Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Other Side of the Fence

I shoved my passport through the chain link fence and shouted “permesso di soggiorno permesso di

My two sons and I had arrived in Italy on the previous Friday morning to begin our sojourn as missionaries; Debbie, my wife, would arrive in a few weeks.  After leaving my two boys at the hotel, Carmine, our Italian Baptist colleague, and I went to the local police station (Questura) in Padua; the instructions that came with my visa said to go there to get the forms to apply for a permesso di sogiorno, a card that would permit us to become long-term residents in Italy.

The people at the Questura sent us to another government office.  The people at the second office sent us to yet a third office.  The third office sent us back to the Questura.  It was now 4:00 in the afternoon, and Carmine said we should quit for the day.  I was to return on my own to the Questura on Monday morning and go down the side street to the gate in the fence behind the building; they opened at 8:30 am.

On Monday morning I got my sons breakfast and left them in the room.  I took 3 buses to get to the Questura.  I arrived at 7:45 and found several hundred people milling about in the narrow street in the already rising heat.

At 9:30 a police officer came out of the building and walked toward the gate.  The crowd started shouting and waving official looking letters.  I had no such letter.  I asked the man next to me what the letters were.  He replied “French...No else.”  I pushed my way to the gate and shoved my passport through it showing my visa, all the time shouting “permesso di soggiorno”  Finally the officer looked at it and replied ”uffcio postale…la stazione”—the post office near the train station.

I made my way there and got the forms.  I thought I was on my way.  It would be, however, six months and multiple visits back to the Questura before we got any documents.

Most Americans pay an agent to get documents for them; it fast and easy but a bit costly.  We did not have the money for that.  We were, however, better off that most of the people in the street that morning.  We came from a country where we could get the documents we needed—birth certificates, passports, marriage license, etc.—without paying large amounts of money.

That morning, for me, was a taste of what it is like to be on the other side of the fence without any privilege.  I was just one of hundreds of people that day who needed some consideration.  I was one of hundreds of people that day who were not entirely welcomed in the city and were seen as a burden and inconvenience.

Yes, in Italy, an American seeking residence is just another immigrant that in the end may be more trouble than they are worth.  Tourists they want, residents not so much.

I was born a white middle class male to a family who owned their own home in a liberal democracy.  Others were born in America with more privileged than I, but I started out in a pretty good position nonetheless.  I had never been on the other side of the fence.  It was healthy for me to look through a locked gate from the wrong side, without any privilege or claim.  I am a better person for it.
He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside,
He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same words: "Follow thou me!" and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is. (Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus)
Jim Kelsey, Executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State

Thursday, June 7, 2018

A Song I Did Not Know I Knew

I awoke to the sound of singing. 

I was staying in a partially completed building in Rwanda.  The rural day-laborers gathered each morning before they began their work. Forming a circle, they sang.  The sunrise streamed through my open window as the lilt of their voices floated in.
My first thought was what a life God had given me that I would be in this place of enduring beauty and ancient tradition, awakening to this Rwandan song.  I had a sense that I had in some way come home; it all felt a bit familiar. That morning, for the first time, I heard a song I did not know I knew.  It had lain in me undiscovered.
As I later reflected upon that moving moment, I realized, in a way, I had come home.  We all have roots in Africa.  Our ancestors made their way to the Fertile Crescent, where they came upon animals that could be domesticated and crops that could be bent to the ways of settled agriculture.  We then made our way into Europe and around the globe.  Jared Diamond in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel:  The Fates of Human Societies chronicles this initial pilgrimage out of Africa.
We are all part of a common family, born of a single act of Divine love.  The shared song of our origin is imprinted in each of us, often undiscovered.  The Apostle Paul wrote:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  (Colossians 1:15-17)
We have so quantified and analyzed and secularized our world that we have lost a sense of the enduring presence of the one who created it all and still holds it together.  In 1917, Max Weber wrote: “The fate of our times is characterized by intellectualization and rationalization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world.”  The fracturing of God’s creation is not born of a lack of understanding; it is born of an atrophied capacity for wonder.  In this we have lost our sense of the sacredness and organic wholeness of what God has made.
In Africa, close to my origins, I discovered that song common to all of us, regardless of where we have wandered on this earth—a tune written in the human heart through which Christ holds all things together.  Wondered was awakened in me that morning.
In Africa I heard a song I did not know I knew, a song from long ago when our journey was just beginning.

