Monday, December 17, 2018

An Incredible Assertion

O come, o come Emmanuel
To free your captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice, rejoice, Israel
To you shall come Emmanuel

As I stood and sang these words at the threshold of Advent, I realized that my singing this was, in a word, incredible.  This was the sort of thing Jews might sing while captive in Babylon or chafing under the Roman occupation or hiding from the Nazis.  Why was I, a 21st century Christian, singing about freedom from exile for Israel?

How would first century Jewish Christians’ faith in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah have looked to their peers?

Amy Jill Levine, a practicing orthodox Jew and Professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt University, in her book The Misunderstood Jew—The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, suggests that the claim of the resurrection of Jesus would not have been a deal breaker among first century Jews. The Sadducees’ denial of the resurrection of human beings distinguished them from other Jews.  This implies that belief in the resurrection was not uncommon among Jews in the time of Jesus.  There are Rabbinic texts to support this.
The deal breaker would have been, according to Levine, the lack of the inauguration of the Messianic Age.  It was widely believed that the Messiah would bring a palpable change in the state of the world (pp. 56ff.)  There was little agreement about how that would happen and exactly what it would look like; but like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who commented that he could not successfully describe pornography but knew it when he saw it, first century Jews felt, whatever form the Messianic age took, they would know it when they saw.  Many of them did not see it in the life and aftermath of Jesus.

Christians asserted that Jesus was the Messiah even as the world appeared to continue to spin upon its axis mostly unchanged to the naked eye.  Most first century Jews would have met this Messianic claim with incredulity.  One gets the feeling that Levine, too, is incredulous at such a claim but is too polite to come out and say it.

This assertion becomes even more problematic when we look at what else we are claiming.  We are not arguing for a spiritual enlightenment inaugurated by Jesus that then led to a kind of transcendent spiritual awakening in our world.  We are not saying that Jesus did for spirituality what Giotto did for art and da Vinci did for science. 

We are asserting that at a particular place and time, among a particular people, God acted through a particular human being in an unprecedented and singular way.  It was a “once for all” occurrence, as the writer of Hebrews wrote (7:27 & 9:12).  We claim that in Jesus the Word was made flesh and walked this earth, and those who knew him saw “the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
As I stood singing “O come, o come Emmanuel,” I realized what an incredible assertion we are making about this baby. Yet we make this assertion.  We are convinced.  We believe, and we shall go on singing our Advent hymns.

Jim Kelsey
American Baptist Churches of New York State

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Last Things First

This coming Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent.  Those of us who are not strict liturgical purists can begin singing carols and putting up our Christmas decorations. It is time to let the season carry us away.
We will, however, arrive at worship on Sunday and get an unsettling passage of scripture.  We will be treated to Jesus talking about nations in anguish, people fainting from terror, and disturbances in the heavens.  The text ends with an ominous warning to always be on watch so as to escape what is coming (Luke 21:25-36).  Jeremiah does soften the blow a bit with: “In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness’’ (Jer. 33:16).

But really!  Where is the nativity scene with the donkey, mother and cooing child, and moonlit angels?  What happened to peace on earth and good will toward one another?

The wisdom of our forbearers in the faith is that in order to understand the first coming of Jesus, we must see it through the lens of his second coming.  Thus we begin Advent with passages like Luke 21.

We are prone to domesticate this baby in the manger and make him into the bearer of our desires.  He is going to make our lives and our world the way we want them to be.  He is going to give us what we want.  At his nativity, Jesus cannot speak for himself.  In the silence we are prone to fill his mouth with words we want to hear.

By Luke 21 this Jesus has found his voice.  The cooing baby has grown into the Son of Man, who cautions:  “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away" (Luke 21:33).  In other words, he will turn all that we have built for our own comfort and security and pleasure to compost.

This is good image to hold in our minds as we move into the celebration of excess and materialism that Christmas has become.   I don’t mean to be the Grinch; I love a warm pair of LL Bean slippers as much as the next person, and I can already sense the heartburn that will follow too much rich food and sugar.  I am not making the mistake of the unreformed Scrooge.  I will wring all the holiday I can out of the coming four weeks.

I will, however, try to let the voice of the Son of Man roll around in the back of my mind as the Christmas carols play.  It all will come to compost in the end he warns.  This is why we begin the story of Jesus by telling the end of the story first.  In this way, we don’t lose sight of where it is all going and who this baby will grow up to be.

Oh yeah, and Merry Christmas.
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister-America Baptist Churches of New York State

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Trust is Primary

Three weeks into my time at the church, she sat in my office and said: “Dr. Kelsey, you are my pastor; and I will never oppose you in public.  I will follow where you lead this church, but I will never trust you.”  She had found that pastors are not trustworthy.

Several years later she called me on the phone and said “I need you. Can you come over here?”  There had been a terrible tragedy in her family, one she never shared in honesty with anyone but me and her closest friend.  She trusted me with this.  It was a great honor to be trusted in that way by a woman who had been betrayed before.  We worked well together over the years.  She could be a bit assertive at times, but we were often allies as the church plotted its future.

