When Regular Hospitality Seems Radical

Iraqi mother and childLouis Watts introduced me to three couples from Iraq on Sunday.

I had a hard time getting the story straight, but apparently they had watched the worship services from First Baptist on the Internet while they were still in their home country, and now that they were in Richmond (VCU students?), they wanted to visit the church they had only seen on their laptops before.

So they came, and they brought their children, and they left them in the nursery while they attended the service.

Can you imagine going to Iraq, and visiting a mosque, and leaving your children in the nursery?  That must have been what it was like for them, but they did it, and apparently it was a surprisingly good experience for everyone.

No surprise to me: Candi Brown, our Minister to Children, and her crew of volunteers are some of the most loving and caring people on the planet.  But I was still gratified to read this email Louis sent to Candi on Monday morning:

Candi:

Thanks to you and all of your nursery workers for your compassionate care for the Iraqi children attending with their parents at yesterday’s worship service. I can tell you through further conversations with the families at lunch yesterday that the parents were very pleased for their children to get such good care.

The family that had the two little girls have been through great difficulty. Their first child, a son was born in Iraq, but lived only one day; his lungs were underdeveloped and he could not breathe. The second child, the oldest girl yesterday, has significant brain damage and had some problem with her digestive system resulting in her being undernourished. They could do nothing for her in Iraq. Since being in Richmond, she was hospitalized at MCV for 17 days where they performed surgery on her stomach to correct some problems with digestion and installed a feeding tube. She has begun to thrive, at least physically, since that surgery. The third child, also a daughter, seems to be completely healthy. So all of this to say that they were at first hesitant to leave their children, but the husband told me that yesterday was the happiest his wife had been in a long time – seeing that her children were loved and cared for while attending the church service.

A little bit of heaven came to some Iraqi children while in your care yesterday! God bless all of you and all that you do!

Louis

There are times when regular hospitality seems radical, and Sunday was one of those times.

Let’s keep on opening our doors and our hearts, friends, for in doing so some have entertained angels unaware (Heb. 13:2).

KOH2RVA: Day 296

David PowersI had a long talk with David Powers yesterday and got an update on his dream.

David heads up the Communication ministry at First Baptist Church, which includes the weekly telecast of our worship services, the development and maintenance of our website, our social media presence, the streaming webcast of Sunday morning worship and Bible study, and the internal and external publicity of events. And those are only the most obvious things.

But for several years now David has had a dream of making a movie based on the parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15. And for even longer than that David has been studying that parable, peeling back layer after layer in search of its core, which he believes is the very heart of the gospel. It has changed the way he looks at Jesus. It has changed the way he thinks of God.

And so, as we began to talk about this year-long, every-member mission trip called KOH2RVA he began to dream that within this year the members and friends of First Baptist Church could make a movie. He called his dream “the Prodigal Project,” and spun out scenarios involving hundreds of volunteers and dozens of crew members—an epic film on the order of “The Ten Commandments.”

The first few drafts of the script were essentially re-tellings of the original parable, and they were good, but it turns out someone releases a cinematic version of the Prodigal Son almost every year. I was telling my brother Gray about this last August when we were at the beach together and he suggested, jokingly, that we should make a movie about a church making a movie about the Prodigal Son.

And that changed everything.

The last three or four drafts of the script have used that basic premise in a way that surprises and delights, with a Jewish kid from the Bronx—a graduate of NYU Film School—coming to Alabama to help a Bible-thumping Baptist preacher make a movie about the Prodigal Son. David hired a professional screenwriter to polish it up and work out a few plot problems and yesterday he dropped the finished product on my desk.

So, it might not happen in the next few days, but within a few weeks or months I think we’re going to start shooting a movie. David was telling me yesterday about the money he’s been raising and the cameras he’ll be using and the number of extraordinarily talented people who have agreed to do the sound, lighting, music, and photography.

Suddenly, everything seems to be coming together.

That’s all very exciting, but I remember the reason David dreamed up this project in the first place, and that excites me even more. David was concerned that 20-30-somethings—his children’s generation—were dropping out of church. He began to wonder: “If they won’t come to church, what will they come to?” His answer? The movies. Young people will come to the movies. And if there was a movie that wasn’t too obviously a “Christian” movie they might watch it. And if, in that movie, the radical grace of God could be communicated—the kind that welcomes prodigals, and throws parties, and causes angels to rejoice when sinners repent—then they might decide that they want some of that grace for themselves.

