KOH2RVA: Day 269

doctor-shaking-hands-with-patientI had lunch with Bill and Emily Johnston yesterday, an older couple from First Baptist who have been kind to me from the beginning and haven’t slowed down yet. We went to the Dairy Bar after yesterday’s Senior Adult Bible Study, where I indulged in the special of the day (a barbecue sandwich with French fries) and finished it off with a scoop of Cookies ‘n’ Cream ice cream (note: this is not a healthy meal.  You will pay for it.  I’m getting ready to run five miles as penance).

We talked about a lot of things over lunch, but eventually they asked the question that prompted the invitation. “What do you want us to do?” they asked, and what they meant was, “What do you want us to do to help bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia?”

I was moved by the question.

Here they were, people who have invested their whole lives in Richmond, who have worked tirelessly through the years to bless the city and heal its inhabitants (literally—Bill is a retired pediatrician and Emily was his nurse), asking me what I wanted them to do to bring heaven a little closer to earth. I couldn’t think of a thing, and so I asked them what they were already doing. They began to tick off a long list of volunteer activities around the church but eventually started talking about their regular visits to the hospitalized and homebound. They told me that sometimes they offer to take a homebound person to the store, or out for lunch, and then they looked to me for approval. “Is that a good thing?”

I slipped into the role of teacher for just a minute. I told them about my own parents, who are in a nursing home. When I go to visit them I usually offer to take my mom out to lunch. She is physically very healthy, and cheerful as a cricket, although she admits she can’t remember very much. My dad, on the other hand, is in the hospice wing. He can open his eyes when I call his name, smile and take my hand, but a few minutes later he is nodding off again. So, they have different needs. I visit with my dad for about three minutes and with my mom for about three hours.

I used that example with Bill and Emily to emphasize the need for sensitivity in each situation.  People who are recovering from surgery may not need a long visit if they need one at all. They’re trying to heal, and that takes a lot of energy. They don’t need to use it up entertaining guests. On the other hand someone who is home alone day after day may savor a visit like I savored that scoop of ice cream—relishing every bite and not wanting it to come to an end. “You really just have to be sensitive,” I said, “and do what’s best for each person.”

And then I heard what I was saying and looked at the two of them sitting there across the table, nodding, taking in every word.  I was embarrassed by my own insensitivity. What could I possibly teach Bill and Emily? They’ve been out there day after day, visiting the hospitalized and the homebound. They may not have gotten it exactly right every time. None of us do. But doing it is so much better than waiting till we get it all figured out or coming up with a list of reasons why we can’t.

“What do I want you to do?” I asked, eventually. “Exactly what you’re doing. You two are bringing it—you’re bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.

“What more could I ask?”

KOH2RVA: Day 194

Shaka SmartDear Readers:

I’m not feeling well today. I think it’s only a cold, but it has me down. I’m going to try to get some rest and feel better soon. In the meantime, let me ask those of you who are able to carry on with our mission of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.

A glance at today’s newspaper headline tells me Shaka Smart and the VCU Rams were feeling well enough last night to crush the Akron (Ohio) Zips in the second round of the NCAA tournament’s South Region. I don’t think they were trying to bring the KOH2RVA when they did it, but there was at least one VCU fan in my neighborhood who got pretty excited about the win. I’ll have to think about the connection today, when I’m feeling a little better, but as I recall it was just last Sunday that Chris Harris (who leads the Upward Basketball program at First Baptist Church) assured the congregation: “You can bring heaven to earth with a basketball.”  Maybe he’s right about that.

Thanks for reading,

Jim

KOH2RVA: Day 54

Today is All Saints’ Day, and I’m thinking about that song: “Oh, When the Saints Go Marching in.” Do you remember the part that says, “Oh, Lord, I want to be in that number,” meaning the number of saints who go marching in? Well, how could you be sure that you would be in that number?

As a Christian pastor I can tell you that the very best way to be sure is to put your faith and trust in Jesus Christ. The Gospel of John assures us in various ways that Jesus is the way to life abundant, overflowing, and eternal. “For God so loved the world,” John says, “that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). At the Last Supper Jesus prays to the Father, “Now this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). And when Thomas asked the way to the Father’s house Jesus answered, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me” (John 14:6).

