Yes. This is what I think radical hospitality looks like: a gathering of international students from VCU at the home of Louis and Linda Watts, with other graduates of the Ralph Starling School of Radical Hospitality (including Ralph Himself) proudly present and…having a wonderful time. Who knew bringing heaven to earth could be so much fun?
Ralph Starling is our Minister of Christian Invitation and this fall he’s offering a class in “Radical Hospitality.” But Ralph is also teaching by example, as he has for years. Last Sunday he brought a van load of International students from VCU to our “One Sunday” celebration at First Baptist Church, which featured an old-fashioned dinner on the grounds after worship. Here’s an email he got from a Chinese student later that same day. I’m publishing it just the way she wrote it.
Thank you alot today. I never went a church before but I bet it was the most wonderful experience I had in America. Thank you for introducing so many nice people there. They were all very nice just like you. They treated each other like family. That was so moving. They gathered together beacuse of love， sympathy and mercy in their hearts. These valuable things would bring guidance and hope in my future life. Just talking with them, I felt peaceful. These days I found it so hard to live and study alone in VCU. I was disappointed and wondered if I was wrong to choose study abroad. So much misable in my life. I felt I could not bear the stress. But today was a turn point, after I came back. In a moment, some thoughts flashed through my mind. I realized I should be grateful for my life. It made me stronger and let me discern who would be my life friends. I could choose to live a better life if I want. I’d better stop being negative.
I love what she says about church being “the most wonderful experience” she has had in America and how these particular church people “treated each other like family.” It makes me think that if we invite people to church, and make sure the doors and our hearts are open, lives could be changed.
I love this email from Mark Larson, which describes the experience of one young woman’s encounter with Richmond’s First Baptist Church. I sometimes tell the church, “There must be a thousand ways to bring heaven to earth.” There must be a dozen ways in this story alone:
Yesterday, a young lady from Munich, Germany had a KOH2RVA experience that I wanted to share with you. When this young lady and others told me about what she had experienced that day, I clearly saw the Holy Spirit at work through a team of FBC friends.
Nina arrived in Richmond as part of a six-week journey to see the east coast of the US—alone. She is “sofa-surfing” from New York to Miami. This is a new way to travel cheap—a time-share for sofas. You agree to let people who sign up stay on your sofa for free in return for your ability to stay on the sofas of others in the network. The system depends on self-policing much like is done at EBay. Unfortunately, on the first day of her sofa-stay in Richmond, Nina encountered an environment of alcohol, drugs, and large dogs. She left this unwelcoming place and opted to stay at a nearby hotel.
Though of a different Christian denomination, one of her desired experiences was to visit a Baptist church. After an Internet search, she located First Baptist and walked 2 ½ miles for the 8:30 AM service this past Sunday morning. This is where the First Baptist folks took over:
• Nina was met at the sidewalk by our front door greeters (including Sharon Brittle and Alena Glembova).
• They took her inside where she sat with Sandra Saunders during the service. Sandra took Ralph’s “Radical Hospitality” class this spring; she, Ralph, Alena, and many others host events to make the VCU International students feel at home in Richmond and at our church. It was this group who served ice cream to RVA United on a recent Tuesday night.
• Nina described the service and sermon as “energetic” and “uplifting” – unlike what she experiences at home.
• During the service, Sandra introduced Nina to Heath and Theresa Coryell who welcomed her into their Bible study class.
• Sandra took Nina to lunch with some of her friends, and let her know of the “International Pot Luck” dinner that Carrie and I were hosting at our house that evening.
• Four of our FBC members shuttled many of the international students who had no means of transportation.
• At the International Pot Luck, Nina met about 25 people from eight countries, tasted food they brought that reminded them of their home country, traded contact information with several, and invited them to stay at her house in Munich (but not on the sofa) if ever traveling to Munich.
• When everyone began leaving, she was offered a ride back to her hotel (or) a visit to Sweet Frog for frozen yogurt with Sandra. No contest.
She is now on her way to Charlotte, but what a contrast in hospitality this young lady experienced in 24 hours!
I think this is one way that KOH2RVA can work: a series of small, friendly gestures by a group of friends come together and bring heaven to our city—for one young lady on an adventure, for college students who are a long way from home, and for those of us who are privileged to be part of their lives.
“I was a stranger,” Jesus said, “and you welcomed me.”
That’s (at least) one way to bring heaven to earth.
Last night was National Night Out but that’s not why I ended up in front of Richmond’s First Baptist Church with a group of 20-30somethings. We had come for the Tuesday night gathering of RVA United—an outreach ministry to and through young adults in the Richmond area. I had been asked to tell them something about KOH2RVA and Lynn Turner had been invited to lead in prayer. Surrounding those “talking times” there had been music—glorious, thunderous, not-for-the-faint-of-heart music—offered up with abandon in praise to God. It was a powerful worship experience. We came out of the sanctuary with our hearts still pounding and found…ice cream.
That’s right: ice cream.
