KOH2RVA: Day 216

bananaToday is the day of the big race: the Monument Avenue 10K!

More than 40,000 participants will race, run, jog, walk, roll, stroll, or crawl past Richmond’s First Baptist Church today and I will be one of them (I told someone yesterday that if we could just get a few thousand of them to come back on Sunday morning it would be perfect, but I’m not sure we can convince them that worship qualifies as an “after-party”).

This will be my fifth year to run the 10K. I missed it when I came to Richmond in May, 2008, but I’ve signed up every year since. I wanted to set a good example for the staff and for the church, but I also did it just because I love to run, and the Monument Avenue 10K is one of the most lovable runs in the country. I’ve described it as “a 6.2 mile block party,” which is not far from the truth. Live bands are playing along the course, everyone on Monument Avenue seems to be hosting parties on their front porches or out on the median strip, high school cheerleaders are shaking their pom-poms on the sidelines, and some runners are dressed up in crazy costumes. Only the first few thousand runners have that look of grim determination on their faces, as if they were out to win the race; the others are mostly just trying to finish, or to have some fun along the way.

I find myself in that latter category today. I’m not trying to win. I’m not trying to set a personal best. I’m just going to immerse myself in the fun and flow of the crowd and see where I end up at the finish line. I’m going to see if there is any part of today’s event that makes me believe the Kingdom of Heaven has come near to Richmond, Virginia.

I won’t be surprised if there is.

I already know that one of our members, Cheryl, is planning to do the entire 6.2 miles on her walker. I know that somebody in the church sponsored Cheryl because she was having trouble coming up with the entry fee.

I know that Stephanie, who is completely blind, will walk the course holding on to the elbow of one of our members who agreed to do it with her just so she could participate.

I know that someone in our church who knows sign language came to our pre-race dinner at Robin Inn last night with Ron, who is extremely hard of hearing, just so he could join in the fun.

I know that some of our members will be on the sidelines today shouting encouragement to people they don’t even know, just because people need encouragement, especially when they’re doing something hard.

I think there’s a very good chance that heaven will come to earth for somebody in Richmond, today, and I don’t want to miss it. So, I’m going to go lace up my running shoes, pin on my number, and get lost in the crowd.

Hope to see you out there.

KOH2RVA: Day 150

greetings-from-richmond-virginiaThe second thing on my agenda on Wednesday mornings is “Ecumenical Jogging” at 6:15. It’s a fancy way of saying I go for a morning run with my friend Wallace Adams-Riley, Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond.

We talk about a lot of things while we’re running. This morning I talked about something I had read in Ben Campbell’s book, Richmond’s Unhealed History, and since nobody says it quite like Ben, let me quote:

While metropolitan Richmond’s leaders were busy over the last forty years fighting among their fragmented jurisdictions, vying for businesses, abandoning and opening massive shopping centers, trying to keep poor people in other jurisdictions, struggling to build four identical balanced sub-economies, and worrying about race and income levels of citizens, other middle-sized cities in our region stole our entire banking industry, built light rail systems, renewed their downtown areas, acquired major league sports teams, and developed public education systems far more competitive than either metropolitan Richmond’s suburban or urban systems. They built the same highways, suburbs, and shopping centers as metro Richmond, but the resulting common wealth was much greater and the larger city prospered (pp. 211-212).


Rev. Ben Campbell

It’s that “common wealth” Ben is concerned about. He argues that metropolitan Richmond doesn’t have it because it’s divided among Richmond City, Hanover, Henrico, and Chesterfield Counties. He often talks about how in Charlotte, North Carolina, the city and county governments merged to form a single jurisdiction, and were therefore able to attract major industry and professional sports teams.

I was telling Wallace about all this (or trying to while huffing and puffing along Franklin Street), and that’s when he said, “We should start a movement called ‘One Richmond.’”

“One Richmond,” I repeated. “I like it.”  And a few steps later I said, “Let the record show that ‘One Richmond’ was born on February 6, 2013, during a morning run.”

Sometimes I get criticized for talking about bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, even in my own church. Some of our members tell me they don’t live in Richmond: they live in Henrico County, or Hanover, or Chesterfield. And so I have to say, “You know what I mean—Metropolitan Richmond.” But what if I didn’t have to say that? What if Richmond weren’t divided up into “four identical balanced sub-economies” as Ben Campbell says? What if it were just one, big happy city?

