The Horror and the Glory

Jeiwsh MemorialI’ve been asked to speak at the Jewish Community Center in Richmond tonight, as people of faith gather to “Stand Together” in unity with Jewish brothers and sisters who are still trembling after the horrific shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last Saturday.

The shootings were horrific.  There is no way to minimize that.  When I read the reports in the newspaper my stomach clenched like a fist.  But I’m a pastor, and part of my job is to help people deal with the tragedies of life.  At breakfast this morning I tried to help my wife, Christy, whose voice broke as she read her post on Facebook, inviting her friends in Richmond to join us at tonight’s event.

I said, “That’s one problem with the news.  In journalism the rule is, ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’  And so we end up with a lot of bloody awful news on the front page of the paper.  If that’s all we see, we might think the world is a bloody awful place, and in Pittsburgh last Saturday it was, but most of the time–most of the time–it’s not.”

And then I shared with her part of Brian McLaren’s new book, The Great Spiritual Migration, that I had been reading the night before.  After several chapters in which he points out the problems with Christianity as it currently exists McLaren writes:

There is so much right with Christianity. Sunday by Sunday, caring ministers prepare sermons into which they pour their hearts. Week by week they care for their flock, visiting the sick, honoring the dead, welcoming new life, nurturing those in need of counsel, challenge, recovery, or encouragement. Church musicians practice and prepare a weekly feast of beauty. Faithful people show up and generously show kindness to one another, from sharing after-church coffee and baked goods to preparing epic potluck dinners to cooking nourishing meals for the hungry and lonely. Hospitality abounds. Mission flows. People give money, year after year, so staff are supported, buildings are constructed and maintained, and the good news is spread in word and deed.

And then he writes:

There is so much right with the world. The sun faithfully does its work, bathing us in life-sustaining energy. The moon faithfully does its work, lifting tides and letting them fall, and no one worries it will fail. Water faithfully does its work,the lifeblood of our planet, circulating from cloud to rain to stream to river to sea to cloud. Creatures do their work as well, filling the earth with life and song, sharing the gift of life through death and birth, through nesting and migration, through pollination and germination, each specimen a living miracle if we have eyes to see. Your body, a civilization of cells more sophisticated than any megacity, works amazingly well amazingly often, your heart beating, your lungs breathing, your eyes seeing, your mind aware. There is so much right in humanity. Children play. Adolescents fall in love. Young couples marry. Lovers entangle their limbs, breath, and dreams. Babies are conceived and born and nurtured, through their smiles and cries teaching their parents to love in ways they never knew they were capable of. Friends laugh, plan adventures, throw parties, stick together, weep at gravesides after a lifetime of shared joy. Farmers grow, harvesters pick, transporters transport, grocers distribute, and meals of unimaginable variety and delight are prepared and eaten. Entrepreneurs plan and launch new ventures. Colleagues work side by side as managers seek to steer their companies toward success. Researchers seek cures, discoveries, solutions, understanding. Teachers teach and children catch the gift of curiosity. People are honest. They make promises they keep. People take vacations. They watch the surf, ride horses, cast lines, take hikes, swim, ski, bike, sail, and slow down so they can remember they are alive. Grandparents and elders watch all this, their eyes brimming with tears of joy. There is so much right in the church, in the world, in humanity. There is so much good. And so much beauty. When we see it, even a tiny glimmer of how precious it is, our hearts swell in gratitude and awe.

It seemed to help Christy, and it was a good reminder to both of us that what we see on the front page of the newspaper doesn’t reflect all of reality.  It is part of it, true.  And it is often the part that demands our full attention and our faithful response.  I’m going to stand with my Jewish brothers and sisters tonight.  But when I wake up tomorrow morning I want to wake up in a world that is also filled with the glory of God.

And I pray that glory may not be eclipsed by whatever I find on the front page.

–Jim Somerville

My Political Agenda

PeopleOfEarth-v2-628x353
In the past few months my preaching has been criticized by some for being “too political.”  Others have criticized it for not being political enough.  I really don’t believe my preaching has changed, but the political climate of our country has.  It’s red hot right now; you could fry an egg on the sidewalk.

So, I want to make my political agenda perfectly clear.  I don’t want anyone to have to guess at what I’m “up to” in the pulpit or try to decode the “secret” messages in my sermons.

My political agenda is people.

