Breaking Bread, Making Friends

breaking-bread2On Tuesday night I sat down at a table with a few deacons from First Baptist Church and a few from First African Baptist Church. We were at the Golden Corral on Gaskins and Broad, squeezed into a small, private dining room after filling our plates to overflowing at the mind-boggling buffet. Someone said a blessing and we began to eat, and then we began to talk, and then we began to laugh.

Which was precisely the point of the evening.

Earlier this year Pastor Rodney Waller of First African challenged us to “show Richmond what true racial reconciliation looks like.” I was inspired by that challenge, and added that while Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors, we cannot love what we don’t know, and suggested that we spend some time getting to know each other, preferably over dinner.

We looked at that picture of the early church from the end of Acts 2, where it says that the believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (vs. 42). A few verses later it says “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (vs. 46). Breaking bread was apparently a high priority in the early church, and so we decided to get together and break some bread.

Do you know how hard it is to get 14 people together for a meal? Bob Palmer does. Bob has been talking to me about First African since I came to Richmond five years ago. He has kept up a relationship with Deacon Booker Jones from that church for much longer than that. The two of them have been hoping and praying that our churches could be more closely connected, so Bob was a logical choice to make the arrangements, but it took six weeks and twice that many attempts to get us all together.

Still, I think we would all say it was worth it.

After dinner we divided into small groups where we were challenged to tell our life stories in five minutes or less. I was amazed, as always, by the way those stories make us human and help us discover how much we have in common. In twenty minutes’ time, at my table, strangers became friends, or at least became a lot more friendly. It turns out that each of us had suffered some hardship, had some disappointments, taken some chances, had some successes.

Life is like that, and it’s like that no matter what color you are.

It was good to be reminded of that on Tuesday night. As we were leaving the private dining room I asked Rodney Waller to let me know how I could pray for him and he said, “All right, and you do the same.” “Well,” I said, “You could pray for my dad. He’s in hospice, and he seems to be getting pretty close to the end.” “Let me do that right now,” Rodney said, and then he asked for everyone to join him and—right there at Golden Corral—he prayed for my dad.

See, those early believers didn’t only break bread together. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47).

May it be so here…and now.

KOH2RVA: Day 158

ShawarmaYesterday was Ash Wednesday, and often on that day I fast—that is, I “go without food for religious reasons.” Last year, for example, I promised myself that every time I felt a hunger pain on Ash Wednesday I would think “Jesus is Lord,” to remind myself that my stomach is not.

I was going to do that again yesterday but when I checked my calendar I saw that I had already made plans to have lunch at the Old Jerusalem restaurant, and so I shrugged my shoulders and let out a half-hearted sigh. “Looks like I’m not going to be able to fast today,” I said, to no one in particular. “I forgot that it was Ash Wednesday when I made the appointment and now it’s too late. I can’t very well call off lunch, and it would be rude to sit there and watch my guest eat while I didn’t.”

Plus, I love the Old Jerusalem.

It’s near the intersection of 7th and Franklin downtown, just a few steps up the hill and to your left. There’s a sign on the front door that says “Halal,” which is the Muslim equivalent of “Kosher.” One of the things I love about the restaurant is that you can take your Muslim or Jewish neighbors there without any fear of offending their dietary restrictions. There’s no pork on the menu, and no alcohol either. Everything is prepared according to the traditions of the Middle East, which is home to both Muslims and Jews.

For all of those reasons, it’s where I usually meet with my interfaith group. We sit at a big table near the window, and the owner brings out platters of hummus and warm pita bread to get us started. Soon we are munching on (delicious!) falafel, digging into hearty beef and chicken shawarma, and finishing up with hot tea and “ladies fingers” for dessert. Throughout the meal we are talking and laughing and making wild gestures, often to the servers to bring us more food. It’s fun.

Which is part of the reason I was there yesterday.

The owner, a smiling, gregarious Jordanian named Tahir, wants to renovate the restaurant. He wants to create the kind of ambiance that will attract the dinner crowd (right now the Old Jerusalem looks a whole lot more like a lunch place than a dinner place). But it’s going to cost some money and he’s having trouble getting a loan. He was in the construction business before this and went bankrupt when the economy crashed in 2008.

That’s where Jeff Dortch comes in.

