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.

KOH2RVA: Day 320

2013-07-22 13.51.16I’ve had this fear that First Baptist Church’s year-long, every-member mission trip called KOH2RVA might not make it all the way through to the end, that it might get off to a good start but then, halfway through the year, sputter to a stop.

That fear was unfounded.

If anything, it seems that our mission to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, has been picking up speed lately, making a final sprint to the finish line on September 8.  On Wednesday night I was sitting at the supper table with a half dozen of our members when Emily Johnston came over to say hello.  I had been wanting to see her, to tell her that I had received the message below:

Hi, Jim!

Hope to see you tonight, but if not, wanted you to know that Bill and I went over to Essex Village yesterday and had a grand time! It gave us a chance to work with children again, and that in itself, was great…the children, as you know, I’m sure, are very well behaved and most of them really want to learn. I can tell you more about our enthusiasm when we see you; it would be nice if more folks would give a little time to these people… the little ones still talk about Pakistan, where they were born.

Talk to you soon.

Emily

We talked for a while and as we did I looked around the table and realized that every person there had gotten “off the bus” and onto the mission field this year; in other words, there was 100% participation in KOH2RVA.  And this was not the elite missionary corps I was sitting with; these were “regular” church members who have begun to think of themselves as missionaries.

I know that what was true for my table on Wednesday night is not necessarily true for the entire church, but I was encouraged by what I saw—greatly encouraged.

I could almost hear the Kingdom coming closer.

KOH2RVA: Day 188

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.

KOH2RVA: Day 173

Song_Sparrow-27527-2I’ve been looking through this morning’s Richmond Times-Dispatch. The big news is that the federal government is going to cut $85 billion in spending, beginning today. It remains to be seen how those cuts will affect us locally or how much they will slow our progress in bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.

But that’s an interesting thought in itself, isn’t it? That the actions of the federal government could have an impact on the coming of God’s Kingdom?

The Times-Dispatch reports that “Henrico County could lose between $1.1 million and $2.1 million in grant funding used to support special education, the Head Start preschool program, programs for at-risk children and other federally funded efforts…. In total, roughly 20 to 30 positions could be jeopardized, many of them teachers. Money for equipment and materials would also be reduced” (page B1).

So, yes, if you’re at an at-risk child in Henrico County federal budget cuts could mean that you don’t go to Head Start, or you don’t get a free or reduced lunch. If you’re a Head Start teacher it could mean that you lose your job. And when you sit in my office a few months from now and say, “Pastor, I lost my job because of federal spending cuts!” it’s going to feel like heaven is a long way away.

But here’s the good news: God does not depend on federal funding.

On Wednesday morning I went downstairs to Community Missions at First Baptist Church, where I found about 75 of our homeless neighbors waiting for showers, hot coffee and pastries, and some of the love of Christ that is so generously shared by our volunteers. I told them I had been reading Luke 12 that morning, where Jesus says, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear, for life is more than food and the body more than clothing.” In that same passage he asks his disciples to consider the ravens and the lilies, and to notice how God feeds and clothes them. “If God feeds the ravens and clothes the lilies,” Jesus says, “then how much more will he feed and clothe you!”

“Is that true?” I asked. “Has God ever fed and clothed any of you?”

Every hand in the room went up, and for the next few minutes I heard testimonies of how these people had been cared for by God or by God’s people when they had little or nothing of their own. I finally had to call time, but even as I made my way out of the room some of them crowded around to tell me their stories.

This was two days before the sequester was scheduled to take effect, two days before deep cuts in federal funding would cost some people their jobs. Financial disaster was looming on the horizon but at Community Missions heaven was coming to earth. The brothers and sisters of the one who had “no place to lay his head” were bearing witness that God cares, and that he can and does provide.

There haven’t been a lot of hymns written about the federal government, but there have been a lot of hymns written about the Heavenly Father. Here’s one that will leave you humming:

I sing because I’m happy,
I sing because I’m free,
For His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.

KOH2RVA: Day 28

Yesterday I went to Guardian Place, a retirement community a few blocks west and a few blocks north of First Baptist Church. I wanted to talk to our members there about our year-long, every-member mission trip, and how they might get involved.

