Friday, January 20, 2017

Render unto Caesar What Belongs to Caesar and Render unto God What Belongs to God

People have pointed out recently that we are not primarily Democrats or Republicans or Independents; we are, first of all, Americans.  In the aftermath of a tumultuous primary season and a bitterly contested presidential campaign, these are conciliatory words.  Love of our fellow citizens  should run more deeply in our veins that partisan loyalties. They are not, however, the last word for some of us.

For those of us who have confessed faith in Jesus Christ and have vowed to follow him in discipleship, there is a more enduring and demanding core to our identity: love of neighbor, which Jesus so entangles with love of God that we cannot in the end separate the two.  Clintonistas and Trumpsters and Bernieites who claim to be followers of Jesus simply are not permitted to put partisan, political loyalties above love of all our neighbors.  There is no noun or adjective referring to a human being that can be justification for not loving her or him all the time as we love ourselves.  Jesus has excluded all possible excuses.  When he said we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, Jesus pretty much shut down any exceptions (Mt. 5:43-44).  We are permitted to pray “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do [Luke 23:34],” but we still must labor to love them. 

We are loyal Americans, and out of love of country we aspire toward a spirit of unity.  We owe that to Caesar.  But we owe a deeper thing to God.
Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink?  When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You?  Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?”  And the King will answer and say to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” (Matt 25:37-40).
It is clear that Jesus did not mean we should simply coexist with or tolerate our neighbor; we owe that to Caesar already.  Jesus means people around us should say:  “Will you look at that? That person must really love that other person.  Usually people like that don’t care for one another.”  That is what we owe to God.  If we read the rest of the story in Matthew 5, we see what a grave mistake it is to confuse what we owe to Caesar with what we owe to God. 

In the aftermath of a divisive election, it may be more challenging to love all our neighbors; but this is what we signed on for when we fell in behind Jesus.  So celebrate, protest, or watch "Frazier" reruns; but let us not confuse civility with Christianity.   May God grants us the grace to be faithful in all our relationships with all people all the time.

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

Monday, January 16, 2017

Martin Luther King Jr: Principled not Passive

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is more than a secular holiday honoring an important American.  It is also a day to remember someone who taught the church in America some things about Christian discipleship.  King was more than an adept leader of a movement; he was at his core a Baptist preacher who sought to guide people in the way of the Gospel.

In a day when political division generates a bit of rancor among us, it is healthy to remember someone who taught the importance of loving our neighbor and even our enemy. King did not choose nonviolent initiative primarily because it was the most effective tool available to him at the time; rather he chose this tool because he believed in its preeminent power. 

Paul Greenberg wrote, King “understood he had an ally in the heart of his adversary, and he never ceased appealing to it. He was relentless in his application of mercy.”  King believed that he strove ultimately not against other people but against the powers they obey.  In Strive Toward Freedom, King observed:  “There is a creative Force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspect of reality into a harmonious whole.”  He staked his work on the belief that God was working in our world to heal what is broken. 

In Strength to Love, King wrote that he lived with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive.  He wrote there are some who find the cross a stumbling block; others see it as foolishness.  “But I am more convinced than ever that it is the power of God to social and individual healing,” wrote King. In Strive Toward Freedom, King warned: “We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering.  We will meet your physical force with soul force.”  The cross of Jesus clues us in to how we can participate in what God is working out in our world.  This is why King chose confrontational nonviolence over retaliation.  He staked his life and legacy upon that conviction.

Was King’s approach greeted with love and kindness?  No, it created tension, even violent opposition.  He confessed in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that he was not afraid of tension.  He believed tension to be constructive and necessary for growth.  His methodology was not passive; it was principled.  The principle was that God is working out the creation’s redemption and finally God will have the last word.  King was many things.  Most of all he was simply a Baptist preacher pointing people in the direction God is moving.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.  Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.  For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?  But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently (Romans 8:22-25).

We are people of hope in God.  Martin Luther King Jr. Day renews that hope.


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

Thursday, January 5, 2017

What's a Follower of Jesus to Do?

Build a wall or provide a pathway to citizenship? Dreamers or a threat?  Welcome or deport? Register or provide sanctuary?
Over the past year our nation has been engaged in a vigorous debate over the appropriate response to people living among us from other countries, some of whom do not have proper documentation.  There are voices on both ends of the spectrum; most Americans lie someplace along the continuum.  What is a follower of Jesus to do?  I can tell you what we did. 

