Thursday, July 20, 2017

Actions of Note

By the time you read this, I will be gone, or nearly gone, on my way to Nicaragua for our fifth Region-sponsored mission trip to partner with the Parajons in their medical ministry to the most
isolated communities in Nicaragua.  Our Nicaraguan Hosts, Felicia and Jilmer are awaiting our arrival.

I have my packing list and have collected most of what I will need--most important are sturdy waterproof boots and good socks.  I have learned if you take good care of your feet, there is little you cannot accomplish.
I will be taking a few extra things with me this time.  I will be carrying a check for $250 that someone gave me to give to ministry there.  This faithful New York Baptist could not go this year.  The past year was a difficult one financially for this generous soul, but they wanted to do as much as they could.  They unexpectedly received this money, and their first thought was to give it to the Parajons’ ministry.

I will also be taking a box with a pediatric stethoscope, gauze bandages, band aids, and assorted hand tools.  We published among our churches a list of things the ministry was requesting.  The First Baptist Church of South New Berlin collected these items and brought them to the office to go with us to Nicaragua.

Neither of these acts of generosity will make the news; practically no one will notice them.  In a nation where everything needs to be grander and louder and more shocking than ever before to get attention, this kind of thing goes unnoticed.  Even in the church, acts like these get little mention.  I receive mail every day from ministries and conferences and religious promotions that is hard to tell from the launch of the latest IPhone.  Pastors push and shove to get themselves behind some pubic official for a good photo op.  Many individual Christian lobbying groups raise tens of millions of dollars apiece each year promoting some agenda.  One could get the feeling that a modest check or a box of supplies don’t really matter much. One would be wrong.
Jesus was sitting in the Temple one day watching well-off  people give their offerings, and a widow came by and deposited the smallest of coins in the offering urn (Luke 21:1-4).  Jesus observes:  Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them;  for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on. The Kingdom of God has always moved forward principally by small acts of faithfulness by ordinary people. As an army travels on its stomach, so the Kingdom is built by people who never make the news or rent stadiums to promote their organizations or get buildings named after them or their faces splashed on brochures. These Kingdom-building people pass through their lives mostly without being noticed, much like the widow in the Temple.  One person notices them: God. 

All things considered, I think that is sufficient.
Jim Kelsey-Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Art of Racing in the Rain

The Art of Racing in the Rain-A Novel by Garth Stein has all the makings of a great story.  It involves a devoted but underestimated father, sports car racing, Ferraris, and an old dog named Enzo.  In fact, Enzo narrates the story.  Enzo, as he contemplates his death and reflects on what he has learned through his life, observes:
I know this much about racing in the rain.  I know it is about balance.  It is about anticipation and patience.  I know all of the driving skills that are necessary for one to be successful in the rain.  But racing in the rain is also about the mind.  It is about owning one’s body. About believing that one’s car is merely an extension of one’s body.  About believing that the track is an extension of the car, and the rain is an extension of the track, and the track is an extension of the rain.
Enzo knows that all the necessary driving skills will not get you around a corner fast in the rain.  To go fast in the rain, one must be centered, read all the inputs as a single symphony of connectedness.  You feel your way in the rain; this is not a matter of practiced technique.  This is a matter of experience—of mistakes made, survived, and learned from.  We can call this intuitive competence.  It is earned not just learned.

Racing in the rain is a bit like growing in faith.  We feel our way through it, synthesizing what we know and what we have experienced to develop this intuitive competence.  In the words of Frederick Buechner, we listen to our lives.

Recently I had to initiate a difficult conversation where there were competing interests and claims and values, each one worthy of respect.  How could one honor all these pieces in a creative tension that did not discount or favor one person over another?  I asked myself:  What would Jesus do? I had no idea.  Sometimes the answer to that question is clear.  Other times, it is not.  It is in these other times that we hone our intuitive competence.  We center ourselves by trusting in God’s presence, and we pay attention to the responses and nuances of those around us in that moment.  Then, we see where the road takes us.  In this case, the people came out the other side of the corner better connected to one another and with a clearer path forward.

Discipleship is about having a center to our lives and then seeing the single symphony of connectedness between us and God and others and creation.  We feel our way through it sometimes.  Therefore, we embrace the curves because each one is different and has something new to teach us.  Between us and the finish line there will always be new challenges.  The question is not have we arrived but are we learning anything along the road.  In a way, we are all racing in the rain.

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

Monday, June 12, 2017

Theology in the Middle

Systematic theology has never been my preferred area of reading.  It seems a contradiction in terms to me. 

Image result for michelangelo creation adamSystematic theology divides Christian thought into a catalogue of topics and then takes various things the Bible about a particular topic and finally draws some summarizing thoughts about that topic.  It attempts to organize these various topics into a coherent, logical, orderly system that is not self-contradictory.  I believe there are some real limitations to how successful this enterprise can be.
If theology is primarily about God and derivatively about God’s initiatives with us, how systematic could it be?  God is a living, creating, engaging, challenging, loving, and guiding presence in creation.  We, too, are living, responsive, and choosing creatures.  The ongoing story of God’s loving work in creation is always interpenetrating the story of our ongoing lives. How could this iterative dynamic between two living beings be systematized?
Douglas John Hall wrote: “Theology lies between the stories—God’s story of the world, and humanity’s ever-changing account of itself and all things.  Theology is what happens when the two stories meet [Thinking the Faith—Christian Theology in a North American Context, p. 91].”  You can record this sort of thing. You can interrogate it for meaning and a way forward.  You can draw lessons from it—ones that comfort and ones that correct, but you cannot systematize it with much accuracy.
I think this is why I prefer biblical studies to systematic theology.  The Bible is full of great stories, both happy and tragic.  It is an account of how, in particular places and times, God’ story became intertwined with our stories.
You might ask, “What about the Jewish law recorded in the Bible? That is pretty systematic.”  The law guides us to a place where our story can join the rhythm of God’s story, but it was never intended to replace the stories themselves.  When we mistake the rules and regulations for the redemptive intermingling of our stories, our lives grow flat.
In Jesus, God’s story and our stories have come in closest proximity to one another.  Theology is about making sense of that experience.  Perhaps the most authentic theology we speak is when we tell how God’s story and our story have embraced a common plot in Jesus Christ.
Jim Kelsey--American Baptist Churches of New York State

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