So, if you want to be in that number, put your faith and trust in Jesus. I know of no better “Way.” But this morning I’m thinking about that parable in Matthew’s Gospel where the Son of Man separates the sheep from the goats. It’s in Matthew 25, and it’s not so much about believing in Jesus as it is about showing compassion.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

While some of us at First Baptist Church are trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, by leading people to believe in Jesus, many of us are doing it by showing acts of compassion—by feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and welcoming the stranger. We believe that it’s not enough to help people find life in the next world; we have to help them find life in this one, too. We can’t leave off that first part (otherwise we become just a bunch of secular “do-gooders”), but we can’t leave off that second part, and Jesus tells us why:

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

Ouch.

On All Saints’ Day, if I want to be sure that I’m going to be in that number, I’m going to put my faith and trust in Jesus and then get out there and do the kinds of things he did: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and welcome the stranger. Because as surely as I do it for the least of these brothers and sisters of his,

I do it for him.

Full Disclosure

At the end of Sunday’s sermon, the one about Jesus cleansing a leper, I referred to my tenth grade yearbook picture. Several people have asked to see it, and although it pains me to post it (I’ve saved it under the file name “Yikes!”) here it is, along with the last few paragraphs of the sermon. Be gentle.

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Last week some of my old classmates from Sherman High School in Seth, West Virginia, caught up with me on Facebook.  They were happy to find me.  They didn’t know what had happened to me.  And they have been very, very kind.  But as I looked through some of the yearbook pictures they had posted on that site I began to realize why they hadn’t heard from me: those two years at Sherman were some of the most painful in my memory. 

My dad, as I’ve told you, was a kind of missionary to the desperately poor in that county and I felt like a missionary kid.  We lived in a house with no running water and no indoor plumbing, which meant that I went to school most days looking kind of rumpled and smelling sort of…unwashed.  And I was a little kid!  I went to high school a year early and didn’t get my growth spurt until two years later.  I was about five feet two with teeth that seemed way too big for my mouth and the worst haircut I’ve ever had in my life.  When I looked through those yearbook pictures I remembered those tall, handsome, confident boys, and those pretty, outgoing, giggly girls, and suddenly there I was, looking like a scared rabbit, trying to hide my face under my crooked bangs when the photographer took the picture.     

When I look closely I can almost see the pain in those eyes. 

But I would guess that I’m not the only one in this room who had that kind of experience in high school.  In fact, there may be a third of you who don’t have your yearbook picture hanging on the wall at home.  Those are such vulnerable years, and we feel so tender; one unkind word can cut us to the quick.  “If you want to you can make me clean,” the leper says to Jesus, and maybe all he really means is, “If you want to you can save me from being a social outcast, you can bring me into the community, you can help me find a place.”  And Jesus says, “I want to,” and then he reaches out and touches the leper.  Who knows how long it had been since anyone offered to do that?  But in that moment, in that action, his leprosy is cured.  He is made clean.  Jesus told him not to say anything about it but he couldn’t help himself. 

It was the best thing that had ever happened to him.

Think about those people, not only in high school but in every church, who have trouble fitting in, who are almost terrified to visit a Sunday school class where everybody already knows everybody, and where there aren’t any available seats.  Think about how hard it is for some people to walk up the front steps of this church for the first time, not knowing if they will be made to feel welcome or turned away at the door.  Think about those people who have failed at life, who have lost a job, who have been divorced; people who are struggling hard and who need a home; people who have been pushed to the fringes of society because in one way or another they have become “unclean.” In this first chapter of his Gospel I think Mark is being very deliberate in showing us three different things that have no place in God’s kingdom: 1) evil, 2) illness, and 3) exclusion.  Jesus takes his stand against all of these.  He drives out the unclean spirits (vss. 21-28), he cures those who are sick (vss. 29-39), and he welcomes the outcasts (vss. 40-45).  And when he does those things God’s kingdom comes, and God’s will is done,

On earth as it is in heaven.

