Catechism Christianity

When I was a boy, growing up in the Presbyterian Church, I used to study a pink paperback children’s catechism that was full of questions and answers about God, the church, and the Christian faith.  Here are some examples:

Q1: Who made you?
A1: God.

Q2: What else did God make?
A2: God made all things.

Q3: Why did God make you and all things?
A3: For his own glory.

Q4: How can you glorify God?
A4: By loving him and doing what he commands.

Q5: Why are you to glorify God?
A5: Because he made me and takes care of me.

Q6: Is there more than one true God?
A6: No. There is only one true God.

Q7: In how many Persons does this one God exist?
A7: In three Persons.

Q8: Name these three Persons.
A8: The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

I would study these questions through the week and review them on Sunday mornings, so that when my Sunday school teacher asked, “Who made you?” I would be ready with the answer.  And let me just say: it’s a very satisfying thing to know the answer to such a big question.  I can’t remember that I ever graduated to the grownup version (the Westminster Shorter Catechism, 1674), but imagine how satisfied I would have been to know the answers to these questions:

Q1: What is the chief end of man?
A1: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever.

Q2: What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy Him?
A2: The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy Him.

Q3: What do the Scriptures principally teach?
A3: The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.

Q4: What is God?
A4: God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.

Q5: Are there more Gods than one?
A5: There is but one only, the living and true God.

Q6: How many persons are there in the Godhead?
A6: There are three persons in the Godhead; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.

There are 107 questions and answers altogether, and in some churches they still give a Bible to the person who can answer every question in one sitting.  I think it’s a wonderful way to teach the basics of Christian theology, and I’m not the only one.  Baptist versions of the catechism have been produced through the years that are very similar to the Presbyterian version except (as you might expect) for the section on baptism.

But there is this danger: the danger of thinking that theology can be reduced to a number of questions and answers, and that once you know the answers your theological education is complete.  

I knew a man who graduated from seminary pleased with having stored his knowledge in what he called “logic-tight compartments” (which I was only able to imagine as Tupperware containers inside his head, no disrespect intended).  Have a theological question?  No problem.  He could give you an answer.  He could give you THE answer.  The problem came when you asked him why that was the answer.  He would look at you as if you had asked him why 2 + 2 = 4.

But there is such a thing as thinking theologically, of wondering why things are the way they are.  There is a kind of intellectual curiosity that drives people to know more, and I think that’s a good thing.  Anselm, one of the early church fathers, said that theology is “faith seeking understanding.”  He didn’t make any promises that we would find understanding but he seemed to think that the seeking itself was a good thing: it kept people’s minds turned toward God and the ways of God; it kept them searching the pages of Scripture, looking for the answers to their questions; it kept them engaged with their teachers and peers, asking, “Why are things the way they are?”  People like that might actually grow in their faith, and not just keep the tops on their Tupperware containers.

Wasn’t it Jesus who said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you”? (Luke 11:9).  Don’t you think he would encourage our faith to seek understanding?  Didn’t he say that eternal life is getting to “know the only true God” and Jesus Christ, whom he sent? (John 17:3).  How do you do that if you stop asking, seeking, and knocking?  How do you do that if you lock the answers up in logic-tight compartments, and fold your arms across your chest, and refuse to wonder why?

Preachers’ Kids

Sometime during last week’s annual sermon-planning retreat we started calling it “Preacher Camp.”

I’m talking about the event I referenced in my last post, where I get together with five of my closest colleagues for a week to map out our preaching for the year.  The difference was that this year we brought the kids.  They were sitting at the breakfast table on that first morning still rubbing the sleep from their eyes when I said, “Welcome to Preacher Camp, boys and girls!  When breakfast is over we’re going to have Bible study, then take a nature hike, and then go to crafts.  We’ll follow that with lunch and rest time, and then we’ll all go down to the lake for a swim.  Sound good?”  I got a lot of blank stares in return, and only after several minutes did three-year-old Adam say, “You’re teasing, right, Mr. Jim?” 

Yes.  I was teasing.  But while the preachers sat at a table on the side porch and had Bible study (working through every Sunday of 2011) the children read books and drew pictures and played ping pong and took a hike, and after lunch and naps we all went down to the lake for a swim.  So, in many ways, it was like camp, especially the last night when we built a campfire and sat around it singing silly songs and roasting marshmallows. 

