Friday, August 28, 2020

The Marathon of Covid19


Paul Simon captures my sentiments about COVID19 in his song You Can Call Me Al: “I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore.”  I don’t find COVID19 amusing anymore, not in the least.

I was asleep in Rwanda on Wednesday, March 11th, when my wife called me at 1:30 a.m. Rwandan time and said the president was closing the U.S. borders on Sunday.  I had to get home before then or spend a long time in Rwanda.  I like Rwanda, but I also like being at home with my wife.  She made for me a reservation that night to fly home through Qatar on Saturday.  The next day the Administration clarified that citizens would be admitted to the country but would need to go through quarantine.

It was good my wife acted fast nonetheless.  The next day airlines started canceling all flights from Africa to Europe.  Tickets for other routes became hard to come by.

Thus began my introduction to the pandemic. It was jolting and disruptive and cost me staying in Rwanda long enough to do a reconciliation practicum in a Rwandan prison.  The virus and I got off to a bad start.  Things between us have not improved.

New York State is doing better these days after some grim and frightening months.  New Yorkers are enjoying a bit more freedom; our churches are free to meet in person if they follow strict safety protocols.  Many are choosing to play it safe and postpone gathered in-person worship.  Even when we are together, it feels awkward. There is an inevitable sense of wariness as we greet one another.

Americans in other places are suffering unprecedented infections and deaths.  And even New Yorkers  know the tide could turn against us at any time, and we would be sent back to our bunkers in quarantine.  And there is the agony of what to do about students returning to school.

I really don’t find this stuff amusing anymore, really not amusing. 

What we took to be a quarter mile race has turned into a marathon, and they keep moving the finish line.

I think about the Apostle Paul these days; he characterized the life of faith as a race to be run.

Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.  Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one.  So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air;  but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified (1 Cor. 9:24—27).

How do we exercise self-control and run this pandemic race successfully?

First, we need to change our expectations of ourselves and others.  We are working harder and having fewer tangible to results to show for our efforts.  We think if we try harder and put in more time, we will overcome these challenges.  So we lurch ahead doing all we can at every moment; but when running a marathon, the key is to find a rhythm and gait that are sustainable for the distance.  We must run in a way that preserves our health—emotional, physical, and spiritual.

The Mongol Derby is the longest horse race in the world, spanning 600 miles.  It recreates the messenger system established by Genghis Khan in 1224. 

Lara Palmer, in 2013, was the first woman to win this grueling challenge and came to the event with no experience in marathon horse racing, none.

When asked how she did it, she replied that one must find a rhythm with the horse, get in sync with the gate of your animal.  She rode 70 different horses during the trek and had to adapt to each horse’s characteristics.  It was like riding 70 different races.

During the race, each rider must take breaks; and at the break, event officials measure the horse’s heart rate.  If the rate does not return to normal within a set period of time, the rider is docked 2 hours.  The point is the riders must pace themselves.  Abusing themselves and their horses is a losing strategy in the long run.

So it is in any marathon.  We must exercise self-control and pace ourselves so we can keep running and not fall ruined by the side of the road.

The COVID19 pandemic is a marathon; it is not a sprint, not even a miler.  It makes a cross country race look brief.  We cannot see the finish line, so we must find a rhythm we can sustain for as long we shall run.

A rhythm that will sustain us consists of sleep, prayer, work, and play.  Everyday.  Keeping track of the balance between these disciplines will carry us to the finish line, whenever and wherever that might be.

The writer of Hebrews, after cataloguing centuries of hardship and suffering of the faithful, writes:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God [Heb. 12:1—2].

We are not the first people to run with perseverance a race fueled by faith, inspired by the one who always ran faithfully and finished well.

Sleep, pray, work, and play—every day. Start keeping track of your rhythm and keep your daily gait sustainable.

Jim Kelsey

Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State


Friday, July 31, 2020

John Robert Lewis: Memory & Legacy

Memory and Legacy
Representative John Robert Lewis died on July 17, 2020.  There have been multiple memorial services remembering his fine deeds and exemplary character.

