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DadYesterday was Father’s Day. Today is my dad’s birthday. He had the misfortune of being born so close to Father’s Day that when he became a father he often received one gift or card for both. “Happy Birth-Father’s-Day!” my brothers and I would write on the tags of our poorly wrapped homemade gifts. But Dad didn’t seem to mind.

He wasn’t in it for the glory.

I talked about him at last night’s vesper service at Westminster-Canterbury and read some excerpts from the little book I once put together for him: Seventy Things I Remember about My Dad (in Honor of His Seventieth Birthday). I talked about the time he rolled naked in the snow just to prove to his sons that it wasn’t too cold to walk to school; about the way his eyes used to light up when he challenged us to a game of Monopoly; about the way he taught us that when you had something hard to do it was best to just get it over with, as soon as possible.

I didn’t talk about the 25 years my dad spent trying to end poverty as a Presbyterian missionary in Boone County, West Virginia—one of the poorest counties in America—but as I sit here this morning thinking about how to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, I can see where some of my inspiration comes from. I got a glimpse of it during last night’s introduction.

Ginna Lavender, a resident of Westminster-Canterbury and a member of First Baptist Church, told the group who had come for vespers that our church is on a year-long, every-member mission trip. She said, “Dr. Somerville tells us to look around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven and then roll up our sleeves and go to work.” It was just after that that I stood up to talk about my dad, and as I reflect on it this morning it occurs to me that that’s what my dad was doing: looking around for anything that didn’t look like heaven and then rolling up his sleeves and going to work.

John Denver sang that West Virginia is “almost heaven,” but he wasn’t singing about Boone County. The poverty there was bone-crushing. Dad once took us to Thanksgiving dinner with a family that was one generation removed from living under a rock cliff. The house they were in wasn’t much of an improvement. But Dad had seen that house as he was driving up Joe’s Creek Hollow one day—with the rusted-out hulks of old cars in the front yard and the bags and piles of trash in the back—and he had gotten out to meet the family that lived there, to talk to them, and get to know them, and see if he could do anything to help. That initial meeting turned into a friendship that lasted for years, and I would guess that Dad got as much from the Dotsons as they got from him.

It wouldn’t have happened if Dad hadn’t been “looking around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven,” but he was, and he found it, and he rolled up his sleeves and tried to make a difference. God only knows if he did, but that’s OK.

He wasn’t in it for the glory.

Happy Birthday, Dad. I love you. I’m inspired by your life and ministry. And when I go out to help bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, today,

I’ll be thinking of you.

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On MissionOn Sunday I spent three hours with the Ministry Planning Team at Richmond’s First Baptist Church. We were trying to draft a mission, vision, and values statement for the church, something we’ve been working on for a while.

We were stuck on the “mission” piece.

What is it that we, as a church, are trying to do? Are we trying to bring heaven to earth? Are we trying to make disciples of every nation? Are we trying to be Jesus’ witnesses from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth? Are we trying to save people from eternal damnation?

We looked at mission statements from Coca-Cola (“To refresh the world, to inspire moments of happiness and optimism, to create value and make a difference”) and Starbucks Coffee (“To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time”). We talked about “aspiration” and wondered if our mission statement could be about something people really want, rather than just about something they ought to do. We thought we were getting close at one point, and then our conversation ricocheted off in another direction.

We’ve still got work to do.

But I woke up Monday morning thinking about our mission, and ended up writing the litany that’s printed below. It’s not our mission statement. It’s just Jim’s thoughts on a Monday morning. But I hope you will read it and let me know your thoughts. Does any part of it refresh you, or inspire you…or make you want a Coke? (smile).

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Leader: Jesus taught his disciples to pray that God’s Kingdom would come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

People: Richmond’s First Baptist Church wants to be an answer to that prayer.

Leader: Jesus knew what a big job that would be. He told his followers to go, make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey all that he had commanded.

People: Let us never be content with making converts alone.

Leader: Jesus breathed on his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit; as the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

People: We are sent as Christ was sent to love the world God loves.

Leader: Let us go in the grace of God, the love of the Lord Jesus, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

People: Amen.

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hands on barsYesterday was a great day at Richmond’s First Baptist Church. Attendance was up, giving was up, the “mood” was up (even though I preached a sermon called “The End of the World as We Know It”), and last night’s Hanging of the Green service was a joyful example of what Pastor Emeritus Jim Flamming later called “organized chaos.”

But that’s not what I want to talk about:

Last week I was writing about the Richmond Jail and what First Baptist Church could do to bring a little heaven to earth there, where it is so badly needed. I said that jail ministry isn’t for everyone, and a few days later I was reminded why.

Someone who had read my blog asked if I could visit a friend in jail. I said yes, of course; it felt like an answer to my prayer of wanting to get more involved. But a few hours later there I was, asking for permission at the front desk to visit someone I had never met before.

It made a difference that I was a pastor. If I had only been a friend or a family member I probably would have had to schedule an appointment first. But I gave them my name and title and told them I had come to visit and a few minutes later I was buzzed in through the heavy steel doors. I took a seat on my side of the bulletproof glass and waited for the person I was visiting to arrive.

