Thanksgiving in New York

My daughter Ellie invited the family to join her for Thanksgiving in New York, and she promised to cook the turkey.  So we went, piling into the car at 4:30 on Wednesday morning in an effort to beat the morning rush hour(s) in DC.  We made it, and without further traffic worries we zoomed up I-95 and onto the New Jersey Turnpike, skipped the Lincoln Tunnel option into New York, sailed over the Hudson River on the George Washington bridge, and eased down Broadway to 137th Street, arriving at approximately 11:30 a.m.  There was Ellie, just coming up from the subway station, and walking down the sidewalk to greet us.

Ellie lives in Spanish Harlem, which has a very family-friendly feel to it.  Parents walk down the sidewalks holding their children’s hands, friendly shopkeepers call out greetings to their regular customers, a woman at the top of the subway stairs sells “Tamales!  Tamales!” and the village “elders” congregate on the park benches on the island in the middle of Broadway.  It always reminds me of Sesame Street, except that I hardly ever run into any of the Muppets.

We went upstairs to Ellie’s sixth-floor apartment and spent the rest of the afternoon cooking some of the dishes for the next day’s Thanksgiving feast.  Around five o’ clock we went downtown to watch them inflate the giant helium balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  There was a huge crowd of people there, but somehow we got funneled into the line that went past Shrek, Sponge Bob Square Pants, the Kool Aid guy, Kermit the Frog, Snoopy, Kung Fu Panda, Spiderman, Horton the Elephant, Buzz Lightyear, the Energizer Bunny, and the biggest Smurf I have ever seen, all of them lying face down on the pavement with nets thrown over them to keep them from floating away.  For those of us who have been watching the Macy’s parade for years, it was like seeing celebrities close up.  I took pictures and tried to get some autographs (no luck).

In order to accommodate everyone’s schedule we decided to have a Thanksgiving brunch around 10:30 the next morning, which forced Ellie to get up at 5:00 to put the turkey in the oven.  But she didn’t complain, not even when she got up again at 6:00 and then again at 7:00 to baste the bird.  By eight o’clock she was in full gear, cooking side dishes on the stove top and filling the apartment with delicious smells. 

My brother Billy made the trip over from Brooklyn, arriving just in time to watch Ellie’s friend Nick, a chef from Australia, sharpen his knife and make short work of the turkey.  By 10:30 we were sitting around a makeshift table, covered with a designer tablecloth, and thanking God for the abundance of food on the table, and the friends and family all around it (and the turkey was outstanding!).

Somehow, along with all the family stories, we ended up sharing our favorite You Tube videos for a good part of the afternoon (have you seen “Unicorn after Wisdom Teeth”?  Hi-larious).   We feasted on leftovers, laughed at almost everything, and eventually went out on the town to see a movie at Lincoln Center.  We left New York at 2:00 on Friday after a leisurely lunch at a neighborhood restaurant.  Everybody must have been shopping on the day after Thanksgiving, because there was virtually no traffic on the highways.  We were at home in Richmond by 8:30 that night, a scant six-and-a-half hours later (and, of all the things I was thankful for, safe and traffic-free travel was near the top of the list).

I don’t know where I will spend Thanksgiving next year, but I do know this: God is good wherever you are, and wherever you are God is good.

Write-In Candidate

Yesterday was Christ the King Sunday, and I closed out the sermon with this story:

Back in 1984 I went to the polling place to cast my vote for president.  That was the year Walter Mondale was running against the incumbent, Ronald Reagan.  I was 25 years old, I had just started seminary, I was out to change the world.  To tell you the truth I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to the presidential campaign and as I made my way to the polling place I found that I didn’t have strong feelings about either candidate.  I’ve never had a lot of interest in politics, never pinned all my hopes on any elected official.  I stood in that voting booth for a long time, looking at those two names, and finally I chose the third option: I wrote in a name, and the name I wrote in was my dad’s.  When I told people about it later I told them that, honestly, I couldn’t think of anyone who would make a better president.  No offense to those two candidates who were running but I knew my dad, I knew he was good and kind and wise.  And I also knew this, that if it ever came right down to it my dad would lay down his life for me, and that’s the kind of president you would want, isn’t it?

