What I Want for Richmond

black-and-white-hands-e12810219397001I am not a regular reader of the newspaper. I am not a regular watcher of television news. Even so, I have heard plenty about Ferguson, MO, Staten Island, NY, and Cleveland, OH in the last few weeks. I know that there is racial unrest in our nation that is registering on the Richter Scale.

I haven’t preached about it. Although Karl Barth famously urged preachers to step into the pulpit with the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other I tend to leave the Times behind. I preach from the Bible, and I’m amazed at how often its timeless truths seem as fresh and relevant as the morning newspaper. Anyone who is listening to its pleas for justice, mercy, and humble walking with God will hear the names of “Ferguson,” “Cleveland,” and “New York.”

But I’m not thinking about them this morning; I’m thinking about Richmond.

What I want for Richmond is a different kind of reality. I don’t want us to be the next Ferguson. I want us to be a place where God’s kingdom has come and God’s will is done on earth as it is in Heaven. And I can’t imagine that it is God’s will for there to be enmity among his children, and especially not because of color or class.

So, what if, in Richmond:

  • We went out of our way to be kind to each other?
  • We greeted each other warmly, sincerely, with the sign of the open palm, proving that we meant each other no harm?
  • We visited each other’s churches, celebrating the truth that we have the same Heavenly Father, which makes us all sisters and brothers?
  • We took the time to call or listen to those who may feel especially vulnerable in this time of unrest, those who are thinking, “That could have been my son,” or, “That could have been me”?
  • We tried to be patient with those who learned prejudice from their parents or grandparents or other trusted elders as they struggle to learn a better way?
  • We prayed for police officers, who regularly risk their lives in the line of duty, and who live with more fear than they would ever want us to see?
  • We tried hard to see in the face of every other human being the face of Christ, and tried to love one another as he has loved us?

That’s what I want for Richmond. I know it’s a lot to ask, and I know it seems to leave out those who are not part of my tradition, and who may not be willing to look for “the face of Christ” in others. But can we at least see the face of a neighbor in the other, and recognize that this is our city, together? That it rises or falls on the basis of how we treat each other?  And can we make a silent promise, right now, to treat each other with love and respect?

My friend Ben Campbell has said he wants “the former Capital of the Confederacy to become the Capital of Racial Reconciliation.”  That’s a good and worthy goal and I embrace it, but I realize I want even more than that:

I want it to become Heaven on Earth.

Marching to Zion–Again

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Some of you may remember that I tried to go to Zion National Park last year for a backpacking trip that was complicated by the shutdown of the federal government. Chuck, Joe, and I camped only one night in Zion; the next day we were kicked out.

“Sorry, fellas. The park is closed.”

“Can’t we just do some hiking while we’re here?”

“No. Sorry. The park is closed to any kind of recreational use.”

“But what if we don’t enjoy ourselves?”

It was a good try, but it didn’t work. We found ourselves driving through most of Southern Utah over the next few days, enjoying spectacular beauty and camping in places most people never get to see. We spent one night sitting by a crackling juniper-wood campfire, getting stiff necks from staring up at a sky full of brilliant stars.

But as we left Utah we promised each other that we would return, so, here we are, a little more than a year later, traveling from Virginia, and from Central and South Texas, to reconvene in Zion.

Our plans will have to be altered just a bit to accommodate Chuck’s recent basketball injury–a broken foot suffered in a pickup game with his daughter on the driveway. None of us is getting younger. But he’s offered to stay in camp and cook while Joe and I explore the remote reaches of the Park and that sounds…delicious.

My outgoing email message this week says that I’m on a wilderness retreat and that’s what this feels like in so many ways. I’ve known Chuck and Joe most of my life. I trust them completely. In the wilderness we talk through everything that’s troubling us; we listen to each other and offer whatever advice we can give; ultimately we promise to pray for each other, and that’s about the best anybody can ask for.

Except for this: we also have fun.

We tell stories and laugh out loud and slap each other on the back. For a few days each year the worries of the world fall away and we feel like kids again. It’s a good thing, and I wish everyone could have that experience. They can’t, but for the next few days Chuck and Joe and I are going to try. It won’t be easy, what with that broken foot and all, but if anybody can do it we can.

I’ll let you know how it comes out, and if I can remember to take some pictures, I will. In the meantime, keep the faith and know that somewhere in Utah my soul is singing:

I’m marching to Zion,
Beautiful, beautiful Zion,
I’m marching upward to Zion,
the beautiful city of God.

Person by Person

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAHere’s a post by Susan Grant, who told me this story after the 8:30 worship service last Sunday.  It was so good I told her to write it up and send it to me, and promised I would post it on my blog.  She did, and I did, so here it is.  Enjoy!

Last Saturday I attended a Kathy Troccoli conference/concert at Goochland High School. It was an inspiring morning as Kathy emphasized what God can do in our lives through her theme “Hope’s Alive.” God spoke to me as she gave examples of how she intentionally interacted with strangers to which she felt drawn – like a server at Applebee’s, and a woman at the Nashville airport. Kathy and I are so different… she grew up on Long Island and can be very outspoken. For me, I tend to stay in the background and don’t pay attention to others I pass in a normal day. However as I left Goochland that afternoon, I asked God to give me a boldness like Kathy, to show me whose life I could impact for Him.

