We Are on a Mission Trip

15062127That’s what I’ve been telling people these days when they ask me to explain the concept of the “missional church”: I say, “If you’ve ever been on a mission trip then you know.  It’s like that.  It’s like all of us at First Baptist Church are on a mission trip right now, right here.  The bus has just come to a stop at our mission site on the corner of Monument and Boulevard and it’s time to get off the bus.”

It came to mind a few weeks ago when I was sitting in the sanctuary, listening to our children sing at their end-of-the-year program.  They did a beautiful job; I was feeling a good bit of pastoral pride; and then it hit me: if we were on a mission trip, would we be doing this?  If we had loaded those kids up on a bus and driven to Arkansas, would they have stood at the front of the bus and sung for us?  No.  They would have sung at a nursing home or a hospital.  They would have worked all week at a trailer park, teaching other children to sing the same songs.  In other words their singing would have been shared with the world in some way, and not only with their proud pastor, parents, and grandparents at First Baptist Church. 

According to missional activist Alan Hirsch, it is this awareness of the world around us, and this understanding that we are on a mission—God’s mission—that makes a church “missional.”  When we really “get it,” it begins to affect everything we do, and some of us really are beginning to get it. 

I had a talk yesterday with someone who wondered if we could find some land to plant a garden and then donate the food to a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter.  As we talked we thought about the refugees from Nepal who have been coming to our Wednesday night dinners.  Could they tend the garden, use the food, sell the surplus at the 17th Street Market?  Suddenly, instead of only talking about taking up an offering and sending missionaries to Nepal, we were talking about how we could be missionaries to the Nepalese right here in Richmond. 

Or what about one of our members who is talking with other churches in the city to see if each church could provide an apartment for someone who has a job but not a home: the “working homeless”?  He’s doing it because when I asked him to help Jesus bring heaven to earth by looking around for anything that didn’t look like heaven and then rolling up his sleeves and going to work there, that’s where he went—to the homeless.  He seems to understand that we are on a mission trip, and the First Baptist bus has rolled to a stop, and it’s time to get off the bus.

As we remember and celebrate the Day of Pentecost, please pray that God’s Holy Spirit would fall on us as it fell on those first believers, and that like them we would find that we cannot keep the good news about Jesus to ourselves, that we have to live it, and breathe it, and tell it, and share it in every way imaginable with the world around us.  

Maybe we can learn to sing God’s song in other places, and not only in the church sanctuary.

First in the Family

4540_1109598855489_1092360328_30340570_8257125_nLast Saturday my daughter Catherine graduated from high school (the appropriately named St. Catherine’s school for girls here in Richmond, where instead of the traditional cap and gown graduates wear full-length white dresses and carry bouquets of daisies).  We teased her about being the first in the family, and in some ways it’s true.  I went to college after my junior year in high school; my wife Christy finished high school a year early; my daughter Ellie finished a semester early.  None of us completed our senior year or went to the senior prom.  Catherine did.  So, when Ellie went to pick up a cake for dinner on the night of Catherine’s graduation she asked the baker to write on the cake, “Congratulations, Catherine: First in the Family!”

All the celebration of the day brought to mind a quiet, family celebration when Catherine turned 13.  We called it her “coming-of-age” ceremony.  I’d like to publish part of it here in tribute to that thirteen-year-old who has become such a beautiful eighteen-year-old, and the first in our family to finish high school.

I love you, Catherine.


A Litany for Catherine’s Coming-of-Age
December 18, 2003

Jim:  Catherine, today you are a teenager. 

No longer a child, not yet a woman, you have entered that unique, in-between, stage in which you will some days want to climb up in your mother’s lap and have a good cry and other days want to go to Kenya, zip around in a Land Rover, and shoot pictures of stampeding elephants.  That steady tug-of-war between childhood and adulthood is necessary: it makes you strong, and someday it will make you strong enough to leave the home of your childhood and start a home of your own.

But not yet.

