Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, Indeed!

Old friends, two happy senior women talking in parkGuest blogger Becky Payne, church organist and friend of the elderly, shares a story about a recent event that truly brought heaven to earth.

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When our pastor, Jim Somerville, challenged our church to “bring the kingdom”, one of our members at Lakewood Manor, Bernice Rodgerson, was a bit puzzled about what she might do to participate in the challenge. At that time Bernice was not well and didn’t get out much. She and I talked about the possibilities and decided she could write notes and make phone calls to other senior adults who are homebound. I gave her several names of ladies in other retirement facilities and she began her “ministry” of encouragement.

Earlier in this year we were discussing one of her ladies and Bernice expressed a desire to visit her. I assured her I could make that happen. On a Wednesday afternoon mid-August Bernice and I went to visit Anne Poindexter. I watched with great joy as these friends greeted each other and talked non-stop for a lengthy time. Anne was happy to share refreshments with us as we talked about our church, our families and Anne’s upcoming 99th birthday. The excitement of these ladies and the sweetness of that visit is etched in my mind.

As we drove back to Lakewood Manor Bernice and I talked a bit about the other ladies she had been writing. You guessed it: this Friday Bernice and I will make the short trip to Gayton Terrace to visit with Betty Grubb!

KOH2RVA: Day 330

soccer campI didn’t blog yesterday, but it’s not because I didn’t want to: it’s because I forgot.

I got up at five o’ clock for a day that didn’t end until ten, with less than an hour in the afternoon to come home and change clothes. I’m not complaining. It was a wonderful day. But I am explaining how Richmond’s premiere KOH2RVA blogger might have forgotten to bring you up to date on the mission.

So, where were we?

Yesterday we were at Day 329. Today we are at Day 330. Which means that in just over a month this year-long, every-member mission trip will have come to its end. What I learned at church yesterday is that there are things going on I didn’t even know about and there are members who are still looking for a way to get off the bus.

For example: I didn’t know that Buddy Burgess, who heads up the ministry of recreation at First Baptist, had conducted a week-long soccer camp at Essex Village in which 25 children had participated. I must have been on vacation that week. But I heard Ralph Starling mention it during worship yesterday and when I closed my eyes I could almost see those children laughing and learning as Buddy worked with them patiently and came back to do it again every day that week. If he had done it in Sri Lanka it might have been on the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, but he did it at Essex Village—one of the most neglected neighborhoods in our city—and because he did not many people knew about it. Even his pastor found out after the fact. But those 25 children will never forget it and for them, I’m sure, heaven came a little closer to earth.

I also overheard someone whispering about a church member who hasn’t found her way to “get off the bus” yet, by which I mean she hasn’t found a way to participate in this year-long, every-member mission trip (emphasis on every). That didn’t surprise me; what surprised me was the expectation that she would, as if it were simply understood that that’s what you do at Richmond’s First Baptist Church—you get off the bus! The person who was whispering to her friend wasn’t doing it in a gossipy way; they were putting their heads together, wondering what they could do to help this woman before it’s too late, before this mission trip comes to an end and everybody else gets back on the bus—tired and happy—only to find their friend hiding in the back.

To learn that good things have been going on while you were away, and that a culture has been created in which everyone is expected to be on mission, well…that makes a pastor’s heart sing, even at the end of a very long day.

Today is a new day.  It’s day 330.

What will you do to bring heaven to earth?

KOH2RVA: Day 321

smokingOn Wednesdays I go down to the basement level of the church to speak to the men and women who come to First Baptist for hot showers, clean clothes, a cup of coffee, and a little bit of the love of Christ. I enjoy doing it, and I try not to make it too “preachy.” I simply try to encourage people who live a harder life than most of us can imagine.

But this week I told a story I heard from church historian Bill Leonard years ago. It was about a time he visited a rural church in Kentucky that didn’t even have a building: the congregation just sat outside on wooden benches. Bill sat down beside a man who was wearing a pair of faded bib overalls, with a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes in the front pocket.

When the preacher got warmed up to the subject of his sermon he said, “I’m getting tired of these people going out honky tonkin’ on Saturday nights, getting’ drunk and carryin’ on like they do. What kind of example is that to be settin’ before our kids?” And the man in the bib overalls said, “Amen, preacher! You tell ‘em!”

And then the preacher said, “And what about these young women walkin’ around with their skirts cut up to here and their blouses cut down to there, showing off everything the good Lord gave ‘em? How is a young man supposed to keep his way pure?” And the man in the bib overalls said, “Amen, preacher! That’s right!”

