Why can’t Christians love Lent like Muslims love Ramadan?

Bim-Adewunmi-007Bim Adewunmi says she loves Ramadan.

“I am not a model Muslim,” she admits, “but Ramadan is the one pillar of Islam I do really well. It’s my time to shine.”

In a July, 2012, article Bim writes:

I think I was 11 when I took part in my first Ramadan. I was at boarding school in Nigeria, and the bell prefect sent one of her minions to wake us up for the pre-dawn meal, the sehri. A few hundred sleepy girls got up to walk to the dining hall at 5am to queue up in front of older girls who dished out piping hot rice and stew. Afterwards, we’d trudge back to our dormitories to catch some extra sleep and/or pray. In the evenings, we slipped out of prep to attend the Taraweeh prayers in the assembly hall. During the day, we would go to class as normal, virtuously turning down drinks and food with exaggeratedly pious expressions. The Ramadans of my youth were brilliant – communal pre-dawn meals of cassava, yams, rice or bread, followed by evenings of breaking the fast (iftar) with fruit, cornmeal and bean cakes. There was alms-giving, introspection and a community feeling; moments that have made it my favourite Islamic month.

It is the reason I still fast today. I am not a model Muslim: I swear like a sailor, I’m not often “modestly” dressed and cannot ever see myself wearing a hijab. I fall down on all the other pillars quite regularly – my zakat is sporadic, I have never done the hajj, and I don’t make five prayers a day; I take heart in the Islamic view that sincerity in intention is the foundation of all actions. But Ramadan, I can do. I am good at Ramadan. I love every element of it – the not eating, sure, but also the long tasbih sessions, the contemplation, the meditation, the communal prayers, the hum of anticipation right before iftar. It is a month where the halal butcher puts a little extra into my bag when I’m buying lamb shanks. It is the time when I throw out “Salam alaikum!” to hijabis and they smile back and reply. It is the time where I overhear Yorubas, who have a greeting for every occasion, say “E ku ongbe” empathetically on the bus. Everyone is better during Ramadan, more patient, more kind.

Ramadan makes me feel connected. There’s a network of us all across the globe; more than a billion of us, all doing the same thing at the same time. However disparate our lives, whatever freedoms we enjoy – or otherwise – however different our experiences, someone else is probably feeling exactly the same way I am. I find that incredibly moving and life-affirming. At this point in my life, I’ve documented my various issues with organised religion – and I’m not entirely comfortable with everything I see. But I know I love Ramadan. I fast because I want to, and because I can.  I fast because it makes me feel good.

When I compare Bim Adewunmi’s enthusiasm for Ramadan with the groaning I sometimes hear among Christians who are giving up chocolate for Lent (smile), I feel that we haven’t embraced the rich possibilities of this season.

Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, fasting and praying and being tested by the devil.  Why can’t we get a little closer to that in our observance of Lent?

None of us is Jesus, but we could fast a little more seriously, come to church a little more frequently, say our prayers a little more fervently during these 40 days, and, like Bim Adewunmi, we could throw out cheerful greetings to everyone we meet on the street.  Jesus said that when we fast we should anoint our heads and wash our faces (Matt. 6:16-18).  Wasn’t that a way of saying we should look cheerful instead of miserable?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people could say about Christians during this season: “Everyone is better during Lent, more patient, more kind,” instead of saying, “Those Christians sure do grumble a lot about giving up chocolate!”?

This is your invitation to a holy and happy Lent, one like you’ve never experienced before, and maybe one you will look forward to next year.



What I Want for Richmond

black-and-white-hands-e12810219397001I am not a regular reader of the newspaper. I am not a regular watcher of television news. Even so, I have heard plenty about Ferguson, MO, Staten Island, NY, and Cleveland, OH in the last few weeks. I know that there is racial unrest in our nation that is registering on the Richter Scale.

I haven’t preached about it. Although Karl Barth famously urged preachers to step into the pulpit with the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other I tend to leave the Times behind. I preach from the Bible, and I’m amazed at how often its timeless truths seem as fresh and relevant as the morning newspaper. Anyone who is listening to its pleas for justice, mercy, and humble walking with God will hear the names of “Ferguson,” “Cleveland,” and “New York.”

