Friday, March 16, 2018

Unhooking from the Reactvity Train

We will call her “Nancy.”  She was a key leader in one of my churches and was chair of a committee and on a church board.  She, like is sometimes the case, was one of my best and one my most challenging church members.  She was bright, cared about the church, and brought good expertise to her work in the church.  On the other hand, she would be critical of other people and react negatively to proposals before there had been any real discussion or thought given to them.

She often would steer a board meeting in an unproductive direction, infecting all of us with her reactivity.  I was one of those who got swept up.
I knew she was harming the work of the board and reducing my effectiveness, yet I didn’t know what to do about it.  I came up with a mind game that set me free.  Every time “Nancy” got up a head of steam, I would envision her as a steam engine building momentum as she went down the rails.  I cast the board members as train cars being pulled along behind her; I was the last car in the train.  I would visualize reaching out and pulling the pin connecting me to the train.  I would then in my mind watch the board roar down the track pulled by “Nancy.”  I would roll to a stop as the train steamed out of sight.  This did not stop the board, but at least I was not going on the journey of reactivity with them.

One day the chair of the board and I were talking about a recent meeting, and he expressed frustration about the dynamics of the group.  I shared with him the mind game I played.  At that point it occurred to me that he, as chair, was the first car in the train.  If he could disconnect from the engine, perhaps the whole train might roll to a stop with him, sending “Nancy” down the track alone.

When the chair and I freed ourselves from “Nancy’s” reactivity, we were in a better position to free others and salvage the meeting.
To this day when I feel I am being carried away by someone’s reactivity, I envision myself pulling the pin.  I go on fewer unplanned trips that way.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State

Monday, March 5, 2018

Mass Shooters Don't Arrive from Mars

My first pastorate was in Philadelphia.  From time to time people shot one another in that city, thus the unkind insult “Kiladelphia.”  Most of these shootings were not mysteries; we knew why they happened.  The victim had something the shooter wanted.  The shooter was afraid they were going to lose something they wished to retain.  The shooter knew and was angry at the victim.  The shooter felt the victim to be in some sense a threat.  These were tragic deaths, but there was little mystery to most of them.We realized this violence was part of a larger cultural system.  This did not excuse the violence, but we knew that conditions in the lives of both shooter and victim played a role.  We knew that if we worked on reducing poverty, improving education, and increasing economic opportunities we could mitigate some of the violence.

We also knew that Philadelphia was part of a larger regional cultural system.  We knew that the drug trade in the city was driven in a significant way by young men driving in from wealthier suburbs in their mothers’ Buicks, buying their drugs, and getting back on the Schuylkill expressway to return to their neighborhoods.  The violence did not arise unrelated to this broader context. 

Systems theory teaches us that we all play a role in shaping one another’s behavior.  This does not exonerate people; it simply suggests to us that to some degree we co-create one another.  To address the violence in the city, we needed to look at the whole system.  We had to look at the city itself and the role people living in the suburbs played in shaping life in the city.
Mass shootings, unlike urban shootings, are usually inexplicable.  Why would someone shoot strangers with no apparent benefit to themselves for doing so?  We are quick to talk of mental illness as a way, perhaps, to minimize the discomfort this puzzle breeds.

Mass shootings do have something in common with urban violence.  Mass shootings occur in a cultural system, and the shooters are a product of that system.  This does not excuse them; but if we want to reduce the prevalence of these tragedies, we would do well to look at the culture in which they are spawned. 
In the 8th chapter of John's Gospel, local leaders bring to Jesus a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery.  Jesus responds:  “If anyone of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”  The woman is guilty; Jesus is not condoning her choice.  Yet he sees that she, although guilty, is part of a larger community that has shaped her.  Perhaps if the community had lived out their common life together in a different way, the woman would have been less prone to sin.  This does not exonerate her; it does suggest that you cannot extract her from the sinful cultural system in which she lived.  She was part of a larger drama. We are constantly co-creating one another.

This might be a good thing to keep in mind as we sort out what we can do in our communities and our nation to reduce the prevalence of mass shootings, or violence in general for that matter.  None of this excuses mass murder, but it does remind us that these murderers do not arrive at the scene of the crime from Mars, untouched by the broader culture in which they were nurtured.

