KOH2RVA: Day 362

orange hairMy new book arrived in the mail yesterday.

Let me be more specific: a new book arrived in the mail yesterday containing some of my devotional thoughts. It’s called Pause: moments to reflect, and it’s published by Passport Media (the same Passport that puts on mission camps for church youth groups each summer, camps that our youth have been attending for years).

Pause is a year’s worth of devotions from Passport’s popular d365 devotional website. A few years ago I was asked to write some of those devotions and this year they showed up in the book.

I had forgotten all about them.

So, what a surprise to open this mysterious package from Passport and find “my” book inside, and then what a surprise to find that the devotions I had written were based on the lectionary readings from last Sunday! Two of them were from the Gospel lesson about how to take your seat at a banquet and who to invite to a dinner party (Luke 14), but then I found this one from Hebrews 13, and it seemed to fit in so well with some of what we’ve been doing on this year-long, every-member mission trip called KOH2RVA that I wanted to share it with you here.

Here it is, from page 374:

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This is one of those passages that haunts me.

The writer of Hebrews says that “some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Can you imagine? What if that homeless man you bought a hamburger for turned out to be a messenger of God? Then again, what if the homeless man you didn’t buy a hamburger for turned out to be a messenger of God?

That’s the part that haunts me.

So, I try to imagine that everyone might be someone God has put in my path, that anyone might have a message from God for me—the old man sitting in his wheelchair at the nursing home, that girl with the bright orange hair and nose ring, the child with the sunken cheeks and hollow eyes. I try to think of all of them as angels without wings, but sometimes I get so busy I don’t even see them.

And that’s what haunts me.

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Let’s keep our eyes open today, friends. There are lots of “angels without wings” in Richmond. One of them may be waiting for a kind word or deed from you.

KOH2RVA: Day 213

Wind_blowing_by_xpuszakxI’m preaching an Easter season series called “The Acts of an Easter People” (thanks, John Ballenger, for a great title).

One of the things I love about Acts is the way the Spirit not only blows where it will, but seems to blow God’s people wherever it wills. After the stoning of Stephen in chapter 7, for example, some of the disciples end up in Samaria (of all places) where they preach the good news to the Samaritans and make a number of converts. Later Philip preaches the good news to an Ethiopian eunuch (of all people) who also becomes a believer.

Crazy, right?

It’s one of the reasons I love hearing from Jeremy and Monica, the church planters I’ve told you about before. They are a young couple who don’t look much like evangelists, and yet they can’t stop talking to people about Jesus. They talk to all kinds of people. The Spirit blows them wherever it wills.

I wanted to share with you today a prayer request Jeremy sent out before a recent event, and then tomorrow follow up with the results, just so you’ll have the satisfaction of finding out what happened. First, the request:

Yes! This is so cool! Please pray!

1. This Saturday is our FIRST gathering for people who are seeking answers on questions of “faith.” It’s an open discussion, yet oriented toward defending and defining a Biblical understanding of faith. The sorts of people we invited are from a range of pantheist, pluralist, atheist, agnostic, post-christian, post-catholic, apathetic, NOT apathetic (some of them REALLY care!), some are ignorant others are well informed “religiously,” and others who have been invited are somewhat neo-pagan (spiritual consumers just taking whatever they want, ignoring what they don’t want, and ignoring their own inconsistencies). Pray that the Holy Spirit will move and that nothing prevents them from coming to the gathering! Depending on who comes, we will also be partnering with a few people from Imago (our local church) who will also be there for the purpose of being a light.

2. Due to the recent opportunities in sharing Christ, I am developing a small follow-up handout to give to people AFTER we have a gospel conversation. This is NOT a tract, rather it is a handout that will keep the dialogue open and provide a few directions for those we talk with (the goal is to keep the gospel at the forefront and point them towards more questions/answers and scripture!). Pray for me for wisdom and brevity as I create that.

So just an example of why that follow-up info is needed: This week we explained passover and the gospel to two neopagans and one girl who is starting to believe in Christ. In our conversation, the gospel was core and we were able to enter into a deeper understanding of the lives of each person present. Recognizing that the Lord has just provided an excellent window of opportunity into their hearts, we want to provide a few follow-up directions on PAPER so that they can take something with them (especially because this community is HIGHLY transient, so opportunities may disappear quickly)! Obviously we will follow up anyway in person, but this is just one way to practically keep planting the seed and keep the gospel in FRONT of them!