But then the preacher said, “And what about cigarettes? People who call themselves Christians walkin’ around suckin’ on them cigarettes like a baby sucks on his bottle! That’s got to stop!” And that’s when the man in bib overalls turned to Bill Leonard and said, “That ain’t Bible and I ain’t listenin’!” and walked off in a huff.

I said to my friends at Community Missions, “That’s a funny story, but it does raise the question of who you listen to. This man said he wasn’t going to listen to something that wasn’t in the Bible, but what he really meant was that he wasn’t going to listen to something he didn’t agree with. What about you? Who do you listen to? Who has authority in your life? Is it the Bible? Is it your mother? Is it the voices in your head?

I said, “For me, it’s Jesus. I believe he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and I believe that if I follow his Way I won’t be disappointed. So, I read the Gospels, and I underline what Jesus says, and I try to live by it. And even if I get to the end of my life and find that Jesus has led me to a locked door (although that’s not going to happen), I don’t think I will have any regrets. I believe his Way really is the best way to live in this world.”

It’s the reason First Baptist Church is on this year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia: because it’s so important to Jesus, because he mentions the Kingdom some 120 times in the Gospels, because he teaches his disciples to pray that God’s Kingdom will come, and His will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

So, we’re working hard to bring heaven to earth, and it’s not necessarily because we want to, but because Jesus said so.

What about you?  Who do you listen to?

KOH2RVA: Day 293

Nancy Sehested2I’m back at my kitchen table this morning, having a cup of (really wonderful) coffee and getting ready to put tomorrow’s sermon into words, but before I do let me say a word about the annual meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Greensboro, North Carolina, where I’ve been for the past few days.

On Wednesday night I attended the 30th anniversary celebration of Baptist Women in Ministry at First Baptist, Greensboro. One of the things I’ve appreciated about CBF from the beginning was its commitment to women, especially at a time when many who felt called to ordained ministry were being told they could not fulfill that calling within the Southern Baptist Convention. Nancy Hastings Sehested preached and started with a funny story about sitting on a plane beside a “chatty Texan” (she admitted that she, herself, is a chatty Texan, and that it takes one to know one). This Texan chatted on for some time before asking her what she did for a living. She said, “I’m a minister.” He said, “Really? What denomination?” “Baptist,” she said. He said, “I’m a Baptist, and my pastor tells me there aren’t any Baptist women ministers.” She said, “We’re in the witness protection program.”

We laughed out loud.

And then she said, “For thirty years that’s what Baptist Women in Ministry has been doing: protecting the witness of women.” And I turned to my daughter Catherine, who was there on the pew with me, just to make sure she heard that there was a place among Baptists where the gifts of women were not only acknowledged, but celebrated. Shortly after that Molly Brummett, a brilliant young seminary graduate whom Catherine has known all her life, received the Addie Davis preaching award.

Another reminder.

Not that Catherine will become a preacher. She’s getting ready to go off to graduate school in Aberdeen, Scotland, this fall to study anthropology and folklore. But as her father I have always wanted her to believe that she could do whatever she felt called to do, even if she felt called to ministry. I think she got that message throughout the CBF General Assembly. There were lots of young people there being honored and included in everything that was going on. The new Executive Coordinator of CBF, Suzii Paynter, is a woman. And everywhere she went Catherine was getting hugs from people who have known her and loved her since she was born.

We’re back in Richmond this morning, and Catherine is upstairs sleeping in, but as I think about how to bring the KOH2RVA I think how important it is to make a place for women, who have always had a place in God’s plan: Sarah, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Mary, Lydia, Phoebe, Priscilla, Lottie, Annie, Suzii, Nancy, Molly, Catherine, and many, many others.

God bless them, every one.

KOH2RVA: Day 235

cats and dogsThe conversation on this blog over the past two days has been fascinating and yesterday, especially, it had the feel of a lively roundtable discussion among people with very different views, but very respectful attitudes. I want to thank Anne especially, for hanging in there when many disagreed with her views. She was unflappable, and never appeared to get angry. Near the end of the day she was almost cheerfully suggesting reading material to her new friends Don and Daniel.

I admire that.

I do have more to say on this topic, but I’m not going to say it today. Today I’m going hiking with my brother Greg who has been working as a missionary in North Africa for the past year. We’re going to huff and puff our way to the top of Old Rag Mountain, pausing from time to time for long, thoughtful conversations (and a chance to catch our breath). I won’t have a cell signal for most of that hike, and therefore won’t be able to moderate discussion on my blog (nor should I, when I have the chance to walk and talk with my brother). So, I’m going to make a suggestion:

Do something today that brings heaven a little closer to earth, and at the end of the day tell me what it was.