I can’t tell you why he’d been locked up. I can only tell you that he was pretty sure he was going to be locked up for a long, long time. He has small children at home, and he was afraid that by the time he got out they would be grown and gone. He was afraid he wasn’t going to be much good to anybody—not his children, not his wife. He said he didn’t see much reason to go on living.

I asked, “Are you thinking about suicide?”

He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Let me tell you why that’s a bad idea,” and even as I said it I hoped that God would fill in the blank with a good answer. This is what came to my mind: I said, “One thing most fathers don’t give their children enough of is time, but you are going to have nothing but time. You can use that time to write letters to your children, to pray for them, to call them on the phone, to make videos for them. You can be present in their lives even if you are absent physically, and you can be more present than a lot of fathers are.”

And then I was inspired to say this:

“They can lock you up, but they can’t lock up your love. It can go through concrete walls, bulletproof glass, and tempered steel to get to your family, just as God’s love can go through concrete walls, bulletproof glass, and tempered steel to get to you.” It was one of those moments when I thought, “Where did that come from?” because it sounded so much better than anything I could have thought of myself. I have to give credit to the Holy Spirit.  I could tell that it made an impact, that he was thinking those things through and considering the truth of them. In the end I prayed with him, gave him my name and number, and walked out through those heavy steel doors, hearing them clang shut behind me.

“I was in prison,” Jesus said, “and you visited me.” But I couldn’t help thinking about all those others inside who didn’t get a visit that day. What about them? Who will give them a reason to live? I have a feeling that even when we get to the end of this year-long, every-member mission trip called KOH2RVA we are going to discover that…

Our work is just beginning.

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I was reading John 15 as part of my morning devotions on Tuesday when I saw that line in verse 8 about glorification.  Jesus said, “My father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”

I stumble over that word–glory, glorify, glorification.  What does that really mean?  I tend to think of glory as some kind of radiant energy, as in “the glory of the Lord” that was up there on Mount Sinai, so that when Moses came down from the mountain his face was shining.  I think about Jesus being transfigured on another mountain, so that his face began to shine like the sun.  As I was reading John 15 on Tuesday and thinking about how the things we do glorify the Father I thought, “Maybe that’s what it means: that when we bear much fruit and become Jesus’ disciples it makes the Father’s face light up.”

I loved the simplicity of that, and the mental picture it created–the face of God lit up because of something I had done.  And then I remembered how my own face had lit up when I talked with my daughter Ellie the night before on the telephone, when she told me all that she was doing and I thought about all the ways she makes me proud.  It occurred to me that my daughter had glorified me: she had made my face light up. 

I may be way off base here (I often am), but it warmed my heart to think that I could make the Father’s face light up in the same way Ellie made my face light up–simply by doing those things that please him and make him proud. 

Imagine that.

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I’m in Frederick, Maryland, today, honoring my father and mother by taking care of them while my brother Scott and his family prepare for his daughter’s wedding at their farm in West Virginia. 

It’s been a pleasure.

This morning, for example, Dad came in to breakfast with a memory about sacking oats in his boyhood with a fellow named “Willie T.”  Dad said, “There we were, sacking oats in that little shed with the tin roof on it, on one of the hottest days in the summer, and boy, did Willie T stink!”  I had never heard that story before, and I had to look for a place to file the mental picture it created.

And then Mom spread out all her family photos on the dining room table while I was doing some reading for Sunday’s sermon.  One after another she would push them across to me and ask me if I remembered this or that event.  There they were: pictures of me and my brothers, my grandparents, some of the places we used to live.  Most of them I had seen before, but some of them were new.  Again I looked for places in my brain to store the images. 

The mental file cabinets are overflowing.

I’ve cooked meals for my folks, washed dishes, helped Dad get a shower, helped Mom find a pen—all those things they used to do for me without grumbling or complaining.  And it really is that endless stream of “little things” that flows into the pool of family love.  They did them for me, and now I get to do them for them, and the pool gets deeper and wider. 

If there were a theme for this Fifth Commandment Retreat it might be “Abundance”: an abundance of memories, an abundance of love, an abundance of care once received and now given with gratitude.  “Honor your father and mother,” God said.  Today it strikes me not so much as a command but as an offer, as a way of entering into abundant life.  But those of you who have cared for your aging parents know how it goes:

Tomorrow may be another story altogether.

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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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Last Sunday afternoon I got to baptize thirteen people in the James River in our Second Annual River Baptism.  There’s something very special about wading out into that water while the gathered church watches from the shore; something very special about dipping those candidates beneath the surface in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit; something very special about seeing them wipe the water from their eyes and break into a joyful grin as the congregation applauds.  Jesus must have known how special all this could be when he commissioned his disciples to go and make disciples of every nation.  I can almost hear him saying, “Oh, and by the way…baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit.  It will mean the world to them.”

In this photo: Jim Somerville prepares to baptize Doug Duke as Buddy Burgess signs for the deaf congregation.

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