KOH2RVA: Day 281

DadYesterday was Father’s Day. Today is my dad’s birthday. He had the misfortune of being born so close to Father’s Day that when he became a father he often received one gift or card for both. “Happy Birth-Father’s-Day!” my brothers and I would write on the tags of our poorly wrapped homemade gifts. But Dad didn’t seem to mind.

He wasn’t in it for the glory.

I talked about him at last night’s vesper service at Westminster-Canterbury and read some excerpts from the little book I once put together for him: Seventy Things I Remember about My Dad (in Honor of His Seventieth Birthday). I talked about the time he rolled naked in the snow just to prove to his sons that it wasn’t too cold to walk to school; about the way his eyes used to light up when he challenged us to a game of Monopoly; about the way he taught us that when you had something hard to do it was best to just get it over with, as soon as possible.

I didn’t talk about the 25 years my dad spent trying to end poverty as a Presbyterian missionary in Boone County, West Virginia—one of the poorest counties in America—but as I sit here this morning thinking about how to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, I can see where some of my inspiration comes from. I got a glimpse of it during last night’s introduction.

Ginna Lavender, a resident of Westminster-Canterbury and a member of First Baptist Church, told the group who had come for vespers that our church is on a year-long, every-member mission trip. She said, “Dr. Somerville tells us to look around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven and then roll up our sleeves and go to work.” It was just after that that I stood up to talk about my dad, and as I reflect on it this morning it occurs to me that that’s what my dad was doing: looking around for anything that didn’t look like heaven and then rolling up his sleeves and going to work.

John Denver sang that West Virginia is “almost heaven,” but he wasn’t singing about Boone County. The poverty there was bone-crushing. Dad once took us to Thanksgiving dinner with a family that was one generation removed from living under a rock cliff. The house they were in wasn’t much of an improvement. But Dad had seen that house as he was driving up Joe’s Creek Hollow one day—with the rusted-out hulks of old cars in the front yard and the bags and piles of trash in the back—and he had gotten out to meet the family that lived there, to talk to them, and get to know them, and see if he could do anything to help. That initial meeting turned into a friendship that lasted for years, and I would guess that Dad got as much from the Dotsons as they got from him.

It wouldn’t have happened if Dad hadn’t been “looking around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven,” but he was, and he found it, and he rolled up his sleeves and tried to make a difference. God only knows if he did, but that’s OK.

He wasn’t in it for the glory.

Happy Birthday, Dad. I love you. I’m inspired by your life and ministry. And when I go out to help bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, today,

I’ll be thinking of you.

An Old Joke and the New Jerusalem

I found this version of an old joke that you’ve probably heard before:

A man arrives at the gates of heaven. St. Peter asks, “Religion?”  The man says, “Methodist.”  St. Peter looks down his list, and says, “Go to room 24, but be very quiet as you pass room 8.”

Another man arrives at the gates of heaven. “Religion?”  “Lutheran.”  “Go to room 18, but be very quiet as you pass room 8.”

A third man arrives at the gates. “Religion?”  “Presbyterian.”  “Go to room 11, but be very quiet as you pass room 8.” 

The man says, “I can understand there being different rooms for different denominations, but why must I be quiet when I pass room 8?”

St. Peter tells him, “Well the Baptists are in room 8, and they think they’re the only ones here.”


Thinking about that joke I remembered a passage from the Book of Revelation, where the new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven “adorned as a bride for her husband” (21:3).  A little later in the passage John tells us:  “It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and [each gate was made of a single pearl]…. There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west” (vss. 12-13).  And I smiled, wondering if there was a sign on each of those pearly gates, one that said “Methodists,” one that said “Lutherans,” one that said “Presbyterians,” one that said, “Baptists,” and so forth, all around the wall.

The joke, I thought, would be on all of us, when we dutifully entered through our respective gates and discovered that we were (in fact) all in the same place.  I hope we would only stare at each other for a moment before we all burst out laughing and said, “Good one, God!”

You know what’s funny?  In that passage there are actually names on the gates of the New Jerusalem.  “On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel” (vs. 12).  It makes me wonder if those twelve tribes sometimes had trouble getting along, if the tribe of Benjamin occasionally turned up its nose at the tribe of Dan, for example.  Would the twelve tribes be surprised when they came through their respective gates and found that they were (in fact) all in the same place?  Would they stare at each other for a long moment before they all burst out laughing? 

It doesn’t seem to be God’s intention to keep us separated.  He seems to want to bring his big, scattered family together in one place.  One of my favorite parts of this passage comes a few verses later, where John tells us that there wasn’t a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple; and it didn’t need the sun or the moon, because the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp; and the nations will walk by that light and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into that place, and the gates will be open by day, and there is no night there (vss. 22-25).

