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Posts Tagged ‘Bible’

UncommonI had coffee with Steve Quesenberry yesterday (pronounced KWESS-en-berry).

Steve and his wife Suzan have been visiting First Baptist for the last few months and he thinks he’s ready to join. He wanted to talk to me about that yesterday, but even more he wanted to talk to me about the holy nudge he’s feeling to start a men’s Bible study group, especially for young men like himself. He talked about a book called Uncommon by Tony Dungy, former coach of the Indianapolis Colts, and wondered if he could start an Uncommon Bible study for men at First Baptist Church. I hadn’t heard of the book, but after hearing Steve talk about it I was curious. This is what I found online:

When Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy took home the trophy in Super Bowl XLI, fans around the world looked to him as the epitome of success. Athletic victory, professional excellence, fame and celebrity, awards and honors—he had it all. But even in that moment, he knew those achievements had little to do with his ultimate significance as a man.

Coach Dungy still passionately believes that there is a different path to significance—a path characterized by attitudes, ambitions, and allegiances that are all too rare but uncommonly rewarding. In the New York Times best seller Uncommon, Dungy reveals secrets to achieving significance that he has learned from his remarkable parents, his athletic and coaching career, his mentors, and his walk with God.

As I told Steve yesterday, I’d want to know a little more about the book before I give it my endorsement, but I already love the title. In fact I wrote down the first draft of a bulletin blurb while we were having coffee: “You’ve heard of the common man. But what about the uncommon man? Want to be one? Join Steve Quesenberry on Sunday mornings at 9:45 in Room…”

What I love even more is the way Steve understands that if you’re going to join First Baptist Church, you need to find your way of bringing heaven to earth.  We seem to be creating a “culture of expectation” here that is focused on fulfilling the mission, and not only meeting members’ needs.  It aligns with a missional vision that insists, “The church is not the goal of God’s mission; the church is the tool of God’s mission.”  For Steve that means helping young men follow “a path to significance that is characterized by attitudes, ambitions, and allegiances that are all too rare but uncommonly rewarding.”

I hadn’t heard of Tony Dungy before yesterday. I wasn’t sure how to pronounce Quesenberry. I’m a little more aware today, and a little more hopeful that with young men like Steve in the world the Kingdom of heaven must be near.

Uncommonly near.

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smokingOn Wednesdays I go down to the basement level of the church to speak to the men and women who come to First Baptist for hot showers, clean clothes, a cup of coffee, and a little bit of the love of Christ. I enjoy doing it, and I try not to make it too “preachy.” I simply try to encourage people who live a harder life than most of us can imagine.

But this week I told a story I heard from church historian Bill Leonard years ago. It was about a time he visited a rural church in Kentucky that didn’t even have a building: the congregation just sat outside on wooden benches. Bill sat down beside a man who was wearing a pair of faded bib overalls, with a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes in the front pocket.

When the preacher got warmed up to the subject of his sermon he said, “I’m getting tired of these people going out honky tonkin’ on Saturday nights, getting’ drunk and carryin’ on like they do. What kind of example is that to be settin’ before our kids?” And the man in the bib overalls said, “Amen, preacher! You tell ‘em!”

And then the preacher said, “And what about these young women walkin’ around with their skirts cut up to here and their blouses cut down to there, showing off everything the good Lord gave ‘em? How is a young man supposed to keep his way pure?” And the man in the bib overalls said, “Amen, preacher! That’s right!”

But then the preacher said, “And what about cigarettes? People who call themselves Christians walkin’ around suckin’ on them cigarettes like a baby sucks on his bottle! That’s got to stop!” And that’s when the man in bib overalls turned to Bill Leonard and said, “That ain’t Bible and I ain’t listenin’!” and walked off in a huff.

