I don’t know who’s on the selection committee, or how the selection is made, but several months ago I was asked if I would be willing to say the opening prayer at the City Council meeting at 6:00 p.m. on Monday, May 13.
Often I say no to those kinds of invitations. I had an embarrassing experience with the invocation at a football game once that has made me reluctant to say yes ever since. But this was the Richmond City Council, and First Baptist Church is on this year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, and so I swallowed hard and agreed to come.
I got there well before 6:00, since I wasn’t sure about the parking arrangements. There was something in the invitation about parking in the underground lot at City Hall but when I showed up at 5:25 the parking attendant didn’t seem to know any more about it than I did. He asked my name and called upstairs but nobody seemed to be expecting a Jim Somerville. I began to wonder if I had come on the right night. Finally he suggested that I just park in the loading dock, especially since I wasn’t going to be there long.
I made my way into the building and since it was still only 5:30 I took the elevator all the way to the observation deck on the 18th floor. It was breezy up there, and cool, but the views were incredible. It was a clear day, and I could see for miles in every direction. And since I had come to pray I began to pray for everything I could see: the city of Richmond there at my feet but then, looking up and away, the counties of Chesterfield, Henrico, and Hanover. I could see even farther than that, and so I prayed for all of Central Virginia, asking God to pour out his blessing upon it. It looked as if he already had, with the distant landscape and the downtown buildings all bathed in the golden light of the late afternoon sun.
At 5:45 I headed down to the second floor and the council chamber where I found my seat and waited to be introduced. There wasn’t a big crowd in the room. People were still gathering. I saw a Boy Scout troop file in; policemen chatting with each other near the back wall. I looked over the prayer I had written and made a few edits. It was short. It wasn’t supposed to be more than sixty seconds long. Mine was going to come in well under that. At 6:00 the president called the meeting to order, banged his gavel on the rostrum, and introduced Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, for the invocation. I stood and said, “Let us pray,” and then I said this:
“Lord, you know that the members and friends of First Baptist Church are on a mission to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia. I don’t need to tell you that. But I pray that the City Council might join us on that mission, and that as they deliberate and decide they would consider how their actions might be good news for the poor, how they might set the captives free, how they might open the eyes of the blind and set at liberty those who are oppressed (Luke 4:18), in other words, Lord, how through their deliberations and decisions your kingdom might come, and your will be done, in Richmond, as it is in heaven. Amen.”
And that was it.
I joined the council in the pledge of allegiance to the flag, and then turned and left the podium, walked up the side aisle, and out of the room. I don’t know what happened next. But I have this hope that some of those words fell on good soil, and that some of those council members considered how they might join us on this mission, and that, yes—even in their deliberations over zoning restrictions—they thought about how they might bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and how they might set at liberty those who are oppressed, because really,
What good is power if you don’t use it on behalf of the powerless?