Headlines from First Thoughts

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Front of Temple of the Gospel Church

The outside of the church intentionally shows the same look prior to 1990

The Youth Group at Temple of the Gospel

Choir at Temple of the Gospel

Preaching in the Temple of the Gospel Church

On Sunday, I preached at the Temple of the Gospel Church where 18 years ago, Bob Hall led a group of young college students (including Matthew Evans) and renovated the basement. His group was the first of two years' worth of student groups that helped launch this church.

The service lasted two hours. The choir (approx. 25) sang in bright red robes, and the service felt very simlar to a 2 hour version of the 11:00 service--except in Russian. In good Baptist fashion, most people did not arrive until after the music was finished. Oh yes, they had two sermons. One from yours truly, and another from the Senior Pastor, Sergei Nikolaev. Just between me, you, and the web, mine was shorter....even with an interpreter.

The congregations was warm, loving, and gracious. I had a chance to meet with the youth group following lunch. They left afterward to visit a student from their group who could not be at church yesterday because of a broken arm.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Video Clip outside the Hermitage

In front of the Hermitage

The Hermitage rises as a Fortress of faith and strength for a city that’s seen its fair share of trouble. The Hermitage houses some of the best in 16th and 17th century paintings from Europe and a wide collection of Ancient Near Eastern, Persian, Chinese, Islamic, and Greco-Roman art. Protected by sandbags from Nazi invaders during World War 2, the curators stored the art and sculptures underground while the Germans attacked. When the War bombing ceased but before the art had been returned to its place, the curators offered free tours of the museum to the residents as a thank you gift. They pointed to the location of each piece in the gallery and each sculpture on display and described in detail what each one looked like even though the piece was not there. The curators offered a vision of something that they could faith-fully "believe without seeing."

Visit to the Hermitage

In front of Rembrandt's masterpiece

The Hermitage is known for housing Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son. I had been preparing for this visit ever since Carson-Newman invited me to teach at the Academy in St. Petersburg. I was first introduced to the painting during a Ph.D. seminar on the parables at Baylor in 1998. My assignment was to research the history of interpretation of a parable unique to the Gospel of Luke through art. I chose the Parable of the Publican and Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14). During the seminar, Mike Parsons pointed me to Henri Nouwen’s book The Return of the Prodigal Son about his encounter with Rembrandt’s work of the same name. Nouwen cited Barbara Haeger’s 1988 dissertation on the painting where she stated that Rembrandt combined two parables into one: the Prodigal Son and Elder Brother and the Publican and Pharisee. I was hooked. Nouwen’s book gave the painting even more spiritual depth than it already had, and I hoped one day to see the real thing.

When Carson-Newman called, I honestly could not believe that I would be teaching the “Parables” in St. Petersburg to Russian seminary students. I decided to build the class around an encounter with the painting. On Thursday, I lectured on both parables and then revealed to them Haeger’s interpretation. The looks on their faces were like mine when I learned the information. The elder brother dressed as a Pharisee and the seated man to his right with arm across his chest looking as if he could beat his breast—-both elements surprised them. They did not take my word for it; one student asked me to cite my source. I looked it up in the bibliography of Nouwen’s book just to prove my case.

The building of the Hermitage was worth the trip. As my interpreter told me, you should spend your first trip to the Hermitage looking at the floors, the second at the ceilings, and then the third at the walls. The students’ time was short, so we went straight to the Rembrandt. As we passed one corridor of paintings after another, I felt like I was running past the Jefferson Memorial to get the Capitol. (I later retraced my steps).

I arrived from behind the painting with a large group of tourists standing in front of the giant canvas. The 8 foot high portrait was astonishing to say the least. On this beautiful day, the light bursting through the window made the forehead of the father glow as if he had been holding his head in his hands for a long time. The real thing revealed that the seated man not only held his arms over his chest, but he crossed his right leg with his boot atop his left knee. I stood for a little while at eye level with the prodigal’s bare left foot. You could almost smell the pig slop still between his toes.

