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Archive for August, 2010

I’ve published a book on the issuu.com web site.  It’s called “When the Sand Castle Crumbles,” and it’s for pastors and members of churches that were thriving in the fifties but are now struggling to survive.  It’s free, it’s online, and you can read the whole thing in less than an hour. 

The book grew out of five sermons I delivered at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church during the 2010 Lenten Luncheon series, as I shared my thoughts about why so many churches in America seem to be dying and what can be done about it.  My hope then (and now) is that these words would be an encouragement to those churches, and help them re-imagine their mission.

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

When my daughter, Ellie, was a little girl we built a magnificent sand castle at the beach.  It had turrets and towers, and little flags sticking up on top.  We were standing there admiring it when the first wave lapped up against the foundation.  “Daddy!” she screamed.  “Do something!”  So I did.  I started digging a moat around the castle and Ellie helped me pile up a big floodwall in front.   But there was a whole ocean out there and the tide was coming in.  In the end we watched helplessly as the waves washed our sand castle away.

“Now what?” Ellie asked, glumly.

I looked out over the clear blue ocean, felt the warm water swirling around my ankles.   

“Let’s go swimming,” I said. 

That story is a metaphor of what’s happening to the church in America today.  The beautiful edifices we constructed during the “Christian Century” have been emptying out over the past few decades.  Those of us in leadership positions are doing everything we can to shore up the foundations, dig moats around the church, and build floodwalls to save it.  But maybe that’s not the answer.  Maybe at a time when the tides of change threaten to destroy the church it’s time to go swimming, time to dive into a culture that no longer loves the church and learn a few new strokes.

To read the book, just click the link below.  When you get to the web site, click on the “full screen” option at the top left for easy viewing, and then use those little arrows down at the bottom right corner of your keyboard to turn the pages. 

When the Sand Castle Crumbles by Jim Somerville

Feel free to forward the link to others, especially those who might need a little encouragement.  And, as always, thanks for reading!

Jim

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If men could only know each other, they would neither idolize nor hate. 
                                                                              —Elbert Hubbard

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Articles in last week’s Time magazine and the August 23rd edition of the Washington Post hint at a growing anti-Muslim sentiment among Americans.  Or maybe I should say “anti-Muslims” sentiment—plural—because that’s part of the problem.  When you lump people together you tend to stereotype, and judge the whole group on the behavior of a few. 

It’s happened to me. 

Three decades ago a Southern Baptist evangelist named Bailey Smith said publicly, “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.”  He claimed that he said it “with all due respect to those dear people,” but last Sunday afternoon I was invited to an open house at a local synagogue where I got the feeling that some of those dear people had not forgotten what he said.  They greeted me warmly, thinking I might be a prospect, but when I introduced myself as pastor of First Baptist Church there was a brief  pause and then the question: “Are you…Southern Baptist?”

This kind of thing happens to me often, and not only in Jewish synagogues.  Because some Baptists have done or said offensive things, many people assume that all Baptists are like that.  I encourage them to get to know some Baptists, because no two of us are exactly alike.  Billy Graham is a Baptist, but so is Bill Clinton.  Jesse Helms was a Baptist, but so is Jesse Jackson.  Lottie Moon was a Baptist, but so is Britney Spears.

See what I mean? 

I would guess that the same is true for Muslims, that if we would take the time to get to know some of them we would find that they are like people everywhere: concerned for the health and well-being of their families, for their children’s education, and for the freedom to enjoy some of the simple pleasures of life, like a picnic lunch on the Fourth of July.  And in the same way I wouldn’t want anyone to judge me on the basis of the worst they have ever heard about Baptists, I wouldn’t want to judge an entire religion or its 1.5 billion adherents on the basis of what some Muslims have done, would you?

So, get to know your new Muslim neighbor.  You may find that he has as much in common with Osama bin Laden as I have in common with Britney Spears, which is to say…not much.

BONUS: Here’s a song that will have you humming the rest of the day.

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What happens when you pray for someone to be healed of cancer and they die anyway?

That’s what we were asking at Anna Reinstein’s funeral on Tuesday.  Anna was only 51 years old, a beautiful young mother with children still at home.  She had a rock-solid faith, she had hundreds of people praying for her, and they were praying to a good and loving God.  At least that’s what we thought.  On Tuesday afternoon I stood before a sanctuary full of mourners and said:

“But here we are at her funeral, and even though nobody wants to say it out loud we’re thinking that Anna lost her fight, that we must have failed her in some way, and that God himself has let her down.  It’s not wrong to want to be healed of cancer.  It’s not wrong to do everything you can toward that end.  What’s wrong, I think, is to believe that if your cancer goes into remission you’ve won and that if it doesn’t you’ve lost.  What’s wrong is to come to a moment like this one feeling a little embarrassed for all that faith and optimism you once had, for all those slogans you posted around the house.  What’s wrong is to believe not only that your prayers failed, but that God failed, or that for whatever reason he could not or would not heal Anna. 

“When that happens you sometimes start to re-define your understanding of God.  You begin to think maybe God is not all-powerful, maybe he is not all-loving.  Why didn’t he heal a woman like this?  But what if, instead of re-defining your understanding of God you re-defined your understanding of death?  What if death is not the enemy we sometimes think it is, and what if succumbing to it is not the same as “losing”? 

“I think about my daughter Ellie, who used to fight against sleep when she was a little girl.  She never wanted to go to bed; she was always afraid she might miss something.  And so I would have to hold her sideways in my arms and rock her back and forth to put her to sleep.  She would fight against it, so that I had to keep a firm grip on her, but finally I would feel her little body relax and eventually she would fall asleep, and I would put her to bed.  She always seemed to be a little surprised when she woke up the next morning, rested and refreshed, a little surprised to find that the sun had come up after all, and that her dad was sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee while her mom made pancakes.