It’s a huge challenge, and nobody—least of all David—knows if he can pull it off. But this is his hope: that someday, somewhere, some young person will watch this movie in a darkened theater and feel his heart breaking open and the tears sliding down his cheeks as he realizes that this grace—the joyous, unrestrained, party-throwing, prodigal-welcoming grace of God—is for him too,

And heaven will come to earth.

KOH2RVA: Day 182

Shane Claiborne 2One of my Facebook friends shared this letter from Shane Claiborne, which was recently published in Esquire magazine. Claiborne is a thirty-something Christian who is a leading figure in the New Monasticism movement. He is the author of the Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. He also dresses weird. But I was struck by a line in this letter where he says that the Christian gospel is “not just about going up when we die but about bringing God’s kingdom down.”

I like that.

Read the letter. You may not like all of it, but I think you’ll find some things here that could be useful to people trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, and especially to those they are trying to reach who have been put off by “Christians.”

Take it away, Shane:

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To all my nonbelieving, sort-of-believing, and used-to-be-believing friends: I feel like I should begin with a confession. I am sorry that so often the biggest obstacle to God has been Christians. Christians who have had so much to say with our mouths and so little to show with our lives. I am sorry that so often we have forgotten the Christ of our Christianity.

Forgive us. Forgive us for the embarrassing things we have done in the name of God.

The other night I headed into downtown Philly for a stroll with some friends from out of town. We walked down to Penn’s Landing along the river, where there are street performers, artists, musicians. We passed a great magician who did some pretty sweet tricks like pour change out of his iPhone, and then there was a preacher. He wasn’t quite as captivating as the magician. He stood on a box, yelling into a microphone, and beside him was a coffin with a fake dead body inside. He talked about how we are all going to die and go to hell if we don’t know Jesus.

Some folks snickered. Some told him to shut the hell up. A couple of teenagers tried to steal the dead body in the coffin. All I could do was think to myself, I want to jump up on a box beside him and yell at the top of my lungs, “God is not a monster.” Maybe next time I will.

The more I have read the Bible and studied the life of Jesus, the more I have become convinced that Christianity spreads best not through force but through fascination. But over the past few decades our Christianity, at least here in the United States, has become less and less fascinating. We have given the atheists less and less to disbelieve. And the sort of Christianity many of us have seen on TV and heard on the radio looks less and less like Jesus.

At one point Gandhi was asked if he was a Christian, and he said, essentially, “I sure love Jesus, but the Christians seem so unlike their Christ.” A recent study showed that the top three perceptions of Christians in the U. S. among young non-Christians are that Christians are 1) antigay, 2) judgmental, and 3) hypocritical. So what we have here is a bit of an image crisis, and much of that reputation is well deserved. That’s the ugly stuff. And that’s why I begin by saying that I’m sorry.

Now for the good news.

I want to invite you to consider that maybe the televangelists and street preachers are wrong — and that God really is love. Maybe the fruits of the Spirit really are beautiful things like peace, patience, kindness, joy, love, goodness, and not the ugly things that have come to characterize religion, or politics, for that matter. (If there is anything I have learned from liberals and conservatives, it’s that you can have great answers and still be mean… and that just as important as being right is being nice.)

The Bible that I read says that God did not send Jesus to condemn the world but to save it… it was because “God so loved the world.” That is the God I know, and I long for others to know. I did not choose to devote my life to Jesus because I was scared to death of hell or because I wanted crowns in heaven… but because he is good. For those of you who are on a sincere spiritual journey, I hope that you do not reject Christ because of Christians. We have always been a messed-up bunch, and somehow God has survived the embarrassing things we do in His name. At the core of our “Gospel” is the message that Jesus came “not [for] the healthy… but the sick.” And if you choose Jesus, may it not be simply because of a fear of hell or hope for mansions in heaven.

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe in the afterlife, but too often all the church has done is promise the world that there is life after death and use it as a ticket to ignore the hells around us. I am convinced that the Christian Gospel has as much to do with this life as the next, and that the message of that Gospel is not just about going up when we die but about bringing God’s Kingdom down. It was Jesus who taught us to pray that God’s will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” On earth.

