Friday, December 22, 2017

Unsettling Bible Angels

We have all seen it. A child is coaxed onto Santa’s lap, and then the child begins screaming and frantically trying to escape.  Truth is, some children find a strange loud man in a bright red suit and long white beard frightening.
The angels in Luke’s Gospel are a bit like that.  When an angel confronts Zechariah in the Temple, he is startled and gripped with fear.  The angel reassures him not to be afraid.  When the angel Gabriel approaches Mary, she is greatly troubled and wonders what this means for her.  Again the angel tries to calm her natural fears.  When an angel appears to the shepherds in the night, they are terrified; and the angel again tells them not to be afraid.

Why are these people afraid of angels?  They are fearful because these are real Bible angels, not the domesticated little kewpie dolls of popular culture.
In our culture, angels have become background music for our modern dance of self-indulgence.  They guide lost children home and protect us from robbers.  They stay busy rescuing us from car accidents and fixing flat tires.  They even find lost keys; no job is too trivial.  One cynic asked what angels did before the advent of the car.    In general they give us what we want, a bit like Santa Claus without the beard and loud suit.

In the Bible, angels are as fearsome as they are comforting.  They guard the Garden of Eden with flaming swords and wrestle with Jacob all night.  In the book of Revelation they battle dragons.  They are as often warriors as deliverers.
Bible angels bring messages of correction as well messages of comfort.  They sometimes have hard and challenging things to say because they speak of what God wants and not of what we want.  These are Bible angels.

So Zechariah and Mary and the shepherds get a bit nervous when an angel comes close. 

The angels announce that the presence of God is about to get a lot more immediate, for a Savior, who is both Christ and Lord, has been born.  This inevitably will force a choice in people’s lives.  If you think the angels’ presence is intrusive, just wait until this child grows up and begins demanding a level of commitment from people that they had not anticipated giving, even the religious among them.

For now we are all safe.  Jesus is just an apparently harmless cooing baby in a manger.  The angel Gabriel makes clear to Mary, though,  that it will not long remain this way:

He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
     he has filled the hungry with good things,

    and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
   according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:51-55)
These angels are a bit intrusive, but this is just the beginning of the disturbance.  If you are proud and powerful, you are going to have to make some tough choices.  If you hunger for the things of God, you are in for some pleasant surprises.

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

Friday, December 8, 2017

Listening is a Gift

When I was young and someone around me began a sentence with “remember when,” I knew
things were about to get boring.  Now I have become one of those people of a certain stage of life who begins sentences with “remember when.”  My sons, in the patience that comes with young adulthood, no longer roll their eyes but hear me out.

We are at that time of year when we do a lot of reminiscing.  We use the holidays as mile markers in our journey, such as our first Christmas together, our last Thanksgiving before the stroke, the New Year’s Eve when they announced their engagement, the last holiday before his death, the year we got our kids the puppy that knocked the Christmas tree over, the time I got my first bicycle, the holiday she did not come home for the holidays for the first time.  The holidays are a time to catalogue our joys and sorrows.  Depending upon the hand life has dealt us, they go by far too rapidly or they cannot be over soon enough.
Jonathan Tran, in his book The Vietnam War and Theologies of Memory, observed that memories come to us as part of a broader narrative; we remember in context.  He writes:  “Even if we had 'the facts,’ before narration facts remain unintelligible [p. 131].”  Communities, be they nations or families or churches, are bound together by memories embedded in narrative, by stories.  Tran writes: “Rather than historical facts and ‘the way it was,’ communities tell stories and through these stories—the past configured by way of narrative—communities remember.”  You can tell when you are in a community of people if they are telling stories, many of them already familiar; nonetheless they are listening patiently to one another.  A group of people who listen to one another’s stories, many of them shared stories, is a good indicator of community.
Remembering the past is not the same as being captive to the past.  Telling stories can be a way of disarming the power of a past we can never really forget.   It is healthy to let memory have its place.

