KOH2RVA: Day 363

Preschool-ClassRemember how I was complaining a few days ago about spending too much time answering email and not enough time with people? Well, I got some of that time yesterday, with some of the most delightful people in Richmond.

I accepted Mary Hiteman’s invitation to stand with her at the Mulberry Street entrance of our building and greet the parents and children who were coming to our preschool’s open house.

They came in droves.

Some children were so shy they hid behind their mothers’ legs when I tried to say hello, others ignored my greeting altogether and galloped past me into the building, excited to be back at school. But all of them were beautiful, precious children. Most of their parents were happy to stop and say hello, and seemed grateful that I was taking an interest.

Because there seems to be a disconnect between the church and our preschool. There are parents who bring their children every weekday and never think of our building as a church. To them it is a school. A good school, certainly (you should have heard them gush), but nothing more than that. So as I shook hands yesterday and introduced myself as the pastor many of them seemed to be making the connection between the church and the school for the first time. “Ohhh,” they said, and I could almost see the light come on.

I’m hoping to maintain that connection in this school year by greeting children and parents at the door more often, telling the children Bible stories during chapel, and showing up for special programs and events. When I came to Richmond five years ago the staff asked me what we could do to “reach the Fan,” the neighborhood surrounding our building where so many of these parents and children live. I said, “What if we didn’t try to reach the Fan? What if we tried to love the Fan?”

That’s what I was trying to do yesterday: love the Fan and the people who live there. And what an easy way to do it! Stand at the door as they bring their children into our building; squat down and say hello to precious little boys and girls; and then stand up and shake hands with their parents, look them in the eye, and tell them how glad I am that they have brought their children to our school. And as I was doing it that thing happened that has happened so often in this year of mission…

…heaven came to earth.

KOH2RVA: Day 2

First Baptist Church’s year-long, every-member mission project got off to a great start yesterday, with one wonderful worship service at 11:00 followed by dinner on the grounds. The worship service included a version of the Lord’s Prayer that went, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, in Richmond as it is in heaven.” And at the end of the service every person present was commissioned as a missionary to this place we call home.

Later that afternoon, several of us got on a church bus and drove over to Church Hill to look at a house that’s going up for auction on Friday. One of our members, Melissa Brooks, has a vision that this house can become a haven for pregnant teenagers. We looked at the house through her eyes, and gathered in what will someday be the kitchen for prayer. “Lord, if you want this vision to become a reality, make it so,” we prayed, realizing that we had very little power on our own.

What will happen next? We don’t know. But what a perfect way to begin our year-long, every-member mission trip: by taking some of our members to a part of the city that desperately needs God’s love, and by saying prayers there for young women who need some hope for the future.

What will happen on Day 2?

For God so Loved the Church

Before I say another word, let me say that last night’s “Simple Gifts” concert at Richmond’s First Baptist Church was a musical love feast.  I sat there in my pew glowing like a light bulb, so joyful, so grateful, so proud of every person who participated.  As I wrote in my prayer journal this morning, “I think I fell in love with my congregation last night.”  Every man, woman, and child who sang or played became precious to me in a whole new way. 

I remember hearing one of my seminary professors say that you don’t become a pastor on the day you are installed at a new church.  You become the preacher, but not the pastor.  That can take months or years, and it doesn’t always happen.  But it happened for me last night.  I thought about those traditions where the minister is referred to as “Father.”  That’s how I felt: like a proud papa.

But now the concert is over, and all that’s left is those delicious memories and the sound of music still ringing in my ears.  Sunday’s coming, and this Sunday is the Day of Pentecost.  I was looking through some of my old files for inspiration and found these thoughts in a sermon preached in 2005 called, “For God so Loved the Church.”

