Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Familiar but not Reconciled


In the spring of 1805, Charles Ball was working hard for his owner and dreamed of purchasing his freedom and that of his wife and children, who belonged to another man.  In Maryland’s decaying tobacco economy, many slave owners were letting African Americans purchase their freedom.  Ball was strong, intelligent and of even temper.  He had demonstrated the ability to find faster better ways of doing things.  He was excelling in the position in which he found himself. 
One morning as he was finishing up his breakfast, he saw through the window his owner talking emphatically with another white man.  When Ball emerged and began to unhitch his owner’s oxen, he felt someone behind him.  He turned to find himself surrounded by a dozen white men. One of them announced that Ball now belonged to him; Ball’s master had sold him.  The man said:  “You are my property now.  You must go with me to Georgia.”  Bound, they began to lead him away.  Ball asked if he might see his wife and children first.  The man replied that Ball could get another wife in Georgia.  Thus began Ball’s harrowing march to servitude in Georgia.
Edward E. Baptist writes of Ball on the journey to Georgia:

Ball’s emotions continued to oscillate.  Yet slowly he brought his interior more in line with the exterior face that men in coffles tried to wear.  “Time did not reconcile me to my chains,” Ball recalled, but “it made me familiar with them.” Familiar indeed—at night, as everyone slept, Ball crawled among his fellow prisoners, handling each link, looking for the weak one (The Half has Never Been Told—Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, p.24).
I found Ball’s words “reconcile” and “familiar” a telling juxtaposition. 

Life had allotted to  Ball a certain place in the structure of things—a piece of property to be bought and sold like livestock.  He was familiar with his chains.

Yet he was not reconciled to them.  He knew he was more than a piece of property.  He knew what the world was telling him about himself was a lie.  To reconcile himself to his chains would have been to believe that lie.
In modern terms we might say Ball was a well self-differentiated person, meaning, in part, he knew who he was apart from what others around him were telling him about himself.  When he looked at his reflection in a pond, he did not see what others saw.

Ball did not let the world tell him who he was.

Paul writes that we should no longer be conformed to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2).  The Phillips translation puts it this way:  “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.”
Part of this remolding of our minds is to see ourselves through the grace-filled eyes of God rather than through the darkened eyes of others.  Our world tells the poor, the marginalized by birth or life or gender or ethnicity, and the strangers among us that they do not matter as much as others.  They are told their place in the world is fixed and they ought to accept it with grace.

God does not share in this system of categorization.  In scripture, God seems to show what has been called a predisposition for the poor, the outsider, and the powerless.  The Hebrews were told in Deuteronomy 10:17—19:

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe,  who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.  You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
The world works hard to tell people who they are.  God sees thing a bit differently.

Ball was familiar with the world’s assessment, but he did not accept it.

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

Friday, July 27, 2018

What I Learned about at Camp: Friendship

I spent last week at Pathfinder Lodge (Vick & Pathfinder Camp and Conference Ministries) as the
camp pastor.  We had campers from primary school up through high school.  (If you should see a picture of me lounging in the sun on a pontoon boat, it has been photoshopped.  That’s my story, and I am sticking to it.)  Pathfinder Lodge is a beautiful setting, sitting on a hillside overlooking a lake.  The greatest beauty was not, however, the lake.  The greatest beauty lay in the campers.

Each day in Bible study, I would ask campers if they wanted to pray.  Every time a primary school camper prayed, they would thank God for the new friends they were making at camp.  As we grow older, we lose much of our appreciation for the gift of friendship.  These young campers had not yet lost the wonder of friendship.
Friendship in the Bible is a mixed bag.  Some people are your friend because they think they can profit by the relationship; they are friends of convenience. They will desert you when things go badly for you (Proverbs 19:4 & Job 19:14 & Luke 21:16).  In Luke 16:9, Jesus tells his listeners: “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”  I suspect he says this with a knowing smile.  Friends obtained this way will not stand by you when all is lost; and they could not, even if they wanted to, welcome you into any type of eternal home.
In some of the parables, being called a friend is an ill omen (Matt. 20:13 & 22:12).  Jesus can use the title as an indictment for betrayal (Matt. 26:50).

