KOH2RVA: Day 321

smokingOn Wednesdays I go down to the basement level of the church to speak to the men and women who come to First Baptist for hot showers, clean clothes, a cup of coffee, and a little bit of the love of Christ. I enjoy doing it, and I try not to make it too “preachy.” I simply try to encourage people who live a harder life than most of us can imagine.

But this week I told a story I heard from church historian Bill Leonard years ago. It was about a time he visited a rural church in Kentucky that didn’t even have a building: the congregation just sat outside on wooden benches. Bill sat down beside a man who was wearing a pair of faded bib overalls, with a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes in the front pocket.

When the preacher got warmed up to the subject of his sermon he said, “I’m getting tired of these people going out honky tonkin’ on Saturday nights, getting’ drunk and carryin’ on like they do. What kind of example is that to be settin’ before our kids?” And the man in the bib overalls said, “Amen, preacher! You tell ‘em!”

And then the preacher said, “And what about these young women walkin’ around with their skirts cut up to here and their blouses cut down to there, showing off everything the good Lord gave ‘em? How is a young man supposed to keep his way pure?” And the man in the bib overalls said, “Amen, preacher! That’s right!”

But then the preacher said, “And what about cigarettes? People who call themselves Christians walkin’ around suckin’ on them cigarettes like a baby sucks on his bottle! That’s got to stop!” And that’s when the man in bib overalls turned to Bill Leonard and said, “That ain’t Bible and I ain’t listenin’!” and walked off in a huff.

I said to my friends at Community Missions, “That’s a funny story, but it does raise the question of who you listen to. This man said he wasn’t going to listen to something that wasn’t in the Bible, but what he really meant was that he wasn’t going to listen to something he didn’t agree with. What about you? Who do you listen to? Who has authority in your life? Is it the Bible? Is it your mother? Is it the voices in your head?

I said, “For me, it’s Jesus. I believe he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and I believe that if I follow his Way I won’t be disappointed. So, I read the Gospels, and I underline what Jesus says, and I try to live by it. And even if I get to the end of my life and find that Jesus has led me to a locked door (although that’s not going to happen), I don’t think I will have any regrets. I believe his Way really is the best way to live in this world.”

It’s the reason First Baptist Church is on this year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia: because it’s so important to Jesus, because he mentions the Kingdom some 120 times in the Gospels, because he teaches his disciples to pray that God’s Kingdom will come, and His will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

So, we’re working hard to bring heaven to earth, and it’s not necessarily because we want to, but because Jesus said so.

What about you?  Who do you listen to?

KOH2RVA: Day 296

David PowersI had a long talk with David Powers yesterday and got an update on his dream.

David heads up the Communication ministry at First Baptist Church, which includes the weekly telecast of our worship services, the development and maintenance of our website, our social media presence, the streaming webcast of Sunday morning worship and Bible study, and the internal and external publicity of events. And those are only the most obvious things.

But for several years now David has had a dream of making a movie based on the parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15. And for even longer than that David has been studying that parable, peeling back layer after layer in search of its core, which he believes is the very heart of the gospel. It has changed the way he looks at Jesus. It has changed the way he thinks of God.

And so, as we began to talk about this year-long, every-member mission trip called KOH2RVA he began to dream that within this year the members and friends of First Baptist Church could make a movie. He called his dream “the Prodigal Project,” and spun out scenarios involving hundreds of volunteers and dozens of crew members—an epic film on the order of “The Ten Commandments.”

The first few drafts of the script were essentially re-tellings of the original parable, and they were good, but it turns out someone releases a cinematic version of the Prodigal Son almost every year. I was telling my brother Gray about this last August when we were at the beach together and he suggested, jokingly, that we should make a movie about a church making a movie about the Prodigal Son.

And that changed everything.

The last three or four drafts of the script have used that basic premise in a way that surprises and delights, with a Jewish kid from the Bronx—a graduate of NYU Film School—coming to Alabama to help a Bible-thumping Baptist preacher make a movie about the Prodigal Son. David hired a professional screenwriter to polish it up and work out a few plot problems and yesterday he dropped the finished product on my desk.

So, it might not happen in the next few days, but within a few weeks or months I think we’re going to start shooting a movie. David was telling me yesterday about the money he’s been raising and the cameras he’ll be using and the number of extraordinarily talented people who have agreed to do the sound, lighting, music, and photography.

Suddenly, everything seems to be coming together.

