when He comes again nothing shall ever be the same. And yet and still I realized, as my Daddy taught us kids, that my responsibility to this truth was to be ready.

Over the next 10 years the Holy Spirit would keep this coming event on my heart and mind. The return of Jesus—and will I be ready? This increased in God’s pursuit of me until December 14, 1992. The long and short of it is that I experienced the most realistic dream ever. I envisaged the 2nd Return of Jesus and…tragically…I was not ready. I had not trusted in Him. And I was not welcomed into the hope of eternity. I woke up distraught, afraid, and sad. And around 2:13am (I’m one of those who can remember the whole moment) I got out of bed, bent the knee, and asked the Lord Christ to come into my heart and save me. As the old folks say, “I’ve been running ever since.” 

Mine was a household where the gospel was brought to me countless times. It was as if Mama and Dad would say, “Jesus has come and done something for you. You ought to do something about it!” But when I learned about the Second Coming, it was as if the Holy Spirit began to say to me, “Jesus has come and done something for you. But he’s coming again to do something for you. And you ought to do something about it!” I think this is the Bible’s hope for its revelation concerning this great and blessed soon-to-come event. 

I should hope this weekend goes well. But for you here and now, troubled by the plight of this world, know this, one day it shall be made right. For those stricken with sickness and pain, one day you shall be healed. For those disheartened by the injustices and wickedness of these days, one day there shall be no more injustice. For those dismayed by the madness of this past year — God sees it…and the only reason He would delay His coming is so that even the more might come to know Him. 

Not too long ago we had a prayer service here at our church. It was a very simple and sweet event. Not too many lights and bells and whistles. Not too much noise. Just saints. Praying. And trusting. And believing. Just a few dozen of us on our faces calling on our Lord. The Holy Ghost met us that night. There was a sweet sweet spirit in the place — and I know that it was the presence of the Lord. We prayed together. We worshiped together. We wept tears of joy together. O what a joy! We didn’t have a sitter that night so my poor PK children were there with a few other members’ kids. Playing with one another and sharing their iPads like good church kids should. Glancing over at them, huddled together like a certain batch of kids in the early 80s, it then hit me. They’re growing up like I did. And I couldn’t help but smile. The only thing that was missing…were those green and yellow robes. 

Fathers — And the Sons Who Stand in Awe of Them…

April and I have been lounging on the beaches of Punta De Mita, soaking up much needed rest and restoration after a year of tumult and, at times, chaos. Yeah. It was a year like no other. But that’s the stuff of blogs already loaded down with their fair share of ink.

We are enjoying the nothingness of it all. Strolls alongside the beach. Excursions into town where the real life here takes place. LONG chats with strangers by the pool. Hey Kendall! Hey Jennifer! See ya next February in the Desert! And lots of handholding with the girl I fell in love with since the first day I laid eyes on her back on February 8, 2009. We’ve needed this. I love the Mommy April. But this week it’s just been that little yellow haired girl I fell for. She’s literally breathtaking. And quite perfect in every way. Some men marry up. But mine broke the mold.

We just finished a Netflix movie entitled About Time. Rachel McAdams has earned our viewership no matter how obscure the movie might seem. It depicts the story of a father and his son and their lineage’s gift to travel back in time across their lifetime. You should watch it yourself to simmer in the Britishly British screenplay. But there’s a scene when this Dad and his son go back to a precious memory. The fully grown son is once again a boy holding hands with his Dad whilst they run alongside the beach. What had, up to this point, been a simple Netflix escape became a welcomed torrent of emotion; there were tears and wonder. Because every man wants this—intimacy and embrace with his Dad. While the sudden tears consumed me I of course thought of my own Dad. I of course thought of my own sons begging Jesus, “O Lord please please give this connection to me and Camden and Grand. And that for all our days.”

I cannot, for the life of me, remember how old we were and exactly how intentional or how epic the moment was. But one of my favorite memories came one afternoon when my Dad sat me and my brother Jacques down and read the following passage from Kipling:

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   

    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

    If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   

    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

If I must guess I might’ve been somewhere around the 5th grade. But I remember that moment for me was one of impartation. Dad was marking us. And for good, and indeed some not so good across the years, we’d be marked again and again by the man we revered and respected yet were close enough to affectionately know him as, “Dad.”

A few months ago I got to preach at Dad’s church and tell his congregation stories of how those “marks” continue to bear upon my own soul. I shared with them what was the best day of my childhood—when Dad ‘called in’ for church to take us kids to Shoney’s Breakfast Bar and an afternoon of Putt-Putt and Miniature Golf. I shared with them that the reason I can love April well is because he loved my Mama well. I shared with them that the world shall not know a more hard working and faithful father as the one I have known these two score and four years. I have been marked.

For decades now, when I get in a jam, I call Dad and get two things: Wisdom. And prayer. Even when times were funky between us that distance never got in the way of me coming to him to get help when I needed it. Whether it was an issue of finances, dating and pursuing April for marriage, pastoring different churches and finding myself in a squeeze, taxes (haha), and the throws of life, the man always took my call and gave me essential wisdom that guided my path through the storm.

Something unusual happened this past Sunday morning. I’d “called in” this time in that we are off for the month of July. April had allowed me to sleep late and had bribed the children into hanging out in the living room instead of their usual morning rhythm—jumping on my face at precisely 6am! So it must’ve been around 8:15 am. And Dad called. With as many relatives as we have and as awkward a time that was for my Dad to call I assumed the worst—someone had passed away. I missed the call and dialed right back. Dad said, “Hey I know this is strange but I’m about to walk out into the pulpit and preach. Would you pray for me son?”

Were it not for this first time ever request and the awesome responsibility that was upon me I suppose shock and eventual hyperventilation might’ve taken over. And with more glee than a young Brit running alongside the beach hand and hand with his Dad did I pray and beg God’s Spirit to fall fresh on my father so he might preach the gospel with fresh power. To return a favor that had been done for me at least 100 times before…well…that meant the world.

Thank you About Time movie for giving me what you gave me today.

If you are a father, embrace your kids. For they shall never forget it. If you are a son or a daughter, embrace your father. Even if all they gave you was one good moment, it is one good moment that might bless you along the way and help you to pass that moment on to the next one who’ll need to know that it’s going to be all right.

Finally to young Camden Earl and Carson Grand:

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

    If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Hearts at Half Mast — On the Heartache in Atlanta & Boulder

I’m trying to stir up in my soul what my late cousin, Dennis Thompson, stirred up in his one random morning at an old country church in Brandon, MS, during my 7th grade year. The word “traumatized” wasn’t used so often as it is today. But looking back at what we all went through that week there’s not many a counselor who wouldn’t label that episode with “classic trauma.” 

My buddy, Anthony Fleming, had committed suicide. Anthony was such a cool young boy. We called him “Ant.” Ant never got off the bus without a fresh haircut. In those days if you didn’t have a step in your fade and at least 2 lines around the sides you just weren’t cool! Ant’s big brother was a High School basketball star. And Ant was celebrated because he was one of only a few kids who wore Air Jordan sneakers. He was quiet in his conversation. Would crack a joke here and there. And never hurt anybody. He was a friend. He was my friend.

