Tuesday, August 1, 2023

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

 July 28, 2023




PART ONE: ARE WE MAKING DISCIPLES OR MEMBERS?

 

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  When they saw him, they worshiped him, but they doubted.  And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16—20)

 

 

Make Disciples

 

It is called “the primacy effect” and “the recency effect.” 

 

We remember best the beginning and the ending of a story. Writers know this and often place the most important material at the beginning and the end of a narrative. So Jesus’ departing instructions to his disciples in Matthew’s Gospel should garner great attention from us. These are his last spoken words, indeed, the final words of the book.  The author is saying: If you don’t remember anything else Jesus said, remember this: “Make disciples as you go through your life.”

 

Michael Foss, a Lutheran pastor, writes about shifting our churches from a culture of membership to a culture of discipleship (Power Surge: Six Marks of Discipleship for a Changing Church). This might seem a bit unsettling to people like me and many of you who have spent much of our lives seeking to build and then maintain the membership of our churches. Jesus is saying job one for his followers is to be disciples and then make others. Member-making can be seen as a part of that work, but disciple-making is a far more comprehensive project.

 

I believe membership in a congregation reaps rewards in our own lives and in the life of our community and the broader world. I am not badmouthing membership. In the letters of Paul we see that those followers in closest historical proximity to Jesus quickly organized themselves into local communities of believers. Paul wrote in Ephesians 4 about the life of local congregations and the responsibility membership brings. In the midst of this chapter he writes: “So then, putting away falsehood, let each of you speak the truth with your neighbor, for we are members of one another [4:25].” We will, in a future piece, look at the nuanced differences between “membership” and “being members of one another;” they are not necessarily the same thing.

 

I wonder if in our attention to membership concerns we have lost sight of the higher calling: making disciples. Member-making and disciple-making are not mutually exclusive. They are not, however, precisely the same thing.

 

Making Disciples—Our Original Task

Thinking about disciple-making—in distinction from member-making—can help us move forward and find renewed vitality and purpose in our congregations.

 

In the next few months, I will be writing more on this. Next time we will look at how Jesus models disciple-making in the first conversation he initiates in Matthew’s telling of the story.

 

I am also interested in what you think. What do you see as the distinctions between member-making and disciple-making? Write me at jkelsey@abc-nys.org. We will sort this out together.

 

Blessings,

Jim

ABCNYS Executive Minister


Friday, April 14, 2023

Resurrection and Mass Shooting in Louisville

 


TRAGEDY CLOSE TO HOME

Tragedy always hits harder when it strikes closer to home. There have been 19 mass shootings in America this year, shootings in which 4 or more people were killed.  All of them are horrific, but some of them feel more personal.

 On April 9th Christians around the globe celebrated Easter. The next morning, with songs of resurrection still ringing in our ears, we learned of the killing of 5 people at the Old National Bank in Louisville KY.

These killings struck close to home for me.  I spent 11 years living in Louisville.  I grew into young adulthood in that city.  I earned an M.Div. and a PhD in that town, a period of transformative theological growth for me.  I made life-long friends in that place; if you look closely you can still see their fingerprints on my life.  I fell in in love and got married in that place.  A city I cherish and to which I owe a lot has been wounded.

I thought about that woundedness in light of the resurrection.

RECONCILING RESURRECTION WITH REALITY

How do we reconcile the tension between our Easter anthems on Sunday and the bloody killings in a bank in Louisville the next morning?

 The French theologian (with the German-sounding name) Oscar Cullman once made a connection between the final phase of WW II and the victory of Jesus on Calvary.  Cullman observed that on D Day, once the Allied soldiers got across the beaches of Normandy and into the hedgerows, the war was won. From there the Allies would move south and west across France fighting village by village.  They would make their way into Germany and finally on to Berlin.  When they got off the sand onto soil, the war was won.

From the hedgerows of coastal France to Berlin was, nonetheless, a long slog.  More people would die.  The road ahead held headships for sure.  As they got off the beaches and into the villages the war was won, but it was not yet over.  There was still a lot of mopping up to do.

This is where we live, in the mopping up phase of things.  The Enemy is defeated, but the Enemy has not yet yielded. The victory of God in Christ is inevitable, but battles are still to be waged. 

