ss-1003945-futuresignStaff retreat, that is. 

The leadership staff and I will be out of the office for the better part of Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday this week as we hammer out the final details of an organizational structure that should keep the church focused on fulfilling the mission of Christ.  Lynn Turner will be heading up the Ministry of Christian Community; Ralph Starling will be leading the Ministry of Christian Invitation; Steve Booth will be in charge of the Ministry of Christian Formation; Phil Mitchell the Ministry of Christian Worship; Steve Blanchard will lead the Ministry of Christian Compassion; leaving Billy Burford in charge of Support and David Powers in charge of Communication. 

All of this is being done in an effort to “help Jesus bring heaven to earth,” by following his clear commands (i.e. “Love God with everything in you, love your neighbor as yourself, love one another as I have loved you, and make disciples by baptizing them and teaching them what I’ve taught you”).  We’ll be talking about what it means to be a missional church this Wednesday night at 6:15 in the church dining hall, and unveling the new staff structure on Sunday morning at 9:45 in the sanctuary.  If you can’t be there in person, you can participate in either or both of those events through our world wide webcast, simply by going to our web site ( and clicking on the link.

Please remember the staff as we work together and pray together over the next few days.  We have been entrusted us with an enormous responsibility, and we don’t want to let God or First Baptist, Richmond, down.



What’s Next for Baptism and Church Membership?

prayerThose of you who have been following the discussion of baptism and church membership at First Baptist will want to know that the question of whether or not Christians who have been discipled in other traditions must be immersed in order to become full members of Richmond’s First Baptist Church is being referred to a team of 12 deacons who will study it over the summer and bring a recommendation back to the deacons in the fall.  At this point those deacons have not been named, but Deacon Chair Lee Stephenson is busy making  those appointments.

Most of the big decisions that have come before the congregation in recent years have come in just this way.  For example, the question about whether or not we should ordain women as ministers (we agreed that we could and should), and the question about how to allocate our mission offerings (through the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, at the giver’s discretion).  A group of deacons studied those issues, brought recommendations back to the board, and from there they went to the congregation for a final vote.  It only makes sense that this question, too, should follow that pattern. 

Those of you who have been holding your breath should probably let it out and pray for patience as we seek resolution to this issue in God’s good time.   As I have told the deacons from the beginning, I am not in a hurry, but I am determined that we carefully and prayerfully consider this question.  As it has been important to ask ourselves at other times in the church’s history, “Who can be a member here?” (like when those two Nigerian students wanted to join in 1965), it seems important to ask it now.

Practice Resurrection

forest210240ai1Wendell Berry–well-known poet, philospher, and prophet—was a member of the church I served in New Castle, Kentucky.  I’ve read a number of his novels and essays, but this poem has always been one of my favorites.  If you’re not a fan of poety (some people aren’t), you can skip down to the last line which—during this Easter season—presents itself as a bold challenge to the followers of the risen Lord.


Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.


Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” from The Country of Marriage, copyright © 1973 by Wendell Berry, reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.

Street Preacher

456984652_dd7b5870b4Easter Sunday was a glorious day in more ways than one.  Not only did we gather for worship and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus at First Baptist Church, but God himself was in a celebratory mood, festooning the city of Richmond with sunshine and soft, swirling breezes in honor of his Son.  Or so it seemed as I strolled along Monument Avenue with family and friends that afternoon, soaking up the joyful ambience of an event called “Easter on Parade.”

“When does the parade actually start?” I heard someone ask.

“Um, this is it.  YOU are it.”

And so we were: a great throng of happy people—friends walking arm in arm, parents pushing strollers, children in Osh-Kosh overalls, and dogs EVERYWHERE, many of them in costume.  I loved the three Greyhounds wearing tiny hats; the Dalmatian whose black spots had been supplemented with pink, green, blue, and yellow ones; and the Yorkshire Terrier who looked up at me over the frames of her very stylish sunglasses. 

I couldn’t stop smiling.  Christ had risen and everywhere I looked people seemed to be grateful for the gifts of warmth and sunshine, friends and family, children eating ice cream cones and dogs wearing funny hats.  But then I came to that corner where the street preacher was plying his trade. 

He stood on a stepladder, holding a microphone and shouting words of judgment at the crowd.  “Are you perfect?  Do you think you’re perfect?  Well, you’d better be, because if you’re not there will be hell to pay!”  I could see people cringing, complaining, and moving away from the sound of his voice.  I cringed and moved away, although I felt a little guilty about it.  Shouldn’t I be supportive of someone who would stand in the midst of that secular crowd and try to preach the gospel?  Shouldn’t I admire this young man for his courage, and at least give him a collegial thumbs-up? 

Maybe I should have, but I didn’t.  I winced and walked on by, my perfect afternoon tainted by that encounter.