Then one Monday morning we all showed up to campus to hear the tragic news that Anthony had taken his life. Pointed a gun to his head. No explanation. No letter. No warning. 

It seemed that a young boy couldn’t cope with whatever pain he was experiencing in his life and just ended it. And there we were, a sea of 7th graders, left to figure this out. Our teachers and counselors were there. As were our parents and our churches. And bravely dozens of us showed up at Anthony’s funeral. It was my first “loss” in my young life.

In those days they’d open the casket so that all could get their final glimpse. And we watched Ant’s brother and Mom and family weeping hysterically. And as 13 yr olds we all let it out. Crying. Crying. And more crying. 

But what I remember most about that day is not our tears. I remember Dennis. 

Dennis was my big cousin. I was the eldest of 5 so if I had a big brother it was Dennis Thompson. He was my Aunt Christola’s grandson and boy did I love him. I wanted to be like him. I wanted to make Dennis proud. Dennis was country tough but still tender. He had a cannon for an arm—he was my future quarterback on the field. And everyone loved him. 

I’m wilding out crying for my friend Anthony. And Dennis saw my tears. And he hugged me for darn near 20 minutes whilst I cried. And I’ll never forget seeing my big cousin, who was not close to Ant whatsoever, shed tears with me. And when it was all done my big cousin kissed me on my head and said, “We gone make it Ricky. I love you.” 

As tragic as that episode was, as impossible it was for us to understand, as gripping as it could’ve been, what remains is the feeling I can still feel being embraced by my big cousin and hearing those words, “We gone make it Ricky.”

Completely removed from this event, Dennis saw what “I” saw. Dennis “felt” what I was feeling. And he was “moved” like I had been “moved” and sat in it “with me.” 

The last two weeks there are circles of communities who’ve experienced trauma. The first are many in the Asian American community who suffered the tragic loss of life in Atlanta, GA. The investigation is ongoing. And we all know the rhetoric that has raged on all sides of the conversation. And as my friend, Pastor Jason Cook, has quipped, “I don’t need to know all the facts in order to lament.” I am thinking, quite intently, about my friends Ray and Jessica Chang. Hae Won Kim. Mae Young. Pastor Yamin Huang—a personal hero. Dr. Mae Young. And so many more who are seeing some harsh realities, feeling some strong feelings, and being moved deeply.

As an African American man, when you see senseless crime that has been racially motivated, you know this feeling that ensues. The questions dominate you—“How can stuff like this still happen? Can this happen to me? Can this happen to my kids? Am I always gonna feel hopeless?” It’s a heartache that, amazingly, you get used to and start to live with while quietly trying to make a difference in whatever way God has called you to do it. Those folks listed above are precious friends, colleagues, and former classmates of mine who continue to ache today. And I am thinking of Paul’s admonition to us to “weep with those who weep” and “mourn with those who mourn.” 

You see, on that church parking lot in Brandon, MS, Dennis didn’t wait to get the whole story. He didn’t rush to minimize my pain and just tell me to keep going. He didn’t even try to compare my pain to others’ more considerable pain. He stopped. Took notice. And responded with lament. 

The second group that is reeling today are about a dozen families in Boulder, CO. We all know what has happened by now. An investigation is forthcoming there as well. And the usual debate has, yet again, extinguished the step Paul longs for us to take—to weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn. Don’t get me wrong. Our country is made for debates where opposing sides civilly wrestle for a way forward. And I’m proud of that. And by God I pray that we will civilly and honestly wrestle well with whatever resolutions we can muster. 

But where are our tears? Where are our prayers? Where are our evening dinners where, during our time of praying over our meal, we stop and lift up the people in Atlanta and the people in Boulder and the people in countless cities around the world who are facing trouble? 

I don’t have any answers. I just have a goal. And my goal is to do and be for others what was done for me one morning in a church parking lot in Brandon, MS. 

Around the nation the flags are waving at half mast. May our hearts wave at half mast in honor of those who are hurting around us. The sooner we see others’ pain and heartache as our own, the sooner we may get to that place where there is less pain for everyone. 

Dennis died from a heart attack on April 7, 2012, at the young age of 36. But he left his mark on his little cousin on some dreary day in 1989. And for that I remain ever grateful. Rest In Peace, Dennis Thompson. Thank you for being the big brother I didn’t have. May I make you proud bro. 

God, Goals, and Black-Eyed Peas

It’s the first day of the year — and perhaps more than any other time in our little life times we are hoping, wishing, and praying for a prosperous and joyous year. It’s been a ‘strange’ year for me ‘in my head.’ I’m a historian by trade. When I perceive the tumult of 2020, the pages of history scream at me. And when they scream they’re saying something like this, “Really? You guys think this is tough? Really?” When I go to my “woe is me” place I hear their screams.

The WW2 generation lost 75 million people in a span of a few years. Our world has been disrupted. Theirs was destroyed. The slaves here in America lost scores of innocent lives (2 million alone died just on the trip over to the Americas) and suffered unknown psychological trauma that persists to this day. Our world has been disrupted. Theirs was destroyed. The Native Americans lost 20 million upon the settling of the Americas after it was all said and done. Our world has been disrupted. Theirs was destroyed. The list goes on and on. I didn’t bother to cover even more tragic episodes and the suffering people had to live with–the Khans of Mongolia, the Roman Empire’s escapades, the Goths, the Vikings, the Germanic Tribes, Stalin, Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, and the carnage left behind their leadership. And to be fair we Christians don’t have a spotless record–just see the Crusades, the exploits of the Popes in the hegemonic years of Catholicism, and the chaos after the Reformation. Sheesh. Comparatively speaking with the other generations of history and the burdens they carried, you and I are just carrying a paper weight.

But that doesn’t really work does it? I mean our problems are still REAL, right? The tumult of 2020 is REAL TUMULT to you and me! It IS what it IS! I know nothing about my own homeland being ravaged by war. But I know what fear was instilled when a virus jumped the pond and came to our shores. I know nothing of genocide. But I know what it was like to see hundreds of cars lined up on our church’s property filled with families needing food they could no longer afford to buy. I know nothing of sociopolitical decay the likes of which the earlier epochs saw. But I do see increased anxiety and depression amongst people who were doing just fine about a year ago. My point is this–our stuff is real. And just like God saw earlier generations through their pain, I remain confident He will see us through ours.

It’s why I step into a new year with hope and prayer and expectancy. Indeed I do not know what the year shall bring. But I have hope. And sometimes that’s all ya need. So as we step into the new year, allow me to say, “Hey don’t let the craziness of 2020 darken your path for 2021.” I feel that temptation to just ‘blah blah blah’ it and go through the motions. I’m NOT a happier man than I was this time last year. And I am STILL lamenting the loss of 2020. And I am YET in somewhat of a funk. But not only do previous generations scream at me, so does a still, small voice whisper to me something like this, “I’m your Father my boy. And I’ve got you. You gotta trust me. I love you kiddo. I’ve made promises to you and I will keep them. Will you trust me? Will you keep living by faith? Will you dare believe I have a plan even still?” The still small voice is far sweeter than the screams.

