KOH2RVA: Day 345

baptism2For the second year in a row, conditions were not ideal for our annual river baptism. Last year a late afternoon thunderstorm rolled in about halfway through, bringing showers of rain, flashes of lightning, and claps of thunder. We had already decided that if that happened again Lynn Turner would blow a lifeguard’s whistle and order everybody out of the pool. But on Sunday morning a gentle rain was falling and I asked the congregation, “Are we going to let a little rain keep us from baptizing?”

Of course not.

So we went to the river, and by four o’clock in the afternoon that gentle rain had turned to a light drizzle, barely more than a mist. The photographer from the Washington Post who had called to ask if he could take pictures was there, looking things over, when I arrived. “You should get some good pictures today,” I said. “Very atmospheric.” He nodded hopefully. Photographers have to work with what they’ve got.

And so do churches.

On Sunday we had to work with water levels that were still a little high, a slippery footpath going down to the river, the late arrival of several participants who had been held up for one reason or another, and just enough drizzle to keep people under their umbrellas, looking at their watches, wondering how much longer until we got started.

At about 4:15 I took the microphone and welcomed a crowd that was as diverse as any I’ve ever seen. There were people of different colors, different nations, and different religions on the riverbank. What brought us together was our connection to those who were being baptized, and for some a curiosity about baptism itself.

I took some time to explain why we do it, how we follow in the footsteps of Jesus who was, himself, baptized in a river, and who later told his followers to go and make disciples in this way. I talked about baptism as a beautiful symbol of purification, rebirth, and resurrection. I was thinking about those people who had never been to a baptism before, people like that Washington Post photographer, perhaps, or the Muslim student who had come because of his friendship with one of the candidates.

Baptism is a powerful witness.

Eventually I said a prayer and stepped aside so Fred and Julie James could come to the microphone. They sang a beautiful folk duet about baptism with guitar accompaniment and a harmonica solo that was just right for the occasion.  And then Lynn Turner read the story of Jesus’ baptism from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 3. And then our auditioned chorus—One Accord—sang “Down to the River to Pray” in prayerful, soul-stirring harmony.

And then we went down to the river to baptize.

One by one the candidates came, beginning with Tammy Benjamin, who is blind, and had to be helped down the slippery path to the water. But once she got in she was completely at home, and completely at peace. When I asked her to profess her faith she said, “Jesus is Lord!” in a clear, strong voice that echoed across the water. And then Steve Blanchard and I dipped her down beneath the surface, brought her up again, and she took the first breath of her new life in Christ.

It was a holy moment.

And for each of the nineteen who followed her there was that same holy moment of going down into the water to be “buried with Christ by baptism into death,” as Paul says, “so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” There was Carter Bickford, who was cheerful as a cricket when he came skipping down the path; Rob and Katie Courain, who were baptized simultaneously as husband and wife; Ian James, who often struggles to keep his focus but who said “Jesus is Lord” at just the right time, with absolute conviction; Mike Jesensky, who was baptized as an infant, but who wanted to be immersed as a personal expression of his faith; the entire Jones family, who decided that they wanted to be baptized together; and finally Chequita Swopes, who gasped so loudly when she stepped into the chilly water that I laughed and hugged her close just to warm her up a bit.

There were others, of course—too many to mention to mention by name and each of their baptisms special in its own way—but I wanted to give you just a taste of the experience, just enough to whet your appetite, so that next year, when the weather is perfect, you will join us at the river. It’s an unforgettable experience, and one of those times when heaven comes to earth most obviously. On Sunday it was so obvious that if you turned your face to the sky you could almost feel heaven coming down,

Like a fine, gentle mist.

KOH2RVA: Day 285

River Baptism

I got a call on Wednesday from a producer in New York who is working on a documentary film about faith—“the positive aspects of faith,” she said, suggesting by her tone of voice that there are some aspects of faith that are not so positive. She has in mind a very ambitious seven-part series, but the first part would be a two-hour documentary on “the birth of faith,” and that’s why she was talking to me.

She had found some pictures of First Baptist Richmond’s annual river baptism online and thought that it would be a wonderful way to talk about and think about the birth of faith. She was calling to find out more about it and, especially, to ask if I thought the church would be open to participating in the project.

