KOH2RVA: Day 317

Children's MinistryMy daughter Ellie and I have been talking about “branding” lately, something she’s interested in. She says that your “brand” is the first thing people think of when they think of your company. So, when you think of Maxwell House you think of coffee; when you think of Schwinn you think of bicycles, and when you think of Levi’s you think of blue jeans.

But what do you think of when you think of Richmond’s First Baptist Church?

Some people think of us as “that big church on the corner of Monument and the Boulevard.” I’ve heard that some people think of us as “that rich church,” or “that fancy church,” or that “country club church,” (although I couldn’t get anyone to admit it). But my favorite is the one I heard during last year’s youth Christmas pageant, when someone joked about running into some people from that “heaven to earth church.”

That’s a brand I could live with.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the first thing people thought of when they thought of Richmond’s First Baptist Church was heaven coming to earth? That could mean so many things! It could mean that when you are sitting in our sanctuary on Sunday morning, listening to the choir sing, it’s like heaven on earth. Or it could mean that the congregation is working to bring heaven to earth all the other days of the week, outside the sanctuary. It could mean both, and ideally it would, but either way, being known as the “heaven to earth church” would not be a bad thing.

So, is that our brand? Is bringing heaven to earth the first thing people think of when they think of Richmond’s First Baptist Church? I don’t know, but I do know that I got email yesterday from a woman in Louisville, Kentucky, who sent me a copy of a hymn about heaven coming to earth because she said that when she saw it, it reminded her of First Baptist, Richmond.

Where would she get such an idea? I don’t know. She might read this blog from time to time. Or she might subscribe to one of the Baptist state newspapers that has carried our story. Or she might visit the Ethics Daily web site, or get electronic updates from Associated Baptist Press. When I was at the General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship recently—a national gathering of Baptists—I was surprised by how many seemed to know about our efforts to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.

But suppose we were successful? Suppose that by the grace of God, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, and through the tireless leadership of the Lord Jesus Christ we were able to bring heaven even one inch closer to Richmond? What then? What if children were lifted up out of poverty? And racism became a thing of the past? What if no one was hungry or homeless in our city? What if the hospitals were empty? What if the streets were clean? What if strangers greeted one another as friends? What if the love of Christ were known and felt? What if sins were forgiven, and hopes restored, and lives made new? What if the presence of God lit up the city like sunshine, and the Spirit of God became the very air we breathed?  How many more people would know our story then?

If being known as the “heaven to earth church” moves us one inch closer to that vision, then I’m for it.

KOH2RVA: Day 299

Book Buddies 2Tomorrow will be Day 300 of First Baptist Church’s year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.

How are we doing?

Well, the Kingdom hasn’t come, not yet, not entirely, but there have been many times when heaven touched down briefly, just long enough to encourage us. I sometimes think about that remarkable picture of the sixth-grade boy from the housing projects in the East End reading to one of our privileged preschoolers at First Baptist and realize that wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t been on this mission—if one of our members hadn’t been thinking about what she could do to help bring heaven to earth.

But that’s just one example. There are hundreds more, literally. So many of our members have been involved, and in so many ways. When I flip through the pictures I’ve posted on my blog in the last 299 days the stories come rushing back right along with them until I am almost overwhelmed by God’s goodness and grace and a glimpse of what is possible when his people put their shoulder to the wheel and push in the same direction, toward the coming of his Kingdom.

So I’m putting together a slide show for our closing celebration on Sunday, September 8. It’s going to feature dozens of those pictures and a song called “Heaven” by Michael Gungor that says, “I don’t know but I’ve been told, heaven is coming down to this world.”

There are days when I can believe it, and this day may be one of them. Why not seize the opportunity to do something on this day that is picture-worthy, story-worthy—one of those things that will stay in your memory forever as an example of how heaven can come to earth and sometimes does? And then do this: take a picture, write up the story, and send it to me at somerville@fbcrichmond.org. Who knows? It may be the Day 300 example of how “heaven is coming down to this world.”

KOH2RVA: Day 297

Linda and Louis

Let me tell you about Linda and Louis Watts (at left in the photo above).

If I’m remembering correctly it was Linda who baked mountains of pumpkin bread at Thanksgiving and took it to the teachers at Glen Lea Elementary School. She and Louis were back for the faculty luncheon last month, serving up heaping plates of goodness for the teachers and letting them know just how much they are appreciated. Kimberly Lee, Principal, was so moved by that kind of generosity that she presented a plaque to Steve Blanchard thanking all the members and friends of First Baptist who have made a difference at Glen Lea during this year-long, every-member mission trip. But if I were giving out plaques, I would want to give one to Louis and Linda.

