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Posts Tagged ‘God’

Partners

Inez Cocke was already at church when I arrived yesterday morning (Inez is one of our most faithful volunteers.  She had probably been there for hours.  I often suspect she actually lives at church and has a cot somewhere in the basement).  But I walked in and said hello and after some friendly banter she asked, “What are you going to do now that your mission trip is over?”

Wow.

I hadn’t really thought about it like that.  I knew that we had come to the end of our year-long, every-member mission trip called KOH2RVA, but in my mind the mission was still going on, only in a different way.  Instead of trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, by ourselves we were going to start working with other churches, individuals, agencies, and organizations in a mission called “Kingdom of Heaven Times Two,” or, as I like to say it, “KOHX2: Bringing It Together.”

I gave Inez an example: I told her that some of our deacons have been working to renew our friendship with First African Baptist Church in the hope that we might work together to do something remarkable in Richmond, to show this city what true reconciliation looks like.

She seemed pleased by that.

“There’s always something going on around here,” she said, smiling, as if she knew that she would still have work to do when she showed up the next morning, as if she knew that our mission—God’s mission, really—won’t be over until his kingdom comes, and his will is done in Richmond as it is in heaven.

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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.”

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jail barsI went to jail last Friday.

It’s the fourth time I’ve done it on this year-long, every-member mission trip. I do it because I’m haunted by that verse from Matthew 25 where Jesus says, “I was in prison and you didn’t visit me.” So I go to jail to see Jesus, or at least some of his brothers. I went on Friday, and I took Tyler Forrest with me.

Tyler is a relatively new member of First Baptist Church. He’s a young man, a strong man; he works as a personal trainer at a fitness center. I saw him up in the balcony one Sunday morning at the 8:30 service and the next thing I know he was coming forward, saying he’d like to join the church. He said (and I quote): “This is the first church where I felt the Spirit.”

So, last Sunday I challenged the church once again to “get off the bus” and onto the mission field and as I was standing at the back door, shaking hands, Tyler came by and asked, “How do I do that?” I said, “Why don’t you come to jail with me on Friday?” and he said he would be glad to.

I knew I’d found the right man for the job.

Turns out Tyler knew somebody in the Richmond Jail. “Not a bad guy,” he said. “Just somebody who got busted for selling drugs.” So we drove down together on Friday, made our way through security, and ended up in the chaplain’s office, where we were greeted by Father Alonzo Pruitt, an Episcopal priest, and my friend Mike Kelly, “Michael Patrick Kelly,” he reminds me, a dyed-in-the-wool Catholic who works out at the same place I do: the Jewish Community Center.

It’s in interesting world we live in.

Mike led us up to a cell block on the second floor where “his” guys were waiting. They seem to be in some sort of program where you get special treatment for good behavior, because they were exceptionally well-behaved. They applauded as I came into the room, which made me feel a little embarrassed. I’m not a hero. If I were a hero I would be there every day, like my friend Mike, and not just when the guilt gets the best of me.

I didn’t want to be “preachy,” so I told them that funny story about the time I set the outhouse on fire while my brother Ed was still in it. When I was finished I told them that if they wanted to hear me preach they could tune in to Channel 8 at 11:00 on Sunday mornings. And then I asked if I could say a prayer.

I prayed that they would know the love of God, that they would feel it in their bones, that they would be reminded daily how precious they were to him, and that there was nothing they had ever done or ever could do that would put them beyond the reach of his love. And then I said “Amen” and was getting ready to say goodbye when Mike asked the men if they had any questions. They had a few, mostly about the story I had told, but then one of the men on the front row looked up at me and said, “Thank you for the prayer.”

And that was the moment. That’s when heaven came to earth. I could tell that something in that prayer had touched him and I imagined that it had been a long time since anyone told him he was loved. And maybe that’s why Jesus shamed me into visiting the Richmond Jail, because he knew that man was in there, and needed to know God’s love.

“You’re welcome,” I said.

On the way back to church Tyler and I had plenty to talk about. I don’t know if he will make jail ministry his “way” of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, but he might. I saw him bump fists with the guy he knew in there, and in his own way he reminded him that he, too, was loved by God.

That’s a good thing, isn’t it? Going down to the city jail and pouring out a bucket full of God’s love? I’m not sure I would have done that if we hadn’t been on this mission trip, but I’m glad I did.

I’m really glad.

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sunriseI’m sitting in my room at Graves Mountain Lodge, in Syria, Virginia, watching the sky getting gradually lighter in the east. It’s the last day of a three-day staff retreat, and I’m almost sorry to see it end.

We’ve taken the time in these days to share our stories, to tell each other how things are going for us and what we’re struggling with. It always amazes me, when you take time for such things, how much there is to share. It seems that everybody is dealing with far more than you would know, which means that everybody is pretty good at keeping most of those things to themselves, most of the time. But the Bible tells us to “bear one another’s burdens” and that’s one of the things we’ve focused on during this retreat.

