Three hundred people packed the tiny sanctuary. Folding chairs made an extra row across the back of the church and latecomers were seated in the choir loft. (We’d been early, thank goodness.)
“Good Morning. Do we have any visitors here today?” The teacher asked. We all laughed at the preposterous question.
“I’d like to know where you’re from.” The laughter died down as the teacher walked over to face the section to his right. “Would you folks tell me the name of your home state or country?”
“South Carolina.” “Texas.” “Bosnia.” Guests called out their addresses in turn. “California.” “Maryland.”
“Oh, Maryland,” our teacher smiled in recognition, “I used to live in Washington, D.C.” That Jimmy Carter—what a kidder.
The class met in the sanctuary of Maranatha Baptist Church (it’s the only room large enough for the crowd) where President Carter teaches Sunday School about 30 Sundays a year. The week following this one he was scheduled to be away—had to monitor the elections in Palestine.
Our family of five and my parents, Harold and Gloria Mitchell, joined hundreds of other travelers early that Sunday morning in the line to enter Maranatha Baptist. We were cleared by federal security and seated. Once the church filled, we were given specific instructions about how to respond to President and Mrs. Carter and to the Secret Service workers. Then, the pastor said a prayer and when we lifted our heads, Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States of America, strolled across to the podium.
Can you believe it? There I was, in this tee-tiny itty-bitty church and there was Jimmy Carter: my life-long hero. Right there. Close enough to hug. And guess what? He’s not even close to ten feet tall. Unbelievable.
No kidding, I was really surprised that Jimmy Carter is not in some way larger than life (shucks, even Yao Ming is and he's just a basketball player). But disappointed? No way. Because part of the wonderful thing about meeting Jimmy Carter is finding out that he is not extraordinary. He is an 82 year old man who teaches Sunday School every Sunday unless he is out of town with his wife. He is a dad and a granddad (“eleven grandchildren and one great grandchild,” Mrs. Rosalyn bragged to my mother, like any grandmama would). He loves to fish and hunt and tinker around in his workshop. He’s a church-going country boy from a small church in a small town that he dearly loves. He’s a lot like my Daddy, and my father-in-law. Two of the most extraordinary men I know.
A few months after our visit, Mother asked Daddy what he wanted for his upcoming 70th birthday. He thought for just a moment before he said, “I want our kids and their families to meet us in Plains to hear President Carter teach Sunday School.” Generally speaking, in our family what Daddy wants, Daddy usually gets. (Daddy doesn’t want much.) So, right around November 13, 2006, the sixteen of us descended on Georgia’s tiniest famous town. We went back to Sunday School, we stayed in Plains Inn, and we visited the historic sites around town. Overall, it was a pretty ordinary visit. But in Plains, ordinary is downright spectacular.
Note: We loved our visits to Plains and highly recommend the trip. It sounds unlikely, but you really can make a weekend of it. The museums in Plains are interesting and well-done and in Americus--a short drive from Plains--you'll find the headquarters for Habitat for Humanity with the Global Village. Koinonia Farm, started by Clarence Jordan, author of the Cotton Patch Gospels, is also in Americus. We stayed at the Plains Inn, a bed and breakfast in town. There are also hotels in Americus.
Part 2 of a two part series on "What I Love about Religion. Find Part 1 here!
6. Hymns. I love singing songs that have been sung for decades (if not centuries) by followers of Jesus. I love the sound of all of us singing together—altos and off-tones, tenors and tend-not-to’s, soloists and the so-so-ists. I love it.
7. Tradition. These days, a lot of folks see tradition as the bad guy. I love tradition. I love that since at least the early 1960’s, my family has had country ham biscuits for breakfast on Christmas morning. I love this silly game that I played with my cousins and now my children play with theirs (it’s called “Last Tag” and it was essentially designed to delay our inevitable separation). And I love church traditions. I love that we stand when the Gospel is read or the Hallelujah chorus is sung. I love hearing the choir sing and the handbells play. I love the organ, the piano, the orchestra. I love liturgy, the Lord’s Prayer, and saying “Amen.” Maybe it seems empty to others, but to me, tradition is full of the faith of those who have gone before me. It humbles me. It blesses me. I love it.
