If Someone Wrote a Play


A friend called this week to let me know how much he had appreciated my Easter sermon, and how much–under the present circumstances of his life–he needed it.  And so, with his encouragement, I’m posting it here: a sermon preached at Richmond’s First Baptist Church on March 27, 2016 under the title, “Author of Life.”

For nearly three years, from the fall of 2010 to the spring of 2013, I got into my car at 12:30 on Friday afternoons and drove to Clark Springs Elementary School to spend some time with my “lunch buddy,” Jaylen.  It started with a clergy conference I attended at Richmond Hill, where I learned that the Commonwealth of Virginia estimates the number of prison cells it will build on the number of children who are not reading by fourth grade.  I thought I should do something about that, and so I called Raylene Harton, a member of this church who was working with the Micah Initiative, a partnership with Richmond Public Schools.  I said, “Can you help me find a third grade boy who needs some help with his reading?  If you can, I’ll go and sit with him for an hour each week and see if I can make a difference.”  So, she did; she found Jaylen.  And for nearly three years I did what I could to help.

Jaylen could already read, but I tried to help him read better.  He was kind of a mumbler, so I asked him to read aloud as if he were reading the news on television, and worked with him on his e-nun-ci-a-tion.  I asked him what he was interested in, and when he said “football” I went to a neighborhood bookstore to see if I could find an age-appropriate book.  While I was there the owner told me that what the kids were reading those days was a series called the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”  So I bought one of those and took it to Jaylen, and that day we hardly talked at all; he couldn’t stop reading.  The next time I went to see him we talked about writing, and how wonderful it was that someone could dream up all those things and put them in a book.  I said, “Here’s the magical thing about writing: you can write anything you want.  You can put yourself in the story; you can be captain of the football team; you can score the winning touchdown.  “If you want to, you can fly.”   And I wish you could have seen his face in that moment.  That boy—who had been held down by so many things in life—picturing himself flying like a bird, realizing, perhaps for the first time ever, that he was limited only by his imagination.

It’s a secret I’ve known for years.

When I was in elementary school I sometimes got bored, and when I did I would look out the window and daydream.  I dreamed about all sorts of things.  I dreamed about flying, usually with a red cape flapping behind me like Superman.  I dreamed about having a magic wand that really worked.  I dreamed about holding hands with my fourth-grade crush, Bamma Donohue.  As I got older I daydreamed less and less, but I didn’t give it up completely.  One day when I was stuck in traffic in DC I imagined pulling back on the steering wheel and feeling my car rise up into the air, and then stepping on the gas and going wherever I wanted to.

Some of you could write a book about that.

The best writers know that with words you can move not only cars, but people.  Shakespeare (who was considered a pretty fair writer) wrote both comedies and tragedies.  He knew that with words you can move people to tears or make them laugh out loud.  In one of his best known plays, Romeo and Juliet, he tells the heartbreaking story of a young couple who couldn’t live without each other.  When Juliet is told that she will have to marry someone else she drinks a potion that will make her appear to be dead so that Romeo can steal her body out of the tomb and take her away to live with him forever.  But Romeo doesn’t know about that plan; the person who was supposed to tell him is detained.  So, when he learns that Juliet has died he goes to her tomb, weeps over her body, and drinks a vial of poison so he can die by her side.  When she wakes up and finds him dead she kisses him, hoping there will be enough poison left on his lips to kill her, but when that doesn’t work she stabs herself with his dagger, and falls dead on top of his body.  I hope I’m not spoiling the ending for anyone; this play has been around more than 400 years.  But when it’s done well it still makes people gasp, it makes them weep.  They get up from their seats brokenhearted, but believing in true love as never before.

Which brings me to a song I’ve wanted to share with you for years.

It’s a song by David Wilcox, who is not a “Christian musician,” but maybe a musician who is a Christian.  I don’t know.  It’s not something he talks about much.  But when he talks about music he says, “Music is about all the different kinds of feelings we can have—we can be scared, we can be angry, we can be hopeful, we can be sad. We can be all these things and have company in it. Music is sacred ground.”  And so he wrote this song called “Show the Way,” which he once introduced by saying, “It’s a song to help us live in a world like this one.”  I remembered those words last Tuesday, when I heard about the bombing in Brussels, and felt that old sense of hopelessness wash over me.  I thought, “When will this madness ever end?  How many more lives must be lost?” and then I thought of this song.  Listen to the lyrics.

