KOH2RVA: Day 91

ornamentAt yesterday’s Senior Adult Christmas Luncheon I told the story of the time my mother canceled Christmas. She had her reasons for doing so and, as I said to the Senior Adults, most of them were religious reasons. She had been suspicious of Christmas’s “pagan” roots for a long time, but then she found a passage in her King James Bible that seemed to be a prophetic word against the practice of putting up Christmas trees. It’s from Jeremiah 10, and it goes like this:

Thus saith the LORD,
Learn not the way of the heathen,
and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven;
for the heathen are dismayed at them.
For the customs of the people are vain:
for one cutteth a tree out of the forest,
the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.
They deck it with silver and with gold;
they fasten it with nails and with hammers,
that it move not (Jer. 10:2-4).

She gathered us together and read those words aloud, and then she looked up to see what we thought. We were astounded. It seemed perfectly clear that Jeremiah was talking about Christmas trees, and equally clear that we wouldn’t have one that year. But Mom went further than that: she announced that we wouldn’t be having Christmas at all that year, that she could no longer participate in such a heathen custom.

If you had been there yesterday to hear the rest of the story, you would have heard how my mom tried to turn our “pagan” celebration of Christmas into something pure and holy. How we had a big breakfast together on Christmas morning, heard the story of Jesus’ birth from the Gospel of Luke, and sang “Happy Birthday” to him when Mom brought out a surprise birthday cake. But you would have also heard how we couldn’t hide our disappointment, and how the next year my mom—who loved her boys almost as much as she loved Jesus—brought Christmas back.

“Yes, there was a year when my mom canceled Christmas,” I told the Senior Adults, “but please don’t hold it against her. She was, and is, a very religious woman, but she was also, in those days, very poor. I once saw her, standing near the cash register at Heck’s Discount Department store in Kanawha City, West Virginia, looking at the few dollars she held in her hand and wondering how she was going to make Christmas for all her boys out of that. She looked completely overwhelmed.

At Community Missions on Wednesday I told our homeless neighbors, “Christmas is better for some people than others. If you have a lot of money—if you can give and get expensive gifts—it’s pretty good. But if you don’t have money it’s hard: you can’t give what your heart wants to give. And that’s why I love the story of that first Christmas so much. The angel came to shepherds, who were the poorest, dirtiest, smelliest people in all of Bethlehem, and said to them, ‘Hey, I’ve got good news, and it’s for you! Today in the City of David, a savior has been born: Christ the Lord. And it’s not just good news for some of the people, the ones with money, but for all of the people, including you.’”

The people at Community Missions that morning seemed to appreciate that—cold, tired, and wet as they were, having just come in out of the rain. One of the ways we can bring heaven to earth in this season is to share the good news of Jesus’ birth, and to remind people that God’s salvation is for everyone. But we can also do this: we can stuff stockings and provide gifts for mothers to give to their children, mothers who may only have a handful of dollars and who may be on the verge of canceling Christmas themselves, not for religious reasons but for practical ones.

In a previous post I shared some of the many ways First Baptist Church is doing that through its ministry of compassion. Take another look at that list by clicking HERE, and see if you can help. It’s another way of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, and it may be your way.

A Prayer for Your Wedding Night

I have one of those big study Bibles that includes the Apocrypha, although we Baptists don’t read that part of the Bible very often.  It’s more of a Catholic thing, since Catholics include those books in the canon of Holy Scripture.  Us?  If we look at them at all it’s often only to marvel at the strange things you can find in there (not that there aren’t a lot of strange things in the 66 books we include in our canon.  Just take a look at Ezekiel sometime).  But since I probably bought the big study Bible to impress people, and since it looks more impressive with the added bulk of the Apocrypha, well…there it is.

But this morning when I was finishing up my devotional reading I thumbed through that part of the book, and stumbled on this interesting wedding night prayer.  It’s from the Book of Tobit, chapter 8, verses 4b-7, and it’s offered in unusual circumstances. Tobias wants to marry this girl named Sarah, see?  She is “sensible, brave, and very beautiful.”  There’s only one problem: she has married seven men and each of them died in the bridal chamber.  Things don’t look good for Tobit.  But he asks for her hand anyway, brave lad that he is, and when he goes into the bridal chamber he puts the heart and liver of a fish on the glowing embers of the incense in the room.  It gives off such a stink that it drives the evil spirit (the one that was killing all of Sarah’s husbands) to the remotest parts of Egypt, but Tobias’ guardian angel–Raphael–follows and binds the demon hand and foot, just so it won’t do any more mischief.

Now, you would think that this would be the end of it, but Tobias isn’t taking any chances.  Before he gets into bed with his new bride, Sarah, he invites her to join him in prayer.  I’ve printed the prayer below, and I think it’s one of those things every couple could pray on their wedding night, and maybe should, just to keep the evil spirits away (wink). 

Tobias began by saying:
‘Blessed are you, O God of our ancestors,
   and blessed is your name in all generations for ever.
Let the heavens and the whole creation bless you for ever.
You made Adam, and for him you made his wife Eve
   as a helper and support.
   From the two of them the human race has sprung.
You said, “It is not good that the man should be alone;
   let us make a helper for him like himself.”
I now am taking this kinswoman of mine,
   not because of lust,
   but with sincerity.
Grant that she and I may find mercy
   and that we may grow old together.’
And they both said, ‘Amen, Amen.’
Then they went to sleep for the night.

And when they woke up the next morning, they were both still alive.  How’s that for the power of prayer?

