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Posts Tagged ‘vision’

imagineLast week I went to a clergy convocation called “The Face of Race in Richmond.” Ben Campbell, Pastoral Director at Richmond Hill, had asked me to serve on a panel with a few other ministers, simply to talk about how we experience the issue of race in this city.

I wasn’t sure that I was the best choice, but I agreed, partly because this year First Baptist Church is working to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, through partnerships with other churches, individuals, agencies, and organizations. One of the churches we are working with is First African Baptist, and that effort has already involved some remarkably honest conversations about race.

So, here’s what I said at the clergy convocation:

We are not where we ought to be on the issue of race in Richmond, but thank God we are not where we used to be.

Two nights ago, in an event completely unrelated to this one, I sat down with a handful of deacons from First Baptist Church and a handful of deacons from First African Baptist because their pastor, Rodney Waller, had challenged us to “show Richmond what true racial reconciliation looks like.” I added that while Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors we can’t love what we don’t know, and suggested that we get together for some meals. The first one was Tuesday night, and it was a smashing success.

Ken Medema is a blind musician with a remarkable kind of inner vision. I once heard him say something I wish I had written down, because I’m not sure I remember it exactly as he said it, but what I heard him say was something like this: “People don’t change because you tell them to. They don’t change because you shame them into it. People change when they can imagine a different kind of reality than the one in which they are living.”

I think Jesus got that. He spent much of his time preaching sermons and telling stories about God’s glorious kingdom and constantly searched for ways to explain what it was like. He said:

The Kingdom is like a sower who went out to sow some seed. It’s like the shepherd who went out to look for his lost sheep. It’s like the treasure you stumble upon in the field, or the precious pearl you find at the flea market. It’s like the king who throws a party for outcasts, or the father who kills the fatted calf for his no-good son. It’s that place where Samaritans pay your hospital bills and sinners go home from the temple justified. It’s where those who worked an hour get the same as those who worked all day and where the beggar at the rich man’s gate ends up in the bosom of Abraham. It is, finally, that place where the last are first, the least are great, and the lost are found forever.

Jesus tried to help people imagine a different kind of reality than the one in which they were living, so they wouldn’t be content with the status quo, so they would make the effort to change themselves, and change the world.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann once wrote that “The central task of ministry is the formation of a community with an alternative, liberated imagination that has the courage and freedom to act in a different vision and a different perception of reality.” Let me say that again. “The central task of ministry is the formation of a community with an alternative, liberated imagination that has the courage and freedom to act in a different vision and a different perception of reality.”

I think that’s what Jesus was up to.

Do you remember how he started his ministry? He called some disciples, that is, he formed a community. And then he started teaching them about the Kingdom of God, saying, “the Kingdom is like a mustard seed, a treasure, a pearl.” He did his best to inspire in them an alternative, liberated imagination. And then, through his own example, he showed them the courage and freedom to act–to preach the Gospel, to heal the sick, even to turn over tables in the Temple. He did it to bring in the Kingdom, because when he looked at the world around him he saw not only what was but what could be. He had a different vision, and a different perception, of reality.

I think that’s what Martin Luther King, Jr. was up to when he began to share his dream that one day this nation would rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed of equality, that the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners would be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood, and that his four little children would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

He was doing what Jesus was doing with his vision of the Kingdom: he was helping us imagine a different kind of reality than the one in which we are living. He was doing what Walter Brueggemann talked about: forming a community with an alternative, liberated imagination that would have the courage and freedom to act in a different vision and a different perception of reality.

So, perhaps the best gift that we, as religious leaders, can give to our city…

…is the gift of imagination.

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Richmond SunriseWe celebrated KOH2RVA yesterday at Richmond’s First Baptist Church—the end of our year-long, every-member mission trip—and we did it in style. The RVA United band started things off in our gym as people gathered, I offered a welcome, and then they played a few songs in a gentle, acoustic style that was perfect for that time of day. We showed videos of how the church had worked to bring the kingdom of heaven to Richmond, Virginia, this year, and heard testimonies of gratitude from Mike Maruca (head of the Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School) and Kimberly Lee (Principal of Glen Lea Elementary, a Richmond public school). Steve Blanchard talked about the work that’s been done at Essex Village, one of the largest housing projects in our city, and we wrapped things up with a slide show of images accompanied by a song about how heaven is coming down to this world.