It begins with the conviction that every person is made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), and sometimes that conviction is tested.  I went for a jog when I was in DC for a preaching conference a few months ago, and saw a man sleeping in a doorway on 14th Street.  He was turned away from me.  I couldn’t see his face.  But I could see that he had wet himself during the night and the empty bottle beside him suggested he may have been too drunk at the time to know or care.  And yet, there was the image of God lying in that doorway.

It’s not only homeless drunks who bear God’s image: it’s everybody.  It’s wealthy white businessmen reading the Wall Street Journal and poor Hispanic women bringing them coffee.  It’s the man who collects your garbage on Monday morning and the woman walking her freshly groomed poodle in the same alley. It’s the Muslim accountant who works down the hall and the transgender kid waiting for the school bus.  Every one of them is made in God’s image.

If you look for it, you can see it.

My political agenda continues with the conviction that we, as a society, have a responsibility for those people.  That’s what “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” means (Matt. 22:39).  I’m not sure what the most loving thing we could do for that man sleeping in the doorway might be, but I think we need to be asking that question.  I think our politicians need to be asking that question.

In the Gospel of Luke, the preaching of John the Baptist begins with a quote from Isaiah: “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low” (Isa. 40:4).  It’s the good news that when God’s kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven there will be a great leveling.  As Mary sings in the Magnificat, “God will pull the high and mighty off their thrones.  He will lift up the low and lowly” (Lk. 1:52).  And when Jesus preaches in that Gospel he doesn’t preach on the Mount, but on the Plain—a level place.

It’s a reminder that every person is made in God’s image.  In God’s eyes no one is more important than anyone else; no one needs to be sitting on a throne while someone else grovels at his feet.

Every person is precious. 

I can’t tell you which political party best represents that view, but as Election Day approaches I can tell you that when politicians talk, I listen.  I listen to hear if they are concerned for all people, or only some people.  I listen to hear if they have any plans for lowering the mountains and raising the valleys of disparity.  I listen to hear if they care about the man sleeping in the doorway on 14th Street.

In this week’s Gospel lesson Jesus says, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45)  Are there any politicians like that in America?  Any who care more about others than about themselves?

Because I’d vote for somebody like that.

 

–Jim Somerville

I got my blog back!

key and lockThanks to Rick Henshaw, our IT guru here at Richmond’s First Baptist Church, I was able to get back onto my blog after being shut out for more than a month.  I’m still not sure what happened, but my usual login credentials would not work and when I tried to get some help from WordPress I found no contact number I could call, no email address I could write, no online chat assistance (unless you are logged in), and no help from the online forum (which asked for my login credentials).  It’s been a little frustrating, but Rick persevered and found the key that would unlock this closed door.  So, I’m back.  And I hope I will have something to say that’s worth reading, soon.  For now, I just wanted to re-introduce myself and let you know where I’ve been.

See you soon.

Hope for the Purple Church

votersinredsAuthor’s Note: In Sunday’s sermon I talked about the deep division in our nation between red and blue voters, a division that shows up in our churches when red and blue Christians occupy the pews.  I made an appeal for unity on the basis of Ephesians 1:3-14, and shared my paraphrase of the text.  Here it is, along with the comments I provided in the sermon.

————————————-

Bless God!  Why?
Because he has blessed us
With every spiritual blessing in heaven
Even as he chose us from the very beginning
To stand blameless before him.

Let me ask you to pay special attention to the word us in that passage, because Paul is talking to both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, in the same way I’m talking to both Red Christians and Blue Christians.  And yet in Christ Jesus God has made them all one, and blessed them with every spiritual blessing in heaven, just as he’s blessed us.  Verse 5:

Because he loves us, he picked us out for adoption,
An adoption made possible by Jesus Christ,
According to the purpose of God’s will
And to the praise of his glorious grace
With which he has blessed us in his Beloved.

And here Paul is speaking mostly to the Gentiles who have been adopted into God’s family.  The Jews were God’s Chosen People before, but now, in Christ, the Gentiles have been chosen, too.  That means you and I have been chosen, picked out by God himself to be part of his family.  All we can be is grateful.  Verse 7:

In Him we have been redeemed through his blood.
Our sins have been washed away
In the river of God’s grace
A flood of forgiveness pouring forth
From an ocean of love.

You see?  Not only did God pick us out, he cleaned us up.  We were standing there, filthy with sin, but he saw something in us, something only a Father could love.  We were washed in the waters of baptism.  We put on the clean white robe of salvation.  We became his in a whole new way.  Verse 9:

In Jesus Christ he has shown us what he is up to,
And how, when the time is right,
He plans to bring everything together in him,
Things in heaven and things on earth.