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On the Day of Pentecost, God gave the gift of the Holy Spirit.  And here’s the wonderful thing about a spirit:  you can’t abuse it.  You can’t steal it, you can’t break it, you can’t nail it to a tree.  For God so loved the church he gave us something we couldn’t damage or destroy. He had learned that if you give people the Ten Commandments, they will break them; if you give them the Promised Land, they will fight and kill each other over it; if you give them your one and only son, they will crucify him.  So on the Day of Pentecost God gave us a spirit—an unbreakable, un-ownable, un-killable Holy Spirit—and for two thousand years now that gift has survived unscathed.  Not that we don’t try to scathe it.  As I was working on this sermon I had a vision of people chasing after the Holy Spirit with brooms, baseball bats, butterfly nets, wooden boxes, running up and down the aisles of the church, jumping over pews in the balconies, trying to catch it, kill it, shut it up.  But it’s a spirit, not a thing.  You can’t contain it.  It got loose in the church on the Day of Pentecost and it’s still loose. 

Sometimes it gets into the preacher and he says things that make the church gasp.  Sometimes it gets into parishioners and they do things that are shockingly new.  No wonder people thought those first disciples were drunk when they saw the way they behaved, but Peter said, “No, this is just what the prophet Joel was talking about, that time when God’s spirit will be poured out on all people and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams.  Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my spirit and they shall prophesy.”  Do you hear what Peter is saying?  You can’t control this spirit.  You can’t shut it up in the Ark of the Covenant.  You can’t contain it behind a curtain in the Holy of Holies.  You can’t confine it to the rigid lines of the Apostle’s Creed.  You can’t limit it to the conclusions of the Council of Nicaea.  You can’t bind it between the leather covers of the Bible.  You can’t chain it to the pulpit of the medieval church.  You can’t sell it to get a single soul out of Purgatory.  You can’t nail it to the door of the Wittenberg Church.  You can’t close it up in the Westminster Confession.  You can’t shut it up in the Constitution and Bylaws.  This spirit is loose in the church.  It’s loose in the world!  It can get hold of almost anybody and cause them to do unusual things.

It got hold of Stephen in a way that eventually cost him his life.  It got hold of Philip in a way that led him to baptize an Ethiopian eunuch.  It got hold of Paul on the road to Damascus in a way that turned his life around.  It got hold of Peter on that rooftop in Joppa in a way that changed his mind about the Gentiles.  Read the whole of the Book of Acts and you will see the Holy Spirit smashing through one barrier after another—race, religion, nationality, geography—as the kingdom comes, God’s will is done, on earth as it is in heaven.  It begins with the rush of a mighty wind and builds from there, until it begins twisting across the religious landscape like a tornado, smashing against the coastline of convention like a holy hurricane.  For God so loved the church he gave us something we couldn’t contain, and can’t contain still.  Who knows where this spirit will lead us in the days ahead?  Who knows where that mighty wind will blow?  I only know that on this day, the Day of Pentecost, as I draw a breath to blow out the candle on the birthday cake of the church, I make a wish that the wind of God will blow where it will, and that you and I will find the courage to follow.

 

Too busy to blog!

I’ve been preaching at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church this week, a different sermon every day, and I find that between that and my regular duties blogging has fallen off the to-do list.  Let me share a paragraph from my St. Paul’s preaching, just so you can get a feel for what I’ve been up to:

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Yesterday I told the story of the time my daughter and I built a sandcastle too close to the ocean, and how we were surprised when the first wave lapped up against the walls.  That story was a metaphor of the way the rising tide of a changing culture is threatening the institutional church.  And in the same way my daughter said, “Daddy, do something!” churches seem to want their leaders to do something to save the institution, to reverse the flow of culture, to make it 1955 again.  My daughter and I did what we could to save our sandcastle: we built a huge floodwall and dug a moat.  We joined hands, faced the water, and said, “Go away waves!”  But there was a whole ocean out there, and the tide was coming in.  In the end our beautiful castle crumbled and the waves washed it away.  My daughter looked up at me and said, “Now what?” and I said, “Let’s go swimming.”  That’s what I want to talk about today, about how to stop building floodwalls and digging moats around our churches, about how to stop joining hands and telling the rising tide of culture to “go away.” I want to talk about how to wade out into the world God loves and learn how to swim.

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More later.  Thanks for your patience.

