KOH2RVA: Day 286

hands-sandOn Tuesday night of last week some of the key leaders of Richmond’s First Baptist Church sat down with some of the key leaders of First African Baptist Church “just to talk.” One of the things we talked about was the fact that our two congregations used to worship together until we went our separate ways in 1841. We’ve worshiped together a few times since then and our preachers have swapped pulpits from time to time, but for the most part we have carried out our separate missions separately.

So on Tuesday night we began by talking about mission of the Church: What is it here for? What it is supposed to do? The more we talked the more we seemed to agree on the Church’s essential missions and purpose. And then Dr. Rodney Waller, pastor of First African, said, “When it comes to the church’s mission I’ve got to go back to the book,” and he asked us to look at this passage from the second chapter of Acts:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47, ESV).

We had been talking about the way the American church seems to be fighting for its very survival these days, doing everything it can to attract and retain members. Rodney pointed out that in the early church it was The Lord who “added to their number” as the church was faithful in doing all those other things: devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bead and the prayers. He wondered if The Lord wouldn’t add to our numbers if we would simply be faithful about doing the same.

And then he said: “What if our two churches could show Richmond what true reconciliation looks like?”

And that’s when I got goosebumps.

I don’t know what “true reconciliation” would look like, not yet, but it was exciting to talk about it and after an hour of conversation we agreed to get together for another meeting to talk some more. Before we parted ways Rodney said, “I believe The Lord was in this meeting tonight; I felt the Holy Spirit.”

I felt it too, Rodney.

I don’t think it was ever the Lord’s intention for our two congregations to go their separate ways. And I doubt that he cares much for all these denominational divisions in the world. As I tell people sometimes, “Jesus only has one church.”

These days, more than ever, it may be important to remember that.

KOH2RVA: Day 248

tearsI can’t imagine a more beautiful day has ever dawned on the city of Richmond than this one. I’ve just come in from a run on Monument Avenue, where the light was golden, the world was in bloom, and the love of God was in the air I breathed.

Last night was a different story.

Because of some confusion among our members about the intent of my April 28 sermon, I stood before the deacons last night to explain that I am not on a crusade to turn First Baptist into a gay church, that I am not planning to ordain a gay minister, and that I am not hoping to perform a gay wedding. What I am is a pastor, and because I am I often sit in my study and listen to people pour their hearts out, often through tears, and sometimes what they tell me is this: “I’m gay.”

But here’s the problem: because I am a pastor I can’t share that secret with anybody else. I can’t talk about the person; I have to talk about the issue. And when I talk about the issue people sometimes assume that I have a gay agenda—that I’m trying to turn First Baptist into a gay church, or that I plan to ordain a gay minister, or that I hope to perform a gay wedding, when the truth is that I’m thinking about _______________, who sat in my study with tears in her eyes, wondering if the church would still love her if they knew the truth about her.

I wanted to say, “Of course they would!” because I know the people of First Baptist Church. I’ve never known a more loving congregation. If I told her story from the pulpit they would rush to put their arms around her and reassure her of their love and our deacons would lead the charge.   But homophobia cuts both ways. It makes people afraid of homosexuals and it makes homosexuals afraid of people. They keep their secret to themselves.

Because not everybody is so loving.

I tried to explain all this to the deacons last night. I don’t think I did a very good job. During the question and answer period someone asked me if I were planning to do a gay wedding. I said no. He told me later that it wasn’t really his quesion.  He doesn’t have a problem with gay people.  He needed to ask, he said, simply because so many people had been asking him. He wanted to have an answer for them. “Tell them this,” I said. “Tell them I’m a pastor. Tell them that I care about people, and that some of the people I care about are gay.”

But they aren’t the only ones I care about.

