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Preschool-ClassRemember how I was complaining a few days ago about spending too much time answering email and not enough time with people? Well, I got some of that time yesterday, with some of the most delightful people in Richmond.

I accepted Mary Hiteman’s invitation to stand with her at the Mulberry Street entrance of our building and greet the parents and children who were coming to our preschool’s open house.

They came in droves.

Some children were so shy they hid behind their mothers’ legs when I tried to say hello, others ignored my greeting altogether and galloped past me into the building, excited to be back at school. But all of them were beautiful, precious children. Most of their parents were happy to stop and say hello, and seemed grateful that I was taking an interest.

Because there seems to be a disconnect between the church and our preschool. There are parents who bring their children every weekday and never think of our building as a church. To them it is a school. A good school, certainly (you should have heard them gush), but nothing more than that. So as I shook hands yesterday and introduced myself as the pastor many of them seemed to be making the connection between the church and the school for the first time. “Ohhh,” they said, and I could almost see the light come on.

I’m hoping to maintain that connection in this school year by greeting children and parents at the door more often, telling the children Bible stories during chapel, and showing up for special programs and events. When I came to Richmond five years ago the staff asked me what we could do to “reach the Fan,” the neighborhood surrounding our building where so many of these parents and children live. I said, “What if we didn’t try to reach the Fan? What if we tried to love the Fan?”

That’s what I was trying to do yesterday: love the Fan and the people who live there. And what an easy way to do it! Stand at the door as they bring their children into our building; squat down and say hello to precious little boys and girls; and then stand up and shake hands with their parents, look them in the eye, and tell them how glad I am that they have brought their children to our school. And as I was doing it that thing happened that has happened so often in this year of mission…

…heaven came to earth.

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mustache-kidLast night was our children’s end-of-the-year program at First Baptist Church, which is always a treat. Those kids who have spent the school year in Wednesday night music and mission activities get to show off what they’ve learned and last night we got to see:

They’ve learned a lot.

I didn’t take good notes and I forgot to take a picture, but here are some of the things that stood out:

The Kid with the Big Voice, who stood on the steps with the Angel Choir and sang the parts of the song he knew with enthusiasm. It was funny. The choir would be singing along in those tiny voices children have and then, suddenly, they would reach the chorus and here would come TKWTBV (the kid with the big voice), booming out the first line of the chorus like an opera star. The look on his face was priceless. He loves to sing, and it shows. I’ve got to get to know that kid.

The Prayer Walkers. These precious little girls told us about prayer walking in the neighborhood (which is exactly what it sounds like: you walk around the neighborhood praying for people and things). Several of the girls told us that they had prayed for “the lost cat.” Apparently they had seen a poster asking if anyone had seen a lost cat. The poster had a picture of the cat on it and the girls just melted. “Poor Mittens!” Isn’t it a comfort to know that somebody is out there praying for lost cats?

The Fake Mustaches. I think it was the Mission Force group that was telling us about the things they had done in the community during the year, and one of those things was singing Christmas carols at the nursing homes. So half the boys put on fake mustaches, as if they were the elderly residents of the nursing home, and the other half sang carols to them. When they finished singing the “elderly residents” came and hugged the boys and patted on them and tousled their hair just as they had at the nursing homes. The acting was Oscar-worthy.

The Fund Raisers. A few of the Girls in Action (GA’s) stood up to tell us about the fund-raising they’d been doing for mission projects around the world. Morella Harris told us about “Pure Water, Pure Love,” and I think she said at one point that it costs $500 to dig a well or put in a pump (or something) in an African village and that she and the other girls had raised enough money to do that six times over: $3,000. I gasped. She said they’d earned most of their money by selling lemonade, cutting grass, and—surprisingly—by selling water.

What impressed me about last night’s event was how many of the presentations were focused on mission, and how much of that mission was an effort to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia. Kids catch on so quickly, and often they end up teaching us what can be done if we throw ourselves into it with enthusiasm and prayer and fund raising and fake mustaches.

I want to thank Ruth Szucs and Candi Brown, the staff members most responsible for directing our children’s music and mission programs, but I also want to thank the dozens of volunteers who come on Wednesday night week after week to work with children. What we got last night was just a taste of the fruit of their labors.

And it was delicious.

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basketballCan you bring heaven to earth with a basketball?

Some people think you can.

Chris and Laura Harris are members of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, and today they will spend most of the day in the gym working with players, coaches, parents, referees, and cheerleaders to make the game of basketball a fun, uplifting, and rewarding experience—even spiritually rewarding. It’s called “Upward Basketball,” and you almost have to see it to believe it.