Jeff is a member of First Baptist Church who used to be a banker. One of the things he does is consult with church members who have fallen on hard times. He takes a look at their finances and helps them come up with strategies to get back on their feet. I took him to lunch with me to see if he had any suggestions for Tahir.

Tahir greeted us with a smile. He seated us at a booth. He asked the waitress to bring out some hummus and warm pita. And then he told Jeff his story, complete with his plans for renovation. You could see his eyes sparkle as he described the stonework, the arches, and the fountain he hoped to put against one wall. When he went back to the kitchen Jeff told me quietly that restaurants were notoriously bad investments. He wasn’t sure he would be able to help Tahir. But he also agreed, as he took another bite, that the falafel was delicious.

Why am I telling this story on the 158th day of KOH2RVA, our year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia? Because my friend Imad Damaj (a VCU professor) knew a Muslim brother who was struggling to keep his restaurant going. He invited Bill Sachs (an Episcopal priest) and me (a Baptist pastor) to join him for lunch. He introduced us to Tahir and asked if we knew any way to help. I got in touch with Jeff Dortch and took him to lunch at the Old Jerusalem.

I don’t know what will come of it all, if anything, but at the heart of it is one person trying to help another, and reaching out through friendship to another person, and then another. It’s the stuff the parable of the Good Samaritan is made of,

And the stuff of which heaven is made.

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Click HERE to see the Yelp! reviews of the Old Jerusalem, remembering that there will be at least one crank in every bunch who loves to complain.  And think about this: if you’ve ever been to the Holy Land consider hosting a reunion lunch or dinner at the Old Jerusalem.  As the sign above the door says, it’s “A Taste of the Holy Land.”

An Old Joke and the New Jerusalem

I found this version of an old joke that you’ve probably heard before:

A man arrives at the gates of heaven. St. Peter asks, “Religion?”  The man says, “Methodist.”  St. Peter looks down his list, and says, “Go to room 24, but be very quiet as you pass room 8.”

Another man arrives at the gates of heaven. “Religion?”  “Lutheran.”  “Go to room 18, but be very quiet as you pass room 8.”

A third man arrives at the gates. “Religion?”  “Presbyterian.”  “Go to room 11, but be very quiet as you pass room 8.” 

The man says, “I can understand there being different rooms for different denominations, but why must I be quiet when I pass room 8?”

St. Peter tells him, “Well the Baptists are in room 8, and they think they’re the only ones here.”

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Thinking about that joke I remembered a passage from the Book of Revelation, where the new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven “adorned as a bride for her husband” (21:3).  A little later in the passage John tells us:  “It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and [each gate was made of a single pearl]…. There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west” (vss. 12-13).  And I smiled, wondering if there was a sign on each of those pearly gates, one that said “Methodists,” one that said “Lutherans,” one that said “Presbyterians,” one that said, “Baptists,” and so forth, all around the wall.

The joke, I thought, would be on all of us, when we dutifully entered through our respective gates and discovered that we were (in fact) all in the same place.  I hope we would only stare at each other for a moment before we all burst out laughing and said, “Good one, God!”

You know what’s funny?  In that passage there are actually names on the gates of the New Jerusalem.  “On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel” (vs. 12).  It makes me wonder if those twelve tribes sometimes had trouble getting along, if the tribe of Benjamin occasionally turned up its nose at the tribe of Dan, for example.  Would the twelve tribes be surprised when they came through their respective gates and found that they were (in fact) all in the same place?  Would they stare at each other for a long moment before they all burst out laughing? 

It doesn’t seem to be God’s intention to keep us separated.  He seems to want to bring his big, scattered family together in one place.  One of my favorite parts of this passage comes a few verses later, where John tells us that there wasn’t a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple; and it didn’t need the sun or the moon, because the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp; and the nations will walk by that light and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into that place, and the gates will be open by day, and there is no night there (vss. 22-25).

Did you catch that last part?  The “nations” will walk by that light (the word in Greek is the same one used for “Gentiles”).  The kings of the earth will bring their splendor into the New Jerusalem.  It doesn’t sound like it’s only going to be a place for God’s chosen people; it sounds like it’s going to be a place for all of God’s people.  And the gates will be open by day, and there is no night there, which means, of course, that the gates of that city will never be closed.

The New Jerusalem will always be open.