I care about the ones who have a real problem with this issue, the ones who have been sitting in my study nearly every day in the last few weeks telling me they just can’t ignore what the Bible says about homosexuality. I tell them I can’t ignore it either, and that this is what makes it so hard for me. I would love to tell homosexuals they can do whatever they want, but I can’t, not anymore than I can tell heterosexuals to do whatever they want. The Bible won’t let me. But the Bible also won’t let me hate. I have to love. I have to love people who are gay and I have to love people who flinch at the very mention of the word.

I’m a pastor.

KOH2RVA:Day 233

confusion4I got a call from Mary Ann Delano yesterday telling me that people had been “confused” by Sunday’s sermon. Mary Ann is the chair of the deacons at First Baptist. When she calls I listen. But I did wonder what people were confused about. I thought the sermon had flown like an arrow through the air toward its crystal-clear conclusion, which was this:

Bless my heart, every time I hear this story (about Peter and Cornelius) it forces me to deal with the possibility that God is willing to accept people I am not, and every time I hear it I need to ask, “Lord, am I calling something ‘unclean’ that you have made clean? And if so, would you show me?”

But I did refer to gay people in the sermon, as an example of those we might have difficulty accepting, and that reference came just a few weeks after I spoke up for a church in the Richmond Baptist Association that ordained an openly gay man. Put those two together and you might jump to the conclusion that the pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church was on a crusade of some kind.

Let me be clear: I am not.

But every time I preach from Acts 11:1-18 (the lectionary text for the day, selected months and years before the recent meeting of the Richmond Baptist Association) I seem to get in trouble, and it’s because the text forces us to consider those people we think of as “unclean.” In fact, someone sent me a copy of (Pastor Emeritus) Jim Flamming’s sermon on this same text from 2004—“Who Is Unacceptable to You?”—where he talked about the sheet that came down out of heaven in Peter’s vision, the one with all those unclean animals in it. He said it becomes quickly evident that the point of this vision is not animals but people. “Which people or groups of people do you consider ‘unclean’?” Dr. Flamming asked. “Who would be at the center of your sheet?”

But he didn’t preach that sermon a month after the Richmond Baptist Association had voted to maintain fellowship with a church that ordained an openly gay man, and he didn’t speak up for that church in that meeting. I did, and I can see how some people would make a connection, and think that I was on some sort of crusade.

Let me be clear: I am not.

I don’t think the two are unrelated, but when I spoke up for Ginter Park Baptist Church I was speaking up for the mission of the Richmond Baptist Association. I was trying to say, “Let’s not let the action of one church derail our mission.” Baptist churches are autonomous. We can’t tell them who to ordain and they can’t tell us. But we can work together in spite of our differences for the greater good and that’s what I was arguing for. I was thinking about Camp Alkulana and the three Baptist centers in Richmond that do such good work. I was hoping we wouldn’t lose Ginter Park’s contribution to that mission.

But now I understand some 15 churches are considering leaving the Association because we voted not to kick Ginter Park out. I called the pastor of one of those churches last week—a big church—and asked, “Is it true? Are you going to let the action of one small church cause you to abandon your long-term commitment to the mission of the Richmond Baptist Association? Isn’t that like the tail wagging the dog?”

I tried to imagine why his church would even consider such a thing and in the end decided that it must be fear. The churches that are thinking of pulling out are afraid that if they don’t they will become guilty by association—quite literally—and that everyone will assume they affirm gay ordination. They are afraid that by working with a church they consider “unclean” they, themselves, will become unclean.

That fear of contamination was the same fear that kept the early church from having anything to do with Gentiles until that day on a rooftop in Joppa when God told Peter not to call unclean what he had made clean. Suppose Peter hadn’t gone to the home of Cornelius? Suppose he had been too afraid? God’s mission could have stalled out right there, the Richmond Baptist Association would have never existed, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

I don’t want God’s mission to stall out, and I certainly don’t want it to stall out because of fear, but I also don’t want it to stall out because of confusion. I’ve tried to be clear about why I preached what I preached and why I did what I did. If you have questions or comments please post them below.  In the meantime, let’s get on with our mission.  This is Day 233 of KOH2RVA:

There is good work waiting to be done.

