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Archive for June, 2010

I find that I tell this story over and over again in conversation; I thought it might be good to tell it here:

I was coming up out of the Dupont Circle Metro station one morning in Washington, on my way to work at First Baptist Church, when I saw someone coming down the escalator on the other side who looked, well…scary.  He was wearing dark glasses, a leather jacket, and enough tattoos and body piercings to make it hard to see what he really looked like.  I gulped and thought, “There’s one of God’s favorites.”

I don’t know what inspired that thought but it had an immediate effect—no longer did I see him as frightening or threatening; I saw him as one of God’s favorites.  I could imagine God introducing the two of us and saying, “Jim, have you met Mad Dog?  I love this guy!”  And I could imagine Mad Dog smiling and reaching out to shake hands.  I smiled when I passed him on the escalator (and was it my imagination or did he smile back?). 

As I walked the two blocks to church I tried it on every person I passed: “There’s one of God’s favorites, there’s one of God’s favorites, there’s one of God’s favorites…”  And on every person it worked: I saw them in a different way than I had only a second earlier.  By the time I reached the end of the first block it was all I could do not to tell the woman who was standing there with me waiting for the light to change, “You’re one of God’s favorites!”  I believed she really was.

When I got to church one of our preschool teachers was on the playground with some of the children and I stopped to talk with her, still giddy from my walk.  Teresa is originally from Jamaica.  She has a sweet, sweet spirit and a beautiful smile.  I’m almost 100% sure that she is one of God’s favorites and I told her so.  She beamed.  Every time I saw her in the days that followed I would say, “You’re one of God’s favorites!” and she would say, “You are, too!”  (That’s not a bad way to greet one another, is it?). 

To this day, when I encounter someone who seems different, strange, or even a little bit scary I just think, “There’s one of God’s favorites,” and it helps.  And I know this, that even if that person is not one of God’s favorites, he or she is someone God loves, and that makes a difference.

If God loves Mad Dog he can’t be all bad, can he?

____________________________________________
p.s. The picture I’ve used on this post is a picture of someone who calls himself “the Scary Guy.”  Click on the link to find out more.  He may really be one of God’s favorites!

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It was during the Epistle reading on Sunday that I realized: I do not love my neighbor as myself.

Lynn Turner was reading from Galatians 5, where Paul says, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (vs. 14).  Even as she was reading I wondered if I love my neighbor as I love myself, that is, exactly as much as I love myself. 

I thought about something that had happened a few evenings before.

I had gone outside to water the plants that were wilting in the heat, and as I watered I noticed that my neighbor’s plants were also wilting.  I live in a duplex.  My neighbor and I share a common wall.  So, the plants in front of her house are right beside the plants in front of mine.  I knew she had been out of town lately, and in an impulsive gesture of neighborliness I turned the hose on her plants and washed the dust off the leaves.  They looked better immediately, and even seemed to perk up a little bit.  I sprayed until the leaves were dripping and the dry mulch beneath the plants was wet, but then I turned back to my plants, and back to the serious work of soaking the roots so they could make it through the next day.  I sprayed a little more water in her direction before I coiled the hose, but I did not  water the plants that were out of easy reach on the other side of her steps.  I justified it by thinking that anything I had done was better than nothing.

But sitting in church on Sunday I realized that I had not loved my neighbor as much as I love myself.  If I had loved her as much as I love myself her plants would have gotten exactly as much water as mine.  But they didn’t; they got a good bit less. 

The measure of our love is not always so quantifiable, but last week it was.  It forced me to realize that while I like my neighbor I don’t love her, at least not as much as I love myself.  I’m going to think about that the next time I go out to water the plants and, if Jesus has his way, I will probably think about it the next time I see someone standing at the corner, holding a cardboard sign that says, “Hungry.  Please help.”

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When I was a boy I attended West Virginia public schools, and although I had some excellent teachers the schools themselves left something to be desired.  I remember the kind of excitement that would begin building in the spring of each year as we anticipated summer vacation and our release from the stuffy confines of the classroom, from the tedium of bending over our desks, working math problems on lined notebook paper with Number 2 pencils as a single wasp buzzed in through the open windows and bumped up against the high ceiling of the room.  On the last day of school we watched the clock on the wall as if our lives depended on it, and in a way they did—the quality of our lives, at least.  The closer we got to 3:15 the slower that minute hand moved.  Even the big, red second hand seemed to slow down until it was dragging around the face of the clock like a stick through the mud. 

