KOH2RVA: Day 349

AJCES Melissa BrooksSomehow I got myself on the Mustard Seed mailing list, which means I get the e-mailed prayer requests of the Mustard Seed Sunday school class. It’s been a good way for me to keep up with the concerns of this large, vibrant class, and to pray along with them for the needs of their classmates, family, and friends. But on Monday I got this announcement from class member Mark Roane:

Good afternoon ‘Seeds,

As many of you know, our church has been helping out at the Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School, located at 2124 N 29th Street in Richmond’s Church Hill Area. This coming Friday, August 23, 2013 a group will be doing some interior painting at the school from 9:00 am until 3:00 pm. If anyone is interested in participating, please contact Chuck Dean.


When I got that email I put it on my calendar to drop by the Cooper School on Friday to see how the work was going, but when I got to the office yesterday things were even more piled up than usual. I wasn’t able to get away. And then at 3:57 p.m. I got this email from Mike Maruca, Head of School.


I’m going to recommend that Our Lord put your congregation in charge of housekeeping and hospitality in heaven.

A small group was over here today and what they did was really something else. A lot of seemingly small stuff that makes all the difference and makes us look good—in the best sense. My debt to [First Baptist Church] only grows.



I don’t know that any of the members of that “small group” were members of the Mustard Seed Sunday school class, but I wouldn’t be surprised, because this is how it often happens:

1. One person becomes aware of a need and lets others know about it.
2. One of more of those others is moved to do something about that need.
3. The need is met in a way that makes a difference in the lives of still others.

There are kids from the housing projects in the East End who will come to the Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School on the first day of school not knowing that Mark Roane sent out an email to the Mustard Seed Class, not knowing that some of those “Seeds” responded, not knowing how much time they spent at the school or exactly what they did—knowing only that when they walk into that building they feel special, as if someone cares about them and their future, a feeling they may not have anywhere else.

Thank you, Mark. Thank you, Mustard Seeds. Thank you for the ways you allow yourselves to be used to make things on earth a little more like they are in heaven. We cannot know how far these simple acts of kindness will reach, but Jesus said the Kingdom is like a mustard seed:

It starts small and grows.

KOH2RVA: Day 323

overflowing-cupI like to go to church
I like to go to church.
I like the happy songs we sing,
I like to go to church.

I don’t know when I learned that song but I was humming it as I walked home from church yesterday. It had been a good morning in worship, with an emphasis on prayer that pervaded the entire service and made me want to say, “Amen!”

And speaking of prayer…

Since I started talking about the missional church at First Baptist five years ago there has been some discussion about where that mission takes place—inside or outside the building. Sometimes the people who are on mission inside the building—teaching Sunday school, working with children’s choirs, serving Wednesday night supper—complain that all the attention is being focused on the mission outside the building—helping the homeless, building Habitat houses, and tutoring in the elementary schools.

Well of course it’s not either/or, it’s both/and, but in an effort to get us thinking outside the walls of the church and get us working in the community I have necessarily drawn attention to that part of our mission, and the church has responded enthusiastically, so enthusiastically that in my less faithful moments I begin to wonder if there will be anybody left inside the building to sing the hymns or teach Sunday school.

So, here’s the prayer I’m praying these days:

Lord, I want you to fill up the pews of this church until they are overflowing with people who love you and love to sing your praises.

I want you to fill up the offering plates until they are overflowing with gifts given back to you in tearful gratitude.

I want you to fill up the classrooms with disciples who are eager to learn, leaning forward in their seats, open Bibles on their laps.

I want you to fill up the hallways with people who greet each other with hugs and laughter, where every Sunday feels like a family reunion.

I want you to fill their hearts with love, fill their souls with faith, fill their minds with truth, and fill their lives with every good thing you have to give until it overflows this building and spills out onto the streets of this city and into every surrounding suburb.

I want you to pour yourself out through your people until your Kingdom comes, and your will is done, in Richmond as it is in heaven.

Now, that’s the kind of prayer that gets at the “both/and” problem, and gets at it in a Kingdom way.  There is no lack of abundance in God’s kingdom.  We don’t have to choose between being on mission inside the building or outside.

We can do both.


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.

KOH2RVA: Day 169

There was a knock on my door at church yesterday sometime between the 8:30 and 11:00 worship services (also known as the Sunday school hour).  Sometimes I’m in Sunday school, teaching a class or visiting, but yesterday I was in my study, doing a hasty re-write of the sermon.

There was a knock—two sharp raps followed by a dull thud.

I opened the door and found Julia Wass standing there, right about waist-level.  Julia is in the second-grade Sunday school class, and she came to see me along with some of her classmates and their teacher, Larry West.

“Somerville!” Julia chirped, cheerfully (sometimes she calls me “Dr. Jim,” but I enjoyed this variation on the theme).

“Hi, Julia!  What’s up?”

