Who Gets to Decide?

huge_90_451227Yesterday I preached on submission.

I’m sure there are churches where that’s not a controversial subject, where the pastor simply tells women they have to submit and they all nod their heads dutifully.  But Richmond’s First Baptist Church is not like that.  If you put us all on one pew you would find the full spectrum of theological views represented, from very conservative to not very conservative at all.   To preach on something like submission is to risk half the church getting up and walking out. 

But it’s in the Bible, and I’m a biblical preacher.  I wouldn’t want to ignore something like submission just because it’s controversial.  In fact I find that those kinds of subjects force me to study harder, to dig deeper, and when I did that with this subject I turned up some interesting results.

In the New International Version (the one in the pew racks at First Baptist Church), Ephesians 5:22 says, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.”  That seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?  And a lot of preachers preach it just that way.  But when I’m dealing with a controversial subject I want to get as close to the source as possible, and so I looked this one up in the Greek New Testament.  There Ephesians 5:22 says, “Wives to their husbands as to the Lord.”  The word submit  isn’t even in that verse, it’s in the verse above—Ephesians 5:21—which says, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” 

And here’s where it gets interesting:

In my Greek New Testament there is an English subtitle just before verse 21 that says, “Wives and Husbands.”  If the Greek were translated into English it would look like this:

Wives and Husbands
21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ

In the New International Version that same subtitle comes just before verse 22, like this:

Wives and Husbands
22 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.

In the NIV that verse about submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ comes above the subtitle, as if it were unrelated to a discussion of husbands and wives.  So, if I were only reading the NIV I might assume that the teaching on mutual submission belonged to the previous passage, that Christians in general should submit to one another out of reverence for Christ but when it comes to husbands and wives, wives should submit to their husbands.  I think a lot of people have made that assumption, and I can’t blame them for it.

But I can blame whoever decided that the subtitle—“Wives and Husbands”—should go below verse 21 instead of above it.  Look it up for yourself.  It’s not in the original manuscript.  It’s supposed to be a helpful way of identifying the subject matter that follows.  But whoever put that subtitle in the Greek New Testament thought it should go before verse 21 and whoever put it in the NIV thought it should go after it, and it makes a difference—an enormous difference—in how you understand the passage.  In one version you end up thinking that husbands and wives should submit to one another while in another version you end up thinking that only wives have to submit.

So I wonder: was it a group of men who made that decision?  Was the placement of that subtitle related in any way to the idea of “keeping women in their place”?  Where would the subtitle have gone if it had been a group of women making the decision?  And how much difference does it make who gets to decide?

Best Day of the Trip

bhutani_refugee_usThe staff of Richmond’s First Baptist Church has been on an in-town mission trip this week, doing our part to see that God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done “in Richmond as it is in Heaven.”  One of the ways we have approached that mission is by loving our neighbors as we love ourselves (Matt. 22:39), and that’s why on Thursday most of the staff spent most of the day scrubbing down the walls and floors of Fox Elementary School right here in the Fan.  I had a previous commitment that day and wasn’t able to participate, but the staff let me know (over and over again) that I had missed the hardest work day of the week.  It didn’t go without notice, however.  The two custodians at Fox Elementary were extremely grateful, and acknowledged that there was no way they would have been ready for opening day without the help of First Baptist Church.  I hope that story will get around, and secure our reputation as “a good neighbor in a great neighborhood.” 

I was back on Friday.  That’s when we went out to Colonial Apartments to visit with the refugees.  Jenny Minor (financial secretary) and I went together to visit a refugee from Nepal named Som and his sister Tulasa.  Som was an English teacher in Nepal and carried the conversation effortlessly, telling us about his adjustment to the American way of life.  It hasn’t been easy.  He spends nearly two hours each day riding the bus to his job at a fast food restaurant where he works five hours and then turns around to come home.  His sister Tulasa has not been able to find a job (even though she’s really good with children), and so the few dollars he earns are all they have in a household that also includes his mother.  She came in near the end of our visit and sat silently in a chair in the corner.  Tulasa sat on the daybed in the living room throughout our visit, smiling shyly and getting up only once to offer us sliced apples and glasses of soda.  Som is worried that if she doesn’t find a job soon they will lose their apartment.  Still, he is hopeful.  “I have big dreams,” he said, smiling as if he were letting us in on a secret.  “I want to be a filmmaker some day.”

Before leaving I asked for permission to say a prayer.  I explained that Jenny and I were Christians, that we believed in God and believed that God had power to do things we couldn’t do.  “Do you mind,” I said, “if we ask God to help you and your family?”  No, Som said.  He didn’t mind at all.  And so I said a prayer that included every member of the family, asking God to bless them with life and health and work, and when I finished they all seemed grateful.

