Loved Back to Life

golden-retriever-puppy-growth-longNote: this is the letter I sent to my congregation the week after Thanksgiving.

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Let me begin with confession:

When it was time to write this letter last week I was out of words. I had preached three times on Sunday, had two funerals on Monday, another one on Tuesday, and then the Thanksgiving service on Tuesday night. I didn’t have time to say what I wanted to say to you so I pulled something from my files, blew the dust off of it, and sent it to you. But it wasn’t what I really wanted to say to you in those days just before Thanksgiving. I wanted to say this:

I’m thankful for you.

When I came to First Baptist in 2008 I was pretty beat up. I had survived an attempt to force me out of my previous church. It’s a long story, but it seems to come down to this: things were changing at that church in a way that made some people uncomfortable; I was the pastor, the agent of change; therefore I needed to go.

I will never forget the deacons’ meeting where five church members were given the opportunity to make accusations against the pastor. For an hour-and-a-half I sat in a room while each of them read off a list of half-truth and untruths intended to bring me down. I sat there silently, biting my lip, but thinking with each accusation, “That’s not true!”

The deacons got together the next week, without me (and without my accusers), and concluded on their own that none of those accusations was valid. They wrote up a statement of love and support for their pastor and read it aloud at the next church business meeting, but the damage had been done. My relationship with that congregation was affected, as was theirs with me.

Those five people eventually left the church and while I hoped things would get better immediately they did not. That small faction had left behind a legacy of suspicion and mistrust that was hard to overcome. I thought about leaving, but didn’t feel that I could until the church was in a healthier place. When I was first contacted by this church I said no.

But five months later this church contacted me again and this time I felt that I could say yes. I met with the search committee. I met with the staff. And finally I agreed to come to Richmond and preach a trial sermon. The church was packed that day, and at the end of worship, after the affirmative vote, you got to your feet and gave me a standing ovation that went on and on. I was blinking back tears, grateful beyond my ability to express it.

In the first days of my ministry here I described the experience as “being licked on the face by an entire litter of Golden Retriever puppies.” That’s how warm your welcome was. But I had trouble receiving it. I had been hurt by a church. I didn’t know if I could trust your love. But you didn’t let that stop you; you just kept on loving me. And little by little the wall I had built around my heart came down, and you got in, and now I can’t imagine that I would ever let you out.

So, this is what I want to say, while the spirit of Thanksgiving still lingers in the air: I love you, and I’m thankful for you, and I’m thankful for the way you loved me back to life again.

You restored my faith in the church.

Jim

“Actually, we’re Atheists”

atheist_eflf1dNote: This is another of my letters to my congregation, now shared with you, the members of my “blogregation.”

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On Tuesday I invited a stranger to church.

Lynn Turner and I were driving out to the Far West End to take communion to one of our members and we stopped for a quick bite of lunch along the way. There was a woman sitting at a nearby table with her young son, a little boy who couldn’t have been more than two. She was helping him eat his lunch, talking to him and smiling at him throughout the meal. I could see them out of the corner of my eye and I kept having this feeling that I should invite them to church. Do you ever have those feelings? I couldn’t tell if it was a nudge from the Holy Spirit or not, but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. I could imagine this woman and her son fitting into our life together at First Baptist beautifully.

So, when I finished my meal I got up and walked over to their table, pulled up a chair and sat down. I’m not sure I would have done it if Lynn hadn’t been with me. This is an aside, but there’s something about having someone with me who knows me and will still speak to me even if I make a fool of myself that makes me bold. I’m almost sure that’s why Jesus sent his disciples out two by two, and why Paul always took Barnabas or Silas or Timothy along with him.

But back to the story:

I said, “Excuse me for interrupting, but I saw you here with your little boy and wondered if you go to church anywhere.”

She said, “Oh, we’re not Christian.”

I said, “Oh! Okay. Well, I’m a pastor and we have so many good programs for children at our church I just wanted to invite you, you know, if you didn’t already have a place to go.”

