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

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Trust is Primary

Three weeks into my time at the church, she sat in my office and said: “Dr. Kelsey, you are my pastor; and I will never oppose you in public.  I will follow where you lead this church, but I will never trust you.”  She had found that pastors are not trustworthy.

Several years later she called me on the phone and said “I need you. Can you come over here?”  There had been a terrible tragedy in her family, one she never shared in honesty with anyone but me and her closest friend.  She trusted me with this.  It was a great honor to be trusted in that way by a woman who had been betrayed before.  We worked well together over the years.  She could be a bit assertive at times, but we were often allies as the church plotted its future.

The church leader said to me as he handed me my last paycheck on my last Sunday at the church:  “I’ve not gotten along with a minister in this place for 45 years, and I think they were glad to be finished with me when they left.”  He went on to say that he and I had disagreed about many things church-wise but that he and I had gotten along well.  He observed that we had been honest with each other, no surprises or games.  I replied that I often had not agreed with him but that I had trusted him. In an inexplicable way I felt him a friend; I did not put it to him quite that way.  We had been able to weather regular disagreement because we trusted each other, admittedly in a sometimes wary way on my part.  As Ronald Reagan once said:  Trust but verify.

I asked a pastor a fairly straightforward question in a leadership meeting; I had been invited in to help them manage a conflict.  Before the pastor could answer, a lay leader blurted out “now don’t you lie pastor.”  In that moment I knew nothing could be accomplished among these folks until we dealt with mistrust.
Trust is the most useful asset shared among a congregation and its leaders, both lay and clergy leaders.  If trusts exists, a ministry partnership can survive the stress of tough finances, deteriorating buildings, and declining membership.  Conflicts over vision, theology, and worship style can be weathered if trust undergirds the relationship. 

Anxiety is the enemy of trust.  When we feel anxious, we look for someone to blame, someone to whom we can transfer our anxiety.  When we are anxious we live with a sense of threat, thus we do not give others the benefit of the doubt.  We attribute to them the worst of motives.  Trust comes harder in challenging times.

Tod Bolsinger, in his book Canoeing the Mountains-Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, writes that if a leader is not competent and reliable in working through familiar charted territory, people will not follow that leader into unfamiliar uncharted territory (pp. 50-55).  He goes on to say that if trust is lost, the shared journey between the leader and congregation is over.  “The irreducible minimum in leadership is trust [p. 66].” Trust is an essential asset when we try to lead people to new places and to do fresh things.
How does Bolsinger think a church leader, lay or ordained, builds trust?  Consistent and congruent behavior is necessary.  Consistent behavior means we are the same person with the same values in every relationship and circumstance.  This demonstrates a core to our character that makes us a reliable partner.

Good leaders also demonstrate congruent behavior.  The way they treat people and live their lives is congruent with what they say.  They put their money where their mouth is.  They speak about generosity and forgiveness and then live generously among others, forgiving them with regularity.  They do not only analyze the causes of homelessness, they ladle out soup in a food kitchen.

Good leaders spend time searching for solutions, assessing options, and building competencies in their organizations.  There is, however, something prior to all of that. The building of trust among leaders and between leaders and those whom they lead is primary.

Jesus spent three years preparing his followers to carry on after his departure.  He was always the same person in every situation, living out of a consistent set of values.  His behavior was congruent with what he said; he walked the walk.  We would do well to take his example to heart, and set establishing trust as our first task as leaders.  With trust, we can weather any storm and face any challenge.  Without it, we will stumble and fall.

Jim Kelsey
American Baptist Churches of New York State

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Cain is Still Killing Abel

On Sunday morning I was in church, like many of you. A laywoman was leading the morning prayer and said in reference to the killing at the synagogue the previous day: “Please, God, remind us that Jews are just like us….”  It struck me how simple but profound that observation was.  They are just like us; in this context “us” referred to Christians worshipping together. 

The killer of the synagogue worshippers hated Jews and immigrants and refugees.  The man who sent pipe bombs last week sought to terrorize and perhaps kill people whose political loyalties differed from his loyalties.   Last Wednesday a man tried unsuccessfully to enter an African American church outside Louisville, Kentucky; he then went down the street to the Kroger store and killed two African American men.  As he walked by a European American witness, he is reported to have said:  “Whites don’t kill whites.”  None of these perpetrators thought their victims were just like them.
How do we end up with communities divided by fear and resentment, animosity and grievance over a sense of lost entitlement?  How do these beliefs morph into prejudice and indifference to the wellbeing of others in many of us and into hatred and violence in some of us?

I think the praying woman struck at the heart of it.  We convince ourselves that they are not “just like us.”  We come to believe the "other" is ill willed and is plotting to take from us what we deservedly possess and they do not deservedly possess.  Our misfortunes, failures, and disappointments are their fault.  Our anxious insecurities find a resting place in others who appear unlike us. 

The powers and principalities of this age know our vulnerabilities and exploit them for destructive ends.  Be assured there are forces around us opposed to God, and they know what makes us tick and plan their schemes accordingly (Eph. 6:10-12).

Evil does not show up with horns, searing eyes, and a red robe.  Evil shows up as our supposed ally and plays into our fears, disappointments, resentments, and failures.  It magnifies in our mind every slight ever done to us and tells us we are victims; it offers to us a path to self-vindication.  Evil says to us as it said to Cain long ago:  “You’re getting a raw deal.  Even the score.”
People of faith should be the first to see the lie in all this.  We have a common creator in whose image we are made.  In this way they are all like us, even the perpetrators of these atrocities.  All of us are bound together through an organic unity grounded in the all-inclusive love of God.  All of us are our brother’s and sister’s keepers.  The powers and principalities of our age do all they can to blur and eradicate this kinship.

