Vending Machine Prayers

coke_machine_smallerI’ve been overwhelmed by the response to Sunday’s sermon from Mark 5:21-43, the passage where Jesus heals the woman with the hemorrhage and raises Jairus’s daughter from the dead.  It seems that everyone has prayed for someone who was sick or dying, and while some of them tell stories of miraculous healings—like the ones in Sunday’s Gospel reading—most of them do not.

And there’s the problem.

They want to know what it takes to get results from their prayers, the right kind of results.  How can they pray in a way that guarantees healing?  When their prayers don’t work  they tend to assume:

a. They didn’t have enough faith.
b. They didn’t pray the right prayer.
c. They didn’t say enough prayers.
d. They didn’t have the right people praying.

There is biblical support for each of those assumptions, but behind them all is the idea that if we could just learn how to do it correctly our prayers for healing would be answered. 

It reminds me of that commercial I saw years ago where a man is trying to get a vending machine to accept his wrinkled dollar bill.  He puts it in and the machine spits it out.  He puts it in again and it spits it out again, over and over, until right at the end of the commercial when the machine finally accepts the bill and he says, “YES!” and pumps his fists in the air.  And then, if I’m remembering correctly, he pushes a button only to find that his brand of soda is sold out.

That’s the way it is with some of us, isn’t it?  We bow our heads and clasp our hands and offer up prayers like wrinkled dollar bills, hoping that one of these days God will accept them, but worrying at the same time that if and when he does the answer we are looking for may be sold out. 

Is that really how it is?  Is that really how God works?  Like a vending machine in the sky from which we can get the answers to all our prayers if we can only figure out the secret? 

I’d like to think God is more than that, and prayer more than a way to get what we want.  I concluded Sunday’s sermon by saying that these healing stories in the Gospels are reminders that God loves the world, and that he loved it so much he sent his only son, who ladled out God’ s healing power on any who had need.  If God really does love us like that then we don’t have to “trick” him into hearing and answering our prayers.  And if God really is God then there is no way we can force him to do what we want.  Instead we can talk to him like a child might talk to loving parent, telling him exactly what we need or want and trusting him with the answer. 

For example, when I used to ask my dad to buy me a Coke he usually said no.  If I asked him why he might say that he didn’t have the money or it wasn’t good for me, or he might just repeat his answer: “No!”  But once a year, when we went on vacation, he would stop for gas and reach down into his pocket to bring out a fistful of quarters.  He would give one to each of his sons, and we would go over to the Coke machine, drop a quarter into the slot, pull out a frosty bottle and pop open the top.  Ahhhh.  Did my father love me?  Of course he did.  He showed it any number of ways.  And I came to trust his love so completely that even when he said no I could accept his answer.

Last Sunday night, after preaching that sermon, I had occasion to pray for someone who was very sick.  Sitting there beside his hospital bed I found myself saying, “Dear Heavenly Father, I know you love this child of yours.  I know you have loved him all his life.   I ask you to do for him whatever is most loving, and I trust you with the answer to this prayer.”

It’s not easy, leaving things in God’s hands, but there are no better, stronger, or surer hands than those.

The Rhythm of The Heart

vibraphoneAl Astle is in his nineties now, but in his day he was a terrific percussionist, and even now he can produce rhythms and sounds from a vibraphone that will astound a sophisticated audience. 

He is a member of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, and recently volunteered to help out in our Community Missions program.  When I go down there on Wednesday mornings I ususally find him sitting behind a table with Ralph Anderson, checking and storing the belongings of our homeless neighbors while they get showers.

Al pulled me aside after dinner on Wednesday night and even before he spoke I could tell he was troubled.  He asked me if I had seen the expectant mother at Community Missions, the young woman who looks to be about halfway through her pregnancy, and who sits there with the rest of the homeless waiting her turn in the showers.  I said I had.  Al wondered if she were receiving adequate prenatal care and I said that I didn’t know but we could ask.  I assured him that medical services are available to people like this woman; it would only be a matter of making sure that she gets them.  And then he asked me if I had seen that young woman who comes in with her five-year-old daughter.  I told him I had.  He shook his head and swallowed hard.  A master of expressing his deepest emotions without saying a word, his face told me everything: his heart was breaking for these young women, and for their children.

