Bringing Heaven to Earth with a Broom and Dustpan

daniel-sweepsWhen I first met Daniel he told me his name meant “God is my judge.”  We were down in the Community Missions suite, and he was waiting for his turn in the showers.  “That’s a good name,” I said.  “That means no one else can judge you, right?”  “Right!” he said.  I tried to remember that when I saw him crossing Monument Avenue a few days later, wearing a black-and-white polka dot dress.  He had a big grin on his face at the time, carrying a laundry basket full of clothes as if he were on his way to the laundromat and had nothing else to wear but the neighbor lady’s dress.  Maybe that’s exactly what was going on.  It doesn’t matter: God is his judge.

Daniel is the one who showed up at church on the day I preached about being wheat in a world full of weeds (from Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43).  After worship he stood on the front steps of the sanctuary,  and as people came out the door he admonished each of them to “Be wheat!” in a loud voice, with a big smile—his thick hair brushed straight back from his forehead and sticking out behind as if he were leaning into a strong wind.

I learned over the next few weeks that he was recovering from some fairly serious brain surgery, and suffered from frequent excruciating headaches.  He would talk to me about it sometimes, wincing with the pain.  I felt sorry for him, but didn’t know what to do.  And then I didn’t see him at all for a while, and assumed that he had drifted on to some other place.

He showed up on Wednesday for the first time in six months, and told me had been in prison for a while.  That part hadn’t been so good, but the prison doctor had been able to help him get some relief from the headaches, and that was wonderful.  “Prison was my salvation,” he said, meaning salvation from that frequent pain.  He seemed touched that I remembered his name, and today I got this email from Brenda Andrews, Assistant Minister of Community Missions:

Hey Jim, when the times downstairs are rough (like they were on Wednesday!) the blessed events far outweigh the bad.  Within all the “controlled chaos,” as we call it, a sweet calm voice asked for a broom and dust pan. “I want to clean up outside for you,” he said with a smile.  Not only did he clean outside the Park Avenue door, but he went up and down Park Avenue with his broom, dust pan, and one of our huge trash cans, sweeping and picking up trash.  He brought me to sweet tears.  He was working for the Kingdom of God, giving back what he could with grace and peace.  He is the gentleman you met when you first came here who had recently had brain surgery.

And this is what I wrote back:

That was Daniel!  That’s a good story, Brenda. And when I tell people at church to “Look around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven and go to work there, bringing heaven to earth,” that’s just what he was doing!  Hmm.  Sounds like a blog entry…
I know God is Daniel’s judge, which means it’s not my job, but if it were I think I would say, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

What Would You Do?

n652155682_1109711_4490My brother Billy is 32, single, and a wonderful musician (and that’s only the beginning).  About two years ago someone spotted this graffito on the wall of the women’s restroom at one of the places where he had played.  Apparently this woman didn’t know what to do except pour her heart out in a public place with a Magic Marker.  What would you do?  And, more importantly, what should Billy do with information like that?

Bonus: If you’d like to hear some of Billy’s music make sure your speakers are on and then click HERE.

Double Bonus: Here is some more (and more recent) music from Billy.  Click HERE and then check out tracks 3, 6, and 10, which Billy wrote.  He sings on those tracks and a handful of others on this very fine CD.

Elliptical Praying

ellipticalUsually, when I go to the fitness center in the morning, I step onto the elliptical trainer, plug in my earphones, and tune the television monitor to CNN to catch up on the latest news, but this morning it seemed to be one commercial after another until finally, frustrated, I turned off the monitor, unplugged the earphones, and closed my eyes.

It was surprisingly quiet, and surprisingly peaceful.  I could hear some music in the background but mostly I could hear the rhythmic hum of the elliptical trainer as I worked those poles and foot pedals.  Without the distraction of the television monitor, my thoughts began to drift toward prayer, and eventually toward the Lord’s Prayer.  I prayed it the way we say it in staff meeting:

Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy Kingdom come.
Thy will be done,
In Richmond, as it is in heaven…

As I thought about the Kingdom of heaven coming to Richmond, Virginia, I also thought about how, in staff meeting, we sometimes talk about the way that kingdom will come—through the ministries of service, outreach, fellowship, education, and worship derived from the clear commands of Christ.  And then I began to think about those commands, and tried to put them in the form of a prayer.  It came out something like this:

I want to love you with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, Lord. 
I want to love my neighbors just as much as I love myself,
     even the ones who are hard to love. 
I want to love my Christian brothers and sisters in the same way you love me. 
And wherever I go today, I want to make disciples,
inviting others to follow in your footsteps,
and sharing with them all that I have learned along the way.
Help me do that, Lord.  Help me do all of that,
For it’s in your name that I pray.
Amen.

