Right at the Center

baptism 2019

NOTE: This is No. 4 in my weekly letters to the congregation of First Baptist Church.  If you’d like to get these letters in your email inbox, even if you are not a member of the church, you can sign up HERE.  And in case you’re wondering, that’s me, Jack Buckbee, and Ann Carter, above, standing waist deep in the James River (photo by Matthew Brown).


It started with a question from Ann Carter, our Minister to Students.

She had been talking to Will Storey, who wanted to be baptized, but he wanted to be baptized in the river.  He remembered those baptisms we had done a few years ago at Bill and Beverley Hundley’s beautiful place on the James.  She called me to ask:

“Are we planning to do another river baptism anytime soon?”

“No,” I said.

I mean, we weren’t planning to.  We had baptized, like, 19 people the first year we did a river baptism, and 21 people the next year, and 13 people the year after that, and then there were only two people who signed up, and it didn’t seem worth all that trouble just for two.  But here was one young person who wanted to be baptized in the river and for some reason I heard myself saying, “Hey, if he wants to do it, let’s do it!”  But then Ann asked, “Can we do it before the end of August?”

And that’s how we ended up having a river baptism on Sunday evening, August 18.

Ann scouted out some locations and decided on a boat ramp at Robious Landing Park.  She told Will and he told some of his friends and before we knew it there were four, then five, then six young people who wanted to be baptized in the river.  They came forward during the invitation hymn on Sunday morning and it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen: all those young people streaming down the aisle of the church to present themselves as candidates for baptism.  They may have gotten more hugs from the congregation afterward than they had ever gotten in their lives.

I got in my car around four to drive over to Robious Landing Park and at 4:30 I got out and started walking along the wooded path that led to the boat ramp.  It was longer than I thought, and even in the shade the temperature was somewhere in the nineties.  But when I got to the boat ramp I found a big crowd of happy, sweaty people and by 5:00 the crowd was bigger, sweatier, and (if possible) happier.

I put on my robe along with Ann and those six students, and then we paraded down the ramp while the James Family played and sang, “I have decided to follow Jesus.”  Everybody was singing along; it was perfect.  And when I waded out into the refreshing waters of the James I was grateful to be one of those in the river and not one of those sweating on the shore.

But then I became even more grateful.

Baptism 2

with Luke Hubbard (photo: Matthew Brown)

Ann introduced the students one by one and read their Scripture verses, and then they waded out to stand next to me in the water.  That’s when I felt the lump rise in my throat—when I stood beside these students and asked them to profess their faith, and when they said in voices loud enough to be heard on the shore, “Jesus is Lord!”  I swallowed hard and said, “In obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, and upon your profession of faith in him, I baptize you into the family of God in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”  And then, one at a time, I dipped them down beneath those cleansing waters and brought them up again.

Can I tell you something?  I never feel so much at the center of God’s will as when I’m baptizing.  I mean, Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” and there I am, doing exactly that. If I died in that moment I would go straight to heaven, right? But in that moment on Sunday evening, as one after another of those young people was lifted up out of the water and into their new life with Christ, heaven came to earth.

It really did.


–Jim Somerville


Charley's dedication (10)

Note: This is the third in a series of personal letters to my congregation, and although I don’t mention it anywhere in this post this picture of Charley Ozmore honking my nose during his dedication (above) seems like the perfect illustration of the joys of ministry.


One of the privileges of being a pastor is that you get invited into some of your congregation’s most intimate moments:

  • When you learn that a baby has been born, and go by the hospital to celebrate with the elated new father and the exhausted new mother.
  • When a young man sits on the couch in your study reciting his carefully rehearsed reasons for wanting to be baptized while his parents look on with pride.
  • When a couple comes for pre-marital counseling, and sits there blushing while you talk about the joys and challenges of married life.
  • When you get the call that someone has died, and drive to the home to sit with the grieving family.

