No Whining

serveI slept on an inflatable mattress last night.

And it’s not one of those deluxe, queen-size, full-height inflatables either.  It’s my backpacker’s mattress: 78 inches long and 20 inches wide, hardly enough room to roll over.

And here’s the other thing:

It’s on the floor of a Sunday school classroom in a church in Lake City, South Carolina, where the youth of Richmond’s First Baptist Church have come for their annual mission trip.

We commissioned them at the end of the 8:30 worship service on Sunday morning and sent them out the door with our blessing.  They had been on the road roughly four hours when I finished the 11:00 service, went home, had some lunch, finished packing, and loaded my own car.  I followed their fumes down Interstate 95 and arrived at the Savannah Grove Free Will Baptist Church in time to hear the last three songs of their evening concert.

But then we had supper.

And what a treat that was, filling my plate with every good thing those sweet Baptists had cooked for us (of their own free will).  I watched them bring out the cakes at the end and thought, “They made those for us!” and it looked like most of them had been made from scratch.

We got to bed late and tired Sunday night, slept hard, and woke up early Monday morning ready to go to work.  My team (“The Hot Tamales”) worked on a house belonging to a woman who is the primary caregiver for her husband, who suffers from dementia.  Carter Bickford, Wil Moore, and I spent an hour or more replacing a toilet and then went outside where we learned that one of our crew, Maddie Carpenter, had stepped on a rotten part of the roof and crashed through, up to mid-thigh.  They took her back to the church to check her out but an hour later she was back on the job, a little scraped up but otherwise undaunted.  I noticed then that the shirt she was wearing said “No Whining” on the back.

And she wasn’t.

But the rest of us were tempted.  It was HOT outside, and especially on the roof where we were scraping off old shingles and roofing felt.  Melissa Johnson, our designated safety officer, made sure we came down regularly to re-hydrate and get some rest in the shade.  And then somebody brought pizza, and that kept us in the shade a little longer.  So, we took turns and played it safe and yet,

I still got bitten by a dog.

The owner’s son had a mean dog chained up in the back yard, some kind of shaggy white mixed-breed who sized us up every time we walked around the corner of the house.  She told us the dog would bite, and we were very careful to avoid it, until…I was pulling a tarp full of roof debris back from the side of the house, stepping backward, not thinking, when I accidentally stepped within reach of the dog’s chain.

I heard it rattle too late.

He clamped down hard on the back of my ankle and I really didn’t know what had hit me.  I dropped the tarp, whirled around, and backed away.  I was afraid to look at first: afraid I would find my pants leg in tatters and my ankle bleeding.  But when the pain subsided I took a look, and what I found was that wearing long pants and thick socks and heavy boots had been a good decision, even with all that heat.  The dog’s teeth had not broken through the fabric or through my skin, and although the site was bruised and tender, my team of concerned caregivers breathed a sigh of relief to know that we wouldn’t be dealing with a case of rabies on this trip.

It’s been a little less exciting since then, and a whole lot more productive.  These youth have been working so hard, so cheerfully, and living up to our theme verse for the week: 1 John 3:18: “Little children, let us love not in word and speech, but in truth and action.”  They have shown their love for neighbor through the day, and at night they have freshened up, put on matching yellow T-shirts, and sung their love for God in one concert after another.  When it’s time for “shout outs” at the end of the day, they shout out their admiration and appreciation for one another and their adult leaders.

I don’t always get to see these kids at their best.  Often I see them sitting in church, whispering to each other during the service, trying to stay awake during the sermon.  You could get the impression that none of this “stuff” really matters much to them.  But then you spend a few days with them: you see them when their character is being tested on the job site; you see them underlining verses in their well-worn Bibles; you see them including someone who might easily be left out.  It makes you wonder if the adults who come to church so neatly dressed and pay attention all the way through the sermon would do as well under similar circumstances.  And I’m not sure, but I think the way Maddie Carpenter shrugged off her crash through the roof made it easier for me to move past my dog bite.  After all, there was work to be done.[i]

Isaiah said, “A little child shall lead them.”  These are not little children; they are young people who are well on their way to being young adults.  And yet when the author of 1 John says, “Little children, let us not love in word and speech, but in truth and action,” they set an example.

They lead the way.



[i] Although I have to say, our adult leaders and chaperones have been amazing.  My hat is off to Ruth Szucs, who took the lead on planning and coordinating this year’s mission trip, and her many, tireless helpers.