In the worship service I shared my vision of how this mission can go forward through partnerships with other people, churches, agencies, and institutions. I suggested the name KOHX2 (that is, “Kingdom of Heaven Times Two”), and had some of our youth spell it out with giant cardboard letters so everybody could see it and remember it. And then I said this:

KOH times 2. Think about that with me for a minute.

In the past year I’ve been trying to post something on my blog almost every day as a way of sharing the stories of our members who have been busy bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, and inspiring the ones who hadn’t yet found their way. But can I tell you something? Blogging every day is harder than it looks! You have to think of something to write, you have to write it, you have to edit it, you have to find a picture to go with it, you have to publish it, and then you have to promote it on Facebook (at least I do). It often takes an hour to an hour-and-a-half just to get something up there, even something that’s not very good. And so I’ve decided to start a new blog called KOH2RVA and invite other people to contribute to it. I’m hoping that anyone who is bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, would be inspired to write up a few paragraphs, attach a picture, and send it to me so I can post it on the new blog. And then, sometime in the spring and perhaps again in the fall I’m going to invite all those people to a city-wide conference called KOH2RVA right here at First Baptist, and we’re going to see what we can do to start a missions collaborative that will make a visible impact on our city.

And then I said, “That’s what I’m going to do to go forward with this mission. What about you?” Before the day was over I’d heard from Melissa Ansley Brooks, who shared with me her own vision of how to go forward. Grateful for her partnership in this mission, I posted her email on the new blog. You can find it by clicking HERE.

Every ending is a beginning, friends. Our year-long, every-member mission trip has come to an end, but our year-long, find-a-partner mission trip is just beginning. I hope you will find a partner and join us on KOHX2.

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Colourful preschool numbersThe tiny little robot who keeps track of statistics on WordPress tells me that yesterday I surpassed 500,000 total views. That means that since I started it back in September, 2008, more than a half a million people have visited my blog.

Well, let’s be realistic.

It means that since September, 2008, my blog has been viewed more than half a million times. And WordPress itself recognizes that I’ve had more views than visitors—you know, the kind of people who come back for a second look just because they can’t believe what they read the first time (many of those people wanted to know, “Will the World End on December, 21, 2012?” the title of one of my posts. In fact, the most views I got on any single day was 1,407 on that post on December 20, 2012).

Still, I’ve written 501 total posts, for an average of almost 1,000 views per post. And people have commented on what they’ve read. WordPress tells me I’ve had 1,817 total comments from people who like the conversation to go both ways, which I appreciate.

I’m hoping that conversation will continue.

But lately I’ve thought about starting a new blog in September called “KOH2RVA,” and asking church members, friends, and partner organizations to contribute, freeing me up to get back to my own blog and my own occasional postings on other topics. I was looking back through some of those old posts yesterday and found this one, the one that started it all. As I re-read it I began to believe that Jesus has been inviting us to help him bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, all along.

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The Central Task of Ministry
September 30, 2008 by Jim Somerville

On page 99 of a book called The Hopeful Imagination, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann claims: “The central task of ministry is the formation of a community with an alternative, liberated imagination that has the courage and the freedom to act in a different vision and a different perception of reality.”

I love that quote, not only because it gives shape to my own ministry, but because it reminds me so much of Jesus’ ministry. Do you remember how he started? He called some disciples, or, in other words, he formed a community. And then he started teaching them about the Kingdom of Heaven, saying, “the Kingdom is like a mustard seed, a treasure, a pearl.” He did his best to inspire in them an alternative, liberated imagination. And then, through his own example, he showed them the courage and freedom to act–to preach the Gospel, to heal the sick, even to turn over tables in the Temple. He did it to bring in the Kingdom, because when he looked at the world around him he saw not only what was but what could be. He had a different vision, and a different perception, of reality.

When his disciples said, “Teach us to pray,” he taught them something that sounds very much like the kind of prayer a soldier might pray before going onto the battlefield, or maybe it’s what a disciple prays before going onto the mission field: “Thy kingdom come!” it says. “Thy will be done!” it says. But then (don’t miss this part) it says, “on earth as it is in heaven.”

To put it simply, I think Jesus wanted his disciples to bring heaven to earth. I think that’s why he spent his time forming a community with an alternative, liberated imagination that had the courage and freedom to act in a different vision and a different perception of reality. I think he still wants his disciples to bring heaven to earth, and the question is, “How do we do it?”

