KOH2RVA: Day 203

Happy Easter, everyone! Here’s one of my favorite sermons, preached on the first Easter after September 11, 2001, and re-recorded in our studios here in Richmond just a few weeks ago.

I’ll be away for the next few days, helping to lead a national retreat for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, but I’ll be back and blogging on Friday, April 5. Until then, keep on bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, or wherever you are.

Christ is risen!

KOH2RVA: Day 202


It’s Holy Saturday, the only day in history when Jesus was dead.

If there is one day on the calendar when we shouldn’t be out there joyfully bringing heaven to earth, when we should, instead, put on sackcloth and ashes and mourn the death of our Lord, this is it.

So, other than presiding at the funeral of a beloved church member, I’m not going to work to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, today, but I am going to work. I’m going to write a sermon that I hope will help us celebrate what happened on the day after that mournful Saturday long ago, and I hope you will be in church tomorrow to celebrate with me.

“Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning” –Ps. 30:5

KOH2RVA: Day 201

good-friday-wallpaper-24It’s Good Friday, which is really only our modern English way of saying “God’s Friday” (just as “goodbye” is a modern English contraction of “God be with ye”).

God’s Friday makes more sense than Good Friday. In itself, there is almost nothing good about the day Jesus was nailed to the cross. It was horrible from daybreak to dark. But God was able to reach down into the bloody mess of it all and make something good of it so that, centuries later, we look back on what happened through tears of gratitude.

There’s been some discussion on this blog recently about what we humans are able to do and what God alone can do. Can we bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia? No. Not without God’s help. Not anymore than we could have made something good out of that horrible Friday long ago. But let us remember that there were some on that day who called for Jesus’ crucifixion, who condemned him, jammed a crown of thorns on his head, flogged him until he was nearly dead, nailed him to a cross, mocked him, cursed him, spit on him, and gambled for his clothes, but there were others who stood at the foot of the cross, looking up at him with love, who took his lifeless body down, placed it in a borrowed tomb, and anointed it with a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes (John 19:38-42).

We may not be able to bring heaven to earth all by ourselves but we can make it clear which side we are on. We are on the side of heaven. We want to work with God, and not against him. And if it is his will to someday bring heaven to earth we want to do everything we can to tip the balance in that direction. We want to put our shoulder to the wheel of the Kingdom and push hard.

For me, every time a child laughs, every time love is shared, every time the hungry are fed or the weary are lifted up, it serves as evidence that God’s Kingdom is coming and that we are helping. When the day of judgment comes—whenever and however it does—I want it to be clear which side we are on.

We are on the side of heaven.

KOH2RVA: Day 200

mini worldMy friend and colleague Ralph Starling recently shared this brief article by Seth Godin about paracosms.  What’s a paracosm?  Literally it means “a world alongside,” but listen to how Godin describes it:

A paracosm is an ornate, richly detailed imaginary world. Whether you’re a three-year old with imaginary playmates, or a passionate inventor imagining how your insight will change just about everything, a paracosm gives you the opportunity to hypothesize, to try out big ideas and see where they take you.

[Let me interrupt long enough to say that the Kingdom of Heaven, as Jesus talked about it, sounds like a paracosm].

Managers at established organizations have a very hard time with this. Take book publishing as an example. Ten or fifteen years ago, I’d sit with publishing chiefs and say, “let’s imagine how the world looks when there are no mass market books published on paper…” Before we could get any further, they’d stop the exercise. “It’s impossible to imagine that. Paper is magical. Are you saying you don’t believe in books?” (I heard variations on this from people as recently as a year ago.)

[Let me interrupt again to say that the way the scribes and Pharisees responded to Jesus’ talk about the Kingdom of Heaven sounds like that].

The emotional response is easy to understand. If one of the core principles of your business needs to be abandoned in order to act out the paracosm, it feels disloyal to even utter it. Sort of like asking your spouse if he’s going to remarry after you die…

And yet.

The most effective, powerful way to envision the future is to envision it, all of it, including a future that doesn’t include your sacred cows. Only then can you try it on for size, imagine what the forces at work might be and then work to either prevent (or even better, improve on) that future and your role in it.

It’s not disloyal to imagine a future that doesn’t include your founding precepts. It’s disloyal not to.

If that’s true, do we need to spend some time today imagining a future that doesn’t include the church as we know it, but rather the kingdom as God knows it?  And if so, what would that future look like?  According to Seth Godin, “A paracosm gives you the opportunity to hypothesize, to try out big ideas and see where they will take you.”

Go ahead. Knock yourself out.