Now is the time to explore your new freedoms and wrestle with your new responsibilities.  It will be good work, but it will be hard work.  As your family we commit ourselves to loving you and supporting you in this challenging time of transition. 

Ellie:  Catherine, I will do my best to be a good big sister to you, teaching you what I have learned along the road you are getting ready to travel.  Your experience will not be exactly the same as my experience, but if I can help to smooth out some of the rough spots, know that I will.

Jim:  Catherine, as your father I will feel the pain as I watch you grow up and away from your childhood.  I will miss the little girl you were.  But I will also rejoice in your new accomplishments, and your new maturity.  I will tell my friends proudly, and with some amazement, that I am the father of not one but two teenaged daughters.

Christy:  Catherine, the heart of your mother aches with the loss of her little girl—the one whose wispy blonde hair and bib overalls were so cute.  Sometimes I hardly recognize the tall, beautiful woman you are becoming.  But even as I lose that baby girl I look forward to sharing womanly secrets with you and someday being a best friend to you as my mother is to me. 

Catherine:  I accept the gifts of your love and support.  I will cherish them now and depend on them in the years ahead.

Jim:  Catherine, in the Jewish tradition, when a girl reaches adolescence she becomes responsible for her own soul.  As a baptized believer you have already accepted that responsibility: you have made Jesus your Lord and pledged to follow him in faithful discipleship.  But as you turn thirteen the responsibility for your life of faith, for your moral choices, will be yours more than ever before.  I pledge to let go the reigns of my own responsibility for your “religion” more and more and to let you explore the boundaries of your faith with joyful abandon.  I also charge you to take full responsibility for your spiritual life: whether you continue to live as a committed follower of Jesus Christ will be up to you now, and not your mother or me.

Catherine:  I accept responsibility for my soul with fear and trembling.  I accept responsibility for my soul with joy and gratitude.

Jim:  Then let us celebrate Catherine’s coming-of-age, and let us seal this moment with a solemn, apple juice toast:

Ellie: (raising her glass): To Catherine, may you enter this exhilarating, exasperating “in-between time” with courage and with grace.

Christy (raising her glass): To Catherine, may you become to me not only a dear daughter, but also a loving sister, and a laughing friend.

Jim (raising his glass): To Catherine, may you continue to make me proud by the way you travel the road between childhood and adulthood.

Catherine (raising her glass): And to all of you, for all you have been, and all you will be, to me.

Clink!  Clink!  Clink!  Clink!

Interfaith Jogging

interfaith joggingSo, here’s one that sounds like it should be a joke:

I went for a run on Memorial Day with my friend Wallace Adams-Riley, Rector of the historic St. Paul’s Episcopal Church here in the City of Richmond.  We made our way around a five-mile loop that ended on Monument Avenue.  While we were cooling down, I saw someone jogging toward us in sweat pants and a white T-shirt.  When he got closer I saw that it was Ammar Ammonette—the imam I had lunch with a few months ago.  I stopped him in mid-jog and introduced him to Wallace, and for a few minutes we stood there talking on the sidewalk: the pastor, the priest, and the imam.  He said he lived on the other side of the river but liked to run here, where the sidewalks were a little wider and people seemed to be more accustomed to pedestrian traffic.  We didn’t talk long; I didn’t want to interrupt his run; but we did say that we should get together for lunch again sometime, and then he smiled, shook our hands, and went his way.

Nobody who drove by while we were talking would have guessed who we were.  It’s not everyday you see a pastor, a priest, and an imam talking together, but it’s even less often you see them out jogging together.

Have you heard the one about…?

Jokes Preachers Tell

humor_image_250w_tnThe Festival of Homiletics was so full of good preaching, teaching, singing, and praying that I can’t even begin to sum it up here.  If the word festival is related in any way to the word feast (and I think it is), it was that—a feast that left me feeling deliciously full. 

