Friday, December 20, 2013

This Story Makes a Difference

Like many of you, I enjoyed a Christmas pageant in church on Sunday.  We had shepherds and sheep, angels and wisemen, Mary and Joseph, and a baby Jesus played by a plastic doll.  I witnessed the well-known story full of familiar characters, a story I could recite from memory by the time I started kindergarten.  Yet I loved hearing it anew, even if the sheep forgot to “baaah” on cue most of the time.  Why is something so familiar still so powerful?

It dawned on me why this story matters so much as a woman sang the haunting Christmas piece:
Mary, did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water?
Did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters? 
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you’ve delivered will soon deliver you?
(Lyrics by Mark Lowry & Buddy Greene)
If this were not a true story—in other words, if it were just another ancient fable that warms the heart and gives some wisdom for living—everything in my life would be deflated, and washed out.  The brilliance of the sun would become for me a dirty fluorescent bulb.  Without the coming of this child, what would be left for us who believe?  Not much I’m afraid.

Long ago a child was born to a Hebrew peasant girl.  He grew to be a man totally dedicated to God.  He showed us what God is like in an unprecedented way.  He was “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. [Heb.1:3].”  As what he said and did sank into those around him, they realized there was something unprecedented going on here.  In amazement they concluded:  “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].”  But I get ahead of the story here.  At the moment of birth, the child is all potential, a future just beginning to unfold.  This child is a package generously received yet unopened.
Mary, did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
Did you know that your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
And when you kiss your little baby, you’ve kissed the face of God

For now, let us simply hear again about the shepherds and the angels and the parents and the baby.  Let us realize anew the difference this story makes for us who believe.  Without it, our lives would be lost in triviality and tedium and emptiness.  With it, our lives are found in purpose and wonder and hope.  This story matters.

May you experience the incredible power of the story as we make our way toward Christmas,

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Where is the Peace?

This time of year we talk a lot about peace.  Zechariah told us that the coming Christ would “guide our feet into the path of peace [Luke 1:79].”  The angels sang at Christ’s birth: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those whom he favors [Luke 2:14].”  Yet each morning the news tells us of new conflicts, of refugees displaced by war desperately seeking a safe haven, and of senseless random violence.  In our own country people suffer under the violence of crime, poverty, and injustice.  Violence seems to be the pervasive currency of power in our world.  So where is the peace?

In a beautiful poetry of history, this past weekend when congregations were celebrating “Peace Sunday” as part of their Advent observance we were also mourning the death of Nelson Mandela.  Mandela fought for a just peace and against a social system that was the very epitome of systematized violence trying to pass itself off as civil society.  During his trial, with the certainty of imprisonment before him, he said:
I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.  I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.  It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve.  But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die. 
Mandela realized that the peace that Zechariah and the angels spoke of must be waged; it must be sacrificed for; it must be grasped fragment by fragment.  Mandela seized upon his moment and won some peace for his nation.

The war for peace is already won through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but there are still some battles to be fought.  Oscar Cullman put it in this way.  When the allied troops made it off the beaches of Normandy and into the hedgerows and villages of France, the outcome of the Second World War was essentially decided.  As their boots moved from sand to dirt, the thing was settled.  The Allied armies would ultimately prevail.  There were still battles to be fought, blood to be shed, people to be displaced, and loss to be endured.  There was still a lot of “mopping up” to do, and that would be messy.  The Allies, however, would win the war.  Peace would come.

Our situation is a bit like that.  This coming Christ through his faithfulness to God has won the peace.  God’s campaign for peace is “off the beaches” and into the “hedgerows and villages.”  We are now in the “mopping up” stage.  It is still dangerous and costly.  Nelson Mandela faithfully fought his battle and moved the peace forward.  He made a place for some new light in the darkness that lingers yet.

The author Robert Louis Stevenson had a difficult childhood, due to poor health. One night his nurse found him out of bed, his nose pressed against the window. “Come back to bed” she said to him. “You’ll catch your death of cold.” But he didn’t move. Instead, he sat, motionless, watching a lamplighter slowly working his way through the black night, lighting the gas street lamps along his route. Pointing to him, Robert said, “See, look there; there’s a man poking holes in the darkness!”