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

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Community is Biblical

They were seeking a “biblical form of church government.”  This congregation seemed to think that  
they could achieve this by severing all formal ties with other churches and becoming an independent church.

As a Baptist, I am a high trust--low control person.  I trust local congregations to follow the Spirit and would defend them from outside control. My discomfort is not with this church making their own determination in this matter.  Rather, my discomfort is with their labeling independence as the biblical model.  Whenever we add the adjective biblical to something, we need to have done our homework—biblically, that is. 
We all read the Bible through the lens of our experiences, culture, and loyalties.  It is not possible to read otherwise. The danger is that we may label something that is the product of our interpretation as being unquestionably mandated by the Bible.  It is often wise to clarify a statement as our reading of scripture.

My reading of the biblical text leads me to conclude that this church is acting in a way unsupported by the evidence concerning Pauline congregations in the New Testament. I would defend the church’s prerogative to make this decision, but I would suggest that it is not necessarily a move to a “biblical form of church government.”

Connected Clusters of Congregations
The relationship between the churches in the New Testament is anything but crystal clear.  It appears that, typically, there were multiple communities in an urban area; but such groups were not seen as independent churches disconnected from one another (Abraham J. Mahlerbe, Social Aspects of Early Christianity, pp. 70ff.).  Paul seems to have known of at least three churches in Rome (Romans 16:5, 15, 16), yet he sends a single letter to be shared.    There may have been more than one worshipping congregation in Thessalonica (1 Thess. 5:27) and in Laodicea as well (Col. 4:15). The church in Corinth seemed to be composed of multiple worshipping groups, but, again, Paul sends one letter.  His greetings and conclusions in his letters suggest that various congregations were in close contact with one another.  Paul wrote one letter to an area, expecting the letter to be passed around. It appears that Luke thought of the multiple groups in Jerusalem as one church as he authored the book of Acts (Mahlerbe, p. 70). Clearly, local worshipping communities were organically connected with one another.  They could hardly be described as independent.  Wayne Meeks writes:

It is evident, too, that Paul and the other leaders of the mission worked actively to inculcate the notion of a universal brotherhood of the believers in Messiah Jesus.  The letters themselves, the messengers who brought them, and the repeated visits to local assemblies by Paul and his associates all emphasized the interrelatedness…The smallest unit of the movement is addressed precisely in the epistolary context that reminds the readers of the larger fellowship by names and groups in other places.   (The First Urban Christians—The Social World of the Apostle Paul, p. 109)
Paul and his coworkers were not simply trying to foster a sense of connection with the church universal at all times and in all places.  Rather, they were trying to engender cooperative bonds between flesh and blood congregations in specific places.

I would argue that voluntary connectedness among congregations enriches the life of a church and can, on occasion, prevent a church from becoming captive to the unchecked idiosyncrasies of a leader(s) who wishes to exercise  a level of control that is not healthy.  When congregations become disconnected from other churches, sometimes they can go off the rails organizationally and theologically.  The believers in Corinth benefit from connectedness as Paul guides them through a tough problem in 1 Corinthians 5; this is one of several issues Paul addresses in his letter. Community spawns health. Independence and isolation, when left unchecked, have the potential for pathology.

The Jerusalem Collection
Paul’s multiple references to the “Jerusalem collection” in his letters shows that churches took responsibility for supporting one another (Acts 11:27-30; Gal. 2:10; Romans 15:25-27; 1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 8:1-15 & 9:12-15).  This collection for the saints in Jerusalem is woven throughout Paul’s letters.  Paul promoted a sense of connection and mutual care through this effort.  The model here is not independence and isolation.

Church Leadership
The New Testament letters talk about elders and bishops with respect to cities, not individual churches.  The implication seems to be that there were multiple congregations in a city, for whom these leaders cared.  In Acts 20:17, Paul makes contact with the elders from Ephesus; they are identified with the city itself.  In Acts 14:23, Paul appoints leaders “church by church” (κατ’ ἐκκλησίαν).  Given that a series of cities is listed in vs. 21-22, the implication is that these leaders were a common link for the congregations in each city (Mahlerbe, p. 101).