Pray with me that you and I will step into 2021 with hope. With trust. With faith. With determination to live life to the fullest each and every day. Any normal year I’d be working on my year goals, making April write hers down, etc. But I’ve retreated from this normal mode for weeks. Because the year has been too much to bare. I mean it’s been a tough tough year. And we’re still in it. Just because 2021 shows up does NOT mean all of a sudden the world’s problems disappear. But considering what God did to rescue all of the generations before us with much worse issues, who are we to act like that God has disappeared and careless as to what we’re going through? Indeed if he could settle the world after WW2 how much more can he do it for us today given our problems are lesser than that world of yesterday? O Grant God that we would rise up and walk by faith! Help us to stand for you today! Let’s go get after it in 2021!

Cultures all around the world have traditions on the first day of the year, most of which revolve around hopes and anticipations for a prosperous new year. In many Southern homes today and especially many African American homes, black-eyed peas and cornbread will be served. It’s an amalgamation of different practices for sure. We do know that many of the slaves coming from West Africa were given black eyed peas on the Middle Passage while they were chained to the holding troughs in the ships. When the slaves arrived to the plantations they planted those peas and eventually both slaves and slaveholders enjoyed black eyed peas on a regular basis. Thomas Jefferson even grew them in his Monticello garden. Over the years these ingredients came to rest on New Year’s Day. There were perhaps Jewish and Scottish and Irish influences here. Whatever the case, I promise you RIGHT NOW there are families in the South eating black eyed peas and cornbread today and will tell you, “Hey that’s just what we do.” But the history behind it is that people who had been oppressed would, by faith, cook those black eyed peas and trust that the coming year would bring a little lighter load, a little more freedom, and a lot more joy. The lesson is this — find your own version of black eyed peas and act like a thing is so, even though it ain’t so, in order that it might be so.

Tonight our black eyed peas will be chocolate and marshmallows and graham crackers nexts to a roaring fire. I shall kiss my babies and ask them what they’re dreaming about for a new year of life together. I shall record their utterances and keep a journal over the years. Perhaps when they are my age they shall look back and see that it wasn’t as bad as they thought it was-that God had answered many prayers, and sustained them along the way like he did the slaves riding over on the ships, the Native Americans who survived the carnage, the WW2 generation who protected a whole planet, and so on and so on.

My goals for 2021 are as follows:

  • Daily prayer with my April – we started this about a month ago. And it exposes my heart each time. Sometimes I can’t wait to pray. Sometimes I want to sleep a few more minutes. But it gives me crystal clear clarity as to the condition of my heart and my April’s. Because we invest 10 minutes in morning prayer before we even get out of bed, I already know what spiritual need I have before the Lord and how to support my spouse. I’ve figured out that if she and I are doing well other things seem to fall in line. Man that girl is so fair and so fine. SMH.
  • Jenkins Family Brunch Revivals – before Covid every Saturday our family picked a spot to grub. Well even if we gotta take a bundle of grapes to the park, I commit to get them out on Saturdays again this year regardless of what is closed. Tomorrow’s is a treat. We’re heading up to Idyllwild mountain to play in the snow and eat some goodies.
  • Date Night w/Each Child 4 times each this year – That’s 12 nights dedicated to a 1-1 date with Dad. I’m somewhat ashamed to say this is hard for me. Not that I won’t totally enjoy it. It’s just a commitment and hard work to figure something out for the other two. But I know the payoff is grand. And I’m making this commitment.
  • Excellence with the DMin – I’ve transferred out of the PhD program. I could not keep it up given life’s current demands. This has caused heartache for the past 3 years. But I believe it’s God’s will for me as well. I’ll now finish a Doctor of Ministry degree hopefully in the next 18 months. Classes start in March but the work starts now. Most of the coursework is done insofar that I completed my coursework for the PhD and was in the middle of comps. I’ll be working home every Tuesday to get ahead on the week’s sermon. And I’ll be reading about 200 pgs a week for the doctoral work. Every Saturday I’ll be working solely on this degree and a couple nights each week until it’s done. My research focus: Racial Reconciliation
  • 4 Workouts per week – In my Ronald Reagan voice, “There I go again.” I’m fat. Too fat. The great struggle of my life. But I’ve got a carrot in front of me – cheaper life insurance. I’ve got to get to a certain number for health’s sake regardless of insurance. And I’ve got a plan and a diet to match it. Please pray for discipline here. (No need to send help on this. You can help me greatly by whispering a prayer). 4 workouts mostly means 3 mi walks for me. But hopefully as some pounds shave off I’ll have some mojo to get the intensity up a bit.
  • Read 12 9 books – these are books for ME. I’ll read plenty across the year and they’re all good. But I read lots for work, sermon prep, and research. These 12 will be novels and bio’s for sure. Working on one now that’s like 800 pages so maybe I should let that one count as 3. In fact I think I will. LOL!
  • 12 Blog entries – when I write I am worshipping my Lord. It is solely an act of worship to give way to the written word. Glory to God. Perhaps these blogs may help and bless others. That’ll be a bonus. But I’m gonna do 12. And hopefully more.
  • Found MJF ministries – I’ll say more on this down the road. I love pastors. And leaders. And this valley. And they’ve never been in more tough shape than they are this year. April and I have been dreaming of our family’s gospel expression for nearly a decade. We think we’re close.
  • Be a Shepherd and a Friend to SW and to the Valley – On my wall reads this quote, “I bear in mind that I will given an account to the prince of all pastors about the sheep entrusted to me.” – St. Augustine

2020 Lesson? I LOVE HIM!

One of the most remarkable and transcendent moments of corporate worship happened in 2015. I was a speaker at a Men’s Conference called “Iron Sharpens Iron.” Their model of ministry was simple–pack out a church with about 1,000 guys and preach to the gospel to them all day. I think we were in Des Moines or Iowa City. But the all-male worship team was singing, “Good Good Father.” There’s not much better out there than an all-male chorus of spirited worship. Heaven came down and the weight of glory fell on the room. Then the soloist sang,

“O this love so undeniable I, I can hardly speak–this peace so unexplainable I, I can hardly think–and you call me deeper still into love, love, love, love.”

There were 1,000 pairs of hands lifted to the sky that day. Tears watered every last one of our faces. Those men had entered the sanctuary with so much pain, hurt, loss, and failure. But as we sang we all realized there was a presence among us deeper than the past behind us. And we knew that no matter how we entered the room that day we would all leave changed. And as we sang, I peered into Heaven’s gates and spoke to my Lord saying – “I love you! I love you! I love you!”

That memory is afresh so potently today because it’s the last day of 2020. And since the morning I’ve been engaged in deep reflection. What happened? What did I see? What did I hear? What did I experience? Perhaps all of us shall spend the remainder of our lives unpacking our experience in 2020. But I’m reminded of an old gospel song that said, “Through it all, I’ve learned to trust in Jesus, I’ve learned to trust in God.” And as I think back on this year that’s my testimony — I’ve learned to trust in Jesus more. Amen.