On the other hand, the term can be used as a term of endearment and affirmation (Luke 5:20 & 12:4 and John 15:13-15).
In short, not all friends are equal.  I think the friends made at camp last week are the good kind.  These friendships were born not of convenience or the desire for benefit.  They were generated by the common experience the campers were having.  They worked together as teams in accomplishing things, and they learned about God and worshipped together.  They served one another by setting the tables and cleaning up afterward.  They helped one another do new things.  They shared the common challenge of being in a new place apart from their families.
The best friendships are born of common experience, of a shared journey.  This is what happened at Pathfinder Lodge last week.  In a culture where we can “friend” and “unfriend” people on social media like we choose a candy bar and then discard the wrapper, going to camp and making new friends is more important than ever.

I know I made some nice friends.  I hope to see them next year at camp.

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

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Grand Things Are Sometimes Small Things

“The mission really helped me get back on track when I had lost my way,” said Fred.

Fred’s mother was a strict Jehovah’s Witness and made him “tow the line.”  His father, on the other hand, he described as a “street person.”  His father wasn’t homeless, but he survived by wheeling and dealing—honesty optional. As a child, Fred saw things he said no child should see.

Fred graduated from High School on June 25, 1971.  On June 26 he started a full time job, a job he had secured several weeks before graduation.  He said it was a time when one could quit a job in the morning and have two more job offers by sunset.

Things did not continue to go so well for Fred.  He sat on the fence between his mother’s and his father’s way of life; he “fell to his father’s side of the fence,” he shared.  Drugs and alcohol took control of his life.

The people at Community Missions of Niagara Frontier Inc. took Fred in and stood by him as he got his life back together.  They were patient and gracious to him.  He went on from there to work 27 years for the same employer and then retired.  Now that he is retired he spends his time at the mission center giving to others what he received there so many years ago.

I met Fred in the dining room of the mission center during our recent Region mission trip to Niagara Falls.

Fred’s story chronicles one life put back together by the love of Christ made palpable through faithful and caring people.  Fred’s story of healing and renewal is nothing less than stunning.  Stories like Fred's rarely make the evening news, not even the local newspaper.  It seems like a small thing in our big world, but the most stunning things in life are often born of nothing more than simple kindness and respectful attention.

To be used by God in the healing of lives, we must go where people are and hear their stories. How can we structure our lives and the lives of our congregations to go where people are and hear about their lives?  Mission may be no farther away than the next person we meet.

When you have done it to the least of these, you have done it unto me—Jesus (Matt 25:40)
James Kelsey—Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Other Side of the Fence

I shoved my passport through the chain link fence and shouted “permesso di soggiorno permesso di
soggiorno.

My two sons and I had arrived in Italy on the previous Friday morning to begin our sojourn as missionaries; Debbie, my wife, would arrive in a few weeks.  After leaving my two boys at the hotel, Carmine, our Italian Baptist colleague, and I went to the local police station (Questura) in Padua; the instructions that came with my visa said to go there to get the forms to apply for a permesso di sogiorno, a card that would permit us to become long-term residents in Italy.

The people at the Questura sent us to another government office.  The people at the second office sent us to yet a third office.  The third office sent us back to the Questura.  It was now 4:00 in the afternoon, and Carmine said we should quit for the day.  I was to return on my own to the Questura on Monday morning and go down the side street to the gate in the fence behind the building; they opened at 8:30 am.

On Monday morning I got my sons breakfast and left them in the room.  I took 3 buses to get to the Questura.  I arrived at 7:45 and found several hundred people milling about in the narrow street in the already rising heat.

At 9:30 a police officer came out of the building and walked toward the gate.  The crowd started shouting and waving official looking letters.  I had no such letter.  I asked the man next to me what the letters were.  He replied “French...No else.”  I pushed my way to the gate and shoved my passport through it showing my visa, all the time shouting “permesso di soggiorno”  Finally the officer looked at it and replied ”uffcio postale…la stazione”—the post office near the train station.

I made my way there and got the forms.  I thought I was on my way.  It would be, however, six months and multiple visits back to the Questura before we got any documents.