Jim

Keeping the Tent Big

In one of my recent posts I talked about “Life in the Big Tent,” and mentioned that in the tent we call Richmond’s First Baptist Church there has been some pushing and shoving over the subject of where we send our mission dollars. 

Pushing and shoving?  Really?!

Well, no, of course not.  That would never happen at First Baptist Church.  I was using those words metaphorically.  But at our last deacons’ meeting the Deacon Advisory Council* proposed changes to our shared giving plan that led to some spirited discussion.  Let me be specific:

The current plan—“the First Baptist Partnership Plan”—divides mission dollars between the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, but the division is hardly equal: the SBC receives more than three times as much as the CBF.  The proposed plan—“the Shared Partnership Plan”—divides mission dollars equally between the CBF and the SBC, and it eliminates giving to the North American Mission Board of the SBC altogether. 

Those are big changes, and you can see how our members who are supportive of the Southern Baptist Convention might wonder if they are being pushed out of the tent, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening at all: I think what’s happening is that we are gaining a better understanding of who we are.   

I wasn’t here at the time but several years ago some of our members formed an “Identity Passion Team” to address that very issue: Who are we?  What is our purpose?  Who are our people?  What are our shared values and beliefs?  What has been our journey?  What other Baptist groups do we relate to?  The members of that team drafted an identity statement that was adoped by an overwhelming majority of the church.  What we learned is that out tent has always been big, that while we might have all considered ourselves Southern Baptists at one time, there were a lot of different views among us.  In fact, if you had put us all on one pew you would have seen the full spectrum of theological diversity, from extremely conservative on one end to not very conservative at all on the other.  It didn’t matter so much when we gathered to worship the Lord (whom we all loved), or when we talked about missions (which we all supported).  It only began to matter when the pushing and shoving broke out in our denominational tent and people began to ask us which “side” we were on.

As I mentioned in my last post, we refused to be divided.  We created giving options that allowed us to support the mission causes we felt the most affinity for without giving up the worship and fellowship that made us family.  We’ve maintained that tradition for years.  But this latest revision of our giving plans is an acknowledgment of something that has probably been true all along but “discovered” only recently: we are diverse, and if we are going to honor that diversity we cannot show favoritism.  The proposed “shared” plan divides our mission dollars equally between the SBC and the CBF. 

The proposal to eliminate our giving to the North American Mission Board of the SBC is also a matter of identity.  For many, many years we have recognized the gifts and calling of women–and not only men–in ministry.   Women have been ordained as deacons at First Baptist for decades.  We have an ordained woman on our ministry staff.  We know what a blessing these women have been and we maintain our historic Baptist freedom to ordain whomever we perceive as gifted—male or female—for ministry.  The North American Mission Board, however, is not a local church.  It does not share that same freedom.  And because it hopes to reflect the views of the Baptist majority it does not employ women who have been ordained (unless they are willing to rescind their ordination). 

While individuals in our church are free to check the SBC box on their commitment cards or giving envelopes and direct some of their mission dollars to the North American Mission Board, the majority of our deacons perceive a philosophical difference with NAMB.  They hesitate to include in our shared giving plan an organization that will not hire an ordained woman.  Of course it isn’t up to the Deacons, ultimately; it’s up to the church (just last night we hosted an open discussion at which some members requested that we not exclude NAMB altogether, since it is part of the same organization through which we “support missionaries,” and that we distribute our missionary support proportionally, with the SBC getting a larger share simply because it has more personnel on the field. Each of those requests seemed reasonable and the spirit of the discussion was cordial throughout).   

Copies of the proposed giving plan have been available for perusal for the past few weeks, with a vote scheduled for the quarterly business meeting on January 13, 2010.  If things go as they usually do there won’t be any pushing and shoving at that meeting, either.  There will be a presentation, some discussion, and then every member present will vote his or her conscience.  At the end of the meeting we will all understand a little better…

…who we are. 

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*The Deacon Advisory Council is comprised of the five most recent deacon chairs and vice-chairs at First Baptist Church.