What I learned is that this collection of preacher’s kids is sweet, smart, kind, and funny.  Five-year-old Audra Ballenger was full of interesting questions and comments, and one of my favorite pictures from the week is the one of her delivering a long lecture to Russ Dean as she sat on his stomach while he lay on the couch.  Eleven-year-old Bennett Dean came into his own on Thursday night, busting some sweet moves at a spontaneous dance party and encouraging the rest of us to toss inhibition to the wind.  My own daughter Catherine (the oldest by far at nineteen) was sweetly patient with an adoring “fan club” of small children and happy to engage in conversation with their parents while sunning on the dock. 

Unlike some of the warnings you hear about “preachers’ kids,” these were the kind you would want to spend a week with.  It makes me think that this generation of preachers, or at least the ones I hang out with, have given up on the idea that their children will be neatly dressed and perfectly behaved at all times, that they will know all the books of the Bible and want to come to church three times a week.  They seem much more willing to let their kids be kids, and that’s not a bad thing, especially if they are the kids of people whose relationship with God and whose saturation in his Word has led them to be loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, generous, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled.  The fruit of the spirit is evident in the lives of their children, and the apples don’t fall far from the tree.

So, this is an expression of appreciation not only to those preachers’ kids I spent the week with, but to the preachers who are raising them.  Thank you Don, John, Russ, Amy, and Dorisanne—for being the people you are and for passing so much of that goodness along to the next generation. 

The world needs people like your kids.

How I Make a Sermon

This week I will be attending an annual sermon planning event near Asheville, NC, where five of my closest colleagues and I will try to map out our preaching for an entire year.  Three years ago we decided to call this event “Homipalooza,” from Homiletics (the art of preaching) and Palooza (which is apparently some kind of crazy party).  Imagine six Baptist preachers sitting around in shorts and T-shirts planning their preaching for a year and any notion of crazy partying will quickly fade.  There are lots of books involved, manilla folders, laptop computers, endless discussions, theological debates, and abundant snacks (OK, maybe it is a party).  If we do it well, at the end of the week we will each come away with a three-ring binder full of handouts and a few good ideas for every Sunday of the year.  Even if we don’t do it well, we will have had some time to talk about our work with people who understand it, who know what it’s like to try to meet a long list of expectations each week (usually our own) and still find time to write a sermon.  I’m hoping that in this week of sermon planning I will still be able to find some of that kind of time, and that I will come back to Richmond inspired and ready to preach.

Before I go, let me leave you with this answer to the question someone asked me last week: “How do you make a sermon?”


1  juicy passage of Scripture, ancient but somehow still fresh
2  hours of writing down every thought that comes into my head
3  thoughtful friends or colleagues to talk it over with
4  good commentaries to answer most of my questions

Mix ingredients together and let them simmer on the back burner for three days, stirring occasionally.  Add some of the illustrations and anecdotes that have come to mind in those three days (but be careful not to use all of them).   Lift the lid from time to time and inhale to see if there’s anything in there that smells like a sermon.  Season to taste. 

In an ideal world you would simply serve the sermon up like stew at that point, and everyone would eat and be satisfied.  In the real world it is only after the sermon has simmered on the back burner for a few days that I’m ready to put my thoughts into some kind of order, and only after I’ve put them in order that I’m ready to put them into words.  For me, that’s the most time-consuming part of the process.  I spend most of the day Saturday writing and re-writing in an effort to get it just right.  But when Sunday comes I serve up what I’ve made in the hope that it will nourish and sustain the people who have come to hear it, and when it does I’m as grateful as your mother used to be when you looked up from your empty plate after Sunday dinner and said,

“Thanks, Mom!”


On Tuesday of this week, my brother Gray helped get my dad into a nursing home.  It’s been a long struggle.  For the past three-and-a-half years Dad has suffered from severe anxiety and depression, lying on the couch during the day and tossing and turning at night.  It’s such a change from the man I’ve always known, who was optimistic, energetic, and enthusiastic, ready to change the world or chop a load of firewood, whichever was needed most.  We’re not really sure what happened.  My mom thinks it started when he stripped a piece of furniture and spent three weeks in the presence of those strong fumes.  The doctors disagree, and they’ve experimented with a raft of psychotropic drugs.  Nothing seems to help. 

