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Icon_second_comingWhy is Christmas so overblown?

Maybe it’s because we’ve given up on the Second Coming of Christ.

I hadn’t thought about that before yesterday, but as I was looking at all the references to the Second Coming in the New Testament (some 57 of them) I was reminded of those funeral services I’ve been to where people want to “celebrate the life” of the deceased rather than “mourn the death.” They want to focus on the positive, that is, and so they focus on all the happy memories of a well-lived life.

That’s not a bad thing to do, but we Christians believe in the resurrection of the body. We believe that death is not the end of life, but in so many ways only the beginning. The old preachers had a way of pointing us forward—toward that hope—and not only back.

I think the old preachers used to do that with the Second Coming, too (and I mean the really old preachers, like Paul, and Peter, and some of those others whose writings ended up in the New Testament). Some of them were so excited about the return of Christ that they didn’t spend much time “celebrating his life.”

They just kept watching the skies.

But that was 2,000 years ago, when it was a little easier to believe that “this Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Now we are almost embarrassed to mention it.  It’s been too long.  Surely, if he were coming, he would have come by now.  And so, instead of looking forward to the Second Coming, we look back to the first one, and celebrate it as if it were all we would ever have.

Have we given up on Jesus?  Do we no longer believe that one of these days he will come back, and the Kingdom of this world will become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ and he shall reign forever and ever (Hallelujah!  Hallelujah!)?  Is that why we go crazy at Christmas, and rush around buying presents for each other?  Is that why we crank up the Christmas carols and talk about Santa Claus coming to town?

I preached at First African Baptist Church yesterday and ended with a true story about a P.O.W. who came home after seven years in a North Vietnamese prison camp to find his wife waiting for him.  Although friends and relatives had suggested that he might never come back, and that she probably ought to move on with her life, she had never given up.  He had told her he would come home and she believed him.

She was there waiting for him when he got off the plane.

He said later that she wasn’t the same girl he married; she was no longer a blushing teenage bride.  In the time he had been away she had become a strong, confident, capable woman.

She’d had to.

New Testament scholar Hans Conzelmann used to say that this period between Christ’s ascension and his return is “the Church’s time.”  It’s our time to fulfill the commission Christ gave us, and to do everything in our power to bring heaven to earth.  But Jesus himself said he was going to come back some day.  When he does I hope he will find what that prisoner of war found:

1. That his bride has waited for him, and,
2. That she has become strong, confident, and capable.

TinkertoysDo you remember Tinkertoys, that set of wooden sticks and spools you could build things with, wonderful things as tall as you were when you were a kid? I talked about Tinkertoys at church last Sunday, when I facilitated a question-and-answer session following Art Wright’s three-week lecture on “Heaven, Hell, and the Afterlife.”

I talked about how all people build a “framework of understanding” to make sense of their experience. If you step outside and a bird flies past you say, “That’s right; birds fly,” and you hang that experience on your framework of understanding (this is where I always picture a Tinkertoy framework, with experiences hanging from it like Christmas tree ornaments). But if you step outside and a cat flies past you’ve got a problem; there is nowhere on your framework of understanding to hang that experience. You have to decide: “Did that really happen? Did a cat really fly past? Or did someone throw a cat across my field of vision? Or am I hallucinating?”

Birds? No problem. Cats? Big problem.

I said, “You’ve spent your whole life building and re-building your framework of understanding and it’s precious to you. You don’t want anybody to mess with it. But somewhere in there is your understanding of heaven, hell, and the afterlife, and I get the feeling that for some of you Art Wright’s lecture was troubling, that some part of it messed with your Tinkertoys.”

I saw heads nodding around the room.

That led into an interesting exchange about what we use to build our frameworks of understanding in the first place, and we acknowledged that much of what we have heard about heaven, hell, and the afterlife comes from books, movies, songs, and popular theology. Not all of it is authoritative. For believers, the Bible is authoritative; it’s that one source we can gather around and study together with general agreement that what’s in there is true.

My guess is that much of what Art Wright was teaching in his three-week lecture was biblical. He is a New Testament professor, after all, which means that he’s spent a good bit of time studying the actual text of the New Testament. I’ve done that myself, and I’m often surprised by what’s not in there as well as by what is. Sometimes it “messes with my Tinkertoys,” and forces me to rebuild some part of my framework of understanding.

I don’t like that.

My framework of understanding is precious to me. But it’s more important to me that it be right than that it be easy, and Scripture is the best way to ensure that. It is, in almost every way, the “blueprint” by which my framework must be built.