Jingle Bell Angel

angelAt staff meeting this week Mary Hiteman was telling us about “Dress-Up-Like-a-Biblical-Character-Day” at our preschool. 

All the children had come in costume, some more imaginative than others.  For example: there were a dozen or so “Marys,” lots of shepherds, four Noahs, and one Jonah (who carried a small, blue whale).  The most imaginative costume, according to Mary, was the one worn by Menley Blanchard, who came to preschool holding hands with her mother Susan, each of them wearing half of a large, red “C.”  When Mary seemed puzzled Susan and Menley stepped apart and Susan said, “Get it?  The parting of the Red ‘C’!”

But my favorite was the little boy who came in an Angels’ baseball uniform.  Instead of the Los Angeles Angels, however, this little fellow was one of “God’s Angels,” Gabriel to be precise, as the name on the back of the uniform clearly indicated.  He was wearing wings and a baseball cap with a halo attached, but on the front of his jersey were the words “Do not fear!” (which is what angels always say), and on each of his shoes there was a small jingle bell, to let others know he was coming, so that they would not be afraid. 

I love that, and I think some of those biblical characters would have loved it, too.  Zechariah, for example, who was “terrified” when Gabriel surprised him in the temple.  Mary, for example, who must have been startled almost out of her wits when Gabriel dropped in to tell her she was going to have a baby.  Those shepherds, for example, who were “sore afraid” when an angel sneaked up on them while they were watching their flocks by night. 

There is a reason angels always say “Do not fear.”  It’s not only because they show up suddenly and unexpectedly, often in the middle of the night.  It’s because they know that fear is the thing most likely to keep us from doing the will of God.  I’m going to try to remember that the next time I hear jingle bells.  I’m going to try to think not so much of Santa and his reindeer as Gabriel in a baseball cap reminding us not to be afraid.  Because if God’s will is ever going to be done on earth as it is in heaven…

…it’s going to require some fearlessness.

Smooched by an Angel

first-kiss-adolphe-william-bouguereau-5236The Fourth Sunday of Advent was a full day at Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  It started for me at the early service (which is not “dress rehearsal” for the 11:00 service, as some have implied, but a wonderfully intimate worship experience, precious to many, especially in a big church like this one).  Imagine my surprise and delight when the choir sang a Mendelssohn piece, at full volume, before nine o’clock in the morning (not every choir can pull that off!).   That was followed by a few quiet moments in my study, enjoying the coffee, pastry, cheese, and fruit Dot Smith lays out for me on a silver tray each Sunday (please don’t be jealous; she considers it a ministry, and I’m sure my preaching has improved as a result).  And then there was a knock at the door—Joyce Chrisman, my secretary—asking me if I was on my way to the Pusey House to visit the Traveler’s Class. 

“Um, am I supposed to be?”

Apparently I was.  I gulped the last of my coffee and hurried out the door, across the street, and into the Pusey House with seconds to spare.  I was intoduced to the class and as we talked about the curriculum they had been using I began to share some of my own thoughts on Bible study, which led into a discussion of the lectionary, and eventually a summary of my views on the mission and purpose of the church.  When I finally looked at my watch I saw that I was late for my 10:30 appointment in the sanctuary, meeting the families and the babies who would be dedicated at the 11:00 service.

They were precious, those babies—two healthy boys named Andrew and Jake whom I presented to the congregation and prayed over.  And although it was only my second dedication at First Baptist Church I managed not to drop anyone (whew!).  I also managed to get through the sermon on live television before we cut to commercial, which is no small feat.  You may not know this but when we’re broadcasting live I’m never entirely sure how much time I will have to preach.  I know when I need to be finished but I don’t know when I will get to start.  So I have to stretch or shrink the sermon to fit the available space.  At the early service I had plenty of time, but because of the baby dedication I had to shave about five minutes off the sermon at the second service.  For those of you who were paying attention that’s why there was no prayer at the end of the sermon on Sunday, and why the invitation was cut down to something like, “Please-stand-as-we-sing-Hymn-77-and-respond-as-you-feel-led.”  But I did it.  I finished before the red light went off, and I could almost hear the sigh of relief from the control room.

But that’s not really what I want to talk about. 

You may remember that I went to the International Friendship Luncheon a few months ago and had a wonderful time, and you may remember that I mentioned a tiny girl from Bangladesh named Dighi who likes to be called “Doctor Pinky.”  Well, we had another friendship luncheon on Sunday, and Dighi was at this one, too.  When we started to sing Christmas carols I invited her to sit with me in one of the big wingback chairs there at the Pusey House.  She did, and did her best to sing along with every carol even though she was holding her song sheet upside down (well, she’s two-and-a-half!).  But when the luncheon was over and it was time to go Dighi came over to give me a hug.  How could I resist?  She’s about two feet tall with glossy black curls and beautiful brown eyes.  I bent down from the chair I was sitting in and she reached up to put her arms around my neck.  It was sweet.  She started to walk away but then turned around and came back.  I thought she was coming in for another hug, but instead she puckered up and kissed me right on the lips.

Well! 

I think I was still blushing when I went to a meeting of the Permanent Planning Team at 3:00, which finished up just a little before the youth Christmas pageant at 6:00.  The youth did a magnificent job, acting and singing their way through ‘It’s a Wonderful Birth” (Todd Ritter’s creative adaptation of the holiday classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life”), but by the time I went home from the reception I realized I had been at First Baptist for more than twelve hours.  It was a full day, as I said: a day when I was thrilled by worship, touched by a pageant, and smooched by an angel.

You just never know what will happen at church.