I say it like this sometimes: that “God is working to redeem all of creation.”  He is working to put all the broken pieces of his world back together again, and when he is finished there will be no division, not between Jews and Gentiles, and certainly not between red and Blue Christians.  Verse 11:

[We look forward to that day, because]
In Christ we have been made heirs
Of every good thing God has to give.
God picked us out from the very beginning
So that we, who were the first to hope in him
Might shatter the heavens with our praise.

And this is where it gets good.  Since we have been adopted into God’s family we stand to inherit every good thing God has to give.  And even though we aren’t the same there won’t be more for some and less for others.  Paul talks about those “who were the first to hope in him,” meaning Jews like himself who were the first to hope in Jesus, but then he makes sure the Gentiles will not feel left out.  Listen to what he says beginning in verse 13:

It’s not only us!
You Gentiles, when you heard the word of truth,
The good news of your salvation,
You received it, you believed in him,
And were sealed with the Holy Spirit
Which guarantees our inheritance
Until the day we receive it
Thanks be to God!

This blessing that God wants to pour out on his family is for everybody: for those who were born into it and those who were adopted into it.  He doesn’t make any distinctions.  For him there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, red nor blue.  You are all one in Christ Jesus and you stand to inherit every blessing God has to give…together.

During the campaign season in this last election I got tired of all the mudslinging that was going on: Hillary saying ugly things about Donald and Donald saying ugly things about Hillary until I didn’t want either one of them to be president.  I was wishing my dad was still alive so I could write in his name as I had in two previous elections.  But I began thinking about that song, “America the Beautiful,” and wishing that someone would begin using it as a campaign strategy—just playing that song and showing pictures of spacious skies and amber waves of grain, of purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain.  Because we are all Americans, and we all love this country.  We need to have that kind of beautiful vision held up in front of us to keep us striving toward the very best we can be.  And I think that that’s what Paul is doing here, with this vision of a church where every one of us has been

  • chosen by God,
  • forgiven in Jesus Christ,
  • redeemed by his blood,
  • washed in the waters of baptism,
  • adopted into the family,
  • ready to inherit every good thing God has to give.

We need to have this vision of us—all of us—not just sitting on the same pew, but gathered around the same table.  That is our new reality in Christ Jesus.  It transcends all other realities.

Even, and perhaps especially, the political ones.

 

–Jim Somerville

No Whining

serveI slept on an inflatable mattress last night.

And it’s not one of those deluxe, queen-size, full-height inflatables either.  It’s my backpacker’s mattress: 78 inches long and 20 inches wide, hardly enough room to roll over.

And here’s the other thing:

It’s on the floor of a Sunday school classroom in a church in Lake City, South Carolina, where the youth of Richmond’s First Baptist Church have come for their annual mission trip.

We commissioned them at the end of the 8:30 worship service on Sunday morning and sent them out the door with our blessing.  They had been on the road roughly four hours when I finished the 11:00 service, went home, had some lunch, finished packing, and loaded my own car.  I followed their fumes down Interstate 95 and arrived at the Savannah Grove Free Will Baptist Church in time to hear the last three songs of their evening concert.

But then we had supper.

And what a treat that was, filling my plate with every good thing those sweet Baptists had cooked for us (of their own free will).  I watched them bring out the cakes at the end and thought, “They made those for us!” and it looked like most of them had been made from scratch.

We got to bed late and tired Sunday night, slept hard, and woke up early Monday morning ready to go to work.  My team (“The Hot Tamales”) worked on a house belonging to a woman who is the primary caregiver for her husband, who suffers from dementia.  Carter Bickford, Wil Moore, and I spent an hour or more replacing a toilet and then went outside where we learned that one of our crew, Maddie Carpenter, had stepped on a rotten part of the roof and crashed through, up to mid-thigh.  They took her back to the church to check her out but an hour later she was back on the job, a little scraped up but otherwise undaunted.  I noticed then that the shirt she was wearing said “No Whining” on the back.

And she wasn’t.

But the rest of us were tempted.  It was HOT outside, and especially on the roof where we were scraping off old shingles and roofing felt.  Melissa Johnson, our designated safety officer, made sure we came down regularly to re-hydrate and get some rest in the shade.  And then somebody brought pizza, and that kept us in the shade a little longer.  So, we took turns and played it safe and yet,

I still got bitten by a dog.

The owner’s son had a mean dog chained up in the back yard, some kind of shaggy white mixed-breed who sized us up every time we walked around the corner of the house.  She told us the dog would bite, and we were very careful to avoid it, until…I was pulling a tarp full of roof debris back from the side of the house, stepping backward, not thinking, when I accidentally stepped within reach of the dog’s chain.

