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Archive for June, 2011

This was the conclusion of Sunday’s sermon, which ended up being a kind of Trinity Sunday/Father’s Day message.  You can find the whole sermon on the First Baptist website at www.fbcrichmond.org, but I thought I would share this much of it with you here.  Enjoy.

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On this Father’s Day I hope you will forgive me for mentioning my own father, who turned 80 on Friday.  He hasn’t been well for some time, as many of you know, but he has always been a wonderful father, one whose steadfast love and faithfulness made it easy for me to believe in a heavenly Father.  In fact I once had a dream in which I was walking along a path through a park, and up ahead was a man sitting on a bench, looking away from me.  Because it was a dream I knew that the man sitting on the bench was God, and as I got closer I began to get apprehensive.  What would God look like?  What would he say to me?  But as I got closer he turned and made eye contact, and I felt all that apprehension leave my body in a rush.

Because his eyes were my father’s eyes,

And they were full of love and forgiveness,

Just like always.

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You never know what you might find in a book called Women Who Run with the Wolves, or in a chapter called “Joyous Body: the Wild Flesh,” but I was delighted to find this important corrective to much of what our culture has taught us about our bodies.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes:  “My friend Opalanga, an African-American storyteller, is very tall, like a yew tree, and as slender.  I am built close to the ground and of extravagant body.  In addition to being mocked for being tall, as a child Opalanga was told that the split between her front teeth was the sign of being a liar.  I was told that my body shape were signs of being inferior and of having no self-control.

“How amazed I was to hear Opalanga say that as an adult she had journeyed to the Gambia in West Africa and found some of her ancestral people, who lo! had among their tribe, many people who were very tall like the yew trees and as slender, and who had splits between their front teeth.  This split, they explained to her, was called the Sakaya Yallah, meaning ‘opening of God,’ and it was understood as a sign of wisdom.

“How surprised she was when I told her I had also as an adult journeyed to the isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico and found fome of my ancestral people, who lo! were a tribe with giant women who were strong, flirtatious, and commanding in their size.  They had patted me and plucked at me, boldly remarking that I was not quite fat enough.  Did I eat enough?  Had I been ill?  I must try harder, they explained, for women are La Tierra, made round like the earth herself, for the earth holds so much” (pp. 201-202).

What wonderful pictures of womanhood!  And how wonderfully different from that bosomy, airbrushed and unattainable image on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine month after month, that image so many women keep trying to force their perfectly tall, gap-toothed, or beautifully short, earth-shaped, bodies into.

I wonder…was Adam a balding, bow-legged Semite, with crooked teeth and twinkling eyes?  Was Eve a squat, heavy-thighed helpmate, with lovely gray locks and a voice like running water?  Did God look on his creation in that moment, made in his own image, and say with a smile, “Behold!  It is very good!”?

I don’t know.  I may never know.  And I wouldn’t want to suggest that whatever shape we’re in is the shape we’re supposed to be in.  There is still much to be said for a reasonable diet and regular exercise.  But let me say this: there is a difference, a theological difference, between getting yourself into shape and getting yourself into someone else’s shape.  To do the latter is to deny the goodness of God’s creation.  It is to say that somehow, when God made you, he made a mistake.

That is a lie.

As the psalmist says, as Clarissa Pinkola Estes might say, as you yourself can say without fear of divine contradiction:

“I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made!” (Psalm 139:14).

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I’ve been asked to speak at an event called “Prophetic Preaching for Anxious People” in Tampa, Florida, next week.  I’m not sure how I got the job; I don’t know that much about prophetic preaching.  On the other hand, I do know some anxious people.   

I talked with one a few months ago.

It was shortly after our big vote on membership, when we decided that committed Christians from other denominations could join our church without having to be re-baptized.  Although the motion passed decisively it didn’t pass unanimously, and for several weeks afterward there was tension in the air.  The big, happy family at First Baptist had been shaken.  It affected our giving and our attendance. 

On one of those Sundays a member of the church knocked on the door of my study, holding a worship bulletin in his hand.  He showed me the attendance figures from the week before—a number so low I was sure there had been a mistake. 

“Look at this!” he said, waving the bulletin in front of me.  “What are you going to do about this?”  He wasn’t angry; he was anxious.  He loved his church and didn’t want to see it go into decline.  “What am I going to do?” I asked, smiling.  “I’m going to get a recount!”  He didn’t know what to say to that.  He stood there for a minute in silence, fumbling with the bulletin, and then he looked up at me with pleading eyes and said, “Do something!”

Do something.

As in, “Do something about attendance.  Do something to get our numbers up.  Do something that will get people to come to church.”

I think that’s the anxiety a lot of churches have been feeling in the last few decades.  The churchgoing boom of the fifties and early sixties was followed by a mass exodus in the late sixties and seventies.  The church’s response was to panic, and to do anything it could to get people back into the pews.  One of the strategies was to turn Sunday morning worship into a kind of youth rally in an attempt to win back those Baby Boomers who had been active in church youth groups, but dropped out of church when they went off to college. Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago practically invented something called “Contemporary Worship,” where you didn’t have to dress up, the preaching was relevant and edgy, and the music was more like what you listened to in your car.  And Willow Creek was successful.  Soon more than 15,000 people per weekend were coming to that church and soon after that almost every church in America wanted to be like Willow Creek.  