 This is our task for now, to poke holes in the darkness wherever and whenever we can.  The light has won; the fullness of the promised peace is coming.  There are still battles to be fought and losses to be endured.  Mandela fought the battle that was his.  We are to fight the battles that are ours, to poke some holes in the darkness.  This gives to our lives purpose, and this purpose brings with it its own sense of peace.

May you experience the peace of Christ in your heart and your family and your communities this Christmas season and commit anew to poking holes in the darkness.

Blessings,
Jim Kelsey

Executive Minister

Friday, November 22, 2013

On a Lost Wedding Ring, an Inherited Painting, and Church Buildings


A Lost Wedding Ring

I got to the top of the stairs at the New York Region office and realized my wedding band was gone.  For nearly 23 years it had been around my left ring finger.  I had just finished washing my hands, so I returned to the sink and took the pipe underneath apart; but the ring was not there.  The two women with whom I work seemed to be more concerned about this loss than I was.  The ring had deep meaning for me, but it was not irreplaceable.  I had not lost my wife; the marriage was still in tact.  Debbie and I could go together to buy another ring and create for ourselves a new memory.  I found the ring that evening in a glove where it had become snagged.  It now, once again, rings my finger in gold.  It has sentimental value, but it is not irreplaceable.

An Inherited Painting

Both my parents have died within the last year.  I have a painting in my house that hung in their breakfast room for the last several decades of their lives.  Many times when I was home to visit, I would sit at the table and talk with my parents as I ate my breakfast below that painting.  They had grown hard of hearing and were accustomed to shouting their conversations; they did not realize they were shouting at each other.  I would turn the volume on the TV down each time; for me it was too early in the morning for both the shouting and the TV.  That painting is now a daily reminder of them and those loud conversations over Cheerios and coffee.  I cannot have any more of those conversations; I cannot make any new memories with them.  That painting keeps fresh for me something that is irrecoverable, thus the painting is for me irreplaceable.

Church Buildings

Church buildings are a bit like that painting.  They are the repositories of memories.  Weddings, funerals, Christmas pageants, and baptisms—they carry emotional echoes of these important milestones in our lives.  The pews and the windows and the walls make palpable the presence of bygone joys and sorrows, of deceased friends and family.  The nursery is the place where, perhaps, we first entrusted our newborn child to someone else’s care.  The Sunday School rooms are, perhaps, the places where we made our first friends.  These buildings ring of a time when our lives were expanding and life was more potential than past. The people and experiences that these buildings mediate to us in feeling and thought are irrecoverable, thus these buildings are irreplaceable.

Sometimes congregations come to a point where they must leave these structures behind.  It becomes impossible to continue to bear them any longer.  You cannot take all things on all journeys; sometimes we must leave some things behind.  However true this might be, we must not dismiss these powerful places as simply structures of brick and wood that can be easily swapped for another.  They are irreplaceable because they mediate to us the remembrance of things that are irrecoverable.

Gil Rendle wrote that we don’t resist change; rather we resist loss.  So how do we process the sometimes-necessary loss of these special spaces?  Gratitude is a good aroma to mingle with our grief.  We can give thanks for what happened in these places, how we were formed and supported and loved and renewed within the embrace of their walls.  We can remember how they animated our lives and gave song to our joys and comfort in our losses.  And those of us who were not there can listen to, appreciate, and learn from the stories these buildings evoke from those were there.  These buildings are irreplaceable places because of what happened to us within them.  In letting them go, grief and gratitude are appropriate.

Then Joshua summoned the twelve men from the Israelites, whom he had appointed, one from each tribe. Joshua said to them, "Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan, and each of you take up a stone on his shoulder, one for each of the tribes of the Israelites, so that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, "What do those stones mean to you?' then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever."  (Joshua 4:4-7)

Our buildings tell stories.  We would do well to listen to those who remember them.

Blessings on you,
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister-American Baptist Churches of New York State

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Generosity is a Christian Family Value

We at the Region are working on a plan for funding our ministry for 2014.  We often call this a budget, but I prefer to think of it as printed outline of what we feel God is calling us to do in the coming year.  If you are not personally working on a plan for funding your church’s ministry for the coming year, you can be sure that someone within your congregation is doing so.  Perhaps your worship is focusing on stewardship these days.

