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Posts Tagged ‘talking’

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

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breaking-bread2On Tuesday night I sat down at a table with a few deacons from First Baptist Church and a few from First African Baptist Church. We were at the Golden Corral on Gaskins and Broad, squeezed into a small, private dining room after filling our plates to overflowing at the mind-boggling buffet. Someone said a blessing and we began to eat, and then we began to talk, and then we began to laugh.

Which was precisely the point of the evening.

Earlier this year Pastor Rodney Waller of First African challenged us to “show Richmond what true racial reconciliation looks like.” I was inspired by that challenge, and added that while Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors, we cannot love what we don’t know, and suggested that we spend some time getting to know each other, preferably over dinner.

We looked at that picture of the early church from the end of Acts 2, where it says that the believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (vs. 42). A few verses later it says “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (vs. 46). Breaking bread was apparently a high priority in the early church, and so we decided to get together and break some bread.

Do you know how hard it is to get 14 people together for a meal? Bob Palmer does. Bob has been talking to me about First African since I came to Richmond five years ago. He has kept up a relationship with Deacon Booker Jones from that church for much longer than that. The two of them have been hoping and praying that our churches could be more closely connected, so Bob was a logical choice to make the arrangements, but it took six weeks and twice that many attempts to get us all together.

Still, I think we would all say it was worth it.

After dinner we divided into small groups where we were challenged to tell our life stories in five minutes or less. I was amazed, as always, by the way those stories make us human and help us discover how much we have in common. In twenty minutes’ time, at my table, strangers became friends, or at least became a lot more friendly. It turns out that each of us had suffered some hardship, had some disappointments, taken some chances, had some successes.

Life is like that, and it’s like that no matter what color you are.

It was good to be reminded of that on Tuesday night. As we were leaving the private dining room I asked Rodney Waller to let me know how I could pray for him and he said, “All right, and you do the same.” “Well,” I said, “You could pray for my dad. He’s in hospice, and he seems to be getting pretty close to the end.” “Let me do that right now,” Rodney said, and then he asked for everyone to join him and—right there at Golden Corral—he prayed for my dad.

See, those early believers didn’t only break bread together. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47).

May it be so here…and now.

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doctor-shaking-hands-with-patientI had lunch with Bill and Emily Johnston yesterday, an older couple from First Baptist who have been kind to me from the beginning and haven’t slowed down yet. We went to the Dairy Bar after yesterday’s Senior Adult Bible Study, where I indulged in the special of the day (a barbecue sandwich with French fries) and finished it off with a scoop of Cookies ‘n’ Cream ice cream (note: this is not a healthy meal.  You will pay for it.  I’m getting ready to run five miles as penance).

We talked about a lot of things over lunch, but eventually they asked the question that prompted the invitation. “What do you want us to do?” they asked, and what they meant was, “What do you want us to do to help bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia?”

I was moved by the question.

Here they were, people who have invested their whole lives in Richmond, who have worked tirelessly through the years to bless the city and heal its inhabitants (literally—Bill is a retired pediatrician and Emily was his nurse), asking me what I wanted them to do to bring heaven a little closer to earth. I couldn’t think of a thing, and so I asked them what they were already doing. They began to tick off a long list of volunteer activities around the church but eventually started talking about their regular visits to the hospitalized and homebound. They told me that sometimes they offer to take a homebound person to the store, or out for lunch, and then they looked to me for approval. “Is that a good thing?”

I slipped into the role of teacher for just a minute. I told them about my own parents, who are in a nursing home. When I go to visit them I usually offer to take my mom out to lunch. She is physically very healthy, and cheerful as a cricket, although she admits she can’t remember very much. My dad, on the other hand, is in the hospice wing. He can open his eyes when I call his name, smile and take my hand, but a few minutes later he is nodding off again. So, they have different needs. I visit with my dad for about three minutes and with my mom for about three hours.

I used that example with Bill and Emily to emphasize the need for sensitivity in each situation.  People who are recovering from surgery may not need a long visit if they need one at all. They’re trying to heal, and that takes a lot of energy. They don’t need to use it up entertaining guests. On the other hand someone who is home alone day after day may savor a visit like I savored that scoop of ice cream—relishing every bite and not wanting it to come to an end. “You really just have to be sensitive,” I said, “and do what’s best for each person.”

