See Paris First

istock_000002390324xsmallAs a follow up to my Ash Wednesday sermon about overcoming our fear of death by denying ourselves, taking up our crosses, and following Jesus (“volunteering to die” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would put it), let me offer this wonderful poem by M. Truman Cooper, first shared with me by my dear friend Judy Skeen.  It’s called “See Paris First,” and it’s about knowing what it is you fear and facing up to it–approaching it squarely and head on–so that you don’t have to spend the rest of your life being afraid.  The poem itself is simple and spare.  It may take more than one reading to appreciate it, but I assure you…it’s worth it.

Suppose what you fear
could be trapped
and held in Paris.

Then you would have the courage
to go everywhere in the world.
All the directions of the compass
open to you,
the degrees east or west
of true north
that lead to Paris.

Still, you wouldn’t dare
to put your toes smack dab
on the city limit line.

And you’re not really willing to stand on a mountainside
miles away
and watch the Paris lights
come up at night.
And just to be on the safe side, you decide to stay completely
out of France.

But then danger
seems too close
even to those boundaries,
and you feel the timid part of you
covering the whole globe again.

You need the kind of friend
who learns your secret and says,
“See Paris first.”

—M. Truman Cooper

So…Why Not?

negativity-change1In my last post, I told you that SO FEW people know the purpose of the church, but now that you are one of those people I have a question: if the essential purpose of every Christian church is service, outreach, fellowship, education, and worship, then why do we not organize ourselves that way?  Why do we not have—in large churches, especially—a minister of service, a minister of outreach, a minister of fellowship, a minister of education, and a minister of worship?  If these are the essential minstries of the church then shouldn’t we be doing them, and wouldn’t it help to have someone in each of these areas who could recruit, train, and motivate our members toward that end?

It seems obvious, but I don’t find many churches that are staffed that way.  Instead I find churches with youth ministers, children’s ministers, ministers to young adults, median adults, senior adults, etc.   In other words, churches seem to organize around specific populations within the congregation, and I think there’s a reason for that.

I think that when the baby boom moved through the church it overwhelmed the leadership.  Pastors who had been perfectly capable of caring for small congregations were suddenly trying to care for all these children and all their parents.  As each population reached “critical mass” the church called another associate: one for children, one for youth, one for “college and career,” etc.  At a time when the culture was pushing people through the front doors of the church it was all the church could do to keep up with the growth and provide for the needs of those people.  The emphasis was, necessarily, on things like fellowship, education, and worship—all things that happen inside the building—because that’s where the people were.

But what do you do when the culture is pulling people out  the back doors of the church?  Do you panic?  Do you change your worship style to make it more compatible with the culture?  Do you ask your staff to come up with more exciting programs to reverse the tides of change?  Do you go to church growth conferences hoping to fill those emptying pews?  Or do you take a deep breath, relax, and return to the essentials, to those things the church of Jesus Christ has been doing from the very beginning: service, outreach, fellowship, education, and worship?

I think you do, and I think you will find when you do that two of those five things have their focus outside the walls of the church: service and outreach.  If we live in a time when more people are outside the church than inside, then isn’t it wonderful that Jesus anticipated such a time and told his followers to go (out)  into the world and make disciples of every nation, to go (out) into the neighborhood and love our neighbors as we love ourselves?  And wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could take him at his word, and do what he asked us to do?

I think it would, and I think that if we did it faithfully we wouldn’t have to worry about how many people are inside and how many people are outside the building.  We would minister to both in the same way he would.  We would throw ourselves into the joyful work of service, outreach, fellowship, education, and worship.  And to be more effective we might even organize ourselves for that purpose—the essential purpose of every Christian church.

Why not?

Suggested Reading

I just received an email with a link to an article by my friend and former seminary classmate J. Brent Walker, Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.  Brent does a good job of describing the historic Baptist principle we call “The Priesthood of Every Believer.”  It’s a short article.  You can read it in about two minutes.  But if you do you will know a good bit more about what it means to be Baptist.

