Here We Go!

It’s Wednesday of Holy Week, and tonight we gather at Richmond’s First Baptist Church for the first worship service of five that will be held over the next few days.  Before I say another word, let me say thanks to Phil Mitchell, Associate Pastor for Worship, who did most of the heavy lifting in putting these services together.

Tonight’s service (at 6:30) is one of candlelight and contemplative prayer, interspersed with Scripture readings and singing by our own “cantor,” Robert Dilday.  It was “designed” by the Prayer Team at First Baptist Church, a group of lay leaders who work with Lynn Turner in praying for the church and keeping the church praying.

On Maundy Thursday we will gather at 7:00 for an impressive commemoration of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples that will include communion.  I’m preaching a sermon called “Washing the Devil’s Feet,” that refers not only to the foot washing before the meal, but also to the new commandment Jesus gives his disciples afterward: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

The Good Friday service will be held in the sanctuary at Noon, and will feature a reader’s theatre comprised of First Baptist staff reading the passion narrative from Luke’s Gospel, and a sermon delivered by my friend, former associate, and hip young pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in the Fan—Sterling Severns.

On Saturday, we will host an abbreviated Easter vigil, celebrating this ancient ritual in Fourth-Century style by kindling “new fire” in front of the church at 7:00, lighting candles from the flame, and bringing the light into the sanctuary to begin our celebration of the Resurrection.  This is a service of “Fire, Word, Water, and Wine” that will include a sermon by Lynn Turner, the candlelight baptism of six new converts, and communion that will feature Welch’s grape juice instead of wine (it’s not the Fourth Century way, but it certainly is the Baptist way).

All of this slowly unfolding drama will build up to a jubilant celebration of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday morning, with two services in the sanctuary: one at 8:30 (for the early risers and those who hope to find a seat) and another at 11:00 (prepare for a packed house).  Both services will feature glorious music, multiple choirs, and an Easter sermon called “Dying for Resurrection.” 

If you live in the Richmond area I hope you will join us for each of these services.  If you don’t, you can still access the Easter service by webcast.  But please don’t let me lure you away from your own community of faith. 

There is no better place to be at Easter than there.

The Faster Pastor

When I started training for the Monument Avenue 10K last year with the team from Richmond’s First Baptist Church, I joked that there was “no pastor faster.”  In our Sunday afternoon training sessions I would try to run fast enough to protect that reputation, but not so fast that I couldn’t discuss theology with my teammates (which I’m sure they appreciated).  By the time race day came around I was running pretty well, and surprised myself with a time of 45:41. 

Which means that I trained even harder this year, and began to get serious about that “no pastor faster” thing.  “Honestly,” I thought, “is there another pastor out there running faster than 45:41?”  But then I started running with Wallace Adams-Riley, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, and it became evident that he was not only a few years younger than me, but also a good bit quicker.  I justified it by telling myself that he wasn’t a “faster pastor,” he was a “faster rector” (which doesn’t even rhyme and therefore doesn’t qualify).

Wallace pushed me in our training runs, though, and when race day came around this year he ran with me and helped me maintain a brisk pace over the 6.2 mile course.  I came across the finish line in 43:41—exactly two minutes faster than last year—and exulted in my victory.  I couldn’t imagine that there was another pastor in Richmond who had run so well. 

Until I saw the results in the paper the next day.

I was looking at the names of the top finishers in my age group when I saw a name I thought I recognized.  Sure enough, there was David Benjamin, pastor of Winfree Memorial Baptist Church on Midlothian Turnpike.  When I checked online I discovered that David is two years older than I am, but finished twenty-five places ahead of me in our age group, with a time of 39:59—nearly four minutes faster than my 43:41.

What could I do?

Sunday morning, before I went to church, I called David and left a message on his voicemail.  “For more than a year now I’ve been telling people that there is no pastor faster than Jim Somerville, but that’s not true.  You are the faster pastor, David Benjamin, and today I confer that title upon you.  Congratulations!”

I meant it sincerely, and walked to church feeling better (a little stiff, but better).  Honest admission, humble confession—these things are good for the soul.  And I’m sure that in the years ahead, as I watch countless pastors, rectors, and imams stream past me in the Monument Avenue 10K, my body will breathe a little sigh of disappointment,

But my soul will be at peace.

Why We Can’t Do Things the Same Old Way

If you have five minutes, check out this remarkable presentation on the way the world is changing.  I watched it full-screen with the sound turned up and at the end of it my jaw had dropped–literally.  It makes me think the future is going to embrace people who can adapt quickly to sudden change, and that the innovative and adventurous will thrive in ways others cannot.

One Cup of Tea

For weeks now—months, really—I’ve been seeing these beautiful, smiling refugees from Nepal in the hallways of Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  I’ve learned how to press my palms together and say “Namaste” in greeting.  I’ve welcomed three new members and dedicated the child of a Christian couple.  I’ve even sung “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” in English with three of the older adults (where did they learn that song?).  But on Sunday night I spent an hour having tea with some of the young people from this group, and I started with a game I learned when I was a youth minister.

I took a pen from my pocket, turned to the young man on the right, and said, “My name is Jim and this is my friend Lucy,” and then I handed the pen to him.  He turned to the girl on his right and said, “My name is Rom, and Jim told me to tell you that this is Lucy.”  She took the pen and turned to the boy on her right: “My name is Bimela, and Jim told Rom to tell me to tell you that this is Lucy.”  And so on around the room until all of us had been introduced to Lucy, but by repeating the names each time we also began to learn them: Rom, Bimela, Indra, Rupa, and Bhola (I’m guessing at the spelling). 

