KOH2RVA: Day 325

Rodney2Have you ever listened to a black pastor talk about the challenges his people face?

I did yesterday.

I had lunch with Rodney Waller, pastor of First African Baptist Church; one of his deacons, Booker Jones; and two of my deacons, Mary Ann Delano and Bob Palmer. We were talking about Rodney’s challenge from a previous meeting—that our two churches show Richmond what true racial reconciliation looks like.

I’m not sure how it came up, but Rodney told us that most of the people who live in the ghetto want to get out, “they just don’t know how.” He talked about black men who try to succeed and, for any number of reasons, fail (have you ever wondered who was going to get the job when there were three white men and one black man applying?). And then, because they feel like failures, they leave. And then, out there on their own, they shift into survival mode. And then, because they’re trying to survive, they begin to sell [drugs]. And then, to numb the pain of failure, they begin to use.

Rodney also talked about black women whose men have left them to raise children by themselves, and how it is nearly impossible to find the kind of job that will pay for child care and provide enough for their family to live on. Often they collapse into the safety net of social services and find it almost impossible to get out. And then they take a ride out to Short Pump (though not on the bus: it doesn’t go that far), and they see all these West Enders (“West Endians” Rodney called them) strolling through the mall with shopping bags full of high-end merchandise. “They want that kind of life but they don’t know how to get it and it makes them angry.”

Angry?

Yes, angry. Rodney said we need to acknowledge that there are structures of oppression in society that keep black people down, and that most of these date back to the time of slavery. He said, “I believe that many black people carry with them the hidden wounds of slavery, and those wounds keep getting opened up, and it causes pain.”

You can agree or disagree, but that’s pretty honest talk from the pastor of Richmond’s First African Baptist Church, and a good way to begin honest conversations that will be ongoing between our two churches. By the end of the meeting we had agreed to form a group of deacons called “The Twelve”—six from each church—who will continue to meet and talk and lead us to that place where we can show Richmond what true racial reconciliation looks like.

I summarized it like this: “Jesus told us to love our neighbors and you are our neighbors, but we can’t love what we don’t know so the first step, always, is to get to know each other.”

And that’s what we’re going to do.

As we were leaving I said, “You know what I’ve always dreamed of? An ethnic food festival, like the Greek Festival or the Armenian Festival. Why couldn’t our two churches get together and host a Baptist Food Festival?” We walked out laughing, trying to imagine what Baptist food would be (Fried Chicken? Sweet Potato Pie?), but it wasn’t a bad way to end a meeting.

It left our mouths watering for more.

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 103

wedding at canaHeaven has been a long way away from Newtown, Connecticut in the last six days.  For some people it’s been a long way away from Richmond, Virginia.

I was with some of those people last night at a service of remembrance for those who have lost loved ones in the last year, and for whom the holidays can be especially difficult.  I was asked to bring a message of hope.  I want to share it with you today and ask you, also, to be mindful of those people who may be having a hard time this Christmas.  See if you can bring a little heaven to earth for them simply by saying, “I’m thinking of you.”

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This is a service of remembrance, so let me begin with a memory.

My first church was in the little town of New Castle, Kentucky. There were some wonderful people there, including Hilda Powell, who was about five feet tall, and extremely sturdy: rooted to the ground by support hose and thick-soled orthopedic shoes. She was walking with a cane when I first met her but graduated to a walker soon after. She may have been the only person I knew who actually rode the lift we had in the back stairwell of the church. She would sit on that chair and ride up the stairs looking very much like the Queen of England, glaring out through the thick lenses of her glasses, and daring anyone to say a word.

At Christmastime, Hilda made bourbon balls. These were a Kentucky tradition—made of butter and powdered sugar, chopped nuts and chocolate, with just a hint of bourbon, except in Hilda’s case. She had a different recipe, which seemed to be mostly bourbon. You might imagine they were very popular. When she gave me my little box each year she seemed to do it with a secret smile on her face, as if she knew the Advent season is hard on ministers, and was doing her part to help it go down a little easier.

Her funeral was not the first I did at that church, but it may have been the first where I felt the loss quite so deeply. Hilda and I had become close in those years. Her gradual decline had given me plenty of reasons to visit her at home and in the hospital, and plenty of chances to have those kinds of honest talks you have when you know the end is near. So, I felt the lump in my throat when I said goodbye at her graveside, and the next Sunday when I looked out over the congregation I couldn’t help but notice her empty place on the pew.

Do you know how it is in church, that people seem to settle in one place in the sanctuary until it becomes “their” place, so that if a visitor sits there by mistake everybody else begins to clear their throats nervously? Hilda had that place. I can still see it if I close my eyes. And even though it wasn’t the first time I had ever seen it empty—she had been sick for a while—it was the first time I knew she would never sit there again.

You know what I’m talking about. You’ve seen that kind of thing happen at church, and, sadly, you’ve seen that kind of thing happen at home. For some of you, there will be a place in your house that is empty for the first time this Christmas. And if you have the tradition of sitting down to a big Christmas dinner it may be a place at the dining table—an empty chair—that will remind you more poignantly than anything else how your life has changed.

Maybe that’s why one of my favorite visions of heaven is what some scholars call “the eschatological banquet.” It seems to get its inspiration from a passage in Isaiah 25, where the prophet says:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation (Isa. 25:6-9, NRSV).

This is the banquet Jesus seems to have in mind when he says, in Matthew 8:11, “Many will come from east and west and eat with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven.” And when he tells the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22, he talks about a king who gives a banquet for his son, and when those who are invited won’t come he sends his servants out to gather anyone who will, so that his banquet hall may be filled.