One of the things preachers do at these conferences is to tell their best jokes, and the best joke I heard last week was this one: 

A pastor once finished his sermon only to be greeted by a woman who gushed, “Oh, Pastor!  That was superfluous!  That was the most superfluous sermon I’ve ever heard!”  “Well, thank you,” the pastor said, with an ironic smile.  “I’m thinking of having it published posthumously.”  “Oh, yes!” the woman replied.  “Yes, yes!  The sooner the better!”


What Happened Last Sunday

1676896-Walking-in-the-Rain-0When I got back from my daughter’s college graduation last Sunday night I found a message in my inbox hinting that “something” had happened during the 11:00 worship service at Richmond’s First Baptist Church that day, but it wasn’t until the next morning that I found out what it was.  Joyce, my secretary, told me that one of our homeless neighbors had come down the aisle in the middle of the service demanding to know why “Amazing Grace” and “It Is Well with My Soul” weren’t in our hymnbook.  He said that he was “a miracle of God,” and wanted to share his testimony.

As I heard the story at staff meeting on Tuesday I learned that Bob Palmer, who was standing at the pulpit when the man came forward, told him very graciously that if he would just have a seat someone would be glad to help him out after the service.  Ralph Starling stepped forward to intervene, but was greeted by a threatening gesture that forced him to consider another approach.  Eventually an off-duty Henrico police officer, who was visiting the church, escorted the man out of the building, but by that time the spirit of worship had been badly broken.  Phil Mitchell stepped to the pulpit afterward and prayed that our scattered thoughts might return to the Lord, and at the close of the service Ralph Starling suggested that in our prayers that week we might offer a prayer for this man, who certainly needed it.

As the story unfolded I realized that the man who had disrupted the service was Daniel, one of our regulars at community missions and someone who has been featured on this blog.  He is still recovering from surgery to remove a life-threatening brain tumor, and most of the time he is gentle and thoughtful and kind.  Knowing him as I do I could almost see him standing there with his hymnbook, wanting to share his testimony and sing a hymn.  And church is a good place for that kind of thing, isn’t it?  If I had been there I might have let him do it. 

But, then again, maybe not. 

He wasn’t entirely sober at the time.  He was loud and belligerent.  He frightened a good many people in the congregation who didn’t know him, and who worried that he might have a gun.  We can thank God for church members and staff who remained calm in that moment.  We can thank God that there was an off-duty police officer to escort him out of the building.  And we can thank God for those who brought us back into His presence through prayer and reminded us to pray for this man. 

Daniel stopped by the church yesterday between services to apologize.  I could tell he had practiced his speech.  He said, “I am truly and humbly and sincerely sorry for what happened last Sunday. ”  I accepted his apology and then asked him what had happened.  I wanted to hear his side of the story.  He said,  “I just wanted to sing that hymn, but I couldn’t find it in the book.”  And so we took a hymbook out of one of the pew racks and looked for “Amazing Grace” and “It Is Well with My Soul.”  As you might guess, they were both in there.  He seemed comforted by that, and thanked me for showing him.  I asked him if he had been drinking and he confessed that he had:  “Just a little to stop the shakes.”  “Well, I’ll need to ask you to leave then,” I said.  He nodded and said,  “I know.”  I showed him to the door and he apologized once more before stepping out into the rain. 

The staff is working to put together a security plan that will help our congregation feel safe in the sanctuary because things might have turned out differently than they did and it might have been someone other than Daniel.  We don’t want anyone to be afraid to come to church.  I am reminded that the word sanctuary means, literally, “a safe place.”  But I’m grateful that this Sunday it turned out to be a safe place for Daniel, a place where he could confess his sin and ask for forgiveness.  He made a mistake and he knew it.  He promised it wouldn’t happen again.  He was so full of genuine remorse that I felt myself moved with pity and heard myself saying, “I love you, Daniel.”  Tears welled up in his eyes and he said, “I love you, too.”

And then I kicked him out.

Love has a tough side, and I’m sure Daniel knows that, but as he walked down the sidewalk in the rain I could almost hear him humming the tune he had come to church to sing: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”