“God loves you, but…”


Good news.

That’s what the word evangelism means in Greek.

And yet, as I was explaining to our homeless neighbors at community missions on Wednesday, the good news preached by many evangelists has a big “but” in it.

“God loves you,” they say, “But…”
But you’re a sinner.
You’re covered from head to toe
In your filthy, stinking sins.
God loves you but…
He can’t accept you in that condition.
You have to accept Jesus,
You have to be washed in his blood,
Then, when your sins have been washed away,
When you are as white as snow,
Then God can accept you,
And when you die you will
Live with him in heaven forever.

“God loves you, but…” the evangelists say, and what they don’t say is that the good news they preach is conditional.  God may love you, but he can’t accept you until you do something: until you accept his son Jesus as your personal Lord and savior.

Your acceptance requires your acceptance.

On Wednesday I asked my audience to imagine a baby boy crawling across the floor toward his grandmother, who is seated in a chair reaching out to him with open arms.  “He’s crawling fast,” I said.  “He’s got a big grin on his face.  Drool is running down his chin.  But suddenly he stops and sits up, gets a look of intense concentration on his face, and begins to…fill his diaper.”

They enjoyed this part.

“Does his grandmother turn away from him in disgust?  No, she does not!  She waits till he finishes and then scoops him up in her arms, takes him to the nursery, puts him on the changing table and begins talking to him in baby talk.  ‘Did you poop your diaper?  Did you make a big mess in there?  Let’s take a look.’  And then she does, and it’s disgusting!  The smell is nauseating!  She’s fighting to keep her breakfast down while that baby boy looks up at her and grins again.  He knows she loves him, dirty diaper and all.

“And she does.

“She smiles back at him.  She can’t help herself.  She wipes his bottom clean, sprinkles on a little baby powder, puts on a fresh diaper, and scoops him up again, talking baby talk the whole time, telling him what a stinky mess he made and how she loves him anyway.  The only thing that has changed, really,

“Is his diaper.”

I want to challenge the notion that God can’t accept us until our sins are washed away, and I want to do it on the basis of John 3:16, everybody’s favorite Bible verse.  “God so loved the world,” it says (the stinky, sinful world), “that he gave his only son, so that anyone who believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life.”  We often read that verse and imagine God gave his son as a sacrifice.  But what if that verse is not about the Crucifixion, but about the Incarnation?  What if God’s son didn’t come to shed his blood so that our sins could be washed away, but to reveal the heart of God, and to show us that it beats with love?

Unconditional love.

I told my audience at community missions, “Yes, you’re filthy with sin.  We all are.  That’s what it means to be human.  But being human also means you are one of those made in God’s own image, and maybe that’s all God sees when you look up at him and grin, with drool running down your chin.  He loves you and accepts you as you are.  Sure, there’s that dirty diaper to deal with, but I think God can handle that, don’t you?”

Most of them nodded.  One said a quiet “Amen.”

It was God’s son, after all, who once said to a paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven.” He didn’t offer up any sacrifices; he just did it.  He had the power to forgive sins on earth and it was God who gave him that power (Mark 2:8-12).  Jesus used to say to sinners like us, “Your faith has saved you,” “Your sins are forgiven,” “Neither do I condemn you.”  He did it everywhere he went, and when he did he revealed the heart of God.

Suppose God gave his son not so much as a sacrifice whose blood would cover our sins, but as an older brother who would come looking for us wherever we are (even if we’re sleeping under a bridge) and tell us that it’s OK to come home, that the father is waiting,

With open arms.

Have We Lost All Fear?

gallupattendanceI saw another one of those graphs recently.

I try to avoid them, but I saw one.  Someone had slipped it into an otherwise helpful article about the church in America.  There it was: a graph making it painfully clear that Sunday morning worship attendance continues to slide as fewer and fewer people take the trouble to get up, shine their shoes, and come to church.  You can hear lots of good excuses about why that’s true, but last week, for the first time, I thought of this one:

What if people have lost their fear of the Lord?

Remember that old proverb? “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”?  (Prov. 9:10).  It doesn’t mean that you’re supposed to be afraid of God; it means that you are supposed to have “profound reverence and respect” for God.  And maybe there is a little fear in that, in the same way I knew as a boy that I needed to do what my father told me, and that there would be consequences if I didn’t.  But if God is our true father, and the Bible is his true word, do you have any sense that people these days are listening to him in the way I used to listen to my dad?  Is anybody out there thinking, “I better do what he says or I’m going to be in big trouble!”?