Strained Relations

sharks and jetsI’m in Dallas, Texas, this week, attending the General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  But as the Holy Spirit would have it, the Southern Baptist Convention is being held here as well, and most of us are staying at the same hotel, which means there have been a few uncomfortable moments in hotel elevators.

We haven’t talked to each other in years.

My last Southern Baptist Convention was in 1990 in New Orleans, when the “Moderates” were making a last-ditch effort to take the Convention back from the “Conservatives.”  One of the big issues in those days was the role of women in the church.  The conservatives were saying that women should be silent in the church, that they shouldn’t teach men, and that they couldn’t be deacons or pastors: the Bible said so.  The moderates disagreed.  They had benefited from the ministry of women for years, and found plenty of evidence in the New Testament that the early church did too.  I remember seeing my adorable nieces at that meeting wearing big buttons with the message: “If you won’t ordain me, don’t baptize me.”

Those girls are no longer Southern Baptists.

In 1991 some 6,000 moderate Baptists gathered in Atlanta to form the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, effectively ending their relationship with the Southern Baptist Convention.  As a member of the Governing Board said recently, “If the SBC hadn’t told us we couldn’t ordain women we might still be Southern Baptist.”  But we’re not.  And now, 27 years after the split, we find ourselves shoulder-to-shoulder once again.  The Southern Baptists are wearing their name tags on red lanyards.  The Cooperative Baptists are wearing theirs on purple lanyards.  The hotel lobby is like a scene from West Side Story, with the Sharks and the Jets eyeing each other suspiciously.

But on Wednesday morning I bounced into the elevator in my gym clothes and found myself in the company of three red lanyards.  “Going to the fitness center?” one of them asked.  “Yes,” I said.  “Better you than me!” another one chimed in.  “Well,” I answered, “it’s not going to be easy, but I’m going to feel so self-righteous afterward!”  And they chuckled politely.

But I needed a cup of coffee first.  I got in line at the coffee shop and found myself  behind one of the red lanyards I had seen on the elevator.  “So you’re NOT going to the fitness center!” he said, smiling.  “No,” I said, “I am.  I just need coffee first.  Otherwise I might…drop something on myself.”

And then we began to talk.

He was wearing a name tag with the IMB logo on it (the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, whose headquarters are just a few blocks from Richmond’s First Baptist Church).  “Do you live in Richmond?” I asked.  “No,” he said.  “I’m from Louisville.  I was commissioned last night.”  “Oh, congratulations!” I said, meaning it.  There was a time when I had dreamed of being commissioned as a Southern Baptist missionary.  “Are you from Richmond?” he asked.  “Yes.”  “What do you do there?”  “I’m a pastor,” I said.  And then he made an assumption: “Are you enjoying the Convention?”  “Actually,” I said, “I’m here for the other Baptist meeting.”

And a wall went up between us.

I kept talking until it was my turn to order coffee, but he didn’t make eye contact again.  As I walked away I thought, “What a shame;  here we are, brothers in Christ, destined to spend eternity together, and yet we can’t even carry on a conversation.”

This morning I’m wondering if the same thing could happen to the CBF.  We haven’t talked about it yet, but there is some tension in our fellowship over the role of gays and lesbians in the church.  Some are advocating for full inclusion.  Others are “not there yet.”  I wonder: 27 years from now will we be eyeing each other suspiciously in a hotel lobby, some of us wearing rainbow-colored lanyards and some of us wearing purple ones?  Will we talk to each other while we’re waiting in line for coffee?  Will we regard each other as brothers and sisters?

Bill Leonard may have said it best in our Governing Board meeting on Tuesday.  He said, “Please, how much more division can we stand?”

Somewhere Jesus is still praying for the unity of his church (John 17:21), and begging us to remember that the world will know we are his disciples by the way we love one another (John 13:35).

“Why Won’t Jesus Heal Me?”

healingI was trying to help one of our new members choose a Bible verse for her baptism.  We were at the computer in my office, typing some of her favorite words into an online concordance to see what would come up.  That’s when she asked me:

“Why won’t Jesus heal me?”


“In your sermon on Sunday you were talking about all these people Jesus healed.  I was just wondering why he won’t heal me.”

She told me what she was dealing with: not cancer, not any other kind of terminal illness, but chronic pain and some other problems that had plagued her for years.

“Jesus seemed to heal everybody back then,” she said.  “Why not now?  Why not me?”

