Have We Given Up on Jesus?

Icon_second_comingWhy is Christmas so overblown?

Maybe it’s because we’ve given up on the Second Coming of Christ.

I hadn’t thought about that before yesterday, but as I was looking at all the references to the Second Coming in the New Testament (some 57 of them) I was reminded of those funeral services I’ve been to where people want to “celebrate the life” of the deceased rather than “mourn the death.” They want to focus on the positive, that is, and so they focus on all the happy memories of a well-lived life.

That’s not a bad thing to do, but we Christians believe in the resurrection of the body. We believe that death is not the end of life, but in so many ways only the beginning. The old preachers had a way of pointing us forward—toward that hope—and not only back.

I think the old preachers used to do that with the Second Coming, too (and I mean the really old preachers, like Paul, and Peter, and some of those others whose writings ended up in the New Testament). Some of them were so excited about the return of Christ that they didn’t spend much time “celebrating his life.”

They just kept watching the skies.

But that was 2,000 years ago, when it was a little easier to believe that “this Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Now we are almost embarrassed to mention it.  It’s been too long.  Surely, if he were coming, he would have come by now.  And so, instead of looking forward to the Second Coming, we look back to the first one, and celebrate it as if it were all we would ever have.

Have we given up on Jesus?  Do we no longer believe that one of these days he will come back, and the Kingdom of this world will become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ and he shall reign forever and ever (Hallelujah!  Hallelujah!)?  Is that why we go crazy at Christmas, and rush around buying presents for each other?  Is that why we crank up the Christmas carols and talk about Santa Claus coming to town?

I preached at First African Baptist Church yesterday and ended with a true story about a P.O.W. who came home after seven years in a North Vietnamese prison camp to find his wife waiting for him.  Although friends and relatives had suggested that he might never come back, and that she probably ought to move on with her life, she had never given up.  He had told her he would come home and she believed him.

She was there waiting for him when he got off the plane.

He said later that she wasn’t the same girl he married; she was no longer a blushing teenage bride.  In the time he had been away she had become a strong, confident, capable woman.

She’d had to.

New Testament scholar Hans Conzelmann used to say that this period between Christ’s ascension and his return is “the Church’s time.”  It’s our time to fulfill the commission Christ gave us, and to do everything in our power to bring heaven to earth.  But Jesus himself said he was going to come back some day.  When he does I hope he will find what that prisoner of war found:

1. That his bride has waited for him, and,
2. That she has become strong, confident, and capable.

KOH2RVA: Day 99

pink candleToday was the Third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Joy.

A group of International students from VCU had been invited to light the Advent candle. They processed slowly down the aisle as the Youth Girls’ Ensemble sang. They mounted the steps and gathered around the Advent wreath. They held the lit taper to the pink candle and we all watched and waited for the wick to catch flame.

It didn’t happen.

I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so much suspense in church. I kept watching, willing the wick to catch. The student who was holding the taper seemed to have it in just the right place, but even so another student reached up to help. They adjusted the flame, moved it ever so slightly back and forth, but no matter what they did they couldn’t seem to get it to work. Finally, the song ended, and they had to step down from the chancel, the pink candle still unlit.

It seemed shockingly symbolic, that on a day when most of us were still grieving over the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the candle of joy wouldn’t stay lit, almost as if God himself were saying, “How can the flame of joy dance on its wick on a day like this?”

Maybe those students didn’t fail. Maybe they lit the candle over and over again and God kept snuffing it out, whispering, “No, not today.”

You can’t really schedule joy, and unfortunately you can’t really schedule grief. It comes when it comes. And it came today:

The Third Sunday of Advent.

KOH2RVA: Day 86

hands on barsYesterday was a great day at Richmond’s First Baptist Church. Attendance was up, giving was up, the “mood” was up (even though I preached a sermon called “The End of the World as We Know It”), and last night’s Hanging of the Green service was a joyful example of what Pastor Emeritus Jim Flamming later called “organized chaos.”