Did you catch that last part?  The “nations” will walk by that light (the word in Greek is the same one used for “Gentiles”).  The kings of the earth will bring their splendor into the New Jerusalem.  It doesn’t sound like it’s only going to be a place for God’s chosen people; it sounds like it’s going to be a place for all of God’s people.  And the gates will be open by day, and there is no night there, which means, of course, that the gates of that city will never be closed.

The New Jerusalem will always be open.

Welcome to Christiantown

I know a woman who doesn’t want to be part of any Christian denomination; she just wants to be a Christian.  She says, “I don’t want to be a Methodist (and you really have to hear her say it to understand just how much she doesn’t want to be one, even though she grew up in that denomination and married a Methodist minister), I want to be a Christian!”  She points to that passage in 1 Corinthians 1 where Paul says he has heard about some who are saying, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”  And then Paul says (and you would really have to hear him say it to understand just how much he is horrified by the idea), “Is Christ divided?  Was Paul crucified for you?  Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Cor. 1:12-13).

This is this woman’s argument precisely: that Christ is not divided, that John Wesley (the founder of Methodism) was not crucified for her, nor was she baptized in the name of John Wesley.  She was baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.  She wants to be a Christian, dadgumit.

And so I told her about Christiantown, an imaginary place where people live together in perfect Christian unity.  I said that in Christiantown the Methodist family might live next door to the Lutheran family, but both families live in Christiantown.  There are lots of streets, with lots of houses, and lots of happy families living inside.  There are Baptists, and Presbyterians, and Catholics, and Pentecostals, and every other kind of Christian you can imagine, but what they have in common is a shared commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord.  No matter how much they love their respective families they know who was crucified for them, and in whose name they were baptized.  They know what makes them one.

I tell this woman that what she doesn’t want to be in Christiantown is homeless; she doesn’t want to wander the streets forever, looking in through the windows as families are sitting down at the supper table, as they hold hands and say grace with the glow of candlelight on their faces.  She needs to become part of a family.  She needs to find some Christians with whom she can enjoy that warm, nourishing fellowship, and with whom she can worship and serve the Lord.

So, I’ve encouraged her to visit some churches, and find a good one, and join it knowing that she is not abandoning her commitment to Christ, but only finding a home in Christiantown.  I hope she will do it, and I hope that family—whatever its name might be—will take her in.

She needs a home.

Striking Similarities

childrenIn my last post I talked about the difference between making disciple and raising disciples. 

When it comes to making disciples, no group of Christians has been more committed than Baptists.  We take the Great Commission seriously, heeding Jesus’ call to “go into all the world and make disciples of every nation, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19-20).  When I talk to people of other denominations about what it means to be Baptist I say that one of the things that sets us apart is our historic emphasis on missions and evangelism.  We see it as our duty to share the good news about Jesus with the whole world.  But it occurs to me that in both missions and evangelism we are bringing the Gospel to adults, primarily, just as those first apostles did.  In that sense we are being truly biblical, following the pattern of the Book of Acts by going to those places and people who have yet to hear about Christ and boldly sharing our faith.  When those people respond to the invitation to become disciples we baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Nothing could be more biblical. 

But again, the Bible doesn’t tells us what happened when those new Christians began to bring their children and grandchildren to church.  We’ve had to “invent” that part of our tradition.  Early on in the history of the church people began baptizing babies, because they didn’t want them to be left out of this wonderful new life they had discovered.  For centuries that was the norm in the undivided Church of Jesus Christ.  But during the years of the Protestant Reformation people began to read the Bible for themselves and the people who came to be called “Baptists” noticed that there was no mention of infant baptism in the Bible.  Partly out of reverence for Scripture, and partly as an act of protest against the state-controlled church, they stopped bringing their babies for baptism, waiting instead until their children were old enough to make up their own minds about Jesus and profess their faith for themselves.  Only then would they baptize them, initially by pouring water over their heads but eventually by immersion, plunging them under the water just as the Greek word baptizo suggests.

That’s been “the Baptist way” ever since. 

But we don’t ignore our children in those early years.  We don’t wait until they reach the age of accountability and then start telling them about Jesus.  On the contrary, we bring them to church as soon as possible after they are born (Elmer West jokes that his mother brought him to church a good while before he was born).  We dedicate them in a beautiful ceremony which acknowledges the truth that even before they have done one thing right or wrong God loves these children and wants them to be his.  We bring them to the church nursery, where dedicated Christians hold them and rock them and sing to them and change their diapers.  We teach them about Jesus in Sunday school and Vacation Bible School; we do everything we can to raise them in “the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”  Eventually they come to that place where they are ready to make up their own minds about Jesus and when they do we celebrate.  We baptize them publicly and rejoice right along with the angels in heaven. 

