In Appreciation of Dr. Peter James Flamming

2013-07-24 18.17.12I read an article in the Christian Century lately about the blessings of a long pastorate, and I couldn’t help but think of my predecessor at First Baptist, Dr. Jim Flamming, who was here for 23 years as pastor and who now serves the church as Pastor Emeritus.

While some pastors have trouble stepping aside after being with a church for so long Dr. Flamming has been the model of gracious transition.  He stayed away from a church he loved for a year after his retirement, and only returned at my insistence.  Even then, he has left plenty of room for me to establish my own pastoral role in the church, and has been a faithful supporter, cheering me on from the pews.

I asked Dr. Flamming to preach in my absence recently knowing that he would do a good job and believing that the church would enjoy hearing him again.  More than that I wanted to underscore the principle that we honor those who have served us long and well, and make room for them in the church even after their retirement.

After all, I hope to be the Pastor Emeritus of Richmond’s First Baptist Church some day.

Here’s an excerpt from that Christian Century article.  Enjoy it, and the next time you see Dr. Flamming in the hallway give him a hug…from me.

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Staying power: Reflections on a Long Pastorate
by Martin B. Copenhaver

I have served as senior pastor at the same church for 18 years. The members of my congregation no longer ask how long I am going to stay, probably because they assume I will stay until I retire (which is a good thing because I assume that, too). Eighteen years is not exactly a towering pinnacle, but it does provide some interesting views. So much looks different from the time I first started.

After all, much has changed over the course of those years, not just in the congregation or in the surrounding culture but in how I see the congregation as well. When I preached my first sermon here at Wellesley 18 years ago I was overwhelmed by the sight of a largely anonymous sea of faces. Now, after so many years, there is hardly a trace of anonymity to be found. As I look out at that same congregation, I am still overwhelmed, but for an entirely different reason—now I see so much. I am overwhelmed by the familiar.

Now I see not just the faces, but faces over time. I see a face traced with grief, and I also see that same face from an earlier time when laugh lines spread like beams of light from the corners of his eyes. I see the young mother trying to keep her son still in the pew, and I also see her when she was a restless teenager herself. I see the potbellied man, and I also see him at an earlier stage when he was fit enough to run a marathon. These days, more often than not, I am confirming teenagers I baptized as infants or young children, which feels a bit like picking up a corner of time, peering inside and seeing it in all its dimensions.

I can even see people who are no longer there. When I stand in the pulpit and look out at my congregation, I can see the deceased husband of the woman who now comes to worship alone. I can see the man who somehow ended up with the church in the break-up with his partner, but I can see the now-absent partner as well. And there is a pew that may be full today but still seems somehow empty because the family that used to fill it has moved across the country. It is like what interpreters of art call pentimento—the reappearance in a painting of an underlying image that had been painted over. In a pentimento one can see both the old and the new somehow together and at the same time.

A pastor who is new to a congregation will not be able to see a pentimento. A new pastor is not able to see the older layers or the people who are no longer there. That kind of pastoral vision comes only over time.

The layering of time adds thick texture to both individual narratives and the narrative of the congregation. After 18 years I not only know the back stories, I also know the back stories of the back stories. I know who has a difficult time getting along with whom. I can sense when a particular person is out of sorts, because I have seen her in enough contexts to be able to sort out the range of emotions reflected on her face. When one person says he is overwhelmed I know not to take it too seriously because he is often overwhelmed, and when another person says she is overwhelmed I take notice because this is something unusual for her.

To be sure, after all this time a sense of been-there-done-that can creep into some of my pastoral duties. This year’s stewardship campaign is numbingly similar to other campaigns. When writing my annual report, I am tempted to lift whole paragraphs from reports from previous years. And after 18 Christmas Eve sermons I have pretty much said all I know to say about the nativity. The congregation, however, becomes more interesting over time, much as a good novel becomes more interesting as each chapter nuances character development and plot in ways that are not possible in shorter literary forms.

I am convinced that the best preaching is done by pastors in their own congregations. That is because preaching is highly contextual. It benefits from deep and nuanced readings of three complex entities: the biblical text, the wider world and the congregation. The best preaching, in my experience, stands at the intersection of all three. A visiting preacher may be able to exegete the text and analyze what is going on in the world with brilliance, but an extra dimension is added when the preacher knows the congregation, particularly over a period of years. Harry Emerson Fosdick was fond of saying, “Preaching is sometimes like trying to put drops into someone’s eyes out of a ten-story window.” Preaching to one’s own congregation over time may not change Fosdick’s image, but it shrinks the distance. When you know a congregation well, you feel like you are preaching at much closer range. The drops are more likely to find their target.

And, of course, after all of these years the congregation knows me well, too. They know my gifts and how those gifts can be put to optimal use. They also know what gifts I lack and have learned over time how others can help shore up my ministry where it is weakest. They can follow my train of thought, often arriving ahead of me, and they are tuned in to my sense of humor. They know a good deal about my passionate commitments, and they know all too much about my pet peeves.

