KOH2RVA Day 298: Hello, New Americans!

monticello-naturalizationI’m up early on this Independence Day, getting ready to drive to Charlottesville for a naturalization ceremony at Monticello. According to the website:

There is no more inspirational place to celebrate the Fourth of July than Monticello, the home of the author of the Declaration of Independence. Since 1963, more than 3,000 people from every corner of the globe have taken the oath of citizenship at the annual Monticello Independence Day Celebration and Naturalization Ceremony. It is the oldest continuous naturalization ceremony in the United States outside of a courtroom.

I wouldn’t have known about this ceremony were it not for my mother-in-law, Lu Treadwell, a retired history professor and a huge fan of Thomas Jefferson’s. But I probably wouldn’t have been as interested in going were it not for all those New Americans who have come through First Baptist Church in the last few years as part of a refugee resettlement program. I’ve met people from Bhutan, Iran, Nepal, and Afghanistan, who were trying to make a new life in this country, and who were getting help from people like FBC members Warren and Julie Pierce. Some of those New Americans are still with us at First Baptist.

Some of them have become new believers.

I love the picture of Kanchi Monger’s baptism on our website. There she is, this beautiful young Bhutanese woman who grew up in a refugee camp in Nepal, standing waist deep in the James, the most American of all rivers, holding on to the tiny gold cross around her neck as she prepares to be dipped under the water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s a picture of one of those moments when the Kingdom of God is just about to come to Richmond, Virginia, and a moment later…it did.

If the Apostle Paul had been standing on the bank to hand Kanchi a towel when she came up out of the river he might have said to her what he wrote in Galatians 5: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”

That’s a good thing to remember on this Independence Day.

KOH2RVA: Day 94

running_legsWhat would it take to make Richmond the healthiest city in America?

A group of clergy and physicians got together yesterday to talk about that very thing at the Richmond Academy of Medicine. This was the second conversation in an ongoing dialogue with Dr. Terry Whipple, founder of the “Physician Within” program at First Baptist Church. Terry’s dream was to go on a medical mission trip that never left the city of Richmond—an educational mission—that would help people understand their bodies and how they work and how to keep them healthy. We talked yesterday about how that mission could expand to include more physicians and more congregations and began to get excited about the possibility that Richmond really could become the healthiest city in America.

“We’re already number 12,” I said.

“What?”

“According to Forbes magazine, Richmond is the 12th healthiest city in America,” I repeated. “I found it online.”

It’s true. And although Forbes doesn’t explain why Richmond is Number 12, it does give some information about our nearest rival, Virginia Beach, which came in at Number 9:

The lucky denizens of Virginia Beach (which includes Norfolk and Newport News) are rich in parks, tennis courts, playgrounds, ball diamonds, and golf courses, boosting the activity level of this region above much of the South. A relatively affluent area, Virgina Beach benefits from excellent access to medical care, with a whopping 89 percent of residents having health insurance. The result? Lower than average rates of angina and heart disease, despite the fact that 20 percent of area residents smoke.

One of the clergy at yesterday’s meeting was Joel Morgan, hip young pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church at the corner of Monument and Malvern and a former personal trainer. He asked, “How many of you have a regular program of diet and exercise?” Several of us raised our hands, but even as he asked the question we understood: Richmond won’t become the healthiest city in America simply by keeping people out of the emergency room. We’re going to have to push back from the dinner table more often, get up off our couches and move.

That wasn’t so hard for me to imagine.

I already see people walking and jogging on Monument Avenue, riding mountain bikes on the Buttermilk Trail, and playing tennis in Byrd Park. What if the whole city began to get out more, exercise more? What if they started paying attention to the calorie counts now posted in so many fast food restaurants and began to choose the 400-calorie burger over the 800-calorie one? It may not be the most urgent item on our agenda as we work to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, but there is something heavenly about the idea of people being healthy and active and able to enjoy the life God gave them.

In January, I’m going to announce the formation of this year’s Monument Avenue 10K Training Team at First Baptist Church. Maybe 2013 will be the year you decide to run, walk, or crawl 6.2 miles on Monument Avenue as one of your New Year’s resolutions.

