Thursday, August 18, 2016

I Was There When You Were Born

The birth of our first son was not easy for me.  My wife was in labor in for 14 hours, and this was rather hard on me.  I was quite anxious for this child to be born, yet he was in no hurry.  At one point we called my parents from the hospital; and when I began to tell my dad where we were, I broke down crying.  My wife, lying in the bed between contractions, took the phone from me and assured my father that I was fine—just a little emotional.  Soon after that, the baby was delivered, and so was I in a way.  Within a minute of the birth, the doctor handed my new son to me, and I held this new life.  His newborn visage is forever imprinted on my memory.

The birth of my second son was much easier for me.  He was in a bigger hurry to enter the world, and I was better prepared for the whole drama.  I think I could have delivered him myself had that been necessary.  Again, immediately after his birth, I held him and looked into his red and wrinkly face.  That image is forever etched in my memory.

My sons are older now.  One recently graduated from college, and the other is well on his way.  They are both taller than I am, their voices deeper; they have become young adults.  Yet there is still this bond between us, this unbreakable connection that transcends all time and transition and distance.  I suspect it will always be there.  They will start careers, maybe marry and have children of their own, perhaps move half way around the world; but I suspect this bond will remain unbroken.

Why is that?  I think it is because I was there when they were born.  Within moments of the initial infilling of their lungs with oxygen, I held them and took them in.  They and I have passed through many other experiences together along the way, but none of those experiences have the power of that first encounter.  This makes my love for them truly unconditional.  My devotion to them will never come into play.

This helps me grasp a bit more securely God’s great love for us.  God was there when we were born.  At that moment God took us in.  The prophet Isaiah writes:
But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
    my Lord has forgotten me.”
   Can a woman forget her nursing child,
    or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
    yet I will not forget you.
   See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;
    your walls are continually before me. (49:14-16)
There is a bond between God and each of us that transcends and endures all the circumstances of our lives, even our failures, our sins, and our mistakes.  God was there when we were born, and we are irreversibly, unconditionally God’s beloved children.  That will never change.

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

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Children and Churches and Change

Parenthood is about letting go.  From the time a child learns to crawl, they are leaving their parents behind.  When they start walking, initially they walk toward you with open arms; soon they are walking away from you to some new experience.  I remember the first time I dropped Luke and then Ben off at school and they forget to give me a hug goodbye; their world was expanding.  Then there were their first overnight school trips in Belgium.  It seemed the next month they were driving away in a car as new drivers.  Leaving them at collage as freshmen was another letting go.  There is a sense of loss at each juncture but also a sense of satisfaction.  In letting them go, I was really letting them grow.  At each threshold they returned to me richer more fascinating people.

Our faith is grounded in the idea of letting go to make room for growth.  Warren Schutz observes (Temporary Shepherds-A Congregational Handbook for Ministry, p. 121) that the Christian faith is built upon the following pattern:
  • Change: The inevitable movement of life’s forces
  • Transition: The process by which we must deal with the inevitable changes of life
  • Transformation: The new shape that occurs after transition, toward which change is aimed.
Schultz writes that God sought to change the consequences of sin into forgiveness.  The process of transition was the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Transformation is what happens in our lives as a result of that process.  The Gospel is all about leaving things behind to embrace new and deeper things. It is a mystery of our faith that in losing we find.  “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will find it [Mark 8:35].”

Our congregations are sometimes resistant to change and leaving behind familiar things.  Yet the core story of our faith is about life, then death, then new life through resurrection.  The arc of this narrative is the foundation of our faith.

To deny change and reject transition is to close the door on transformation.  Followers of the living, dying, rising Christ—of all people—are well equipped to move through this cycle with hope and anticipation about the next new thing God will do.  We believe that God is in the change.
     See, I am doing a new thing!
        Now it springs up; do you
          not perceive it?
        I am making a way in the
          and steams in the
             wasteland. (Isaiah 43:19)
We are all about the new stuff God is doing.  Inevitably that means leaving some of the old stuff behind:  letting go to letting grow.

