How to Keep on Living the Good and Beautiful Life

blue-morpho-butterfly-habitat-1During the Season of Lent, the members and friends of Richmond’s First Baptist Church studied a book called The Good and Beautiful Life, by James Bryan Smith. Some of them met in homes, some in Sunday school classes, some came to the Journey to the Cross services, and some did all of the above.  It was a powerful community-building exercise, and I think we all learned a great deal.

So, now what?

The original plan was this: that we would spend the Season of Lent learning about the Good and Beautiful Life, that we would spend the Season of Easter living the Good and Beautiful Life, and then spend the Season of Pentecost sharing the Good and Beautiful Life.

Learning, living, sharing.  Got it?

According to that plan we are now in the Great Fifty Days of the Easter season (April 5 through May 23), the season of living the life.  But how do we do that?  Or, rather, how do we keep on doing it?

Here’s one suggestion:

The Good and Beautiful Life is essentially a study of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7.  James Bryan Smith’s premise is that in these chapters Jesus explains what life in God’s kingdom looks like and what it would take to live it.  The life of the kingdom is the good and beautiful life, Smith argues, and if we could learn to do what Jesus says we would know that.

So, try this.

In the remainder of this season, all the way up to May 24, the Day of Pentecost, try reading the Sermon on the Mount as a kind of daily devotion.  If you’re reading this on your computer, you can simply click HERE and go to a page that has the whole sermon waiting for you in the New Revised Standard Version.  Click that same link tomorrow and try reading it in a different version, the Message, or the NIV.  Maybe you could read a different version every day, just to keep it fresh.

My hope is this: that if you saturate yourself in that sermon, if you sink down into its message day after day, you will begin to live the life it describes.  You will trust God more.  You will hate others less.  You will pluck up the seed of sin before it can take root.  You will know that you are blessed.  You will be like the one who built his house on a rock.

Try it!  Live it!  And then get ready to share it.

A life like this will be too good and beautiful to keep to yourself.

KOH2RVA: Day 253

First Baptist worship

Yesterday was a long day at First Baptist. I got to church a little after eight in the morning and left a little after eight at night. But it was a great day, and in so many ways it lived up to the promise of Pentecost. This morning my mind is a kaleidoscope of images. Here are a few of them:

  • The joy of sitting on the steps with the children during worship, telling them the Holy Spirit is like “the best babysitter you’ve ever had.”
  • Watching the congregation rise to its feet to thank David Powers for twenty years of dedicated service as Minister of Communications.
  • Seeing a young man whose name I don’t even know leap to his feet to push Danny Taylor’s wheelchair out of the sanctuary during the fire drill.
  • Rick Belflower getting tears in his eyes as he talked about the crime of human trafficking and how it robs children of their childhood.
  • Hearing Bart Dalton praise Skyler Cumbia at her graduation ceremony for the way she inspired other youth to engage in selfless service.
  • Sitting in the chapel at the healing service, watching Shawnae Lacy fight back the tears as she told the story of losing her foster daughter to cancer.
  • Sitting in the sanctuary later, looking up toward heaven (and feeling it) as the youth and adult choirs ringed the balcony and sang, “In this Very Room.”
  • Clapping my hands, laughing, and singing along as they finished last night’s concert with “If You’re Happy and You Know It Say ‘Amen.’”

I was happy, and I knew it.

At some point in yesterday’s sermon I said that there was good news in the story of Pentecost because it wasn’t so much about going to church as it was about being the church. Yesterday I watched the members and friends of First Baptist being the church all day long, but I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t gone. While heaven has been touching down all over the greater Richmond metropolitan area in the last 252 days, one of the most reliable places to see it happen is in that building at the corner of Monument and the Boulevard on Sundays. I saw it happen yesterday,

Over and over again.

KOH2RVA: Day 252

pentecosti-kosmos

It’s the Day of Pentecost, everyone! Get out the leaf blowers and flame throwers, because this is the day we celebrate the birthday of the church, that time when the Spirit came with a sound like the rush of a mighty wind, and tongues of fire hovered over the heads of the believers (Acts 2:1-3).

But that was just the beginning.

Peter, filled with the Spirit, preached a fiery sermon, and at the end of the day 3,000 people had been added to the church. In the chapters that follow we hear how the apostles healed the sick, raised the dead, confronted the authorities, smashed through the barriers of prejudice, and carried the gospel to the ends of the earth.

