Friday, October 22, 2021

The Two Faces of Faith: Remembering and Anticipating

 

Part 1: Remembering

Two Faces

The god Janus of ancient Roman myth was a god of two faces.  One face was turned back looking to the past, and the other was turned forward looking to the future. The two faces of Christian faith are like that.  One face looks back, remembering God’s faithfulness.  The other face looks forward, anticipating the fulfillment of God’s promises.

 In the present reflection we consider the face that looks back and remembers.

 Things That Weren’t There Anymore 

When I lived in Philadelphia I would watch a television show on Saturdays entitled Things That Aren’t There Anymore.  Each week the program would showcase some thing or place that had influenced the city, and sometimes the nation, in profound ways.  These were things and places that were not there anymore.

 For example, in 1902 Philadelphia-based restaurateurs Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart opened their first Automat named Horn and Hardart. They had already established, in 1888, a small cafĂ© of the same name that sold cheap coffee and quick meals. Theirs was the first Automat in the country.  In my day, it was not there anymore.

 American Bandstand premiered locally in late March 1950 as Bandstand on Philadelphia television station WFIL, channel 6.   The show went off the air in 1989.  In my day, it was not there anymore.

 Week by week, Things That Aren’t There Anymore catalogued buildings, parks, venues, cultural treasures, and restaurants that were gone.  As I watched, I felt nostalgic for times and places and a city that I, myself, had never experienced.

Remembering as Faith

Remembering the accomplishments, struggles, and courage of those faithful believers who came before us encourages us in the present.  We see our passing and precious days as an opportunity to write our part of God’s story.  We ask what worthy things are we doing with our allotment of time.

 Remembering is part of our faith. The Hebrews were told repeatedly to remember, 15 times in Deuteronomy alone.  In Hebrew faith to remember is to believe; to forget is unbelief.  Amnesia is a form of atheism in the Hebrew Scriptures.

In the Bible, remembering shapes the way we live in the present.  In Deuteronomy 16:9-12, the people are told to celebrate the “Feast of Weeks” and to include their sons and daughters, their servants, and Levites.  The list of invitees continues on to include aliens, orphans, and widows.  You can almost see the peoples’ eyebrows rising as slaves, immigrants, and unrelated orphans and widows are included in the guest list. 

 This commands ends with the words: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt, and follow carefully these decrees.”  As the sons and daughters of ex-slaves, people who in their day were excluded and marginalized, the present generation is to invite the excluded and marginalized into their homes and lives.   Remembering brings with it responsibility.

 Faithful Remembering is not the Same as Nostalgia

Nostalgia is a longing for the past and wanting it back.  We remember a time we associate with good feelings and want to turn back the clock and live there again.  Or perhaps we want to return to a halcyon past in which we, ourselves, did not participate.   This is what I did as I watched Things That Aren’t There Anymore.  I longed for a city and a way of life that I had heard of but had never experienced myself.

 Nostalgia discourages and disheartens us.  It diminishes our energy to stake out a life in the present and clouds our vision for what is possible in the future.

 We should remember how God has faithfully sustained and nurtured our congregations.  We should give thanks for the courage and sacrifices of our ancestors in the faith.  In remembering how they wrote their chapter of God’s story, we realize that we too are now writing our chapter of that same story.  This is quite different from wanting to return to former days and write on pages long past.  We write our portion of the story  in the present tense. 

 The Hebrews Sometimes Got Stuck in Nostalgia

The Hebrews sometimes got stuck in a nostalgic longing for the past.  In Psalm 137, the exiles in Babylon sit and weep as they remember Zion.  They wonder “how can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”  They cannot see the opportunities in the present because they are so captured by things that aren’t there anymore.

 Isaiah does tell these exiles to remember God’s faithfulness.  In 44:21-22, the prophet writes:

Remember these things, O Jacob,
    and Israel, for you are my servant;
I formed you, you are my servant;
    O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me.
 I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud,
    and your sins like mist;
return to me, for I have redeemed you.

In Chapter 63:7-9 the writer recounts all the great acts of the Lord.  Remembering makes the Hebrews brave and hopeful.

Yet the prophet also admonishes these same exiles to leave behind a type of nostalgia that blinds them to what God is doing among them in the present.  He encourages a type of forgetting that liberates them from longing for the past and opens them up to what God is doing in the present day.

Do not remember the former things,
    or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert. (43:18-19) 

Longing for things that aren’t there anymore saps their courage and dims their vision.  Isaiah wants his readers to remember what God has done so that they might find courage in their day to embrace the new things God is doing. 