Jim Kelsey—Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State

Friday, February 16, 2018

Sticks and Stones

We learned it as children:
    Sticks and stones may
        break my bones,
   But words will never
      hurt me.
I assume it is to be a comfort to children when someone speaks unkind words to them.  It occurs to me that it also could be a taunt that dares actual physical violence.  In either case, it is not true.  Words do harm us.  To speak is to act; it is to do something.   The writer of James knew this when he wrote “the tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell [James 3:6].”  If we think we can say whatever we wish and then the world around us can remain unchanged, we are mistaken.

We can never unsay what we have said, retract what we have written.  Once it is out there, it remains despite all our denials, apologies, and disclaimers.  The world is then a different place.

I recently was in Rwanda and had the chance to talk with both a victim and perpetrator of the 1994 genocide.  The perpetrator had killed the mother-in-law of the victim.  Through a reconciliation ministry in Kigali, they were reconciled to one another and now live in peace as neighbors.

I asked each of them how their experiences shaped the way they raise their children.  They both answered that they talk with their children about what they are hearing and then seek to correct anything they have heard that might give birth to prejudice.  They both realize that words are dangerous, in some cases deadly.

The Rwanda genocide did not just happen overnight.  It was the result of decades of ethnic tension and animosity created, crafted, and disseminated by the government, by both former colonial powers and the Hutu government in power preceding the genocide.  The government began by fomenting animosity and divisions and in this way brought the nation to the point where one group saw another group as “cockroaches.”

This all did not begin with the word “cockroaches.”  It began by fostering a sense of victimhood and resentment on the part of the perpetrators.  They were told they were being denied something they deserved by their inferiors, the Tutsis.  On the foundation of this rhetoric the perpetrators were being groomed for violence.

Sometimes we say “look at what someone does and not what they say.”  This is a mistake.  To say something is to do something that has consequences.  As James says, words can be a spark that ignites destruction and violence. 

Jesus said   But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles [Matt 15:18].”  Our words can defile us and everyone and everything around us.  Words can desecrate God’s creation and humans who are made in the image of God.

Paul suggests that we use language only in a positive way, to enhance and nurture. “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear [Eph. 4:29].”  Paul knew that to speak is to act.  With our words we build up or we tear down God’s creation.

When we say “look at what someone does not what they say,” we make a mistake, and we can be laying the groundwork for powerful events that will hurt others.  Just ask the men I met in Rwanda.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister-American Baptist Churches of New York State

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Lamb That Was Slain

“The Meeting”
Malcolm X’s Chicago house had been firebombed that morning.  Both Malcolm and Dr. Martin Luther King were in New York for speaking engagements.  Malcolm had requested a secret meeting with Dr. King.  King had agreed.

It is a fictional account by Jeff Stetson entitled “The Meeting.” In this play Stetson speculates what these two influential yet very different civil rights leaders would have talked about had they met.  In the drama, they both want the same thing:  better lives and more opportunities for people of color in America.  They both operate out of many of the same assumptions, and they are both deeply religious.

Malcolm faults King’s approach of nonviolence and suffering love.  He accuses King of exposing his own people, including children and women, to beatings and abuse — making them victims of a racist system.  He argues that King plays into the hands of the racists and segregationists.

As Malcolm made his case, I found myself siding with him.  A part of me wanted to meet force with force and give the oppressors what they deserved.

King repeatedly makes the same defense to Malcolm.  Suffering love is redemptive and transformative.  This conviction is King’s only defense of his methodology of non-retaliation.

At the end of the conversation, King gives Malcolm a doll King’s daughter gave King to give to Malcolm.  The doll is to replace the doll that Malcolm’s daughter lost in the fire.  Nonetheless, at the end of the encounter, their disagreement is unresolved.

King is distinctively Christian.  As I watched the play and found Malcolm’s argument resonating with me, I realized how difficult it is to be Christian.

King and his organization trained and drilled their people not to retaliate in the face of degradation and brutality.  They conditioned them to resist their human tendency--that of all of us--to strike back.