What strikes me is the similarity between that approach and the approach of almost every other Christian denomination.  In the Presbyterian church of my childhood, for example, I was baptized as an infant.  Yes, some water was sprinkled on my head in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, but essentially it was a way of acknowledging that even before I had done one thing right or wrong God loved me and wanted me for his own.  I grew up in that grace, shining my sturdy Buster Brown shoes on Sunday morning and clipping on my bow tie for church; studying the tiny pink paperback catechism I had been given so I could answer questions like, “What is the chief end of man?”  (Answer: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever);  and learning to recite the Apostle’s Creed, which begins “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord…”  If I had stayed in that church long enough I would have eventually attended confirmation classes, where the pastor would talk to me about what it means to be a Christian and belong to a church.  Finally, at the age of 12 or 13, I would have stood before the congregation and professed my faith, saying out loud so everyone could hear me, “Jesus is Lord!” 

When you look at these two ways side by side—the Baptist way and the Presbyterian way—you see that in each we do something in infancy to acknowledge God’s grace and we do something at a later point to acknowledge the child’s faith.  In between the two we do everything we can to help the child grow up Christian, because it’s not only Baptists who want their children to become mature believers some day: it’s Methodists, Lutherans, Catholics, Pentecostals, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians as well.

When I look back through the difficult questions in that little catechism and the dense theology of the Apostle’s Creed I think somebody was trying hard to make a thoughtful Christian out of me, and so if it sometimes seems that I think too much about these things you can do what I always do:

Blame the Presbyterians.

Leaving Alabama

book121-aLast week, during the Lenten Luncheon series at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, I told the story of how my family left Alabama.  Some of you have asked that I post it here.  This version is a little longer, with a few more details.  I hope it will inspire your thinking on race relations and make you wonder how your own experience has shaped your views on that issue.  Enjoy.


I was born on March 14, 1959, in Selma, Alabama (for those of you who are still doing the math I am hanging on to my forties by my fingernails).  My mother tells me I was the most difficult of all her babies to deliver, and that while she was waiting for me to make up my mind about being born she walked the hallways of that hospital saying the 23rd Psalm over and over: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  My father was the new pastor of the Presbyterian church in Hayneville, Alabama, 35 miles away, and recently he told me the story of his own labor, there, and of his eventual delivery.


He said that when he was considering a call to that church he asked the committee chairman what the civil rights situation was in Hayneville.  Since the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, resistance to integration had been strong in the South, and sometimes violent.  The chairman said, “Well, you’re a good old South Carolina boy, aren’t you?  You know what it’s like.”  And it’s true.  My father had grown up in South Carolina.  He probably knew exactly what it was like.  But he came anyway.  He hadn’t been there very long when a member of the church invited him to say the opening prayer at the next meeting of the White Citizens’ Council.  “What is the White Citizens’ Council for, exactly?” my father asked.  “Could I look over a copy of the Constitution and Bylaws before I give you my answer?”  And the man looked at my dad as if he were crazy, or maybe a communist, and said, “Well you know what it’s for: it’s to keep niggers in their place!” 


Although I don’t think the Constitution and Bylaws read that way, that is what the White Citizens’ Council was for.  According to one of my better sources the WCC was an American white supremacist organization which flourished between the mid-fifties and the mid-seventies.  With about 15,000 members, mostly in the South, the group was well known for its opposition to racial integration in the South.  Headed by Gordon Lee Baum, a St. Louis attorney, its issues involved the so-called “protection” of “European-American” heritage from those of other ethnicities.[1]  If my dad had only had Wikipedia he would have known all that.  But in answer to the man’s reply Dad said he didn’t think that was his role in the community.  He said he thought his role was to share the gospel with anyone who would receive it, black or white, and to make no distinction between the two.  “And that,” my father said, “was when he looked at me as if he really did have a rattlesnake loose in his house.”


It was not long after I was born that the leaders of Dad’s church sat down with him to discuss the policies of racial integration being promoted by the denomination.  According to some Presbyterians, at least, black people ought to be welcome in the church just like white people.  The elders of the church in Hayneville talked about that for a long time and finally decided that black people—“negroes” as they called them in polite company—were welcome to visit the church but not welcome to join it.  And then they looked at my dad to see what he thought.  He must have been about thirty years old at the time, a young man, sitting in that room with all his elders, trying to be respectful.  But finally he said, “This church doesn’t belong to us.  It belongs to Jesus Christ.  And I don’t think he would keep anyone from joining because of their skin color.”  And the man who had chaired the search committee looked at my dad and said, “Son, I don’t know what kind of religion they taught you in seminary, but we’ve only got one kind of religion here, and it’s that good old Southern religion.”


