KOH2RVA: 136

R0916_FLR_MIKE4First of all, let me apologize to the staff of Richmond’s First Baptist Church:

When I said that you were doing a “service project” yesterday I didn’t mean to imply that you weren’t on a mission, or that you weren’t trying to change the world, I was just thinking about how some people do service projects because they make them feel good, or because they think they ought to, and not because they have some bigger goal in mind.

You do.

You’re trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, and yesterday you came close. As Steve Blanchard put it—heaven was “hovering” just above the ground.

Thank you for your good work.

But back to that other question: Is there a difference between doing a service project and being on a mission? Yes, there is. We did a little painting at the Anna Julia Cooper School yesterday. We put up a gigantic photo collage, and moved some furniture, and cleaned out the gutters. We did a service project. But Mike Maruca, the founder of the school, is on a mission. He says, “Helping to ensure that our students are on a path toward a full and decent life is our fundamental reason for being here.”

I heard a story about Mike that made that clear. A member of the staff said that Mike greets the students as they enter the building in the morning and calls each one by name. If one or more of them is missing he says, “I’ll be right back,” and then gets in his car and drives to those students’ homes where he knocks on the door and asks if they are all right.

He not only knows their names; he knows where they live.

That tells me something about his commitment to this mission. He’s helping to ensure that his students are on a path toward a full and decent life. Everything he does has that bigger goal in mind.

A service project can contribute to a mission. If we hadn’t done what we did yesterday Mike, or someone else, would have had to do it. But here’s another difference, and it’s a big one: when you finish a service project you can go home and get some rest, but a mission never really ends. Mike Maruca will never be finished “helping to ensure that his students are on a path toward a full and decent life.”

And we may never finish bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia. But there are days when you can tell it came a little closer, just as I’m sure there are days when Mike knows he’s making progress. I heard that all of his graduating students from last year got into good local high schools.

Just think how he will feel when he hears that they all got into good colleges.

KOH2RVA: Day 135

R0916_FLR_MIKE2Today the entire staff of First Baptist Church is going to the Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School in Richmond’s East End to see if we can bring a little heaven to earth.

This may have started a few years ago, when I asked why the church offices were open on Martin Luther King Day. I had just come from Washington, DC, where the church offices were always closed on national holidays and this was a national holiday, but there we were, tallying up the previous day’s offerings and recording attendance as if it were just another day.

So, we started talking, but instead of talking about taking a day off we talked about taking a day on, about doing something on that day that would honor Dr. King’s dream of a nation where children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

The Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School shares that dream.

The school is an independent, tuition-free, faith-based middle school for students of limited resources primarily from Richmond’s East End neighborhood. It started with 25 students in September of 2009, operating out of a house owned by the Peter Paul Development Center. In 2011 it moved into a school building on N. 29th Street, and now has 62 students enrolled in 6th-8th grades.

It also has a dog.

I hope you will visit the website to learn a little more about the school and about Anna Julia Cooper herself, who was a remarkable woman. Our involvement has come about mostly because of Melissa Ansley Brooks, one of our members, who lives on Church Hill and who is, herself, a remarkable woman. She and her husband, Justin, made a very deliberate decision to live in a part of the city that needs some love, and as they have gotten to know their neighbors and their neighborhood they have found a number of ways to bring heaven to earth.

Loving the Anna Julia Cooper School is one of them.

I’m not ready to write about it yet, but I’m thinking about the difference between doing a service project and being on mission. Today the staff of Richmond’s First Baptist Church will do a service project, but tomorrow Melissa will still be on a mission, because she’s not only trying to do some good,

She’s trying to change the world.

Eat, Pray, Love…and Get over Yourself!

One of the books I read on my recent vaction in Mexico was Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert (although I had to endure the good-natured ribbing of my brother-in-law, Chuck, who thinks Eat, Pray, Love is to books what Chocolat is to movies: kind of a girl thing).  I had started reading it on a staff retreat —just grabbed it off the shelf at the house where we were staying, read a chapter before falling asleep, and found it so honest and funny that I wanted to read more. 

