Again?

ShootingThere has been another tragic shooting in America. The headlines read: “Gunfire, then Chaos”; “Rampage at Washington Navy Yard”; “Gunman fires from balcony, killing 12, before dying in battle with police”; “Accused assailant, a former Navy reservist, said to have had anger problems.”

I read those headlines in the Richmond Times-Dispatch this morning, but a half-hour earlier I read this brief article in the Christian Century:

Scared of America

Following the killing of an Australian man studying in Oklahoma, Tim Fischer, the former deputy prime minister of Australia, suggested that Australians should avoid traveling to the United States. “Yes, people [who] are thinking of going to the USA on business, vacation, trips, should think carefully about it given the statistical facts you are 15 times more likely to be shot dead in the USA than in Australia per capita per million people,” Fischer said. He had championed gun control reforms in Australia nearly two decades ago. Gun control laws have virtually eliminated firearms crimes in Australia (CNN.com, August 20).

I know that gun control is a political hornet’s nest. I know that mentioning it in a blog post is an invitation to every reader with an opinion to post a comment (and believe me, there is no shortage of opinion on this issue). But if there is such a thing as an objective observer, would that person not ask why? Why is it that firearms crimes in Australia have been virtually eliminated? And why is it that I greet the news of another tragic shooting in America with a single word:

Again?

KOH2RVA: Day 348

Kendrick2I had lunch with my friend Kendrick Curry yesterday. Kendrick is pastor of the historic Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church in Washington, DC, and when I call him “my friend” what I mean is that he and I get along easily and have a lot in common and have often agreed that we would surely be good friends if we ever had a chance to spend time together. So when I realized I was going to be in Washington during the lunch hour I called and asked if he could join me.

He said he could.

I met him at a place called CHOP’T in Chinatown where a hive of worker bees behind a long counter take your order and then collect and chop and toss the ingredients of your salad into a bowl with the kind of showmanship that makes you think there should be drum rolls and cymbal crashes after each move. There weren’t, but the place was packed, and so noisy that I’m still not sure what I ordered.

Whatever it was, it was delicious.

Kendrick and I sat side-by-side at a narrow counter in the front window, looking out at the city of Washington walking past us on the 7th Street sidewalk as the bright, midday sun poured in. I dug into my salad and Kendrick dug into the conversation at a level most people wouldn’t attempt, “cutting to the chase” as they say, of what’s going on with the church in America today. In one way or another that’s what we talked about the rest of the hour, each of us adding our thoughts about what is most essential for the church’s survival and success.

“For me,” I said, “it comes down to Jesus. I believe he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I’ve come to love him and trust him. And even if the Way he is should lead me to a locked door (though I don’t believe it will) I can’t imagine that I will ever regret following him.”

I told Kendrick about an article I’d read by Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, who said that “The conservative Christian view of Jesus in the New Testament is framed not around the person and work of Jesus, but around Jesus’ death, resurrection, and return in judgment on sin (the Book of Revelation). This explains the astonishing disinterest in his life and teachings.” I pointed out that the Apostle Paul refers to the earthly ministry of Jesus only once in his letters that I know of, when he talks about the Last Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. If you were in a church where most of the preaching came from the Epistles and not the Gospels, you might begin to believe that the life and teachings of Jesus weren’t all that important. You might focus only on the cross, and not the Kingdom.

But if you read the Gospels even casually you begin to see how important the Kingdom was to Jesus. He mentions it some 120 times in the Gospels—far more than anything else. He wants it to come, on earth as it is in heaven. He teaches his disciples to pray for that. He shows them how to work for that. It’s the reason we have spent most of the last year trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.  I asked Kendrick, “If we are going to call ourselves followers of Jesus shouldn’t we care about the things he cares about? Shouldn’t we do what he tells us to do?”

“Maybe it’s time to re-boot Christianity,” Kendrick said in the end, and I smiled at the thought of pulling the plug on all that has been added to our faith through the centuries—all the rituals, doctrines, divisions, and denominations—waiting a few seconds, and then plugging it back in again:

And starting with Jesus.

