KOH2RVA: Day 284

Jay McNeal3I had lunch with Jay McNeal yesterday, my former intern, who is now a fully ordained Master of Divinity. I told him shortly before he graduated from seminary that I couldn’t afford to hire him, but I could give him a job, and that’s how Jay became First Baptist’s “Microchurch Pastor.”

I’ve been talking about Microchurch for a few years now. Here’s the way I explained it to our television viewers in October, 2010.

Often when I’m out and about I bump into someone who says they watch our worship services on TV. Sometimes they tell me that they go to the early service at their own church and then hurry home to watch, and although I’m honored, I secretly wonder if that’s not overdoing it a little (smile). But sometimes they tell me First Baptist is their only church, and although they never actually come to our building, they watch every week. If you are one of those people, then this message is for you.

I want to invite you to take part in something we’re calling “Microchurch,” a bold new initiative of Richmond’s First Baptist Church. Here’s how it works. Before next Sunday, think of one or two friends who might be able to come watch the broadcast with you. Invite them to bring food—something simple and easy—so that after the service is over you can sit down and eat Sunday lunch together. After lunch take time to share your concerns with one another, and then ask someone to lift those concerns up to God in prayer. Finally, take up an offering, and talk about how you might use it to put God’s love into action right where you are—in your subdivision, your retirement center, your apartment complex, or your neighborhood. If it works, try it again the next week, and then the week after that. Make it a regular habit. Give it a name. And remember, it doesn’t have to be big to be church. Jesus said, “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am also” (Mt. 18:20).

Our hope is to start 200 new Microchurches in the next year, and I’d like to ask for your help. I’m not asking for your money, just your participation. I believe that when Jesus asked his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom would come, and that his will would be done, on earth as it is in heaven, he really meant it. But it’s going to take all of us to bring heaven to earth, and not just the people who come to worship in our building. I understand that some 20,000 people watch our services on Sunday morning. If only one percent of those people would accept this challenge we would have those 200 Microchurches I’m talking about, and we might have them not by next year, but by next week. As those churches start working with us to put God’s love into action I believe heaven will come a little closer to earth, and that those of you who join us in our mission will become part of the answer to the Lord’s prayer.

That was in 2010. What I’ve learned since then is that we don’t have any way of knowing how many Microchurches are out there. There may be 200. There may be 2,000. And so I’ve asked Jay if he can help us figure out how many there are and how we can encourage and sustain them as they work with us to bring heaven to earth. I’ve challenged Jay to start 500 new Microchurches in the next year, almost as a dare, and he has accepted the challenge. There was a moment during yesterday’s lunch when I realized he was serious. I had asked him to visit a Microchurch next week and maybe another one the week after that. He said, “But there are 52 Sundays in a year. If we’re trying to start 500 new Microchurches I’m going to have to visit a lot more than that.”

You go, Jay.

I’m sure he’ll figure it out, but in the meantime consider this. If you looked at a map of Central Virginia next year and saw 500 new dots on the map—500 more places where people are working to bring heaven to earth—wouldn’t you be encouraged? Wouldn’t you think that it was beginning to happen, that God’s kingdom was coming, and God’s will was being done,

On earth as it is in heaven?

Preacher Camp

For six years now I’ve been getting together with a group of colleagues so we can plan our preaching for the year.  It was Amy Butler’s idea.  When I was at First Baptist, DC, she was at Calvary Baptist, just a few blocks away.  We would get together at Starbucks on Monday mornings with a few other preachers to talk about what we were going to do the following Sunday and one day she said, “You know what we ought to do?  We ought to do this for the whole year!”

And so we sent out some invitations, and a few months later six of us spent several days at a big house in the mountains of West Virginia, looking over the lectionary texts for the following year.

Each of us had an assignment.  I was supposed to bring some good ideas for preaching through those Sundays after Christmas and before Ash Wednesday.  Others in our group had the seasons of Lent, Easter, Advent, and that long stretch of Sundays after Pentecost, often called “Ordinary Time,” which we divided into two parts.

We talked about a lot of things in those days.  We talked about our lives and churches and ministry, but we also ended the week with a pretty good sense of what we would be preaching in the year ahead, and that felt good.

We’ve been doing it ever since.