But I’m not thinking about them this morning; I’m thinking about Richmond.

What I want for Richmond is a different kind of reality. I don’t want us to be the next Ferguson. I want us to be a place where God’s kingdom has come and God’s will is done on earth as it is in Heaven. And I can’t imagine that it is God’s will for there to be enmity among his children, and especially not because of color or class.

So, what if, in Richmond:

  • We went out of our way to be kind to each other?
  • We greeted each other warmly, sincerely, with the sign of the open palm, proving that we meant each other no harm?
  • We visited each other’s churches, celebrating the truth that we have the same Heavenly Father, which makes us all sisters and brothers?
  • We took the time to call or listen to those who may feel especially vulnerable in this time of unrest, those who are thinking, “That could have been my son,” or, “That could have been me”?
  • We tried to be patient with those who learned prejudice from their parents or grandparents or other trusted elders as they struggle to learn a better way?
  • We prayed for police officers, who regularly risk their lives in the line of duty, and who live with more fear than they would ever want us to see?
  • We tried hard to see in the face of every other human being the face of Christ, and tried to love one another as he has loved us?

That’s what I want for Richmond. I know it’s a lot to ask, and I know it seems to leave out those who are not part of my tradition, and who may not be willing to look for “the face of Christ” in others. But can we at least see the face of a neighbor in the other, and recognize that this is our city, together? That it rises or falls on the basis of how we treat each other?  And can we make a silent promise, right now, to treat each other with love and respect?

My friend Ben Campbell has said he wants “the former Capital of the Confederacy to become the Capital of Racial Reconciliation.”  That’s a good and worthy goal and I embrace it, but I realize I want even more than that:

I want it to become Heaven on Earth.

Is this what life in the Kingdom looks like?

Pink Prayers2
My wife, Christy, teaches Kindergarten at St. Michael’s Episcopal School in the Bon Air neighborhood of Richmond.

A few weeks ago she had to break the news to her headmaster that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.  The good news is (because she goes for an annual mammogram) her doctor caught it early.  Christy was reassured that a little bit of surgery and some follow-up radiation would do the trick.  And so, on October 2, she had a “little bit” of surgery.  She has spent the last three weeks recovering and getting ready for radiation treatments, scheduled to begin today.

When she got to school this morning she found that everyone at St. Michael’s was wearing pink as a sign of support, and during chapel everyone was invited to join in a prayer for Ms. Somerville.  A few of the children put their hands on her shoulders, and then everybody tried to get in on the action, leaning forward, reaching out toward a beloved teacher.

Christy told me her hands were busy wiping away tears.

At church lately I’ve been asking people what life in the Kingdom looks like, and wondering if it is that place where we bear one another’s burdens, and wash one another’s feet, and forgive one another’s sins.  When I saw this picture my own question was answered. What does life in the Kingdom look like?


It looks like this, like that place where children wear pink and say prayers for their teacher.

May that Kingdom come everywhere, and not only at St. Michael’s School.

Person by Person

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAHere’s a post by Susan Grant, who told me this story after the 8:30 worship service last Sunday.  It was so good I told her to write it up and send it to me, and promised I would post it on my blog.  She did, and I did, so here it is.  Enjoy!

Last Saturday I attended a Kathy Troccoli conference/concert at Goochland High School. It was an inspiring morning as Kathy emphasized what God can do in our lives through her theme “Hope’s Alive.” God spoke to me as she gave examples of how she intentionally interacted with strangers to which she felt drawn – like a server at Applebee’s, and a woman at the Nashville airport. Kathy and I are so different… she grew up on Long Island and can be very outspoken. For me, I tend to stay in the background and don’t pay attention to others I pass in a normal day. However as I left Goochland that afternoon, I asked God to give me a boldness like Kathy, to show me whose life I could impact for Him.

It didn’t take long.

That night God reminded me of a gentleman I had seen for years on Sunday mornings sitting on a bench on Patterson Avenue waiting for a bus. I had assumed he was leaving his nearby home to go to work as I was on my way to church at 8 a.m. Several times through the years I had considered stopping to say “hello” to him but thought he would consider me crazy for doing that. However now I knew what God wanted me to do.

