KOH2RVA: Day 103

wedding at canaHeaven has been a long way away from Newtown, Connecticut in the last six days.  For some people it’s been a long way away from Richmond, Virginia.

I was with some of those people last night at a service of remembrance for those who have lost loved ones in the last year, and for whom the holidays can be especially difficult.  I was asked to bring a message of hope.  I want to share it with you today and ask you, also, to be mindful of those people who may be having a hard time this Christmas.  See if you can bring a little heaven to earth for them simply by saying, “I’m thinking of you.”

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This is a service of remembrance, so let me begin with a memory.

My first church was in the little town of New Castle, Kentucky. There were some wonderful people there, including Hilda Powell, who was about five feet tall, and extremely sturdy: rooted to the ground by support hose and thick-soled orthopedic shoes. She was walking with a cane when I first met her but graduated to a walker soon after. She may have been the only person I knew who actually rode the lift we had in the back stairwell of the church. She would sit on that chair and ride up the stairs looking very much like the Queen of England, glaring out through the thick lenses of her glasses, and daring anyone to say a word.

At Christmastime, Hilda made bourbon balls. These were a Kentucky tradition—made of butter and powdered sugar, chopped nuts and chocolate, with just a hint of bourbon, except in Hilda’s case. She had a different recipe, which seemed to be mostly bourbon. You might imagine they were very popular. When she gave me my little box each year she seemed to do it with a secret smile on her face, as if she knew the Advent season is hard on ministers, and was doing her part to help it go down a little easier.

Her funeral was not the first I did at that church, but it may have been the first where I felt the loss quite so deeply. Hilda and I had become close in those years. Her gradual decline had given me plenty of reasons to visit her at home and in the hospital, and plenty of chances to have those kinds of honest talks you have when you know the end is near. So, I felt the lump in my throat when I said goodbye at her graveside, and the next Sunday when I looked out over the congregation I couldn’t help but notice her empty place on the pew.

Do you know how it is in church, that people seem to settle in one place in the sanctuary until it becomes “their” place, so that if a visitor sits there by mistake everybody else begins to clear their throats nervously? Hilda had that place. I can still see it if I close my eyes. And even though it wasn’t the first time I had ever seen it empty—she had been sick for a while—it was the first time I knew she would never sit there again.

You know what I’m talking about. You’ve seen that kind of thing happen at church, and, sadly, you’ve seen that kind of thing happen at home. For some of you, there will be a place in your house that is empty for the first time this Christmas. And if you have the tradition of sitting down to a big Christmas dinner it may be a place at the dining table—an empty chair—that will remind you more poignantly than anything else how your life has changed.

Maybe that’s why one of my favorite visions of heaven is what some scholars call “the eschatological banquet.” It seems to get its inspiration from a passage in Isaiah 25, where the prophet says:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation (Isa. 25:6-9, NRSV).

This is the banquet Jesus seems to have in mind when he says, in Matthew 8:11, “Many will come from east and west and eat with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven.” And when he tells the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22, he talks about a king who gives a banquet for his son, and when those who are invited won’t come he sends his servants out to gather anyone who will, so that his banquet hall may be filled.

I like that idea. Even more than I like the idea of mansions in heaven and streets of gold I like the idea of a heavenly banquet hall filled with people sitting at long tables that are groaning under the weight of more good food and drink than most of us have seen in our lives. A kind of Renaissance feast with a big fire in a huge fireplace, and musicians strolling around playing mandolins and fiddles as people eat and drink and clink their glasses together and laugh out loud.

And I like this idea: that as soon as our parents give us our names God writes them down on place cards and arranges them on the table in his heavenly banquet hall. I like to think that every child born on this earth has a place card in heaven, and only if they refuse God’s gracious invitation does he remove their card from the table.

So, picture this: when Hilda Powell died all those years ago her place on the pew was empty, but her place at the heavenly banquet table was finally filled, a place that had been waiting for her since she was a pink-cheeked baby girl. And because God is the one who arranges the place cards, I can picture her sitting with the people she loved most in this world and a few of the people she has come to love most in that one. Maybe you can picture your own loved ones sitting in that banquet hall, enjoying that feast, laughing until tears of joy run down their cheeks. Listen again to what the prophet says:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation (Isa. 25:6-9).

So may it be, and so may we pray:

Gracious God, it’s comforting to imagine our place cards on a table in heaven where the banquet is already in full swing, where people we have loved and lost are clinking their glasses together and laughing out loud, looking forward to the day when we can join them and discover for ourselves that this has been your intention all along—to bring all your people together forever in a place where there will be no empty chairs. Amen.

KOH2RVA: Day 99

pink candleToday was the Third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Joy.

A group of International students from VCU had been invited to light the Advent candle. They processed slowly down the aisle as the Youth Girls’ Ensemble sang. They mounted the steps and gathered around the Advent wreath. They held the lit taper to the pink candle and we all watched and waited for the wick to catch flame.

It didn’t happen.