Those moments can come at any time, and they do, but they come most often on Sundays, because that’s when we all get together for worship, and Bible study, and fellowship.  And some of the most intimate moments come when you least expect them.  Here are just a few from this past Sunday:

  1. Before I even got to Flamming Hall for the 8:45 fellowship time I stepped into the sanctuary to make sure everything was ready for worship and found Emma and Madelyn El-Khouri waiting patiently while their parents rehearsed for their part in the service. Madelyn jumped off the front pew, ran to me, and hugged me hard.  It’s just what she does when she sees me, but it was one of those moments that made me glad I’m a pastor.
  2. I was standing waist-deep in the baptistery, behind the curtain, getting ready to make my big entrance during the 9:30 worship service, when I looked back to see if Suzanne McCown (who was being baptized that morning) was ready to go with me. What I saw was Suzanne wiping tears from her face, overcome with emotion at the thought of what was about to happen.  She had told me earlier she thought of this as kind of a “wedding day,” when she would make her solemn vows to Christ.  How appropriate that the prelude on Sunday was the “Trumpet Voluntary” you’ve heard at so many weddings.
  3. After worship I stood near the piano to shake hands with people who were on their way to our “Altogether in August” Bible study in Flamming Hall. It’s not where I usually stand, and so I got to see people I don’t usually see.  One of them was June Burton, who, from the moment I came to First Baptist, has offered me nothing but kindness.  I was there when her husband Eddie died a few years ago and I did my best to help her walk through that grief.  She wasn’t walking on Sunday; she was in a wheelchair.  June has always been tiny but there she was in that child-sized chair and my first reaction was to bend down (way down) and give her a kiss on the cheek.  She hugged my neck and told me she loved me and then it was my turn to wipe away tears.

  4. I went to Bible study for a few minutes but then, because I could, I went to worship with the deaf church (their service begins at 11:00 and I’m usually working at 11:00 on Sunday morning). I was there for the welcome, the call to worship, the first hymn, and let me just say: it’s different in deaf church.  Sue Atkins[i] sat on the front pew “voicing” everything that was being signed, but other than that it was strangely silent.  Strange to me, that is: absolutely normal for the majority of people in that room.  I felt a connection to those brothers and sisters in that moment I don’t usually feel when we pass each other in the hallways and I offer my clumsy sign language version of “How are you?”  I could see how they were worshiping in their “heart language,” instead of having someone interpret the spoken word (which is what we do when they come to worship with us in the “Hearing Church”).  I watched one man nodding his head vigorously, as his new pastor, Dirk Hill, signed something I didn’t understand at all.  This man was “getting it.”  What Dirk was signing was helpful.  And I marveled at the ministry going on just down the hall from where I usually preach.

See what can happen when you come to church on Sunday?  Maybe it only happens if you’re the pastor, but I doubt it.  I’m guessing all of you have experienced such moments.  Maybe that’s why God makes it such a priority in his Top Ten list: “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy!”  And maybe one of the ways we keep it holy is by showing up…and paying attention.

See you this Sunday,




[i] When I got home I learned that Sue’s mother had died around noon.  It wasn’t unexpected.  Lee had been in hospice for weeks.  But I thought how proud she would have been of her daughter, who left her bedside just long enough to help out with worship.



Note: Last week I posted the pastoral letter I wrote to my congregation in an attempt to share my heart and not only my head.  Here’s this week’s letter.

Summer is the time when I usually travel. I do it then mostly because my wife, Christy, is a kindergarten teacher who gets the summers off, and I want her to go with me. This year we splurged on a trip to Greece as a late celebration of my 60th birthday, and it was wonderful. I won’t go into the details; I don’t want to make you jealous; but if my 70th birthday is half as good, I will be happy.

But there I was, in the city of Athens, and on the island of Hydra, soaking up centuries of culture and lots of Mediterranean sunshine, and yet coming home to Richmond may have been the best part of the trip. We still had a few more trips to take before the summer was over. Christy went to Africa on a mission trip, I went to “Preacher Camp” for a week, we both went to Wingate, NC, for a conference, but as we were crossing the James River on our way home last week, we both let out a sigh of contentment. We were through with our travels for the summer.

We were home.

I didn’t know if I would like Richmond when I came here eleven years ago. I came from Washington, DC: the nation’s busy, bustling, cosmopolitan capital. Richmond seemed like a small Southern town by comparison. But now! Now, as I travel, I tell everybody who will listen how much I love Richmond. I tell them it has become a mecca for millennials because of the craft beer breweries in town. I tell them it was ranked the “Number One River City in America” by Outside magazine. I tell them about the growth of VCU and the University of Richmond, about the vibrant art scene in Richmond and the filmmaking industry in Virginia. I tell them we have more murals, per capita, than any other city in the US and some people are interested to know that it is the nation’s “third most tattooed city.”