Rep. Lewis was one of the six principal organizers of the 1963 March on Washington, a peaceful demonstration demanding civil rights for people of color.  Rep. Lewis was the youngest speaker on the platform the day of the protest.

As time passes protests have a way of becoming “marches.”  In this change of language we can domesticate the past and enable ourselves to avoid drawing direct connections between the past and the present.

Rep. Lewis was on the front line—literally—of the orderly peaceful protest on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, and was a victim of police violence on that day.  The orderly protest became disorderly when the forces of order began to beat the demonstrators.

In 1986, Lewis was elected to represent Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District, where he was known as the “conscience of the House.”  He served there until his death.

One could go on quite a while cataloguing the accomplishments of Rep. Lewis.  That is all memory.

How is memory different from legacy?  Memory is rooted in what was but is no more.  Legacy is what we leave behind that lives on after we are gone.  A legacy has lasting consequences and shapes the future. It is like planting seeds in a garden we will never see.

Jesus on Memory and Legacy
The difference between a memory of the prophets and their proper legacy was a point of conflict between Jesus and some of the religious leaders of his day.

Jesus and these religious leaders went round and round about the prophets.  They both thought the work of the prophets should be remembered and honored, but they remembered that work in different ways.  They assign differing legacies to it, as well.

Jesus reminds these leaders that their ancestors killed the prophets.  He then goes on to say the present generation is not unlike their ancestors:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous,  and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’  Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets…Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town… (Matt 23:29-31, 34).
These religious leaders did not want anyone messing with their comforting memories of the prophets.  Thus they found Jesus rather aggravating.

Jesus saw himself as building upon the legacy of the prophets: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt 5:17).  His opponents wanted to construct a different legacy.  Jesus responds to their shaping of the prophetic legacy with:  “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others” (Matt 23:23).

This argument is about differing legacies.

The Legacy of Rep. Lewis
It is important to maintain the memory of Rep. Lewis not just as “the conscience of the House” with a lyrical prosaic voice but also as an unsettling conscience that often discomforted America, aggravated people, and at times drew violent responses.  He carried in his body scars of the cost of his conscience.

We need also to ask how we will build on Lewis’s legacy.  How will the seeds he planted come to bloom in the garden of our nation?

It is easy when a great person dies to put them on a pedestal and admire the memory.  Rep. John Lewis’s legacy, however, will be built in the classrooms, in the courtrooms, in the jails, in the legislatures, in the board rooms, in the living rooms, and in the streets of our nation.  A legacy is a living thing, not a monument set in stone.

We truly honor people not just by remembering them but also by nurturing the seeds they planted into a living legacy of their lives—in Lewis’s case by getting into “good trouble.”

