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~