KOH2RVA: Day 357

2013-08-31 13.39.57This is my daughter, Catherine.

Yesterday I took her (and her luggage) to Dulles International Airport so she could fly to London and then on to Aberdeen, Scotland, where she will spend a year getting a Master’s degree in Anthropology.

There were some tender moments at the airport as we said goodbye, and even though she has traveled before and spent a semester abroad I couldn’t keep the lump from rising in my throat as I watched her walk away.

My little girl is growing up.

But this morning I’m turning my thoughts toward worship, which will include—at the 11:00 service—the baptism of Adam Trueman. Adam is a good-looking, good-natured red-haired kid I’m still getting to know, but today I have a special role in his life: I am the one who will dip him down beneath the waters of baptism in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

What an honor.

In some Christian traditions the members of a church call their minister “Father.” I’m not Adam’s father, but in some ways what I’m doing for him today feels fatherly. I have a feeling that just before I dip him down beneath the water I will feel a lump rise in my throat, as I often do in such moments.

This little boy is growing up.

One of the wonderful things about the church is discovering that family is bigger than the people we grew up with, that we have brothers and sisters all over the world.  It’s one of the reasons Catherine is making it a priority to find a church she can attend while she’s in Aberdeen.  She’s already visited the website of a church close to campus to find out when the Sunday service begins.  Who knows?  Maybe next Sunday she will walk up those front steps and a red-haired kid named Adam—a little brother with a Scottish accent—will run up and hug her around the knees.

I hope you will be able to join us for worship today, either in person or by tuning in to the live webcast at http://www.fbcrichmond.org at 8:30 or 11:00. It’s Labor Day weekend. Lots of people are traveling. Some to the other side of the ocean. But wherever you are and whoever you are you’d be welcome to join us.

We are, after all, family.

KOH2RVA: Day 345

baptism2For the second year in a row, conditions were not ideal for our annual river baptism. Last year a late afternoon thunderstorm rolled in about halfway through, bringing showers of rain, flashes of lightning, and claps of thunder. We had already decided that if that happened again Lynn Turner would blow a lifeguard’s whistle and order everybody out of the pool. But on Sunday morning a gentle rain was falling and I asked the congregation, “Are we going to let a little rain keep us from baptizing?”

Of course not.

So we went to the river, and by four o’clock in the afternoon that gentle rain had turned to a light drizzle, barely more than a mist. The photographer from the Washington Post who had called to ask if he could take pictures was there, looking things over, when I arrived. “You should get some good pictures today,” I said. “Very atmospheric.” He nodded hopefully. Photographers have to work with what they’ve got.

And so do churches.

On Sunday we had to work with water levels that were still a little high, a slippery footpath going down to the river, the late arrival of several participants who had been held up for one reason or another, and just enough drizzle to keep people under their umbrellas, looking at their watches, wondering how much longer until we got started.

At about 4:15 I took the microphone and welcomed a crowd that was as diverse as any I’ve ever seen. There were people of different colors, different nations, and different religions on the riverbank. What brought us together was our connection to those who were being baptized, and for some a curiosity about baptism itself.

I took some time to explain why we do it, how we follow in the footsteps of Jesus who was, himself, baptized in a river, and who later told his followers to go and make disciples in this way. I talked about baptism as a beautiful symbol of purification, rebirth, and resurrection. I was thinking about those people who had never been to a baptism before, people like that Washington Post photographer, perhaps, or the Muslim student who had come because of his friendship with one of the candidates.

Baptism is a powerful witness.

Eventually I said a prayer and stepped aside so Fred and Julie James could come to the microphone. They sang a beautiful folk duet about baptism with guitar accompaniment and a harmonica solo that was just right for the occasion.  And then Lynn Turner read the story of Jesus’ baptism from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 3. And then our auditioned chorus—One Accord—sang “Down to the River to Pray” in prayerful, soul-stirring harmony.

And then we went down to the river to baptize.

One by one the candidates came, beginning with Tammy Benjamin, who is blind, and had to be helped down the slippery path to the water. But once she got in she was completely at home, and completely at peace. When I asked her to profess her faith she said, “Jesus is Lord!” in a clear, strong voice that echoed across the water. And then Steve Blanchard and I dipped her down beneath the surface, brought her up again, and she took the first breath of her new life in Christ.

It was a holy moment.

And for each of the nineteen who followed her there was that same holy moment of going down into the water to be “buried with Christ by baptism into death,” as Paul says, “so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” There was Carter Bickford, who was cheerful as a cricket when he came skipping down the path; Ian James, who often struggles to keep his focus but who said “Jesus is Lord” at just the right time, with absolute conviction; Mike Jesensky, who was baptized as an infant, but who wanted to be immersed as a personal expression of his faith; the entire Jones family, who decided that they wanted to be baptized together; and finally Chequita Swopes, who gasped so loudly when she stepped into the chilly water that I laughed and hugged her close just to warm her up a bit.