The Apostle Paul in Ephesians chapter 6 admonishes us to put on the whole armor of God. Paul, of all people, affirmed in the victory of God in Jesus. Yet Paul realized there are still some battles to be fought.  He also realized that we wage war not just against random incidental violence.  When a young adult walks into a bank conference room armed with an AR 15 style semi-automatic assault rifle intending to kill, we see we are up against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Eph. 6:12).” We see this is about a great deal more than one disappointed well-armed soon-to-be unemployed worker.

HOW DO WE LIVE IN THE MEANTIME?

How do we live in the meantime, as we proclaim resurrection yet mourn Louisville and her dead and the countless other atrocities in our world? 

Victory is assured, but there are still battles to be fought.  In this time of mopping up, we carry on the work Jesus began:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to set free those who are oppressed,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)

It is still a battle.  Our world is not in favor of the work of Jesus. 

Jim Kelsey 

Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Agreeing with God and Living Well with Ourselves

 

Psalm 32

Lent 2023

 

THE MOOD OF LENT

From childhood, we are taught how to navigate life: play nice; get along well with others; and share your toys. As we grow older, our relationships grow more complex, as do the rules.  Those basic childhood rules, however, are still good guides to adult living.  In particular, getting along well with others increase our joy and minimizes our hardships as we move through life. 

The season of Lent is about living well with God.  It is also about living well with ourselves.  The two are intertwined.

During Lent we have a tendency to talk about repentance, which presupposes moral culpability for the damage we have done and the good we have left undone. The traditional Bible word for this is sin. 

MODERN SENSIBILITIES

Freud came along and taught us to categorize our behavior in a clinically detached way, removing most of the moral element. The rationale of Lent rejects this particular piece of Freudian thought.

 Then Margaret Mead, the American anthropologist, came along and argued that human behavior is culturally conditioned; we are a product of our society. She tested this by examining gender roles in different societies. The question is not whether behavior is right or wrong but rather is it appropriate.  We are certainly a product, to some degree, of our environment.  This does not, however, remove our responsibility for how we live.  Lent recognizes this responsibility.

Both Freud and Mead should, however, introduce some caution and compassion into our commentary on ourselves and others.  If we see a turtle on a fence post, we know the turtle did not put itself up there; it had help.  Our response should be to help the turtle off the fence post, so to speak.  When we see the life of another person headed in a destructive way, we need to remember they had help getting to that point. We should do what we can to help them to move to a better place.  We should engage in the same compassion concerning our own lives.

Recognizing moral culpability, ours and that of others, does not free us from compassion, mercy, and patience.  That failure, in and of itself, makes us morally culpable. 

THE NAGGING SENSE THAT SOMETHING IS NOT QUITE RIGHT

With modern sensibilities—via Freud and Mead—deleting much of the moral dimension from our behavior, we might expect we all would feel free from guilt and feel empowered us to accept ourselves without any personal discomfort.

 

Experience has not born that out.  The 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr observed that the tragedy of modern people is we can conceive of self-perfection but cannot achieve it.  We still sense that something is not quite right with us.  In the quiet of the night, we find ourselves unsettled about ourselves.  We regret things said and done and things not said and not done.

Karl Jung hit closer to the mark than did Freud or Mead.  Jung observed we have a shadow self, a part of our character that does not match up with our ideal sense of we would like to be.  There are parts of us that are not only unacceptable to those around us but are also unacceptable to ourselves.  Jung encourages us to accept that shadow self, not indulge it but acknowledge it.  In that way we can gain some power over it; we disarm it.

THE PSALMIST ALREADY KNEW ALL THIS

The Psalmist wrote the same thing long ago:  “While I kept silent my body wasted away [v. 3].”  When the Psalmist acknowledges the truth that has been lurking within, the Psalmist is set free:  “Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did hide my iniquity [v. 5].”

Upon realizing there is healing and joy in agreeing with God about our failures, the Psalmist enthusiastically proclaims:  “I will confess my transgression to the Lord,” and God forgave the guilt of my sin.  In honesty before God, God becomes a “hiding place” for the Psalmist, a preserver and deliverer (v. 7).