The way we approach and handle money is usually a reflection of how we were raised.  It is one of the “family values” we inherit.  We choose to follow the practices of our parents or, in some cases, react against what we were taught.  The family value I inherited was frugality.  Any waiter or waitress that asked if we still “had room for desert” was wasting his or her time.  Such an unnecessary expenditure would have been unthinkable.  One always tried to limit the damage and get out the door.

For much of my life I believed that generosity was the luxury of those who lived with excess.  People with more money than they needed could afford to be generous.  People with spare time on their hands were free to take advantage of opportunities for volunteering.  This unfortunately limits the practice of generosity to the very few.  How many of us feel we have too much money or time?  Not many of us I suspect.

I then read something in the Bible that broke something loose in my heart.
We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints—and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us, (2 Corinthians 8:1-5).
Paul was taking up a collection from the Gentile churches to help out the church in Jerusalem that had fallen into poverty.  Paul uses the example of the Macedonian churches giving out of their poverty to move the Corinthian church, a church of some wealth, to contribute to this offering.  Generosity is not just for the well off among us.  It is to be practiced by all of us—the rich and not-so-rich, the busy and not-so-busy.

I am trying to be a more generous person, more generous with both my time and my money.  God is always challenging us to grow; this is one of my current growth areas.  For me, it is a form of liberation from fear and anxiety to faith and joy.  This is a good time of year, when the Region and churches are planning for ministry in the coming year, for us all to be thinking about generosity.  Generosity is a Christian family value, for the whole family—both the well off and the not-so-well-off.

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

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Things Just Work Out

I began work as your Executive Minister, just over a year ago, and last week was the one-year anniversary of our moving into our house here.  In the shadow of these mile markers, I have been giving some thought to the past year and how we ended up here. 

My mother–in-law is prone to say when reflecting upon life that “things just work out.”  If you know her, you know that she doesn’t mean exactly what she is saying; there is a subtext.  She is a person of abiding Christian faith who knows most of the stories in the Bible and can actually tell you where to find them—book and chapter.  So when she comments “things just work,” you know she is not saying that we are simply victims of the vagaries of historical accident.  Someone is working them out; that is what she means.  She sees the hand of God in the daily rhythm of our days.  As I look over the past year in the life of the Kelsey family, I have to say: “Things just work out.”  I believe that God brought us to New York.  This is not simply good fortune, a lucky break.  God has planted us here.  Thus we are stewards of the opportunities and life that we have found in this place. 

Don’t take this too far, I don’t believe everything that happens in the world is God’s will.  Paul wrote: And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28).  This does not necessarily mean that God causes all things or that God wills all things.  It does mean that God can redeem all things to serve some good purpose.  A good bit of what happens in this world can be chalked up to human beings making poor choices.  We broke the world a long time ago, and some day will set aright anew.   For now it is something less than what God wills.  Jesus warned us to be careful about drawing too direct a line between what happens in this world and the guilt of those to whom it happens (Luke 13:1-5).

There are times, however, when we sense that God has been at work in some particular way in some particular place at some particular time.  I feel that as I look over the last year.  Our lives are held in the hands of a loving God.  I am so convinced of this.

Things just work out.  We say that with a knowing nod because we believe that there is One who is working out some of those things in our lives.

Blessings,
Jim

Monday, September 23, 2013

I Did Not Intend That

In the center of the campus where I attended seminary was a large grass quad bounded on four sides by the main academic buildings.  We called it the “Josephus Bowl” after the first century Jewish historian Josephus.  Students were constantly cutting across this grassy area as they moved from one building to another.  One day signs appeared on the edges of the Josephus Bowl saying, “Please walk on the grass, but don’t make a path.”  We were invited to walk on the grass but to do so responsibly, mindful of how we were impacting the community in which we lived and studied.  It was a simple request.

Sometimes, however, things are not so simple.  Suppose you were walking across the grass enjoying the beauty of the day and, for some reason, you looked behind you and see with horror that you have, indeed, been making path.  You didn’t intend to make a path, but you did so, nonetheless.  It is too late to repair the unintended damage.  (I often mused over whether this could be considered sin; for it was only in retrospect that one realized that one had done damage.)

