Come Celebrate a Miracle

BrailleIn the post below, guest blogger Phil Mitchell, Associate Pastor of Christian Worship at Richmond’s First Baptist Church, tells the story of a real-life miracle, and invites us to come and celebrate it with him on April 27.  Read the story, save the date, and then come…celebrate a miracle.

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This year, we have been challenged by our pastor to partner with others in bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, VA. The initiative is called “Kingdom of Heaven Times Two” (KOHx2), and it’s all about bringing heaven to earth through partnerships. Here is one way we are seeking to do just that:

Two years ago, our church procured the new Celebrating Grace Hymnal. It has turned out to be a wonderful worship resource for us, full of the old and the new, brimming with countless ways to express our faith. Our pew racks are full of them. They are within an arm’s length of everyone who has gathered for worship. All you have to do is open the book to see the rich possibilities for singing a “new song unto the Lord.”

Unless, of course, you are blind.

Lewis Myers asked me if we were going to provide Braille copies of the new hymnal for our blind members. Honestly, I had never thought about it. None of us had thought about it until Lewis wanted to know how members like Mark and Melody Roane were going to sing the hymns from the new hymnal. I spoke to the editor at Celebrating Grace who said he was sorry, but there were no plans to produce a Braille version.  “Well, then,” I thought.  “If no one will do it for us we will do it ourselves!”

But how do you do-it-yourself when it comes to a Braille hymnal?

Robbie Hott, a computer genius in our church designed a template to input all the texts into a database. Anyone, could go to the site and enter texts (using some basic guidelines) so we could build an electronic resource that would eventually become Braille.

We contacted Brian Barton at the Braille Circulating Library, just down the street from the church, and they volunteered to produce the Braille version for us, at no cost. We are almost to the final product. Two years of really hard work and scores of volunteer hours later, we are about to have the Braille edition of our new hymnal in our hands.

You can learn more about the fascinating process by viewing the video below.

So, here is a partner in our neighborhood who is seeking to do the very thing we have been called to do: to make our neighborhood a little more like God would want it to be—accessible, hospitable, and full of praise. Together, we are doing that.

I tried to imagine a way to bless the Braille Circulating Library in the manner that they have so generously blessed us. It came to me that the perfect person to facilitate this blessing would be Ken Medema. Ken is a long-time friend, a blind singer-composer whose concerts are full of prepared and spontaneous stories set to music—much of which is composed on the spot! He has been to our church before and is always a smashing hit.

So I have invited Ken to present a benefit concert at Richmond’s First Baptist Church on Sunday, April 27 at 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $10 each and all proceeds go directly to our neighbors, the Braille Circulating Library. It is a win/win. We get to experience an incredible concert and we can bless the Braille Lending Library with a generous gift to support their ongoing ministry in Richmond.

You can buy tickets at the church during the week or on Wednesdays and Sundays. You can also buy them online simply by clicking HERE.

Join me in supporting this concert and watching the Kingdom come ever closer as both the blind and the sighted sing praise to God.

–Phil Mitchell

I remember telling our Minister of Christian Worship Phil Mitchell nearly five years ago that one of the things that was so important about his ministry was giving us a little taste of heaven on earth, so that we would know what it’s like. Last Sunday he, and the choir, and accompanists Becky Payne and Eunice Kim, did exactly that. They brought the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, through a piece of music by Johannes Brahms called, “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place.” I hope you will take the time to close the door, quiet your thoughts, turn up the volume, and lose yourself in the beauty and power of this anthem. Or maybe you’ll plug your earbuds into your iPhone at Starbucks, and just let the music wash over you like ocean waves.

It’s glorious.

On a run with my colleague Wallace Adams-Riley this morning we were talking about how some statisticians and sociologists have almost given up on the church. They say Sunday morning worship is on its way out, and will soon be a thing of the past. I don’t think they were in worship at either of our churches last Sunday. I don’t think they recall that the first and greatest commandment, according to Jesus, is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. What better way to do it than through corporate worship? And what better place to do it than in church on Sunday?

I say that partly to remind you that this Sunday, March 10, we “spring forward” by setting our clocks ahead one hour when we go to bed on Saturday night. I wouldn’t want you to get to church on Sunday and find that everybody had already gone to Sunday brunch. So, do it: spring forward. And then get up, get dressed, and make the effort to participate in the most important event of the week—Sunday morning worship.  If you can’t come, then tune in on Channel 8 at 11:00 in the Richmond area, or join us by webcast at http://www.fbcrichmond.org.  It’s not the same as being there, but it’s the next best thing.  Either way…

…I’ll see you in church.

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.

Here We Go!

It’s Wednesday of Holy Week, and tonight we gather at Richmond’s First Baptist Church for the first worship service of five that will be held over the next few days.  Before I say another word, let me say thanks to Phil Mitchell, Associate Pastor for Worship, who did most of the heavy lifting in putting these services together.

Tonight’s service (at 6:30) is one of candlelight and contemplative prayer, interspersed with Scripture readings and singing by our own “cantor,” Robert Dilday.  It was “designed” by the Prayer Team at First Baptist Church, a group of lay leaders who work with Lynn Turner in praying for the church and keeping the church praying.

On Maundy Thursday we will gather at 7:00 for an impressive commemoration of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples that will include communion.  I’m preaching a sermon called “Washing the Devil’s Feet,” that refers not only to the foot washing before the meal, but also to the new commandment Jesus gives his disciples afterward: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

The Good Friday service will be held in the sanctuary at Noon, and will feature a reader’s theatre comprised of First Baptist staff reading the passion narrative from Luke’s Gospel, and a sermon delivered by my friend, former associate, and hip young pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in the Fan—Sterling Severns.

On Saturday, we will host an abbreviated Easter vigil, celebrating this ancient ritual in Fourth-Century style by kindling “new fire” in front of the church at 7:00, lighting candles from the flame, and bringing the light into the sanctuary to begin our celebration of the Resurrection.  This is a service of “Fire, Word, Water, and Wine” that will include a sermon by Lynn Turner, the candlelight baptism of six new converts, and communion that will feature Welch’s grape juice instead of wine (it’s not the Fourth Century way, but it certainly is the Baptist way).

All of this slowly unfolding drama will build up to a jubilant celebration of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday morning, with two services in the sanctuary: one at 8:30 (for the early risers and those who hope to find a seat) and another at 11:00 (prepare for a packed house).  Both services will feature glorious music, multiple choirs, and an Easter sermon called “Dying for Resurrection.” 

If you live in the Richmond area I hope you will join us for each of these services.  If you don’t, you can still access the Easter service by webcast.  But please don’t let me lure you away from your own community of faith. 

There is no better place to be at Easter than there.