I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so much suspense in church. I kept watching, willing the wick to catch. The student who was holding the taper seemed to have it in just the right place, but even so another student reached up to help. They adjusted the flame, moved it ever so slightly back and forth, but no matter what they did they couldn’t seem to get it to work. Finally, the song ended, and they had to step down from the chancel, the pink candle still unlit.

It seemed shockingly symbolic, that on a day when most of us were still grieving over the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the candle of joy wouldn’t stay lit, almost as if God himself were saying, “How can the flame of joy dance on its wick on a day like this?”

Maybe those students didn’t fail. Maybe they lit the candle over and over again and God kept snuffing it out, whispering, “No, not today.”

You can’t really schedule joy, and unfortunately you can’t really schedule grief. It comes when it comes. And it came today:

The Third Sunday of Advent.

Guest Blogger: Jim Flamming

Jim Flamming was pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church for 23 years.  It was during his tenure that the television ministry began, and soon the church and its gifted preacher were known throughout the region.  Since his retirement, Dr. Flamming has focused on three things: teaching, praying, and writing.  He is currently serving as a professor of preaching at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, as Pastor Emeritus of First Baptist Church (and leader of our Empowering Prayer Team), and recently published a book called Healing the Heartbreak of Grief.

Jim Flamming has been a regular source of encouragement to me, and along the way he has become a good friend.  I asked him if he would consider sharing some thoughts about dealing with grief during the holiday season, and he gladly agreed.  I hope you will learn from what he has written and forward it to your friends and relatives whose hearts are heavy at Christmas.

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The Invisible Christmas Basket of Grief
by Dr. Peter James Flamming

Gifts come in many forms at Christmas. I’ve noticed lots of baskets appear during this season – baskets with flowers, with food, with beautifully wrapped gifts to put under the tree. There is another basket, the invisible basket of grief. One who has always before joined in the celebration is absent. For many, Christmas is a mixed batch of memories, joy, and grief.

Those who have never been there may not understand the silent inner pain of loss. There is a “neveragainness” about grief – never again to be with that person around the tree, or to see the joy of their face when a gift has been opened, or the laughter at the Christmas dinner. Absent is the voice that blessed the food at the dinner table, or the smile when the Christmas story was read, or the fun of getting the tree put up and decorated. It is the “neveragainness” of grief.

Does anything help us with our grief at Christmas? I think so. These three have helped me and you may find them helpful as well:

First, try replacing the sharp edges of grief with the soft memories of gratitude. While what has been can never return, there are priceless memories that no one can take from you. They are treasures. Claim them. Remember them. Give thanks to God for them. No one else on the face of the earth has those memories. Embrace them as only you can. 

Second, when the sharp pains of loss overwhelm you, spend a little quiet time turning the trauma into a prayerful tribute. The loss you feel is a tribute to the one you have lost, and to the relationship you enjoyed. It is a tribute to the memories that dwell within you and are not erased. It is a quiet even spiritual hug for the love you had and still have for the person you so cherished. In our troubled world, the relationship you shared needs to be treasured and saluted. When your head is bowed in grief, lift up your head with tears in your eyes, and salute the years that you had together.

Third, do something. There is healing in tasking. In early grief the rule is, “just do the next thing.” Do what? Whatever needs doing. Pay bills, wash the dishes, make the bed, make the phone call. In later months and years add a new dimension, particularly appropriate at Christmas time. Do something for someone else. It is a small shadow of what our Lord did for us at Christmas, but it has the same love of Christ motivating it.

Finally, Christmas is not only for the joyful. Christmas is for healing the broken hearted. As we gather around the manger of our Lord, we can blend the pain that we feel with the healing we embrace. Christmas has many baskets, including grief, but none is so powerful as the basket that includes the manger, the Christ, and the hope that He brings.

Never Can Say Goodbye

I spoke at Bill Rock’s funeral on Thursday, and since then several people have requested copies of my homily.  I thought I would share it here.

I met Bill Rock at a Gold Band Sunday school class party over at the Pusey House.  I was invited by some of the members of the class, and I remember how eager they were to introduce me to Bill, whispering that he had lost his eyesight recently but bragging openly about the twenty years he had served as church treasurer and the forty years he had taught fourth grade Sunday school.  “Bill?” they said.  “This is our new pastor, Dr. Somerville.”  And he turned toward the sound of their voices and reached out to shake my hand.   I can still remember that handshake, both firm and gentle.  I got the feeling that he was not a man who had been humbled by his circumstances, but a man who had always been humble, faithful, willing to serve.  That hunch has only been confirmed by the things I’ve learned about Bill in the past two years, the stories I’ve heard since Sunday afternoon, and the eulogy that Bob delivered today.  Bill Rock was a very special man.  Your presence here this morning is testimony to that, and the only reason this room is not full to the rafters is because so many of Bill’s friends and loved ones have gone on ahead of him.

