Monday, July 22, 2019

Influence not Power

They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes (Mark 1:22). 

This is as much a shot at the scribes as it is an affirmation of Jesus.

What is authority and how is it different from power? 

In my first pastorate I quickly learned the difference.  Apart from the content of my sermons and Bible studies, how I counseled people, and the shape of wedding and funerals, I had little official power in that Baptist church.  I worked from accumulated influence, which was the product of earned authority.
The word used for authority (ξουσία) in this Markan passage often indicates the ability to do something to the extent there are no hindrances. Power (δύναμις), on the other hand, is typically used where one has the intrinsic ability to proceed regardless of any hindrances (TDNT, v. 2, pp. 562ff).

In the New Testament, authority can be used to denote the prerogative to make decisions, connoting the freedom to choose.  It is based upon privilege delegated by God; it is given and not grasped.
Jesus at times demonstrated raw power, the intrinsic ability to proceed with or without cooperation.  In the present passage, however, something else is at work.

The listeners in this Markan passage see something in Jesus that is different from what they see in the scribes.  The scribes could only exegete and interpret what had already been given through the prophets.  Jesus, on the other hand, brings to the table something new and creative and not just a rehashing of what the people had always known.
The fresh and unprecedented way Jesus moved among the people and the choices he made lent to his words authority, which resulted in a level of influence the scribes could not attain through formal power and position.

Authority in the early church followed this pattern set by Jesus.  The person in authority led not by force but by a recognition that the leader’s directives were just and honorable.  Authority distinguishes itself from naked power by its ability to produce acceptable answers to questions (Meeks, The First Urban Christians, pp. 122 &137).
The crowd saw authority in Jesus because his answers were simply better than those of the scribes. Authoritarian religious leaders turn to power as the last refuge of those who have run out of compelling, timely answers.

Church leaders, both ordained and lay, are tempted to resort to raw power when they feel they are not going to get their way.  Leaders can feel that they are going to lose something they value, such as position, control, or what is comfortable and familiar.

In this move to power, we violate the example of Jesus and his teachings about leadership:

A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.  But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors.  But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves (Luke 22:24-27).
Much of the apparent power I had as a pastor was really influence disguised as power.

Christ’s church is to be led by people who have earned influence through the way they move among people, demonstrating humility and a commitment to serving Jesus.  Church leaders are to be as “one who serves.”
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Privilege in a Dangerous World

A More Dangerous Place
I, like many of you, went to worship on Sunday with the shadow of the attack on the synagogue in
Poway, California, on my heart.  When one adds up the cumulative carnage of this attack, the attack on the synagogue in Pittsburg, the attack on the mosque in New Zealand, the driver in California who is charged with eight counts of attempted murder for intentionally targeting Muslims, the hundreds of Christians killed in Sri Lanka, and the bombing of three African-American churches in Louisiana, it can feel as if resurrection hasn’t really taken hold in the rest of the creation.

Although we all carry grief for these outrages spawned by prejudice and white supremacy, many of us—being European-Americans participating in the majority faith of our nation—perhaps do not feel directly threatened. 

This struck me as I sat in one of our churches this past Sunday, a church of fellow ABC/NYS brothers and sisters from the Burmese Diaspora.  These new Americans are the type of people who become the target of animus born of nationalism and racism.  (Nationalism and patriotism are not the same thing.  These words grew to carry different baggage in the 20th century.)  To sit in that church this past Sunday was more dangerous than it used to be.
We have a variety of ABC/NYS churches where the majority of worshippers are people of color.   Sunday morning, the threat felt among them was not abstract or hypothetical; they were sitting in places that are more dangerous than they used to be.