I don’t know if Al has always felt for the homeless in this way, but that’s what can happen when you take a heart that has been touched by the love of God and put it in the presence of human suffering: it breaks.  And if it’s a heart that has truly been touched by the love of God it does more than that: it acts. 

I was impressed when Al Astle volunteered for Community Missions in his nineties, a time when he might have said, “Let the young people do it.”  I was even more impressed on Wednesday night, when I saw that he is letting his heart be broken by the needs of the world, and for some of the people Jesus loves most, the ones he called “the least of these, my brothers and sisters” (Matt. 25:40).

You go, Al.  I’m proud to be your pastor.

Where’s My White Suit?

mormon_cropI’ve been meeting with a group of seniors at Richmond’s First Baptist Church to talk about all the change that has taken place in the church in the last fifty years.  I got the idea from a book called “Who Stole My Church?” by Gordon MacDonald, loaned to me by Lynn Turner on the recommendation of David Powers.

The subtitle of the book is “What to do When the Church You Love Tries to Enter the 21st Century.”  It’s written in narrative form by a loving pastor who makes some changes in his church that do not sit well with the seniors.  Instead of telling them to find another church he calls them together to hear their concerns, and through regular meetings over the course of the next few weeks they share their frustrations, work through the issues, and reach a rather remarkable consensus. 

You’ll have to read the book.

There has been some change at First Baptist Church since my arrival, and that’s to be expected.  Pastors are change agents, and if they are doing their jobs some things will change.   There has been some resistance to that change, and that’s to be expected, too.  It’s not that people resist change: people resist loss.  With every change there is some loss, and with every loss there is some grief.*  So what sometimes sounds like a bunch of grumpy old people saying, “We don’t like all this change!” might really be a group of God’s beloved saints saying, “We’ve lost so much!”

That’s why I called together some of our seniors at First Baptist: to see if we could put our finger on the source of loss and grief, to name the changes that have occurred in the church not only in the last few months, but in the last fifty years.  The people I called didn’t seem particularly grief-stricken.  In fact, they are some of our most active and involved members.  But I thought they might be able to help me grasp some things I wouldn’t otherwise understand.

At our first meeting I brought a copy of “The Open Door,” that big, beautiful book that tells the story of Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  I opened it up to Part Two: 1955-2005, and began to turn the pages.  Whenever I came to a picture I would hold up the book and say, “Do you remember that?” and most of the people around the table would nod, often talking about the people in the picture or sharing their memories of the event.

Most of their memories were fond ones of happy times and good friends.  Some of their memories were painful (there was that terribly divisive business meeting in 1965, when the church was trying to decide if two Nigerian students could be welcomed as members).  Some of their memories were sad ones, as they remembered those they had loved and lost. 

And then there were the white suits.

Early on in that section of the history there is a picture of Dr. Ted Adams (pastor from 1936-1968) and two of his associates dressed in matching white suits.  I asked for an explanation and someone said, “Oh, Dr. Adams always switched to a white suit in the summertime.”  “Really?” I asked, trying hard to believe it, but everyone around the table nodded matter-of-factly.  “Lots of people used to wear white in the summer,” someone explained.  “You know, because of the heat.” 

Because of the heat.  The heat not only outside but inside the building.  And suddenly I could picture the people of First Baptist Church sitting in that big, stuffy sanctuary, wearing white cotton and linen and hoping a breeze would waft in through the open windows.  That’s probably not how it was in 1955, but there must have been a time when it was like that and traditions (the white suit tradition, for example) die hard. 

