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.

KOH2RVA: Day 189

2013-03-10 10.11.11

Do you remember the story I told you about the second grade Sunday school class that was having a bake sale to raise money to buy orthopedic shoes for a woman named Cheryl? Well, last Sunday they had a party to celebrate their success, and invited Cheryl, and gave her the money to buy the shoes. They also let her hold the cake for this picture, and if you look closely you can see that it says “KOH2RVA.”

This was one of those moments when the Kingdom of Heaven came to Richmond, Virginia, and when a dear woman named Cheryl felt the love of Christ through the love and hard work of these second graders and their teachers.

It’s moments like these that make the whole mission trip worthwhile.

Blushing with Pride

I’ve got to hand it to the members and friends of Richmond’s First Baptist Church.

On the first Sunday in October I stood in the pulpit and told them we had a budget deficit of nearly $200,000.  And then I said:

“In a church this size that’s not necessarily a cause for alarm, and frankly, given the state of the economy, it could be much more.  Still, it is a cause for concern, and we need to catch up.  When there’s not enough money people begin to talk about cutting programs or staff, and I don’t think any of us want that.  So, we’re going to take up a special offering on November 6 to catch up on our giving, but please don’t feel that you have to wait for that day to give.  If you’ve fallen behind in your own giving over the summer this might be the perfect day to write a check or click the link on our website that lets you give online

“People often tell me that if everybody would only tithe we would have enough money, and I agree.  If everybody would tithe—that is, if everybody would give 10 percent of their income back to God through the church—we would have more than enough money, even in times like these.  But everybody doesn’t tithe.  In fact I heard recently that in the average church some 40 percent of the congregation gives nothing at all.  To be fair to those people I don’t think it’s because they are greedy, I think it’s because they are afraid—afraid that if they give even ten percent of their income back to God there won’t be enough for them. 

I can sympathize with those people, especially in times like these, but let me remind you that in the Christian faith there is no place for that kind of fear.  We believe that everything we have comes from a good and loving God who has poured out his love upon us with such abundance we can never thank him enough.  To give back ten percent seems like a tiny thing compared to what he’s done for us; it really is only a token of our gratitude.  Not to give it is to say that we don’t really believe God can provide for our needs, and that we trust ourselves more than we trust him to handle our money. 

“That is a faithless and fearful response. 

“So let me ask you to look toward November 6 with more faith and less fear, in fact, let your gift on that day be a gift of fearless love.”

On every Sunday in the month of October I made a similar appeal, being reminded along the way that some people don’t give simply because they have lost their jobs, they have no income, and ten percent of nothing is nothing.  It’s not because they are fearful or faithless.   

That point was well taken.

Still, on November 6 those who could give did.  They came down the aisles and dropped their offerings into baskets at the front of the sanctuary and the rear of the balcony.  I was moved to see young people and old people, wealthy people and poor people, people who are long-time members and people who aren’t members at all shuffling forward to give.  In the end we took up a “Fearless Love” offering of $228,000, which means that in this Sunday’s bulletin we will show a budget surplus of $11,555.

I’m blushing with pride, and I spent a good bit of my time at this week’s annual meeting of the Baptist General Association of Virginia talking to other pastors and bragging on a church that rises to a challenge as magnificently as any I have ever known. 

Thank you, First Baptist, for your faithful and fearless love.

Are They Christians?

In my last post I said that the church of Jesus Christ includes anyone who can say—and mean—“Jesus is Lord.” 

Not everyone would agree.

In the middle of the Nineteenth Century J. R. Graves, a Baptist minister from Memphis and editor of the Tennessee Baptist, popularized a movement which claimed that only Baptist churches were legitimate churches.  Congregations of other denominations (eg: Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopalian) were understood to be mere “religious societies,” with no claim to the title “church.”  Ordinations and baptisms performed in those churches were considered invalid and thus their ministers were not regarded as “real” ministers nor their members as “real” Christians.  In 1851 Graves posed a series of five rhetorical questions, intended to prove his point:

  1. Can Baptists, consistently with their principles of the Scriptures, recognize those societies not organized according to the pattern of the Jerusalem church, but possessing different governments, different officers, a different class of members, different ordinances, doctrines, and practices, as churches of Christ?
  2. Ought they to be called gospel churches, or churches in a religious sense?
  3. Can we consistently recognize the ministers of such irregular and unscriptural bodies as gospel ministers?
  4. Is it not virtually recognizing them as official ministers to invite them into our pulpits, or by any other act that would or could be construed into such a recognition?
  5. Can we consistently address as brethren those professing Christianity who not only have not the doctrines of Christ and walk not according to his commandments, but are arrayed in direct and bitter opposition to them?

                                           —the Cotton Grove Resolutions, June 24, 1851.

The Landmark Movement gained popularity in much of the South, and you can see its appeal: if you were Baptist in those days it might be comforting to think that you were part of the only true church and that your neighbors of other denominations had it completely wrong.  Graves continued to publish editorials that strengthened that impression, claiming that there was no such thing as the universal church, that the only valid church was a local Baptist church, and that anyone who was not a member of such a church was “outside the Kingdom of Christ.”  Although Landmarkism has been denounced as a heresy, its roots went down deep in the fertile soil of the Mississippi River Valley and its influence continues to be felt among Baptists today.  It’s comforting to think that you’ve got it right and everybody else has got it wrong.

But not all Baptists feel that way. 

At the time Graves began his Landmark campaign most Baptist leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention believed in the universal church.  One of those was Jeremiah Bell Jeter, pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  Jeter seemed to understand that you couldn’t confine or control the grace of God, that the Good Shepherd had other sheep who were not of the Baptist flock, and that the true church is comprised of all those people who can say—and mean—“Jesus is Lord.”

As the current pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, I’m proud to follow in his footsteps.

“He Was a Bright and Shining Light”

This is how I said it on Sunday:

“Whenever there is a death in the church family, we are saddened by the loss, but the loss of Jackson Ramsey is especially tragic because he was so young, because he lost his battle with despair, because he died at his own hand.”

That’s what we’ve been dealing with at Richmond’s First Baptist Church in the last few days–the suicide of a 16-year-old boy so full of life and joy we could hardly believe it.  I’ve just come from his memorial service, where more than a thousand people gathered, most of them young people who had come to remember their friend and classmate Jackson.

Some wonderful stories were shared, stories that made us laugh out loud and remember this “jolly giant” (as his sister called him), stories about his big smile, and strong hugs, and crazy dancing.  Some powerful words were shared, words that helped us find God’s presence in the midst of our grief, and offer back to God the gift that Jackson was. 

As Jesus once said about John the Baptist, “He was a bright and shining light” (John 5:35).

In the end I said, “Before we leave this place let’s make a solemn promise to weep all the tears we have in us to weep, because that’s how you get the grief out; to give and receive all the hugs we can, because that’s how broken hearts are mended; to give away all the love we have to give, because that’s the only way we’ll get it back again; and to pray all the prayers we have in us to pray, because that’s how hope is restored.  Finally, to put the matters of life and death into God’s hands and to leave them there, because that’s where they belong.”  And although I didn’t say it out loud I was thinking it as I left the pulpit:

“So that we never again have to gather for this reason.”