KOH2RVA: Day 269

doctor-shaking-hands-with-patientI had lunch with Bill and Emily Johnston yesterday, an older couple from First Baptist who have been kind to me from the beginning and haven’t slowed down yet. We went to the Dairy Bar after yesterday’s Senior Adult Bible Study, where I indulged in the special of the day (a barbecue sandwich with French fries) and finished it off with a scoop of Cookies ‘n’ Cream ice cream (note: this is not a healthy meal.  You will pay for it.  I’m getting ready to run five miles as penance).

We talked about a lot of things over lunch, but eventually they asked the question that prompted the invitation. “What do you want us to do?” they asked, and what they meant was, “What do you want us to do to help bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia?”

I was moved by the question.

Here they were, people who have invested their whole lives in Richmond, who have worked tirelessly through the years to bless the city and heal its inhabitants (literally—Bill is a retired pediatrician and Emily was his nurse), asking me what I wanted them to do to bring heaven a little closer to earth. I couldn’t think of a thing, and so I asked them what they were already doing. They began to tick off a long list of volunteer activities around the church but eventually started talking about their regular visits to the hospitalized and homebound. They told me that sometimes they offer to take a homebound person to the store, or out for lunch, and then they looked to me for approval. “Is that a good thing?”

I slipped into the role of teacher for just a minute. I told them about my own parents, who are in a nursing home. When I go to visit them I usually offer to take my mom out to lunch. She is physically very healthy, and cheerful as a cricket, although she admits she can’t remember very much. My dad, on the other hand, is in the hospice wing. He can open his eyes when I call his name, smile and take my hand, but a few minutes later he is nodding off again. So, they have different needs. I visit with my dad for about three minutes and with my mom for about three hours.

I used that example with Bill and Emily to emphasize the need for sensitivity in each situation.  People who are recovering from surgery may not need a long visit if they need one at all. They’re trying to heal, and that takes a lot of energy. They don’t need to use it up entertaining guests. On the other hand someone who is home alone day after day may savor a visit like I savored that scoop of ice cream—relishing every bite and not wanting it to come to an end. “You really just have to be sensitive,” I said, “and do what’s best for each person.”

And then I heard what I was saying and looked at the two of them sitting there across the table, nodding, taking in every word.  I was embarrassed by my own insensitivity. What could I possibly teach Bill and Emily? They’ve been out there day after day, visiting the hospitalized and the homebound. They may not have gotten it exactly right every time. None of us do. But doing it is so much better than waiting till we get it all figured out or coming up with a list of reasons why we can’t.

“What do I want you to do?” I asked, eventually. “Exactly what you’re doing. You two are bringing it—you’re bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.

“What more could I ask?”

KOH2RVA: Day 167

2013-02-08 13.44.18Yesterday I went to Clark Springs Elementary School to spend some time with my lunch buddy, Jaylen. He brought three little paperback books with him he was supposed to read and so I spent most of the time listening, offering corrections and suggestions from time to time, like, “Why don’t you take a breath when you get to the end of a sentence, Jaylen?” (He’s a very fast reader. In fact, last time I went I took him the book he’s reading in the picture above, from the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. He loved it, and read 43 pages while I was there).

But on the way back to his classroom Jaylen asked one of the other kids how many books he’d read during the hour.

“One,” the kid said.

“I read two,” Jaylen said, proudly.

“Well, we spent most of the time talking,” the kid said. And then he said this:

“He’s about the only person who listens to me.”

And I looked at his lunch buddy who was walking along beside him, a nice-looking older gentleman wearing a blue windbreaker. He didn’t seem all that remarkable. You probably wouldn’t single him out in a crowd. But to this kid he was special. He was “The One Who Listens.”

The One.

Can you imagine how much difference it would make in a kid’s life to have even one person who listens to him? And can you imagine that it’s not that hard to give up an hour or so a few times a month to sit there, wide-eyed, while a kid shares his life with you? If you’re interested you could probably contact your local elementary school or, if you’re in Richmond, volunteer with the Micah Initiative or one of the other tutoring programs. It’s not that hard to sit and listen to a kid for an hour. But for the kid it may be the only time he has the full attention of an adult who will listen, and nod, and say, “Wow!” And if you’ve ever been listened to—really listened to—you know:

It’s heaven on earth.

The Sound of Falling Snow

tree_snowing_800Yesterday was my daughter Ellie’s 21st birthday.  Hard to believe she’s been in the world that long!  In honor of the occasion I dug up a story that I wrote about her when she was four years old, when we went to visit her grandparents in the mountains of Western North Carolina.  It goes like this:

It had been a rough night.

We were staying at my parents’ house near Asheville and the girls were having trouble sleeping in unfamiliar beds.  It took a long time to get Ellie down and when I got to my room I found Catherine, my youngest daughter, snuggled up beside Christy with her head on my pillow.  I tried for several hours to sleep on the six-inch strip of mattress she had left to me, but finally staggered back to Ellie’s room and crawled in beside her.

At 5:30 the next morning she called my name.



“I think I hear snow falling.”

And slowly i came to, and more slowly still I found myself glad again for children, for their innocence and imagination.  Only a child would lie awake listening for a sound that can’t be heard—snowfall, or the hooves of reindeer on the roof.  Think how much more sleep we would get, and how much more life we would miss, if it weren’t for them!  I reached for Ellie’s hand, and together we lay in the darkness, straining our ears for the imperceptible sound of falling snow.

It was much later in the day that I thought how much Christmas is just like that.  In all the noise of this season those of us who believe hold hands and strain to hear the sound of Incarnation.  Above the roar of jingle bells, office Christmas parties, and the unwrapping of gifts we listen for the imperceptible hush of God breathing through human nostrils.

And some of us would swear that we hear it.

What’s the Big Deal?

Someone asked me over the weekend why we’re having a “Holy Conversation” about baptism and church membership, and specifically why we would talk about changing our practice of re-baptizing Christians from other denominations.  The short answer is: me.  I’m the one who put the event on the calendar.  But the reason I put it on the calendar is interesting. 

Since I’ve been at First Baptist I’ve had conversations with dozens of people who grew up in other denominations.  Some of them (Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, etc.) were surprised to hear that in order to become full members of the church they would have to be baptized by immersion.  Actually, I was surprised to hear it.  I grew up Presbyterian, was immersed at 14 at my own request, and joined a Southern Baptist church at 22.  But of the six Baptist churches I’ve belonged to this is the first that requires new members from other denominations to be immersed, which is why I never thought to ask the search committee about it.  I hear from other Baptists in Virginia that my experience is not typical, not even close, which explains why the search committee never thought to mention it to me.  It’s nobody’s fault, but it does explain why I would raise the question.

Still, some people don’t understand why we’re setting aside two Wednesday nights to talk about baptism and church membership.  “I got sprinkled as a baby and dunked as an adult,” one said with a smile.  It’s just water.  It’s just a symbol.  What’s the big deal?  But for some people it is a big deal.  They’ve been Christians for years and the suggestion that their baptism “isn’t good enough,” and that they would need to “start all over again,” offends them.  It would be like renouncing their faith.  “No, no!” others say.  “It’s not renouncing your faith at all.  We know you’re a Christian; you’re just not a Baptist.”


I’m guessing that wouldn’t be the end of the conversation, but only the beginning.  And I’m hoping you can join us in the Dining Hall this Wednesday night at 6:15 for the first round, where we will listen to the stories of people who became Christians in our tradition and others.  Maybe by the end of the evening we will all have a better feel for the complexities of this issue, and understand why, for some people, it’s a very big deal indeed.