And I mean all of scripture: not just the parts I like.

Sharon Parks has a name for that framework of understanding: she calls it “faith.” I think that’s a good name for it, and even though there are ways to build frameworks of understanding that don’t include God, those are not ways I’m interested in. I want to build a distinctively Christian faith, one with Jesus right at the center of it. As far as heaven, hell, and the afterlife are concerned, I’m content to follow him. If I can trust Scripture on this (and I think I can), the Way that he is is the Way that leads to life abundant, overflowing, and everlasting.

Why would I follow anyone else?

cappucino and cross“When you make up your mind that you will do whatever it takes to get people to come to church, then you will get just the kind of church you deserve: a congregation of fickle religious consumers who will leave you as soon as the church next door opens an espresso bar.”

That was one of the better lines from my recent, two-part sermon series called “The End of the Road.” I had been talking about how the church in America is in decline, and how some church leaders seem willing to do whatever it takes to get people back into the pews and their dollars into the plates. I followed it with this story:

Not long after I graduated from college I was I was called to serve as a part-time youth minister at a small church in Kentucky. I wanted to have the biggest and best youth group in town and one of the first things I did was weigh every kid who came on Wednesday night because it sounded so much more impressive to say that we had a 1,136 pound youth group than to say we had a group of fifteen kids. I did everything I could to increase attendance: we started our own radio station, held the “World’s Biggest Kite Contest,” and made regular trips to the amusement park. But I remember the day it changed for me, when I called to invite one of our youth to something we were doing and he said no thanks, that he and his friend were planning to go to a movie. And that’s when it hit me that I could never compete: that these kids had all the entertainment they needed and a whole lot more, and the only thing I could give them that they weren’t getting everywhere else…was Jesus. So, I made up my mind to do that—to give them Jesus—and to keep it up even if the youth group withered away to less than a thousand pounds.

In one way or another, that’s what I’ve been trying to do ever since.

But what I said in the sermon is this: that “giving people Jesus” can mean more than one thing.

I was reminded of that when I was at the BGAV meeting in Fredericksburg recently. There we were—a thousand Baptists from Virginia all gathered together in a single room. You would think that we all held the same views, wouldn’t you? But as one speaker after another talked about Jesus I could tell that we thought about him in different ways, and maybe that shouldn’t surprise me as much as it does. After all, there are four Gospels in the New Testament, which means that we have four different accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. And then there are Paul’s letters, which are more about the risen Christ than the earthly Jesus, and about what his death and resurrection mean for us. And then there are the other writers, like Peter, James, and the author of Hebrews, who each have their own perspective. And finally the Book of Revelation, in which the risen Christ appears with “hair as white as wool and eyes like flames of fire” (1:14). So if I’m going to “give them Jesus” I have to ask: which Jesus am I going to give them?

Because I think we tend to “cut and paste” when it comes to Jesus. We take what we like about him from the Bible, and from the hymn book, and from the pictures that hang in our Sunday school classrooms, and the songs we learned as children, and we put them all together to make this composite picture we carry around in our heads, and that’s “our” Jesus. Sometimes the confused looks I see on your faces when I’m preaching are not because you don’t understand what I’m saying, but because “my” Jesus doesn’t look like “your” Jesus. My Jesus is always talking about the Kingdom, and urging people to join him in the joyful work of bringing heaven to earth. Your Jesus may be saying, “Go, make disciples of every nation,” or, “Come to me, all you who are weary,” or, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” I was thinking about that on the way home from Fredericksburg when it occurred to me that even if you put all these cut-and-paste images together you still get the picture that God sent Jesus to love us, save us, change us, and send us. I said it out loud: “God sent Jesus to love us, save us, change us, and send us.” And something about that rang so true I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.

Stage One: to Love Us. In John 3:16 we learn that God loved the world so much he gave his only son. I’ve pointed out to you before that the word world is often used in a negative way in the New Testament, as in, “Love not the world, nor the things of the world” (1 John 2:15). We are led to believe that the world is a sinful, dirty, and unrepentant place, and yet God loves it anyway; he loves it so much he gave his only son for it. And if you read the Gospels even casually you can see that the son he gave loves the world just as much as he does. Jesus is always spending time with the sinners and the tax collectors, always hanging out with the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. God sent him to love the world and he loved it, he loved it enough to die for it, which makes me think that as the body of Christ we should love it, too. What if we believed that our first responsibility, as Christians, was simply to love people? Not to judge them, or condemn them, or convert them, but to love them? Is this the way Jesus approached his ministry? Did he think, “I’ve got to begin by loving the world, because that’s what my father sent me to do”?