Maybe this will be the year we move from number 12 to number 11.

KOH2RVA: Day 79


Last week I had lunch at the Richmond Academy of Medicine.

It’s not the kind of place that usually comes to mind when you think of lunch, but it turned out to be perfect for what was on the agenda—making Richmond the healthiest city in America.

Dr. Terry Whipple, who founded the Physician Within program at First Baptist Church, has bigger plans. He wants to see the program expand to other congregations in the city, to other neighborhoods, until everybody in Metropolitan Richmond “understands common health issues and adjusts their lifestyles for longer, safer, healthier existence.” He asked me to reach out to some of my fellow clergy and invite them to lunch, so he could tell them about the program first hand and invite them to participate.

If you’re not familiar with the Physician Within, take a moment to skim the video above, from a session called “Chest Pain: Is It My Heart?” You’ll see that it’s not a complicated concept: a respected cardiologist talking to lay people about heart health and how they can stay out of the emergency room. You can also see that a good many people were interested enough to come out on a Tuesday night and hear what he had to say. It didn’t hurt that the program was—and remains—absolutely free.

My colleagues were interested. They could see how welcome such a program would be in their own churches. But when Richard Szucs, president of the Academy and member of First Baptist Church, began to talk about the 1,700 medical professionals who are members of the Academy and how they might participate, we all began to see the potential. Hundreds of congregations, hundreds of medical professionals, coming together to make Richmond “the healthiest city in America.”

When Terry Whipple first said it I thought he was just being grandiose, but now I don’t think he was. I think he simply has Kingdom-sized dreams, and he’s waiting for the rest of us to catch up.  We took a small step forward last week.  Maybe, by the time this year-long, every-member mission trip is over, we will have taken giant strides toward that ambitious goal.

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Please see my posts about churches working with hospitals to keep people healthy from Day 45 and Day 46.  It feels like momentum is building.

The 50-Mile Walk

My friend Randy said he wanted to walk 50 miles in one day, that it was something he had wanted to do since he was nine years old, when President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to get fit.  Kennedy had heard that during Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency army officers had been challenged to walk 50 miles in three days, but some of them had done it in one.  The idea fascinated him.  He challenged his own officers to try it and said he would see to the fitness of the White House staff.

And so it was that his brother Bobby, the Attorney General of the United States, hauled himself out of bed early the next Saturday morning and walked 50 miles on the C&O Canal towpath in a pair of sturdy oxfords.  The date was February 9, 1963.  The towpath was crusted with snow and ice.  He started with four aides and when the last one dropped out after 35 miles Kennedy said, “You’re lucky your brother is not the President of the United States!” 

And then he kept walking. 

The story spread across the country and within weeks everybody was trying to walk 50 miles in a day.  My friend, Randy, begged his father to let him try but his father said no, it wouldn’t be safe.  Randy said, “You could follow me in the truck.”  But somehow the thought of driving slowly behind his son for twenty hours in a pickup truck didn’t appeal to Randy’s dad.  He still said no.  But when Randy told me about his childhood dream I said, “Let’s do it.”

On Easter Sunday afternoon Randy and I drove up to Arlington to spend the night with friends, and then got up at three o’clock the next morning to begin our walk.  The condo where we were staying was exactly one mile from the C&O Canal towpath, and from there we simply walked north, along the sand and crushed-gravel surface of the towpath, from one mile marker to the next, until we reached mile marker 25 and turned around.

There was more to it than that, of course.  Randy nearly stepped on a copperhead in the path at about five o’clock in the morning, while it was still dark.  We looked back and saw the thing in the beam of our headlamps, coiled and ready to strike.  Not far from Great Falls we came upon scenery that made us think we were somewhere in the Lake District of England—beautiful, silent, and serene.  At 22 miles we stopped to inspect our feet and treat blisters; and found to our dismay that Randy had developed some doozies.  He limped on to 25, turned around and struggled heroically to finish the walk, but at 31 miles I told him, “Randy, if you were playing football, and got injured, they would carry you off the field.  You’re not playing football, you’re walking, but you’re injured and you’ve got to let somebody carry you off the field.” 