Somehow it ended up in my luggage.

It’s the memoir of a woman who goes through a brutal divorce and the numbing depression that follows (at one point she talks about sitting in her living room with a sharp knife, wondering if she should cut herself just so she could feel something).  But then, almost miraculously, she gets the chance to take a year off, and decides to spend four months each in Italy, India, and Indonesia.  The memoir is mostly about that: about her four months of indulgence in Rome, eating her way from one gelato shop to another; four months in an Ashram in India, learning to pray from her internationally famous guru and a straight-talking Texan named Richard; and four months in Indonesia, sitting at the feet of an ancient Balinese medicine man and falling in love with a charming Brazilian businessman. 

The section about prayer, in particular, made an impression on me.  I appreciated the way Gilbert brought together mystical experiences from a variety of religious traditions and showed the similarities between them.  Apparently an ecstatic experience in the Christian tradition (think Teresa of Avila) is not that different from an ecstatic experience in the Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim traditions.  And I was impressed by the diligence with which she applied herself to the task: getting up at impossibly early hours and sitting cross-legged on a stone floor to meditate, chant, and pray.  But the more I read the more selfish this whole exercise seemed.  Gilbert wasn’t praying so that she could know the will of God and do it, but rather to achieve some sort of blissful union with the Divine that would give her inner peace.  And all the sources she cited, all the teachers she consulted, seemed to have the same end in mind: Prayer was not about others; It didn’t even seem to be about God;

It was about her. 

Granted, inner peace was what Gilbert needed, and maybe she had to find that before she could turn her thoughts to anyone else (later in the book she is inspired to do a very generous and selfless thing for a poor woman she meets in Bali), but I was struck by the difference between Gilbert’s guru, who wanted to show her the path to inner peace, and Jesus, who wants us to work with him to bring heaven to earth.  One way seems to be all about yourself; the other way seems to be all about others.  It makes me wonder if true inner peace comes when you get so deep enough inside yourself that blue lights start flashing in your brain, or when—like Jesus—you lose yourself completely in service to others.

So…Why Not?

negativity-change1In my last post, I told you that SO FEW people know the purpose of the church, but now that you are one of those people I have a question: if the essential purpose of every Christian church is service, outreach, fellowship, education, and worship, then why do we not organize ourselves that way?  Why do we not have—in large churches, especially—a minister of service, a minister of outreach, a minister of fellowship, a minister of education, and a minister of worship?  If these are the essential minstries of the church then shouldn’t we be doing them, and wouldn’t it help to have someone in each of these areas who could recruit, train, and motivate our members toward that end?

It seems obvious, but I don’t find many churches that are staffed that way.  Instead I find churches with youth ministers, children’s ministers, ministers to young adults, median adults, senior adults, etc.   In other words, churches seem to organize around specific populations within the congregation, and I think there’s a reason for that.

I think that when the baby boom moved through the church it overwhelmed the leadership.  Pastors who had been perfectly capable of caring for small congregations were suddenly trying to care for all these children and all their parents.  As each population reached “critical mass” the church called another associate: one for children, one for youth, one for “college and career,” etc.  At a time when the culture was pushing people through the front doors of the church it was all the church could do to keep up with the growth and provide for the needs of those people.  The emphasis was, necessarily, on things like fellowship, education, and worship—all things that happen inside the building—because that’s where the people were.

But what do you do when the culture is pulling people out  the back doors of the church?  Do you panic?  Do you change your worship style to make it more compatible with the culture?  Do you ask your staff to come up with more exciting programs to reverse the tides of change?  Do you go to church growth conferences hoping to fill those emptying pews?  Or do you take a deep breath, relax, and return to the essentials, to those things the church of Jesus Christ has been doing from the very beginning: service, outreach, fellowship, education, and worship?

