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.

SELAH. 

The Best Suga…

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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.

These Two Sons…

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If there’s a picture that captured the beauty that was last summer’s Jenkins Family vacation, it’s this one. As the quintessential old-school Dad my job is pictures. My summer memories are that of my 1980s Dad walking us around LibertyLand in Memphis. Or that year’s family reunion swarming with literally hundreds of relatives. Or that year’s summer church convention in Detroit. Or Chicago. Or somewhere that was not the sweltering summers in Mississippi. Dad is armed with a fresh 80s style T-shirt, dark blue jeans even though the sun is blazing, tennis shoes (we didn’t say sneakers), and tube socks. Mama’s armed with a cooler full of bologna sandwiches and “red” kool-aid and chips. Lay’s chips–because no one could eat just one. Dad’s armed with a classic Canon camera with a neck strap so thick it looks like something from the military. And the man is takin’ pictures for literally every moment as the summer rolls on.

Stepping into my Dad’s shoes, last summer I snuck this pic as one rare moment of camaraderie and brotherhood for our two sons, Camden and Grand, as we enjoyed the brisk, yet refreshing waters of Lake Tahoe last July. It’s the best vacation I’ve ever known as, for a whole month, our family rested, reconnected, and were restored for another year of life and ministry. What a joy it was to watch our children play and dream about what they may become. So far Cam plans to be a preacher on Saturday nights like his dad, a tennis player on Wednesday’s, and a deep sea diver on Fridays so he can clean up the trash in the ocean. Grand is 3 years old. Rambunctious. Fiesty. And a perfect “8” on the Enneagram. ALL he wants to do is fight bad guys with his super ninja powers. I believe he will. Nonetheless it was a sweet summer vacation and we were exhilarated to step into the coming year.

Who knew that year would involve some serious tests in ministry as we navigated several transitions, prepared our church for a major capital campaign, deepened new friendships here in the valley, and oh yeah, embraced reality as a history altering pandemic torpedoed right at us.

Like you we’re at home all day now–and so far so good. We’re trying to be there for our church, be there for our city, be there for one another. It’s hard of course. No one knows the future. No one knows when our churches will gather corporately again. There’s uncertainty. My two sons can “say” the word “coronavirus.” But all they really understand is that they really can’t go anywhere but that means more pool time every day. They enjoy a perfectly innocent, blissful, boyish childhood. It’s the way their lives should be. But all in all we’re navigating this season of crisis with God’s grace and hope. It’s weighty. But we’ve been managing well.

Then I watched a video yesterday that captured the murder of a 25 yr old young man named Ahmaud Arbery from Brunswick, GA. And then my heart stopped. And I gasped for air. And I put my head down. And I cried. Because I lament the loss of Ahmaud on behalf of his mother. She lost a son. And he’s never coming back. He was unarmed. He was just jogging. And now he’s dead.

And then I cried again because, for me, there’s a second mourning that takes place as a parent of black children. You CANNOT HELP but think about your own children. And that’s where I’m at right now.

And as I thought about raising these two sons I was brought back to all the things my parents would say to me and my brothers before we would go ‘out’:

“Make sure you look at people in their eyes. Because you never know what they might think you’re doing.”

“Keep your hands outcha pockets when you walk into a store. You don’t want people thinking you’ve stolen anything!”

“If you get pulled over, look straight into the officers’ eyes. Say ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir.’ Don’t you EVER disrespect them. NEVER talk back. Don’t get loud. Don’t disagree. Be quiet. And pray.”

“Watch your posture when you walk out in public. Don’t slouch. Don’t look like you’re hiding something and up to no good. You never know when someone will call the law on you.”

What’s hilarious is that Mama raised church boys. You couldn’t have found a more straight-laced, boring set of young men. But Mama and Dad knew about the world. They had lived themselves. And stuff happened to them. They knew it could happen to us. And it did–but that’s another story for another time.