Stage Two: to Save Us. Jesus himself says that he didn’t only come to love the world, but “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). I’ve told you before that the word save in the Gospels is a bigger word than we sometimes imagine. It doesn’t usually mean to save someone from hell; it usually means “to help,” “to heal,” “to make well,” or “to make whole.” More often than not, this is how Jesus used it. He said to the woman with the flow of blood, “Your faith has saved you.” He said to that one leper who came back, “Your faith has saved you.” He said to Blind Bartimaeus, “Your faith has saved you.” In other words it has helped you, healed you, made you well, and made you whole. What if we believed the second responsibility of Christians was to do that? To help people, to heal them, to make them well, and to make them whole? One of the most important ways we can do that is to let people know that their sins can be forgiven—those things that fill them with guilt and shame, that cripple them and keep them from becoming all God made them to be. They need to know that all those things can be forgiven, forgotten, washed away, so they can move on to Stage Three.

Stage Three: to Change Us. Marcus Borg says that every major religion is about transformation, and Christianity would be at the top of that list. Jesus didn’t think it was enough to save us: he wanted to change us, to help us become what we have it in us at our best to be. And Paul, perhaps more than any other writer in the New Testament, takes up that charge. In dozens of different ways in his letters he describes what a Christian life might look like. In Galatians 5, for example, he talks about giving up the works of the flesh in favor of a life full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—the fruit of the Spirit. Those of you who have tried it know what a constant struggle that can be: the flesh keeps doing its work. And yet, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we are called to keep on trying, keep on changing, until we grow up at last into him who is the head, into Christ (Eph. 4:15). And well before we get there we may be ready for Stage Four.

Stage Four: to Send Us. After Jesus rose from the dead he appeared to his disciples and said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). As I’ve said before, this is the moment when the disciples became apostles: when they were no longer “learners,” but “sent ones.” And you’ve also heard me say that I think Jesus intends for us to do the same: to graduate from Sunday school and go out into the streets, to be sent as Christ was sent to love the world God loves. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think we need to give up gathering for Sunday morning Bible study, but when we stand before Jesus I don’t think he is going to ask us where Paul went on his second missionary trip; I think he’s going to ask us where we went on ours. That’s what KOH2RVA was all about, and that’s what we hope to accomplish with KOHx2 as we look for partners who will work with us to bring heaven to earth, in Richmond and around the world. We believe that we too have been sent, that we are on a mission, and that we can’t give up until it is accomplished.

Which stage are you in? Which stage are you in today? Which stage will you be in tomorrow? And which stage will that person be in you encounter on the street, the one who shuffles along with her head down, wondering if there’s any reason to go on?

Which Jesus will you give her?

LinnaeusIn my last post I mentioned that human beings are 99.9 percent the same, genetically. So where did we get the idea that the .01 percent that makes us different also makes us better, or worse, than our fellow humans?

In a paper called “‘Scientific Racism’ in Enlightened Europe,” Shah Aashna Hossain claims that “the concept of racism did not always exist.” He writes:

In General System of Nature, published in 1735, [Swedish biologist Carl] Linnaeus stated that variations within the Genus Homo sapiens existed as a result of varying cultures and climates. The four main categories of the Genus that he proposed were the following:

1. Americanus. Native American males were supposedly red; had black hair and sparse beards; were stubborn; prone to anger; “free”; and governed by traditions. Thus, this form of Homo sapiens was definitely inferior and uncivilized.

2. Asiaticus. The male Asian was said to be “yellowish, melancholy, endowed with black hair and brown eyes…severe, conceited, and stingy. He puts on loose clothing. He is governed by opinion.” Thus, like the aforementioned type of Homo sapiens, the Asiaticus could only be a mediocre prototype.

3. Africanus. The male of this subset, according to Linnaeus, could be recognized by his skin tone, face structure, and curly hair. This kind was apparently cunning, passive, and inattentive, and ruled by impulse. The female of this kind was also apparently shameless, because “they lactate profusely.”

4. Europeaus. The males of this subset were supposedly “changeable, clever, and inventive. He puts on tight clothing. He is governed by laws.”

In addition to these categories, Linnaeus also suggested there were some more miscellaneous ones that occurred: “‘wild men,’ dwarfs, troglodytes [cave dwellers], and ‘lazy Patagonians’ [South American hunter-gatherers].” Therefore, being the most civilized of the Homo sapiens, the Europeaus was obviously the most superior type in Charles Linnaeus’s view.