On Sunday with boldness and renewed confidence I pulled over into the bus stop. Quickly I walked over to this man with a backpack slung over one shoulder and introduced myself. I told him I had seen him for years as I drove by on my way to church. He surprised me by responding, “Yes, I’ve seen you, too.” I had never seen his eyes meet mine… he was always looking west on Patterson, searching for the bus coming his way. He introduced himself as Chris, saying he worked all night as a security guard at Agecroft Hall. I immediately told Chris I was heading to church and asked what I could pray about for him. With a surprised look on his face he mumbled, “Nothing.” I responded, “Nothing? With all the issues we all have to deal with you have nothing I can pray for?” Chris’ answer as he shrugged his shoulders, “I just try to work through it all.” As I headed back to my car I told Chris I would be praying for him that morning. We both waved to each other as I pulled out to drive the remaining eight blocks to church.

Kathy Troccoli inspired me to plant a seed. Hopefully someone else will water it and God will make it grow. (I Corinthians 3:6) Perhaps on occasional Sundays I can stop to give Chris a sausage biscuit or Croissan’wich to take home to enjoy as his breakfast. I’m praying for myself – that inch by inch God can transform me into someone who can impact lives for God, person by person.

Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, Indeed!

Old friends, two happy senior women talking in parkGuest blogger Becky Payne, church organist and friend of the elderly, shares a story about a recent event that truly brought heaven to earth.


When our pastor, Jim Somerville, challenged our church to “bring the kingdom”, one of our members at Lakewood Manor, Bernice Rodgerson, was a bit puzzled about what she might do to participate in the challenge. At that time Bernice was not well and didn’t get out much. She and I talked about the possibilities and decided she could write notes and make phone calls to other senior adults who are homebound. I gave her several names of ladies in other retirement facilities and she began her “ministry” of encouragement.

Earlier in this year we were discussing one of her ladies and Bernice expressed a desire to visit her. I assured her I could make that happen. On a Wednesday afternoon mid-August Bernice and I went to visit Anne Poindexter. I watched with great joy as these friends greeted each other and talked non-stop for a lengthy time. Anne was happy to share refreshments with us as we talked about our church, our families and Anne’s upcoming 99th birthday. The excitement of these ladies and the sweetness of that visit is etched in my mind.

As we drove back to Lakewood Manor Bernice and I talked a bit about the other ladies she had been writing. You guessed it: this Friday Bernice and I will make the short trip to Gayton Terrace to visit with Betty Grubb!

Should Have Taken the Bus!

2013-11-08 17.27.15I saw Andrew Terry at the Hope in the Cities luncheon yesterday. Andrew is working to bring rapid transit to Richmond, and he recently asked a room full of people if any of us would ride the new “super bus” if it came to the city.

I raised my hand.

I may have had that in the back of my mind yesterday when I thought about how I was going to get to the Omni Hotel for the luncheon. I don’t mind driving downtown. It’s not far from First Baptist Church. But I do mind parking downtown—either searching for an available meter or paying way too much to park in a garage.

So, I asked my smart phone how to get downtown on the bus and it told me: “Walk over to Broad Street, get on the bus heading downtown, get off at 12th Street and walk over to the Omni on Cary Street” Total trip time? “About 27 minutes.” Total cost? “$1.25” (my phone is so smart!).

But I had a few more emails to check and when I finished I didn’t have 27 minutes. So I jumped in my car, whizzed downtown, found an available meter four blocks from the Omni, put in two dollars worth of quarters, and hurried to the luncheon.

One of the first people I saw was Andrew Terry, and I told him, “I almost took the bus!” He commended me for my good intentions but insisted, “We’ve got to get more people riding public transportation.” I said, “Maybe we could have a public transportation day. You pick the date, and I’ll challenge my church to ride the bus.” “Great idea!” he said (stay tuned).

The luncheon was inspiring. Dr. Gail Christopher of the Kellogg Foundation talked about what her organization is trying to do to lift children out of poverty, and noted, sadly, how closely their plight is linked to the idea of race. “Idea,” she said, because human beings are, genetically, 99.9% identical. And yet we have used that .01 percent difference to justify all manner of atrocities, including slavery.