So I told her what I often tell people when they ask me that question.  I told her that Jesus’ earthly ministry involved a lot of “show and tell.”  “He was showing and telling people what the world will look like when God’s kingdom comes and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven,” I said.  “He was rounding up recruits for the Kingdom by showing them how good things will be when that day comes, and by telling them about a world with no more sighing, no more crying, and no more dying.”

“But of course he didn’t heal everybody,” I said.  “He healed the people who could get to him, the ones who crossed his path.  He was moved with compassion every time he saw someone in need.  But even then their healing was temporary.  All those people Jesus healed eventually died.  It’s what happens to all of us in the end.  So you have to ask the question: If we’re all going to die anyway what’s the point of living?”

“Right!  What is the point?”

I went all the way back to something I had learned in seminary: I told her about Irenaeus.


Irenaeus was one of the early church fathers, and he thought that this world—which is so full of joy and sorrow, so full of sickness and health, so full of better and worse—was the perfect place to grow up.  He called it ‘a vale of soul making,’ and his hunch was that you need a place like this—a place where choices have consequences, a place where life is often a struggle—to make a soul.

“For example,” I said: “I go to the fitness center a couple of times a week and one of the ways I get stronger is by lifting heavy weights.  I could lift light weights, or no weights at all.  That would be easier.  But I wouldn’t get stronger.  The only way I can do that is by lifting heavy weights, the ones that push me almost to my limit.

“If you never had any hardship in your life, if you never had any pain or struggle, life would be easier, but you might end up soft and flabby—spiritually speaking—and maybe that’s not what God wants for us.  I don’t want to blame God for our suffering.  We live in a broken world and we are the ones who broke it.  But it may be the kind of world that gives our souls a good workout, the kind of world that makes them stronger, so that when we stand before God someday and he asks, ‘What have you got for me?’ we can say, ‘This!  This beautiful soul: refined by fire, shaped by suffering.’”

She was thoughtful after that, taking it all in.  I said, “I know that’s not a perfect answer.  Some people seem to have way more than their share of suffering.  Some people seem to have almost none at all.  But if we stop blaming it all on God and instead say, ‘This is the kind of world in which a soul can be made,’ then we might start paying more attention to our own soul making.  We might even say, when we are straining under the weight of incredible challenges,

“I feel my soul getting stronger.”

“I love you!”

the-shackoctaviaLast Monday was one of those days.

It started just after our weekly Pastoral Ministry Team meeting, when someone told me that one of our Sunday school teachers didn’t care for the robe I had been wearing in the pulpit (see previous post).  I shrugged it off as one person’s opinion but then, later that afternoon, got a long email from a former deacon chair who felt the same way.  Although he was very respectful and his points were argued from a theological standpoint, they left a bad taste in my mouth.

Nobody really loves criticism.

So, at three o’clock I was gathering my things to go to Starbucks, where I typically begin my week-long sermon-writing process, but I wasn’t feeling the energy I usually feel for creative work.  I decided to answer a few phone calls first and one of them was from a television viewer who had asked if I could go by and visit his wife in the hospital.  He hadn’t told me which hospital, so I called him for details.

He said she was in Sheltering Arms in Mechanicsville, a long way from my office on Monument Avenue, but he would really appreciate it if I could go by.  And then he said, “We’ve been married for 66 years.”  And that’s when I realized this was an act of love.  His wife was in a rehab hospital.  He didn’t know if she’d ever come home.  He was feeling helpless when he had this thought:

“Maybe the preacher would go and see her.”

Thousands of people tune in to our broadcast each week.  I certainly can’t respond to every request.  But I was able to put myself in this man’s shoes on Monday, and realized that if it was my wife in the hospital I would want the preacher to say yes.

I didn’t make any promises on the phone, but as soon as I hung up I knew I was going.  I got a little turned around at one point and ended up driving four miles in the wrong direction.  I knew at that point I wasn’t going to make it to Starbucks that afternoon.  But I did eventually make it to his wife’s room, and her face lit up when I walked in the door.

“It’s the preacher!” she said.

Her husband wasn’t there, but we had a good, long visit, and I was grateful for every minute.  Her name was Mary, my mother’s name, and it turns out she was born in the same year, almost the same month.  We made all those connections and I said, “My mother is in a nursing home in West Virginia.  It’s a three-hour drive each way.  I don’t get there nearly as often as I would like, but visiting with you is like having a visit with her.  Thank you.”  She smiled (a beautiful smile) and said she was honored.