She said, “Actually, we’re atheists.”

And I hadn’t heard that before. I mean, I hadn’t heard a young mother blurt it out in the middle of Panera Bread like that: “We’re atheists.” Talk about boldness!

In some of my recent sermons I’ve mentioned the “Nones”: the growing number of people in America who claim to have no religious faith. That number has climbed from 16% in 2008 to more than 26% currently. Some surveys put it higher than that. It’s only a guess, but I’m guessing that in the same way people have gotten more and more comfortable with skipping church over the last thirty years, and taking their kids to Sunday morning soccer games instead, people will get more and more comfortable with saying out loud, in public places, “We’re atheists!” It may even become fashionable to have no faith. People might start wearing pins on their lapels or putting bumper stickers on their cars to let you know before you even ask, “I’m not interested in your religion.”

But I found myself interested in this woman’s lack of religion.

I said, “I didn’t mean to bother you. I just wanted to invite you to church. But I wish we had time to talk. I’d love to hear your story.” And I could almost see the wheels turning in her brain, thinking, “Yeah, right. You just want to convert me to Christianity.” So I added, “I wouldn’t try to convert you!”

I don’t think I would. I’m naturally curious about people. I love finding out what makes them tick. I would love to know how this woman ended up with no faith at all. But I’m pretty sure that if we had that conversation I would end up telling her my story, and how I couldn’t live without my faith. And if at the end all that she said, “I want what you have,” I wouldn’t withhold it.

I think that’s what you call “sharing” your faith. It’s different from trying to convert people. This verse from 1 Peter sums it up nicely: “Always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks you about the hope you have. Be ready to give the reason for it. But do it gently and with respect” (1 Peter 3:15, NIRV).

I think I was both gentle and respectful to that woman at Panera Bread, but I haven’t stopped thinking about her and her blunt confession: “We’re atheists.” When I think of her I pray for her, and I hope you will, too. Not so much that she would be converted to Christianity and come to our church, but that she would know the love of God and feel it so deeply she could no longer deny:

“God is real.”

I’m praying for you today, and praying that you, too, would know the love of God and feel it deeply.

Jim

How Much Longer?

Three AmigosThe Grand Canyon was every bit as grand as I remembered from the last time I visited, and moreso, because this time I hiked down to the bottom and back, spending four sunny days (and three chilly nights) immersing myself in the Canyon’s majesty at a snail’s pace and at arm’s length.

My brother-in-law, Chuck (at right in the picture above), and I have been hiking together since October, 1980, which makes this our 39th year.  Joe (at left), another friend from college, joined us about 20 years ago on our annual, week-long backpacking adventures.  But here’s something I think we all noticed on this trip:

We’re not getting any younger.

I felt it on that last day, climbing up out of the Canyon, a 3,000-foot change in elevation that was nearly straight up.  On the way to the airport the next day I asked, “How much longer do you think we’re going to be able to do this?”

We’ve talked about it before, especially last year when Chuck had to have back surgery.  We know there will come a time when none of us will be able to shoulder a 50-pound pack and hike ten miles in the mountains.  On this trip we talked about the possibility of doing more base-camping and day-hiking in the future, but none of us seemed shocked by the idea that we might have to make some adjustments, and here’s why:

I’m a pastor, Chuck is an Episcopal priest, and Joe is a hospital chaplain.

Almost every day we spend time with people who are further down this trail than we are. In a recent 24-hour period I visited with a woman who is dying, a man who is recovering from surgery, a child who wanted to know about life after death, and a woman who has had to accept the fact that she cannot walk without a cane.  Mortality is all around us. We deal with it every day. We know we aren’t getting younger and stronger because most of the people we minister to aren’t either.

There’s something comforting about that, and I hope it will stay with me when I realize I’ve taken my last backpacking trip, or when I come to the place that I can’t walk without a cane, or when I’m lying on my own death bed.  I’d love to be able to say, “I’ve seen all this before! This is how it goes!” without feeling any bitterness, any remorse.