I found them in the waiting room at VCU Medical Center at 5:45 on Monday morning when I went by to pray for a young woman who was having surgery that day. They had brought her to the hospital because her parents were out of town and she didn’t know who else to ask. So she asked Louis and Linda, her “adopted” parents, and they were glad to help. They had brought books and snacks and were planning to stay until the surgery was over.

While I was sitting with them they told me about the big adventure they’d had the previous weekend, when Louis ended up driving the church bus to Short Pump so 25 international students from VCU could do some shopping. I’ve driven that bus before. It’s a little intimidating. But Louis got everybody to Short Pump and back while Linda took a “cute little Egyptian family” in her car because they had a baby and needed to use the car seat.

And then they told me about the surprise birthday party they threw for one of those international students, a young woman from Iran who has no family here in the States, one of their other “adopted” daughters. She thought she was having a quiet birthday dinner at their home, but when they opened the door—surprise!—a room full of people was waiting to wish her well and sing the birthday song. Louis and Linda were afraid that she might be overwhelmed by all the attention but she blushed with pleasure and called her mother later to tell her all about it. Think how pleased her mother was to know that her daughter had friends in the States.

So, that’s a little about Louis and Linda, who seem to be working every day to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, even if it means baking mountains of pumpkin bread, or getting up really early in the morning, or driving a big, intimidating, church bus. They remind me of those servants in Luke 17 who, when they have done everything they were told to do, say, “We are unworthy servants: we have only done our duty.”

Good for you, Louis and Linda. May your tribe increase.

KOH2RVA: Day 284

Jay McNeal3I had lunch with Jay McNeal yesterday, my former intern, who is now a fully ordained Master of Divinity. I told him shortly before he graduated from seminary that I couldn’t afford to hire him, but I could give him a job, and that’s how Jay became First Baptist’s “Microchurch Pastor.”

I’ve been talking about Microchurch for a few years now. Here’s the way I explained it to our television viewers in October, 2010.

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 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.

That was in 2010. What I’ve learned since then is that we don’t have any way of knowing how many Microchurches are out there. There may be 200. There may be 2,000. And so I’ve asked Jay if he can help us figure out how many there are and how we can encourage and sustain them as they work with us to bring heaven to earth. I’ve challenged Jay to start 500 new Microchurches in the next year, almost as a dare, and he has accepted the challenge. There was a moment during yesterday’s lunch when I realized he was serious. I had asked him to visit a Microchurch next week and maybe another one the week after that. He said, “But there are 52 Sundays in a year. If we’re trying to start 500 new Microchurches I’m going to have to visit a lot more than that.”

You go, Jay.

I’m sure he’ll figure it out, but in the meantime consider this. If you looked at a map of Central Virginia next year and saw 500 new dots on the map—500 more places where people are working to bring heaven to earth—wouldn’t you be encouraged? Wouldn’t you think that it was beginning to happen, that God’s kingdom was coming, and God’s will was being done,

On earth as it is in heaven?

KOH2RVA: Day 280

Roberts BaptismI’m back from a week at the beach, where I was privileged to participate in my nephew Robert’s baptism. Robert is 19 years old, but he’s lived through a lot in his young life, including an automobile accident that could have killed him. I still shudder when I see pictures of the car. But that was a different time in his life, a time when he was doing some things he needed to leave behind.

Last Thursday night he did exactly that.

Before Robert (and my brother Gray and I) waded out into the water for his baptism I told the family that both Jesus and Paul talk about baptism. Paul talks about it as if it were a kind of death, in which the old person is buried in the waters of baptism and the new person is raised from the dead (Romans 6). Jesus talks about it as a kind of birth, where the one who is baptized is “born again” into a whole new life (John 3). But both Jesus and Paul talk about baptism as a symbol of transformation in which an old life is left behind and a new life begins.

Roberts Baptism afterThat’s been happening for Robert for months now. His life really is changing. His parents talk about it as a miracle. To participate in his baptism, and to witness that miracle first-hand, was an experience of heaven on earth. It didn’t hurt that we were on Kiawah Island, at sunset, on a lovely evening in June, but to wade out into the surf, and to dip Robert down into the ocean of God’s love, and to see the look on his face when he came up again, well…it was as if the sky opened up, and the Spirit came down, and a voice said, “This is my beloved son.”

And he is.