The church leader said to me as he handed me my last paycheck on my last Sunday at the church:  “I’ve not gotten along with a minister in this place for 45 years, and I think they were glad to be finished with me when they left.”  He went on to say that he and I had disagreed about many things church-wise but that he and I had gotten along well.  He observed that we had been honest with each other, no surprises or games.  I replied that I often had not agreed with him but that I had trusted him. In an inexplicable way I felt him a friend; I did not put it to him quite that way.  We had been able to weather regular disagreement because we trusted each other, admittedly in a sometimes wary way on my part.  As Ronald Reagan once said:  Trust but verify.

I asked a pastor a fairly straightforward question in a leadership meeting; I had been invited in to help them manage a conflict.  Before the pastor could answer, a lay leader blurted out “now don’t you lie pastor.”  In that moment I knew nothing could be accomplished among these folks until we dealt with mistrust.
Trust is the most useful asset shared among a congregation and its leaders, both lay and clergy leaders.  If trusts exists, a ministry partnership can survive the stress of tough finances, deteriorating buildings, and declining membership.  Conflicts over vision, theology, and worship style can be weathered if trust undergirds the relationship. 

Anxiety is the enemy of trust.  When we feel anxious, we look for someone to blame, someone to whom we can transfer our anxiety.  When we are anxious we live with a sense of threat, thus we do not give others the benefit of the doubt.  We attribute to them the worst of motives.  Trust comes harder in challenging times.

Tod Bolsinger, in his book Canoeing the Mountains-Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, writes that if a leader is not competent and reliable in working through familiar charted territory, people will not follow that leader into unfamiliar uncharted territory (pp. 50-55).  He goes on to say that if trust is lost, the shared journey between the leader and congregation is over.  “The irreducible minimum in leadership is trust [p. 66].” Trust is an essential asset when we try to lead people to new places and to do fresh things.
How does Bolsinger think a church leader, lay or ordained, builds trust?  Consistent and congruent behavior is necessary.  Consistent behavior means we are the same person with the same values in every relationship and circumstance.  This demonstrates a core to our character that makes us a reliable partner.

Good leaders also demonstrate congruent behavior.  The way they treat people and live their lives is congruent with what they say.  They put their money where their mouth is.  They speak about generosity and forgiveness and then live generously among others, forgiving them with regularity.  They do not only analyze the causes of homelessness, they ladle out soup in a food kitchen.

Good leaders spend time searching for solutions, assessing options, and building competencies in their organizations.  There is, however, something prior to all of that. The building of trust among leaders and between leaders and those whom they lead is primary.

Jesus spent three years preparing his followers to carry on after his departure.  He was always the same person in every situation, living out of a consistent set of values.  His behavior was congruent with what he said; he walked the walk.  We would do well to take his example to heart, and set establishing trust as our first task as leaders.  With trust, we can weather any storm and face any challenge.  Without it, we will stumble and fall.

Jim Kelsey
American Baptist Churches of New York State

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Cain is Still Killing Abel

On Sunday morning I was in church, like many of you. A laywoman was leading the morning prayer and said in reference to the killing at the synagogue the previous day: “Please, God, remind us that Jews are just like us….”  It struck me how simple but profound that observation was.  They are just like us; in this context “us” referred to Christians worshipping together. 

The killer of the synagogue worshippers hated Jews and immigrants and refugees.  The man who sent pipe bombs last week sought to terrorize and perhaps kill people whose political loyalties differed from his loyalties.   Last Wednesday a man tried unsuccessfully to enter an African American church outside Louisville, Kentucky; he then went down the street to the Kroger store and killed two African American men.  As he walked by a European American witness, he is reported to have said:  “Whites don’t kill whites.”  None of these perpetrators thought their victims were just like them.
How do we end up with communities divided by fear and resentment, animosity and grievance over a sense of lost entitlement?  How do these beliefs morph into prejudice and indifference to the wellbeing of others in many of us and into hatred and violence in some of us?

I think the praying woman struck at the heart of it.  We convince ourselves that they are not “just like us.”  We come to believe the "other" is ill willed and is plotting to take from us what we deservedly possess and they do not deservedly possess.  Our misfortunes, failures, and disappointments are their fault.  Our anxious insecurities find a resting place in others who appear unlike us. 

The powers and principalities of this age know our vulnerabilities and exploit them for destructive ends.  Be assured there are forces around us opposed to God, and they know what makes us tick and plan their schemes accordingly (Eph. 6:10-12).