“If you are a king,” the religious authorities said to Jesus, “then save yourself.”  “If you are a king,” the soldiers said, “then save yourself.”  “If you are a king,” the other thief said, “then save yourself.”  But Jesus turned out to be the kind of king who cared more about saving others than saving himself, and so he hung there on that cross, beneath that sign (“This is the King of the Jews”), until his work was done.  I don’t know what kind of king you want, but if I could choose, I would choose a king like that. 

For the full text of the sermon click HERE.  And if you want to write in my dad’s name next election, it’s James Somerville, no middle name.

Habits of the Mind

My wife, Christy, is trying to teach little children to read. 

She’s working on a Master’s degree in reading, and at the same time working for a non-profit called ExCELL, which is all about early literacy.  She’s learning that children often develop an interest in reading if they think of themselves as writers, and so one of the things she is doing is giving little children crayons and scraps of paper and telling them to write down their stories.  Never mind that it looks like a green scribble, the child can tell you exactly what his story is about, and that makes him a writer…of sorts. 

Christy says this is one of those habits of the mind—thinking of yourself as a writer—that can change your whole outlook on life.  I thought about that when I heard Reggie McNeal say last week that instead of members the church needs missionaries.  I wondered what I could do that would make every member of Richmond’s First Baptist Church think of himself or herself as a missionary.  How do you develop that “habit of the mind”?  I don’t know, but I did think about what it would do for me to look out over the congregation on Sunday morning and see all those missionaries gathered there, people who had been out on the mission field during the week trying to bring heaven to earth.  It would inspire me.  I would begin to think there was nothing we couldn’t do.  I would begin to believe we could actually bring heaven to earth, and probably before Easter.

What about you?  What would it do to you to think of yourself as a missionary, and to imagine that place where you live or work as your mission field?  Is that a “habit of the mind” you could develop?  I’ve got a green crayon and a scrap of paper.  Maybe you could write “I am a missionary” on that paper, and then pin it to the front of your shirt. 

Who knows what might happen next?

You tell ’em, Reggie!

I enjoy going to preaching conferences, but the kind of preaching conference I enjoy the most is the kind where someone tells me that the way I’m doing it already is the right way. 

I had that same pleasurable rush of confirmation at the annual meeting of the Baptist General Association of Virginia this week.  Reggie McNeal was the featured speaker, and as he talked about the missional church I heard him saying some of the same things I’ve been saying for the last several years, but in a way that was funny and disarming.  You’d be laughing out loud about something he said and then suddenly, umph, he’d slip the truth between your ribs like a knife blade.

Let me share with you some of those pointed truths:

  • Church is not “it” but “us.”
  • Our job is to bless the world, just as God told Abraham (“In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” Genesis 12:3).
  • We used to think it didn’t count unless we clubbed it, dragged it across the finish line, and threw it into a church pew.  We’ve got to relax about this thing—just bless people.
  • Leaders tend to look at what they’re working on. In John 4 Jesus was looking at the fields that were “white unto harvest.”  What about you?  Are you looking at the church or are you looking at the world?
  • Go to Wal-Mart and watch people for an hour.  Say, “Lord, help me see what you see.”
  • The church does not have a mission, the mission has a church.
  • We are all on a mission trip.
  • We are not members, we are missionaries.
  • If I can’t bring church to my neighbors, my neighbors are not going to get it.  Put your focus on people, not church.
  • Use your building to bless the community.
  • Get involved in your local schools.
  • As the bride of Christ, can we allow what captures his heart to capture ours?  Can we allow what breaks his heart to break ours?
  • The missional church follows the path of brokenness.  Whatever breaks your heart is how God wants to use you.

Click HERE for a video that will give you a good taste of what I heard at BGAV.  It’s funny, mind-boggling, and (umph!) true.

The Messiah Goes to Macy’s

If people won’t come to church, church can come to them, right?  Here’s a good example: the Opera Company of Philadelphia went to Macy’s Center City and burst into the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah.  It’s amazing to see how many shoppers joined in and sang along, especially when you consider what they were singing.  In spite of the opera’s claim that this was a “Random Act of Culture,” the words are decidedly counter-cultural:  “Hallelujah, for the Lord God, the Omnipotent, reigneth!” 

You won’t find that in many of Macy’s ads.

Enjoy the show, and then maybe you can join me in spending as much time thinking about how to get church to people as we usually spend thinking about how to get people to church.

Special thanks to my friend Ron Smith for passing this video along to me.