It didn’t take long.

That night God reminded me of a gentleman I had seen for years on Sunday mornings sitting on a bench on Patterson Avenue waiting for a bus. I had assumed he was leaving his nearby home to go to work as I was on my way to church at 8 a.m. Several times through the years I had considered stopping to say “hello” to him but thought he would consider me crazy for doing that. However now I knew what God wanted me to do.

On Sunday with boldness and renewed confidence I pulled over into the bus stop. Quickly I walked over to this man with a backpack slung over one shoulder and introduced myself. I told him I had seen him for years as I drove by on my way to church. He surprised me by responding, “Yes, I’ve seen you, too.” I had never seen his eyes meet mine… he was always looking west on Patterson, searching for the bus coming his way. He introduced himself as Chris, saying he worked all night as a security guard at Agecroft Hall. I immediately told Chris I was heading to church and asked what I could pray about for him. With a surprised look on his face he mumbled, “Nothing.” I responded, “Nothing? With all the issues we all have to deal with you have nothing I can pray for?” Chris’ answer as he shrugged his shoulders, “I just try to work through it all.” As I headed back to my car I told Chris I would be praying for him that morning. We both waved to each other as I pulled out to drive the remaining eight blocks to church.

Kathy Troccoli inspired me to plant a seed. Hopefully someone else will water it and God will make it grow. (I Corinthians 3:6) Perhaps on occasional Sundays I can stop to give Chris a sausage biscuit or Croissan’wich to take home to enjoy as his breakfast. I’m praying for myself – that inch by inch God can transform me into someone who can impact lives for God, person by person.

If You Really Want to Make Your Pastor’s Day

Barry HowardHere’s a timely post from my friend Barry Howard, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Florida.

Last week, as more and more cards and notes appeared in my inbox, in my mailbox, and on my desk, all thanking me for serving as their minister, I began to wonder if someone had announced my retirement without my knowledge, or if I looked a little discouraged and folks were just trying to lift my spirits. In my momentary amnesia, I had forgotten that October is promoted by many as Pastor Appreciation Month.

Through the years I have been blessed to “feel” appreciated by the core membership of the congregations I have served. But I’m pretty sure that is not the universal experience of pastors. I am told by my counselor friends that many clergy are highly discouraged and often teeter on the brink of depression.

I readily acknowledge that there are a few slackers among us, as there are in every career field, but most of the pastors I know work hard and feel a deep sense of responsibility for their flock. Because the multiple roles within the pastoral vocation uniquely initiate a minister into almost every conceivable life situation (as well as a few inconceivable ones), a pastor’s work from one day to the next can fluctuate between affirmation and discouragement.

Although the biblical job description of a pastor portrays one who is called to “nurture, lead, and guide,” in our culture of hyper-mobility and competing loyalties, ministry can seem more like “herding cats” than “shepherding sheep.”

What is the best way to show appreciation to your pastor? Included in the stack of cards I have received, there is a Starbucks gift card, pictures drawn by a children’s Sunday School class, and hand-written notes thanking me for “that time when” I was there when grandpa passed away, when junior got married, or when the baby was born. Through the years I have been the recipient of all kinds of tokens of appreciation, including jars of homemade jam, home-canned pickles, home-cooked cakes and pies, fresh baked bread, or garden-picked vegetables.

While I can’t speak for every pastor, here is what makes me feel the most appreciated: Faithful participation in the life of the church. For me, nothing can be quite as emotionally deflating as working hard all week, then getting to church on Sunday to discover that a high percentage of my flock is at the beach, on the boat, in the mountains, on the golf course, at the soccer game, or just sleeping in. And nothing can be quite as encouraging as working hard all week, and getting to church to see a faithful congregation of believers who have gathered to worship God.

Early in my ministry, I suppose I took it for granted that church members would be fairly faithful, especially in worship and Bible study. Now, even among historically devoted church members, participation in the life of the church is too often determined by convenience than by conviction and commitment.

This is Pastor Appreciation Month. Your pastor will appreciate your cards and notes, and jams and jellies. But if you really want your pastor to feel appreciated, be an active and faithful participant in your spiritual community. When I witness someone get connected and engaged in the synergy of God’s mission through the church, as a pastor, that makes my day.

Ashley Goes To Church

A church beyond beliefMy friend Bill Sachs has written a new book called A Church Beyond Belief (co-authored by Michael Bos).  He gave me a copy last week when we were having coffee together, and said it was a book about how young people find a place in church these days.  He said, “We used to think you had to believe before you could belong.  Now it seems that young people need to belong before they can believe.”

I was intrigued, and the next morning, sitting at my kitchen table, I read through the first few pages.  This is what I read:

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One Sunday morning it occurred to Ashley that she might visit a church. As she awakened, the thought lingered—it amused her. She smiled as coffee finished brewing and she poured a cup. Once visiting a church had been the farthest thing from her mind. Faith seemed like a crutch for the old and weak. Churches seemed irrelevant. Now she was exploring them.

