How Good and Pleasant It Is

Nabil HaddadI’m traveling to Amman, Jordan, next week with a priest, an imam, and a rabbi.

Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, doesn’t it?

But it’s not.  My Richmond interfaith group has been invited to participate in something called “World Interfaith Harmony Week” by Father Nabil Haddad, a Catholic priest who lives in Amman and works to promote peaceful relations among Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

These days, more than ever, that kind of work needs to be done.

I told someone at the Jewish Community Center that I was on my way to Jordan for this conference and he said, “Well, good!  Someone needs to tell those Muslims to quit blowing us up.”  I tried to explain that it’s not “those Muslims,” but rather radical extremists who are the problem, and you can find those in almost any religion.  “Not ours,” he said.  “You don’t see us cutting anybody’s heads off.”

Maybe not today, but during the Crusades “Christian Soldiers” massacred both Muslims and Jews in their efforts to re-take the Holy Land.  And, yes, they used swords.  Many modern-day extremists refer to those events when they try to justify their own actions.  “We are only doing what was done to us!” they say.

Yes, but that was a thousand years ago.  Can’t we let it go?  Must we always be at war with each other?

In my interfaith group we are often reminded that Jews, Christians, and Muslims (through Ishmael) consider Abraham their ancestor.  If that’s true, if he is in fact our “father,” then we are in fact “brothers.”  It doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything anymore than my biological brothers and I agree on everything,  It certainly doesn’t mean that we have to adopt each other’s beliefs or practice each other’s religion.*  But I hope it would mean that we would try to get along with each other, and at the very least not kill each other.

I love the beginning of Psalm 133: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (KJV).  It is good and pleasant.  And the times I have spent with the members of my interfaith group talking, sharing meals, and even bowling together, has convinced me that we don’t have to hate each other just because we’re different.  We “children of Abraham” can dwell together in unity.  May it be so as we travel to Amman, and may we set an example for the world to follow.

These days, more than ever, that work needs to be done.

*I spent a good bit of time on the phone recently trying to convince a woman that I was not promoting “Chrislam” (her word for a supposed synthesis between Christianity and Islam).  For years in my interfaith work I have followed the advice that the best way to have interfaith dialogue is to be a wholehearted adherent of your own faith and not try to water it down or make it more palatable to others.  That’s how we reach a place of mutual understanding and respect.

KOH2RVA: Day 25

The headline in yesterday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch declared September the “Deadliest Month in Richmond Since ’07.” The photo at right shows the Rev. Anthony Bagby standing in front of the home (right) in South Richmond where his cousin was a victim of homicide.

It’s discouraging, isn’t it? Here we are, trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, and instead of going down the murder rate goes up. It makes me think someone is working just as hard as we are–maybe even harder–to establish another kingdom. But what do we do? Give up? Throw our hands in the air? Walk away?

I don’t think so.

Last month I went down to police headquarters for a faith leaders’ summit where we talked about what the churches can do to help keep peace in the city. This month I plan to go again, at 3:00 on Tuesday, October 9. Maybe some of the other leaders at FBC will go with me, so we can reassure the police of our partnership.

In the meantime we can pray for the peace of Richmond, and as I said in Sunday’s sermon, praying really is something we can “do.” Maybe you could do it right now, as you near the end of this post. Maybe you could just say, “Lord, bring an end to the violence in Richmond. Don’t let there be one more killing. Help people find a peaceful way to end their disputes and, as St. Francis prayed, ‘let me be an instrument of your peace. Amen.”

Sometimes heaven seems a long way away. Today let’s pray it a little bit closer.

Preachers’ Kids

Sometime during last week’s annual sermon-planning retreat we started calling it “Preacher Camp.”

I’m talking about the event I referenced in my last post, where I get together with five of my closest colleagues for a week to map out our preaching for the year.  The difference was that this year we brought the kids.  They were sitting at the breakfast table on that first morning still rubbing the sleep from their eyes when I said, “Welcome to Preacher Camp, boys and girls!  When breakfast is over we’re going to have Bible study, then take a nature hike, and then go to crafts.  We’ll follow that with lunch and rest time, and then we’ll all go down to the lake for a swim.  Sound good?”  I got a lot of blank stares in return, and only after several minutes did three-year-old Adam say, “You’re teasing, right, Mr. Jim?” 

Yes.  I was teasing.  But while the preachers sat at a table on the side porch and had Bible study (working through every Sunday of 2011) the children read books and drew pictures and played ping pong and took a hike, and after lunch and naps we all went down to the lake for a swim.  So, in many ways, it was like camp, especially the last night when we built a campfire and sat around it singing silly songs and roasting marshmallows. 

