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 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.

Why the Baptist Church will never sanction the blessing of same-sex unions

ImageLast night the Episcopal Church in America approved a 3-year trial run of a service it calls “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant.”  The service is not considered a marriage ceremony, media affairs representative Nancy Davidge said. 

“We have authorized a blessing, and a blessing is different than a marriage,” she said.  “A blessing is a theological response to a committed, monogamous relationship.”

But I’m guessing some of the members of my brother-in-law’s church back in Waco, Texas, won’t see it that way.  Chuck is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal in that city, a church that is progressive by Texas standards and conservative by almost anyone else’s.  I’m guessing that someone will pull him aside when he gets home from the General Convention and ask, “Did you vote for the gay marriage thing?”

This is not a question anyone will ever ask me when I come home from a Baptist convention, because there is no such thing as “The Baptist Church.”  There is no single body of Baptists that makes decisions for all Baptists everywhere.  We have to make those decisions in our own local churches and when we do every member has a voice and every member has a vote.  So, if your Baptist church decides to vote on whether or not it will bless same-sex unions you will have a chance to speak your mind and vote your conscience.  No priest, no bishop, no general convention will do it for you; you will have to do it on your own. 

It’s a tremendous burden for Baptist churches.  A terrible freedom.  But we’re Baptists, and we love our freedom, and even if we have to make difficult decisions from time to time…

We wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Hey, wasn’t that you at the mosque?”

Yes.  Yes it was me.  Those of you who have studied the photograph on the front page of the Richmond Times Dispatch “Metro” section have correctly identified the out-of-focus figure in the back as Dr. Jim Somerville, pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, standing somewhere behind Imam Ammar Amonette in a show of solidarity during yesterday’s press conference at the Islamic Center of Virginia. 

I wasn’t one of the featured speakers, and nobody from the press asked why I was there, but if they had I would have been ready.  I would have said, “I’m here because I’m a Baptist.”

That’s right: Baptist.

For more than 400 years now Baptists have been passionate defenders of religious liberty.  That’s why we came to this country: we were looking for the freedom to worship as we pleased.  Even so, some of our preachers were arrested and jailed because (as British colonists) they didn’t have a license to preach from the Church of England.  When the Revolutionary War was over Virginia Baptist pastor John Leland met with James Madison to insist that the new Constitution of the United States of America be amended to include the right to religious freedom.  The situation was tense.  Leland had a huge following.  If he didin’t support the new Constitution it might not be ratified.  If Madison wouldn’t amend the Constitution Leland wouldn’t support it.  In the end, Madison made the amendment, Leland endorsed it, and the Constitution was ratified.  What we now know as the First Amendment begins with these words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” 

If we cherish this freedom for ourselves, we cannot deny it to others.  And although the headline in today’s newspaper read, “Area faith leaders ask for tolerance,” we cannot merely “tolerate” the existence of other religions. 

Listen to what John Leland said:

“The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever…Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.” 

Those are strong words.  They were uttered more than 200 years ago by a Baptist minister from Culpeper, Virginia, where several of his fellow Baptists had been locked up in the local jail for preaching without a license. 

He wasn’t going to let that happen again. 

John Leland is widely recognized as a hero of religious liberty.  His image is featured in one of the stained glass windows in the chapel of Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  As pastor of that church, I felt compelled to go to the mosque yesterday, and take a stand for religious liberty.

It’s what John would have done.

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The quote from John Leland, above, is from A Chronicle of His Time in Virginia.

The Cure for Boredom

When I was a boy I attended West Virginia public schools, and although I had some excellent teachers the schools themselves left something to be desired.  I remember the kind of excitement that would begin building in the spring of each year as we anticipated summer vacation and our release from the stuffy confines of the classroom, from the tedium of bending over our desks, working math problems on lined notebook paper with Number 2 pencils as a single wasp buzzed in through the open windows and bumped up against the high ceiling of the room.  On the last day of school we watched the clock on the wall as if our lives depended on it, and in a way they did—the quality of our lives, at least.  The closer we got to 3:15 the slower that minute hand moved.  Even the big, red second hand seemed to slow down until it was dragging around the face of the clock like a stick through the mud. 

But then it happened: the buzzer sounded and we whooped and threw our notebooks in the air and off we went, tumbling out the front door and down the steps and to the waiting school buses where we sang in unison that great old hymn,

School’s out, school’s out,
Teacher let the monkeys out
One went east and one went west
And one went up the teacher’s dress!

It was magical, that ride home on the bus.  The windows were down and the warm breezes were blowing in and we were in the best mood possible, laughing and singing and shoving each other—absolutely intoxicated by the freedom we felt.  The only thing better was waking up the next morning and realizing that it was the first day of summer vacation.  My brothers and I—five of us at the time—would toss back the bedsheets, put on our shorts and T-shirts, and run barefoot into the back yard, ready to spend the day in glorious, useless, endless play.

Those feelings lasted until sometime in the middle of the afternoon, usually, and—although we could hardly believe it—by then we had already done most of the things we had been dreaming of those last few weeks of school.  That long list of things!  Knocked out in a few hours’ time.  Unbelievable.  We tried to hide the fact from ourselves.  We pretended that we were still having fun.  But even more we tried to hide the fact from our parents, because once somebody let it slip, once one of my little brothers let out even the tiniest, whispered, “I’m bored!” in their presence—well, that did it.  The next morning at 7:30 my mother would crank up the record player and put on an album called “America’s Favorite Marches.”  Lying there in our beds we could hear the scratch of the needle as it fell and hear the hiss of the speakers even before a John Philip Sousa composition came blasting out of 76 trombones like cannonballs, rocketing up the stairs, and bouncing around our room at something just above 100 decibels.