Rewind the Tape

I just shared my Easter sermon from 2002 with the Wednesday night crowd at church and some of them asked that I post it online.  It was the first Easter after September 11, 2001, and for that reason it seemed all the more important to talk about resurrection.  Enjoy.

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Rewind the Tape
First Baptist Church,Washington, DC
March 31, 2002, Easter Sunday
Matthew 28:1-10 

Today is Easter Sunday, a day when we pull out all the organ stops, bring in the trumpets and timpani, and celebrate with everything that is in us.  Although it may appear to those outside the church that our celebration is arbitrary—falling on one day this year and another day next year—it is not arbitrary at all.  We celebrate a specific event in history: we celebrate that day on which Jesus broke the bony back of death and opened up for us the way that leads to life.  Because of what he did death no longer has dominion over us.  Our last and worst enemy has been decisively defeated.  Even if you didn’t feel the need to throw a party it would be a good reason to throw one. 

But sometimes you do feel the need.

My friend Stan Hastey, who read the Gospel lesson for us this morning, remembers a sermon he heard just a few days after Easter, 1968.  He was a student at Southern Seminary inLouisville,Kentucky.  Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated two weeks before.  Race riots had broken out inMemphis, and in this city, and in others.  A dark shadow had fallen across the American landscape.  The students who gathered for chapel on that April day needed to hear an encouraging word.  They looked up hopefully as the Reverend Charles Boddie, an African-American preacher fromNashville,Tennessee, made his way to the pulpit.  They shifted in their pews and then waited, expectantly, for Boddie to speak.  When he did, his voice was little more than a whisper.   Pointing back to the Sunday before he said, “Easter, this year, came just in the nick of time.”

Although it has been more than six months since September 11th I have that same feeling about this year, that Easter has come just in the nick of time.  On that day I was watching the news as that second airplane slammed into theWorldTradeCenter.  I couldn’t believe what I had just seen.  Neither could the anchorman.  He said to the engineer, “Rewind the tape,” and because the engineer was as shocked as we were he forgot to turn off the monitor first, so right there on the screen we saw the image freeze and then begin to do a jerky little dance as it went backward.  We saw that huge orange ball of flame being sucked back into the building.  We saw shattered pieces of concrete, steel, and glass defy gravity, and leap back up to their proper places.  We saw that airplane backing out of the building tail first and the hole it had punched in the side repairing itself until building and plane and passengers were all intact again.  And then the image froze again, and the engineer pushed the “play’ button, and the whole tragic scene unfolded before us once more: the plane smashing into the building; the ball of flame erupting from the other side; the shattered pieces of concrete, steel, and glass falling toward the ground and all those people . . . gone.

What if there were some way to rewind not only the tape, but also time?  Imagine God himself giving the command, and some heavenly engineer pushing the button, and time beginning to flow backward instead of forward.  So that the suicide bombing in the port city of Haifa, Israel, this morning would miraculously undo itself as shrapnel came flying back into the bomb, as chairs and tables, plates and glasses, returned to their usual places, as friends greeted one another in that crowded restaurant, sat down, chatted and smiled.  Last Monday night the destruction caused by an earthquake in Afghanistanwould be reversed.  Ruined houses and buildings would put themselves back together again.  Children who had been crushed by falling debris minutes earlier would resume their peaceful sleep.  Mothers would stroke their hair, kiss their cheeks, and wish them sweet dreams.  And as time continued to flow backward, as September 13th lapsed into September 12th, people from all over the country would begin making their way to New York City, hoping to be as close to Ground Zero as possible on the 11th, when the twin towers of the World Trade Center would heave themselves up out of the rubble to stand tall and proud again.  The crowds would cheer when firefighters and policemen came running out of the buildings unharmed.  They would cheer again when they saw those two airplanes fly backward out of the buildings and back toward the airports.  But their loudest cheers would be reserved for those thousands of people who came out, alive and well and more than a little surprised by all the attention they were getting.

