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

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Joy Notwithstanding

Pictures of shelves stripped of toilet paper, it was surreal. 

I was spending three weeks in the Rabagirana mission compound in Masaka, Rwanda, with a few Westerners and a number of Africans from 12 different countries.  We were attending the International School of Reconciliation, a curriculum developed in response to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.   

In our isolation, we felt disconnected from the rising Coronavirus panic sweeping the West.   Through limited blips of wireless connection I read of Americans hoarding toilet paper; it seemed like something from a movie.  

The majority of my fellow students knew how to live without toilet paper; that would not be the first thing they would stock up on. I began to think about these differing reactions to the spreading pandemic.  

The Africans among us and the nations from which they came were all taking the Coronavirus  seriously, but they were not panicked. They demonstrated no impulse to hoard.  Their intuitive response was to talk of sharing.

I reflected upon this, and this is what I surmise.  Africans know that daily life is precarious.  In their bodies and their countries they show the visible scars of the risks of living.  Life has taught them to trust in the Lord, “double double,” as they say.  They take this pandemic seriously, but they are not fearfully frantic.

Some Americans, on the other hand, are possessed by fear.  We don’t do well with things we cannot manipulate to our will. We tend to believe that money can remove nearly all of the risk from our lives.  In a sense this is true; wealth brings preventive health care, safer cars, lots of insurance coverage, and retirement accounts.  We sometimes think, however, if we pay enough money we can make anything we find threatening or unsettling go away.  The Coronavirus has disabused us of that illusion.  After all, Tom Hanks and his actress spouse, Rita Wilson, caught the virus.

The virus makes clear we cannot insulate ourselves from the risks of life through our wealth.

We are like that man who built bigger barns to store up his abundance (Luke 12:16—21).  He thinks he can then relax and enjoy life. He believes he can manipulate the world around him because he is rich. Upon completion of his storehouses he dies; so much for controlling things.  In the story God calls him a fool for thinking he can build up enough wealth to insulate himself from misfortune.

Jesus follows the story by telling his disciples not to worry about securing their lives, as if any of us really could.  That is the point of the story.

As Americans were busy stripping the stores of hand sanitizer and paper products, my fellow students and I were busy butchering two goats in Masaka.  As we waited for the people in the kitchen to finish preparing the seasoning so we could get to barbecuing, we stood around the fire in the night.  Soon we found ourselves dancing and singing.  In other words, spontaneous joy broke out, Coronavirus notwithstanding.  Trusting in God, even in times of challenge, is a license for joy.

A dearth of spontaneous joy is the price we pay for believing that we can insulate ourselves from the vagaries of life through wealth and possessions. We find ourselves less prone to dance when we are not busy doing anything else.  Relying on our own efforts to secure our lives robs us of trust in God, the source of all joy and peace of mind.  

Poverty is not to be praised; but wealth, on the other hand, cannot do for us what it promises. This is the lesson of the Coronavirus.

I realize the situation is serious, and we all must take measures to limit the spread of the virus.  In particular, we must take rigorous precautions to protect the vulnerable among us, the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions that increase the risk.  We should all alter our lives in dramatic ways to get ahead of this thing and prepare for the loss of life that will touch the families and friends around us.

So wash your hands frequently, maintain contact with others and check on people, stay home and away from crowds, and trust in God--the good shepherd who will bring us through this valley.  Who knows, you may sense the urge to dance in the privacy of your own home.

Jim Kelsey

Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Putting Up with an Uneven Score

I felt I was being cheated, and then the service manager mocked me. 

I had taken my car in because the check engine light was on; it was running fine when I took it in.  I agreed to pay $65 for a diagnostic test.  After two hours they told me they could not find a problem and would bring the car out, and I could leave.  Subsequently they told me that the car would not start.  To make a long story short, I paid them to fix something that was not broken when I brought it in.  The manager laughed when I suggested I should not have to pay to repair something they did.  I turned the other cheek, paid, and left.  I needed to get back to my son’s birthday party, and I was in a period of my life when I was working on not being reactive to those around me.