It’s not so hard. You look at the world through his eyes. You look for anything that doesn’t look like heaven…yet. And then you roll up your sleeves, and go to work.

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On MissionOn Sunday I spent three hours with the Ministry Planning Team at Richmond’s First Baptist Church. We were trying to draft a mission, vision, and values statement for the church, something we’ve been working on for a while.

We were stuck on the “mission” piece.

What is it that we, as a church, are trying to do? Are we trying to bring heaven to earth? Are we trying to make disciples of every nation? Are we trying to be Jesus’ witnesses from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth? Are we trying to save people from eternal damnation?

We looked at mission statements from Coca-Cola (“To refresh the world, to inspire moments of happiness and optimism, to create value and make a difference”) and Starbucks Coffee (“To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time”). We talked about “aspiration” and wondered if our mission statement could be about something people really want, rather than just about something they ought to do. We thought we were getting close at one point, and then our conversation ricocheted off in another direction.

We’ve still got work to do.

But I woke up Monday morning thinking about our mission, and ended up writing the litany that’s printed below. It’s not our mission statement. It’s just Jim’s thoughts on a Monday morning. But I hope you will read it and let me know your thoughts. Does any part of it refresh you, or inspire you…or make you want a Coke? (smile).

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Leader: Jesus taught his disciples to pray that God’s Kingdom would come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

People: Richmond’s First Baptist Church wants to be an answer to that prayer.

Leader: Jesus knew what a big job that would be. He told his followers to go, make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey all that he had commanded.

People: Let us never be content with making converts alone.

Leader: Jesus breathed on his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit; as the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

People: We are sent as Christ was sent to love the world God loves.

Leader: Let us go in the grace of God, the love of the Lord Jesus, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

People: Amen.

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KalenaYesterday was a full day for the pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church.

I left my house at 8:00 to walk the four-and-a-half blocks to “Mission Central” (that’s what Billy Burford, our administrator, calls the church campus at the corner of Monument and the Boulevard. I like it). I got there in time to meet with our worship leaders and clip on my wireless microphone before the service began at 8:30. It was Commitment Sunday, and at the end of the service people streamed forward to lay their pledge cards, tithes, and offerings on the altar. And Cari DuVal told me that yes, she thought she would like to become a full member of First Baptist.

That’s another story altogether, but a good one. Cari grew up in another denomination. She’s been one of our most committed Watchcare members for years now. The recent change in our membership policy allows her to join without being re-baptized but she told me yesterday she would like to be immersed in the swimming pool in Helena, Arkansas, where she has been participating in an annual mission trip for the last several years. The catch? I have to come do it.

I’m checking my calendar.

Between our two morning worship services Dot Smith brought me coffee and a plate full of treats to keep me going. She does it every Sunday, but yesterday it was especially appreciated. The day was just getting started.

The third-grade Sunday school class knocked on my door around 10:15. They were on a prayer walk, and wanted to pray for me. How sweet!

The 11:00 service followed the same order as the 8:30, but the two services are never the same. At the end of the second service people streamed forward again with pledge cards, tithes, and offerings, but this time Rob and Katie Courain told me they were ready to join the church.

Rob and Katie are the young couple who head up the powerful city-wide worship celebration called RVA United, and it felt like a great compliment to First Baptist that they would choose to join a church that doesn’t worship with drums and guitars (usually), but instead sings hymns out of a book (gasp!). There must be something good going on at First Baptist. Rob and Katie say it’s our mission, that they, too, are trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.

After worship I went to a three-hour meeting of the Ministry Planning Team, where we worked on a mission, vision, and values statement for First Baptist Church. It’s hard work, but good work. We spent a lot of time talking about who we are, what we’re trying to do, and the challenges we face as we do it. We didn’t finish our statement, but we came a lot closer.

My next meeting was with the Communication Team, thirty minutes later. They wanted to hear my thoughts as we anticipate David Powers’ retirement in September. David has been doing this job nearly twenty years. He is the driving force behind our television broadcast, our webcast, our website, our in-house publications, and our printed pieces. It’s hard to imagine the post-Powers era, but we did. We spent a full hour talking about the ways technology is changing and how it impacts communication. Jim Norvelle told us how he tuned into our webcast from the west coast last week (at 5:30 Pacific Time), watching the service on his iPhone even before he got out of bed. What will it be like five years from now, ten, fifteen?

