Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Fumbling with Diversity

Ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony
Side by side on my piano keyboard, oh Lord, why don't we?

The song laments that, when played on the instrument of our lives, diversity is not easy.  We must work at it, and our first attempts often are fumbling.

I was a Baptist campus minster at a small college in Southeastern Arkansas.  We had over 120 students involved in our ministry, but only 10 of them were people of color.  As I visited in the dorms, I found that nearly half of the residential students were African American; residential students were our primary constituency.  I began to ask this under-represented group what we could do to interest them in our ministry.  They replied with almost a single voice: a gospel choir.

Few who joined the gospel choir were Baptist; most were Church of God in Christ-COGIC.  They were Pentecostal-holiness believers who took their faith and music very seriously.  The Gospel choir met with great success.

I had the idea that both our traditional student ministry choir and our gospel choir could sing at our annual state-wide student convention.  We interspersed gospel choir members with the members of our traditional choir up on the stage, about 60 students in all.  It was a vision of ebony and ivory side by side.

They sang some traditional selections, and, then the pianist accelerated the tempo with the first gospel selection.  In that moment, I realized the flaw in this tableau of racial harmony.  The COGIC students began to clap and step from side to side; they always clapped and stepped side to side when they sang.  The white students did not know what to do as they were caught up in this movement.  Some of them smiled sheepishly as they made some room for the gospel choir. There were some ripples of laughter throughout the auditorium.  After it was over, I pointed out the obvious: being brothers and sisters in Christ involves making some room for one another.  It was a marvelously teachable moment.

Diversity can feel awkward at first; it takes some new learnings to work smoothly.  Thus, our first attempts can be fumbling.  “Ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony” is an aspirational vision.  We don’t begin there.

The Apostle Paul wrote: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28).  This is an aspirational text.  In Christ this is true; in our daily living, it is a journey.  One need only read the book of Galatians to see that the church in Galatia was not nearly there yet.  In the next chapter Paul writes: how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles (4:9)?  Clearly the people were having trouble carrying through on their new identity in Christ.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans we see that Jews and Gentiles were not seeing one another as equals in God’s family.  In 1 Corinthians we read there were tensions between the rich and the poor during the communion meal and disruptions in worship along gender lines in the churches.  In Philemon, we see that accommodations had to be made for the continuing distinction of slave and free.  Paul’s letters are evidence that his churches had a way to go to fulfill the challenge of Galatians 3:28.

What is your experience of diversity?  If you have no such experience, maybe it is time you joined with some neighbors who do not look like or sing like you.  Our attempts at diversity and inclusion do not always go well the first time around, but we get better at it the more we practice.  The love of God compels us to start where we are, to take the risk of discomfort for the high goal of living into Paul’s aspirational vision of unity and equality.

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

Friday, April 28, 2017

The Bible is Not for the Lazy

Image result for chicago transit authority albumI was walking through the halls of a senior living facility in Belgium on my way to visit the elderly father of a church member.  Over the speaker system came the chant “The whole world is watching, the whole world is watch….”  Then the musical group Chicago transitioned into the song “Someday” from their Chicago Transit Authority album.  One of the verses goes:

Would you look around you now
And tell me what you see
Faces full of hate and fear
Faces full of me
Do you feel the rumblings
As your head comes crumbling down
Do you know what I mean

Run, you better, run you know
The End is getting near
Feel the wind of something hard
Come whistling past your ear

As I listened, I wondered how many of the elderly Dutch-speaking residents knew the context of this song.  Some of them would have understood the words they heard and been able to make sense of the sentences, but I doubted they could glean the meaning of it all.
The chant was a recording of the protests during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in late August of 1968.

On April 4th of that year, Dr. Martin Luther King had been assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine motel in Memphis TN.  His death sparked riots in more than 100 US cities, Chicago being one of them.

Robert Kennedy, a candidate in the Democratic primary that year, had been assassinated on June 5th.
As the Democratic Convention takes place, the country is still tense over these two assassinations and is bitterly divided over the war in Vietnam.  The current Democratic president Lyndon Johnson, who had vigorously pursued the war, has announced that he will not run for reelection.  Within the convention hall that week, the Democratic Party is deeply divided over its stance on the war.