I’m sure that the people who work for the county governments could give me lots of reasons why we shouldn’t become one, big happy city, and maybe they will, but the vision remains compelling. Why not One Richmond?

Wouldn’t that bring heaven a little closer to earth?

KOH2RVA: Day 63

This is how I’m going to try to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, today:

1. I’m going to have coffee (which doesn’t bring heaven to earth for anyone else, necessarily, but it certainly does it  for me).

2. I’m going to write a blog post (and if you’re reading this then I already have.  The coffee must have done the trick!).

3. I’m going to go outside to cheer on the marathoners who will start running past my house around 8:15. One of my spiritual gifts is the gift of encouragement, and that’s what I’m going to do—encourage these people who are trying to run 26.2 miles. I love to run, and I love running as a metaphor of the spiritual life. The author of Hebrews says, “Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” I’m not running the marathon today (my race is the 10K), but I will be one of those in the “great cloud of witnesses” surrounding those runners, cheering them on.

4. I’m going to Glen Lea Elementary School from 11:00 to 2:00 for their Fall Festival. This is the school First Baptist has “adopted” for this year-long, every-member mission trip, and this is a great opportunity to visit the school, help out if I can, but mostly be a friendly, smiling presence. Steve Blanchard tells me First Baptist is sponsoring a “cake walk,” and giving away children’s books. I’m not sure how I can help with that (maybe as official “cake-taster”?), but I’ll be there, and if you have the time and can come I hope to see you there, too (3909 Austin Avenue, just off Laburnum).

5. Finally, I’m going to finish my sermon on Ruth so that I will be ready to preach in the morning, and that could take a while. That book is so rich, so deep, so full of surprises that I can hardly hope to do it justice in a twenty minute sermon. But I’ll try, and I hope you’ll come to church tomorrow to hear it if you can. I find that heaven often comes to earth right there in the sanctuary of First Baptist Church on a Sunday morning. I have a feeling that may happen tomorrow, on Day 64 of KOH2RVA.

The Faster Pastor

When I started training for the Monument Avenue 10K last year with the team from Richmond’s First Baptist Church, I joked that there was “no pastor faster.”  In our Sunday afternoon training sessions I would try to run fast enough to protect that reputation, but not so fast that I couldn’t discuss theology with my teammates (which I’m sure they appreciated).  By the time race day came around I was running pretty well, and surprised myself with a time of 45:41. 

Which means that I trained even harder this year, and began to get serious about that “no pastor faster” thing.  “Honestly,” I thought, “is there another pastor out there running faster than 45:41?”  But then I started running with Wallace Adams-Riley, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, and it became evident that he was not only a few years younger than me, but also a good bit quicker.  I justified it by telling myself that he wasn’t a “faster pastor,” he was a “faster rector” (which doesn’t even rhyme and therefore doesn’t qualify).

Wallace pushed me in our training runs, though, and when race day came around this year he ran with me and helped me maintain a brisk pace over the 6.2 mile course.  I came across the finish line in 43:41—exactly two minutes faster than last year—and exulted in my victory.  I couldn’t imagine that there was another pastor in Richmond who had run so well. 

Until I saw the results in the paper the next day.

I was looking at the names of the top finishers in my age group when I saw a name I thought I recognized.  Sure enough, there was David Benjamin, pastor of Winfree Memorial Baptist Church on Midlothian Turnpike.  When I checked online I discovered that David is two years older than I am, but finished twenty-five places ahead of me in our age group, with a time of 39:59—nearly four minutes faster than my 43:41.

What could I do?

Sunday morning, before I went to church, I called David and left a message on his voicemail.  “For more than a year now I’ve been telling people that there is no pastor faster than Jim Somerville, but that’s not true.  You are the faster pastor, David Benjamin, and today I confer that title upon you.  Congratulations!”

I meant it sincerely, and walked to church feeling better (a little stiff, but better).  Honest admission, humble confession—these things are good for the soul.  And I’m sure that in the years ahead, as I watch countless pastors, rectors, and imams stream past me in the Monument Avenue 10K, my body will breathe a little sigh of disappointment,

But my soul will be at peace.