You say you see no hope
You say you see no reason we should dream
That the world would ever change
You’re saying love is foolish to believe

‘Cause there’ll always be some crazy
With an army or a knife
To wake you from your day dream
Put the fear back in your life.

And then Wilcox eases into the next verse:

Look, if someone wrote a play just to glorify
What’s stronger than hate
Would they not arrange the stage
To look as if the hero came too late?

And I want to pause there for a moment, because I think that’s what was going on in those last few days before that first Easter.  “If someone wrote a play just to glorify what’s stronger than hate, would they not arrange the stage to look as if the hero came too late?”  If William Shakespeare wrote Jesus’ story, for example, would he not have him arrested and tried before Pontius Pilate?  Would he not have him nailed to a cross and left there to die?  Would he not let his enemies mock him and deride him?  Would he not go ahead and let it happen—let him die?  Would he not have his dead body taken down from the cross and placed in a borrowed tomb?  Would he not have a heavy stone rolled in front of the opening so that everyone in the audience would say, “It’s over!  Whatever hopes we had have been crushed.  If we thought Jesus was the Messiah we think so no longer.  It’s obvious that he’s dead, he’s gone, Evil has won!”

But the song goes on:

If someone wrote a play just to glorify
What’s stronger than hate
Would they not arrange the stage
To look as if the hero came too late?

He’s almost in defeat
It’s looking like the evil side will win
So on the edge of every seat
From the moment that the whole thing begins, it is

Love who mixed the mortar
And it’s Love who stacked these stones
And it’s Love who made the stage here
Although it looks like we’re alone

In this scene set in shadows
Like the night is here to stay
There is evil cast around us
But it’s Love that wrote the play

For in this darkness Love can show the way.

And there it is, the surprising reversal that leaves you gasping and actually does glorify what’s stronger than hate.  Just when you thought Evil was going to win Love intervenes, rolls back the stone, and raises Jesus from the dead.  Wilcox never comes right out and says so but for those who believe it’s hard not to hear the Easter message in this song.  We know, that even in that moment when it looked as if Evil had won, even as those women were on the way to the tomb, it was Love who mixed the mortar, and it was Love who stacked those stones, and it was Love who made the stage there, though it looked like they were alone.  In that scene set in shadows, like the night was there to stay, there was Evil cast around them, but it was Love who wrote that play, and in that darkness Love showed them the way.”

There is a difference, however, in the author of this play and someone like William Shakespeare.  Shakespeare could write whatever he wanted.  He could have written a play in which Romeo and Juliet lived happily ever after.  He was limited only by his imagination.  God, on the other hand—the Love who wrote this play—is limited by human freedom.  From the earliest chapters of Genesis we learn that he loved us enough to make us free, and sometimes we have used that freedom to do terrible things, to write scenes of unspeakable horror.  Some human being dreamed up that nightmare scenario in Brussels, where dozens of people would die at the moment a suicide bomber worked up the nerve to push a button.  As much as God hates such moments, as much as he turns his eyes away from such carnage, he does not stop it.  He has made us free—free to live and love and laugh, free to hate and hurt and kill.  Free to nail his son to a cross.  Free to toss his body in a borrowed tomb.

But after we have done our worst God is free to do his best, and early on that first Easter Sunday he did.  Think about those women who got up to go to the tomb.  They went like people called in to identify the remains of bomb victims.  They were expecting to see only the worst: the lifeless body of their beloved Lord, stretched out on a cold slab of stone.  Nothing could have prepared them for what they actually saw: the tomb open, two men in dazzling clothes asking them why they were seeking the living among the dead, and then telling them that the one they sought, Jesus of Nazareth, was not there, that he had risen.  Think of how they must have gasped.  Think of how they must have felt the cold, dead body of hope at the center of their chests come to life again.  Shakespeare himself could not have written a play with a more joyful ending, but Shakespeare would know that joy depends upon its opposite: that until you have experienced sorrow you hardly know what joy is.