I’d have you know that, for the black family, this kind of ‘instruction’ was not abnormal. This was not a surprise. It’s just the way you were taught in order to survive. To this day, I am not comfortable walking into a bank because I fear what people are thinking about ‘what I might do’. To this day, I do not walk ‘freely’ anywhere. I’m always thinking about how I’m being perceived and how I’m being watched. Doesn’t matter if I’m in the South. Doesn’t matter if I’m in the North. This is how I THINK. And you need to know that this is EVERY black man I know. This is our normal. Double-consciousness is what the great thinker called it. 

I walk most mornings. And the neighborhood across the street from ours had its gated entry gates wide open. I’d always wanted to check out those houses. I remember walking past it thinking, “Oh! I can finally take a look at those houses and compare them to my neighborhood!” Then I immediately kept walking as I thought, “Nah…don’t feel like someone calling the authorities.” Now you may think this is drastic and unnecessary. I get that and for all intents and purposes, I agree. But my upbringing taught me that this way of processing and thinking is essential to survival. I just want you to know how I feel.

The tragedy of this murder reminded me that, before long, I’ll start these conversations with Camden and Grand. For sure it may be nuanced, but the message shall remain the same. Young sons, you are God’s children. Young sons, you are anointed of God and you’ve got a purpose. But young men, be careful, be watchful. Because there are realities out there that tend to way more heavily on you because of the way you look and what that look represents to some people in the world. I shall raise these two sons to love. To lead. To learn. To lament. To labor. But I shall also raise these two sons to “look out.” Because you never know.

I don’t have answers. Only sadness today. Only lament. Only pain. And anger. And frustration. And fear for young sons around the country today. My heart cries out “Maranatha” today. And I find rest only in the truth that a Savior looked ahead and saw the pain and woe of the world and said, “I shall die and rise again for them.” That is my hope and assurance this day. And that is the hope I shall translate….to these two sons.

 

We Wore Bright Colors That Day

Watching a movie just now and a funeral scene with pews filled with mourners wearing their all-black attire evoked memories of another funeral some 22 years ago. I couldn’t help but stop to write…because at that funeral…we wore bright colors that day.

My formation, spiritually, has always been tethered, tightly perhaps, to my parents. I know Jesus because of what they knew about Jesus. It hit me the other day. Because of conviction my family left our all black traditional church we were reared in when I was 12 years old. I complained then. But at 42 I remain so grateful. That began what I called our church hopping years. We were apostolic, charismatic, baptist, all white churches, multiethnic, you name it we were there. Gospel music. Christian contemporary. Christian Rock. Christian island music. To this day there is no one radio station that can capture the fruit I gleaned musically and culturally during those years.

Reflecting on those years the other day it hit me: those years are why I love diverse, multiethnic churches. Thats why God landed us at Southwest to love the people of that valley. A people rich in diversity and culture and backgrounds. That’s why I love preaching to a mixed bag of folks across all ages, backgrounds, political spectrums, and views. Because mom and dad were crazy enough to show us everything under the sun for loving God’s people. They were filled with joy. Laughter. Zeal. And optimism. What gifts our days at 447 Old Whitfield Road in Pearl, Mississippi were.

But that doesn’t mean our days were not tough. My Dad, trying to love and pursue Jesus as the Spirit led him suffered hardship and ostracism for taking our family out of “the church” and making his own way in ministry. He was therefore the most bravest leader. Thanks Dad for showing me courage. My mama suffered many illnesses before succumbing to cancer in 1997. Yet she fervently walked in the Spirit all those days. Thanks Mama for showing me the glory of Romans 8:28.

Hardships shape you into something better. Something stronger. Something more closer to Christ than what you would’ve been without the trouble. Our family was graced with the good and the bad and it was yet and still all God. Glory to His Holy Name.

Jesus is hope. Jesus is light. Jesus is joy filled tears. Jesus is relief. Jesus is peace. Jesus is comfort. Jesus is friendship.

So mama said one day…years before she died I guess: “they always wear dark clothes at funerals. But if you got Jesus even your funeral is not entirely sad. Because there’s joy on the other side.” When she passed Dad hauled us to the mall to buy appropriate dress clothes for her home going. And on a Saturday in March, 1997, our family walked down that center aisle in light khaki suits and pastel dresses like it was Easter Sunday. It wasn’t Easter of course. It was Mom’s funeral. But for us we knew there’d also been a resurrection God had given her. She found joy on the other side.

