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Archive for December, 2008

The Calm after the Storm

In the last three months I’ve made 231 Facebook friends, written 43 blog entries, preached 28 times, told a half dozen holiday stories, and sung (once) at a ladies’ tea.  It’s been a whirlwind of activity, and although I enjoy that kind of thing—breezing from one big event to the next—I am also enjoying this little bit of calm after the storm.

People kept asking me last week, “Are you ready for Christmas?” and I kept saying, “Almost.”  I meant that I had almost finished shopping for gifts and almost finished preparing the manger of my heart, but until I finished preaching the Christmas Eve service there was always one more thing to get ready for.  So, when it was over, and I was walking back home with my family after midnight, with the air strangely warm and a light breeze stirring the dead leaves on Monument Avenue, I felt my whole body relax into the holiday.  There wasn’t one more thing I had to do except fall asleep that night and wake up on Christmas morning.

So, even though I’ve had to preach twice since then, I am holding onto that holiday feeling.  In fact this morning, instead of going into the office, I’m going to take my family up to DC for a couple of days, to knock around some of our old haunts and eat at some of our favorite restaurants.  I’m going to get some of that deep rest my body needs in order to go back to a job I love.  But, don’t worry.  I’m sure I’ll come back with some interesting stories to tell, and ready to post blog entry number 44.

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971896384_b0882720e1I was a little nervous about the Christmas Eve service.

For weeks people had been asking me if we were going to do “candle aerobics,” and when I asked them what that meant they talked about the end of the service, where everyone is holding a lit candle.  They said that Dr. Flamming used to raise his candle and lower it during the singing of “Silent Night,” and everyone joined in.  It was especially meaningful, they said, when he raised it on that first verse, on the words “all is bright,” because the room really did become brighter as all those flames were lifted high.  “Candle Aerobics” was a tongue-in-cheek way of talking about something that had become a firm First Baptist tradition and they were wondering if I was going to continue it as the new pastor. 

I was certainly willing.  When I went to my last church they told me that during the annual Candlelight Carol Service I was supposed to walk down the aisle reading the Christmas story from Luke’s Gospel (King James Version) accompanied by two small children holding candles, that this is the way it had “always” been done and also the way I should do it.  I didn’t argue.  For eight Christmases in a row I walked that aisle, reading that story, even when one very small child almost set the Bible on fire with her candle.

The problem for me wasn’t in doing “candle aerobics,” but in doing it correctly.  I asked Allen Cumbia if he could show me the video of a Christmas Eve service.  He had to go back to 2003 before he found one that had been videotaped, and then, as I sat there in the control room with him, he fast-forwarded to the end of the service, where the candles were being lit.  The room got darker, the candlelight brighter, and eventually everyone began to sing “Silent Night.”  Sure enough, right at the end of that first line, on the words “all is bright,” every candle in the room was lifted up.  It was beautiful.  But as they were lifted again on the next verse, and again on the verse after that, I saw where the nickname “candle aerobics” had come from.  As the camera panned the congregation I thought I saw a few people smirking, as if a beautiful tradition had become some kind of joke, and that’s when I made my decision.

At the end of the Christmas Eve service, 2008, the new pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church held his candle perfectly still all through the singing of “Silent Night,” right up until the last line of the last verse when he raised it in order to pronounce the benediction from John 1:1-5: “In the beginning was the Word,” he said, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God and all things were made through him.  Without him was not anything made that was made.  In him was life, and this life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never been able to conquer it.”

I don’t know how it felt to everyone else, but to see those candles held high as I talked about the unconquerable light of Christ?  Well, it felt just right to me.  I’m sure that when I’ve been doing it twenty years some people will smirk about it, calling it the “Statue of Liberty Benediction,” but I’m also sure that it won’t bother me at that point. 

I’ll let the new pastor come up with a tradition of her own.

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first-kiss-adolphe-william-bouguereau-5236The Fourth Sunday of Advent was a full day at Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  It started for me at the early service (which is not “dress rehearsal” for the 11:00 service, as some have implied, but a wonderfully intimate worship experience, precious to many, especially in a big church like this one).  Imagine my surprise and delight when the choir sang a Mendelssohn piece, at full volume, before nine o’clock in the morning (not every choir can pull that off!).   That was followed by a few quiet moments in my study, enjoying the coffee, pastry, cheese, and fruit Dot Smith lays out for me on a silver tray each Sunday (please don’t be jealous; she considers it a ministry, and I’m sure my preaching has improved as a result).  And then there was a knock at the door—Joyce Chrisman, my secretary—asking me if I was on my way to the Pusey House to visit the Traveler’s Class. 

“Um, am I supposed to be?”

Apparently I was.  I gulped the last of my coffee and hurried out the door, across the street, and into the Pusey House with seconds to spare.  I was intoduced to the class and as we talked about the curriculum they had been using I began to share some of my own thoughts on Bible study, which led into a discussion of the lectionary, and eventually a summary of my views on the mission and purpose of the church.  When I finally looked at my watch I saw that I was late for my 10:30 appointment in the sanctuary, meeting the families and the babies who would be dedicated at the 11:00 service.

They were precious, those babies—two healthy boys named Andrew and Jake whom I presented to the congregation and prayed over.  And although it was only my second dedication at First Baptist Church I managed not to drop anyone (whew!).  I also managed to get through the sermon on live television before we cut to commercial, which is no small feat.  You may not know this but when we’re broadcasting live I’m never entirely sure how much time I will have to preach.  I know when I need to be finished but I don’t know when I will get to start.  So I have to stretch or shrink the sermon to fit the available space.  At the early service I had plenty of time, but because of the baby dedication I had to shave about five minutes off the sermon at the second service.  For those of you who were paying attention that’s why there was no prayer at the end of the sermon on Sunday, and why the invitation was cut down to something like, “Please-stand-as-we-sing-Hymn-77-and-respond-as-you-feel-led.”  But I did it.  I finished before the red light went off, and I could almost hear the sigh of relief from the control room.