 No Encores

In short, God does not do encores.  God does not give us the old things back or do the prior thing again.  God does fresh things.  No matter how long we stand and clap for an encore, God does not give us back things that aren’t there anymore.  God is initiating a new chapter in the grand story of redemption and is calling us to write our part of that story with faithfulness and hope.

Jim Kelsey

Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State

 

 

 

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Except You Become as a Child

 


It began about 5 years ago with emails and letters about hearing aids.  Then the advertisements for retirement and estate planning starting coming. Fortunately, there has been no mail yet from funeral homes or caskets companies.  I periodically get promotions for hydrostatic tubs; I must say they have piqued my interest.

In November, I turn Sixty-five years of age. (Don’t tell me age is just a number; it is not.  “Age” is a word.)  Now on a daily basis I get literature about Medicare Supplements and Advantage plans.  I now know the difference between Parts A & B & D, a supplement, and an Advantage plan.

OK, I am aging. I tell myself I feel as if I am still 35.  Of course, I have no memory of what it felt like to be 35; I suspect it felt different than nearly 65. 

Although I cannot turn back the aging of my body, I am working to retain youthfulness of spirit. Recently I learned anew some things about youthfulness.

I spent last week as Camp Pastor at Pathfinder Lodge with a group of people who are truly young—in body and spirit.  I learned some things about aging as well.

First, these campers are not just kids.  They are young adults in some ways.  When asked about their fears and when they had felt betrayed, they shared some very sobering adult-like experiences: abandonment; the untimely death of loved ones; and social cruelty.  They have not led “Leave it to Beaver” lives.  Their religious beliefs have been both formed and tested by some difficult things.  Their faith should be taken seriously.

Second, their hearts and minds and faith are open to the new experiences life brings to them.  As we grow older, our faith, our view of people and the world, our loyalties and dislikes become increasingly  fixed.  It takes more effort to change and to grow.  So, we tend to settle in where we are like a smooth rock in a stream and let the current of life flow around us, leaving us barely changed.

Young people, on the other hand, are still malleable.  They are ready to learn and to grow.  They are listening and looking, learning and testing.  They are still being formed and are open to revision, rethinking, reviewing, and renewing.  The theme for the week at camp was “Renew.”  They were game for that.  They reach out for life with both hands, letting it take them where it will.

There openness and freshness were wonderful.  It makes them vulnerable to the Spirit that transforms and renews us. Paul encourages this vulnerability: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what the will of God— what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2). 

Jesus recognized the advantages to youthfulness of spirit when he said: Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven [Matt. 18:3].”  He was talking about the openness and flexibility that comes through the humility that characterizes youth.

 It is enormously fun and exciting to work with a group of young people in whom you can see the Spirit of God working with great freedom.

There is, on the other hand, a danger to this youthful enthusiastic embrace of life.  Young people stand in the stream of life and their experiences shape their soft contours.  Unfortunately, not all those experiences are healthy and will bear good fruit in their lives.  Because they are impressionable, they are vulnerable to being misshapen by the pathologies and violence and cruelty of this world.  In other words, they can become “conformed to this world," as Paul writes.

We must care for the young people around us, in our families and our neighborhoods, in our churches and our schools, on our streets and in our nation.  We are responsible for them, all of them.

 Last week, a group of young people at Pathfinder Lodge had plenty of good food to eat, a nurse to provide medical care, safe places to sleep, and counselors who listened to them, treasured them and taught them about God’s love for them in Jesus Christ.  We talked about what God wanted for them in their lives and what God expected of them as they move through this world.  They were shaped in good ways.

 Given the river of influences under which these young people live their lives, a week at camp may seem like an inconsequential thing; but do not doubt the power of God when it is set free for a week on a hillside in the lives of young campers.

 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matthew 13:31—32).

Camp is about believing that a mustard seed can become a mighty tree and, likewise, these young people will grow into mighty fine and faithful adults. 

Jim Kelsey

Executive Minister-American Baptist Churches of New York State

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Playing the Prophet and Being the Priest

 The more you know the more you realize you don’t know, said Aristotle. 

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld complicated the issue by saying “there are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.”

I really don’t know what that means, but I do know this:  I used to be a great deal more certain about what I knew.  I am confident the seasoned adults who knew me early in my ministry smiled at how certain I was of so much.  I was comfortable playing the prophet in those days.