And there is a part of me—that adventure-loving part of me—that knows what comes next is the greatest adventure of all, one that will make the Grand Canyon look like a hole in the ground by comparison. I want to live with the kind of appreciation, and acceptance, and unshakable faith that will cause me to look forward to that day even though (as Chuck often reminds me),

“There’s no hurry.”

 

Simple, Good, and True

190403-pancakes-066-copy-1554497284I didn’t preach on Sunday, October 13.

My friend Amy Butler was in town and I thought it would be a treat for the congregation to hear her.  She’s kind of famous, having recently finished a five-year stint as Senior Minister of the world-renowned Riverside Church in New York City where she rubbed shoulders with the likes of Bill Moyers, Cornel West, John Legend, Neal Patrick Harris, and Adele.  She preached a great sermon, and everybody seemed happy to hear her, but after spending the morning in the spotlight with a celebrity preacher I was ready for something a little different.

So, Christy and I drove to Boykins, Virginia, an hour-and-a-half away, to join our daughter Catherine and her husband Scott for a pancake supper and hymn sing at Boykins Baptist Church, where Scott is the pastor.  It was drizzling rain when we got there, and so we hurried through the side door and into the fellowship hall just as Scott finished the blessing.  “And here are my in-laws!” he announced.

It reminded me so much of my first church—New Castle Baptist in Kentucky.  The names and faces were different but it could have been the same people sitting around those tables in the fellowship hall.  And so, after hugging Scott and Catherine, I went from table to table introducing myself and learning about them.  Eventually somebody brought me a plate of pancakes, bacon, and stewed apples and I sat down beside Scott to eat and talk “shop.”

“How did things go this morning?” I asked.

“Good!” he said.  “It’s been a good day in church.  How about you?”

“The same,” I said, forking in a mouthful of pancakes, and then, a minute later, “But we didn’t have this!  We didn’t have a pancake supper and hymn sing!”

It really was perfect.

Everybody was talking around the tables.  One woman got up out of her chair to come over and sit beside my mother-in-law, Lu, who had come with us.  They started up a conversation and within minutes were laughing out loud about something.  Christy was talking with Catherine.  I was talking with Scott.  Children were doing laps around the fellowship hall.  The pancake chef (who was also the deacon chair) came out of the kitchen wiping his hands on his apron to ask if anybody wanted more.

Eventually someone sat at the piano to play hymns and (here was a surprise) someone else sat down with a cello.  For nearly an hour we called out the numbers of our favorite hymns as these two musicians accompanied us (beautifully) and we sang from hearts full of love and heads full of memories in an old Baptist church by the side of the road in Boykins, Virginia.

Driving home afterward I began to feel wistful, remembering the days when I was a young pastor in a small-town church.  Was life really so much simpler then, or did it only feel that way, looking back?  I know Scott has had to deal with some fairly complex issues in his two years at Boykins.  He calls me from time to time asking, “Have you ever had to deal with anything like this?”  The life of a pastor is not easy, no matter where you are.  But it sure was sweet, on that rainy Sunday night, to gather in the fellowship hall with the church family to eat pancakes and sing hymns, and a good reminder that the best things about church have nothing to do with celebrity preachers or spotlights.  The best things are simple, and good, and true.

And always have been.

Jim

 

 

Carried Away

child reading bibleI got a little carried away last week.

I was preaching that passage from 2 Timothy 1 where Paul is reminded of Timothy’s sincere faith, a faith that lived first in his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice (vs. 5).  I started thinking about how my own faith lived first in my mother, Mary.

And that’s when I got carried away.