Breakthroughs seldom arrive before the brink. And I was brought to the brink this year. Shepherd weight is heavy weight. Because you’ve been gifted (yes, gifted) with a burden for the flock. And when they hurt you hurt. When they’re fearful you’re fearful. When they’re mad you’re mad. And so on. And as we went through the ups and downs I was brought to the emotional brink of my life.

Now I’m a cancer survivor. I lost a mom to cancer. I’ve lost my shirt in bad investments. I’ve gone through the tumult of hoping and praying our soon to be born son was going to survive his birth. I’ve been robbed. I’ve had my share of troubles. But this year was that year. Covid. Cancelled plans and dreams. Not seeing your people for a year. Furloughing staff and wondering if we were gonna make it. Navigating a political season that was full of demonic foolishness–ON ALL SIDES. Increased tension racially. Raising black sons hoping they won’t go through what you’ve gone through. Being trolled online. Having people use you as a cathartic outlet and they had no idea they were taking out their frustrations on the current world out on you. Watching friends, business owners and employees, go through the current madness and wishing you could do even more than what you were doing. Talking to my pastor friends all of whom were bouting with anxiety and depression. Then I watched my grandaddy suffer for four months with Covid-19 with a hospital stay where he nearly lost his life several times.

I’ve never contemplated giving up before. I did this year.

I’ve never questioned doing ministry from a different kind of space before. I did this year.

I’ve never questioned myself before. I did this year.

I’ve never been so saddened before. I was this year.

But strong faith is the fruit of tested faith. And though I was in turmoil much of this year I was made aware of how sure God’s promises are. I can’t see that He’s peace in the storm without a storm. I can’t see that he’s a healer when I’m sick without being sick. I can’t see that he’s a well springing up to everlasting life unless marked by pain and suffering. And as I limped along this year in 2020 he was there every step of the way.

The old folks always say, “Count your blessings.” Now I get it. Here goes:

In 2020 I spent more time with my wife and children than I likely would have over the next 3 years. I’m a busy man I learned. In fact I’m more compounded by busyness than most people even understand. I was gifted with a quarantine to absorb my family anew in my spirit and heart.

In 2020 I fell more deeply in love and friendship with April than I likely would have over the next 3 years. Date nights in the Ritz Casita (we make the children think we’re leaving then we pull right back up into the Casita and eat pizza, drink Coke Zero and watch Netflix until we pass out), Easily 1,000 walks with the kids around our neighborhood. Monthly overnight retreats at half-quarantined hotels having a respite away from the craziness. Morning 15 minute chats in bed before the trio awake to wreak their sweet havoc upon our morning. She’s a wonder.

In 2020 I was weaned away from idols that, too often, won my attention away from Christ’s satisfying love. I miss movies. But I watched them too much. I miss Twitter. But I read tweets too much. I miss traveling and preaching and conferencing but it was a distant 2nd place to the fruit of my real life.

In 2020 I learned how amazingly satisfying Andi’s cuteness is. Camden’s curiosity and vigor. And GrandyBoy’s infectious smile and zeal is. In 2020 I learned how unbelievably perfect April Jean Jenkins is for me. She was always perfect for me. But this year perfect became no longer an adequate word for this delight God has given me. In 2020 I learned that God’s grace for me through them is enough.

In 2020 I realized how stupid and Satanic nearly ever media engine is (I’ve never appreciated good ole local news engines more than this year)

In 2020 I realized how fleeting and failing this world is and how overjoyed I am that there’s a better world coming after this one.

In 2020 I realized that I preach and teach for an audience of ONE. Jesus is His name.

In 2020 I realized that the team I work with everyday is exactly who I want to work with and without them this year I, quite literally, would not have made it.

In 2020 I realized that my home is just a safe and sweet place to be at (didn’t fly or travel much this year like the rest of us)

In 2020 I realized that hanging out with my small group guys and diving in prayer, scripture, and accountability is, outside of my family, life’s most fulfilling enterprise.

In 2020 I realized just how important Southwest Church is to the Coachella Valley and how honored I am just to be a part of her.

In 2020 I discovered more who’s with me and for me and I hope to show them the same love and support. I also learned there is but one life–I might as well be ‘me’ and sleep good at night. AMEN.

In 2020 I learned that the church really is about people. Not people + ____. (fill in whatever here, a building, a superb income, etc.) One is blessed to journey alongside saints. And we’ve been given some of the best right here in this desert. To Ms. Ann, I love you my dear. To Shannon Johnston, thank you for being my constant encourager. To Bob Harrison, thank you.To Dawn Ferraro, your care for us is amazing and I thank you for your friendship. To Sarah, thank you for befriending our family. To Karen & Tom, we love you so. Wow. Just wow. To Sharon Claytor, you have boldly stepped into Jackie Jenkins’ place as a prayerful watch over me. I can never repay what you have done for us. To Greg Brown, thank you for loving me and being yourself around me. To Ms. Margaret, perhaps you shall ne’er know how integral a role you’ve played in our lives. To Marco Corral, your quiet courage blesses me. To Tim Kuhl, thanks for being my partner in the gospel — may our partnership grow to unforeseeable leaps and bounds. To Kanjii & Mwendi Mbugua, thanks for becoming our friends. To Brad Kinney, you’re my brother for life. To Gerrit, thank you for being my brother. To Dick Heckmann, dear pal I miss you so much. But I’ll see you in the morning. Thank you Dick for giving your heart and life to Jesus. I miss so dearly our lunchtime chats. I promise to take care of the girls best I can. To Phil Cordova, thanks for showing us all what a Christian is. And thank you for reaching out. To Chris & Debbie, your partnership in the gospel is a treasure. To Albert and LaRosa thanks for being our fam. To Steve & Kristen Coble, how we love you. to Chris Davis, thanks for being my friend for 12 years and counting. To Gabe Garcia and Kari, thanks for being courageous. To Dan Myers, thanks for being so trustworthy. Thanks for hearing me out and taking care of me. To Kenton Beshore, thank you Pastor for upholding me and speaking to my tears. Thank you for the wisdom. To Ray Johnston, thanks for being the greatest encourager. To Jack Hamilton thank you for being a Dad to me. To my Daddy Richard Sr., you shall ever remain the greatest influence on my life. I love you Dad! To Kim Harrell, thank you for being a safe place for me. To Natalie, one day I shall get to say, “I knew her way back when…” You are only on the cusp of greatness. I’m honored to be one of those that support your journey to God’s platform He has ordained for you. To Shawna, thank you for being my friend and so faithful at Southwest. To Joseph, I’m just glad we get to be a part of your coming greatness. To Daniel, you saved our bacon. To Jeremy and Nathan and the whole comms/production team, you’re freaking studs. To Kristen, thank you for letting me pray with you. To Chrissy, I’m not suppose to have favorites so I won’t say much else…but I love ya. To Diana, you’re my partner! To the 12 — and great adventures we shall have you and I. To the people of Southwest, we are not nearly done. I love ya. Let us rise up and seize the moment for this glorious gospel, eh?

