Come Celebrate a Miracle

BrailleIn the post below, guest blogger Phil Mitchell, Associate Pastor of Christian Worship at Richmond’s First Baptist Church, tells the story of a real-life miracle, and invites us to come and celebrate it with him on April 27.  Read the story, save the date, and then come…celebrate a miracle.


This year, we have been challenged by our pastor to partner with others in bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, VA. The initiative is called “Kingdom of Heaven Times Two” (KOHx2), and it’s all about bringing heaven to earth through partnerships. Here is one way we are seeking to do just that:

Two years ago, our church procured the new Celebrating Grace Hymnal. It has turned out to be a wonderful worship resource for us, full of the old and the new, brimming with countless ways to express our faith. Our pew racks are full of them. They are within an arm’s length of everyone who has gathered for worship. All you have to do is open the book to see the rich possibilities for singing a “new song unto the Lord.”

Unless, of course, you are blind.

Lewis Myers asked me if we were going to provide Braille copies of the new hymnal for our blind members. Honestly, I had never thought about it. None of us had thought about it until Lewis wanted to know how members like Mark and Melody Roane were going to sing the hymns from the new hymnal. I spoke to the editor at Celebrating Grace who said he was sorry, but there were no plans to produce a Braille version.  “Well, then,” I thought.  “If no one will do it for us we will do it ourselves!”

But how do you do-it-yourself when it comes to a Braille hymnal?

Robbie Hott, a computer genius in our church designed a template to input all the texts into a database. Anyone, could go to the site and enter texts (using some basic guidelines) so we could build an electronic resource that would eventually become Braille.

We contacted Brian Barton at the Braille Circulating Library, just down the street from the church, and they volunteered to produce the Braille version for us, at no cost. We are almost to the final product. Two years of really hard work and scores of volunteer hours later, we are about to have the Braille edition of our new hymnal in our hands.

You can learn more about the fascinating process by viewing the video below.

So, here is a partner in our neighborhood who is seeking to do the very thing we have been called to do: to make our neighborhood a little more like God would want it to be—accessible, hospitable, and full of praise. Together, we are doing that.

I tried to imagine a way to bless the Braille Circulating Library in the manner that they have so generously blessed us. It came to me that the perfect person to facilitate this blessing would be Ken Medema. Ken is a long-time friend, a blind singer-composer whose concerts are full of prepared and spontaneous stories set to music—much of which is composed on the spot! He has been to our church before and is always a smashing hit.

So I have invited Ken to present a benefit concert at Richmond’s First Baptist Church on Sunday, April 27 at 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $10 each and all proceeds go directly to our neighbors, the Braille Circulating Library. It is a win/win. We get to experience an incredible concert and we can bless the Braille Lending Library with a generous gift to support their ongoing ministry in Richmond.

You can buy tickets at the church during the week or on Wednesdays and Sundays. You can also buy them online simply by clicking HERE.

Join me in supporting this concert and watching the Kingdom come ever closer as both the blind and the sighted sing praise to God.

–Phil Mitchell

KOH2RVA: Day 328


“Thirty-four volunteer typists entered all the text in one week.”

This is an amazing story of love and labor that was recently published on the First Baptist Church website.  I had seen it but hadn’t read it until yesterday.  It blew me away.  Thanks to Susan Marshall for writing it, and to all those people who are part of this story–Mark and Melody Roane, Robbie Hott, the staff at the Braille Circulating Library, and those thirty-four volunteer typists.


“There’s an app for that” seems to be the answer for anything you need. But as First Baptist Church prepared to introduce its new hymnal, Celebrating Grace, during Advent 2011, there wasn’t a Braille application for the new hymnal or plans to produce one.

FBC members Mark & Melody Roane, who are blind, depend upon the Braille version to participate in hymn singing. They had translated about 50 hymns from our previous hymnal into an electronic format for use in worship. And we had a three-volume Braille edition in the library. We wanted to continue to provide an option for sight impaired members. So how did we create a Braille hymnal?

First we needed an electronic format for all the hymns. But that was unavailable through the publisher. So we started from scratch.

Robbie Hott, an FBC member, designed a web-based program for entering the texts of all 707 hymns and readings. Mark suggested formatting guidelines for the Braille translation. Thirty-four FBC volunteer typists completed entering all the texts in one week.

The next step was proofing all those hymns, word by word and verse by verse. A smaller volunteer task force took on this focused and arduous process, making sure everything was spelled, numbered, punctuated, and formatted correctly. On July 1, 2012, we received the final, proofed, electronic master hymnal document.