So, I’m thinking…today is the Day of Pentecost. If what happened to the early church happens to us the Kingdom of Heaven will come to Richmond, Virginia. There will be no stopping it.

Which makes me wonder what’s stopping it now.

Is it us? Are we unwilling to let the Spirit take charge? Is that why we don’t wait for it and pray for it as those early disciples did? Today may be a good day to realize that if we try to bring in God’s Kingdom under our own power we will surely fail. But if we couple our efforts with the power of God, anything is possible. Just looked what happened in the early church. Eventually their critics began to say, “These people are turning the world upside down!”

Maybe soon they will say the same about us.

For God so Loved the Church

Before I say another word, let me say that last night’s “Simple Gifts” concert at Richmond’s First Baptist Church was a musical love feast.  I sat there in my pew glowing like a light bulb, so joyful, so grateful, so proud of every person who participated.  As I wrote in my prayer journal this morning, “I think I fell in love with my congregation last night.”  Every man, woman, and child who sang or played became precious to me in a whole new way. 

I remember hearing one of my seminary professors say that you don’t become a pastor on the day you are installed at a new church.  You become the preacher, but not the pastor.  That can take months or years, and it doesn’t always happen.  But it happened for me last night.  I thought about those traditions where the minister is referred to as “Father.”  That’s how I felt: like a proud papa.

But now the concert is over, and all that’s left is those delicious memories and the sound of music still ringing in my ears.  Sunday’s coming, and this Sunday is the Day of Pentecost.  I was looking through some of my old files for inspiration and found these thoughts in a sermon preached in 2005 called, “For God so Loved the Church.”

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On the Day of Pentecost, God gave the gift of the Holy Spirit.  And here’s the wonderful thing about a spirit:  you can’t abuse it.  You can’t steal it, you can’t break it, you can’t nail it to a tree.  For God so loved the church he gave us something we couldn’t damage or destroy. He had learned that if you give people the Ten Commandments, they will break them; if you give them the Promised Land, they will fight and kill each other over it; if you give them your one and only son, they will crucify him.  So on the Day of Pentecost God gave us a spirit—an unbreakable, un-ownable, un-killable Holy Spirit—and for two thousand years now that gift has survived unscathed.  Not that we don’t try to scathe it.  As I was working on this sermon I had a vision of people chasing after the Holy Spirit with brooms, baseball bats, butterfly nets, wooden boxes, running up and down the aisles of the church, jumping over pews in the balconies, trying to catch it, kill it, shut it up.  But it’s a spirit, not a thing.  You can’t contain it.  It got loose in the church on the Day of Pentecost and it’s still loose. 

Sometimes it gets into the preacher and he says things that make the church gasp.  Sometimes it gets into parishioners and they do things that are shockingly new.  No wonder people thought those first disciples were drunk when they saw the way they behaved, but Peter said, “No, this is just what the prophet Joel was talking about, that time when God’s spirit will be poured out on all people and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams.  Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my spirit and they shall prophesy.”  Do you hear what Peter is saying?  You can’t control this spirit.  You can’t shut it up in the Ark of the Covenant.  You can’t contain it behind a curtain in the Holy of Holies.  You can’t confine it to the rigid lines of the Apostle’s Creed.  You can’t limit it to the conclusions of the Council of Nicaea.  You can’t bind it between the leather covers of the Bible.  You can’t chain it to the pulpit of the medieval church.  You can’t sell it to get a single soul out of Purgatory.  You can’t nail it to the door of the Wittenberg Church.  You can’t close it up in the Westminster Confession.  You can’t shut it up in the Constitution and Bylaws.  This spirit is loose in the church.  It’s loose in the world!  It can get hold of almost anybody and cause them to do unusual things.

It got hold of Stephen in a way that eventually cost him his life.  It got hold of Philip in a way that led him to baptize an Ethiopian eunuch.  It got hold of Paul on the road to Damascus in a way that turned his life around.  It got hold of Peter on that rooftop in Joppa in a way that changed his mind about the Gentiles.  Read the whole of the Book of Acts and you will see the Holy Spirit smashing through one barrier after another—race, religion, nationality, geography—as the kingdom comes, God’s will is done, on earth as it is in heaven.  It begins with the rush of a mighty wind and builds from there, until it begins twisting across the religious landscape like a tornado, smashing against the coastline of convention like a holy hurricane.  For God so loved the church he gave us something we couldn’t contain, and can’t contain still.  Who knows where this spirit will lead us in the days ahead?  Who knows where that mighty wind will blow?  I only know that on this day, the Day of Pentecost, as I draw a breath to blow out the candle on the birthday cake of the church, I make a wish that the wind of God will blow where it will, and that you and I will find the courage to follow.