The painting was hard to take in with one visit. After the students left to go back to a late afternoon class, my interpreter and I returned to see the painting in the afternoon light. The colors were even better then. This time, I decided that the prodigal’s mother stands in the background barely visible at the top left corner. She lingers in the shadows always knowing he would return; she was ready to see her baby; but dad gets the first hug.

The art, like the parables themselves, evoke a response from the observer. But there really are not words to describe this meeting, reunion, and moment. Rembrandt saved his best work for last.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Morning People

Russians are not morning people. This is surprising since right now we have only 5 hours of darkness. It's still daylight at 11:30 p.m. I'm usually in bed before the sun is. Daylight comes through the window around 5:00 a.m. But we do not begin each morning until breakfast at 8:30 in the dining room. Most shops do not open until 9:00 a.m. Class does not begin until 10:00 a.m. Lunch is at 2:00. We eat at 7:00. I think American college students would love this schedule.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


This is Alexi, my interpreter. He is pastor of a Pentecostal church in St. Petersburg with about 20 people on Sunday morning and is also a professor of systematic theology here. He became a Christian at age 15 when Swedish missionaries visited his town. You will also notice that he handles the technology needs too.

Chapel at the Seminary

Chapel Service at 9:30 a.m.

Each morning, the students gather for a brief chapel service of music and prayers.

Wednesday in St. Petersburg

Eating Lunch in the Dining Room

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

From Knoxville to St. Petersburg....18 years Later

What were you doing 18 years ago? First Baptist's own Bob Hall can tell you. In 1990, he led the first team of Baptists into St. Petersburg to renovate the Temple of the Gospel Baptist (now called "Evangelical") Church. Accompanying Bob was a young college student named Matthew Evans and several other students from the UT BCM. They arrived in the city still opening from perestroika to help a man named Dr. Sergei Nikolaev. Sergei had been given a bombed Orthdox Cathedral to start a Baptist church. Structurally, the building was sound. The interior, however, needed plenty of TLC. Bob's team began the renovation process, and I am grateful to say his efforts paid off.

Under Dr. Nikolaev's leadership, this same church started the Evangelical Theological Academy that now trains pastors and church leaders from across the Russian Federation. And I am teaching this week in their seminary that is a direct result of Bob and Matthew's work.

Yes, it is a small world after all.

My Class in St. Petersburg

The schedule each day--

8:30- Breakfast
10:00-2:00 p.m. Class
I teach with an interpreter who is a professor here at the seminary. He teaches systematic theology and speaks very good English. We take 10 minute breaks (with a bell) every 50 minutes.
2:00 p.m.- Lunch
7:00 p.m.- Supper

Greetings from St. Petersburg

Standing in front of the St. Petersburg Seminary.

Carson-Newman has a partnership with the Evangelical Theological Academy. They have sent me as an Adjunct Professor to teach "Parables" to Bachelor's and Master's level seminary students.

From St. Petersburg

My "kitchen" in my apartment.

I have arrived safely in St. Petersburg and have taught my first class on "Parables" to about 20 students. My accomodations are great, and I have a nice little apartment in the seminary building.

The seminary is a renovated 3-story Kindergarten in the suburbs of St. Petersburg. Many of the students live in dorm-style apartments in the building. We eat together in a dining hall. It's a true community of learners. Shopping and groceries are within walking distance.

I'm attaching a few pictures to this post.

Thanks for your prayers.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Splash Nation

I have officially reached the pinnacle of "Home Birthday Party world." Somehow we have managed to avoid the Chuck E. Cheese nation of party land. There is nothing wrong with rubber pizza, but we've tried to stretch Parker's parties every year into another event at home. This is our gift to him and hopefully to ourselves. I think.

For Parker's 7th Birthday party, our theme was "Splash Country." Kelly and I rented a dunking booth and a Bounce House (Moon walk for people my age and up), and we went all out one more time. Believe me, it would be hard to top the Choo-choo train party (age 2), Fireman party (age 3), Sports party (age 4) Cowboy Roundup (age 5), and Pirate party (age 6), but I think this year took the literal cookie cake. The weather cooperated, and so did the people. Over 40 kids and 20 adults arrived. By my arithmetic, that felt like 423 people in the yard at once. We shot water with our water syringes (think big tube here), threw wet sponges, walked on ice, and jumped in the bounce house with body parts that we did not know could bounce. And I think I fell into the dunking booth enough times to make me want to become a Methodist.