On the way back to my car I was crossing the parking lot when a woman going the other direction suddenly stopped, looked at me, and said, “I love you!”

I was a little surprised.

She said, “That didn’t come out right.  What I mean is, I watch you on TV every Sunday and I love your sermons.”  I said, “I think I liked it better the first way.”  We both laughed.  I asked her name and she gave me a hug and then we went our separate ways, but I got in my car thinking the whole visit had been a gift from God.

Years ago I learned that whenever the work of ministry began to take its toll on me (and it does; believe me) the best thing I could do was to get in my car and go and visit someone.  I remember sitting on a church member’s front porch years ago, drinking sweet tea, and realizing that I was the one being ministered to.  Ever since, I’ve tried to overcome the “blues” of ministry by going to see someone who needs a visit, and remembering why I answered the call.  And every once in a while God shows up in the person of a complete stranger, shouting at me across the parking lot:

“I love you!”


The photograph above is of Octavia Spencer, who played the role of God the Father (“Papa”) in the film version of William Paul Young’s “The Shack,” and who bears a superficial resemblance to the woman who said “I love you!” in the parking lot.


Robe and StoleIt started innocently enough.

Ralph Starling showed up on Pentecost Sunday without his red tie (I had encouraged everyone to wear red on Pentecost, especially those who were leading in worship) and I said, “No problem.  You can wear my red stole.”

I had this beautiful handmade Pentecost stole, with “tongues of fire” on it hanging up in my closet.  It was made for me by a woman in Texas who does this kind of thing as her specialty.  I love it, but I don’t get many chances to wear it as the ministers at First Baptist typically wear robes only on special occasions.

So Ralph hung it around his neck as he did the Welcome and Call to Worship, and it looked so good on him I asked if I could get it back before the sermon at the 11:00 service.  I thought, “Why not?  Pentecost is a special occasion!”  So I slipped out during one of the hymns, put on my robe and stole, and came back out to preach.

It felt good.  It looked good.  And someone told me afterward, “You were on fire!” (I thought he was talking about my preaching; turns out he was only talking about my stole).

I posted the picture on Facebook and asked for opinions.  The overwhelming majority of those were positive.  Many people said I should wear the robe every week.

The next week was Trinity Sunday, and we had a youth choir from a Methodist Church in North Carolina visiting.  I had a white stole hanging in my closet, perfect for Trinity Sunday, and the visiting youth choir was used to seeing their minister in a robe and stole.  So, I did it again: I preached in my robe and stole and it felt great.

At my last church I preached in a robe every week, and I enjoyed it for several reasons.  1) I didn’t have to think so much about what I was going to wear on Sunday, or whether my shirt matched my tie, 2) theologically, a robe is intended to let the preacher “disappear” so that the word of God can be heard, and 3) the stole is a symbol of “the yoke of Christ,” and every time I put it on before I preached I would feel the responsibility to speak a word for him.

Maybe that’s why, last Sunday, even though there wasn’t any real reason to do so, and it wasn’t what you would call a “special” Sunday (the Second Sunday after Pentecost), I put on the robe again, and a beautiful green stole that matched the colors on the pulpit and the communion table.

And that’s when my phone began to ring.

It started with a mention that one of our Sunday school teachers didn’t care much for the robe and stole.  And then I got email from a former deacon chair who spelled out reasons, both traditional and theological, for returning to a suit and tie.  And finally a member of my “kitchen cabinet,” my informal advisory panel, gave me some informal advice: “It’s just not us,” he said, apologetically.

And that’s what stuck.

For ten years I’ve been wearing a suit and tie on Sunday mornings out of respect for this church’s tradition.  I’ve done some other things to push us toward a more liturgical style of worship: we use the lectionary; we say “Thanks be to God”; we observe the colors and seasons of the Christian year.  But the robe and stole was probably a step too far, and people who love me and love the church were honest enough to say so.

It “clicked” for me last night, when I went to an interfaith dinner and saw the pastor of River Road Church, Baptist, wearing a clerical collar.  It looked good on him, and fit in nicely with that church’s formal, liturgical tradition.  But I thought, “That’s not me,” in the same way one of my advisors had said, “That’s not us.”

So, look for me in a suit this Sunday, honoring the tradition of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, but grateful to be in a place where the pastor can wear a robe and a stole if he wants to.

Don’t be surprised if it comes out again—next Pentecost.