At 36 miles he did.

And here’s a funny part of the story.  The friends we were staying with came to pick Randy up at Great Falls.  Betty said she would drive him home but Wayne offered to walk with me the rest of the way—14 miles.  Betty wasn’t sure he could do it.  Wayne is 80 years old.  But Wayne had his running shoes laced up, he was wearing his reflective vest, and he had his iPod clipped to the front with the ear buds in.  We walked about a half mile together when I became concerned about our progress.  I was trying to finish the walk by midnight but Wayne was strolling along as if we had all week.  Finally I asked him what he was listening to on his iPod and he smiled and said, “Gershwin!” 

Well, that was the problem right there: we needed something with a little more tempo.

But after about five miles of strolling I asked Wayne if he would like for Betty to come pick him up and he thought that would be a splendid idea.  We spent the next two miles trying to find a place where she could meet us, and when we finally made the connection it was after nine o’clock.  I had seven miles to go, alone, in the dark.  I picked up the pace considerably, gravel and sand crunching under my feet as I hurried along in the tunnel of light shining from my headlamp.  At 10:45 I turned off the towpath and headed uphill through the empty streets of Arlington, bone-weary and footsore, arriving at Wayne and Betty’s condo at 11:15. 

They welcomed me with congratulations and an enormous hamburger from a nearby restaurant.  Randy was sitting there, soaking his feet in warm saltwater, a little chagrined that I had finished and he hadn’t.  But when I saw the bottoms of his feet I wondered how he had made it so far.  Sheer determination, that’s how, and even then he was beginning to talk about a second attempt. 

I don’t know if I’ll go with him next time.  I’ve done my fifty miles.  And if there had been video of me trying to get out of bed the next morning it would have surely gone viral on YouTube.  I couldn’t find enough pieces of furniture to lean on as I tried to make my way to the kitchen for breakfast.  But if you’re interested let me know, and I’ll let Randy know, and then…who knows? 

This fad could catch on again.

You tell ‘em, Reggie!

I enjoy going to preaching conferences, but the kind of preaching conference I enjoy the most is the kind where someone tells me that the way I’m doing it already is the right way. 

I had that same pleasurable rush of confirmation at the annual meeting of the Baptist General Association of Virginia this week.  Reggie McNeal was the featured speaker, and as he talked about the missional church I heard him saying some of the same things I’ve been saying for the last several years, but in a way that was funny and disarming.  You’d be laughing out loud about something he said and then suddenly, umph, he’d slip the truth between your ribs like a knife blade.

Let me share with you some of those pointed truths:

  • Church is not “it” but “us.”
  • Our job is to bless the world, just as God told Abraham (“In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” Genesis 12:3).
  • We used to think it didn’t count unless we clubbed it, dragged it across the finish line, and threw it into a church pew.  We’ve got to relax about this thing—just bless people.
  • Leaders tend to look at what they’re working on. In John 4 Jesus was looking at the fields that were “white unto harvest.”  What about you?  Are you looking at the church or are you looking at the world?
  • Go to Wal-Mart and watch people for an hour.  Say, “Lord, help me see what you see.”
  • The church does not have a mission, the mission has a church.
  • We are all on a mission trip.
  • We are not members, we are missionaries.
  • If I can’t bring church to my neighbors, my neighbors are not going to get it.  Put your focus on people, not church.
  • Use your building to bless the community.
  • Get involved in your local schools.
  • As the bride of Christ, can we allow what captures his heart to capture ours?  Can we allow what breaks his heart to break ours?
  • The missional church follows the path of brokenness.  Whatever breaks your heart is how God wants to use you.

Click HERE for a video that will give you a good taste of what I heard at BGAV.  It’s funny, mind-boggling, and (umph!) true.