I think you do, and I think you will find when you do that two of those five things have their focus outside the walls of the church: service and outreach.  If we live in a time when more people are outside the church than inside, then isn’t it wonderful that Jesus anticipated such a time and told his followers to go (out)  into the world and make disciples of every nation, to go (out) into the neighborhood and love our neighbors as we love ourselves?  And wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could take him at his word, and do what he asked us to do?

I think it would, and I think that if we did it faithfully we wouldn’t have to worry about how many people are inside and how many people are outside the building.  We would minister to both in the same way he would.  We would throw ourselves into the joyful work of service, outreach, fellowship, education, and worship.  And to be more effective we might even organize ourselves for that purpose—the essential purpose of every Christian church.

Why not?


purposeI used to teach a fifth and sixth grade Sunday school class where we used the church constitution and bylaws as our curriculum.  Just what a fifth or sixth grader is hungry for, right?  But there was a lot in that little booklet, including the church covenant, articles of faith, and a statement of purpose.  When I taught that last item I would say “SO FEW people know the purpose of the church,” and then I would tick off those five letters on the five fingers of my right hand: “S.O.F.E.W: Service, Outreach, Fellowship, Education, and Worship.”

In my study of dozens of church mission statements and purpose statements since then I have discovered that these five things make up the essential purpose of every Christian church.  Although they say it in lots of different ways, every authentic church seems to be occupied with service, outreach, fellowship, education, and worship.  I think that’s because we all look to the same New Testament, and to the same Lord, for cues as to what the church should do. 

For example: Jesus said the greatest commandment was to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love your neighbor just as much as you love yourself (Mk. 12:30-31).  From that “Great Commandment” we derive the purposes of worship (loving God) and service (loving others).  Jesus also told his disciples to go into all the world and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that he commanded (Mt. 28:19-20).  From that “Great Commission” we derive the purposes of outreach (making disciples) and education (teaching them to obey all that Christ commanded).  Finally, Jesus told his disciples to love one another as he loved them (Jn. 13:34).  From that “New Commandment,” the only commandment Jesus ever gave, we derive the purpose of fellowship

As the writer of John’s Gospel concludes, “Now Jesus did a lot of other things that aren’t written here” (Jn. 20:30), and he said a lot of other things that haven’t found expression in any church’s purpose statement, but these things have, these five things, and it’s a shame that “SO FEW people know the purpose of the church.” 

I hope that from now on you will.

Candle Aerobics?

971896384_b0882720e1I was a little nervous about the Christmas Eve service.

For weeks people had been asking me if we were going to do “candle aerobics,” and when I asked them what that meant they talked about the end of the service, where everyone is holding a lit candle.  They said that Dr. Flamming used to raise his candle and lower it during the singing of “Silent Night,” and everyone joined in.  It was especially meaningful, they said, when he raised it on that first verse, on the words “all is bright,” because the room really did become brighter as all those flames were lifted high.  “Candle Aerobics” was a tongue-in-cheek way of talking about something that had become a firm First Baptist tradition and they were wondering if I was going to continue it as the new pastor. 

I was certainly willing.  When I went to my last church they told me that during the annual Candlelight Carol Service I was supposed to walk down the aisle reading the Christmas story from Luke’s Gospel (King James Version) accompanied by two small children holding candles, that this is the way it had “always” been done and also the way I should do it.  I didn’t argue.  For eight Christmases in a row I walked that aisle, reading that story, even when one very small child almost set the Bible on fire with her candle.

The problem for me wasn’t in doing “candle aerobics,” but in doing it correctly.  I asked Allen Cumbia if he could show me the video of a Christmas Eve service.  He had to go back to 2003 before he found one that had been videotaped, and then, as I sat there in the control room with him, he fast-forwarded to the end of the service, where the candles were being lit.  The room got darker, the candlelight brighter, and eventually everyone began to sing “Silent Night.”  Sure enough, right at the end of that first line, on the words “all is bright,” every candle in the room was lifted up.  It was beautiful.  But as they were lifted again on the next verse, and again on the verse after that, I saw where the nickname “candle aerobics” had come from.  As the camera panned the congregation I thought I saw a few people smirking, as if a beautiful tradition had become some kind of joke, and that’s when I made my decision.

