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.

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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?

The Kind of World I Want to Live in

Thanks to my colleague Bob Browning for this story from September 11, 2001, and for the commentary that follows:

Usman Farman, a twenty-two-year-old Muslim of Pakistani descent worked in Building 7 of the World Trade Center. His office was a stone’s throw from the Twin Towers. After the second plane hit, Farman made his way down twenty-seven flights of stairs to the street. He had walked two or three blocks when the first tower collapsed.

“The next thing I remember,” he said, “was a dark cloud of debris about fifty stories high came tumbling toward us. I ran as fast as possible, but fell down trying to get away. I was on my back, facing this massive cloud that must have been 600 feet away. Everything was already dark and people were running by me. Then, help came from the most unexpected place.”

Farman said he always wore a pendant around his neck inscribed with an Arabic prayer for safety.  He said a Hasidic Jew came up to him and held the pendant in his hand. He read the Arabic aloud and with a deep Brooklyn accent said, “Brother, if you don’t mind, there is a cloud of glass coming at us. Grab my hand and let’s get out of here.” Together, arm in arm, this Muslim and Jew made their way to safety.

This is the kind of world I want to live in and want to help build. I believe you do, too. We experienced it in this country for about three days after 9/11. America unlocked its gates and became the caring community all of us needed.

Strangers hugged, families took in stranded passengers when airports shut down, neighbors checked on each other and churches filled with worshipers seeking solace and courage.

What keeps us from living this way all the time?

Falling

Picture a world where, at birth, you are hurled off a cliff—a really, really high cliff, so that it takes a lifetime to reach the bottom.  You would “grow up” on the way down (if you can imagine such a thing) moving through the stages of infancy, childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. 

Because you had always been falling you wouldn’t be afraid of it.  After those first few terrifying moments you would get used to it, and then began to enjoy it: that wonderful feeling of weightlessness, the wind in your hair, the ability to swoop and dive.  Everybody else in this world would be falling with you, so you wouldn’t be alone.  You might even join hands with someone else and choose to fall together for days, for years, or even for the rest of your life. 

Some people would find that if they flapped their arms really hard they could slow their descent slightly (the same people you see running on the treadmill at Gold’s Gym).  Others would get bored and go into a nose dive to speed things up (the same people who live so carelessly and recklessly now).  But the one thing everybody would know is that there was no way to stop falling altogether or to start falling up instead of down.  Eventually everybody—everybody—would hit bottom.

And everybody would know it.

Which is different from our world, where people often seem surprised by their own mortality, by the very idea that they could get sick and die.  “Why?” they ask.  “Why me?”  If we lived in that other world I might say (while falling beside them), “Well, just look around you.  Everybody is falling.  Everybody is going to hit bottom eventually.”  But in this world they know that some people hit bottom sooner than others, and it doesn’t seem fair, and they want to know why. 

“I don’t know why,” I say at last.  “And you’re right…it doesn’t seem fair.  But back to my original point: everybody is falling, and everybody is going to hit bottom eventually.” 

And while it seems odd to say so, there is some comfort in that, isn’t there?  We are not alone in our mortality.  Everybody else is doing it with us.  It makes you want to join hands with those others, and pull them in close, and then do everything you can—together—to enjoy the ride: that wonderful feeling of weightlessness, the wind in your hair, the ability to swoop and dive…

Loving the World God Loves

Matthew 28:19-20 is often called the Great Commission, and most Baptists probably know it by heart.  As Jesus sends his followers into the world he says: “Go and make disiciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (NIV).  But there is another commission in the Gospels that is also pretty great.  In John 20:21 Jesus tells his disciples: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”

If that were the only commission we had we might spend more time asking, “How was Jesus sent?” and, “What was he sent to do?”  But as I thought about it recently I was reminded of the best known verse in the Bible, John 3:16, which says: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  The word gave is not exactly the same as the word sent, not even in Greek, but the ideas are closely related.  God loved the world.  He loved it so much he gave/sent his one and only son.  When Jesus tells his disciples that he is sending them as he was sent we can assume that it is for a similar purpose—to love the world God loves.

I was thinking about this recently as I walked around the block I’ve “adopted” in the church neighborhood.  I was praying for the people who live inside those houses and apartments, but not sure I was making much of a difference.  If only one of them would come outside so that I could make a disciple out of him, so that I could baptize him in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and teach him to obey all that Jesus commanded!  But no one did, leaving me with no alternative but to pray for those people.  As I passed a motorcycle parked outside an apartment I said, “Lord, bless whoever sits on that seat.”  As I passed a house with a porch swing I prayed, “And bless the one who swings on that swing.”  As I turned the corner and saw a half-open garage door I said, “And bless the one who comes in and out of that door.” 

