How to Keep on Living the Good and Beautiful Life

blue-morpho-butterfly-habitat-1During the Season of Lent, the members and friends of Richmond’s First Baptist Church studied a book called The Good and Beautiful Life, by James Bryan Smith. Some of them met in homes, some in Sunday school classes, some came to the Journey to the Cross services, and some did all of the above.  It was a powerful community-building exercise, and I think we all learned a great deal.

So, now what?

The original plan was this: that we would spend the Season of Lent learning about the Good and Beautiful Life, that we would spend the Season of Easter living the Good and Beautiful Life, and then spend the Season of Pentecost sharing the Good and Beautiful Life.

Learning, living, sharing.  Got it?

According to that plan we are now in the Great Fifty Days of the Easter season (April 5 through May 23), the season of living the life.  But how do we do that?  Or, rather, how do we keep on doing it?

Here’s one suggestion:

The Good and Beautiful Life is essentially a study of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7.  James Bryan Smith’s premise is that in these chapters Jesus explains what life in God’s kingdom looks like and what it would take to live it.  The life of the kingdom is the good and beautiful life, Smith argues, and if we could learn to do what Jesus says we would know that.

So, try this.

In the remainder of this season, all the way up to May 24, the Day of Pentecost, try reading the Sermon on the Mount as a kind of daily devotion.  If you’re reading this on your computer, you can simply click HERE and go to a page that has the whole sermon waiting for you in the New Revised Standard Version.  Click that same link tomorrow and try reading it in a different version, the Message, or the NIV.  Maybe you could read a different version every day, just to keep it fresh.

My hope is this: that if you saturate yourself in that sermon, if you sink down into its message day after day, you will begin to live the life it describes.  You will trust God more.  You will hate others less.  You will pluck up the seed of sin before it can take root.  You will know that you are blessed.  You will be like the one who built his house on a rock.

Try it!  Live it!  And then get ready to share it.

A life like this will be too good and beautiful to keep to yourself.

KOH2RVA: Day 141

bus-off-cliff-259x300I’m back from Arizona, and a meeting with pastors of other large churches who were interested in this whole “bringing heaven to earth” thing. I got a chance to explain what we were up to in Richmond, and I saw some of them taking notes. But they did want to know a couple of things in particular:

1. Have you seen an increase in attendance?
2. Have you seen an increase in giving?

Because this is how we’ve learned to measure success.

Pastors of large churches are considered successful because their churches are large, and if they want to stay successful they have to think about how to keep them that way. I don’t blame them for asking if our year-long, every-member mission trip has stimulated growth and giving.

But the answer is no.

In the 141 days that we’ve been working to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, I’ve actually noticed a significant drop in attendance. And at the end of last year we were nearly $200,000 behind in our giving. If our KOH2RVA mission bus keeps heading in that direction someone may start screaming, “Abort! Abort! We’re headed over a cliff!”

But we’re only 141 days into this mission.  Anything could happen.  We could begin to see a huge surge in attendance and giving.  I wouldn’t be surprised if we do.  But just in case we don’t I’ve been searching the instruction manual for that place where Jesus says success is measured by how many people come to church on Sunday morning and how much money they give.

I can’t find it anywhere.

I’ll keep looking, but so far I’m finding things like loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength; things like loving our neighbors as ourselves; things like caring for “the least of these”—Jesus’ brothers and sisters. That’s how success is measured in the Kingdom, and it shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus told us a long time ago that in God’s Kingdom the yardstick is turned upside-down—the last are first and the least are great.

As that Kingdom comes closer and closer to Richmond, Virginia, we may have to start measuring success in a whole new way.

First in the Family

4540_1109598855489_1092360328_30340570_8257125_nLast Saturday my daughter Catherine graduated from high school (the appropriately named St. Catherine’s school for girls here in Richmond, where instead of the traditional cap and gown graduates wear full-length white dresses and carry bouquets of daisies).  We teased her about being the first in the family, and in some ways it’s true.  I went to college after my junior year in high school; my wife Christy finished high school a year early; my daughter Ellie finished a semester early.  None of us completed our senior year or went to the senior prom.  Catherine did.  So, when Ellie went to pick up a cake for dinner on the night of Catherine’s graduation she asked the baker to write on the cake, “Congratulations, Catherine: First in the Family!”

All the celebration of the day brought to mind a quiet, family celebration when Catherine turned 13.  We called it her “coming-of-age” ceremony.  I’d like to publish part of it here in tribute to that thirteen-year-old who has become such a beautiful eighteen-year-old, and the first in our family to finish high school.

I love you, Catherine.

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A Litany for Catherine’s Coming-of-Age
December 18, 2003

Jim:  Catherine, today you are a teenager. 

No longer a child, not yet a woman, you have entered that unique, in-between, stage in which you will some days want to climb up in your mother’s lap and have a good cry and other days want to go to Kenya, zip around in a Land Rover, and shoot pictures of stampeding elephants.  That steady tug-of-war between childhood and adulthood is necessary: it makes you strong, and someday it will make you strong enough to leave the home of your childhood and start a home of your own.

But not yet.

Now is the time to explore your new freedoms and wrestle with your new responsibilities.  It will be good work, but it will be hard work.  As your family we commit ourselves to loving you and supporting you in this challenging time of transition. 

Ellie:  Catherine, I will do my best to be a good big sister to you, teaching you what I have learned along the road you are getting ready to travel.  Your experience will not be exactly the same as my experience, but if I can help to smooth out some of the rough spots, know that I will.

Jim:  Catherine, as your father I will feel the pain as I watch you grow up and away from your childhood.  I will miss the little girl you were.  But I will also rejoice in your new accomplishments, and your new maturity.  I will tell my friends proudly, and with some amazement, that I am the father of not one but two teenaged daughters.

Christy:  Catherine, the heart of your mother aches with the loss of her little girl—the one whose wispy blonde hair and bib overalls were so cute.  Sometimes I hardly recognize the tall, beautiful woman you are becoming.  But even as I lose that baby girl I look forward to sharing womanly secrets with you and someday being a best friend to you as my mother is to me. 

Catherine:  I accept the gifts of your love and support.  I will cherish them now and depend on them in the years ahead.

Jim:  Catherine, in the Jewish tradition, when a girl reaches adolescence she becomes responsible for her own soul.  As a baptized believer you have already accepted that responsibility: you have made Jesus your Lord and pledged to follow him in faithful discipleship.  But as you turn thirteen the responsibility for your life of faith, for your moral choices, will be yours more than ever before.  I pledge to let go the reigns of my own responsibility for your “religion” more and more and to let you explore the boundaries of your faith with joyful abandon.  I also charge you to take full responsibility for your spiritual life: whether you continue to live as a committed follower of Jesus Christ will be up to you now, and not your mother or me.

Catherine:  I accept responsibility for my soul with fear and trembling.  I accept responsibility for my soul with joy and gratitude.

Jim:  Then let us celebrate Catherine’s coming-of-age, and let us seal this moment with a solemn, apple juice toast:

Ellie: (raising her glass): To Catherine, may you enter this exhilarating, exasperating “in-between time” with courage and with grace.

Christy (raising her glass): To Catherine, may you become to me not only a dear daughter, but also a loving sister, and a laughing friend.

Jim (raising his glass): To Catherine, may you continue to make me proud by the way you travel the road between childhood and adulthood.

Catherine (raising her glass): And to all of you, for all you have been, and all you will be, to me.

Clink!  Clink!  Clink!  Clink!