Jesus told his followers to go into all the world and make disciples (Matt. 28:19).  It’s one of the ways we are trying to bring heaven to earth at Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  But how wonderful it is when the world comes to us, when we can sit in an apartment less than five miles from Monument and the Boulevard and make friends with people from Nepal, when we can offer prayers for them and ask God to bless them in every way. 

I missed the work day on Thursday and I’m sorry about that.  I would have loved to help out at Fox Elementary School.  But on Friday at Colonial Apartments I was doing some Great Commission work, and that’s why, for me,

It was the best day of the trip.

“In Richmond, as it is in Heaven”

richmond-vaI’m on a staff mission trip this week, right here in the City of Richmond. 

We had first talked about going to New Orleans, to assist in the endless, ongoing recovery efforts following Hurricane Katrina, but then—because of the economy—we talked about going somewhere a little closer and more affordable, like West Virginia.  Finally we decided to stay right here in Richmond, believing there is plenty of mission work to be done in our own city. 

We were right about that.

This “mission trip” ties in perfectly with one of our regular rituals.  You may not know this, but at the close of each staff meeting we stand around the table, join hands, and say the Lord’s Prayer.  But when we get to that part that says, “on earth, as it is in heaven,” we say, “in Richmond, as it is in heaven.”  It’s what I’ve been saying to the staff from the beginning, that I believe Jesus was trying to establish God’s kingdom on earth and that he called some disciples to help him do that.  When they asked him to teach them to pray he said, “Pray that God’s kingdom would come, that God’s will would be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  And so I see it as our role—as a church and as a staff—to help Jesus bring heaven to earth.  That’s why we pray at the end of our staff meetings, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, in Richmond, as it is in heaven.”

This week we are putting hands to our prayers. 

Associate Pastor Steve Blanchard has organized the week so that we spend some time working at the church, some time working in the neighborhood, some time working in the poorer parts of the city, and some time working with refugees from the other side of the world.  It really is a “Jerusalem-Judea-Samaria-and-to-the-ends-of-the-earth” kind of experience.  So far it has involved a good bit of cleaning, painting, and heavy lifting, but it has also involved opportunities for the staff to work together in ways we rarely do. 

I’ve moved furniture with Ron Maxwell, one of our custodians; swept floors with Reinaldo Vega, who maintains our facilities; and run an errand with Vanessa Carter, one of our cooks.  The errand with Vanessa was especially enjoyable, not only because she is so much fun to be around, but because we were returning a piece of furniture that she and Doris (our other cook) had picked up by mistake.  They were cleaning out a storage unit, and got so carried away with the project they loaded a set of shelves from the unit next door.  It turns out those shelves belonged to a sculptor who was working in that unit, and who was none too happy when he found out someone had “stolen” his shelves.  So I offered to go along with Vanessa to take back the shelves and offer an apology. 

How often do I get to ride around Richmond in a pickup truck with Vanessa?  Not often.  She drove, and if you had seen the two of us you would have wondered what we were up to, with her driving and me talking (as usual) and gesturing with both hands as the shelves bounced around in the back of the truck.  We returned the shelves with apologies and had a chance to talk to the sculptor about his work—beautiful pieces made of plaster in various stages of completion, some of them drying on (you guessed it) shelves.  By the time we left he was laughing heartily and wishing us well and I got the feeling that even in that mission of apology, a little heaven had come to earth.

I’m glad we stayed in Richmond this week.  Even though we will miss out on some of the camaraderie that comes from riding hundreds of miles in a church van, eating bologna-and-cheese sandwiches, and sleeping on the floor in a church basement, we will focus our attention on the city God has given us as our year-round mission field, and by the end of the week we will have a better understanding of what it will take to be an answer to the Lord’s Prayer.

Yes, We Shall!

DSC03633Shall we gather at the river,
where bright angel feet have trod,
with its crystal tide forever
flowing by the throne of God?

It’s not exactly a baptismal hymn, but it’s the one that has been coming to mind in the past few weeks as the staff of Richmond’s First Baptist Church planned and promoted a “river baptism.”  We spent some time worrying about where we would do it, and some more time worrying about what the weather would be like, but in the end we found the perfect place and the weather was the kind that inspires baptism–so hot that people who had never considered full immersion were beginning to see the advantages.

Bill and Beverley Hundley let us use their front lawn, which slopes down to the James River beautifully.  It’s a grassy, park-like place, with mature trees and plenty of shade on a hot day.  We were glad about that.  The temperature when I arrived at 4:00 was right at 99, and some people were already sitting in the shade fanning themselves with straw hats.  But that didn’t stop others from coming.  By 5:00, when it was time to begin, there must have been 200 people there, with nearly two dozen of us dressed in white robes, ready to get into the water.