It was around this time last year that Bill’s daughter, Nancy, came to my office to talk about his funeral service.  He was very sick, and it didn’t look as if he was going to get better.  She came to see me because she knew he could go at any time.  She wanted to be ready.  But I don’t know that you are ever ready for the death of someone you love any more than you are ready to choose which breath will be your last one.  We fight for our breath.  We fight for our life.  It is precious to us and we don’t want to lose it.  And that’s just how we feel about the ones we love.  We don’t want to lose them either.  And that has caused me to think some new thoughts about John 3:16, that familiar and well-worn verse that says, “For God so loved the world he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  When we stop to think about that verse we often think about what a gift God gave—his only son!—or what a gift we’ve received—eternal life!—but I don’t know that I’ve ever thought about God sending his son because he didn’t want to lose us.

I should have.  The verse begins with the truth that God loves us.  It continues with the truth that he loved us so much he gave his only son.  But only at the end does it say he did this so that he did this so that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, and for the first time I imagined God sitting beside a hospital bed, holding onto the hand of someone he loves, hoping and praying that their next breath would not be their last.  It suggests that in these few years we have on earth God could grow fond of us, that as he knits our bones together in our mothers’ wombs, as he brings us into the world through childbirth, as he watches over us all the days of our lives, he might come to know who we are and love us in the same way any parent comes to know and love a child.  I can imagine how he came to know and love Bill, and how it has grieved him in these last few years to see Bill lose his sight, to have that long, long struggle with sickness.  But I think how much more it would grieve him if he thought Bill’s death would be the end of him.

God loved the world, John says.  He loved it so much he gave his only son.  He gave his only son so that he wouldn’t ever have to say goodbye to Bill Rock.  And all Bill had to do was believe that God could love him that much.  It’s not easy.  None of us thinks we’re worth dying for.  But if we could believe in that love, if we could receive that gift, then the end of our life in this world would be the beginning of our life in the next, and that life goes on forever.  There is no end to it, and no goodbyes. 

I hadn’t thought about God giving the gift of eternal life because he didn’t want to say goodbye to us, but if there is any truth in that idea you can see how he might understand exactly how we feel when we don’t want to say goodbye to Bill.  And because he is God and can do something about it he has: he has made possible the hello that follows goodbye.  If there is any truth to this notion of the resurrection, to the idea of everlasting life, then I can believe that someday I will be introduced to Bill Rock again, that some of the members of the Gold Band Sunday school class, or some of the members of his family, or maybe even Marylou herself will say, “Look, here’s Bill!”  And there he will stand before me—his feeble knees firm, his weak hands strengthened, his eyes bright and clear as he reaches out to shake my hand and says with a smile, “Hello, Jim.  It’s good to see you.  I think we’ve met before!” 

Apart from Christ himself that may be the best gift of John 3:16: the knowledge that this is the last time we will ever have to say goodbye to Bill Rock,

…and the promise of that next hello.

Authenticity

Nobody could have predicted what happened at last Sunday night’s concert.

Phil Mitchell had put together a program called “Dear God”: an assortment of hymns and anthems interspersed with personal letters to God from members of the congregation.  There must have been a hundred people in the choir, singing like angels, and the orchestral accompaniment was heavenly, but when people began to read their prayers a reverent hush fell over the sanctuary. 

Martha Joyner talked about how grateful she was for her family, and especially for her new granddaughter, Emma Grace.  Carl Johnson talked about how God had led him into his work as treasurer of the International Mission Board and through a time of deep personal tragedy.  But then Hannah Ramsey got up to speak.  You could tell, even before she started, that this was going to be hard for her.  Her hands were shaking.  She took a deep breath and let it out.  And then she said, “Dear God, it’s been 99 days since we last talked…”

As she sobbed and struggled through the rest of her letter she talked about losing her sixteen-year-old brother, Jackson, to suicide.  She talked about how angry she was—still—and how she had been trying to work through her pain and her grief.  Her emotion was raw and real, and she held nothing back.  When she finished I let out the breath I had been holding since she began with a single word: “Wow!”   And when she sat down behind me I wrote this note on a slip of paper and passed it to her:

“That was just about the bravest thing I have ever seen.  Certainly the most honest.  Thank you.”

Her courage and honesty added to what had already been shared, and raised the experience of that concert to a new level.  By the time the choir sang “Total Praise” at the end of the evening we were all caught up in a kind of rare unity, where it didn’t really matter who you were or where you came from—we had become family just by being there.  And as we stood to sing the Lord’s Prayer together as a kind of benediction Pastor Emeritus Jim Flamming made his way over to where Hannah was standing and put his arms around her.  I glanced over my shoulder, saw what was going on, and thought what a good instinct it was on his part.  He’s known Hannah all her life.  There was probably a time when she thought Dr. Flamming was God.  For him to put his arms around her like that and hand her his handkerchief was just the right kind of pastoral care. 

The tears flowed freely.

When it was over I told Hannah’s mother that I had read something that very afternoon about how some people avoid church because it doesn’t seem real to them; they’re looking for something “authentic.”  I told her, “But it doesn’t get any more real than it did tonight.” 

It doesn’t. 

And I think we all learned something: that we can not only trust God with our most honest emotions but—when church is real—we can trust each other, too.  And when we do it can make all the difference.  We’re not a roomful of strangers anymore: we’re family.  And a girl who has lost her brother might just discover that she is not alone.

Not by a long shot.