She asked how the annual river baptism got started, and I surprised myself by saying, “Well, this town has a river running through it, a beautiful river” (in fact, Richmond was recently named the Number One River City in America by Outside magazine). “It seemed only natural to take advantage of that, and to do at least one baptism a year outdoors.”

She wanted to know about baptism itself. She had grown up Presbyterian, in Ohio. She knew about infant baptism followed by confirmation at a later age but she didn’t know about immersion. I told her I had grown up Presbyterian as well, but because my family moved around so much I had missed confirmation. And so, at the age of 14, I asked to be baptized, and a few weeks later my father—a Presbyterian minister—and a friend of his who was a Baptist minister dipped me down under the muddy waters of the Big Coal River in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I told her how the Apostle Paul seemed to think of baptism as a kind of death, burial, and resurrection; how the old “you” goes down into the water and “dies,” and a new you comes up (Romans 6:4-11). I told her that for some people it is the perfect symbol for leaving behind a life they’ve made a mess of and starting fresh.  I told her how the first breath they take when they come up out of the water is the first breath of their new life in Christ.

I must have done a good job because when I got finished she said, “That makes me want to get baptized!”

So, there may be a film crew at our annual river baptism on July 21. And there may be a producer who throws down her clipboard, rips off her headset, and wades out into the water. As you might have read on this blog a few days ago, baptism is one of those places where heaven comes closest to earth, and maybe that’s why we’re having a river baptism: because we’re trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia,

And this is one of the best ways we know to do it.

KOH2RVA: Day 112

snow-covered-fieldDo you know that song, “Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go”? Yesterday that’s what I did with my family, except we went over the mountain and through the woods to grandmother’s nursing home.

On a good day it’s about a three-hour drive from Richmond to Franklin, West Virginia, and yesterday was a good day. My daughter Ellie is visiting from New York and Catherine is home for her winter break. We all piled into the car yesterday morning (along with Ellie’s two dogs) and headed for the hills.

We had plenty to talk about on the way, and as we got off the Interstate and into the country there was plenty to see. There was snow on the ground! The roads were clear but the fields on both sides were glazed like a Krispy Kreme doughnut. Ellie saw a horse-drawn Amish buggy whizzing down the road. Catherine saw a deer head hanging from a tree (yikes!). We went over Shenandoah mountain through so many hairpin curves that everybody began to feel a little queasy, but from the top the views were breathtaking.

When we finally got to Franklin we were dismayed to learn that the entire nursing home was under quarantine because of the flu, and were told at the front desk that we wouldn’t be able to visit my parents. I said, “But I called yesterday! But we just drove three hours! But my daughter has come from New York!” And while I was protesting the director of nursing happened along and said that my mother, at least, wasn’t showing any symptoms and could come to the family room for a visit.

So, that’s what we had: a two-hour visit with my mother, who entertained us the whole time. She had us laughing like a stand-up comedian. When it was time to go I asked if we could walk around to the side of the building and at least wave to my dad through the window. One of the nurses said she would go to his room and open the curtain. So, off we went, hiking around the side of the nursing home through ankle-deep snow.

As we went Christy reminded the girls of those days when they used to visit the nursing home in Wingate, North Carolina, where we lived at the time. She would take them to be “spirit lifters,” and Ellie, at least, spent a lot of time painting fingernails, which the ladies there seemed to love.

I thought about how that was one more way of bringing heaven to earth. Long before our year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, Christy and the girls were figuring out that when one person shares the love of Christ with another heaven touches down—however briefly–wherever you are.

And that’s what we had with my dad yesterday: a very brief moment.

The nurse pulled back the curtain and the four of us stood at the window to see Dad, lying in his bed, smiling up at us. Just because it seemed like the thing to do I began to sing, “We wish you a merry Christmas,” and the family joined in, and then, to our surprise, we could see Dad joining in, singing along with us. The nurse opened his window just a crack so we could hear him and he could hear us, and when we were finished singing we told him that we loved him and blew kisses and waved goodbye.

That was it.

That was all the nurse had time for but probably all my dad had strength for. He’s very weak these days. And to leave him with the image of four impromptu carolers wishing him a merry Christmas and a happy new year was probably about the best we could have done.

And so we drove back to Richmond, satisfied by the visit, having brought the Kingdom of Heaven a little closer to Franklin, West Virginia.