I spent a full third of the sermon remembering how my mother shared her faith with me and my brothers and tried to make sure we “grew up Christian.”  I talked about the way she gave us a Christian worldview, and taught us the Apostle’s Creed and the Catechism, and told us thrilling stories from the Bible, and sang the great hymns of the faith.  I probably didn’t need to do all that.  Most people probably got the point after the first illustration.  But here’s the truth: that wasn’t the half of it.  And I cut out of the sermon this whole paragraph about my father and his contribution to my faith:

My father the minister didn’t like to talk shop at the family dinner table but I watched him live his faith in ways that impact me still.  I watched him use his body and his hands to help poor people.  I remember how he used to roll his tongue to one side of his mouth and bite down on it when he was exerting unusual effort.  I’ve watched him dig footers, and shove beams into place, and drive roofing nails as he and a group of volunteers built a house for a poor widow in West Virginia before Habitat for Humanity ever existed.  I’ve seen him come in at the end of a day exhausted, with dirt under his fingernails, from trying to do what he thought Jesus wanted him to do.

And then I got to that verse where Paul tells Timothy, “Rekindle the gift of God that is within you though the laying on of my hands” (vs. 6), and I began to think about my father-in-law, Bill Treadwell, who preached my ordination sermon and was the first in line to lay his hands on my head as I was set apart for the Gospel ministry.

Bill was the one who invited me to work as a part-time youth minister at his church in Georgetown, Kentucky, when I was only 22 years old.  He was the one who asked me after a couple of years of that if perhaps God was calling me into pastoral ministry.  He was the one who took me to the seminary for my first visit and the one who was standing there to receive me when I came down a church aisle to answer that call.  “Rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands,” Paul wrote to Timothy.  I read those words on my personal 24-hour retreat and tears came to my eyes as I remembered Bill laying his hands on my head. 

The sermon could have been so much longer than it was.

Because it wasn’t only my mother, my father, and my father-in-law who nurtured my faith, it was my brothers, my Sunday school teachers, my close Christian friends.  The list goes on and on.  When I asked the question in that sermon, “Where did you get your faith?” I was thinking about all those people.  I could have talked all day.

But I was aware, even as I was preaching, of parents who did all they could to make sure their children “grew up Christian,” and whose hearts are now broken because their children are not, or at least don’t appear to be.  “What about that verse?” they ask me, often with tears in their eyes, “the one that says, ‘Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it”? (Prov. 22:6).  “Well,” I say, “is your child old?”  “Not really,” they say.  “He’s thirteen.  He’s having some doubts.”

Well, of course he is.

And he may have some more when he’s 22, or 37, or 56.  We all go through times of doubt and crises of faith.  I did.  But I also believe those things we are taught when we are young stay with us and come back to us, often in the moments we need them most.  Maybe if those children get old enough, and maybe—or especially—when they get close to the end, they will find that the faith of their fathers (and mothers) is living still.

May it be so,

Jim

Dropping the Ball

dropped the ball

Note: This is another of my personal letters to my congregation.

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I dropped the ball.

It started on Friday, two weeks ago, when I used the ten-minute window between one appointment and the next to check my email.  I found a message from a church member telling me his wife had been diagnosed with cancer and would be having surgery soon.  I felt that stabbing pain I feel whenever I hear or see the “C” word.  I wrote back immediately and assured him of my prayers.

And then I went to my next appointment.

Fast forward to the following Saturday when I got an email from this same church member telling me, essentially, “I thought you cared.”  It turns out his wife’s surgery had been scheduled for the following Tuesday, and in those long hours between Friday afternoon (when I had assured him of my prayers) and Tuesday morning (when she had gone into surgery) I had not been in touch.  Nor had I been in touch in the days that followed, when she was recovering.  In his words, my silence was “loud.”

I could make excuses.  I could tell you that I was speaking at the choir retreat on the day after I got his email, and at the memorial service of long-time member John Farmer.  I could tell you that I had to work around those events to get the sermon finished before the next morning, and that I ended up working late.  I could tell you that I spent the next day fully involved in our annual “ONE Sunday” celebration and that after it I was exhausted.  I could tell you that the next morning I woke up feeling sick, and by the next day barely had a voice.  But not even that excuses my silence.