One of Jesus’ most scandalous stories is the story of the Good Samaritan. As sentimental as we may have made it, the original story was about a man who gets beat up and left on the side of the road. A priest passes by. A Levite, the quintessential religious guy, also passes by on the other side (perhaps late for a meeting at church). And then comes the Samaritan… you can almost imagine a snicker in the Jewish crowd. Jews did not talk to Samaritans, or even walk through Samaria. But the Samaritan stops and takes care of the guy in the ditch and is lifted up as the hero of the story. I’m sure some of the listeners were ticked. According to the religious elite, Samaritans did not keep the right rules, and they did not have sound doctrine… but Jesus shows that true faith has to work itself out in a way that is Good News to the most bruised and broken person lying in the ditch.

It is so simple, but the pious forget this lesson constantly. God may indeed be evident in a priest, but God is just as likely to be at work through a Samaritan or a prostitute. In fact the Scripture is brimful of God using folks like a lying prostitute named Rahab, an adulterous king named David… at one point God even speaks to a guy named Balaam through his donkey. Some say God spoke to Balaam through his ass and has been speaking through asses ever since. So if God should choose to use us, then we should be grateful but not think too highly of ourselves. And if upon meeting someone we think God could never use, we should think again.

After all, Jesus says to the religious elite who looked down on everybody else: “The tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom ahead of you.” And we wonder what got him killed?

I have a friend in the UK who talks about “dirty theology” — that we have a God who is always using dirt to bring life and healing and redemption, a God who shows up in the most unlikely and scandalous ways. After all, the whole story begins with God reaching down from heaven, picking up some dirt, and breathing life into it. At one point, Jesus takes some mud, spits in it, and wipes it on a blind man’s eyes to heal him. (The priests and producers of anointing oil were not happy that day.)

In fact, the entire story of Jesus is about a God who did not just want to stay “out there” but who moves into the neighborhood, a neighborhood where folks said, “Nothing good could come.” It is this Jesus who was accused of being a glutton and drunkard and rabble-rouser for hanging out with all of society’s rejects, and who died on the imperial cross of Rome reserved for bandits and failed messiahs. This is why the triumph over the cross was a triumph over everything ugly we do to ourselves and to others. It is the final promise that love wins.

It is this Jesus who was born in a stank manger in the middle of a genocide. That is the God that we are just as likely to find in the streets as in the sanctuary, who can redeem revolutionaries and tax collectors, the oppressed and the oppressors… a God who is saving some of us from the ghettos of poverty, and some of us from the ghettos of wealth.

In closing, to those who have closed the door on religion — I was recently asked by a non-Christian friend if I thought he was going to hell. I said, “I hope not. It will be hard to enjoy heaven without you.” If those of us who believe in God do not believe God’s grace is big enough to save the whole world… well, we should at least pray that it is.

Your brother,

Shane

Read more: Shane Claiborne – Letter to Non-Believers by Shane Claiborne – Esquire http://www.esquire.com/features/best-and-brightest-2009/shane-claiborne-1209#ixzz2MxEvkeCS

KOH2RVA: Day 172

Ralph in the Philippines

Ralph Starling is Minister of Christian Invitation at Richmond’s First Baptist Church, and one of those people who genuinely loves others and wants them to know the life-giving and life-changing love of Christ.  I want you to read what he says about radical hospitality, and his plans to teach a class this spring that will train ordinary people to offer the extraordinary welcome of Christ to others.  Ralph never wants to hear Jesus say, “I was a stranger, and you didn’t welcome me” (Matt. 25:43). 

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Welcome to The School of Radical Hospitality!

You may have noticed that Spring is just around the corner. Major League baseball players have already gathered to practice: batting, catching pop-flies, fielding ground balls, throwing, and running the bases. Players that repeat these fundamental practices know that these exercises will help improve their game. The same is true for congregations. Growing churches are constantly learning.

This Spring our church is offering our own version of spring training–The School of Radical Hospitality. This four-week class offers basic spiritual practices for everyone: pastors and staff, leaders and volunteers, members, and even guests. The School of Radical Hospitality will challenge us to be shaped and formed in the image of Christ. We practice hospitality by seeing the good in other people and accepting them just as Christ has accepted us. St. Augustine challenges all followers of Christ by saying, “Have Christian eyes.” He admonishes us to see others through the eyes of Christ. Amazing things will happen if we become available to others, radically available.