Today, I’m back in this city I love, wondering how I can be a “spirit lifter” here. What about you? Is there somebody whose spirit you can lift, even if you have to go over the river and through the woods to do it?

KOH2RVA: Day 110

ChristmasPresents2In the 5:00 service on Christmas Eve I talked about the “season of giving” and questioned why we give what we give. Is it because we want to, or because we have to? I talked about the worst gift I ever gave (an ugly homemade hat for my brother Scott). I talked about how “generosity begets generosity.” I read The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. And then I said this:

I wonder if generosity will beget generosity in this season. I wonder if God’s gift of himself will inspire us to give. And I’m not just talking about money, although that figures in. Money is a symbol of what we value. We pay $20 for something because we think it’s worth $20. How much is God’s love worth to us? What will we give in return for the gift of his son?

I love Vicky Nicholau’s answer. She told me that last year she was in Hanna Zhu’s Sunday school class, where they studied the book, Christmas Is Not Your Birthday. It’s not, is it? It’s Jesus’ birthday. The more Vicky thought about that and the more she wondered what she could give Jesus at Christmas the answer became clear: she could give him herself.

Last summer she was baptized in the James River and this is what she said: that her baptism was a symbol of giving herself to Jesus. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise me then that of all the people I see working to bring heaven to earth on our year-long, every-member mission trip, Vicky seems to be the one who is doing it most joyfully. She seems to be giving herself away like that tree—apples, limbs, and trunk. And you get the feeling that if Jesus would come and sit down on her stump when she’s through giving herself away, she would be happy.

What about you? Will generosity beget generosity? Will God’s gift of himself inspire you to give yourself away? And will you give because you want to, or because you have to? There’s a difference, and the one who receives your gift will surely be able to tell.

December 25 is a couple of days behind us at this point, but it’s still not too late to give your gift to God.

Shall We Gather at the River? Maybe not.

It almost didn’t happen.

There were some who said it shouldn’t happen, who warned me, plainly, that when you hear the first distant boom of thunder at the public pool you have to get out for at least a half hour.

But this was no Sunday afternoon swim: this was the Fourth Annual River Baptism and there were twelve people lined up on the river bank ready to be “buried with Christ in a baptism like his” as Paul puts it.  That word, buried, seemed eerily appropriate as I waded out into the James River a little after five with the skies darkening to the west.  And just as the second hymn ended I heard it–the distant boom of thunder.

What’s a pastor to do?

There were those twelve candidates lined up on the river bank.  One of them had hugged me at church that morning and squealed, “Do you know what day this is?  It’s the day I get baptized!”  How could I disappoint her and the others who had waited so long for this day?  And what about Bill and Beverley Hundley, who had made their beautiful place on the river available to us and spent weeks getting everything ready, manicuring the lawn and even raking the river bed in preparation?  What about the members of the Baptism Team, who had brought robes for the candidates and helped them into makeshift changing booths and given them careful instructions about what to do and when to do it?  And what about those dozens, perhaps hundreds (Baptist preachers tend to estimate high), of family members and friends sitting and standing on the river bank expectantly, waiting for their loved ones to wade out into the water?  In the end I did the only thing that seemed reasonable at the time:

I ignored the thunder.

I motioned for Ralph Starling to assist me in the water.  He gulped hard and waded out.  And then the first candidate came, the one who had been so eager about her baptism day.  Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor hail was going to stop her from taking the plunge.  She came up out of the water triumphant, with a shout and a raised fist.  The others seemed just as determined, even when lightning flashed in the distance, even when the skies opened up briefly and the rain poured down.

“Welcome to the first mass baptism of 2012!” I shouted.  “Some of us are being immersed and others are being sprinkled!”  There was laughter from the riverbank and then the next candidate waded out, undaunted.

It was just after that shower that the skies cleared and the sun broke through the clouds.  When the last candidate had been baptized we sang “Amazing Grace” and Lynn Turner said a closing prayer.  People began to open up their picnic baskets and spread out their blankets and the evening was as soft and lovely as any you’ve ever seen.  I changed into some dry clothes and began to move among the crowd, meeting extended family members and friends, mooching food off of almost everybody, and breathing a huge sigh of relief that nobody had been struck by lightning at the Fourth Annual River Baptism.