Interfaith Jogging

interfaith joggingSo, here’s one that sounds like it should be a joke:

I went for a run on Memorial Day with my friend Wallace Adams-Riley, Rector of the historic St. Paul’s Episcopal Church here in the City of Richmond.  We made our way around a five-mile loop that ended on Monument Avenue.  While we were cooling down, I saw someone jogging toward us in sweat pants and a white T-shirt.  When he got closer I saw that it was Ammar Ammonette—the imam I had lunch with a few months ago.  I stopped him in mid-jog and introduced him to Wallace, and for a few minutes we stood there talking on the sidewalk: the pastor, the priest, and the imam.  He said he lived on the other side of the river but liked to run here, where the sidewalks were a little wider and people seemed to be more accustomed to pedestrian traffic.  We didn’t talk long; I didn’t want to interrupt his run; but we did say that we should get together for lunch again sometime, and then he smiled, shook our hands, and went his way.

Nobody who drove by while we were talking would have guessed who we were.  It’s not everyday you see a pastor, a priest, and an imam talking together, but it’s even less often you see them out jogging together.

Have you heard the one about…?

The Bible Answer Man

godwin_bible460Somewhere in Richmond recently I saw a van advertising “The Bible Answer Man” along with a telephone number that I quickly entered and stored in my cell phone.  That’s useful information: you never know when you’re going to need a biblical answer to a difficult question.  As I was scrolling lazily through the numbers on my cell phone yesterday afternoon I saw that one, which I had entered as “Bible Ans,” and decided to give him a call.

I needed an answer.

On Friday of last week I had stopped by the home of a church member who was upset about the idea of changing our membership requirements to include Christians from other denominations who have not received believer’s baptism by immersion.  I wanted to listen carefully, to hear what it was in all this discussion that was troubling him.  He said that what it came down to, finally, was obedience to Scripture, that if the Bible says we should baptize believers by immersion then that’s what we should do, and if anybody wants to be part of a Baptist church they should get in the water, not because it’s some man-made membership requirement, but because it’s what the Bible teaches! 

He said all this without anger, but he said it with conviction, with so much conviction that I drove away from his house determined to look into the matter further.  Would a change in our membership requirements really be a departure from Scripture?  If I had suggested that we stop making disciples or that we start baptizing babies that would be one thing, but church membership would be another, and I wasn’t sure the Bible said anything about that.  So I called the number I had stored in my phone and someone picked up right away.

“Is this the Bible Answer Man?” I asked.

“Sure is,” he said, with a friendly drawl.  “How can I help you?”

“I’m wondering about baptism,” I said.  “Can you tell me what the Bible says about it?”

“Well, baptism comes from a Greek verb that means ‘to immerse.’  It means to bury you under the water and raise you up to new life.”

“That’s what we believe at my church,” I said (I didn’t tell him which church).  “But what about people who haven’t been baptized that way?  Can they still be considered real Christians?”

“Of course they can,” he said with a snort.  “Baptism doesn’t save you!  What matters is what’s in your heart, you know?  Do you love Jesus?  Have you been born again?  That kind of thing.”

“I’m just asking because at my church we’re trying to decide whether Christians from other denominations can be members without being re-baptized.  Does the Bible say anything about church membership?”

He had a lot to say about that, mostly about how, in the Book of Revelation Jesus speaks to the church (singular) in Pergamum, Thyatira, Laodicea, etc.  “It’s not the churches,” he said.  “It’s just the church.  Like when Paul writes the letter to the Romans he addresses it to ‘the church in Rome.’  All those people there and only one church!  That’s why, when people ask me what church I belong to, I tell them I belong to ‘The Church in Richmond.'”

“But you could go even further than that, couldn’t you?” I asked.  “I mean, Jesus only has one church doesn’t he?”

“That’s true,” the Bible Answer Man agreed.

“And don’t you think he knows who belongs to his church and who doesn’t?”

“Yep.”

“It’s been a pleasure talking to you,” I said.

“Same here,” said the Bible Answer Man.  “Call me again sometime!”

Maybe I will the next time I’m looking for answers from the Bible, or even the next time I just need something to blog about.  Either way, I’m keeping his number on speed dial.