Most Americans pay an agent to get documents for them; it fast and easy but a bit costly.  We did not have the money for that.  We were, however, better off that most of the people in the street that morning.  We came from a country where we could get the documents we needed—birth certificates, passports, marriage license, etc.—without paying large amounts of money.

That morning, for me, was a taste of what it is like to be on the other side of the fence without any privilege.  I was just one of hundreds of people that day who needed some consideration.  I was one of hundreds of people that day who were not entirely welcomed in the city and were seen as a burden and inconvenience.

Yes, in Italy, an American seeking residence is just another immigrant that in the end may be more trouble than they are worth.  Tourists they want, residents not so much.

I was born a white middle class male to a family who owned their own home in a liberal democracy.  Others were born in America with more privileged than I, but I started out in a pretty good position nonetheless.  I had never been on the other side of the fence.  It was healthy for me to look through a locked gate from the wrong side, without any privilege or claim.  I am a better person for it.
He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside,
He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same words: "Follow thou me!" and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is. (Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus)
Jim Kelsey, Executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State

Thursday, June 7, 2018

A Song I Did Not Know I Knew

I awoke to the sound of singing. 


I was staying in a partially completed building in Rwanda.  The rural day-laborers gathered each morning before they began their work. Forming a circle, they sang.  The sunrise streamed through my open window as the lilt of their voices floated in.
My first thought was what a life God had given me that I would be in this place of enduring beauty and ancient tradition, awakening to this Rwandan song.  I had a sense that I had in some way come home; it all felt a bit familiar. That morning, for the first time, I heard a song I did not know I knew.  It had lain in me undiscovered.
As I later reflected upon that moving moment, I realized, in a way, I had come home.  We all have roots in Africa.  Our ancestors made their way to the Fertile Crescent, where they came upon animals that could be domesticated and crops that could be bent to the ways of settled agriculture.  We then made our way into Europe and around the globe.  Jared Diamond in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel:  The Fates of Human Societies chronicles this initial pilgrimage out of Africa.
We are all part of a common family, born of a single act of Divine love.  The shared song of our origin is imprinted in each of us, often undiscovered.  The Apostle Paul wrote:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  (Colossians 1:15-17)
We have so quantified and analyzed and secularized our world that we have lost a sense of the enduring presence of the one who created it all and still holds it together.  In 1917, Max Weber wrote: “The fate of our times is characterized by intellectualization and rationalization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world.”  The fracturing of God’s creation is not born of a lack of understanding; it is born of an atrophied capacity for wonder.  In this we have lost our sense of the sacredness and organic wholeness of what God has made.
In Africa, close to my origins, I discovered that song common to all of us, regardless of where we have wandered on this earth—a tune written in the human heart through which Christ holds all things together.  Wondered was awakened in me that morning.
In Africa I heard a song I did not know I knew, a song from long ago when our journey was just beginning.

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

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Community is Biblical

They were seeking a “biblical form of church government.”  This congregation seemed to think that  
they could achieve this by severing all formal ties with other churches and becoming an independent church.

As a Baptist, I am a high trust--low control person.  I trust local congregations to follow the Spirit and would defend them from outside control. My discomfort is not with this church making their own determination in this matter.  Rather, my discomfort is with their labeling independence as the biblical model.  Whenever we add the adjective biblical to something, we need to have done our homework—biblically, that is. 
We all read the Bible through the lens of our experiences, culture, and loyalties.  It is not possible to read otherwise. The danger is that we may label something that is the product of our interpretation as being unquestionably mandated by the Bible.  It is often wise to clarify a statement as our reading of scripture.

My reading of the biblical text leads me to conclude that this church is acting in a way unsupported by the evidence concerning Pauline congregations in the New Testament. I would defend the church’s prerogative to make this decision, but I would suggest that it is not necessarily a move to a “biblical form of church government.”