And so Dad went to the hospital last week mostly because he lacked the will to get out of bed.  Mom called the doctor, who suggested that they meet him at the hospital.  After four days there, and a full battery of tests, a nursing home seemed like the best option.  My brother Gray, who lives in the same town (and who has been absolutely heroic in the care of my parents) sent this message to his five brothers at the end of  a long day on Tuesday:

Dear Brothers,

Today was a good day.

I picked up Dad and Mom from the hospital at about 2:00 and drove them to the nursing home. We were warmly greeted by a number of friendly staff members and taken immediately to Dad’s room. While the nurses went through the check-in process and helped Dad unpack, I took Mom for a tour, including a stop by the ice cream parlor where she made Dad an ice cream cone. By the time we got back, Dad was all settled in. I left Mom to visit with Dad, went and did all the paperwork and then dashed back to the office for a meeting. When I returned around 5:30, Mom was all smiles and Dad seemed totally content.

Dad’s is sharing a room with a very sweet and alert 90 year old man who worked in the CCC camps during the Great Depression and later served in the Navy. His sister and brother were visting from out of town and were very reassuring about what a nice place this nursing home is. That was really encouraging to all of us.

All of the staff that we worked with, or just bumped into while we were touring around, were super nice, cheerful and patient. A nurse and a physical therapist got a complete run-down on Dad’s medications, medical history, and current physical condition. I think Dad appreciated the professionalism and it probably didn’t hurt that they were both young, pretty, and sweet.

Mom was absolutely thrilled. She couldn’t believe what a nice place it was and that we could actually afford it. I can’t tell you how much it meant to me to see so pleased with our choice. She had been really determined to go the Presbyterian Home and I was afraid that she wouldn’t like any other option.

When we left the nursing home, Mom and I spent about 45 minutes practicing how to get to there. (It’s only a mile or so away from one of the hospitals that she has been to repeatedly, so we just had to practice on that small stretch of unfamiliar road.) It was cute. A lot like giving driving lessons to your teenager.  After a few tries, she seemed to have it down pat.

I think it will be a couple of weeks before we really  have a feel for how this is going to work, but like I said, it was a very good day.

With love,


Anyone who has helped a parent into a nursing home knows what a difficult decision it can be, and how many emotions are attached to that move.  I’m surprised by how grateful and relieved I feel at the moment.  Maybe it hasn’t sunk in yet.  Maybe it will.  But for now I’m simply thankful that such a good place exists, and that my dad is there.

And that my mom can bring him an ice cream cone.

Look Who’s Blogging!

It’s Ralph Starling, Minister of Christian Invitation at Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  He’s just started a blog called, “Ralph’s Adventures…Blogging about Life, Hope, and Adventure.”  I hope you will take a look and leave a comment.

I remember the conversation I had with Ralph two years ago, shortly after I had come to Richmond.  We sat in a booth at Arianna’s (one of his favorite places) and talked about his future.  He seemed tired, worn out from being in the same role for 18 years and wondering if it might not be time for a change.  He talked about his love for people, especially people who are broken and hurting, those who have a hard time fitting in at church, those who come from other countries and cultures.  He sighed and said he had been thinking about going to China to teach English and that’s when I said, “Ralph, what if you were our Minister of Diversity?  What if it were your job to look for every person who has been pushed to the margins of society and bring them to the center of the church?”  His face lit up.  “I could do that 24/7!” he said.

So, even though Ralph is not technically our “Minister of Diversity,” in his role as Minister of Christian Invitation he has brought a lot of diversity into the church.  He’s been heading up the Divorce Recovery Workshop for nearly twenty years now, and through that ministry hundreds of broken and hurting people have been loved into the life of our congregation.  He was in charge of our ministry to singles from the time he arrived in Richmond, and again and again he has made a place at First Baptist for people who might otherwise feel awkward around so many couples and families.  In the two years that I’ve been here, Ralph has come through the door almost daily with someone you would never expect to see in a Baptist church, most recently with a few dozen Bhutanese refugees (see the picture on his blog).