A Prayer for the Fifth of July

Yesterday was a wonderful day in worship at Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  I was afraid we might get carried away by the spirit of patriotism, and turn the worship of God into a festival of freedom, but that’s not what happened.  While acknowledging that it was a special day in the life of our nation, and expressing our gratitude through the singing of hymns like “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and “America the Beautiful,” we did a pretty good job of remembering why we had come to worship, and whom.  Eunice Kim started us off on the right foot, sitting down at the piano and playing a pyrotechnic version of “Our God is an Awesome God.”  And when it was time for the pastoral prayer, I offered this:

O God, you who birthed a nation from a barren womb
And made your covenant with a band of runaway slaves;
You who have watched over the rise and fall of every nation
Great and small, near and far, before and since;
You who were in that stuffy room in Philadelphia
when this nation declared its independence;
Be with us now.

Help us see things as you see them.
From your point of view there are no national boundaries,
No ugly black lines on the face of the globe.
From your point of view the greatness of any nation
Is not measured by its gross national product,
Or its military strength,
But by the way its people embrace your truths
And love the things you love.

And so, even as we strike up the band
And join the parade,
As we light the fuses of firecrackers
And celebrate our cherished independence,
We ask that you would teach us the discipline of responsibility
So that we may use our freedom in ways that help and heal
Rather than hurt and destroy.
As the Apostle Paul has said, “let us not use freedom
As an opportunity for self-indulgence
But rather, through love, let us become servants to one another.”

On this Independence Day we pray especially
For the United States of America and for her president.
We ask that you grant to him and to all our elected officials
Extraordinary wisdom, unwavering compassion,
and a clear sense of your kind of justice.

We pray that as a people we may become what you promised to Abraham:
A nation by whom all the nations of the world are blessed.
May the people of Asia and Africa, Europe and South America
Soon be able to say, if not already, “Thank God for America,”
Even as we thank you, O God, for what is,
And look forward by faith to what will be
When your kingdom comes, and your will is done,
On earth as it is in heaven.

Amen.

So may it be, on the Fifth of July as well as the Fourth.

Election Day in Norman Rockwell’s America

freedomofspeechposterI got up at 5:00 this morning to participate in democracy. 

I started the coffee, got dressed, and then took an umbrella and a travel mug over to the Albert H. Hill Middle School on Patterson Avenue where I found nearly twenty people already waiting in line.  By the time the doors opened at six the line stretched out to the sidewalk and down the street, with people clumped together under big umbrellas in the light drizzle that was falling. 

The school itself was something out of a Norman Rockwell painting, and even though some of the people who were lined up with me didn’t look very Rockwellian, the volunteers did, especially the woman who offered to demonstrate the voting machine.  I took her up on the offer just because she seemed so eager to show off her skills, and then had to console her when the machine didn’t work (not a good omen). 

The person who took my name was a member of First Baptist Church, although he said he wasn’t supposed to acknowledge that he knew me.  A good volunteer wouldn’t want to show any favoritism to his friends and neighbors, not at the polling place.  But then, when I moved on through the line, there was another First Baptist member waiting to show me to my voting machine.  They were everywhere!  He, too, downplayed our acquaintance and only pointed (with authority) to machine number five. 

This machine was working, and I quickly got down to the serious business of voting.  I liked the way the boxes lit up when I touched them, and that big, flashing yellow box at the end that said, “Cast your vote!”  I double-checked, just to make sure the machine and I agreed on who I was voting for, and then I touched the big, yellow box. 

And that was it.

Someone handed me an “I voted” sticker.  I stuck it on the front of my shirt and walked out the back door into the rain.  When I looked toward the street I saw that the line had only gotten longer, and now stretched all the way down to the corner.  A bunch of Americans, standing in the rain, waiting to vote.  Doesn’t that do something for you?

My daughter Catherine turns eighteen next month, and so she just missed voting in this election.  When she saw the sticker on the front of my shirt at breakfast she confessed that she was jealous.  She wished she had gotten to vote.  That’s the feeling I picked up from the crowd at Starbucks later when I went by to get my free “I voted” cup of coffee—that voting was a privilege, and that we had been privileged to participate in something that will go down in history.  I saw it in the way we recognized each other’s stickers, the way we nodded and smiled knowingly.  I’m not sure what it did for them, but I’m sure what it did for me.

It made me proud to be an American.