This morning I’m back in Richmond and looking forward to a great day at church and a great week of working to help bring heaven to earth right here, in this place where I live, this place that I love.

I hope you’ll join me.

KOH2RVA: Day 270

joyI talked with someone yesterday who wants more.

He didn’t put it that way exactly, but I could tell that—for him—the success of our year-long, every-member mission trip has been less than satisfying. He talked about volunteers reading to second-graders, and people building Habitat houses, and others who visit the homebound. “All good things,” he acknowledged, but he wondered if any of those things were having Kingdom results.

At first I felt a little defensive. I thought about some of those people who have shared their KOH2RVA stories with me, and the joy on their faces as they talked. “Are you saying we should stop doing that?” I asked, “That we should focus only on saving souls?” But he quickly countered, “No, not just that, but that, too.” And that’s when I began to realize that what he wants is the full Kingdom experience.

Because the Kingdom of Heaven is bigger than all the good deeds we could do and all the lost souls we could save. Jesus struggled for the words to describe it. He used to ask regularly, “What is the Kingdom of heaven like, and to what shall I compare it?” He faced the difficulty of explaining a heavenly reality to people who had never had any experience of heaven. And so he said, “It’s like finding a treasure in a field.” “It’s like watching a tiny seed grow into a tree.” “It’s like a lost son coming home.” It’s like that, but it’s not that.

It’s much, much bigger than that.

When I talk about bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, I always have that bigger reality in mind. So while the Kingdom of Heaven might be like someone reading to second-graders it’s not that. It’s bigger than that. But that’s a sign of the coming Kingdom—a parable if you will.

I think what my conversation partner was saying yesterday is that he wants God’s Kingdom to come and God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven, which is just what I want, and just what Jesus wants, and if we are all feeling a kind of “holy impatience” until it comes that’s probably just what we are supposed to feel. It keeps us thinking, working, hoping, praying, sighing, longing,

For heaven on earth.

KOH2RVA: Day 263

AlkulanaSometimes the best way to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, is to get out of town. At least, that was the thinking of a few bold women who started “a little camp for city kids” nearly a hundred years ago.

Last night Beth Reddish Wright told us the story of Camp Alkulana, a year round mission of the Richmond Baptist Association with a targeted summer ministry to inner city children. Here’s what the web site says:

The camp has been in continuous operation since it began in 1915. The kerosene lanterns, which shone from the windows of the first cottage, appeared as bright eyes shining through the forest. Thus, the Indian word, “Alkulana,” meaning “bright eyes” became the official camp name.

Camp Alkulana is located in Millboro Springs, Va, deep in the Alleghenies. The proximity of the camp to the George Washington National Forest provides it with boundless space and endless program resources. Some of the activities offered during the summer are hiking, cave exploring, camping out, cooking out, rock climbing, rappelling, ropes course, swimming, crafts, Bible study and worship.

Though the camp is in Millboro Springs, we consider our ministry in Richmond because we serve the children and youth of Central Virginia. Throughout the year in Alkulana offers ongoing supports in Richmond to its campers through large group gatherings, a mentoring program for older campers, and a targeted leadership program for its junior counselors.

Camp Alkulana’s Mission is to reveal God’s love to low-income and at-risk children and youth of Central Virginia so that they might realize the intrinsic value in themselves and others.

Beth told us the story of a girl named Jo-Jo who was afraid to join the other campers in jumping off a rock into the river. The rock was high, and when she looked down she thought, “Uh-uh. I like my life, and I love to live.” She was scared. But everybody else was jumping and splashing into the water and coming up laughing. Finally her counselor yelled, “Scary things make good memories!” And so she did it; she jumped.

It was so much fun she did it all afternoon. And later? She remembered what her counselor said: “Scary things make good memories.”

Maybe we should say it like this: some kinds of scary things make good memories. Jo-Jo was from Gilpin Court, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Richmond. Drug deals go down in that neighborhood all the time. People sometimes get shot and killed. But for a little while last summer she got away from all that. She went to a place where she could see the beauty of God’s creation all around her, where people were kind to her and shared the love of Christ with her, and where the only scary thing was the idea of jumping off a rock into the river. I can almost picture her asking: “Is this heaven?” and I can almost hear someone answering,

“No, it’s Camp Alkulana.”

Every year at First Baptist we take up a special offering for Camp Alkulana. This year, as we continue our year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, you might think of your offering as a way to do that: as a way of getting kids like Jo-Jo out of the city long enough to experience heaven on earth.

I’m planning to double my offering this year. I hope you will do the same.