It will not always be this way:

They will not hurt or destroy
    on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:9)
Until that day the lies will continue to be told, and Cain will go killing Abel.

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


Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Need to be "Off" Sometimes

I still remember the growing sense of freedom as I headed south down I-71 with our minivan loaded for vacation and my wife and young sons securely buckled in, leaving my church and the attendant responsibilities behind for a while.  I enjoyed pastoring my people and felt called to that congregation, but it felt liberating to leave it in the rear view mirror for a week or so.

A pastor is never really “off.”  She or he is always one phone call away from being “on.”  In those days, telephones were connected together by wires.  One could get away briefly on a walk in the woods, a meal in a restaurant, or shopping for groceries—unless you met a church member in the produce aisle who wanted to talk about the noisy teens in the balcony.  To reach me on vacation, a member had to overcome their natural resistance to disturb my holiday and invest in the added expense of a long-distance call.  (You had to pay extra back then for those of you who do not remember the old days.)

In our day of cellphones there is no such escape.  You are always one ring away from a call, a text, or an email.  The expectation is that the pastor is always available.  People call it the electronic leash.  Being in a movie theatre is about the only legitimate excuse for not responding. 
Pastors need time “off” the communication grid.  This what we call a boundary issue.  Healthy pastors set boundaries in their lives that enable them to maintain their emotional, physical, and spiritual health so that when they are “on” they bring the best they have to the situation.  After teaching the crowds, Jesus went off to be alone (Matt. 14:22-23). Even Jesus needed time “off” so he could bring the best he had to give when he was “on.”

How can pastors and congregations ensure that the pastor is ready to do their best work when needed?

The expectation that the pastor will respond to emails, texts, and phone calls 7 days a week, 16 hours a day is not healthy for a pastor and does not encourage church members to honor good boundaries.  I suggest that pastors and church leaders talk about this, maybe even develop a policy.  The policy could stipulate that during weekdays from 8:30 to 5:00 the pastor will monitor and respond to emails and texts and phone calls.  At other times, if you have an urgent need you will need to call the pastor; the pastor will not be monitoring emails and texts all the time

Pastors also need at least one full day a week away from church responsibilities, a day to observe the biblically-mandated Sabbath.  The pastor and church leaders can choose a day of the week as a pastoral Sabbath.  When there is an emergency on that Sabbath day to which the pastor must respond, the pastor is instructed to take another day in its place.  In this way, when the pastor is “on” they are bringing the best they have to give to their ministry.

Some pastors may find themselves resisting this boundary.  That is something to think about.  In our day of constant distractions by TV, radio, videos, social media, cellphones, and work, we are rarely alone with our thoughts.  We may find the downtime uncomfortable; absent distraction we may need to grapple with things we would rather avoid.  Jesus went off into the desert alone and struggled with difficult issues that needed to be settled (Matt 4:1-11).  Having successfully decided some basic things in the solitude, he was free to give himself fully to God’s calling in his life.

On the other hand, sometimes pastors resist taking a Sabbath because we believe the ministry cannot survive one day without our attention.  I suspect God can manage the Kingdom one day a week without our help.  It is, after all, God's church.
I encourage pastors and church leaders to think through how the digital age has affected ministry and how we can preserve the health and effectiveness of our pastors in this new day so that they might bring the best they have to ministry.

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

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Playing the Hand We're Dealt with Faith and Hope

God wanted Moses to go down to Egypt and speak to the Israelites about leaving.  Then Moses and the elders were to go to Pharaoh and ask for permission to take a three day trip into the wilderness to offer sacrifices.  Moses balked, and God finally settled for a backup plan.  Moses’ brother Aaron would do the talking (Exodus 3 to 4).  God played the hand he was dealt by his uncooperative servant Moses.  

Later in the story of the nation, the people demanded a king from God.  God did not want them to have a king and warned them about how a king would exploit them.  The people persisted, and God finally gave them a king (1 Samuel 8).   God again played the hand he was dealt by his untrusting people.

Sometimes God’s backup plan can be a bit radical.  John the Baptist warns:  “Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.  Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire [Luke 3:8-9].”  At some points God just moves on.

Let us be clear before we go any further.  God does not have to play the hand God is dealt.  God is able to accomplish whatever God wishes; that is part of being God.  God chooses to adapt God’s plans to human receptivity.

We, on the other hand, must often play the hand we are dealt; we are not God.  We might want to give back the hand and draw another one; life rarely gives us that opportunity.  Our employer closes, or we get ill.  Our parents are not wealthy, and we attend a community college.  Our spouse dies young, or a recession hits just as we are planning to retire.  We would like life to deal us another hand; that rarely happens.  As we say in upstate New York:  it is what it is.

The Apostle Paul learned to play the hand he was dealt the best way he knew.  He writes “Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me [Phil 4:11-13].”  Paul learned how to be content with what life brought to him; he relied upon God to bring him through whatever life dealt him.   

Churches must often play the hand they are dealt. They are carried upon currents over which they have no control.  A factory closes and jobs are lost; people move away.  Young people go off to college and do not return.  Businesses begin staying open on Sunday, and church members must work. The culture shifts; and people lose interest in belonging to things, particularly communities that ask for a commitment.  The standard of living rises and people get boats and cabins and can afford pricey soccer leagues; they spend their Sundays at leisure activities. 

We might like to trade in this world for a different one. This is not an option.  We do not get to choose our time and place in God’s story.  We must play the hand we are dealt the most faithful way we can.  We must never forget, however, that it this still God’s creation; and God is driving the narrative towards God’s good conclusion.  We simply find our place in our chapter of that story.  God will have the last word, and with God the last word is always the best word.

In the meantime, we bring the best we have to offer to what we know of God, believing that God will bless in even unseen ways; that is faithfulness. We leave the final word to God; that is hope.
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State