The Experience of Awe

I recently posted an entry from “Jim’s Online Journal,” which I used to share with a few close friends and family members in the days before blogging became so popular (by the way, I love the quote someone shared with me recently about blogging: “Never before have so many people with so little to say said so much to so few.”  True!).  But here’s another excerpt from that old journal that still seems fresh.  I hope you will enjoy it.


Thursday, July 30, 1998

Spirituality professor Glenn Hinson says that “the appropriate response to God is this”:  and then he lets his mouth fall open with an audible “plop” and stands in front of his class  for a full sixty seconds while his students first laugh and then begin to squirm uncomfortably before such a sustained expression of awe.

Today, two full days after my return from a backpacking trip to Montana’s awe-inspiring Bob Marshall Wilderness, my jaws are still sore from rounding all those bends in the trail and having my mouth fall open again and again.  What a place!  What breathtaking beauty!  In the same way I felt helpless to cram all that glory into a snapshot as I took pictures, I feel helpless to describe the experience in words, but here are a few black and white, monotone memories of a technicolor, surround-sound trip:

Day 2:  Trudging up endless switchbacks and through a dense pine forest to emerge, at last, by the edge of an alpine lake, its clear blue-green waters overshadowed by a craggy peak, flanked with snow, towering 3,000 feet above the surface of the lake.

Day 3:  Leaving my backpack behind and climbing some of the smaller peaks around Koessler Lake.  Scrambling up a near-vertical face and thrusting my arms into the air in a gesture of triumph at the peak.  Looking over the North edge of that peak at a sheer cliff wall dropping 2,000 feet into Lick Lake.  Climbing down and entering a broad, flat alpine meadow, dotted with red, blue, yellow, and white wildflowers, bursting into a baritone rendition of “The Sound of Music.”  Leaning back into the shade of a huge boulder, eating beef jerky and sipping mountain spring water, feeling my soul nourished.

Day 5:  Swimming in the cool, clear water of a secluded mountain lake.  Sitting on a warm, flat rock in the sunshine to dry off afterward.  Listening to the sound of water falling in fat drops from my elbows and fingertips and hearing absolutely nothing else.  Silence.  Silence.  Ahhhh!

There is, of course, much more to tell, but let me leave you with the image of my eyes fixed on Montana, my mouth hanging open in awe.  To quote William Willimon:  “God is large, and prickly, and . . . large.”


New Year’s Resolution

On Sunday I preached on that often-neglected passage from Luke 2 about the time the boy Jesus was left behind at the temple in Jerusalem.  It reminded me of the time my dad left my brother Scott behind at the library in Charleston, West Virginia—a 45-minute drive from our house.  But Scott didn’t seem to mind.  He loved books, and the library was his favorite place in the world.  If he had run away from home in those days we would have known just where to find him.

So I asked the congregation at the end of the sermon: “If you turned up missing in the next 24 hours, where would people begin to look for you?  And when they found you, and you asked them, “Where else would I be?” where would you be?  And is there any chance you would be here, in church, thinking the things of God?  And if not, then why not?  What has become more important to you than that?

It sounds kind of pushy when I see it in print, but in context it was mostly about what we love most in the world, followed by the question: if God is not at the top of that list then why not?  What has taken his place?  So I ended the sermon with the litany of renewal from John Wesley’s covenant service, in which he urged his congregations at the beginning of each new year to “wholly give themselves up to God, and to renew at every point their covenant that the Lord should be their God.”  The litany can be found in its entirety in my post from this time last year (“Those Methodists Mean Business!”), but I want to reprint the closing paragraph here.  Let me challenge you in the way I challenged the congregation on Sunday: if you can say “Amen” to these words then say it, and if you can’t then don’t.  But if you can say it, say it with all your heart, and let this new year be one in which you live out the terms of this covenant.

I give myself completely to you, God.
Assign me to my place in your creation.
Let me suffer for you.
Give me the work you would have me do.
Give me many tasks
Or have me step aside while you call others.
Put me forward or humble me.
Give me riches or let me live in poverty.
I freely give all that I am and all that I have to you.
And now, holy God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
You are mine and I am yours.  So be it.
May this covenant made on earth
continue for all eternity.


A Time to Dance

Christmas just isn’t Christmas until sheep form a conga line and begin dancing in celebration of the Savior’s birth, at least it’s not to He Qi, China’s most sought-after contemporary Christian artist.  It’s a good illustration of what I talked about at last night’s Christmas Eve service:

“There is a time to mourn,” says the writer of Ecclesiastes, but there is also “a time to dance.”  And if there is such a time don’t you think that this time, Christmas time, is it?  I can imagine God putting the Incarnation together like a father bolting a bicycle together on Christmas Eve, anticipating the look of delight in his child’s eyes.  He would want to keep it a secret, of course.  He wouldn’t want to give away the surprise too soon.  So he might choose a virgin from a little town in Galilee to bear this gift.  Who would ever guess?  And he might choose a stable in Bethlehem as the place to deliver this gift.  Who would ever imagine?  But then, when the gift arrived, he might be so excited about it that he would want the whole world to know, and the last thing he would want the world to do is recite a litany of celebration in a dull monotone.  No!  He would want the world to clap its hands, to burst into song, to do a few, quick dance steps.  And so instead of announcing the news of Christ’s birth to the pastor of the First Baptist Church he sends his angels to some shepherds, abiding in the fields by night.