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

Friday, July 17, 2020

Apologies and Reconciliation

She lamented:  “He has never once said he’s sorry in all these years.  If he would simply say that, it could be over for me.”
Fifteen years earlier her husband had an affair.  They worked through it and were raising two children together.  As far as she knew, he had not done anything like that again; their marriage was secure.  Yet she was still waiting for an apology—nothing elaborate, simply an apology.
When we hurt one another, it is often not possible to undo all the damage done.  Yet an apology can sow reconciliation where all cannot be repaired.  Perhaps apologies are part of the ministry of reconciliation in which we have been enrolled (2 Cor. 5:18).
Apologizing for something we did that injured someone else makes sense.
What about apologizing for something in which we played no part?  
Perhaps we have some connection to the people who did this hurtful thing or maybe we have somehow benefited from what was done.  What about that?
I spent some time in Rwanda earlier this year going through a training called “Healing the Wounds of Ethnic Conflict” with a group made up mostly of Africans, with a few North Americans and Europeans thrown in.  The purpose of the program is to bring reconciliation among people who have a troubled history with one another. 
Part of our training involved a practice called “standing in the gap.”    This is where you apologize for something “your people” did in which you played no personal part.
Our group traveled one day to a community populated by both perpetrators and victims of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.  At one point a French man, who was a part of our group, walked over and kneeled before the villagers and apologized for the role France had played in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, how they helped create the divisions and then did nothing to stop the killing.  As he kneeled, an audible gasp passed among the villagers.  They were stunned that a Westerner would kneel before them and ask for forgiveness; Westerners rarely humble themselves before Africans. 
 I cannot remember the last time I have had such a compelling sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit; I felt myself standing on holy ground, like Moses by that bush that burned.
Apologizing for something “your people” did to “another people” for a thing in which you played no part—perhaps you were not even born—may make no sense in the social and political economy of our day.  We are more interested in calibrating personal responsibility than seeking out avenues of reconciliation.
If we read more of Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5, we see Paul found this true in his day as well:
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.  So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:16-21).
Paul writes that we no longer regard others (and ourselves, I assume) from “a human point of view.”  We are “a new creation." What used to characterize us and still characterizes the world around us no longer describes us.  In other words, what makes sense to and is accepted by those around us is no longer true of us.  We are ambassadors from another land, so to speak, where the norms and values and people’s intentions are different.
That day in the Rwandan village as that French man apologized, something broke loose in me, some good and holy, I believe.  I was transported, for a moment to another land where this made sense in the interest of reconciliation.  I am now willing, for the sake of reconciliation, to apologize for things in which I played no part but from which I have benefitted if that apology can bring reconciliation where there is now hurt and division.
Some people might find this unintelligible or even infuriating. I don’t judge people who don’t see God in this or, on the other hand, have little interest in experiencing the presence of God at all. I am simply saying that I experienced the power of the living Christ in this practice.  It has made a fertile place in my heart for the growth of this “new creation” the Spirit is nurturing in each of us.
I cannot undo the past, but I can acknowledge it and own my inheritance of it.  And I can take up the ministry of reconciliation and do all I can to be a good ambassador of the one who seeks all people to be reconciled to one another and to God.
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State

Monday, June 29, 2020

God's Voice in Quarantine and Civil Disruption

God is forging our faith on the anvil of our lives.

God uses our experiences to shape our spirituality in a way that equips us to flourish and remain faithful in the changing circumstances of our lives (Romans 8:28).

Carlyle Fielding Stewart III writes that the experiences of African Americans—slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, discrimination, and racism—have been translated into a spirituality that “has enabled black people to develop, translate, and ritualize the hazards and adversities of their social condition into some meaningful culture of survival [Black Spirituality & Black Consciousness—Soul Fore, Culture and Freedom in the African American Experience. P. 17].”  The spirituality born of this experience has worked as a countervailing influence to the devaluing and delegitimization of African-American peoples (p. 54).   According to Fielding, this spirituality has spawned 3 keys that have led to the survival of African Americans: a strong sense of community; a capacity to embrace nonviolence; and resiliency.

Life changes us.

I remember the first time I held our newborn son.  In that moment I realized my life would be changed forever.  

As a parent, I have come to understand God and God’s love for us in fresh ways, God being a heavenly parent. I appreciate in deeper ways the meaning of commitment and partnership through shared parenting with my wife. I know what it is to love someone yet let them choose for themselves.  I know sacrifice through the experience of raising children.  Through parenting, God has changed me.

John Claypool, after his 8 year old daughter had just been diagnosed with leukemia, said to his congregation at Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville KY:
“Long before this happened to me, I had come to the conclusion that, it was the nature of God to speak to us through the language of events, and that it was the nature of the church for human beings to share with each other what they thought they had heard God say in the thing that happened to them (Tracks of a Fellow Struggler—Living and Growing Through Grief).

God is and will continue to speak to us through our experiences of both pandemic and a refreshed awareness of racism in our country.  We—our churches, our families, our nation, and our world—will be different moving into the future.  This is a liminal experience.  That means that we are in a place where we are passing from one place to another, and we are standing with one foot on each side of the threshold. It can be a moment of disorientation and uncertainty.

