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 353

martin-luther-king2It was 50 years ago today that Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech. The way I heard the story he was going on and on about jobs and justice and the audience was losing interest when Mahalia Jackson, the blues singer, who was sitting right behind King, said, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!” And that’s when he fell into the preacher’s cadence, and shared the prophet’s vision, of a day when this nation would rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: that all men are created equal. He said:

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

That speech captured the imagination of millions, and inspired them to do the kind of work that would make the dream come true. Fifty years later we’re closer, but we’re not there yet. There’s still a lot of work to be done.

King’s words remind me of another young prophet who used to tramp the hills of Galilee sharing his dream of the Kingdom. When people asked him what that Kingdom was like Jesus 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 dad 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.

Those words captured the imaginations of his hearers, and inspired them to do the kind of work that would make Jesus’ dream come true. And yet, 2,000 years later, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

So, I’m going to stop writing blog posts, and roll up my sleeves, and get out there and do some work. I’m going to see what I can do to help bring the Kingdom of Heaven a little bit closer to Richmond, Virginia. Because if there is one lesson to be learned in all this it’s that dreams don’t come true by dreaming:

Dreams come true by doing.

KOH2RVA: Day 255

diversityI don’t have a lot of time to blog this morning. I’m speaking at a conference called “Faith, Freedom, and Forgiveness” this afternoon and I’m a long way from being ready. My assignment is to help the audience move toward a theology of forgiveness, especially as it relates to the old wound of slavery.

As I was digging around in my files I came up with these notes from Martin Luther King Week at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2001, when I was (to my great surprise) invited to be the guest speaker. The title of my lectures was, “Living in the Lion Tribe: Confronting the Problem of Prejudice with the Power of Love and Imagination.”

On the first night I gathered with about fifty students in a large, upper room and started with this introduction:

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 that was one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s greatest gifts—he helped people imagine a different kind of reality than the one in which they were currently living. He talked about a day when racism would no longer exist. He dreamed of a day when black people and white people would join hands and say in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last.” It may have been this gift of religious imagination, more than any other, that led to the success of the Civil Rights movement.

He learned it from Jesus, who asked his hearers again and again to imagine a reality he called the Kingdom of God. He learned it from Paul, who talked about the church as the living, breathing body of Christ. He learned it from his father and a host of other black preachers who knew the power of imagination to inspire and change.

And then we moved into a group activity, guided by these notes (written mostly to myself):

Tell the story of Ayla from Jean Auel’s book, The Mammoth Hunters. How she came to a tribe headed by a red-haired giant of a man named Talut who valued difference more than sameness (read the paragraph on page 286). Describe the others in the tribe: Ranec, dark-skinned and handsome; Fralie, angry and bitter, Druwez, a half-breed from the Clan; Tulie, an imposing headwoman. All of them part of the tribe even though some of them made things more difficult and made the tribe less welcome at the large summer gathering.

Talk about how Ayla was welcomed as a guest, and treated as special because she was tall and blonde (that is, different from the short, dark people from whom she had come). Her special abilities were her healing knowledge, her way with animals, her skill with weapons, and her talent for making fire. She was invited to join the Lion Tribe, and on the night she was “adopted” she revealed her fire-making ability to the astonishment of the others, and then gave to each member of her new “family” a piece of firestone and flint so that they, too, could make fire.

Here is a fictional community in which people are valued for what makes them different, not what makes them the same. Let’s take some time tonight to discover our differences and to learn how to value them.

Crane Hearth—blue
Fox Hearth—red
Elk Hearth—green
Bear Hearth—black

Each “hearth” will circle up and take some time to identify the unique contributions of its members. Members will take turns speaking by holding the “speaking stick” (a washable marker). When the hearth is satisfied that someone has a valuable difference to offer, that person will pass the speaking stick to his or her left and be welcomed into the Lion Tribe with its special mark—four, short vertical lines on the right palm. When each hearth is finished the whole tribe will circle up, its members will hold out their right palms, and be dismissed with this blessing:

“That which makes us different makes us valuable.”

I don’t know which of these notes, if any, will end up in my address today, but I hope you’ve found something here that will help you think about how we can work to overcome prejudice through the power of love and imagination. The alternative is to keep our hearts and minds closed, and go on exactly as we have.

And that’s not a good alternative at all.

KOH2RVA: Day 143

Here’s a terrific article by Nancy Mairs about how First Baptist brought the KOH2RVA on Martin Luther King Day.  I couldn’t have said it better myself. –Jim

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Martin Luther King Day of Service – Bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond VA

January 29, 2013 by Richmond’s First Baptist Church online magazine

By Nancy Mairs. Photos by Susan Brown.

