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Posts Tagged ‘heaven’

TinkertoysDo you remember Tinkertoys, that set of wooden sticks and spools you could build things with, wonderful things as tall as you were when you were a kid? I talked about Tinkertoys at church last Sunday, when I facilitated a question-and-answer session following Art Wright’s three-week lecture on “Heaven, Hell, and the Afterlife.”

I talked about how all people build a “framework of understanding” to make sense of their experience. If you step outside and a bird flies past you say, “That’s right; birds fly,” and you hang that experience on your framework of understanding (this is where I always picture a Tinkertoy framework, with experiences hanging from it like Christmas tree ornaments). But if you step outside and a cat flies past you’ve got a problem; there is nowhere on your framework of understanding to hang that experience. You have to decide: “Did that really happen? Did a cat really fly past? Or did someone throw a cat across my field of vision? Or am I hallucinating?”

Birds? No problem. Cats? Big problem.

I said, “You’ve spent your whole life building and re-building your framework of understanding and it’s precious to you. You don’t want anybody to mess with it. But somewhere in there is your understanding of heaven, hell, and the afterlife, and I get the feeling that for some of you Art Wright’s lecture was troubling, that some part of it messed with your Tinkertoys.”

I saw heads nodding around the room.

That led into an interesting exchange about what we use to build our frameworks of understanding in the first place, and we acknowledged that much of what we have heard about heaven, hell, and the afterlife comes from books, movies, songs, and popular theology. Not all of it is authoritative. For believers, the Bible is authoritative; it’s that one source we can gather around and study together with general agreement that what’s in there is true.

My guess is that much of what Art Wright was teaching in his three-week lecture was biblical. He is a New Testament professor, after all, which means that he’s spent a good bit of time studying the actual text of the New Testament. I’ve done that myself, and I’m often surprised by what’s not in there as well as by what is. Sometimes it “messes with my Tinkertoys,” and forces me to rebuild some part of my framework of understanding.

I don’t like that.

My framework of understanding is precious to me. But it’s more important to me that it be right than that it be easy, and Scripture is the best way to ensure that. It is, in almost every way, the “blueprint” by which my framework must be built.

And I mean all of scripture: not just the parts I like.

Sharon Parks has a name for that framework of understanding: she calls it “faith.” I think that’s a good name for it, and even though there are ways to build frameworks of understanding that don’t include God, those are not ways I’m interested in. I want to build a distinctively Christian faith, one with Jesus right at the center of it. As far as heaven, hell, and the afterlife are concerned, I’m content to follow him. If I can trust Scripture on this (and I think I can), the Way that he is is the Way that leads to life abundant, overflowing, and everlasting.

Why would I follow anyone else?

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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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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.

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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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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.

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Essex Bible SchoolI didn’t make it to Bible school yesterday and it was my loss. Appointments and commitments that started early in the morning kept me busy until just before lunch. But I heard great things about the opening day of “Camp 2” at Richmond’s First Baptist Church and after lunch I drove out to Essex Village Apartments to see what happens when Bible school goes on the road.

In yesterday’s post I talked about the partnership between First Baptist and Park Meadows Baptist Church in Waxahachie, Texas, and how the two were collaborating to bring Bible school not only to First Baptist Church, but also to Essex Village Apartments, where there are 544 children, many of whom live in single-parent homes.

I got there early, before the afternoon session of Bible school began, but in time for a pick-up game of kickball. And once again I got to watch that old miracle occur, where people who don’t know each other overcome their initial awkwardness through some silly game, and then begin to laugh and play together, so that by the end of the day they are BFF’s (Best Friends Forever). What breaks my heart is that the kids at Essex Village are so hungry for attention Essex Bible School3they will accept it from almost anybody, even a youth group from Waxahachie, Texas. What fills my heart is the way those youth discover that they can make a difference in someone’s life, and how much joy it gives them. By the end of the week they won’t want to leave their new friends at Essex Village, and their new friends at Essex Village won’t want to let them go.

I predict tearful farewells.

But today is only Day Two of Bible school, and the end of the week seems a long way away. So, if you’re looking for a little joy in your life, and for a way to make a difference in someone else’s, then come on out to Essex Village around two o’ clock this afternoon. Bring your sunglasses and bottled water and big, floppy hat, because it’s going to be hot, but wear your kickball shoes, because it’s going to be fun. I predict that by the end of the day miracles will have occurred at Essex Village, and the Kingdom of Heaven will have come a tiny bit closer to Richmond, Virginia.

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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?

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