Power-intoxicated white supremacy, self-centered nationalism, and fearful racism are a threat to many of our ABC/NYS brothers and sister.
People of Privilege
So what about those of us who live with the privilege granted to white Christians in America?  We often hear the timely admonition “if you see something, say something.”  Maybe it is time to start practicing “if you hear something, say something.” 
We cannot shed our privilege like a coat.  We can, however, use it.  When we hear something ugly and dangerous, we can speak up on behalf of people who do not move through life with our unearned privilege.  We can listen to what is going on around us, and we can intervene.  We can demand that the dignity due those who bear within them the image of the Creator of the universe be acknowledged and honored.

I do not think it a stretch to see this as a Christian duty.  The author of 2 Timothy writes: "I solemnly urge you:  proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching [4:1b-2]."  We can be mindful of the time in which we live and our opportunities to teach about what it means to honor the one who created us all.
Giving the Dignity Due
I was waiting in line at the Rite Aid recently, in a hurry to get home to dinner.  I stood behind two Hispanic men whose English was not yet fluent.  They wore dusty work clothes and dirt-encrusted boots; they obviously had spent the day working hard.  One of them was buying left-over Easter candy, all of it 50% off but without the prices clearly marked.  The clerk was trying to explain the various prices.  One of the men kept putting back one item after another; apparently he had a spending limit.  It was quite a process to complete this transaction.  The clerk was incredibly patient and kind and warm, smiling through the whole encounter.  He even tried speaking some Italian to them, thinking that it might be easier for them to understand than English.  I was proud of this man using his position and privilege to make these men feel comfortable and of value.  It was a small thing to do, but it was a powerful expression of kindness and character.

None of us can compel the creation to embrace resurrection, but we can speak out when those around us treat people as if they do not carry within them the image of the Creator of all things who raised Jesus from the dead. 

We, who were undeniably privileged by our culture at birth, can use that privilege for the benefit of those who do not move through the world as easily as we do.  We can at least be kind and loving and affirming to those who among are not so treated all the time, and in that moment resurrection breaks out.
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State.


Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Hope of Lent: We Can Change

The hope of Lent is that we will come out of it a bit different than when we entered, having changed in some way for the better.  When I think of people changing, I think of the pastor of a church I once attended.
First Baptist Church, with its tall white columns and pipe organ and church suppers with real plates, sat just off the town square and was an institution of influence in that southern county-seat town. I joined the Second Baptist Church, with is low slung one-story red brick building and wood paneled sanctuary; it sat on the edge of town and was not a place of power.

I was serving as an intern campus minister at the nearby university.  People assumed I would join First Baptist.  I don’t clearly remember why I joined the other church.  Maybe I wanted to enter fully into the cross-cultural experience of living in a small southern town; I was from the urban north.  Perhaps it was an amateurish attempt at ethnography.  In any case, I joined Second Baptist and parked among Chevrolet pickups instead of Buick sedans.

I began taking several of my male African-American students with me to church on Sunday; they could not afford to go home on the weekend.  The young men were treated politely. They were most likely the first people of color to worship in that church.
One day the pastor took me aside and shared that it was OK for these young men to worship at Second; they were students and would be gone at the end of the year, as would I. He went on to say, however, there would be a problem if one them ever tried to join. So I needed to share that with them or stop bringing them. I told the pastor that I would do neither of those things.  In response he shared that if one of these young men were to present himself for membership, well that would “not be good for me or for you.”

I had moved south with a robust sense of self-satisfied superiority when it came to issues of race.  I believed the south was way behind the north in this arena. My first pastorate in Philadelphia years later disabused me of any naiveté I might have had about the north as the land of enlightenment and justice when it came to racism; but back then in that small town, I was still clothed in my arrogance-producing naiveté.  I went home from that conversation feeling pretty good about myself.
Several months later I was daydreaming my way through one of the pastor’s sermons.  He always ended up preaching about the same three things: gambling; the liquor dealers; and “liberal” politicians.  I already knew he was against all three.  Besides, the closest place to gamble legally was a 150 miles away; it was dry for 80 miles in every direction; and I was not registered to vote in that State. 