Evil does not show up with horns, searing eyes, and a red robe.  Evil shows up as our supposed ally and plays into our fears, disappointments, resentments, and failures.  It magnifies in our mind every slight ever done to us and tells us we are victims; it offers to us a path to self-vindication.  Evil says to us as it said to Cain long ago:  “You’re getting a raw deal.  Even the score.”
People of faith should be the first to see the lie in all this.  We have a common creator in whose image we are made.  In this way they are all like us, even the perpetrators of these atrocities.  All of us are bound together through an organic unity grounded in the all-inclusive love of God.  All of us are our brother’s and sister’s keepers.  The powers and principalities of our age do all they can to blur and eradicate this kinship.

It will not always be this way:

They will not hurt or destroy
    on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:9)
Until that day the lies will continue to be told, and Cain will go killing Abel.

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


Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Need to be "Off" Sometimes

I still remember the growing sense of freedom as I headed south down I-71 with our minivan loaded for vacation and my wife and young sons securely buckled in, leaving my church and the attendant responsibilities behind for a while.  I enjoyed pastoring my people and felt called to that congregation, but it felt liberating to leave it in the rear view mirror for a week or so.

A pastor is never really “off.”  She or he is always one phone call away from being “on.”  In those days, telephones were connected together by wires.  One could get away briefly on a walk in the woods, a meal in a restaurant, or shopping for groceries—unless you met a church member in the produce aisle who wanted to talk about the noisy teens in the balcony.  To reach me on vacation, a member had to overcome their natural resistance to disturb my holiday and invest in the added expense of a long-distance call.  (You had to pay extra back then for those of you who do not remember the old days.)

In our day of cellphones there is no such escape.  You are always one ring away from a call, a text, or an email.  The expectation is that the pastor is always available.  People call it the electronic leash.  Being in a movie theatre is about the only legitimate excuse for not responding. 
Pastors need time “off” the communication grid.  This what we call a boundary issue.  Healthy pastors set boundaries in their lives that enable them to maintain their emotional, physical, and spiritual health so that when they are “on” they bring the best they have to the situation.  After teaching the crowds, Jesus went off to be alone (Matt. 14:22-23). Even Jesus needed time “off” so he could bring the best he had to give when he was “on.”

How can pastors and congregations ensure that the pastor is ready to do their best work when needed?

The expectation that the pastor will respond to emails, texts, and phone calls 7 days a week, 16 hours a day is not healthy for a pastor and does not encourage church members to honor good boundaries.  I suggest that pastors and church leaders talk about this, maybe even develop a policy.  The policy could stipulate that during weekdays from 8:30 to 5:00 the pastor will monitor and respond to emails and texts and phone calls.  At other times, if you have an urgent need you will need to call the pastor; the pastor will not be monitoring emails and texts all the time

Pastors also need at least one full day a week away from church responsibilities, a day to observe the biblically-mandated Sabbath.  The pastor and church leaders can choose a day of the week as a pastoral Sabbath.  When there is an emergency on that Sabbath day to which the pastor must respond, the pastor is instructed to take another day in its place.  In this way, when the pastor is “on” they are bringing the best they have to give to their ministry.

Some pastors may find themselves resisting this boundary.  That is something to think about.  In our day of constant distractions by TV, radio, videos, social media, cellphones, and work, we are rarely alone with our thoughts.  We may find the downtime uncomfortable; absent distraction we may need to grapple with things we would rather avoid.  Jesus went off into the desert alone and struggled with difficult issues that needed to be settled (Matt 4:1-11).  Having successfully decided some basic things in the solitude, he was free to give himself fully to God’s calling in his life.

On the other hand, sometimes pastors resist taking a Sabbath because we believe the ministry cannot survive one day without our attention.  I suspect God can manage the Kingdom one day a week without our help.  It is, after all, God's church.
I encourage pastors and church leaders to think through how the digital age has affected ministry and how we can preserve the health and effectiveness of our pastors in this new day so that they might bring the best they have to ministry.

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

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Playing the Hand We're Dealt with Faith and Hope

God wanted Moses to go down to Egypt and speak to the Israelites about leaving.  Then Moses and the elders were to go to Pharaoh and ask for permission to take a three day trip into the wilderness to offer sacrifices.  Moses balked, and God finally settled for a backup plan.  Moses’ brother Aaron would do the talking (Exodus 3 to 4).  God played the hand he was dealt by his uncooperative servant Moses.  

Later in the story of the nation, the people demanded a king from God.  God did not want them to have a king and warned them about how a king would exploit them.  The people persisted, and God finally gave them a king (1 Samuel 8).   God again played the hand he was dealt by his untrusting people.

Sometimes God’s backup plan can be a bit radical.  John the Baptist warns:  “Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.  Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire [Luke 3:8-9].”  At some points God just moves on.

Let us be clear before we go any further.  God does not have to play the hand God is dealt.  God is able to accomplish whatever God wishes; that is part of being God.  God chooses to adapt God’s plans to human receptivity.

We, on the other hand, must often play the hand we are dealt; we are not God.  We might want to give back the hand and draw another one; life rarely gives us that opportunity.  Our employer closes, or we get ill.  Our parents are not wealthy, and we attend a community college.  Our spouse dies young, or a recession hits just as we are planning to retire.  We would like life to deal us another hand; that rarely happens.  As we say in upstate New York:  it is what it is.