But I was told we didn’t have many members there—maybe three. And so there wouldn’t be much of a crowd. That didn’t matter to me. I wasn’t looking for crowds; I was simply looking for a way to get every member involved in this mission. So, imagine my surprise when I walked into the dining room at Guardian Place and found some fifty people sitting there, eager to hear from the pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church!

It turns out that many of them watch our telecast on Sunday mornings, and feel a strong connection to the church. So, it wasn’t out of place for me to talk to them about “our” mission. As I said repeatedly: “This is a big job. We need all the help we can get!”

What kind of help can they give? Well, I asked them that. One of them said, “We can love our neighbors!” Yes, and as it turns out, they have some neighbors right there in the retirement community who could use some love. “We can pray,” someone else offered, and I said, “Yes, you can!” I asked them to pray especially for the peace of our city, which just had its deadliest month in five years. And then, as we talked, several of those people began to offer other things they could do—small, practical things that would make a big difference.

I looked at Inez Cocke sitting there, Inez, who is one of our most faithful volunteers at First Baptist. I’ve teased her about having a cot in the church basement where she sleeps because I see her almost every day volunteering in one capacity or another: sending out CD’s and DVD’s to people who request them (including my parents), helping out with Wednesday night dinners, offering hospitality at funerals, ushering on Sunday mornings in the balcony. I’m sure those are only the most visible things she does, but if everybody at Guardian Place did what Inez did, the Kingdom of Heaven would have come to Richmond a long time ago, or at least to that part of Richmond.

It’s touching to think that–for the rest of this mission year–whenever I mention KOH2RVA on television some fifty people at Guardian Place will think of yesterday’s visit, and think of how they agreed to join us on this mission trip. They may bow their heads and say a prayer for the peace of the city. They may make a special effort to love their neighbors during Sunday lunch. Or, if they are like Inez, they may roll up their sleeves and get to work, and the kingdom may come, and God’s will may be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

What is “Church”?

I’ve been asking the staff of First Baptist, Richmond, to answer the question: “What is Church?”  Here are some of the answers I’ve received so far.

Phil Mitchell says: “For the biggest portion of my life, I thought of the church as a place where Christians went to worship, fellowship, be resourced and trained, mobilize to do and give to missions, and find personal support. Though I don’t believe any of that is untrue, I believe it is less true. I now believe church is a movement of the Body of Christ to make earth look like and function more like heaven, that place where God’s reign is clear and evident. As the church embodies the mission of God, its heart is changed. As the church changes its heart, the mission of God becomes increasingly real and present. So, the church is about changing the world and its heart for God’s sake.”

Lynn Turner says: “Having just returned from the BWA Congress, I am reminded once again that church is so much more than our little corner of the world in Richmond Virginia.  The church as Christ intended it to be, is the living, breathing, moving, presence of the Holy Spirit that sees the needs of people through the eyes of every believer and causes us to do something that will have an eternal impact in the life of another. With Christ as her foundation, the Holy Spirit as her power, the church of Jesus Christ has no limits of sharing the love of God in a world that desperately needs hands of compassion and a message of hope! Now that is something I can get excited about!”

David Powers says: “My thinking and feeling about church have been heavily influenced in recent months by Eugene Peterson’s newest book Practice Resurrection. It is essentially a study of Ephesians. In his translation of 1:23, Peterson has Paul saying, “The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.” Our function, as members of Christ’s body, is to help one another to grow up into mature disciples (4:14-16). That sums up what church means to me. I am part of God’s body, his family. As such, I am responsible for contributing to the nurture of other members of the family. And I strive to remain open to and responsive to the nurture provided to me. Together, we hear Christ speak and see him act. This mutual feeding and being fed leads to deep love and respect among the family. The result is that we begin to mimic what we see Jesus saying and doing among us: we act out Christ’s love in the world – we become his voice, hands and feet.”

What about you?  What do you think “church” is?  How big does it have to be?  Does it have to happen in a building?  Do you need a preacher and a choir?  If you had invented the church, what would that church look like?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Why don’t you click on the word “comments” below and tell me what you’re thinking.

Jim

The Central Task of Ministry

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.