Connected Clusters of Congregations
The relationship between the churches in the New Testament is anything but crystal clear.  It appears that, typically, there were multiple communities in an urban area; but such groups were not seen as independent churches disconnected from one another (Abraham J. Mahlerbe, Social Aspects of Early Christianity, pp. 70ff.).  Paul seems to have known of at least three churches in Rome (Romans 16:5, 15, 16), yet he sends a single letter to be shared.    There may have been more than one worshipping congregation in Thessalonica (1 Thess. 5:27) and in Laodicea as well (Col. 4:15). The church in Corinth seemed to be composed of multiple worshipping groups, but, again, Paul sends one letter.  His greetings and conclusions in his letters suggest that various congregations were in close contact with one another.  Paul wrote one letter to an area, expecting the letter to be passed around. It appears that Luke thought of the multiple groups in Jerusalem as one church as he authored the book of Acts (Mahlerbe, p. 70). Clearly, local worshipping communities were organically connected with one another.  They could hardly be described as independent.  Wayne Meeks writes:

It is evident, too, that Paul and the other leaders of the mission worked actively to inculcate the notion of a universal brotherhood of the believers in Messiah Jesus.  The letters themselves, the messengers who brought them, and the repeated visits to local assemblies by Paul and his associates all emphasized the interrelatedness…The smallest unit of the movement is addressed precisely in the epistolary context that reminds the readers of the larger fellowship by names and groups in other places.   (The First Urban Christians—The Social World of the Apostle Paul, p. 109)
Paul and his coworkers were not simply trying to foster a sense of connection with the church universal at all times and in all places.  Rather, they were trying to engender cooperative bonds between flesh and blood congregations in specific places.

I would argue that voluntary connectedness among congregations enriches the life of a church and can, on occasion, prevent a church from becoming captive to the unchecked idiosyncrasies of a leader(s) who wishes to exercise  a level of control that is not healthy.  When congregations become disconnected from other churches, sometimes they can go off the rails organizationally and theologically.  The believers in Corinth benefit from connectedness as Paul guides them through a tough problem in 1 Corinthians 5; this is one of several issues Paul addresses in his letter. Community spawns health. Independence and isolation, when left unchecked, have the potential for pathology.

The Jerusalem Collection
Paul’s multiple references to the “Jerusalem collection” in his letters shows that churches took responsibility for supporting one another (Acts 11:27-30; Gal. 2:10; Romans 15:25-27; 1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 8:1-15 & 9:12-15).  This collection for the saints in Jerusalem is woven throughout Paul’s letters.  Paul promoted a sense of connection and mutual care through this effort.  The model here is not independence and isolation.

Church Leadership
The New Testament letters talk about elders and bishops with respect to cities, not individual churches.  The implication seems to be that there were multiple congregations in a city, for whom these leaders cared.  In Acts 20:17, Paul makes contact with the elders from Ephesus; they are identified with the city itself.  In Acts 14:23, Paul appoints leaders “church by church” (κατ’ ἐκκλησίαν).  Given that a series of cities is listed in vs. 21-22, the implication is that these leaders were a common link for the congregations in each city (Mahlerbe, p. 101).

Even if the above paragraph is not convincing, at a minimum the appointment of elders by respected leaders in the broader Christian family indicates a strong connective network among congregations (Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5).  These are not independent isolated fellowships.

The Jerusalem Council
Furthermore, the leaders in the Jerusalem church decide the issue of direct Gentile admission to the churches throughout the Roman Empire and what practices believing Gentiles must observe.  This edict is then communicated and, presumably, practiced throughout the New Testament churches (Acts 15:1-35 and 16:4-5).  These are not Lone Ranger congregations.

Although Paul asserts an authority bestowed on him directly by Jesus Christ, he does point out that he received the endorsement of the Jerusalem leaders (Gal. 2:1-9).  Apparently he feels this strengthens his hand among the believers in the province of Galatia.  This suggests something other than a mentality of independence and indifference on the part of these congregations, as well.

In Our Day
These leadership links between churches, although quite effective in the early days of the church, would make me a little nervous in our day.  As a Baptist, I am not comfortable with outsiders dictating to local churches what they must and must not do and whom they may and may not call as leaders.  As a Regional Executive Minister, I spend not a small amount of time explaining to congregations that I cannot and will not dictate practices to them; I will not make their decisions for them.  Freedom is core to Baptist practice and identity.  I am happy being a low control--high trust Baptist. Nonetheless, I affirm the values of connectedness and mutual care among churches evident in these earliest Christian congregations.