I appreciated Melissa Ansley Brooks’ comment on my Facebook page when I mentioned that I’d had 1,588 views on my blog on Tuesday. She wrote: “Could you give my contact information to all of those people who viewed your blog…because I’ve got some Kingdom work that needs doin’….poor kids to feed, motherless babies to rock, middle schoolers to tutor, widows to comfort, sick people to visit…and I need some help!”

For those who have ears to hear it, it could be the voice of Jesus himself.

KOH2RVA: Day 231

peter-cornelius-the-bibleIs it just a coincidence?

On the same day I’m preaching about the time Peter went to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile, someone who was considered “unclean” by the Jews, I have been invited to a reception for the retiring pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church—what some people call “the gay church.” After that I’ve been invited to serve on a panel at Congregation Or Ami—a reformed Jewish synagogue just off Huguenot Road—for a discussion on aging with dignity that will include end of life issues. After that I’ve been asked to say a few words at the ordination of Krista Mann Manuel, a recent BTSR graduate who is now serving at Tomahawk Baptist Church.

Fifty years ago there wouldn’t have been a “gay church,” I probably wouldn’t have been invited to serve on the panel at a Jewish synagogue, and a Baptist church would probably not have been ordaining a woman. The times they are a-changin’ as Bob Dylan might say, and the question I have to ask is this one: Is the church caving in to the culture, as some people fear, or is the Holy Spirit on the move?

Here’s an excerpt from today’s sermon:

The Jewish Christians, the ones Luke calls “the Circumcised,” wanted to know why [Peter] had been spending time with the Uncircumcised and eating with them. It was against the law!—the Law of Moses, that is—it was contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture! I was trying to imagine a comparable situation last Friday when I bumped into Victor Davis over at Clark Springs Elementary School, where I tutor. Dr. Davis is the Baptist minister who did our January Bible Study last year. I said, “Victor, in our time and place, who is it that would be considered ‘unclean’ by the church?” And without hesitating he said, “The gays.” And so, on the way back to church, I thought: What if a local Baptist minister went on a mission trip to New York and found out when he got home that pictures of him hanging out at a gay nightclub in Manhattan had been published on the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch? Don’t you think there would be a special called deacons’ meeting that very afternoon where the chairman would hold up the newspaper and ask, “What’s this all about?”

I don’t have time to tell you how the sermon comes out, not now, but if you’ll come to church at 8:30 or 11:00 this morning, or tune in to our webcast at http://www.fbcrichmond.org, you’ll hear the rest of the story. And maybe tomorrow or the next day I’ll tell you what happened at the pastor’s reception, and the panel discussion, and the ordination service.

It’s an interesting world we live in.

KOH2RVA: Day 190

BTSRIt’s Monday, March 18, 2013. I’m up having coffee and getting ready for an all-day trustee meeting at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. I’m wondering if there is any way I can bring heaven to earth today.

I think there is. I think BTSR is, in itself, a way of bringing heaven to earth. For more than twenty years this school has been training men and women for ministry in the local church, and some of those men and women—Sterling Severns, Mandy England Cole, Justin Joplin, and Erin Spengeman, just to name a few—are out there blessing our city right now.

In the beginning, the idea of training women for ministry seemed radical and new, especially for Baptists. These days I think we understand that if the church is going to have a future it’s going to take all of us, women and men alike, and the women at BTSR are proving themselves extremely capable. Jim Flamming (my predecessor at FBC Richmond, who now teaches preaching at the seminary) says that the women in his classes are consistently the best preachers.

That shouldn’t surprise us.

As I’ve heard someone else say, women were “last at the cross, first at the tomb.” They were with Jesus when the disciples had fled. And Mary Magdalene, if you go by John’s version of the story, preached the first Easter sermon on record: “I have seen the Lord!” she said. Short, simple, to the point:

Hard to improve on that.

So, I’m going to spend the day doing what I can to ensure the future of the seminary. Things are looking much better than they did just a few months ago. The seminary has sold some property that had become a huge financial burden and gotten itself free to fulfill its mission in a leaner, more sustainable way. Ron Crawford, the seminary’s president, seems practically giddy when he talks about the future of the school these days and the students—characteristically—seem eager to go forward even if they have to do it in another building.

So I hope you will say a prayer for me today, a prayer for the trustees of BTSR, and a prayer for the future of a school that is determined to go on training men and women for ministry in the local church.

Lord knows we need them.