That was our cue—subtle as it was—to get up, get out of bed, and come downstairs for breakfast.  Mom would have cooked bacon and eggs, biscuits and grits, and we would all sit around the table rubbing our sleepy eyes and washing down our breakfast with glasses of orange juice and ice cold milk.  And then, just before eight, as someone was reaching for the last biscuit, Dad would hand out the work assignments for the day.  And with the exception of Saturday and Sunday this is how it would be every day for the rest of the summer.  This was my parents’ cure for boredom.

We would work in teams of two or three from eight until noon.  We would hoe corn, clear brush, muck out the horses’ stalls, stretch barbed wire fencing, and the sweat would run down in rivers, and we would start dreaming about what we were going to do as soon as noontime came, and the work was over.  We talked about it.  We made plans as we worked.  But the first thing we always wanted to do on those hot days—even before we ate lunch—was to go down to the river, to splash out into that cool, clear water, to dive headfirst under the surface, roll slowly over onto our backs, and come up spouting like whales.  Oh, freedom!  Oh, perfect, precious, delicious freedom! 

Sometimes you don’t appreciate what you have until you have to do without it.

What Kind of Baptist?

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When people ask me what I do I tell them I’m a pastor, and when they ask what kind of pastor I tell them Baptist.

“What kind of Baptist?” they ask.

“Just Baptist,” I answer.

And that’s when the conversation gets interesting.

“Not Southern Baptist?” they ask.  “No.”  “Not American Baptist?”  “No.”  “Not Cooperative Baptist?”  “No.”  “Not Alliance of Baptists?”  “No.”  “Not National Baptist?”  “No.”  “Not Primitive Baptist?”  “No.”  And when they run out of all the options they can think of they ask, “What are you then?”

“Baptist,” I say.  “Just Baptist.”

I sometimes tell newcomers to Baptist life that there is “a Christian way to be human and a Baptist way to be Christian.”*  That’s what I’m talking about: the Baptist way of being Christian.  It goes back four hundred years to that time when a group of Christians left the Church of England to start a church grounded in the New Testament scriptures and committed to the principle of freedom.  They felt that believers should be free to make up their own minds about Jesus, and free to read and interpret the Bible for themselves.  They felt that the local church should be free to determine its own mission and ministry, and that it should be free from any control by the state.  Those four freedoms are essential to the Baptist way of being Christian. 

Our grounding in the New Testament scriptures has led to an emphasis on missions and evangelism through the years.  Baptists really are an apostolic people (from the Greek word for “sent”), meaning they understand themselves to be sent by Jesus to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that he commanded (Matthew 28:19-20).  That commitment led Baptists in this country to organize for effectiveness, and in 1814 the Triennial Baptist Convention was formed (so named because it met once every three years).  The purpose was to elicit, combine, and direct funds for the support of the Baptist missionary enterprise, mostly overseas.  In 1845 the Triennial Baptist Convention split into two parts—the Northern Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention—primarily over the issue of slavery. 

When I became a Baptist in 1981 I did it by joining a church that was affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.  If you had asked me then what kind of Baptist I was I probably would have said Southern Baptist, and I would have said it with pride.  The Southern Baptist Convention was the largest Protestant denomination in the world, sending thousands of missionaries into dozens of countries, including this one.  But by the time I went to my first annual meeting in 1987 the Convention was embroiled in conflict.  People were talking about the “Battle for the Bible,” and at that meeting affirmed an earlier resolution stating that women could not serve as pastors in Southern Baptist Churches because the first woman, Eve, had committed the first sin. 

That’s when I first began to reconsider my relationship to the Southern Baptist Convention.  I hadn’t been in seminary very long but even I knew that while Eve ate the forbidden fruit Adam also ate it, and apparently he didn’t even need to be talked into it.  Excluding women from pastoral leadership simply because Eve was the first to sin didn’t seem like a good enough reason even if it was in the Bible, and I began to suspect that there were other reasons behind this resolution, reasons that had more to do with the question of “Who will control the world’s largest Protestant denomination?” than with the question of “How can we faithfully live out the teachings of Scripture?”

By the time I graduated from seminary in 1991 that first question had been answered.  The Southern Baptist Convention was controlled by those who called themselves “conservatives” and whom others called “fundamentalists.”  Baptist agencies and institutions had been taken over; Baptist journalists and seminary presidents had been fired; local congregations had been divided by conflict.  There may have been those who were celebrating the victory but all I could see was the ravages of war. 

So when I came to Wingate Baptist Church in North Carolina I came determined to leave denominational conflict behind, focusing my energies instead on loving and serving the Lord and that little congregation.  It wasn’t hard; those people were easy to love.  And it was during that time, when people asked me what kind of Baptist I was, that I began to say, “A Wingate Baptist,” meaning the kind of Baptist I found in that wonderful church: Christians who were committed to the historic Baptist principle of freedom and to the New Testament emphasis on missions and evangelism.  It’s hard not to love people like that.

I’ve been at Richmond’s First Baptist Church long enough now to feel that way about this place and these people, too, and maybe next time someone asks me what kind of Baptist I am I’ll say that: “I’m a First Baptist Richmond kind of Baptist.”  Those who know the church will have some idea of what I mean, and those who don’t know the church may just be curious enough…

…to come and find out for themselves.**

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A related article on former president Jimmy Carter’s decision to leave the Southern Baptist Convention in 2000 can be found HERE

*I attribute this quote to Dr. Randall Lolley, former president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC.

**Interestingly, Richmond’s First Baptist Church was founded in 1780, sixty-five years before the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention.  I’m guessing that I’m  not the first pastor of this church to identify himself as “just Baptist.”

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.