She asked if I would come by on the first anniversary of her husband’s death; I had done his funeral service.  We drank coffee, ate some cake, and then she handed to me the order of service from the funeral.  She asked that I read through it with her.  We did so together, and then she put both copies back in a drawer.  She went on to tell me about the trip she was about to take.  She wanted me to know that her life was moving on; she was not a prisoner of that loss.  Openly and actively remembering her loss liberated this woman to embrace the present.  She carried her memory; the memory did not carry her.

Listening to one another’s stories is a gift we can give to one another this holiday season.  If someone tells us the same story many times, perhaps it is because that story is important to them.    So as sentences begin with “remember when” and we know what will follow, let us listen with warmth knowing this a good gift to give to one another this Christmas season.
Jim Kelsey-Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State

Saturday, October 7, 2017


Why Did This Happen?

The Baptist preacher and writer Calvin Miller tells a story about one of his fellow pastors whose teenage daughter was hit in the face with a softball.  The daughter was taken to the hospital in a coma.  Her father sat by the hospital bed wondering why his daughter lay there unconscious.  He asked himself what God was trying to teach him, how had he not been paying attention to God.

A fellow pastor walked into the room one day and said to the father:  “I know why this has happened to your daughter.”  The father thought finally someone was going to make sense of this tragedy.  The fellow pastor explained:  “God has a rule.  A softball and a face cannot occupy the same space at the same time.”  Sometimes we must accept what seems random and without meaning.

Sunday night in Las Vegas a lone gunman killed at least 59 people and wounded hundreds more.  The violence is numbing and the loss unfathomable, and we want to know why he did it.  We need some explanation; we want to make some sense of this even if that sense making frightens us.

The shooter is an enigma; we may never know why he did this.  We may have to simply accept that.  This will never set well with us.

Twice in the Gospels people came to Jesus asking about tragedies.  In John 9, Jesus and his disciples came upon a man born blind.  This created a problem.  If he were born blind, how could his blindness be punishment for sin?  Nonetheless, they ask who had sinned, this man or his parents.  In the face of misfortune, they needed an answer to make sense of the situation.  The answer of Jesus can be taken to mean that God made him blind so that Jesus could heal him.  Something important is lost here in translation.  The thrust of the response is that the disciples are asking the wrong question.  The proper question is how God can use this situation—whatever its origin—to demonstrate mercy.  No clear reason is given for the man’s blindness.

In Luke 13 some in the crowd of listeners ask Jesus about the death of some worshippers Pilate slaughtered while they were offering sacrifices.  Killed in church--that must mean something.  Yet Jesus instructs the questioners to think on their own lives and stop trying to find a reason for tragedy in the life of another.  Again, no clear reason is given for the tragedy.

Although people in scripture do sometimes suffer for their sin, the general rule seems to be: God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous (Matt 5:45).  In other words, often we can make little sense of life.

The intricacies of theodicy (why does God let bad things happen to good people and why does God let evil people prosper) are far beyond me.  I don’t know.

Someone once said that God will have a lot to give account for in the last day.  Faith in a loving, merciful God—as demonstrated in Jesus Christ—assures us that on the last day God will be able to give account for all. Until then, as the Apostle Paul wrote: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face [Romans 13:12].”

This does not answer our question “why?”  Maybe, often there is no good answer.  In the moments when there is no good answer, the strongest faith is forged.

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

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 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

Monday, June 12, 2017

Theology in the Middle

Systematic theology has never been my preferred area of reading.  It seems a contradiction in terms to me. 