Soon word began to get around that the new pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Hayneville was a “nigger lovin’” preacher.  Church attendance began to fall off.  Women would stare at my mother in the grocery store.  And then one morning while she was fixing breakfast she noticed a string of cars passing by the house, slowing down at the front yard and then speeding up again.  One of our neighbors called to ask if we were all right and Mom said, “Yes, why wouldn’t we be?”  “Didn’t you know?” said the woman.  “Why, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in front of your house last night!”


Mom hung up the phone and got my father out of bed.  He put on his bathrobe and slippers and walked across the front lawn to a patch of burned grass.  My mother watched him poke a pile of ashes with the toe of one slipper and when he came back in she said, “Well?”  And he answered, almost disappointed: “Sure was a little one.”  But after that the threats began to get more serious until my father finally decided he needed to get his family out of there.  So, he loaded up his wife and three little boys in a 1953 Ford Fairlane, strapped a dog house on top with our dog “Lady” and her five puppies inside, nailed a piece of plywood over the opening, and then, under cover of darkness, pulled out of the parsonage driveway and headed up the road toward Southwestern Virginia, where he would try to continue his ministry under happier, friendlier circumstances.


Things were happier there, and friendlier, too.  But even though I was just a toddler when we left Alabama those stories, and my father’s courageous example, have shaped my views on race relations ever since.  How about you?  Who shaped your views on this issue?

[1] From Wikipedia, “White Citizens’ Council”




My Way vs. Your Way on the Way to Our Way

Listen to Holy Conversation #1: Baptism (October 22, 2008) (mp3)


I started last night’s “Holy Conversation” with a story about a time, early in my marriage, when I decided to surprise Christy by washing the dishes.  I filled one basin with warm, soapy water and the other with clean, scalding water.  And then I washed all the dishes, starting with the cups and saucers, ending with the pots and pans, washing them in the warm, soapy water, rinsing them in clean, scalding water, well on my way to surprising Christy when…she came home early.  She asked me what I was doing.  “I’m washing the dishes,” I said, magnanimously, waiting for her praise.  “That’s not how you wash dishes,” she said, patiently.  “You just turn on the tap, let a little warm water flow, and wash the dishes under the stream.  That way the water is always clean and you’re not washing dishes in (she looked into the murky wash basin) that.”


For years I’ve been telling that story to couples as an example of how conflict can crop up in a marriage when you confuse “a” way with “the” way.  I was doing dishes my way, the way my mother had taught me.  And Christy did them her way, the way her mother had taught her.  It didn’t dawn on me until years later that I did dishes the way I did because we didn’t have running water when I was growing up.  Washing them under that warm stream Christy recommended wasn’t an option.  We had to haul water, heat it on the stove, and pour it into basins.  Often there are good reasons for doing things the way we do them, or at least, there were good reasons.  What Christy and I had to figure out for the sake of our marriage was a way of washing dishes that was neither my way nor her way but our way, together.  And we did.  These days we simply load the dishwasher, push the button, and move on to other things.


That little parable served as preface to last night’s meeting in which a crowd of some 400 people engaged in conversation about the Baptist way of making disciples (baptizing believers by immersion), and the other way (baptizing infants who are later confirmed as believers).  Former Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and others, stood up and talked about their experiences while lifelong Baptists sat and listened.  Some of the experiences were funny, like the woman who remembered that when she finally decided to be immersed a girl who was baptized along with her wore a swim cap, so as not to ruin her gorgeous new hairdo.  Some of them were humbling, like the man who said he resisted being re-baptized, but when he finally submitted out of a sense of obedience found it to be one of the most meaningful experiences of his life.  Some of them were powerful, like the young man who remembered his confirmation in the Methodist Church, and the sure sense that in that moment he had received the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Some of them were sad, like the woman who told us her Presbyterian way of being Christian had never been accepted in 25 years of Baptist churchgoing.


What I’m hoping for in these holy conversations is that we will talk to, and listen to, each other long enough to come up with a First Baptist way of receiving members that is neither my way nor your way but our way together.  I’d like to think we would continue to make disciples as we always have—baptizing believers by immersion—while opening the door of membership to let in those who have been discipled in other ways. 


I’ll have to wait and see how things turn out, because one of our Baptist ways (and one I affirm wholeheartedly) is a congregational form of government that doesn’t permit the pastor to make the church’s big decisions.  Instead, as in a healthy marriage, we talk about these things, listen to each other, and make our decisions together. 


That’s just our way.