Instead of doing the traditional presents, we exchanged towels. Seriously. Every kid brought one for the wet elephant. This was the 7 year old version of white elephant. I wish I could say that was my idea, but most of the creativity, and smart thinking, at our house comes from Kelly.

Parker still went home with some cash in his pocket, and every child left with a gift. They left us with plenty of gifts as well: smiles, laughter, mud between my toes, leftover shoes, water in my ears, and some great memories. And after everyone went home, I ordered pizza.

Graduating into the Missing

Christians and especially churches have created the culture of the missing. We’re the ones that have caused many people to go missing. How? We have treated evangelism as strategy, labeled the nonChristians as the only sinners in the world, have turned funerals chances to threaten people out of hell, have outsourced healthcare and disease to someone else, and all the while overlooked the missing in need of relationship right before our eyes. When the paralytic needed additional assitance, we were too worried about whether it would cost too much. When an immoral woman came knocking on our door, we were too busy arguing about worship styles. When over 5,000 hungry people needed to be fed, we were too busy arguing about problems at church.

And when high schoolers, college students, and young adults cried out, we answered with programs, trips, and gymnasiums. But not relationships. This is especially true for our high school graduates. Everyone knows that most people who attend church as young people drop out of church after high school. We assume they'll eventually return, but unfortunately they're just going missing.

One of the most haunting books that I have recently discovered is Unchristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. The authors describe the world of former church attenders and non church attenders, primarily age 18-35.

We’ve always noticed that people leave church after high school. No surprise there, but this generation departs faster than we can imagine, and fewer return by age 35 than ever before in America. Roland Martinson, in a recent study of Lutheran demographics said, “75% percent of young men and women leave the church between ages 16-24, and 40% who leave return by age 35; 30% of those who return go to other denominations.” This is probably the same for Baptists.

Kinneman and Lyons report that 40% of people age 18-29 (about 24 million people) are outsiders to Christanity; that is, they are not Christians or are not attending a faith community of any sort. That’s the highest rate of any generation in America today. Compare that to Baby Boomers. About ¼ of all Boomers go to church (21 million people).

Kinnaman and Lyons are beginning to identify the reasons why. 9 out of every 10 people age 18-35 know someone who is a Christian in our country, and most have attended at least one church for several months at a time. The statistics suggest that 9 million young people have said they have had negative experiences at church with Christians or with Christians in general.

Young people who do become Christians, however, make the best evangelists. They’re so dialed into these bruising experiences that most of them try to organize their time in such a way to have friendships with nonbelievers so that they can explain their side of faith. They know how badly we’ve handled it, they want to have a chance to get in another perspective. (Kinneman and Lyons, p. 34)

On these weekends, where we watch graduates walk through newly-opened doors, we are also praying for new ears to understand the language of the missing.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Listen to Me

“Listen to me…when I am lonely. Oh, I know most people think that because I am busy I have a full life. And I am glad I have been successful in avoiding their pity. But sometimes, when nights have been long, the club meetings few, the volunteer work routine, the neighbors busy, and the telephone silent, I want to cry out for human contact, but there is no one there to listen to me.

Listen to me…when I am angry. And if I tell you I am angry with God, will you reject me?

Listen to me….when I want to celebrate, or express joy, or tell of a success without appearing to be a braggart. And, please remember, if you are listening to me, you won’t top my success with one of your own, or stick pins in my balloon of joy by telling me what problems may arise.

While you are listening to me, for those moments that I am the focus of your attention, you are giving me a part of your life. This gift will help validate me, help me see myself as a person of worth. It could even happen that through this gift of yourself, I may be strengthened in my awareness of the infinite power of love. And in spite of the confusion, the anger the fright, and the loneliness I may be experiencing, when I again feel love, I am touched by God.”

Written by a Stephen Minister in Enid, Oklahoma

Google Search