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