8. Sacraments. I’m Baptist and we consider Eucharist (which we call the Lord’s Supper or Communion) and Baptism (which we usually do by immersion unless there are health restrictions) to be holy and sacred. These two practices are seriously religious. That is to say, if you are completely unfamiliar with Christianity and you observe these customs, you may think we are cannibalistic and not a little bit murderous. Let’s face it. To people who know nothing of our faith, Eucharist and Baptism are just weird. They are. And I love them. I love these representations of the life of Christ, the life of a follower of Christ. I take the bread and the cup, reminded that God became man and lived among us even until death. I watch a baptism and feel the water wash over my own seven-year-old face, hearing again for the first time, “Aileen, you are a child of God and God takes great delight in you.” I rise, again, from those baptismal waters knowing that in Christ there is always renewal, there is always resurrection. And I feel loved.
9. Vacation Bible School. It’s true. I absolutely love Vacation Bible School (VBS). You can’t talk me out of it either, so don’t even try. When I was coming along, we had VBS for two full weeks—my very favorite two weeks of the entire summer. Now, in most Baptist churches that offer it, VBS is held for about a week, either for several hours in the morning or in the evening. Usually, programming is planned for children ages preschool through elementary school. Church members—from youth to senior adults—help plan and carry out the week’s events. I loved VBS as a child; I loved working in VBS when I was in the youth group; I have loved leading VBS as an adult; and I love directing it too. It’s hard for me to say why I love this so much. I guess it’s because all these different people come together for a common goal: to share the love of Jesus with children. We’ve got 70 year olds serving snacks to kindergartners and youth piggy-backing preschoolers. We’ve got adults singing songs, telling stories and playing games as if they themselves were kids too. During Vacation Bible School, the church turns its eyes to the children and says loud and clear, in lots of different ways, over and over again, “Jesus loves you!” I just absolutely love that.
10. Ministry. I don’t know of any other organization that does ministry as well as the church. Hear me: I worked in college administration for years and felt very much like my job was my ministry. But really, I would not have gone to that job every day, 40 hours a week, if I had not gotten a paycheck, no matter how much ministry I got to do. The church—Catholic, Baptist, Pentecostal—ministers in a zillion different ways. Sure, we minister to ourselves, that’s true. We do take care of our own. But that’s not all we do. We visit the sick, the lonely, the imprisoned. We feed the hungry, the homeless, the hopeless. We build wheelchair ramps, repair roofs, install flooring. And yes, we cry with each other, hug each other and celebrate with each other. You just gotta love that.
My church, my religion, is far from perfect. We miss the mark far more times than we hit the target. Sometimes Christians get out of hand at meetings and even at covered-dish dinners (bless their hearts). There are certainly times when people wander through traditions and sacraments mindlessly, missing the sacred altogether. Way too often, we get so bogged down in minutia we completely forget about ministry. And you won’t believe this, but not everyone loves Vacation Bible School.
We’re imperfect. We’re broken. We are the Body of Christ. We are church. And I really love that.
In response to a poem* that's been flying around the internet on youtube wings, I've been thinking about what I like about religion. My post got a little long, so I'm splitting it. Here are the first five.
1. Saying Grace. I love pausing in the midst of the rush of life and holding hands around the dinner table to say a blessing over our meal. I did this with my parents and siblings and they did it with theirs. We stop. We reach out. We look up. I love that.
2. Covered-Dish Dinners. True, I’ve had covered-dish meals outside of religious settings, but really, they just aren’t as good. Think about it. Office pot-lucks consist mostly of to-go foods or quick fixes. Rarely will you find a deviled egg at such an event and if you do it’s made with light mayonnaise which defeats the whole purpose anyway. At a church covered-dish meal, you get Miss Mary’s 12 layer chocolate cake, and Mr. Jack’s homemade barbeque. You’ll find Mrs. Smith’s homemade biscuits right next to Mrs. Jones’ and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll take one of each. There are 12 kinds of macaroni and cheese, all homemade, and that yummy salad that Mr. Johnson always brings. You can’t find this kind of food at the office picnic. Maybe at a family reunion. But that’s cause they all learned what a pot-luck is supposed to look like from going to church suppers.
