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.

How Good and Pleasant It Is

Nabil HaddadI’m traveling to Amman, Jordan, next week with a priest, an imam, and a rabbi.

Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, doesn’t it?

But it’s not.  My Richmond interfaith group has been invited to participate in something called “World Interfaith Harmony Week” by Father Nabil Haddad, a Catholic priest who lives in Amman and works to promote peaceful relations among Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

These days, more than ever, that kind of work needs to be done.

I told someone at the Jewish Community Center that I was on my way to Jordan for this conference and he said, “Well, good!  Someone needs to tell those Muslims to quit blowing us up.”  I tried to explain that it’s not “those Muslims,” but rather radical extremists who are the problem, and you can find those in almost any religion.  “Not ours,” he said.  “You don’t see us cutting anybody’s heads off.”

Maybe not today, but during the Crusades “Christian Soldiers” massacred both Muslims and Jews in their efforts to re-take the Holy Land.  And, yes, they used swords.  Many modern-day extremists refer to those events when they try to justify their own actions.  “We are only doing what was done to us!” they say.

Yes, but that was a thousand years ago.  Can’t we let it go?  Must we always be at war with each other?

In my interfaith group we are often reminded that Jews, Christians, and Muslims (through Ishmael) consider Abraham their ancestor.  If that’s true, if he is in fact our “father,” then we are in fact “brothers.”  It doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything anymore than my biological brothers and I agree on everything,  It certainly doesn’t mean that we have to adopt each other’s beliefs or practice each other’s religion.*  But I hope it would mean that we would try to get along with each other, and at the very least not kill each other.

I love the beginning of Psalm 133: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (KJV).  It is good and pleasant.  And the times I have spent with the members of my interfaith group talking, sharing meals, and even bowling together, has convinced me that we don’t have to hate each other just because we’re different.  We “children of Abraham” can dwell together in unity.  May it be so as we travel to Amman, and may we set an example for the world to follow.

These days, more than ever, that work needs to be done.

*I spent a good bit of time on the phone recently trying to convince a woman that I was not promoting “Chrislam” (her word for a supposed synthesis between Christianity and Islam).  For years in my interfaith work I have followed the advice that the best way to have interfaith dialogue is to be a wholehearted adherent of your own faith and not try to water it down or make it more palatable to others.  That’s how we reach a place of mutual understanding and respect.

A Night to Remember

Nigerians2It’s 7:35 p.m. on Tuesday, January 20, 2015.

Exactly 50 years ago, at this time, somewhere between 1,400 and 1,800 people packed themselves into the sanctuary of Richmond’s First Baptist Church for the annual business meeting. Why so many? Because two weeks earlier two Nigerian students from Virginia Union University had presented themselves for membership, and the church was voting on whether or not to let them in.

Fred Anderson writes: “To understand the scene in January 1965 and to sense something of the charged emotions, it is necessary to review the turbulent era. A scant ten years before, in 1954, the Supreme Court had ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education that separate but equal was not to be allowed in reference to the public schools. Led by powerful politicians and fed by the fears of the white citizenry, especially in the rural areas, Virginia employed “massive resistance.” In some localities, the public schools closed. Although Virginia avoided the kind of ugly racial confrontations experienced in much of the Deep South, there were deep-set social customs, segregation laws, and spirits of defiance. The areas of public transportation, public accommodations, and voting rights were prime aspects of society about to undergo change.”

On Wednesday evening, January 20, all the conflicting emotions—the rights and the wrongs—from centuries of Southern living had a place of exposure in a meeting that stretched on for four hours. The staff and leadership had prepared carefully. 3,000 ballots had been printed. Tally sheets had been designed to make the proceedings smooth. News reporters were barred from the church grounds. This was strictly a “family meeting.”

The pastor, Dr. Ted Adams, began the meeting with a statement of his personal convictions. “In his calm and gentle manner characterized by extreme patience and understanding, the gentle Adams laid out the concern for open doors and open hearts. He appealed, as he had before, that the church should receive into its membership ‘anyone who came professing faith in Jesus Christ as their personal Savior.’”

And then it was up to the church.