I came awake when in the middle of a sermon one Sunday this pastor said the words  “racial prejudice.” He said it was wrong.  He went on to say, and I will never forget the words:  “Don’t look at me like that.  I come from the same place you all come from, but something happened to me.”  He went on to say that the love of God in Jesus changed him; he wasn’t like that anymore.  I was stunned at the risk he was taking in that moment.

As I reflected upon his words later in the day, I engaged in what ethnographers call “reflexivity.”  That is where ethnographers, while studying another group of people, also study themselves.  We grow in self-understanding as we grow in our understanding of others.  I realized I carried a pack of stereotypes and prejudices in my own soul.  I also wondered, “How much was I willing to risk to do the right thing?”

Not long after that, two of these students joined the church.  I am sure there were some in the church who did not like it; but that day as the two young men stood at the front of the sanctuary, they were swamped by people welcoming them.  Change was gaining the upper hand.

Lent is about change, about coming out of it a bit different than we went into it.
People can change.  I saw it in a pastor, while sitting six rows back, center pew, during a sermon to which I was not really listening.  I saw it among pick-up driving folks at a red brick church at the edge of a southern county seat town.  I experienced it as I saw some things about myself through the lens of another’s courage.

We really can change.  That is the hope of Lent.

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

Friday, February 1, 2019

Loving Our Neighbor and Neuroscience

Our neurology predisposes us to love our neighbor. When Jesus commands us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, he is challenging us to nurture our innate, neurological capacity for empathy.

Our brains are wired for empathy argues David Eagleman in his book The Brain-The Story of You.  Our neural circuitry connects with that of others and monitors their pain, judges their intentions, and reads their emotions (p. 151).  An experiment showed that babies less than a year old intuitively show empathy and prefer a kind puppet over a mean puppet, in this case a helpful bear and an unhelpful bear of a different color.

Empathy is the capacity to have your brain stimulated by the experiences of others.  Another person’s pain or grief or fear matrix activates a parallel matrix in your brain. Jeremy Rifkin describes empathy in this way:

To empathize is to cross over and experience, in the most profound way, the very being of another—especially the other’s struggle to endure and prevail in his or her own life journey…Empathy is the ultimate expression of communication between beings (Jeremy Rifkin, The European Dream—How Europe’s Vision of the Future is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream, p. 271).

Empathy is a survival instinct.  Although natural selection or “survival of the fittest” plays a role in our survival, there is more to the story.  Without an intuitive empathic connection with others, humans would not have been able to live together in peace, cooperate, and flourish—given that we are slow and weak compared to other creatures closest to us in the food chain.  We help one another be safe, productive, and overcome challenges (Eagleman, pp. 163-164).

Additional research shows, however, that we are prone--unconsciously and unintentionally--to experience greater empathy toward people who are like us and less empathy toward people who are different (Eagleman, pp. 169-170).  It is not a choice we make. Herein lies our struggle: our brain chemistry does not recognize all of those around us as equal.  As one of the pigs says in George Orwell’s Animal Farm:  all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

Human empathy is an imperfect survival mechanism.  It helps us to survive, but gives preference to people of our own tribe.

This defect operates most clearly through the process of dehumanization.  If we can shut down the empathic link between us and the homeless person, for example, we avoid feeling bad about not being charitable (Eagleman, p. 171). We experience them as less human than we are.

Language is a common stratagem humans employ to dehumanize others and dull our intuitive sense of connection.  By weaponizing language through derisive and demeaning terms, we can dehumanize others and give free reign to egocentricity.  Insult is the refuge of those who cannot tolerate the common humanity of others.

So when Jesus commands us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, he is challenging us to nurture our innate, neurological capacity for empathy (Matt. 22:37-40).  More stunningly, he commands us to love our enemies as well (Matt. 5:43-44).  There is a part of us that battles against this innate capacity for loving connection, particularly with those who are not like us, those who are not members of our political, social, ethnic, religious, national, or cultural tribe.