It can also be a moment of profound opportunity for people of faith.  God can teach us through these experiences if we listen to our lives.  Claypool points out that the church is the place where we talk about what we hear God saying to us as we listen to our lives.  At this point it is still premature to venture a guess as to what all God will say, but God will have a transforming word for us.

When we are back together—and we will be back together someday—let us listen to God and then share with one another what we have heard God saying.  God is even now forging our faith on the anvil of our living.

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

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Woundedness, Anger, and Reconciliation

It was a moment of healing for me.

I sat in a classroom on the outskirts of Kigali, Rwanda.  My fellow students, the overwhelming majority of whom were African, and I were being led through the chapter on “The Wounded Heart” in the curriculum of the International School of Reconciliation, a course of experiential training that has been used with great success to heal the wounds of the genocide in Rwanda.  It is now being used to bring transformation in other places of conflict. 

Joyce, a Kenyan woman, asked us to write down the wounds we carry in our hearts.  I looked around me at people with a living memory of genocide, civil war in South Sudan, and election violence in Kenya.  A woman who still lived under the legacy of Apartheid in South Africa and an African-American woman who remembered the days of Jim Crow sat among us.  Some of these people carried visibly in their bodies scars of their woundedness.

I felt uncomfortable.  I wondered what wounds could I be carrying that would measure up to their scarring.  The wrongs done to me seemed so trivial.  Then Joyce said:  “You do not measure your wounds by the wounds of others.”  She went on to say that woundedness is not a relative thing.  We each have our wounds; great or small, they hurt and hinder us.

This was a liberating moment for me.  I was able to own the wounds I carry. 

The goal of this exercise was that, having owned our woundedness, we would carry those wounds to the cross and find healing and freedom from them in the love of Christ.

This was a part of our training in the way of reconciliation.  We are better equipped to acknowledge the pain of others and foster empathy if we have first owned our own wounds and found healing and freedom from their power over us.  This opens the gates to the journey of reconciliation.

The Bible acknowledges the woundedness we all carry, referring to a “crushed spirit” (Prov. 18:14 and Ps. 34:18).  God heals the brokenhearted and bandages their wounds (Ps. 147:3).  Jesus healed more than people's physical maladies; he healed lives and hearts as well.  Before God can do this for us, we must own our wounds and acknowledge our broken hearts.

Americans, particularly men, are not good at owning woundedness.  Samuel Osherton, in his book Finding Our Fathers—How a Man’s Life is Shaped by His Relationship with His Father, writes about the unexpressed and unacknowledged woundedness men carry.  Below much male anger, he writes, lies a deep sadness and loneliness (p. 110). 

All of us, men and women alike, want to bury our hurts because they, well, hurt. Yet no matter how deeply we bury them, they still shape us.  We try to clothe ourselves and our nation in the trappings of power and might, untouched by failure, hurt, defeat, and disappointment.  We want to move through the world as winners, untouched by loss and defeat.

There is so much anger in our nation these days.  Is it because we deny our vulnerability?  We bury our hurts and pain so deep we can no longer name them, but they still haunts us.

God wants to heal our broken hearts and bind our wounds, both personal and national.  Recognizing and owning our hurts is the beginning of healing and the freedom that follows.  When we have submitted to that process, maybe we will be more successful at healing the brokenness of our communities.

That day in Rwanda, Joyce gave me permission to own my wounds and find healing.  From that flows greater freedom to be reconciled to those around me.

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

Monday, June 1, 2020

Preparing for This Child

Debbie and I have friends who had a baby last week, a baby we have been anticipating for 7 months.  The new parents sent us a picture of baby Joshua, and our first impulse was to jump in the car and rush over to see him.  We wanted to hold him in our arms and touch his smooth soft brown skin.  I would get him to make eye contact with me.  I can do that; I am good with babies.

Then, we remembered the quarantine.  We will get there and hold him someday--just not now. 