The main motion on the floor was that “an exception to the established church policy be made to accept under the watch care of our church the two Nigerian students.” Chesley Decker, the son of missionaries and an appealing young member, called for a change from watch care to full membership. In the time for discussion there were numerous speakers pro and con. Someone reckoned that between forty and fifty members spoke at some point in the long deliberations.

Some speaking against the motion argued that “If God had wanted the races to amalgamate…” etc., fearful that integration would lead to intermarriage between the races. Others worried that immediate admission would “split the membership,” and urged a deferral for at least six months. But the young people in the room, who felt differently, spoke with the courage of their convictions. One young woman stood at the podium and pointed her finger at some of her former Sunday school teachers. “You taught me to believe that Jesus loves ALL the little children—red and yellow BLACK and white! Was that a lie?”

It would be impossible to document the emotion in the crowded church sanctuary that night, but in the end, the (amended) recommendation to receive the Nigerian students as full members carried 773 to 540.

The word spread like wildfire.

The next day the story showed up in newspapers in Gainesville, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia; and Washington, DC. Some of the articles were supportive; others were simply surprised that a historic Baptist church in the “Capital of the Confederacy” would vote to admit black members.

It would be another two months before Martin Luther King led the march from Selma to Montgomery (dramatized in the recent film, “Selma”). Some have wondered how the publicity and policy changes surrounding that march would have affected the outcome of the First Baptist vote, had it been it held at a later time. We will never know.

But we do know this:

Fifty years ago tonight the people of Richmond’s First Baptist Church came down on the right side of history. Not all of them, mind you, but enough to carry the vote. They heard something of the gospel in Dr. Adams’ gentle request that “anyone professing faith in Jesus Christ should be admitted as a member.” They remembered that they were not only citizens of the American South, but also of God’s Kingdom. Ronald Howell, a member of the church, was quoted in the Richmond News Leader as saying, “The value of what we believe and profess is seen in what we do. By opening our church doors, we can prove to the watching world that we are sincere about our belief in the One God who is the Father of us all.”

It’s 8:35 now. Fifty years ago that church business meeting was just getting warmed up. It would be another three hours before the gavel came down and the few remaining members could go home. But what happened then defined who we are now. The “open door” policy of First Baptist Church had been tested and the door had remained open.

It was truly a night to remember.

Much of the information in this post comes from Fred Anderson’s excellent reporting in The Open Door: A History of First Baptist Church, Richmond, Virginia, published by the church in 2006 (pp. 261-279).

What I Want for Richmond

black-and-white-hands-e12810219397001I am not a regular reader of the newspaper. I am not a regular watcher of television news. Even so, I have heard plenty about Ferguson, MO, Staten Island, NY, and Cleveland, OH in the last few weeks. I know that there is racial unrest in our nation that is registering on the Richter Scale.

I haven’t preached about it. Although Karl Barth famously urged preachers to step into the pulpit with the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other I tend to leave the Times behind. I preach from the Bible, and I’m amazed at how often its timeless truths seem as fresh and relevant as the morning newspaper. Anyone who is listening to its pleas for justice, mercy, and humble walking with God will hear the names of “Ferguson,” “Cleveland,” and “New York.”

But I’m not thinking about them this morning; I’m thinking about Richmond.

What I want for Richmond is a different kind of reality. I don’t want us to be the next Ferguson. I want us to be a place where God’s kingdom has come and God’s will is done on earth as it is in Heaven. And I can’t imagine that it is God’s will for there to be enmity among his children, and especially not because of color or class.

So, what if, in Richmond:

  • We went out of our way to be kind to each other?
  • We greeted each other warmly, sincerely, with the sign of the open palm, proving that we meant each other no harm?
  • We visited each other’s churches, celebrating the truth that we have the same Heavenly Father, which makes us all sisters and brothers?
  • We took the time to call or listen to those who may feel especially vulnerable in this time of unrest, those who are thinking, “That could have been my son,” or, “That could have been me”?
  • We tried to be patient with those who learned prejudice from their parents or grandparents or other trusted elders as they struggle to learn a better way?
  • We prayed for police officers, who regularly risk their lives in the line of duty, and who live with more fear than they would ever want us to see?
  • We tried hard to see in the face of every other human being the face of Christ, and tried to love one another as he has loved us?

