Yes, Virginia, Redemption is Possible

I attended the 53rd Commonwealth Prayer Breakfast last month, on the first day of the  2019 General Assembly’s session.  The prayer breakfast is a good-faith attempt to foster a foundation of good will, cooperation and collaboration built on faith in God.  This year’s theme focused on a crisis in civility that is pulling our nation’s leaders and the country itself a part.  Two former Faith-Based Initiatives Directors for former presidents, one a Republican and the other a Democrat, spoke passionately on behalf of civility in the public sphere.  Eloquent prayers were lifted on behalf of our state by our governor, lieutenant governor, state attorney general, Richmond Mayor, a senator, a house delegate, and a state supreme court justice.  I hope they meant what they said.  We left with the feeling and hope that our elected officials, having broke bread and lifted prayer together, could see the best in one another.

That same month, Huguenot Road Baptist Church, the church I serve, hosted our annual winter lecture series. There, guest presenters challenged us to see God’s presence in the person across the table from us and to seek reconciliation with those from whom we differ because God, through Christ, reconciled us to him when we were far away.   Such reconciliation and a genuine desire to know and love our fellow humans, is how we bring a foretaste of God’s reign to our communities.

Just a couple of weeks ago, one of our presenters, David Bailey, was present with our current Governor, Ralph Northam, and former Governor, Bob McDonnell, as they announced that this year, Virginia would focus on reconciliation in recognition of the 400 year anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves in Virginia.  This, certainly, is a needed step in dealing, head on, with the state’s dark past and the way the government has treated many of its citizens.  Certainly, 2019 was getting off to a good start.

Then, one week ago, we learned about a photo in the medical year book of Governor Ralph Northam, in which he is alleged to have worn black face at a party thirty-five years ago.  This, for sure, was startling and painful news. To say the least, it was insensitive and made light of many citizens of the commonwealth.  If true, it was a disgraceful mistake that will stain his legacy moving forward.  Making fun of any race by making one’s self look like an African American, Asian American, or Native American is unwise and demands self reflection, especially given the history of how white Americans have treated minorities throughout our history.

But, is Governor Northam’s mistake unforgivable?  Can he continue to lead based on a poor choice he made 35 years ago?  How does one respond as a Christian to the tumultuous week that saw not just Governor Northam questioned, but also Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax accused of sexual assault from some years back and State Attorney General Mark Herring admit he, too, wore black face to a party in 1980?

The overwhelming response this week from politicians, the media, and the public has been to accuse and distance themselves from the sitting governor.  Unfortunately, I haven’t heard much nuance discussed in light of this revelation.  As Christians, do we believe people can change?  I hope so!  It’s what my faith is predicated on.  As the Holy Spirit does its work in my life, it brings to light the mis-guided values, ideas, and prejudices that I hold and then demands that I make a choice.  Do I continue to live life my way and be closed to living more like Jesus?  Or, remembering that God, through Jesus, has provided a way for me to start fresh and to live more like Christ, do I embrace the change that God wants?

The good news about Christianity, is that we expect people to change when they encounter Christ!  This is the good news of the Apostle Paul’s life, who went from persecuting and even overseeing the killing of Christians to being the faith’s most prolific evangelist.  Such a change was startling and it took time for early followers to trust Paul.  But such amazing changes are evidence to the God of second chances that Christians follow.

I know I have changed and continue to change as I submit my life to following Jesus each day.  And this change isn’t limited to small areas of life.  It’s in all areas – they way I think about my neighbors, my enemies, and the people who make my life difficult.  I change with God’s help and I believe anyone can change, when confronted with God’s love.

Which begs the question, has Governor Northam changed in the 35 years since his alleged black face incident? I can’t say with certainty and its not up to me. But change yields fruit and it seems that based on his work as Lieutenant Governor and as Governor, he has sought to serve the best interests of all the citizens of Virginia.

My thoughts aren’t written at all to diminish the mistake that Northam made if and when he put on black face.  It is a part of the troubling past that Virginia and all of the United States has to continue to face up to and correct.  But if we as a diverse commonwealth want to earnestly seek reconciliation and common ground so that we together can work for the common good, we have to expect that people are not perfect but that people can change.  I for one am glad people change.  It is evidence that God is at work among God’s people.

I genuinely hope the news of the last week hasn’t completely destroyed the foundation laid at the prayer breakfast back in January or the announcement that our leaders want to seek reconciliation for the evil of slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow that defined Virginia for so long.  The news of the last week certainly has disrupted the good spirit.  But it is really up to us, the citizens, to decide if the game of power politics will determine whether we can really be civil toward one another and expect that change can happen among our neighbors.  Will we continue in our cynicism and distrust?   I pray that we can live up to the high standard set by Christ and not only forgive but expect a real change of heart in those who acknowledge they fall short.