But as the infomercials say, “Wait…there’s more!” And indeed, there is. Since that time, Mark has been formatting the electronic document for translation into Braille. This has been a challenge and a learning experience for him. Braille, like American Sign Language, uses shorthand. Rather than spelling out an entire word, there may be a symbol or single letter to represent a word. Additionally, moving from verse to verse, repeating refrains between verses, entering page breaks and numbers, require specific formatting. Mark received guidance from the staff of Richmond’s Braille Circulating Library, and expects the process toward embossing the Braille edition of Celebrating Grace to be completed soon.

While this has been a long journey, God has provided the resources for each step. Without the volunteers from our congregation, the Braille edition of Celebrating Grace would not have been economically feasible. The Braille Circulating Library is printing it for the cost of materials, which is being contributed by the Roanes.

The hymnal will be available in two versions. The electronic version is available now in its entirety by contacting Mark. The hard copy Braille embossed version is in production and will be available in the library when it is completed.

–Susan Marshall

KOH2RVA: Day 251

heart stringsWhen I say that First Baptist Church is on a year-long, every-member mission trip, it doesn’t mean that I know what every member is up to, or how they are working to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia. So it does my heart good when I find out that somebody has been bringing it all along, and I didn’t even know it. Jackie Morsink, for example, who sings with “The Heart Strings,” a group of some 73 ladies whose mission is to bring joy, through music and song, to the many senior citizens in retirement and nursing homes across the Richmond metropolitan area. Jackie writes:

Jim: This has been my “mission trip” (off the bus!!!) this year to help bring heaven to earth in the Richmond area (and also Effie Farmer). We have visited 30 homes on Monday mornings since October 8 of last year. Our last performance is next Monday, May 20, at Lakewood Manor (Health Care), from 10:30 to about 11:15. Come check us out, if you can fit it into your schedule! Would love to see you in the audience! Jackie

Do you see what I mean? On 30 different occasions since our mission trip began on September 9, 2012, Jackie has gotten up, gotten dressed, and gone off to some retirement or nursing home in the area to share some joy (and believe me, Jackie’s got plenty to share). How many others are out there on secret missions and would somebody please tell me?

Secrets like these are too good to keep.


p.s. I hear the Heart Strings are going to be singing at the Memorial Day celebration on the Goochland Courthouse Green at 10 a.m. on May 27.  Included in the announcement were these words about Memorial Day.

Memorial Day is the special day on which we remember the men and women who have given their lives while serving in the armed forces of the United States. Like most traditions, it evolved from similar celebrations. Memorial day most likely started after the Civil War as a way to commemorate the death of both Union and Confederate soldiers, however, there is documentation that the women of Savannah Georgia decorated the graves of soldiers as early as 1862.

The day became an occasion to not just lay flowers on the graves, but to come together and remember fallen family members. It is still a common practice in Richmond to assemble at Hollywood cemetery and hold memorial picnics at the military grave sites.

On this Memorial Day, even though it is the unofficial start of summer, take time to find one of the many neglected military graves or memorials. Pull up the weeds, place some flowers, and leave a small U.S. flag in remembrance of those who gave all for this country.

One Cup of Tea

For weeks now—months, really—I’ve been seeing these beautiful, smiling refugees from Nepal in the hallways of Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  I’ve learned how to press my palms together and say “Namaste” in greeting.  I’ve welcomed three new members and dedicated the child of a Christian couple.  I’ve even sung “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” in English with three of the older adults (where did they learn that song?).  But on Sunday night I spent an hour having tea with some of the young people from this group, and I started with a game I learned when I was a youth minister.

I took a pen from my pocket, turned to the young man on the right, and said, “My name is Jim and this is my friend Lucy,” and then I handed the pen to him.  He turned to the girl on his right and said, “My name is Rom, and Jim told me to tell you that this is Lucy.”  She took the pen and turned to the boy on her right: “My name is Bimela, and Jim told Rom to tell me to tell you that this is Lucy.”  And so on around the room until all of us had been introduced to Lucy, but by repeating the names each time we also began to learn them: Rom, Bimela, Indra, Rupa, and Bhola (I’m guessing at the spelling). 

And then we just started talking.

These kids spoke excellent English, which helped.  They told me that back in Nepal all their classes were in English except one.  They also watched American television and movies to help them learn the language.  I sang some songs for them in English; they sang some for me in Nepali.  We talked about the kinds of food we liked.  We talked about family relationships, and that’s where it got interesting.