Revelation 5
In Revelation chapter 5, the writer John weeps because no one in heaven or on the earth or under the earth is worthy the break the scroll.  As long as this scroll telling of the future remains unopened, God’s plan will remain unaccomplished.  Then one of the elders says to John, “Do not weep; the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David has triumphed, and he is worthy to open the scroll.”

At this point we might expect an armored lion fuming at the nostrils, but instead we are introduced to a lamb, looking as if it has been slain (vs. 6).  This is not just any lamb:  this is the diminutive form of the noun; a young lamb, vulnerable and unprotected.

As the passage continues, we learn that, indeed, this lamb was slain (v.9).  The verb here is the perfect form, meaning that the lamb continues, in a way, to be slain.  The lamb still bears evidence of the violence done to it. 

The lamb, of course, is Jesus.  There is something in his being wounded on behalf of others that makes him worthy to open the scroll and inaugurate God’s future.  Only a love that is willing to suffer can open to us and creation a future worth living.

Dr. King believed that suffering love is redemptive.  He called his followers to live by that conviction.  He was, in reality, simply calling all of us to be Christian.  It is not easy being Christian.  As we remember his legacy this Monday, he challenges us to continue to work at difficult things.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister-American Baptist Churches of New York State

Friday, December 22, 2017

Unsettling Bible Angels

We have all seen it. A child is coaxed onto Santa’s lap, and then the child begins screaming and frantically trying to escape.  Truth is, some children find a strange loud man in a bright red suit and long white beard frightening.
The angels in Luke’s Gospel are a bit like that.  When an angel confronts Zechariah in the Temple, he is startled and gripped with fear.  The angel reassures him not to be afraid.  When the angel Gabriel approaches Mary, she is greatly troubled and wonders what this means for her.  Again the angel tries to calm her natural fears.  When an angel appears to the shepherds in the night, they are terrified; and the angel again tells them not to be afraid.

Why are these people afraid of angels?  They are fearful because these are real Bible angels, not the domesticated little kewpie dolls of popular culture.
In our culture, angels have become background music for our modern dance of self-indulgence.  They guide lost children home and protect us from robbers.  They stay busy rescuing us from car accidents and fixing flat tires.  They even find lost keys; no job is too trivial.  One cynic asked what angels did before the advent of the car.    In general they give us what we want, a bit like Santa Claus without the beard and loud suit.

In the Bible, angels are as fearsome as they are comforting.  They guard the Garden of Eden with flaming swords and wrestle with Jacob all night.  In the book of Revelation they battle dragons.  They are as often warriors as deliverers.
Bible angels bring messages of correction as well messages of comfort.  They sometimes have hard and challenging things to say because they speak of what God wants and not of what we want.  These are Bible angels.

So Zechariah and Mary and the shepherds get a bit nervous when an angel comes close. 

The angels announce that the presence of God is about to get a lot more immediate, for a Savior, who is both Christ and Lord, has been born.  This inevitably will force a choice in people’s lives.  If you think the angels’ presence is intrusive, just wait until this child grows up and begins demanding a level of commitment from people that they had not anticipated giving, even the religious among them.

For now we are all safe.  Jesus is just an apparently harmless cooing baby in a manger.  The angel Gabriel makes clear to Mary, though,  that it will not long remain this way:

He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
     he has filled the hungry with good things,

    and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
   according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:51-55)
These angels are a bit intrusive, but this is just the beginning of the disturbance.  If you are proud and powerful, you are going to have to make some tough choices.  If you hunger for the things of God, you are in for some pleasant surprises.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State

Friday, December 8, 2017

Listening is a Gift

When I was young and someone around me began a sentence with “remember when,” I knew
things were about to get boring.  Now I have become one of those people of a certain stage of life who begins sentences with “remember when.”  My sons, in the patience that comes with young adulthood, no longer roll their eyes but hear me out.