But suppose we didn’t stop there?  Suppose we just kept going?  Suppose we watched Martin Luther King get up off the balcony of thatMemphishotel and adjust his tie?  Suppose John F. Kennedy stepped out of that convertible inDallas, waved to the crowds, and got back on Air Force One?  Imagine Japanese airplanes flying away fromPearl Harborwith their bombs undelivered.  Or the Titanic floating up off the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean and bobbing like a cork on the surface before steaming back toEngland.  Imagine Civil War soldiers—both Union and Confederate—getting up from the battlefield, brushing themselves off, and embracing before heading home.  And then suppose we kept going, back through the centuries, watching one tragedy after another undo itself until we stood with Jesus’ disciples and watched as life came back into that crucified body, as the Roman soldiers lowered the cross and un-hammered the nails, as he staggered back before Pontius Pilate, back before the Sanhedrin, back to the Garden of Gethsemane, back to the table where he and his disciples had shared their last supper.  Wouldn’t they cheer?  Wouldn’t it be good to have Jesus back with them again, safe and sound?   Or would even those dense disciples understand that there is a difference between restoration and resurrection.  Would they recognize that if time kept moving in that direction there would come a time when they hadn’t met Jesus, hadn’t been called, hadn’t begun to follow, and would they recognize that it would have been better to have known him and lost him than never to have known him at all?

In an extraordinary little book called Einstein’s Dreams Alan Lightman imagines all the impossible permutations of time.  In one chapter he describes a world like the one I have been describing to you, in which time flows backward.  A woman who was near death begins to get younger and stronger.  The deep lines disappear from her face.  Her hearing comes back.  Her eyesight comes back.  And then one day her husband is carried back into her house.  “In hours, his cheeks become pink, he stands stooped over, straightens out, speaks to her.  Her house becomes their house.  They eat meals together, tell jokes, laugh.  They travel through the country, visit friends.  Her white hair darkens with brown streaks, her voice resonates with new tones.  She goes to a retirement party at the local high school, begins teaching history.  She loves her students, argues with them after class.  She reads during her lunch hour and at night.  She meets friends and discusses history and current events.  She helps her husband with the accounts at his drugstore, walks with him to the foot of the mountains, makes love to him.  Her skin becomes soft and smooth, her hair long and brown.”[1]

It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it, this reversal of time?  Don’t we wish we could make it so?  Don’t we wish we could reverse the aging process at least, so that our own skin would become younger and smoother, our bodies stronger, our eyesight clearer?  Imagine celebrating your 80th birthday knowing that next year you would be 79.  Imagine making plans to run a marathon 40 years from now, when your body would be in better shape.  It all sounds good up to a point, but only up to a point.  Listen to how Lightman continues his story:  “The woman sees her husband for the first time in the library of the university, returns his glances.  She attends classes.  She graduates from high school with her parents and sister crying tears of happiness.  She lives at home with her parents, spends hours with her mother walking through the woods by their house, helps with the dishes.  She tells stories to her younger sister, is read to at night before bed, grows smaller.  She crawls.  She nurses.”[2]  Lightman stops the story right there but if he had continued you know that this woman who had become a girl who had become a baby would next become a fetus, then an embryo, then an egg, and then nothing at all.  She would disappear completely if time flowed backward. 

Some would say that’s what happens to all of us anyway.  In a world where time flows forward we grow old, we die, we are buried, our bodies decay, and in the end there is nothing but the memory of us left in the world and soon not even that.  And this is where the testimony of the disciples is most helpful.  They saw Jesus die.  They saw him buried.  But they also saw something else.  Three days after his death they saw him alive again.  And this was no studio special effect:  this was real.  In Matthew’s version of the story it is the women, running back from the tomb to tell his disciples the good news, who encounter the risen Jesus on the way.  “Greetings,” he says, and they fall at his feet to worship him, trembling with fear and joy. 