Through InterFaith Works’ Center for New Americans, my family was matched with a recently arrived refugee family from Syria.  There are four in the family: a mother and father, two daughters (4 and 10 years of age) and two sons (6 and 12 years of age).  Using Google Translate on our phones we are able to have intelligible conversations.  Debbie has taken the mother to some secondhand stores so that she might know where to find affordable items.  We have helped them buy some household goods, and have been able to collect some useful things from others.  On several occasions people in churches have taken the initiative to approach us and offer things unsolicited.  In the spirit of holiday giving, we bought gifts for the children.  When all the other kids in their classes were getting gifts, it was heartbreaking to think of these delightful children receiving nothing.

We invited them to our house for a meal.  In retrospect, we should have done more research into the meaning of the word halal.  In any case, the children seemed delighted to be in our home.

Does this resolve the immigration debate in America?  No, not really.  Is it faithful to the teaching of Jesus?  I think so.  “I was a stranger and you invited me in [Matt. 25:35].”  Regardless of where we stand on the immigration debate, all followers of Jesus are responsible to invite in and care for the strangers among us.  On that issue, for a follower of Jesus, there should be no debate.

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

Thursday, December 22, 2016

On Geneolgies and the Timless Power of Stories

Advent is about preparing for Christmas.  I don’t mean four weeks of gift buying, cookie making, card sending, and house decorating; although all of these are great fun and well worth the effort.  Rather, Advent is a period when we internally prepare ourselves to hear anew, hopefully with a second naiveté, the good news of the birth of the Christ child.

The genealogy of Jesus is an important part of Matthew’s birth narrative.  Like Advent, it prepares us for the news of the birth itself. 

Matthew includes some scandalous entries in this litany of ancestry.  Matthew breaks tradition by introducing Tamar, a woman, into the list.  Tamar, disguised as a prostitute, tricked her father-in-law, Judah, into impregnating her.  The fruit of this encounter is one of the ancestors of Jesus.  Rahab, another prostitute, is listed as the father of Boaz, who was an ancestor of Jesus.  The mother of Solomon, an ancestor of Jesus, is identified as the former wife of Uriah rather than by her name Bathsheba.  Matthew calls attention to the scandal that led to that union.

Matthew wants us to be ready when later in the chapter we learn that Mary turns up pregnant before she and Joseph had cohabitated.  The angel gives Joseph the rest of the story, and all is well.  It is unlikely, however, that the rest of the community was as understanding.  Indeed, one of the early attacks on the church by the enemies of the faith was the assertion that Jesus was illegitimate.

Six years ago I was leading a class for African immigrant pastors living in Italy, and we were discussing Matthew’s intentionally controversial genealogy.  We moved on to discuss how Jesus associated with some controversial, even scandalous, people (Matthew 9:9-13).  This, of course, did not play well with many of Jesus’ contemporaries.

The pastors began to discuss how do they, as church leaders, handle situations where women working in prostitution participate in the life of their churches.  How do they mediate the controversy when these women don’t have appropriately modest clothing for worship?  How can they as leaders, guide their churches to be true to the values espoused in the Bible and still welcome everyone in the spirit of the ministry Jesus practiced?  This was their struggle.

I was speechless (not a frequent occurrence).  Genealogies (certainly some of the least-inspiring sections of scripture) from an ancient and foreign world were sparking among these contemporary pastors the very questions that Matthew hoped to spark among the first generation of Christians as they tried to figure out what it meant for them to be followers of Jesus.  I was impressed by the time transcending power of the Gospel, by the universal appeal of the stories we have inherited in our scriptures. 

At this time of year, we celebrate the birth of Jesus.  We proclaim him Lord of heaven and earth.  Can these ancient stories still hold power and relevance?  Yes they can, even the genealogies.

We have incredible stories to tell, stories that transform people and reshape communities.  This is what we do in our churches; we tell these great stories.  Let the story wash over you anew this Advent and do with you what it will.

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

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

From Relating the Story to Embodying the Story

Advent is about waiting for the coming of the Christ, but what difference does this coming really make?  Before the coming of Jesus, the Hebrews knew that God loved them.  They knew that God forgave sins and that God took up the cause of the marginalized and despised.  They knew that God was to them as a nurturing mother and a guiding father and that faith could open the door to new life. The words and ministry of Jesus rung of things they already knew.