KOH2RVA: Day 199

hospital visitMuch of our focus for this year-long, every-member mission trip has been outside the walls of the church, but I don’t mind admitting that much of the time, perhaps even most of the time, the members of First Baptist Church bring heaven to earth for those who are inside the walls.

For example: at last month’s deacons’ meeting I led a training session on how to make a hospital visit, thinking especially about those times our own members are in the hospital. I emphasized that the word deacon literally means “minister,” and then I led them through these ten steps:

Making a hospital visit: suggestions for deacons

1. Park in the visitor’s parking lot. Go in the front entrance. Ask about the person at the information desk. Get a room number and follow directions to the floor.

2. Ask at the nurse’s station about visiting Mr. Jones in Room 555. If they ask about your relationship to the patient say, “I’m his minister” (the literal meaning of the word deacon).

3. Sanitize your hands before going in. If the doctor or nurse is in the room, wait in the hallway while they do their work.

4. When you enter the room, say, “Hello, Mr. Jones. I’m a deacon at First Baptist Church. I’ve come by for a visit.”

5. Be considerate. Don’t bounce on the bed. Don’t come in with the smell of gas on your hands or strong perfume that may be unsettling. Don’t say to the person, “My uncle died of what you have” (that suggestion from Bob Higgins).

6. Limit your visit to 5-10 minutes. The person is not there to entertain visitors, but to try to get well. A five minute visit will feel longer if you take off your topcoat, pull up a chair and sit down.

7. Try not to ask, “So, how are you?” Instead let them lead the conversation. If they need to talk about something, they will. If they don’t, they’ll talk about the food in the hospital.

8. Say, “I’d like to pray with you before I go. Is there anything in particular I could pray for?” Hold a hand if you can and then gather up the things they have mentioned and offer them up to God in a short, simple prayer. Leave a moment of silence after the “Amen.” Let them be the first to speak.

9. When you have finished the visit stand up and say something like, “I’ve enjoyed the visit. I hope to see you in church soon.” If that’s not appropriate, simply say a sincere goodbye and leave.

10. Sanitize your hands on your way out of the hospital.

The training session was well received, in fact, Lynn Turner and I got this email message from Clark Norton, one of our newest deacons, the next day.

Jim and Lynn,

Sign me up and give me some tough cookies! I live just down the street from St Francis in Midlothian but I’ll go anywhere.

Thanks again for inviting us to serve more.


Now, that’s the spirit, isn’t it? There’s a deacon who knows what the word means and who can’t wait to do some ministry. After all, if deacons aren’t going to do ministry, why ordain them?

May your tribe increase, Clark, and maybe on one of those hospital visits you will not only visit our members, but ask at the nurse’s station if there is anybody else on the floor who could use some cheering up.

Then you really will be bringing the KOH2RVA!

KOH2RVA: Day 198

student artI spoke with someone yesterday whose brother belongs to an evangelical church and who sometimes goes from door-to-door with members of his congregation to talk to people about Jesus. Their approach is to knock on the door and ask whoever answers some version of this question: “If you died tonight do you know where you would spend eternity?” (I tried to imagine how it would feel to open my door to a stranger whose first words had to do with my death. I’m pretty sure it would get my attention and I’m pretty sure that’s the point). At any rate, he had called her recently to tell her about it and about the kind of results they were having.

“We had five conversions the other night,” he said.

“Were they real conversions, or were people just trying to get you to leave them alone?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he said.

And that’s part of the problem: we don’t know. We don’t know if those kinds of efforts bring people closer to Christ or push them further away, but we do know we have been commanded to “go, make disciples,” and this is one of the ways Christians try to do it.

But let me tell you about another way.

I had a talk recently with a woman named Brenda who has been visiting First Baptist for the past two years. Brenda is an artist, and a good one; I’ve seen some of her work. She was telling me how much she has enjoyed coming to church and how she has wanted to get involved in our mission to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, but she didn’t really know where to start. She mentioned the elementary school we are partnering with this year—Glen Lea—but she also talked about the exhibit the Fine Arts Team is putting on in April. As we talked, the two began to come together.

I can’t remember if it was my idea or hers but somewhere in that conversation we began to talk about putting some student artwork in the exhibit, and the more we talked the more excited we got. “I think that’s a great idea,” I said. “Really?” she asked. “Yes,” I said. “I think you should get in your car and drive over to Glen Lea Elementary right now and ask the art teacher if she has some students whose work could go in our show.” “Really?!” she asked again. “Yes,” I said, and she got up from her chair right then, and put on her coat, and headed out the door. We were nowhere close to the end of our appointment, but she couldn’t wait.