So, what is radical hospitality? Writer and pastor Robert Schnase expresses it this way: “Radical means ‘arising from the source’ and describes practices that are rooted in the life of Christ and that radiate into the lives of others. By radical, don’t think wild-eyed, out of control, or in your face. Instead, imagine people offering the absolute utmost of themselves, their creativity, their abilities, and their energy to offer the gracious invitation and reception of Christ to others.”

The School of Radical Hospitality is inviting our people to open their hearts and minds to new learning and possibilities for our church. It is our desire to love the people Jesus loves. Imagine what would happen if people took Jesus’ words seriously. We would change our behavior toward strangers if we lived as if we really believed this!

Jesus says, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35).

“Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

The disciples often drew boundaries and distinctions that kept people at a distance from Jesus, reminding Jesus that some of those people were too young, too sick, too sinful, too old, too Roman, too blind, or too Gentile to deserve his attention. Jesus teaches, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Matthew 18:3). In every instance, Jesus radically challenges the disciples’ expectations by over-stepping the boundaries to invite people in. Hospitality has us seeing people as Jesus sees them and seeing Jesus in the people God brings before us.

There are a thousand ways to practice hospitality. We show hospitality to others when we receive them as guests. We can receive people in this way everyday, every hour, and wherever we are. Early Church Father Benedict of Nursia (6th century) believed that the key to hospitality is the recognition of Christ in each guest or visitor. “See Christ in others, be Christ to others.”

If you are ready for a new adventure in learning to love people like Jesus, then join us for spring training in the School of Radical Hospitality. Let’s welcome all God’s children to the body of Christ!

To register for this class contact Ralph Starling at 804-358-5458 ext.134, or email him at Starling@fbcrichmond.org.

Welcome to the School of Radical Hospitality!

Ralph Starling

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About The School:

• Classes begin at 6 p.m. on Sunday, April 7 through Sunday, April 28
• Resource book: Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love, by Lonni Collins & Father Daniel Homan, Paraclete Press (books available one week before classes)
• Special weekly Hospitality homework assignments
• Special guests
• Brochures available at the kiosks at First Baptist Church, or can be mailed to you upon request.

KOH2RVA: Day 90

SONY DSCI had lunch with Ralph Starling on Tuesday, and we talked about an idea that’s been brewing between us in the last few months.

Ralph is Associate Pastor for Christian Invitation at First Baptist Church. In the old days his position might have been called, “Minister of Outreach and Evangelism,” and we might have expected him to stand on the corner of Monument and Boulevard handing out gospel tracts and doing anything else he could to convert people to Christianity.

But that’s not really Ralph’s way.

More than 20 years ago Ralph pioneered the hugely successful Divorce Recovery Workshop here at First Baptist Church, which opens its doors to people going through unimaginable pain and helps them take the first steps toward “a future with hope.” Many of those people were so moved by the welcome they found here that they have made First Baptist their permanent church home. In his role as Minister of Christian Invitation Ralph has been going out into the community seeking the least, the last, and the lost, and bringing them back to church with him. It makes an enormous difference if those people get a warm welcome when they come, if they experience the love of Christ for themselves instead of only hearing someone else talk about it, and that’s why Ralph finds himself thinking so much about hospitality.

On Tuesday we talked about a “school of hospitality” that would function much like the Divorce Recovery Workshop—a series of Sunday night sessions where people from the Richmond area would learn how to share the love of Christ in their homes and in their churches. I suggested we call it, “The Ralph Starling School of Radical Hospitality,” and I was only half joking; there is something about the way he does it that the rest of us need to learn.

So, we talked about a session where we would focus on showing hospitality to the generations—how do you make people who are young, old, and in-between feel welcome? We talked about a session focused on people with disabilities. Two of our newest members at First Baptist are blind, and we’re having to learn how to anticipate and accommodate the needs they might have (I’ve been delighted to see Bill and Ruth Hodge taking Tammy and Stephanie around on the regular new member tour of the church facilities, arm-in-arm, narrating every step of the way). We talked about a session focused on “welcoming the stranger” (as Jesus puts it), thinking especially about refugees, international students, and people of other religions.

We were just getting warmed up when we had to head back to church for a meeting, but I hope you will keep your eyes and ears open for news about the Ralph Starling School of Radical Hospitality (or whatever we choose to call it) coming sometime this spring, while we are still on this year-long, every-member mission trip called KOH2RVA.

Can you imagine how heaven might come to earth for someone who visits our church or one of our homes and experiences the welcome of Christ himself?