KOH2RVA: Day 353

martin-luther-king2It was 50 years ago today that Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech. The way I heard the story he was going on and on about jobs and justice and the audience was losing interest when Mahalia Jackson, the blues singer, who was sitting right behind King, said, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!” And that’s when he fell into the preacher’s cadence, and shared the prophet’s vision, of a day when this nation would rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: that all men are created equal. He said:

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

That speech captured the imagination of millions, and inspired them to do the kind of work that would make the dream come true. Fifty years later we’re closer, but we’re not there yet. There’s still a lot of work to be done.

King’s words remind me of another young prophet who used to tramp the hills of Galilee sharing his dream of the Kingdom. When people asked him what that Kingdom was like Jesus 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 dad 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.

Those words captured the imaginations of his hearers, and inspired them to do the kind of work that would make Jesus’ dream come true. And yet, 2,000 years later, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

So, I’m going to stop writing blog posts, and roll up my sleeves, and get out there and do some work. I’m going to see what I can do to help bring the Kingdom of Heaven a little bit closer to Richmond, Virginia. Because if there is one lesson to be learned in all this it’s that dreams don’t come true by dreaming:

Dreams come true by doing.

KOH2RVA: Day 327

Bookshelf BuildersOK, so this is probably not the most artistic picture I’ve ever posted, but it may be the best picture I’ve ever posted. Let me tell you why:

I told you that my wife, Christy, was going to Essex Village yesterday to work with some children who are having trouble learning to read. I didn’t tell you that she was taking nearly 300 children’s books with her, part of the bounty she gleaned from the library book sale at St. Michael’s Episcopal School (where she teaches kindergarten).

She realized she was going to need some help getting the books into the building at Essex Village and putting together the bookcases she had bought at Target, but she didn’t know that there were some willing and able volunteers just waiting for something to do.

That’s where the picture comes in.

I recognize Glen Scott as one of those willing and able volunteers, and it doesn’t surprise me. Glen is one of our most faithful members at First Baptist, and seems to be willing and able to do almost anything that will help. I didn’t know he was going to be at Essex Village yesterday and neither did Christy, but he was one of the first to volunteer. The other two Christy identified as Mr. Roy, a teacher who was helping his wife with the program at Essex Village, and a young man named Eric.

But look at what’s happening here: these three men are working together to build a bookshelf. They’re doing it simply because it needed to be done and they were willing and able. But look at what else is happening: they are so focused on their mission that they probably haven’t taken time to ask if they all believe the same things; it seems obvious that they haven’t set up any racial boundaries; they may not be aware that they’re doing this because Ms. Somerville is trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, by helping little children learn to read. They’re just building a bookshelf.

They’re focused on the mission.

It’s when we’re not focused on the mission that we begin to divide ourselves along social and racial and doctrinal lines. That’s when we start insisting that everyone look the same way and think the same way and believe the same way. But when the mission is clear and the cause is just we can simply put our shoulders to the wheel and push. And when we achieve our mission—even if it’s only getting a bookshelf built—we can celebrate. Or, as one of Christy’s children’s books might sum it up:

The more we work together the happier we’ll be.

KOH2RVA: Day 301

FrontPorchFrontofHse 042Today we will commission five different mission teams at Richmond’s First Baptist Church. Two will go to South Africa, one will go to Arkansas, one will go to the Philippines and then on to Singapore for the Baptist World Alliance Youth Conference, and one person (Skyler Cumbia) will go to Ghana. It’s a good reminder that First Baptist is not only interested in bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, but to the whole world. We focus on Richmond simply because this is the place where we live, and the place that we love more than any other place in the world.

Not that there aren’t some other wonderful places.

I’ll be leaving Richmond just after the 11:00 worship service today for two weeks’ vacation in the Green Mountains of Vermont and the Catskills of New York. I’m going to walk in the woods, sit on the front porch, read good books, eat good food, and rest, rest, rest. I won’t be blogging for the next two weeks, but it would be a great time to dig through the archives and be reminded of all we have accomplished together in the last 301 days.

I will be counting on those of you who are still in town to carry on the mission, and to surprise me with all the good ways you have brought heaven to earth when I get back. One of the things we’re going to do shortly after my return is gather at the river on July 21 for the Sixth Annual FBC River Baptism. Please be in prayer for those who are preparing to be baptized, and join us if you can for that very special event.

Know, as I go, that some part of my heart will remain here in Richmond, and that I will look forward to being back with you here and getting on with our mission. But for the next two weeks I’m going to do my best to rest, remembering that even Jesus withdrew from time to time. I think I understand now, more than ever, why he had to.

Bringing heaven to earth is hard work!

Thanks for your help.

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 258

btsr graduationToday is graduation day for the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. Students who have been working for the last three or four years to acquire the tools of ministry will walk across the stage, shake hands with the president, receive their diplomas, smile for the camera, and then step onto the mission field.

It’s a different world than when I graduated 26 years ago.

Back then most of the graduates were white men, who would be called as pastors by churches that could afford to pay them a decent salary plus benefits. They might start at a church in a county seat town, but within a few years, if they did well, they could expect to receive a call from a larger church, in a bigger town, with an even better salary. Ministry in those days seemed almost like a reasonable career choice.

But today the graduates will include as many women as men, from a number of different ethnicities. Most of them will not have a job offer in hand when they walk across the stage. There aren’t a lot of churches out there that are hiring. And yet you can’t seem to discourage these graduates. I know; I’ve tried. I’m a trustee at the seminary and I’m around the students on a regular basis. I tell them it’s not going to be easy out there, but that only seems to make them more determined. They talk about all the creative ways they are going to engage the world with the gospel, many of which have nothing to do with traditional church ministry.

