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.

How to Talk to A Complete Stranger about Church

man_walking_dogTwo Sundays ago, at the suggestion of preaching professor David Lose, I challenged my congregation to ask people if they go to church and if not, to ask them why.  I try never to ask my congregation to do something I’m not willing to do myself, and so, on the way home that day, I asked someone.  Here’s what happened, as reported on Facebook:

Actual conversation on my way home from church today:

“Excuse me,” I asked the stranger walking his dog on my street, “Do you go to church?”

“No,” he said. “I believe in God, but I don’t go to church.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Honestly? Because a lot of churches are too judgmental.”

I told him I was a pastor and that I was trying to help my congregation be less judgmental. He asked where and I said First Baptist. He wanted to know where it was and what time we had services. And then he said this:

“I believe in God. In fact one night I was lying there in my bed and I said, ‘God, if you’re real, show me.’ And then my bedroom door opened, not once, not twice, but three times!” (tears came to his eyes, and he got choked up).

He asked again where my church was and then said, “I might not come to church, but if you want to talk to me on the street anytime, I’d be glad to.”

So, that was two weeks ago.  Last Sunday I saw the same guy on the same corner as I was walking home from church.  This is what happened:

He: Pastor Jim!

Me: Hey, aren’t you the guy I talked to a couple of weeks ago? What’s your name?

He: Edward.

Me: Right! You told me the story about knowing God was real because of your bedroom door opening and closing three times one night.

He: Right.

Me: I shared that story on Facebook! A lot of people were really moved by it.

He: I almost came to church today, except I didn’t wake up until 10:45. I work late, you know. But I am reading the Book of Isaiah.

Me: You’re kidding! I talked about Isaiah in today’s sermon. I said I thought it was a book Jesus grew up listening to, and one that helped him understand who he was and what he was supposed to do.

He: Well, I’m on chapter 65, so…just one chapter to go.

Me: Good for you. That’s amazing! And listen, I hope you’ll come to church next week. We’re having one big worship service at 11:00 and then dinner on the grounds afterward. If you come I’ll buy your lunch!

He: Okay!

I don’t know what will happen next, but #churchjusthappened both times I talked to Edward.  Maybe you could try it yourself this week.  Somebody might be hoping for just that kind of conversation.

–Jim

What Is a Sabbatical?

ImageDear Readers:

I will be on sabbatical from June 8 through August 2, taking some much-appreciated time away for rest, travel, and study.  It’s the policy of Richmond’s First Baptist church to grant sabbatical leave to its ministers in the seventh year of their tenure.  I think it’s an excellent policy, and so does Thom Rainer, President of LifeWay Christian Resources and former Billy Graham Professor of Evangelism at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  Take a look at this article from his own blog:

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The word “sabbatical” has different meanings depending on the context in which it is used. It has one meaning in the academic community, another meaning in its biblical usage, and still another in many secular settings.

For the purpose of this article, I define sabbatical in simple terms. It simply means time off for rest and/or study. The time can be a few days, a few weeks or, on rare occasions, a few months. The pastor is given paid leave for rest, rejuvenation and, perhaps, deeper study. I would love to see churches of all sizes provide this requirement of their pastor, even if it’s only for a few days.

I have the opportunity to work with lay leaders and pastors. I have a pretty good view of both perspectives. And I am convinced that more lay leaders need to insist their pastors take regular breaks even beyond vacations. Allow me to provide five reasons for my rationale.

1. A pastor has emotional highs and lows unlike most other vocations. In the course of a day, a pastor can deal with death, deep spiritual issues, great encouragement, petty criticisms, tragedies, illnesses, and celebrations of birth. The emotional roller coaster is draining. Your pastor needs a break—many times a break with no distractions.

2. A pastor is on 24-hour call. Most pastors don’t have an “off” switch. They go to sleep with the knowledge they could be awakened by a phone call at anytime of the day. Vacations are rarely uninterrupted. It can be an exhausting vocation, and a sabbatical can be a welcome time to slow down.

3. Pastors need time of uninterrupted study. It doesn’t usually happen in the study at church or home. There is always the crisis or need of the moment. Church members expect sermons that reflect much prayer and study. The pastor’s schedule often works against that ideal. The sabbatical can offer much needed, and uninterrupted, study time.