That’s all very exciting, but I remember the reason David dreamed up this project in the first place, and that excites me even more. David was concerned that 20-30-somethings—his children’s generation—were dropping out of church. He began to wonder: “If they won’t come to church, what will they come to?” His answer? The movies. Young people will come to the movies. And if there was a movie that wasn’t too obviously a “Christian” movie they might watch it. And if, in that movie, the radical grace of God could be communicated—the kind that welcomes prodigals, and throws parties, and causes angels to rejoice when sinners repent—then they might decide that they want some of that grace for themselves.

It’s a huge challenge, and nobody—least of all David—knows if he can pull it off. But this is his hope: that someday, somewhere, some young person will watch this movie in a darkened theater and feel his heart breaking open and the tears sliding down his cheeks as he realizes that this grace—the joyous, unrestrained, party-throwing, prodigal-welcoming grace of God—is for him too,

And heaven will come to earth.

KOH2RVA: 120

sailorIn my sermon a few weeks ago I told the story of my friend Harvey Michael, who was headed for Japan on a Navy troop ship during World War II, certain that he was going to die in combat, when—to his amazement—the war ended, the ship turned around, and he found himself the owner of a life he never thought he would have—a “bonus life.’ He said he thought he should do something good with it and decided that he would either be a Baptist preacher or a high school English teacher.

The preaching didn’t work out.

So, for most of his life he was a high school English teacher, and a good one, but the thing I admired most about him was the way he lived his life, as if each day were a gift. I told his story in my sermon on December 23 and then, a few days ago, got this letter from Deborah Hocutt, one of our newer members:

Dr Somerville:

I’ve listened to your message on the “bonus life” over and over. Oh, how I wish it would sink into the hearts of those at FBC and beyond!

For over twenty years I have been living that “bonus life.” Knowing that the doctors had never seen anyone survive with stage 4 cervical cancer like mine, I am keenly aware of what a God-given miracle each day is for me, and that each “bonus day” is an opportunity to give back to God by being His human arms to embrace, and His human smile to show love and compassion. I don’t take this responsibility lightly but with much love and gratitude.

If others could, just for a moment, know what it’s like to live “God Days”—that bonus time—oh, how we would see heaven on earth! So don’t stop shouting it from the rooftops. Don’t stop praying and witnessing. Don’t stop talking about a bonus life!!!


OK, Deborah. I’ll keep talking about it. You keep living it. And let’s see if we can find some others who will use their “bonus lives” to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia. Maybe some of them will comment on this blog, and tell us what they’re up to.

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Ministers

trashI thought I had Sunday’s sermon all wrapped up. 

I started early—on Monday afternoon—sitting in Starbucks with a tall coffee, reading over the text I had chosen from Revelation 21 and taking copious notes.  By the time I got to my lectionary study group on Tuesday morning I was overflowing with ideas.  I looked at the commentaries on Tuesday afternoon and talked with my worship planning team about how all this might come together.  I was excited.  I followed up with further study on Wednesday and then did what I usually do on Thursday, my day off, which is to let all those ideas simmer on the back burner of my brain, hoping that late in the afternoon an “Aha!” will come to me—an interesting way to preach that particular text.

That didn’t really happen for me on Thursday, and I ran out of time to draft an outline on Friday, which is something I usually try to do.  So, on Saturday morning I sat down with my laptop at the kitchen table and began to write.  By five o’clock that evening I had written nearly eight pages, double-spaced, which is more than enough for a sermon.  But when I sat down in front of the fireplace later to edit what I had written (and give out candy to the occasional trick-or-treater) I didn’t like it at all.  It looked like three different ideas that didn’t really hold together as one sermon.  I began to strike out whole sentences, and then paragraphs, and by 10:30 last night I was down to only the introduction of the sermon, which I liked better than anything else I had written.

So, I did what I usually do in a situation like that.  I went to bed and asked the Holy Spirit to come whisper in my ear during the night and tell me how to salvage the sermon.  When I woke up at five I had some ideas about how to do that.  I started jotting down fresh outlines and trying the words out loud while the clock kept ticking toward time to go.  Because I had set the clock back the night before I had an extra hour, but it still wasn’t enough.  I showered and dressed and hurried out the door into the rain with some radically revised pages in my hand and very little idea what would actually come out of my mouth when I began to preach.

I’m not writing this so that those of you who heard the sermon will console me with your comments.  I just wanted you to know what it’s like to be the preacher on those weeks when things don’t come together in the way you had hoped.  After a day like today I’m always grateful that I got through, and that when I opened my mouth some words came out (I hope they were good and even more than that I hope they were God’s), and I’m grateful that the people of God are usually willing to give the preacher another chance next week.  It makes me all the more eager to get an early start.