In an article published late last week, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York was asked if he planned to change his Easter sermon in light of the Brussels bombings.  He said, “You bet I am.  I’m going to say that it’s Easter Sunday morning but it looks like Good Friday afternoon.   The world seems to be filled with a lot of death, a lot of lies, a lot of evil, a lot of violence. We’re tempted to think that the powers of darkness have the upper hand. We find ourselves stuck on Good Friday afternoon, when the sun was eclipsed, and the world went dark, and the earth trembled out of sorrow.  We don’t have to look outside to the world to think we’re stuck on Good Friday afternoon,” he said.  “We look within our own hearts and we find sin there, we find darkness there, we find evil there; we find reasons to feel discouraged, lonely, isolated. But Easter Sunday is God the father saying life has the last word, goodness trumps evil, truth is victorious over lies and mercy triumphs over violence. We need to hear that.  In light of what happened in Belgium this week that message seems to have a special poignancy.”[i]

Joy looks brighter against the backdrop of sorrow.

All the best writers know this.  David Wilcox knows this.  At one of his live concerts he introduced this song by saying, “So, this is about this perfect world.”  And then he smiled, because everyone knows that it isn’t perfect, but he went on to say, “You couldn’t find a place better to care or to love.  But that’s certainly not the logical decision.  The logical decision would be to bunker down in the fear and just not be very alive at all.”  And then he began to sing: “You say you see no hope, you say you see no reason we should dream, that the world could ever change, you’re saying love is foolish to believe, ‘cause there’ll always be some crazy, with an army or a knife, to wake you from your daydream, and put the fear back in your life.  But look, if someone wrote a play, just to glorify what’s stronger than hate, would they not arrange the stage, to look as if the hero came too late?  He’s almost in defeat, it’s looking like the evil side will win, so on the edge of every seat, from the moment that the whole thing begins, ‘It is Love who mixed the mortar, and it’s Love who stacked these stones, and it’s Love who made the stage here, although it looks like we’re alone.  In this scene set in shadows, like the night is here to stay, there is Evil cast around us, but it’s Love that wrote the play, and in this darkness Love will show the way.'”

I think he is right: I think this song can help us live in a world like this one.  As Shakespeare said, we can see the world as a kind of stage, on which good and evil are acting out their parts.  And when we hear about an act of terrorism in a place like Brussels we can imagine that Evil has just had its moment.  But as soon as Evil walks off the stage Good walks on.  You begin to see people using their human freedom to help and heal.  And in a world like this one we are called to be those people.  It could be something as simple as helping a third grade boy with his reading.  It could be something much more grand.  But we have to do something.  We have to follow the way of Love.  We are Easter people.  We cannot allow ourselves to be entombed by fear.  At the end of his song Wilcox says:

And now the stage is set,
You feel your own heart beating in your chest
This life’s not over yet,
So we get up on our feet and do your best.

We play against the fear,
We play against the reasons not to try
Playing for the tears,
Burning in the happy angel’s eyes

For it’s Love who mixed the mortar
And it’s Love who stacked these stones
And it’s Love who made the stage here
Though it looks like we’re alone

In this scene set in shadows
Like the night is here to stay
There is evil cast around us
But it’s Love that wrote the play

For in this darkness Love will show the way.[ii]

Jim Somerville © 2016





[i] http://www.lohud.com/story/news/religion/2016/03/25/lohud-easter-messages/82158990/
David Wilcox, “Show the Way,” on the Big Horizon album, 1994.

How Good and Pleasant It Is

Nabil HaddadI’m traveling to Amman, Jordan, next week with a priest, an imam, and a rabbi.

Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, doesn’t it?

But it’s not.  My Richmond interfaith group has been invited to participate in something called “World Interfaith Harmony Week” by Father Nabil Haddad, a Catholic priest who lives in Amman and works to promote peaceful relations among Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

These days, more than ever, that kind of work needs to be done.