Image result for michelangelo creation adamSystematic theology divides Christian thought into a catalogue of topics and then takes various things the Bible about a particular topic and finally draws some summarizing thoughts about that topic.  It attempts to organize these various topics into a coherent, logical, orderly system that is not self-contradictory.  I believe there are some real limitations to how successful this enterprise can be.
If theology is primarily about God and derivatively about God’s initiatives with us, how systematic could it be?  God is a living, creating, engaging, challenging, loving, and guiding presence in creation.  We, too, are living, responsive, and choosing creatures.  The ongoing story of God’s loving work in creation is always interpenetrating the story of our ongoing lives. How could this iterative dynamic between two living beings be systematized?
Douglas John Hall wrote: “Theology lies between the stories—God’s story of the world, and humanity’s ever-changing account of itself and all things.  Theology is what happens when the two stories meet [Thinking the Faith—Christian Theology in a North American Context, p. 91].”  You can record this sort of thing. You can interrogate it for meaning and a way forward.  You can draw lessons from it—ones that comfort and ones that correct, but you cannot systematize it with much accuracy.
I think this is why I prefer biblical studies to systematic theology.  The Bible is full of great stories, both happy and tragic.  It is an account of how, in particular places and times, God’ story became intertwined with our stories.
You might ask, “What about the Jewish law recorded in the Bible? That is pretty systematic.”  The law guides us to a place where our story can join the rhythm of God’s story, but it was never intended to replace the stories themselves.  When we mistake the rules and regulations for the redemptive intermingling of our stories, our lives grow flat.
In Jesus, God’s story and our stories have come in closest proximity to one another.  Theology is about making sense of that experience.  Perhaps the most authentic theology we speak is when we tell how God’s story and our story have embraced a common plot in Jesus Christ.
Jim Kelsey--American Baptist Churches of New York State

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Fumbling with Diversity

Ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony
Side by side on my piano keyboard, oh Lord, why don't we?

The song laments that, when played on the instrument of our lives, diversity is not easy.  We must work at it, and our first attempts often are fumbling.

I was a Baptist campus minster at a small college in Southeastern Arkansas.  We had over 120 students involved in our ministry, but only 10 of them were people of color.  As I visited in the dorms, I found that nearly half of the residential students were African American; residential students were our primary constituency.  I began to ask this under-represented group what we could do to interest them in our ministry.  They replied with almost a single voice: a gospel choir.

Few who joined the gospel choir were Baptist; most were Church of God in Christ-COGIC.  They were Pentecostal-holiness believers who took their faith and music very seriously.  The Gospel choir met with great success.

I had the idea that both our traditional student ministry choir and our gospel choir could sing at our annual state-wide student convention.  We interspersed gospel choir members with the members of our traditional choir up on the stage, about 60 students in all.  It was a vision of ebony and ivory side by side.

They sang some traditional selections, and, then the pianist accelerated the tempo with the first gospel selection.  In that moment, I realized the flaw in this tableau of racial harmony.  The COGIC students began to clap and step from side to side; they always clapped and stepped side to side when they sang.  The white students did not know what to do as they were caught up in this movement.  Some of them smiled sheepishly as they made some room for the gospel choir. There were some ripples of laughter throughout the auditorium.  After it was over, I pointed out the obvious: being brothers and sisters in Christ involves making some room for one another.  It was a marvelously teachable moment.

Diversity can feel awkward at first; it takes some new learnings to work smoothly.  Thus, our first attempts can be fumbling.  “Ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony” is an aspirational vision.  We don’t begin there.

The Apostle Paul wrote: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28).  This is an aspirational text.  In Christ this is true; in our daily living, it is a journey.  One need only read the book of Galatians to see that the church in Galatia was not nearly there yet.  In the next chapter Paul writes: how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles (4:9)?  Clearly the people were having trouble carrying through on their new identity in Christ.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans we see that Jews and Gentiles were not seeing one another as equals in God’s family.  In 1 Corinthians we read there were tensions between the rich and the poor during the communion meal and disruptions in worship along gender lines in the churches.  In Philemon, we see that accommodations had to be made for the continuing distinction of slave and free.  Paul’s letters are evidence that his churches had a way to go to fulfill the challenge of Galatians 3:28.