Yet the writer of John gushes that being told about it and seeing it were not at all the same thing:  "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father full of grace and truth [John 1:14]."

Embodying something is very different than simply relating it.  Jesus embodied the story the prophets had long been telling, and the writer of John wants us to know that made an incredible difference.  The writer of Hebrews also notes the qualitative different between being told and actually experiencing:
 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways,  but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.  The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. (Hebrews 1:1-3a)
This not just a difference of degree; this is a difference of kind.  In the coming of the Christ child, it was not just that previous things were made clearer; they took on an unprecedented power when embodied in Jesus.  People noticed this.  The crowds are amazed at the teaching of Jesus; he spoke as one having authority and not as their religious leaders--who presumably had a lot to say but did not have an aura of authenticity (Matt 7:28-29).  The crowds noticed the qualitative difference between those who related the story and the one who actually embodied that story.

We call this narrative leadership.  Jesus became what he talked about; he lived the story he told.  Another word for this is incarnation.  It was a beautiful thing to experience; the writer of John wants us to know that. 

During Advent we reflect upon the moment when the story of God’s love went from being related to us to actually being embodied among us.  This comes as a challenge to us.  We too are to engage in narrative leadership among our neighbors, families, friends and churches.  We are to embody this story that has so captured us. We become what we are talking about and show people what it looks like.  We make the story of God’s love in Christ our lived story.  Advent is about our leaving behind our old stories and giving ourselves to the only story that in the end really matters.

Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State

Friday, October 21, 2016

Every Moses Needs a Jethro

She said she wanted to be a missionary.  When asked how she wanted to serve, she replied:  “I just want to love the world”— an undoubtedly admirable but somewhat ill-defined sentiment.  My then- missionary wife counseled that she narrow and clarify her vision a bit.

I spend a good bit of time with pastors, many of whom began their journey into ministry with a strong sense of calling.  They started out wanting to love/save/heal/fill in the blank the world.  They were gripped by a purpose that consumed their imagination and called forth the best they had to give.  That sense of calling took form as pastoring a local congregation.

Some pastors, from time to time, lose that gripping purpose; the fire fades to an electric space heater.  How does this happen?  Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce, in their book (Leadership that Fits Your Church-What Kind of Pastor for What Kind of Congregation) suggest that it is often a combination of two things: (1) stress and (2) the lack of a felt connection between what they are doing day to day and the outlines of their initial calling to ministry.  Stress alone does not “burn out” pastors.  When stress is coupled with a sense that their daily ministry tasks have little to do with why they became ministers, then pastors are vulnerable to losing heart in their work.  If churches want energetic passionate pastors who are bringing the best they have to their ministry, then churches are well advised to insure that the minister is, at least most of the time, doing things that connect with their sense of ministerial calling. 

Ministry, at times, is like any other job.  Arrangements must be made for building maintenance and the plowing of snow.  Forms must be completed, budgets formulated, and office supplies ordered.  A backup plan must be implemented when the caterer backs out at the last minute and you have 70 people arriving in 3 hours for a dinner.  And sooner or later the roof is going to leak--guaranteed; get a bucket.

If, however, a minister’s life is consumed with things that simply feel like a job and there is a dearth of things that feel like a response to a calling from God, they will grow weary.

Moses was a person with a clear calling from God—a burning bush and heavenly voice.  Yet as he moved through his ministry, he began to become overwhelmed with daily, job-like, tasks.  Administration crowded out prophecy in his life. 

Jethro, his father-in-law, saw the problem.  Moses was spending all his time adjudicating disputes between people.  "This is no good, Moses; you are going to burn yourself out if you keep this up," Jethro advised.  Your job is to be the people’s representative before God and to teach the people law of God and how they are to live; get some help with the other stuff (see Exodus 18:19-20. 

Appoint others to serve as judges Jethro advised, encouraging Moses to reclaim his original calling and give up being a civil servant in the court system.

All pastors need a Jethro, someone who will see that they are having ample opportunity to live out their life-giving call from God, a calling that set them on this vocational trajectory in the first place.  Without Jethro, it is unlikely that Moses ever would have gotten the people ready to live in the Promise Land.  Every Moses needs a Jethro.