3. Meetings. I don’t love--or even like--going to these. Not even a little bit. But what I do love is that we have them. We do try to make decisions as a unit. We disagree, sometimes loudly. We compromise, usually not nearly enough. But we work at it. Okay, not everyone works at it; but the intent is that we try to get along. We don’t always get our way. We often don’t get as much accomplished as we had hoped we would. But when it’s over, we hold hands, say Grace, and head out to the covered-dish supper. That’s church. Gotta love it.
4. Weddings. When I was little, I often went with my daddy, a Baptist preacher, to the weddings he officiated. I loved everything about weddings then and now—the signature attire, the music, the sweet (or not so sweet) kiss at the end. But the parts of the wedding I have always loved the most include scripture: the miracle at the wedding in Canaan, First Corinthians 13, and “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” These texts are read religiously at Christian weddings. And I just love that.
5. Sunday Morning Bible Study (AKA Sunday School). Okay so I didn’t love Sunday School when I was a teenager. My parents raised us as thinking Baptists and so we believed questions were a part of the journey of faith. Most of our Sunday School teachers disagreed. Either for the teachers’ sakes or ours (or perhaps for the sake of her husband’s career), our mother took over teaching our class. Since then, I’ve loved Sunday Morning Bible Study. I’ve taught most of my adult years (see above) and am so grateful that my class members allow me to continue doing so. I absolutely love it.
For the next five, check out this post.
* I tend to annoy both sides of issues like this. So, prepare yourself. The poem itself, I think, is well presented. I don't agree with everything he says; I like some of it a lot. I think the poem is the product of a zealous guy who loves Jesus and refuses to get caught up in unnecessary restrictions organized religions often put on people who don't fit under their steeples nicely. So, it's fine. Still, I like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John better, and I actually do like a lot about religion. But not everything. So there you go.
Guy Sayles says those words each time a new believer rises from the baptismal waters. Those of us who attend First Baptist Church of Asheville have heard these phrases many times, but never did they ring truer than they did that day.
Cameron is older than his brother Collin by several years. Yet Collin learns at a higher level, and moves with greater ease than his big bro. He’s what the world would call academically and intellectually gifted. Collin is a delightful child, interacting as easily with kids his age as with the adult friends of his parents. He’s a great kid.
And so is Cameron. But Cameron’s words are sometimes hard even for adults to understand; kids his age too often fail to communicate with him at all. His steps are slow, particularly when stairs are involved. Cameron is what the politically correct of the world would call “special.” And they would be right. They would be right in ways they can’t even imagine.
Cameron’s smile brightens the world around him. His laugh brings joy to all who hear. His ready hugs can lift the lowest of spirits. Cameron understands love. He knows his family loves him, particularly that precocious little brother who does double duty as Cameron’s best friend. He knows that everyone at his church loves him, especially the little girls in his Bible study class who rush to sit beside him and to hold his hand as he goes up and down steps. And, in a way others will never understand, Cameron knows that Jesus loves him. So Cameron, being Cameron, just loves Jesus right back.
Because he is being raised in the Baptist church, part of Cameron’s upbringing has included conversations about making his profession of faith in Jesus Christ. His parents have talked to him about what it means to join the church and have entertained his questions, helping him to understand baptism. Brother Collin had already made his profession of faith privately, but found baptism itself intimidating and therefore hesitated to make his decision public. Not Cameron. Once his mind was made up, it wasn’t long before he stepped right out into that chapel aisle and walked straight to his pastor, letting him and everyone else know that he had chosen to follow Jesus. What’s more, he wanted to confirm his decision by believer’s baptism.
Whoa. This would be complicated. Collin had not even been baptized yet and he is not even scared of water like Cameron is. In fact, just getting Cameron into the baptismal pool and back out again posed enough obstacles to discourage the whole idea.