But that’s not what I want to talk about:

Last week I was writing about the Richmond Jail and what First Baptist Church could do to bring a little heaven to earth there, where it is so badly needed. I said that jail ministry isn’t for everyone, and a few days later I was reminded why.

Someone who had read my blog asked if I could visit a friend in jail. I said yes, of course; it felt like an answer to my prayer of wanting to get more involved. But a few hours later there I was, asking for permission at the front desk to visit someone I had never met before.

It made a difference that I was a pastor. If I had only been a friend or a family member I probably would have had to schedule an appointment first. But I gave them my name and title and told them I had come to visit and a few minutes later I was buzzed in through the heavy steel doors. I took a seat on my side of the bulletproof glass and waited for the person I was visiting to arrive.

I can’t tell you why he’d been locked up. I can only tell you that he was pretty sure he was going to be locked up for a long, long time. He has small children at home, and he was afraid that by the time he got out they would be grown and gone. He was afraid he wasn’t going to be much good to anybody—not his children, not his wife. He said he didn’t see much reason to go on living.

I asked, “Are you thinking about suicide?”

He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Let me tell you why that’s a bad idea,” and even as I said it I hoped that God would fill in the blank with a good answer. This is what came to my mind: I said, “One thing most fathers don’t give their children enough of is time, but you are going to have nothing but time. You can use that time to write letters to your children, to pray for them, to call them on the phone, to make videos for them. You can be present in their lives even if you are absent physically, and you can be more present than a lot of fathers are.”

And then I was inspired to say this:

“They can lock you up, but they can’t lock up your love. It can go through concrete walls, bulletproof glass, and tempered steel to get to your family, just as God’s love can go through concrete walls, bulletproof glass, and tempered steel to get to you.” It was one of those moments when I thought, “Where did that come from?” because it sounded so much better than anything I could have thought of myself. I have to give credit to the Holy Spirit.  I could tell that it made an impact, that he was thinking those things through and considering the truth of them. In the end I prayed with him, gave him my name and number, and walked out through those heavy steel doors, hearing them clang shut behind me.

“I was in prison,” Jesus said, “and you visited me.” But I couldn’t help thinking about all those others inside who didn’t get a visit that day. What about them? Who will give them a reason to live? I have a feeling that even when we get to the end of this year-long, every-member mission trip called KOH2RVA we are going to discover that…

Our work is just beginning.

The Girl from Kissimmee

I can still remember my first real date.  It was with this girl I met at summer camp.  She had been visiting a cousin in Charleston,West Virginia, but she was from a place called Kissimmee, Florida.  The first time she said it it sounded like an invitation.  “Where are you from?” I asked, and she said, “Florida.”  “Where in Florida?” I asked, and she said, “Kissimmee,” in a way that made it sound just like “Kiss me.”

I wanted to.  I really did.  But she was so young and I was so shy I just blushed and thought, “Maybe another time.”

So, when she wrote to me the next year and said she was coming back to visit her cousin I asked her if she’d like to go out.  She said she would, which created a whole new set of challenges.  I had just gotten my driver’s license a few months before and the only car we had that was nearly nice enough to take a girl out in was this old Fiat station wagon someone had given us.  At one time it had been a nice, bright red, but years of sitting out in the sun had dulled it to a red that was almost the color of rust.  Or maybe it was rust.  Either way, I spent most of a summer day washing that car and waxing it until that rusty red paint job was shining bright.  I got out the vacuum cleaner and an extension cord and sucked up all the dirt off the floorboards, I wiped down all the interior surfaces and washed the windows, and then I took a needle and a piece of brown thread and sewed up a rip in the driver’s seat until you could hardly see it at all. 

And then I cleaned myself up and dressed in my best blue jeans and got in that car and drove all the way to Charleston—an hour away—to see that girl. 