Martin Luther King day of serviceWhile most folks were looking forward to a day off from school and maybe even work, a group from Richmond’s First Baptist Church decided to use that day to help bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond Virginia (KOH2RVA). It all started with one member’s question to the administrator of the Anna Julia Cooper School a few months ago. The school, located in Church Hill, is an independent, tuition-free, faith-based middle school for students of limited resources.

Melissa Brooks, a member at First Baptist since 2009, discovered the school through an article in a community newspaper. Wanting to be part of the church-wide effort to bring the KOH2RVA, Melissa decided to ask if there was anything she could do for them. As Melissa puts it, “This is a great question to ask when you’re trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, VA, or at least it’s a great place to start.” Melissa began helping out each week at the school. As she explains, “I fell in love with the mission and vision of the school, the kids, their stories, and the faculty.”

As Melissa was dropping off her son, Sawyer, at his class in the FBC Weekday Preschool, she approached Mary Hiteman, Minister of Weekday School, with the idea of the preschool sponsoring the Anna Julia Cooper School as one of its monthly community mission projects. From this conversation, FBC’s involvement in the Martin Luther King Day of Service Project began.

Martin Luther King day of serviceWhy was Martin Luther King Day selected? Dr. King spoke often about love being the way to overcome the problems of the world. What better way to honor Dr. King’s vision than to help a school that is committed to the academic, social and spiritual development of children who might otherwise live a life unfulfilled and in despair? And as the school’s namesake, Anna Julia Cooper, said, “Jesus believed in the infinite possibilities of an individual soul.”

Mary Hiteman facilitated the FBC Staff’s involvement. Others heard about the project and by the third Monday in January, not only had most of the First Baptist ministers agreed to participate, but other members of the church and several of the families of children who attend the FBC preschool had joined in. Their work started in the morning at the Anna Julia Cooper School with painting; putting up bulletin boards where more than 500 photographs were displayed; sanitizing tables, chairs, and door knobs; and even climbing up on the roof to sweep out the gutters.

Martin Luther King day of serviceThe group then traveled to the Essex Village Apartments, a public housing project in the East End of Richmond, for the second part of their King Day Service Project. Through an invitation from FBC member Len Morrow, a special guest provided a dramatic portrayal of Dr. King. This guest, Rev. James D. Daniely, a dynamic and inspirational speaker who is also the Director of the Pace Center for Campus Ministry at VCU, helped bring Dr. King to life for the children.

As Mary Hiteman explained, “Most of the children do not know why they have the day off – our intent was to change that through Dr. Daniely, and then follow-up with art activities and, of course, birthday cake to celebrate Dr. King’s birthday.” The final activity of the day was picking up trash throughout the area.

And how does Melissa, whose question started this project day at First Baptist, sum up the activities? “My hope is always to continue to shine the bright light of Jesus to our community so that others will see good and glorify God. It’s not a ‘me’ thing or a ‘First Baptist Church thing’ or even a ‘Martin Luther King Day thing’. This is a God thing. All we have to do is show up!”

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Nancy MairsNancy Mairs joined Richmond’s First Baptist Church more than 20 years ago and is a member of the Disciples class. She works in the Regulatory Affairs group at Dominion Virginia Power, and enjoys hiking, canoeing, traveling, and spending time with her husband, Jim, and son, Jack.

Here Cometh the Dreamer

mlkI went to the daily eucharist at Christ Church Cathedral in Houston last Thursday, January 15. It was Martin Luther King’s birthday, which the Episcopal Church observes as a feast day.

The Rev. Rhoda Montgomery was the preacher that day, and while she apologized for the informality of her remarks she said something that will stick with me for a long time. She said that there is a marker in front of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, the motel where Martin Luther King was shot, that is inscribed with words from the Book of Genesis. “You might expect something like an excerpt from his ‘I have a dream’ speech,” she said. “You might expect the words that are on his tombstone: ‘Free at last.’ But what is written on that marker is a verse from the story of Joseph in Genesis, where his brothers say, ‘Behold, here cometh the Dreamer. Let us slay him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams’ (Genesis 37:19-20).”

I’m grateful for Martin Luther King and what he stood for. I will find a quiet moment in this day to say thank you. But today I find myself even more grateful for the fact that dreams are hard to kill, that more than forty years after Martin Luther King was struck down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel his dream is alive.  It reminds me of another dreamer who was struck down in his prime, one who used to pray that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven.

I wonder what will become of that dream.