He did it for two reasons, I think:  one, because he knew the shepherds would be awake, and two, because he knew the shepherds would know how to party, that the one thing they would be wondrously free from was inhibition.  So when the angel tells them something big is happening in Bethlehem they don’t say, “Well, we probably ought to stay here and keep an eye on the sheep.”  They say, “Let’s go!”  “And they made haste,” Luke says, they ran, they raced, they tripped over rocks and roots and stumbled through the door of the stable breathless, laughing, and suddenly struck dumb with wonder.  But they didn’t stay that way long.  When they left that place they apparently banged on windows and doors, woke up their neighbors to tell them good news of great joy:  “God is with us!  God is here!  Let’s have a party!”

Merry Christmas everyone.  May your stocking be full of hope, peace, joy, and love, and may you too be inspired to do something a little crazy for Jesus’ sake.


What Mary Read on the Way to Bethlehem

What does it mean to swaddle a baby?

Swaddling is the art of snugly wrapping your baby in a blanket for warmth and security. It can keep him from being disturbed by his own startle reflex, and it may even help him stay warm and toasty for the first few days of life until his internal thermostat kicks in. Most important, it can help to calm your baby.

Nowadays, you probably won’t leave the hospital without a little lesson in this technique. Try it, after you’ve made sure your baby isn’t hungry, wet, or tired. It can be used to help settle your baby down when he’s overstimulated or when he just needs to feel something close to the tightness and security of the womb.

Once your baby is about a month old you might want to stop swaddling him while he’s awake, as it may interfere with mobility and development in older babies. It’s fine to keep swaddling your baby for naps and nighttime if he seems to sleep better that way. He’ll let you know by crying or kicking when he no longer wants to be bundled up.

—text from the BabyCenter web site; image: Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Madonna and Child (1319).

Go in Your Closet and Cuss

Here’s another excerpt from an old journal (1998), with some advice I hope you won’t have to use during this holiday season.  If memory serves, the advice was inspired by a Glenn Hinson article on “Praying the Imprecatory Psalms”: the ones that ask God to smite our enemies and “break the teeth in their mouths” (Ps. 58:6).  Ouch!


On Tuesday I talked with an 83-year-old woman whose children have decided she can no longer live by herself.  I think they are right, but that doesn’t make it any easier for her.  She came to my study to confess that she couldn’t stop crying, couldn’t stop feeling angry.  “I know I shouldn’t feel this way,” she mumbled. 

“We can’t choose how we feel,” I said.  “Choosing is a head thing.  Feeling is a heart thing.  The best we can do is identify our feelings.  Right now you’re angry, and that’s OK.  You have reason to be angry.  Your life is changing without your permission.”

“Still . . . ” she said, meekly, “I shouldn’t feel this way.”

So I wrote a prescription.  I took a slip of paper out of my desk drawer and wrote:  “It’s OK to be angry,” and then I handed it to her.  She looked at it, puzzled, and said, “But I always thought it was a sin to be angry.”  “No,” I said, emphatically.  “Paul says in Ephesians 4:26, ‘Be angry (there’s plenty to be angry about), and yet do not sin,’ that is, do not let your anger lead you to hurt or hate someone.  It’s one thing to throw a can of green beans across the kitchen in anger, it’s another thing to throw a can of green beans across the kitchen at your daughter” (the one who is asking her to move).

She smiled then.  She could see the difference.  I pushed it a little further:  “Go on home and be mad for awhile if you need to.  Rip up a newspaper.  Spit on the floor.  Go in your closet and cuss.”

They didn’t teach us this in seminary.  And it may not be the best counsel I’ve ever given.  But I couldn’t help feeling that this woman would never get to the point of acceptance if she didn’t first get through her anger, and you don’t get through it by repressing it or denying it (like pressure cookers we all need to let off some steam from time to time or we’ll blow—the trick is to let it off harmlessly, without scalding anyone in the process).

My dear, 83-year-old, friend sat for awhile thinking about what I had said, and then rose and shook my hand.  When she left my study she was smiling, looking forward (I think) to spending some time in her closet.

All in a day’s work,


We Could Make Beautiful Music Together

In Sunday’s sermon I told the story of Bamma Donohue, my first crush, and talked about the way love can transform everything.  It went something like this:


When I was seven years old my family moved from Virginia to West Virginia, and I hated it.  We had driven away from Wise in our old station wagon, under the cover of darkness.  It was raining, and I remember watching the raindrops slide down the car windows just like the tears sliding down my cheeks.  I didn’t want to leave the only home I had ever known and I didn’t want to leave my best friend, Bobby Thompson, behind.  But I did, and ended up at Pettus Elementary School in West Virginia where the Ferrell twins—Denny and Lenny—kept insisting that West Virginia was the best Virginia, to which I could only reply: “No, it’s not.”  Our teacher, Miss Govay, made us sing this dumb song about those “West Virginia hills/how majestic and how grand/with their summits bathed in glory/like our Prince Emmanuel’s land” (yeah, right).  But after that painful year was over we moved a few miles up the river to Seth, West Virginia, and on the day after Labor Day I took my seat in Mrs. Bowen’s fourth grade classroom and was just unpacking my pencil box when Bamma Donohue walked in.

