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Archive for October, 2010

I did a funeral today for a lovely lady named Eleanor Wiley.  In my remarks I quoted an old poem by Rossiter Raymond that says:

We give them back to Thee, dear Lord, who gavest them to us; yet as Thou dost not lose them in giving, so we have not lost them by their return. Not as the world giveth, givest Thou, O Lover of Souls. What Thou gavest, Thou takest not away, for what is Thine is ours always if we are Thine. And Life is eternal and Love is immortal, and death is only an horizon, and an horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.

I picked up on that last line and agreed that life is eternal.  Jesus said that “whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  Eleanor was one of those “whosoevers,” and I believe she has already laid claim to her everlasting life.  I also agreed that love is immortal.  I asked Eleanor’s husband, Herb, if he loved her less today than before she died and he said, “No, of course not!”  That’s because his love for her is still alive and well.  It is stronger than death.  Finally I agreed that death is only a horizon, and a horizon is nothing but the limit of our sight.  I said it like this:

If you stand on the shore long enough and watch a cruise ship sail out to sea, there comes a time when you can’t see it anymore.  It sails beyond that curve in the earth’s surface that obscures it from your sight.  It doesn’t mean that it isn’t there; it only means that you can’t see it any longer.  For those people on board life is going on as it rarely does on shore, with fine dining and ballroom dancing and moonlit walks on the promenade deck.   In her death Eleanor Wiley has sailed beyond the horizon.  We can’t see her anymore, but that doesn’t mean her life isn’t going on.  It is.  Although I have a feeling that as we gather here this morning to mourn her death she is standing at the stern of that ship, looking back toward the shore, standing on tiptoe and waving her handkerchief to let us know that she’s all right—that death is only a horizon, and a horizon is nothing but the limit of our sight.

Bon Voyage, Eleanor!

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My Facebook friends Don Flowers and Erin Spengemen directed me to this Michelle Boorstein article from last Saturday’s Washington Post, which is well worth reading in its entirety.  It paints a vivid picture of how the church in America is struggling, and the radical measures some consultants are prescribing to save it.  One asks, “Are you willing to unscrew the pews?”

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St. Augustine’s was facing a death sentence.

The little Episcopal church on the Southwest Washington waterfront had seen the signs. Since its founders proudly founded St. Augustine’s as a racially integrated church in 1961, membership had wilted from 180 to 28. Key members passed away or moved. Paint peeled off the ceiling. Mold grew in the basement. The church couldn’t pay its bills.

“It was literally dying,” the Rev. Martha Clark said of her parish’s state in 2007, when the regional bishop gave St. Augustine’s three years to become self-sustaining or be shut down.

That’s where Bob Gallagher came in. A former Episcopal priest, the gentle 60-year-old is a professional church-savior, a consultant who travels the country trying to resuscitate houses of worship that are losing people and passion.  With large swaths of organized religion in decline across the nation, Gallagher’s dance card is full.

His initial meetings at St. Augustine’s were emotional. He confronted people who had been focused on paying the mortgage with more wrenching questions: Do you really have a reason to be in this neighborhood, or could you move somewhere cheaper? What does it mean to be an Episcopalian? Could you merge with a church from another denomination? Do you agree on worship styles? Who are you?

“I remember being in tears,” said Virginia Mathis, 64, a St. Augustine regular for 30 years. “He’s pushy in a gentle way.”

Wrestling with dramatic changes in how Americans practice their faith, many clergy members are willing to wait months to get guidance from Gallagher or someone like him. These consultants have become a small industry, roaming the country to challenge the definition of “church.”

When they work with congregations, they put everything on the table—including whether the pastor and the church building are even necessary. Perhaps worshippers could meet in a movie theater instead. Or consider sharing a pastor with some other church. Or ditch their Sunday morning services for a time more people would find convenient.

Consultants routinely press their clients to stop being so fixated on their real estate, routines and rules. They argue that there are plenty of people who don’t have any interest in sitting in pews and listening to sermons. The challenge is to come up with a way to engage them.

“The role of the church and the clergy is dying, but I think it needs to,” says Tom Brackett, another minister-consultant who works on church development for the Episcopal Church. “The church doesn’t have a mission. We are part of God’s mission.”

