KOH2RVA: Day 330

soccer campI didn’t blog yesterday, but it’s not because I didn’t want to: it’s because I forgot.

I got up at five o’ clock for a day that didn’t end until ten, with less than an hour in the afternoon to come home and change clothes. I’m not complaining. It was a wonderful day. But I am explaining how Richmond’s premiere KOH2RVA blogger might have forgotten to bring you up to date on the mission.

So, where were we?

Yesterday we were at Day 329. Today we are at Day 330. Which means that in just over a month this year-long, every-member mission trip will have come to its end. What I learned at church yesterday is that there are things going on I didn’t even know about and there are members who are still looking for a way to get off the bus.

For example: I didn’t know that Buddy Burgess, who heads up the ministry of recreation at First Baptist, had conducted a week-long soccer camp at Essex Village in which 25 children had participated. I must have been on vacation that week. But I heard Ralph Starling mention it during worship yesterday and when I closed my eyes I could almost see those children laughing and learning as Buddy worked with them patiently and came back to do it again every day that week. If he had done it in Sri Lanka it might have been on the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, but he did it at Essex Village—one of the most neglected neighborhoods in our city—and because he did not many people knew about it. Even his pastor found out after the fact. But those 25 children will never forget it and for them, I’m sure, heaven came a little closer to earth.

I also overheard someone whispering about a church member who hasn’t found her way to “get off the bus” yet, by which I mean she hasn’t found a way to participate in this year-long, every-member mission trip (emphasis on every). That didn’t surprise me; what surprised me was the expectation that she would, as if it were simply understood that that’s what you do at Richmond’s First Baptist Church—you get off the bus! The person who was whispering to her friend wasn’t doing it in a gossipy way; they were putting their heads together, wondering what they could do to help this woman before it’s too late, before this mission trip comes to an end and everybody else gets back on the bus—tired and happy—only to find their friend hiding in the back.

To learn that good things have been going on while you were away, and that a culture has been created in which everyone is expected to be on mission, well…that makes a pastor’s heart sing, even at the end of a very long day.

Today is a new day.  It’s day 330.

What will you do to bring heaven to earth?

KOH2RVA: Day 288

TFH2Today is the first day of Vacation Bible School at Richmond’s First Baptist Church, and it’s bringing back some memories.

I remember going to VBS when I was a little boy. I remember hearing Bible stories, and going on nature walks, and eating those cookies with the hole in the middle so you could put one on your finger and nibble all the way around. I remember cutting construction paper with blunt-nosed safety scissors and the smell of Elmer’s glue. I remember singing “This Is My Father’s World.”

I loved it.

Years later, when I became the pastor of a little church in Kentucky, I found that VBS was a community affair: our church would host Bible school and the kids from the other two churches in town would come, and then they would host Bible school and our kids would go there. You’d see the same kids at every Bible school in town.

At the church I served in North Carolina we began to make an intentional effort to reach out to the kids at a nearby trailer park and that was harder. Those kids didn’t know how to behave at Bible school. They didn’t understand the rules. But we believed that the Jesus we were talking about would want those kids to be there, and so we kept taking the church van over there, picking them up, and bringing them to church.

At First Baptist, Richmond, we seem to have had that tradition for years—opening up our Bible school to anyone who wanted to come and going to get some of those kids who needed to be there. But this year is a little different. This year, because we are trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, we have invited some people from Waxahachie, Texas, to help us. Does that make sense?

Well, if you know the whole story, it does.

These are people from Park Meadows Baptist Church, and for years they’ve been going to Helena, Arkansas, in the summer to help out with a mission project called “Together for Hope.”* Well, so has First Baptist, Richmond. These two churches have worked side by side to help kids in one of the poorest counties in America, and over the years a friendship has developed. So, when FBC member Cari DuVal learned that a staff member from Park Meadows had written the very popular VBS curriculum called “Camp,” and that he had written a new curriculum called “Camp II,” she decided our friends from Waxahachie needed to come to Richmond and help us put it on.

But here’s the KOH2RVA twist: after putting on “Camp II” at First Baptist Church each morning, the VBS team is going over to Essex Village Apartments and do it there. I’ve written about Essex Village before: 544 kids, most of them living in single-parent homes. Don’t you know that having “Camp” come to them is going to be the best thing that happens all summer?

It’s not only “Camp” that will come to them; it’s the love of Jesus, shared by those missionaries from Waxahachie and those missionaries from Richmond. If those kids at Essex Village have a real experience of it—if they see it in the smiles, and hear it in the stories, and feel it in the hugs—they will want more and more. Maybe this will be the week when some of them start down a path that leads to life abundant, overflowing, and everlasting, and years from now they will be able to say,

“It all started at Bible School.”