KOH2RVA: Day 199

hospital visitMuch of our focus for this year-long, every-member mission trip has been outside the walls of the church, but I don’t mind admitting that much of the time, perhaps even most of the time, the members of First Baptist Church bring heaven to earth for those who are inside the walls.

For example: at last month’s deacons’ meeting I led a training session on how to make a hospital visit, thinking especially about those times our own members are in the hospital. I emphasized that the word deacon literally means “minister,” and then I led them through these ten steps:

Making a hospital visit: suggestions for deacons

1. Park in the visitor’s parking lot. Go in the front entrance. Ask about the person at the information desk. Get a room number and follow directions to the floor.

2. Ask at the nurse’s station about visiting Mr. Jones in Room 555. If they ask about your relationship to the patient say, “I’m his minister” (the literal meaning of the word deacon).

3. Sanitize your hands before going in. If the doctor or nurse is in the room, wait in the hallway while they do their work.

4. When you enter the room, say, “Hello, Mr. Jones. I’m a deacon at First Baptist Church. I’ve come by for a visit.”

5. Be considerate. Don’t bounce on the bed. Don’t come in with the smell of gas on your hands or strong perfume that may be unsettling. Don’t say to the person, “My uncle died of what you have” (that suggestion from Bob Higgins).

6. Limit your visit to 5-10 minutes. The person is not there to entertain visitors, but to try to get well. A five minute visit will feel longer if you take off your topcoat, pull up a chair and sit down.

7. Try not to ask, “So, how are you?” Instead let them lead the conversation. If they need to talk about something, they will. If they don’t, they’ll talk about the food in the hospital.

8. Say, “I’d like to pray with you before I go. Is there anything in particular I could pray for?” Hold a hand if you can and then gather up the things they have mentioned and offer them up to God in a short, simple prayer. Leave a moment of silence after the “Amen.” Let them be the first to speak.

9. When you have finished the visit stand up and say something like, “I’ve enjoyed the visit. I hope to see you in church soon.” If that’s not appropriate, simply say a sincere goodbye and leave.

10. Sanitize your hands on your way out of the hospital.

The training session was well received, in fact, Lynn Turner and I got this email message from Clark Norton, one of our newest deacons, the next day.

Jim and Lynn,

Sign me up and give me some tough cookies! I live just down the street from St Francis in Midlothian but I’ll go anywhere.

Thanks again for inviting us to serve more.

Clark

Now, that’s the spirit, isn’t it? There’s a deacon who knows what the word means and who can’t wait to do some ministry. After all, if deacons aren’t going to do ministry, why ordain them?

May your tribe increase, Clark, and maybe on one of those hospital visits you will not only visit our members, but ask at the nurse’s station if there is anybody else on the floor who could use some cheering up.

Then you really will be bringing the KOH2RVA!

KOH2RVA: Day 31

Today is the “Monthiversary” of KOH2RVA: we started this year-long, every-member mission trip on September 9, 2012, and now here it is, October 9. How am I going to celebrate?

• 8:00—Meet with my lectionary discussion group at Can Can
• 9:30—Lead the weekly staff meeting at First Baptist Church
• 11:00—Attend chapel service at the Baptist Theological Seminary of Richmond
• 12:30—Lunch with Rob Fox, Field Coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Virginia
• 3:00—Participate in the Faith Leaders Partnership meeting at Richmond Police Headquarters
• 4:00—Lecture at Westminster-Canterbury retirement community: “Questions People Ask Pastors”
• 6:00—Personnel Team meeting at First Baptist Church
• 7:00—Monthly Deacons’ meeting

Where, in a day like that, will the Kingdom of Heaven come to Richmond, Virginia? It could come anywhere, anytime. The odds seem especially favorable during the chapel service at BTSR where my intern, Jay McNeal, will speak; during my afternoon meeting with the police department to talk about how we can bring down the homicide rate in Richmond; and during my lecture at Westminster-Canterbury, where I will give my best answer to the question: “Is there a God?” But heaven could also come to earth over coffee with my preaching colleagues at Can Can, or during staff meeting in the Adams Room. I’ve actually had some heavenly experiences at a deacons’ meeting (although I’ve had the other kind, too), so let’s not rule that out, either.

