Four weeks ago we spent seven days with our great friends Jim & Mandy Gardner and Jimmy & Elizabeth Mitchell at the Northside Church of Christ in Benton, Arkansas (home of Cliff Lee). They always bring in a guest speaker for the adults during their Vacation Bible School. And I was honored to preach the Word from John 14-16 with a reflective and hungry group of disciples.
Side note: I was walking into our church building here at Legacy the Sunday I returned when Kent and Norma Robinson drove up and welcomed me back home. Kent asked me how it went and I told him it was great, but I was exhausted. I said, “They had me speaking twelve times in five days and I didn’t think I had that much to say.” At which Norma leaned over in the truck and responded, “I find that hard to believe!”
Of course, I had a wonderful time reconnecting with Jim and Jimmy. We were all three on staff together at the church in Marble Falls while I was getting my degree at Austin Grad. Jim always impresses me with his knowledge of God’s Word and the straightforward way he delivers it. He’s very confident and very bold in the way he preaches. And he’s so very kind and gentle with and to the people in his congregation. Always has been. After spending about 30-minutes in his study with an especially cranky brother in Marble Falls one morning, Jim finally stood up and said, “We can do this all day long and accomplish nothing for the Kingdom. I’m going to make some hospital visits. You’re welcome to come with me.”
And the man did.
Jim sees the big picture.
And then there’s Jimmy. I was reminded all over again about why I love Jimmy. He’s a nut. He’s crazy. He has no shame. He’s hilarious. He’s not afraid of anything. He’ll sing any song and do any voice and play any part. He spent all week in VBS playing a ship’s first mate with the voice and mannerisms of a cross between Conan O’Brien and Harry Caray. He’s sensitive. And loving. And every single thing he does — everything! — is motivated by his love for the kids. He loves them. He’s in their faces all the time. He’s at their schools. He’s in their homes. All he cares about is those young people. And they love him right back.
Jimmy sees the big picture.
Ernest Miller is a 33-year-old Harding graduate from New Jersey. He and his wife LaDonna and their two girls just moved to Benton six weeks ago. He’s the brand new preacher at the Johnson Street Church of Christ in Benton, the black church on the other side of the tracks. I had lunch with Ernest that week at a Chinese restaurant owned by a guy named Jerry Jones — not that Jerry Jones! And then I had the honor of Ernest showing me around the Johnson Street church building and surrounding neighborhood. I had the pleasure of meeting and shaking hands with 83-year-old W. K. Hannah, one of the founding members of that church from almost 60 years ago. He was working the food pantry last Tuesday, just like he does every Tuesday. Greeting people with a warm, “How you doin’?” Moving sacks of groceries into the trunks of cars. Praying with visitors. Telling them goodbye with a heartfelt “God bless you.” Ernest moved gracefully around the parking lot and the building, calling people by name, hugging little old ladies and jousting with the kids like he’s been there forever. He encouraged everybody. He smiled at everybody.
Ernest sees the big picture.
And they’ve all three committed to working on the biggest of pictures: reconciling their two churches, bringing together their two congregations, reuniting the brothers and sisters at the Lord’s table. They want to make the white church and the black church one. One Church. One family. One building. One set of elders. One mission. One purpose. One Body.
Northside actually planted that Johnson Street church — literally on the other side of the tracks — back in the mid 1950s. Jim’s grandfathers, both of them, were elders at the time. Jim showed me a copy of the church budget from 1962 that lists “colored congregation” as their second largest mission item. It’s not that the Northside church had evil intentions or bad motives 55 years ago. I believe that their motives were pure. They were just wholly misguided. And Jim is working with Jimmy and Ernest and Fernando, their hispanic minister, to make sure that the Kingdom of God in Benton looks like and acts like the Kingdom of God in Holy Scripture.
These two congregations are already working hard to rise above the ungodly distinctions of the artificial boundaries our culture and, sadly, our churches have built between us. They already worship together at monthly gatherings. They eat together at special occasions. They supported each other’s VBS. The ministers from both churches have lunch together once a week.
Christ Jesus came to break down all the barriers, to destroy all the lines, to obliterate our differences. The dream in Benton is that God’s Church there will be an impossible-to-miss example, a living illustration, that in Christ there are no language or ethnic or cultural divisions. We are, together, one body. And all the members belong to each other.
It’s going to take a lot of sacrifice for both churches. It’s going to take patience and understanding and gentleness and kindness. It’s going to require a Christ-like attitude of selfless giving. And it’s going to take time. But it’s a worthy endeavor. It’s what’s demanded of all of us who claim to be followers of our Savior who went out of his way and left everything and gave everything to impartially call everyone to the Father.
I’m excited that tonight Whitney and I are going to join Jim and Jimmy and the Northside youth group at the Rangers game in Arlington. I’m excited that Jimmy is going to lead our worship at Legacy this Sunday, just like the good ol’ days in Marble Falls. And I’m so inspired by what Jim and Jimmy and Ernest and the Church is doing in Benton, Arkansas.
God bless our brothers and sisters there. May they point all of us to greater unity in Christ.