What I learned is that this collection of preacher’s kids is sweet, smart, kind, and funny.  Five-year-old Audra Ballenger was full of interesting questions and comments, and one of my favorite pictures from the week is the one of her delivering a long lecture to Russ Dean as she sat on his stomach while he lay on the couch.  Eleven-year-old Bennett Dean came into his own on Thursday night, busting some sweet moves at a spontaneous dance party and encouraging the rest of us to toss inhibition to the wind.  My own daughter Catherine (the oldest by far at nineteen) was sweetly patient with an adoring “fan club” of small children and happy to engage in conversation with their parents while sunning on the dock. 

Unlike some of the warnings you hear about “preachers’ kids,” these were the kind you would want to spend a week with.  It makes me think that this generation of preachers, or at least the ones I hang out with, have given up on the idea that their children will be neatly dressed and perfectly behaved at all times, that they will know all the books of the Bible and want to come to church three times a week.  They seem much more willing to let their kids be kids, and that’s not a bad thing, especially if they are the kids of people whose relationship with God and whose saturation in his Word has led them to be loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, generous, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled.  The fruit of the spirit is evident in the lives of their children, and the apples don’t fall far from the tree.

So, this is an expression of appreciation not only to those preachers’ kids I spent the week with, but to the preachers who are raising them.  Thank you Don, John, Russ, Amy, and Dorisanne—for being the people you are and for passing so much of that goodness along to the next generation. 

The world needs people like your kids.

Thank You, Thank You, Thank You!

Last Sunday I preached on the subject of peace, but got at it by talking about its opposite, about conflict.  I suggested that peace can only come when we are reconciled to those who have hurt us (or to those we have hurt).

As I was closing out the early worship service on Sunday I reminded the congregation of that place in Matthew’s Gospel where it says, “So, when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister and then come and offer your gift” (Matt. 5:23-24).  I told them that I used to think that verse said, “if you remember that you have something against your brother or sister,” but it doesn’t: it says, “if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you.” 

When that was explained to me in seminary I spent some time trying to think about who might have something against me, and eventually I thought of that girl I had broken up with because she wouldn’t let me buy an old ambulance.   She probably had something against me.   And so I sat down and wrote her a long letter, apologizing for all the times I had done her wrong (and believe me—there were plenty).  I got her address through a mutual friend and mailed the letter hoping I would get back a letter full of forgiveness a few days later.  It never came.  Still, I was glad I had written to her, and hoped she could accept my apology. 

But here I was on Sunday telling the congregation they should apologize to those people who might have something against them when it occurred to me that some of them might have something against me!  Since I came to Richmond’s First Baptist Church people have been so good to me, so generous, that I’m almost sure someone has given me something I never said thank you for: a jar or watermelon rind pickles, perhaps; a tin of homemade cookies; a beautiful card.  I’ve been so overwhelmed by the sheer number of people in this church that it’s been difficult to remember names and impossible to thank every one who been kind to me or my family. 

So, here it is: first, a sincere apology to each of you who has been waiting for me to say thank you, and second, a heartfelt “thank you!” to each of you for your gracious gifts.  Most of all, for the gift of your love, which makes even the sweetest watermelon rind pickles a little sweeter.

Blessings of every kind,


The Calm after the Storm

In the last three months I’ve made 231 Facebook friends, written 43 blog entries, preached 28 times, told a half dozen holiday stories, and sung (once) at a ladies’ tea.  It’s been a whirlwind of activity, and although I enjoy that kind of thing—breezing from one big event to the next—I am also enjoying this little bit of calm after the storm.

People kept asking me last week, “Are you ready for Christmas?” and I kept saying, “Almost.”  I meant that I had almost finished shopping for gifts and almost finished preparing the manger of my heart, but until I finished preaching the Christmas Eve service there was always one more thing to get ready for.  So, when it was over, and I was walking back home with my family after midnight, with the air strangely warm and a light breeze stirring the dead leaves on Monument Avenue, I felt my whole body relax into the holiday.  There wasn’t one more thing I had to do except fall asleep that night and wake up on Christmas morning.

So, even though I’ve had to preach twice since then, I am holding onto that holiday feeling.  In fact this morning, instead of going into the office, I’m going to take my family up to DC for a couple of days, to knock around some of our old haunts and eat at some of our favorite restaurants.  I’m going to get some of that deep rest my body needs in order to go back to a job I love.  But, don’t worry.  I’m sure I’ll come back with some interesting stories to tell, and ready to post blog entry number 44.