Is this Man the Best Liar in America?

ImageShhhhh! Donald Davis is telling a story.

Actually, you don’t have to shush anybody when Davis is at work: his stories do it for you. The listeners lean forward, heads cocked in the direction of his voice, straining their ears for every word, and the words they hear often cause them to gasp, to sigh, or to laugh out loud.

Donald Davis is a storyteller, but he hasn’t always been. For twenty years he was a Methodist minister. But he couldn’t seem to keep the stories out of his sermons, not only the great biblical stories like Noah and the ark, David and Goliath, and Daniel in the lions’ den, but also the stories about his own eccentric family members and some of the odd neighbors he had known through the years.

“I didn’t learn stories, I just absorbed them,” he says as he recounts tales and more tales learned from a family of traditional storytellers who have lived on the same Western North Carolina land since 1781. Davis grew up hearing gentle fairy tales, simple and silly Jack tales, scary mountain lore, ancient Welsh and Scottish folktales, and-most importantly-nourishing true-to-life stories of his own neighbors and kin.

It was Uncle Frank, a man who “talked in stories,” who helped Donald capture the real and daily adventures of life…and it was Uncle Frank who gave him the creative courage to tell about them.

Davis remembers, “I discovered that in a story I could safely dream any dream, hope any hope, go anywhere I pleased, fight any foe, win or lose, live or die. My stories created a safe experimental learning place.”

His congregation loved his sermons, but nobody dared call him a storyteller: in Western North Carolina if somebody said you were “telling a story” they meant you were telling a lie.

And you wouldn’t want to call your preacher a liar.

But Davis was good at it, so good that he eventually retired from the ministry to take up full-time storytelling. At the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, where Davis has been a regular for decades, crowds pack the tent where he is telling. A fellow storyteller admits, “It is not a stretch to say that Donald is the top draw for the nearly 10,000 people who come to the National Storytelling Festival each year.” His books and CD’s always sell out first in the resource center, leading some to wonder:

“Is this man the best liar in America?”

Richmonders will have a chance to answer that question for themselves May 30 – June 1 when Davis comes to town for “America’s Best Storytellers,” a weekend festival to be held at the Byrd Theater in Carytown and the historic First Baptist Church at the corner of Monument and the Boulevard. Barbara McBride Smith, a champion storyteller from Tulsa, Oklahoma, will also be featured at the festival, along with Virginia storyteller and accomplished banjo picker Rex Ellis.

Festival organizer David Howell has recruited local radio and television personalities to emcee the event, and invited local storytellers to audition for a slot in the Sunday afternoon lineup. Maybe the best liar in America is right here in Richmond…

…just waiting to be discovered.

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Tickets are $35 for the weekend; $10 for Friday or Saturday evening only. To register or simply to get more information visit http://www.thebeststorytellers.com

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)

 

KOH2RVA: Day 344

Alma SnowaI love Alma Snowa.

Alma was one of the first women to be elected as a deacon at First Baptist Church back in 1976, along with Ginny Sanders and Betty Allen (pictured at right). I hope you will read the whole story when you get a chance, because it’s fascinating, but it’s not what I want to talk about this morning.

I want to talk about Alma.

Alma lives at Lakewood Manor, a Baptist retirement community in Richmond’s west end. When I came to First Baptist five years ago, I heard that we had sixty-two members who lived at Lakewood Manor. Alma was one of those, and one I have come to know well since then. It’s Alma who makes arrangements for the annual “Lakewood Luncheon,” when the church staff is invited to come out and have lunch with our members who live there. That gives her a good reason to be in touch with me: to ask about available dates early on and later to firm up the details. But one of the things I love about Alma is that she doesn’t need a good reason to be in touch with me. Sometimes she just writes to tell me what’s on her mind or in her heart.

She did that last week.

She wanted to talk to me about KOH2RVA and her participation in it. Before I share her email with you I probably need to tell you that Alma’s physical ability has become increasingly limited in the time that I’ve known her. If anybody had an excuse not to “get off the bus and onto the mission field” Alma had one. She might have written to tell me that, but she didn’t. She wrote to tell me this:

Dear Jim:

It is hard to realize that the year long bus trip is almost over, however, the things accomplished will be lasting. Sometime I wonder if I ever got off the bus or if I have spent the entire year sitting on the back seat praying. My physical participation is limited, but it has been a very meaningful experience. I have spent so much more time in prayer for others, I have prayer walked our halls and one of my efforts has been to seek out persons who just needed someone to talk with.

Thanks for letting us all share the experience.

Love and prayers to my pastor,

Alma

The thought of Alma sitting on the back of the mission bus, praying, moved me almost to tears. It reminded me that you don’t have to be physically active to help bring in the Kingdom: you can be spiritually active. In my devotional reading for this morning were these words from Harry Emerson Fosdick: “Some things never without thinking; some things never without working; some things never without praying! Prayer is one of the three forms of man’s cooperation with God.” What Harry was saying in his wonderful old-fashioned way is that you don’t bring in the Kingdom only by thinking about it and working for it, you also have to pray for it.

Maybe that’s what Alma and a host of other saints are teaching us: that when your hands can no longer hold a hammer they can still be folded in prayer.

Thanks, Alma.

KOH2RVA: Day 322

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What are the signs of the coming Kingdom? They’re in the hallways at Richmond’s First Baptist Church.

