Friday, February 16, 2018

Sticks and Stones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Lamb That Was Slain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 22, 2017

Unsettling Bible Angels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 8, 2017

Listening is a Gift

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 7, 2017


Why Did This Happen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 15, 2017

Communication not Confrontation

We live in a time when people seem to have a lot to say and say it with great conviction.  This is good; we need to care about things.  We sometimes, however, confuse having a reaction to something with really caring about it, caring to the point where we are willing to make a sacrifice.  The resulting danger is we mistake confrontation for authentic communication; they are not the same thing. 

Confrontation begins with differences and disagreements; it does not begin with commonalities.  It quickly incites animosity and even violence.  Frederick Streets, a Baptist professor of theology at Yale, suggested that violent behavior is any action that intentionally or unintentionally demeans or destroys another human being or their property.  Violent behavior is best understood by its impact on others.

Thus, speech can be an act of violence if it demeans or destroys another.  The aim of “violent” speech is to silence, marginalize, or intimidate our adversary.  Simply because our cause is just does not mean we are free to engage in speech and acts that seek to demean or destroy others.  Such speech or action resolves nothing and leaves in its wake further alienation.  It is designed to suppress communication.

I am not suggesting that we deny differences and ignore outrages.  I am suggesting that we begin in a place that may lead to progress and even healing.

Redemptive Communication
Redemptive communication begins with seeking out what we have in common.  Martin Luther King believed that he had an ally in the heart of his adversary (Greenberg, Philadelphia Inquirer, January 15, 1988).  Thus, his strategy was not to silence or injure but to engage people--even those opposing him--in conversation.  This communication took the form of direct action, but still it was not designed to intimidate or silence or demean.  King respected the common humanity of his adversary.  As “identity politics” becomes a central paradigm of our thinking, we lose sight of the immediate issues and begin to question the intrinsic value of those whom we feel do not share our common interest.

We sometimes have to search hard to find some commonalities between us and those with whom we disagree.  A good beginning point is our common creator.  Within each of us, sometimes buried so deeply it is almost impossible to discern, is the image of God.  Jesus told us to love our enemy.  I think he was encouraging us to find some bridge between us and those with whom we disagree by seeing them as brothers and sisters in the common human family.

John Paul Lederbach writes about the difference between looking and seeing (The Little Book of Conflict Transformation, pp. 8-9).  To look is draw attention to or pay attention to something.  Lederbach writes: “To see, on the other hand, is to look beyond and deeper.  Seeing seeks insight and understanding.  In everyday language we say, ‘Do you see what I mean?’ Understanding is the process of creating meaning.  Meaning requires that we bring something into sharper focus.”  It is possible to understand positions and passions that we do not share.

Redemptive communication does not begin with a certainty of our own rectitude and possession of the truth.  Rather it begins with a humility that fosters trust, a humility born of an awareness of our own limitations.  Listening to others as if what they think matters builds trust that leads to better conversation.

This is hard to do when what we hear is threatening or offensive.  Nonetheless, we must steel ourselves for what we find objectionable, remembering that our conversation partner may be experiencing us in the same way.

Believers sometimes make common cause with others who are not operating out of the “love your enemy” ethic.  It is OK to join with people who are working toward similar goals.  We must not, however, uncritically adopt their methodologies.  They are free to act in ways that we, as Christians, are not.

When we look into the face of another, we strive to see the image of God in them. This is a labor of love, which means, sometimes, it is work to do so.  Even when we cannot see that resemblance, we believe by faith that it is there.

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

Friday, September 1, 2017

God Works in All Things

I believe that God works in all things, good things and bad things, to foster some good.  I do not causes all things that happen, that everything that happens is an indication of God’s preferences.  I do mean that God can use all things to accomplish good.
mean to suggest that God

That is one meaning of the wood redeem: to reclaim.  God reclaims God’s purpose in creation when something happens that seems to be derailing God’s intent for creation.

Each day we watch films of people in Texas and Louisiana who have had their lives turned upside down and lost most everything they have. We do not yet realize the scope of this loss.  It is just beginning to sink in.  I don’t believe it is God’s good intention that people’s houses be flooded, their pictures destroyed, and their neighbors drowned.

While dodging the question of theodicy (why does the creation that was handed over to us to nurture us sometimes seem to declare war on us?), I have noticed one encouraging thing.

Perhaps you have noticed that lately a lot of people have been yelling at one another in our country.  We seem to be divided these days in identity/interest groups and believe our group’s survival depends upon asserting our claims at the expense of others.

Yet in the aftermath of this hurricane, we have seen story after story of people helping one another without regard to race, religion, politics, gender, geography, or wealth.  Some people speaking out of the midst of the catastrophe have noted this.

I find this enormously encouraging.  I am not na├»ve about the ongoing divisions in our country; they existed before Hurricane Harvey and will persist after the waters recede.  But I am nonetheless encouraged.  In the face of devastating loss, many have responded out of their sense of the common humanity of others.

During my pastorate in Philadelphia, many of the theological issues dividing Christians at that time were not frequent topics among our urban congregations.  We had more immediate concerns: affordable decent housing, police/citizen relations, drug dealers on the corner, functioning public schools, poverty, removal of trash, and, of course, the repairing of potholes.  Out of our common challenges, God brought us together into a resourceful community of people who worked together for the common good.

Can God bring this type of thing out of this tragic hurricane? Could God use this catastrophe to strengthen our national character and guide us toward reconciliation leavened with justice and compassion?

Jesus once said:  For mortals this is impossible, but with God all things are possible (Matt 19:16).  May we seize upon the well of goodwill that tragedy has spawned.

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