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

Monday, August 1, 2016

On Car Trips and Churches

Cars are central to the American identity.  There are actually more cars per capita in Italy than there are in America.  But the car is not a core symbol of Italian identity like it is of American identity. The “family vacation” and the “road trip” have an iconic status in America.  Many of our movies and novels and TV shows are built upon the architecture of a car trip.  Tod Stiles and Buz Murdock spent 116 episodes in a corvette along Route 66, the road itself a symbol of Americana.

As Americans, we have the sense that we are always on the way to somewhere else, even if we are remaining in the same location.  This ties into the mythical—as in organizing and meaning- giving—role that progress plays in the American mentality.

The book of Hebrews paints the life of faith as a journey (chapter 11).  The writer describes a trip that never reaches its destination in this life. People of faith are forever “longing for a better country.”  They are “aliens and strangers on earth.”  As a nation of immigrants who left other places to find a better life, this resonates with us.

George Bullard, in his book Pursuing the Full Kingdom Potential of Your Congregation, compares church life to a car trip (pp. 77 ff.)  Bullard lists vision, relationships, progress, and management as the four organizing principles of church life; these four principles form the DNA of a congregation.  Bullard then defines the role that each of these four principles plays in the car trip of a church.

Vision drives the car.  It fuels the forward progress. 

Relationships navigate along the journey from the passenger side of the front seat.  They flavor the quality of the journey.  It is important to understand how Bullard defines relationships.  He does not mean how well we get along with each other or how much we like each other.  He means the relational processes by which persons are brought to faith in Jesus Christ; become connected to the local church; are assimilated into the life of that church; and have opportunities to grow, serve, and utilize their gifts.

Programs sit behind Relationships in a supporting role.  They provide the opportunities and activities through which the best possible relationship can be foster with God, one another, and the community in which the church is located.

Management sits behind Vision.   It provides Vision with the infrastructure it needs to guide the car along its journey.

What happens when Vison falls asleep at the wheel or gets left behind at the gas station?  Management takes the wheel.  Bullard observes that this is what happened when Moses (the visionary) was up on the mountain too long.  Aaron (the manager) took over and a golden calf was constructed.  (In case you are not familiar with the story, this chapter of the saga does not end well.)

When management (such as finance, building repairs, reporting, control, and hierarchies) take precedent over vision (such as asking why we are here or what does God have for us to do or who is our neighbor or how can we join in with what God is doing), then we end up with golden calves.

George Bullard will be with our Region on Friday, November 4, for our pre-biennial day of training.  He will help us learn how to keep Vision in the driver’s seat.  If Vision has fallen asleep or got left at the gas station and Management is at the wheel, Bullard will helps us get Vision back in the driver’s seat.

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

Monday, July 25, 2016

A Profile in Church Leadership

We hear a lot about leadership these days, particularly during a presidential campaign season.  Many thoughtful people have sifted through secular profiles of leadership and assessed their appropriateness for the church. 

Paul David Lawson, in his book Old Wine in New Wine Skins—Centering Prayer and Systems Theory, gives some guidance as to what qualities we need in our church leaders.  He writes that churches need leaders who are relational. Leaders and members mutually affect one another; they co-create one another in a way.  Therefore, relational skills are more important than great powers of speech or reservoirs of information.  Good leaders take responsibility for their influential role in the community and encourage members to do the same.  I think this is what the Apostle Paul is getting at when he describes the church as a body of inter-related parts (1 Cor. 12:12ff.).  

Drawing upon the work of Edwin Friedman, Lawson catalogues some characteristics of good church leaders.  (1) They stay in touch with all the members of the congregation, not just the ones they enjoy or agree with or support them.  (2) Good leaders try to be nonreactive.  They act out of principle with a clear purpose.  Their reactions to others are thought based and not emotional venting.  I think of this as keeping in mind the “long game.” Good leaders ask:
       In what direction will my response push us? 
      What is our organizing goal and how am I contributing to this in a constructive way? 
      How will my action incrementally move us along to where we want to be? 
(3) Good leaders tolerate disagreements and stay focused on the merits of people’s positions and not on the person who takes these positions.

