KOH2RVA: Day 299

Book Buddies 2Tomorrow will be Day 300 of First Baptist Church’s year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.

How are we doing?

Well, the Kingdom hasn’t come, not yet, not entirely, but there have been many times when heaven touched down briefly, just long enough to encourage us. I sometimes think about that remarkable picture of the sixth-grade boy from the housing projects in the East End reading to one of our privileged preschoolers at First Baptist and realize that wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t been on this mission—if one of our members hadn’t been thinking about what she could do to help bring heaven to earth.

But that’s just one example. There are hundreds more, literally. So many of our members have been involved, and in so many ways. When I flip through the pictures I’ve posted on my blog in the last 299 days the stories come rushing back right along with them until I am almost overwhelmed by God’s goodness and grace and a glimpse of what is possible when his people put their shoulder to the wheel and push in the same direction, toward the coming of his Kingdom.

So I’m putting together a slide show for our closing celebration on Sunday, September 8. It’s going to feature dozens of those pictures and a song called “Heaven” by Michael Gungor that says, “I don’t know but I’ve been told, heaven is coming down to this world.”

There are days when I can believe it, and this day may be one of them. Why not seize the opportunity to do something on this day that is picture-worthy, story-worthy—one of those things that will stay in your memory forever as an example of how heaven can come to earth and sometimes does? And then do this: take a picture, write up the story, and send it to me at somerville@fbcrichmond.org. Who knows? It may be the Day 300 example of how “heaven is coming down to this world.”

KOH2RVA: Day 225

jail barsI went to jail last Friday.

It’s the fourth time I’ve done it on this year-long, every-member mission trip. I do it because I’m haunted by that verse from Matthew 25 where Jesus says, “I was in prison and you didn’t visit me.” So I go to jail to see Jesus, or at least some of his brothers. I went on Friday, and I took Tyler Forrest with me.

Tyler is a relatively new member of First Baptist Church. He’s a young man, a strong man; he works as a personal trainer at a fitness center. I saw him up in the balcony one Sunday morning at the 8:30 service and the next thing I know he was coming forward, saying he’d like to join the church. He said (and I quote): “This is the first church where I felt the Spirit.”

So, last Sunday I challenged the church once again to “get off the bus” and onto the mission field and as I was standing at the back door, shaking hands, Tyler came by and asked, “How do I do that?” I said, “Why don’t you come to jail with me on Friday?” and he said he would be glad to.

I knew I’d found the right man for the job.

Turns out Tyler knew somebody in the Richmond Jail. “Not a bad guy,” he said. “Just somebody who got busted for selling drugs.” So we drove down together on Friday, made our way through security, and ended up in the chaplain’s office, where we were greeted by Father Alonzo Pruitt, an Episcopal priest, and my friend Mike Kelly, “Michael Patrick Kelly,” he reminds me, a dyed-in-the-wool Catholic who works out at the same place I do: the Jewish Community Center.

It’s in interesting world we live in.

Mike led us up to a cell block on the second floor where “his” guys were waiting. They seem to be in some sort of program where you get special treatment for good behavior, because they were exceptionally well-behaved. They applauded as I came into the room, which made me feel a little embarrassed. I’m not a hero. If I were a hero I would be there every day, like my friend Mike, and not just when the guilt gets the best of me.

I didn’t want to be “preachy,” so I told them that funny story about the time I set the outhouse on fire while my brother Ed was still in it. When I was finished I told them that if they wanted to hear me preach they could tune in to Channel 8 at 11:00 on Sunday mornings. And then I asked if I could say a prayer.

I prayed that they would know the love of God, that they would feel it in their bones, that they would be reminded daily how precious they were to him, and that there was nothing they had ever done or ever could do that would put them beyond the reach of his love. And then I said “Amen” and was getting ready to say goodbye when Mike asked the men if they had any questions. They had a few, mostly about the story I had told, but then one of the men on the front row looked up at me and said, “Thank you for the prayer.”

And that was the moment. That’s when heaven came to earth. I could tell that something in that prayer had touched him and I imagined that it had been a long time since anyone told him he was loved. And maybe that’s why Jesus shamed me into visiting the Richmond Jail, because he knew that man was in there, and needed to know God’s love.

“You’re welcome,” I said.

On the way back to church Tyler and I had plenty to talk about. I don’t know if he will make jail ministry his “way” of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, but he might. I saw him bump fists with the guy he knew in there, and in his own way he reminded him that he, too, was loved by God.

