FIRST-PERSON: Kingdom families
Each week, when the congregation I am privileged to pastor gathers for worship, I am assured of the truth of that promise. You see, ours is a church filled with individuals and families whose lives are testimonies to the grace of God. It is that grace which enables us to live out Kingdom family principles.
Meet Pete and Debbie Livingston who are building a Kingdom family. They seem to always find their place in worship on the second row of the second section to my left as I preach. That wasn't always the case, however, as both would share with you. Pete and Debbie were on the fast track to success in their respective careers when suddenly they found themselves in such moral and marital disarray that divorce seemed certain. Praying friends in the church convinced Pete to stand for his family. Taking drastic steps, including the discipline of reshaping their priorities, severing ties that were dragging them into divorce, and recommitting themselves to Christ's lordship in their lives, Pete and Debbie began to rebuild their marriage and family.
In addition to the two children born to their marriage, they have since adopted five others -- two from mixed-race unions, two from Cambodia and one from Bulgaria. In addition to his outside consulting service, Pete serves part-time as a minister to families in our church. He and Debbie have teamed up to form "Radically Married," a teaching ministry that has reached more than 3,000 people through our church and countless others in additional venues. With missions on their hearts, Pete and Debbie travel frequently to minister in foreign countries. Their eldest son recently graduated from college. Now married, he and his wife hope soon to begin training for overseas ministry. The Livingstons are a Kingdom family.
So is the family of Trey and Brenda Palmer. When not in the choir, they usually are seated with their children in the second section back and to my right as I face the congregation. Both Trey and Brenda, Americans of African descent, had the privilege of growing up in strong Christian families, active in their respective churches. From the beginning, Trey and Brenda dedicated their family, which now includes five children, to the Lord.
Over the past several years, Trey, an environmental specialist and a deacon in our church, has become increasingly concerned over the trend away from family values in our community. Recently, his concern, coupled with his strong biblical convictions, led him into the political arena where he sought office as a state representative. In spite of being the first African American to run for that position on his party's ticket, and in spite of running against a firmly entrenched incumbent, Trey, Brenda, their family and their church family saw his campaign as a means of bringing key issues to the surface.
Although he lost this first bid in the political arena -- those on both sides of the aisle in our church family still think he was the best candidate! -- his clear enunciation of the issues garnered notice and admiration throughout our community, including an endorsement by the local paper. So what did his family do the week following a hard-fought election? They were in their places in church -- choir, Bible study, missions and Scripture memory organizations, and student ministry.
As you have seen with the Livingstons and Palmers, Kingdom families come in all shapes, sizes, ages and stages in life. They have learned to overcome, even when things do not turn out the way they might hope.
Until recently, Charleta Garner sang in our church choir, taught a Sunday School class, visited in our evangelism ministry, taught Spanish as a second language, attended our 5:30 a.m. morning prayer each day, spent Tuesdays and Thursdays sharing the Gospel in our benevolence ministry (especially with the Spanish-speaking) and constantly encouraged her pastor. Such an active life was not easy for this 78-year-old former missionary whose husband died of Alzheimer's disease several years ago.
"One day this old lady is going to go down," Charleta said to me when I asked why a retired missionary would enroll in evangelism training, "and I want to go down like a big rock, making lots of waves and dragging others into God's Kingdom with me!" Although living alone, she was rarely "alone." Her house often was filled with guests and family members, some of whom also are serving overseas on the mission field. While others would have excused themselves, Charleta considers herself under orders from her King. Though slowing down a little because of age and illness, she continues to reach out to her world as a member of God's Kingdom family.
Reaching out is the name of the game for Ed and Shelby Nuckols who sit almost directly in front of me each time we gather for worship. Shelby literally prayed Ed through, and then out, of his years of destructive addiction. It wasn't easy at first, as there were good days and bad. Then Ed cast himself on Jesus and everything changed. Together, Ed and Shelby began to pick up the pieces of their marriage and reassemble them into a Kingdom family.
Generally Ed and Shelby are surrounded with an unusual group of folks they look upon as their special sheep. You see, as members of God's Kingdom family, Ed and Shelby asked for and received a vision for an effective ministry to those seeking to overcome addictions. Every time I see them it seems as if at least one member of their "Overcomers" class is in tow. And our church family now has scattered through it those who, under their ministry, have gained genuine victory. They know the value of prayer in the spiritual battles in which they are engaged. So whether it's our Wednesday "Hour of Power" or our daily morning prayer service, you can count on seeing Ed, Shelby and some of the sheep which comprise their Kingdom family.