4. Pastors who have sabbaticals have longer tenure at churches. Though my information is anecdotal, I do see the trend. And while I cannot prove a cause-and-effect relationship, I feel confident that pastors who have sabbaticals are much more likely to stay at a church because they are less likely to experience burnout.

5. Pastors who have sabbaticals view the time off as an affirmation from their churches. I have heard from many pastors who share with me a sentence similar to this one: “I know my church loves me because they give me a sabbatical.” Pastors need affirmation. Sabbaticals can accomplish that goal.

I estimate that only about five percent of churches offer sabbaticals. In almost every case where I am familiar, the relationship between pastor and congregation is very healthy. I do think at least one of the reasons is the sabbatical.

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I hear you, Thom.  I know my church loves me because they give me a sabbatical.

Right back at you, church.  I love you, too.

See you August 3!

Jim

 

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

Come Celebrate a Miracle

BrailleIn the post below, guest blogger Phil Mitchell, Associate Pastor of Christian Worship at Richmond’s First Baptist Church, tells the story of a real-life miracle, and invites us to come and celebrate it with him on April 27.  Read the story, save the date, and then come…celebrate a miracle.

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This year, we have been challenged by our pastor to partner with others in bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, VA. The initiative is called “Kingdom of Heaven Times Two” (KOHx2), and it’s all about bringing heaven to earth through partnerships. Here is one way we are seeking to do just that:

Two years ago, our church procured the new Celebrating Grace Hymnal. It has turned out to be a wonderful worship resource for us, full of the old and the new, brimming with countless ways to express our faith. Our pew racks are full of them. They are within an arm’s length of everyone who has gathered for worship. All you have to do is open the book to see the rich possibilities for singing a “new song unto the Lord.”

Unless, of course, you are blind.

Lewis Myers asked me if we were going to provide Braille copies of the new hymnal for our blind members. Honestly, I had never thought about it. None of us had thought about it until Lewis wanted to know how members like Mark and Melody Roane were going to sing the hymns from the new hymnal. I spoke to the editor at Celebrating Grace who said he was sorry, but there were no plans to produce a Braille version.  “Well, then,” I thought.  “If no one will do it for us we will do it ourselves!”

But how do you do-it-yourself when it comes to a Braille hymnal?

Robbie Hott, a computer genius in our church designed a template to input all the texts into a database. Anyone, could go to the site and enter texts (using some basic guidelines) so we could build an electronic resource that would eventually become Braille.

We contacted Brian Barton at the Braille Circulating Library, just down the street from the church, and they volunteered to produce the Braille version for us, at no cost. We are almost to the final product. Two years of really hard work and scores of volunteer hours later, we are about to have the Braille edition of our new hymnal in our hands.

You can learn more about the fascinating process by viewing the video below.

So, here is a partner in our neighborhood who is seeking to do the very thing we have been called to do: to make our neighborhood a little more like God would want it to be—accessible, hospitable, and full of praise. Together, we are doing that.

I tried to imagine a way to bless the Braille Circulating Library in the manner that they have so generously blessed us. It came to me that the perfect person to facilitate this blessing would be Ken Medema. Ken is a long-time friend, a blind singer-composer whose concerts are full of prepared and spontaneous stories set to music—much of which is composed on the spot! He has been to our church before and is always a smashing hit.

So I have invited Ken to present a benefit concert at Richmond’s First Baptist Church on Sunday, April 27 at 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $10 each and all proceeds go directly to our neighbors, the Braille Circulating Library. It is a win/win. We get to experience an incredible concert and we can bless the Braille Lending Library with a generous gift to support their ongoing ministry in Richmond.

You can buy tickets at the church during the week or on Wednesdays and Sundays. You can also buy them online simply by clicking HERE.

Join me in supporting this concert and watching the Kingdom come ever closer as both the blind and the sighted sing praise to God.

–Phil Mitchell

Baking and Taking to Some Really Sweet Seniors

ImageEvery other month the Bake and Take team comes together to fellowship and bake goodies to distribute to members of our community. One member suggested that during the month of February we bake for our Seniors . . . everyone agreed this was a great way to bring some sweetness to KOH2RVA.