That’s a good thing, isn’t it? Going down to the city jail and pouring out a bucket full of God’s love? I’m not sure I would have done that if we hadn’t been on this mission trip, but I’m glad I did.

I’m really glad.

KOH2RVA: Day 121

indian_schoolchildrenI met a man yesterday who is passionate about his mission. In his lifetime he hopes to bring one billion people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Did you hear that?

One billion.

This is his approach: he goes to schools in India, talks with the principals, and tells them that if they will let him share “the true story of Christmas” he will give every child in the school a free pen.

I asked him to tell me the true story of Christmas and he said, “Well, it’s about Mary giving birth to the baby Jesus, of course, but that’s only the beginning.” And then he told me about Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, his preaching of the Kingdom, his healing of the sick, his death on a cross, and his resurrection. But it sounded as if the story he tells eventually comes down to this: that if you don’t accept Jesus as your Lord and savior you will perish in the flames of hell for eternity. And then he invites the children to say the sinner’s prayer with him and be saved, and many of them do. He says he has been able to share “the true story of Christmas” with 600,000 children so far.

Only 9,400,000 to go.

Later I thought about this man and his mission and how it is a different mission than bringing heaven to earth. His mission is keeping people out of hell. And that did to me what it always does: it made me ask, “Is that what it’s all about? Is the ‘true story of Christmas’ a story about keeping people out of hell?”

I would appreciate your thoughts on that as we enter this new year, and the final two thirds of our year-long, every-member mission trip. I would love for us to go forward with this man’s energy and ambition.

But I don’t want us to go in the wrong direction.

KOH2RVA: Day 105

The world did not end yesterday.

Walter R. T. Witschey was right: the Maya calendar simply rolled over from one cycle to the next, as smoothly as the odometer on your car.  According to that calendar, yesterday was 13.0.0.0.0 and today is 13.0.0.0.1.

According to the Gregorian calendar today is December 22, 2012, and according to the Christian calendar tomorrow is the Fourth Sunday of Advent, which means that—since the world didn’t end—I need to get busy writing a sermon.

But before I do, let me tell you what happened yesterday, on Day 104 of KOH2RVA (speaking of calendars): our year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.

I went to jail.

Image

 

I told you I was going, and I told you I was going to tell a story.  I did.  I was escorted through a set of iron bars and down a long hallway past the high-security lockdown and the dining hall, up a flight of iron steps and in through another set of iron bars to a room where I found about fifty men in brown jump suits waiting patiently for my arrival.  As I walked in they rose to their feet applauding and, honestly, I looked around to see who they were clapping for.  They didn’t know me.  I hadn’t even been introduced.  Apparently they are so glad to see anybody from the outside that they will clap even for a Baptist preacher.

Father Pruitt, the chaplain, gave a long speech about what a sacrifice I was making, how I was taking time out of my extremely busy schedule to be with them, and how grateful they should be, and then I got to tell my story.

I decided to tell the one about the time my brothers and I accidentally burned down the house while making a volcano in the back yard, but I did say at one point, “Friends, please don’t try this at home and especially don’t try it at the Richmond Jail.”

Let the record show.

It was a funny story and they seemed to enjoy it and at the end I said, “My brothers and I have never told my parents what really happened, and if you don’t tell them they will never know.  So, raise your right hands and repeat after me: I promise…never to tell…Dr. Somerville’s parents…who burned down the house!”

They laughed out loud.

It did feel as if heaven came a little closer to earth yesterday afternoon, in an iron-barred room at the Richmond Jail where inmates became—for a little while—children again, listening to a story.  In that moment I was glad that the world hadn’t come to an end.  I even began to feel hopeful that it might become a better place,

One loving act at a time.

KOH2RVA: Day 104

lit matchWell, according to some people, this is the day the world is supposed to end. I’ve got it on my calendar that way: “End of the world—not sure of exact time.” But because I’m not sure of the exact time I’m planning to go on with the other things that are on my (not the Maya) calendar.

For example:

At 1:00 this afternoon I’m supposed to tell a story to the inmates at the Richmond Jail. Chaplain Alonzo Pruitt says one of the greatest problems at the jail is boredom. “These people are here 168 hours a week,” he says. “Any relief they can get is appreciated.” So, I’ve offered to tell them a story, but which one should I tell?

  • I have a story about the time my brothers and I accidentally burned down our house when we tried to build a volcano in the back yard, but I’m not sure that’s a good one to tell people who are in jail.
  • And then there’s the time we gave the family cat an almost-complete ovariohysterectomy on the dining room table while my parents were out for the evening, but again, it might give the inmates ideas.
  • I have that story about the time I set the outhouse on fire while my brother Ed was in it, but I’m not sure it sets the right kind of moral example.

