KOH2RVA: Day 321

smokingOn Wednesdays I go down to the basement level of the church to speak to the men and women who come to First Baptist for hot showers, clean clothes, a cup of coffee, and a little bit of the love of Christ. I enjoy doing it, and I try not to make it too “preachy.” I simply try to encourage people who live a harder life than most of us can imagine.

But this week I told a story I heard from church historian Bill Leonard years ago. It was about a time he visited a rural church in Kentucky that didn’t even have a building: the congregation just sat outside on wooden benches. Bill sat down beside a man who was wearing a pair of faded bib overalls, with a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes in the front pocket.

When the preacher got warmed up to the subject of his sermon he said, “I’m getting tired of these people going out honky tonkin’ on Saturday nights, getting’ drunk and carryin’ on like they do. What kind of example is that to be settin’ before our kids?” And the man in the bib overalls said, “Amen, preacher! You tell ‘em!”

And then the preacher said, “And what about these young women walkin’ around with their skirts cut up to here and their blouses cut down to there, showing off everything the good Lord gave ‘em? How is a young man supposed to keep his way pure?” And the man in the bib overalls said, “Amen, preacher! That’s right!”

But then the preacher said, “And what about cigarettes? People who call themselves Christians walkin’ around suckin’ on them cigarettes like a baby sucks on his bottle! That’s got to stop!” And that’s when the man in bib overalls turned to Bill Leonard and said, “That ain’t Bible and I ain’t listenin’!” and walked off in a huff.

I said to my friends at Community Missions, “That’s a funny story, but it does raise the question of who you listen to. This man said he wasn’t going to listen to something that wasn’t in the Bible, but what he really meant was that he wasn’t going to listen to something he didn’t agree with. What about you? Who do you listen to? Who has authority in your life? Is it the Bible? Is it your mother? Is it the voices in your head?

I said, “For me, it’s Jesus. I believe he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and I believe that if I follow his Way I won’t be disappointed. So, I read the Gospels, and I underline what Jesus says, and I try to live by it. And even if I get to the end of my life and find that Jesus has led me to a locked door (although that’s not going to happen), I don’t think I will have any regrets. I believe his Way really is the best way to live in this world.”

It’s the reason First Baptist Church is on this year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia: because it’s so important to Jesus, because he mentions the Kingdom some 120 times in the Gospels, because he teaches his disciples to pray that God’s Kingdom will come, and His will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

So, we’re working hard to bring heaven to earth, and it’s not necessarily because we want to, but because Jesus said so.

What about you?  Who do you listen to?

KOH2RVA: Day 128

CampoloI’m back!  Back from a four-day trip to Kentucky where I spoke at my alma mater—Georgetown College—and preached at the church where I was licensed to the ministry—Faith Baptist. It was great to see old friends and stir up old memories but it was also great to roll into Richmond at 10:30 last night and think:

I’m home!

On Thursday night of last week I got to hear Tony Campolo preach. I’ve heard Tony many times before. I’ve probably heard most of what he has to say but he always seems to say it in a way that makes me want to say “Amen!”

This time he talked about growing up Baptist. He said he heard a lot of preaching from the Epistles of Paul in those days and a lot of talk about the doctrine of salvation. It was all about whether or not you knew for a fact that when you died you would go to heaven. But these days, he said, he’s feeling a shift in preaching away from the Epistles and toward the Gospels, less talk about salvation and more talk about the Kingdom of God (and if you read the Gospels even casually you can’t miss Jesus’ emphasis on the Kingdom. He makes reference to it 120 times. It was obviously the main thing on his mind).

“Jesus taught his disciples to pray that God’s Kingdom would come where?” Tony asked, and a few of us mumbled, “On earth.” He sighed with disgust and said, “I thought this was a Baptist gathering!” And then he asked again: “Jesus taught his disciples to pray that God’s Kingdom would come where?!” And this time we thundered back, ‘ON EARTH!”

I have to say, it was wonderfully confirming to hear it. For nearly five years now I’ve been talking to the members of First Baptist Church about bringing heaven to earth. Since September 9 we’ve been on a year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia. Most days I feel like we are doing exactly what Jesus would want us to do.

But every once in a while someone will tell me that what the church is really supposed to be doing is saving souls—getting people ready so that if they died tonight they would go to heaven.

Listen: I want to be ready. And if I die tonight I want to go to heaven. But from now until then I want to work to bring heaven to earth because I believe that’s what Jesus would want me to do.

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth,” he prayed.

Could it be any clearer?

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.”

————————————————————-

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.

For Mothers Everywhere

CB106347Here’s another great poem by Wendell Berry.  I smiled when I read it because, for nearly five years in Kentucky, I was pastor to his mother, Virginia Berry.  She was everything he says she was here and then some.  But I also smiled because it reminded me so much of my own mother, who forgave me more wrongs than I care to remember, and who—like Wendell’s mother—has long since forgotten them.  So, here’s to you, Virginia, and Mary Rice, and all mothers everywhere. 

God bless you every one.

————————————-

To My Mother
by Wendell Berry

I was your rebellious son,
do you remember? Sometimes
I wonder if you do remember,
so complete has your forgiveness been.

So complete has your forgiveness been
I wonder sometimes if it did not
precede my wrong, and I erred,
safe found, within your love,

prepared ahead of me, the way home,
or my bed at night, so that almost
I should forgive you, who perhaps
foresaw the worst that I might do,

and forgave before I could act,
causing me to smile now, looking back,
to see how paltry was my worst,
compared to your forgiveness of it

already given. And this, then,
is the vision of that Heaven of which
we have heard, where those who love
each other have forgiven each other,

where, for that, the leaves are green,
the light a music in the air,
and all is unentangled,
and all is undismayed.

 

“To My Mother” by Wendell Berry, from Entries. © Pantheon Books, 1994.

Practice Resurrection

forest210240ai1Wendell Berry–well-known poet, philospher, and prophet—was a member of the church I served in New Castle, Kentucky.  I’ve read a number of his novels and essays, but this poem has always been one of my favorites.  If you’re not a fan of poety (some people aren’t), you can skip down to the last line which—during this Easter season—presents itself as a bold challenge to the followers of the risen Lord.

——————————–

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

 

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” from The Country of Marriage, copyright © 1973 by Wendell Berry, reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.