After finding out how many Senior classes there were at FBC (11) and the number of Seniors in each class (total of 235), the group went to work, baking and bagging cookies so that each member would receive their very own bag of treats.  These were distributed to each class on February 16 by an amazing group of Bakers.

Here are some of their comments:

“I always think of the Seniors of our church as the founders or backbone because of their years of service and dedication to the church.  When asked to bake for the seniors, it was a very humbling moment for me because I felt I could show them how much they are appreciated and loved even if only with a small bag of valentine cookies. The looks on their faces when I presented my “bit of sweetness coming from the Kingdom” was priceless and made my day as well as theirs. They all confessed to “not minding being a senior if it meant getting sweet treats like these” (Susan Bethel).

“I made heart-shaped sugar cookies with red sprinkles and chocolate chip cookies and wrapped them in treat bags decorated with hearts.  The seniors were so surprised that everyone in their class received an individual Valentine treat bag of cookies.  I got a lot of questions and many were amazed that the “Bake and Take” team made treats just for the seniors.  Some did not realize we had a “Bake and Take” ministry.  I told them that we have made cookies and cupcakes for others groups, including:  fire departments, local businesses, church neighbors, and homeless shelters”  (Jeanne Hechler).

The Sunday School classes that I took cookies to were so happy that someone brought them cookies.  I attached a heartfelt valentine card to each box. It was a wonderful experience to give a box of “God love” to folks that have given so much of God’s love to us in so many ways.  It was a heart warming blessing.

P.S.  While I was baking on Saturday morning, my husband sat in the kitchen and did not move. He watched as I baked each batch of cookies, took them out of the oven, counted them one by one. When I realized he was watching my every move I poured him a cup of fresh coffee and served him some fresh baked cookies. He was happy as a kid in the candy store. (Debbie Hott).

–Story by Vicki Nicholau, head baker and taker

 

Should Have Taken the Bus!

2013-11-08 17.27.15I saw Andrew Terry at the Hope in the Cities luncheon yesterday. Andrew is working to bring rapid transit to Richmond, and he recently asked a room full of people if any of us would ride the new “super bus” if it came to the city.

I raised my hand.

I may have had that in the back of my mind yesterday when I thought about how I was going to get to the Omni Hotel for the luncheon. I don’t mind driving downtown. It’s not far from First Baptist Church. But I do mind parking downtown—either searching for an available meter or paying way too much to park in a garage.

So, I asked my smart phone how to get downtown on the bus and it told me: “Walk over to Broad Street, get on the bus heading downtown, get off at 12th Street and walk over to the Omni on Cary Street” Total trip time? “About 27 minutes.” Total cost? “$1.25” (my phone is so smart!).

But I had a few more emails to check and when I finished I didn’t have 27 minutes. So I jumped in my car, whizzed downtown, found an available meter four blocks from the Omni, put in two dollars worth of quarters, and hurried to the luncheon.

One of the first people I saw was Andrew Terry, and I told him, “I almost took the bus!” He commended me for my good intentions but insisted, “We’ve got to get more people riding public transportation.” I said, “Maybe we could have a public transportation day. You pick the date, and I’ll challenge my church to ride the bus.” “Great idea!” he said (stay tuned).

The luncheon was inspiring. Dr. Gail Christopher of the Kellogg Foundation talked about what her organization is trying to do to lift children out of poverty, and noted, sadly, how closely their plight is linked to the idea of race. “Idea,” she said, because human beings are, genetically, 99.9% identical. And yet we have used that .01 percent difference to justify all manner of atrocities, including slavery.

I’ll have more to say about that at another time, but for now let me say that the luncheon ran a little longer than I expected, and when I got back to my car I found a bright green parking ticket stuck under the windshield wiper (sigh).

This is why I don’t like parking downtown.

I got in my car and headed back toward the office and at a stoplight on Broad Street I looked over and saw Andrew Terry in his car, motioning for me to roll down the window. He shouted, “Next time we’ll take the bus!” I reached for my parking ticket, held it up and shouted, “If I had taken the bus I wouldn’t have gotten this!” He laughed out loud and said, “I need a picture of that!”

So, here you go, Andrew: this picture is for you. If I had ridden the bus to my luncheon it would have taken 27 minutes and cost $1.25. I got there in 23 minutes in my car, but ended up paying $22.00.

Even I can do the math.