And so the Excellent news continues to go forth in Richmond!

May the peace and joy of Christ be with you all!

Jeremy and Monica

Tomorrow: what happened on Saturday!

KOH2RVA: Day 182

Shane Claiborne 2One of my Facebook friends shared this letter from Shane Claiborne, which was recently published in Esquire magazine. Claiborne is a thirty-something Christian who is a leading figure in the New Monasticism movement. He is the author of the Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. He also dresses weird. But I was struck by a line in this letter where he says that the Christian gospel is “not just about going up when we die but about bringing God’s kingdom down.”

I like that.

Read the letter. You may not like all of it, but I think you’ll find some things here that could be useful to people trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, and especially to those they are trying to reach who have been put off by “Christians.”

Take it away, Shane:

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To all my nonbelieving, sort-of-believing, and used-to-be-believing friends: I feel like I should begin with a confession. I am sorry that so often the biggest obstacle to God has been Christians. Christians who have had so much to say with our mouths and so little to show with our lives. I am sorry that so often we have forgotten the Christ of our Christianity.

Forgive us. Forgive us for the embarrassing things we have done in the name of God.

The other night I headed into downtown Philly for a stroll with some friends from out of town. We walked down to Penn’s Landing along the river, where there are street performers, artists, musicians. We passed a great magician who did some pretty sweet tricks like pour change out of his iPhone, and then there was a preacher. He wasn’t quite as captivating as the magician. He stood on a box, yelling into a microphone, and beside him was a coffin with a fake dead body inside. He talked about how we are all going to die and go to hell if we don’t know Jesus.

Some folks snickered. Some told him to shut the hell up. A couple of teenagers tried to steal the dead body in the coffin. All I could do was think to myself, I want to jump up on a box beside him and yell at the top of my lungs, “God is not a monster.” Maybe next time I will.

The more I have read the Bible and studied the life of Jesus, the more I have become convinced that Christianity spreads best not through force but through fascination. But over the past few decades our Christianity, at least here in the United States, has become less and less fascinating. We have given the atheists less and less to disbelieve. And the sort of Christianity many of us have seen on TV and heard on the radio looks less and less like Jesus.

At one point Gandhi was asked if he was a Christian, and he said, essentially, “I sure love Jesus, but the Christians seem so unlike their Christ.” A recent study showed that the top three perceptions of Christians in the U. S. among young non-Christians are that Christians are 1) antigay, 2) judgmental, and 3) hypocritical. So what we have here is a bit of an image crisis, and much of that reputation is well deserved. That’s the ugly stuff. And that’s why I begin by saying that I’m sorry.

Now for the good news.

I want to invite you to consider that maybe the televangelists and street preachers are wrong — and that God really is love. Maybe the fruits of the Spirit really are beautiful things like peace, patience, kindness, joy, love, goodness, and not the ugly things that have come to characterize religion, or politics, for that matter. (If there is anything I have learned from liberals and conservatives, it’s that you can have great answers and still be mean… and that just as important as being right is being nice.)

The Bible that I read says that God did not send Jesus to condemn the world but to save it… it was because “God so loved the world.” That is the God I know, and I long for others to know. I did not choose to devote my life to Jesus because I was scared to death of hell or because I wanted crowns in heaven… but because he is good. For those of you who are on a sincere spiritual journey, I hope that you do not reject Christ because of Christians. We have always been a messed-up bunch, and somehow God has survived the embarrassing things we do in His name. At the core of our “Gospel” is the message that Jesus came “not [for] the healthy… but the sick.” And if you choose Jesus, may it not be simply because of a fear of hell or hope for mansions in heaven.

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe in the afterlife, but too often all the church has done is promise the world that there is life after death and use it as a ticket to ignore the hells around us. I am convinced that the Christian Gospel has as much to do with this life as the next, and that the message of that Gospel is not just about going up when we die but about bringing God’s Kingdom down. It was Jesus who taught us to pray that God’s will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” On earth.