But Cameron was determined and his courage inspired Collin who decided he was ready for baptism if Cameron was. “This is something the brothers should do together,” Collin told his mother.
Collin went first. Dripping from his dunking, he stepped out of the baptistry. It was Cameron’s turn. The pastor turned to take his hand but Cameron hesitated. (Negotiating stairs is hard enough without water underneath your feet, for goodness sake.) Slowly, he made his way toward Dr. Guy. Within reach, Cameron grasped for his pastor who lifted him into place. Now, most people who are baptized, turn to look at the congregation or gaze toward the pool’s exit. Not Cameron. He turned to face Guy, waiting.
“Cameron, upon your profession of faith in Jesus Christ,” Guy said looking into Cameron’s eager face. Cameron wrapped his arms around his pastor. “I baptize you,” Guy scooped up a handful of water and poured it over Cameron, “in the name of the Father,” another scoop, “and of the Son,” one last handful of water, “and of the Holy Spirit.”
“Cameron, you are a child of God and God takes great delight in you. God is giving you everything you need to be all that God is calling you to be.”
Cameron leaned into Guy’s embrace, and after a moment or two, Guy lifted Cameron out of the baptistry, to walk in newness of life.
“This isn’t going to end up in your blog, is it Mrs. Lawrimore?”
My daughter Trellace and her friend Kaitlin, having participated in the annual five-mile Crop Walk, returned to the church prior to the evening’s activities. Hungry and with time to, ya know, burn, they found a bag of microwave popcorn, set the timer to two minutes, and stepped out of the room. When they returned, the popcorn was toast, and the whole fourth floor told the story. You’ve smelled burned popcorn, right? There’s no mistaking it. It spoils every pocket of available oxygen.
That afternoon, I’d come to the church early, a rarity for me. A few minutes after I arrived, Kaitlin rushed up to me.
“Mrs. Lawrimore! Help me!”
Kaitlin explained that she and Trellace had pretty much scorched the upper floor of the church, and then Trellace had rushed off to hand-bells, leaving Kaitlin with the smoking bag. Any minute the fire alarms would go off, bringing Asheville’s finest to our doors.
Half an hour later, we’d made good progress upstairs in the youth center. With windows open and fans going, the air quality was considerably better than it had been. But alas, it was too late: the smell had made its way all the way through the church. Everywhere, people were asking, “Something burning?” or “What’s that smell?” Kaitlin and I just smiled, shrugging our shoulders.
Thirty seconds. That’s how long it took for the popcorn to go from tempting teenagers to tempting fire fighters. When it began, it seemed like such a safe activity. In fact, during the two minutes ante-burning, down the hall from the scene of the kernels, Trellace and Kaitlin had mocked up what they thought was an absurd scenario.
“Wouldn’t it be funny, hahaha, if that popcorn burned, hahaha, and we went back to the youth room, hahaha, and the whole place had burned down, hahaha.”
“Yeah, like that could happen, hahaha.”
“Wait,” (laughter waning) “How much time did you put on that timer?”
“Two minutes, why?”
“NOOO! It only takes a minute and a half!”
“Oh come on, what’s 30 seconds?”
It shall be made with oil on a griddle; you shall bring it well soaked, as a grain offering of baked pieces, and you shall present it as a pleasing odor to the Lord. Leviticus 6:21 (NRSV)
Addendum: This happened at First Baptist Church of Asheville--a 65,000 square foot facility. Think about it. That's some powerful stink!
Originally posted 9-27-09
“I got the invitation to my friend's birthday party, Mommy.”
My 11-year-old daughter, Margaret hesitated, seeming to withhold information.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Well,” she said, dragging the word into two syllables, “it’s a sleepover.”
“And . . . ”
“And what, Margaret?”
“Well, it’s on a Saturday night, but I really want to go and she only invited two other girls and if I don’t go then that would mean she only had two girls at her party and that’s if those two girls can actually come and what’s the chance of that, I mean probably one of them can’t come and that would be horrible to have a birthday party and only have one friend there don’t you think mommy, so can I go please?”