I was not, however, in a forgiving mood.  William Bausch wrote that forgiveness is putting up with an uneven score.  None of us like the way an uneven score feels.

This car repair experience came to mind as I listened to story after story of forgiveness and reconciliation on the part of people who had gone through the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.  Perpetrators and victims personally connected to one another through this tragedy, as in one person killed members of the other person’s family, were finding reconciliation and forgiveness, demonstrating true affection for one another. 

Many of them had lived together as neighbors their whole lives before the killing. Now they were rebuilding the community that had been destroyed in 100 days of killing where a million people perished.

As I listened to these stories, I asked myself “who do I need to forgive?”  The surly service manager came to mind.  That was the best I could do.  Really, that was it.

Stories of genocide abound; they are nothing new.  What is stunning about Rwanda is not the tragedy of genocide but the healing and wholeness that is being sown in the aftermath of tragedy.  Healing is the real story in Rwanda.

I am beginning my sabbatical by traveling again to Rwanda to go attend their International School of Reconciliation where I will learn the process they use to bring wholeness and fraternity where formerly there was only loss and pain.  I want to understand how they harness the power of the Spirit to do what seems impossible.

I have seen evidence of this transformation in people’s lives, but still it is a mystery to me how this can be fostered in human hearts.  I want to learn it for myself, so that I might more readily forgive others; and I want to learn lead others in the way of reconciliation.

Paul writes in Colossians 3:13 that if we have a claim against someone else, we should forgive them as the Lord has forgiven us.  Paul is saying that God puts up with an uneven score when it comes to us, and we should do the same with those around us. 

I know, at least for me, this does not come naturally. Earlier in the chapter 3 Paul writes about putting on “the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator [v. 10].”  I want to learn how believers in Rwanda are putting on this new self and putting to death what belongs to our earthly nature (v. 5).

It is all a work of the Spirit.  I am going to Rwanda to learn how, by the power of the Spirit, live happily with an uneven score.

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

Friday, January 17, 2020

The Poverty of Segregation

It was the second week of my tenure as pastor.  She was a well-spoken, well educated, polished  woman of color in her 70’s. She sat down in the chair in front of my desk and said: “Dr. Kelsey, we know you; but you do not know us.  You think you do, but you do not.  But that is alright; we’ll teach you.”
She went on to share that African Americans are bicultural.  They understand and know how to make their way through white culture.  They have to, she said.  To get their kids educated, their illness treated, and to earn a living they have to know how to function in white American culture.  She shared there is also a distinctive stream of African America culture in our country that I likely knew little about, being mono-cultural.
She was right, and they did teach me some things.

I learned about Jazz and spirituals and the poetry of Langston Hughes.  I learned what “good hair” and “passing” mean.  I was tutored in the role people of color have played in science and medicine, inventing things, and writing literature.  I learned about the place of people of color in world and American history.  I learned how cooking skills brought from Africa shaped southern cooking and then how this influence spread throughout the country.  I heard stories of the Great Migration, narratives as central to the character of our country as the stories of Lewis and Clark.

I witnessed how the challenges and indignities of being a minority in America fostered in them a strength and wisdom and resilience that was painfully beautiful.  I saw the price they paid for this depth of character.

Yeah, they gently and persistently taught me some things.

As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we should not see it as a day of victory.  We should see it as an encouraging landmark on the continuing road to justice in our country.  We still live in a segregated society and still live lives, to a great degree, apart from one another.

Our segregated society breeds financial poverty among people of color.  It also breeds cultural and spiritual poverty among all of us.  Our journey to wholeness is far from over.

“The time is always right to do what is right,” Oberlin College Commencement Speech 2965, MLK Jr.
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister-American Baptist Churches of New York State


Thursday, December 19, 2019

Who Knew First

Image result for shepherds michelangeloAnyone who has been even casually involved in a church knows that who knows something first is important. The week after I announced my departure from my first church, the main pastime was speculating as to who knew what and when did they know it.
We rank ourselves by where we stand in the hierarchy of information.  The earlier we know, the more important we feel.  And, of course, nothing boosts our self-esteem like having something shared in confidence before anybody else knows.