And then I heard what I was saying and looked at the two of them sitting there across the table, nodding, taking in every word.  I was embarrassed by my own insensitivity. What could I possibly teach Bill and Emily? They’ve been out there day after day, visiting the hospitalized and the homebound. They may not have gotten it exactly right every time. None of us do. But doing it is so much better than waiting till we get it all figured out or coming up with a list of reasons why we can’t.

“What do I want you to do?” I asked, eventually. “Exactly what you’re doing. You two are bringing it—you’re bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.

“What more could I ask?”

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ShawarmaYesterday was Ash Wednesday, and often on that day I fast—that is, I “go without food for religious reasons.” Last year, for example, I promised myself that every time I felt a hunger pain on Ash Wednesday I would think “Jesus is Lord,” to remind myself that my stomach is not.

I was going to do that again yesterday but when I checked my calendar I saw that I had already made plans to have lunch at the Old Jerusalem restaurant, and so I shrugged my shoulders and let out a half-hearted sigh. “Looks like I’m not going to be able to fast today,” I said, to no one in particular. “I forgot that it was Ash Wednesday when I made the appointment and now it’s too late. I can’t very well call off lunch, and it would be rude to sit there and watch my guest eat while I didn’t.”

Plus, I love the Old Jerusalem.

It’s near the intersection of 7th and Franklin downtown, just a few steps up the hill and to your left. There’s a sign on the front door that says “Halal,” which is the Muslim equivalent of “Kosher.” One of the things I love about the restaurant is that you can take your Muslim or Jewish neighbors there without any fear of offending their dietary restrictions. There’s no pork on the menu, and no alcohol either. Everything is prepared according to the traditions of the Middle East, which is home to both Muslims and Jews.

For all of those reasons, it’s where I usually meet with my interfaith group. We sit at a big table near the window, and the owner brings out platters of hummus and warm pita bread to get us started. Soon we are munching on (delicious!) falafel, digging into hearty beef and chicken shawarma, and finishing up with hot tea and “ladies fingers” for dessert. Throughout the meal we are talking and laughing and making wild gestures, often to the servers to bring us more food. It’s fun.

Which is part of the reason I was there yesterday.

The owner, a smiling, gregarious Jordanian named Tahir, wants to renovate the restaurant. He wants to create the kind of ambiance that will attract the dinner crowd (right now the Old Jerusalem looks a whole lot more like a lunch place than a dinner place). But it’s going to cost some money and he’s having trouble getting a loan. He was in the construction business before this and went bankrupt when the economy crashed in 2008.

That’s where Jeff Dortch comes in.

Jeff is a member of First Baptist Church who used to be a banker. One of the things he does is consult with church members who have fallen on hard times. He takes a look at their finances and helps them come up with strategies to get back on their feet. I took him to lunch with me to see if he had any suggestions for Tahir.

Tahir greeted us with a smile. He seated us at a booth. He asked the waitress to bring out some hummus and warm pita. And then he told Jeff his story, complete with his plans for renovation. You could see his eyes sparkle as he described the stonework, the arches, and the fountain he hoped to put against one wall. When he went back to the kitchen Jeff told me quietly that restaurants were notoriously bad investments. He wasn’t sure he would be able to help Tahir. But he also agreed, as he took another bite, that the falafel was delicious.

Why am I telling this story on the 158th day of KOH2RVA, our year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia? Because my friend Imad Damaj (a VCU professor) knew a Muslim brother who was struggling to keep his restaurant going. He invited Bill Sachs (an Episcopal priest) and me (a Baptist pastor) to join him for lunch. He introduced us to Tahir and asked if we knew any way to help. I got in touch with Jeff Dortch and took him to lunch at the Old Jerusalem.

I don’t know what will come of it all, if anything, but at the heart of it is one person trying to help another, and reaching out through friendship to another person, and then another. It’s the stuff the parable of the Good Samaritan is made of,

And the stuff of which heaven is made.

————————————————

Click HERE to see the Yelp! reviews of the Old Jerusalem, remembering that there will be at least one crank in every bunch who loves to complain.  And think about this: if you’ve ever been to the Holy Land consider hosting a reunion lunch or dinner at the Old Jerusalem.  As the sign above the door says, it’s “A Taste of the Holy Land.”