I welcomed the crowd, Fred and Julie James sang “Amazing Grace,” I offered a prayer, and then One Accord sang “Down to the River to Pray” as Buzz Ingalls made his way to the water.  Buzz was stricken with polio as a child, and while many of his friends were making professions of faith and being baptized Buzz was at home, battling his disease.  As a result he wasn’t baptized then, but when he came down the aisle last year he told me that he very much wanted to be baptized now.  We had to think about how to do that.  He couldn’t get into the baptistry at the church, not with those crutches.  But when we began to talk about a river baptism Buzz thought he might be able to manage that.  So, while One Accord sang, he came, making his way slowly, carefully, to the river. 

But once he got in the water everything changed.  He was buoyant in body and soul.  And when it came time to profess his faith he said, “Jesus is Lord!” in a voice loud enough to be heard on the riverbank.  I dipped him down under the water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and he came up grateful in a way I have rarely witnessed, having waited for that moment for decades.

I baptized several children after that, and then had the privilege of baptizing Reinaldo Vega—a member of the church maintenance staff— just after his son Anthony had been immersed.  Reid and Millie Flinn—husband and wife—came into the water together and stood there side by side as I talked about their desire to make a fresh commitment to Christ.  Some who had been baptized and confirmed in other denominations were glad to profess their faith in this peculiarly Baptist way.  Some who had been previously immersed wanted to seize this opportunity to renew old promises.  By the time we were finished 21 people had been dipped down under the water, and after each one the crowd on the riverbank applauded. 

There was no formal benediction or organ postlude; just the sounds of people shifting their lawn chairs and opening picnic baskets as they settled into a time of fellowship that lasted for the next two hours, with members of the First Baptist family eating, talking, and laughing as the sun sank lower in the sky and filtered through the leaves on the trees, turning everything gold and green.  Near the end children were swimming in the river and romping on the lawn as their parents carried on conversation with each other, as old friends shared stories they had been waiting a long time to tell  No one seemed to be in a hurry to leave.  We didn’t want the evening to be over.  And so the last voices heard on the lawn were voices promising that we would do it again next year, that First Baptist Church’s “river baptism” would become an annual event.

Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
the beautiful, the beautiful river;
gather with the saints at the river
that flows by the throne of God.

BONUS: See pictures and a video clip HERE.

Guest Blogger, Ellie Somerville


Ellie with some of her new friends at Frederiksted Baptist Church (photo by Meredith Booth)

Ellie with some of her new friends at Frederiksted Baptist Church (photo by Meredith Booth)

Editor’s Note: I asked my daughter Ellie to write up an account of her recent mission trip to St. Croix with a group from First Baptist Richmond.  Their assignment was to lead a sports camp for children on the island, in partnership with Frederiksted Baptist Church.  As you will read, their experience with the church in worship was as meaningful as any other part of the trip.  Please understand that the views of this guest blogger do not necessarily represent the views of the management…they just make the management proud.  —Jim Somerville