She was that excited.

Now, the door-to-door evangelist might say that hanging student artwork in an exhibit doesn’t bring those kids one step closer to salvation and he might be right, but he might be wrong. As with door-to-door evangelism it’s hard to know what happens in the human heart. We have to leave that part up to God. But here’s what I was thinking about as Brenda left my office:

  • I was thinking about how excited she was, and how different that is from the way we sometimes do evangelism, as it were a chore.
  • I was thinking about how excited those kids would be to find out their artwork had been chosen for display.
  • I was thinking that they might beg their moms and dads to take them to First Baptist Church for the exhibit.
  • I was thinking about fifty or sixty students and parents from Glen Lea Elementary showing up at our church.
  • I was thinking what a wonderful opportunity that would be to greet them, visit with them, brag on their artwork, and make them feel special.
  • I was thinking how they would go home from that experience, smiling.
  • I was thinking how that might make Jesus smile.

I believe that Brenda was thinking all those same things, and that’s why she couldn’t wait to get in her car and drive over to Glen Lea Elementary that day. There is something about this kind of work—about bringing heaven to earth—that fills people with joy.  I’ve got to believe it is the joy of the Lord, and that the Lord will know just how to use it to accomplish his eternal purposes.

KOH2RVA: Day 197

Brian McLarenI mentioned Brian McLaren in a recent post as someone (else) who is spreading the good news that “Jesus didn’t come just so we could go away to some heavenly kingdom when we die, but so we can help make that heavenly kingdom a reality here on earth, right now.”

McLaren is a prominent pastor, author, and speaker, and a leading figure in the “emergent church” movement. In what is perhaps his best-known book, A New Kind of Christian, he chronicles his lengthy question-and-answer email exchange with a young woman who didn’t have much use for the traditional church.

I haven’t read much of what he’s written, and I’m not sure I had even heard of his book The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything, but it sounds provocative, doesn’t it? Kind of like The Da Vinci Code. I looked it up on Amazon.com and considered buying it, but then I thought to look on my young adult daughter’s bookshelf upstairs and there it was. I texted Catherine for permission to read it (should have texted before I looked), and she texted back, “Sure! Feel free to pillage my bookshelves anytime!”

Love that girl.

I’ve only had time to read a few chapters, but something in chapter 2 rang true for me immediately. You know how I keep saying, “There must be a thousand ways to bring heaven to earth”? Well, that’s been one of the wonderful surprises about this year-long, every-member mission trip—that people can engage it in so many different ways. I talked with a woman last week who hasn’t even joined the church yet, but who had the brilliant idea of inviting students from Glen Lea Elementary School to submit their artwork for exhibit in the show we’re having at First Baptist April 20-21. It was with that experience fresh in mind that I read this paragraph in McLaren’s book:

I’ve become convinced that if the good news of Jesus were carried in a newspaper today, it wouldn’t be hidden in the religion section (although it would no doubt cause a ruckus there). It would be a major story in every section, from world news (What is the path to peace and how are we responding to our neighbors in need?) to national and local news (How are we treating children, poor people, minorities, the last, the lost, the least? How are we treating our enemies?), in the lifestyle section (Are we loving our neighbors and throwing good parties to bring people together?), the food section (Do our diets reflect concern for God’s planet and our poor neighbors, and have we invited any of them over for dinner lately?), the entertainment and sports sections (What is the point of our entertainment, and what values are we strengthening in sports?), and even the business section (Are we serving the wrong master: money rather than God?) pp. 10-11.

I love that paragraph, because it underscores what I’ve been learning this year. As I’ve blogged about bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, I’ve told stories about the many different ways people are doing it. On Thursday of last week I quoted Chris Harris, who said you can bring heaven to earth with a basketball. Yesterday I posted Linda Moore’s story about sharing her bread with a homeless woman and getting a blessing in return. The members and friends of First Baptist Church have pursued this mission in every section of the newspaper, so to speak: in the religion section, the business section, the lifestyle section, in regional and local news, the food section, and the sports and entertainment section. They seem intent on proving my point that there must be a thousand ways to bring heaven to earth.

But maybe they are proving McLaren’s point, too: that the good news is not just “heaven after you die,” but God’s determined effort to bring heaven to earth here and now. Maybe that was “the secret message of Jesus.” And if it was,

Why has it taken us so long to hear it?


p.s. Brian McLaren will be preaching at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church this week as part of their Lenten Lunch Series–12:30 on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday with lunch served before and after.  If you’re in town and have the time it would certainly be worth the trip.  I’m planning to go today.