It’s been holy.

We’ve also been talking about the missional understanding of church, and I’ve tried to sum it up by using a phrase I learned from Alan Hirsch, one of the leading voices in the missional church movement. He says: “The church is not the goal of God’s mission, but the tool of God’s mission.”

That’s profound, and it represents a profound change in thinking. If Hirsch is right about that it means, first of all, that the church doesn’t have a mission, God has a mission, so that instead of asking, “What should we do?” we begin to ask, “What does God want us to do?”

Yesterday I said that I think God made the world and everything in it, that he loves the world and everything in it, and that it breaks his heart to see the world so lost and in such ruin. I said that I think God’s mission is to redeem all of creation. That’s why he sent his Son, but as Alan Hirsch and others add, that’s also why he and the Son sent the Spirit, and why he, the Son, and the Spirit sent the church.

If that’s true, then I can almost picture God—like a patient gardener—using Richmond’s First Baptist Church as a tool to redeem this part of his creation.

Do you see how different that is from thinking of the church as the goal of God’s mission? If it’s the goal then our job is to get everybody out there in here—get them into the baptistry, into a good Sunday school class, and into the habit of regular worship—and if we could do that we could probably do it while the world around us was going to hell. But what we learn from the story of Jesus is that God loves the whole world; he doesn’t want any part of it to go to hell. Paul says that the whole creation groans, awaiting its redemption (Rom. 8:21-22).

This morning, from where I’m sitting, the creation is not groaning, it’s singing. The sun has just come up over the mountains and the birds, the budding trees, and the gurgling brooks are rejoicing. But this afternoon I’ll be back in Richmond, beautiful Richmond, where there is still much work to be done, and where God may need a tool just like First Baptist Church to do it.

And where he may need all of us to help.

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baseballThere’s snow on the ground in Richmond this morning. Not much, but enough to slow things down a little, and that’s hardly ever a bad thing.

It’s given me some time to think, and I’ve been thinking about some of the comments my friend (and First Baptist member) Eddie Stratton made on my blog yesterday. Eddie was talking about how the church in America today needs leadership—lots of it—and wondering how we’re going to get it if people aren’t called to lead. He was talking about the altar calls he used to hear as a boy, when pastors would sometimes ask if anyone was feeling called to the ministry, or to the mission field, or to some other version of “full-time Christian service.”

You don’t hear that much anymore.

But sometimes a pastor will do this: sometimes he will ask the entire church to join him on a year-long, every-member mission trip as if he assumed that every Christian is called to ministry, and that the best way to fulfill God’s mission in this world is not to have a few “professionals” doing ministry for us, but to have all of us doing ministry together.

Listen to what David Lose says:

We need to question the entire model of ministry where the pastor performs the faith each Sunday to the delight of an adoring and inspired audience. Rather, pastors need “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 3:12-13).

Lose is a preaching professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, and he was talking about baseball, where the sport has come to depend on a few star players to get people to come to the stadiums or tune in on television, rather than depending on the kind of solid, reliable players who can get on base and help the team win games. He said it’s been like that for too long in the church, and we need to change the model in order to “win some games.”

I agree.

We can no longer expect people to come to church just because we have good preaching or good music. And we can no longer afford to let people who have given their lives to Christ sit on the pew and watch the “professionals” perform. If God’s mission is going to succeed it’s going to take all of us, working together, both inside and outside the church, and not only on Sunday morning.

Listen up, followers of Jesus: you have already been called into the ministry. I know there’s some snow on the ground this morning, and that might slow you down, but you can’t let it stop you. It’s time to roll up your sleeves, get to work, and remember:

This is not a spectator sport.

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wedding at canaHeaven has been a long way away from Newtown, Connecticut in the last six days.  For some people it’s been a long way away from Richmond, Virginia.

I was with some of those people last night at a service of remembrance for those who have lost loved ones in the last year, and for whom the holidays can be especially difficult.  I was asked to bring a message of hope.  I want to share it with you today and ask you, also, to be mindful of those people who may be having a hard time this Christmas.  See if you can bring a little heaven to earth for them simply by saying, “I’m thinking of you.”

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This is a service of remembrance, so let me begin with a memory.

My first church was in the little town of New Castle, Kentucky. There were some wonderful people there, including Hilda Powell, who was about five feet tall, and extremely sturdy: rooted to the ground by support hose and thick-soled orthopedic shoes. She was walking with a cane when I first met her but graduated to a walker soon after. She may have been the only person I knew who actually rode the lift we had in the back stairwell of the church. She would sit on that chair and ride up the stairs looking very much like the Queen of England, glaring out through the thick lenses of her glasses, and daring anyone to say a word.

At Christmastime, Hilda made bourbon balls. These were a Kentucky tradition—made of butter and powdered sugar, chopped nuts and chocolate, with just a hint of bourbon, except in Hilda’s case. She had a different recipe, which seemed to be mostly bourbon. You might imagine they were very popular. When she gave me my little box each year she seemed to do it with a secret smile on her face, as if she knew the Advent season is hard on ministers, and was doing her part to help it go down a little easier.