 

The Kingdom, Act II

CB067270Here’s the second “Act” of the piece I wrote for Sunday night’s heavenly choir concert, “The Kingdom.”  I called Act I “Jesus,” and called this Act “the Church.”  Faithful readers of this blog will recognize the poem by Ann Weems, which was published in a previous post.

Thanks for reading,

Jim

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I believe Jesus believed that God’s kingdom really could come on earth as it is in heaven.  That’s what he told his disciples to pray for, that’s what he told them to work for.  He spent those years training them, in part, so that when he finished his work on earth they could take over.  As he was leaving them he said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 

And that’s just what happened.  On the Day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit fell upon those believers and sent them out into the city of Jerusalem, out into all of Judea and Samaria, out to the ends of the earth.  Everywhere they went they preached the good news about Jesus, and his message of a Kingdom where the lost are found, the last are first, and the least are great.  It was a reversal of most of what people had heard, most of their lives.  Some of them received it with joy, while others did not.  “These people are turning the world upside down!” the authorities grumbled, where somewhere Jesus must have smiled, because turning the world upside down is what the Kingdom is all about.  “Every valley will be exalted,” Isaiah said, “and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.”

Sometimes it happens, and if it’s going to happen anywhere it should happen here, in the church.  We, of all people, should be the ones to set an example for the world by letting God have his way with us, by throwing ourselves like a wood chip on the water of his will, and getting carried away by the current.  When that happens the kingdom comes, in church as it is in heaven, and it looks a lot like this poem by Ann Weems:

 

The Church of Jesus Christ

The church of Jesus Christ is where a child brings a balloon…
is where old women come to dance . . .
is where young men see visions and old men dream dreams.
The church of Jesus Christ is where lepers come to be touched . . .
is where the blind see and the deaf hear . . .
is where the lame run and the dying live.
The church of Jesus Christ is where daisies bloom out of barren land . . .
is where children lead and wise men follow . . .
is where mountains are moved and walls come tumbling down.
The church of Jesus Christ is where loaves of bread are stacked in the sanctuary
to feed the hungry . . .
is where coats are taken off and put on the backs of the naked . . .
is where shackles are discarded and kings and shepherds sit down to life together.
The church of Jesus Christ is where barefoot children
run giggling in procession . . .

is where the minister is ministered unto . . .
is where the anthem is the laughter of the congregation and the offering plates
are full of people.
The church of Jesus Christ is where people go when they skin their knees
or their hearts . . .

is where frogs become princes and Cinderella dances beyond midnight . . .
is where judges don’t judge and each child of God is beautiful and precious.
The church of Jesus Christ is where the sea divides for the exiles . . .
is where the ark floats and the lamb lies down with the lion . . .
is where people can disagree and hold hands at the same time.
The church of Jesus Christ is where night is day . . .
is where trumpets and drums and tambourines declare God’s goodness . . .
is where lost lambs are found.
The church of Jesus Christ is where people write thank-you notes to God . . .
is where work is a holiday . . .
is where seeds are scattered and miracles grown.
The church of Jesus Christ is where home is . . .
is where heaven is . . .
is where a picnic is communion and people break bread together on their knees.
The church of Jesus Christ is where we live responsively to God’s coming . . .
even on Monday morning the world will hear . . .
an abundance of alleluias! 

                                                                               —Ann Weems

 

Note: After reading the poem I said, “I might add that the church of Jesus Christ is where people bring bags of rice and cans of tuna to feed their hungry neighbors.”  And then, as we sang a hymn, people came forward and stacked those items on the communion table until it overflowed, and then stacked them on the chancel steps all around, hundreds of pounds of rice and tuna for the refugees from Nepal we have been ministering to, many of whom were at the concert that night.  If I could have put a caption under that picture it would have read: “This is what life in the Kingdom looks like.” 

—Jim