The Apostle Paul learned to play the hand he was dealt the best way he knew.  He writes “Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me [Phil 4:11-13].”  Paul learned how to be content with what life brought to him; he relied upon God to bring him through whatever life dealt him.   

Churches must often play the hand they are dealt. They are carried upon currents over which they have no control.  A factory closes and jobs are lost; people move away.  Young people go off to college and do not return.  Businesses begin staying open on Sunday, and church members must work. The culture shifts; and people lose interest in belonging to things, particularly communities that ask for a commitment.  The standard of living rises and people get boats and cabins and can afford pricey soccer leagues; they spend their Sundays at leisure activities. 

We might like to trade in this world for a different one. This is not an option.  We do not get to choose our time and place in God’s story.  We must play the hand we are dealt the most faithful way we can.  We must never forget, however, that it this still God’s creation; and God is driving the narrative towards God’s good conclusion.  We simply find our place in our chapter of that story.  God will have the last word, and with God the last word is always the best word.

In the meantime, we bring the best we have to offer to what we know of God, believing that God will bless in even unseen ways; that is faithfulness. We leave the final word to God; that is hope.
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

ABC/NYS State of the Union--September 2018

(This has been edited for the internet.)
New York American Baptists continue to meet and worship together as congregations.  They continue to gather to seek guidance and encouragement from studying scripture together.  They faithfully pray for one another and the broader world.  They care for their fellow church members and reach out to their communities and, through Regional and denomination missions, care for all of God’s creation.  By the way they live and care for others, they give witness to the saving, transforming, and unconditional love of God.  The Kingdom of God is alive and authentic in upstate New York.

You may be saying:  “Wait a minute, you are talking about congregations.  What about the state of the Region?”  Well, our churches are the Region.  We are a family of churches; Regional ministry is always embedded in and responding to the life of our individual congregations. To talk about Regional ministry outside of this frame of reference is to talk without a context.  So how has the Region been embedded in and responded to the lives our churches?

Since we last met in 2016, the Region has completed our cycle of 5 mission trips to work with the AMOS health ministry of ABC missionaries Drs. David and Laura Parajon in Nicaragua.  A group of ABCNYS Baptists are continuing to work with this ministry, most recently building a self-contained mobile computer center outside Managua, a centered power by solar panels.  This is the goal of our mission involvement: to introduce New York State Baptists to mission opportunities and then have them take them up as their own.

In 2018 the Region began a three year partnership with two ministries in Rwanda. We are capitalizing on a long-term relationship two of our pastors have had with these ministries. In 2019 and beyond we will likely expand that partnership to work with the Siera group of churches.

The Region continues to introduce International Ministries missionaries to our churches and encourage mutually supportive relationships.

In 2018 we sponsored a four-day mission trip to Niagara Falls to serve with Community Missions of Niagara Falls.  We served in variety of ways to some of the most vulnerable people in our State.  The Board of Mission has taken on the aspirational goal of two trips to work with this ministry in 2019.  They also have laid plans to provide a mission experience with a Native American population in New York State.

These expanding mission enterprises reveal a growing emphasis in our Region.  We want to be “doers” of mission, opening ourselves up to the new and stretching experiences God has for us.  If we are not challenging our congregations to dare new things for Christ, we as a Region are not being good stewards of the wealth God has invested our people.  In some organization “mission creep” is seen as bad; with us it is seen as the pull of God’s Spirit.

We have gotten nearly all our Lay Study courses online, both those sponsored by the Region and those sponsored by local Associations,  In this way training is now available to everyone interested person in our Region.  Some participants are honing their skills for lay leadership.  Others are preparing to be a Certified Lay Minister and lead a congregation.  And some start out as the former and end up as the latter.  (I love it when a plan comes together.)  We are working creatively with church and leaders to match trustworthy, trained, called leaders to congregations who will respond well to their gifts.

We have provided and continue to train pastors in the special skills that make them well suited for interim ministry.

We have completed 3 of 8 sessions of our Going Deeper into Ministry through Continuing Study, a program designed to equip pastors and other church leaders.  It is funded by a Palmer Grant from the American Baptist Foundation.

An increasing number of our congregations are looking to multi-income stream pastor’s (I hate to say part time; no pastor gives just a part of themselves to ministry) to lead them.  We are working to get people into ministry more quickly, sometimes with close mentoring. 

We cannot change the realities of modern church ministry.  Our churches need pastoral leadership.  Our goal is to partner with them to help them make wise and informed choices, with maximum flexibility as to how that is achieved.