A few weeks ago a group of 11 from First Baptist Church met in the Robinson Street parking lot around 4 am. At that time, without even a drop of coffee in our systems, there was no way we could imagine what the journey we were about to embark on would bring. We didn’t know that we would experience some of the most genuine love on God’s earth, or that the hugs we would give to children might change their lives forever, and some of us had no idea that the Caribbean is really as clear and beautiful as it looks in pictures.
At 6 that morning, our group left for St. Croix in the U.S Virgin Islands—a beautiful paradise—where we were set to lead a children’s camp at Fredriksted Baptist Church. Pastor John Gilbert and a team of young men from the church graciously came to pick us up from the airport in their church vans and dropped us off at the “Cottages by the Sea’” about 50 feet from the Caribbean. After having some time to settle in that evening, we called it an early night to prepare for church the next morning.
“Prepare” might actually be the wrong word to use. Pastor John had asked us to have some songs and maybe testimonies ready for church that morning, “just in case,” but we had no idea what we were in for. Going to church that morning was our first real experience of “Cruzan time” (pronounced CROO-zhun) or “island time” that Pastor John had told us so much about. This laid-back philosophy seems to apply to so much more on the island than just their sense of time. It’s the idea of worry-free living. If you think about it, most of the things we worry about in American society stem from the stresses we associate with time: deadlines, tardiness, waiting, missed appointments, etc.  If you aren’t fretting about those things, you are much less overwhelmed by everything else in life.
Meeting the people of Fredriksted Baptist Church opened our eyes to the way life could be if you really left those stresses behind. For example, I don’t know if anyone from our mission group could say that they have ever met a more loving and welcoming group of people. Those of you who were at First Baptist a few weeks ago hopefully got a taste of this love and appreciation of God through the “Cruzan-style” passing of the peace led by members of our mission group. We encouraged the congregation to “get out of their seats, out of their pews, and out of their comfort zones” to hug their brothers and sisters in Christ, and tell them that they loved them. But this was only one of the ways we really saw God’s presence in the St. Croix worship service. No one in the congregation seemed to be worried about what others might think about the way they worshipped God. Everyone was fully present in their worship experience and no one seemed to be thinking about what anyone else was doing.There were times in the service when Pastor John or another member of the congregation would call on someone to come up and sing, choose a song, play the piano, or share a testimony. No one was stressed about the fact that they hadn’t prepared anything. They just humbly came forward and shared what was on their heart—and because it wasn’t prepared in the way that we might think necessary it was truly genuine. It didn’t feel rehearsed or even fake. These people were up there giving God all they had.
We got to experience this first hand when Pastor John reminded the church as they were leaving the service to come back that evening to hear members of First Baptist’s mission team shared their testimonies. “Some of them know about this, some of them don’t,” he said. None of us knew about it. But instead of being worried about it, as typical Americans would, we took inspiration from the members of Fredricksted Baptist and used our recently adopted Cruzan attitudes to say “I mean… it’s whatever!” 
The worry did start to sink in a little that evening as we settled into our pews, Pastor John introduced our group, and we realized that we were the service that evening. But, with Meredith Booth courageously leading the way, we—one by one—began to get out of our seats, out of our pews, and out of our comfort zones to share our testimonies with total strangers. Except they weren’t total strangers: that morning through our worship experience together, they had become our families. And when we started to speak it wasn’t stressful, because it was real. It didn’t have to be rehearsed because we were speaking from our hearts, and we found strength knowing that God was right there with us.
Hearing the “Amens” coming from the congregation helped us as well. It felt like God was speaking through these people, saying “Right on,” or “You got this,” and hearing one affirmation after another was like a wave of his presence sweeping through the room. Every time someone shouted “Amen!” it was clear that they were having a connection with God, or with what we were saying in that moment, and that was an incredible feeling. Every now and then we even heard the jingle of a tambourine coming from the back of the sanctuary—just another way someone found to share the love of God that was overflowing from within. 
We left church that evening feeling full to the brim with God’s love and that was only our second night – we hadn’t even started the mission work yet!  Of course we knew that coming back to First Baptist would be a little bit of an adjustment after this experience. But, instead of just accepting that, we decided to share a little bit of our experience with the church the Sunday we came back and did the best we could through the passing of the peace. We did this in the hope that some of the joy we had experienced through worshiping “Cruzan-style” would be transferred to the congregation of First Baptist.
For those of you who did participate in the passing of the peace that Sunday, I hope you were blessed. But my hope is that everyone can take something from the many ways that the members of Fredriksted Baptist experience God. Don’t worry about what other people are thinking of the way you worship. If you feel the presence of God when you shake a tambourine—go for it. If you hear his voice when you dance in the aisle—go for it. If you feel like sharing your testimony—go for it. If you really connect with something in the scripture or something you hear in church—shout out an “Amen.”  And for those of you who are hating me right now for encouraging this because you think that it might cause the worship service to run too long and keep you from beating the Methodists to lunch (wink)—time to get on Cruzan time. Be actively present in your worship of God—this Sunday, every Sunday, every day, every minute—and you will reap the many rewards.
-Ellie Somerville 

By the Way, Christ is Risen

pantofaceI went to Starbucks this week to study for Sunday’s sermon and took my Greek New Testament with me.  When I put it down on the counter to pay for my coffee the guy at the register said, “Why are you studying Greek?”

“Because I’m a pastor,” I said.  “I’m a Christian pastor.  We tend to preach from the New Testament and the New Testament was originally written in Greek.”

“And Aramaic,” he said, knowledgeably.

“Um, yeah…I guess.  But this is a Greek New Testament so it’s mostly just…Greek.”

He told me that he had studied Latin in school–five years!  You’ve got to watch these Starbucks baristas.  You never know what kind of skills or knowledge they might bring to the job.  And being around all that coffee seems to stimulate their thinking: some of my liveliest conversations have occurred right there at the point of sale, as I hand over my card and wait for a receipt.  There we were, talking about the Greek and Latin languages as he pushed my coffee cup toward me.

“By the way, Christ is risen,” he said, as I turned to go.  It was Christian “code” language, a secret way of saying, “I’m a believer, too.”  It dates back to the first century where it was almost certainly whispered in Greek—“christos anesti!”  I stopped in my tracks and turned back to take him in, this young, bearded barista who had just revealed himself as my brother in Christ.  He was grinning, and for a moment I was tempted to say something smart like, “By the way?”  But before those words could come out of my mouth those other words came, the traditional response to the traditional Easter greeting.  I raised my coffee cup, smiled, and said:

“Christ is risen indeed.”