And so shall he give to us some day.

May we press on. May we lean into Christ. May we live out our days for adventure’s sake realizing that a day in Christ is the greatest resource one could have. Let us live loud. Let us love graciously. Let us fiercely pursue Christ and others. Let us make the best of it. And when they lay us down, may our children wear bright clothes that day.

These Weird, Joyous Tears

Perhaps I’ve learned that if I am not emotional I am not sure that I’m truly processing all the Lord has for me in what He’s doing in my heart and life. It’s who I am…it’s who I’ve always been. So as the tears streamed down my face after walking out of the Cat Scan department today I knew that I was nearer to where the Lord Jesus Christ wanted me to be…tender, needy, and close to Christ.

At the age of 34 I became a cancer survivor. April and I were newly engaged and the thought hit me that Fall, some six months before our wedding, “Maybe I ought to start getting checked out regularly since I’m about to be providing for a family.” And so that’s how my kidney cancer was discovered. Mama died from cancer. So indeed, the fear has always loomed in the background of my mind. But in 2011 that fear came to the foreground as life came to a halt and all our focus was on my newly discovered illness. Thanksgiving continues. No one wants cancer. But I had one of the most gracious types—confined to one kidney, nonaggressive, and healed through surgery. In fact the only pain I ever felt was recovering from the 4 lathroscopic wounds the robot left in my side.

But like so many cancer survivors around the world, every 6 months I get checked out. Indeed every exam has resulted in less and less fear. Then you get to that coveted 5-year mark, and you breathe a little bit. But every person who’s battled disease knows that serious illness is something that now ‘lives’ with you…it’s like a part of you…and it affects how you look at life and for sure how you look at the future.

We made the biggest move of our life last year. Wasn’t planned. Wanted to stay where we were. Wanted a different future. But if you wanna make God laugh, tell Him your plans. We came to the desert of the Coachella Valley in December and hit the ground running serving at a new church. Moving trucks. Car shipments. New temporary rental home. New office. New colleagues. New members. Trips to the utilities’ offices to get stuff turned on. DMV visits. New grocery store. New schools. Everything’s new. So what do you do in transition other than roll up your sleeves and just say, “We’ll settle in after while.” We couldn’t have asked for better entry to a new place. We love it here. Our hearts are full. Our family is growing. And God’s people here have been so good to us. 

Then the 6 mos. cancer screening exam appears on your calendar. And you can’t help but think, “What if?” Fear is a real thing. As is worry. You think to yourself, “I wanna see these boys grow up…”, “I wanna give my daughter away some day…”, “I wanna get old and gray next to this bride of mine…”, “I wanna change the world through this church.” Then you see the sheep of the flock weathering their own storms. Your heart breaks when you learn of someone else’s bad news with illness and you think even more so, “What if?” 

This is where the Lord becomes the wonder He is in our lives. And may He be that wonder for me and for you. Salvation is not what we think it is most of the time. Salvation is the promise that I am in Christ and Christ is in me. Salvation is the promise, NOT that I will never struggle or bout with fear, but that when I do, God is with me. Salvation is not about prosperity HERE, but the fullness of prosperity for all eternity at the Lord’s feet. Now I know this in my mind, but when fear strikes, and worry weighs me down, it’s hard to press what I know 18 inches southward to my heart. This is why a regularly scheduled exam continues to be such a weird joy. Because these exams produce a closeness to the Father I have not yet produced in my own power. These exams produce in my heart a neediness for God that my regular ‘disciplines’ (or if I have to be honest—sometimes the lack thereof) have yet to consistently manifest. These exams help me to realize my need for my Jesus, my sweet bride, my boys, my friendships, my church family. Regularly scheduled trouble makes me a better believer in God. Today I’m a better me…not a worse one. 

So this morning as I laid flat on the CT Scan table (those of you who’ve done it know what I am talking about), and as the motorized table began to slide me in and out of that tube, the tears streamed down, and I whispered over and over again, “Jesus I love you.” For I KNEW He was right there. With me. Holding me tightly. Firmly. Assuredly. 