This is what I wrote in reply:

Dear _________:

I dropped the ball.  I failed you. 

I could try to justify it by saying I had a lot on my plate last week, and I was not feeling well, but if I had taken even five minutes to put myself in your shoes, to think about how I would feel [in your situation], I would have done a much better job of caring for you and [your wife].

So, there’s no excuse. All I can say is I’m sorry. I am a human being who is fallible, and this last week I failed you. I hate that because I love you, and always look forward to speaking to you after worship on Sundays. I wish I could do this one over and get it right but in the meantime hear me say I am sorry. 

I’ve been thinking about you so much since you reached out, and I am so glad you did, because otherwise I would not have known how deeply I hurt you. 

I hope that in time you will be able to forgive me. For now, please know that I am saying prayers for you and [your wife], and ready to do whatever I can for the two of you.

With love and prayers,

Jim

I believe that in time he will be able to forgive me.  He is a big-hearted person, and a true Christian.  But it hurts me so much that I hurt him and I wonder how many times I have done the same to others, perhaps even to you.  And so I ask:

Can you forgive me?

In my own words I am a human being who is fallible, and sometimes I fail people, and it grieves me more than you can know.  One of the real hardships of being a pastor is going to bed every night knowing that you have probably let somebody down.  I did that last night.  But you get up the next morning and try again, and that’s what I’m doing today.  If you need me, call me, and if I don’t respond, call again.

I don’t want to let you down.

Jim

Staying Long Enough

lonely-old-woman-windowGladys Hinson was a member of the search committee that called me to my first full-time ministry position.  She was a retired elementary school teacher who had a little trouble keeping her thoughts to herself.  When I was having lunch with the committee after preaching my trial sermon she blurted out, “Well, the rest of you can look all you want, but I’ve found my pastor!”

I loved her for that.

I also loved her for what she did when I got settled in my new job; she asked me to set aside some time when I could go with her to visit “her people.”

Her people turned out to be members of the church who were now living in nursing homes in the area.  She took me to three different places, and at each one she introduced me to elderly men and women who had once been actively involved in the life of the church.

The way my perception changed about each one was almost miraculous.

For example: when I walked into one room I saw an old woman sitting in a wheelchair, but as Gladys began to tell me about the way this woman had worked with the preschool choir, and how she had led our Vacation Bible School each year, and how she had once showed up at a costume party dressed as a sunflower (!), she became younger and stronger in my eyes.  And maybe it wasn’t only my perception.  As Gladys talked about her this woman sat up straighter in her wheelchair and began to beam until it was easy to see her as the “sunflower” she had once been.

And here’s what happened to me:

I stayed at that church nine years, and in those years some of the people who had been active and involved when I arrived moved on to the nursing home.  When I went to see them I didn’t need anyone to tell me about them—I knew!  And when Gladys herself moved into the nursing home I tried to be as faithful to her as she had been to “her people,” and tell anyone who would listen what a wonderful person she was.

This is what can happen when you stay at a church long enough: you can see vital, active members transition into a different stage of life.  And here’s another thing that can happen: you can stop burying church members and start burying friends.

I’ve been here more than eleven years now, and that’s how I feel after some of the recent deaths in our congregation, after having to say goodbye to friends like Alice, and Ruth, and Buddy, and Liz, and Bernard, and June, and Lee, and Anne, and John, and Bill.

It makes me sad.

The good news is that if you stay at a church long enough you get to baptize some of the children you dedicated as infants (I’ve done that).  You get to marry some of the children you’ve baptized (I’ve done that, too).  In other words, you get to be part of the full circle of life in the church.

You get to be part of the family.

Thank you for letting me into some of the most intimate spaces of your lives—birth, death, aging, and adolescence.  And thank God for those people like Gladys who “knew us when,” and who see us the way God sees us when nobody else can.

Jim