A prophet in the Hebrew Bible, according to Walter Brueggemann, is one who speaks to the moment to a concrete community (The Prophetic Imagination, p. 24).  The prophet tells the people what time it is and what God is now doing and what God expects of us at this moment (p. 53).  The prophet brings the word of God to the people with a sense of urgency and confidence.

There are appropriate times and places for playing the prophet.

Richard Mouw, long time President of Fuller Theological Seminary, adds a wrinkle to the conversation by contrasting a prophet with a priest.  A priest is one who takes the deepest concerns of the people and confessions of sin to God, writes Mouw.  He suggests that we will be more effective prophets if we have first been good priests.  “Transforming leadership requires that we genuinely listen to others, that we be emphatically open to their points of view on matters that concern them deeply.  Only by approaching them as priests can we hope to relate to them as prophets [Uncommon Decency—Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, p. 125].”  Mouw goes to write this listening cannot simply be a strategy by which we then get a chance to tell others what we think.  “Genuine listening involves a willingness to be changed by what we hear.  We cannot hope to transform others without a commitment to being transformed ourselves [p. 126].”

 Over the years I have learned that a prerequisite for possessing an effective prophetic voice is first acting as an attentive priest.  Letting the people touch my heart and change me is a key part of being a good priest.  In Matthew 9:35—36, we see in Jesus a compelling picture of both priest and prophet.

Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.  When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

Jesus proclaimed the Good News to the crowds. He also healed their brokenness and demonstrated compassion.  He was both prophet and priest. 

Later in his ministry Jesus utters a heartbreaking prophesy as he arrives in Jerusalem.  

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.  Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God. {Luke 19:41—44].”

As he says this, he is weeping.  The ground beneath Jesus is damp with tears of this priestly prophet. 

The Prophet Jeremiah brings some hard-to-hear things to his people.  Nonetheless, his unsettling pronouncements are bathed in his tears.

For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
    I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.

 Is there no balm in Gilead?
    Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people
    not been restored?
O that my head were a spring of water,
    and my eyes a fountain of tears,
so that I might weep day and night
    for the slain of my poor people! (8:21—9:1).
 

Prophetic proclamation without priestly compassion is not the stuff of the Bible.

It is easier to play the prophet that it is to play the priest.  To play the prophet asks little of us; we can move on untouched by those around us and their lives.  We need to give no thought to how those around us came to be where and how they are. 

A priest does not have the luxury of distance and disconnection.  Maybe that is why the church spawns many more prophets than priests.

Jim Kelsey

Executive minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

What Does Jesus Think about Nuclear Power?

 

It would be nice if the Bible could answer all our questions in a clear and concise way, like “Miss Manners” answers our etiquette questions. 

The problem is many of the pressing daily decisions we must make were unheard of to those to whom the biblical authors wrote, and many of the daily concerns they faced were quite different from our daily preoccupations. 

For example, eating meat that has been offered to an idol, a concern, Paul responds to in 1 Corinthians 8, is not a problem I have ever confronted in my ministry.  I did face a somewhat similar situation when asked by pastors in Vietnam how they can, when invited to a family feast to revere their ancestors, honor both their theological convictions and their Christian commitment to honor their parents, as stipulated in the Ten Commandments.  We took the teaching in 1 Corinthians 8, along with passages about family, and crafted a strategy that would honor both these teachings in their contemporary situation.  They had to balance the competing demands of these passages in a way that honored the full counsel of scripture.  This was not a job for the lazy or unimaginative.

In another example, Moses relates a clear teaching on who may and may not eat the sacred offerings and who may and may not come into contact with those offerings.  There is even guidance about what to do if one eats the offering accidentally (Leviticus 22).  I have had questions about the observance of communion but no queries about sacred offerings.  

Jesus gives clear guidance on the Temple tax (Matthew 17:24), yet I have never had a question about paying the Temple tax in all my years of teaching Sunday School.  I guess people don’t pay that anymore.  

Nor has there ever been a conflict, in my experience, over fraternizing with someone who collects government taxes (Luke 5:27).  It just never comes up.

My point is, many of the daily pressing questions of the people to whom the Bible was first directed are not our questions.  Likewise, many of our concerns were unknown to them: global warming, gun control, cloning, and the availability of health insurance, to name a few.  (One concern that runs through the entire Bible and is front and center in in our day as well is economic inequality; on that issue we have clear and timely mandates.)

On the other hand, many of these original readers’ deepest concerns are ours as well: greed, generosity, loving our neighbors, honesty, forgiveness, grief, economic justice, caring for our families, and how do we use power.  In many ways our lives are not so different.  Still we must often make an imaginative leap from the particulars of their situation to the particulars of our situation because these concerns come clothed in different in different circumstances.