Ralph seems to love the people Jesus loves, and he seems to reach out to the kind of people Jesus reached out to again and again—the ones who needed it most.  He’s not perfect.  He doesn’t always show up for staff meeting.  But when he’s not there he is probably with someone who needs him even more than we do, and so we try to be understanding.  “That’s Ralph!” we say, smiling.  Out there loving the people Jesus loves:


Never Can Say Goodbye

I spoke at Bill Rock’s funeral on Thursday, and since then several people have requested copies of my homily.  I thought I would share it here.

I met Bill Rock at a Gold Band Sunday school class party over at the Pusey House.  I was invited by some of the members of the class, and I remember how eager they were to introduce me to Bill, whispering that he had lost his eyesight recently but bragging openly about the twenty years he had served as church treasurer and the forty years he had taught fourth grade Sunday school.  “Bill?” they said.  “This is our new pastor, Dr. Somerville.”  And he turned toward the sound of their voices and reached out to shake my hand.   I can still remember that handshake, both firm and gentle.  I got the feeling that he was not a man who had been humbled by his circumstances, but a man who had always been humble, faithful, willing to serve.  That hunch has only been confirmed by the things I’ve learned about Bill in the past two years, the stories I’ve heard since Sunday afternoon, and the eulogy that Bob delivered today.  Bill Rock was a very special man.  Your presence here this morning is testimony to that, and the only reason this room is not full to the rafters is because so many of Bill’s friends and loved ones have gone on ahead of him.

It was around this time last year that Bill’s daughter, Nancy, came to my office to talk about his funeral service.  He was very sick, and it didn’t look as if he was going to get better.  She came to see me because she knew he could go at any time.  She wanted to be ready.  But I don’t know that you are ever ready for the death of someone you love any more than you are ready to choose which breath will be your last one.  We fight for our breath.  We fight for our life.  It is precious to us and we don’t want to lose it.  And that’s just how we feel about the ones we love.  We don’t want to lose them either.  And that has caused me to think some new thoughts about John 3:16, that familiar and well-worn verse that says, “For God so loved the world he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  When we stop to think about that verse we often think about what a gift God gave—his only son!—or what a gift we’ve received—eternal life!—but I don’t know that I’ve ever thought about God sending his son because he didn’t want to lose us.

I should have.  The verse begins with the truth that God loves us.  It continues with the truth that he loved us so much he gave his only son.  But only at the end does it say he did this so that he did this so that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, and for the first time I imagined God sitting beside a hospital bed, holding onto the hand of someone he loves, hoping and praying that their next breath would not be their last.  It suggests that in these few years we have on earth God could grow fond of us, that as he knits our bones together in our mothers’ wombs, as he brings us into the world through childbirth, as he watches over us all the days of our lives, he might come to know who we are and love us in the same way any parent comes to know and love a child.  I can imagine how he came to know and love Bill, and how it has grieved him in these last few years to see Bill lose his sight, to have that long, long struggle with sickness.  But I think how much more it would grieve him if he thought Bill’s death would be the end of him.

God loved the world, John says.  He loved it so much he gave his only son.  He gave his only son so that he wouldn’t ever have to say goodbye to Bill Rock.  And all Bill had to do was believe that God could love him that much.  It’s not easy.  None of us thinks we’re worth dying for.  But if we could believe in that love, if we could receive that gift, then the end of our life in this world would be the beginning of our life in the next, and that life goes on forever.  There is no end to it, and no goodbyes. 

I hadn’t thought about God giving the gift of eternal life because he didn’t want to say goodbye to us, but if there is any truth in that idea you can see how he might understand exactly how we feel when we don’t want to say goodbye to Bill.  And because he is God and can do something about it he has: he has made possible the hello that follows goodbye.  If there is any truth to this notion of the resurrection, to the idea of everlasting life, then I can believe that someday I will be introduced to Bill Rock again, that some of the members of the Gold Band Sunday school class, or some of the members of his family, or maybe even Marylou herself will say, “Look, here’s Bill!”  And there he will stand before me—his feeble knees firm, his weak hands strengthened, his eyes bright and clear as he reaches out to shake my hand and says with a smile, “Hello, Jim.  It’s good to see you.  I think we’ve met before!” 

Apart from Christ himself that may be the best gift of John 3:16: the knowledge that this is the last time we will ever have to say goodbye to Bill Rock,

…and the promise of that next hello.