Anyways God is good. And I’m full of Christ’s love this day. I cannot help but think back some 20 years ago or so. Grandad was running revival at Collis Hill down in Terry, MS. The church was packed out on the last night, Friday. And the old man was full that day. He preached about God’s love. If any of you have heard my grandaddy preach you know he doesn’t take long. They used to call him and my great grandfather, Rev. Willie Jenkins, Sr., the original sons of thunder. He started talking about the cross and what Jesus has done for us. And before you knew it about 400 of us were standing on our feet shouting God’s praise whilst the old man was leaping into the air shouting, “I love him! I love him! I love him!” And as I shouted I remember asking Jesus, “O grant that I might know this love for you that my grandad has some day.”

That day has come. Thank you 2020.

And O, How She’d Scream…

One of my favorites movies is the Thomas Crown affair. It’s a remake of an old 60’s gem starring Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo. It’s about a rich tycoon who, straddled by boredom in his life, gives way to adventure through performing masterful heists of rare paintings in big time museums. In a scene where Russo, the sleuth hired to figure all this out, visits an imprisoned art hustler who got jailed for painting the fake masterpieces the tycoon would put in the original’s place. The prisoner looks at the painting with a subtle, yet distinct grin. Russo can’t figure out what it was about the prisoner’s face as he says, “sorry that’s not mine.” Later in the movie it’s discovered that the artist who actually painted the near indistinguishable fake was…the prisoners daughter! Russo later exclaims, “Now I know what that look on his face was about. It was pride.”

The pride that happens in Parenting comes in all packages.  And if you are a parent you know it doesn’t take much for our children to make our hearts beam with a joy that can hardly be matched. The first time they swim on their own. When they obey a gentle command on the first mention. When they help their sibling. If they say something clever and quick. When they score a goal at their otherwise completely scoreless soccer game. Then later on when they score an A- on an exam. When they tell the truth and confess they screwed up. When they score a big goal at the BIG game. When we drop them off at college. When they pick the right spouse. When they walk down the aisle. When they hand us our first grandchild. Our children can bring so much joy. 

But perhaps those deep breaths of refreshment are enhanced by all the gasps for air in between. Let’s face it—half of parenting is praying to God that in the name of Jesus this kid will make something of himself or herself some day. Because right now the evidence suggests that this child has lost his ever loving mind. This isn’t a King David or an Esther I’m raising. This is an uncircumcised Philistine!! But those Goliath days are sanctifying for us are they not? What parent hasn’t stared in the eyes of a boisterous child who just doesn’t get it and thought to themselves, “yeah Lord I hear ya. I do this to you all the time.”

For the parent children are often mirrors sent by God we never really asked for. When we get consumed with this noble task of raising the world’s most perfect child it’s hard to realize that God hasn’t given us children solely for us to raise them. But the truth is God has also given us children that He might continue raising us. This is what happens when the frustrations of a “rough season” in parenting mount so unbelievably high that we are forced to prayer, and gospel community, and literal begging before the Lord asking him to touch the heart of our child. The frustrations of those rough seasons coupled with that longing to flash those subtle, yet distinctive grins immersed in pride force us to a broken place whereby we cry out, “Lord whatever you wanna do here I’m game. I’ll lay down my best sense of how this child’s life should go and gladly swap it for yours O God. Just bless this child.” 

And perhaps…well it’s not a perhaps. In actuality this is where the Lord wants us. Deeply aware of our need not just for His hand to grace our children but for His hand to grace us as well. Aware of our neediness. Aware that there’s only one truly good parent—Jesus is His name. 

Until then may we parent our sweet little rug rats the way a great Dad in Heaven has parented us—with subtle, yet distinctive grins of affirmation and acceptance and approval along the way. Because there is no greater fuel for our children’s souls than a parent who is proud of them and who grabs them on either side of their cheeks constantly, pulls them close and says, “Dear Son…Dear Daughter…I’m soooo proud of you.”

I hear ya. Rick what if there’s nothing worthy of being proud of? I hear ya. But scale back on those days where you’d sinned, you’d fallen, you’d made a huge mess of things. And maybe it was during a sermon about a God who restored an adulterous King David. Maybe it was during a song where the psalmist said “he’ll take the pain away.” Maybe it was during a coffee with a friend who said, “you’re gonna make it.” And you realize that there were days where, for you too, there was nothing worthy of God being proud of yet He pulled close to you and, in His own way, flashed a subtle, yet distinctive grin. Yeah. Now do that for your kids. And it matters not their age. As an old believer back in Memphis exclaimed to us one time, “I picked up my kids, and kissed their cheeks with shouts of pride until the day their feet would hit the floor.” 

I was a football player. Because I’m a Jenkins kid and that’s what Jenkins kids did. We wore #22. Because that’s what Jenkins kids did. Football is an emotional game. You’re on cloud 9 when you did something right. And it was a torrent of shame when you did something wrong. All you wanted to do was please your teammates and your coach. But because it was competition the games were up and down. But there was a constant on this Friday Nights—my Mama’s screams. 

Didn’t matter if I was scoring a touchdown. Didn’t matter if I was catching a pass. And I soon came to realize that, for Mama, it didn’t matter if I was on the bench. That woman was screaming—Hit em hard Ricky! You can do it mighty pirate you can do it hey hey! And what’s more she’d walk down the bleachers where the band was. My brother Jacques was a drummer. And she’d embarrass us just as much by being the only Mom to cheer on the band because one of her boys was there too!

O how awkward it was then. But now as I see that the same fuel is air for my children’s souls I realize she knew that there’d be days we’d question our worth and our identity and our place in the world. And I think she knew that one day there’d be a need for a soundtrack playing in the back of our hearts telling us that we too are worthy to walk in Christ’s redeeming love because of what He has done for us. So whether winning or losing, she would scream for us. And O…how’d she scream. 

So whether it be another day on the zoom call where your child is encumbered with the rigor of learning at home. Whether it be the crux of not being able to go where she’s used to going and she’s struggling to figure out friendships in a pandemic. Whether it be the madness of finding the scholarship money for his college career. Whether she’s in a ditch in her marriage right now and you’re biting your nails hoping she figures it out. Whether he be sick with a bout of disease or illness. Whether they themselves are now in the seat of parenting not sure how to show up for your grandchild. I encourage YOU to scream. Scream out a text of affirmation, a visit for approval, a card for appreciation. A subtle, yet distinctive grin. And fuel their hearts and souls. 

For a day is coming where we shall meet the Master of all Parents. And the words every child longs to hear shall be screamed out among Heaven’s gates—Well done good and faithful servant. Well done. I imagine on my Savior’s face there shall flash a splendid subtle, yet distinctive grin.

Hang in there parent. You got this. Because the Master Parent? He has you. And O how he screams. 

And so God Lost My Keys

It’s our vacation time. It’s that window of fresh air that comes every summer where we as a family steel away from our work and pull towards one another. We are, perhaps officially, desert rats now. And 116 degree days here mean you need to somewhere out there. Last summer was the stuff of stories. Northern California. Afternoons on the lake. Nights watching Hamilton in San Francisco. Sacramento midtown foodie mornings. Horseback rides. And hangin with my boys from Bayside. But the magic happened nightly when we watched the sparkle in the eyes of children who light up every time they walk into a new AirBNB, bask in the warmth of their GaGa’s arms, and sink their teeth into a Summer Sno Cone. Our Prayer was Psalm 23 — and God indeed restored our souls.

