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?

KOH2RVA: Day 54

Today is All Saints’ Day, and I’m thinking about that song: “Oh, When the Saints Go Marching in.” Do you remember the part that says, “Oh, Lord, I want to be in that number,” meaning the number of saints who go marching in? Well, how could you be sure that you would be in that number?

As a Christian pastor I can tell you that the very best way to be sure is to put your faith and trust in Jesus Christ. The Gospel of John assures us in various ways that Jesus is the way to life abundant, overflowing, and eternal. “For God so loved the world,” John says, “that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). At the Last Supper Jesus prays to the Father, “Now this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). And when Thomas asked the way to the Father’s house Jesus answered, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me” (John 14:6).

So, if you want to be in that number, put your faith and trust in Jesus. I know of no better “Way.” But this morning I’m thinking about that parable in Matthew’s Gospel where the Son of Man separates the sheep from the goats. It’s in Matthew 25, and it’s not so much about believing in Jesus as it is about showing compassion.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

While some of us at First Baptist Church are trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, by leading people to believe in Jesus, many of us are doing it by showing acts of compassion—by feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and welcoming the stranger. We believe that it’s not enough to help people find life in the next world; we have to help them find life in this one, too. We can’t leave off that first part (otherwise we become just a bunch of secular “do-gooders”), but we can’t leave off that second part, and Jesus tells us why:

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

Ouch.

On All Saints’ Day, if I want to be sure that I’m going to be in that number, I’m going to put my faith and trust in Jesus and then get out there and do the kinds of things he did: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and welcome the stranger. Because as surely as I do it for the least of these brothers and sisters of his,

I do it for him.

Full Disclosure

At the end of Sunday’s sermon, the one about Jesus cleansing a leper, I referred to my tenth grade yearbook picture. Several people have asked to see it, and although it pains me to post it (I’ve saved it under the file name “Yikes!”) here it is, along with the last few paragraphs of the sermon. Be gentle.

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Last week some of my old classmates from Sherman High School in Seth, West Virginia, caught up with me on Facebook.  They were happy to find me.  They didn’t know what had happened to me.  And they have been very, very kind.  But as I looked through some of the yearbook pictures they had posted on that site I began to realize why they hadn’t heard from me: those two years at Sherman were some of the most painful in my memory. 

My dad, as I’ve told you, was a kind of missionary to the desperately poor in that county and I felt like a missionary kid.  We lived in a house with no running water and no indoor plumbing, which meant that I went to school most days looking kind of rumpled and smelling sort of…unwashed.  And I was a little kid!  I went to high school a year early and didn’t get my growth spurt until two years later.  I was about five feet two with teeth that seemed way too big for my mouth and the worst haircut I’ve ever had in my life.  When I looked through those yearbook pictures I remembered those tall, handsome, confident boys, and those pretty, outgoing, giggly girls, and suddenly there I was, looking like a scared rabbit, trying to hide my face under my crooked bangs when the photographer took the picture.     

When I look closely I can almost see the pain in those eyes. 

But I would guess that I’m not the only one in this room who had that kind of experience in high school.  In fact, there may be a third of you who don’t have your yearbook picture hanging on the wall at home.  Those are such vulnerable years, and we feel so tender; one unkind word can cut us to the quick.  “If you want to you can make me clean,” the leper says to Jesus, and maybe all he really means is, “If you want to you can save me from being a social outcast, you can bring me into the community, you can help me find a place.”  And Jesus says, “I want to,” and then he reaches out and touches the leper.  Who knows how long it had been since anyone offered to do that?  But in that moment, in that action, his leprosy is cured.  He is made clean.  Jesus told him not to say anything about it but he couldn’t help himself. 

It was the best thing that had ever happened to him.

Think about those people, not only in high school but in every church, who have trouble fitting in, who are almost terrified to visit a Sunday school class where everybody already knows everybody, and where there aren’t any available seats.  Think about how hard it is for some people to walk up the front steps of this church for the first time, not knowing if they will be made to feel welcome or turned away at the door.  Think about those people who have failed at life, who have lost a job, who have been divorced; people who are struggling hard and who need a home; people who have been pushed to the fringes of society because in one way or another they have become “unclean.” In this first chapter of his Gospel I think Mark is being very deliberate in showing us three different things that have no place in God’s kingdom: 1) evil, 2) illness, and 3) exclusion.  Jesus takes his stand against all of these.  He drives out the unclean spirits (vss. 21-28), he cures those who are sick (vss. 29-39), and he welcomes the outcasts (vss. 40-45).  And when he does those things God’s kingdom comes, and God’s will is done,

On earth as it is in heaven.