Her funeral was not the first I did at that church, but it may have been the first where I felt the loss quite so deeply. Hilda and I had become close in those years. Her gradual decline had given me plenty of reasons to visit her at home and in the hospital, and plenty of chances to have those kinds of honest talks you have when you know the end is near. So, I felt the lump in my throat when I said goodbye at her graveside, and the next Sunday when I looked out over the congregation I couldn’t help but notice her empty place on the pew.

Do you know how it is in church, that people seem to settle in one place in the sanctuary until it becomes “their” place, so that if a visitor sits there by mistake everybody else begins to clear their throats nervously? Hilda had that place. I can still see it if I close my eyes. And even though it wasn’t the first time I had ever seen it empty—she had been sick for a while—it was the first time I knew she would never sit there again.

You know what I’m talking about. You’ve seen that kind of thing happen at church, and, sadly, you’ve seen that kind of thing happen at home. For some of you, there will be a place in your house that is empty for the first time this Christmas. And if you have the tradition of sitting down to a big Christmas dinner it may be a place at the dining table—an empty chair—that will remind you more poignantly than anything else how your life has changed.

Maybe that’s why one of my favorite visions of heaven is what some scholars call “the eschatological banquet.” It seems to get its inspiration from a passage in Isaiah 25, where the prophet says:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation (Isa. 25:6-9, NRSV).

This is the banquet Jesus seems to have in mind when he says, in Matthew 8:11, “Many will come from east and west and eat with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven.” And when he tells the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22, he talks about a king who gives a banquet for his son, and when those who are invited won’t come he sends his servants out to gather anyone who will, so that his banquet hall may be filled.

I like that idea. Even more than I like the idea of mansions in heaven and streets of gold I like the idea of a heavenly banquet hall filled with people sitting at long tables that are groaning under the weight of more good food and drink than most of us have seen in our lives. A kind of Renaissance feast with a big fire in a huge fireplace, and musicians strolling around playing mandolins and fiddles as people eat and drink and clink their glasses together and laugh out loud.

And I like this idea: that as soon as our parents give us our names God writes them down on place cards and arranges them on the table in his heavenly banquet hall. I like to think that every child born on this earth has a place card in heaven, and only if they refuse God’s gracious invitation does he remove their card from the table.

So, picture this: when Hilda Powell died all those years ago her place on the pew was empty, but her place at the heavenly banquet table was finally filled, a place that had been waiting for her since she was a pink-cheeked baby girl. And because God is the one who arranges the place cards, I can picture her sitting with the people she loved most in this world and a few of the people she has come to love most in that one. Maybe you can picture your own loved ones sitting in that banquet hall, enjoying that feast, laughing until tears of joy run down their cheeks. Listen again to what the prophet says:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation (Isa. 25:6-9).

So may it be, and so may we pray:

Gracious God, it’s comforting to imagine our place cards on a table in heaven where the banquet is already in full swing, where people we have loved and lost are clinking their glasses together and laughing out loud, looking forward to the day when we can join them and discover for ourselves that this has been your intention all along—to bring all your people together forever in a place where there will be no empty chairs. Amen.

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Sandy HookFirst Baptist Church has spent nearly 100 days working to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, in a year-long, every-member mission trip. I don’t know that every member has been involved, but it certainly does seem that way. Many of them stop me in the hallway to tell me about the work they’ve been doing. They’re excited about it. You can hear it in their voices. You can see it on their faces. And that’s good, because on a day like today I’m thinking about how it takes all of us working together with Jesus to make this world more like heaven while it only takes one of us to make it more like hell.

It happened yesterday.

While we may never know what drove him to do it we know that 20-year-old Adam Lanza opened fire on Friday morning at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, killing 26 people—many of them children—before turning the gun on himself. It’s hard to imagine a more horrifying, or hellish, scenario.

How long will it take to undo the damage Adam Lanza did? Forever. While it will take days to restore some semblance of order at Sandy Hook Elementary, weeks to memorialize the 26 people who died in yesterday’s shootings, months to get things back to “normal” in Newtown, some things will never be the same. Parents who lost children will never get them back again, not in this life. And that’s when I become grateful to tears that it’s not all up to us.

While we can “labor alongside Jesus in the joyful work of bringing heaven to earth,” Jesus can do some things we can’t. He can bring earth to heaven. He can take the tragedy of yesterday’s shootings and lay it before his heavenly Father. And the Father—who loves little children—can take them in his arms, breathe new life into their broken bodies, and welcome them into his eternal presence.

“God will wipe every tear from their eyes,” writes the author of Revelation. “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Rev. 21:4).

Until then we keep working with Jesus to bring heaven to earth. We renew our determination. We strengthen our resolve. We know as we didn’t know two days ago…

…it’s going to take all of us.

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Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters

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