How can we as church leaders avoid doing unintended damage that we must then try to repair?  Boundary Training is about avoiding unintended damage.  We all know that gross violations of professional ministerial boundaries—such as assault, infidelity, or embezzlement—are devastating to pastors and parishioners.  We have clear rules about these things, and common sense can guide us.   A majority of problems, however, arise not from these gross violations but from the crossing of more subtle boundaries.  It is here that we make those “unintentional paths in the grass.”  The violation of these less obvious boundaries can place at risk our relationship with parishioners and, at a minimum, create discomfort and confusion.  Often, church conflicts grow out of boundaries not being honored by clergy and parishioners alike.

Boundary Training involves gaining an awareness of the enormous power differential between pastors and their parishioners.  It also helps us clarify whose needs are being met in the clergy/congregant relationship, which helps ministers separate out their own needs and be intentional about where they get those needs met.  Boundary training helps us have a keener sense of how our behavior makes others feel.  It helps ministers avoid doing unintentional harm to themselves and others.  It is harder to make simple rules about these softer, more subtle boundary issues.  That is why church leaders need training. 

Jerrod and I are going to attend a boundary training workshop in Albany on November 7th.  If you are interested in attending with us, please use the following link to register.  If you cannot attend this training, the Region will make more training opportunities available within the coming year.

Our goal is that none of us look back and see that we made an unintentional path in the grass.

Blessings,
Jim Kelsey

Executive Minister

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

On Pachebel and Accordions

Pachebel’s Canon is one of my favorite pieces of music.  Debbie and I used it as the prelude at our wedding, which gives it for me additional affective power.  Early in my days at my church in Ohio, I shared this with my church organist.  He countered that it was one of his least favorite pieces of music and asked that he never be asked to play it in worship. (He was an extremely talented musician and, therefore, fairly high strung and opinionated when it came to music.  His talent purchased for him a lot of patience on my part and the part of the congregation.)  Not many weeks after that, he shared with me that his wife played the accordion.  I confessed to him that the accordion was my least favorite instrument and asked that his wife never play it in a worship service.  These were two issues on which we were never going to find common ground.  It was healthy to get them out in the open early in our work together.

Several weeks later, he brought to me a cassette recording with 12 different renderings of Pachebel’s Canon.  He suggested to me that I could listen to it whenever I wished and thereby get my fill of the piece.  I suggested that his wife could play her accordion in worship when I was on vacation.  I wore out the tape over the years, and his wife played her accordion each year during my summer vacation.  We never agreed about Pachebel and accordions, but we did work together in harmony.

Agreement and harmony are not the same thing.  We sometimes make that mistake.  We think that harmony in our various communities—home, church, and civil society—necessitates agreement; it does not.  We can live in harmony with people with whom we disagree.

Paul writes:
As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. (Col. 3:12-15).

Paul writes about “bearing one another” in the same breath with “perfect harmony.”  The word translated “bear” means: forbear; endure; or put up with.  It does not mean agree with one another on everything.  He describes a reciprocal arrangement: I put up with you, and you put up with me.    Harmony springs from a common purpose and mutual core commitments.  It is fed by mutual concern and a desire to seek the well being of the other.  It is a sign that we have taken the peace of Christ to heart in our living.  Harmony is possible in the midst of our disagreements.  We don’t have to agree on everything to live in harmony.  We do have to bear with one another.  That is what Paul is saying; he wants something deeper for us than simple agreement.  We seek agreement as a substitute for harmony because it is simpler, easier, faster, and asks less of us.  Harmony, on the other hand, involves forgiveness and love.  In other words, it is labor intensive.  One of the core values of our Region is connectedness.  Forbearance that leads to harmony is a central feature of this connectedness.

A Footnote:  When Debbie and I arrived in Belgium and for the first time met with the house church that we were to pastor, the church musician walked in with—you guessed—an accordion case—the accordion, up close and personal, every Sunday in my living room for four years.  As the Psalmist writes: “He who sits in the heavens laughs…. (Psalm 2:4).

Blessings,
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister American Baptist Churches-New York State

Please note: I will be on vacation until September 2nd.  You can contact the Region office of Jerrod Hugenot, Associate Executive Minister (518-380-4510 or jhugenot@abc-nys.org) if you have a pressing matter.)
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As American Baptists of New York State, we will embrace God's future with these core values: honesty, connectedness and hope. We will uphold our operational values in every aspect of our common ministry.