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*Launched in 2001 by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Together for Hope (TFH) is a long-term commitment to working with people in 20 of the nation’s poorest counties in order to affect change and break the cycle of economic disparity. The ministry is about establishing long-term relationships, listening, learning, and walking alongside local leaders. The hope is that communities will be transformed as will the churches and individuals who serve in focal counties.

KOH2RVA: Day 263

AlkulanaSometimes the best way to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, is to get out of town. At least, that was the thinking of a few bold women who started “a little camp for city kids” nearly a hundred years ago.

Last night Beth Reddish Wright told us the story of Camp Alkulana, a year round mission of the Richmond Baptist Association with a targeted summer ministry to inner city children. Here’s what the web site says:

The camp has been in continuous operation since it began in 1915. The kerosene lanterns, which shone from the windows of the first cottage, appeared as bright eyes shining through the forest. Thus, the Indian word, “Alkulana,” meaning “bright eyes” became the official camp name.

Camp Alkulana is located in Millboro Springs, Va, deep in the Alleghenies. The proximity of the camp to the George Washington National Forest provides it with boundless space and endless program resources. Some of the activities offered during the summer are hiking, cave exploring, camping out, cooking out, rock climbing, rappelling, ropes course, swimming, crafts, Bible study and worship.

Though the camp is in Millboro Springs, we consider our ministry in Richmond because we serve the children and youth of Central Virginia. Throughout the year in Alkulana offers ongoing supports in Richmond to its campers through large group gatherings, a mentoring program for older campers, and a targeted leadership program for its junior counselors.

Camp Alkulana’s Mission is to reveal God’s love to low-income and at-risk children and youth of Central Virginia so that they might realize the intrinsic value in themselves and others.

Beth told us the story of a girl named Jo-Jo who was afraid to join the other campers in jumping off a rock into the river. The rock was high, and when she looked down she thought, “Uh-uh. I like my life, and I love to live.” She was scared. But everybody else was jumping and splashing into the water and coming up laughing. Finally her counselor yelled, “Scary things make good memories!” And so she did it; she jumped.

It was so much fun she did it all afternoon. And later? She remembered what her counselor said: “Scary things make good memories.”

Maybe we should say it like this: some kinds of scary things make good memories. Jo-Jo was from Gilpin Court, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Richmond. Drug deals go down in that neighborhood all the time. People sometimes get shot and killed. But for a little while last summer she got away from all that. She went to a place where she could see the beauty of God’s creation all around her, where people were kind to her and shared the love of Christ with her, and where the only scary thing was the idea of jumping off a rock into the river. I can almost picture her asking: “Is this heaven?” and I can almost hear someone answering,

“No, it’s Camp Alkulana.”

Every year at First Baptist we take up a special offering for Camp Alkulana. This year, as we continue our year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, you might think of your offering as a way to do that: as a way of getting kids like Jo-Jo out of the city long enough to experience heaven on earth.

I’m planning to double my offering this year. I hope you will do the same.

Preachers’ Kids

Sometime during last week’s annual sermon-planning retreat we started calling it “Preacher Camp.”

I’m talking about the event I referenced in my last post, where I get together with five of my closest colleagues for a week to map out our preaching for the year.  The difference was that this year we brought the kids.  They were sitting at the breakfast table on that first morning still rubbing the sleep from their eyes when I said, “Welcome to Preacher Camp, boys and girls!  When breakfast is over we’re going to have Bible study, then take a nature hike, and then go to crafts.  We’ll follow that with lunch and rest time, and then we’ll all go down to the lake for a swim.  Sound good?”  I got a lot of blank stares in return, and only after several minutes did three-year-old Adam say, “You’re teasing, right, Mr. Jim?” 

Yes.  I was teasing.  But while the preachers sat at a table on the side porch and had Bible study (working through every Sunday of 2011) the children read books and drew pictures and played ping pong and took a hike, and after lunch and naps we all went down to the lake for a swim.  So, in many ways, it was like camp, especially the last night when we built a campfire and sat around it singing silly songs and roasting marshmallows. 

What I learned is that this collection of preacher’s kids is sweet, smart, kind, and funny.  Five-year-old Audra Ballenger was full of interesting questions and comments, and one of my favorite pictures from the week is the one of her delivering a long lecture to Russ Dean as she sat on his stomach while he lay on the couch.  Eleven-year-old Bennett Dean came into his own on Thursday night, busting some sweet moves at a spontaneous dance party and encouraging the rest of us to toss inhibition to the wind.  My own daughter Catherine (the oldest by far at nineteen) was sweetly patient with an adoring “fan club” of small children and happy to engage in conversation with their parents while sunning on the dock. 