It probably wasn’t as good as that when I prayed it, but it wasn’t bad, and even as I said the “Amen” I thought of it as a kind of missional prayer, a prayer for disciples who are on mission.  Of course, that’s what the Lord’s prayer is, too, and I wouldn’t presume to improve on that one.  But I think I might still pray this one from time to time as a way of staying focused on those things the Lord commanded, and as a way of reminding myself I can’t do any of those things without his help.

It’s amazing what can happen when you turn off the TV.  Today I amazed myself by bursting into spontaneous prayer—at the fitness center!—accompanied by the rhythmic hum of the elliptical trainer. 

I’ll have to try it again sometime.

It’s the “Name That Ministry Area” Contest!

080530-spellingbee-hmed-757p_hmediumWhen I was teaching fifth and sixth graders in Sunday school I would tell them, “SO FEW people know the purpose of the church,” and then I would tick off those five letters on the five fingers of my right hand: “S.O.F.E.W: Service, Outreach, Fellowship, Education, and Worship.”  It was a way to help them remember the five essential ministries of every Christian church, and it worked, but while that acronym makes it easy to remember the purpose of the church, those five words might not be the most descriptive.  Education, for example, sounds like something you do only with your head while discipleship or apprenticeship could involve the whole person. 

So let’s have a “name that ministry area” contest!  I’ll list the five clear commands of Christ that inspire these ministries, and you try to come up with a good name for each one.  Ready?  Let’s begin:

  1. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” (Mk. 12:30).  This is the area we sometimes call “worship.”  Can you come up with a better name?
  2. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk. 12:31).  We sometimes call this “service.”  Other options?
  3. “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn. 13:34).  This is the only command Jesus ever gave—to love one another.  Is “fellowship” the best word for this?
  4. “Go into all the world and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28:19).  We sometimes call this “outreach.”  Is there a more accessible word?
  5. “And teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:20).  “Education” seems reasonable, but doesn’t discipleship involve the heart and hands as well as the head?  What’s a better word?

Jot down a suggestion in each category and then click on the word “comments” below.  You can enter your suggestions in the following format:

  1. Loving
  2. Helping
  3. Caring
  4. Sharing
  5. Training

(Hmmm.  Those are not bad!  Maybe I’ll win the contest!)

Entries will be judged by the leadership staff at our regular meeting on Tuesday, March 31.  Winners will be announced no later than Easter Sunday, April 12.  So, get out that pencil and scratch pad and get busy.  We need your help!

The Bible Answer Man

godwin_bible460Somewhere in Richmond recently I saw a van advertising “The Bible Answer Man” along with a telephone number that I quickly entered and stored in my cell phone.  That’s useful information: you never know when you’re going to need a biblical answer to a difficult question.  As I was scrolling lazily through the numbers on my cell phone yesterday afternoon I saw that one, which I had entered as “Bible Ans,” and decided to give him a call.

I needed an answer.

On Friday of last week I had stopped by the home of a church member who was upset about the idea of changing our membership requirements to include Christians from other denominations who have not received believer’s baptism by immersion.  I wanted to listen carefully, to hear what it was in all this discussion that was troubling him.  He said that what it came down to, finally, was obedience to Scripture, that if the Bible says we should baptize believers by immersion then that’s what we should do, and if anybody wants to be part of a Baptist church they should get in the water, not because it’s some man-made membership requirement, but because it’s what the Bible teaches! 

He said all this without anger, but he said it with conviction, with so much conviction that I drove away from his house determined to look into the matter further.  Would a change in our membership requirements really be a departure from Scripture?  If I had suggested that we stop making disciples or that we start baptizing babies that would be one thing, but church membership would be another, and I wasn’t sure the Bible said anything about that.  So I called the number I had stored in my phone and someone picked up right away.

“Is this the Bible Answer Man?” I asked.

“Sure is,” he said, with a friendly drawl.  “How can I help you?”

“I’m wondering about baptism,” I said.  “Can you tell me what the Bible says about it?”