The song is about this turbulent moment in American life.
I doubt that  even the elderly residents who understood English would have made this connection, thus the meaning of the introductory chant and the lyrics that follow would have been lost on them.  Understanding the literal meaning of the words would not have opened a door into the deeper message of the song for them.
Reading the Bible is a bit like this.  We may understand the literal meaning of the words and get the gist of each sentence; but without some knowledge of the author, the intended original audience, and the social, political, economic, and literary context, much of the meaning is lost on us.  To read the Bible in a literally wooden way without contemplating these broader questions diminishes the rich and transformative message of the scriptures. 
I know Leviticus 19:19 forbids the wearing of clothing woven of two kinds of material, yet I find poly-cotton blend shirts save me time ironing.  An uninquisitive literal reading of Leviticus would condemn me for this convenience.  Is there something else going on in this text that would permit me to save some time at the ironing board?
What is the attraction of a simplistic literal reading of scripture?  It is easy, and we are lazy.

 It takes a lot of effort to read large passages of scripture, indeed whole books, and then set a particular passage in its broader literary context.  Proof texting is attractive to those who want the Word of God to work like a Twitter feed.
The next step beyond the literary context of a passage is the canonical context.  The canonical context is the place of a book within the broader landscape of the Bible.  We take what Jesus said about the law in Matthew’s Gospel, what Paul wrote about the law in Romans, and what James wrote about the law in his letter and then filter all that through what Moses said in Deuteronomy.  Within this broader field of reference, we discover a more maturely nuanced understanding.
A reader does not need to go to seminary to have more than enough work for a lifetime of Bible reading.  The Bible itself will keep us by simply immersing ourselves in all its diversity and grandeur.
If one is going to teach a class or preach sermons, some good research books in the biblical material can certainly enhance our work. (Can we get extra credit for this?  Moses seems to imply this might be possible.  Paul seems to assert “no way,” and Jesus tells some great stories that teach us not to be anxious about extra credit in any case.)

Reading the Bible is serious work.  An uninquisitive uninformed wooden literalism sidesteps that hard work.  The Bible is not for the lazy.
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Truth About Everything


Richard Neuhaus begins his book Death on a Friday Afternoon with the words:

Good Friday is not just one day of the year.  It is relived in every day of the world, and of our lives in the world.  In the Christian view of things, all reality turns on the “paschal mystery.”  [Paschal refers to the Passover meal that was instituted in Egypt.  For Christians, this paschal mystery is also embodied in the sacrificial death of Jesus.]  As Passover marks the liberation from bondage in Egypt, so the paschal mystery marks humanity’s passage from death to life.  Good Friday cannot be confined to Holy Week.  It is not simply the dismal but necessary prelude to the joy of Easter, although I’m afraid many Christians think of it that way.  Every day of the year is a good day to think more deeply about Good Friday, for Good Friday is the drama of the love by which our every day is sustained…If what Christians say about Good Friday is true, then it is, quite simply, the truth about everything.

I particularly like the phrase:  for Good Friday is the drama of the love by which our every day is sustained.  The self-giving love of God is what sustains our every moment.  The events we remember on Good Friday are the clearest and highest demonstration of God’s love.  This is why Paul writes about actually boasting in the cross (Gal. 6:14).

The death of Jesus was unique; it was singular.  The writer of Hebrews says Jesus’ death and what it accomplished was “once for all” (chapter 9).  On the other hand, it is the quintessential expression of what happens every day.  God reaches out to creation in self-giving love, and creation snubs God.  Ever since God walked through the Garden calling out to Adam & Eve “where are you,” we have been fleeing.  The story hasn’t changed much over time.

The cross says some uncomfortable things about us.  But it says some wonderful things about God.  Good Friday is not a necessary hurdle on the way to Easter.  It is, quite simply, the truth about everything.

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

Thursday, March 30, 2017

What to Do with the Rest of Your Life

The Story Turns Deadly
During Sundays on Lent many of us are making our way through John’s narrative on our path to Palm Sunday and the week that follows; the sense of danger has increased each week.  The polite conversation with Nicodemus in chapter 3 ends without incident or any clear resolution. 

The conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well in chapter 4 is bit unorthodox and generates some controversy.  The woman in conclusion asks: Can this be the Christ? There is some drama and a somewhat clearer resolution.

In chapter 9, the healed man who was blind declares “I was blind but now I see.”  The religious leaders grow angry and declare Jesus a sinner, and the healed man is thrown out of the synagogue for good.  The man finishes by declaring “Lord, I believe.”  Both the drama and the sense of danger increase with this account.  The sky is growing darker.