Saturday night sleepovers. I don’t much care for them. You see, I want my kids in church with us on Sunday morning and Saturday night sleepovers make that tricky at best. Sure it’s fine to visit church with friends, but I feel like there will be plenty of time for that when they are older. For now, this family goes to church together on Sunday mornings. It's a parenting priority.
After we talked about it, Margaret shared our plan with her friend. According to Margaret, it went something like this.
“Guess what? I can go to your party!”
“Only I have to leave at 8:00 Sunday morning.”
“Whoa. That’s really early.”
“Yeah. I know. But I get to go to the party and I’ll be there early so we can have plenty of time together. It’s just I have to leave at 8:00 so we can get to church on time.”
“Okay, but Margaret? Can’t you miss church just once?”
As she told me the story, Margaret demonstrated how she shook her head in disbelief before she laughed, answering her friend, “Ummm, have you ever met my mom?”
Church. Around here, it’s a priority.
March 31, 2009
Today I led the call to worship for our chapel service at Gardner-Webb Divinity School. As I prayed this week about what I would say, I kept coming back to the wonder that Almighty God calls out to me. In response, I am to come out of myself, away from my busyness, and into God's rest. I'm ashamed I don't always answer that call. Yet amazingly, God still calls.
A Call to Worship
Now is the time.
Answer the call to worship.
You who are broken, burdened, bereaved.
Come out of frenzied chaos and
Into sacred peace.
Come out of the mundane and
Into the magnificent.
Come out of the pressure of the daily and
Into the presence of the divine.
Come because you are called.
Called to worship.
Only one child got it right.
Oh, all the children knew their parts; the creation play in this morning’s worship service was lovely. The flowers, colorful and bright, stood tall, blooming and blushing. The birds flapped otheir wings. The fish swooshed, the mice crawled, the frogs hopped. The apple tree, its branches menacing, taunted. The young man who played Adam delivered his lines masterfully, having us laughing at all the right times. Eve entered the garden, singing with a voice that sounded as if it had indeed been created by God for this moment in time.
But only one child—only one—captured the wonder.
Our church has been celebrating creation for the last few weeks—art, the written word, music, drama. During this time, sermons, anthems, and special events have focused on the beauty of creation, more specifically on the wonder of the Creator. The point, it seems, has been to bring our minds, our hearts, to a state of amazement. We’ve had the work of a local artist hanging in our atrium: wall sized paintings depicting the explosive dynamics of creation. We’ve had dancers—yes dancers in our Baptist sanctuary—offering their gifts in worship. We even had kites one Sunday (they called them liturgical kites to make them sound more churchy but they were kites all the same). Our orchestras played, our handbells rang, our authors read from their books. It’s been a time to delight. It’s been a time of awe.
And this morning, Cameron Brown, full of wonder, delighted in the awe of it all.
Of course, Cameron is exceptional, gifted really and it is not fair to compare others to him. Unfortunately, it’s the opposite that usually happens: he’s often compared to others in a most unfair way. (Some people are such slow learners.)
When Cameron came down the aisle this morning wearing a bright red shirt, carrying a gigantic rose-red flower, his eyes sparkled. When his little brother came down, dressed like a mouse, Cameron giggled a little, watching his favorite person mount the stairs then crouch like a critter. He looked around at all his friends standing there with him, his smile growing, his eyes dancing. When the audience laughed, Cameron laughed too. When Eve sang, Cameron watched her every move. And when it was over, all too soon, Cameron stayed in place. He looked around that great big sanctuary, appearing every bit the picture of pure, innocent wonder. The director came to him, he took her hand, and flashed her his full-face grin. And as they slowly made their way back down the aisle, Cameron continued looking over his shoulder. It was as if he didn’t want it to be over, not yet. It was too wonderful, too delightful.
Anyone could tell by the look on his face: Cameron got it. And once again I thought, I want to be more like Cameron. I want to see the world like he does. I want to see God like he does.