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greetings-from-richmond-virginiaThe second thing on my agenda on Wednesday mornings is “Ecumenical Jogging” at 6:15. It’s a fancy way of saying I go for a morning run with my friend Wallace Adams-Riley, Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond.

We talk about a lot of things while we’re running. This morning I talked about something I had read in Ben Campbell’s book, Richmond’s Unhealed History, and since nobody says it quite like Ben, let me quote:

While metropolitan Richmond’s leaders were busy over the last forty years fighting among their fragmented jurisdictions, vying for businesses, abandoning and opening massive shopping centers, trying to keep poor people in other jurisdictions, struggling to build four identical balanced sub-economies, and worrying about race and income levels of citizens, other middle-sized cities in our region stole our entire banking industry, built light rail systems, renewed their downtown areas, acquired major league sports teams, and developed public education systems far more competitive than either metropolitan Richmond’s suburban or urban systems. They built the same highways, suburbs, and shopping centers as metro Richmond, but the resulting common wealth was much greater and the larger city prospered (pp. 211-212).

campbell-headshot

Rev. Ben Campbell

It’s that “common wealth” Ben is concerned about. He argues that metropolitan Richmond doesn’t have it because it’s divided among Richmond City, Hanover, Henrico, and Chesterfield Counties. He often talks about how in Charlotte, North Carolina, the city and county governments merged to form a single jurisdiction, and were therefore able to attract major industry and professional sports teams.

I was telling Wallace about all this (or trying to while huffing and puffing along Franklin Street), and that’s when he said, “We should start a movement called ‘One Richmond.’”

“One Richmond,” I repeated. “I like it.”  And a few steps later I said, “Let the record show that ‘One Richmond’ was born on February 6, 2013, during a morning run.”

Sometimes I get criticized for talking about bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, even in my own church. Some of our members tell me they don’t live in Richmond: they live in Henrico County, or Hanover, or Chesterfield. And so I have to say, “You know what I mean—Metropolitan Richmond.” But what if I didn’t have to say that? What if Richmond weren’t divided up into “four identical balanced sub-economies” as Ben Campbell says? What if it were just one, big happy city?

I’m sure that the people who work for the county governments could give me lots of reasons why we shouldn’t become one, big happy city, and maybe they will, but the vision remains compelling. Why not One Richmond?

Wouldn’t that bring heaven a little closer to earth?

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Someone asked me over the weekend why we’re having a “Holy Conversation” about baptism and church membership, and specifically why we would talk about changing our practice of re-baptizing Christians from other denominations.  The short answer is: me.  I’m the one who put the event on the calendar.  But the reason I put it on the calendar is interesting. 

Since I’ve been at First Baptist I’ve had conversations with dozens of people who grew up in other denominations.  Some of them (Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, etc.) were surprised to hear that in order to become full members of the church they would have to be baptized by immersion.  Actually, I was surprised to hear it.  I grew up Presbyterian, was immersed at 14 at my own request, and joined a Southern Baptist church at 22.  But of the six Baptist churches I’ve belonged to this is the first that requires new members from other denominations to be immersed, which is why I never thought to ask the search committee about it.  I hear from other Baptists in Virginia that my experience is not typical, not even close, which explains why the search committee never thought to mention it to me.  It’s nobody’s fault, but it does explain why I would raise the question.

Still, some people don’t understand why we’re setting aside two Wednesday nights to talk about baptism and church membership.  “I got sprinkled as a baby and dunked as an adult,” one said with a smile.  It’s just water.  It’s just a symbol.  What’s the big deal?  But for some people it is a big deal.  They’ve been Christians for years and the suggestion that their baptism “isn’t good enough,” and that they would need to “start all over again,” offends them.  It would be like renouncing their faith.  “No, no!” others say.  “It’s not renouncing your faith at all.  We know you’re a Christian; you’re just not a Baptist.”

Hmmm. 

I’m guessing that wouldn’t be the end of the conversation, but only the beginning.  And I’m hoping you can join us in the Dining Hall this Wednesday night at 6:15 for the first round, where we will listen to the stories of people who became Christians in our tradition and others.  Maybe by the end of the evening we will all have a better feel for the complexities of this issue, and understand why, for some people, it’s a very big deal indeed.

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