But that’s not really what I want to talk about. 

You may remember that I went to the International Friendship Luncheon a few months ago and had a wonderful time, and you may remember that I mentioned a tiny girl from Bangladesh named Dighi who likes to be called “Doctor Pinky.”  Well, we had another friendship luncheon on Sunday, and Dighi was at this one, too.  When we started to sing Christmas carols I invited her to sit with me in one of the big wingback chairs there at the Pusey House.  She did, and did her best to sing along with every carol even though she was holding her song sheet upside down (well, she’s two-and-a-half!).  But when the luncheon was over and it was time to go Dighi came over to give me a hug.  How could I resist?  She’s about two feet tall with glossy black curls and beautiful brown eyes.  I bent down from the chair I was sitting in and she reached up to put her arms around my neck.  It was sweet.  She started to walk away but then turned around and came back.  I thought she was coming in for another hug, but instead she puckered up and kissed me right on the lips.

Well! 

I think I was still blushing when I went to a meeting of the Permanent Planning Team at 3:00, which finished up just a little before the youth Christmas pageant at 6:00.  The youth did a magnificent job, acting and singing their way through ‘It’s a Wonderful Birth” (Todd Ritter’s creative adaptation of the holiday classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life”), but by the time I went home from the reception I realized I had been at First Baptist for more than twelve hours.  It was a full day, as I said: a day when I was thrilled by worship, touched by a pageant, and smooched by an angel.

You just never know what will happen at church.

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pentecost1From the impressive pulpit of my former church in DC I once announced: “I have no interest in institutional self-preservation!”

Because it wasn’t only the pulpit that was impressive: the sanctuary in which it stood was breathtaking, with tall stone columns rising to a vaulted ceiling some sixty feet above and everywhere, all around, gorgeous stained-glass windows letting in rays of sun-drenched, color-saturated light.  When the sanctuary was completed in 1955 the membership of the church was nearly 3,000.  When I came to the church in the Summer of 2000 the membership was down to 750, with about half that number still living in the area and about half that number making it to worship each Sunday.  When I came they talked about how wonderful it would be to fill that 1,000-seat sanctuary again and I agreed.  It would be wonderful.  What I didn’t realize at the time is that it was, in some ways, necessary.  We needed to get people into the pews, and dollars into the offering plates, so we could afford to heat and cool and clean and secure that magnificent building.

It was some time after that realization that I stood in the pulpit and said, “I have no interest in institutional self-preservation.”

What I meant was this: that Jesus didn’t call me to heat and cool and clean and secure magnificent buildings.  He called me to preach the gospel, and to move his people to fulfill his mission.  As a result, I didn’t always have as much appreciation for the institution as I might have. 

Since then I’ve come to believe that while the institution is not our mission, there is an institutional way to fulfill that mission.  Having a building, and a budget, and a full-time staff makes some things possible that would be nearly impossible otherwise.  Worship is one of those things, but it’s only one: Sunday school classes, showers for the homeless, divorce recovery workshops, volunteer mission trips, ministry to the deaf, marriage enrichment retreats, programs for children and youth, all of these can be ways of “bringing heaven to earth,” but in every case it is people who are the focus and not the institution itself.   

I tried to illustrate this for someone only yesterday.  I held up one hand and moved the other one toward it, as if it were the mission of Christ moving toward the church.  It got at far as my raised palm but no farther.  “You see?” I said.  “It’s not enough for the mission to come to the church; it has to go through the church.”  When that happens—when the mission of Christ swooshes through the building and touches the world—I think you can stop worrying how you will fill the pews or the plates; a church like that will thrive.

Click on this link for First Baptist Church and watch the “swoosh” that moves across the picture at the top of the screen.   Then click on the words “spiritual growth” in the green bar and select “Kingdom pictures.”  I think as you look at those photos you will begin to get a good idea of all the ways First Baptist is working to fulfill the mission of Christ.

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tree_snowing_800Yesterday was my daughter Ellie’s 21st birthday.  Hard to believe she’s been in the world that long!  In honor of the occasion I dug up a story that I wrote about her when she was four years old, when we went to visit her grandparents in the mountains of Western North Carolina.  It goes like this:

It had been a rough night.

We were staying at my parents’ house near Asheville and the girls were having trouble sleeping in unfamiliar beds.  It took a long time to get Ellie down and when I got to my room I found Catherine, my youngest daughter, snuggled up beside Christy with her head on my pillow.  I tried for several hours to sleep on the six-inch strip of mattress she had left to me, but finally staggered back to Ellie’s room and crawled in beside her.

At 5:30 the next morning she called my name.

“Daddy?”

“Umph?”

“I think I hear snow falling.”

And slowly i came to, and more slowly still I found myself glad again for children, for their innocence and imagination.  Only a child would lie awake listening for a sound that can’t be heard—snowfall, or the hooves of reindeer on the roof.  Think how much more sleep we would get, and how much more life we would miss, if it weren’t for them!  I reached for Ellie’s hand, and together we lay in the darkness, straining our ears for the imperceptible sound of falling snow.

It was much later in the day that I thought how much Christmas is just like that.  In all the noise of this season those of us who believe hold hands and strain to hear the sound of Incarnation.  Above the roar of jingle bells, office Christmas parties, and the unwrapping of gifts we listen for the imperceptible hush of God breathing through human nostrils.

And some of us would swear that we hear it.

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