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.

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.

Is this Man the Best Liar in America?

ImageShhhhh! Donald Davis is telling a story.

Actually, you don’t have to shush anybody when Davis is at work: his stories do it for you. The listeners lean forward, heads cocked in the direction of his voice, straining their ears for every word, and the words they hear often cause them to gasp, to sigh, or to laugh out loud.

Donald Davis is a storyteller, but he hasn’t always been. For twenty years he was a Methodist minister. But he couldn’t seem to keep the stories out of his sermons, not only the great biblical stories like Noah and the ark, David and Goliath, and Daniel in the lions’ den, but also the stories about his own eccentric family members and some of the odd neighbors he had known through the years.

“I didn’t learn stories, I just absorbed them,” he says as he recounts tales and more tales learned from a family of traditional storytellers who have lived on the same Western North Carolina land since 1781. Davis grew up hearing gentle fairy tales, simple and silly Jack tales, scary mountain lore, ancient Welsh and Scottish folktales, and-most importantly-nourishing true-to-life stories of his own neighbors and kin.

It was Uncle Frank, a man who “talked in stories,” who helped Donald capture the real and daily adventures of life…and it was Uncle Frank who gave him the creative courage to tell about them.

Davis remembers, “I discovered that in a story I could safely dream any dream, hope any hope, go anywhere I pleased, fight any foe, win or lose, live or die. My stories created a safe experimental learning place.”

His congregation loved his sermons, but nobody dared call him a storyteller: in Western North Carolina if somebody said you were “telling a story” they meant you were telling a lie.

And you wouldn’t want to call your preacher a liar.

But Davis was good at it, so good that he eventually retired from the ministry to take up full-time storytelling. At the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, where Davis has been a regular for decades, crowds pack the tent where he is telling. A fellow storyteller admits, “It is not a stretch to say that Donald is the top draw for the nearly 10,000 people who come to the National Storytelling Festival each year.” His books and CD’s always sell out first in the resource center, leading some to wonder:

“Is this man the best liar in America?”

Richmonders will have a chance to answer that question for themselves May 30 – June 1 when Davis comes to town for “America’s Best Storytellers,” a weekend festival to be held at the Byrd Theater in Carytown and the historic First Baptist Church at the corner of Monument and the Boulevard. Barbara McBride Smith, a champion storyteller from Tulsa, Oklahoma, will also be featured at the festival, along with Virginia storyteller and accomplished banjo picker Rex Ellis.

Festival organizer David Howell has recruited local radio and television personalities to emcee the event, and invited local storytellers to audition for a slot in the Sunday afternoon lineup. Maybe the best liar in America is right here in Richmond…

…just waiting to be discovered.

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Tickets are $35 for the weekend; $10 for Friday or Saturday evening only. To register or simply to get more information visit http://www.thebeststorytellers.com

Let’s Start a Campaign…

Whoa3

The first Sunday after Easter Sunday is often called “Low Sunday.”  It wasn’t meant to be a reference to attendance, but it might as well be.  Typically, half the people who were in church the week before come back the week after.

Sometimes it’s less than that.

So, let’s start a campaign, using all the social media at our disposal, to turn “Low Sunday” into “Go! Sunday.”  Let’s invite our Facebook friends to join us in church on April 27, let’s tweet on Saturday night, “Going to church tomorrow!” and then tweet again the next morning, “On my way!”  Let’s use Pinterest, and Tumblr, and blog posts, and cardboard signs stuck in the yard: “Go to church on Sunday, April 27!”

If everybody who came last week came back, we’d have overflow crowds this Sunday.  If half those people came back and brought a friend, we would also have overflow crowds.  Ask yourself, “Did Christ NOT rise from the dead?  Did he NOT conquer sin and death?  Should we NOT celebrate for a full fifty days?!”

Let’s do it.  And let’s tell our friends:

If Jesus Christ
Can rise from the dead,

Surely you
Can get out of bed…

and come to church on Sunday!

 

Have We Given Up on Jesus?

Icon_second_comingWhy is Christmas so overblown?

Maybe it’s because we’ve given up on the Second Coming of Christ.