There were others, of course—too many to mention to mention by name and each of their baptisms special in its own way—but I wanted to give you just a taste of the experience, just enough to whet your appetite, so that next year, when the weather is perfect, you will join us at the river. It’s an unforgettable experience, and one of those times when heaven comes to earth most obviously. On Sunday it was so obvious that if you turned your face to the sky you could almost feel heaven coming down,

Like a fine, gentle mist.

KOH2RVA Day 298: Hello, New Americans!

monticello-naturalizationI’m up early on this Independence Day, getting ready to drive to Charlottesville for a naturalization ceremony at Monticello. According to the website:

There is no more inspirational place to celebrate the Fourth of July than Monticello, the home of the author of the Declaration of Independence. Since 1963, more than 3,000 people from every corner of the globe have taken the oath of citizenship at the annual Monticello Independence Day Celebration and Naturalization Ceremony. It is the oldest continuous naturalization ceremony in the United States outside of a courtroom.

I wouldn’t have known about this ceremony were it not for my mother-in-law, Lu Treadwell, a retired history professor and a huge fan of Thomas Jefferson’s. But I probably wouldn’t have been as interested in going were it not for all those New Americans who have come through First Baptist Church in the last few years as part of a refugee resettlement program. I’ve met people from Bhutan, Iran, Nepal, and Afghanistan, who were trying to make a new life in this country, and who were getting help from people like FBC members Warren and Julie Pierce. Some of those New Americans are still with us at First Baptist.

Some of them have become new believers.

I love the picture of Kanchi Monger’s baptism on our website. There she is, this beautiful young Bhutanese woman who grew up in a refugee camp in Nepal, standing waist deep in the James, the most American of all rivers, holding on to the tiny gold cross around her neck as she prepares to be dipped under the water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s a picture of one of those moments when the Kingdom of God is just about to come to Richmond, Virginia, and a moment later…it did.

If the Apostle Paul had been standing on the bank to hand Kanchi a towel when she came up out of the river he might have said to her what he wrote in Galatians 5: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”

That’s a good thing to remember on this Independence Day.

KOH2RVA: Day 285

River Baptism

I got a call on Wednesday from a producer in New York who is working on a documentary film about faith—“the positive aspects of faith,” she said, suggesting by her tone of voice that there are some aspects of faith that are not so positive. She has in mind a very ambitious seven-part series, but the first part would be a two-hour documentary on “the birth of faith,” and that’s why she was talking to me.

She had found some pictures of First Baptist Richmond’s annual river baptism online and thought that it would be a wonderful way to talk about and think about the birth of faith. She was calling to find out more about it and, especially, to ask if I thought the church would be open to participating in the project.

She asked how the annual river baptism got started, and I surprised myself by saying, “Well, this town has a river running through it, a beautiful river” (in fact, Richmond was recently named the Number One River City in America by Outside magazine). “It seemed only natural to take advantage of that, and to do at least one baptism a year outdoors.”

She wanted to know about baptism itself. She had grown up Presbyterian, in Ohio. She knew about infant baptism followed by confirmation at a later age but she didn’t know about immersion. I told her I had grown up Presbyterian as well, but because my family moved around so much I had missed confirmation. And so, at the age of 14, I asked to be baptized, and a few weeks later my father—a Presbyterian minister—and a friend of his who was a Baptist minister dipped me down under the muddy waters of the Big Coal River in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I told her how the Apostle Paul seemed to think of baptism as a kind of death, burial, and resurrection; how the old “you” goes down into the water and “dies,” and a new you comes up (Romans 6:4-11). I told her that for some people it is the perfect symbol for leaving behind a life they’ve made a mess of and starting fresh.  I told her how the first breath they take when they come up out of the water is the first breath of their new life in Christ.

I must have done a good job because when I got finished she said, “That makes me want to get baptized!”

So, there may be a film crew at our annual river baptism on July 21. And there may be a producer who throws down her clipboard, rips off her headset, and wades out into the water. As you might have read on this blog a few days ago, baptism is one of those places where heaven comes closest to earth, and maybe that’s why we’re having a river baptism: because we’re trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia,

And this is one of the best ways we know to do it.

KOH2RVA: Day 280

Roberts BaptismI’m back from a week at the beach, where I was privileged to participate in my nephew Robert’s baptism. Robert is 19 years old, but he’s lived through a lot in his young life, including an automobile accident that could have killed him. I still shudder when I see pictures of the car. But that was a different time in his life, a time when he was doing some things he needed to leave behind.

Last Thursday night he did exactly that.

Before Robert (and my brother Gray and I) waded out into the water for his baptism I told the family that both Jesus and Paul talk about baptism. Paul talks about it as if it were a kind of death, in which the old person is buried in the waters of baptism and the new person is raised from the dead (Romans 6). Jesus talks about it as a kind of birth, where the one who is baptized is “born again” into a whole new life (John 3). But both Jesus and Paul talk about baptism as a symbol of transformation in which an old life is left behind and a new life begins.