Before Linnaeus proposed the ideas mentioned above, “race” had been used to distinguish between different nationalities. But after he proposed the system above, Europeans began to identify themselves with a larger group: “white” people.

And so, because of the “scientific” classification proposed by Linnaeus, “white” people began to think of themselves as “superior.”

Have you ever wondered how things might have been different if an African, or Native American, or Asian scientist had proposed the system of classification?  Is it any surprise that we often end up believing that the “best” people are the ones who are most like us? (take a second look at Linnaeus’ portrait above).  And is there any way we can rid ourselves of more than 250 years of discrimination based on the .01 percent of the genetic code that makes us different from each other?

Hossain says the concept of racism did not always exist.  What would it take to get to the place where it no longer does?

A famous Virginian once wrote that “all men are created equal”–not the same, but equal.  And the Creator himself–after looking on humankind in all its diversity–said that it was good, “very good.”

Today, let’s try looking on all of humankind through His eyes.

2013-11-08 17.27.15I saw Andrew Terry at the Hope in the Cities luncheon yesterday. Andrew is working to bring rapid transit to Richmond, and he recently asked a room full of people if any of us would ride the new “super bus” if it came to the city.

I raised my hand.

I may have had that in the back of my mind yesterday when I thought about how I was going to get to the Omni Hotel for the luncheon. I don’t mind driving downtown. It’s not far from First Baptist Church. But I do mind parking downtown—either searching for an available meter or paying way too much to park in a garage.

So, I asked my smart phone how to get downtown on the bus and it told me: “Walk over to Broad Street, get on the bus heading downtown, get off at 12th Street and walk over to the Omni on Cary Street” Total trip time? “About 27 minutes.” Total cost? “$1.25” (my phone is so smart!).

But I had a few more emails to check and when I finished I didn’t have 27 minutes. So I jumped in my car, whizzed downtown, found an available meter four blocks from the Omni, put in two dollars worth of quarters, and hurried to the luncheon.

One of the first people I saw was Andrew Terry, and I told him, “I almost took the bus!” He commended me for my good intentions but insisted, “We’ve got to get more people riding public transportation.” I said, “Maybe we could have a public transportation day. You pick the date, and I’ll challenge my church to ride the bus.” “Great idea!” he said (stay tuned).

The luncheon was inspiring. Dr. Gail Christopher of the Kellogg Foundation talked about what her organization is trying to do to lift children out of poverty, and noted, sadly, how closely their plight is linked to the idea of race. “Idea,” she said, because human beings are, genetically, 99.9% identical. And yet we have used that .01 percent difference to justify all manner of atrocities, including slavery.

I’ll have more to say about that at another time, but for now let me say that the luncheon ran a little longer than I expected, and when I got back to my car I found a bright green parking ticket stuck under the windshield wiper (sigh).

This is why I don’t like parking downtown.

I got in my car and headed back toward the office and at a stoplight on Broad Street I looked over and saw Andrew Terry in his car, motioning for me to roll down the window. He shouted, “Next time we’ll take the bus!” I reached for my parking ticket, held it up and shouted, “If I had taken the bus I wouldn’t have gotten this!” He laughed out loud and said, “I need a picture of that!”

So, here you go, Andrew: this picture is for you. If I had ridden the bus to my luncheon it would have taken 27 minutes and cost $1.25. I got there in 23 minutes in my car, but ended up paying $22.00.

Even I can do the math.

Albert Hill Group

Here’s a post from Ann Carter, Youth I Associate at Richmond’s First Baptist Church, about the tentative first step she and her husband David took to bring heaven to earth with some of our neighbors at Albert Hill Middle School.  In the spirit of KOHx2, David and Ann were trying to “bring it together” with partners from other organizations.  Ann describes it as a “mustard seed” experience–something that started small–but she wonders what it might yet become. 

It’s been a while since I was on the front end of a burgeoning mission project. A little more than 7 years to be exact. Seems as though, recently, I have been privileged to plug into great ministries already in process. But this past Saturday, I found myself working once again on a fledgling project.

Albert Hill Middle School is an easy 6 block walk west on Park Avenue from church. Stephanie Perry, one of the 6th grade science and math teachers and an acquaintance from our neighborhood swim team, had gotten my name from Len Morrow and emailed me. She was looking for a group who might be willing to help with a grounds clean-up day. Would that be something First Baptist would like to do? She also wondered whether First Baptist was interested in a partnership with Albert Hill; we were neighbors after all! “Of course,” I replied; and told her about our every member mission trip to bring heaven to earth. I love when people move toward my church, seeking meaningful relationships and partnerships.