From there I went to the Prayers for Healing service in the chapel, and spent a little more than an hour in that candlelit room praying, singing, listening to Bev Carroll talk about the work of spiritual rehabilitation, lighting a candle for my dad, praying with those who requested it, serving communion, and offering the benediction. It was a solemn, holy experience, followed almost immediately by…

Crazy dancing in the youth suite!

I had been invited to drop by for Kalena Porter’s surprise birthday party and when I got up to the third floor I found the youth line dancing. I watched as long as I could stand it and then just jumped in, much to their delight (there is nothing quite so funny, apparently, as seeing the senior pastor dance). Just before Kalena arrived we turned out the lights and waited to yell, “Surprise!” I think Kalena was surprised. The picture above was taken seconds afterward, as she was being rolled down the pink carpet created by Chloe Buchanan (at left in the photo).

Kalena has a terminal illness. She’s not going to be in our youth group much longer. But last night the youth poured out all the love they could on her and she was able to receive it gratefully. I couldn’t have been prouder.

Yesterday was a full day for the pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church. I didn’t get home until 7:00. But this morning I find myself savoring almost every detail of a day that was filled with worship, work, and witness.

A day when heaven came to earth.

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empty churchAt a conference at Georgetown College last week I led a breakout session called “What to do when your church is dying.” I said a lot of things in 90 minutes, but the essence can be found in this brief summary I typed up for Baptists Today not long ago. So, if your church is dying, or you know someone whose is, take the time to read the few paragraphs below. I hope it will give you a fresh vision of what the church can be and do in a time when so many congregations are struggling just to survive.

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When I started my work as a pastor 25 years ago the church in America was in decline, the leadership of the church was in a state of panic, and their strategy was the so-called Church Growth Movement. I went to New Castle Baptist Church in Kentucky assuming that my job was to get as many people as possible into the building for worship on Sunday morning, and then to get as many of those as I could to come forward at the end of the service so that they could make a profession of faith in Christ, or rededicate their lives to him, or move their membership from another church to that one. But I was still in seminary at that time, and in the New Testament class I was taking I kept hearing about the “Kingdom of God.” It seemed to be the only thing Jesus wanted to talk about. In fact, some 120 times in the Gospels, in one way or another, he refers to that Kingdom. I began to get the idea that this is what Jesus really came to do: to establish the Kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven.

This is what I think the church of Jesus Christ ought to be doing—bringing heaven to earth—and the Lord’s Prayer is a perfect reminder. It’s the kind of prayer a soldier might pray before going onto the battlefield, the kind of prayer a missionary might pray before going onto the mission field. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” it says. “Thy kingdom come! Thy will be done!” but then (don’t miss this part) “on earth as it is in heaven.” And then we ask God to give us our daily bread, because we’re going to need our strength. We ask him to forgive us our sins, because they would only drag us down. We ask him to lead us not into temptation, because we can’t afford to be distracted–this mission is too important. And then, just in case we begin to have some success and think it’s because of our efforts, the prayer reminds us that the kingdom, and the power, and the glory belong to God forever and ever.

Amen.

Can you see how bringing heaven to earth is completely different from propping up the institutional church? I don’t think it’s easier, not at all. Without God’s help it would be impossible. But it is so much more…liberating. When the members of First Baptist Church ask me how to do it I say, “Just look around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven and then roll up your sleeves and go to work.” And what I find is that they all see through their own eyes. One person will see a need to teach poor children in the city of Richmond how to read, and go to work there. Another person will see a need to share the gospel with people who don’t know Jesus, and go to work there. Another person will see a need to provide decent, affordable housing, and go to work there. Some people will visit with those in the nursing homes, others will make time to have coffee with a friend in need, still others will teach little children in Sunday school. As a result, church begins to happen everywhere, all the time, and not only in our building at 11:00 on Sunday. In fact, I have said to my congregation, “Let’s stop counting how many people happen to be in church on Sunday morning and instead start counting how many times church happens between one Sunday and the next.”

That’s liberating, isn’t it?