But then it happened: the buzzer sounded and we whooped and threw our notebooks in the air and off we went, tumbling out the front door and down the steps and to the waiting school buses where we sang in unison that great old hymn,

School’s out, school’s out,
Teacher let the monkeys out
One went east and one went west
And one went up the teacher’s dress!

It was magical, that ride home on the bus.  The windows were down and the warm breezes were blowing in and we were in the best mood possible, laughing and singing and shoving each other—absolutely intoxicated by the freedom we felt.  The only thing better was waking up the next morning and realizing that it was the first day of summer vacation.  My brothers and I—five of us at the time—would toss back the bedsheets, put on our shorts and T-shirts, and run barefoot into the back yard, ready to spend the day in glorious, useless, endless play.

Those feelings lasted until sometime in the middle of the afternoon, usually, and—although we could hardly believe it—by then we had already done most of the things we had been dreaming of those last few weeks of school.  That long list of things!  Knocked out in a few hours’ time.  Unbelievable.  We tried to hide the fact from ourselves.  We pretended that we were still having fun.  But even more we tried to hide the fact from our parents, because once somebody let it slip, once one of my little brothers let out even the tiniest, whispered, “I’m bored!” in their presence—well, that did it.  The next morning at 7:30 my mother would crank up the record player and put on an album called “America’s Favorite Marches.”  Lying there in our beds we could hear the scratch of the needle as it fell and hear the hiss of the speakers even before a John Philip Sousa composition came blasting out of 76 trombones like cannonballs, rocketing up the stairs, and bouncing around our room at something just above 100 decibels.

That was our cue—subtle as it was—to get up, get out of bed, and come downstairs for breakfast.  Mom would have cooked bacon and eggs, biscuits and grits, and we would all sit around the table rubbing our sleepy eyes and washing down our breakfast with glasses of orange juice and ice cold milk.  And then, just before eight, as someone was reaching for the last biscuit, Dad would hand out the work assignments for the day.  And with the exception of Saturday and Sunday this is how it would be every day for the rest of the summer.  This was my parents’ cure for boredom.

We would work in teams of two or three from eight until noon.  We would hoe corn, clear brush, muck out the horses’ stalls, stretch barbed wire fencing, and the sweat would run down in rivers, and we would start dreaming about what we were going to do as soon as noontime came, and the work was over.  We talked about it.  We made plans as we worked.  But the first thing we always wanted to do on those hot days—even before we ate lunch—was to go down to the river, to splash out into that cool, clear water, to dive headfirst under the surface, roll slowly over onto our backs, and come up spouting like whales.  Oh, freedom!  Oh, perfect, precious, delicious freedom! 

Sometimes you don’t appreciate what you have until you have to do without it.

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It’s my Dad’s birthday today.  He’s turning 79, and in his honor I’m posting just a few of the 70 memories I wrote up for his 70th birthday.  These memories actually come from somewhere in the middle of the collection, and therefore lack any clear sense of beginning or end, but I’m hoping they will inspire my readers to think of their own fathers fondly, and maybe even write down a few memories of their own, just in time for Father’s Day on Sunday. 

Here we go:

  1. I can remember only one time that Dad spanked me, and I deserved it.  
  2. Dad used to wrestle with all his sons at the same time (no small feat when you have five or six of them).  He would drop to his hands and knees on the living room floor and we would jump on him, the younger boys taking flying leaps off the furniture.  We would do our best to pull him down to the ground and, eventually, we would succeed, but not before Dad had spent a half hour peeling us off his back and tickling us till we couldn’t breathe.   
  3. I remember standing beside Dad in church when I was older, trying to outdo him in singing the hymns.  Both of us would get louder and louder till we were fairly shouting the hymns, but making joyful noise all the same, with smiles on our faces.
  4. Dad was inspired by my running in high school and college, and decided that he was going to run a 10-kilometer race.  He went on a training run with me the next day, determined to do the full 6.2 miles, and had to stop at the top of a steep hill just long enough to lose his breakfast.  Then he was off again.  He ran a 10-K race in St. Albans, West Virginia, on his 46th birthday and, as far as I know, never competed again.  But he wore the T-shirt forever. 
  5. Backpacking.  I took it up because of Dad.  I’ve enjoyed it ever since.  People who know me still can’t believe that Dad took the whole family on a sixty-mile hike when my brother Gray was just five years old.  But we made it.  All of us.  Even Gray.  And when we get together we still have stories to tell about Bear Wallow Gap, Ed’s close call with a copperhead, and the wild blueberries that grew along that magnificent trail. 
  6. I remember the float trip we took down the Big Coal River, too.  It must have been seventy miles.  The first day we only made it three-and-a-half miles down the river, but it rained that night and the next day we made twenty.  It was a wonderful time of floating, fishing, talking, and growing closer as family.  If we had had any money we might have gone to Disney World instead, and who knows how much we would have missed. 
  7. Dad would never admit that milk had gone sour (“blinky” we called it).  If you turned up your nose at a glass of milk he would turn up the glass and drink it down.  “Nothing wrong with that milk,” he would say, wiping his mouth.
  8. I have seen—with my own eyes—Dad eat a granddaddy longlegs spider just because we dared him to.
  9. I have also seen him make an open-faced jam sandwich to attract the little “billy bees” that had his family in fits of hysteria at a picnic.  Once five or six bees had landed on the jam Dad slapped a piece of bread on top and had a billy bee sandwich—Mmmm, crunchy!
  10. The first magic trick I ever saw Dad do was the old disappearing bathrobe belt trick.  He would pretend to stuff the whole thing in his mouth (stuffing it into his hand instead), and then pull it from his ear, all three or four feet of it.  At three or four years old, I was amazed.
  11. We once hiked up old Graybeard Mountain at Montreat, or should I say Dad hiked.  I was just a little boy, and although I thought I could make it, Dad took along the “Hike-a-Poose” just in case (an early version of the backpack baby carrier).  It turned out I couldn’t make it, and Dad climbed most of that steep mountain with a heavy load.  I’ve always regretted the burden I was on that trip, but always remembered the grace with which Dad carried me.
  12. Part of my love for the outdoors has come from just following Dad around.  In the woods he always seemed to know the names of the birds, the trees, the plants.  He always made us stop to appreciate a particularly splendid view or a tiny fiddlehead fern.  His quiet insistence that we notice these things, pay attention to them, and admire them has made its lasting impression on me.  I give thanks to the Creator for the wonder I see in his creation. 
  13. I have picked up from my dad the habit of saying, “OK!” when one thing is done and I’m thinking about what to do next.  I will come into a room, as he would, and announce, “OK!”  Christy just looks at me.  “OK, what?” she wonders.

OK, it’s time to move on to the next thing. 

Happy Birthday, Dad.  I love you.

Jim

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I told the congregation on Sunday that we have decided to postpone our vote on the baptism and membership issue until September 19, mostly because so many of us travel during the summer.  It seemed wise to our deacon chair, Lee Stephenson, to pick a date far enough in advance that people could get it on their calendars and make plans around it.  So, September 19 it is—a Sunday—and the plan at this point is to go ahead with our usual Sunday morning schedule and then come back in the afternoon for this important meeting.

When I made the announcement on Sunday I saw heads nodding around the sanctuary.  It seemed to make sense to most people to wait until everyone could be here.  There are those (and I count myself among them) who will be glad to get this vote behind us, but not if it means leaving anyone out.  If we are going to make this decision as a congregation let’s make it together.

So I said, “This issue has been on the front burner for a while.  It has reached a rolling boil, and generated a lot of heat and steam.  For the summer, at least, let’s move it to the back burner, take a deep breath, and take some time to do what is most important in the world: to love God, love others, and love one another.  At the end of a summer like that—a ‘summer of love’—we ought to be in a good place to make a decision.”

If you are a member of First Baptist I would encourage you, especially, to take the time to listen to my explanation of what the practical implications of this decision would be.  It’s available on the church web site, and takes about an hour to listen to.  I know: that’s a long explanation.  But if you would take an hour to do that and then spend at least that much time in prayer, listening for what God has to say on this issue, I think you would be well informed and ready to vote in September.

Thank you for your patience and understanding as we try to make this big decision together.

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I walked down to the Monument Market a few Saturdays ago (the fabulous new farmer’s market being sponsored by Richmond’s First Baptist Church), and had an encounter with Susie Survivor.

I saw her crossing the median strip as I approached, dressed in a silver cape and matching boots, and wearing a shocking pink wig.  At first glance I thought that maybe “she” wasn’t a she at all.  My former church was in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, DC, where it wasn’t all that uncommon to see a man walking down the street in women’s clothing.  In fact, one of the big annual events on 17th Street was the Club Chaos “drag race,” where men wearing three-inch heels would race down the street with their skirts flapping around their knees.  And even here, in Richmond, I’ve seen the occasional cross-dresser. 

