Rags to Riches

OprahOprah Winfrey was born into a poor family in Mississippi, but this didn’t stop her from winning a scholarship to Tennessee State University and becoming the first African American TV correspondent in the state at the age of 19.

In 1983, Winfrey moved to Chicago to work for an AM talk show that would later be called The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Today Winfrey’s net worth is in the billions.

——————————–

We love these kind of stories, don’t we?  These “rags to riches” stories, where some poor kid, through hard work and determination, rises to the top?

I’ve been thinking about that lately where Virginia Governor Ralph Northam is concerned.  I’m not saying that he was a poor kid, but let’s allow that his worldview may have been impoverished by the circumstances of his early life.

ralph
Born in 1959, Northam and his older brother of two years, Thomas, were raised on a water-side farm, just outside Onancock, on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. The family grew a variety of crops and tended livestock on their seventy-five-acre property. As a teenager, Northam worked on a ferry to Tangier Island and as a deckhand on fishing charters; he also worked on a neighbor’s farm and as a “stock boy” at Meatland grocery store. 

Humble beginnings, right?  And can you imagine that on the Eastern Shore of Virginia in the sixties and seventies, Northam’s appreciation for African Americans may have been stunted by his environment and experience?

In my own experience, growing up in rural West Virginia around the same time, I remember the hateful things that were said about homosexuals (we hadn’t learned the word “gay” yet).

I myself said things that I am ashamed to remember.

But when I moved to Washington, DC, in 2000 I became pastor of a Baptist church in DuPont Circle, home to a large portion of the city’s gay population.  I got to know gay people, some of whom were brave enough to visit my church.  I listened to their stories over coffee in the neighborhood, and many of the stories they told broke my heart.  These days, when someone tells me, “I’m gay,” I remember those stories and feel a generosity of spirit that I didn’t have as a boy.

In its own way, it is a “rags to riches” story, and I’m wondering if Ralph Northam has a similar story where African Americans are concerned.  Would he say that when he posed for a racist photograph in 1984 he was “poor” in terms of his love and understanding for African Americans?  Would he say that now, because of his experience (and, I believe, a wife who keeps pushing him to grow, as my wife does), he is “rich”?  And do we have enough generosity of spirit to allow him to change?

I’ll just bet that when Oprah Winfrey walks into the nice stores in Chicago these days they let her shop.  Nobody says, “You’re poor!” because even though that was once true, it isn’t anymore.

To those who would call Ralph Northam a racist I say, “That may be true.  He may have been a racist once, and he may still be a racist.  I don’t know.  But it may also be true that he used to be a racist in the way Oprah used to be poor.  Maybe this is a rags to riches story.”

If that’s true, it gives me hope that all of us could become more generous in spirit, and learn to love those who are different from us as if love were money and we were all billionaires.

–Jim Somerville

People to Heaven or Heaven to Earth?

rapture-art-designOn Monday morning I posted this question on my Facebook page:

Quick survey: Would you say the PRIMARY mission of the church (not the only mission, but the primary one) is to:

A: Get people to heaven
B: Bring heaven to earth

I invited respondents to type “A” or “B” into the comments box without further comment (while acknowledging that on Facebook that was unlikely to happen).  Still, many of them did just that, and when I counted them up on Wednesday morning the “B’s” had it: 149 out of 181 responses.

I recognize that these people are my Facebook friends, and I’m sure they’ve heard me talk about my church’s mission as “bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.” They’re used to that kind of language.  Still, that’s a solid 82% who think the primary mission of the church is not getting people to heaven but bringing heaven to earth, which is not what I’ve always heard.

In my youth and childhood I often heard that our job, as Christians, was to “save sinners,” which in those days meant I needed to tell my non-Christians friends that they were going to hell.  That was the bad news.  But then I got to tell them the Good News: that God loved them so much he sent his only Son to die for them, and if they would simply accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior then when they died, instead of going to hell, they would go to heaven.

Good news, right?

But what do you do after you “get saved”?  Do you sit on a church pew until Jesus comes back, or until you die, whichever comes first?  No, of course not.  You go out and share the good news with others, who share it with others, who share it with others until the Gospel spreads around the globe like candlelight at the Christmas Eve service—from one wick to another.

That’s a beautiful image, and it reminds me of what Jesus said to his disciples at the end of Mark’s Gospel: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the good news to every creature” (Mark 16:15).  But the good news of Mark’s Gospel is proclaimed in the first chapter, by Jesus himself.  In Mark 1:15 he says, “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near.”  These are the first words out of his mouth.  And what strikes me about them is that Jesus does not say, “If you accept me as your personal Lord and Savior then when you die, instead of going to hell, you will go to heaven.”

Instead he talks about the kingdom.

Read the gospels carefully and you will find that Jesus refers to the kingdom some 120 times, more than anything else, and certainly more than heaven and hell.  The kingdom is his primary concern, and when his disciples ask him to teach them to pray he says, “Pray that God’s kingdom would come, on earth as it is in heaven.”  But that’s not all he does.  Jesus demonstrates the work of the kingdom by healing the sick, cleansing the lepers, raising the dead, casting out demons, preaching the good news, and then sending his disciples out to do the same (Matt. 10:7-8) because that’s what disciples do.

That’s what I want to do.

I don’t want to be a convert to Christianity; I want to be a disciple of Jesus.  I answered his call a long time ago.  I’ve been following him ever since.  Through my regular study of the Gospels I’ve been listening to him teach and preach, I’ve been watching him help and heal, I’ve been studying his moves and learning his craft and then I’ve been getting out there and trying to do what I’ve learned from him, just like those first disciples.  Because I don’t only want to pray that God’s kingdom would come I want to work to make it so: I want to help Jesus bring heaven to earth.

And that’s the kind of church I want to belong to.

I don’t spend a lot of time preaching about heaven and hell.  I invite people into a life of discipleship.  I invite them to follow Jesus.  I believe that if they follow him faithfully wherever he goes they will end up where he did–in heaven.  I believe that I will.  And when that day comes I don’t want him to have to send some angel to see if he can find my name in the Lamb’s Book of Life (Rev. 21:27); I want him to recognize me at once, because we’ve been working together for years.  I want him to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.

“Enter into the joy of your master!”