In Joshua’s face you can already see a beautiful spirit incarnated in that little black body.    He is already a fully formed person, crafted in the image of the Maker of heaven and earth.  Already, his life matters.

When I finally get the chance, I will hold him and will not want to let go.  I will want to continue to hold him even as he grows into a toddler and then into a school boy.  I will want to hold on even more tightly as he becomes a teenager and then a young black man in America.  I will want to hold him and never let him go to make sure that he gets every opportunity he deserves and grows old enough to complain of stiff knees and kids walking on his lawn on their way home from school.

I know I cannot do that.  At some point he will go out on his own and face what awaits him.  I hope it is a gentler, kinder, fairer, more just and accepting nation, where he will be judged by the content of his character instead of the color of his skin, as Dr. King put it.  

Change has become personal for me in this child.  He will grow up quickly, and I have work to do to make this place in this world ready for him.

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and 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.  Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.  If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.  Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!” (Matt. 18:1-7)

Everyday children of color are being born in our nation.  We need to get busy preparing this land for them as they grow and go out into our the world we are everyday building, for better or for worse.

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

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

We Travel Together

I am not trying to put lipstick on a pig.  (Do pigs even have lips?  I wouldn’t know; my familiarity   with pigs comes principally from the refrigerated meat section at the grocery store.)  Nonetheless, I see one healthy thing coming out of the losses of the Covid-19 pandemic.

We constantly hear these days that we are in this together, that we must take precautions to protect ourselves and others—particularly the more medically vulnerable.  We have been told to wear non-medical-quality masks not to protect ourselves but to protect those around us.  Most of us are caring for one another, and in doing so we are protecting ourselves as well.  

When I go for my daily walks, I experience a version of what we, as children, called freeze tag.  I come upon someone, and we both freeze silently negotiating who will go which direction to maintain proper social distancing.  It is a way of accommodating and caring for one another and our broader community.

We have realized in these difficult times that we are responsible for one another’s wellbeing.

This has always been true.  We had forgotten it out of greed; we had denied it out of selfishness; we had ignored it out of laziness.  Like Cain, sin has been lurking at our door. Its desire was for us; and we did not master it.  It mastered us.  We, like Cain, convinced ourselves that we are not our neighbor’s keeper, close at hand or distant neighbors (Genesis 4:7-9).

Whenever we say “me and mine first” and do not balance the needs and wellbeing of others with our own, we like Cain have been mastered by sin.

The challenges of pandemic have made vivid again what has always been the case.

I return often these days to the observation of Stephen L. Carter: “The illusion that we travel life alone is ruining us all” (Civility—Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy, p. 8).  Carter calls this illusion incivility.  To be civil is to acknowledge and act upon our inevitable connectedness to one another.  This is also Christian behavior.  The pandemic has made vivid that none of travels alone.  

The president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, wrote:

Dear Fellow South African,

One thing we have learnt about the coronavirus over the last few months is that it does not respect borders.  It has spread across Asia, Europe, North, South and Central America and Africa.  Distinctions of wealth, poverty, nationality, race and class have been rendered meaningless as infections grow in developed and developing countries alike.

The coronavirus has served as a stark reminder that in our interconnected world, no country and no nation exists for and of itself.   It has affirmed once again that realizing a continent and a world free of hunger, want and disease requires the collective effort of all.

We must not let this lesson be forgotten.  Some have already, in light of our recent experience, advocated for the pursuit of even narrower self-interest.  They still think we travel alone through this world.

Jesus, when asked what is the most important priority in living one’s life, answered: “‘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” (Matt 22:37-40)."

The first commandment presumes an awareness of the second commandment.  The second commandment, although principally a moral exhortation grounded in the love of God, may also be a practical observation.  In loving our neighbor. we are in a way loving ourselves.  We are all traveling on the same bus.  What affects one passenger will inevitably affect the others.

This has always been true.  Lately we have been reminded of it in tragic ways.

Jim Kelsey

Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State