But I can still remember the day I went to a meeting in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and one of my colleagues—the successful pastor of a large Baptist church—came into the room complaining that he had spent three years trying to develop a contemporary worship service and he’d just heard on the radio that what people wanted these days was “liturgical worship.”   In that moment I thought, “Yes, and that’s how it will always be if you try to chase the latest fad.”

If we ask, “What do people want?” then we begin to design our programs and worship services around that, and we measure our success by how many people come and how much they give.  But if we ask (and keep on asking), “What does God want?” then we begin to structure everything around that, and measure our success in a different way.

People are fickle.  What they wanted last year is not what they wanted this year.  But here’s the good news: God is not fickle.  God wants what he has always wanted.  He wants us to make disciples of every nation.  He wants us to love him and love our neighbors.  In short, God wants the world he made to know him and love him, to do his will and love one another. 

He wants heaven on earth.

So, maybe what we need to ask is not, “How do we increase church attendance,” but “How do we bring heaven to earth?”  Regardless of what it does to our numbers—whether they go up or down—I think the church of Jesus Christ was called into existence precisely to answer that question.

What do you think?

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It was my foster brother’s fault.

We were walking to the bus stop one morning after a heavy rain.  It was a long walk, and there were puddles everywhere, and somewhere along the way Bill stamped his foot down hard in a puddle and splashed my leg.  And then I splashed him.  And then he splashed me again.  And just when I was getting ready to splash him back he stopped me.

“Hey!” he said, with a mischievous grin on his face.  “If we get wet enough maybe we won’t have to go to school!”

And that was how we both ended up back at home, dripping wet and explaining to my mother that we had “accidentally” fallen into a puddle.

“I guess it’s too late to go to school now, huh?” I said, hopefully.

“Change your clothes,” my mother said, firmly.  “I’ll drive you.”

That was not what we had hoped for.  Bill and I trudged wetly up the stairs to our room where he made a last, desperate, suggestion:

“Let’s hide our shoes!”

“What?”

“Let’s hide our dry shoes.  And then we’ll only have these wet ones.  And your mom won’t make us go to school in wet shoes.”

It didn’t seem like much of a plan, but it was all we had. We hid our only dry shoes and then spent the next half hour frantically “looking” for them.  I began to feel uneasy about it, and when my mother interrupted the search long enough to pray that God would help us find our shoes I felt even worse.  finally she just told us to put on our wet ones, and drove us to school in stony silence. 

It was a few days later that I needed my other shoes.  I went straight to the spot where I had hidden them, dragged them out into the middle of the floor, and began to put them on.

“Jim?” my mother said, from behind a half-closed door.

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Did you find your shoes?”

“Yes, ma’am!”

“I saw you,” she said, coolly.  “You went right to them.”

“Right!  I said, thinking quickly.  “I remembered where I left them!”

“No,” she said, with a mother’s unquestionable authority, “you remembered where you hid them.”

Gulp.

“You lied to me,” she said at last.  “And now, how will I ever be able to trust you again?”

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Here is the truth:  Trust, once it has been broken, is nearly impossible to mend.  Like Humpty Dumpty it lies in a pile of pieces that no one can put together again, at least not anytime soon.  I’m pleased to tell you that my mother learned to trust me again, but it didn’t happen overnight.  It took years of unblinking honesty, years of proving myself trustworthy, to overcome that one miserable lie.

So, this is my advice to you: don’t do it.  Don’t tip the fragile trust of a loved one—or anyone—over a wall.  Once it is broken it is broken.

And all the king’s horses,
And all the king’s men,
Can’t put Trust
Back together again.

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Here’s a piece I wrote several years ago, after a hot summer Sunday when the air conditioner wasn’t working at church.  Enjoy!

In Garrison Keillor’s fictional boyhood home of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, air conditioning (A/C) was placed in the same category of suspicion as “dishwashers, automatic transmissions, frozen dinners, and liberal theologians,” but until last Sunday I didn’t understand why.

For reasons too complicated to explain we didn’t have A/C at my church last Sunday and things began to get a little warm.  With the temperature nearing 90 degrees outside it was well above 80 inside.  Women with flushed faces began using their church bulletins as fans.  Men pulled off their jackets and loosened their ties.  Children squirmed in the pews.  And then the heat began to have another effect: it began to make people drowsy.  From the pulpit I could see heads nodding, eyelids beginning to close, and there, halfway through the sermon and desperate for an audience, I got what I can only describe as a “fire and brimstone” feeling:

I wanted to preach LOUD!

The way I see it preachers used to face a regular problem with the heat, especially in the South.  Even with the windows up and the funeral home fans flying, a southern summer Sunday morning could sap the attentive powers of an entire congregation.  A wasp bumping lazily across the ceiling would be enough to distract them.  A dramatic pause in the sermon and half of them might drop off to sleep.