God may bring you through whatever you’re going through. And truth is, He may not. It’s such a hard pill to swallow. If we ever fully do. But ti’s truth…and that makes us free.

So Hear the good news. You are not alone. You will not face one diagnosis alone. You will not face one setback alone. You will not be in one MRI scan or one CT Scan alone. You will not face pain alone. You will not face hardship alone. You will not face financial difficulty alone. You will not face trouble in family alone. You will never ever ever EVER be alone. Ask God’s help to praise Him for this ONE assurance—that we shall never be alone. 

For those who are in ‘a season’ right now—for those who I know personally…I pray for you daily. Your names are whispered in prayer daily by me and myriads more. For now, may those weird, joyous tears flow. 

I Cry Out to Thee

My faith teaches me that my moments of desperation never go unnoticed. That the shrieks of my soul in times of calamity, fear, and lament are indeed seen and felt and responded to by Abba Father. Were it not for the assurance of this truth I would indeed be hopeless today. I’d give up perhaps. I don’t know what all I feel. I’m so sad. I don’t even have the strength to be angry because of my shock, sadness, grief, and woe.

This morning like the rest of us I woke up to the CNN alerts giving us the news of Alton Sterling’s tragic death. It is hard to not look at this video footage and call it anything but murder. But I’m not writing to be political. I’m writing to keep from losing it tonight and bursting in tears when I hold my son tonight. Because that’s all I want to do–pick him up and squeeze him with love and promise to never let him go.

I watched that video. And I saw the blood. And the madness. And the rage. And the last gasps for air from a man I do not know…yet remain thoroughly convinced could be me. Or worse. My boy. Lord Jesus I am grieving. l’m scared.

I don’t have a point. I just needed to write. And release. And hope. My wife and son are about to come to my office after her meeting and I need to write lest I burst into tears when they walk in.

So let me rehearse the truth. Jesus died for me. He died because of the hopelessness that is our sin. He took all our grief and woe upon His shoulders. He allowed His flesh to be pierced and His blood to be shed. The ugliness of sin He has vanquished and wiped out for all eternity. And my hope is in Him. He is my victor. My peacemaker. My restorer. My hope. Bid me to do your will O God. We are listening.

Maranatha

#AltonSterling

One Sweet Day…

I sit at study now as is custom the day before a preaching Sunday. This time is sacred for me and so many others who do what we do. Quite literally these moments are some of my most favorite. When it’s time to study and sit in the Word I get excited even about the crispness of the pages when I turn them. Most of the time anyways. I get excited about practicing the sermon out loud asking myself, “How will this demographic hear that part?…Maybe I should say it differently?” “Don’t use the word simulacrum. I don’t care if it’s perfect for that sentence. You’ll sound like a fallutin’ moron.” Oh it goes on and on. May God meet me whilst I sit with Him and bask in the treasure of His presence and truth.

Sermons are important. But not as important as family and quality time with them. My heart is full of joy and reflection as I look back to what was an exceptional day for team Jenkins. We’ve fought hard to steal away to each other for memory making days. Now we were immersed with these moments in Chicago. No pastoring. Not too much preaching. Not too many friends–but boy the ones we had were the world’s best–and they made our cups full. But in that rhythm we were together every day. Jenkins Family Brunch every Saturday morning. Dinner time at the table every night. Walks around the park every evening. Sweet sweet times establishing our rhythms and getting to know one another. But the last 7 months of living in Memphis, our new-again home, has been full of transition and busy times. Our church family–the greatest in the whole wide world–has welcomed us with open arms. One of the most fulfilling joys in this life is having a church home. I mean that. They’ve been good to us. Memphis has been good to us. God has been (and always will) good to us. Today was over 100 degrees but I’ll take this blistering, sweet heat over 50 below windchill (that was the worst it got during our Chicago season) ANY day. Yet the truth is, with me serving the local church again and April busy with her work it’s been tough for us to enjoy as many sweet days like we did in Chicago. We make it happen here and there but it’s hard work as any family will attest.