I told someone at the Jewish Community Center that I was on my way to Jordan for this conference and he said, “Well, good!  Someone needs to tell those Muslims to quit blowing us up.”  I tried to explain that it’s not “those Muslims,” but rather radical extremists who are the problem, and you can find those in almost any religion.  “Not ours,” he said.  “You don’t see us cutting anybody’s heads off.”

Maybe not today, but during the Crusades “Christian Soldiers” massacred both Muslims and Jews in their efforts to re-take the Holy Land.  And, yes, they used swords.  Many modern-day extremists refer to those events when they try to justify their own actions.  “We are only doing what was done to us!” they say.

Yes, but that was a thousand years ago.  Can’t we let it go?  Must we always be at war with each other?

In my interfaith group we are often reminded that Jews, Christians, and Muslims (through Ishmael) consider Abraham their ancestor.  If that’s true, if he is in fact our “father,” then we are in fact “brothers.”  It doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything anymore than my biological brothers and I agree on everything,  It certainly doesn’t mean that we have to adopt each other’s beliefs or practice each other’s religion.*  But I hope it would mean that we would try to get along with each other, and at the very least not kill each other.

I love the beginning of Psalm 133: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (KJV).  It is good and pleasant.  And the times I have spent with the members of my interfaith group talking, sharing meals, and even bowling together, has convinced me that we don’t have to hate each other just because we’re different.  We “children of Abraham” can dwell together in unity.  May it be so as we travel to Amman, and may we set an example for the world to follow.

These days, more than ever, that work needs to be done.

*I spent a good bit of time on the phone recently trying to convince a woman that I was not promoting “Chrislam” (her word for a supposed synthesis between Christianity and Islam).  For years in my interfaith work I have followed the advice that the best way to have interfaith dialogue is to be a wholehearted adherent of your own faith and not try to water it down or make it more palatable to others.  That’s how we reach a place of mutual understanding and respect.

A Night to Remember

Nigerians2It’s 7:35 p.m. on Tuesday, January 20, 2015.

Exactly 50 years ago, at this time, somewhere between 1,400 and 1,800 people packed themselves into the sanctuary of Richmond’s First Baptist Church for the annual business meeting. Why so many? Because two weeks earlier two Nigerian students from Virginia Union University had presented themselves for membership, and the church was voting on whether or not to let them in.

Fred Anderson writes: “To understand the scene in January 1965 and to sense something of the charged emotions, it is necessary to review the turbulent era. A scant ten years before, in 1954, the Supreme Court had ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education that separate but equal was not to be allowed in reference to the public schools. Led by powerful politicians and fed by the fears of the white citizenry, especially in the rural areas, Virginia employed “massive resistance.” In some localities, the public schools closed. Although Virginia avoided the kind of ugly racial confrontations experienced in much of the Deep South, there were deep-set social customs, segregation laws, and spirits of defiance. The areas of public transportation, public accommodations, and voting rights were prime aspects of society about to undergo change.”

On Wednesday evening, January 20, all the conflicting emotions—the rights and the wrongs—from centuries of Southern living had a place of exposure in a meeting that stretched on for four hours. The staff and leadership had prepared carefully. 3,000 ballots had been printed. Tally sheets had been designed to make the proceedings smooth. News reporters were barred from the church grounds. This was strictly a “family meeting.”

The pastor, Dr. Ted Adams, began the meeting with a statement of his personal convictions. “In his calm and gentle manner characterized by extreme patience and understanding, the gentle Adams laid out the concern for open doors and open hearts. He appealed, as he had before, that the church should receive into its membership ‘anyone who came professing faith in Jesus Christ as their personal Savior.’”

And then it was up to the church.

The main motion on the floor was that “an exception to the established church policy be made to accept under the watch care of our church the two Nigerian students.” Chesley Decker, the son of missionaries and an appealing young member, called for a change from watch care to full membership. In the time for discussion there were numerous speakers pro and con. Someone reckoned that between forty and fifty members spoke at some point in the long deliberations.