The Pharisees once asked Jesus when the Kingdom of God would come, and how, and he said, “The Kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or “There!’ for behold, the Kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:20-21, ESV).

Jesus makes it sound as if the Kingdom were already among us, if we only had eyes to see. I’m going to try to open my eyes today, and see it everywhere I go.

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Pictured above: Pastor Patrice Keys at a meeting of the Faith Leaders’ Partnership at the Richmond Police Department.

The Motion Carries

On Sunday, September 19, the members of Richmond’s First Baptist Church voted to change their membership policy to allow committed Christians from other denominations to become full members of the church without having to be re-baptized.  The meeting took place during the Sunday school hour.  One amendment (requiring believer’s baptism but not immersion) was considered but not approved.  691 people voted on the main motion by secret ballot.  464 of those (67.15%) were in favor of the change,  221 (31.98%) were opposed, and 6 ballots could not be determined either way.

Senior Pastor Jim Somerville commented:

For Baptists, membership is a matter of local church autonomy.  No pope, or bishop, or even the pastor gets to decide who can be a member of a local Baptist church.  And although the deacons can make a recommendation, in the end it is the congregation that gets to decide.

Today the congregation of Richmond’s First Baptist Church did just that.  The answer to the question of whether committed Christians from other denominations could become full members without having to be re-baptized was yes.

At the beginning of this process I expressed my hope that, no matter what the outcome, we would spend some time thinking deeply about what it means to be baptized and what it means to be a member.  We have certainly done that.  Now it is my hope that we will be the kind of members who can accept the outcome of this vote and go forward together.  While a two-thirds majority is decisive, it is not a landslide.  We were closer to the same mind on this matter than we knew.  Now it is my hope that we can share the same heart, and get on with the crucial work of putting God’s love into action. 

I am grateful for the spirit in which this decision was made, and for the remarkable body of believers that is Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  I learned today that there are Baptists in the world who can disagree without being disagreeable—who can speak their mind, vote their conscience, and move on to more important things.

God bless them, every one.

—September 19, 2010

Back Burner

I told the congregation on Sunday that we have decided to postpone our vote on the baptism and membership issue until September 19, mostly because so many of us travel during the summer.  It seemed wise to our deacon chair, Lee Stephenson, to pick a date far enough in advance that people could get it on their calendars and make plans around it.  So, September 19 it is—a Sunday—and the plan at this point is to go ahead with our usual Sunday morning schedule and then come back in the afternoon for this important meeting.

When I made the announcement on Sunday I saw heads nodding around the sanctuary.  It seemed to make sense to most people to wait until everyone could be here.  There are those (and I count myself among them) who will be glad to get this vote behind us, but not if it means leaving anyone out.  If we are going to make this decision as a congregation let’s make it together.

So I said, “This issue has been on the front burner for a while.  It has reached a rolling boil, and generated a lot of heat and steam.  For the summer, at least, let’s move it to the back burner, take a deep breath, and take some time to do what is most important in the world: to love God, love others, and love one another.  At the end of a summer like that—a ‘summer of love’—we ought to be in a good place to make a decision.”

If you are a member of First Baptist I would encourage you, especially, to take the time to listen to my explanation of what the practical implications of this decision would be.  It’s available on the church web site, and takes about an hour to listen to.  I know: that’s a long explanation.  But if you would take an hour to do that and then spend at least that much time in prayer, listening for what God has to say on this issue, I think you would be well informed and ready to vote in September.

Thank you for your patience and understanding as we try to make this big decision together.