It was a good week. This time of year is challenging in that it’s time for my annual physical exams. It’s when my doctors test everything from the roota to the toota to make sure cancer has not returned. I enjoyed more peace than I have last year.  And the year before that. You get the picture. I’m grateful to a wife who remains constant in faithfulness and encourages me on weak and fearful days. I’m grateful to my best brother friends who let me know they got my back. So grateful to a team of about 10 men who’ve been my prayer partners now for years. Just shooting over a text to ask them to pray calms many nerves. So the doctors take your blood. They x-ray ya. They put you through the CT scan. And you wait. Boy you just wait. Then the other day the Dr.’s office called. I was fine. I had peace. God was with me. He’s faithful that way. But to hear the nurse’s news, “Everything looks fine”…it still wakes up something in you. As soon as she said that, I broke out in tears. Tears of relief. Tears of thankfulness. But also tears of assurance. And I mean this now more than ever I think. Tears of assurance that the same God who was with me for the good news He allowed would be the same God who’d be with me should He have allowed bad news. For Job reminds me that whether His hand is giving blessing or challenge–His is a GOOD hand.

Truth is, after good news like that–or if it had been bad news–your sense of appreciation for what you have gets finely tuned and honed. Your wife becomes not just a really good wife in your estimation–but a precious, unbelievable gift. Your son becomes not just a cute little cutie, but a joyous little wonder. And all you want to do is be with them and smell the fresh air of life. Sure there were the continued laments of the trouble of this world. A #Brexit here and a random act of violence there. We’ve got a ways to go. Yet the kinda phone call I received from that nurse reminds you that we’re still here. And there’s still much good in life. And your only thought is to live it up. For moments like these are precious.

Today was my Camden’s first haircut. If you know him you know his hair is much like a lion’s mane…only curly and Richard Simmons like. Ha! We just love it! But it was that time. Plus we decided we’d take him to see his first move–Finding Dory (Spoiler alert below…but who are we kidding? We already know how Disney movies end). Now my boy is biracial. So I just wasn’t ready to take HIS hair to MY barbershop. Naw. That wasn’t happening. I looked up a salon. Yes a salon. And of course, I thoroughly researched it to read a dozen message boards to learn exactly WHICH salons do biracial, curly haired kids the best. Ha! So we were there. With my wife holding Cam in her lap. We assured his compliance with the stylist by suckering him with lollipops (see how I did that?) and as many Paw-Patrol videos that he wanted to see. And just like that your little 2-yr old baby loses about 8 inches of hair and now he’s your 2-yr old little man. I looked at his Mom and said, “Before we know it this kid will be driving off to college.” What a sweet day. We jetted off afterwards to Tops for some cheeseburger action to stuff into Cam’s baby-bag to watch Finding Dory (wait. Did I just admit that? #hood). To see Cam’s eyes walking into the big, dark theater was a moment I won’t forget. It was the look of awe and fear mixed together. You could just read his mind saying, “This room looks dark, loud, scary, and big. But there’s a cartoon preview on so no way I’m turning around.” And we watched the movie while enjoying him sinking into our arms not taking one look off of the screen.

The story of Finding Dory is the story of a search for her long lost parents. The thing about Dory though is that she forgets everything. And miraculously, she remembers that she once had parents who loved her. And as you can imagine Dory, Nemo, and his Dad jump through 1,000 hoops to find them. The end of the movie is full of sweetness. Dory’s parents actually end up finding her. And Dory learns that not one day did they ever stop looking. Yeah. That’s the gospel. Miraculously, God has allowed us to ‘realize’ that something is wrong…or more so…someone is missing. And our hearts go looking for something or someone to fill that gap. And by grace, eventually we ‘find’ Jesus. But those who have ‘found’ him understand it better in that, truly, Jesus is the one who has found us.

My eyes welled up a bit. Watching my little boy sit there. Watching my wife relax. Watching a Memphis day go by. One. Sweet. Day.