On Tuesday morning our staff debriefed the event and agreed that next year we should definitely have a backup plan in case of inclement weather.  Definitely.  This year I’m just thanking God for watching over fools and children…

…and Baptist preachers.

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Photo courtesy of Julie Adams-Buchanan’s Facebook page.  Thanks, Julie!

Yes, We’ll Gather at the River

Last Sunday afternoon I got to baptize thirteen people in the James River in our Second Annual River Baptism.  There’s something very special about wading out into that water while the gathered church watches from the shore; something very special about dipping those candidates beneath the surface in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit; something very special about seeing them wipe the water from their eyes and break into a joyful grin as the congregation applauds.  Jesus must have known how special all this could be when he commissioned his disciples to go and make disciples of every nation.  I can almost hear him saying, “Oh, and by the way…baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit.  It will mean the world to them.”

In this photo: Jim Somerville prepares to baptize Doug Duke as Buddy Burgess signs for the deaf congregation.

Yes, We Shall!

DSC03633Shall we gather at the river,
where bright angel feet have trod,
with its crystal tide forever
flowing by the throne of God?

It’s not exactly a baptismal hymn, but it’s the one that has been coming to mind in the past few weeks as the staff of Richmond’s First Baptist Church planned and promoted a “river baptism.”  We spent some time worrying about where we would do it, and some more time worrying about what the weather would be like, but in the end we found the perfect place and the weather was the kind that inspires baptism–so hot that people who had never considered full immersion were beginning to see the advantages.

Bill and Beverley Hundley let us use their front lawn, which slopes down to the James River beautifully.  It’s a grassy, park-like place, with mature trees and plenty of shade on a hot day.  We were glad about that.  The temperature when I arrived at 4:00 was right at 99, and some people were already sitting in the shade fanning themselves with straw hats.  But that didn’t stop others from coming.  By 5:00, when it was time to begin, there must have been 200 people there, with nearly two dozen of us dressed in white robes, ready to get into the water.

I welcomed the crowd, Fred and Julie James sang “Amazing Grace,” I offered a prayer, and then One Accord sang “Down to the River to Pray” as Buzz Ingalls made his way to the water.  Buzz was stricken with polio as a child, and while many of his friends were making professions of faith and being baptized Buzz was at home, battling his disease.  As a result he wasn’t baptized then, but when he came down the aisle last year he told me that he very much wanted to be baptized now.  We had to think about how to do that.  He couldn’t get into the baptistry at the church, not with those crutches.  But when we began to talk about a river baptism Buzz thought he might be able to manage that.  So, while One Accord sang, he came, making his way slowly, carefully, to the river. 

But once he got in the water everything changed.  He was buoyant in body and soul.  And when it came time to profess his faith he said, “Jesus is Lord!” in a voice loud enough to be heard on the riverbank.  I dipped him down under the water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and he came up grateful in a way I have rarely witnessed, having waited for that moment for decades.

I baptized several children after that, and then had the privilege of baptizing Reinaldo Vega—a member of the church maintenance staff— just after his son Anthony had been immersed.  Reid and Millie Flinn—husband and wife—came into the water together and stood there side by side as I talked about their desire to make a fresh commitment to Christ.  Some who had been baptized and confirmed in other denominations were glad to profess their faith in this peculiarly Baptist way.  Some who had been previously immersed wanted to seize this opportunity to renew old promises.  By the time we were finished 21 people had been dipped down under the water, and after each one the crowd on the riverbank applauded. 

There was no formal benediction or organ postlude; just the sounds of people shifting their lawn chairs and opening picnic baskets as they settled into a time of fellowship that lasted for the next two hours, with members of the First Baptist family eating, talking, and laughing as the sun sank lower in the sky and filtered through the leaves on the trees, turning everything gold and green.  Near the end children were swimming in the river and romping on the lawn as their parents carried on conversation with each other, as old friends shared stories they had been waiting a long time to tell  No one seemed to be in a hurry to leave.  We didn’t want the evening to be over.  And so the last voices heard on the lawn were voices promising that we would do it again next year, that First Baptist Church’s “river baptism” would become an annual event.

Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
the beautiful, the beautiful river;
gather with the saints at the river
that flows by the throne of God.

BONUS: See pictures and a video clip HERE.