At first they must have thought that he had been brought back to life like Lazarus, that God had caused time to flow backward and Jesus had been restored.  But eventually they came to see that this was not restoration, but resurrection.  Jesus had not retreated from death, but marched forward to meet it, smashed through it, and emerged on the other side alive.  It wasn’t as if someone had rewound the tape of his life, but fast-forwarded to that time when God will raise up all who believe.  If you can forgive the expression it was a “preview of coming attractions,” and it changed everything.  It gave those early Christians a confidence in the resurrection that made it possible for them to live their everyday lives with extraordinary courage.  Death no longer had dominion over them.  They no longer had to be afraid.  Paul who had been knocked off his high horse by the risen Jesus, who had seen the future and lost his fear, could thrust his chin forward and say, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” 

But what about you? 

Push the “pause” button on your life for a moment.  Stop everything right here where you are, on Easter Sunday, 2002, in a pew at FirstBaptistChurch.  If you had the power to reach out and push “rewind” would you do it?  For some of you it would be wonderful to feel life and strength flowing back into tired bodies.  For others there are tragedies that have marked your life that you would love to see undone.  For others there are missed opportunities that you would like to go back and seize.  For others harsh words spoken that you have always wished you could take back.  If you had the power, you might be tempted to push the “rewind” button.  But I believe that God raised Jesus.  And I believe that he will raise me too.  And it is my confidence in the resurrection that gives me the courage to reach out and push “play,” even today, even after September 11th, and weeks of Anthrax threats, and months of war inAfghanistan, on a day when the situation in theMiddle East seems ready to explode.

This year and every year, Easter comes just in the nick of time.

 

—Jim Somerville, 2002


[1] Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams (New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1993), pp. 103-104.

[2] Ibid., p. 104.

 

 

One of God’s Favorites

I find that I tell this story over and over again in conversation; I thought it might be good to tell it here:

I was coming up out of the Dupont Circle Metro station one morning in Washington, on my way to work at First Baptist Church, when I saw someone coming down the escalator on the other side who looked, well…scary.  He was wearing dark glasses, a leather jacket, and enough tattoos and body piercings to make it hard to see what he really looked like.  I gulped and thought, “There’s one of God’s favorites.”

I don’t know what inspired that thought but it had an immediate effect—no longer did I see him as frightening or threatening; I saw him as one of God’s favorites.  I could imagine God introducing the two of us and saying, “Jim, have you met Mad Dog?  I love this guy!”  And I could imagine Mad Dog smiling and reaching out to shake hands.  I smiled when I passed him on the escalator (and was it my imagination or did he smile back?). 

As I walked the two blocks to church I tried it on every person I passed: “There’s one of God’s favorites, there’s one of God’s favorites, there’s one of God’s favorites…”  And on every person it worked: I saw them in a different way than I had only a second earlier.  By the time I reached the end of the first block it was all I could do not to tell the woman who was standing there with me waiting for the light to change, “You’re one of God’s favorites!”  I believed she really was.

When I got to church one of our preschool teachers was on the playground with some of the children and I stopped to talk with her, still giddy from my walk.  Teresa is originally from Jamaica.  She has a sweet, sweet spirit and a beautiful smile.  I’m almost 100% sure that she is one of God’s favorites and I told her so.  She beamed.  Every time I saw her in the days that followed I would say, “You’re one of God’s favorites!” and she would say, “You are, too!”  (That’s not a bad way to greet one another, is it?). 

To this day, when I encounter someone who seems different, strange, or even a little bit scary I just think, “There’s one of God’s favorites,” and it helps.  And I know this, that even if that person is not one of God’s favorites, he or she is someone God loves, and that makes a difference.

If God loves Mad Dog he can’t be all bad, can he?

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p.s. The picture I’ve used on this post is a picture of someone who calls himself “the Scary Guy.”  Click on the link to find out more.  He may really be one of God’s favorites!

Liberian Funeral

I drove to Washington on Saturday to preside at the funeral of my good friend Francis Dennis, a member of my church in DC and a former ambassador from Liberia.  Printed below are some excerpts from the service:

 

I am honored by the invitation to come back to this place and to this pulpit to say a word about my friend Francis Dennis.  He was one of those people I was told about when I came to First Baptist in the summer of 2000.  “One of our members is the former ambassador from Liberia” someone said, proudly, and so, even before I met him, I was looking forward to meeting him.  I don’t know what I expected—some ambassador I had seen in a children’s book, maybe, wearing a top hat and tails, with a monocle held up to one eye, medals on his chest, and a sheaf of important documents in his hand—but what I got was Francis Dennis, this warm, personable human being whose laugh was one of his most distinguishing trademarks.