Unlike some of the warnings you hear about “preachers’ kids,” these were the kind you would want to spend a week with.  It makes me think that this generation of preachers, or at least the ones I hang out with, have given up on the idea that their children will be neatly dressed and perfectly behaved at all times, that they will know all the books of the Bible and want to come to church three times a week.  They seem much more willing to let their kids be kids, and that’s not a bad thing, especially if they are the kids of people whose relationship with God and whose saturation in his Word has led them to be loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, generous, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled.  The fruit of the spirit is evident in the lives of their children, and the apples don’t fall far from the tree.

So, this is an expression of appreciation not only to those preachers’ kids I spent the week with, but to the preachers who are raising them.  Thank you Don, John, Russ, Amy, and Dorisanne—for being the people you are and for passing so much of that goodness along to the next generation. 

The world needs people like your kids.

Buenos Dias!

I’m back from two weeks in Mexico, and, as promised, there are stories to tell:

I started my adventures in Puerto Escondido, a little town on the Pacific coast of Mexico popular with surfers for its enormous waves.  I didn’t go there to surf: I went because my brother-in-law, Chuck Treadwell, was celebrating his fiftieth birthday and invited me to come along.  We stayed in a beautiful house near the beach which was available partly because Chuck has some very generous friends but partly because it is so hot in Puerto Escondido in May that no one in his right mind would go there. 

Need I say more?

We tried to make the best of it, however, and in one three-day period I caught a 70-pound sailfish, got up on a surfboard, and went swimming with the dolphins.  In the interest of full disclosure I should probably say that I “helped” catch a 70-pound sailfish: the first mate on the boat actually set the hook, Chuck and his friend Patrick McCoy spent about thirty minutes fighting the fish, and then they let me reel it in toward the boat where the first mate brought it aboard.  And when I say I “got up” on a wave I mean that I was able to get to my feet on a ten-foot board (the surfing equivalent of training wheels) at Carrizilillo Beach (the Puerto Escondido equivalent of a baby pool).  And, finally, when I say that I went “swimming with the dolphins” I mean that I put on a life jacket and jumped into the water in a part of the ocean where we had just seen some dolphins.  I swam, and there were dolphins in the same ocean, but to say that I swam with the dolphins is a bit of an overstatement. 

Just like saying I climbed a 17,000-foot mountain.

I went from Puerto Escondido to my brother Ed’s house near Cuernavaca.  Ed is a missionary there.  He and his family have been living and working in Mexico for eight years, mostly developing a Christian camp where he hopes to reach 10,000 Mexican youth for Christ.  When I got there it was nearing the end of the dry season, and most of Mexico was parched and brown.   And hot.  Did I mention that it was hot? 

Ed’s characteristic solution was to try climbing to the top of a 17.000-foot mountain, a dormant volcano called Iztaccihuatl (which I won’t even try to pronounce).  He promised that it would be cooler up there than it was in Cuernavaca.  In fact, he had asked me to bring along all the winter clothing I could stuff into a backpack so we could stay warm during the climb. 

We took along two of his sons and two of their friends and made our base camp at 12,000 feet.  We spent the whole next day getting acclimated to the altitude (and the delightfully cool temperatures) before starting our assault on the mountain at 3:00 the next morning.  I went up with the first party—three of us, sporting head lamps to cut through the darkness.  We got to 15,000 feet just as the sun was coming up and spent the next four hours gasping for air and clawing our way up to the summit only to discover that there was another, higher, summit about a half mile away.  We hiked down into the notch and up the other side, using the last of our strength to get to that summit only to discover that there was yet another, higher, summit about a mile away from that one, and it was on the other side of a half-mile-wide glacier.  We sat there for a while, catching our breath and watching as another group of climbers made its way across.  As we were watching one climber slipped and fell and started sliding downhill toward a rocky ravine before stopping himself with an ice axe.  Since we didn’t have ice axes (and honestly, if there had been an elevator to the summit at that point I’m not sure I would have had the strength to push the button), we decided to call it a day.  Our elevation at that point was 16,800 feet, about 300 feet shy of the highest point.  We were disappointed, but not defeated, and on the way down began to talk about coming back again someday with the proper equipment.

The rest of the week was less adventurous but deeply meaningful as I learned more about the good work Ed is doing there at El Monte (the name of his camp).  I heard reports from Mexican missionaries, who are being trained to go to places like Germany and Indonesia with the good news about Jesus.  I saw Ed’s plans for adding additional cabins and another soccer field to the camp, to make it even more inviting for the kids who will come there.  And I did some sightseeing in the little town of Ticuman, where a generous farmer gave us a complimentary bunch of bananas (see photo above).  I picked up enough Spanish along the way to negotiate the taxis and buses necessary to get back to the airport, and at 9:35 last night I touched down in Richmond.  It felt so good to come home, and to unlock the front door, and crank up the air conditioning. 

There are some things I’m not going to take for granted anymore.