What I’m trying to say is this: it seems more and more likely to me these days that someone could read from the Bible on a Sunday morning and say, “This is the word of the Lord,” and instead of saying “Thanks be to God” the congregation might say, “So what?”  People used to come to church, I think, because someone was going to read the word of the Lord and then explain it, so they could take these sometimes difficult passages of Scripture and apply them to their everyday lives, as it might actually matter that you did what the Lord wanted you to do.  These days they seem to lump the Bible together with any and all other bits of wisdom they might pick up along the way; it is only one other voice in the crowd and maybe not the most important voice.  Which is to say they have lost their fear of the Lord.  They do not listen for his voice with a trembling sense of expectation.

Back to that old proverb: if fear means profound reverence and respect, then wisdom means making the kind of choices that will lead to a long and happy life.  Picture yourself standing at a fork in the road, knowing that the choice you make will make all the difference, that one road leads to life while the other road leads to death.  Wouldn’t you stand there long enough to make the right choice?  Wouldn’t you wish for someone to come along who could tell you which way to go?  The proverb suggests that if you have profound reverence and respect for the Lord, if you listen for his voice and do what he tells you, you will find yourself on the road that leads to life, not death.  If wisdom means making the kind of choices that will lead to a long and happy life, then this is the beginning of wisdom: to stand at the fork in the road and listen for the voice of God until he tells you which way to go.

I think that’s why people used to come to church: to hear a word from the Lord; to get some guidance about which way to go.  I think that’s why they got in the habit of saying—after the scripture was read and after the minister said, “This is the word of the Lord”—

“Thanks be to God!”

How to Start Your Own Small Group

small group

Last night’s PowerPoint presentation was a disaster.

How is it that the technology always works smoothly at home, but when you set up your laptop in front of a hundred people, plug in the HDMI cable, and press the start button everything goes awry?

I don’t know how, but I know that’s what happened last night as I tried to inspire a hundred people to start a hundred new small groups in the next 18 months.

So, here’s the link to my PowerPoint presentation in the hope that they and others can see it as it was meant to be seen.  For best results click the link, let the PowerPoint presentation download (you might find it at the bottom of your screen), click on the download, let the PowerPoint program open up, click on the “Slide Show” feature, and then push “Play from Beginning.”  See if that works, and if not, let me know.

How to Start Your Own Small Group

I hope you will take a look, and learn, and perhaps be inspired to start a small group of your own, whether it’s here in Richmond or on the other side of the world.

And may your technology never fail.



Our Challenge to the City of Richmond

This op-ed piece was published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Wednesday, January 31.  I wanted to post it here as well so that it can be easily re-blogged, or shared on Facebook, Twitter, etc.  Let’s read, Richmond!


February is Black History month.

We want to challenge our city to read some history.

But it’s not only black history: it’s our history, black and white together.

I’m the pastor of Richmond’s historic First Baptist Church, founded in 1780.  David is the founder of Arrabon, a non-profit organization devoted to racial reconciliation.  Together we want to challenge the citizens of Richmond to a city-wide book read during the month of February.

The idea for a city-wide read began after the tragedy in Charlottesville on August 13, 2017, when one person was killed and many more were injured in a clash between white nationalists and anti-fascists.  When rumors began to circulate about a similar demonstration on Monument Avenue, many of us wondered how we could keep the same thing from happening here.

I had already registered for a one-day conference in Louisville, Kentucky, on September 11 called “The Angela Project,” named after the first enslaved person to set foot on American soil.  It turned out to be a one day awakening, in which speaker after speaker cited the injustices experienced by African-Americans in this country: inequities in income, housing, and education that appeared to be the product of systemic racism.

But what could be done?

Dr. Kevin Cosby, organizer of the event and pastor of the 14,000-member St. Stephen Church in Louisville, recalled his conversation with Joe Phelps, a well-meaning white pastor who wanted to know what he could do to make things better between black and white people in that city.

“Do you really want to help?” Cosby asked.

“Yes!” Phelps answered.

“Then read The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”

 It was a challenge.