Rom told me that Bimela and Rupa were his sisters.  Indra told me that Bhola was his brother.  I told them that Dot Smith (who had served us tea and pie) was my sister.  They didn’t believe me.  I said, “Dot and I are Christians.  Christians are part of God’s family.  We call each other brother and sister.”  And then their eyes lit up with understanding.  Ah, yes.  They had heard this before.  “My Uncle is a Christian,” Rom said.  “I used to go to church with him in Nepal.”  They all made it clear how much they enjoy coming to First Baptist Church, and some of them even began to hint that they would like to join.  But then Bhola said that in their culture Christians were shunned, and that if they became Christians they might be rejected by their community. 

“Did that happen to your uncle?” I asked Rom.  “Did he get ‘put out’ of the community?”  Rom nodded thoughtfully.  “He must be very brave,” I said.  “Yes,” Rom answered.  “Very brave.”

I didn’t have to say another word.  I could see that they were counting the cost of discipleship, and wondering if it would be worth it to become Christians.  I hope they will decide that it is worth it, but it will take at least one more cup of tea to have that conversation, and maybe another one after that.  Maybe Greg Mortenson is right, that it takes “Three Cups of Tea” to forge life-giving and life-changing relationships with people from other cultures.

I’m looking forward to my next one.


In his sermon on November 15 Phil Mitchell, our Minister of Christian Worship, said:  “We have added the response, ‘Thanks be to God’ after Scripture readings [at First Baptist Church]. Why, Baptists don’t do that, do they? Some do, and for goodness sake why not? What if as we say, ‘Thanks be to God,’ we remind ourselves that this really is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God for that!”

Since then I’ve heard a little grumbling.

Yes, we thank God for giving us his Word.  We’re grateful that we can read it in public worship and private devotions.  But when we say it like that—“The Word of God for the people of God, thanks be to God”—it sounds awfully…Episcopalian.

We’re Baptists, not Episcopalians, but when it comes to worship we might want to ask what that really means (and what it doesn’t mean):

  1. It doesn’t mean that we aren’t liturgical.  Every Baptist church, even the most informal ones, follow some kind of liturgy (by which I mean the order of worship).  The invitation, for example, goes after the sermon and before the closing hymn.  Everybody knows that!
  2. It doesn’t mean that we can’t sing hymns.  One of my seminary professors used to say, “Some theology has to be sung.”  Many of the great, old hymns of the faith strive to do that—express good theology through beautiful music—so that you leave church humming something like, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity,” or “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.”
  3. It doesn’t mean that we can’t use written prayers.  Baptists don’t want to read their prayers out of a book; they want them to come from the heart.  But the best prayers often come from the heart when we are alone with God.   A prayer written down in such moments and shared in public worship can be deeply meaningful, and may be preferable to all those “ums” and “ahs” that often plague extemporaneous prayer.
  4. It doesn’t mean that we can’t read Scripture in worship.  Episcopalians and a number of other churches read a good bit of Scripture in worship.  They follow the lectionary, a plan for reading through most of the Bible in public worship over a three year period.  It seems like a good way to get Scripture into the lives of people who may not take the time to read it on their own and as “people of the Book” we Baptists should welcome any plan that does that.
  5. It doesn’t mean that we can’t celebrate the high, holy days.  Christmas is one of them.  Easter is another.  We’ve been celebrating those for years because they were important events in the life of Jesus: his birth and his resurrection.  Adding to our calendar other significant events in the life of Christ like Good Friday, Palm Sunday, and maybe even the Baptism of Jesus can make worship more meaningful, not less.

But here’s what it does mean to be Baptist and to have a Baptist way of worship, at least in my experience:

  1. It means that we celebrate spontaneity.  We like to believe that the Spirit can move us to do and say things that aren’t printed in the order of worship, and it is part of our cherished Baptist freedom to seize such moments.
  2. It means that we take preaching seriously.  The sermon is typically the highlight of the service, and the other elements of worship—hymns, prayers, and offerings—build toward a time of reverent listening for the Word of God.
  3. It means that we enjoy spirited singing.  We love those hymns and Gospel songs that are familiar and singable, the ones that really let us sing with all our heart.  We don’t much care for the slow, plodding ones.
  4. It means that we value “warmth.”  We like to be in a place where people call each other by name, where there’s a lot of hugging and handshaking, and where both laughter and tears are accepted.
  5. It means that our worship is heartfelt.  We don’t put a lot of stock in ritual or performance.  If you’re going to say something we want it to come from your heart.  If you’re going to do something we want you to do it for the Lord. 