Monday, August 5, 2013

An Economic Issue you can do something about: Caring for the one who cares for you

Income taxes, the federal budget, the extension of unemployment insurance, subsidized student loans, sequestration, minimum wage, Social Security, the regulation of Wall Street, Medicare and Medicaid—the list goes on and on.  Each of these issues can be cast as a question of economic fairness.  I certainly don’t know all the right answers.  Do you?

There is one economic issue, however, where I will propose an answer:
Making provision for church employees and their families in the event of disability or death and insuring that they will have income in retirement is the responsibility of those whom they serve.  These church employees serve faithfully and sacrificially, but they will not serve forever.  When they retire, they will need income to sustain them.

The principal way that American Baptist congregations care for the long-term well being of their pastors and other church employees is through the Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board (MMBB). The MMBB provides several ways that congregations of all sizes can provide for their pastors and other lay employees.  Whether your church employees are part-time or full-time, you can responsibly care for them through the MMBB. Several of the options:

Benefits for Life

A church can enroll their employees in the Benefits for Life program.  This option funds a 100% vested retirement account for the employee and also provides long-term disability insurance and a death benefit should the employee die while serving the church.  The church pays a monthly premium of 16% of the employee’s salary and housing allowance or value of parsonage-provided housing.  Thirteen percent of the premium funds the retirement account; the other 3% funds the disability and life insurance.  For more information on this program, go to http://www.mmbb.org/retirement-benefits-services/retirement-disability-life/combined-retirement-disability-survivor/


Retirement Only Benefits

If a church feels they cannot fund the Benefits for Life program at this time, they can choose the less costly Retirement Only Benefits program.  The church can make smaller monthly contributions or irregular periodic contributions.  This is a place that every church can begin.   For more information, go to http://www.mmbb.org/retirement-benefits-services/retirement-disability-life/retirement-only-benefits/

The Annuity Supplement

Once an employee is enrolled in one of the above plans, they can make additional contributions to their retirement fund through The Annuity Supplement by having money withheld for their paycheck.  You can find out more at http://www.mmbb.org/retirement-benefits-services/retirement-disability-life/retirement-only-benefits/annuity-supplement/

Each of us is limited in what we can do about national economic issues, but we can do something about an economic issue closer to home: the well being of those who serve in ministry.  As you church puts together its budget this autumn, make sure there is a line in there for MMBB contributions. If you wish to discuss ways that you can better care for your pastor, please contact me at jkelsey@abc-nys.org or 315-469-4236 ext. 14 or visit www.mmbb.org


Blessings,
Jim Kelsey, Executive Minister                                                                            






  
As American Baptists of New York State, we will embrace God's future with these core values: honesty, connectedness and hope. We will uphold our operational values in every aspect of our common ministry.


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

We Have a Responsibility to Get it Right

The wives of African leaders meeting in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, saw an unlikely pair of speakers on stage together last week.  Current First Lady Michele Obama and former First Lady Laura Bush were there.  A black woman married to a Democratic president and a white woman married to the former Republican president stood side by side as a team at the African First Ladies Summit, a gathering organized by the George W. Bush Institute.  The African women in attendance found it encouraging that these two American women could stand side by side as partners working on women’s health issues in Africa.  It gives them hope for reconciliation and cooperation in their own countries, countries often divided by deep political animosities.

While working with African immigrants in Italy, I discovered great affection for America among many of them.  They see America as the “promise land,” a place of great opportunity where nearly anything is possible.  If you can just get here, which oftentimes an enormously difficult thing to do, you can have a life where your grandest dreams for your family can be fulfilled.  When talking of someone who had gotten to America they would say: “Yeah he’s sitting in America eating hamburgers all day.”  In others words, he is on easy street living the good life.  They imagine a scene from Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Americans know that this is an idealized view of life in our country.  We know that we still battle multi-generational urban and rural poverty.  We know that race relations can still be tense.  We know that fear of violent crime still hangs like a cloud in many of our cities.  We know that the most unsafe place for a woman is in her own home.  We know that our public schools sometimes fail our most needy students.  We know that affordable healthcare is not accessible to many in our nation.  We know that we have seniors who worked hard their whole lives and now cannot afford medicine.  We know that gambling and alcohol and drug abuse routinely destroy lives and families.  We know that unemployment continues to diminish lives and devastate communities.  We know that deep divisions over many issues can prevent us from having meaningful dialogue.  We are not na├»ve about our nation.