Even if the above paragraph is not convincing, at a minimum the appointment of elders by respected leaders in the broader Christian family indicates a strong connective network among congregations (Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5).  These are not independent isolated fellowships.

The Jerusalem Council
Furthermore, the leaders in the Jerusalem church decide the issue of direct Gentile admission to the churches throughout the Roman Empire and what practices believing Gentiles must observe.  This edict is then communicated and, presumably, practiced throughout the New Testament churches (Acts 15:1-35 and 16:4-5).  These are not Lone Ranger congregations.

Although Paul asserts an authority bestowed on him directly by Jesus Christ, he does point out that he received the endorsement of the Jerusalem leaders (Gal. 2:1-9).  Apparently he feels this strengthens his hand among the believers in the province of Galatia.  This suggests something other than a mentality of independence and indifference on the part of these congregations, as well.

In Our Day
These leadership links between churches, although quite effective in the early days of the church, would make me a little nervous in our day.  As a Baptist, I am not comfortable with outsiders dictating to local churches what they must and must not do and whom they may and may not call as leaders.  As a Regional Executive Minister, I spend not a small amount of time explaining to congregations that I cannot and will not dictate practices to them; I will not make their decisions for them.  Freedom is core to Baptist practice and identity.  I am happy being a low control--high trust Baptist. Nonetheless, I affirm the values of connectedness and mutual care among churches evident in these earliest Christian congregations.

Individualism is a marked characteristic of American culture.  Our culture inevitably shapes our congregations.  If a congregation wishes to become isolated and independent, I wish them all the best.  The error is to claim that the Bible values individualism and isolation over community, cooperation, and mutual support.  The texts of the New Testament indicate otherwise.

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

Friday, April 20, 2018

Civil Christianity

We are nicer when we journey together.
In writing about civility, Gil Rendle (Behavioral Covenants in Congregations-A Handbook for
Honoring Differences) cites the work of Yale professor Stephen Carter who argues that riding in a subway, bus, or train full of strangers requires us to understand our obligations to treat one another with due regard.  Carter cites popular guides from the past that counseled people on how to behave well on trains.  Having traveled mostly by train and bus for 10 years while living in Europe, this resonated with me.  You find yourself bumping up against all types of people.  Sometimes you spend the night in a sleeper car with complete strangers.

Most of us travel alone or with a family member in our cars; we are less prone to develop discipline of accommodation.  We see commercials advertising luxury cars where a driver glides through a city isolated from noise, disorder, odors and, of course, other people.  This seems to be our aspiration, to move through the world untouched by others.  This is the radical individualism so prevalent in America.

When we travel together we must make sacrifices for the sake of a pleasant journey.   Carter defines civility as “the sum total of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together.”

There is a place between law and freedom.

Rendle goes on to draw upon the work of Lord John Fletcher Moulton.  Moulton wrote about three domains of life.  First is the domain of law; this encompasses those things we must do. In this domain we obey.

The other end of the continuum is the domain of free choice.  This is the category that includes all those things over which we claim complete freedom to do or not to do.  We recognize this as personal autonomy.

Moulton posited between the domains of law and freedom the domain of obedience to the unenforceable.  In this domain we comply with obligations and duties to which we cannot be compelled.  Moulton calls them “manners.”  Another word for manners could be civility.  This is the arena in which we sacrifice what we cannot be compelled to give up for the sake of others and the wellbeing of the larger community.  Thus, it is more than simply being polite or pleasant.  This domain has a moral dimension; it trades in the currency of right and wrong, humanity and inhumanity.   This dimension is undercut by our radicalized sense of personal autonomy.

Civility is no stranger to Christian conduct.

The discipline of obeying the unenforceable is at the center of the Christian life. The believers in Corinth were having trouble balancing their freedom with their obligation to the wellbeing of others.  Paul wrote: “’I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others [1 Cor. 10:23-24].”  Paul is calling his readers to do what no one can compel them to do—in this case not eating meat that has been offered to idols. This is not a problem we face in our churches, but Paul does hold up sacrificing for others as a higher priority than exercising freedom.  He is asking them to make a sacrifice for the higher purpose of living well together.