Naturally, the preacher began to raise his voice, just to wake them up, and for a while that was enough (“…and MOSES saith unto PHARAOH, ‘Let my people GO!'”).  But people get used to things, and they eventually got used to loud preaching.  So the preacher began to punctuate his sermon by pounding on the pulpit (“…and MOSES [Bam!] saith unto PHARAOH [Bam!], ‘Let my people GO!’ [Bam! Bam!]“).  But they got used to that, too.  Until finally the preacher had not choice but to preach on matters of life and death, Heaven and Hell (“…CAST them [Bam!] into the FURNACE [Bam! Bam!] of FIRE [Bam! Bam! (and) BAM!!]“).  And that worked.  That kept the congregation awake.  And it was in that context that one of the great homiletical punch lines of all time was developed: “You think it’s hot NOW!…”*

But then along came A/C, and suddenly those same people who had been dozing off before were sitting upright in the pews, wide awake, with eager, attentive expressions on their faces.  Preachers found to their amazement that they could speak in their normal voices, and even wander off into such tepid subjects as “Providence,” or “Humility,” while their listeners hung on every word.

As you might imagine that was the end of fire and brimstone preaching, and evidence enough that there is a closer connection to A/C and liberal theology than you might guess.  As Garrison Keillor says about some of the people who move away from Lake Wobegon: “They get A/C first thing and crank it up to Cold.  They drape themselves over it.  Then they find a church where God is the gentle mist rising from the meadow and the smile on a child’s face.

“They don’t want to get sweaty anymore if they can help it.”**

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*Little wonder that the wide band of fervent faith known as the “Bible Belt” stretches across the sultry South and not the lukewarm North; those Southerners have had just about all the heat they can take!

**Lake Wobegon Days, p. 132

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Here’s an interesting quote:

Regular church attendance is increasingly difficult, even for those committed to it.  Sunday morning is no longer “sacred” time: job responsibilities, sports leagues, family outings, housework and many other things get in the way of traveling to a church building for worship at a scheduled time.  And if you happen to miss church next weekend, will anyone know if you slept in, comforted a sick child, left town on business, or decided to have brunch at the Hyatt?  Church attendance is increasingly a private matter, and it is correspondingly easier for each of us to maintain an idealized image of oursevles as regular attenders when in fact we may only manage to attend church two or three times a month at the most.

–from an article by Kirk Hadaway and Penny Long Marler in the May 6, 1998, issue of the Christian Century, p. 475 (“Did you really go to church this week?  Behind the poll data”).

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Several years ago, my mother-in-law found a handyman to help her around her house in Texas.  His name was Jesus (pronounced “hay-soos”), and even though we knew how his name was pronounced it was funny to get a letter from Lu telling us that Jesus had fixed her plumbing or painted the living room.  Over the years he got to be almost one of the family, and when we heard that he had solved some crisis or come to Lu’s rescue we would smile and say, “What a friend we have in Jesus!”

So, when we heard that he was bringing Lu’s furniture to Richmond in her recent move we were excited.  Christy said, “I get to meet Jesus!”  And she did.  He arrived with two helpers at mid-morning on Saturday and didn’t finish unloading the truck until six that evening.  Christy went with him to drop off the truck and pick up a rental car so he could drive back to Texas.  At some point she confessed to him that she had enjoyed knowing “Jesus” was taking good care of her mom.  He smiled and then said, quietly, “It is funny.  My name is Jesus.  I was born on Christmas day.  But I’m an atheist.”

And that caught Christy off guard.  It was one thing to think of Jesus helping her mom around the house, but another thing to think of Jesus as an atheist. 

I’ve been troubled about it almost ever since, and wondering what happened.  Did “Hay-soos” get tired of all the jokes about “Jesus”?  Did the other children tease him about being born on Christmas Day?  Did his mother ask him if he could multiply the meager supper she had prepared?  Did his grandpa complain about his aches and pains and ask him (with a wink) if he could do something about it?  Of course that makes me think of the other Jesus, who had to put up with a lot of that kind of thing himself.  Unbelievers were always giving him a hard time and the believers weren’t much better.  They kept begging him to heal them, to help them, to feed them.  There must have been some days when he wished his name wasn’t Jesus, and there were whole nights when he just had to get away, when he went up on the mountain or off in the wilderness to pray.  But every time he seemed to get up off his knees ready to face the begging, pleading, unbelieving world again. 

Maybe that would have worked for “Hay-soos” the Handyman.  Maybe if he had let those taunts and jeers drive him to his knees he would have grown closer and closer to God, rather than further and further away.  At this point in his life there probably isn’t much that would convince him that prayer is the perfect response to life’s hardships.  He’s probably just relying on himself and his own strength, on his own ability to deal with the world.  That’s fine for the little things, like how to get a load of furniture from Texas to Virginia, but it won’t help much with the big ones.  And so, if “Hay-soos” won’t pray, I’m going to say a prayer for him, and maybe you could, too.  I’m going to pray that he will learn to love the name he’s been given, and feel a kinship with the one who carried it before him.  And when I’m feeling bold I will pray for even more than that, that he will become a passionate believer.  Although I have to admit it feels a little odd asking God:

“Help Jesus become a Christian.”

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