Yet a black woman and a white woman, each married to avowed political opponents, can stand together and partner for women’s health in a faraway continent.  We are getting some things right around here; those African First Ladies noticed that.  I often heard from my African brothers and sisters that if something can happen in America today, it could happen someday in their country.  People are watching us and building or dismantling their aspirations based upon what we do here.  We, as a nation, have a great responsibility to get things right, to be working to do a better job in our nation, to be building a better community, to be creating a society where people’s dreams for their children can come true.  Jesus once said:  “From everyone to whom much is give, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded [Luke 12:48].”  We have the freedom to make our nation a better place; in many lands people don’t have that freedom.  The world is watching what we are doing with this opportunity.  We have a great responsibility

For the church in America, the situation is even more pointed.  We are salt and light for our nation; we are to be the light of world, like a city set on a hill.  We are to demonstrate how a loving God wants us to treat one another and to witness to the type of national community God wants us to build.  We are to point the way to more loving communities, a more just nation, and a more nurturing world.

The world is watching us; we carry a great responsibility to honor their aspirations by how we treat one another and the type of society we build.

God bless you,
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Hope is a Verb

As American Baptists of New York State, we will embrace God's future with these core values: honesty, connectedness and hope. We will uphold our operational values in every aspect of our common ministry.

Hope is one of the declared core values of our Region.  Whenever I see hope mentioned, I read more closely.

Throughout Gil Rendle’s book Journey in the Wilderness he challenges us to rethink, reformulate, reposition, and reprioritize.  In other words, to do that thing we don’t like to do: change.  Then in the last paragraph of the epilogue, he writes about hope.  He observes that hope can be passive, as in “I hope you have a good trip.”  We do nothing to insure that the trip is, in fact, good.  And if the trip is not good, it does not affect our lives.  He then comments that for believers hope should be an active verb.  He reminds us that Saint Augustine wrote that hope has two beautiful daughters—anger and courage.  Hope depends on (1) anger over what could be but is not and on (2) courage to make it different.  This is a different type of hope.  This is hope that makes a difference in our lives.  It is this active hope that spurs us to do that thing we find so uncomfortable: change.

Hope is also a part of the program for congregations put forth in Peter L. Steinke’s book A Door Set Open—Grounding Change in Mission and Hope.  Steinke observes that hope can get a congregation over the threshold of saying “we can’t.”  It is an invitation to act in adventurous ways, to risk some things, to step off some banks not knowing how deep the water is.  Sometimes we say “I can’t” when we really mean “I’m afraid.”  Anyone who has coaxed a young child to learn to swim knows this.  Hope as an active verb needs courage.

Hope takes the long view.  Steinke points out that contemporary culture has led us to prefer the magical.  Magic is direct and immediate and requires no change or effort.  Abracadabra, all is fixed.  We look for immediate gratification and embrace avoidance.  We seek an analgesic that will numb the discomfort without dealing with the underlying issues:  five easy keys to a happy marriage; four simple steps to well-behaved kids; or three quick practices to grow your church.  Temporarily we feel better thinking we have done something, but long term there is no lasting change.  Practices that lead to deep and lasting healing oftentimes hurt a bit.  Anything less is simply denial.

In the Hebrew Bible, hope is often coupled with lament.  Hope is not about denial; it is about looking reality in the eye, finding it wanting, and having the courage to take action in spite of the way things appear.  Hope is the outgrowth of a dissatisfied realism.  It is an active verb.

My church in Philadelphia formed a partnership with a Haitian church 20 blocks south of us.  Each month new Haitian immigrants would arrive in Germantown by way of Brooklyn, and this congregation would help them get established.  The church bought a deserted building that once had housed a large thriving congregation.  The sanctuary that seated 500 people had large holes in the ceiling.  The stained glass windows were gone, sold decades ago.  The baptistery was full of leaves, a regular compost pit.  The floor was coated with the droppings of pigeons that had taken up residence there.  Pastor Santine showed me the sanctuary and talked about their plans to rehab it.  I thought:  “This is a dream: give it up and go rent a storefront.” They salvaged materials, asked the homeless men who ate at their feeding program to work 2 hours for each meal received, and kept taking in the arriving immigrants who worked at the project and gave out of their meager earnings. 