The kick-off for this new relationship with Albert Hill Middle School was going to be November 2. Emails and Facebook posts went out to youth and their parents inviting them to participate in this neighborly project. Our youth are busy, and their families are even busier. And with very short notice, not surprisingly, no one was available. Not because they didn’t want to be; but because they had other commitments.

Albert HillSo David and I woke up early on Saturday, filled our tanks with good strong coffee, donned our work clothes, packed up our wheelbarrow, shovels, rakes and pruning shears and set out to Albert Hill. I was hopeful that we would bump into some last minute First Baptist volunteers whose calendars had miraculously cleared on this November Saturday. Instead, we met the principal, the PTO president, parents and students. We met our neighbors; people who love their school, who love their neighborhood. They were all surprised that David and I were willing to come out on a Saturday to give their time investing in their school. I explained where we were from and why we were here. “Oh,” they said, “you are from that church right up the street. That big one on the corner?” Some very good connections were made; emails and phone numbers were exchanged; meetings were arranged; relationships were initiated and ground work was laid.

So, our church family can be a good neighbor to the middle school 6 blocks down the street – what will that look like? I don’t know, yet. Maybe some tutoring and mentoring? Sponsoring a kid on a field trip? Encouraging teachers? Clean up days? I will find out more as I meet with Mr. Davis, Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Todd in the coming weeks. But I do know this: when First Baptist people are presented with opportunities, they rise to the occasion, they embrace the mission as their own, and they bring heaven wherever they go. So I have great hope that this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

So, that fledgling mission project I was a part of 7 years ago? The Together for Hope All Church Challenge in Helena, Arkansas. In 2006, we started with 5. Since then, God has multiplied that number 30 times! More than 150 volunteers from our faith community have given one week of their lives over the course of 7 years to love and minister in Helena. Lives in Helena have been changed. OUR lives have been changed.

icon-ann-carterStarting small can be a good thing. Kinda like the parable of the mustard seed – God takes something insignificant and turns it into something so powerful it can move mountains. Numbers and size don’t matter to God. He can start a good work in one or two hearts and multiply that into life changing ministry. So, won’t you join David and me in this promising partnership? Let’s see what God will do!

partnershipRecently I challenged the staff of Richmond’s First Baptist Church to help me take our mission to the next level.  For a year the whole church was working to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia (KOH2RVA).  By the end of the year it was obvious that the job was too big for any one church to do alone, so we began a year of mission called KOHx2 (Kingdom of Heaven Times Two), with an emphasis on partnership.  In the same way that Jesus sent his disciples out two by two to do the work of the Kingdom, it made sense to us to work with other individuals, churches, agencies, and organizations to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond and beyond.

I call this new mission “KOHx2: Bringing It Together.”

I challenged the staff to collect pictures and stories that would illustrate this mission, and to share them with me so I could post them on my blog.  A few days ago I got this email from Senior Associate Pastor Lynn Turner:

Jim

I don’t know if you can use this or not in your blog, but felt compelled to write it just as a reflection from my heart this past week.  It has caused me to think about this partnership thing in a totally different light.

Lynn

What Lynn wrote came out of her regular work at church, which reminded me that church work at its best IS the work of the Kingdom, and sometimes church people step up and help out in ways that truly bring heaven to earth.

Take a look at what Lynn wrote:

Reflections on KOHx2: Partnership and Generosity

It began with phone calls this past week of various needs within our church family: One family, out of full time work, medical needs, and needing some help catching up on bills; Another family, having faced extraordinary medical circumstances, still in the hospital, and their heating system out in their home with no funds at this time to get it fixed: Another family moving into an apartment with need of furniture and the basics to get them on their feet; all members of our congregation and all legitimate needs.
And thus the partnership and generosity wheels began turning…

An anonymous gift to help with current bills, a heating company stepping in to donate a used system and time to install, and an envelope of money given to me by a church member this past week with the words, “Sometimes ministers just need some discretionary funds to help folks out, use this as the needs arise.”

I have been overwhelmed this week with the way God has revealed to me that bringing the kingdom comes with partners….all kinds of partners…with a spirit of generosity that just points to Jesus.

KOHx2 has been hard at work this week. Blessings abound!

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