And then we just started talking.

These kids spoke excellent English, which helped.  They told me that back in Nepal all their classes were in English except one.  They also watched American television and movies to help them learn the language.  I sang some songs for them in English; they sang some for me in Nepali.  We talked about the kinds of food we liked.  We talked about family relationships, and that’s where it got interesting.

Rom told me that Bimela and Rupa were his sisters.  Indra told me that Bhola was his brother.  I told them that Dot Smith (who had served us tea and pie) was my sister.  They didn’t believe me.  I said, “Dot and I are Christians.  Christians are part of God’s family.  We call each other brother and sister.”  And then their eyes lit up with understanding.  Ah, yes.  They had heard this before.  “My Uncle is a Christian,” Rom said.  “I used to go to church with him in Nepal.”  They all made it clear how much they enjoy coming to First Baptist Church, and some of them even began to hint that they would like to join.  But then Bhola said that in their culture Christians were shunned, and that if they became Christians they might be rejected by their community. 

“Did that happen to your uncle?” I asked Rom.  “Did he get ‘put out’ of the community?”  Rom nodded thoughtfully.  “He must be very brave,” I said.  “Yes,” Rom answered.  “Very brave.”

I didn’t have to say another word.  I could see that they were counting the cost of discipleship, and wondering if it would be worth it to become Christians.  I hope they will decide that it is worth it, but it will take at least one more cup of tea to have that conversation, and maybe another one after that.  Maybe Greg Mortenson is right, that it takes “Three Cups of Tea” to forge life-giving and life-changing relationships with people from other cultures.

I’m looking forward to my next one.

I Was Robbed!

I celebrated my 51st birthday just a few days ago and it was wonderful.  I really have nothing to complain about.  Ralph Starling mentioned it during the opening announcements at church and everybody who shook my hand on the way out after worship wished me a happy birthday.  And then my Facebook friends outdid themselves; I spent a good part of my birthday afternoon smiling through all their good wishes and funny comments.  I went to see a great movie that evening (“The Blind Side” at the Byrd Theater) and then caught up with some friends for dinner where we talked and laughed until way past my bedtime.  As I said, it was a wonderful day.  I have nothing to complain about.  Except…

When I was talking to my daughter Catherine on the phone last night I realized that the Daylight Savings time change had occurred on my birthday, that the whole “Spring Forward” thing where you set your clocks up an hour at 2:00 a.m. had happened at 2:00 a.m. on my special day.  Which means, of course, that out of the 24 hours allotted to every man, woman, and child for birthday celebration I (and the others who were born on March 14) only got 23!

I didn’t think that was fair.  Catherine didn’t think it was fair.  I told her I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but somehow I was going to get that lost hour back.  And then it dawned on us both at the same moment:  “Fall Back.”  That’s right, when the time changes back in the fall I can reclaim the lost hour of my birthday.  I can get up at 2:00 in the morning, set my clock back an hour, and party like it’s 1959 (my idea).  I can crank up the Beatles “You Say It’s Your Birthday” and dance around the living room in my pajamas (Catherine’s idea).  Either way, or another way I haven’t even thought of yet,

I’m getting my hour back.

Are They Christians?

In my last post I said that the church of Jesus Christ includes anyone who can say—and mean—“Jesus is Lord.” 

Not everyone would agree.

In the middle of the Nineteenth Century J. R. Graves, a Baptist minister from Memphis and editor of the Tennessee Baptist, popularized a movement which claimed that only Baptist churches were legitimate churches.  Congregations of other denominations (eg: Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopalian) were understood to be mere “religious societies,” with no claim to the title “church.”  Ordinations and baptisms performed in those churches were considered invalid and thus their ministers were not regarded as “real” ministers nor their members as “real” Christians.  In 1851 Graves posed a series of five rhetorical questions, intended to prove his point:

  1. Can Baptists, consistently with their principles of the Scriptures, recognize those societies not organized according to the pattern of the Jerusalem church, but possessing different governments, different officers, a different class of members, different ordinances, doctrines, and practices, as churches of Christ?
  2. Ought they to be called gospel churches, or churches in a religious sense?
  3. Can we consistently recognize the ministers of such irregular and unscriptural bodies as gospel ministers?
  4. Is it not virtually recognizing them as official ministers to invite them into our pulpits, or by any other act that would or could be construed into such a recognition?
  5. Can we consistently address as brethren those professing Christianity who not only have not the doctrines of Christ and walk not according to his commandments, but are arrayed in direct and bitter opposition to them?

                                           —the Cotton Grove Resolutions, June 24, 1851.

The Landmark Movement gained popularity in much of the South, and you can see its appeal: if you were Baptist in those days it might be comforting to think that you were part of the only true church and that your neighbors of other denominations had it completely wrong.  Graves continued to publish editorials that strengthened that impression, claiming that there was no such thing as the universal church, that the only valid church was a local Baptist church, and that anyone who was not a member of such a church was “outside the Kingdom of Christ.”  Although Landmarkism has been denounced as a heresy, its roots went down deep in the fertile soil of the Mississippi River Valley and its influence continues to be felt among Baptists today.  It’s comforting to think that you’ve got it right and everybody else has got it wrong.

But not all Baptists feel that way. 

At the time Graves began his Landmark campaign most Baptist leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention believed in the universal church.  One of those was Jeremiah Bell Jeter, pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  Jeter seemed to understand that you couldn’t confine or control the grace of God, that the Good Shepherd had other sheep who were not of the Baptist flock, and that the true church is comprised of all those people who can say—and mean—“Jesus is Lord.”

As the current pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, I’m proud to follow in his footsteps.