No More Crying There:  We Are Going to See the King

“Sometimes it hurts because you are not here with me…but you…are still a part of me”

These are lyrics from a song I often sing entitled “I Wish” by Trinitiee 5:7. The song speaks of the loss of a special person in someone’s life. You would think it’s a song of lament. However the song is rather upbeat, delightful even. In one breath it admits the brokenness felt when someone special has gone on. And at the same time it rejoices over the fact that those special ones in our lives are, indeed, still a part of us. Their memories remain. Their brightness. Their smile. And their warmth.

I felt that this morning preparing to preach as I thought about my Mom whom we lost almost 20 years ago now. Sometimes it hurts because she’s not here with me. But she’s still a part of me.

Sunday mornings are special. I’m typically up before day asking God to prepare my heart to preach. Today’s morning (I’m so sleeeepy) began with dish-washing…ya know…do something to wake up the body. Listening to music obviously. Then I began to think about God’s blessings in my life; my beautiful best friend and wife. Our little boy. This little one (Carson Grand) who’s on his way. Well, who can’t smile reflecting on all that? At the same time I lamented the fact that they won’t know their Grandma in ways I’d hoped. I do that more often these days. Many a day I’ve wished April and Mom could shop together and realize in one purchase at the big sale that God made them the two most deal-findingest women the earth ever did see. That both of them would realize in one hour that they have the most infectious laughs EVER. That there’s not a need they’d see that they could ever walk past. That the special way they take care of their babies and faithfully nurture and teach them makes you want to sit, watch closely, and examine every next move they make. That they’re both the kind of women Solomon might have had in mind when he wrote Proverbs 31. There are many days I wish Cam could see his Grandmama and hang out with her for the day and enjoy 100% spoiling whilst I watch in agony knowing I’ll have to work even harder to deprogram him. That when his Daddy makes the whole family dance to some good ole music and jump and move all around is not a tradition he created but one that his grandma did ALL the time to liven up her hubby and her kids—and we loved her for it. That Cam could see that his nose is not his Dad’s nose…but it’s his Grandma’s nose. That he’s indeed a cute one—but both his grandmothers chipped in on that. That those big brown eyes of his that seem to be able to capture all the light in the room and reflect them back to you with a sense of both calm and candor come not just from us, but also from his Grandma too.

I wish she were here.

Because maybe some of those tough days wouldn’t be as tough.

Maybe those fearful moments wouldn’t be so scary.

Maybe some of life’s lack wouldn’t feel so…so…so lacky.

Enter in Jesus. The Scriptures say of my Lord that he is like a friend that sticks closer than a brother. The Scriptures tell me he has made up his mind that he will never leave me nor forsake me. The Scriptures say of him that on my darkest of days he will walk with me—and give me peace. For he has solved the problem of my sin. This is the greatest miracle of all. Yet under that umbrella He has won victory over all of life’s ailments; sadness, separation, loneliness, and pain. And what’s more, he has answered our greatest question that unsettles us deep down—the question of the future. Paul rejoiced over this—O death where is thy sting? O grave where is thy victory?

I rejoice this morning that the reason I can sing sad lyrics with an upbeat heart is because of this future victory that all those who’ve trusted in Christ will celebrate—Eternity in Heaven. Hallelujah. This life brings its ups and downs. Its pains and reliefs. Its joys and sorrows. This life is replete with the ‘already but not yet’ tension the theologians so adeptly describe in their volumes. But when tumultuous times come, and the fears of the realities of this life darken the doors of our heart—remember that our home is not this world. We are all headed somewhere. Where there will be blessed and blissful togetherness. The clocks of time will cease. And we will only know peace, joy, calm, and unity at the feet of Christ. The old folks used to sing it this way, “No more crying there…we are going to see the King.” And there we will ALL be. Together. Forever. Hallelujah.

Let us live in today with our hopes fixed in what Christ has done in time past and what He shall complete in time future. Earthly virtue will be found in heavenly perspective. That’s it. And it’s good news.