I said to my friends at Community Missions, “That’s a funny story, but it does raise the question of who you listen to. This man said he wasn’t going to listen to something that wasn’t in the Bible, but what he really meant was that he wasn’t going to listen to something he didn’t agree with. What about you? Who do you listen to? Who has authority in your life? Is it the Bible? Is it your mother? Is it the voices in your head?

I said, “For me, it’s Jesus. I believe he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and I believe that if I follow his Way I won’t be disappointed. So, I read the Gospels, and I underline what Jesus says, and I try to live by it. And even if I get to the end of my life and find that Jesus has led me to a locked door (although that’s not going to happen), I don’t think I will have any regrets. I believe his Way really is the best way to live in this world.”

It’s the reason First Baptist Church is on this year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia: because it’s so important to Jesus, because he mentions the Kingdom some 120 times in the Gospels, because he teaches his disciples to pray that God’s Kingdom will come, and His will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

So, we’re working hard to bring heaven to earth, and it’s not necessarily because we want to, but because Jesus said so.

What about you?  Who do you listen to?

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Interfaith Jefferson

I’m not sure whose idea it was that my interfaith group should visit Monticello, but that’s what we did on Wednesday. There was something in the memo about Thomas Jefferson’s commitment to “religious liberty,” and how important it is for all Americans to be able to worship in the way they choose. So, Jefferson himself (and not just his statue) might have been pleased to pose with Ben Romer, a Jewish rabbi (at left); Ammar Amonette, a Muslim imam; Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence; Nathan Elmore, a Baptist campus minister; Jim Somerville, a Baptist pastor; and Bill Sachs, an Episcopal priest. Not pictured above is Imad Damaj, head of the Virginia Muslim Coalition for Public Affairs, who snapped this photo.

We went from Monticello to the Kabob Palace in Charlottesville for lunch (delicious), and for a meeting with Peter Ochs, the Edgar M. Bronfman Professor of Modern Judaic Studies at the University of Virginia. Dr. Ochs coined the term “scriptural reasoning,” and is the co-founder of the Society for Scriptural Reasoning, which promotes interfaith dialogue among Christians, Jews, and Muslims through scriptural study groups. So, after lunch, we studied some scripture.

We looked at a verse from the Qur’an about the Creation, this one, 2:117, which reads: “Originator of the heavens and the earth. When He decrees a matter, He only says to it, ‘Be,’ and it is.”

We noticed how similar that one is to Genesis 1:1 that reads, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” and continues in verse 4 with, “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”

And then we looked at John 1:1 that reads: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” and continues in verse 3 with, “All things were made through him.”

The imam had trouble with that one. “How could the Word be God and God be the Word?” he asked. “Those sound like two different things and God, as you know, is One.” And I said, “Well it says right here, ‘God was the Word’ and ‘the Word was God.’ The two are one and the same.”

We didn’t get much past that on Wednesday, but pause and reflect on that moment when the Baptist pastor and the Muslim imam were discussing Scripture in the most cordial, respectful way you can imagine. That probably wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t spent some time together already, getting to know each other and becoming friends. Part of our “mission” in this interfaith group, is to show all of Richmond that just because we come from different traditions and have different beliefs, we don’t have to be enemies. We are trying to model true interfaith friendship. If you have eyes to see it, it is a way of bringing heaven to earth. And on Wednesday, even though we didn’t agree on everything,

We talked like old friends.

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tearsI can’t imagine a more beautiful day has ever dawned on the city of Richmond than this one. I’ve just come in from a run on Monument Avenue, where the light was golden, the world was in bloom, and the love of God was in the air I breathed.

Last night was a different story.

Because of some confusion among our members about the intent of my April 28 sermon, I stood before the deacons last night to explain that I am not on a crusade to turn First Baptist into a gay church, that I am not planning to ordain a gay minister, and that I am not hoping to perform a gay wedding. What I am is a pastor, and because I am I often sit in my study and listen to people pour their hearts out, often through tears, and sometimes what they tell me is this: “I’m gay.”