Mr. West handed me a piece of paper and I sat down and read it aloud.  It was an announcement about a bake sale the second-graders are having next Sunday. Apparently there’s a woman in the neighborhood who can’t walk very well because the bones in her feet have shifted and she needs special, orthopedic shoes.  The second-graders are trying to raise money to buy those shoes.

“We’ve been looking for a way to help out with KOH2RVA,” Mr. West explained, “and when we learned about Cheryl and her shoes the kids thought it would be a perfect project.  It was their idea to have a bake sale.”

I was proud of them, and I told them so, but I was also proud of teachers who would try to help second-graders understand that they, too, could be part of our year-long, every-member mission trip, that in fact they should be.  I told Mr. West so.

Later in the day I went running with the Monument Avenue 10K training team from First Baptist and Julia’s mom was one of the runners.

“Julia came to my office today,” I said.

“Oh,” she said.  “Was it about the bake sale?”

“Yes,” I said.

And she acknowledged that she had seen the announcement, and had already started wondering how she would bake two dozen cookies with all that she has going on this week.  She thought maybe Julia’s big sister could help.

I realized again that it’s one thing to have a good idea; another thing to bring it to completion.  Lots of people have to get involved—sending out announcements, baking cookies, bringing them to church, rounding up customers, making the sales, counting the change.  It’s not easy to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.  But Julia and her classmates are already thinking about how surprised Cheryl will be when she opens that box and sees her new shoes.  In that moment for them, and maybe even for the parents and teachers who helped out,

It will all be worth it.

Even Preachers Get the Blues

539wSunday before last I preached on the theme of Epiphany, but for all that talk about dazzling light and the manifestation of God in Jesus Christ I found myself feeling pretty low after the 8:30 service.

I wasn’t sure the sermon had “connected” with that 8:30 crowd.  Epiphany was a new idea for many of them, and I was afraid it may have seemed too formal, too liturgical, too…”Catholic.”  Not only that, but because the day before had been hectic I didn’t feel as prepared as I would have liked.  I was tied to my notes, looking down at the pulpit as often as I looked out at the people.  I came back to my study full of self-doubt, feeling insecure, wondering if I should scrap the sermon and try something else at 11:00.

It’s true: even preachers get the blues.

But the longer I sat in my study fretting over it the worse it got, and finally I got up and stepped out into the hallway, not sure where I was going but knowing I needed to go somewhere.

I ended up in the children’s Sunday school suite, and when I peeked in one of the windows I saw a group of children sitting around a table with their teachers.  Without even knocking I opened the door and slipped inside. 

“Would you like a hug?” one of the teachers asked. 

“Excuse me?”

“Would you like a hug?  We’ve got some children here who love to hug.”

“Sure,” I said (how did she know?) and as soon as I said it tiny Abigail Corey jumped out of her chair and came toward me at a dead run.  I squatted down and braced myself for the impact, but even so she almost bowled me over.  And then her twin brother Kevin, not to be outdone, jumped out of his chair and ran to hug me, too. 

I was off to a good start.

My next stop was the Dolphins class where I found a group of children sitting in a circle singing “Old McDonald Had a Farm” under the direction of their teachers, Robert and Linda Toney.  Each child was wearing an animal hand puppet and making the appropriate animal sound when his or her turn came.  I pulled up a kid-sized chair and joined in, with a “Moo-Moo here, and a Moo-Moo there…”  While we were singing Robert slipped me a pig hand puppet, so that when we got around to my side of the circle I was able to sing “Oink-Oink here, Oink-Oink there” and make the pig’s ears wiggle at the same time, which got at least one laugh.  Linda asked the children, “And who made the animals?” and they all shouted, “God did!” (good answer).

But in the silence that followed little Mubanga Mwende, who was sitting beside me, looked up at me and said something that sounded very much like “I miss you!”  But it couldn’t have been that, could it?  I had only met Mubanga once before, nearly two months earlier, at an International Friendship Luncheon.  But then he said it again, this time more insistently: “I miss you!”  So I said, “I miss you too, Mubanga!” 

And that seemed to satisfy him.

It satisfied me.  I walked back to my office having been hugged by the Corey twins, missed by Mubanga, and honored with the role of the pig in the Old McDonald musical extravaganza.  I was a different person than the one who had walked out of there just twenty minutes earlier, and when I went out to lead worship at eleven o’clock there was a confident bounce in my stride.

Later that afternoon I told that story and shared the moral with my daughter Catherine.  “When you’re feeling insecure and full of self-doubt,” I said, “you have to take those spotlights that are focused on you and turn them outward, toward others.”  I didn’t think to say it then but I probably should have told her to try to focus those spotlights on children, who—like God—often surprise us with love we wouldn’t have asked for and couldn’t have earned.

