KOH2RVA: Day 300

tired_runnerThere’s something about a nice round number…

But what I think of when I see this number—300—is that there are only 65 days left in our year-long, every-member mission trip.

For some people that may inspire a surge of fresh commitment to the mission: “We don’t have much time left! Let’s do something great!” For others it may inspire a heavy sigh: “We’ve been on this mission trip for nearly 10 months. We’re exhausted!”

For me, it’s a little of both.

I think about some of those things I was hoping to do on this mission trip, like putting up a mailbox at church where our neighbors in the Fan could drop their prayer requests so we could pray for them on Wednesday nights. Like taking portraits of some of our homeless neighbors and turning them into big posters that could be plastered on walls downtown with the caption: “I’m not homeless: Richmond is my home.” Like working more closely with county and city governments, so that our efforts would be multiplied. I’m disappointed that we didn’t get to all of those things.

On the other hand, I’m surprised and pleased by what we have been able to do. I didn’t know, for example, that we were going to form a partnership with the Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School. I didn’t know that our youth were going to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Nickelsville, Virginia. I didn’t know our fifth graders were going to go Christmas caroling at nursing homes. I didn’t know the second graders were going to raise money to buy a new pair of shoes for Cheryl.

There have been dozens of other things that have surprised and pleased me as I’ve watched this mission trip unfold, and those are the things that inspire me to keep going. I want to get to September 8th like the Apostle Paul, who said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).

I hope you will be able to say it with me.

My Friend Meesha

I’m concerned about my friend Meesha today. 

I’ve had her in my thoughts and prayers for the last few months, but when I opened the Richmond Times-Dispatch today there she was, on the front page of the Metro section, in a fairy costume.

Meesha is 3. 

I got acquainted with her when her parents invited me to have lunch with them more than a year ago.  I love Indian food, and Jerusha outdid herself, cooking up a traditional meal and serving it there in her seminary apartment.  I enjoyed talking theology with her husband Moses while we waited for lunch, but as much as anything I enjoyed watching Meesha moving from one small task to another, her face a mask of concentration, as if she were the one preparing lunch and not her mother. 

Uh-dorable.

So, when I learned a few months ago that she had been diagnosed with cancer, something clutched up inside me.  I started saying prayers then and I’ve been saying them since as I’ve followed her progress on Jerusha’s Facebook page.  Here’s an entry from a couple of months ago:

It’s a beautiful day. Meesha was bright this morning after 12 hrs of her first cycle of chemotherapy and I enjoyed combing her black, silky, shiny hair and clipping her pink bow. I love watching her pop pieces of “tylenol candy” into her mouth any time of the day—day or night. She is slowly getting used to nurses recording vital signs as she sometimes voluntarily lifts her arm to be recorded. She says “beeping” when her monitor beeps and says “don’t cry dada” when her dad weeps.

For those of you not on Moses’ Facebook list, Meesha has Neuroblastoma, Stage 4. Her primary tumor surrounds her aorta and cannot be surgically removed at this stage. Cancer has reached some bones and is aggressive. Our super doctors have aggressively started treatment in wonderful time. We have a long and dreary road ahead of us of 5 different treatments but feel a total sense of calm: we are in the good hands of our cheery nurses and teams of doctors, having access to great technology, surrounded by the love and prayers of every friend and family member.

Hugs to all of you for walking this journey with us sharing in our pain.

I just wanted you to know that I’m walking with you today Jerusha, Moses, and Meesha, and sharing with you in your pain.

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See the slideshow from the Richmond Times-Dispatch by clicking HERE.

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.

Episcophobia?

In his sermon on November 15 Phil Mitchell, our Minister of Christian Worship, said:  “We have added the response, ‘Thanks be to God’ after Scripture readings [at First Baptist Church]. Why, Baptists don’t do that, do they? Some do, and for goodness sake why not? What if as we say, ‘Thanks be to God,’ we remind ourselves that this really is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God for that!”

Since then I’ve heard a little grumbling.

Yes, we thank God for giving us his Word.  We’re grateful that we can read it in public worship and private devotions.  But when we say it like that—“The Word of God for the people of God, thanks be to God”—it sounds awfully…Episcopalian.

We’re Baptists, not Episcopalians, but when it comes to worship we might want to ask what that really means (and what it doesn’t mean):

  1. It doesn’t mean that we aren’t liturgical.  Every Baptist church, even the most informal ones, follow some kind of liturgy (by which I mean the order of worship).  The invitation, for example, goes after the sermon and before the closing hymn.  Everybody knows that!
  2. It doesn’t mean that we can’t sing hymns.  One of my seminary professors used to say, “Some theology has to be sung.”  Many of the great, old hymns of the faith strive to do that—express good theology through beautiful music—so that you leave church humming something like, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity,” or “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.”
  3. It doesn’t mean that we can’t use written prayers.  Baptists don’t want to read their prayers out of a book; they want them to come from the heart.  But the best prayers often come from the heart when we are alone with God.   A prayer written down in such moments and shared in public worship can be deeply meaningful, and may be preferable to all those “ums” and “ahs” that often plague extemporaneous prayer.
  4. It doesn’t mean that we can’t read Scripture in worship.  Episcopalians and a number of other churches read a good bit of Scripture in worship.  They follow the lectionary, a plan for reading through most of the Bible in public worship over a three year period.  It seems like a good way to get Scripture into the lives of people who may not take the time to read it on their own and as “people of the Book” we Baptists should welcome any plan that does that.
  5. It doesn’t mean that we can’t celebrate the high, holy days.  Christmas is one of them.  Easter is another.  We’ve been celebrating those for years because they were important events in the life of Jesus: his birth and his resurrection.  Adding to our calendar other significant events in the life of Christ like Good Friday, Palm Sunday, and maybe even the Baptism of Jesus can make worship more meaningful, not less.

But here’s what it does mean to be Baptist and to have a Baptist way of worship, at least in my experience:

  1. It means that we celebrate spontaneity.  We like to believe that the Spirit can move us to do and say things that aren’t printed in the order of worship, and it is part of our cherished Baptist freedom to seize such moments.
  2. It means that we take preaching seriously.  The sermon is typically the highlight of the service, and the other elements of worship—hymns, prayers, and offerings—build toward a time of reverent listening for the Word of God.
  3. It means that we enjoy spirited singing.  We love those hymns and Gospel songs that are familiar and singable, the ones that really let us sing with all our heart.  We don’t much care for the slow, plodding ones.
  4. It means that we value “warmth.”  We like to be in a place where people call each other by name, where there’s a lot of hugging and handshaking, and where both laughter and tears are accepted.
  5. It means that our worship is heartfelt.  We don’t put a lot of stock in ritual or performance.  If you’re going to say something we want it to come from your heart.  If you’re going to do something we want you to do it for the Lord. 

I’m sure that others could add to this list and I hope they will (it would be interesting to compile readers’ comments on Baptist worship).  But what I’m curious about is the combination of this list and the one above.  Is there a way to have both warmth and dignity, to draw from the best and most meaningful practices of the last two thousand years and still mix up a uniquely Baptist blend of warmhearted worship?  I don’t want us to become Episcopalian (no offense to my Episcopal friends); I want us to be Baptist.  But I’d like to think we could be Baptists whose worship is as rich, and deep, and meaningful as possible.  I’d like us to remember that even more important than the way we worship is the One we worship.

And he deserves our very best.