 

After we got to know each other when we met in the hallway Francis would stop, draw himself up to his full height, bend at the waist in a formal bow and say, “Dr. Somerville.”  And I would return the gesture, bowing to him and saying, “Ambassador Dennis.”  But both of us did it with a twinkle in our eyes, as if we knew that for all the formality of our titles and positions we were really just two children of God.  If we had been born in the same time and place we probably would have climbed trees together as boys, wrestled, run races, and gone swimming in the river.  One of the things I loved most about Francis (and there were many) was that he never lost his childlike spirit.  He seemed to understand that life is funny, and if you can’t see it in the good times you will never be able to see it in the bad times.  I don’t think I ever visited him in the hospital that we didn’t end up sharing a laugh.

 

What can we say about the children of God, about this child of God named Francis Dennis?  There is an old prayer, often recited at funerals, that says: “Life is eternal, love is immortal, and death is only a horizon, and a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.”  I believe that for the children of God this much at least is true: that life is eternal.  It was never God’s intention in creation that we should die.  And his intention, in redemption, was that we should live.  He sent his only son so that we could if we believed, and I don’t know anyone who believed more than Francis.  I think it is also true for God’s children that love is immortal, although all I can really offer here is my own experience.  I know that I loved Francis before his death and I know that I love him now.  My love for him has not been diminished in any way by his death.  If anything, my love for him is stronger. 

 

And finally, this: the idea that death is only a horizon, and that a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.  I’ve been picturing Francis standing on the deck of a ship as the lines are cast off and it begins to pull away from the dock.  I imagine him going off to his next assignment, dressed in top hat and tails, with medals on his chest, holding up a white handkerchief and waving as long as he is in sight.  But eventually that ship slips over the horizon and disappears from view.  It doesn’t mean that Francis is gone.  It only means that we can’t see him anymore.  But somewhere he is still on his way, standing at the bow, sailing toward the rising sun.  A child of God whose adventure has just begun. 

 

I can almost hear him laugh to think of it.

Let’s (Don’t) Talk Politics

When I was being interviewed by the search committee of my church in Washington, they asked me about my political views.  I was a little embarrassed.  “I’m almost apolitical,” I said.  “I really don’t pay that much attention to politics.”  “Good!” they said, in unison.  “That’s the perfect answer!”  Because in Washington, as you might guess, politics is a big deal.  People spend a good part of every day in an atmosphere that is polluted by rhetoric: Democrats fuming at Republicans and Republicans fussing at Democrats.  Like the exhaust from a million cars, politics is in the air they breathe.  But in church, the members of that congregation hoped for a different atmosphere.  They wanted to walk into a place where they could breathe the fresh, forgiving air of God’s grace.  And so they had agreed, long before my arrival, to check their partisan politics at the door.  And to their great credit they did. 

 

It’s not that you can’t be a Christian and have strong political views (in fact, the longer I lived in Washington, the stronger my views became), it’s just that politics tend to divide people along party lines, and in the church we don’t need that kind of division.  We don’t need to say in Sunday school, “I can’t believe what those Democrats are up to!” or in the hallway, “Those Republicans make me ill!”  We don’t need to assume that any one party is the “Christian” party, or that if you are a “real” Christian you will vote a certain way.  In my experience there are people of sincere faith on both sides of the aisle, and perhaps the most Christian thing we can do is respect their differing views. 

 

Don’t get me wrong: I want you to vote in November.  I want you to consider the issues carefully and make a thoughtful, well-informed decision. This is an important election. But in these next few weeks, as the weather gets cooler and the rhetoric gets hotter, let’s do what the members of my last church did: let’s check our partisan politics at the door.  When we come together, instead of talking about what the Democrats are doing or what the Republicans are doing, let’s talk about what God is doing.  And above our allegiance to any earthly nation, power, or party, let’s pledge our allegiance to Him.