For example: Jay McNeal, who has worked as my intern this year, is planning to keep his job at the seminary library to pay the bills, but work in an unpaid staff position here at First Baptist (donations gladly accepted) to help us develop our Microchurch initiative. We have a dream of starting some 500 small satellite churches in the greater Richmond metropolitan area that would work together with us to bring the KOH2RVA. Jay may be out there week after week helping people organize their microchurches, access the technology, and join the network. It’s something that I couldn’t have dreamed of when I graduated.

So, pray for these graduates. It’s not going to be easy for them. But then, Jesus never said it would be easy, not for any of us. “If you want to come after me,” he said, “then deny yourself, take up your cross, and fall in line.” The surprising thing is that these seminary graduates are doing it with smiles on their faces, as if all they ever really wanted out of life was a chance to give it away for Jesus.

KOH2RVA: Day 224

Hands healingIt’s Sunday morning, April 21, 2013. I’m sitting at my kitchen table just a few minutes after 6:00, making oatmeal and putting the finishing touches on today’s sermon.

I’m preaching from Acts 9:36-43: the story about Peter raising Dorcas from the dead. I don’t think I’ve ever preached on that passage before, and I’m impressed by the lessons some of us other, ordinary disciples can learn from it. Here’s an excerpt:

When Peter was alone in that upper room with the cold, lifeless body of Dorcas he simply did what he had seen Jesus do. He wasn’t a faith healer; he was just full of faith in the One who once said to his disciples, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these” (John 14:12).

If we believed that, I think we would lay hands on more people and pray for them, and, to be fair, at our prayers for healing service we do. You’ve heard me say that it’s not a healing service. We can’t promise that. But we do promise to pray for healing and usually, when people come forward for prayer, we ministers listen to their requests and then put our hands on them and pray. Sometimes, at their request, we anoint them with oil. Why not? But if we really believed what Jesus said I think we would lay hands on people all the time, everywhere, and pray for them every chance we could. I think we would pat on them, and hug them, and shake their hands, and every time we did we might pray that God’s healing power would somehow flow through us to them. We’re not faith healers, but we could be full of faith in Jesus, we could believe that somehow he could use us—his disciples—to get his work done here on earth.

One of the people who seems to do that especially well is Suzii Paynter, the new Executive Coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. She’s going to be with us in worship today, and stick around for a brief reception afterward. I hope you will come, if you can, and meet her.

Another person who does that well is Mike Maruca, head of the Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School. I hear that he greets all 52 students at his school by name each morning, and if one of them is missing he goes to find him, just like a good shepherd. Mike is going to be with us in worship as well.

I hope that you can be with us, and if not in person then perhaps you could tune in to our live webcast at 8:30 or 11:00 a.m. by clicking HERE. Because it’s going to be a great day at First Baptist. We’re going to learn how Jesus can use us—his disciples—to get his work done here on earth.

See you in church!

KOH2RVA: Day 211

argument-380x258I had coffee yesterday with a pastor from the area who said some unkind things about me in one of his recent blog posts. A friend in town asked me if I had seen it. I hadn’t, but when I read it my first thought was, “Well, this man just doesn’t know me!”

So, I called him and asked if we could have coffee sometime, and that’s what we ended up doing yesterday afternoon, at the Starbucks on the corner of Broad and Bowe.

The conversation was cordial. We spent some time talking about our families and about our ministry, but eventually we got around to the subject of his blog post, which was the recent decision by the Richmond Baptist Association to allow Ginter Park Baptist Church to maintain its membership, even though it had ordained an openly gay man to the ministry. His argument was that by speaking up for Ginter Park Baptist Church I had affirmed gay ordination.

I didn’t see it that way at all.

I told him that what I was speaking up for was missional partnership, and that it was something that had been reinforced through KOH2RVA. On this year-long, every-member mission trip I have discovered that there are a number of other churches, organizations, and agencies that have a similar mission—in their own ways they, too, are working to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, for example, just across the street from First Baptist, has a food pantry for hungry and homeless people. St. Mark’s does church differently than First Baptist. They have some different beliefs than First Baptist. But one of the things we agree on is that hungry and homeless people need to be fed; we both see it as a way of bringing heaven to earth.

So, do we have to agree on everything in order to work together? Not at all, at least not where feeding hungry people is concerned. But I wouldn’t invite the rector of St. Mark’s to teach a class on our core beliefs at First Baptist and he wouldn’t invite me to do that at St. Mark’s. Our beliefs are different enough that it wouldn’t be helpful.

So I was telling this pastor as we had coffee yesterday that I didn’t think we had to agree with everything Ginter Park did in order to partner with them in mission—sending inner-city kids to Camp Alkulana in the summer, for example, seemed like something we could both get behind.

But he didn’t see it that way.

He talked about tribal identity, and said that what Ginter Park had done really put them outside the boundaries of the Baptist “tribe,” and that they could no longer be considered part of us. For that reason we could no longer work together; we were too different.

He had a point. I’m guessing he wouldn’t invite the pastor of Ginter Park to teach a class on core beliefs at his church, and the pastor of Ginter Park probably wouldn’t invite him to teach that class at hers. But couldn’t they agree that inner-city kids need to go to Camp Alkulana in the summer, and couldn’t they pool their resources to that end? Do we have to agree on everything in order to work together?

I’m afraid that what’s going to suffer in this dispute is not his church or her church, but those inner-city kids. And isn’t that always the way it is? We Christians start arguing about doctrine and neglect our mission,

And children suffer,
And people go hungry,
And the good news isn’t shared,

And Jesus sighs.