Sowing Seeds of Love

mustard seedIt sounds a little corny, doesn’t it? (or a little wheaty, or a little barley, depending on what kind of seeds you use), but at the end of my sermon on the parable of the mustard seed recently I suggested that the seed of the Kingdom might be love.  The more I’ve thought about it the more true it seems.  When we say loving words, when we do loving deeds, we sow the seeds of the Kingdom.  If we could learn to love this city, love the people we meet, love the planet we live on, then the Kingdom would come, on earth as it is in heaven.

If a kingdom can be defined as that place where a king rules, then the Kingdom of God is that place where God rules, and since God is love (1 John 4:8), the Kingdom is that place where love rules.  Right?

I was thinking those thoughts on the Monday after I preached that sermon, while I ran down Monument Avenue to Monroe Park and headed back on Main Street.  Somewhere along the way I saw that someone had chalked the word LOVE on the sidewalk, using multicolored sidewalk chalk.  The letters were big and bold, and I could almost imagine that the person who did it had heard my sermon the day before, had taken me seriously, and decided that one of the ways to sow the seeds of the Kingdom in this city was to write the word LOVE on the sidewalk where people walking along with their heads down would see it. 

I saw it, and it made me smile, to think that someone was out there sowing the seeds of the Kingdom.  Maybe you’re out there doing it too, in your own way, and maybe soon enough the world will begin to see the fruits of your labor:


Total Fitness

10a-running-coachIt was sometime during my run on Thursday that I wondered if it was worth it.

I’ve signed up for the Monument Avenue 10K, along with about 30,000 other crazies.  We’re planning to run 6.2 miles on Saturday, March 28, and First Baptist Church is fielding a team called “Team First.”  I’ve encouraged the staff to run or walk in this race as a way of setting an example before the whole church, and if I’m asking the staff to set an example for the church I feel obliged to set an example for the staff.

So, there I was on Thursday, my day off, bundled up against the sub-freezing temperatures and trudging west on Monument Avenue.  My lungs were cold, my eyes were watering, and I had a stitch in my right side that produced an awkward, limping gait.  I was hoping to run four miles, but with three miles to go I wanted very much to stop, turn around, and walk back home.


This is new for me.  I was a distance runner in college and used to knock out five miles before breakfast and then practice with the team in the afternoon.  If you had asked me to run four miles in the cold back then I would have done it in swim trunks and flip-flops.  I don’t want to think that I’m getting older—none of us do—but apparently I am.  All the more reason to give some thought to staying fit.

I used to talk to college students about “Total Fitness.”  I would tell them that human beings have four essential aspects—body, mind, soul, and spirit—and that it’s important to keep all of them in shape.

Body:  That one seems obvious enough, doesn’t it?  Even if you don’t run ten miles a day you can eat right and exercise.  There are plenty of books and articles that give good, sensible advice on those subjects.  On my refrigerator at home I used to have a note that said “Eat less; move more.”  It really can be that simple.

Mind:  For those college students it wasn’t a problem: their minds were getting a regular workout.  For those of us who are no longer in school it can be too easy to let our minds get soft, to watch something lighthearted on television instead of sitting down with a good book, joining a discussion group, or taking a class. 

Soul:  Have you exercised your soul lately?  Have you spent time in prayer, done some devotional reading, journaled, or immersed yourself in Scripture?  Have you been to worship, sung the great hymns of the faith, opened your soul to a sermon, listened to a glorious anthem?  All of these are ways of keeping your soul fit but of course these are not the only ways. 

Spirit:  I like to distinguish this one from the soul, although the two are closely related.  I like to think that you exercise your spirit by doing the things you love, by spending time with friends, by going to an art museum, by canoeing down a quiet river, by turning the music up loud and dancing.  Ask yourself, “What do I love to do?” and then do that.  It will probably take some effort.  The best things in life usually do.

I would be glad for you to add to this list or tell me some of the things you like to do to keep your body, mind, soul, and spirit in shape.  Just click on the word “comments” below to share your suggestions.

And just so you’ll know, I did finish that four mile run on Thursday, and when I practice with “Team First” at 1:30 this Sunday afternoon…

…it’s going to show.