But then I tell them about you.

I tell them how much I love Richmond’s First Baptist Church and the people who make it what it is. I tell them about the growing diversity in our congregation because of the “radical hospitality” we practice. I tell them about our rich history—239 years in this city!—and the way we have been focused on missions from the very beginning (the Foreign Mission Board of the SBC was “born” in our church basement). I tell them about our current focus of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia and how we seem to find ways of bringing heaven to earth every day. I’m proud of you, proud of the way you roll up your sleeves and do the work of the Kingdom. I brag on you wherever I go.

I love you, I love this church, I love this city, and I love that feeling I get when I sit on my front porch in the summertime as the day is coming to a close, when the traffic has thinned out, and the last jogger is running by. When it gets so quiet I can hear the sound of my own heartbeat, this is what I hear:

“This is home.”


Things Happen

grayland-hicks-jim-somerville-embraceAuthor’s Note: I’ve started a weekly newsletter to the members of my congregation called “A Word from Your Pastor,” mostly to let them know what’s on my heart, and not only in my head.  This was the first one, sent out last Friday.  

Some of you were at the 11:00 service on July 14 when an unexpected guest began to punctuate the service with loud shouts of “Hallelujah!”  I felt my anxiety levels begin to rise.  Who was this person?  Was he a threat to the church?  I listened carefully and decided that he didn’t sound threatening—just loud!—but he was making everybody nervous.

So, when I stood to preach I said, “Before I begin let me say that we have someone in our midst this morning who seems to have come to church determined to praise the Lord, and it’s been unsettling for some of us.  We aren’t that kind of church.  But if you can’t praise the Lord in church, where can you?  And if you can’t shout ‘Hallelujah!’ in church, then where?”

And then I began to preach.

Two minutes into the sermon our guest shouted “Hallelujah!”  Five minutes in he said, “Amen!”  And then, ten minutes into the sermon he stood and raised his hand, looking for recognition (and he was tall!), but I didn’t recognize him.  I preached to people all around him, refusing to make eye contact.

Five minutes later he sat down.

At the end of the service, after I had made announcements, he raised his hand again, and this time I did acknowledge him.  I walked up to where he was standing and asked him what he wanted to say.  He said, “I am the Chosen One!” (I didn’t know what to say about that).  But then he said, “I’ve been in the hospital.  My ribs are hurting.  I need prayer.”  And I knew what to say about that.  I asked him if I could say a prayer for him.  I asked him his name.  And then I said a prayer for Grayland.

When I finished he said, “I love you!  I would lay down my life for you!”  And he hugged me, and the whole church applauded.  He turned to the congregation and said, “I would lay down my life for all y’all.  I LOVE you!”  And someone shouted back, “We love you, too!”

It was a holy moment.

Which made this last Sunday hard for me, because Grayland showed up again.  I went to him before the service started and called him by name.  He said, “I love you!”  I said, “I love you too, Grayland, but I need you to know: we are not a shouting church and when you shout it makes some people anxious.”  He seemed confused by that and said, “I’ve got to do what the Spirit tells me to do.”  I said, “I know you do, and I don’t want to quench the Spirit, but I don’t want the church to get anxious or distracted.  We came to worship the Lord Jesus this morning and if everybody is looking at you they can’t look at him.”

And then he looked hurt.

I reassured him of my love and told him he was welcome and then went back to my seat.  I heard him shout something during the invocation I couldn’t quite make out, but then, a few minutes later, he shouted “Hallelujah” in a strangled voice, as if his heart had been broken.  During the pastoral prayer he got up and walked out mumbling something about how “the church is falling apart,” but it felt like my fault.  I didn’t think I had quenched the Holy Spirit but I was pretty sure I had quenched his.

Sometimes it’s hard to know just what to do.  I wondered later if all those people who had commended me for the way I handled the situation two weeks earlier would have commended me for the way I handled it on Sunday.  I don’t know.  But I do know this: when we come together for worship holy things can happen, beautiful things can happen, heartbreaking things can happen, but things can happen, and they DO happen, and if we’re not there for them we miss them.

I hope to see you in church this Sunday,



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