To make a stirring story short, two years later Pastor Santine invited me to preach at the dedication of their refurbished worship space.  I stood up and confessed my initial doubts.  I admitted that I never thought I would see the day when I would stand in that pulpit and not have to dodge pigeons and be careful not to fall through the rotted floor.  As I stood there and looked around at the worshippers that day, I could barely believe what had happened in that place.  I talked that day about hope, not a passive “I hope that works out for you” hope but a hard-nosed keen-eyed hope that makes a plan and gets to work.  Pastor Santine was no dreamer; he was a realist.  His life experiences had taught him how to fuse loss with hope, great challenge with initiative.

This is the kind of hope I want for New York Baptists—not a passive “I hope that works out for you” hope but an active hope.  I pray that in our churches and our Region will keep alive hope’s two beautiful daughters— anger over what could be but is not and the courage to make it different.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13).

In hope,
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister

The American Baptist Churches of New York State

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Creation That Groans


As we read about the devastation and suffering wrought by the tornadoes in Oklahoma, we may feel frightened by the capricious of the creation.  We are reminded that in a stroke all we have and the settled patterns of our lives can be wiped away; most sobering is the realization that those we love and who love us can be taken from us in a moment.  We read of infants and seniors, mothers and children who were killed by the violence of the storm and realize that there are some pieces of creation that are not friendly.  The Apostle Paul told us as much long ago.  He wrote in Romans 8:

18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. 26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Something long ago went wrong in our world, so wrong that the creation itself is askew and seems to know it!  The creation “waits with eager longing” to be set free from this state of affairs.  It is “groaning with labor pains.”  Like us, the creation knows things are not the way they are supposed to be.  These tornadoes simply make vivid what we already knew.

I heard a story once about a father whose daughter was injured during a softball game.  The ball hit her square in the face, and she lapsed into a coma.  Her father sat by her hospital bed in agony asking himself heartbreaking questions:  “Why did this happen?  Was I not listening to God and this is God’s way of getting my attention?”  A friend walked in and said:  “Calvin, I can tell you why your daughter is lying there in a coma.”  The father thought that he finally would get an answer to his questions.  The friend went on:  “God has a rule.  A face and a softball cannot occupy the same space at the same time.”  The world in which we live is dangerous.  Sometimes we are in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the givens of our world hit us square in the face.  As the singer Mary Chapin Carpenter laments: “Sometimes you’re the windshield, and sometimes you’re the bug.”  This is not what we want to hear.  We want to hear that everything has a good reason; nothing is random.  This illusion gives us the false hope that we can control all those forces that affect our lives.  We want to believe that if we make the best, brightest, truest, holiest, most responsible choice every time, we can insulate ourselves from the vagaries of our tragically broken world.

Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of a hospital chaplain who was talking with a mother whose daughter had a brain tumor and likely would die.  The mother said that she knew why her daughter was dying.  God was punishing her, the mother, for continuing to smoke.  The chaplain assured the mother that God did not take the life of young girls because their mothers would not stop smoking.  The mother responding angrily, asserting that this was, indeed, what was happening.  Taylor observed that the mother preferred a God who punished a young girl for the nicotine addiction of her mother to a world where children get sick for no good reason.  This is how strong our desire is to make sense of the senseless.  We cannot cautiously protect ourselves from the senseless.

The Apostle Paul, after lamenting the futility of life at its worst moments, finishes by asserting: We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”  Paul carefully avoids saying that God causes all things that happen or is pleased by all things that happen.  Rather, he asserts that God is Lord of all things that happen and can use them in redemptive ways to bring good out of them.  Tragic things are simply tragic.  There is no health in dressing them up as anything else; our faith does not demand that of us.  Rather, we accept that we live in a world where a softball and a face cannot occupy the same space at the same time; sometimes they collide.  We can become comfortable living in a world where we cannot insulate ourselves from all tragedy and loss when we come to believe that even in the worst moments God is working to redeem and renew.  Loss is not the last word, even in a world with tornadoes.

Yes, the creation groans and so do we.  We know that things are not supposed to be this way; something has gone wrong.  We, along with the creation itself, wait for that better day.  We call this patient waiting in hope “faith.”