As a student Ashley was confident of her abilities and certain of her future. She moved smoothly through high school and entered a good college. There she began to envision a career and her personal life. Graduation was followed by a job where she began to advance. The young man she had dated became her husband. The world was set, just as Ashley intended.

But Ashley’s world did not become what she had expected. The happiness she anticipated never materialized. For reasons she was still sorting out, both she and her husband had affairs. Counseling did not help, they divorced, and disappeared quickly from each other’s lives. “It’s the only thing we did well,” she mused. “We had nothing spiritual in common,” she thought often.

Ashley paused again at the word “spiritual.” As she sipped coffee, she tried to remember when “spiritual” matters gained priority and even what the word meant to her. Was it when she lost her job, or when she joined a women’s book group? Did “spirituality” awaken when a new job took her across the country? She handled the job fine, but her personal life almost came unglued. Involvement with a married man and evenings with scotch became a downward spiral. Comments at work about sloppy performance struck home. She ended both destructive ties.

Along the way “spirituality” became a key reference point. But more questions than answers surfaced: What did she believe and where did she belong? As these questions bore in on her, Ashley knew she needed to search, and as she searched the questions intensified. Was she alone or were there other people facing similar challenges? Was there something she could believe in that could give her deep roots in life? Was there something beyond her vague, agnostic existence? Was there a group of people with whom she might seek answers together? As these questions came into focus, the thought of attending a church first crossed Ashley’s mind.

Initially the thought surprised her. It was uncomfortable and odd. A church? At first Ashley doubted there could be a congregation for her. Laughing at this bizarre idea, several friends discouraged her. The images of churches were not appealing. Ashley imagined stern morality and threats of eternal judgment. She imagined being coerced to believe ideas that were absurd or to take sides in disputes that seemed pointless. Ashley wanted belief and belonging churches did not seem likely to offer. But she resolved to explore a few congregations. Telling no one, and hoping not to be recognized, she set off one cold Sunday morning.

How will Ashley be received when she comes to church?  How would she be received at your church?  What can we do to give people like Ashley a warm welcome, food for the soul, and a place to call home?  If you’d like to read more of Bill’s book, you can get more information by clicking HERE.

A Sermon for Every Sunday


Well, here’s something you may not have known:

For several months now I have been working on a project called “A Sermon for Every Sunday,” which was conceived as a way to help small, struggling churches that don’t have preachers, but has evolved to include churches in the interim, house churches, Bible studies, small groups, Wednesday night programs, and Sunday school classes.

The idea is simple enough: with some help from my friend David Powers I have been recording sermons by some of America’s best preachers for every Sunday of the liturgical year, so that when those small, preacherless churches get to the Third Sunday of Advent (for example) they can simply push a button and hear a sermon from Bishop Michael Curry (above).  Other “Every Sunday” preachers are William Willimon, Brian McLaren, Lauren Winner, David Lose, Brian Blount, MaryAnn McKibben Dana, Andrew Foster Connors, Grace Imathiu, Rolf Jacobson, Gary Charles, and Karoline Lewis.

How does it work? Here’s a possible scenario, straight from the website:

Imagine that the bright young pastor of a country church is called to a church in the big city…

The congregation is faced with a decision: do we call another pastor?  Can we afford to?  They hear about “A Sermon for Every Sunday,” a way to get America’s best preachers into America’s small churches, house churches, Bible studies and small groups–on video.  They decide to give it a try, at least in the interim.

With the money they save they buy a big, flat-screen TV and a quality DVD player.  They put the lectern on one side of the chancel and the TV on the other until the two are nicely balanced.  Some of the older members shake their heads.  They never thought they’d see such a thing in church, but again, it’s only for the interim.

On that first Sunday the English teacher at the local high school–a member of the church–leads the service.  She opens with the call to worship, announces the hymns, invites members of the congregation to read scripture and say prayers.  When it’s time for the sermon she reads the Gospel lesson and then nods to the high school student who has downloaded the video from the web site.  He pushes a button, and the congregation waits, breathlessly.

What they see is high-definition video of one of America’s best preachers, looking straight into the camera and preaching the Good News.  It’s as if he is talking only to them.  The sermon lasts 12-15 minutes, and when it’s over the congregation responds with a murmur of approval.  The English teacher steps back to the lectern and says, “I had a chance to watch the sermon last week, and I was thinking about how it applies to our context…”  She takes a few minutes to make some connections between what the church has just heard and what they live with every day, and then she moves on with the service.

When she greets them at the back door later even those older members have to admit, it’s been a good day in church.  And they want to know:

“Who’s preaching next week?”

Click on the link below to visit the website, and then, if you feel inclined, share it with your friends on Facebook, Twitter, or simply by word of mouth.  I’d like to make sure that the people who could benefit from such a service would have access to it before the launch date on November 28.

It may seem a little crazy—but in times like these, when churches are struggling and technology is everywhere—maybe not so crazy after all.

Click HERE to find out more.

 

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!