When we agree with God—which is the definition of confession—and take ownership of the damage we have done and the good we have left undone, then we are finally free to live comfortably with ourselves and with God. 

Adam, when confronted by God for eating the forbidden fruit, blames “the woman whom you gave to be with me” (Gen. 3:12), thereby blaming the woman and implicitly blaming God for giving him the woman in the first place!  Eve, when confronted by God, blames the snake (Gen. 3:12-14). We too, when confronted with our failures, want to assign blame elsewhere.  The Psalmist will have none of that.

 I suspect hell is a place where no one takes responsibility for anything. Everyone all day long chimes “not my fault,” and nothing is ever repaired. 

GRACE ENABLES US TO BEAR UP UNDER HONESTY

This kind of honest responsibility-taking can lead to despair and alienation from ourselves and God if it comes to us unaccompanied by grace. If this honesty is coupled with confession and an experience of grace, we walk across the threshold to renewed life.  We find a way to live with ourselves, knowing that we are--for now--a long way from perfect.

The Swiss physician Paul Tournier compares confession to pulling out a stopper so life can flow again. This is what the Psalmist discovered long before Touriner put it so concretely. 

The rhythm of Lent is not a song of denial and discipline and denigration of self.  Rather the rhythm of Lent is a tune of renewed and grander life.  It is about agreeing with God and finding a way to live with our imperfect selves and a holy God.

Our God, we have done things we should not have done, and we have left undone things we should have done.  We could have chosen otherwise.  And we have tried to find relief through denial and blaming.  

We cast ourselves upon your mercy. 

Cleanse us from guilt and empower us to do better.  May your Spirit nourish renewed life in us in this season of Lent.

For the forgiveness of sin, for deliverance from our weakness, we give you thanks.  May the assurance of your love and your longing for our wholeness embolden us to be honest with ourselves and the grace to live with ourselves—not satisfied with who we are—but able to begin there and grow evermore into the image of your Son Jesus Christ. Amen. 

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

Monday, February 27, 2023

THE ASBURY GATHERING IN A BROADER FRAME

 


What Is Going On?

Most of us, by now, have heard of the extended worship service that blossomed at Asbury University in Kentucky.  This phenomenon has spawned similar experiences at Lee University in Tennessee, Cedarville University in Ohio, and Texas A&M.

First, I do not want to join the voices of those who question the motives, authenticity, or sincerity of these young people. 

It seems these days we have trouble affirming anything that might be a bit beyond our range of experiences, beyond the common lore of “our tribe.”  I suspect we might be threatened by anything that does not necessarily fit within the self-affirming ideological and philosophical strictures for how life and faith should work.  

God moves in peoples’ lives. Just because God has not moved in my life or your life in this way, at least in a long time, does not mean it is to be summarily dismissed as just so much melodrama.

I do, however, want to set the religious experiences of these young people within a broader frame of reference.  

We Were All Young Once

I became a Christian as a sophomore in college.  I was all in all the time for Jesus.  As Jacques Ellul, the French Marxist Philosopher turned Christian pastor, wrote: I was violently converted.  I was truly reborn as a new peosn into a new life.

In those years, my faith was quite straight forward: Always do what God wanted me to do—pay any price, climb any mountain, follow any path.  I believed the will of God would come to me, with due diligence on my part, with reassuring clarity and timeliness. 

I saw the world and my life in simple terms.  I had little responsibility, a narrow range of experiences, and the horizon of my thinking rarely extended beyond the end of the academic year.  I had a faith that was appropriate for me.

As I now move through my sixties, I have covered a lot of ground, seen a lot stuff, and known a lot of people.  The college faith I once had is no longer sufficient and appropriate for me.  Throughout the decades God has reformed, reshaped, and renewed my faith multiple times.  In each season, I had a faith appropriate for that day and place.

I am not suggesting that the students caught up in these extended worship experiences have an immature faith.  I am suggesting they have an appropriate faith for their time and place.  Maybe some of our unsettledness over what we are seeing at Asbury springs from a long-dormant longing to be back in a simpler place and time.