Individualism is a marked characteristic of American culture.  Our culture inevitably shapes our congregations.  If a congregation wishes to become isolated and independent, I wish them all the best.  The error is to claim that the Bible values individualism and isolation over community, cooperation, and mutual support.  The texts of the New Testament indicate otherwise.

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



Friday, April 20, 2018

Civil Christianity

We are nicer when we journey together.
In writing about civility, Gil Rendle (Behavioral Covenants in Congregations-A Handbook for
Honoring Differences) cites the work of Yale professor Stephen Carter who argues that riding in a subway, bus, or train full of strangers requires us to understand our obligations to treat one another with due regard.  Carter cites popular guides from the past that counseled people on how to behave well on trains.  Having traveled mostly by train and bus for 10 years while living in Europe, this resonated with me.  You find yourself bumping up against all types of people.  Sometimes you spend the night in a sleeper car with complete strangers.

Most of us travel alone or with a family member in our cars; we are less prone to develop discipline of accommodation.  We see commercials advertising luxury cars where a driver glides through a city isolated from noise, disorder, odors and, of course, other people.  This seems to be our aspiration, to move through the world untouched by others.  This is the radical individualism so prevalent in America.

When we travel together we must make sacrifices for the sake of a pleasant journey.   Carter defines civility as “the sum total of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together.”

There is a place between law and freedom.

Rendle goes on to draw upon the work of Lord John Fletcher Moulton.  Moulton wrote about three domains of life.  First is the domain of law; this encompasses those things we must do. In this domain we obey.

The other end of the continuum is the domain of free choice.  This is the category that includes all those things over which we claim complete freedom to do or not to do.  We recognize this as personal autonomy.

Moulton posited between the domains of law and freedom the domain of obedience to the unenforceable.  In this domain we comply with obligations and duties to which we cannot be compelled.  Moulton calls them “manners.”  Another word for manners could be civility.  This is the arena in which we sacrifice what we cannot be compelled to give up for the sake of others and the wellbeing of the larger community.  Thus, it is more than simply being polite or pleasant.  This domain has a moral dimension; it trades in the currency of right and wrong, humanity and inhumanity.   This dimension is undercut by our radicalized sense of personal autonomy.

Civility is no stranger to Christian conduct.

The discipline of obeying the unenforceable is at the center of the Christian life. The believers in Corinth were having trouble balancing their freedom with their obligation to the wellbeing of others.  Paul wrote: “’I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others [1 Cor. 10:23-24].”  Paul is calling his readers to do what no one can compel them to do—in this case not eating meat that has been offered to idols. This is not a problem we face in our churches, but Paul does hold up sacrificing for others as a higher priority than exercising freedom.  He is asking them to make a sacrifice for the higher purpose of living well together.

Paul admonishes his readers in Colosse to forebear one another (Col. 3:13).  In other words he advises that they put up with each other.  A piece of civility is putting up with others because we know they are putting up with us.  Civility is about giving one another room to breathe and grow.  It is also about creating safe spaces for people to be authentic without fear of rejection, or retribution.

We live in an uncivil time bred of an overwrought sense of freedom and autonomy, and this taints the lives of our congregations.  As believers we can guard ourselves against being conformed to the spirit of our age by deliberately practicing civility in our churches, our families, and our relationships.  We can find that place between law and freedom where we voluntarily sacrifice for the wellbeing of others, where we do good things that no one can compel of us. 

This is a part of loving our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. Matthew reports the following exchange between a Pharisee and Jesus: 
     “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the  
     Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and  with all your mind.’ This is the 
     greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as
     yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (22:36-40).

Jesus takes that middle domain, the domain of obedience to the unenforceable, and makes it a type of law for believers.  He elevates radical civility as an inherent dimension of love of God.  Faith is lived in that middle domain, where we sacrifice for us others, freely doing what no one can compel us to do.

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