One of Jesus’ most scandalous stories is the story of the Good Samaritan. As sentimental as we may have made it, the original story was about a man who gets beat up and left on the side of the road. A priest passes by. A Levite, the quintessential religious guy, also passes by on the other side (perhaps late for a meeting at church). And then comes the Samaritan… you can almost imagine a snicker in the Jewish crowd. Jews did not talk to Samaritans, or even walk through Samaria. But the Samaritan stops and takes care of the guy in the ditch and is lifted up as the hero of the story. I’m sure some of the listeners were ticked. According to the religious elite, Samaritans did not keep the right rules, and they did not have sound doctrine… but Jesus shows that true faith has to work itself out in a way that is Good News to the most bruised and broken person lying in the ditch.

It is so simple, but the pious forget this lesson constantly. God may indeed be evident in a priest, but God is just as likely to be at work through a Samaritan or a prostitute. In fact the Scripture is brimful of God using folks like a lying prostitute named Rahab, an adulterous king named David… at one point God even speaks to a guy named Balaam through his donkey. Some say God spoke to Balaam through his ass and has been speaking through asses ever since. So if God should choose to use us, then we should be grateful but not think too highly of ourselves. And if upon meeting someone we think God could never use, we should think again.

After all, Jesus says to the religious elite who looked down on everybody else: “The tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom ahead of you.” And we wonder what got him killed?

I have a friend in the UK who talks about “dirty theology” — that we have a God who is always using dirt to bring life and healing and redemption, a God who shows up in the most unlikely and scandalous ways. After all, the whole story begins with God reaching down from heaven, picking up some dirt, and breathing life into it. At one point, Jesus takes some mud, spits in it, and wipes it on a blind man’s eyes to heal him. (The priests and producers of anointing oil were not happy that day.)

In fact, the entire story of Jesus is about a God who did not just want to stay “out there” but who moves into the neighborhood, a neighborhood where folks said, “Nothing good could come.” It is this Jesus who was accused of being a glutton and drunkard and rabble-rouser for hanging out with all of society’s rejects, and who died on the imperial cross of Rome reserved for bandits and failed messiahs. This is why the triumph over the cross was a triumph over everything ugly we do to ourselves and to others. It is the final promise that love wins.

It is this Jesus who was born in a stank manger in the middle of a genocide. That is the God that we are just as likely to find in the streets as in the sanctuary, who can redeem revolutionaries and tax collectors, the oppressed and the oppressors… a God who is saving some of us from the ghettos of poverty, and some of us from the ghettos of wealth.

In closing, to those who have closed the door on religion — I was recently asked by a non-Christian friend if I thought he was going to hell. I said, “I hope not. It will be hard to enjoy heaven without you.” If those of us who believe in God do not believe God’s grace is big enough to save the whole world… well, we should at least pray that it is.

Your brother,

Shane

Read more: Shane Claiborne – Letter to Non-Believers by Shane Claiborne – Esquire http://www.esquire.com/features/best-and-brightest-2009/shane-claiborne-1209#ixzz2MxEvkeCS

KOH2RVA: Day 157

2013-02-12 19.05.10I can hardly believe what I saw in the sanctuary of Richmond’s First Baptist Church last night. It was as if all the old rules and the old ways had been temporarily suspended.

On one hand it was simply a Henrico County Public Schools Black History Month Mass Choir Concert, but on the other hand it was a demonstration of the power of possibility.

You say black people and white people can’t get along? I saw kids of almost every color standing together, singing together, swaying back and forth and smiling as if they really, really loved what they were doing and who they were doing it with.

You say church and state are separate? I saw kids from public high schools singing songs like “Jordan’s Angels,” and “Praise His Holy Name,” and “Keep Your Lamps” (Trimmed and Burning), and “True Light.” I heard them lifting up the name of Jesus as if we were having church, and not a public school choir concert.

You say you have to behave in church? I don’t know. When the concert was over the three students who were playing drums, bass, and guitar began to jam, just for the fun of it, and people began to move, just for the fun of it too. There was a happy, bubbly, post-concert mood in the air that was contagious. Young people and old people alike were catching it. I caught it, and found myself moving to the music for the second time this week at First Baptist (what’s going on here?).