We must minister in the world we have, not the world we wish we had or maybe used to have.  We do not get to choose our time and place in the movement of God’s Kingdom.  We simply must play the hand we are dealt as faithfully as we can; faith in this context is  a lot like courage.  Our churches struggle with outsized expensive-to-maintain buildings.  Region staff help them to set priorities and learn from the experiences of other congregations.  Our churches struggle with changing demographics and find themselves in communities that are struggling.  Sometimes churches must face questions of viability; this is never an easy conversation.  Region staff guide them as they think through their options and help them gain wisdom from the experience of other churches.  It is not an easy time to be a Christian congregation in upstate New York.  Our congregations are work harder and trusting God more.

Our Burmese Diaspora churches, Karen, Chin, Kachin, and Zomi, are flourishing and bringing new vitality to our family.  The Region walks with them as they negotiate organizing themselves, buying buildings, and adapting to a new culture.

Each year we sponsor the American Baptist Youth convention where young people are challenged to be committed disciples of Jesus Christ and are provided with tools to do that.  These conventions are also a training ground for future church leadership, both lay and pastoral.

Our congregations continue to find ways to be faithful in a world they could not have seen 30 years ago.  We, as a Regional family of congregations, move forward believing that God is in the change and meets us at every turn.  The challenge always is to hear the prophet Isaiah:  I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert (43:19).

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Letting Go in Trust

I nearly did not survive the birth of our first son.  After the birth, the obstetrician came in and asked me if I was alright.  He assured me that mother and baby were doing fine, but he had some concerns about me.  Through halting sobs I told him I was fine. “Just feeling a bit emotional,” I said.

It struck me that our son was now out in the world, having left the safe fluid-filled sanctuary of the womb.  He was so small and so perfect, yet so vulnerable.  A part of me wanted him back in his safe place, but most of me was delighted that he had come into the world.
I could have delivered our second son myself, no doctor necessary.  By that time I had learned that babies are resilient and adaptable; they are well suited for surviving inexperienced parents.

From the time a child is born we are letting them go.  They are born into the world, then learn to crawl, after that to walk.  They learn to ride a bicycle; then they begin driving, go off the college, get a job, move out, and build a life on their own.  With each transition there is joy, and there is loss, a letting go of what we would like to hang on to.
Recently my wife and I took our younger son, fresh out of university, from New York to Los Angeles to begin a job.  We left him standing in the door of his new apartment with the necessary minimal amount of Ikea furniture and his cat Mimsey.  It was another letting go, a further turning loose.

I felt like the mother of Moses placing her child in the basket and leaving him among the reeds along the Nile.  This is faith: irreversibly turning precious things over to God.  Things turned out alright for Moses, made a bit of  a name for himself.
Life is a series of transitions.  Transitions can bring new opportunities; they can be born of growth and accomplishment.  Nonetheless, even good transitions can carry an element of loss.  Believers can process this loss as a kind of turning over to God.  The loss is still there, but we are not alone in it.

Do I miss my sons as they are out there making their way in the world? Yes.  Am I joyful for the lives they are building? Yes.  My joy outstrips my loss when I see it as a turning over of precious things to God.
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister-American Baptist Churches of New York State

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Familiar but not Reconciled

In the spring of 1805, Charles Ball was working hard for his owner and dreamed of purchasing his freedom and that of his wife and children, who belonged to another man.  In Maryland’s decaying tobacco economy, many slave owners were letting African Americans purchase their freedom.  Ball was strong, intelligent and of even temper.  He had demonstrated the ability to find faster better ways of doing things.  He was excelling in the position in which he found himself. 
One morning as he was finishing up his breakfast, he saw through the window his owner talking emphatically with another white man.  When Ball emerged and began to unhitch his owner’s oxen, he felt someone behind him.  He turned to find himself surrounded by a dozen white men. One of them announced that Ball now belonged to him; Ball’s master had sold him.  The man said:  “You are my property now.  You must go with me to Georgia.”  Bound, they began to lead him away.  Ball asked if he might see his wife and children first.  The man replied that Ball could get another wife in Georgia.  Thus began Ball’s harrowing march to servitude in Georgia.
Edward E. Baptist writes of Ball on the journey to Georgia:

Ball’s emotions continued to oscillate.  Yet slowly he brought his interior more in line with the exterior face that men in coffles tried to wear.  “Time did not reconcile me to my chains,” Ball recalled, but “it made me familiar with them.” Familiar indeed—at night, as everyone slept, Ball crawled among his fellow prisoners, handling each link, looking for the weak one (The Half has Never Been Told—Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, p.24).
I found Ball’s words “reconcile” and “familiar” a telling juxtaposition. 

Life had allotted to  Ball a certain place in the structure of things—a piece of property to be bought and sold like livestock.  He was familiar with his chains.

Yet he was not reconciled to them.  He knew he was more than a piece of property.  He knew what the world was telling him about himself was a lie.  To reconcile himself to his chains would have been to believe that lie.
In modern terms we might say Ball was a well self-differentiated person, meaning, in part, he knew who he was apart from what others around him were telling him about himself.  When he looked at his reflection in a pond, he did not see what others saw.

Ball did not let the world tell him who he was.