When I saw her I felt something inside me I had never felt before.  I couldn’t explain it, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.  She sat one row over and two seats ahead of me, which was the perfect place for me to notice her without her noticing me.  I stole glances at her straight brown hair, her slender neck, her unbelievably long eyelashes (like Bambi’s mother!).  The only word I could attach to the feeling I was having was love: I was in love with this girl.  I carried it around inside me quietly, stoically, never letting on and hoping she couldn’t hear my heart thumping when we ended up in the lunch line together.  But on Valentine’s Day I was in the classroom early.  It was only me, Mike Gordon, and some girl near the back of the class unpacking her book bag, when Bamma walked in.  She had all her Valentines in tiny white envelopes, but after she had dropped them into the big box at the front of the room she walked back to where Mike Gordon was sitting and put one down on his desk—a different one, a special one.  He said, “I don’t want that old thing!”  And Bamma said, “Fine!” She snatched it up, clutched it to her chest, and then walked over and slapped it down on my desk. 

It was a homemade valentine: red construction paper with a sticker of two birds sitting close together on a limb, musical notes floating over their heads, and these words written in Bamma’s own hand: “We could make beautiful music together.”  I didn’t care that it was a second-hand valentine.  I picked it up off the desk gratefully, looked up at her with my lower lip trembling, and held that valentine to my heart.  I took it home that afternoon and propped it up on my dresser so that it would be the first thing I saw in the morning and the last thing I saw at night, and when my brothers and I accidentally burned the house down a couple of years later it was that valentine I ran back to my room to rescue. 

But that’s another story. 

Near the end of that fourth-grade year I was standing in line at the door, getting ready to go out and get on the bus for home, when I heard the girls in front of me giggling and whispering that Bamma Donohue was going to sit beside Jimmy Somerville on the bus.  I must have blushed, but I didn’t say a word; I just waited to see what would happen.  When I got on the bus I sat near the aisle, saving a seat, and when Bamma got on the bus she was blushing furiously and giggling almost uncontrollably.  But when she got to where I was sitting she stopped and said, “Scoot over!”  I did.  And she sat beside me.  And for the five minutes we were on the bus together she blushed and giggled and we both endured the taunts of the other children, chanting in unison something about Jimmy and Bamma sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G, which, of course, I could only imagine, but did imagine all the way to my stop. 

I said goodbye and she let me slide out, and I got off the bus, walked across the bridge in a kind of a daze, and then started off on the dirt path that led across the field and up to my house.  As I walked I lifted up mine eyes unto the hills and behold, they were very beautiful.  I felt my soul strangely stirred, and heard the sound of music swelling around me, and I began to sing out loud a song about “those West Virginia hills/how majestic and how grand/with their summits bathed in glory/like our Prince Emmanuel’s land.”


I ended the sermon (since it was a sermon and not just a story of a schoolboy crush) by saying, “It wasn’t the last, but it was certainly one of the most memorable lessons I ever had in how love can change things, how it can transform what is bleak and miserable into something bright and beautiful, and of course that’s what we celebrate at Christmas and in nearly every Christmas carol: the way God’s love transformed the world from something cold and lonely to something lovely and altogether lovable.”

May it be true for you this season, no matter what grade you’re in.

Jim’s Snow Policy

Dear Members and Friends of Richmond’s First Baptist Church:

We’ve had some snow in the last 48 hours–lots of it.  The small, round table on my deck looks like a wedding cake, piled high with at least twelve inches of fluffy white snow.  It’s beautiful, but it does raise the question: Will we have church tomorrow?

It has been my policy for years now to open the doors of the church on Sunday morning no matter what the weather, and I’ve done it: I’ve bundled up and hiked through the snow simply because there might be someone in the neighborhood who needs to hear the Gospel and feel the warmth of Christian love.  One Sunday morning in DC the snow was coming down thick and fast, eventually piling up to a depth of more than two feet.  We only had 25 people in church that day but three of them joined the church when I gave the invitation.  I don’t think I’ve had a Sunday since when 12 percent of the congregation responded to the altar call.  I’ll be at church tomorrow, and I hope you will, too.

But it has also been my policy to ask members to use their own good judgment and not take any unnecessary risks to come to church.  If you look out the front door on Sunday morning and think, “I could fall and hurt myself,” then please stay home.  You have my permission.  Tomorrow, especially, you have some options: we’ll be broadcasting the service live on Channel 8 at 11:00 a.m. in the Richmond area, and air the usual live webcast at  We won’t have an 8:30 service tomorrow and we won’t be having Sunday school, but if you can make it to the 11:00 service without risking life or limb I’d love to see you there.  And if you can’t make it in person I’ll look for you on the other side of the camera.

In the meantime, appreciate the beauty of the snow, and the way it makes the world—for a little while at least—perfect and pure.