At the end of the Christmas Eve service, 2008, the new pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church held his candle perfectly still all through the singing of “Silent Night,” right up until the last line of the last verse when he raised it in order to pronounce the benediction from John 1:1-5: “In the beginning was the Word,” he said, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God and all things were made through him.  Without him was not anything made that was made.  In him was life, and this life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never been able to conquer it.”

I don’t know how it felt to everyone else, but to see those candles held high as I talked about the unconquerable light of Christ?  Well, it felt just right to me.  I’m sure that when I’ve been doing it twenty years some people will smirk about it, calling it the “Statue of Liberty Benediction,” but I’m also sure that it won’t bother me at that point. 

I’ll let the new pastor come up with a tradition of her own.

The Best “Hanging of the Green” Service Ever

30wreath1Lately I’ve been thinking about how the church will have to change to reach a world that seems less and less interested in churchgoing.  That’s part of my job as a pastor, to look down the road a few years, especially if I’m sitting in the driver’s seat: I don’t want to steer the church in the wrong direction.  But I also don’t want to miss the party that’s going on in the back seat.

Last Sunday, for example.

For years Richmond’s First Baptist Church has been celebrating the First Sunday of Advent with an evening service called “The Hanging of the Green” (notice that it’s not “Hanging of the Greens.”  That what we used to call it, apparently, but the Green family was offended and threatened to leave the church if we tried to hang even one of them.  So we started calling it “Hanging of the Green” instead).  I hadn’t been to this service before, not here, and wondered about these cryptic emails that started showing up in my inbox with references to the “H.O.G.” 

But on Sunday evening everybody seemed to know what to expect.  The church was packed, with children, youth, parents, and grandparents filling up the sanctuary and spilling over the balcony.  We opened the sanctuary doors and someone rang the big bell in the courtyard as a call to Advent.  Candi Brown welcomed us to worship and Becky Payne played a beautiful organ prelude.

It was sometime during the singing of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” that things started to come undone.  The youth were hanging fresh pine garland and wreaths around the balcony railing when one of the wreaths slipped off its hook and crashed onto three or four hymn singers below.  No one was injured, and they were all good natured about it, but it was the first of several mishaps that night.

Someone stepped on the power cord that supplied the huge, bass speaker the deaf choir depends on to feel the beat of the song they were supposed to sign (that’s not a typo: the deaf choir doesn’t sing, it signs).  As a result they weren’t sure when to start signing, or when to stop signing, and simply had to do their very best to follow the uncertain lead of their leader, who was feeling the loss of that big, bass speaker.  I think they were all a little embarrassed, but the congregation gave them an enthusiastic ovation, putting their hands in the air and waving wildly to signify loud applause.

And then Matthew Brown stepped to the pulpit to tell us he was not Rick Whittington.  Rick and his family were supposed to light the Advent candle but they were not feeling well and therefore not able to come to church even though their names were in the bulletin.  Matthew gladly offered to fill in but somehow the word didn’t get to his family, so as he stood there he invited them to come forward and join him at the wreath, only…no one came.  He asked again, and again, and finally he said, “Are any of you here?”  That’s when his four-year-old son Jonathan stepped into the aisle and said, “Daddy, I’m right here!” in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear.

And we all laughed out loud.  Why wouldn’t we?  Wreaths were falling, equipment was malfunctioning, and whole families were failing to report for candle duty, but the First Baptist family let out a belly laugh that let everyone know it was OK—OK to be human, OK to make a few mistakes, OK not to be perfect—we were all God’s children in that moment and it was all perfectly OK with Him.

Later I heard someone describe the service as a “comedy of errors,” and in a way it was, but in another way it was a celebration of humanity in all its awkward, adorable imperfection.  I sat there for the rest of the service with a smile on my face, shaking my head and thinking,

“It’s no wonder God loves the world so much.”