To Cosby’s astonishment, Phelps, the pastor of Louisville’s Highland Baptist Church, agreed.  When he finished, the two pastors got together to discuss the book.  It led to a weekly lunch joined by other black and white pastors in the city who read books and talked about the problem of racism.  That led to an organization called “Empower West” (a reference to West Louisville, home to most of the city’s black population), that, among other things, challenged the entire city to read a book during Black History month.

When I got back to Richmond I had lunch with my friend David Bailey to talk about what I had learned and to dream about what we might do together to make things better between black and white people in this city.  When I mentioned the city-wide book read he pounced on it, because he knows we fear what we do not understand. And so we decided to challenge the citizens of Richmond to read a book together during the month of February.


The book is The Color of Law, by Richard Rothstein, subtitled: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. It’s the same book the citizens of Louisville will be reading, and it’s described on the dust jacket like this:

 “In this groundbreaking history of the modern American metropolis, Richard Rothstein, a leading authority on housing policy, explodes the myth that America’s cities came to be racially divided through de facto segregation—that is, through individual prejudices, income differences, or the actions of private institutions like banks and real estate agencies. Rather, The Color of Law incontrovertibly makes clear that it was de jure segregation—the laws and policy decisions passed by local, state, and federal governments—that actually promoted the discriminatory patterns that continue to this day.”

Those “discriminatory patterns” appear to continue in Richmond, where most of the city’s black population has ended up in the East End.  Why is that?  And how did it happen?

Rothstein’s book has answers.

If you have read this far you are a reader.  And if you are reading the Times-Dispatch then you care about this city.  As a reader who cares about Richmond, David and I challenge you to read The Color of Law in February, and to join us for a livestream conversation with the author at 7:00 pm on Monday, February 12, at Richmond’s First Baptist Church (2709 Monument Avenue).  The event is free and open to the public.

—Jim Somerville

Onward, Christian Soldier

Carol AdamsI met Carol Adams at a “Faith Leaders’ Summit” at the Police Department.

She was the one who had invited me, and when I got there, there she was: this petite, policewoman with a radiant smile, handing out water bottles and snacks and making me feel welcome in a place that didn’t exactly reek of hospitality.

Carol believed it was important for the church to be involved in the community and so did I.  First Baptist had just started its year-long, every-member mission trip back in the Fall of 2012.  We were trying to bring the “Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia”—the KOH2RVA.  I had asked our members to “look around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven, roll up your sleeves, and get to work.”

One of the things that didn’t look like heaven in our beloved city was the amount of violent crime.  Although Richmond was no longer America’s “murder capital” (as it had been in the early days of the crack cocaine epidemic) there were still far too many murders—forty or fifty a year as I learned from the police chief during that first summit.  But what could we do?  How do you “roll up your sleeves” and stop people from murdering each other?

I kept going to the summits.  I got better acquainted with Carol Adams.  And one day, after there had been a spate of violence in Mosby Court (one of the housing projects in Richmond’s East End), Carol invited me to “prayer walk” the neighborhood.

I met her there, not knowing exactly what she meant by “prayer walking.”  It turns out she meant going from one apartment to the next, knocking on doors, and asking residents how we could pray for them.  The residents seemed a little reluctant to come to the door after the shootings of the previous few days, and when they did they seemed a little suspicious of this black policewoman and the white man standing there with her.

But eventually we all got the hang of it.

I would tell them I was a pastor and ask if there was anything I could pray for.  Typically there was, and typically they were not the kinds of things we pray for in our comfortable, mostly white, West End neighborhoods:

Pray for my sister.  Her boyfriend got killed.
Pray for my kids.  I’m afraid to let them come outside.
Pray that all this shooting and killing would stop.

It was after that last request that Carol told me her colleagues on the force kept insisting that she wear a bulletproof vest when she went to the projects.  But she grew up in those neighborhoods.  She feels at home there.  “Besides,” she said, laughing, “I got Jesus!”

On the morning of September 10, 2017, when First Baptist Church was getting ready for its annual “One Sunday” celebration, four people were murdered in Gilpin Court.  It broke my heart to see the headline.  It made me think we still have a long way to go before the Kingdom of Heaven comes to Richmond, Virginia.  But what could I do?

A few weeks later I called Carol Adams and told her I was going to go to Gilpin Court and do a “prayer walk.”  “I’ll come with you,” she said.

And there we were again, walking around another frightened neighborhood, knocking on doors, offering to pray with people.