Paul admonishes his readers in Colosse to forebear one another (Col. 3:13).  In other words he advises that they put up with each other.  A piece of civility is putting up with others because we know they are putting up with us.  Civility is about giving one another room to breathe and grow.  It is also about creating safe spaces for people to be authentic without fear of rejection, or retribution.

We live in an uncivil time bred of an overwrought sense of freedom and autonomy, and this taints the lives of our congregations.  As believers we can guard ourselves against being conformed to the spirit of our age by deliberately practicing civility in our churches, our families, and our relationships.  We can find that place between law and freedom where we voluntarily sacrifice for the wellbeing of others, where we do good things that no one can compel of us. 

This is a part of loving our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. Matthew reports the following exchange between a Pharisee and Jesus: 
     “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the  
     Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and  with all your mind.’ This is the 
     greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as
     yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (22:36-40).

Jesus takes that middle domain, the domain of obedience to the unenforceable, and makes it a type of law for believers.  He elevates radical civility as an inherent dimension of love of God.  Faith is lived in that middle domain, where we sacrifice for us others, freely doing what no one can compel us to do.

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


Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Going Tactical

The powerful strategize; the powerless engage in tactics.  So writes Emmanuel Katongole (Mirror in the Church—Resurrecting Faith after Genocide in Rwanda, pp. 44ff.).

People in power plan the way they want things to be.  They do research and analyze from a distance.  They employ technology and expertise. They are pragmatic and lay out a set of sequential steps to get to their goal.

The marginalized, on the other hand, employ tactics; they are guerilla fighters, writes Katongole.  This is how people survive in a world they do not own.  The marginalized assume that the world cannot be entirely remade; it will not bend to their will.  Thus, they look for spots of vulnerability and exploit them to subvert the status quo as much as possible.  They do not work at a distance; they are in the midst of things.

Katongole argues that the teachings of Jesus smack more of tactics than strategy.  Jesus showed no indication that he thought that he, or his followers after him, were going to remake the Roman Empire into the Kingdom of God.  Turning the other cheek was not a strategy to break the power of the Roman army.  Settling before you get to court would not make a corrupt and exploitive justice system fair.  But both these acts would disrupt the rhythm of the system.  The early church in Jerusalem knew it could not reform the unjust distribution of wealth in society, but it did subvert the status quo in a small way by sharing all things in common. 
The powerful lobby the legislature to change a law.  The marginalized just sit down in the front of the bus one day.
Perhaps the church in America is still living with a hangover from the days when the church had civic power, when planning strategy was our posture.  We talk about the end of Christendom in America, the passing of the Protestant Franchise.  Yet, we still want to plot strategy, like in the good old days.  We want to be players in the power structure.  One protestant ecumenical organization complains because the State governor won’t meet with them anymore; now he offers to send an aide.  The group refuses to meet with the aide.  They still want their “seat at the table.”

Perhaps it is time for the church in America to return to tactics—find the weak places in the “powers and principalities” of our age and exploit them in whatever ways we can.  We can live our lives in dissonant ways, rattling the cages of those around us.  This is where we began two millennia ago.

“Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same [Luke 3:11].”  This is not a plan for a universal redistribution of wealth.  This is an act of insurgency, a solitary act of charity that challenges the way things are.  It is a refusal to go along with the mainstream.

“Even tax collectors came to be baptized. ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘what should we do?’  ‘Don’t collect any more than you are required to,’ he told them.  Then some soldiers asked him, ‘And what should we do?’  He replied, ‘Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay [Luke 3:12-14].’”  This is not a strategy to make an unjust system just or to dismantle the military.  Rather, these are tactics to subvert the system where one can.

I heard a man being interviewed on the radio one day.  He was working with a ministry that provided food to hungry people.  The interviewer asked him if he thought he could remake the whole world.  The man replied:  “No, maybe I am simply trying to keep the world from remaking me.”  He had gone tactical.

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:2).

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


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