I’m pretty sure that engine had four cylinders in it, but on the way to Charleston I became convinced that only three of them were working, and if I got above 45 miles an hour that little car vibrated so badly I thought I would lose the fillings in my teeth.  I had trouble finding that girl’s house in those days before GPS’s were invented, and when I brought her out to the car all she said was, “It sure is little.” 

That didn’t sound like a compliment. 

I took her out to dinner where we quickly discovered that we didn’t have much in common and mostly ended up staring at our plates.  I brought her back home and can’t even remember if I tried to steal a kiss before I came around to her side of the car to let her out.  It wasn’t all that I had imagined.  It wasn’t even close.  But look what that girl had done to me!  How the very thought of seeing her again had kept me working all day to turn the sow’s ear of that old Fiat station wagon into a silk purse. 

That story came to mind in this season of Advent and made me think that if I would do all that for some girl I hardly knew, how much more should I be willing to get myself shined up and ready for the coming of Christ?

The Sound of Falling Snow

tree_snowing_800Yesterday was my daughter Ellie’s 21st birthday.  Hard to believe she’s been in the world that long!  In honor of the occasion I dug up a story that I wrote about her when she was four years old, when we went to visit her grandparents in the mountains of Western North Carolina.  It goes like this:

It had been a rough night.

We were staying at my parents’ house near Asheville and the girls were having trouble sleeping in unfamiliar beds.  It took a long time to get Ellie down and when I got to my room I found Catherine, my youngest daughter, snuggled up beside Christy with her head on my pillow.  I tried for several hours to sleep on the six-inch strip of mattress she had left to me, but finally staggered back to Ellie’s room and crawled in beside her.

At 5:30 the next morning she called my name.



“I think I hear snow falling.”

And slowly i came to, and more slowly still I found myself glad again for children, for their innocence and imagination.  Only a child would lie awake listening for a sound that can’t be heard—snowfall, or the hooves of reindeer on the roof.  Think how much more sleep we would get, and how much more life we would miss, if it weren’t for them!  I reached for Ellie’s hand, and together we lay in the darkness, straining our ears for the imperceptible sound of falling snow.

It was much later in the day that I thought how much Christmas is just like that.  In all the noise of this season those of us who believe hold hands and strain to hear the sound of Incarnation.  Above the roar of jingle bells, office Christmas parties, and the unwrapping of gifts we listen for the imperceptible hush of God breathing through human nostrils.

And some of us would swear that we hear it.

Advent for the Liturgically Challenged

advent-candle11I can still remember the First Sunday of Advent, 1996. 


One of our church families came forward and gathered around the wreath to light the first candle of the season.  A litany was read from the pulpit, and then the oldest son (who must have been about twelve at the time) struck one of those big, wooden kitchen matches and lit the candle of Hope.  Afterwards, he held the match up to his lips and blew it out, blowing out the flame of the candle at the same time.  The congregation gasped.  There was an awkward pause before he realized his mistake and corrected it by striking another match and lighting the candle again, and then blowing out the match—and the candle—again.  This time, the congregation laughed out loud.  What else could we do?


We Baptists aren’t all that good at liturgy.  On the First Sunday of Advent, 2006, at First Baptist, Washington (“a church of Baptist tradition and ecumenical perspective”), I handed a brass taper to a new member who comes from the Anglican church and asked him if he knew how to handle one of those things.  A taper, as you probably already know, is the proper name for one of those fancy candle-lighting thingamajigs.  “Oh, yes,” he said with a smile.  And then I asked if he would be interested in serving as a “candle consultant” (remembering the near-disaster of All Saints’ Sunday a few weeks before when we had tried to light candles for all those we had loved and lost and nearly lost a few more in the process). 


Baptists are not all that good at liturgy, but one of the reasons First Baptist, DC, tried to cultivate an “ecumenical perspective” is that there is much to be learned from the larger household of our faith. 


