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 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.

Birth is Like Death is Like Birth

What happens when you pray for someone to be healed of cancer and they die anyway?

That’s what we were asking at Anna Reinstein’s funeral on Tuesday.  Anna was only 51 years old, a beautiful young mother with children still at home.  She had a rock-solid faith, she had hundreds of people praying for her, and they were praying to a good and loving God.  At least that’s what we thought.  On Tuesday afternoon I stood before a sanctuary full of mourners and said:

“But here we are at her funeral, and even though nobody wants to say it out loud we’re thinking that Anna lost her fight, that we must have failed her in some way, and that God himself has let her down.  It’s not wrong to want to be healed of cancer.  It’s not wrong to do everything you can toward that end.  What’s wrong, I think, is to believe that if your cancer goes into remission you’ve won and that if it doesn’t you’ve lost.  What’s wrong is to come to a moment like this one feeling a little embarrassed for all that faith and optimism you once had, for all those slogans you posted around the house.  What’s wrong is to believe not only that your prayers failed, but that God failed, or that for whatever reason he could not or would not heal Anna. 

“When that happens you sometimes start to re-define your understanding of God.  You begin to think maybe God is not all-powerful, maybe he is not all-loving.  Why didn’t he heal a woman like this?  But what if, instead of re-defining your understanding of God you re-defined your understanding of death?  What if death is not the enemy we sometimes think it is, and what if succumbing to it is not the same as “losing”? 

“I think about my daughter Ellie, who used to fight against sleep when she was a little girl.  She never wanted to go to bed; she was always afraid she might miss something.  And so I would have to hold her sideways in my arms and rock her back and forth to put her to sleep.  She would fight against it, so that I had to keep a firm grip on her, but finally I would feel her little body relax and eventually she would fall asleep, and I would put her to bed.  She always seemed to be a little surprised when she woke up the next morning, rested and refreshed, a little surprised to find that the sun had come up after all, and that her dad was sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee while her mom made pancakes.

“If we could see death from God’s perspective we might see that it’s like falling asleep at night, we might not fight against it so hard, we might believe that we would—in fact—wake up the next morning.  But for me the most helpful analogy has been the one I heard from John Claypool who said that, “from the womb’s perspective, birth is like death.”  I hadn’t really thought of that before, but when a child is born that womb that was so full of life only moments before is suddenly dark and empty, and if a womb could grieve, it would grieve the loss of that child.  But the child isn’t grieving: the child has been born into a world full of light and sound and love.  And even though it’s a little frightening at first I don’t know of any child who—after getting used to the world—wants to go back to the womb. 

“The world is a good place to be and we know it.  With all its problems and imperfections it is still the best place we have ever been.  It’s the place where our friends and family are, the place where we have experienced all the life we have ever known.  We hold on with both hands, terrified of losing our grip.

“But suppose this world is only the womb in which we are made ready for our everlasting life?  And suppose the world into which Anna Reinstein has been born is as different from this world as this world is from the womb?  It’s been traumatic, but that’s just how birth is.  It’s hard, sweaty labor, and if you ask any woman who has given birth she will tell you that it hurts.  It is a bloody, messy business, and at the end of it someone almost always cries.  But it’s not the end.  It’s the beginning of a whole new life.  Suppose that death is just like that: hard, sweaty labor, full of pain.  Suppose that it’s a bloody, messy business, and that at the end of it someone almost always cries.  But suppose that it’s not the end after all, but only the beginning of a whole new life.   

“When the apostle Paul talks about what it is like to enter into life with God he uses the analogy of death and resurrection.  He says that “we have been buried with Christ by baptism into death, 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” (Rom. 6:4).  But Jesus has a different perspective than Paul.  He has an eternal perspective.  He can see things from the other side.  And when Jesus talks about what it’s like to enter into life with God he uses the analogy of birth.  He tells Nicodemus that “no one can enter the Kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3: 3, 5).

“Suppose that’s what’s happened for Anna: suppose she’s been born into the Kingdom of God.  And suppose that we have gathered today not to mourn her death, but to celebrate that birth.  It’s been hard, painful, messy, and at the end of it here we are, crying.  But it’s not the end, not for Anna.  Not at all.  She has been delivered.  She is surrounded by the bright light of heaven.  And she is feeling more love than she has ever felt, even when her mother first held her in her arms.

“It’s the beginning of a whole new life.”