As I made my way around the block I began to feel for those people I was praying for, those invisible people.  I wouldn’t say it was love I was feeling for them but it was something like it.  I was moving in the right direction.  And that’s when I began to think about John 3:16, and how God had given his one and only son because he loves the world, because he loves the person who sits on that motorcycle, and the one who swings on that porch swing, and the one who goes in and out of that garage door.  I made a connection in that moment, between John 3:16 and John 20:21, and it came out like this: “I’ve been sent as Christ was sent to love the world God loves!”

I got so excited about it that when I went back to my office a little later I typed it in as my screen saver.  Now if my computer is inactive for more than a few minutes these words begin to scroll across the screeen: “Sent as Christ was sent to Love the world God loves.” 

It’s not exactly the Great Commission, but it’s a good one, isn’t it?  Loving the world God loves?  If I keep it up I may eventually meet the person who sits on that motorcycle seat.  He may come out of his apartment one day with his helmet in his hand, just as I’m walking past, and I’ll say, “Oh, there you are!  I’ve been praying for you.”  And he’ll say, “What?”  And then I’ll have to explain.

It will be embarrassing, but when I’m finished telling him that I’ve been sent as Christ was sent to love the world God loves, and that I’ve been praying for whoever it was that sat on that motorcycle seat, he might get an odd little smile on his face, and strap on his helmet, and ride off thinking about it.  But that might be the first step in the twenty or thirty steps it would take to make a disciple out of him.  And it would be for the right reason: not because I’m trying to recruit church members, but because I’m trying to love the world God loves.  And if he parks his motorcycle in front of the sanctuary one Sunday morning, and comes inside to take a closer look at this strange church where they pray for people they don’t even know, well,

That would be for the right reason too.

Why We Can’t Do Things the Same Old Way

If you have five minutes, check out this remarkable presentation on the way the world is changing.  I watched it full-screen with the sound turned up and at the end of it my jaw had dropped–literally.  It makes me think the future is going to embrace people who can adapt quickly to sudden change, and that the innovative and adventurous will thrive in ways others cannot.

“I Love the City”

FE_PR_richmond-vaI was invited to a retreat at Richmond Hill recently where area pastors were going to be talking about bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.  Well, how could I resist?  That’s what I’ve been talking about since I got to Richmond!

So we gathered for worship in that beautiful old chapel, and then had a delicious meal in the refectory, and then moved on into a meeting room that looks out over the city, a place where people have been praying for Richmond since 1866 and still do.  Pastoral Director Ben Campbell got us started with prayer and then invited each of us to share our vision for ministry.

There were about twelve of us around the table, from Baptist, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Christian, and Pentecostal churches.  We took our time, talking about the work we do and the neighborhoods in which we do it.  But as we talked it became clear that our primary concern was for the churches we have been called to serve, about how to make them bigger, stronger, happier, healthier.  When we finally got back around to Ben he said, simply, “I love the city more than I love the churches.”

I suppose I should have expected that.  Ben is not the pastor of a local church; he’s the director of a spiritual community that has as its mission praying for the city of Richmond.  But something about the way he said it made me realize that we pastors have a tendency to focus on what is happening within the walls of the church rather than what is happening in the neighborhood, the city, the nation, or the world.  We could easily end up with glittering edifices perched on top of garbage dumps. 

But not Ben.

I pictured Ben driving around Richmond jotting down notes about the people and things his community needs to pray for:  sanitation workers, educational institutions, police officers, and prisoners.  He has lifted his sights above the concerns of a single church to take in the concerns of the whole city.

But here’s the thing: God’s sights are even higher.  Not only does he love and care for Richmond, he loves and cares for the world.  That’s his mission, and he’s looking for churches that will help him do that.  So, at Richmond’s First Baptist Church we’ve been asking not, “Does the church have a mission?” but “Does the mission have a church?”  In other words, does God’s mission have a church?  Will First Baptist, Richmond, help him love the world? 

Well, we want to, of course.  We want to do whatever God asks.  But it will require lifting our sights a little higher.  Instead of seeing only the beautiful buildings and grounds of First Baptist Church we will have to start seeing the whole city, even the parts that aren’t so beautiful.  And then we’ll have to lift our sights even higher, to see the world God loves and to think about how we might share his love with that world.  That’s not easy for us, or for anyone.  It goes against the grain of our human nature.  But it does seem to be essential to the divine nature, and part of what Jesus was trying to teach his disciples. 

In him the love of God dropped into the world like a stone into a pond, and began to ripple outward.  As we follow his example may that same love ripple outward from the church to the neighborhood to the city to the state to the nation and, finally, fully,

to the world God loves.