Friday, September 15, 2017

Communication not Confrontation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 1, 2017

God Works in All Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Beauty of Imperfection

I love my trees.  In their instinctive race for sunlight, they have grown crooked and unevenly branched.  I love them because of their imperfections.  There are no other trees just like them.

In this way, they are a bit like us.  In our instinctive drive to ease our anxiety, secure our future, compensate for our failures, salve our hurts, and find purpose and love—we, too, have grown imperfectly.  Ever since Adam said to God in the garden “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid,” we have been compensating for what was lost to us in that place.  We, like my trees, are imperfectly formed.  Yet, there is the beauty of authenticity in our imperfections.

We are imperfect.  The Gospel is candid about this; we are not yet what we were created to be.  Yet, that news is not devastating to us, because in the same breath we are reassured that God is merciful and patient.  We are imperfect but not worthless.  We are a mixture of foibles and potential.

Richard Ruosso’s novel Bridge of Sighs follows the story of two quite different families, the Lynches and the Bergs, living in an upstate New York town.  The families’ only children, Lou Lynch and Sarah Berg, grow up together and marry.  Lou’s father, Big Lou, is the eternal optimist and owns a corner market.  He believes the best about people and gives them the benefit of the doubt.  He appears naively gullible.  Sarah’s father is a pessimist, expecting the worst from the people around him.  He is quite intelligent and teaches honors English at the high school.  He appears bitterly cynical.

Lou, in reflecting back upon their lives together at the age of sixty, observes:
I’ve always thought the greatest difference between Sarah’s father and my own wasn’t that one was highly educated and the other not at all.  No, their most cherished beliefs were based not in knowledge or its lack, but in temperament.  It was my father’s habit to give people more credit than they had coming, whereas Sarah’s gave them less. I don’t think either tendency makes a man a fool, but both our fathers were anxious that the world conform to their belief.  Each was happy when it did, unhappy when it didn’t, and neither seemed able to accommodate any contrary evidence (p. 515).
Lou then reflects upon his mother. He says he grew up believing that his mother and father were opposites—his father the optimist and his mother the cynic.  But, as he looks back, he concludes:  “In reality she occupied the middle ground between his willfully blind faith in the basic goodness of his fellow man and Mr. Berg’s equally blinkered and needy belief in its corruption.”

Lou’s mother was a realist.  Lou’s mother had a sound biblical anthropology in this respect.  We are capable of doing damage to those around us.  Yet, we are also capable of doing great good as well.  Each of us is a mixed bag, leavened with both destructive and healing tendencies.  The Bible is realistic about us but holds out hope for us through the power of Christ in our lives.

The Apostle Paul writes:
 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. (Phil 3:12-14)
We are all on our way.  We are not who we were and not yet who we will someday become.  I think there is a certain beauty in that not-yet-perfected imperfection.

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

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A Beam of Light Amid the Darkness

Alt Right / White Supremacists launched a terror attack on Saturday against Charlottesville, Virginia. These folks despise what our country stands for.  They want to destroy our way of life and rend the fabric of our national community. This latent bigotry in our nation that has come to the surface so forcefully recently is a clear and present danger to our common life. 

In the creation narrative the writer is careful to say that God separated the light from the darkness.  The symbolism is clear; this is about more than sunshine and the moon.  The darkness is bounded and contained, but it is not eliminated.  One day the darkness will be fully extinguished.  The writer of Revelation declares: There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever (22:5).  Until that day, the darkness will continue to raise its ugly head and attempt to usurp some dominion.  That some of these Alt Right / White Supremacists employ Christian symbols and language demonstrates how insidious the darkness can be.  The darkness, however, will not have the last word.
In the meantime, we have work to do.  The writer of John tells us that in Jesus the light shined in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it (1:5).  We too are to reflect that same light in the midst of the darkness (Matt 5:16).
On Sunday morning l found some hope, a beam of light in the darkness of Charlottesville.  On that morning I participated in the dedication of the Syracuse Karen Baptist Church’s new building.  I looked at the hundreds of faithful worshippers celebrating this expanded ministry in the city and was reminded of Jeremiah’s words to the exiles in Babylon:  “Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce…Pursue the wellbeing of the city where I have sent you into exile [Jer. 29: 5, 7].”
Could it be that these new Americans, whom the Alt Right would like to drive from our country, may well be a part of our salvation?  They carry a deep faith in God, a faith tested by persecution and hardship.  They embody one strain of the character and history of our country.
God forged the character of Israel on the anvil of her history.  Now God is forging the character of our nation on the anvil of current events.  Do not be deceived; the powers and principalities of the world are at play here.  But do not despair; we know who wins in the end—God.

For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.  Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints (Ephesians 6:12-18).

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

 

Monday, August 7, 2017

Feeling a Bit Odd These Days?

“I am not the same person,” I said.  I had just returned from a stint as a summer student missionary to Michigan (sent all the way from Ohio) between my sophomore and junior years in college, and I was explaining to my friend what an impression this service had made on me.  I experienced the world, my life, and even myself in a transformed way.

Jump ahead 37 years, and I was hearing much the same thing from a group of high school and college students.
We were debriefing in the closing days of a mission trip to Nicaragua, and these young people were sharing about the impact of the trip on them.  They talked about how the experience had changed them, about how they would see the world in different way when they returned home.
I cautioned them about the conforming power of the inertia of our lives.  We may return from an experience feeling changed, but the rhythm and routine of our lives will do all it can to undo any transformation.  The people to whom we return will expect us to be the same people we have always been; it will be difficult for them to adjust. 

The longer we live, the more powerful this barrier to change grows.  To say the young are impressionable is to say that the tyranny of the status quo is weaker in them.
Part of growth as a believer is to feel increasingly ill at ease in once familiar places.  Growing more into the image of Jesus can mean that others understand us less.  Faith can have a distancing effect on us as we change and the world around us does not. 

Flanner O’Conner once quipped: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.”  Feeling odd and ill at ease in an untransformed world should be comforting to us; it means renewal is growing in us.
 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).
Jim Kelsey-Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State~

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