The Bible can still guide us even though our daily concerns may be quite different. I have walked with many churches through conflicts. Picking and eating grain on the Sabbath has never been a bone of contention in these disagreements (Matt. 12:1-8).  Jesus saw this immediate controversy over Sabbath behavior through the lens of the competing claims of mercy and sacrifice.  (Spoiler alert:  He comes down clearly on the side of mercy.) The tension between mercy and sacrifice has often been at the heart of many church conflicts.  One has to imaginatively extrapolate from the grain issue to the matter at hand in the conflict.  It is not a direct application, as in “just do what the Bible says," but one can find some direction in this story.

How would our  lives be different if rather than looking for some proof text we asked what is the merciful thing to do? We must with our hearts and our minds fully engage with the Spirit and apply ancient values to new situations. This is hard work.

The Bible is not just an answer book to which we take our questions and then find a simple unequivocable answer for all people at all times in all places.  In other words, the Bible is not for lazy unimaginative people who wish to “Google” it for one sentence answers.  It is for people who are willing to struggle with multiple texts written to a wide variety of people in a diversity of situations, each with their own distinctive preoccupations.

Under the guidance of the Spirit, serious Bible readers discover values, priorities, and principles that can be applied to new situations.  The Pharisees in Matthew 12 were not willing to struggle with the inherent tension between mercy and sacrifice in the Hebrews scriptures as they sorted out picking grain on the Sabbath, thus they ended up condemning the innocent (Matt 12:7).  They were dull minded and more interested in justifying themselves than in discovering the wisdom of the full counsel of scripture.

So to my original question: What does Jesus think about nuclear power?  This is a good test case for us to apply our Bible reading skills.  We must extrapolate from what the Bible says about related concerns.  The Bible tells us we are to be good caretakers of God’s creation; this gets at the issue of the destruction of the ozone generated by coal-fired power plants vs. the dangers of nuclear waste.  We are to love and care for our neighbor: this raises up the safety of the workers in nuclear power plants and those who live around those plants.  Yet, affordable energy is a positive thing that enhances my neighbor’s life, whom I am to love. Like so many of our concerns, we have to balance multiple biblical themes to find our way.

We are confronted with decisions of which the ancients never dreamed.  So we must work to find answers.  Since this is an imaginative enterprise guided by the Holy Spirit, we will not always agree on everything.  The Apostle Paul gives us some good guidance as we find our way through life:

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love (1 Cor. 13:8-13).

Faith, hope, and love, the greatest of these being love.  These are not bad guides to follow for now, particularly the thing about love.

Jim Kelsey

Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Making a Difference in Burma

 We have all read articles and seen newscasts about the military coup in Burma, which overthrew a democratically elected government.  We have been made aware of the suffering of the people of Burma, in particular the minority ethnic groups.  In our Region we have a number of churches comprised of people from Burmese ethnic groups who had to flee Burma due to government violence and repression.  They have family and friends back in Burma and grieve the atrocities their homeland is undergoing.  These people are our brothers and sisters in Christ.  You are likely aware that it was an American Baptist missionary couple, the Judsons, who first took the Gospel to Burma.

So what can we do?  Last week you received from the Region prayer litanies, sample letter and other martials you can use.  Below you will another sample letter written by a man in the Utica Karen Baptist Church.  Please look it over and consider adapting it and send it to your representative and senator.

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

The Honorable ???

U.S. Representative of New York’s ??? Congressional District

1410 Longworth House Office Building

Washington, DC  20515

 Dear Congresswoman/man ???,

 We are writing to you on behalf of the Burmese Diaspora churches of the American Baptist Churches of New York State/or the ??? Baptist Church of (your city). These churches represent ethnic minority groups from Burma. They are grateful for the sanctuary they have been given in this country. However, the root causes of why they had to flee their homes and country—attacks and human rights violations by the Burmese military—have still not been addressed.

 The military has just staged a new coup against the democratically elected civilian government led by Aung San Sue Kyi. The new military government has shut down communication channels such as the internet, phone and social media in an attempt to stop peaceful demonstrators and prevent the world from seeing what is happening in the country. The military has also announced martial law in part of the country where peaceful demonstration and civil disobedience movement has grown and has threatened to clamp down on peaceful demonstrators.

And while the world attention has turned to the military coup, right villagers, including many children, are hiding in the jungle following attacks by the Burmese military. The indiscriminate targeting of civilians and the obstruction of humanitarian assistance are war crimes under the Geneva Conventions.