This matter of observing the seasons of the Christian year, for example, holds the promise of making every worship experience richer.  At First Baptist, Richmond, we wait with breathless anticipation for the coming of Christ in Advent; we walk with him, trembling, toward the cross in the season of Lent; we crash cymbals and sound horns in celebration of his resurrection at Easter.  Along with those broad themes are the colors and sounds and smells of the seasons.  Advent begins in darkness, with the flame of Hope sputtering on its charred wick.  We sing our hymns in minor keys.  We drape the church in purple.  But as the other candles are lit in the weeks that follow—peace, and joy, and love—the sense of expectancy is heightened, and when the Christ candle is lit on Christmas Eve, the mood shifts suddenly and dramatically.  The church is filled with light.  Deep purple is replaced by brilliant white and gold.  The minor key modulates into the major and suddenly it is nothing but joy to the world, the Lord is come!


Hope to see you in church this Sunday.

The Best “Hanging of the Green” Service Ever

30wreath1Lately I’ve been thinking about how the church will have to change to reach a world that seems less and less interested in churchgoing.  That’s part of my job as a pastor, to look down the road a few years, especially if I’m sitting in the driver’s seat: I don’t want to steer the church in the wrong direction.  But I also don’t want to miss the party that’s going on in the back seat.

Last Sunday, for example.

For years Richmond’s First Baptist Church has been celebrating the First Sunday of Advent with an evening service called “The Hanging of the Green” (notice that it’s not “Hanging of the Greens.”  That what we used to call it, apparently, but the Green family was offended and threatened to leave the church if we tried to hang even one of them.  So we started calling it “Hanging of the Green” instead).  I hadn’t been to this service before, not here, and wondered about these cryptic emails that started showing up in my inbox with references to the “H.O.G.” 

But on Sunday evening everybody seemed to know what to expect.  The church was packed, with children, youth, parents, and grandparents filling up the sanctuary and spilling over the balcony.  We opened the sanctuary doors and someone rang the big bell in the courtyard as a call to Advent.  Candi Brown welcomed us to worship and Becky Payne played a beautiful organ prelude.

It was sometime during the singing of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” that things started to come undone.  The youth were hanging fresh pine garland and wreaths around the balcony railing when one of the wreaths slipped off its hook and crashed onto three or four hymn singers below.  No one was injured, and they were all good natured about it, but it was the first of several mishaps that night.

Someone stepped on the power cord that supplied the huge, bass speaker the deaf choir depends on to feel the beat of the song they were supposed to sign (that’s not a typo: the deaf choir doesn’t sing, it signs).  As a result they weren’t sure when to start signing, or when to stop signing, and simply had to do their very best to follow the uncertain lead of their leader, who was feeling the loss of that big, bass speaker.  I think they were all a little embarrassed, but the congregation gave them an enthusiastic ovation, putting their hands in the air and waving wildly to signify loud applause.

And then Matthew Brown stepped to the pulpit to tell us he was not Rick Whittington.  Rick and his family were supposed to light the Advent candle but they were not feeling well and therefore not able to come to church even though their names were in the bulletin.  Matthew gladly offered to fill in but somehow the word didn’t get to his family, so as he stood there he invited them to come forward and join him at the wreath, only…no one came.  He asked again, and again, and finally he said, “Are any of you here?”  That’s when his four-year-old son Jonathan stepped into the aisle and said, “Daddy, I’m right here!” in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear.

And we all laughed out loud.  Why wouldn’t we?  Wreaths were falling, equipment was malfunctioning, and whole families were failing to report for candle duty, but the First Baptist family let out a belly laugh that let everyone know it was OK—OK to be human, OK to make a few mistakes, OK not to be perfect—we were all God’s children in that moment and it was all perfectly OK with Him.

Later I heard someone describe the service as a “comedy of errors,” and in a way it was, but in another way it was a celebration of humanity in all its awkward, adorable imperfection.  I sat there for the rest of the service with a smile on my face, shaking my head and thinking,

“It’s no wonder God loves the world so much.”