KOH2RVA: Day 314

Calvary DC

I’m back!

Back from a vacation that has been both refreshing and renewing—just what I was hoping for. I’ve hiked in Vermont and New York State, read a few books that were on my list, stayed at some charming B&B’s, slept a little later than usual, gone swimming in a creek, eaten some delicious meals, spent lots of time with family, and spotted at least one genuine celebrity.


But re-entry can be difficult, and yesterday as I checked my email at a rest area on the way home I found a message from an African-American member of First Baptist who forwarded an article about the Trayvon Martin decision and said she was heartbroken that she hadn’t heard one word about it from FBC Richmond—her church!

I wrote back right away and explained that I’d been on vacation, but I read the article she forwarded and liked the last line especially in which Jim Wallis of Sojourners said, “The country needs multi-racial communities of faith to show us how to live together.” As I re-enter my regular routine, and our year-long, every-member mission to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, I wonder how we can do that. How can Richmond’s First Baptist Church be part of the solution and not part of the problem?

I think we’ve already started.

Before I left for vacation I reported on a conversation that took place between some of the leaders of First Baptist and First African Baptist Church here in Richmond. I shared the challenge issued by Rodney Waller, pastor of First African, that we “show Richmond what racial reconciliation looks like.” Now a member of First Baptist forwards an article in which the author challenges multi-racial communities of faith to “show us how to live together.” Do you hear that? They don’t want us to tell them; they want us to show them.

So, in a minute, after you read this paragraph, click on the photograph above so you can see it full-size. It’s a picture of my friend Amy Butler’s congregation in Washington, DC—Calvary Baptist. If you take the time to look at all the faces in the photograph you will see that this is a multi-racial community of faith. And if you look at the smiles on the faces you can see that these people are completely at home with each other. They are doing the things we’ve been challenged to do: showing us what racial reconciliation looks like, and showing us how to live together. What do these people have in common, other than the fact that they live in the DC area? Jesus. They have Jesus in common. The one who taught his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom would come, and God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

For them, what happened to Trayvon Martin must have seemed almost personal, because it wasn’t just a 17-year-old boy who was shot when he went out to buy some Skittles: it might have been one of their 17-year-old boys.  And it wasn’t just a concerned neighbor who did the shooting: it could have been one of their concerned neighbors.  When my friend Amy preached on the parable of the Good Samaritan just after George Zimmerman was acquitted she hinted that the answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” could be “Trayvon Martin,” but it could also be “George Zimmerman.”  Jesus doesn’t want us to hate the George Zimmermans of the world anymore than he wants us to hate the Trayvon Martins of the world.  It’s not that some people are good and some people are evil; it’s that all people are people.  We struggle with the evil inside us.

Sometimes we lose.

But let’s not lose this vision of a kingdom where people of different races know how to live together in peace.  Look at that picture again.  See the smiles on those faces.  And then let’s do what we can to make sure that’s how it is at Richmond’s First Baptist Church, and do what we can to make it so between our church and First African.  Richmond needs a different picture of race relations than the one left behind by the Trayvon Martin decision.

We might just be the ones to show it to them.

KOH2RVA: Day 153

basketballCan you bring heaven to earth with a basketball?

Some people think you can.

Chris and Laura Harris are members of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, and today they will spend most of the day in the gym working with players, coaches, parents, referees, and cheerleaders to make the game of basketball a fun, uplifting, and rewarding experience—even spiritually rewarding. It’s called “Upward Basketball,” and you almost have to see it to believe it.

I saw it a few weeks ago when I was invited to do the halftime devotions. What I noticed first when I walked into the gym was all the people working behind the scenes. There was Maron El-Khouri making the announcements and playing the music at halftime. There were a half-dozen older kids helping out until it was their turn to play later in the day. There was Laura Harris, answering questions and making sure that everything was running smoothly (the day I was there one of the coaches was taken to the hospital in an ambulance, complaining of chest pains. Laura’s husband, Chris, went with him, leaving Laura to quiet the chaos as well as find a substitute coach and a referee. She was amazing; unflappable; I began to think that if she’d been on the Titanic it wouldn’t have sunk).

But then there were all those kids out on the floor—little kids at the start of the day—being shepherded by kindly referees in striped shirts who didn’t keep score and didn’t call fouls. The coaches on the sidelines shouted encouragement and offered advice but I never saw them yell at a player or throw a chair. They were trying to teach those kids how to play basketball, and how to do it in a way that was fun and fair. The parents sat on the bleachers and watched their children race up and down the court, and if they took a shot and missed, well, at least they took a shot, right?

Their parents were proud.

When it was time for devotions I talked to the parents about taking shots and missing. I told them the Greek word for sin was hamartia, which means, literally, “to miss the mark.” I said, “When your child takes a shot and misses do you stop loving him?” They shook their heads emphatically. Of course not. I said, “When you try to do the right thing and fail do you think your heavenly father stops loving you?” Again, they shook their heads, but less emphatically. They hadn’t heard this particular line of reasoning before, at least not from a Baptist preacher. “Sin is not about waking up in the morning wanting to do the wrong thing,” I said. “Sin is about waking up in the morning wanting to do the right thing, but failing. It’s about being human. It’s about taking the shot and missing.

“And when you do, your heavenly Father still loves you.”

These are the kinds of lessons that are being learned at Upward Basketball, and I could see it when kids were disappointed by their own efforts but got loving pats, hugs, and words of encouragement from their parents and coaches. They were learning that it’s OK to take a shot and miss. And sometimes, to their own amazement, they took a shot and made it, and when they did basketball was fun, as it was always meant to be,

And heaven came to earth.