KOH2RVA: Day 314

Calvary DC

I’m back!

Back from a vacation that has been both refreshing and renewing—just what I was hoping for. I’ve hiked in Vermont and New York State, read a few books that were on my list, stayed at some charming B&B’s, slept a little later than usual, gone swimming in a creek, eaten some delicious meals, spent lots of time with family, and spotted at least one genuine celebrity.

Perfect.

But re-entry can be difficult, and yesterday as I checked my email at a rest area on the way home I found a message from an African-American member of First Baptist who forwarded an article about the Trayvon Martin decision and said she was heartbroken that she hadn’t heard one word about it from FBC Richmond—her church!

I wrote back right away and explained that I’d been on vacation, but I read the article she forwarded and liked the last line especially in which Jim Wallis of Sojourners said, “The country needs multi-racial communities of faith to show us how to live together.” As I re-enter my regular routine, and our year-long, every-member mission to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, I wonder how we can do that. How can Richmond’s First Baptist Church be part of the solution and not part of the problem?

I think we’ve already started.

Before I left for vacation I reported on a conversation that took place between some of the leaders of First Baptist and First African Baptist Church here in Richmond. I shared the challenge issued by Rodney Waller, pastor of First African, that we “show Richmond what racial reconciliation looks like.” Now a member of First Baptist forwards an article in which the author challenges multi-racial communities of faith to “show us how to live together.” Do you hear that? They don’t want us to tell them; they want us to show them.

So, in a minute, after you read this paragraph, click on the photograph above so you can see it full-size. It’s a picture of my friend Amy Butler’s congregation in Washington, DC—Calvary Baptist. If you take the time to look at all the faces in the photograph you will see that this is a multi-racial community of faith. And if you look at the smiles on the faces you can see that these people are completely at home with each other. They are doing the things we’ve been challenged to do: showing us what racial reconciliation looks like, and showing us how to live together. What do these people have in common, other than the fact that they live in the DC area? Jesus. They have Jesus in common. The one who taught his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom would come, and God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

For them, what happened to Trayvon Martin must have seemed almost personal, because it wasn’t just a 17-year-old boy who was shot when he went out to buy some Skittles: it might have been one of their 17-year-old boys.  And it wasn’t just a concerned neighbor who did the shooting: it could have been one of their concerned neighbors.  When my friend Amy preached on the parable of the Good Samaritan just after George Zimmerman was acquitted she hinted that the answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” could be “Trayvon Martin,” but it could also be “George Zimmerman.”  Jesus doesn’t want us to hate the George Zimmermans of the world anymore than he wants us to hate the Trayvon Martins of the world.  It’s not that some people are good and some people are evil; it’s that all people are people.  We struggle with the evil inside us.

Sometimes we lose.

But let’s not lose this vision of a kingdom where people of different races know how to live together in peace.  Look at that picture again.  See the smiles on those faces.  And then let’s do what we can to make sure that’s how it is at Richmond’s First Baptist Church, and do what we can to make it so between our church and First African.  Richmond needs a different picture of race relations than the one left behind by the Trayvon Martin decision.

We might just be the ones to show it to them.

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.

What if You Gave an Invitation…and Nobody Came?

preacher2cropsmallIt happened at both services on Sunday.  I gave an invitation, stepped down from the pulpit for the hymn, and sang all four verses of “Let Your Heart Be Broken” while waiting to see if anyone would come forward to join the church or give their heart to Jesus.

Nobody came.

That’s not unusual in my experience.  In fact, before coming to Richmond’s First Baptist Church it was far more unusual when someone did come down the aisle.  Those were smaller congregations, with fewer prospects, but even so, on those Sundays when nobody came down the aisle, someone would invariably try to comfort me afterward.  “I felt so sorry for you standing down there all by yourself,” they would say.  “Especially after such a good sermon!”

That connection between a good sermon and someone coming down the aisle dates back to the “revivalism” that originated on the American frontier.  James F. White claims that it was evangelist Charles G. Finney (1792-1895) who domesticated some of the forms of frontier worship and developed a pattern that soon came to dominate American Protestant Worship.  He writes:

Characteristically, its normal Sunday service had three parts: a song service or praise service sometimes caricatured as “preliminaries,” a sermon, and a harvest of new converts….  The 1905 Methodist Hymnal suggested an order of worship that ended with an invitation “to come to Christ or to unite with the church.”  Those so persuaded were to come forward during the singing of a final hymn.  It is basically the order of worship still used in thousands of United Methodist churches in the South.  Sunday after Sunday, Southern Baptists, Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, and many other denominations make this three-part form their basic order of worship.  It reflects revivalism’s basic technique of warming up, calling to conversion, and reaping the results in calling those converted to come forward for baptism.