Click HERE to read the article.


purposeI used to teach a fifth and sixth grade Sunday school class where we used the church constitution and bylaws as our curriculum.  Just what a fifth or sixth grader is hungry for, right?  But there was a lot in that little booklet, including the church covenant, articles of faith, and a statement of purpose.  When I taught that last item I would say “SO FEW people know the purpose of the church,” and then I would tick off those five letters on the five fingers of my right hand: “S.O.F.E.W: Service, Outreach, Fellowship, Education, and Worship.”

In my study of dozens of church mission statements and purpose statements since then I have discovered that these five things make up the essential purpose of every Christian church.  Although they say it in lots of different ways, every authentic church seems to be occupied with service, outreach, fellowship, education, and worship.  I think that’s because we all look to the same New Testament, and to the same Lord, for cues as to what the church should do. 

For example: Jesus said the greatest commandment was to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love your neighbor just as much as you love yourself (Mk. 12:30-31).  From that “Great Commandment” we derive the purposes of worship (loving God) and service (loving others).  Jesus also told his disciples to go into all the world and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that he commanded (Mt. 28:19-20).  From that “Great Commission” we derive the purposes of outreach (making disciples) and education (teaching them to obey all that Christ commanded).  Finally, Jesus told his disciples to love one another as he loved them (Jn. 13:34).  From that “New Commandment,” the only commandment Jesus ever gave, we derive the purpose of fellowship

As the writer of John’s Gospel concludes, “Now Jesus did a lot of other things that aren’t written here” (Jn. 20:30), and he said a lot of other things that haven’t found expression in any church’s purpose statement, but these things have, these five things, and it’s a shame that “SO FEW people know the purpose of the church.” 

I hope that from now on you will.

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things


Today I’m driving to Summerville, South Carolina (no relation), to visit my mom and dad (every relation).  I’m going mostly because Mom had some minor surgery last week—nothing serious, but it does give me a good excuse to go see them. 

When Dad turned seventy a few years ago I gave him a book called, “Seventy Things I Remember about My Dad, in Honor of His Seventieth Birthday.”  It was so well received that when Mom turned seventy, two years later, I wrote one for her, too. 

I wanted to share some of those memories here as a way of introducing you to my parents, so that while I’m driving down Interstate 95 today you can get to know the people who gave me my life, my faith, and so much more.  If it’s true that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” I’m glad I fell from this one. 

MY DAD: James Somerville, b. 1931

1.      The classic memory is this one:  One winter morning all five of us boys were gathered in front of the little gas heater in that drafty farmhouse up on the hill in West Virginia.  We stood there shivering, and complaining that, at ten degrees Fahrenheit, it was too cold to walk the mile to school.  Dad came in from milking the cow, and when he heard our complaints he didn’t say a word.  He just set down the bucket, took off his coat, took off his gloves, took off his hat, his boots, his socks, his coveralls, his T-shirt, his boxers, everything—and out the back door he went, naked as a jaybird.  We watched from the window in disbelief as Dad leaped around in the foot-deep snow, got down and rolled in it, made snowballs and threw them at the window.  And then he came in and toweled off, got dressed, and got on with his chores.  Well, what could you say after such an exhibition?  We got dressed and went to school.


2.      I remember watching Dad split kindling on some of our family camping trips.  I was amazed by the way he could prop up a piece of firewood, swing the axe over his head, and come down in one clean blow after another, splitting off beautiful, polished pieces of kindling that looked like they had just come from the factory.


3.      Dad used to push back from the table after we had enjoyed an especially good supper and he was feeling relaxed and happy.  He would get this twinkle in his eye and then ask, “Who are we going to make cry tonight?” which was his way of challenging us to a game of Monopoly.  We loved Monopoly, and when Dad issued the challenge we would jump up to clear the table, get the board, make popcorn or peanut butter fudge (part of the tradition), and on the best nights we would put on crumpled fedoras and old neckties so that we looked like big city gamblers.  Usually, it was Dad who made us cry.  He knew the game of Monopoly backwards and forwards, had memorized all the pieces and prices, and had a way of making the dice do just what he wanted (“Seven come eleven, baby needs a new pair of shoes!”).  But there was always the possibility that one of us might win, and occasionally we did, and that’s what kept us coming back.