To Be Continued…Back in Memphis TN

My days at Fellowship Memphis began at Kingsbury High School. I was a young resident charged with helping our volunteers who had, for years, been a vital part of that school’s transformation from a failing school to a thriving one. Some of my most treasured memories in ministry center on Kingsbury. It’s where dozens of Fellowship folks showered hundreds of students with the love of Jesus—lending our presence, our tutoring, our teacher brunches, our block parties, our pep rallies, our campus cleanup days, and, when our kids needed it—our dollars too. I didn’t preach much for our church in those days. But every afternoon at Kingsbury, FM people joined hands—black, white, Asian, Latino, and Hispanic hands—to preach sermons that were seen rather than heard. And we preached plenty. This is the Fellowship Memphis I know.

I get asked often—“Why are you coming back to Fellowship?” The answers I’ve rehearsed might sound impressive. After all, this is the place where I met my bride, cut my teeth in multi-ethnic preaching and leading, helped launch an outpost, and discovered the mastery that is low-and-slow BBQ. Memphis is where my research, which focuses on pastoral leadership in the Civil Rights movement, might thrive and have an eventual platform for further scholarship. Memphis is where my son, who seemingly has inordinate levels of testosterone, can have room to play ball, hunt, fish, and run. Memphis is where my wife, whose heart is bigger than the ocean, can have the environment to do what she loves—take care of Cam and I, and when there’s any time left, she’ll get to love women with the hope of the gospel. To be sure, all of these were reasons we felt Memphis was right for us. But the answer for our return is simple—The Lord said GO.  Go.  Because there is more work to be done and more memories to be made.

As a historian, the memories of what makes FM special fueled our discernment process. I remembered Kingsbury days. I remembered Memphis Union Mission days. I remembered small group meetings. I remembered a diverse elder team made up of some of my best friends in the world. I remembered how fun it is to work with JB and the team. I remembered China trips with Soup. I remembered Honduras trips with Point of Impact. I remembered about 200 breakfasts I’ve enjoyed at the Arcade with 20-something year old dudes trying to figure out godliness and manhood. I remembered 28 folks who, twelve years ago, dreamt big about a gospel-centered church that championed discipleship, racial reconciliation, legalism, etc. I remembered 12 years of RICH history that celebrates unheard of achievements for the Body of Christ in our city. And lastly, I remembered people. Yes—people! Because for the pastor—people are our business. Then we looked ahead. I dreamed about shepherding and preaching the Bible to a people we love DEARLY. I thought about standing next to our staff leaders in their lives as well as their ministries. I thought about how life should be an adventure for Christ and nothing else. That’s what did it for us.  I’ll sum it up this way—we came back to help continue what has begun here. Reflecting upon a lifetime of Kingdom work, Paul charged Timothy, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it.” We’ve learned a whole lot from Fellowship Memphis. We’ve come back to continue the work. May many adventures be had and many victories won for the cause of Christ–Love y’all.

Fears, Vacuum Cleaners, and the God Who Has Conquered Them All

Normally I am too proud to admit such things as I do now for fear of others’ perceptions. But I’m getting older. And with age has come the wisdom to realize that vulnerability and honesty are the keys to victories that have eluded me years before.  So here it is:  I’m afraid. There. I said it.

My siblings knew me to be the easiest scare growing up. Regardless of the fact that I was the oldest and (perhaps) the wisest, those jokers knew that a rambunctious BOO! from behind the closet door would always rattle my nerves and reward that particular prankster with an all-day laugh. My wife gets the occasional giggle over how easily I am frightened or alarmed by random things—a car backfiring, turbulence on a flight, or any potential bad news. Yup. I’m a scary guy. Allow me to show how fear can continue to grip me at times.

I fly about 2-3 times a month on average. Here lately I’ve been flying more than I ever have. Guess what? I’ve always been terrified by flying! The early years weren’t so bad. But then 2009 came. We were taking off out of Atlanta and, during takeoff, our engine blew. The plane was rumbling and struggling to climb. And the tell-all sign confirmed my fears—the flight attendants were just as terrified as I was. This was it. Everyone on the plane was holding hands. Some were crying. I kind of ‘knew’ I was about to die. The only thing I was thinking, “Lord I pray this just doesn’t hurt.” Obviously we made it. But now every time I fly I’m usually in a good deal of prayer asking the Spirit to calm my fears. Of course it doesn’t help that I’m always landing in a town they call the windy city. Sheesh.