 

We request that you condemn the coup, make a public call for the military to peacefully return power to democratically elected government led by Aung San Sue Kyi, and for the Burmese military to halt its attacks on ethnic minorities and to lift all humanitarian aid restrictions. We also request that you support the passing of legislation to impose sanctions that will ensure no American company can do any form of business with military owned companies.

We also would like you to consider the following points when deciding your future approach to our country. The U.S government needs to review the support it is giving to the peace process and impose strict economic sanctions on the military-owned companies and all foreign and domestic companies associated with the military in Burma. We believe that the peace process and reforms in Burma, a creation of the military, were never designed to bring genuine peace. The intention was to use ceasefires to weaken ethnic armed organizations and gain access to contested areas, including natural resources. The peace process and reforms were also used as part of efforts to persuade the US and EU to lift economic sanctions.

 

The current peace process in our country has failed. Since it began, conflict and human rights violations in Burma have significantly increased. There has been increased conflict in Rakhine State, Kachin State, Shan State and Chin State. Now even in Karen State, hailed by some as one of the few places where the local populations have seen some benefits from ceasefires, people are once again fleeing for their lives.

 As a member of the Joint Peace Fund, as well as a key political backer of the peace process, the US has a leading role to play. We believe that international financial and political support, including from the Joint Peace Fund, is helping to keep alive a failed process. By keeping this failed process alive, the support the US and others are giving has now become an obstacle to achieving peace, rather than supporting it. It is preventing major reform or replacement of the current process. Each new problem is met with more committees, more processes, and more expense as those involved appear to have expended too much money and political capital to be willing to accept it has not worked.

 If a peace process results in more conflict, it is time for a rethink.  We request that you support our call for the US to suspend financial support for the Peace Process and reinstate sanctions in Burma until substantial changes are made to the current process and the military relinquish power.

 

Communities from conflict zones across Burma are quite clear in what they want to see as first steps. They want to see the withdrawal of the Burmese military from contested areas, and they want to see restrictions on humanitarian access lifted. These should be preconditions before the US and Joint Peace Fund provide any more support to the peace process. This should be the key US priority in its approach to supporting peace in our country.

 There has been welcome attention on the need for justice and accountability regarding the Rohingya. We believe that one of the reasons that the military believed it could get away with its military offensives and human rights violations in Rakhine State in 2016 and 2017 is because the international community has allowed it to enjoy impunity for its military offensives and human rights violations against ethnic people for decades. Nothing that was done to the Rohingya by the military had not already been done to the Karen, Kachin and other ethnic groups. The difference was the scale and timeframe, not the type of human rights violations. There cannot be accountability for crimes against the Rohingya but no accountability for the same human rights violations against other ethnic groups.

 We request that you support justice and accountability for all crimes committed by the Burmese military against all ethnic and religious groups and ask the Biden Administration to work with international partners to ensure justice and accountability.

 The United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar investigated human rights violations in Shan and Kachin State as well as Rakhine State. It made recommendations to address human rights violations across the country. We are deeply disappointed that the US and other countries have not taken any significant steps to implement these recommendations. We request that support implementing these recommendations is a center point for the US response to human rights violations by the military. This should include imposing sanctions on military companies, building international support for a global arms embargo (doing so ad hoc with willing countries if progress cannot be made at the UN Security Council), and supporting international justice initiatives.

 


Nationally, the number of political prisoners is increasing, including community leaders, such as Naw Ohn Hla. Almost all military era repressive laws are still in place and being used against human rights activists and peaceful protestors.

 We request that you make a public call for the release of all political prisoners in Burma and for the repeal of all repressive laws. In the past, the US played a leading role in mobilizing international pressure on the Burmese military to end human rights violations. As our friends in Burma are once again hiding in fear in the jungle, the people of Burma need US leadership again. 

 We hope that you will support us in their struggle for freedom and we look forward to your response.  We would also welcome the opportunity to meet with you.

 
Sincerely,


Saturday, February 27, 2021

Leading While We Are Still Finding Our Own Way

 



I saw the handmade sign on the wall.  It said “Bible Study” with a time and a place.  Several months
earlier, I had decided to live my life as a Christian. This most recent leg of my path to faith had been a solo journey.  At the time, I was not involved in any church or Christian community. As far as I knew I had no Christian friends. 

It was in reading the Bible that I had found my way to this new stage of faith. So, I thought I should attend the Bible study. 