In chapter 11, the narrative becomes a story of life and death.  Lazarus is raised from the dead to new life, and consequently the leaders decide to kill Jesus.  Life for Lazarus will mean death for Jesus; this is a costly gift.  The thunder of the coming conflict rumbles overhead.

What Does One Do with New Life?
How do you suppose Lazarus lived out the rest of his life after being given this second chance?  What would it mean to see every day as a gift, living with the realization that each hour comes from a limited inventory of days?  Perhaps he thought of his days as a precious commodity to be well invested in lasting things.

All of us who believe are, in a way, Lazarus.  We believe that we have been given new life in Christ.  We declare we are “buried with him in baptism, raised to walk in newness of life.” What are we doing with this new life that came to us at such a cost?

A woman looking for more than a relationship put an ad in the personals section of a newspaper. She wrote:   I'm a 58-year-old woman with, doctors tell me, one year to live. I would like to spend that year doing something meaningful, interesting, and fun. I have limited stamina and resources. Have you any ideas how I can spend this year making a difference?”  What would you say to this woman?  What is worthy of her last year of life?

Life is precious because it is fleeting; that is what makes it beautiful.  Kenko, in the early 14th century, in his Essays on Idleness wrote: "If man were never to fade away like the dew... never to vanish like the smoke…but lingered on forever in the world, how things would lose their power to move us. The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.”  Our mortality makes our lives precious and therefore beautiful.

 Lazarus will die again someday, but in the meantime I suspect he found life amazingly precious. 

Lent guides us to reflect upon our lives; and this, if done properly,  can lead us to a sense of amazement.  Dullness is our enemy; astonishment at what God has done with us is our deliverance.

 What are you doing with the amazing gift of your life?  I bet Lazarus had a plan.

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

Friday, March 17, 2017

Finding What You Are Not Looking For

I do not enjoy telemarketers when they call.  I try to be polite and gracious, but it is an effort.  I do not want someone to make me aware of needs I did not know I had.  I pretty much know what I want and where to get it if need be.

The woman who came to the well in John 4 knew what she wanted and where to get.  She wanted water and knew she could find it at Jacob’s well.  She meets Jesus there, and he will talk with her about something she did not know she needed, something she was not looking for.

Jesus is on his way from Judea to Galilee and takes the shortcut through Samaria.  The Jews and the Samaritans did not get along well, and the woman is surprised to find a Jewish man at the well speaking to her.  The woman responds suspiciously, a bit like me when I answer the phone and the caller announces that he is doing a survey about home alarm systems.

Jesus replies to her suspicion by sharing that he can give to her “living water.”  At this point the story becomes like an Abbot and Costello routine: “Who’s on first?”  Jesus and the woman talk right past one another.  The woman asks how Jesus can give her water when he has no bucket.  Jesus explains what he means by living water, and the woman says she sure would like some of this living water.  Then she would not have to come to the well each day and haul water.  She, at this point, is not really buying what Jesus is selling. She sounds skeptical, a bit like me when the telemarketer says her windows will cut my heat bill by 25%.

Jesus realized this conversation is going in circles and asks the woman to call her husband.  The woman replies that she has no husband.  Jesus answers that she is right on that count.  She has been through six of them, and she is not married to the current guy.

Suddenly the conversation gets personal and perhaps a bit uncomfortable for the woman.  She attempts to change the subject by pulling Jesus into an ongoing theological debate over the proper address for the Temple.  For the woman to realize her need of something she did not know she was lacking, she must first take a clear-eyed look at her life.  The look within is the hardest view.

Six men and she still has not found what she is looking for.  It is like the country song looking for love in all the wrong places.  Jesus’ implied question is:  How long is it going to take you to realize you are looking in all the wrong places for what will finally satisfy you?  Lent is about realizing that we have been looking in the wrong places for what can give us life.

We associate Lent with giving up things, and this journey can entail leaving some things by the side of the road.  Lent, however, is less about giving things up than it is about enlarging our lives. Jesus seems to be suggesting that the woman give up these serial relationships, but more than that he is challenging to her to ask for more from life.  He is awakening in her a thirst she did not formerly have.  She has been settling for too little; God has more for her.

C. S. Lewis wrote that we do not ask too much from life, rather we ask too little.  We are "like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because they cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at sea.  We are for too easily pleased."  Jesus wants this woman to demand more from her life.  Lent is about demanding more from our lives in Christ.

The woman got the message.  She leaves her water jug, rushes back to her village, and says she thinks she has found the Christ.  She never saw that coming as she made her way to the well that day. Lent is about enlarging our lives.