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Read the rest of the article by clicking HERE

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Yesterday I stood in front of a television camera and recorded this announcement to go out with our Sunday broadcast from Richmond’s First Baptist Church:

Often when I’m out and about I bump into someone who says they watch our worship services on TV.  Sometimes they tell me that they go to the early service at their own church and then hurry home to watch, and although I’m honored, I secretly wonder if that’s not overdoing it a little (smile).  But sometimes they tell me First Baptist is their only church, and although they never actually come to our building, they watch every week.  If you are one of those people, then this message is for you.

I want to invite you to take part in something we’re calling “Microchurch,” a bold new initiative of Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  Here’s how it works.  Before next Sunday, think of one or two friends who might be able to come watch the broadcast with you.  Invite them to bring food—something simple and easy—so that after the service is over you can sit down and eat Sunday lunch together.  After lunch take time to share your concerns with one another, and then ask someone to lift those concerns up to God in prayer.  Finally, take up an offering, and talk about how you might use it to put God’s love into action right where you are—in your subdivision, your retirement center, your apartment complex, or your neighborhood.  If you need suggestions, give us a call at 355-8637, ext. 203, and when you do maybe you can tell us how it went for you.  If it works, try it again the next week, and then the week after that.  Make it a regular habit.  Give it a name.  And remember, it doesn’t have to be big to be church.  Jesus said, “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am also” (Mt. 18:20).

Our hope is to start 200 new Microchurches in the next year, and I’d like to ask for your help.  I’m not asking for your money, just your participation.  I believe that when Jesus asked his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom would come, and that his will would be done, on earth as it is in heaven, he really meant it.  But it’s going to take all of us to bring heaven to earth, and not just the people who come to worship in our building.  I understand that some 20,000 people watch our services on Sunday morning.  If only one percent of those people would accept this challenge we would have those 200 Microchurches I’m talking about, and we might have them not by next year, but by next week.  As those churches start working with us to put God’s love into action I believe heaven will come a little closer to earth, and that those of you who join us in our mission will become part of the answer to the Lord’s prayer. 

How about it?  Think of one or two people you could invite to your home next Sunday, ask them to bring some food, something simple and easy, watch the service together and talk about it over lunch, share your concerns with one another and say a prayer, and then take up an offering and talk about how you might use it to put God’s love into action.  Again, if you need suggestions, call 355-8637, ext. 203, and when you do tell us how it went.  It may seem like a small thing to you—your Microchurch—but it could be the start of something big.  

Really big.

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I’m concerned about my friend Meesha today. 

I’ve had her in my thoughts and prayers for the last few months, but when I opened the Richmond Times-Dispatch today there she was, on the front page of the Metro section, in a fairy costume.

Meesha is 3. 

I got acquainted with her when her parents invited me to have lunch with them more than a year ago.  I love Indian food, and Jerusha outdid herself, cooking up a traditional meal and serving it there in her seminary apartment.  I enjoyed talking theology with her husband Moses while we waited for lunch, but as much as anything I enjoyed watching Meesha moving from one small task to another, her face a mask of concentration, as if she were the one preparing lunch and not her mother. 

Uh-dorable.

So, when I learned a few months ago that she had been diagnosed with cancer, something clutched up inside me.  I started saying prayers then and I’ve been saying them since as I’ve followed her progress on Jerusha’s Facebook page.  Here’s an entry from a couple of months ago:

It’s a beautiful day. Meesha was bright this morning after 12 hrs of her first cycle of chemotherapy and I enjoyed combing her black, silky, shiny hair and clipping her pink bow. I love watching her pop pieces of “tylenol candy” into her mouth any time of the day—day or night. She is slowly getting used to nurses recording vital signs as she sometimes voluntarily lifts her arm to be recorded. She says “beeping” when her monitor beeps and says “don’t cry dada” when her dad weeps.

For those of you not on Moses’ Facebook list, Meesha has Neuroblastoma, Stage 4. Her primary tumor surrounds her aorta and cannot be surgically removed at this stage. Cancer has reached some bones and is aggressive. Our super doctors have aggressively started treatment in wonderful time. We have a long and dreary road ahead of us of 5 different treatments but feel a total sense of calm: we are in the good hands of our cheery nurses and teams of doctors, having access to great technology, surrounded by the love and prayers of every friend and family member.

Hugs to all of you for walking this journey with us sharing in our pain.

I just wanted you to know that I’m walking with you today Jerusha, Moses, and Meesha, and sharing with you in your pain.