 When shepherds in the field receive the first public announcement of the birth of the Son of the most High God, it upsets the customary hierarchy of information (Luke 2:8-20).  Mary and Elizabeth and, presumably, Joseph were the first to know; but they were family.
The angels bring “good news of great joy" to these workers in the field.  Shepherds likely did not get a lot of joy-giving good news.  No one dreamed of growing up to be a shepherd.  It was a job you took because you could not get a better job doing anything else.  They were poor, and their lives were harsh.  People stereotyped them as dishonest; they were not permitted to testify in court.

So why are shepherds, people at the bottom of the social order, the first to hear the news that Jesus is born?

We would expect the rich and powerful to get this news first—people like the Wise Men or the governor.  We would expect the announcement to be made to the Chief Priest in the Temple maybe.  Why do shepherds receive the news first?

Remember what Mary sings after the angel announces that she will be the mother of the savior:

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. (Luke 1:51-53)
Mary sees that the coming of Jesus will turn things upside down.  People who were discounted, ignored, and exploited, will be raised up.  The hungry will be fed, and the rich will go away empty. What Mary sings about begins with these shepherds.

These lowly shepherds are privileged by receiving the Good News before the rich and powerful find out. God notices the people who usually go unnoticed.

The angels say to the shepherds:  “You will find this baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”  Manger is a nice word for a feeding trough where animals eat.  Jesus is born into the humble surroundings of poverty and is visited first by people who know that tough world well.

Not long after this, his family must escape to Egypt because of danger in his homeland. Jesus begins his life as a refugee fleeing danger.  In Jesus, God identifies—from the very beginning—with the foreigner, the stranger, the castaway.  God stands side by side with those who are unwanted and unwelcome. This is what Mary is singing about.

The angels announce “peace on earth;” and Mary sings about God repairing what is broken in our world.  But when we look around at our world, much of our world is still quite broken.  Recently, the International Criminal Court heard the case against Burma for its violence against the Rohingya people, this violence being just one of the daily outrages that fill the news.

So where is this peace and new world the angels and Mary announce? 

Something began in the first coming of Jesus, and someday God will finish it off.  Until then we live in the middle, between what has begun and what is not yet finished.  Karl Barth wrote it is this great and final hope that gives life to the small daily hopes that carry us through our days. Here and there, now and then this work God began in Jesus breaks through. Sometimes we must look hard to see it among the debris of what we have made of God’s creation.

The shepherds return to their fields “glorifying and praising God.”  Their lives are not very different.  They still spend cold nights in the fields, eat bad food, and get no respect.  They still live with smelly sheep and wear worn out shoes. Yet they glorify and praise God anyway.

Their world has not changed much, but they have.  They know that God notices people like them; they got the good news first after all.  For the shepherds of the world, this is a good omen. 

For the rest us, we could take a clue from the Wise Men, those kings from the east.  They do not get there first; but when they do, they recognize this child for who he really is and have the good sense to worship him.