Some speaking against the motion argued that “If God had wanted the races to amalgamate…” etc., fearful that integration would lead to intermarriage between the races. Others worried that immediate admission would “split the membership,” and urged a deferral for at least six months. But the young people in the room, who felt differently, spoke with the courage of their convictions. One young woman stood at the podium and pointed her finger at some of her former Sunday school teachers. “You taught me to believe that Jesus loves ALL the little children—red and yellow BLACK and white! Was that a lie?”

It would be impossible to document the emotion in the crowded church sanctuary that night, but in the end, the (amended) recommendation to receive the Nigerian students as full members carried 773 to 540.

The word spread like wildfire.

The next day the story showed up in newspapers in Gainesville, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia; and Washington, DC. Some of the articles were supportive; others were simply surprised that a historic Baptist church in the “Capital of the Confederacy” would vote to admit black members.

It would be another two months before Martin Luther King led the march from Selma to Montgomery (dramatized in the recent film, “Selma”). Some have wondered how the publicity and policy changes surrounding that march would have affected the outcome of the First Baptist vote, had it been it held at a later time. We will never know.

But we do know this:

Fifty years ago tonight the people of Richmond’s First Baptist Church came down on the right side of history. Not all of them, mind you, but enough to carry the vote. They heard something of the gospel in Dr. Adams’ gentle request that “anyone professing faith in Jesus Christ should be admitted as a member.” They remembered that they were not only citizens of the American South, but also of God’s Kingdom. Ronald Howell, a member of the church, was quoted in the Richmond News Leader as saying, “The value of what we believe and profess is seen in what we do. By opening our church doors, we can prove to the watching world that we are sincere about our belief in the One God who is the Father of us all.”

It’s 8:35 now. Fifty years ago that church business meeting was just getting warmed up. It would be another three hours before the gavel came down and the few remaining members could go home. But what happened then defined who we are now. The “open door” policy of First Baptist Church had been tested and the door had remained open.

It was truly a night to remember.

Much of the information in this post comes from Fred Anderson’s excellent reporting in The Open Door: A History of First Baptist Church, Richmond, Virginia, published by the church in 2006 (pp. 261-279).

David and Ann Meet the Neighbors

Albert Hill Group

Here’s a post from Ann Carter, Youth I Associate at Richmond’s First Baptist Church, about the tentative first step she and her husband David took to bring heaven to earth with some of our neighbors at Albert Hill Middle School.  In the spirit of KOHx2, David and Ann were trying to “bring it together” with partners from other organizations.  Ann describes it as a “mustard seed” experience–something that started small–but she wonders what it might yet become. 

It’s been a while since I was on the front end of a burgeoning mission project. A little more than 7 years to be exact. Seems as though, recently, I have been privileged to plug into great ministries already in process. But this past Saturday, I found myself working once again on a fledgling project.

Albert Hill Middle School is an easy 6 block walk west on Park Avenue from church. Stephanie Perry, one of the 6th grade science and math teachers and an acquaintance from our neighborhood swim team, had gotten my name from Len Morrow and emailed me. She was looking for a group who might be willing to help with a grounds clean-up day. Would that be something First Baptist would like to do? She also wondered whether First Baptist was interested in a partnership with Albert Hill; we were neighbors after all! “Of course,” I replied; and told her about our every member mission trip to bring heaven to earth. I love when people move toward my church, seeking meaningful relationships and partnerships.

The kick-off for this new relationship with Albert Hill Middle School was going to be November 2. Emails and Facebook posts went out to youth and their parents inviting them to participate in this neighborly project. Our youth are busy, and their families are even busier. And with very short notice, not surprisingly, no one was available. Not because they didn’t want to be; but because they had other commitments.

Albert HillSo David and I woke up early on Saturday, filled our tanks with good strong coffee, donned our work clothes, packed up our wheelbarrow, shovels, rakes and pruning shears and set out to Albert Hill. I was hopeful that we would bump into some last minute First Baptist volunteers whose calendars had miraculously cleared on this November Saturday. Instead, we met the principal, the PTO president, parents and students. We met our neighbors; people who love their school, who love their neighborhood. They were all surprised that David and I were willing to come out on a Saturday to give their time investing in their school. I explained where we were from and why we were here. “Oh,” they said, “you are from that church right up the street. That big one on the corner?” Some very good connections were made; emails and phone numbers were exchanged; meetings were arranged; relationships were initiated and ground work was laid.