But here’s the problem: because I am a pastor I can’t share that secret with anybody else. I can’t talk about the person; I have to talk about the issue. And when I talk about the issue people sometimes assume that I have a gay agenda—that I’m trying to turn First Baptist into a gay church, or that I plan to ordain a gay minister, or that I hope to perform a gay wedding, when the truth is that I’m thinking about _______________, who sat in my study with tears in her eyes, wondering if the church would still love her if they knew the truth about her.

I wanted to say, “Of course they would!” because I know the people of First Baptist Church. I’ve never known a more loving congregation. If I told her story from the pulpit they would rush to put their arms around her and reassure her of their love and our deacons would lead the charge.   But homophobia cuts both ways. It makes people afraid of homosexuals and it makes homosexuals afraid of people. They keep their secret to themselves.

Because not everybody is so loving.

I tried to explain all this to the deacons last night. I don’t think I did a very good job. During the question and answer period someone asked me if I were planning to do a gay wedding. I said no. He told me later that it wasn’t really his quesion.  He doesn’t have a problem with gay people.  He needed to ask, he said, simply because so many people had been asking him. He wanted to have an answer for them. “Tell them this,” I said. “Tell them I’m a pastor. Tell them that I care about people, and that some of the people I care about are gay.”

But they aren’t the only ones I care about.

I care about the ones who have a real problem with this issue, the ones who have been sitting in my study nearly every day in the last few weeks telling me they just can’t ignore what the Bible says about homosexuality. I tell them I can’t ignore it either, and that this is what makes it so hard for me. I would love to tell homosexuals they can do whatever they want, but I can’t, not anymore than I can tell heterosexuals to do whatever they want. The Bible won’t let me. But the Bible also won’t let me hate. I have to love. I have to love people who are gay and I have to love people who flinch at the very mention of the word.

I’m a pastor.

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ChildrensBooksCollageA couple of weeks ago I bumped into Emma El-Khouri in the hallway at church. Emma is how old: Five? Six? Anyway, she’s an adorable first grader, and I squatted down to talk to her about the Bible I would be giving her during the Sunday morning service. This is something we do at First Baptist: we give first graders a Bible, and Emma was looking forward to getting hers. She assured me that she could already read.

“Well, then,” I said, “this is what I want you to do: take your new Bible home, read it, and then next Sunday you can come back and tell me how you liked it.” She nodded and smiled as if she had already planned to do that (and, honestly, she probably could; that girl is whip-smart).

“I have a whole shelf full of books at home,” she said.

And that made me think of something else.

I had read something just the day before about children who don’t have any books at home—not even one. Can you imagine how deprived you would be if you never got to enter the magical world of story through the pages of a book?  It’s a big part of the reason First Baptist is sponsoring a book drive. On Valentine’s Day we hope to present every child at Glen Lea Elementary School with a book of their own.

And so I asked Emma if she would like to help.

“There are some children in our city who don’t have any books,” I said. “Do you think you could go home and find one on your shelf that you could give away?” She nodded again. “And,” I added, “do you think you could pick one of your favorite books, one that somebody would really like and not just one you want to get rid of?” She nodded again, a little more slowly this time.

This was going to cost her something.

But I wouldn’t be surprised if Emma went home and did exactly that. I think lots of people did that, because last Wednesday night at church I was almost run over by two shopping carts full of books being pushed down the hall by some of our youth.

“Wow!” I said. “Are all those for the book drive?”

“Yes,” they said. “And this is just the first load!”

It seems like a little thing: to put a book in the hands of a child who has never owned one. But the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, Jesus said. It’s a small thing that grows and grows. Who knows how Emma’s small act of kindness may change a life, how the little girl who gets her beloved book may come to treasure words and language and the One in whose name the book was given, and grow up to be the poet laureate of Virginia, writing poems about mustard seeds that become trees where the birds of the air can build their nests?

Maybe this is exactly how the Kingdom comes.

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