I went to the meeting, and they were arguing about baptism and 1 Peter 3:21.  The leaders seemed very sure of their position, and they wanted to make sure that everyone believed the same thing. I was not impressed by the gathering.

One person, who was not engaged in this debate, announced that he was leading a Bible study on the book of Romans, meeting on the second floor lobby of the Creative Arts Center on Tuesday mornings.

I showed up with my Bible in hand, the red-letter King James Version I had received in the 5th grade for memorizing all the books of the Bible in order.  There was only and Robert, the leader, and me.  For several months we met there each Tuesday morning and read through the book of Romans and talked about what it meant for our lives.

I had gone to Sunday school for years and had sat through many sermons in my parents’ conservative Baptist church.  I had been a faithful participant in VBS in my childhood.  As I noted above, I had memorized the books of the Bible in the proper canonical order.  I knew the right answers to most of the questions.  And as they say, if you don’t know the answer just say “Jesus.”  You have a 70% chance of being right.

What I did not know was how to live as a Christian.  I had no idea how to take what the Bible taught and apply it day by day in the real world.  I had gotten none of that in my parents’ church.

This was what I discovered with Robert each Tuesday morning sitting on the floor leaning against the rough concrete wall:  I learned how to take scripture and practice it day by day as a college student.  Robert and I were finding our way together.  He was just a bit farther ahead, having been at this endeavor longer than had I.

There were several others in that student fellowship who help me find my way and broaden my faithfulness.  To this day their fingerprints are still on my life and my faith.  I am, after 8 years of seminary and 30 years of ordained ministry, still to a great degree a product of what I learned in those early days of faith at the hands of others who were on the same journey; they were simply more experienced travelers at the time.

I thought about Robert and those others as I participated in the mentor training offered by our Regional Lay Study Program.  We are training people to mentor Certified Lay Minister candidates.  We will soon provide broader training to equip pastors in mentoring all people with gifts for ministry in their churches. 

Robert and those others were mentoring me.  They were showing me how to live as a Christian and how to do ministry.  The real gift they gave was not knowledge.  The real gift was showing me how put into practice in my life what I already knew in my head. 

This is essentially what Jesus did with his disciples.  He invited them to travel with him on a journey of obedience that he had already begun (Mark 1:16—20).  That is what mentoring is: making available to others the wisdom we have gathered along the way.  We walk with them as they travel and build their own bank of experiences.  Someday they will, in turn, walk with others.

Who has mentored you on your journey? All of us are the product of others who have guided and encouraged us.  Is there someone in your church or family or circle of friends that you can come alongside and with whom you can journey together?    Let us keep the cycle going.

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

Sunday, January 17, 2021

We Have a Choice

 

We always have a choice.  

Sometimes we feel we do not. We find ourselves swept up the torrent of cable news, social media postings, loyalty to people with whom we identify, and suspicions of those with whom we do not identify.  We find ourselves carried down the river of division, mistrust, animosity, and fear.  We feel as if we are victims  of irreversible current.

When Paul writes “Have this mind in you that was in Christ Jesus [Philippians 2:5],” he is saying we have a choice.  Wherever we find ourselves, we can choose to migrate to a different place.  We can choose the “mind” we live out.

In another place Paul writes:  “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect [Romans 12:2].”  Paul is asserting that we can push back against the “Spirit of the Age.”  We can be different; we can be set free.

The beauty of the Gospel is that we none of us are who God created us to be--none of us.  We all carry implicit biases for and against certain people.  We did not choose these mindsets.  Then on the heels of that uncomfortable truth of own flawed nature, the Gospel asserts that we do not have to remain this way.  We can, through the power of the Spirit and an honest look at ourselves, change; we can be made new.  This is a message of hope, water for thirsty souls.

This weekend we remember the work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Perhaps no one has with such eloquence and power and candor laid bare the sin of systemic racism in America.

Yet, there was always hope in Dr. King's message. In the midst of his laying bare our nation’s sin, he uplifted those who heard his words--not just black and brown folks, but also white folks.  Why?  Because King believed we could all do better; he knew we could change if we applied ourselves to the hard work of regeneration in our hearts and in our society.  He never wavered in his faith about what God could do in us:

I look to the day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character-Dr. King, August 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial

Dr. King could see it; he took it for granted.  He knew we, all of us, have it in us to do  better.

In times like these, when hope seems sometimes hard to find, we realize what a treasure Dr. King was and still is to our nation. 

Jim Kelsey

Executive Minister-American Baptist Churches of New York State