So, our church family can be a good neighbor to the middle school 6 blocks down the street – what will that look like? I don’t know, yet. Maybe some tutoring and mentoring? Sponsoring a kid on a field trip? Encouraging teachers? Clean up days? I will find out more as I meet with Mr. Davis, Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Todd in the coming weeks. But I do know this: when First Baptist people are presented with opportunities, they rise to the occasion, they embrace the mission as their own, and they bring heaven wherever they go. So I have great hope that this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

So, that fledgling mission project I was a part of 7 years ago? The Together for Hope All Church Challenge in Helena, Arkansas. In 2006, we started with 5. Since then, God has multiplied that number 30 times! More than 150 volunteers from our faith community have given one week of their lives over the course of 7 years to love and minister in Helena. Lives in Helena have been changed. OUR lives have been changed.

icon-ann-carterStarting small can be a good thing. Kinda like the parable of the mustard seed – God takes something insignificant and turns it into something so powerful it can move mountains. Numbers and size don’t matter to God. He can start a good work in one or two hearts and multiply that into life changing ministry. So, won’t you join David and me in this promising partnership? Let’s see what God will do!

The Kingdom Just Keeps Coming!

partnershipRecently I challenged the staff of Richmond’s First Baptist Church to help me take our mission to the next level.  For a year the whole church was working to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia (KOH2RVA).  By the end of the year it was obvious that the job was too big for any one church to do alone, so we began a year of mission called KOHx2 (Kingdom of Heaven Times Two), with an emphasis on partnership.  In the same way that Jesus sent his disciples out two by two to do the work of the Kingdom, it made sense to us to work with other individuals, churches, agencies, and organizations to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond and beyond.

I call this new mission “KOHx2: Bringing It Together.”

I challenged the staff to collect pictures and stories that would illustrate this mission, and to share them with me so I could post them on my blog.  A few days ago I got this email from Senior Associate Pastor Lynn Turner:


I don’t know if you can use this or not in your blog, but felt compelled to write it just as a reflection from my heart this past week.  It has caused me to think about this partnership thing in a totally different light.


What Lynn wrote came out of her regular work at church, which reminded me that church work at its best IS the work of the Kingdom, and sometimes church people step up and help out in ways that truly bring heaven to earth.

Take a look at what Lynn wrote:

Reflections on KOHx2: Partnership and Generosity

It began with phone calls this past week of various needs within our church family: One family, out of full time work, medical needs, and needing some help catching up on bills; Another family, having faced extraordinary medical circumstances, still in the hospital, and their heating system out in their home with no funds at this time to get it fixed: Another family moving into an apartment with need of furniture and the basics to get them on their feet; all members of our congregation and all legitimate needs.
And thus the partnership and generosity wheels began turning…

An anonymous gift to help with current bills, a heating company stepping in to donate a used system and time to install, and an envelope of money given to me by a church member this past week with the words, “Sometimes ministers just need some discretionary funds to help folks out, use this as the needs arise.”

I have been overwhelmed this week with the way God has revealed to me that bringing the kingdom comes with partners….all kinds of partners…with a spirit of generosity that just points to Jesus.

KOHx2 has been hard at work this week. Blessings abound!

In Appreciation of Dr. Peter James Flamming

2013-07-24 18.17.12I read an article in the Christian Century lately about the blessings of a long pastorate, and I couldn’t help but think of my predecessor at First Baptist, Dr. Jim Flamming, who was here for 23 years as pastor and who now serves the church as Pastor Emeritus.

While some pastors have trouble stepping aside after being with a church for so long Dr. Flamming has been the model of gracious transition.  He stayed away from a church he loved for a year after his retirement, and only returned at my insistence.  Even then, he has left plenty of room for me to establish my own pastoral role in the church, and has been a faithful supporter, cheering me on from the pews.

I asked Dr. Flamming to preach in my absence recently knowing that he would do a good job and believing that the church would enjoy hearing him again.  More than that I wanted to underscore the principle that we honor those who have served us long and well, and make room for them in the church even after their retirement.