Most of you know I was sick a few years ago. Doctors found kidney cancer just before our wedding. And all my fears (My mom died of cancer) were confirmed in a sense. But God was gracious in healing my body. The cancer was surgically removed and I’m still cancer free. But I’d be lying to you if I didn’t admit that every blood test, every ‘strange’ pain, and every story about someone else’s cancer woes doesn’t send me periodically into worry and fears that I won’t get to live out some dreams I’ve been working on. April and I are having a blast in life—and I want that to continue. Camden is growing like a weed and learning new words every day—and I want that to continue. I think maybe some day I actually might be able to contribute to the academic community through my experience in scholarship—and I want that to continue. I love the church. And I LOVE pastoring—and I want that to continue. Fear is real.
We all have fears. It is a part of being who we are—human. Some of us fear being judged. Others fear never ‘getting it done.’ Some of us fear illness. We fear we won’t get the job. WE fear the job we have may NEVER satisfy us. We fear what may happen with our kids. We fear rejection. We fear we may never get married. We fear our marriage may never work out. Many fear having to face our deepest issues or our darkest secrets. And all of us, at least on some level, fear the grandaddy of them all—mortality. Fears fears fears. The world is full of fears. If you fear something I’ve got news for you. You are normal. You are not weird. You’re not strange. You’re not a loser. Just normal.

You’re just like all of God’s other kids…which leads me to what I hope will bear fruit in this note. We. Are. God’s. Kids. God is our DAD. And this is GOOD NEWS!

In his earlier months, our boy Cam was terrified of the vacuum cleaner. When I say “terrified” I mean he would lose it. He was just done. Screaming. Trying to get away. It was bad. He was about 7 or 8 mos. old after all. The sight and sound of a monstrous machine roaming across the carpet can be foreboding. From the start it was apparent that this kid and vacuum cleaners do not mix. Either that or he is brilliantly devising a scheme to keep himself out of housework when he’s older! So we jumped into a rhythm as parents for when Cam has to face the vacuum cleaner. One of us would prepare to vacuum. The other would first pick him up, speak softly to him and tell him what was about to happen. Then the vacuuming parent would get to work while the other parent would caress Cam as the madness ensued. If it was my turn to hold him I’d say, “See bud? It’s just a vacuum cleaner. But I got you. And you’re all right!” He still cried at first. But eventually he grew to at least tolerate the vacuum cleaner and stop crying. His progress is forthcoming. This weekend while we vacuumed, not only was he walking near it, but, still wary of his inclination towards vacuum cleaners, he would give the machine a grimacing look as if to say, “I will KICK you if you come near me!” It appears that, when it comes to our fears, the caressing tactics of a parent goes a long way.

I say all this to pray, “Lord, I invite you to do with my fears what you led April and I to do with Camden’s vacuum cleaners.”  Pick us up. Give us caution about what may happen. But let us know that when things happen you’ll hold us. You’ll tell us that you have us and that we’re all right. And eventually, though we still may have to deal with these things, you’ll give us that spirit of confidence that helps us not only weather those waters, but sail through them with vitality.

Join me today in giving your fears to the God of Heaven. One of my professors put it this way last week. (Paraphrasing) He said something to the effect that, “Mankind’s deepest concern is that of his death and what happens next—and the gospel of Jesus Christ has answered this question.  On the cross and through the resurrection, Jesus has responded graciously to life’s deepest fear and concern.”  Hallelujah. For He has given an ANSWER to life’s deepest fears!!  And I say to myself and to you that if He has answered the darkest fears, He has certainly responded to all those in between.

So what’s next? Here it is: Live. Live! LIVE!!! If we’re not careful, we’ll give more time to fear than to the dreams and desires Jesus has knit our souls with! So rehearse the truth with me friend:  This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice AND be glad in it! Take up the day and seize it for His glory. Get after it. Put hands to the plow knowing that God has you. Get back in the fight. Get back to what God has called you to do. He is our captain and He will make a path for us to know the abundant life in Christ.