It was being dished out by graduates of the Ralph Starling School of Radical Hospitality. Ralph himself was in the crowd, meeting and greeting those 20-30somethings while his graduates (mostly 60-70somethings) served ice cream sundaes with a smile. The picture above is a little dark, but maybe you can see the RVA United sign on the front porch of the church and just to the left of it people standing in line to get ice cream. The others have come down the steps to eat their sundaes and enjoy each other’s company. They stayed for an hour after the service, until it was so dark nobody could see anything. Even then, some of them didn’t want to go home.
This morning, as I was re-reading parts of the Gospel of Luke, I found that place where Jesus says to his opponents, “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (11:20). Jesus had just cast out a demon, and here he seems to be saying that in that act, in that moment, the kingdom of God had come.
That’s how it felt to me last night when I stepped out of that powerful worship service and found some of our members cheerfully dishing out ice cream for young people they had never met before—as though in that act, in that moment, the kingdom of God had come upon us. If I were putting it in the form of a parable I might say, “What is the Kingdom like, and to what shall I compare it?”
It’s like an ice cream sundae offered to a stranger.
I got up at five o’ clock for a day that didn’t end until ten, with less than an hour in the afternoon to come home and change clothes. I’m not complaining. It was a wonderful day. But I am explaining how Richmond’s premiere KOH2RVA blogger might have forgotten to bring you up to date on the mission.
So, where were we?
Yesterday we were at Day 329. Today we are at Day 330. Which means that in just over a month this year-long, every-member mission trip will have come to its end. What I learned at church yesterday is that there are things going on I didn’t even know about and there are members who are still looking for a way to get off the bus.
For example: I didn’t know that Buddy Burgess, who heads up the ministry of recreation at First Baptist, had conducted a week-long soccer camp at Essex Village in which 25 children had participated. I must have been on vacation that week. But I heard Ralph Starling mention it during worship yesterday and when I closed my eyes I could almost see those children laughing and learning as Buddy worked with them patiently and came back to do it again every day that week. If he had done it in Sri Lanka it might have been on the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, but he did it at Essex Village—one of the most neglected neighborhoods in our city—and because he did not many people knew about it. Even his pastor found out after the fact. But those 25 children will never forget it and for them, I’m sure, heaven came a little closer to earth.
I also overheard someone whispering about a church member who hasn’t found her way to “get off the bus” yet, by which I mean she hasn’t found a way to participate in this year-long, every-member mission trip (emphasis on every). That didn’t surprise me; what surprised me was the expectation that she would, as if it were simply understood that that’s what you do at Richmond’s First Baptist Church—you get off the bus! The person who was whispering to her friend wasn’t doing it in a gossipy way; they were putting their heads together, wondering what they could do to help this woman before it’s too late, before this mission trip comes to an end and everybody else gets back on the bus—tired and happy—only to find their friend hiding in the back.
To learn that good things have been going on while you were away, and that a culture has been created in which everyone is expected to be on mission, well…that makes a pastor’s heart sing, even at the end of a very long day.
Today is a new day. It’s day 330.
What will you do to bring heaven to earth?
My friend and colleague Ralph Starling recently shared this brief article by Seth Godin about paracosms. What’s a paracosm? Literally it means “a world alongside,” but listen to how Godin describes it:
A paracosm is an ornate, richly detailed imaginary world. Whether you’re a three-year old with imaginary playmates, or a passionate inventor imagining how your insight will change just about everything, a paracosm gives you the opportunity to hypothesize, to try out big ideas and see where they take you.
[Let me interrupt long enough to say that the Kingdom of Heaven, as Jesus talked about it, sounds like a paracosm].
Managers at established organizations have a very hard time with this. Take book publishing as an example. Ten or fifteen years ago, I’d sit with publishing chiefs and say, “let’s imagine how the world looks when there are no mass market books published on paper…” Before we could get any further, they’d stop the exercise. “It’s impossible to imagine that. Paper is magical. Are you saying you don’t believe in books?” (I heard variations on this from people as recently as a year ago.)
[Let me interrupt again to say that the way the scribes and Pharisees responded to Jesus’ talk about the Kingdom of Heaven sounds like that].
The emotional response is easy to understand. If one of the core principles of your business needs to be abandoned in order to act out the paracosm, it feels disloyal to even utter it. Sort of like asking your spouse if he’s going to remarry after you die…
The most effective, powerful way to envision the future is to envision it, all of it, including a future that doesn’t include your sacred cows. Only then can you try it on for size, imagine what the forces at work might be and then work to either prevent (or even better, improve on) that future and your role in it.
It’s not disloyal to imagine a future that doesn’t include your founding precepts. It’s disloyal not to.
If that’s true, do we need to spend some time today imagining a future that doesn’t include the church as we know it, but rather the kingdom as God knows it? And if so, what would that future look like? According to Seth Godin, “A paracosm gives you the opportunity to hypothesize, to try out big ideas and see where they will take you.”
Go ahead. Knock yourself out.
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).
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!
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.