What is the Kingdom of Heaven like, and with what shall I compare it? It’s like a rainbow-colored public school mass choir singing gospel songs in a church sanctuary until people just have to get up out of their pews and dance. When that happens, heaven comes to earth.

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Tonight in that same sanctuary someone will make the sign of the cross on my forehead and invite me to begin a 40-day Lenten journey with Jesus. The mood will be almost completely different.  We will move from the joyful Mardi Gras of last night’s concert to the sober reflection of Ash Wednesday.

And yet this, too, is how heaven comes to earth.

KOH2RVA: Day 122

Baby-Jesus-SleepingI keep thinking about the evangelist whose story I shared yesterday. He is a former Muslim, converted to Christianity, and eager to make a billion more converts. He is doing it by telling school children in India the “true story of Christmas,” which somehow ends with the message that if you don’t accept Jesus as your Lord and savior you will perish in the flames of hell for eternity.

That’s not the message I get from the true story of Christmas. In fact, that’s not the message I get from either of the Gospels that tell the Christmas story (Matthew and Luke). I challenge you to read either one all the way through, from beginning to end, and conclude that it’s about how to stay out of hell. Hell doesn’t figure into these Gospels very often. Jesus mentions it 7 times in Matthew, 2 times in Luke. But he makes reference to the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven, a staggering120 times in the Gospels. And when his disciples ask him to teach them to pray he says, “Pray for this: that God’s kingdom would come, his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

That was his mission.

So, where did we get the idea that our mission is to keep people out of hell? The evangelist I talked with on Sunday might say that he gets it from John 3:16—“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

“See?” he would say. “That’s the true story of Christmas. God loved the world so much he gave his only son, like a Christmas present, wrapped in swaddling cloths.” And I would agree; that is the true story of Christmas. “But if we don’t receive the gift of his son,” he would add, “we will perish everlastingly.”

And that’s where I get stuck

Love with an “if” in it is conditional love. I believe that God loves us unconditionally. I sometimes say to people, “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s nothing you can do to make him love you more. There’s nothing you can do to make him love you less. All you can do is choose to receive the gift of his love.”

What if those Indian schoolchildren heard that message? Wouldn’t that sound more like what the gospel is supposed to be—good news? And if they could really believe that God loved them unconditionally…

Wouldn’t heaven come to earth?

…And Then to Be Understood

In my last post I tried to state as clearly as possible my understanding of the position held by those who believe we should continue to require Christians from other denominations to be re-baptized when they join Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  It wasn’t my position, but only my understanding of that other position.  As Stephen Covey has suggested:  “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.”

So now, in an effort to be understood, I’d like to state my position:

Those who say that believer’s baptism by immersion is the New Testament model are absolutely right, but the New Testament tells the story of people who were hearing about Jesus for the first time.  That crowd on the Day of Pentecost, for example, had never been given an opportunity to profess their faith and be baptized.  When they were, they jumped at the chance.  Some 3,000 were added to the church.  As the gospel swept across the ancient world it was good news in the most literal sense: it was good and it was news.  So, what do you do when someone repents and believes in the gospel?  You baptize them, and that’s exactly what you ought to do with converts. 

But that’s not what you ought to do with Christians.

If I were trying to invent a way of welcoming converts into the church, I think I would do it in just the way we do it now, and for all the same reasons given in my last post:  I would want to stand waist deep in the water with that new believer, just as John stood in the Jordan with Jesus; I would ask her to profess her faith in Christ by saying “Jesus is Lord,” and to do it in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear; I would dip her down beneath the surface in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus commanded; and I would raise her up to her new life in Christ as if she were rising from the dead, just as Paul describes.  I think believer’s baptism by immersion is the perfect way to welcome converts into the church of Jesus Christ.

But if I were inventing a way of welcoming Christians into the church I might simply ask that person coming down the aisle:  Are you a believer?  Yes.  Have you received baptism in some form?  Yes.  Have you made a public profession of faith in Christ?  Yes.  And do you earnestly seek to follow Jesus?  Yes.  Then welcome to First Baptist Church!  

And then maybe we could toss confetti from the balcony.