Savior, Like a Shepherd, Lead Me

Hear or download this post (mp3 file – 3:45): Savior, Like A Shepherd, Lead Me

jesus_lamb_brownYesterday, between the 8:30 and 11:00 worship services, I climbed the stairs to the second floor of the church and knocked on the door of the Lambs Sunday school class.  “May I come in?” I asked.  I hadn’t made an appointment, and I hadn’t been invited, but I thought if anyone would let the pastor drop in unannounced it would be the Lambs. 

I was right.

This is a class for developmentally delayed adults, and when I went in on Sunday I found four students and three helpers working at a table in the middle of the room.  Three of these students are brothers, born into the same family.  And while the doctors would tell you that it’s rare to have a developmentally delayed child they would also tell you it’s impossible to have three.  But there they were on Sunday—the Haymans brothers: Joe, Chris, and Bruce.  They seemed glad to see me.  Thrilled, actually.  I can’t remember when I’ve had a more enthusiastic welcome. 

I sat down next to Bruce and tried to help him find “Joshua” in a word search.  The class was studying leaders and they had talked about the transfer of leadership from Moses to Joshua.  Bruce was looking for the letter “J” on the page and marking it carefully each time he found one.  With a little help he was able to see how some of those J’s connected to O-S-H-U and A.  As I looked around the table I could see that all of the students were being helped by patient and gentle volunteers. 

While we were working Chris told me it was his birthday, and when I congratulated him and asked him how old he was he held up five fingers.  Chris is a good bit older than that, but he seemed as excited about his birthday as any five-year-old.  He went over to the table against the wall to show me the birthday cake someone had brought, and when I left a little while later he was still staring at it like you might stare at your true love, his elbows propped up on the table, his face in his hands.

Later that day I drove out to Midlothian to visit with Bruce and Debbie Leary, and to meet Jeffrey, someone I’d been hearing about for weeks.  Jeffrey has special needs of his own.  The doctors said he wouldn’t live to be 20 but here he is, nearly twice that, thanks to the round-the-clock care, the obvious affection, and the loud, smacking kisses of his loving family.  Jeffrey seemed to recognize me right away from seeing me on television and insisted that I “talk” while I was there, which I did, just enough to satisfy him that I was the same person he had been hearing on Sunday mornings.  Later the Learys told me Jeffrey’s whole story, and while it was clear that caring for him wasn’t always easy, it was also clear that caring for him was one of the greatest joys of their lives.

Before I left, Bruce gave me a framed drawing of Jesus holding a lamb in his arms.  He said it was his favorite picture of Jesus, and I could see why.  There was our Lord and Savior, burying his face in the soft wool of a helpless lamb, holding it close, as if nothing were more precious to him.  And I thought about those “lambs” I had met that day—Joe and Bruce and Chris and Jeffrey—and how precious they are to Jesus, too. 

I hadn’t really planned to visit that Sunday school class yesterday, on the same day I was visiting the Learys.  I don’t know what moved me to do it.  But if I had to guess I would guess it was Jesus, the Good Shepherd, leading me to look in on some of his lambs.

Oh, Heavenly Days!

Yesterday was an amazing day at Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  At the 8:30 service six new members came down the aisle, and at the 11:00 service I had the joy of baptizing Dennis Danaeue, a formerly homeless man who has found a home at First Baptist, and who is as sincere in his desire to follow Jesus as anyone I have ever met.  Between services I went to the dining hall for a children’s Sunday school event and laughed out loud at “Fannie Firstchurch” (Minister of Music Phil Mitchell wearing a towering blonde wig) exhorting children to “memorize the entire Bible, all 166 books!”*  After the 11:00 service I walked across Park Avenue to the Pusey House for the International Friendship Luncheon, where I spent some time chatting with Nathan from Zambia, Kanae from Japan, and a tiny girl from Bangladesh whose name is Dighi but who likes to be called “Doctor Pinky.”  I was thrilled to see people from all over the world finding a place at First Baptist Church, and walked home in a state of exhilaration.


After my (mandatory) Sunday afternoon nap I drove downtown to savor the last few hours of the Richmond Folk Festival.  The weather couldn’t have been any more beautiful, and when I walked across the pedestrian bridge to Brown’s Island, and looked down on those huge, white festival tents, the crowds of people milling around, the sound of music filling the air, and the smell of ethnic food wafting on the afternoon breeze, well…it made me glad to live in Richmond.  I strolled from tent to tent admiring the funny hats people were wearing, watching children turn cartwheels on the lawn, and striking up conversations with church members (like Brenda and Charlie Finley) and complete strangers (like the woman from Jamaica who insisted I visit her Seventh Day Adventist church). 


One of the visitors to this blog site has asked if I will share my views on Heaven.  I probably will at some point, but on Sunday I think I was as close to Heaven as we can come on earth.  And if I get to Heaven someday and find that there is no ethnic food, or honest laughter, or children turning cartwheels on the lawn, it won’t be Heaven at all, will it?



*Extra credit to anyone who knows there are only 66 books in the Bible.