KOH2RVA: Day 104

lit matchWell, according to some people, this is the day the world is supposed to end. I’ve got it on my calendar that way: “End of the world—not sure of exact time.” But because I’m not sure of the exact time I’m planning to go on with the other things that are on my (not the Maya) calendar.

For example:

At 1:00 this afternoon I’m supposed to tell a story to the inmates at the Richmond Jail. Chaplain Alonzo Pruitt says one of the greatest problems at the jail is boredom. “These people are here 168 hours a week,” he says. “Any relief they can get is appreciated.” So, I’ve offered to tell them a story, but which one should I tell?

  • I have a story about the time my brothers and I accidentally burned down our house when we tried to build a volcano in the back yard, but I’m not sure that’s a good one to tell people who are in jail.
  • And then there’s the time we gave the family cat an almost-complete ovariohysterectomy on the dining room table while my parents were out for the evening, but again, it might give the inmates ideas.
  • I have that story about the time I set the outhouse on fire while my brother Ed was in it, but I’m not sure it sets the right kind of moral example.

I’ll have to sort all that out before I go down there this afternoon, but I’m still hoping to go. I look forward to that opportunity to visit with those who are there, to brighten their day, to see if I can bring a little of the Kingdom of Heaven to one of the darkest corners of Richmond, Virginia.

What are you going to do today to bring the KOH2RVA?

Wake-Up Call

It’s 6:30 a.m. on the Tuesday after Labor Day, and all across the Greater Richmond Metropolitan Area mothers and fathers will be trying to get their children out of bed and get them off to school.  In honor of those efforts, and those parents, I’d like to tell the stories of how my own parents used to get me and my lazy brothers out of bed on a school day (as shared in last Sunday’s sermon).

When my brothers and I were boys, living in that big, old farmhouse in West Virginia, my mother would try to get us up on a school day by cooking breakfast for us, hoping that the smell of frying bacon would bring us down the stairs.  And if that didn’t work she would start calling up to us, sweetly, “Boys!  Time to wake up!  You’ve got to get ready for school!”  But if that didn’t work she would move to her measure of last resort.  She had this record called “America’s Favorite Marches.”  She would put it on the turntable, crank up the volume, and drop the needle.  And as soon as we heard that scratchy hiss coming through the speakers we would leap out of bed, come running down the stairs, and turn down the volume, because if we didn’t “Hooray for the Red, White, and Blue” would come blasting out of those speakers at something upward of 200 decibels—the equivalent of a Saturn Five rocket lifting off the launch pad. 

And then…

There was a three-month period in our life when we lived in my grandmother’s cabin in the mountains of North Carolina.  It was a summer cabin, but we were there in the winter, and it was cold.  My two older brothers and I slept in a little room under the eaves that was reached by a ladder through a door that opened out into the large main room.  Beside the ladder there was a brass fireman’s pole that my grandfather had put in, just for fun.  On those cold winter morning my dad would get up early, build a blazing fire in the fireplace, and then come over to that pole and start banging it with a wooden block.  Clang!  Clang!  Clang!  Clang!  “This is the day the Lord has made!”  Clang!  Clang!  Clang! Clang!  We were supposed to say, “Let us be glad and rejoice in it!” and then leap out of bed, slide down the pole, and run warm ourselves by the fire, but usually it was only my brother Scott who followed the script.  Ed and I would lie there and groan until my dad finally climbed the ladder, stuck his head through the door opening, and threatened us with bodily harm. 

America’s favorite marches, banging on brass poles, threats of bodily harm…sometimes you just have to do what you have to do to get your children out of bed in the morning.  Because it’s true, and maybe especially on the first day of school:

Waking up is hard to do.

Whatever Happened to Fire and Brimstone?

Here’s a piece I wrote several years ago, after a hot summer Sunday when the air conditioner wasn’t working at church.  Enjoy!

In Garrison Keillor’s fictional boyhood home of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, air conditioning (A/C) was placed in the same category of suspicion as “dishwashers, automatic transmissions, frozen dinners, and liberal theologians,” but until last Sunday I didn’t understand why.

For reasons too complicated to explain we didn’t have A/C at my church last Sunday and things began to get a little warm.  With the temperature nearing 90 degrees outside it was well above 80 inside.  Women with flushed faces began using their church bulletins as fans.  Men pulled off their jackets and loosened their ties.  Children squirmed in the pews.  And then the heat began to have another effect: it began to make people drowsy.  From the pulpit I could see heads nodding, eyelids beginning to close, and there, halfway through the sermon and desperate for an audience, I got what I can only describe as a “fire and brimstone” feeling:

I wanted to preach LOUD!

The way I see it preachers used to face a regular problem with the heat, especially in the South.  Even with the windows up and the funeral home fans flying, a southern summer Sunday morning could sap the attentive powers of an entire congregation.  A wasp bumping lazily across the ceiling would be enough to distract them.  A dramatic pause in the sermon and half of them might drop off to sleep.

Naturally, the preacher began to raise his voice, just to wake them up, and for a while that was enough (“…and MOSES saith unto PHARAOH, ‘Let my people GO!'”).  But people get used to things, and they eventually got used to loud preaching.  So the preacher began to punctuate his sermon by pounding on the pulpit (“…and MOSES [Bam!] saith unto PHARAOH [Bam!], ‘Let my people GO!’ [Bam! Bam!]”).  But they got used to that, too.  Until finally the preacher had not choice but to preach on matters of life and death, Heaven and Hell (“…CAST them [Bam!] into the FURNACE [Bam! Bam!] of FIRE [Bam! Bam! (and) BAM!!]”).  And that worked.  That kept the congregation awake.  And it was in that context that one of the great homiletical punch lines of all time was developed: “You think it’s hot NOW!…”*

But then along came A/C, and suddenly those same people who had been dozing off before were sitting upright in the pews, wide awake, with eager, attentive expressions on their faces.  Preachers found to their amazement that they could speak in their normal voices, and even wander off into such tepid subjects as “Providence,” or “Humility,” while their listeners hung on every word.

As you might imagine that was the end of fire and brimstone preaching, and evidence enough that there is a closer connection to A/C and liberal theology than you might guess.  As Garrison Keillor says about some of the people who move away from Lake Wobegon: “They get A/C first thing and crank it up to Cold.  They drape themselves over it.  Then they find a church where God is the gentle mist rising from the meadow and the smile on a child’s face.

“They don’t want to get sweaty anymore if they can help it.”**

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*Little wonder that the wide band of fervent faith known as the “Bible Belt” stretches across the sultry South and not the lukewarm North; those Southerners have had just about all the heat they can take!

**Lake Wobegon Days, p. 132