After all, I hope to be the Pastor Emeritus of Richmond’s First Baptist Church some day.

Here’s an excerpt from that Christian Century article.  Enjoy it, and the next time you see Dr. Flamming in the hallway give him a hug…from me.


Staying power: Reflections on a Long Pastorate
by Martin B. Copenhaver

I have served as senior pastor at the same church for 18 years. The members of my congregation no longer ask how long I am going to stay, probably because they assume I will stay until I retire (which is a good thing because I assume that, too). Eighteen years is not exactly a towering pinnacle, but it does provide some interesting views. So much looks different from the time I first started.

After all, much has changed over the course of those years, not just in the congregation or in the surrounding culture but in how I see the congregation as well. When I preached my first sermon here at Wellesley 18 years ago I was overwhelmed by the sight of a largely anonymous sea of faces. Now, after so many years, there is hardly a trace of anonymity to be found. As I look out at that same congregation, I am still overwhelmed, but for an entirely different reason—now I see so much. I am overwhelmed by the familiar.

Now I see not just the faces, but faces over time. I see a face traced with grief, and I also see that same face from an earlier time when laugh lines spread like beams of light from the corners of his eyes. I see the young mother trying to keep her son still in the pew, and I also see her when she was a restless teenager herself. I see the potbellied man, and I also see him at an earlier stage when he was fit enough to run a marathon. These days, more often than not, I am confirming teenagers I baptized as infants or young children, which feels a bit like picking up a corner of time, peering inside and seeing it in all its dimensions.

I can even see people who are no longer there. When I stand in the pulpit and look out at my congregation, I can see the deceased husband of the woman who now comes to worship alone. I can see the man who somehow ended up with the church in the break-up with his partner, but I can see the now-absent partner as well. And there is a pew that may be full today but still seems somehow empty because the family that used to fill it has moved across the country. It is like what interpreters of art call pentimento—the reappearance in a painting of an underlying image that had been painted over. In a pentimento one can see both the old and the new somehow together and at the same time.

A pastor who is new to a congregation will not be able to see a pentimento. A new pastor is not able to see the older layers or the people who are no longer there. That kind of pastoral vision comes only over time.

The layering of time adds thick texture to both individual narratives and the narrative of the congregation. After 18 years I not only know the back stories, I also know the back stories of the back stories. I know who has a difficult time getting along with whom. I can sense when a particular person is out of sorts, because I have seen her in enough contexts to be able to sort out the range of emotions reflected on her face. When one person says he is overwhelmed I know not to take it too seriously because he is often overwhelmed, and when another person says she is overwhelmed I take notice because this is something unusual for her.

To be sure, after all this time a sense of been-there-done-that can creep into some of my pastoral duties. This year’s stewardship campaign is numbingly similar to other campaigns. When writing my annual report, I am tempted to lift whole paragraphs from reports from previous years. And after 18 Christmas Eve sermons I have pretty much said all I know to say about the nativity. The congregation, however, becomes more interesting over time, much as a good novel becomes more interesting as each chapter nuances character development and plot in ways that are not possible in shorter literary forms.

I am convinced that the best preaching is done by pastors in their own congregations. That is because preaching is highly contextual. It benefits from deep and nuanced readings of three complex entities: the biblical text, the wider world and the congregation. The best preaching, in my experience, stands at the intersection of all three. A visiting preacher may be able to exegete the text and analyze what is going on in the world with brilliance, but an extra dimension is added when the preacher knows the congregation, particularly over a period of years. Harry Emerson Fosdick was fond of saying, “Preaching is sometimes like trying to put drops into someone’s eyes out of a ten-story window.” Preaching to one’s own congregation over time may not change Fosdick’s image, but it shrinks the distance. When you know a congregation well, you feel like you are preaching at much closer range. The drops are more likely to find their target.

And, of course, after all of these years the congregation knows me well, too. They know my gifts and how those gifts can be put to optimal use. They also know what gifts I lack and have learned over time how others can help shore up my ministry where it is weakest. They can follow my train of thought, often arriving ahead of me, and they are tuned in to my sense of humor. They know a good deal about my passionate commitments, and they know all too much about my pet peeves.