So, as darkness falls over the city of Richmond on this Sunday evening, I’m thinking ahead to next Sunday’s sermon, and already starting to take notes…

What if You Gave an Invitation…and Nobody Came?

preacher2cropsmallIt happened at both services on Sunday.  I gave an invitation, stepped down from the pulpit for the hymn, and sang all four verses of “Let Your Heart Be Broken” while waiting to see if anyone would come forward to join the church or give their heart to Jesus.

Nobody came.

That’s not unusual in my experience.  In fact, before coming to Richmond’s First Baptist Church it was far more unusual when someone did come down the aisle.  Those were smaller congregations, with fewer prospects, but even so, on those Sundays when nobody came down the aisle, someone would invariably try to comfort me afterward.  “I felt so sorry for you standing down there all by yourself,” they would say.  “Especially after such a good sermon!”

That connection between a good sermon and someone coming down the aisle dates back to the “revivalism” that originated on the American frontier.  James F. White claims that it was evangelist Charles G. Finney (1792-1895) who domesticated some of the forms of frontier worship and developed a pattern that soon came to dominate American Protestant Worship.  He writes:

Characteristically, its normal Sunday service had three parts: a song service or praise service sometimes caricatured as “preliminaries,” a sermon, and a harvest of new converts….  The 1905 Methodist Hymnal suggested an order of worship that ended with an invitation “to come to Christ or to unite with the church.”  Those so persuaded were to come forward during the singing of a final hymn.  It is basically the order of worship still used in thousands of United Methodist churches in the South.  Sunday after Sunday, Southern Baptists, Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, and many other denominations make this three-part form their basic order of worship.  It reflects revivalism’s basic technique of warming up, calling to conversion, and reaping the results in calling those converted to come forward for baptism.

Effectively merchandised today by radio and television, the basic structure has not changed much except to become still more polished.  Recent attempts to move the sermon back to a place earlier in the service are often resisted because the expectation is still strong that the sermon should lead to immediate results.  Among Disciples and Churches of Christ, the sermon often comes after the Lord’s Supper so it can produce obvious fruit.  Americans respect success, and here is a form of worship that has proven itself thoroughly successful in reaching the unchurched who happen to be present or have turned on the radio or television (Protestant Worship, pp. 177-178).

Understood in this way, the service has as its goal not worshiping God but making converts, and it is structured toward that end: the singing of emotional hymns to soften hearts, the “sales pitch” of the revivalistic preacher, and the hymn of invitation (usually “Just As I Am”).  If nobody comes down the aisle after the first few verses of the hymn the preacher might ask the organist to pause while he makes a second appeal.  If nobody comes after that he might try again after a few more verses.  This is why “Just As I Am” is the perfect invitational hymn:  it has lots of verses (I’ve heard as many as seventeen), and each one ends with the words, “O Lamb of God, I come! I come!”

If people think that’s what the worship service is for, then you can see why they would feel sorry for me if nobody came down the aisle, especially if it was a good sermon.  They would be thinking: “The preacher made an excellent sales pitch, but couldn’t seem to close the deal.  What a pity.  What a shame!” 

So, I have a question for all those preachers who get left standing at the altar from time to time, and for all those people who sit in the pews shaking their heads and feeling sorry for them:

Is that what worship is for?

Prosperity Will Have Its Seasons

IRAQ DROUGHT YEARI just got back from the Rotary Club, where I enjoyed a delicious breakfast and spoke to some fifty members of the West Henrico chapter.  As I prepared my speech I tried to think about what a Baptist preacher could say to a group of business people that wouldn’t sound too “preachy.”  I ended up talking about a favorite subject of mine, and that is the way the church has responded to the changes in culture over the last forty to fifty years.

I told the Rotarians how, in each church I served, there had been a “legendary” pastor, the one everybody still talked about.  In my first church it had been Bill Hull, in my second church Dewey Hobbs, in my third church Ed Pruden, and here in Richmond, of course, it had been Ted Adams.  What didn’t occur to me early on in my ministry is that each of those pastors had served those churches during the 1950’s, which was a unique time in history.  The war was over, soldiers and sailors were coming home, marrying their high school sweethearts, settling down, having children, and bringing them to church.  I believe the churchgoing “boom” precisely paralleled the Baby Boom (1946-1964). 