There was a man who wanted us to pray for his health: he was having trouble breathing.  There was a young woman who stood in the shadows of her doorway, asking us to pray for her newborn baby.  And then there was a woman named Destiny who told us that things were going pretty well for her: she had just gotten a good job.  “Well,” I said, “let’s thank God for that.”

And so we joined hands and prayed: me, Destiny, Carol, and Joyce Gasparovic, a member of First Baptist who had come with me.  When we finished Destiny said thank you and then she said, “All I need now is a house.”

Carol said, “You need a house?”


Carol asked her a few questions, quietly, and then said, “I’ve got a house for you.  It’s in a good neighborhood.”  She explained to me, privately, “I’ve got a foundation that owns three houses.  We make them available to women who have suffered domestic abuse.”  And then she turned back to Destiny.  “There’s no man involved, is there?”  “No!” Destiny said.  “Then let’s get you moved in,” Carol said.

Destiny was over the moon.

When I heard Carol Adams was running for Richmond Sheriff as a write-in candidate I wanted to do anything I could to help her.  Maybe this post will help you get to know her a little better.  And maybe, if you live in Richmond and find yourself at the polls on November 7, you will write in her name and check the box beside it.

As I posted on Facebook: “Carol Adams is one of the finest, strongest, bravest, and most capable Christian soldiers I have ever known.”

She’s got my vote on November 7.

“Enough, Preacher!”

I may have pushed too hard in yesterday’s sermon.

For three weeks after white nationalists rallied in Charlottesville I mentioned racism in my sermons and how we need to root it out of our hearts and out of our nation.

I got email from one television viewer who said I had crossed a line, that I had started “preaching politics” from the pulpit.  I didn’t write back immediately, but when I did I said this:

I don’t think I was preaching politics.  I believe it is God’s dream that all his children—red and yellow, black and white—live in harmony.  I believe Martin Luther King shared that dream.  I believe that people who dream of an all-white United States in which black people are either enslaved or excluded have a different dream, and I firmly believe that dream should die.

But I did not preach about Republicans or Democrats, I did not speak a critical word about our president or congress, I did not suggest political solutions to societal problems.  I called on the people of God to behave like it, and to love their neighbors.

I will always do that.

Yesterday I did it again, even though I had told the worship planning team on Tuesday that I thought our congregation had heard all they could hold for a while.  But I couldn’t help myself.  The statistics I heard at a conference on Monday had broken my heart, and my heart had been soaking in those statistics all week: white households control 90 percent of the wealth in America while black households control only 2.6 percent; the top ten percent of white homes are worth $1.4 million or more while the bottom fifty percent of black homes (once the family car is deducted) are worth less than $1,700; a black college graduate can expect to make only two-thirds the income of a white high school dropout.[i]

I was talking about forgiveness, and about sins that seemed too big to forgive.  My hope was that my congregation would hear those statistics and come to me afterward saying, “Gosh!  That’s awful!  What can we do to change that?”  Because I think there are things that can be done, and I think Christian churches in America—both white and black—should be working toward solutions.

I was preaching to people who have shown themselves to be remarkably compassionate, people who have been willing to step forward and engage the problems of our society in order to make a difference, in order, as we say, “to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.”

But yesterday I may have pushed too far.

I may have bumped into the compassion fatigue people get when they have cared as much as they can for as long as they can, or I may have said what I said in a way that made people feel guilty rather than empathetic.  That’s what I heard afterward: “I’m not a racist!” (No: didn’t say that you were); “Where did you get those statistics?” (from Antonio Moore, an African-American lawyer from Los Angeles[ii]); “I have a lot of black friends!” (Exactly!).

I do, too.  And it’s exactly because we have a lot of black friends that we can be moved with compassion for black Americans everywhere, and want them to have what we (white Americans) have.

That’s how Yvette Carnell explained it.[iii]  When I spoke to her after last week’s conference I said, “I want black Americans to have decent housing, and good schools, and adequate health care, and equal opportunity…”  I wasn’t finished yet but I saw her smiling.  “What?” I asked.

“You want them to have what you have,” she said.




[i] “The Angela Project,” hosted by Simmons College in Louisville, Kentucky, on September 11, 2017.

[ii] Find Antonio Moore here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfP8rCe_fAITriqI3UPYF0Q

[iii] Find Yvette Carnell here: https://www.youtube.com/user/YCarnell