Several years ago I found a quote in a book by Walter Brueggemann that has given shape to my ministry ever since. Brueggemann is a renowned Old Testament scholar, but he is also a committed Christian, who is devoted to the church. He said, “The central task of ministry is the formation of a community with an alternative, liberated imagination that has the courage and the freedom to act in a different vision and a different perception of reality.” I love that quote, not only because it gives shape to my own ministry, but because it reminds me so much of Jesus’ ministry. Do you remember how he started? He called some disciples, or, in other words, he formed a community. And then he started teaching them about the Kingdom of God, saying, “the Kingdom is like a mustard seed, a treasure, a pearl.” He did his best to inspire in them an alternative, liberated imagination. And then, through his own example, he showed them the courage and freedom to act—to preach the Gospel, to heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons—even to turn over tables in the Temple. He did it to bring in the Kingdom, because when he looked at the world around him he saw not only what was but what could be. He had a different vision, and a different perception, of reality.

That’s the kind of work he calls us to: not the anxious preservation of an earthly institution, but the fearless, faithful, joyful work of bringing heaven to earth. I think that’s why he spent his time forming a community with an alternative, liberated imagination that had the courage and freedom to act in a different vision and a different perception of reality. And that’s why, at the end of every staff meeting at Richmond’s First Baptist Church, we stand and join hands around the room and say the Lord’s prayer, but instead of saying, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” we say, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in Richmond as it is in heaven.”

That’s our mission.

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helpingAt the end of my last post I asked you what it would take to make the move from Unchristian to Christian, which is just what the authors of the book asked some well-known Christian leaders.  Instead of having a reputation for being hypocritical, antihomosexual, judgmental, sheltered, too political, and too focused on making converts these leaders dreamed that in thirty years Christians might have a reputation for being loving, bold, gracious, authentic, courageous, admired, engaged, countercultural, focused on justice and—most importantly—focused on Jesus.  One of my favorite responses was this one from Leroy Barber, President of Mission Year:

The Kingdom of Heaven is like leaven: just a little of it leavens the entire loaf.

What if the church, over the next thirty years, truly lives the life that Jesus as taught us to live?  What if we love our enemies, pray for those who hate us, and offer our coat when our hat has been taken?  Are we ready to truly sacrifice and watch the world move toward the kingdom of God?

The kingdom of heaven is like a man who loses a pearl in a field and purchases the whole field to find it.

If Jesus is as valuable as we say he is, then what will we give up for him to remain alive in us?  Can we, the church, spend the next thirty years valuing Jesus Christ and whatever he asks of us above all else?  Can we even imagine what the world would become?

If the church will choose now to live this way, we can confidently look forward to seeing our culture influenced and changed.  My hope is that when I am seventy-two, I will have seen the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of our God.  I imagine a world lacking divorce, sexual promiscuity, and poverty, and overflowing with peace, mercy, and justice.

Isaiah prophesies that the old wasted cities will be restored.  He says that we shall be called repairers of the breach, the restorers of the streets.

And then there was this bold vision from Brian McLaren, a founding member of emergentvillage.com:

In thirty years research could tell us that when people think “Christian” they think things like this:

  • Christians are the ones who love people, whoever they are—gay or straight, Jew or Muslim, religious or atheist, capitalist or not, conservative or liberal.
  • Christians are the ones who have done more than anyone in the world to stop the HIV/AIDS crisis.
  • Christians are the people who gravitate toward the poor and who show compassion through generous action and seek justice so that the systemic causes of poverty are overcome.  They call the rich to generosity, and they call on rich nations to work for the common good.
  • Christians are people who believe that art and creativity are important, so they consistently produce the most striking, original, and enriching art.
  • Christians are willing to give their lives for the cause of peace.  They oppose violence in all its forms.  They will lay down their lives to protect the vulnerable from the violent.
  • Christians care for the environment.  They don’t see is as raw materials for economic gain, but they see it as the precious handiwork of their Creator.
  • Christians have personal integrity.  They keep their marriage vows and are aware of how destructive misused sexuality can be.  Yet they are compassionate toward people who make sexual mistakes, and they never consider themselves superior.
  • Christians build harmony among races.  You always know that you’ll be respected when you’re around a Christians.

It may be that neither of these visions is your vision for the future of Christianity, but isn’t it important to have one?  A huge, hopeful, vision of what Christians can do, what the church can be, and how the world can change as a result of our efforts over the next thirty years?  That’s what keeps me going.  It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.  A vision of how the world might be transformed by the followers of Jesus, and how through our feeble and fallible efforts we might really help him bring heaven to earth.

If not us, who?

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