Recently, after visiting a new resident in a local nursing home, I went back to the entry area to find Shirley Chapman, a nurse's aid and Kingdom family member. I knew Shirley would give this new resident the kind of loving attention he so desperately needed at the time. Shirley is single now, after years of living in a situation for which the word "abusive" scarcely does justice. In addition, Shirley was the victim of an automobile accident which sometimes leaves her struggling with her motor skills. Throughout all this time, including days of incredibly deep despair, Shirley has never lost her "song" and her determination to praise the Lord in all things.
Frankly, Shirley and I don't always agree on what constitutes appropriate praise and worship. But, then, we don't have to agree on everything because we do agree on the one thing that counts: Jesus deserves our all. On the occasions when Shirley seems to be "putting on" a little, I try to remind myself that, when the weather is warm enough, I just might pass a street corner where she has positioned herself "in concert" for all who pass by. And I've grown accustomed to sharing with folks who are startled by "that lady who walks through the church real fast, singing as she goes" that it's our Shirley.
Rarely a week passes that Shirley doesn't hand me a note requesting prayer for someone. As a member of God's Kingdom family, she faithfully employs the same battle strategy that enabled her to go forward when it appeared all the world was against her. At the nursing home I visited that morning, I was glad God had a Kingdom family member present, ready to pour out loving support for that new resident. "Hi, sweetheart," she said to the patient. "You are just beautiful today!" She hugged him, then turned to me and said, "You go on now, Brother Tom, everything will be all right."
Dr. Kevin Penwell and his wife, Sarah, grew up in homes where they were loved, supported and urged along in their faith. Kevin's parents are faithful members of our church. They insert an incredible "servant attitude" into the atmosphere, regardless of where they are. Sarah's parents are equally involved in our church, both real "experts" when it comes to communicating about family issues. Sarah's father, a "completed Jew" and son of a Holocaust survivor, is one of the most articulate and gifted teachers I have ever known.
Having faithful and dedicated parents is no guarantee that the children will follow the same path, but it sure gives them an advantage. Kevin and Sarah have taken advantage of their heritage and, along with their three children, they are building a Kingdom family of their own. As I write, Kevin is completing his last few months of medical residency and soon will begin a practice of his own. I am taken, however, by this couple's desire to live out the principles of a Kingdom family.
Because I had the privilege of officiating at Kevin and Sarah's wedding, I also had the joy of guiding them through our church's pre-marriage counseling. At every session I was impressed with their eagerness to "live out" their faith in some very practical ways. Kevin, for instance, participated in overseas mission trips. In fact, working side by side on the mission field with another of our church's physicians, he fell in love with the medical practice and the doors for witness it opened. Sarah worked in our church office during the early days of their courtship, impressing everyone there with her enthusiasm for life and for the things of God.
It's easy to find excuses when you're in medical school. After all, the demands are seemingly overwhelming. Yet, I know if at all possible, Kevin and his family will be faithful in the ministries of their church, faithful in their support of missions and eager to share the Gospel with others. Generally, early on Tuesday mornings, after a full night of emergency room rotation, Kevin will be found at our men's Bible study and prayer meeting. As one of the youngest deacons in our church, his participation is both valuable and insightful. This is Kingdom family as it ought to be.
Unfortunately, many people don't have the advantages shared by Kevin and Sarah. Erica Maia could only dream of such family support. She is a student at Oklahoma Baptist University. With parents from Japan, but living much of her life in Brazil, Erica first came to the United States while participating in a high school exchange program. Soon she was introduced to Christ through a family who attend our church, a family with a heart for reaching out to international students. As a member of God's Kingdom family, Erica then participated in our evangelism training for students. That training has made all the difference in her life.
While at home for a brief vacation, Erica had the privilege of leading first her mother, then her brother, to Christ. Returning to the States to complete her schooling, she continues to share her faith, seeing many of her friends come to Christ. Now, with her parents' encouragement, she continues to attend Oklahoma Baptist University where she is majoring in practical missions.
No, Erica did not have the advantages shared by Kevin and Sara. But, as a member of God's Kingdom family, she has determined to be the first in a line of many generations to come that will be mighty for the Lord. Often during our morning prayer, I look up to see Erica kneeling with her sponsor, praying, I'm sure, for her family and for those generations to come.
By God's grace, you can do it, too!
Your story will not be identical and may not even be similar to these -- but you do have a story! Does your story reveal that you are a member of God's Kingdom family? Does it include your commitment to use the balance of your life sharing your faith with your family and joining with them and others in the kind of activities which cultivate a passion for fulfilling the Great Commission?
You can do it! You can become a member of God's Kingdom family! You can build a Kingdom family starting right now where you are by God's grace.
Tom Elliff is pastor of First Southern Baptist Church in Del City, Okla., and a former Southern Baptist Convention president who chairs SBC’s Council on Family Life. This article is excerpted from his book, “Unbreakable! The Seven Pillars of a Kingdom Family,” published by Broadman & Holman.