These are young people, and perhaps this is how God has chosen to move in their lives.  We should be glad for them.  We were all young once.

What Will Come of This?

Even though we may see the appropriateness of this religious experience, we must ask:  What will come of this?  Where will it go?  An experience of faith that does not move us on to a new place is a missed opportunity.

The Prophets shared that God has little patience with religious devotion that does not drive us out into the broader world and work of God.

Isaiah points up the contrast between the people’s pious worship, in this particular case the practice of fasting, and their greedy oppression of workers and their proclivity to quarreling and violence and then he writes:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry

   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them
    and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you;
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. (58:6-8)

Fasting is good discipline; but as an end unto itself, it is an insult to God.

Micah (6:6-8) makes much the same point about sacrifice:

With what shall I come before the Lord
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good,
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice and to love kindness
    and to walk humbly with your God?

Sacrifice is a good thing; but as an end unto itself, it is an insult to God.

Finally, the Prophet Amos (5:21-24) says to those who piously worship but do not practice justice during the week:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them,
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
    I will not look upon.
 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
 But let justice roll down like water
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Again, same story,

Jesus issued the same sort of condemnation in his day (Matthew 23:23):

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin 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.

One should tithe says Jesus, but tithing should spawn justice, mercy, and faith.

It will be interesting to see what becomes of these outbreaks of protracted worship.  You can tell a tree by its fruit (Luke 6:43-44). Let us give this tree time to bear its fruit.  Our perceptive should be more long term than just the news of the day.

Generosity and Hope

So what do we make of what is happening at Asbury and other campuses?  First, it may well be the most appropriate expression of Christian experience for those students.  God speaks to us and works within us in ways appropriate for who we are and where we are at that moment.  Let us be generous.

We will wait to see what comes of this.  We may be surprised.  Let us be hopeful.

Jim Kelsey

Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State

Saturday, December 24, 2022

LIGHT THAT WARMS—Isaiah 9:1-7

 


  

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.

In the darkest days of the year, the world around us is ablaze with decorated trees, strings of lights, and Santa and reindeer and mangers with lightbulbs inside.  I look out my dining room window and see the beautiful decorations on my neighbors’ houses shining in the night, glistening beneath the newly fallen snow.

Our celebration of Christmas is well lit, but those lights will fade as the season passes into the wimter of 2023.

 Isaiah talks of a light that never fades.  He names the light “Everlasting Father,” and says “Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.”  The prophet has in mind no passing season but an enduring change to the creation and within us.

Isaiah wrote to a people with no electric lights. The lives of Isaiah’s readers were ruled by the sun and the moon.  Their nights were lit by candle and torches, but candles and torches eventually burn out. They were powerless in any lasting way against the darkness that enveloped them each evening.

Our challenge is different; we have too much light.  We are able to generate artificial light to drive back the immediate darkness and ease our anxieties a bit.  In Belgium, the entire highway system is lit by bright lamps.  We have cities that glow in the night; you can see them from an airplane.  Our homes and public places are made bright by ubiquitous lights.

We think we can disarm the darkness through our own efforts.  We are mistaken.

The German poet Johann Wolfgang van Goethe is reported to have cried at the point of death:  More light, more light! Open the window that more light may come in.  Is it more light we need, or do we need a different type of light?

All this light we manufacture does not make our world any warmer.  We live with the illusion that we are conquering the darkness; but without warmth, light cannot sustain and nurture and heal us. 

The 20th century Spanish write Miguel de Unamuno reflected: It is not more light we need, but more warmth. Warmth, warmth, more warmth!  We die of cold, not darkness.  It is the not the night that kills, but the frost. All the artificial light in which we enrobe ourselves cannot remove the chill from our world.  The cold still numbs us to God’s love and to the needs and dreams of our neighbor.

Indifference and fear and racism and greed and self-interest and jealousy and materialism all chill us to the bone and paralyze us.  Isaiah writes of a light that comes as warmth, a light that disarms the numbness of our world and the chill within us.  This is a light that not only enlightens but also reanimates the creation.  Christians have named that light Jesus.