I hadn’t thought about that before yesterday, but as I was looking at all the references to the Second Coming in the New Testament (some 57 of them) I was reminded of those funeral services I’ve been to where people want to “celebrate the life” of the deceased rather than “mourn the death.” They want to focus on the positive, that is, and so they focus on all the happy memories of a well-lived life.

That’s not a bad thing to do, but we Christians believe in the resurrection of the body. We believe that death is not the end of life, but in so many ways only the beginning. The old preachers had a way of pointing us forward—toward that hope—and not only back.

I think the old preachers used to do that with the Second Coming, too (and I mean the really old preachers, like Paul, and Peter, and some of those others whose writings ended up in the New Testament). Some of them were so excited about the return of Christ that they didn’t spend much time “celebrating his life.”

They just kept watching the skies.

But that was 2,000 years ago, when it was a little easier to believe that “this Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Now we are almost embarrassed to mention it.  It’s been too long.  Surely, if he were coming, he would have come by now.  And so, instead of looking forward to the Second Coming, we look back to the first one, and celebrate it as if it were all we would ever have.

Have we given up on Jesus?  Do we no longer believe that one of these days he will come back, and the Kingdom of this world will become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ and he shall reign forever and ever (Hallelujah!  Hallelujah!)?  Is that why we go crazy at Christmas, and rush around buying presents for each other?  Is that why we crank up the Christmas carols and talk about Santa Claus coming to town?

I preached at First African Baptist Church yesterday and ended with a true story about a P.O.W. who came home after seven years in a North Vietnamese prison camp to find his wife waiting for him.  Although friends and relatives had suggested that he might never come back, and that she probably ought to move on with her life, she had never given up.  He had told her he would come home and she believed him.

She was there waiting for him when he got off the plane.

He said later that she wasn’t the same girl he married; she was no longer a blushing teenage bride.  In the time he had been away she had become a strong, confident, capable woman.

She’d had to.

New Testament scholar Hans Conzelmann used to say that this period between Christ’s ascension and his return is “the Church’s time.”  It’s our time to fulfill the commission Christ gave us, and to do everything in our power to bring heaven to earth.  But Jesus himself said he was going to come back some day.  When he does I hope he will find what that prisoner of war found:

1. That his bride has waited for him, and,
2. That she has become strong, confident, and capable.

The Cutting Room Floor

cutting room floorMy friend Don Flowers has a blog called “Didn’t Make the Sermon.”  I love the title, and I would guess that every other preacher does, too.  We know there are plenty of things we think about putting into the sermon that we eventually leave out, often with good reason.  And we all remember those times we left something in that should have been left out.

I went back and forth on this introduction to yesterday’s sermon, but eventually left it out, reasoning that it was more about last week’s sermon than this one.  Still, there was something there that I liked–the idea of the church as a place of unconditional love and acceptance.  So, I’ve rescued this intro from the cutting room floor and posted it here for what it’s worth:

We are still on the road with Jesus, walking with him on the way to Jerusalem, watching everything he does, listening to everything he says. Last week he was talking to the scribes and Pharisees about what you do when you lose something precious, like a sheep, or a coin, or a son. Jesus implied that you drop everything to look for it; you don’t stop looking for it until you find it; and when you find it you rejoice. It made me think about those who are wandering away from the fold of the church in America these days, and what we are doing about it. A lot of them are young people who simply don’t find church compelling any more. They’re not afraid they’ll go to hell when they die. They don’t know why they should show up and listen to someone tell them how to live. But some of them are leaving because they’re afraid that if we knew everything about them we wouldn’t want them to come. They don’t think of the church as a place of unconditional love and acceptance; they think of it as a place where people will judge them for who they are and how they live. It made me think we need to find a way to let them know that this place is not that kind of place, that we need to do a better job of seeking, finding, and rejoicing.

I wonder what would happen if we put a big sign on the front steps of the church that read: “This is a place of unconditional love and acceptance.”  Would it bring in the wrong crowd?  Or would it bring in the right one?

And who gets to decide which is which?

Why Millennials Need the Church

Rachel Held EvansYesterday I posted an article by Rachel Held Evans about why Millennials are leaving the church. Today I thought I would follow up with her views on why Millennials need the church, just to provide some balance. Enjoy, and feel free to comment.  I’m going canoeing.