Vending Machine Prayers

coke_machine_smallerI’ve been overwhelmed by the response to Sunday’s sermon from Mark 5:21-43, the passage where Jesus heals the woman with the hemorrhage and raises Jairus’s daughter from the dead.  It seems that everyone has prayed for someone who was sick or dying, and while some of them tell stories of miraculous healings—like the ones in Sunday’s Gospel reading—most of them do not.

And there’s the problem.

They want to know what it takes to get results from their prayers, the right kind of results.  How can they pray in a way that guarantees healing?  When their prayers don’t work  they tend to assume:

a. They didn’t have enough faith.
b. They didn’t pray the right prayer.
c. They didn’t say enough prayers.
d. They didn’t have the right people praying.

There is biblical support for each of those assumptions, but behind them all is the idea that if we could just learn how to do it correctly our prayers for healing would be answered. 

It reminds me of that commercial I saw years ago where a man is trying to get a vending machine to accept his wrinkled dollar bill.  He puts it in and the machine spits it out.  He puts it in again and it spits it out again, over and over, until right at the end of the commercial when the machine finally accepts the bill and he says, “YES!” and pumps his fists in the air.  And then, if I’m remembering correctly, he pushes a button only to find that his brand of soda is sold out.

That’s the way it is with some of us, isn’t it?  We bow our heads and clasp our hands and offer up prayers like wrinkled dollar bills, hoping that one of these days God will accept them, but worrying at the same time that if and when he does the answer we are looking for may be sold out. 

Is that really how it is?  Is that really how God works?  Like a vending machine in the sky from which we can get the answers to all our prayers if we can only figure out the secret? 

I’d like to think God is more than that, and prayer more than a way to get what we want.  I concluded Sunday’s sermon by saying that these healing stories in the Gospels are reminders that God loves the world, and that he loved it so much he sent his only son, who ladled out God’ s healing power on any who had need.  If God really does love us like that then we don’t have to “trick” him into hearing and answering our prayers.  And if God really is God then there is no way we can force him to do what we want.  Instead we can talk to him like a child might talk to loving parent, telling him exactly what we need or want and trusting him with the answer. 

For example, when I used to ask my dad to buy me a Coke he usually said no.  If I asked him why he might say that he didn’t have the money or it wasn’t good for me, or he might just repeat his answer: “No!”  But once a year, when we went on vacation, he would stop for gas and reach down into his pocket to bring out a fistful of quarters.  He would give one to each of his sons, and we would go over to the Coke machine, drop a quarter into the slot, pull out a frosty bottle and pop open the top.  Ahhhh.  Did my father love me?  Of course he did.  He showed it any number of ways.  And I came to trust his love so completely that even when he said no I could accept his answer.

Last Sunday night, after preaching that sermon, I had occasion to pray for someone who was very sick.  Sitting there beside his hospital bed I found myself saying, “Dear Heavenly Father, I know you love this child of yours.  I know you have loved him all his life.   I ask you to do for him whatever is most loving, and I trust you with the answer to this prayer.”

It’s not easy, leaving things in God’s hands, but there are no better, stronger, or surer hands than those.

Is It You, Again?

homeless-billYesterday’s sermon from Matthew 25 hinted at the idea that Christ is in every hungry, thirsty, shivering, lonely, sick, or imprisoned person we encounter.  It reminded me of a paragraph from Kathleen Norris’s book Dakota that has brought a smile to my face over and over again through the years.  Let me share it with you here:

Visits to monasteries are as old as monasteries themselves.  We think of monks as being remote from the world, but Saint Benedict, writing in the sixth century, notes that a monastery is never without guests, and admonishes monks to “receive all guests as Christ.”   Monks have been quick to recognize that such hospitality, while undoubtedly a blessing, can also create burdens for them.  A story said to originate in a Russian Orthodox monastery has an older monk telling a younger one: “I have finally learned to accept people as they are.  Whatever they are in the world, a prostitute, a prime minister, it is all the same to me.  But sometimes I see a stranger coming up the road and I say, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ, is it you again?'”

If you say it with just the right inflection, it sums up everything we often feel when we are confronted with the needs of the world.  But if you say it often enough it will also remind you of who is watching and why it matters that we respond with compassion.