Finally, good leaders need to be prepared for sabotage and handle it in a nonreactive manner while staying in touch with the saboteur.  Good leaders know they will meet with resistance, and they do not take this personally.  They know that resistance is evidence that they are working with a living organization where people care about things.  Good leaders are able to adapt, to negotiate, to bend without breaking.  Lawson gives the following ministry tip:
Don’t care about the results.  [The good leader] can work with a number of different outcomes in any given situation and does not need to be emotionally invested in any particular result. Success ought not to be measured by winning or losing in any particular situation, but rather by the ability [the leader] has to work with any outcome (p. 53).
So why do we find it difficult, especially for pastors, to have this type of flexibility?  It has to do with what is called self-differentiation.  A self-differentiated person is one who knows who they are and maintains their self-image based upon their own assessment of themselves.  They certainly listen to others and process feedback, but finally their self-image is not simply a reflection how others see them.  Leaders need to be self-differentiated from their congregations as well.  They listen, and they process feedback.  But their sense of who they are is not an echo of what others think or say about them.

The scripture is clear: Jesus knew who he was.  In other words, he was well self-differentiated. Therefore he acted deliberately and purposefully and  was not reactive as he made his way through the world.  This gave to him the freedom to lead in a racially different way.
Jesus, knowing that the father had given all things into his hands, and that the had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.  Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him (John 13:3-5).
Our congregations need good leaders.  A good leader is not one who has all the answers or can fix everything.  A good leader is one who moves among us in a way that we grow into the people and congregations God wants us to be.  This type of leadership has more to do with who we are than with any portfolio of competencies we might have.

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


Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Recognizing Ourselves

When we start shooting one another or even vilifying one another by categories, it is time to go back to original things. The creation account in Genesis asserts that every human being is made in the image of God.  We are all kin to one another; there should be a deep resonance among us. If we don’t recognize ourselves in others—however different they might be, then we are not seeing other people as God sees them.

I arrived at a community meeting about rehabbing a block of vacant houses and found that I was an hour early.  I was walking back to my car to listen to the radio and wait.  I was preoccupied contemplating the amount of time I had wasted, how I could have enjoyed a more leisurely dinner if I had paid better attention to the phone message.

Just as I walked under the light of a street lamp, a young black man stepped out of the shadows of the building.  He startled me, and I yelped.  He too drew back a bit, not expecting me to be there.  We stood there face to face, less than two feet apart, looking into one another’s eyes.  He blurted out:  “It’s O.K., I was just lighting a cigarette out of the wind.”  I responded:  “No problem, you just startled me.”  We stood there with our eyes locked continuing to assure one another that all was good.
A whole other conversation took place through our faces.  This was not a block to be avoided at night, but there were blocks close by that were not so peaceful.  Considerations of safety and harmony were always on people’s minds. We both lived in a society that said I, as a white guy, should be a bit leery young black urban males; he was certainly aware of this.  Society often told him that I did not have his best interest at heart.  It was within this context that we stood face to face under a pool of light on a dark city street.

I wanted to communicate to him that he had simply surprised me.  I reacted without thinking or even clearly seeing who he was.  I wanted him to know that I did not see him as my enemy.  I sensed from his eyes that he wanted to communicate to me that he was not threat.  There was nothing I had that he wanted.  He was just trying to light a cigarette on a windy street.  This is what I sensed passing between us, both of us feeling awkward.  I was aware of our common humanity and vulnerability in that moment.  I felt our shared need to be understood and accepted.  Both of us were simply trying live our lives in peace.
There is so much in our society that tries to set us against one another, to say for one group to get ahead another group must be diminished.  The creation account denies this lie.  It teaches that we are all kin to one another.  For any of us to live fully into God’s plan for our life, our neighbor must have that same opportunity.  At the core of our being we are kin to one another.
White folks and black folks, protestors and police officers, Republicans, Democrats, Independents and Libertarians, we are all in this together. If we choose sides and build walls, we are each damaging a piece of who were created by God to be; we are less than whole human beings.  Human beings are not the natural enemies of other human beings.  This is an aberration we introduce into creation because we fail to see the image of God in that other person.  Sometimes that image is, admittedly, buried pretty deeply and a bit malformed; but it is there.  The Bible says so.