Opinion by Rachel Held Evans, special to CNN

(CNN) – For a time, I counted myself among the spiritual but not religious, Christian but not churchgoing crowd.

Like many millennials, I left church because I didn’t always see the compassion of Jesus there, and because my questions about faith and science, the Bible, homosexuality, and religious pluralism were met with shallow answers or hostility.

At first I reveled in my newfound Sunday routine of sleeping in, sipping my coffee and yelling at Republicans who appeared on ”Meet the Press.”

But eventually I returned, because, like it or not, we Christian millennials need the church just as much as the church needs us. Here’s why:

Baptism

As former Methodist bishop Will Willimon has often said, “you cannot very well baptize yourself.”

In a culture that stresses individualism, the church satisfies the human need for community, for shared history and experiences.

And in a world where technology enables millennials to connect only with those who are like-minded, baptism drags us — sometimes kicking and screaming as infants — into the large, dysfunctional and beautiful family of the church.

Confession

“Sin” is not a popular word these days, perhaps because it is so often invoked in the context of judgment and condemnation.

But like all people, millennials need reminding now and then that the hate and violence we observe in the world is also present within ourselves.

We can be too idealistic, too convinced we can change the world from our iPads.

The accountability that comes from participation in a local church gives young Christians the chance to speak openly about our struggles with materialism, greed, gossip, anger, consumerism and pride.

Healing

While the flawed people who make up the church can certainly inflict pain on each other and sometimes on the world, we also engage in the important work of healing.

At their best, local churches provide basements where AA groups can meet, living rooms where tough conversations about racial reconciliation occur, casseroles for the sick and shelter for the homeless.

Millennials who have been hurt by the church may later find healing in it.

Leadership

Like a lot of millennials, I am deeply skeptical of authority — probably to a fault.

But when I interact with people from my church who have a few years and a lot of maturity on me, I am reminded of how cool it is to have a free, built-in mentoring and accountability program just down the street.

We can learn a lot from the faithful who have gone before us, and the church is where we find them.

Communion

One of the few things the modern church has in common with the ancient one is its celebration of the sacred meal— the Eucharist.

There is simply not the space here, nor in many volumes of theology for that matter, to unpack the significance of remembering Jesus through eating bread and drinking wine. But when I left the church, it was Communion I craved the most.

Churches may disagree on exactly how Christ is present in these sacred meals, but we agree that Christ is present. And millennials, too, long for that presence.

There are some days when the promise of Communion is the only thing that rouses me from bed on Sunday morning. I want a taste of that mystery.

Confirmation

Many churches practice a rite of initiation, sometimes called confirmation.

Theologian Lauren Winner, in her book “Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis,” quotes a friend who said: “What you promise when you are confirmed is not that you will believe this forever. What you promise when you are confirmed is that that is the story you will wrestle with forever.”

The church, at its best, provides a safe place in which to wrestle with this story we call the Gospel.

Union with Christ

Those who follow Jesus long for the day when their communion with him becomes complete, and Jesus promises this will happen through the church.

The apostle Paul compared this union to a marriage. Jesus describes it as a banquet.

No matter what the latest stats or studies say, Christians believe the future of the church is secure and not even “the gates of hell” will prevail against it.

As much as I may struggle to fit in sometimes, as much as I doubt, question and fight for reforms, I am a part of this church, through good times and bad, for better or worse.

The astute reader will notice that each of these points corresponds loosely with a sacrament—baptism, confession, the anointing of the sick, holy orders, communion, confirmation and marriage.

Some would say there are many others. We could speak of the sacrament of the Word or the washing of feet.

But even where they are not formally observed, these sacraments are present in some form in nearly every group of people who gather together in the name of Jesus.

They connect us to our faith through things we can eat, touch, smell and feel. And they connect us with one another.

They remind us, as writer and Episcopal priest Sara Miles put it, that “You can’t be a Christian by yourself.”

This is why I haven’t given up on the church, and I suspect why it hasn’t given up on me.

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Rachel Held Evans is the author of “Evolving in Monkey Town” and “A Year of Biblical Womanhood.” She blogs at rachelheldevans.com. The views expressed in this column belong to her.