I say this because I don’t believe we should treat Christians in the same way we treat converts.  There is a difference–a real difference–between someone who is making a first-time profession of faith in Christ and someone who has been a faithful Christian for years.  Our membership requirements should reflect that.   To those who fear we would be leaving behind the clear teaching of Scripture on this matter I say no, we would not.  There is no clear teaching of Scripture on what to do when a Christian from another denomination wants to join the church.  There is only clear teaching on what to do when someone becomes a Christian for the first time.  When it comes to that we Baptists try to be as faithful to the New Testament model as possible.  We baptize believers by immersion.  That’s the way we’ve been doing it for the past 230 years at Richmond’s First Baptist Church and that is the way we will continue to do it. 

In other churches they make disciples in other ways.   I’ve written about this in previous posts, and talked about how Presbyterians, for example, make disciples by baptizing babies, doing everything they can to bring them up in the Christian faith, and then, when they are old enough to make up their own minds about Jesus, confirming them as believers.  We make disciples by dedicating babies, doing everything we can to bring them up in the Christian faith, and then, when they are old enough to make up their own minds about Jesus, baptizing them as believers.   Unless we are willing to say (out loud) that that process of discipleship is not valid, and those churches are not churches, and those people are not Christians, we ought to welcome them as our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Perhaps we could even feel honored that of all the churches they might have chosen, they have chosen this one.  What I hear from them over and over again is what a warm welcome they have received here, how much they sense the spirit of Christ among us, and how eager they are to be part of this church.  You might think we would throw open the doors to people like that instead of going down a checklist of Christian credentials and furrowing our brows when we discover they weren’t baptized in the same way we were.

I told someone recently that when we stand before Jesus he won’t ask us how much water was used or when it was applied.  He will only ask us what he asked Peter that day by the seashore:

“Do you love me?”

Life in the “Big Tent”

At Richmond’s First Baptist Church we tithe by giving at least 10% of our total budget to missions.  The only question, then, is which missions to support?

It used to be so easy. 

We were Southern Baptists, and we gave our money through the Cooperative Program to support “our” missionaries at home and abroad.  But in 1979 a movement began which was described by some as a “conservative resurgence” within the denomination but by others as “the fundamentalist takeover” of the SBC.  By 1990 moderate Baptists had given up the fight, and in 1991 constituted the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which they described as “a new way of being Baptist.”  CBF began to send its own missionaries, and churches that had never had to ask the question before now wondered: “Which missionaries do we support?”  The split between moderates and conservatives in the SBC had divided not only the denomination, but also its churches.

Richmond’s First Baptist Church refused to be divided. 

Instead it created giving options for its members.  Those who remained loyal to the Southern Baptist Convention and its missionaries could simply check the SBC box on their pledge cards or offering envelopes and rest assured that their missions dollars would go that way.  Those who were excited about the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and a new way of being Baptist could check the CBF box and know that their mission dollars were going to support that new venture.  Those who didn’t have strong feelings one way or another, or who wanted to support both mission causes, could give through the “First Baptist Plan,” knowing their mission dollars would be divided among the SBC and the CBF.

It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it did allow people with different denominational loyalties and leanings to stay in the same church.  The tent was big enough for everyone.

At the deacons’ meeting on Tuesday night we discussed some proposed changes in our giving plans and things got a little uncomfortable.  There was some pushing and shoving going on inside the big tent as everybody tried to make sure there was room enough for them and their views.  When it was my turn to offer some closing thoughts I said (although I hadn’t really planned on making a speech), “I am privileged to be the pastor of a church where some members don’t want to give one thin dime to the SBC, and where other members don’t want to give one thin dime to the CBF, and where still other members don’t know what those letters mean and don’t really care.  It’s important that we provide them with some choices, so that those who want to support the SBC can do it, and those who want to support the CBF can do it, and those who don’t have a preference can put their money in the offering plate knowing that their mission dollars will be well spent.  I do believe this: that missionaries on both sides of this divide are waking up each morning thinking about how they can share the Gospel with people who need to hear it.  I’ve met those missionaries.  I’ve talked with them.  I know where their hearts are.  I don’t think any of us have to worry about our mission dollars being misspent.”

Who knows?  We may need to lengthen the ropes a little more, make the tent a little bigger, to include missionaries and mission causes we have never considered before, and to include people of every persuasion who are passionate about being and sharing the good news of Jesus.

Even if they check the “wrong” box on their offering envelopes.