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

Friday, September 30, 2016

Telling the More Difficult Story

The Easy Story
Let us call them Dr. and Mrs. Peaceable Kingdom.  Upon arrival at the church, I heard story after story of how wonderful life was during the 25 year pastorate of Dr. and Mrs. Peaceable Kingdom.  Mrs. Peaceable Kingdom schooled the young women in how to be good wives and mothers.  Dr. Peaceable Kingdom was a wise and gentle counselor, beloved by all.  The people telling me these stories were young couples starting their families and careers at that time, their marriages freshly minted after returning from WWII.  It all sounded too good to be true; and it was, I discovered, too good to be completely true.
One day, I went to visit a long-term member who had not been to church in decades.  He gladly agreed to have me visit, and each time I returned he would welcome me into his home.  On one visit he shared with me that he had not been back to the church since they fired Dr. Peaceable Kingdom.

I asked him “fired, you say?”  Yes, he replied, they fired him.  He went on to share that he had been driving Dr. Peaceable Kingdom to make a hospital visit and noticed that the pastor’s shirt cuffs were frayed.  He asked the pastor why he did not buy some new shirts.  Dr. Peaceable Kingdom replied that he could not afford to buy new shirts.

At the next Trustee Board meeting, of which this man was member, he suggested they give the pastor a raise.  The suggestion was met with stiff opposition.  It was the board’s opinion that the pastor was already paid more than he was worth.

There was some tension among the stories I was haring.  Where did the truth lie?

The More Difficult Story

Gil Rendle (“Narrative Leadership and Renewed Congregational Identity” in Finding Our Story—Narrative Leadership and Congregational Change, ed. Larry A. Goleman, pp. 31ff.) writes about easy stories and difficult stories.  Churches are prone to tell simplified stories because these are safe stories.  These are stories that are true but incomplete; we leave out the parts that might make us feel uncomfortable.

What really happened at me church?  First, I assume that the story about the Trustee Board meeting was true.  It demonstrated that Dr. Peaceable Kingdom was not universally admired.  In his day, the powers-that-were had a mixed opinion about him.  The people telling me the safe stories were not yet in positions of power; in my day they were.  They had forgotten that power had passed to them as one generation faded and a new generation took the reins of leadership.  They failed to mention that their predecessors had had some issues with Dr. Peaceable Kingdom.  It simply slipped their minds.

Dr. Peaceable Kingdom was not fired.  When opposition had become palpable among some in the congregation, a vote of confidence was taken.  The good doctor won the vote, but he did not feel it was sufficient enough to continue his ministry.  He left one year before he could have gone on pension.  When I brought this story up to some folks in the church who remembered those days of old, they did have some faint recollection of a vote but downplayed its importance.

The man who I was visiting also told a simplified version of the story in a way that undergirded his refusal to return to the church; the good doctor was not fired outright.

They all told an easy story.  They could have told a more difficult story.  They could have said that they had a good pastor, but things still were not perfect—everyone did not always get along.  They could have admitted that there was a time when they were not the ones in power and did not support everything the church leadership did.  They could have found encouragement in the memory that the reins of leadership had passed from one generation to the next a number of times in the life of the church; and each time the church had survived and adapted.

This would have been a more difficult and challenging story because it had implications for the present.  It would have complicated their simplified story:  everything was great in our glory days.  The women were all strong, the man all good looking; and the children all above average. The more complicated story, however, would have given some guidance for the present.  It would have reminded folks that all eras are fraught with challenges and change as one generation yields to the next generation, and the congregation survives  That is a strong but more complicated story.

Jesus Complicated Their Easy Stories

Jesus made people uneasy because he replaced their simplified stories with more complex stories.  In Luke 4 Jesus returns to his hometown synagogue and reads a passage of scripture.  The people adopt the most favorable reading of the text for themselves.  Jesus then recalls for them the time of Elijah and points out their history is a bit more complicated than they might like to admit.  They try to throw Jesus off a cliff.

In Luke 11:47, Jesus observes that the religious leaders love to celebrate their heritage by building tombs to the prophets.  He then reminds them that it was their ancestors who killed those very prophets.  The leaders do not like this more complicated story.  They learn nothing from this amplified story and soon will make a similar mistake themselves.

We want to tell simplified stories because they are easy; they ask nothing of us except a little nostalgia.  But growth lies in the more difficult stories.  They are more difficult to hear because they ask something of us in the present.

I am sure Dr. and Mrs. Peaceable Kingdom were fine leaders; I wish I known them.  But real stories are rarely that simple.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minster –American Baptist Churches of New York State