Effectively merchandised today by radio and television, the basic structure has not changed much except to become still more polished.  Recent attempts to move the sermon back to a place earlier in the service are often resisted because the expectation is still strong that the sermon should lead to immediate results.  Among Disciples and Churches of Christ, the sermon often comes after the Lord’s Supper so it can produce obvious fruit.  Americans respect success, and here is a form of worship that has proven itself thoroughly successful in reaching the unchurched who happen to be present or have turned on the radio or television (Protestant Worship, pp. 177-178).

Understood in this way, the service has as its goal not worshiping God but making converts, and it is structured toward that end: the singing of emotional hymns to soften hearts, the “sales pitch” of the revivalistic preacher, and the hymn of invitation (usually “Just As I Am”).  If nobody comes down the aisle after the first few verses of the hymn the preacher might ask the organist to pause while he makes a second appeal.  If nobody comes after that he might try again after a few more verses.  This is why “Just As I Am” is the perfect invitational hymn:  it has lots of verses (I’ve heard as many as seventeen), and each one ends with the words, “O Lamb of God, I come! I come!”

If people think that’s what the worship service is for, then you can see why they would feel sorry for me if nobody came down the aisle, especially if it was a good sermon.  They would be thinking: “The preacher made an excellent sales pitch, but couldn’t seem to close the deal.  What a pity.  What a shame!” 

So, I have a question for all those preachers who get left standing at the altar from time to time, and for all those people who sit in the pews shaking their heads and feeling sorry for them:

Is that what worship is for?

And Other Funny Stories about Sudden Death

Hear or download this post (mp3 file – 3:35): And Other Funny Stories about Sudden Death

It’s David Powers’ fault.

David is our media minister.  He’s the one who produces the television program we broadcast on Channel 8 here in Richmond each Sunday morning at 11:00.  David often finds me after the 8:30 service and tells me how things looked from the control room and what might need to change before 11:00, but this Sunday I found him.  I wanted to ask him if the shirt I was wearing, the one with the blue and white stripes, had caused any problems for the camera.  Sometimes those small patterns do cause a problem.  The camera can’t decide which stripe to adjust for, the dark or the light, and you end up with a swirling pattern on the screen that is exactly what it looks like when a camera is trying to make up its mind. 

David said the shirt was fine but he wondered if I could stretch the sermon another five minutes or so.  Seems the 8:30 service had come in significantly under an hour and even with the baptism at the 11:00 service David wasn’t sure we would have enough “length” for the television broadcast.  So, I went back to my study to see if there was anything I could do.

revival3There was one place in the sermon where I was talking about old-fashioned revival-meeting evangelists and thought I could probably add a few light touches.  I could describe the evangelist for one thing (slicked-back hair, skinny tie knotted around his neck,  sweat beading on his forehead and spit flying from his mouth), and then I could share a few of those stories those evangelists always seem to tell (like the one about the young man who is almost persauded to follow Jesus–almost–but then leaves the church without making a decision and gets hit by a train on the way home). 

What I was aiming for was a caricature of the revival-meeting evangelist, someone whose features and manners were so exaggerated that you just had to laugh.  But nobody did.  They didn’t laugh at the story of the young man who got hit by a train, or the old man who dropped dead of a heart attack, or the young couple who had a head-on collision with a cattle truck (a cattle truck, for cryin’ out loud!).  I couldn’t understand it.  These were hilarious stories, side-splitting stories about sudden death, and yet everyone sat there in thoughtful silence, contemplating the brevity of life, and how quickly it can all come to an end.

That will teach me, I suppose, that what strikes me as funny in that hectic time between the 8:30 and 11:00 services is not necessarily so.  That’s why I try to build into the sermon-writing process ample time for reflection and reconsideration, because what seems perfect in one hour may not seem perfect in the next.  On the other hand if I’m too careful about the process I might hamper the work of the Holy Spirit.  Sometimes you have to let go of the reins and enjoy the ride. 

Maybe that’s what happened this morning.  Maybe the Spirit took over.  Because eleven people came forward at the end of the service today, and some of them may have been thinking that they had better not wait until next week.  They had listened to the sermon.  They had heard the preacher say you need to make up your mind about Jesus and you need to do it soon.  Life is short, after all, and uncertain…

You never know when you might get hit by a train.