KOH2RVA: Day 300

tired_runnerThere’s something about a nice round number…

But what I think of when I see this number—300—is that there are only 65 days left in our year-long, every-member mission trip.

For some people that may inspire a surge of fresh commitment to the mission: “We don’t have much time left! Let’s do something great!” For others it may inspire a heavy sigh: “We’ve been on this mission trip for nearly 10 months. We’re exhausted!”

For me, it’s a little of both.

I think about some of those things I was hoping to do on this mission trip, like putting up a mailbox at church where our neighbors in the Fan could drop their prayer requests so we could pray for them on Wednesday nights. Like taking portraits of some of our homeless neighbors and turning them into big posters that could be plastered on walls downtown with the caption: “I’m not homeless: Richmond is my home.” Like working more closely with county and city governments, so that our efforts would be multiplied. I’m disappointed that we didn’t get to all of those things.

On the other hand, I’m surprised and pleased by what we have been able to do. I didn’t know, for example, that we were going to form a partnership with the Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School. I didn’t know that our youth were going to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Nickelsville, Virginia. I didn’t know our fifth graders were going to go Christmas caroling at nursing homes. I didn’t know the second graders were going to raise money to buy a new pair of shoes for Cheryl.

There have been dozens of other things that have surprised and pleased me as I’ve watched this mission trip unfold, and those are the things that inspire me to keep going. I want to get to September 8th like the Apostle Paul, who said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).

I hope you will be able to say it with me.

KOH2RVA: Day 290

CBF General Assembly

After lunch today I’m getting in my car to drive to Greensboro, North Carolina, for the annual meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

I remember my first meeting.

It was in 1991, shortly after I had been called as pastor of Wingate Baptist Church in North Carolina. For the ten years I had been a Baptist—and for all the years I was in seminary—the Southern Baptist Convention had been engaged in a bitter conflict between the “moderates” and the “conservatives” where all we seemed to do at our annual meetings was fight over things like the authority of Scripture, the role of women in ministry, and the question of who would control the world’s largest protestant denomination. Long before 1991 I was ready to be done with the fighting. So when I heard that a group of Baptists were meeting in Atlanta to give up the fight and get on with the mission, I was eager to learn more. I drove from Wingate to Atlanta and was there at the Omni with 6,000 other Baptists when the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was formed. On the cover of the program were those words from Isaiah 43: “Behold, I am doing a new thing.” I was ready for a new thing, and when I drove home from Atlanta I breathed a sigh of relief, feeling that at last I could quit fighting denominational battles and get on with the work Jesus had called me to do.

22 years later I’ve gotten on with my work, and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has gotten on with its work, and the Southern Baptist Convention has gotten on with its work. And, praise be to God, I believe we are all doing good work. Richmond’s First Baptist Church has not aligned itself with either the SBC or the CBF, but it does support missionaries through both entities. From time to time we get to hear some of those missionaries speak and tell us about the work they’re doing around the world. And when I hear them speak I can tell where their hearts are.

To a person, their hearts are in the right place.

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is trying to be the presence of Christ in the world; the Southern Baptist Convention is trying reach the world for Christ; Richmond’s First Baptist Church is trying to bring heaven to earth, and part of the way we do it is by supporting SBC and CBF missionaries. The other way we do it, of course, is to roll up our sleeves and go to work right here where we are—as missionaries.

I’m going to leave that job up to you for a few days while I go to Greensboro. I won’t be blogging on Thursday or Friday. But if you’d like to know what’s going on at the General Assembly you can click HERE, and even if you don’t you can say a prayer for the work of all kinds of Baptists all around the world. Pray that it would be the kind of work that would make Jesus proud.

And thank God that the fight—at least, that fight—is over.

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.”

Blame it on Talk Radio

Old radioOne of my Facebook friends asked a question yesterday.  He said, “Somebody help me here. Didn’t Reagan and H.W. Bush make speeches at the outset of school years? Why the uproar over Obama doing the same thing?” 

The first few responses were positive.  People said things like, “Good question” or, “Yes, that’s true” or, “I don’t know what the uproar is about.”  But very quickly a fight broke out on Facebook, with some people affirming the President’s right to speak to children in our country’s public schools while others made comparisons to George Orwell’s “1984” and the educational policies of Adolf Hitler and Chairman Mao.  26 comments later my friend wrote, “I think I’m going to wait a while before I ask another political question.” 

It seems to be that way these days, that you can’t ask a political question without starting a political fight, and the fights that break out seem to break out along party lines. It’s as if we’ve chosen up sides, put on our red and blue uniforms, and gone to war with each other.  It’s a civil war, but there is nothing civil about it.

The rhetorical attacks against our current president have been especially vicious, but long before Barack Obama people were ridiculing the person and policies of George W. Bush.   When did we get like this?  And how?  Who told us it was OK to disrespect the office of the president of the United States? 

Talk radio, that’s who. 

I don’t listen to talk radio as a rule, but the few times I’ve tuned in I have been shocked by the vitriol ( vit-ri-ol, noun: something highly caustic or severe in effect, as criticism) that pours out of my speakers.  And every attack leads to a counterattack, so that even without touching the dial on my radio the volume and intensity of the debate goes up, whether there is someone actually there in the studio or the talk show host is only reacting to what he has read and heard from “the other side.”  I feel my blood pressure going up when I listen to talk radio, my grip tightening on the steering wheel, and I wonder how it would affect me if I listened all the time.* 

What if we treated our brains like we treated our stomachs, and tried to put only good things in there?  What if we did “touch that dial,” and tuned in to a classical music station or listened to a good book on tape (maybe even the Good Book)?  It’s there, in the Good Book, that you find Paul saying, “Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8). 

I wonder how our public discourse might change if we did that.

____________________
*Incidentally, my dad had a fender-bender a few years ago, and when I asked him how it happened he confessed, sheepishly, that he had been listening to talk radio at the time.