One New People – January 15, 2017

Our Formations lesson this week is a good one.  Its one that is especially timely and challenging for us at the outset of 2017.  Our focus has been on Christ Our Savior.  If we believe Christ is our savior, then our habits, actions, and words should reflect this fact.  Our lessons have been looking at different behaviors in which this truth should be clearly visible.  First, we have considered what we are willing to loose or give up so that we can fully follow Jesus.  Last week we considered what we have been saved from and for what we are being saved.
This Sunday we consider how, in Christ, we are a new, unified people.  The key question is:  Whom do I need to embrace as a brother or sister in Christ?  This is timely as we stand a week away from the inauguration of a new president and one day from MLK day observance.  On many fronts, 2016 was a year that our nation and even the whole world seemed divided.  This includes people of faith.  How are Paul’s words instructive to followers of Christ, who are to be a witness to God’s unified and coming kingdom?

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Renewing The Commons


As a kid from the south, New England captured my imagination from the first time I visited.  Some of it was the normal stuff of a curious child – New England was geographically far away from South Carolina and may as well have been a different country given the architecture, weather, behavior, and the tendency to neglect the “R” in most words.  For a child visiting relatives every four years or so in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, New England came to represent everything my home was not.  I was fascinated!

Through all my visits there, a few things have stuck out about New Englanders.  Their cities and towns are old, at least as things go here in the “new world.”  New Englanders tend to be territorial.  Generations live their lives there and never really move away.  For them, the next town over is a long way away.  It can be hard for a newcomer to break into the fabric of the New England village.  But once you do, you are golden.  Citizens, though insular, tend to take care of their own.

Most New England villages are centered around a town square.  This square is often referred to as a “common.”  A common in colonial days was a place that was owned by no one but belonged to everyone.  The town’s people were allowed to graze cattle there and to cultivate little gardens for their household.  It served as a marketplace and a center for news and information – a place where goods and ideas were exchanged.  The most recognizable common in New England is the Boston Common – now a beautiful park in the middle of the city.

These days, the word common doesn’t have a strong reputation.  Who wants to be referred to as common, anyway?  At best, common refers to ordinary or average.  But, as Huguenot Road moves through its series on being neighbor, I hope we can give the word common a loftier place at the table.

Diana Butler Bass has recently helped me discover meaning in the word common.  In her latest book Grounded: Finding God in the World, she devotes a whole chapter on commons. To help introduce commons, she retells a story from her college days, when, upon entering the main dining common for the first time, she was overwhelmed by the vastness of the room at lunch.  Where would she sit?  And with whom?  But then she spotted an acquaintance from orientation who waved Bass over to her table.  Not seeing room for an extra tray and no seat available, Bass began to decline the offer.  But then the group of students began pushing “the jumble of plates together to make room and pulled up a chair to the table.  ‘There is always room for one more,’ they said.”   Not surprisingly, these people became dear friends.

“I learned many things in college,” reports Bass.  “But the most important: the commons is infinitely expandable, a place of hospitality for everyone.”

Like the school dining hall, a common is a shared space.  A place where people are free to come and go, but where hospitality is available to all people.  Bass reports that while historians are uncertain about the origins of the common, they have noticed that many town commons were located on land that had been deeded to the local church.  These church lots were transformed into shared public space.   

Bass goes on to say that in New England, the church was usually the largest building in town and served a multitude of purposes.  “The meetinghouse lot extended the sacred into the streets, providing a smooth access between the building where the Holy Word was preached and the “world” where faith would be practiced.  Divine worship led directly to diligent work.  The church and commons were intimately related, and there was no division between spiritual and secular.  The green was a gift from the godly congregation, thus enabling the whole village to gather and form a congregation outside the walls of the church building.”

So what does this piece of Americana have to do with hospitality today?  For a public that is more connected than ever by technology but more isolated than ever by the echo chambers of their own affinity group, for the growing nones who are “spiritual” but not religious – suspicious of organized religion, for those who long for a genuine conversation about faith but don’t think that can happen in a church, a common space is sorely needed.  And one that is real, not virtual.  A “common” is a safe place where people can engage in an honest exchange of goods and ideas, where neither have to relinquish control or identity but where each person is valued.  Some of the modern day  commons, also referred to as “third places” are found in coffee shops or, perhaps in Richmond, in craft beer establishments.

But what about church buildings?  Most are still located in surrounding neighborhoods or city blocks which have an identity of its own.  How can the church building or grounds become a community common or “third place?” Could church property, even its buildings, once again become a place where all citizens meet in the exchange of goods, ideas, and community?  Unlike the meetinghouse of old or today’s worship center – with its walls, pews, rituals and membership – the commons is open and its borders are permeable.  I believe the church can create a new commons, one founded on hospitality and not on what the institution might gain.  In other words, a common can be a visible glimpse into the Kingdom of God, providing the same kind of vision Isaiah once had:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.  – Isaiah 25:6-8

My church is finding creative ways to offer a common to our surrounding neighborhood.  Food Trucks pull up every Thursday and the community gathers in our front lawn.  Community groups from the county parks and recreation to scouts to AA meet each week in our building.  How might your church serve as a community common?  May God enlarge your vision of hospitality in your community!   

Quotes taken from:

Bass, Dianna Butler, Grounded: Finding God in the World, A Spiritual Revolution.  (New York: Harper One, 2015.)  p. 239-241