Last year we had the idea to do it in the summer instead of the fall, and to bring our families along.  We got the use of a big house on Lake James in North Carolina, and Russ Dean brought his ski boat.  So, we planned our preaching each morning and then, each afternoon (sometimes after naps), we went down to the dock for swimming and sunbathing, skiing and tubing.   In the evenings we would sometimes share our favorite sermons with each other.  One night we sat on the front porch telling the stories of how we met our spouses.  Another night we ended up in a free-spirited dance party in the living room.  The kids loved that.  And so did the grownups.

On the last night we gathered around the campfire to sing songs and make S’mores and it really did feel like we had been at camp for a week.  We all felt a little closer to God and a little closer to each other.  Plus, I had some idea of what I will be preaching each Sunday from now through Advent 2012.

You don’t have many weeks like that in a year, and when you have one you just want to thank somebody for it.  So, thanks to the family who loaned us their lake house, and thanks to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which gave us some funding for the event, and thanks be to God for colleagues who have become such close friends: for Russ Dean, and Amy Butler, and Don Flowers, and Dorisanne Cooper, and John Ballenger, and for our time together at…

…Preacher Camp.

The Lengthening of Days

Here’s an essay by Wallace Adams-Riley (Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond and my regular running buddy) published in yesterday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch.  In it Wallace provides some valuable insight into the seasons of the Christian year, and especially the traditions of Ash Wednesday, which was  observed yesterday by churches around the world.

—————————————————

Late last fall, my family and I moved to Richmond from Florida and, at my wife’s suggestion, I bought an overcoat for the first time in my life. I wasn’t sure I needed it, but she, a Vermonter, told me I would. Only a couple of months later, I was glad I had listened to my wise wife.

We had lived in Florida for only five years, and yet I was amazed at how much I had lost touch, in that short time, with what it was like to live somewhere with actual seasons; first the colors of autumn’s leaves; then the wind chill and snow (or snows) of midwinter; and then, mercifully, the tantalizing first hints of spring, with the delicate green beginnings of budding and leafing, the steady and unmistakable uptick in the bird population and, as noticeably as anything, the exponential increase in birdsong.

I’ll always remember walking through the Fan last spring, with my mouth practi cally agape at how the robins, finches, and sparrows filled the trees and all the air around with their ever expansive, ebullient song.

To be conscious of the seasons is elemental, one of those things most essential to being alive. Therefore, it should be no surprise that since time immemorial, and long before the major world religions were born, human beings have looked to the seasons as primary metaphors for the human experience — and, in particular, the human experience of the Divine.

When, in time, Christianity emerged, it was only natural for Christians to follow that same essential pattern as well. Over the first few centuries of the life of the Church, Christians worked out a year-round calendar of feast days and fast days to commemorate the life and teachings of Jesus; and they arranged the architecture of the church year to maximize the metaphorical potential of the annual seasons.

For example, the Church situated the annual celebration of Christ’s birth in the very depths of winter, when the days are shortest and the world is darkest, thereby co-opting the entire natural world into the symbolism of the “light shining in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

And so it is with Lent and the approach to Easter, that moment in the Church’s calendar we now enter. The natural, seasonal dynamics of death and rebirth, winter turning to spring, become a grand metaphor for the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. As with Christ’s birth in midwinter, so with his rebirth in the spring, the natural world joins in the annual remembrance of Christ’s Resurrection.

Indeed, the word “Lent” itself comes from the Old English lencten, used to describe the lengthening of days that marks the coming of spring. And, in the Church’s calendar, by dependable calculation (the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox), Easter always falls in spring. In fact, the word “Easter” was originally the name of a pre-Christian spring goddess.

That the Church takes such care to draw the whole natural world into the act of remembrance and the experience of worship is nothing less than sacramental. The sky, and the trees, and the birds, and the day and the night, like water and bread and wine, all become, as we say of sacraments, “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace,” signs of what God would do and is doing in our lives and in our world. For a faith which holds that, in the name of love, God took on the earthly stuff of flesh and blood, this correspondence is only natural.

Today, as the sign of the Cross is made on countless foreheads, with the words, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we are reminded that, as divine as any faith may aspire to be, it is where that faith meets the lived experience of humanity that true colors are shown. Ash Wednesday is a day when we are especially aware of our creatureliness and mortality; and it begins a season of reflection and prayer, of rethinking and re-examining; a season to prepare for a change, a transformation, even a rebirth.