Most important of all, over time my parishioners have learned they can trust me: I will listen without being judgmental; I will keep confidences; I won’t bear grudges or play favorites; my judgment is largely sound; for the most part, I will not say or do something that is harmful to the congregation. Most pastors are trustworthy in these basic ways, but in congregations like the ones I have served, trust is earned over time, sometimes over many years, one pastoral engagement at a time…

(Read the rest of the article at http://www.christiancentury.org)

 

What Richmond Needs: Imagination

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.

Breaking Bread, Making Friends

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.

Of Wedding Vows and Sinner’s Prayers

KissOn my recent visit to Whitcomb Court with members of the police department and the “faith community” there was a woman in my group who insisted on asking everyone we visited, “If you were to die right now do you know for a fact you would go to heaven?” Usually the answer wasn’t yes or no: it was, “I think so.”

“You think so?” the woman asked. “Do you want to know how you can be sure?” And then she quoted Romans 10:9: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved.” And then she would ask the frightened young woman standing at the door to repeat after her as she led her through a version of “the sinner’s prayer,” similar to the one below:

Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior. In Your Name. Amen.

At the end of one such prayer she said to the young woman standing there, “Now you’re not a sinner anymore; you’re saved.” And I wondered: does it really happen like that? Are there “magic words” that can save you?

Later I thought about how I do a wedding. At some point I ask the groom to repeat after me, and I lead him through his vows. Afterward I do the same with the bride. And at the end of the service I say, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” When I sign the marriage license after the ceremony I attest to the fact that these two—who used to be single—are now married.

In some ways it seems like magic.

But I don’t think I would be there if I weren’t convinced that they wanted to be married, that they were doing because they loved each other.

Let me give you an example:

Two years ago my daughter and her fiancé were married before a magistrate at New York’s City Hall. I saw the 45-second video. The magistrate asked Nick if he would be willing to take Ellie as his wife and he said yes. And then he asked Ellie if she would take Nick and she said yes. And then the magistrate (who was clearly enjoying his role) drew himself up to his full height and by the authority vested in him by “the great state of New York” pronounced them husband and wife. And that was it; they were married.

But there’s more to the story.

Nick and Ellie had known each other in high school in Washington when Nick was an exchange student from Australia. When he decided to come to New York to see if he could make it there as a chef (because if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere) he got in touch with Ellie. They began to send e-mail back and forth, and then text messages, and then long (expensive) phone calls until Nick finally invited Ellie to come see him in Australia. She did, met his family, did some sightseeing, and when she was getting ready to leave Nick said, “If I come to New York do you reckon I could be your boyfriend?”

That’s what happened.

He came to New York and they began dating and at the end of a year he found out that his visa—which he had thought was a two-year visa—was about to expire. He was going to have to go back to Australia. But Ellie didn’t want him to go back to Australia, not without her. She loved him. And he loved her. And that’s when they began to talk about getting married. Three weeks later they stood in front of that self-important magistrate at City Hall and exchanged their vows and seven months after that—to the day—we had a “real” wedding ceremony on the banks of the Rappahannock River right here in Virginia. I did the wedding, and when I asked the groom to repeat after me I heard his voice break. When I asked Ellie to do the same I saw the tear slide down her cheek. I was convinced that they weren’t just going through the motions, that this wedding—which had gotten its start under such unusual circumstances—was the real thing.

That’s not the feeling I had at Whitcomb Court.

I believe the decision to follow Jesus is every bit as personal as the decision to get married, and twice as important. It’s not something you can force somebody to do. When we stand before the Lord someday I don’t think he’s going to ask us if we’ve said the sinner’s prayer. But he might ask us what he asked Peter that day by the seashore, the kind of thing people have been asking each other for centuries before taking the plunge of marriage:

“Do you love me?”

Field of Dreams, Part II

Cari DuVal is figuring out how to bring the KOHX2 (Kingdom of Heaven times Two) by partnering with others to bring heaven to earth.

KOH2RVA

Cari3Recently I posted an article by Joe Kendrick about the “Field of Dreams” his church uses to engage neighborhood kids in friendly, pick-up softball games. Today, without implying a trend, I want to post an email message from Cari DuVal in which she reports on a pick-up kickball game at Essex Village.

I’ve written about Essex Village many times on my own blog. I first described it as: “an apartment complex on Laburnum Avenue, where there are 544 children, many of them living in single parent homes. The crime rate in Essex Village is twice the national average.” That crime rate statistic made the members of Richmond’s First Baptist Church a little nervous the first few times we went to Essex Village, but by the end of our year-long, every-member mission trip (KOH2RVA), we felt at home there.

At least, some of us did.

Cari DuVal is one of those…

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Prayer Walking with the Police

2013-10-08 16.13.35Yesterday I went on a community walk with the Richmond Police Department in Whitcomb Court, one of the housing projects in the East End. This is part of an ongoing partnership between the police department and the city’s faith leaders.