I don’t think I would have minded so much if he were preaching the gospel, if anything he were saying sounded like good news, but all I could hear for as long as I could hear him were words of judgment and condemnation.  If I were strolling down Monument Avenue and knew nothing about God I might assume that the Maker of All Things was really mad at me, and wanted to roast me in the flames of hell forever.  Where is the good news in that?  The street preacher did mention Jesus occasionally, but only in the context of “bleeding and dying on the cross” to save me from my sins.  Again, if I knew nothing about God, I might gather that the Maker of All Things was really mad at me, but took his anger out on his Son instead, nailing him to a cross where he bled and died.  “Yikes!” I would think.  “This is one angry Maker!  And if I get saved I get to spend eternity with Him?  With someone who would send people to hell and nail his son to a cross?  No thanks!”

I said to a colleague later, “People like that make our job harder,” and he agreed, because reaching people who don’t know much about God and don’t want to have anything to do with Him is a little bit like coaxing wild deer to eat out of your hand.  You have to stand very still, and hold out that handful of grain in the least threatening manner possible.  Any sudden movement, any noise at all, will cause the deer to turn and bolt.  You have to earn their trust, and you do it by approaching them gently, offering them something good, and meaning no harm.

Here I was, walking among my fellow Richmonders on Monument Avenue, within sight of First Baptist Church.  I was speaking to people, smiling at people, trying to open myself up in every possible way to friendly conversation that might, in time, turn to important things.  But then the street preacher showed up, shouting judgment at the top of his voice, and it was like watching a herd of deer turn and bolt. 

What will those people think the next time God comes up in conversation, or the next time someone invites them to church?  How long will it take to undo the damage done on one sunny afternoon by a street preacher?

Suffering Gladly

ballerina_feet1The word passion, in its oldest form, means “suffering.”  When we talk about “the Passion” (with a capital “P”), we mean the suffering of Jesus in those final days of Holy Week.  But when we talk about passion in the lower case we are talking about whatever it is that you are willing to suffer for.  So, you look at the fingers of the fifteen-year-old boy who is learning to play the guitar.  They are cracked and bleeding.  Some of them have Band-Aids on them.  He’s really not very good.  But he picks up his guitar anyway, and struggles through another painful chord progression, and when you ask him why he just looks at you as if it were a stupid question, shrugs his shoulders and says:


“It’s my passion.”


Or you look at the feet of the ballet dancer, red and callused, jammed into toe shoes so many times they look like the feet of a 90-year-old woman—hopelessly bent and crippled.  You ask her why she keeps it up.  Why doesn’t she just stop and give those tired feet a rest?  She smiles to herself as she ties the laces and then looks up with a one-sentence answer:


“It’s my passion.”


Or the artist who has been up all night dribbling paint onto a huge canvas under floodlights, stepping back to see the way the paint swirls and flows, stroking it with his brushes, scraping it with a palette knife, pushing it into the shapes and places he can only see in his mind.  At four o’clock in the morning—his back aching, his eyes bloodshot—he stops to make a fresh pot of coffee.  Why do you do it? you ask.  What’s so important about this?  And he smiles over the rim of his coffee cup.


“It’s my passion.”


Your passion is whatever you are willing to suffer for.  It could be your music, your dance, your art, or it could be something else.  Buddha said “life is suffering”; it is the first of the Four Noble Truths.  And if it’s true that life is suffering then it must also be true that life is worth suffering for.  We do it all the time, don’t we?  Your doctor says to you, “We’ve found blockage in four of your coronary arteries.  We’re going to put you to sleep, stop your heart, open your chest, do a quadruple bypass, and then stitch you up and start your heart again, OK?”  And what do you say?  “OK.”  People regularly endure the suffering of surgery and recovery in order to have a little more life.  Because even with all the suffering that is in it life is the best thing we have ever known.  It’s where we have found the love of family and friends, the beauty of a spring morning, the pleasure of a fine meal.  We love life.  We cling to it fiercely, with both hands. 


Still, someone wiser than me has said, “Most people are not looking for something to live for so much as they are looking for something worth dying for.”  And most of the time it’s not a thing at all.  When I ask people if there is any cause, any movement, they would lay down their lives for they have to stop and think.  But when I ask them if there is any person they would lay their lives down for, they answer yes right away. 


This is where passion meets that word it is so often associated with:  Love.  It’s love that we suffer for.  Whether it’s our love of people or love of life or love of what we do, it is love that is worth suffering for.  Nothing else even comes close.  And the extent to which we are willing to suffer for love says something about the breadth and height and depth of the love we feel.  How much do you love me?  Only as much as you are willing to suffer for me.


Jesus once said to his disciples that there is no greater love than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends.  And then, within twenty-four hours of saying it, he was there on the cross doing it.  When we see him hanging there we want to ask why.  “Why are you doing this?  Why are you putting yourself through it?  Why don’t you let God get you down from there?”  And even in his agony he is able to say, “Why?  Why am I doing this?”


“Because I love you.”


“Because people are my passion.”


“Because you people are my passion.”