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

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Dangerous People

Charlotte Delbo and another of the 230, in prison in France before deportation. Credit Courtesy of the Archives Departmentales du Val-deMarne, Pierre Labate, Roger Hommet and L'Association Memoire-Vivre
In the early 1940’s in Nazi occupied Paris, the Parisian police were collaborating with the Germans to round and arrest French citizens who were resisting the occupation.  Many of those arrested were placed in a prison named La Santé, in the 14th arrondisement.  La Santé was known as châteaux de la mort lente, castles of slow death.  There was “little food, no heating, and condensation trickled down the walls.  Fleas and lice were epidemic.  The chance of release was nonexistent [Caroline Moorehead, A Train in Winter—An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France, pg.105].”  Those imprisoned there were called the “dangerous element.”
Danielle, one of the imprisoned 230 women, wrote to her parents: “We sang every night.  If walking past those filthy walls, you heard singing, it was us. By ‘us’ I mean the dangerous element [pg. 107].”  Through their singing in such desperate conditions, these women showed just how dangerous they really were.  Without guns or clubs, in their resistance these determined women evidenced a power that is only available to those with the conviction they are serving some cause larger than their own lives. 
Singing in the face of abuse is a power that comes to those whose lives serve a more enduring cause than their own personal concerns and wellbeing.  It does, indeed, indicate they are dangerous.
These women were not, of course, the first determined people to sing in prison. 
Paul and Silas seemed to be a threat to the economy in Philippi, so they are beaten and thrown in jail (Acts 16).  They are praying and singing hymns in the night in their jail cell when an earthquake sets all the prisoners free. They do not flee.  The next day when the magistrates wish to send Paul and Silas away quietly, they demand a public acknowledgement of their unjust treatment; and they get it.
Paul and Silas were, indeed, dangerous to the status quo. Persecuting them had no chance of silencing them.  They had found something grander and more compelling than their own wellbeing.
People serving a larger cause are dangerous; they are hard to silence.  When we are gripped by something grander than our own security and comfort, like those women in La Santé and Paul and Silas, we become powerful. There is little to be gained by telling people like that to go home and be quiet.
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister-American Baptist Churches of New York State


Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Remembering and Anticipating

She sat in the pew absorbing the peace of the place before people started filing in for the worship service.  I saw her there and went back to speak to her.  I commented that she had seen a lot of change over the decades.  She was in her late 70’s and had been attending the church for nearly 60 years.
She smiled and said, yes; she had seen a lot of change.  She commented that she sometimes missed some things from the past.  I asked her what she missed.

She reminisced about how the ushers used to wear morning coats; she always like that.  She talked about the limousines idling along the street.  The deacons used to take the waiting chauffeurs hot coffee in the winter.  This was a glimpse into another world for her.

She quickly assured me that she still loved the church.  She said all the changes that had been made were good and necessary.
In her youth the church had been quite large and counted some wealthy, celebrated members among its ranks.  The long-term pastor was well know within the city and throughout the denomination and broader Baptist family.  The old imposing Romanesque sanctuary, which burned in 1972, was a landmark in that part of the city.  Now the congregation worshipped in the original sanctuary, more modest but quite adequate for our needs.

As the neighborhood began to become racially integrated in the early 60’s, so did the congregation.  By my arrival, the church was predominately African American.
She concluded her reminiscing with a smile of contentment and reiterated that she still loved the church; it was just the way it should be, she said.

Michael K. Girlinghouse (Embracing God’s Future without Forgetting the Past—A Conversation about Loss, Grief, and Nostalgia in Congregational Life) draws a distinction between yearning and nostalgia. Girlinghouse defines yearning as “obsessive rumination and a fixation on the past that paralyzes the mourner and makes it difficult to think about the future” (p. 104).  Congregations can yearn for a particular time in the past, a beloved pastor or program.  Pastors can also yearn for a previous church or period of ministry that was rewarding and life giving.  Yearning congregations and ministers try to recreate what they once had.  Often what they are yearning for is the web of relationships and people who filled their lives in that period.  This exercise is sometimes based on fantasies that have little basis in the past reality.  The congregation is prone to turn inward, disengage from the community, and distance themselves from the denomination (p. 105).

 Nostalgic reflection, on the other hand, “can help us see that while much has been lost, the core of who the congregation is remains” (p. 165).   We come to a deeper appreciation of the strengths of our past, which prepares us for the future. 
Nostalgia can open us up to that great cloud of witnesses the writer of Hebrews describes and help us draw from their example as we contemplate our future (p. 36).  Nostalgic memories can remind us of how our forebears adapted to changed realities and help us develop a sense of continuity with the past.  The most nostalgic memory in every congregation should be the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (p. 143-144).

Nostalgia is not about trying to reestablish or preserve the past.  Rather, is it about learning from and giving thanks for our past, which steels us to embrace the future with courage.  Nostalgia coupled with faith does not dishearten us; it makes us brave and bold.

That woman in my congregation did not want the past back.  She was thankful for it but was game for the next new thing God was going to do in us and through us.
I led worship that day heartened by the memory of all God had done in that place and anticipating the next thing God was going to do among us.

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