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See the slideshow from the Richmond Times-Dispatch by clicking HERE.

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At 51, I’m way past midlife (I doubt that I’m going to make it to 102), but I found some good advice from Peter Drucker that I’d like to pass along.

Drucker was “the creator and inventor of modern management,” according to business guru Tom Peters.  Writer John Byrne adds, “The story of Peter Drucker is the story of management itself. It’s the story of the rise of the modern corporation and the managers who organize work. Without his analysis it’s almost impossible to imagine the rise of dispersed, globe-spanning corporations.”

So, when Peter Drucker talks, it pays to listen.

Shortly before his death in 2005 (at the age of 95), Drucker talked about how to reinvigorate people.  “Within organizations there are people who, typically in their 40s, hit a midlife crisis when they realize that they won’t make it to the top or discover that they are not yet first-rate… How do you save these people?  Give them a parallel challenge.  Encourage people facing a midlife crisis to apply their skills in the non-profit sector.”  

So, here’s an encouraging word for all you men and women out there who are beginning to wonder if you’ll ever “make it to the top”—Volunteer!  Get involved in church!  At my church we’re trying to bring the Kingdom of heaven to Richmond, Virginia.  We’re doing it by helping refugees from Bhutan get resettled in this city, by teaching children in Sunday school, by offering hot showers to our homeless neighbors, by creating a loving, caring community for senior adults, by hosting a divorce recovery workshop, by starting a weekly farmer’s market, and by “singing heaven down” every week through our music ministry. 

Those are just a few examples.  Bringing heaven to earth is a big job.  We’re going to need all the help we can get.  And if you are willing and able to help us we would be grateful.  Not only that, but along the way you might discover that this kind of work—Kingdom work—is even more important than the work you do in your day job.  Jesus once said, “The one who would be great among you must be least of all and servant of all” (Mk. 10:42-44).  In other words, the way to make it to the top is not necessarily by climbing the corporate ladder, but by rolling up your sleeves and helping “the least of these, his brothers and sisters” (Mt. 25:40). 

And when Jesus talks, it pays to listen.

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For the past few weeks I’ve been telling the congregation that the church in America is in trouble.  It is.  Church attendance in America has been on the decline for decades, and if things keep going the way they are a time will come when nobody goes to church. 

But I’m not worried. 

I’m not worried about the church of Jesus Christ in the world, that is.  This mission is too important to him, and he will not let it fail.  If it dies out in one place it will surely spring up in another.  If it falters in this country it will flourish in Asia, or Africa, or Latin America.  In fact, it is.  28,000 people a day are coming to Christ in China.  A dozen new churches are started each week in Cuba.  In some parts of India the church is growing at an almost unbelievable rate. 

So, the question I’ve been asking the congregation for the past few weeks is this: if the church is going to thrive somewhere, why not here?  I’ve been talking about the things those thriving churches have in common, how people come, and give, and pray, and serve, and telling them that while only the Holy Spirit can bring about genuine revival, all of these are things we can do to help. 

But on Sunday, after the early service, I saw Maron El-Khouri, who told me how his daughter Emma respoded.  Emma is four years old, and after three weeks of hearing this same pitch she asked her dad, “Why does Pastor Jim keep saying the church in America is in trouble?”  “Because people in America aren’t coming to church like they once did,” he said.  To which she replied, “I’ll come!  I’ll come every Sunday!”

Now…that’s the spirit.  I’ll bet she would give, and pray, and serve as well.  And if we can raise up a whole generation of Emmas, I think the church in America will be just fine.

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My daughter Ellie came home for a surprise visit this weekend (that’s her on the left in the picture above).  It’s a long bus ride from New York to Richmond, but if you get on the bus in Chinatown at 10:30 p.m. you can sometimes get your parents to come pick you up at Parham Road at 4:00 in the morning.

It was just about this time last year that she got on a train to New York with a couple of suitcases and no idea where she was going to spend the night.  Now she is living in an apartment in Manhattan and working at Lonny, an online interior design magazine, where she’s been since the beginning.  She started as an intern, quickly moved up to editorial assistant, and now has a major role in the production of the bi-monthly magazine, blogs on the Lonny site, and makes an occasional guest appearance at Etsy (which everybody seems to know about but me).

I’m proud of Ellie.  It’s no secret.  Not only for what she’s done but for who she is.  Some people say pride is a sin, but I think there’s a special exception for parents, don’t you?

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