I saw it a few weeks ago when I was invited to do the halftime devotions. What I noticed first when I walked into the gym was all the people working behind the scenes. There was Maron El-Khouri making the announcements and playing the music at halftime. There were a half-dozen older kids helping out until it was their turn to play later in the day. There was Laura Harris, answering questions and making sure that everything was running smoothly (the day I was there one of the coaches was taken to the hospital in an ambulance, complaining of chest pains. Laura’s husband, Chris, went with him, leaving Laura to quiet the chaos as well as find a substitute coach and a referee. She was amazing; unflappable; I began to think that if she’d been on the Titanic it wouldn’t have sunk).

But then there were all those kids out on the floor—little kids at the start of the day—being shepherded by kindly referees in striped shirts who didn’t keep score and didn’t call fouls. The coaches on the sidelines shouted encouragement and offered advice but I never saw them yell at a player or throw a chair. They were trying to teach those kids how to play basketball, and how to do it in a way that was fun and fair. The parents sat on the bleachers and watched their children race up and down the court, and if they took a shot and missed, well, at least they took a shot, right?

Their parents were proud.

When it was time for devotions I talked to the parents about taking shots and missing. I told them the Greek word for sin was hamartia, which means, literally, “to miss the mark.” I said, “When your child takes a shot and misses do you stop loving him?” They shook their heads emphatically. Of course not. I said, “When you try to do the right thing and fail do you think your heavenly father stops loving you?” Again, they shook their heads, but less emphatically. They hadn’t heard this particular line of reasoning before, at least not from a Baptist preacher. “Sin is not about waking up in the morning wanting to do the wrong thing,” I said. “Sin is about waking up in the morning wanting to do the right thing, but failing. It’s about being human. It’s about taking the shot and missing.

“And when you do, your heavenly Father still loves you.”

These are the kinds of lessons that are being learned at Upward Basketball, and I could see it when kids were disappointed by their own efforts but got loving pats, hugs, and words of encouragement from their parents and coaches. They were learning that it’s OK to take a shot and miss. And sometimes, to their own amazement, they took a shot and made it, and when they did basketball was fun, as it was always meant to be,

And heaven came to earth.

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Have you seen this video? I love the way these First Baptist members bring heaven to earth by delivering Meals on Wheels. I’ve been with them once, and it really does make a difference to the people who receive these meals. They not only get a hot, nutritious meal, they get a friendly greeting, a handshake or hug, and often a “God bless you,” on the way out. Think about how much that improves the quality of life for each one.

My parents have been on the receiving end of this service when they were living in Summerville, South Carolina, and I remember what a huge difference it made for them. I’m going to try to bring a little bit of heaven to earth today by visiting them in Franklin, West Virginia, where they live now. Maybe I’ll ask them if they remember Meals on Wheels, and when I do I will be grateful all over again for these First Baptist “missionaries,” and the way they are bringing the KOH2RVA.

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It’s 6:30 a.m. on the Tuesday after Labor Day, and all across the Greater Richmond Metropolitan Area mothers and fathers will be trying to get their children out of bed and get them off to school.  In honor of those efforts, and those parents, I’d like to tell the stories of how my own parents used to get me and my lazy brothers out of bed on a school day (as shared in last Sunday’s sermon).

When my brothers and I were boys, living in that big, old farmhouse in West Virginia, my mother would try to get us up on a school day by cooking breakfast for us, hoping that the smell of frying bacon would bring us down the stairs.  And if that didn’t work she would start calling up to us, sweetly, “Boys!  Time to wake up!  You’ve got to get ready for school!”  But if that didn’t work she would move to her measure of last resort.  She had this record called “America’s Favorite Marches.”  She would put it on the turntable, crank up the volume, and drop the needle.  And as soon as we heard that scratchy hiss coming through the speakers we would leap out of bed, come running down the stairs, and turn down the volume, because if we didn’t “Hooray for the Red, White, and Blue” would come blasting out of those speakers at something upward of 200 decibels—the equivalent of a Saturn Five rocket lifting off the launch pad. 

And then…

There was a three-month period in our life when we lived in my grandmother’s cabin in the mountains of North Carolina.  It was a summer cabin, but we were there in the winter, and it was cold.  My two older brothers and I slept in a little room under the eaves that was reached by a ladder through a door that opened out into the large main room.  Beside the ladder there was a brass fireman’s pole that my grandfather had put in, just for fun.  On those cold winter morning my dad would get up early, build a blazing fire in the fireplace, and then come over to that pole and start banging it with a wooden block.  Clang!  Clang!  Clang!  Clang!  “This is the day the Lord has made!”  Clang!  Clang!  Clang! Clang!  We were supposed to say, “Let us be glad and rejoice in it!” and then leap out of bed, slide down the pole, and run warm ourselves by the fire, but usually it was only my brother Scott who followed the script.  Ed and I would lie there and groan until my dad finally climbed the ladder, stuck his head through the door opening, and threatened us with bodily harm. 

America’s favorite marches, banging on brass poles, threats of bodily harm…sometimes you just have to do what you have to do to get your children out of bed in the morning.  Because it’s true, and maybe especially on the first day of school:

Waking up is hard to do.

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