I’ve posted two of these previously, but take a look at what our bulletin board artists have done to communicate the truth that our church is on a year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia–the KOH2RVA–and that we really do want everybody to get off the bus and onto the mission field.

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Children's Ministry

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Is KOH2RVA part of the church’s culture?  Has it gotten into our DNA?  We’re still working on it, but a walk down the hallways of the church will let you know we are moving in the right direction.

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KOH2RVA: Day 301

FrontPorchFrontofHse 042Today we will commission five different mission teams at Richmond’s First Baptist Church. Two will go to South Africa, one will go to Arkansas, one will go to the Philippines and then on to Singapore for the Baptist World Alliance Youth Conference, and one person (Skyler Cumbia) will go to Ghana. It’s a good reminder that First Baptist is not only interested in bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, but to the whole world. We focus on Richmond simply because this is the place where we live, and the place that we love more than any other place in the world.

Not that there aren’t some other wonderful places.

I’ll be leaving Richmond just after the 11:00 worship service today for two weeks’ vacation in the Green Mountains of Vermont and the Catskills of New York. I’m going to walk in the woods, sit on the front porch, read good books, eat good food, and rest, rest, rest. I won’t be blogging for the next two weeks, but it would be a great time to dig through the archives and be reminded of all we have accomplished together in the last 301 days.

I will be counting on those of you who are still in town to carry on the mission, and to surprise me with all the good ways you have brought heaven to earth when I get back. One of the things we’re going to do shortly after my return is gather at the river on July 21 for the Sixth Annual FBC River Baptism. Please be in prayer for those who are preparing to be baptized, and join us if you can for that very special event.

Know, as I go, that some part of my heart will remain here in Richmond, and that I will look forward to being back with you here and getting on with our mission. But for the next two weeks I’m going to do my best to rest, remembering that even Jesus withdrew from time to time. I think I understand now, more than ever, why he had to.

Bringing heaven to earth is hard work!

Thanks for your help.

KOH2RVA: Day 287

black_and_white_eatingI want to say a little more about the meeting between some of the key leaders of Richmond’s First Baptist Church and First African Baptist Church last Tuesday night. As I wrote in yesterday’s post, Rodney Waller, pastor of First African, directed our attention to that passage in Acts 2 where “all who believed were together and had all things in common,” and then asked, “What if our two churches could show Richmond what true reconciliation looks like.”

And that’s when I got goosebumps.

It’s a worthy goal, inspired by the Holy Spirit, but true reconciliation won’t come easily; the wounds that divide us are old and deep. I remember talking to a church member in North Carolina who told me that he wasn’t prejudiced, that he had “a lot of black friends.” I wasn’t convinced. I asked, “When was the last time you had one of your black friends over for dinner?” Because this is the simple truth:

Friends eat together.

Take a look at that passage from Acts chapter 2 again: And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47, ESV).

At Tuesday night’s meeting I pointed out that line where it says they were “breaking bread in their homes.” “What if we did that?” I asked. “What if we invited each other into our homes to share meals? Because having people in your home is different from sitting down together in a church fellowship hall. It’s more intimate, more personal. It lets them into your life.”

I don’t know what the others will do with that idea but I know that I’ve been wondering if I have room at my table for Rodney Waller and his wife and their three teenage children. If our two churches are going to show Richmond what true reconciliation looks like it would be important for their two pastors to lead the way. And if the word reconciliation means “to become friendly again” then we’d better get busy. We can talk all we want, and have meetings from now until Jesus comes back, but true reconciliation is about friendship,

And friends eat together.

KOH2RVA: Day 258

btsr graduationToday is graduation day for the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. Students who have been working for the last three or four years to acquire the tools of ministry will walk across the stage, shake hands with the president, receive their diplomas, smile for the camera, and then step onto the mission field.

It’s a different world than when I graduated 26 years ago.

Back then most of the graduates were white men, who would be called as pastors by churches that could afford to pay them a decent salary plus benefits. They might start at a church in a county seat town, but within a few years, if they did well, they could expect to receive a call from a larger church, in a bigger town, with an even better salary. Ministry in those days seemed almost like a reasonable career choice.

But today the graduates will include as many women as men, from a number of different ethnicities. Most of them will not have a job offer in hand when they walk across the stage. There aren’t a lot of churches out there that are hiring. And yet you can’t seem to discourage these graduates. I know; I’ve tried. I’m a trustee at the seminary and I’m around the students on a regular basis. I tell them it’s not going to be easy out there, but that only seems to make them more determined. They talk about all the creative ways they are going to engage the world with the gospel, many of which have nothing to do with traditional church ministry.

For example: Jay McNeal, who has worked as my intern this year, is planning to keep his job at the seminary library to pay the bills, but work in an unpaid staff position here at First Baptist (donations gladly accepted) to help us develop our Microchurch initiative. We have a dream of starting some 500 small satellite churches in the greater Richmond metropolitan area that would work together with us to bring the KOH2RVA. Jay may be out there week after week helping people organize their microchurches, access the technology, and join the network. It’s something that I couldn’t have dreamed of when I graduated.

So, pray for these graduates. It’s not going to be easy for them. But then, Jesus never said it would be easy, not for any of us. “If you want to come after me,” he said, “then deny yourself, take up your cross, and fall in line.” The surprising thing is that these seminary graduates are doing it with smiles on their faces, as if all they ever really wanted out of life was a chance to give it away for Jesus.