Most important of all, over time my parishioners have learned they can trust me: I will listen without being judgmental; I will keep confidences; I won’t bear grudges or play favorites; my judgment is largely sound; for the most part, I will not say or do something that is harmful to the congregation. Most pastors are trustworthy in these basic ways, but in congregations like the ones I have served, trust is earned over time, sometimes over many years, one pastoral engagement at a time…

(Read the rest of the article at http://www.christiancentury.org)


What Richmond Needs: Imagination

imagineLast week I went to a clergy convocation called “The Face of Race in Richmond.” Ben Campbell, Pastoral Director at Richmond Hill, had asked me to serve on a panel with a few other ministers, simply to talk about how we experience the issue of race in this city.

I wasn’t sure that I was the best choice, but I agreed, partly because this year First Baptist Church is working to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, through partnerships with other churches, individuals, agencies, and organizations. One of the churches we are working with is First African Baptist, and that effort has already involved some remarkably honest conversations about race.

So, here’s what I said at the clergy convocation:

We are not where we ought to be on the issue of race in Richmond, but thank God we are not where we used to be.

Two nights ago, in an event completely unrelated to this one, I sat down with a handful of deacons from First Baptist Church and a handful of deacons from First African Baptist because their pastor, Rodney Waller, had challenged us to “show Richmond what true racial reconciliation looks like.” I added that while Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors we can’t love what we don’t know, and suggested that we get together for some meals. The first one was Tuesday night, and it was a smashing success.

Ken Medema is a blind musician with a remarkable kind of inner vision. I once heard him say something I wish I had written down, because I’m not sure I remember it exactly as he said it, but what I heard him say was something like this: “People don’t change because you tell them to. They don’t change because you shame them into it. People change when they can imagine a different kind of reality than the one in which they are living.”

I think Jesus got that. He spent much of his time preaching sermons and telling stories about God’s glorious kingdom and constantly searched for ways to explain what it was like. He said:

The Kingdom is like a sower who went out to sow some seed. It’s like the shepherd who went out to look for his lost sheep. It’s like the treasure you stumble upon in the field, or the precious pearl you find at the flea market. It’s like the king who throws a party for outcasts, or the father who kills the fatted calf for his no-good son. It’s that place where Samaritans pay your hospital bills and sinners go home from the temple justified. It’s where those who worked an hour get the same as those who worked all day and where the beggar at the rich man’s gate ends up in the bosom of Abraham. It is, finally, that place where the last are first, the least are great, and the lost are found forever.

Jesus tried to help people imagine a different kind of reality than the one in which they were living, so they wouldn’t be content with the status quo, so they would make the effort to change themselves, and change the world.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann once wrote that “The central task of ministry is the formation of a community with an alternative, liberated imagination that has the courage and freedom to act in a different vision and a different perception of reality.” Let me say that again. “The central task of ministry is the formation of a community with an alternative, liberated imagination that has the courage and freedom to act in a different vision and a different perception of reality.”

I think that’s what Jesus was up to.

Do you remember how he started his ministry? He called some disciples, that is, he formed a community. And then he started teaching them about the Kingdom of God, saying, “the Kingdom is like a mustard seed, a treasure, a pearl.” He did his best to inspire in them an alternative, liberated imagination. And then, through his own example, he showed them the courage and freedom to act–to preach the Gospel, to heal the sick, even to turn over tables in the Temple. He did it to bring in the Kingdom, because when he looked at the world around him he saw not only what was but what could be. He had a different vision, and a different perception, of reality.

I think that’s what Martin Luther King, Jr. was up to when he began to share his dream that one day this nation would rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed of equality, that the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners would be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood, and that his four little children would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

He was doing what Jesus was doing with his vision of the Kingdom: he was helping us imagine a different kind of reality than the one in which we are living. He was doing what Walter Brueggemann talked about: forming a community with an alternative, liberated imagination that would have the courage and freedom to act in a different vision and a different perception of reality.

So, perhaps the best gift that we, as religious leaders, can give to our city…

…is the gift of imagination.