But it’s 2020. And there’s no need to remind you of what’s happened this year. We’ve lost school. Church as usual. Jobs. Finances. Comforts. And concerts. To be sure that’d mean that vacation wouldn’t be as good either, right?

So I headed into this year’s vacation exhausted. Usually I try to go into it not being too tired so I can ‘do’ some things. But it’s Covid and 2020. So like everyone else in the church world we worked more in the past 6 mos than we’ve ever worked before. Went from preaching every weekend to, literally, preaching daily. Preaching on the zoom instead of the room. Trying to encourage our staff when we ourselves were fighting the weight of sadness and depression just like everyone else. Then Ahmaud Albery happened. Then George Floyd. Then Breonna Taylor. Then protests. Then riots. Then politics. Then whatever in the world has ensued now that fake news is listened to more than real news and all that goes with such cultural madness. And that’s when it began to affect me in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I can’t begin to tell ya how lonely this year felt. Not saying it ‘is’ lonely. Just saying it felt more lonely than it ever has. My heart is so very, very heavy.

My mentor Kenton taught me that ministry does damage to us. It does damage to our family. Damage to our marriages. Damage to our kids. So take vacation seriously to repair or else you won’t make it.

Don’t hear me complaining now. I know what I asked for. There’s unbelievable joy in ministry. Salvation. Couples being reconciled. The poor being blessed by the church. Nothing like it. Truth is there’s also unbelievable pain. Decision making constantly. Budget realities you couldn’t have possibly imagined. Staff restructuring. About 8 times. And the sheep of the fold are hurting. And scared. And mad. And uncertain. A shepherd’s heart doesnt’ know much peace when the sheep are suffering. There’s a just a weight to it. I can’t really explain it. But there’s a weight. The ins and outs of the church’s well being have consumed many a date night’s conversation. It’s interrupted way too many an outing with the kiddos. It’s because there’s weight to it. You’re never really ‘off’ see? Lives are at stake. And yeah, there’s some ego in there too. My point is this — there’s weight. Ministers are ALWAYS second guessing themselves. But I can’t begin to tell you how much the winds are shifting for too many churches and too many of their pastors. If you know a pastor, pray for him or her. Often.

Saying all this to say as we geared up for this year’s vacation I’d let the enemy deceive me to believe, “There’s no break for you this year. Take advantage of some time off. Give the kids some good recreation. Get out of the heat a bit. And let that be good enough for you this year. It is what it is! It’s Covid don’t you know? It’s the worst political season ever don’t you know? There’s too much uncertainty. Too many more decisions to contemplate. TOO MUCH! Ricky you will NOT get a true vacation this year.”

And so God lost my keys.

For the past two weeks I’d been going through the motions. Couldn’t really let church go. Couldn’t let the weight of this cultural moment go. Couldn’t let my convictions about the racial climate in this country go. Couldn’t let my worrying (this is my greatest weight) about what REAL families are gonna do should more layoffs and economic downturns continue. We made it to a house up here in Apple Hill, CA. It’s beautiful. But I’m a vacation curmudgeon see and I refuse to let myself rest. This was to be our last day here.

So we took the kids to a pond just down the road. It’s stocked so supposedly you get the worm in there and the fish will hit it. We’d caught about 2 or 3 fish. The scenery is pristine. The boys and my daughter are consumed with laughter and smiles. The air is fresh and the sun is bright. I’d begun to really disconnect from it all.

Now we’d brought our stroller. It’s not a corolla stroller. It’s a Cadillac. More like a tank! With all our stuff in it—wallet, cooler, stuff, and our keys. Well we’d been fishing for an hour. We looked at the top of a little hill where we’d parked our stroller an hour before. Well. It started moving. We all watched helplessly, and in utter disbelief, as our stroller rolled towards the pond. Towards this muddy, thorny, sticky pond. The stroller rolled completely into the pond.

We were able to save the wallet and the cooler. And the stuff. But the keys (the kind that cost $400 to replace) were lost. You can imagine the chaos of the next 30 minutes of course. Wading through mud. Traversing all the thorns. Even tried a magnet. Those keys will be there until Jesus comes. Well a friend is gonna ship our spare from our house. But that means we’re here a bit more. The owner of the house where we’re staying then said to me, “You guys are welcome to stay another day.”

And that’s when I realized what my Father in Heaven had done for me. I’d finally begun to break away from the weight. Then God lost my keys to make sure I spend another full day enjoying the magic of what happens when we get in nature, turn off the world, and turn on our fellowship one with the other.

This afternoon God has spoken volumes to me. My heart and mind are open for refueling and refreshing. I’m hearing His voice about moves to make, conversations to have, and tables to invite others into for God’s work. I’m getting reignited to work towards racial reconciliation. Justice. The fame of Jesus Christ in the earth. And all that cool stuff.

Indeed this coming year may be the hardest you and I have ever seen. But today was a reminder that this year will be met by the mighty one of Israel. And He will again be the victor.

You may be in the middle of your own situation whereby the proverbial stroller has rolled into the pond. But step back and listen for His voice. Maybe God is going to use it to bring you to a place you weren’t before willing to go for yourself. I think in Heaven I’ll meet the angel whose assignment it was to move whatever soil was holding that stroller in place. When I meet that heavenly sentinel, I will be sure to say, “Thanks for what you did for me. Nice work.”

Spiritual Formation: The Way Forward on Race & Reconciliation

They say Leadership is the great “both/and.” Leaders are not afforded the privilege to focus on one thing at any one time. You’ve heard the metaphor again and again—“She can’t see the forest for the trees.” The meaning is this. Too often leaders miss reaching for their vision because of the perplexity of today’s problems. They never see the beauty of the forest because they are often blinded by the mundanity of the trees.  

But any leader reading this right now, especially the Christian leader, has a valid argument. It goes something like this, “I don’t get to do either/or I’m called to do both/and. Rick, the only way I’ll see that forest is to talk these stubborn trees into realizing they are each a part of a bigger vision Jesus has for us.” You’re absolutely right. Leadership is the great “both/and.” Ours is the responsibility to tow the tension between today’s issues and tomorrow’s opportunities. That said, as our nation continues to grapple with the recent flash points surrounding racism and injustice, I’d like to posit at least one path for the way forward—Spiritual Formation.

I’ll get there in a minute. But any argument has to present the problem before the solution right? So here goes. 

We’re in a pandemic. And we’re largely at home. That means many of us have consumed more content in the last 5 months than we have the last 2 years. Articles. News shows. Talking heads. Podcasts. Webinars. Zoom calls. Our living rooms have become living zooms. And when it comes to conversations on racism I should hope that most of us Bible believing folks have experienced increasing frustration. Our rightful place as witnesses who should be shouting the gospel way forward for the world to hear has been eclipsed by slacktivist talking points that keep us immersed in division and thus a burgeoning tendency to not have these conversations at all. Sheesh! 