You may have heard the story about the woman who used to cut the end off the roast before putting it in the oven and when someone asked why she said, “I don’t know.  That’s just the way my mother always did it.”  When they asked her mother she said, “I don’t know.  That’s just the way my mother always did it.”  When they asked her mother (who was, fortunately, still living) she said, “Because my pan was too small!”

So, when I got together with that wonderful group of seniors the next week we made a list of all those things we used to do in church but don’t do now, and the first thing on the list was “white suits.”  “Why don’t we wear white suits in the summer anymore?” I asked, and was pleased to hear someone answer, immediately, “Because we have air conditioning!”

There are a lot of things like that in the church: things we don’t do anymore because of advances in technology, changes in culture, etc.  But not everything has to change.  As we talked about those white suits someone remarked, “You know, they really were cooler,” and then someone else said, “I think I still have my white suit,” and then someone else said, “I not only have mine, I think I’ll wear it to church next Sunday!”

Who knows?  Maybe it will catch on.  Maybe it will start a retro trend and everyone will begin to wear white suits to church in the summer, so that when the new pastor of First Baptist Church is looking at our history fifty years from now she will ask, “Why did everyone wear white suits in the Summer of 2009?”  I hope someone will be around who can explain:  “Because they were cool.”

Just like that group of seniors I’ve been meeting with.


*The idea that people resist loss rather than change comes from Leadership on the Line, by Martin Linsky and Ronald A. Heifetz.  I learned that every loss involves some grief from John Claypool in a seminar at the College of Preachers in 1995.

Prosperity Will Have Its Seasons

IRAQ DROUGHT YEARI just got back from the Rotary Club, where I enjoyed a delicious breakfast and spoke to some fifty members of the West Henrico chapter.  As I prepared my speech I tried to think about what a Baptist preacher could say to a group of business people that wouldn’t sound too “preachy.”  I ended up talking about a favorite subject of mine, and that is the way the church has responded to the changes in culture over the last forty to fifty years.

I told the Rotarians how, in each church I served, there had been a “legendary” pastor, the one everybody still talked about.  In my first church it had been Bill Hull, in my second church Dewey Hobbs, in my third church Ed Pruden, and here in Richmond, of course, it had been Ted Adams.  What didn’t occur to me early on in my ministry is that each of those pastors had served those churches during the 1950’s, which was a unique time in history.  The war was over, soldiers and sailors were coming home, marrying their high school sweethearts, settling down, having children, and bringing them to church.  I believe the churchgoing “boom” precisely paralleled the Baby Boom (1946-1964). 

So, I talked to the Rotarians about that, about how the culture at one time had pushed people through the front door of the church and how now the culture seemed to be dragging them out.  I talked about how the church had responded with a sort of widespread panic as it watched its pews and offering plates emptying out, and how the church growth movement has been a desperate bid to get those people (and their dollars) back.   “It’s not only churches,” I acknowledged.  “I wouldn’t be surprised if it has been difficult to attract new members to the Rotary Club.  ‘Service Above Self’ (their motto) isn’t all that popular these days.”

After breakfast a number of people came forward to tell me that it was true: membership in their club was in decline.  Several others told me stories about their churches—Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian—and the way they had been struggling to keep the lights on and the doors open.  I had tried to leave all of them with good news.  I said that in times like these its important to return to our roots, to remember who we are and why we’re here.  I told them that at Richmond’s First Baptist Church we are turning our attention toward the clear commands of Christ, who is Lord of the church, and trying to get serious about what he asked his followers to do.  Maybe the Rotarians, likewise, will look to their founding principles and get serious about those.  Maybe they already have.

On the way back from breakfast I remembered a song by David Wilcox that has always made me think about the church:

Summer lasted a generation
A generation – and then the winter wind
The bounty harvest that seemed so endless
It seemed so endless until it gave what it could give

Prosperity will have its seasons
Even when it’s here, it’s going by
And when it’s gone we pretend we know the reasons
And all the roots grow deeper when it’s dry.

