Picture a world where, at birth, you are hurled off a cliff—a really, really high cliff, so that it takes a lifetime to reach the bottom.  You would “grow up” on the way down (if you can imagine such a thing) moving through the stages of infancy, childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. 

Because you had always been falling you wouldn’t be afraid of it.  After those first few terrifying moments you would get used to it, and then began to enjoy it: that wonderful feeling of weightlessness, the wind in your hair, the ability to swoop and dive.  Everybody else in this world would be falling with you, so you wouldn’t be alone.  You might even join hands with someone else and choose to fall together for days, for years, or even for the rest of your life. 

Some people would find that if they flapped their arms really hard they could slow their descent slightly (the same people you see running on the treadmill at Gold’s Gym).  Others would get bored and go into a nose dive to speed things up (the same people who live so carelessly and recklessly now).  But the one thing everybody would know is that there was no way to stop falling altogether or to start falling up instead of down.  Eventually everybody—everybody—would hit bottom.

And everybody would know it.

Which is different from our world, where people often seem surprised by their own mortality, by the very idea that they could get sick and die.  “Why?” they ask.  “Why me?”  If we lived in that other world I might say (while falling beside them), “Well, just look around you.  Everybody is falling.  Everybody is going to hit bottom eventually.”  But in this world they know that some people hit bottom sooner than others, and it doesn’t seem fair, and they want to know why. 

“I don’t know why,” I say at last.  “And you’re right…it doesn’t seem fair.  But back to my original point: everybody is falling, and everybody is going to hit bottom eventually.” 

And while it seems odd to say so, there is some comfort in that, isn’t there?  We are not alone in our mortality.  Everybody else is doing it with us.  It makes you want to join hands with those others, and pull them in close, and then do everything you can—together—to enjoy the ride: that wonderful feeling of weightlessness, the wind in your hair, the ability to swoop and dive…

America’s “Lostness”

Our regular quarterly business meeting at Richmond’s First Baptist Church was irregularly well attended last week, mostly because we were going to be voting on proposed changes to our mission giving plans. 

It’s kind of a long story, but once upon a time we gave all our missions support through the Cooperative Program of the Southern Baptist Convention.  Then, beginning around 1979, we went through a 25-year upheaval in the denomination alternately known as the “conservative resurgence” in the SBC or the “fundamentalist takeover” of the SBC, depending on which side you sympathized with.  First Baptist had sympathizers on both sides, and as a way of keeping everybody in the big tent the church created alternative giving plans, so that those who didn’t want to give to the “new” Southern Baptist Convention could give through the recently constituted Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and those who didn’t want to give to the CBF could continue to give through the SBC.  

So, for some twenty years now the members of First Baptist Church—all brothers and sisters in Christ—have had the freedom of choosing which boards and agencies they want to support.  Some have given to the boards and agencies of the SBC; others have supported the mission efforts of the CBF; most have not made a choice, and their gifts have been distributed through the “First Baptist Plan.”

That plan gave about two thirds to the SBC and one third to the CBF.  It made sense in a way: the SBC was a much larger organization than the CBF, with many more missionaries.  But in another way it didn’t make sense.  I heard someone put it like this: “If we decided that, because there are more Republicans than Democrats in our church, we should send twice as much money to the Republican Party, that wouldn’t really be bipartisan.”[1]  So our Deacon Advisory Council came up with a plan that splits our support down the middle, giving an equal amount to the SBC and the CBF.  As a former deacon chair said, “We don’t want to play favorites.”

That motion carried. 

But then we talked about the North American Mission Board, which will not employ ordained women as part of its exempt staff.  The Deacon Advisory Council proposed that we exclude NAMB from our shared plan for that reason. First Baptist Church is very supportive of women in ministry, and ordains women as both deacons and ministers.  But someone came to the microphone to say that, while they didn’t like that policy, they did like NAMB’s concern for the “lostness of America,” and appreciated the efforts of those 5,000 NAMB missionaries who are out there right now trying to make a difference. 

I got excited at this point, because we weren’t just talking denominational politics anymore: we were talking about people, and about what we could do to reach them.  You could see our members leaning forward in their chairs, perhaps fully engaged in this conversation for the first time.  We discussed some possible options, but eventually voted on the changes as proposed and that motion, too, carried.

One of our members wrote to me after that and said she was “sad” that we had gone forward with the changes, without making the North American Mission Board part of the shared giving plan.  I told her not to be sad, that there were plenty of ways to support those 5,000 missionaries if she wanted to, and that one of the best ways is to give directly to the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering, all of which goes to those missionaries.[2]  

My hope is that our discussion last Wednesday night raised the awareness of everyone who was there, and that those who have thrown their envelopes in the plate without making a choice might take the time to check a box, to make sure their mission money goes just where they want it to.  As someone said at that meeting, “We have several good options.  We can give in just the way we want to.”  That sounds truly Baptist.

But I also have this hope: that we will take our mission giving more seriously than we have before, and be much more generous than we have in the past.  If the truth be known, we are probably squandering every day more money than we give to missions in a month, maybe even a year.  If we can develop a real concern for the “lostness” of America, then maybe we will start writing some checks, and saying some prayers, and spending time with people who need Jesus right here in Richmond…until God’s kingdom comes, and God’s will is done, on earth as it is in heaven.

[1] Just so you’ll know: we don’t give ANY money to the Republicans or the Democrats.  We try to keep partisan politics out of the church.

[2] I also read recently that an additional $9 million dollars a year has been committed to the efforts of those 5,000 missionaries on the field, through reduction in personnel and reallocation of the NAMB budget.