I’m sure that others could add to this list and I hope they will (it would be interesting to compile readers’ comments on Baptist worship).  But what I’m curious about is the combination of this list and the one above.  Is there a way to have both warmth and dignity, to draw from the best and most meaningful practices of the last two thousand years and still mix up a uniquely Baptist blend of warmhearted worship?  I don’t want us to become Episcopalian (no offense to my Episcopal friends); I want us to be Baptist.  But I’d like to think we could be Baptists whose worship is as rich, and deep, and meaningful as possible.  I’d like us to remember that even more important than the way we worship is the One we worship.

And he deserves our very best.

We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder

Jacob's LadderOn Thursday of last week, my friend Joe Perez and I were hiking up Bear Canyon in Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  It’s a beautiful hike, but the trail ascends almost vertically for 2,500 feet.  On the way up I caught myself singing that old spiritual, “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.”  It’s got the perfect rhythm for a hike like that—slow and plodding—and the line about “every round goes higher, higher” is not only descriptive, it’s encouraging. 

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
Soldiers of the cross.

Every round goes higher, higher,
Every round goes higher, higher,
Every round goes higher, higher,
Soldiers of the cross.

I sang that much without any trouble, but then realized I didn’t know the next verse.  It was something about “Sinner do you _____ my Jesus,” but was it “love my Jesus” or “know my Jesus”?  I didn’t know, and it didn’t matter, so I began to sing, “Sinner do you know my Jesus,” and then I followed it with, “If you know him why not trust him,” and then, “If you trust him why not serve him.”  I found out later that those aren’t the real lyrics, but as I sang them I thought about how the Christian faith progresses from one level to the next.  You don’t begin by serving Jesus, you begin by hearing something about him.  If you hear enough you might get to know him, and if you get to know him you might begin to trust him.  

The Christian life goes on and on like that if we are faithful about it; every round goes higher, higher.  If we keep on climbing Jacob’s Ladder one day we will get to the top of it, and the view, like my view from the top of Hunter Peak that day, will be breathtaking.

We Are on a Mission Trip

15062127That’s what I’ve been telling people these days when they ask me to explain the concept of the “missional church”: I say, “If you’ve ever been on a mission trip then you know.  It’s like that.  It’s like all of us at First Baptist Church are on a mission trip right now, right here.  The bus has just come to a stop at our mission site on the corner of Monument and Boulevard and it’s time to get off the bus.”

It came to mind a few weeks ago when I was sitting in the sanctuary, listening to our children sing at their end-of-the-year program.  They did a beautiful job; I was feeling a good bit of pastoral pride; and then it hit me: if we were on a mission trip, would we be doing this?  If we had loaded those kids up on a bus and driven to Arkansas, would they have stood at the front of the bus and sung for us?  No.  They would have sung at a nursing home or a hospital.  They would have worked all week at a trailer park, teaching other children to sing the same songs.  In other words their singing would have been shared with the world in some way, and not only with their proud pastor, parents, and grandparents at First Baptist Church. 

According to missional activist Alan Hirsch, it is this awareness of the world around us, and this understanding that we are on a mission—God’s mission—that makes a church “missional.”  When we really “get it,” it begins to affect everything we do, and some of us really are beginning to get it. 

I had a talk yesterday with someone who wondered if we could find some land to plant a garden and then donate the food to a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter.  As we talked we thought about the refugees from Nepal who have been coming to our Wednesday night dinners.  Could they tend the garden, use the food, sell the surplus at the 17th Street Market?  Suddenly, instead of only talking about taking up an offering and sending missionaries to Nepal, we were talking about how we could be missionaries to the Nepalese right here in Richmond. 

Or what about one of our members who is talking with other churches in the city to see if each church could provide an apartment for someone who has a job but not a home: the “working homeless”?  He’s doing it because when I asked him to help Jesus bring heaven to earth by looking around for anything that didn’t look like heaven and then rolling up his sleeves and going to work there, that’s where he went—to the homeless.  He seems to understand that we are on a mission trip, and the First Baptist bus has rolled to a stop, and it’s time to get off the bus.

As we remember and celebrate the Day of Pentecost, please pray that God’s Holy Spirit would fall on us as it fell on those first believers, and that like them we would find that we cannot keep the good news about Jesus to ourselves, that we have to live it, and breathe it, and tell it, and share it in every way imaginable with the world around us.  

Maybe we can learn to sing God’s song in other places, and not only in the church sanctuary.