I heard it rattle too late.

He clamped down hard on the back of my ankle and I really didn’t know what had hit me.  I dropped the tarp, whirled around, and backed away.  I was afraid to look at first: afraid I would find my pants leg in tatters and my ankle bleeding.  But when the pain subsided I took a look, and what I found was that wearing long pants and thick socks and heavy boots had been a good decision, even with all that heat.  The dog’s teeth had not broken through the fabric or through my skin, and although the site was bruised and tender, my team of concerned caregivers breathed a sigh of relief to know that we wouldn’t be dealing with a case of rabies on this trip.

It’s been a little less exciting since then, and a whole lot more productive.  These youth have been working so hard, so cheerfully, and living up to our theme verse for the week: 1 John 3:18: “Little children, let us love not in word and speech, but in truth and action.”  They have shown their love for neighbor through the day, and at night they have freshened up, put on matching yellow T-shirts, and sung their love for God in one concert after another.  When it’s time for “shout outs” at the end of the day, they shout out their admiration and appreciation for one another and their adult leaders.

I don’t always get to see these kids at their best.  Often I see them sitting in church, whispering to each other during the service, trying to stay awake during the sermon.  You could get the impression that none of this “stuff” really matters much to them.  But then you spend a few days with them: you see them when their character is being tested on the job site; you see them underlining verses in their well-worn Bibles; you see them including someone who might easily be left out.  It makes you wonder if the adults who come to church so neatly dressed and pay attention all the way through the sermon would do as well under similar circumstances.  And I’m not sure, but I think the way Maddie Carpenter shrugged off her crash through the roof made it easier for me to move past my dog bite.  After all, there was work to be done.[i]

Isaiah said, “A little child shall lead them.”  These are not little children; they are young people who are well on their way to being young adults.  And yet when the author of 1 John says, “Little children, let us not love in word and speech, but in truth and action,” they set an example.

They lead the way.

 

______________________________________

[i] Although I have to say, our adult leaders and chaperones have been amazing.  My hat is off to Ruth Szucs, who took the lead on planning and coordinating this year’s mission trip, and her many, tireless helpers.

Strained Relations

sharks and jetsI’m in Dallas, Texas, this week, attending the General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  But as the Holy Spirit would have it, the Southern Baptist Convention is being held here as well, and most of us are staying at the same hotel, which means there have been a few uncomfortable moments in hotel elevators.

We haven’t talked to each other in years.

My last Southern Baptist Convention was in 1990 in New Orleans, when the “Moderates” were making a last-ditch effort to take the Convention back from the “Conservatives.”  One of the big issues in those days was the role of women in the church.  The conservatives were saying that women should be silent in the church, that they shouldn’t teach men, and that they couldn’t be deacons or pastors: the Bible said so.  The moderates disagreed.  They had benefited from the ministry of women for years, and found plenty of evidence in the New Testament that the early church did too.  I remember seeing my adorable nieces at that meeting wearing big buttons with the message: “If you won’t ordain me, don’t baptize me.”

Those girls are no longer Southern Baptists.

In 1991 some 6,000 moderate Baptists gathered in Atlanta to form the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, effectively ending their relationship with the Southern Baptist Convention.  As a member of the Governing Board said recently, “If the SBC hadn’t told us we couldn’t ordain women we might still be Southern Baptist.”  But we’re not.  And now, 27 years after the split, we find ourselves shoulder-to-shoulder once again.  The Southern Baptists are wearing their name tags on red lanyards.  The Cooperative Baptists are wearing theirs on purple lanyards.  The hotel lobby is like a scene from West Side Story, with the Sharks and the Jets eyeing each other suspiciously.

But on Wednesday morning I bounced into the elevator in my gym clothes and found myself in the company of three red lanyards.  “Going to the fitness center?” one of them asked.  “Yes,” I said.  “Better you than me!” another one chimed in.  “Well,” I answered, “it’s not going to be easy, but I’m going to feel so self-righteous afterward!”  And they chuckled politely.

But I needed a cup of coffee first.  I got in line at the coffee shop and found myself  behind one of the red lanyards I had seen on the elevator.  “So you’re NOT going to the fitness center!” he said, smiling.  “No,” I said, “I am.  I just need coffee first.  Otherwise I might…drop something on myself.”

And then we began to talk.