4.      Dad taught me how to shave, of course.  I watched him for years, taking mental notes on how to puff out my cheeks and upper lip for a smoother shave.  When he watched me the first time he saw how much shaving cream I squirted into my palm and let out a gasp.  “That’s way too much, son!” he said.  I’ve been a frugal shaver ever since.


5.      People have asked me what it was like to be a “preacher’s kid” and I have told them it wasn’t like that at all.  For one thing, Dad didn’t have a regular church most of the time I was growing up.  He was more like a home missionary, doing all he could to help the poor in West Virginia.  But also Dad wasn’t “pious” in the sense that we ever felt guilty about having fun.  Dad had fun, and we had fun with him.  And anybody who can roll naked in the snow, wear a mop on his head to make his children laugh, or wrestle with five boys at the same time is not your typical preacher anyway.  No wonder that I was not a typical preacher’s kid.


MY MOM: Mary Rice Whiting Somerville, b. 1933


1.      Might as well get it out of the way:  I remember that Mom used to wake us up in the morning by playing “America’s Favorite Marches” on the stereo, loud enough to wake the dead and almost loud enough to wake her five sleeping sons on a school day.  To this day I have a fear of marching bands: “Sousaphobia” they call it, as in John Philip Sousa.  But then again . . . sometimes she would come upstairs and sit on the edge of my bed and stroke my head gently while she eased me into the morning.  “Honey?  It’s a new day.  The sun is coming up over the top of the mountain.  The chickens are out scratching up their breakfast in the back yard.  The bacon is frying in the cast iron skillet . . .” All in a very soothing voice that made waking up almost a pleasure.  Ahh.  That was sweet. 


2.      I remember the wonderful Bible stories she used to tell us when we were boys, especially at our second house in Wise, Virginia. We dragged our mattresses out into that central room upstairs and Eddie, Scotty, and I listened as Mom made the Bible come alive.  It was there, I recall, that I first heard the story of Jael from the Book of Judges, how she crept up on the sleeping Sisera and hammered a tent peg into his temple.  It was a gory story, but we were boys, and the gorier it was, the better we liked it.  Much of my love for the Bible—and for storytelling—comes from the way my mother told those stories.


3.      She once made my brother, Scott, an “airplane” birthday cake—just cut the shape out of a sheet cake, frosted it with gray frosting, and wrote “SWS” across the wingspan for Scott Whiting Somerville.  I liked it so much I told her I wanted a rocket cake for my birthday, a month later.  I think my mother stayed up most of the night before trying to make a cake that would stand up on cardboard tail fins covered in tin foil.  When I saw it I was amazed.  I had thought she would make one lying down, like Scott’s, and probably told her so.  I may have forgotten to say, “Wow!  Thanks for being the most amazing mom in the world!”


4.      Mom used to write numbers on the ivory keys of her Steinway grand piano with a pencil so we could get our fingering correct as we worked through the John Thompson piano book, “Teaching Little Fingers to Play.”  That’s not something most people would do to a Steinway, but it was just one more way my mother taught us that people were more important than things.


5.      I can’t remember how many times someone would huff and puff up our hill there in West Virginia looking for Dad, wanting some kind of help.  Mom always seemed to have coffee to offer and some time to sit and listen.  In my thinking this was how she helped Dad with his ministry.  While he was out doing “Matthew 25” kind of work (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc.), she was at home doing “Matthew 28” kind of work (making disciples and teaching them all that Jesus had commanded).  Whether or not she thinks of it that way, one of the disciples she made—this one—does.


Thank you, Mom.  And thank you, Dad.


See you soon!