Paul writes that we should no longer be conformed to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2).  The Phillips translation puts it this way:  “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.”
Part of this remolding of our minds is to see ourselves through the grace-filled eyes of God rather than through the darkened eyes of others.  Our world tells the poor, the marginalized by birth or life or gender or ethnicity, and the strangers among us that they do not matter as much as others.  They are told their place in the world is fixed and they ought to accept it with grace.

God does not share in this system of categorization.  In scripture, God seems to show what has been called a predisposition for the poor, the outsider, and the powerless.  The Hebrews were told in Deuteronomy 10:17—19:

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe,  who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.  You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
The world works hard to tell people who they are.  God sees thing a bit differently.

Ball was familiar with the world’s assessment, but he did not accept it.

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

Friday, July 27, 2018

What I Learned about at Camp: Friendship

I spent last week at Pathfinder Lodge (Vick & Pathfinder Camp and Conference Ministries) as the
camp pastor.  We had campers from primary school up through high school.  (If you should see a picture of me lounging in the sun on a pontoon boat, it has been photoshopped.  That’s my story, and I am sticking to it.)  Pathfinder Lodge is a beautiful setting, sitting on a hillside overlooking a lake.  The greatest beauty was not, however, the lake.  The greatest beauty lay in the campers.

Each day in Bible study, I would ask campers if they wanted to pray.  Every time a primary school camper prayed, they would thank God for the new friends they were making at camp.  As we grow older, we lose much of our appreciation for the gift of friendship.  These young campers had not yet lost the wonder of friendship.
Friendship in the Bible is a mixed bag.  Some people are your friend because they think they can profit by the relationship; they are friends of convenience. They will desert you when things go badly for you (Proverbs 19:4 & Job 19:14 & Luke 21:16).  In Luke 16:9, Jesus tells his listeners: “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”  I suspect he says this with a knowing smile.  Friends obtained this way will not stand by you when all is lost; and they could not, even if they wanted to, welcome you into any type of eternal home.
In some of the parables, being called a friend is an ill omen (Matt. 20:13 & 22:12).  Jesus can use the title as an indictment for betrayal (Matt. 26:50).

On the other hand, the term can be used as a term of endearment and affirmation (Luke 5:20 & 12:4 and John 15:13-15).
In short, not all friends are equal.  I think the friends made at camp last week are the good kind.  These friendships were born not of convenience or the desire for benefit.  They were generated by the common experience the campers were having.  They worked together as teams in accomplishing things, and they learned about God and worshipped together.  They served one another by setting the tables and cleaning up afterward.  They helped one another do new things.  They shared the common challenge of being in a new place apart from their families.
The best friendships are born of common experience, of a shared journey.  This is what happened at Pathfinder Lodge last week.  In a culture where we can “friend” and “unfriend” people on social media like we choose a candy bar and then discard the wrapper, going to camp and making new friends is more important than ever.

I know I made some nice friends.  I hope to see them next year at camp.

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

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Grand Things Are Sometimes Small Things

“The mission really helped me get back on track when I had lost my way,” said Fred.

Fred’s mother was a strict Jehovah’s Witness and made him “tow the line.”  His father, on the other hand, he described as a “street person.”  His father wasn’t homeless, but he survived by wheeling and dealing—honesty optional. As a child, Fred saw things he said no child should see.

Fred graduated from High School on June 25, 1971.  On June 26 he started a full time job, a job he had secured several weeks before graduation.  He said it was a time when one could quit a job in the morning and have two more job offers by sunset.

Things did not continue to go so well for Fred.  He sat on the fence between his mother’s and his father’s way of life; he “fell to his father’s side of the fence,” he shared.  Drugs and alcohol took control of his life.

The people at Community Missions of Niagara Frontier Inc. took Fred in and stood by him as he got his life back together.  They were patient and gracious to him.  He went on from there to work 27 years for the same employer and then retired.  Now that he is retired he spends his time at the mission center giving to others what he received there so many years ago.

I met Fred in the dining room of the mission center during our recent Region mission trip to Niagara Falls.

Fred’s story chronicles one life put back together by the love of Christ made palpable through faithful and caring people.  Fred’s story of healing and renewal is nothing less than stunning.  Stories like Fred's rarely make the evening news, not even the local newspaper.  It seems like a small thing in our big world, but the most stunning things in life are often born of nothing more than simple kindness and respectful attention.

To be used by God in the healing of lives, we must go where people are and hear their stories. How can we structure our lives and the lives of our congregations to go where people are and hear about their lives?  Mission may be no farther away than the next person we meet.

When you have done it to the least of these, you have done it unto me—Jesus (Matt 25:40)
James Kelsey—Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Other Side of the Fence

I shoved my passport through the chain link fence and shouted “permesso di soggiorno permesso di

My two sons and I had arrived in Italy on the previous Friday morning to begin our sojourn as missionaries; Debbie, my wife, would arrive in a few weeks.  After leaving my two boys at the hotel, Carmine, our Italian Baptist colleague, and I went to the local police station (Questura) in Padua; the instructions that came with my visa said to go there to get the forms to apply for a permesso di sogiorno, a card that would permit us to become long-term residents in Italy.