“Well, baptism comes from a Greek verb that means ‘to immerse.’  It means to bury you under the water and raise you up to new life.”

“That’s what we believe at my church,” I said (I didn’t tell him which church).  “But what about people who haven’t been baptized that way?  Can they still be considered real Christians?”

“Of course they can,” he said with a snort.  “Baptism doesn’t save you!  What matters is what’s in your heart, you know?  Do you love Jesus?  Have you been born again?  That kind of thing.”

“I’m just asking because at my church we’re trying to decide whether Christians from other denominations can be members without being re-baptized.  Does the Bible say anything about church membership?”

He had a lot to say about that, mostly about how, in the Book of Revelation Jesus speaks to the church (singular) in Pergamum, Thyatira, Laodicea, etc.  “It’s not the churches,” he said.  “It’s just the church.  Like when Paul writes the letter to the Romans he addresses it to ‘the church in Rome.’  All those people there and only one church!  That’s why, when people ask me what church I belong to, I tell them I belong to ‘The Church in Richmond.'”

“But you could go even further than that, couldn’t you?” I asked.  “I mean, Jesus only has one church doesn’t he?”

“That’s true,” the Bible Answer Man agreed.

“And don’t you think he knows who belongs to his church and who doesn’t?”

“Yep.”

“It’s been a pleasure talking to you,” I said.

“Same here,” said the Bible Answer Man.  “Call me again sometime!”

Maybe I will the next time I’m looking for answers from the Bible, or even the next time I just need something to blog about.  Either way, I’m keeping his number on speed dial.

You’re not getting older, you’re getting better…discounts!

cake-6Yesterday it was my birthday,
I hung one more year on the line;
I should be depressed, my life’s a mess,
But I’m having a good time.

                                           —Paul Simon

 

Yesterday it was my birthday, and if the birthday cards are correct I’ve hung a total of fifty years on the line.  Maybe I should be depressed, but I’m not.  And maybe my life should be a mess, but it doesn’t feel that way.  Am I having a good time?  You betcha.  And the next time I post on this blog I’m sure you will notice a difference in the amount of wisdom I am able to share, because if you don’t get wiser as you get older, then really,

What’s the point?

P.S. Thanks to the many of you who have sent good wishes my way.  The birthday cards and Facebook greetings have been much appreciated, and I’m working my way through that jar of fifty cookies (Marge) one delicious bite at a time.

Jingle Bell Angel

angelAt staff meeting this week Mary Hiteman was telling us about “Dress-Up-Like-a-Biblical-Character-Day” at our preschool. 

All the children had come in costume, some more imaginative than others.  For example: there were a dozen or so “Marys,” lots of shepherds, four Noahs, and one Jonah (who carried a small, blue whale).  The most imaginative costume, according to Mary, was the one worn by Menley Blanchard, who came to preschool holding hands with her mother Susan, each of them wearing half of a large, red “C.”  When Mary seemed puzzled Susan and Menley stepped apart and Susan said, “Get it?  The parting of the Red ‘C’!”

But my favorite was the little boy who came in an Angels’ baseball uniform.  Instead of the Los Angeles Angels, however, this little fellow was one of “God’s Angels,” Gabriel to be precise, as the name on the back of the uniform clearly indicated.  He was wearing wings and a baseball cap with a halo attached, but on the front of his jersey were the words “Do not fear!” (which is what angels always say), and on each of his shoes there was a small jingle bell, to let others know he was coming, so that they would not be afraid. 

I love that, and I think some of those biblical characters would have loved it, too.  Zechariah, for example, who was “terrified” when Gabriel surprised him in the temple.  Mary, for example, who must have been startled almost out of her wits when Gabriel dropped in to tell her she was going to have a baby.  Those shepherds, for example, who were “sore afraid” when an angel sneaked up on them while they were watching their flocks by night. 

There is a reason angels always say “Do not fear.”  It’s not only because they show up suddenly and unexpectedly, often in the middle of the night.  It’s because they know that fear is the thing most likely to keep us from doing the will of God.  I’m going to try to remember that the next time I hear jingle bells.  I’m going to try to think not so much of Santa and his reindeer as Gabriel in a baseball cap reminding us not to be afraid.  Because if God’s will is ever going to be done on earth as it is in heaven…

…it’s going to require some fearlessness.