We live in a balkanized country, where demeaning and dismissing those who are not a member of our “tribe” has become almost a patriotic duty.  This is a denial of who God created us to be.  This is not an option for followers of Jesus; it just isn’t. 

God instilled within us an instinct for empathy.  Somehow—ask Augustine I guess—that got perverted into a preference for our “own people.”  Jesus challenges us to nurture a purer, Godlier, form of empathy: the capacity to love our neighbor and our enemy simply because they, like us, are made in the image of God.

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

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

History--A Sometimes Difficult Conversation

We were naming a room in our church building.  We already had a room named after the long-term
pastor of the church who led the congregation during what was seen by the long-tenured members as the heyday of the church.

Our choosing of a name had come to the point where we were divided into three groups.  One group wanted to name the room “Founders Hall.” We had a plaque at the back of the sanctuary memorializing the two wealthy men who gave the land and the money to build the church in 1866; forty thousand dollars was a lot of money then.  A second group wanted to name it the “Community Room.” And a third group, of which I was a part, did not understand why it was so important what we named it or even why it had to have a name at all; I was in this third group.  People were civil and respectful as they spoke, but there was great emotional energy in the room.  I sensed something deeper than a name was at stake here.

For most of the church's first century, the congregation had been all white.  As civil rights legislation began to pass and African Americans began to have access to jobs for which they were qualified but had been denied, they started moving into northwest Philadelphia.  As the composition of the community changed, so did the church.  The first person of color joined in 1964.  When I arrived in the early 90’s, the church was overwhelmingly African American.

As the discussion went on in that business meeting, it dawned on me what was at stake.  The church was struggling with its past.  When the church was founded and those generous men gave that land and money, the majority of the people in the room that day would not have been welcome in the pews.

As a young inexperienced pastor still learning my church and ministry, I did not that day share my insight.  I was unsure whether the people in the room could endure intact such a candid conversation that would feel like an indictment of our storied founders.  Looking back now with more history among them, I suspect we would have been alright.  It would have been a difficult but good conversation for us to have.  History is like that; it can be a difficult but cleansing conversation.

 To have judged those founders by our practices and sensibilities would have been unfair and would have bred a sense of self satisfaction in us that would have stymied our further spiritual growth.  We are all a product of our times.  Our mental and moral horizons are limited, for most of us, by the breadth of vision of our contemporaries.  It is humbling to think about how those who follow us in a century will evaluate our choices and norms.
Recently, Southern Seminary confessed the school’s role in propagating and seeking to preserve slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and white supremacy.  Communities are struggling with how they should memorialize and interpret the War Between the States, a war in defense of human slavery.  Some have catalogued how housing discrimination shaped the present day character of the city of Chicago (Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Sons—The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration) and other northern cities.  Others have catalogued the role of slavery and racism in building the industrial base of the entire country (Edward E. Baptist, The Half has Never Been Told—Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism).  These are difficult but healthy conversations.  Sometimes to enter well into the future we need to own our past. 

The Hebrews are cautioned before entering into the promise land:

Know, then, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to occupy because of your righteousness; for you are a stubborn people.  Remember and do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness; you have been rebellious against the Lord from the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place (Deut. 9:6-7).
We are stronger communities when we speak honestly and clearly and, yes with humility, about how we have arrived where we are, both the commendable and the regrettable legs of our journey.  To have difficult conversations about our shared past is an act of confidence in the strength of our present communities, conversations that can open to us a better future.

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

Monday, December 17, 2018

An Incredible Assertion

O come, o come Emmanuel
To free your captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice, rejoice, Israel
To you shall come Emmanuel

As I stood and sang these words at the threshold of Advent, I realized that my singing this was, in a word, incredible.  This was the sort of thing Jews might sing while captive in Babylon or chafing under the Roman occupation or hiding from the Nazis.  Why was I, a 21st century Christian, singing about freedom from exile for Israel?

How would first century Jewish Christians’ faith in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah have looked to their peers?