“If we could see death from God’s perspective we might see that it’s like falling asleep at night, we might not fight against it so hard, we might believe that we would—in fact—wake up the next morning.  But for me the most helpful analogy has been the one I heard from John Claypool who said that, “from the womb’s perspective, birth is like death.”  I hadn’t really thought of that before, but when a child is born that womb that was so full of life only moments before is suddenly dark and empty, and if a womb could grieve, it would grieve the loss of that child.  But the child isn’t grieving: the child has been born into a world full of light and sound and love.  And even though it’s a little frightening at first I don’t know of any child who—after getting used to the world—wants to go back to the womb. 

“The world is a good place to be and we know it.  With all its problems and imperfections it is still the best place we have ever been.  It’s the place where our friends and family are, the place where we have experienced all the life we have ever known.  We hold on with both hands, terrified of losing our grip.

“But suppose this world is only the womb in which we are made ready for our everlasting life?  And suppose the world into which Anna Reinstein has been born is as different from this world as this world is from the womb?  It’s been traumatic, but that’s just how birth is.  It’s hard, sweaty labor, and if you ask any woman who has given birth she will tell you that it hurts.  It is a bloody, messy business, and at the end of it someone almost always cries.  But it’s not the end.  It’s the beginning of a whole new life.  Suppose that death is just like that: hard, sweaty labor, full of pain.  Suppose that it’s a bloody, messy business, and that at the end of it someone almost always cries.  But suppose that it’s not the end after all, but only the beginning of a whole new life.   

“When the apostle Paul talks about what it is like to enter into life with God he uses the analogy of death and resurrection.  He says that “we have been buried with Christ by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).  But Jesus has a different perspective than Paul.  He has an eternal perspective.  He can see things from the other side.  And when Jesus talks about what it’s like to enter into life with God he uses the analogy of birth.  He tells Nicodemus that “no one can enter the Kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3: 3, 5).

“Suppose that’s what’s happened for Anna: suppose she’s been born into the Kingdom of God.  And suppose that we have gathered today not to mourn her death, but to celebrate that birth.  It’s been hard, painful, messy, and at the end of it here we are, crying.  But it’s not the end, not for Anna.  Not at all.  She has been delivered.  She is surrounded by the bright light of heaven.  And she is feeling more love than she has ever felt, even when her mother first held her in her arms.

“It’s the beginning of a whole new life.”

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I’ve been asking the staff of First Baptist, Richmond, to answer the question: “What is Church?”  Here are some of the answers I’ve received so far.

Phil Mitchell says: “For the biggest portion of my life, I thought of the church as a place where Christians went to worship, fellowship, be resourced and trained, mobilize to do and give to missions, and find personal support. Though I don’t believe any of that is untrue, I believe it is less true. I now believe church is a movement of the Body of Christ to make earth look like and function more like heaven, that place where God’s reign is clear and evident. As the church embodies the mission of God, its heart is changed. As the church changes its heart, the mission of God becomes increasingly real and present. So, the church is about changing the world and its heart for God’s sake.”

Lynn Turner says: “Having just returned from the BWA Congress, I am reminded once again that church is so much more than our little corner of the world in Richmond Virginia.  The church as Christ intended it to be, is the living, breathing, moving, presence of the Holy Spirit that sees the needs of people through the eyes of every believer and causes us to do something that will have an eternal impact in the life of another. With Christ as her foundation, the Holy Spirit as her power, the church of Jesus Christ has no limits of sharing the love of God in a world that desperately needs hands of compassion and a message of hope! Now that is something I can get excited about!”

David Powers says: “My thinking and feeling about church have been heavily influenced in recent months by Eugene Peterson’s newest book Practice Resurrection. It is essentially a study of Ephesians. In his translation of 1:23, Peterson has Paul saying, “The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.” Our function, as members of Christ’s body, is to help one another to grow up into mature disciples (4:14-16). That sums up what church means to me. I am part of God’s body, his family. As such, I am responsible for contributing to the nurture of other members of the family. And I strive to remain open to and responsive to the nurture provided to me. Together, we hear Christ speak and see him act. This mutual feeding and being fed leads to deep love and respect among the family. The result is that we begin to mimic what we see Jesus saying and doing among us: we act out Christ’s love in the world – we become his voice, hands and feet.”

What about you?  What do you think “church” is?  How big does it have to be?  Does it have to happen in a building?  Do you need a preacher and a choir?  If you had invented the church, what would that church look like?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Why don’t you click on the word “comments” below and tell me what you’re thinking.

Jim

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Last Sunday afternoon I got to baptize thirteen people in the James River in our Second Annual River Baptism.  There’s something very special about wading out into that water while the gathered church watches from the shore; something very special about dipping those candidates beneath the surface in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit; something very special about seeing them wipe the water from their eyes and break into a joyful grin as the congregation applauds.  Jesus must have known how special all this could be when he commissioned his disciples to go and make disciples of every nation.  I can almost hear him saying, “Oh, and by the way…baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit.  It will mean the world to them.”

In this photo: Jim Somerville prepares to baptize Doug Duke as Buddy Burgess signs for the deaf congregation.

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…but this was the view from my uncle’s kitchen in Hawaii, where I’ve been for the last few days.  I don’t really have time to say more this morning, as I’m working away furiously on Sunday’s sermon, but I’ve come home grateful for a few days away in such a beautiful place, feeling rested, refreshed, and ready to get on with the work of the Kingdom.  Let me just say that if the mission of the church is to “bring heaven to earth,” there are some places where it has already touched down.

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