Jim Kelsey

Executive Minister-American Baptist Churches of New York State

Friday, July 15, 2016

Trust Must be Built

She sat in my office, clearly having something to say; I had been at the church about six months.  She said:  “Dr. Kelsey, I will support you.  I will follow you, but I will never trust.” Life had taught her that ministers were not trustworthy; too often she had felt disappointed and betrayed.  I determined that day that I would earn her trust.
A part of my job is listening to churches and pastors talk about their relationship with one another.  Sometimes it is going very well, other times—not so well.  I have come to believe that the critical element in a healthy productive partnership between pastor and people is trust.
If there is trust, then failures and disagreements, challenges and setbacks, poor sermons and belt tightening can all be endured.  If there is not trust, then even the smallest issue can escalate into a major problem.
This is why pastoral misconduct is so devastating to a congregation. It undermines that most basic foundation of a shared ministry: trust.  We see ministers as “safe” people, people who will care for us and advocate for us.  So we open ourselves up to them.  Then when they betray our trust, the wounds are deep; and we find it difficult to trust the next one.
Trust that is destroyed must be deliberately rebuilt through a candid facing of what has happened and discussion with those affected.  Burying it simply magnifies the power of the hurt.
Trust can be built through honest conversations about sometimes uncomfortable topics.  Trust is built by making sure the other person understands us.  It is often forged less by the words we speak than by the tone and what it reveals about us and our intentions.  Transparency and vulnerability and goodwill speak louder than any words we might say.
Pastors must often earn trust from congregants, and sometimes congregations must earn the trust of a pastor.  Congregants are not the only ones who have been hurt.  This process is moved along by living honestly, patiently, and transparently before one another.  Yes, that can be risky; but it is the path to wholeness.
I did earn that woman’s trust.  I finally walked with her through a devastating personal tragedy; that tipped the scales in my favor.  It was not easy, but it was deliberate.
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Fear and Death in Orlando

The writer of the creation story in Genesis gives a highly-nuanced account.  The author writes:  “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.  God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness [1:3-4].”  God does not eliminate the darkness, rather God places boundaries on the darkness.

Watching the news of the slaughter in Orlando Sunday night, I again wished that God had simply eliminated the darkness, but that is not what the text says.  The wording acknowledges that there is still darkness in the world.  The image of darkness in the Bible carries a lot of baggage.  Darkness represents what is not of God, what opposes God’s will, what is contrary to God’s purpose in creation.  This careful choice of words makes clear what we already knew:  there is an element of creation that is in full scale rebellion against God.  The killings in Orlando makes clear anew that evil is alive and on the move in our world.

The Genesis writer makes clear that the darkness is contained; boundaries have been imposed upon it.  God is preeminently the ruler of creation; evil does not and will not have the last word.  The writer makes clear who has imposed limitations on whom.  But for now, evil is afoot in God’s good creation.  The Genesis account recognizes this unsettling reality.

Believers must name these killings for what they really are: evil.  There is some discussion as to whether this was an act of terrorism or a hate crime.  This is a distinction without difference.  Acts of terrorism are grounded in the hatred of those who are different, others who are not like us.  Hate crimes are designed to terrorize groups of people, to make then afraid and anxious in their own land.  This killing was born of a hatred of the LGBT folks.  The killer targeted a particular LGBT club in order to terrorize this broader community of people.  Hate and terrorism are inextricably linked.

To call these killings evil does not necessary point out a path to a safer and more loving world.  Naming this slaughter as evil could lead to a passive resignation, to saying there is nothing we can do.  It does not have to lead to this.  We can see these killings as a vivid outbreak of a broader cloth of hatred and fear in the human community.  I say fear because I think that a good bit of hatred is born of fear.  We are afraid of that which unsettles us and makes us uncomfortable, and that fear spawns hatred as a coping mechanism.

God, not evil, is the author of creation and is preeminent.  Thus there is no need for believers to fear people who make us uncomfortable, who challenge our worldview, whose experiences have been different from ours.  In other words, there is no credible excuse for hatred among God’s followers.  Perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18). .  God does not hate because God does not fear. 

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