So, I wondered if perhaps this person in the silver cape and boots was coming to the Monument Market for a reason.  Had she heard that it was sponsored by a church, and did she want to see just how full of Christian love we really were?  Could we handle her, for instance, a confrontational cross-dresser, sashaying from one booth to another and making suggestive comments about the produce?

When I got to the market I saw her already chatting it up with someone at a booth, and then I saw one of our members watching her from his booth.  I went over to say hello and he nodded in her direction.  “I guess that’s what you call ‘diversity,’ huh?” he said, with a smile.  “I don’t know,” I said, suddenly determined.  “Let me find out.”

So, I walked over and said, “Hi.  Tell me about your costume.”  And she did.  She said she was “Susie Survivor,” a survivor of breast cancer, and that she’d been to the Susan G. Komen “Race for the Cure” that morning to cheer on the runners.  “This is my husband,” she said, introducing the man beside her (whom I hadn’t really noticed before), “and this is my son,” patting the head of the adorable three-year-old boy at her knee.  I swallowed hard and introduced myself as the pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church and she said, “Oh, how wonderful!  We’re Baptists, too!”  Her husband was a deacon, she was a Sunday school teacher, and I…was just about as embarrassed as I’ve ever been.

This is what fear can do to you: it can make you think—even if it’s just for a moment—that a beautiful and courageous breast cancer survivor, a devoted wife and mother who teaches Sunday school at her Baptist church, is actually a confrontational cross-dresser who has come to the Monument Market looking for a fight.  When I went back to the booth where our church member was waiting I told him what I had learned, and then I said, “This is why you have to talk to people: because you can’t tell who they are just by looking at them.”

I think that’s probably true for all people, and not just the ones wearing silver capes.

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Nobody could have predicted what happened at last Sunday night’s concert.

Phil Mitchell had put together a program called “Dear God”: an assortment of hymns and anthems interspersed with personal letters to God from members of the congregation.  There must have been a hundred people in the choir, singing like angels, and the orchestral accompaniment was heavenly, but when people began to read their prayers a reverent hush fell over the sanctuary. 

Martha Joyner talked about how grateful she was for her family, and especially for her new granddaughter, Emma Grace.  Carl Johnson talked about how God had led him into his work as treasurer of the International Mission Board and through a time of deep personal tragedy.  But then Hannah Ramsey got up to speak.  You could tell, even before she started, that this was going to be hard for her.  Her hands were shaking.  She took a deep breath and let it out.  And then she said, “Dear God, it’s been 99 days since we last talked…”

As she sobbed and struggled through the rest of her letter she talked about losing her sixteen-year-old brother, Jackson, to suicide.  She talked about how angry she was—still—and how she had been trying to work through her pain and her grief.  Her emotion was raw and real, and she held nothing back.  When she finished I let out the breath I had been holding since she began with a single word: “Wow!”   And when she sat down behind me I wrote this note on a slip of paper and passed it to her:

“That was just about the bravest thing I have ever seen.  Certainly the most honest.  Thank you.”

Her courage and honesty added to what had already been shared, and raised the experience of that concert to a new level.  By the time the choir sang “Total Praise” at the end of the evening we were all caught up in a kind of rare unity, where it didn’t really matter who you were or where you came from—we had become family just by being there.  And as we stood to sing the Lord’s Prayer together as a kind of benediction Pastor Emeritus Jim Flamming made his way over to where Hannah was standing and put his arms around her.  I glanced over my shoulder, saw what was going on, and thought what a good instinct it was on his part.  He’s known Hannah all her life.  There was probably a time when she thought Dr. Flamming was God.  For him to put his arms around her like that and hand her his handkerchief was just the right kind of pastoral care. 

The tears flowed freely.

When it was over I told Hannah’s mother that I had read something that very afternoon about how some people avoid church because it doesn’t seem real to them; they’re looking for something “authentic.”  I told her, “But it doesn’t get any more real than it did tonight.” 

It doesn’t. 

And I think we all learned something: that we can not only trust God with our most honest emotions but—when church is real—we can trust each other, too.  And when we do it can make all the difference.  We’re not a roomful of strangers anymore: we’re family.  And a girl who has lost her brother might just discover that she is not alone.

Not by a long shot.

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