This is my prayer for the church of Jesus Christ in this dry season: that its roots will grow deeper, and that instead of worrying so much about how to fill pews and offering plates, we will drive our roots down into the deep places, and discover the living water that quenches our deepest thirst, and becomes in us a spring of water gushing up to everlasting life (John 4:14).

The Kingdom, Act II

CB067270Here’s the second “Act” of the piece I wrote for Sunday night’s heavenly choir concert, “The Kingdom.”  I called Act I “Jesus,” and called this Act “the Church.”  Faithful readers of this blog will recognize the poem by Ann Weems, which was published in a previous post.

Thanks for reading,



I believe Jesus believed that God’s kingdom really could come on earth as it is in heaven.  That’s what he told his disciples to pray for, that’s what he told them to work for.  He spent those years training them, in part, so that when he finished his work on earth they could take over.  As he was leaving them he said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 

And that’s just what happened.  On the Day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit fell upon those believers and sent them out into the city of Jerusalem, out into all of Judea and Samaria, out to the ends of the earth.  Everywhere they went they preached the good news about Jesus, and his message of a Kingdom where the lost are found, the last are first, and the least are great.  It was a reversal of most of what people had heard, most of their lives.  Some of them received it with joy, while others did not.  “These people are turning the world upside down!” the authorities grumbled, where somewhere Jesus must have smiled, because turning the world upside down is what the Kingdom is all about.  “Every valley will be exalted,” Isaiah said, “and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.”

Sometimes it happens, and if it’s going to happen anywhere it should happen here, in the church.  We, of all people, should be the ones to set an example for the world by letting God have his way with us, by throwing ourselves like a wood chip on the water of his will, and getting carried away by the current.  When that happens the kingdom comes, in church as it is in heaven, and it looks a lot like this poem by Ann Weems:


The Church of Jesus Christ

The church of Jesus Christ is where a child brings a balloon…
is where old women come to dance . . .
is where young men see visions and old men dream dreams.
The church of Jesus Christ is where lepers come to be touched . . .
is where the blind see and the deaf hear . . .
is where the lame run and the dying live.
The church of Jesus Christ is where daisies bloom out of barren land . . .
is where children lead and wise men follow . . .
is where mountains are moved and walls come tumbling down.
The church of Jesus Christ is where loaves of bread are stacked in the sanctuary
to feed the hungry . . .
is where coats are taken off and put on the backs of the naked . . .
is where shackles are discarded and kings and shepherds sit down to life together.
The church of Jesus Christ is where barefoot children
run giggling in procession . . .

is where the minister is ministered unto . . .
is where the anthem is the laughter of the congregation and the offering plates
are full of people.
The church of Jesus Christ is where people go when they skin their knees
or their hearts . . .

is where frogs become princes and Cinderella dances beyond midnight . . .
is where judges don’t judge and each child of God is beautiful and precious.
The church of Jesus Christ is where the sea divides for the exiles . . .
is where the ark floats and the lamb lies down with the lion . . .
is where people can disagree and hold hands at the same time.
The church of Jesus Christ is where night is day . . .
is where trumpets and drums and tambourines declare God’s goodness . . .
is where lost lambs are found.
The church of Jesus Christ is where people write thank-you notes to God . . .
is where work is a holiday . . .
is where seeds are scattered and miracles grown.
The church of Jesus Christ is where home is . . .
is where heaven is . . .
is where a picnic is communion and people break bread together on their knees.
The church of Jesus Christ is where we live responsively to God’s coming . . .
even on Monday morning the world will hear . . .
an abundance of alleluias! 

                                                                               —Ann Weems


Note: After reading the poem I said, “I might add that the church of Jesus Christ is where people bring bags of rice and cans of tuna to feed their hungry neighbors.”  And then, as we sang a hymn, people came forward and stacked those items on the communion table until it overflowed, and then stacked them on the chancel steps all around, hundreds of pounds of rice and tuna for the refugees from Nepal we have been ministering to, many of whom were at the concert that night.  If I could have put a caption under that picture it would have read: “This is what life in the Kingdom looks like.”