What is your experience of diversity?  If you have no such experience, maybe it is time you joined with some neighbors who do not look like or sing like you.  Our attempts at diversity and inclusion do not always go well the first time around, but we get better at it the more we practice.  The love of God compels us to start where we are, to take the risk of discomfort for the high goal of living into Paul’s aspirational vision of unity and equality.

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

Friday, April 28, 2017

The Bible is Not for the Lazy

Image result for chicago transit authority albumI was walking through the halls of a senior living facility in Belgium on my way to visit the elderly father of a church member.  Over the speaker system came the chant “The whole world is watching, the whole world is watch….”  Then the musical group Chicago transitioned into the song “Someday” from their Chicago Transit Authority album.  One of the verses goes:

Would you look around you now
And tell me what you see
Faces full of hate and fear
Faces full of me
Do you feel the rumblings
As your head comes crumbling down
Do you know what I mean

Run, you better, run you know
The End is getting near
Feel the wind of something hard
Come whistling past your ear

As I listened, I wondered how many of the elderly Dutch-speaking residents knew the context of this song.  Some of them would have understood the words they heard and been able to make sense of the sentences, but I doubted they could glean the meaning of it all.
The chant was a recording of the protests during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in late August of 1968.

On April 4th of that year, Dr. Martin Luther King had been assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine motel in Memphis TN.  His death sparked riots in more than 100 US cities, Chicago being one of them.

Robert Kennedy, a candidate in the Democratic primary that year, had been assassinated on June 5th.
As the Democratic Convention takes place, the country is still tense over these two assassinations and is bitterly divided over the war in Vietnam.  The current Democratic president Lyndon Johnson, who had vigorously pursued the war, has announced that he will not run for reelection.  Within the convention hall that week, the Democratic Party is deeply divided over its stance on the war.

The song is about this turbulent moment in American life.
I doubt that  even the elderly residents who understood English would have made this connection, thus the meaning of the introductory chant and the lyrics that follow would have been lost on them.  Understanding the literal meaning of the words would not have opened a door into the deeper message of the song for them.
Reading the Bible is a bit like this.  We may understand the literal meaning of the words and get the gist of each sentence; but without some knowledge of the author, the intended original audience, and the social, political, economic, and literary context, much of the meaning is lost on us.  To read the Bible in a literally wooden way without contemplating these broader questions diminishes the rich and transformative message of the scriptures. 
I know Leviticus 19:19 forbids the wearing of clothing woven of two kinds of material, yet I find poly-cotton blend shirts save me time ironing.  An uninquisitive literal reading of Leviticus would condemn me for this convenience.  Is there something else going on in this text that would permit me to save some time at the ironing board?
What is the attraction of a simplistic literal reading of scripture?  It is easy, and we are lazy.

 It takes a lot of effort to read large passages of scripture, indeed whole books, and then set a particular passage in its broader literary context.  Proof texting is attractive to those who want the Word of God to work like a Twitter feed.
The next step beyond the literary context of a passage is the canonical context.  The canonical context is the place of a book within the broader landscape of the Bible.  We take what Jesus said about the law in Matthew’s Gospel, what Paul wrote about the law in Romans, and what James wrote about the law in his letter and then filter all that through what Moses said in Deuteronomy.  Within this broader field of reference, we discover a more maturely nuanced understanding.
A reader does not need to go to seminary to have more than enough work for a lifetime of Bible reading.  The Bible itself will keep us by simply immersing ourselves in all its diversity and grandeur.
If one is going to teach a class or preach sermons, some good research books in the biblical material can certainly enhance our work. (Can we get extra credit for this?  Moses seems to imply this might be possible.  Paul seems to assert “no way,” and Jesus tells some great stories that teach us not to be anxious about extra credit in any case.)

Reading the Bible is serious work.  An uninquisitive uninformed wooden literalism sidesteps that hard work.  The Bible is not for the lazy.
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State