I was accompanied by a police officer and the associate pastor of a sister church, Rev. Sharon, who had done this before. She knocked on the first door boldly, and when nobody answered the police officer knocked again. Someone inside said, “Who is it?” and he said, “Police!” By the time this woman got to the door, pulling on her clothes and adjusting her wig, she was terrified. She had been taking a nap and had no idea what was going on.

We tried to calm her down. We told her we were just there to ask people how they were doing and if they felt safe in their neighborhood. I said, “The police are smart enough to know they can’t do this job alone, and so they’ve recruited members of the faith community to help out. They provide the presence and we provide the prayers.”

That comforted her some, but you could tell her heart was still pounding, and that she might have been glad if the police and the faith leaders had simply left her alone. Rev. Sharon offered to pray for her and she nodded her head, and then Rev. Sharon said a prayer for her, her family, her home, and her future.

By the time we left I think she was feeling better.

We must have knocked on a dozen different doors yesterday, and behind almost every one was a mother who was concerned for her children. One woman told us she had a son, 27, who was “out there” day after day, doing who knows what. She was terrified that one day he would be shot and killed. We prayed for her as well, and specifically for her son.

Another woman had grown up in St. Croix, in the Virgin Islands, but then moved to Miami and eventually to Richmond. A beautiful little girl peeked out shyly from behind her legs and another one, the baby, was upstairs taking a nap. We prayed for that mother and those children as well.

Nobody turned us away, and everyone allowed us to pray. It seems that everyone has something to pray about, and these people had more than most. I prayed that God’s love would fill up those apartments in Whitcomb Court and overflow onto the streets and sidewalks, that people would be able to feel it wherever they went, to breathe it in, to live it out.

As we were leaving a school bus turned into the neighborhood and began to drop children off. Some of them came running toward us, curious about who we were and what we were doing. We invited them to join us in our closing circle and just before we prayed one little boy looked up at me and said, “Do I close my eyes now?” “Yes,” I said.  And he did.

At least, I think he did.  I had my eyes closed, too.

We said one more heartfelt prayer for Whitcomb Court and then began to head to our cars to drive home, most of us to comfortable homes far away from the East End. Ray Tarasovic, the Police Chief, stopped to talk with some of the boys before he left and I asked if he would let me take a picture. That’s the one at the top of this post.

Take a good look at it before you move on, click on it so you can see the faces more clearly, and then say a prayer for those boys. Pray that they would grow up into strong, smart, handsome men who never have a reason be afraid of the police, and never miss an opportunity to pray for the peace of their neighborhood. And then say a prayer for Chief Tarasovic.

He’s got a big job.

There was another shooting in Whitcomb Court last week, and all over that neighborhood, mothers held their children a little tighter.

Home Again, Home Again

AspensI’m home again after spending a glorious week in the great American Southwest.

You may have heard that Chuck, Joe, and I got kicked out of Zion National Park after the government shutdown last Tuesday, but we didn’t let it ruin our trip.  On a whim we decided to drive toward Monument Valley, and on the way discovered Highway 12 in Utah, which was described to us as “the second most scenic highway in the world” (apparently there is a highway in New Zealand that is even prettier, but that remains to be seen).

The scenery was, literally, breathtaking.  At points the speed limit would drop to 30 miles per hour simply because the people who post such things knew that over the next rise or around the next bend everyone on the road would put on their brakes and gasp at the view.

One night we camped in the desert on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, and sat around a juniper-wood campfire, perfuming the night air with sweet-smelling smoke.

The next day we hiked to the top of a 100-foot waterfall, stripped down to our shorts, and leaped into the pool just above it, gasping at the shock of the cold water.

That night we camped by a lake in an Aspen grove (see photo above) at high elevations, shivering in the chilly air under a sky full of brilliant stars.

The next day, on the advice of a well-meaning stranger, we drove fifty miles on a dirt road toward the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, throwing up a huge cloud of dust, only to find a chain across the road seven miles from our destination.

We never did make it to Monument Valley.

I was hugely disappointed that our Grand Canyon adventure didn’t work out.  Even though I had been to the Canyon earlier this year (for the first time) I hadn’t gotten nearly enough of it.  We had been told by that same well-meaning stranger that we could camp right there on the North Rim, that there was no guardrail there, and that you could walk right up to the edge and look down–for a mile.  He had done it himself, although he confessed that he had crawled on his hands and knees, terrified of heights.  I drove down that dirt road with that vision in my head, as excited as I’ve ever been at what we were about to see.

But, of course, we didn’t get there.

So imagine what a gift of grace it was to look out the window of my airplane on the way home and see–just a few miles below me–the Grand Canyon.  I pressed my face to the window and looked until it had completely disappeared from my view, drinking it in like someone who couldn’t get enough, and who didn’t really want to leave behind all that stunning beauty.

But several hours later I landed in Richmond, Virginia, the place that I live, the place that I love.  And I discovered once again that what they’ve been saying all these years is true.

There’s no place like home.