This time of year we remind one another that Jesus is the light of the world.  It is easy to forget this in the midst of all the frantically self-manufactured artificial brightness around us.  The light that Jesus brings does more than temporarily hold the darkness at a safe distance; it warms us as well.  It enables us and refreshes us and renews us.  It animates us to a new way of living. 

Hopefully it ennobles us to become light to those around us, the kind of light that warms and thaws the lives of others.  This is not the artificial manufactured brightness of our Christmas decorations. This is a light that comes from above and is visited upon us in that child placed in a manger so long ago.

In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overtake it. (John 1:4—5)

 

Jim Kelsey

Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State

Thursday, December 22, 2022

THE INVASION: Luke 2:1—20

 

We Recognize this Place

Luke begins his story of Christmas on a bit of a sour note: taxes.  December is the time of year when we try not to think about the tax returns we all will be filing come 2023.

 In his reference to the revenue census, Luke reminds us that the birth of Jesus is not some tender-hearted Hallmark Christmas special with soft music and a quaint small-town setting. 

 Rather, we get taxes and a heavily pregnant woman traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem by foot or by donkey, fulfilling an Empire-mandated journey.  This is no trip to grandma’s house in the family minivan. When Joseph and Mary get to Bethlehem, the lodgings are all full and there are no spare beds.  Jesus is born outside and laid in a feed trough.

 This is important to Luke’s telling of the story.  The birth of the Son of God takes place in the real world, among the challenges of daily life. This happens in no fairy tale world; it transpires in the world where we live.  We recognize this place.

 Yet There Are Extraordinary Happenings Here

Nonetheless, angels appear in the story.  And the glory of the Lord shines down from on high.  This is no ordinary night.  The shepherds are given a message from another realm.  They are told that the most ordinary of things—an infant swaddled in cloths lying in a feeding trough—is a sign of something extraordinary. It is a sign that the Messiah, the Lord, has come.  This is no ordinary evening.

 The angels sing:

Glory to God in the highest

heaven,

 and on earth peace among

those whom he favors.

In the birth of this child, heaven and earth embrace one another. 

 Celtic spirituality developed the concept of “thin places.”  A thin place is a physical location where the separation between the divine and the earth is considered to be thin. In other words, the Divine is unusually accessible.  That feed trough was the thinnest of all places.  It is so thin, one could call it an invasion.

 The Invasion

An elderly Dutch woman remembers the dark days before the Christmas of 1944, recalling how each night they sat secretly around the wireless, eagerly hoping to hear some coded message that meant the invasion has begun.  They would scan the skies looking for Allied planes and walk the dykes looking for ships on the horizon, and praying, always praying.  They were starving; the Jews were all gone. They wondered could they endure another year of Nazi occupation. 

 They knew they were powerless to save themselves.  Help must come from somewhere else.

 This is the message the angels bring. The invasion has begun; help is coming from somewhere else. They sing:

Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord.  And this will be a sign for you, you will find the baby wrapped is swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

This is something more durable than a visitation.  This is an invasion.  Few people took note night; Only Mary and Joseph and some shepherds marked the event.  Nevertheless, the invasion had begun.

 World Rejecting

This is not a story about fleeing or escaping this world.  Rather, the Creator of the heavens and the earth enters our world and our lives.

 The German sociologist Max Weber observed that Christianity is not a world fleeing faith.  It is a world rejecting faith.  It is a faith that plants itself amid life in this world and says: “I reject what you have done to one another. I reject what you have done to my creation.  I reject the shallow and passing things you have grown to crave.”

God in Christ simply refuses to leave us and our world the way we are.  This child will grow up to comfort and renew and forgive and love.  He will also grow up to challenge and confront and correct. The one thing he will not do is leave us and our world as it is.

 Mary had already warned us as she contemplated what God would do through this child:

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty. (1:51-53

 God simply will not leave us alone.

 God Was All In

We who celebrate this child’s birth should be sober about what is really happening in the shadows of that night long ago.  This is no dreamy holiday production.  This is an invasion.

In George MacDonald’s allegorical fairy tale, The Golden Key, a young heroine meets the Old Man of the Earth on her quest for the land from which the shadows fall. The Old Man of the Earth guides her on to the next leg of her journey.