That’s what I want for Richmond. I know it’s a lot to ask, and I know it seems to leave out those who are not part of my tradition, and who may not be willing to look for “the face of Christ” in others. But can we at least see the face of a neighbor in the other, and recognize that this is our city, together? That it rises or falls on the basis of how we treat each other?  And can we make a silent promise, right now, to treat each other with love and respect?

My friend Ben Campbell has said he wants “the former Capital of the Confederacy to become the Capital of Racial Reconciliation.”  That’s a good and worthy goal and I embrace it, but I realize I want even more than that:

I want it to become Heaven on Earth.

How to Talk to A Complete Stranger about Church

man_walking_dogTwo Sundays ago, at the suggestion of preaching professor David Lose, I challenged my congregation to ask people if they go to church and if not, to ask them why.  I try never to ask my congregation to do something I’m not willing to do myself, and so, on the way home that day, I asked someone.  Here’s what happened, as reported on Facebook:

Actual conversation on my way home from church today:

“Excuse me,” I asked the stranger walking his dog on my street, “Do you go to church?”

“No,” he said. “I believe in God, but I don’t go to church.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Honestly? Because a lot of churches are too judgmental.”

I told him I was a pastor and that I was trying to help my congregation be less judgmental. He asked where and I said First Baptist. He wanted to know where it was and what time we had services. And then he said this:

“I believe in God. In fact one night I was lying there in my bed and I said, ‘God, if you’re real, show me.’ And then my bedroom door opened, not once, not twice, but three times!” (tears came to his eyes, and he got choked up).

He asked again where my church was and then said, “I might not come to church, but if you want to talk to me on the street anytime, I’d be glad to.”

So, that was two weeks ago.  Last Sunday I saw the same guy on the same corner as I was walking home from church.  This is what happened:

He: Pastor Jim!

Me: Hey, aren’t you the guy I talked to a couple of weeks ago? What’s your name?

He: Edward.

Me: Right! You told me the story about knowing God was real because of your bedroom door opening and closing three times one night.

He: Right.

Me: I shared that story on Facebook! A lot of people were really moved by it.

He: I almost came to church today, except I didn’t wake up until 10:45. I work late, you know. But I am reading the Book of Isaiah.

Me: You’re kidding! I talked about Isaiah in today’s sermon. I said I thought it was a book Jesus grew up listening to, and one that helped him understand who he was and what he was supposed to do.

He: Well, I’m on chapter 65, so…just one chapter to go.

Me: Good for you. That’s amazing! And listen, I hope you’ll come to church next week. We’re having one big worship service at 11:00 and then dinner on the grounds afterward. If you come I’ll buy your lunch!

He: Okay!

I don’t know what will happen next, but #churchjusthappened both times I talked to Edward.  Maybe you could try it yourself this week.  Somebody might be hoping for just that kind of conversation.


What Is a Sabbatical?

ImageDear Readers:

I will be on sabbatical from June 8 through August 2, taking some much-appreciated time away for rest, travel, and study.  It’s the policy of Richmond’s First Baptist church to grant sabbatical leave to its ministers in the seventh year of their tenure.  I think it’s an excellent policy, and so does Thom Rainer, President of LifeWay Christian Resources and former Billy Graham Professor of Evangelism at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  Take a look at this article from his own blog:


The word “sabbatical” has different meanings depending on the context in which it is used. It has one meaning in the academic community, another meaning in its biblical usage, and still another in many secular settings.

For the purpose of this article, I define sabbatical in simple terms. It simply means time off for rest and/or study. The time can be a few days, a few weeks or, on rare occasions, a few months. The pastor is given paid leave for rest, rejuvenation and, perhaps, deeper study. I would love to see churches of all sizes provide this requirement of their pastor, even if it’s only for a few days.

I have the opportunity to work with lay leaders and pastors. I have a pretty good view of both perspectives. And I am convinced that more lay leaders need to insist their pastors take regular breaks even beyond vacations. Allow me to provide five reasons for my rationale.

1. A pastor has emotional highs and lows unlike most other vocations. In the course of a day, a pastor can deal with death, deep spiritual issues, great encouragement, petty criticisms, tragedies, illnesses, and celebrations of birth. The emotional roller coaster is draining. Your pastor needs a break—many times a break with no distractions.