I like that idea. Even more than I like the idea of mansions in heaven and streets of gold I like the idea of a heavenly banquet hall filled with people sitting at long tables that are groaning under the weight of more good food and drink than most of us have seen in our lives. A kind of Renaissance feast with a big fire in a huge fireplace, and musicians strolling around playing mandolins and fiddles as people eat and drink and clink their glasses together and laugh out loud.

And I like this idea: that as soon as our parents give us our names God writes them down on place cards and arranges them on the table in his heavenly banquet hall. I like to think that every child born on this earth has a place card in heaven, and only if they refuse God’s gracious invitation does he remove their card from the table.

So, picture this: when Hilda Powell died all those years ago her place on the pew was empty, but her place at the heavenly banquet table was finally filled, a place that had been waiting for her since she was a pink-cheeked baby girl. And because God is the one who arranges the place cards, I can picture her sitting with the people she loved most in this world and a few of the people she has come to love most in that one. Maybe you can picture your own loved ones sitting in that banquet hall, enjoying that feast, laughing until tears of joy run down their cheeks. Listen again to what the prophet says:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation (Isa. 25:6-9).

So may it be, and so may we pray:

Gracious God, it’s comforting to imagine our place cards on a table in heaven where the banquet is already in full swing, where people we have loved and lost are clinking their glasses together and laughing out loud, looking forward to the day when we can join them and discover for ourselves that this has been your intention all along—to bring all your people together forever in a place where there will be no empty chairs. Amen.

KOH2RVA: Day 84

hummusYesterday I wrote about Jeremy and Monica, and how they invited some Muslim acquaintances over for a meal. I promised to provide some tips today about how you could invite your Muslim neighbors over.

That may have been premature.

I wrote to some of my interfaith friends yesterday and asked if they could help me come up with a list of suggestions. One of them put me on to an organization called Peace Catalyst International, that promotes “Love Your Neighbor Dinners” between churches and mosques, but it didn’t say anything about what you might serve for dinner. Another friend promised to send me something by the end of the day, but it’s 7:30 on Saturday morning and I still don’t see anything in my inbox. It’s possible that he has more important things to do than contribute to my blog.

So, let me see what I can do on my own.

First of all, you might remember that both Christians and Muslims are “children of Abraham.” Christians trace their religious ancestry back to Abraham through Isaac, while Muslims trace theirs through Ishmael, Abraham’s son by Hagar. Abraham was famous for his hospitality. When three strangers showed up in front of his tent one day, unannounced, he hurriedly prepared a meal for them (Gen. 18).

One of them turned out to be God.

Hinting at that event the writer of Hebrews says, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13:2). And so, when that nice Muslim family moves in across the street get up (as Abraham did), go across the street, knock on the door, and invite them to dinner.

What should you serve? Well, faithful Muslims follow some fairly strict dietary guidelines. They don’t eat pork. They don’t drink alcohol. And so you wouldn’t want to invite your new neighbors over for beer and barbecue. But you could do this: you could get take-out from a nearby Middle Eastern restaurant. Just ask if the food is “halal”—the Muslim equivalent of “kosher.” Or you could make a vegetarian meal. My friend Ammar Amonnette, Imam at the Virginia Islamic Center, says “Fruits and vegetables of any kind are an easy way to offer hospitality.” Whatever you do, don’t let the risk of serving the wrong thing keep you from inviting your neighbors over. Just tell them, “I’m kind of new at this,” and ask for their help.  Soon they will be more than neighbors; they will be friends.

And heaven will have come a little closer to earth.

We Are on a Mission Trip

15062127That’s what I’ve been telling people these days when they ask me to explain the concept of the “missional church”: I say, “If you’ve ever been on a mission trip then you know.  It’s like that.  It’s like all of us at First Baptist Church are on a mission trip right now, right here.  The bus has just come to a stop at our mission site on the corner of Monument and Boulevard and it’s time to get off the bus.”

It came to mind a few weeks ago when I was sitting in the sanctuary, listening to our children sing at their end-of-the-year program.  They did a beautiful job; I was feeling a good bit of pastoral pride; and then it hit me: if we were on a mission trip, would we be doing this?  If we had loaded those kids up on a bus and driven to Arkansas, would they have stood at the front of the bus and sung for us?  No.  They would have sung at a nursing home or a hospital.  They would have worked all week at a trailer park, teaching other children to sing the same songs.  In other words their singing would have been shared with the world in some way, and not only with their proud pastor, parents, and grandparents at First Baptist Church. 

According to missional activist Alan Hirsch, it is this awareness of the world around us, and this understanding that we are on a mission—God’s mission—that makes a church “missional.”  When we really “get it,” it begins to affect everything we do, and some of us really are beginning to get it. 

I had a talk yesterday with someone who wondered if we could find some land to plant a garden and then donate the food to a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter.  As we talked we thought about the refugees from Nepal who have been coming to our Wednesday night dinners.  Could they tend the garden, use the food, sell the surplus at the 17th Street Market?  Suddenly, instead of only talking about taking up an offering and sending missionaries to Nepal, we were talking about how we could be missionaries to the Nepalese right here in Richmond. 

Or what about one of our members who is talking with other churches in the city to see if each church could provide an apartment for someone who has a job but not a home: the “working homeless”?  He’s doing it because when I asked him to help Jesus bring heaven to earth by looking around for anything that didn’t look like heaven and then rolling up his sleeves and going to work there, that’s where he went—to the homeless.  He seems to understand that we are on a mission trip, and the First Baptist bus has rolled to a stop, and it’s time to get off the bus.

As we remember and celebrate the Day of Pentecost, please pray that God’s Holy Spirit would fall on us as it fell on those first believers, and that like them we would find that we cannot keep the good news about Jesus to ourselves, that we have to live it, and breathe it, and tell it, and share it in every way imaginable with the world around us.  

Maybe we can learn to sing God’s song in other places, and not only in the church sanctuary.