Then the Old Man of the Earth stooped over the floor of the cave, raised a huge stone from it, and left it leaning. It disclosed a great hole that went plumb-down.
"That is the way," he said.
"But there are no stairs."
"You must throw yourself in. There is no other way.”

 God threw Godself into our world that night in that baby; there was no other way.

 Jim Kelsey

Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State

Art Credit: Adoration of the Child by Gerard van Honthorst, Uffizi, Florence.

 

Art Credit: Adoration of the Child by Gerard van Honthorst, Uffizi, Florence.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

I Joined a Gym: Living an Intentional Life


 

Last November I went on Medicare. In January I joined the All American Fitness Center.  Yes, there is a connection.

I have accepted that if I am going to continue to feel energetic and fit, I need to work at it.  Also, I hope to get more than my money’s worth out of Medicare and Social Security by outliving the cold calculations of the governmental actuaries.

The All American Fitness Center is not like the gyms on TV.  There are no people in sleek matching workout clothes looking for dates.  They are no spin classes.  They sell no aqua-colored health drinks or fancy French fizzy water. They do have t-shirts for sale.

We are people in baggy sweatpants or plaid walking shorts and stretched-out t-shirts. Some of us have athletic shoes; others do not.  It is a place where no one is going to judge you for your appearance or your physical prowess. We are, however, people with clarity of purpose; each of us is on our own journey of continuing health, a return to health, or recovery from surgery.

The more the people around me talk of their joint replacements, the harder I pedal!

I am learning something about living an intentional life as I roll out of bed before dawn and make my way to the gym through empty streets. I am learning that intending something and living an intentional life are not the same thing.  It would be so easy to roll over and go back to sleep, intending to go exercise tomorrow.

 I had been intending to build more exercise into my life for years.  Apart from an occasional brisk walk with my dog or pushing the lawn mower or a little digging in the garden, my intentions counted for little.  Intending is not the same thing as doing. The word intentional is an adjective.  It describes something you are doing, not a state of mind.

What have trips to the fitness center taught me? 

First, I need to go there to exercise.  If I try to do it at home, I will not follow through in a focused way.  I need to have a place and a time where I do nothing else but exercise.  This needs to be a place where I am not distracted by all the preoccupations that fill the other places in my life.

Sometimes putting intentions into action involves putting ourselves in new places with new people.  If I intend to have a more diverse group of friends yet continue to go the same places and do the same things, my portfolio of friends will remain unchanged.  If I intend to read more yet do not stop at the library, it is unlikely I will watch less TV and read more. If I intend to improve the quality of education in my community, I need to go to a tutoring center and volunteer.  If I want to know the Bible better, I need to join up with others who are reading and talking about the Bible.

Second, I need to give it time.  One week of exercise did not make a difference in how I felt.  After years of neglect, my body would not be transformed in a week or even a month.  I am now, after eight months, feeling more energetic, resting better, and able to do things with less effort; but I must stay with it.  If I let up, I will lose what I have gained.  Much of life is not about arriving; it is about an ongoing journey in a particular direction.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in his book Beyond Good and Evil wrote: “The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.”  There was, admittedly, little in heaven or earth that Nietzsche thought to make life worth living.  Yet many Christian writers, which Nietzsche was not, have picked up on the image of a long obedience in the same direction as a paradigm for the Christian life.

My experience at the gym has taught me that living into the life of Jesus is, like staying fit in my 60’s, a long obedience in the same direction.  It is an obedience that is nourished in intentional places and activities, temporarily free from the preoccupations that otherwise fill our days.

As I go through my exercise regimen, I remember the advice of the writer of Hebrews: “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us [12:1].” The writer has more in mind than lowered blood pressure and added flexibility.  The writer sees the call of Christ in our lives as a race to be run.  

The Apostle Paul uses this same image repeatedly: 1 Cor. 9:24; Gal. 2:2; and Phil 2:16. Paul saw faith as a life-long intentional enterprise to be deliberately pursued.

Following Christ's call to embody love and embrace those around us in a deliberate and enduring way is like training for a race.  We condition ourselves to be fitted out for such obedience.

The well-lived Christian life is a long obedience in the same direction.

Jim Kelsey

Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State