Amy Jill Levine, a practicing orthodox Jew and Professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt University, in her book The Misunderstood Jew—The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, suggests that the claim of the resurrection of Jesus would not have been a deal breaker among first century Jews. The Sadducees’ denial of the resurrection of human beings distinguished them from other Jews.  This implies that belief in the resurrection was not uncommon among Jews in the time of Jesus.  There are Rabbinic texts to support this.
The deal breaker would have been, according to Levine, the lack of the inauguration of the Messianic Age.  It was widely believed that the Messiah would bring a palpable change in the state of the world (pp. 56ff.)  There was little agreement about how that would happen and exactly what it would look like; but like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who commented that he could not successfully describe pornography but knew it when he saw it, first century Jews felt, whatever form the Messianic age took, they would know it when they saw.  Many of them did not see it in the life and aftermath of Jesus.

Christians asserted that Jesus was the Messiah even as the world appeared to continue to spin upon its axis mostly unchanged to the naked eye.  Most first century Jews would have met this Messianic claim with incredulity.  One gets the feeling that Levine, too, is incredulous at such a claim but is too polite to come out and say it.

This assertion becomes even more problematic when we look at what else we are claiming.  We are not arguing for a spiritual enlightenment inaugurated by Jesus that then led to a kind of transcendent spiritual awakening in our world.  We are not saying that Jesus did for spirituality what Giotto did for art and da Vinci did for science. 

We are asserting that at a particular place and time, among a particular people, God acted through a particular human being in an unprecedented and singular way.  It was a “once for all” occurrence, as the writer of Hebrews wrote (7:27 & 9:12).  We claim that in Jesus the Word was made flesh and walked this earth, and those who knew him saw “the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
As I stood singing “O come, o come Emmanuel,” I realized what an incredible assertion we are making about this baby. Yet we make this assertion.  We are convinced.  We believe, and we shall go on singing our Advent hymns.

Jim Kelsey
American Baptist Churches of New York State

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Last Things First

This coming Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent.  Those of us who are not strict liturgical purists can begin singing carols and putting up our Christmas decorations. It is time to let the season carry us away.
We will, however, arrive at worship on Sunday and get an unsettling passage of scripture.  We will be treated to Jesus talking about nations in anguish, people fainting from terror, and disturbances in the heavens.  The text ends with an ominous warning to always be on watch so as to escape what is coming (Luke 21:25-36).  Jeremiah does soften the blow a bit with: “In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness’’ (Jer. 33:16).

But really!  Where is the nativity scene with the donkey, mother and cooing child, and moonlit angels?  What happened to peace on earth and good will toward one another?

The wisdom of our forbearers in the faith is that in order to understand the first coming of Jesus, we must see it through the lens of his second coming.  Thus we begin Advent with passages like Luke 21.

We are prone to domesticate this baby in the manger and make him into the bearer of our desires.  He is going to make our lives and our world the way we want them to be.  He is going to give us what we want.  At his nativity, Jesus cannot speak for himself.  In the silence we are prone to fill his mouth with words we want to hear.

By Luke 21 this Jesus has found his voice.  The cooing baby has grown into the Son of Man, who cautions:  “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away" (Luke 21:33).  In other words, he will turn all that we have built for our own comfort and security and pleasure to compost.

This is good image to hold in our minds as we move into the celebration of excess and materialism that Christmas has become.   I don’t mean to be the Grinch; I love a warm pair of LL Bean slippers as much as the next person, and I can already sense the heartburn that will follow too much rich food and sugar.  I am not making the mistake of the unreformed Scrooge.  I will wring all the holiday I can out of the coming four weeks.

I will, however, try to let the voice of the Son of Man roll around in the back of my mind as the Christmas carols play.  It all will come to compost in the end he warns.  This is why we begin the story of Jesus by telling the end of the story first.  In this way, we don’t lose sight of where it is all going and who this baby will grow up to be.

Oh yeah, and Merry Christmas.
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister-America Baptist Churches of New York State