The people at the Questura sent us to another government office.  The people at the second office sent us to yet a third office.  The third office sent us back to the Questura.  It was now 4:00 in the afternoon, and Carmine said we should quit for the day.  I was to return on my own to the Questura on Monday morning and go down the side street to the gate in the fence behind the building; they opened at 8:30 am.

On Monday morning I got my sons breakfast and left them in the room.  I took 3 buses to get to the Questura.  I arrived at 7:45 and found several hundred people milling about in the narrow street in the already rising heat.

At 9:30 a police officer came out of the building and walked toward the gate.  The crowd started shouting and waving official looking letters.  I had no such letter.  I asked the man next to me what the letters were.  He replied “French...No else.”  I pushed my way to the gate and shoved my passport through it showing my visa, all the time shouting “permesso di soggiorno”  Finally the officer looked at it and replied ”uffcio postale…la stazione”—the post office near the train station.

I made my way there and got the forms.  I thought I was on my way.  It would be, however, six months and multiple visits back to the Questura before we got any documents.

Most Americans pay an agent to get documents for them; it fast and easy but a bit costly.  We did not have the money for that.  We were, however, better off that most of the people in the street that morning.  We came from a country where we could get the documents we needed—birth certificates, passports, marriage license, etc.—without paying large amounts of money.

That morning, for me, was a taste of what it is like to be on the other side of the fence without any privilege.  I was just one of hundreds of people that day who needed some consideration.  I was one of hundreds of people that day who were not entirely welcomed in the city and were seen as a burden and inconvenience.

Yes, in Italy, an American seeking residence is just another immigrant that in the end may be more trouble than they are worth.  Tourists they want, residents not so much.

I was born a white middle class male to a family who owned their own home in a liberal democracy.  Others were born in America with more privileged than I, but I started out in a pretty good position nonetheless.  I had never been on the other side of the fence.  It was healthy for me to look through a locked gate from the wrong side, without any privilege or claim.  I am a better person for it.
He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside,
He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same words: "Follow thou me!" and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is. (Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus)
Jim Kelsey, Executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State

Thursday, June 7, 2018

A Song I Did Not Know I Knew

I awoke to the sound of singing. 

I was staying in a partially completed building in Rwanda.  The rural day-laborers gathered each morning before they began their work. Forming a circle, they sang.  The sunrise streamed through my open window as the lilt of their voices floated in.
My first thought was what a life God had given me that I would be in this place of enduring beauty and ancient tradition, awakening to this Rwandan song.  I had a sense that I had in some way come home; it all felt a bit familiar. That morning, for the first time, I heard a song I did not know I knew.  It had lain in me undiscovered.
As I later reflected upon that moving moment, I realized, in a way, I had come home.  We all have roots in Africa.  Our ancestors made their way to the Fertile Crescent, where they came upon animals that could be domesticated and crops that could be bent to the ways of settled agriculture.  We then made our way into Europe and around the globe.  Jared Diamond in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel:  The Fates of Human Societies chronicles this initial pilgrimage out of Africa.
We are all part of a common family, born of a single act of Divine love.  The shared song of our origin is imprinted in each of us, often undiscovered.  The Apostle Paul wrote:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  (Colossians 1:15-17)
We have so quantified and analyzed and secularized our world that we have lost a sense of the enduring presence of the one who created it all and still holds it together.  In 1917, Max Weber wrote: “The fate of our times is characterized by intellectualization and rationalization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world.”  The fracturing of God’s creation is not born of a lack of understanding; it is born of an atrophied capacity for wonder.  In this we have lost our sense of the sacredness and organic wholeness of what God has made.
In Africa, close to my origins, I discovered that song common to all of us, regardless of where we have wandered on this earth—a tune written in the human heart through which Christ holds all things together.  Wondered was awakened in me that morning.
In Africa I heard a song I did not know I knew, a song from long ago when our journey was just beginning.

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

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Community is Biblical

They were seeking a “biblical form of church government.”  This congregation seemed to think that  
they could achieve this by severing all formal ties with other churches and becoming an independent church.

As a Baptist, I am a high trust--low control person.  I trust local congregations to follow the Spirit and would defend them from outside control. My discomfort is not with this church making their own determination in this matter.  Rather, my discomfort is with their labeling independence as the biblical model.  Whenever we add the adjective biblical to something, we need to have done our homework—biblically, that is. 
We all read the Bible through the lens of our experiences, culture, and loyalties.  It is not possible to read otherwise. The danger is that we may label something that is the product of our interpretation as being unquestionably mandated by the Bible.  It is often wise to clarify a statement as our reading of scripture.

My reading of the biblical text leads me to conclude that this church is acting in a way unsupported by the evidence concerning Pauline congregations in the New Testament. I would defend the church’s prerogative to make this decision, but I would suggest that it is not necessarily a move to a “biblical form of church government.”