We are at that time of year when we do a lot of reminiscing.  We use the holidays as mile markers in our journey, such as our first Christmas together, our last Thanksgiving before the stroke, the New Year’s Eve when they announced their engagement, the last holiday before his death, the year we got our kids the puppy that knocked the Christmas tree over, the time I got my first bicycle, the holiday she did not come home for the holidays for the first time.  The holidays are a time to catalogue our joys and sorrows.  Depending upon the hand life has dealt us, they go by far too rapidly or they cannot be over soon enough.
Jonathan Tran, in his book The Vietnam War and Theologies of Memory, observed that memories come to us as part of a broader narrative; we remember in context.  He writes:  “Even if we had 'the facts,’ before narration facts remain unintelligible [p. 131].”  Communities, be they nations or families or churches, are bound together by memories embedded in narrative, by stories.  Tran writes: “Rather than historical facts and ‘the way it was,’ communities tell stories and through these stories—the past configured by way of narrative—communities remember.”  You can tell when you are in a community of people if they are telling stories, many of them already familiar; nonetheless they are listening patiently to one another.  A group of people who listen to one another’s stories, many of them shared stories, is a good indicator of community.
Remembering the past is not the same as being captive to the past.  Telling stories can be a way of disarming the power of a past we can never really forget.   It is healthy to let memory have its place.

She asked if I would come by on the first anniversary of her husband’s death; I had done his funeral service.  We drank coffee, ate some cake, and then she handed to me the order of service from the funeral.  She asked that I read through it with her.  We did so together, and then she put both copies back in a drawer.  She went on to tell me about the trip she was about to take.  She wanted me to know that her life was moving on; she was not a prisoner of that loss.  Openly and actively remembering her loss liberated this woman to embrace the present.  She carried her memory; the memory did not carry her.

Listening to one another’s stories is a gift we can give to one another this holiday season.  If someone tells us the same story many times, perhaps it is because that story is important to them.    So as sentences begin with “remember when” and we know what will follow, let us listen with warmth knowing this a good gift to give to one another this Christmas season.
Jim Kelsey-Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State

Saturday, October 7, 2017


Why Did This Happen?

The Baptist preacher and writer Calvin Miller tells a story about one of his fellow pastors whose teenage daughter was hit in the face with a softball.  The daughter was taken to the hospital in a coma.  Her father sat by the hospital bed wondering why his daughter lay there unconscious.  He asked himself what God was trying to teach him, how had he not been paying attention to God.

A fellow pastor walked into the room one day and said to the father:  “I know why this has happened to your daughter.”  The father thought finally someone was going to make sense of this tragedy.  The fellow pastor explained:  “God has a rule.  A softball and a face cannot occupy the same space at the same time.”  Sometimes we must accept what seems random and without meaning.

Sunday night in Las Vegas a lone gunman killed at least 59 people and wounded hundreds more.  The violence is numbing and the loss unfathomable, and we want to know why he did it.  We need some explanation; we want to make some sense of this even if that sense making frightens us.

The shooter is an enigma; we may never know why he did this.  We may have to simply accept that.  This will never set well with us.

Twice in the Gospels people came to Jesus asking about tragedies.  In John 9, Jesus and his disciples came upon a man born blind.  This created a problem.  If he were born blind, how could his blindness be punishment for sin?  Nonetheless, they ask who had sinned, this man or his parents.  In the face of misfortune, they needed an answer to make sense of the situation.  The answer of Jesus can be taken to mean that God made him blind so that Jesus could heal him.  Something important is lost here in translation.  The thrust of the response is that the disciples are asking the wrong question.  The proper question is how God can use this situation—whatever its origin—to demonstrate mercy.  No clear reason is given for the man’s blindness.

In Luke 13 some in the crowd of listeners ask Jesus about the death of some worshippers Pilate slaughtered while they were offering sacrifices.  Killed in church--that must mean something.  Yet Jesus instructs the questioners to think on their own lives and stop trying to find a reason for tragedy in the life of another.  Again, no clear reason is given for the tragedy.

Although people in scripture do sometimes suffer for their sin, the general rule seems to be: God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous (Matt 5:45).  In other words, often we can make little sense of life.

The intricacies of theodicy (why does God let bad things happen to good people and why does God let evil people prosper) are far beyond me.  I don’t know.

Someone once said that God will have a lot to give account for in the last day.  Faith in a loving, merciful God—as demonstrated in Jesus Christ—assures us that on the last day God will be able to give account for all. Until then, as the Apostle Paul wrote: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face [Romans 13:12].”

This does not answer our question “why?”  Maybe, often there is no good answer.  In the moments when there is no good answer, the strongest faith is forged.

Jim Kelsey—Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State