2. A pastor is on 24-hour call. Most pastors don’t have an “off” switch. They go to sleep with the knowledge they could be awakened by a phone call at anytime of the day. Vacations are rarely uninterrupted. It can be an exhausting vocation, and a sabbatical can be a welcome time to slow down.

3. Pastors need time of uninterrupted study. It doesn’t usually happen in the study at church or home. There is always the crisis or need of the moment. Church members expect sermons that reflect much prayer and study. The pastor’s schedule often works against that ideal. The sabbatical can offer much needed, and uninterrupted, study time.

4. Pastors who have sabbaticals have longer tenure at churches. Though my information is anecdotal, I do see the trend. And while I cannot prove a cause-and-effect relationship, I feel confident that pastors who have sabbaticals are much more likely to stay at a church because they are less likely to experience burnout.

5. Pastors who have sabbaticals view the time off as an affirmation from their churches. I have heard from many pastors who share with me a sentence similar to this one: “I know my church loves me because they give me a sabbatical.” Pastors need affirmation. Sabbaticals can accomplish that goal.

I estimate that only about five percent of churches offer sabbaticals. In almost every case where I am familiar, the relationship between pastor and congregation is very healthy. I do think at least one of the reasons is the sabbatical.


I hear you, Thom.  I know my church loves me because they give me a sabbatical.

Right back at you, church.  I love you, too.

See you August 3!



Is this Man the Best Liar in America?

ImageShhhhh! Donald Davis is telling a story.

Actually, you don’t have to shush anybody when Davis is at work: his stories do it for you. The listeners lean forward, heads cocked in the direction of his voice, straining their ears for every word, and the words they hear often cause them to gasp, to sigh, or to laugh out loud.

Donald Davis is a storyteller, but he hasn’t always been. For twenty years he was a Methodist minister. But he couldn’t seem to keep the stories out of his sermons, not only the great biblical stories like Noah and the ark, David and Goliath, and Daniel in the lions’ den, but also the stories about his own eccentric family members and some of the odd neighbors he had known through the years.

“I didn’t learn stories, I just absorbed them,” he says as he recounts tales and more tales learned from a family of traditional storytellers who have lived on the same Western North Carolina land since 1781. Davis grew up hearing gentle fairy tales, simple and silly Jack tales, scary mountain lore, ancient Welsh and Scottish folktales, and-most importantly-nourishing true-to-life stories of his own neighbors and kin.

It was Uncle Frank, a man who “talked in stories,” who helped Donald capture the real and daily adventures of life…and it was Uncle Frank who gave him the creative courage to tell about them.

Davis remembers, “I discovered that in a story I could safely dream any dream, hope any hope, go anywhere I pleased, fight any foe, win or lose, live or die. My stories created a safe experimental learning place.”

His congregation loved his sermons, but nobody dared call him a storyteller: in Western North Carolina if somebody said you were “telling a story” they meant you were telling a lie.

And you wouldn’t want to call your preacher a liar.

But Davis was good at it, so good that he eventually retired from the ministry to take up full-time storytelling. At the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, where Davis has been a regular for decades, crowds pack the tent where he is telling. A fellow storyteller admits, “It is not a stretch to say that Donald is the top draw for the nearly 10,000 people who come to the National Storytelling Festival each year.” His books and CD’s always sell out first in the resource center, leading some to wonder:

“Is this man the best liar in America?”

Richmonders will have a chance to answer that question for themselves May 30 – June 1 when Davis comes to town for “America’s Best Storytellers,” a weekend festival to be held at the Byrd Theater in Carytown and the historic First Baptist Church at the corner of Monument and the Boulevard. Barbara McBride Smith, a champion storyteller from Tulsa, Oklahoma, will also be featured at the festival, along with Virginia storyteller and accomplished banjo picker Rex Ellis.

Festival organizer David Howell has recruited local radio and television personalities to emcee the event, and invited local storytellers to audition for a slot in the Sunday afternoon lineup. Maybe the best liar in America is right here in Richmond…

…just waiting to be discovered.

Tickets are $35 for the weekend; $10 for Friday or Saturday evening only. To register or simply to get more information visit