I’ll have more to say about that at another time, but for now let me say that the luncheon ran a little longer than I expected, and when I got back to my car I found a bright green parking ticket stuck under the windshield wiper (sigh).

This is why I don’t like parking downtown.

I got in my car and headed back toward the office and at a stoplight on Broad Street I looked over and saw Andrew Terry in his car, motioning for me to roll down the window. He shouted, “Next time we’ll take the bus!” I reached for my parking ticket, held it up and shouted, “If I had taken the bus I wouldn’t have gotten this!” He laughed out loud and said, “I need a picture of that!”

So, here you go, Andrew: this picture is for you. If I had ridden the bus to my luncheon it would have taken 27 minutes and cost $1.25. I got there in 23 minutes in my car, but ended up paying $22.00.

Even I can do the math.

David and Ann Meet the Neighbors

Albert Hill Group

Here’s a post from Ann Carter, Youth I Associate at Richmond’s First Baptist Church, about the tentative first step she and her husband David took to bring heaven to earth with some of our neighbors at Albert Hill Middle School.  In the spirit of KOHx2, David and Ann were trying to “bring it together” with partners from other organizations.  Ann describes it as a “mustard seed” experience–something that started small–but she wonders what it might yet become. 

It’s been a while since I was on the front end of a burgeoning mission project. A little more than 7 years to be exact. Seems as though, recently, I have been privileged to plug into great ministries already in process. But this past Saturday, I found myself working once again on a fledgling project.

Albert Hill Middle School is an easy 6 block walk west on Park Avenue from church. Stephanie Perry, one of the 6th grade science and math teachers and an acquaintance from our neighborhood swim team, had gotten my name from Len Morrow and emailed me. She was looking for a group who might be willing to help with a grounds clean-up day. Would that be something First Baptist would like to do? She also wondered whether First Baptist was interested in a partnership with Albert Hill; we were neighbors after all! “Of course,” I replied; and told her about our every member mission trip to bring heaven to earth. I love when people move toward my church, seeking meaningful relationships and partnerships.

The kick-off for this new relationship with Albert Hill Middle School was going to be November 2. Emails and Facebook posts went out to youth and their parents inviting them to participate in this neighborly project. Our youth are busy, and their families are even busier. And with very short notice, not surprisingly, no one was available. Not because they didn’t want to be; but because they had other commitments.

Albert HillSo David and I woke up early on Saturday, filled our tanks with good strong coffee, donned our work clothes, packed up our wheelbarrow, shovels, rakes and pruning shears and set out to Albert Hill. I was hopeful that we would bump into some last minute First Baptist volunteers whose calendars had miraculously cleared on this November Saturday. Instead, we met the principal, the PTO president, parents and students. We met our neighbors; people who love their school, who love their neighborhood. They were all surprised that David and I were willing to come out on a Saturday to give their time investing in their school. I explained where we were from and why we were here. “Oh,” they said, “you are from that church right up the street. That big one on the corner?” Some very good connections were made; emails and phone numbers were exchanged; meetings were arranged; relationships were initiated and ground work was laid.

So, our church family can be a good neighbor to the middle school 6 blocks down the street – what will that look like? I don’t know, yet. Maybe some tutoring and mentoring? Sponsoring a kid on a field trip? Encouraging teachers? Clean up days? I will find out more as I meet with Mr. Davis, Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Todd in the coming weeks. But I do know this: when First Baptist people are presented with opportunities, they rise to the occasion, they embrace the mission as their own, and they bring heaven wherever they go. So I have great hope that this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

So, that fledgling mission project I was a part of 7 years ago? The Together for Hope All Church Challenge in Helena, Arkansas. In 2006, we started with 5. Since then, God has multiplied that number 30 times! More than 150 volunteers from our faith community have given one week of their lives over the course of 7 years to love and minister in Helena. Lives in Helena have been changed. OUR lives have been changed.

icon-ann-carterStarting small can be a good thing. Kinda like the parable of the mustard seed – God takes something insignificant and turns it into something so powerful it can move mountains. Numbers and size don’t matter to God. He can start a good work in one or two hearts and multiply that into life changing ministry. So, won’t you join David and me in this promising partnership? Let’s see what God will do!