The Story about the Ambulance


Everyone seemed to enjoy the story about the ambulance in last Sunday’s sermon, and so I thought I would post it here.  For those of you who are a little more spiritual and want to know what (on God’s green earth) a story about an ambulance has to do with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the click of a mouse will bring you the sermon in full audio or video


Here’s the story:


When I was a junior in college, I started my own fraternity.  I called it Omicron Zeta, and when you wrote the initials side by side they made a big “O-Z.”  To anyone who didn’t know they were Greek letters, they just looked like the word “OZ,” as in “The Wizard of.”  So, because it had been my idea, I got to be the Wizard.  Other fraternity names, which were handed out in short order, were the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and Toto.  My fraternity brothers and I were going to have jerseys made up with the names on the back.  Someone had the idea of having, as our pledge pin, a three-and-a-half pound bowling pin.  Our pledges would have to carry it around with them during the day, set it up on the corner of their desks while they were in class, and try hard not to knock it over.  That’s about as far as we had gotten with rules and regulations when I found the ambulance at a flea market.


There was this big flea market that used to be held every Saturday at the edge of town, and when I went out there that next Saturday I saw this big, ugly ambulance with a sign that read, “$500 Firm.”  It didn’t look like an ambulance, really.  It looked like a hearse.  It was long and dark with tail fins, and enough room in the back for a full-sized casket.  I asked the owner about it and he said it wasn’t a hearse, it was an ambulance, and he proved it by showing me the lockers inside that were meant for medical supplies.  “You see,” he said, “you wouldn’t need medical supplies in a hearse.”  He made a good point.  He also showed me the place on the top where the flashing red light used to be, and swore that the ambulance used to be white before it had been painted from stem to stern In a kind of dull, gray primer.   “Best of all,” he said, “it’s a Cadillac.”  And it was.  I admired the Cadillac emblem on the front grill and took a look at the powerful engine beneath the hood. 


I had this vision of this old ambulance, with a fresh coat of glossy white paint and the Omicron Zeta insignia stenciled on both sides in gold letters.  We would call it the “Ozmobile,” and all of us would pile into it together to drive down to Lexington for pizza at Joe Bologna’s.  It would be great.  “Does it run?” I asked.  “Oh, yeah,” he answered.  “It runs good.”  “Could I give it a try?” I asked, and he looked around warily.  “Maybe not right now,” he said.  “But if you come back this afternoon, with the money, we could take it out for a spin.”  “Well,” I answered, “I don’t have the money right now, but I think I could get it.”  “Why don’t you do that,” he said, grinning.  “I’ll hold it for you.”  And so, I hurried back toward the campus, to talk to my fraternity brothers and see if, among the five of us, we could come up with a hundred dollars apiece.  Somewhere along the way, I made the mistake of telling my girlfriend. 


“You’re buying a what?” she asked.


“An ambulance!” I said.  “This cool, old ambulance that looks like a hearse.  It’s only five hundred dollars, and, best of all, it’s a Cadillac.”


“You’re buying a what?” she asked, again.


“A Cadillac,” I said.  “I’m buying a beautiful old Cadillac ambulance for my fraternity.  We’re going to call it the Ozmobile.”

There was a long silence before she spoke again.


“You have to understand something, Jim,” she said.  “When I think of you, I think of you as my future husband.  And when you do something like this, it worries me.  I wonder what kind of husband you’re going to be, somebody who buys old broken-down, hearse-looking ambulances at the drop of a hat.  I mean, that’s not very responsible, is it?”


And I looked at her for a long moment, stunned.  What kind of girl had I fallen in love with, a girl who couldn’t rejoice in the good fortune of a man who had found an old, broken down, hearse-looking ambulance (at a really good price!) that could be used to transport his rowdy fraternity brothers from one cheap pizza place to another?  It just didn’t make sense at all.  I said to her, “Look, you may think of me as your future husband and I may be your future husband (though it’s not looking likely), but right now I’m a junior in college.  We’re supposed to be irresponsible!”  But you know what?  I didn’t buy that ambulance, and it wasn’t only because I couldn’t get the money together, it was because of her.  It was because she wanted me to be someone other than who I was, and I—because I thought she was so pretty, because she looked so good on my arm, because I enjoyed carrying her picture around in my wallet so much—I gave in.  In some ways I have been ashamed ever since because I don’t think it was what Jesus would have done. 


I think Jesus would have bought that ambulance.


The Girl in the Purple Shoes

purple-irisesI was at Starbucks this afternoon, reading through a stack of correspondence, studying for Wednesday night’s sermon from Mark 12:1-12, and savoring the first few pages of Phyllis Tickle’s new book, The Great Emergence, when I looked up and saw a pair of shoes that inspired poety.  Here’s the result:

There is a girl
with her purple tennis shoes propped up
on the window sill at Starbucks,
jiggling her heels up and down
as she reads a thick textbook and nibbles
a slice of iced lemon pound cake.

It occurs to me that she
picked out those purple shoes;
That she looked through her closet and decided
that for this day—
this first gloomy,
then rainy,
now (surprisingly!) sunny Springtime day—
those shoes the color of purple irises
would be perfect.

–Jim Somerville, © 2009