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

Friday, March 10, 2017

Getting Things in Order

Like most expatriates living in Europe, nearly all our furniture came from the Swedish furniture store Ikea.  We all felt at home in one another’s houses because we had similar furniture. 

You hauled the stuff home in a flat box and then assembled it.  I was smarter the second time, after having some problems the first time in Belgium.  I ended up prying some things apart and breaking a few edges.  In Italy, I followed the instructions meticulously, rereading each section, and at times getting clarifying counsel from my wife.  The order of assembly was very important.

So it is with life; the order of things is important.  Lent is about getting things back in the right order.

In the fifth century, the church had a practice where poor farmers with little cash would bring in homemade bread and wine.  It would then be served back to them in communion, symbolically receiving what they had brought.  It was a reminder that everything came from God; it was all gift.  In a time when starvation was common and survival a daily concern, this practice reminded them of the proper order of things.

In Matthew 3, Jesus is declared the beloved Son of God in whom God is well pleased. Then in Matthew 4, Jesus is tested to see if in his hunger he remembers the proper order of things.  The tempter in the wilderness says “If/since you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”  What harm is there is bread?  How can this be a temptation?  Jesus is hungry; turning stones to bread would be a great idea.

Henri Nouwen sees this as the temptation to be relevant.  We are encouraged to be relevant, to make a difference, to improve things.  Those are worthy goals, but are they primordial values?  Nouwen writes “the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self (In the Name of Jesus—Reflections on Christian Leadership, p. 17).”

Later in the story Jesus will feed the multitudes with bread, heal the sick, and make whole the lame.  He will be relevant, but primarily he will offer himself in all his vulnerability and move with solidarity among those in need and at risk, the excluded and the forgotten.  That is primary in his life.

Irrelevance is not a worthy goal, but vulnerability and solidarity are of the first order in following Jesus.  Lent is about getting the order right.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister--American Baptist Churches of New York State
Lent 2017

Thursday, February 16, 2017

A Story That Gives Life

Jerry was a good and kind man, dedicated to his church, his family, and his friends.  I liked him immediately.  He came in early in my pastorate to share with me the story of his life.

He began by sharing about a broken relationship in his early 20s; he was at the time of our conversation well into his 60s.  He had loved a woman and assumed they would marry.  When he proposed, she unexpectedly turned him down.  From that point on, in his view, his life had gone from misfortune to misfortune. He never found anyone else to marry.  He soon lost a good accounting job at a large company.  Throughout his ensuing career he bounced from job to job, never building up a pension.  He was convinced that the broken relationship and the lost job had set his life on a path of missed opportunities.  The story he told could have been entitled A Series of Unfortunate Events.
He saw the dark lining in every silver cloud.  If you asked him about his trip to the Metropolitan opera, he would complain about the cost of parking and the traffic.  If you commented on the beauty of a spring day, he would point out that allergies would soon flare up.  If you commented on the success of the Philadelphia Phillies, he would recount all the times they went from glory to “the basement” in a few short weeks.  His stock response to most things was:  “That’s a nasty business, that is.”  His experience of his daily life was colored by every loss and disappointment he had ever experienced. 

I suggested to him one day that he adopt a better storyline for his life; he had things in his life to celebrate.  Perhaps life had not turned out as he had envisioned when he was 22, but he had not endured a bad life; he had things for which he could be grateful.  There were some successes and joys along the way.  He said he would think about it.

I spend a good bit of my time listening to people talk about their churches.  Often those stories cohere around what God has done in them and through them, both in good times and challenging times.  The theme is blessing in spite of the circumstances. 
Other times I hear narratives of loss.  I hear about when the sanctuary was full, the pastor preached great sermons every Sunday and visited parishioners day and night, and the youth group had to be split into two groups because it was so large.  (I would point out that it is a universal human trait to remember vividly positive experiences and to recall  more dimly negative experiences.  I have been told this is why women are willing to give birth to a second child.)  The theme here is failure and a future without hope.

We would do well to frame all our stories with the assurance of God’s blessing.  Paul writes that God works in all things for the good of those who love God.  This does not mean that it was God’s will that the local food processing plant closed down and your town’s population shrunk by 30% over 3 years and decimated the giving base of the local churches.  It does mean that God can work through this event to foster faith and clarity of purpose and resilience in your church and parishioners.  Our storyline can shift from loss to the grace of God in all the seasons of life.  Think about it.

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