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

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