Connected Clusters of Congregations
The relationship between the churches in the New Testament is anything but crystal clear.  It appears that, typically, there were multiple communities in an urban area; but such groups were not seen as independent churches disconnected from one another (Abraham J. Mahlerbe, Social Aspects of Early Christianity, pp. 70ff.).  Paul seems to have known of at least three churches in Rome (Romans 16:5, 15, 16), yet he sends a single letter to be shared.    There may have been more than one worshipping congregation in Thessalonica (1 Thess. 5:27) and in Laodicea as well (Col. 4:15). The church in Corinth seemed to be composed of multiple worshipping groups, but, again, Paul sends one letter.  His greetings and conclusions in his letters suggest that various congregations were in close contact with one another.  Paul wrote one letter to an area, expecting the letter to be passed around. It appears that Luke thought of the multiple groups in Jerusalem as one church as he authored the book of Acts (Mahlerbe, p. 70). Clearly, local worshipping communities were organically connected with one another.  They could hardly be described as independent.  Wayne Meeks writes:

It is evident, too, that Paul and the other leaders of the mission worked actively to inculcate the notion of a universal brotherhood of the believers in Messiah Jesus.  The letters themselves, the messengers who brought them, and the repeated visits to local assemblies by Paul and his associates all emphasized the interrelatedness…The smallest unit of the movement is addressed precisely in the epistolary context that reminds the readers of the larger fellowship by names and groups in other places.   (The First Urban Christians—The Social World of the Apostle Paul, p. 109)
Paul and his coworkers were not simply trying to foster a sense of connection with the church universal at all times and in all places.  Rather, they were trying to engender cooperative bonds between flesh and blood congregations in specific places.

I would argue that voluntary connectedness among congregations enriches the life of a church and can, on occasion, prevent a church from becoming captive to the unchecked idiosyncrasies of a leader(s) who wishes to exercise  a level of control that is not healthy.  When congregations become disconnected from other churches, sometimes they can go off the rails organizationally and theologically.  The believers in Corinth benefit from connectedness as Paul guides them through a tough problem in 1 Corinthians 5; this is one of several issues Paul addresses in his letter. Community spawns health. Independence and isolation, when left unchecked, have the potential for pathology.

The Jerusalem Collection
Paul’s multiple references to the “Jerusalem collection” in his letters shows that churches took responsibility for supporting one another (Acts 11:27-30; Gal. 2:10; Romans 15:25-27; 1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 8:1-15 & 9:12-15).  This collection for the saints in Jerusalem is woven throughout Paul’s letters.  Paul promoted a sense of connection and mutual care through this effort.  The model here is not independence and isolation.

Church Leadership
The New Testament letters talk about elders and bishops with respect to cities, not individual churches.  The implication seems to be that there were multiple congregations in a city, for whom these leaders cared.  In Acts 20:17, Paul makes contact with the elders from Ephesus; they are identified with the city itself.  In Acts 14:23, Paul appoints leaders “church by church” (κατ’ ἐκκλησίαν).  Given that a series of cities is listed in vs. 21-22, the implication is that these leaders were a common link for the congregations in each city (Mahlerbe, p. 101).

Even if the above paragraph is not convincing, at a minimum the appointment of elders by respected leaders in the broader Christian family indicates a strong connective network among congregations (Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5).  These are not independent isolated fellowships.

The Jerusalem Council
Furthermore, the leaders in the Jerusalem church decide the issue of direct Gentile admission to the churches throughout the Roman Empire and what practices believing Gentiles must observe.  This edict is then communicated and, presumably, practiced throughout the New Testament churches (Acts 15:1-35 and 16:4-5).  These are not Lone Ranger congregations.

Although Paul asserts an authority bestowed on him directly by Jesus Christ, he does point out that he received the endorsement of the Jerusalem leaders (Gal. 2:1-9).  Apparently he feels this strengthens his hand among the believers in the province of Galatia.  This suggests something other than a mentality of independence and indifference on the part of these congregations, as well.

In Our Day
These leadership links between churches, although quite effective in the early days of the church, would make me a little nervous in our day.  As a Baptist, I am not comfortable with outsiders dictating to local churches what they must and must not do and whom they may and may not call as leaders.  As a Regional Executive Minister, I spend not a small amount of time explaining to congregations that I cannot and will not dictate practices to them; I will not make their decisions for them.  Freedom is core to Baptist practice and identity.  I am happy being a low control--high trust Baptist. Nonetheless, I affirm the values of connectedness and mutual care among churches evident in these earliest Christian congregations.

Individualism is a marked characteristic of American culture.  Our culture inevitably shapes our congregations.  If a congregation wishes to become isolated and independent, I wish them all the best.  The error is to claim that the Bible values individualism and isolation over community, cooperation, and mutual support.  The texts of the New Testament indicate otherwise.

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