For 6 weeks now all I see is Screwtape writing to his nephew and fellow demon Wormwood with a devilish grin on his face. Because he knew that if we as Christ followers can get distracted we’ll never get determined. One of Lewis’s quotes come to mind as Screwtape, a senior demon, educates his young pupil on that time proven tactic of distraction, 

“…to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday’s paper will do. You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people whom he likes, but in conversations with those he cares nothing about on subjects that bore him. You can make him do nothing at all for long periods.” 

The point? Distracting us from the real conversation and the true way forward is the enemy’s most viable weapon. 

Here’s how distraction is playing out now in my opinion. There’s more debate about whether black lives matter or all lives matter. We’re rushing ahead with the politicized traps that have been set for us—like defunding the police and confederate flags. Don’t get me wrong. These discussions must be had.

But shouldn’t the real conversation go something like this? What do Jesus and Scripture have to say about racism? What do Jesus and Scripture have to say about systemic sin? What do Jesus and Scripture have to say about civil religion vs Kingdom Ethics? It’s astonishing that many of us are approaching what has to be a spiritual issue with secular rhetoric. If you start a gospel conversation with talking points and frameworks handed down to you by Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow, trust me, you’re gonna be caught dead in the trees and never see the forest. The church is supposed to be the last institution that’s still fighting for people to pursue real, meaningful engagement between Christian brothers and sisters across a dinner table—or at least across a zoom screen. We’re feasting on the bread instead of the meat that makes this sandwich a fulfilling and transformative meal.

What then, in my humble opinion, breaks us free from this quagmire? Spiritual Formation. Spiritual Formation. One more time for the Holy Ghost—the way FORWARD is spiritual formation. 

I’ve served in the mostly white, evangelical space, on some level, for over 15 years. And one thing that’s stuck out to me with respect to issues of race and racism is this—the conversation has always struck me as one that is entirely reactive. I’ve watched evangelical churches “react” to issues of racism instead of “proactively” presenting God’s word on race and racism in their normative formational enterprise. Boy that’s way too many words. So trust me I’ll explain myself. Here’s what I’m saying. We’ve been largely reactive to flash points in recent history that were fueled, explicitly, by racism. 

When the Charleston Church Shooting with Dylann Roof occurred back in 2015, my sense is that the evangelical church was reactive. We all lamented that madness. When 5 police officers were massacred (and 9 others injured) back in Dallas in 2016. We all lamented that madness. The list goes on. Ahmaud Arbury. Philando Castile. And so on I’m afraid. We reacted. And rightly so! Every Christian heart should’ve broken on every one of these incidents. But what they’ve exposed is a lack of competency we have to talk about the way forward. What they’ve exposed is our tendency to lean more quickly towards our political talking points instead of our gospel talking points to process these things. What they’ve exposed is a comfortablity with the status quo instead of a righteous indignation to at least try and figure out how to make a difference with our greatest asset—our day to day lives. 

You wanna know why?

Racism. Injustice. And racial reconciliation is largely NOT a part of our spiritual formation process. Spiritual formation is hard to define. But if you’ve been in any church for at least a year or two you’ve experienced how your church does spiritual formation. In other words, spiritual formation is the church’s answer to how your growth in your walk with Christ is facilitated. My guess for the average church today that means the sermons you hear, the passages you study, the small groups you gather in, and the classes you sign up for. Different strokes for different folks. But my point is this, if your church has yet to mention race and racism OUTSIDE of a reactive flash point in culture like the above incidents, you may soundly conclude that racial reconciliation is NOT a part of your church’s spiritual formation! And if it’s not a part of your spiritual formation then it will never be on your spiritual radar for how you understand the gospel and your part God has called you to play in it concerning racial injustice.

Let me go further. Is racism a sin? I’m assuming most would say yes. Jesus I pray that this argument is not up for debate! But insofar that racism is sin and God HATES it and God has called us to side with His heart on the issue, shouldn’t that be brought up every now and then? And not just because something happened in culture, but because, since it is sin, it’s happening on some level ALL the time? So should that not mean I should hear my preacher talk about it here and again? Shouldn’t we engage that in our small group every so often? Shouldn’t that be part of the meal plan in my church? Shouldn’t I have, as a member of a bible believing church, a certain skill level with which to process this issue let alone talk about it competently in my relationships? I think that’s missing today. 

We have faithful, extraordinarily gifted teachers and leaders in the evangelical space. And every year you can expect to be spiritually formed in the issues of marriage, stewardship, parenting, discipleship, evangelism, outreach, sex, and addiction. I do not think the same is true on the issue of racism in the same space. And if it happens regularly that church is usually “known” for doing so. In other words that church tends to be the exception. Never the norm.

Here’s my solution: What if, from NOW on, people who attend churches that believe in the Bible, whereby issues of race and reconciliation are dang near on every other page, heard God’s heart for reconciliation every year for the rest of their lives? What if every Christian from now on had to contend with the hard truths of racism and its Satanic ploys from the preacher, the Sunday school teacher, the small group leader, and the VBS teacher they know and trust at least once a year just like they hear about marriage, finances, family life, and so on? You guessed it—there’d be some change. 

We’re asking great “tree” questions today. But we’ve gotta be “both/and” leaders who are also immersed by the loftier vision of the “forest” that celebrates the Revelation 7:9 promise of a diversified eternity. Our questions today are right and noble: Is there a such thing as systemic racism? If so how do we talk about it? Is there a racial problem in our nation? If so, what do we do about it? What should our church say about this? What is the right way to say it? ALL GOOD QUESTIONS. 

But we’re “Both/And” leaders. We also need to ask, “What does JESUS want our church to look like in 5 years? 10? 20? What does JESUS want to celebrate in 20 years concerning race and reconciliation for our church? What kind of church does JESUS want my kids to grow up in? What does JESUS want my grandkids to say about me after I’m gone concerning this conversation? If Jesus were here with us right now, what would he tell us to do and be?” You see these questions are “forest” questions. They are questions of vision and dreams. Answer these questions that shape your tomorrow and you’ll have a much clearer picture about what God is calling us to do today. 

There will be those, especially pastors and leaders, who’ll want to hear some suggestions of applying this. So for my true fellow nerders here goes:

  1. Preach Biblical Truth About God’s Heart for Racial Diversity and Reconciliation at Least Every Two Years From Now On: Yes. It took everything for me to stretch it to two years. But a start is a start. This frees you from reactionary culture and starts a lifelong process of becoming competent, and eventually confident about this conversation. And guess what, your congregation will walk with you because they trust you, they know you, and more so, they will see God’s truth presented to them in the Word. For those that would say, “But this is uncomfortable no? I mean most of our folks aren’t racists.” Of course it is uncomfortable. And of course most of our people are not racists! But discomfort is not a biblical excuse to not talk about truth. We largely don’t face this pushback on other conversations. Every time we preach a 6 wk series on gospel marriage there is a sea of divorcees on our pews who are uncomfortable for 6 weeks. And we have learned to encourage them and love them along the way. We can do it again. You’ll get pushback. But a great survey was done some years ago that begged the question, “What do you want more than anything else from your church?” The answer was: “Challenge Me.” 
  2. Increase Biblical Competency on Racial Diversity and Reconciliation: We don’t get to be uneducated on this conversation. Listen north of 40 folks. Our kids are NOT going to put this issue down. It is NOT going away. And I refuse to try to explain to my kids what I didn’t do about this. What’s more I REFUSE to allow my kids to be shaped by the ‘official’ BLM organization and the NRA on what is a GOSPEL SUBJECT MATTER! So Sharpen your pencil. And learn what Jesus has said about this issue. Not only immerse yourself in what Scripture says but immerse yourself in research and literature that helps you more clearly see why we must present the Bible’s authority on the subject. No substitute for the Bible. But there are books that that help us pursue biblical truth on this subject. We read countless books on marriage, stewardship, parenting, etc. Why oh why then should we even scoff at doing the same for the conversation on race? Do this and share the experience and the material, where appropriate with the church. Our lead team at Southwest is in the process of this right now. And I’m grateful to those studs and studettes for journeying with me. You see I love them and I refuse to not make sure we’re all on the same page before we lead our people. 
  3. Take Your Time: I love Southwest Church more than I love talking about racial reconciliation. Did you hear that? I love my people more than I love this conversation. I hope you get this. I am a shepherd. I love my people. As tears now well up in my eyes I want 20 years by their side faithfully serving them and celebrating their wins and lamenting their losses. We don’t need professors. We need pastors. We need long haul guys who are not trying to ‘become something’ by next summer. Many of our people are ready to engage this. Many are not. And most have thanked me for not being blind to it and saying something. But saying it in a way that they can eat the meal we’re serving. My hope is to retire in about 20 years, 22 to be exact, and hand down a more reconciled church to my children and our members’ children. I dream of being an old man with yet and still a hot and beautiful wife (Love you April). We’re sitting on the back pew so as to stay out of the way. I get so excited about this cane I plan to have. I mean even if I don’t need one I still think when I hit 75 I’ll buy a cane. Like a hand-carved, totally vintage, tribal, wicked cool cane. Pray for me. Back to the hope: My dream is to watch our children lead our church. Sing. Preach. Pray. Do outreach. Do life together at their dinner tables. They are hispanic and latino. They are white and black. They are rich and poor. They are Asian and African and European. And they don’t care that they’re different. Because they actually know in their souls that they are not. Because they heard that grandma and grandad wrestled with that stuff well and took the bruises for them so they wouldn’t have to. And they saw mom and dad live it out as best they could. So they’ll enjoy that they are free to pursue other avenues of reconciliation because those old folks on the back pew did what they were supposed to do. We’re old by then. So we largely hate their music and what not. But we’ll love their hearts. And no way we’re leaving because we will have built a great monument there for Christ’s fame in the earth. HALLELUJAH! It’s a marathon. Not a sprint. This may mean, fellow pastor, that you’ll be labeled as being ‘slow’ and ‘blind’ on the issue for the next couple of years but you’ll be a leader in the conversation for the next 20. We don’t do this quick. We do this right. Put oil in your lamp and prepare the road for a generation not for a news cycle. 
  4. Equip Your Leaders: We won’t go where leaders won’t take us. There are no solo acts in the church. When it comes to the conversation on race and reconciliation I get that the church I serve is new to it. And that’s okay. So I’ll take a couple more years to equip our leaders. Have safe spaces for us to figure this out. Then lovingly we’ll walk our people through it. But leaders deserve to be equipped and educated and loved into this. In fact, for me, this is the sweetest part of it all. You want your small group leaders to do this work in living rooms. Because that’s where it really happens. Equip them as best you can. 
  5. Get Used to Being Tired: If you think pastoring is hard, wait until you answer God’s call to racial reconciliation in your leadership. It’s tiring. Exhausting. And you’ll wanna give up. There’s one particular reason why most churches are still segregated—it’s easier. But fight the good fight. If our lives are too comfortable and our instagram followers are too many I fear we will risk having taken the road of celebrity and not the role of service. Jeremiah was tired. Elijah was tired. Moses was tired. Paul was tired. Yet the Spirit of God fueled them to finish the good fight. Let’s discontinue a theology that gives too much value on comfort. It’s just not a lot of greatness that happened in Scripture because leaders were comfortable.


The Best Suga…



You can set your clock by it–it happens literally every Mother’s Day, most Christmases, and thereafter it becomes more sporadic. It’s that moment whereupon having celebrated our family’s Mother’s Day festivities I steal away for a few minutes, pull up an old pic, and allow the tears to flow. It’s that annual moment where I allow the weight of years of memories to crash land on my heart. Mom’s been gone for 23 years now. But on Mother’s Day it feels like she just left this morning. Those tears for years were painful. But now I relish them. For when those tears flow now it’s more of ‘my time’ to be with Mom. It’s always the same–a smile, a laugh over an old memory, and then a weird, kinda painful, but yet pleasant cry. And then there’s the end of it. When I ask Jesus to give Mama some “suga” from me. Mama called her kisses, “Suga” but when she kissed her kids she’d always tell us, “You got the best Suga!” Now poor Cam and Grandy and Andi hear that all day from their Daddy.

Do not mourn for me. That’s not what this post is about. Celebrate with me. Because 23 years ago you couldn’t have told me that the void left after Mama’s passing would be filled. You see, I had the best Mom ever (I know you likely did as well). Spirit-filled. Lover of people. Told you how it is (she was an “8” on the Enneagram before we knew what they were). But knew something about sweetness. And grace. She had the bestest laugh you ever did hear. One of heaven’s joys will be listening to that brilliant laugh bellow out in paradise. Hers was the tastiest spaghetti you ever did taste. Meatballs WITH mushrooms, and if you were good, some tiny slithers of sausages. Mercy. And a hundred one-liners that she knew how to land at precisely the right moment to leave your would-be rebut in the trash can it belonged. Oh she was the best. She was the loudest cackler at our ballgames. The loudest (and craziest) worshipper in our church. The kindest giver in the neighborhood. And the prettiest thing you ever did see. I had a good Mom.

So why not mourn for me? What made Mom ‘great’ was the Savior she witnessed about constantly. She was in LOVE with Jesus so much that she drew us to Him. And when we lost her, that Jesus filled every void. He made all the crooked places straight. And he told me to move forward. He brought me peace over my broken heart. He brought purpose out of the seasons of wilderness. He brought me the best wife a man could ever find. He brought me children who bear Mama’s spark. He brought me a future and a hope. Do not mourn for me.

I write to all of you who are enjoying this Mother’s Day. May smiles rule the day and laughter reign in the night. Happy Mother’s Day!

But I write as well to those who will have their ‘moment’ today just like I did. To the Mama who can’t get pregnant. To the person whose Mama is gone. To the fella whose Mama just wasn’t what she should’ve been. To the sister who grew up as an orphan because Mama died or gave you up. To the lady workin hard to take care of a Mama whose body is there but her mind isn’t. To the guy who ‘just’ lost your Mom. To the Mom whose baby went home before you and you question how you show up now. To the person who has pain today–I bid you to draw from a well springing up to everlasting life for all who dare drink. This Savior will draw near to you and fill the void. He will pull you close and ‘kiss’ you with His presence. Trust me–23 years and counting–Jesus has the best suga.