So, I talked to the Rotarians about that, about how the culture at one time had pushed people through the front door of the church and how now the culture seemed to be dragging them out.  I talked about how the church had responded with a sort of widespread panic as it watched its pews and offering plates emptying out, and how the church growth movement has been a desperate bid to get those people (and their dollars) back.   “It’s not only churches,” I acknowledged.  “I wouldn’t be surprised if it has been difficult to attract new members to the Rotary Club.  ‘Service Above Self’ (their motto) isn’t all that popular these days.”

After breakfast a number of people came forward to tell me that it was true: membership in their club was in decline.  Several others told me stories about their churches—Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian—and the way they had been struggling to keep the lights on and the doors open.  I had tried to leave all of them with good news.  I said that in times like these its important to return to our roots, to remember who we are and why we’re here.  I told them that at Richmond’s First Baptist Church we are turning our attention toward the clear commands of Christ, who is Lord of the church, and trying to get serious about what he asked his followers to do.  Maybe the Rotarians, likewise, will look to their founding principles and get serious about those.  Maybe they already have.

On the way back from breakfast I remembered a song by David Wilcox that has always made me think about the church:

Summer lasted a generation
A generation – and then the winter wind
The bounty harvest that seemed so endless
It seemed so endless until it gave what it could give

Prosperity will have its seasons
Even when it’s here, it’s going by
And when it’s gone we pretend we know the reasons
And all the roots grow deeper when it’s dry.

This is my prayer for the church of Jesus Christ in this dry season: that its roots will grow deeper, and that instead of worrying so much about how to fill pews and offering plates, we will drive our roots down into the deep places, and discover the living water that quenches our deepest thirst, and becomes in us a spring of water gushing up to everlasting life (John 4:14).

And Other Funny Stories about Sudden Death

Hear or download this post (mp3 file – 3:35): And Other Funny Stories about Sudden Death

It’s David Powers’ fault.

David is our media minister.  He’s the one who produces the television program we broadcast on Channel 8 here in Richmond each Sunday morning at 11:00.  David often finds me after the 8:30 service and tells me how things looked from the control room and what might need to change before 11:00, but this Sunday I found him.  I wanted to ask him if the shirt I was wearing, the one with the blue and white stripes, had caused any problems for the camera.  Sometimes those small patterns do cause a problem.  The camera can’t decide which stripe to adjust for, the dark or the light, and you end up with a swirling pattern on the screen that is exactly what it looks like when a camera is trying to make up its mind. 

David said the shirt was fine but he wondered if I could stretch the sermon another five minutes or so.  Seems the 8:30 service had come in significantly under an hour and even with the baptism at the 11:00 service David wasn’t sure we would have enough “length” for the television broadcast.  So, I went back to my study to see if there was anything I could do.

revival3There was one place in the sermon where I was talking about old-fashioned revival-meeting evangelists and thought I could probably add a few light touches.  I could describe the evangelist for one thing (slicked-back hair, skinny tie knotted around his neck,  sweat beading on his forehead and spit flying from his mouth), and then I could share a few of those stories those evangelists always seem to tell (like the one about the young man who is almost persauded to follow Jesus–almost–but then leaves the church without making a decision and gets hit by a train on the way home). 

What I was aiming for was a caricature of the revival-meeting evangelist, someone whose features and manners were so exaggerated that you just had to laugh.  But nobody did.  They didn’t laugh at the story of the young man who got hit by a train, or the old man who dropped dead of a heart attack, or the young couple who had a head-on collision with a cattle truck (a cattle truck, for cryin’ out loud!).  I couldn’t understand it.  These were hilarious stories, side-splitting stories about sudden death, and yet everyone sat there in thoughtful silence, contemplating the brevity of life, and how quickly it can all come to an end.

That will teach me, I suppose, that what strikes me as funny in that hectic time between the 8:30 and 11:00 services is not necessarily so.  That’s why I try to build into the sermon-writing process ample time for reflection and reconsideration, because what seems perfect in one hour may not seem perfect in the next.  On the other hand if I’m too careful about the process I might hamper the work of the Holy Spirit.  Sometimes you have to let go of the reins and enjoy the ride. 

Maybe that’s what happened this morning.  Maybe the Spirit took over.  Because eleven people came forward at the end of the service today, and some of them may have been thinking that they had better not wait until next week.  They had listened to the sermon.  They had heard the preacher say you need to make up your mind about Jesus and you need to do it soon.  Life is short, after all, and uncertain…

You never know when you might get hit by a train.