He was wearing a name tag with the IMB logo on it (the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, whose headquarters are just a few blocks from Richmond’s First Baptist Church).  “Do you live in Richmond?” I asked.  “No,” he said.  “I’m from Louisville.  I was commissioned last night.”  “Oh, congratulations!” I said, meaning it.  There was a time when I had dreamed of being commissioned as a Southern Baptist missionary.  “Are you from Richmond?” he asked.  “Yes.”  “What do you do there?”  “I’m a pastor,” I said.  And then he made an assumption: “Are you enjoying the Convention?”  “Actually,” I said, “I’m here for the other Baptist meeting.”

And a wall went up between us.

I kept talking until it was my turn to order coffee, but he didn’t make eye contact again.  As I walked away I thought, “What a shame;  here we are, brothers in Christ, destined to spend eternity together, and yet we can’t even carry on a conversation.”

This morning I’m wondering if the same thing could happen to the CBF.  We haven’t talked about it yet, but there is some tension in our fellowship over the role of gays and lesbians in the church.  Some are advocating for full inclusion.  Others are “not there yet.”  I wonder: 27 years from now will we be eyeing each other suspiciously in a hotel lobby, some of us wearing rainbow-colored lanyards and some of us wearing purple ones?  Will we talk to each other while we’re waiting in line for coffee?  Will we regard each other as brothers and sisters?

Bill Leonard may have said it best in our Governing Board meeting on Tuesday.  He said, “Please, how much more division can we stand?”

Somewhere Jesus is still praying for the unity of his church (John 17:21), and begging us to remember that the world will know we are his disciples by the way we love one another (John 13:35).

“Why Won’t Jesus Heal Me?”

healingI was trying to help one of our new members choose a Bible verse for her baptism.  We were at the computer in my office, typing some of her favorite words into an online concordance to see what would come up.  That’s when she asked me:

“Why won’t Jesus heal me?”

“What?”

“In your sermon on Sunday you were talking about all these people Jesus healed.  I was just wondering why he won’t heal me.”

She told me what she was dealing with: not cancer, not any other kind of terminal illness, but chronic pain and some other problems that had plagued her for years.

“Jesus seemed to heal everybody back then,” she said.  “Why not now?  Why not me?”

So I told her what I often tell people when they ask me that question.  I told her that Jesus’ earthly ministry involved a lot of “show and tell.”  “He was showing and telling people what the world will look like when God’s kingdom comes and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven,” I said.  “He was rounding up recruits for the Kingdom by showing them how good things will be when that day comes, and by telling them about a world with no more sighing, no more crying, and no more dying.”

“But of course he didn’t heal everybody,” I said.  “He healed the people who could get to him, the ones who crossed his path.  He was moved with compassion every time he saw someone in need.  But even then their healing was temporary.  All those people Jesus healed eventually died.  It’s what happens to all of us in the end.  So you have to ask the question: If we’re all going to die anyway what’s the point of living?”

“Right!  What is the point?”

I went all the way back to something I had learned in seminary: I told her about Irenaeus.

“Who?”

Irenaeus was one of the early church fathers, and he thought that this world—which is so full of joy and sorrow, so full of sickness and health, so full of better and worse—was the perfect place to grow up.  He called it ‘a vale of soul making,’ and his hunch was that you need a place like this—a place where choices have consequences, a place where life is often a struggle—to make a soul.

“For example,” I said: “I go to the fitness center a couple of times a week and one of the ways I get stronger is by lifting heavy weights.  I could lift light weights, or no weights at all.  That would be easier.  But I wouldn’t get stronger.  The only way I can do that is by lifting heavy weights, the ones that push me almost to my limit.

“If you never had any hardship in your life, if you never had any pain or struggle, life would be easier, but you might end up soft and flabby—spiritually speaking—and maybe that’s not what God wants for us.  I don’t want to blame God for our suffering.  We live in a broken world and we are the ones who broke it.  But it may be the kind of world that gives our souls a good workout, the kind of world that makes them stronger, so that when we stand before God someday and he asks, ‘What have you got for me?’ we can say, ‘This!  This beautiful soul: refined by fire, shaped by suffering.’”

She was thoughtful after that, taking it all in.  I said, “I know that’s not a perfect answer.  Some people seem to have way more than their share of suffering.  Some people seem to have almost none at all.  But if we stop blaming it all on God and instead say, ‘This is the kind of world in which a soul can be made,’ then we might start paying more attention to our own soul making.  We might even say, when we are straining under the weight of incredible challenges,

“I feel my soul getting stronger.”