Roberts Baptism afterThat’s been happening for Robert for months now. His life really is changing. His parents talk about it as a miracle. To participate in his baptism, and to witness that miracle first-hand, was an experience of heaven on earth. It didn’t hurt that we were on Kiawah Island, at sunset, on a lovely evening in June, but to wade out into the surf, and to dip Robert down into the ocean of God’s love, and to see the look on his face when he came up again, well…it was as if the sky opened up, and the Spirit came down, and a voice said, “This is my beloved son.”

And he is.

This morning I’m back in Richmond and looking forward to a great day at church and a great week of working to help bring heaven to earth right here, in this place where I live, this place that I love.

I hope you’ll join me.

KOH2RVA: Day 110

ChristmasPresents2In the 5:00 service on Christmas Eve I talked about the “season of giving” and questioned why we give what we give. Is it because we want to, or because we have to? I talked about the worst gift I ever gave (an ugly homemade hat for my brother Scott). I talked about how “generosity begets generosity.” I read The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. And then I said this:

I wonder if generosity will beget generosity in this season. I wonder if God’s gift of himself will inspire us to give. And I’m not just talking about money, although that figures in. Money is a symbol of what we value. We pay $20 for something because we think it’s worth $20. How much is God’s love worth to us? What will we give in return for the gift of his son?

I love Vicky Nicholau’s answer. She told me that last year she was in Hanna Zhu’s Sunday school class, where they studied the book, Christmas Is Not Your Birthday. It’s not, is it? It’s Jesus’ birthday. The more Vicky thought about that and the more she wondered what she could give Jesus at Christmas the answer became clear: she could give him herself.

Last summer she was baptized in the James River and this is what she said: that her baptism was a symbol of giving herself to Jesus. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise me then that of all the people I see working to bring heaven to earth on our year-long, every-member mission trip, Vicky seems to be the one who is doing it most joyfully. She seems to be giving herself away like that tree—apples, limbs, and trunk. And you get the feeling that if Jesus would come and sit down on her stump when she’s through giving herself away, she would be happy.

What about you? Will generosity beget generosity? Will God’s gift of himself inspire you to give yourself away? And will you give because you want to, or because you have to? There’s a difference, and the one who receives your gift will surely be able to tell.

December 25 is a couple of days behind us at this point, but it’s still not too late to give your gift to God.

Shall We Gather at the River? Maybe not.

It almost didn’t happen.

There were some who said it shouldn’t happen, who warned me, plainly, that when you hear the first distant boom of thunder at the public pool you have to get out for at least a half hour.

But this was no Sunday afternoon swim: this was the Fourth Annual River Baptism and there were twelve people lined up on the river bank ready to be “buried with Christ in a baptism like his” as Paul puts it.  That word, buried, seemed eerily appropriate as I waded out into the James River a little after five with the skies darkening to the west.  And just as the second hymn ended I heard it–the distant boom of thunder.

What’s a pastor to do?

There were those twelve candidates lined up on the river bank.  One of them had hugged me at church that morning and squealed, “Do you know what day this is?  It’s the day I get baptized!”  How could I disappoint her and the others who had waited so long for this day?  And what about Bill and Beverley Hundley, who had made their beautiful place on the river available to us and spent weeks getting everything ready, manicuring the lawn and even raking the river bed in preparation?  What about the members of the Baptism Team, who had brought robes for the candidates and helped them into makeshift changing booths and given them careful instructions about what to do and when to do it?  And what about those dozens, perhaps hundreds (Baptist preachers tend to estimate high), of family members and friends sitting and standing on the river bank expectantly, waiting for their loved ones to wade out into the water?  In the end I did the only thing that seemed reasonable at the time:

I ignored the thunder.

I motioned for Ralph Starling to assist me in the water.  He gulped hard and waded out.  And then the first candidate came, the one who had been so eager about her baptism day.  Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor hail was going to stop her from taking the plunge.  She came up out of the water triumphant, with a shout and a raised fist.  The others seemed just as determined, even when lightning flashed in the distance, even when the skies opened up briefly and the rain poured down.

“Welcome to the first mass baptism of 2012!” I shouted.  “Some of us are being immersed and others are being sprinkled!”  There was laughter from the riverbank and then the next candidate waded out, undaunted.

It was just after that shower that the skies cleared and the sun broke through the clouds.  When the last candidate had been baptized we sang “Amazing Grace” and Lynn Turner said a closing prayer.  People began to open up their picnic baskets and spread out their blankets and the evening was as soft and lovely as any you’ve ever seen.  I changed into some dry clothes and began to move among the crowd, meeting extended family members and friends, mooching food off of almost everybody, and breathing a huge sigh of relief that nobody had been struck by lightning at the Fourth Annual River Baptism.

On Tuesday morning our staff debriefed the event and agreed that next year we should definitely have a backup plan in case of inclement weather.  Definitely.  This year I’m just thanking God for watching over fools and children…

…and Baptist preachers.

Photo courtesy of Julie Adams-Buchanan’s Facebook page.  Thanks, Julie!