I’ll have to sort all that out before I go down there this afternoon, but I’m still hoping to go. I look forward to that opportunity to visit with those who are there, to brighten their day, to see if I can bring a little of the Kingdom of Heaven to one of the darkest corners of Richmond, Virginia.

What are you going to do today to bring the KOH2RVA?

KOH2RVA: Day 81

So…yesterday I was talking about the Richmond Jail, and at the bottom of the post, as a footnote, I put a link to some photographs by Eva Russo taken inside the jail. I warned my readers that the pictures were “graphic” and “disturbing,” and some of them were. This one is not: it’s a picture of a woman visiting her boyfriend at the jail. And when I look at her children, visiting with her, I think, “If they can do it, I can too.”

But let me be clear about this: jail ministry is not for everyone. When I say “there must be a thousand ways to bring heaven to earth” this is certainly one of the ways. But it may not be your way. Nonetheless, there are ways all of us can take part in this ministry.

I talked with Father Alonzo Pruitt recently, Chief of Chaplains and Director of Social Work at the jail, and asked him how Richmond’s First Baptist Church could help.

He said he could use all the help he could get.

He said there are 33,000 people who pass through the jail each year—“residents”—he called them, not “inmates.” He said they need a lot of things but some of those things are very simple. They need:

  • Soap! He said, “If people in your church who travel could bring home some of those little hotel soaps and shampoos, lotions and conditioners, that would be a great help.”
  • Underwear. Those “3-packs” of men’s briefs you can find in almost any department store would be much appreciated.
  • T-shirts. Medium and Large, but especially the Extra Large and even 2X sizes would be helpful.
  • Bras. Yes, bras, for the female residents, but please, Father Pruitt said, “No underwires.”
  • Books and magazines, but be sure to remove the address labels from any magazines you might donate.

It was that last thing that really got Father Pruitt talking. He said the biggest problem residents face is boredom. “They’re here for 168 hours each week,” he said, “often with nothing to do. If your members could donate books and magazines, that would be great,” he said. “If you had a choir that could come down here and sing, that would be even better.”

“What about storytelling?” I asked. “I’ve got this great story about the time my brothers and I accidentally burned down our house.”

“Accidentally?” he asked (I could almost see him raising his eyebrows).

“Yes,” I said. “Accidentally.”

“Then come tell it,” he said. “That would be great.”

So, one of these days soon I’m going to go down to the Richmond Jail and tell that story. I’d love to bring boxes full of soap, shampoo, underwear, T-shirts, bras, books, and magazines. If you’d like to contribute, just bring your things to my office. And if you’d like to go with me when I tell that story…

…let me know.

Must Death Have the Last Word?

The earthquake and tsunami in Japan have not only shaken the world, they’ve shaken a lot of people’s faith.  “How could a good and loving God allow such a thing to happen?” they ask.  It’s the oldest question in the theology book, and if there were an easy answer it would have been answered a long time ago. 

Some people answer it by saying there isn’t a good and loving God, and the devastation in Japan is evidence.  Some say God is good but not very powerful, and therefore not able to prevent such things.  Others say God is powerful but not very good, and therefore not interested in preventing them.  Christian theology, for the most part, has simply acknowledged the tension: God is all-loving; God is all-powerful; terrible things happen.

Maybe it would help to look at that word terrible.  We think it’s terrible that so many people died in this recent tragedy, but the truth is that everything in this world is finite.  Nothing lasts forever, and especially not something as frail and vulnerable as human beings.  So, it’s not a question of whether we are going to die, but only when and how

You could make a long list of all the possible whens and hows, but with the possible exception of dying in your sleep in extreme old age, none of the options is all that attractive.  And yet this is precisely the point at which we start shaking our fists at the sky.  “Why, God!  Why did  this person have to die at [choose one from Column A] from [choose one from Column B] ?”  The when and how often seem irreconcilable with the notion of a good and loving God.

But suppose a good and loving God is spending his time on that other question, not the when  or how but the whether.  And suppose it’s not the question of whether we will die that he is working on, but the question of whether or not death will have the last word.  The answer to that question is the gospel itself, and the answer is a resounding “NO!”

Maybe you could keep that in mind next time you read the obituaries, when you see all those people smiling up at you from the newspaper and read all those stories about when and how they died.  Maybe you could cling to the truth that  this is not the end of their story, nor will death have the last word.