“For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

James Kelsey
Executive Minister
The American Baptist Churches of New York State.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Not Natural Enemies


He said to me, pointing to the friend with whom he had just arrived:  “We were enemies.  We hated one another; we would have killed each other on the street on sight without even thinking.”  His friend smiled and nodded in agreement.  I don’t think his friend understood any English, but he appeared to be in the custom of agreeing with the other man.  I could tell there was a history between these two; they had made some difficult journey together and now were in the habit of trusting one other.   We were all sitting in the shade trying to escape the worst of the midday sun, waiting for the worship service to begin.  We passed the time talking, drinking that ubiquitous thin green tea, and trying to imagine a breeze.  We were 20 miles from the Cu Chi tunnels that had served as a place of refuge, a tool of ambush, and a means of movement for the Vietnamese guerillas during both the insurgency against French colonialism and then later during the war involving the Americans.   For the Vietnamese, these tunnels still stand as a symbol of their national resilience and resourcefulness.  They still harbor ghosts and carry echoes from more troubled times.  I sensed the same thing in these two friends sitting before me.

The man went on to explain that he had been a colonel in the South Vietnamese army and that his friend had been a colonel in the North Vietnamese army during the war.  He said that his friend is still a communist.  Then shrugging his shoulders he said, almost apologetically:  “But what can we do?  We are both Christians now.  We must love one another and live as brothers, children of the same father in heaven.”  Again, his friend smiled and nodded an expression of trust without understanding.

I looked at these two men, and questions began to percolate.  They were both about the same age; they looked quite similar—black hair, brown skin leathered by a life lived in the sun, skinny with lanky legs and arms.  They looked as if they had both grown up in a village, securing from the land nearly all that they had needed.  And in spite of their natural warmth of character, faces showed the traces of a sorrow that comes with the losses of war.  Theirs eyes would wander now and then to a spot beyond the horizon, as if they were looking for the return of something long ago lost during a youth too quickly taken from them.  They had so much in common; it seemed to me that their interests were so aligned with one another.  They were not natural enemies.  So how did they end up enemies?  Well, that is a story far beyond the confines of this simple reflection.   The thing we can carry away is this: the reconciling power of the Gospel is stronger than all the things that set these two men against one another.  Isaiah told us as much long ago:

11:6 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 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.

People in churches do not always agree with one another.  That is to be expected; this is natural and even healthy.  If two people agree on everything, one of them is simply unnecessary.  Disagreements are born of good people caring about things that matter.  But how do we become enemies?  How do we lose the capacity to listen to one another, to compromise, to seek the well-being of each other?  Why do we sometimes go to war, in a way, with one another?  Again, the full answer lies beyond the confines of this simple reflection.  I did, however, learn one thing from those two humble faithful men on that hot afternoon in the Vietnamese countryside.

In our churches, we are brothers and sisters, children of a common God.  In our Region, we bound to one another by our shared faith and commitment to ministry.  The bonds that unite us to one another are deeper and broader, stronger and more lasting than anything that might divide us.  We will never agree on everything; that is not the goal.  But like the man said:  “What can we do?  We are Christians now.  We must love one another and live as brothers (and sisters), children of the same father in heaven.” 

May we know both passion of conviction and love of one another in our churches, in our Region and throughout our lives.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister
American Baptist Churches of New York State

Thursday, March 28, 2013

THE SPACE BETWEEN - HOLY SATURDAY


The Apostle Paul places a pause between Good Friday and Easter.  He writes in 1 Corinthians

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures
(15:3-4). 

With the words “and that he was buried,” Paul leaves some space, a little light, between the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Alan E. Lewis writes: “Here resurrection is not permitted to verge upon the cross, instantaneously converting death into new life” (Between Cross & Resurrection-A Theology of Holy Saturday, pg. 37). We call this interval between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, this pause between death and new life, Holy Saturday.  Many of us will gather for a Good Friday service and reunite for an Easter service.  (The really dedicated among us will arise in darkness for a sunrise service.)  We will pass through Holy Saturday without noticing it.  We would do well to note its place in the sequence of these days, this in-between time.

We live our lives in the in-between time.  Christ has died; our sins are forgiven.  We are no longer slaves to sin and the powers of this world.  This has been accomplished.  Yet the fullness of resurrection for us and all creation awaits some future day.  Paul writes in Romans:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies
(Romans 8:18-23).

Paul is describing the in-between time, Holy Saturday, after the thing has begun but before it is finished.  How do we live in these days?  When we get up on Sunday morning, the world will look very much the same as it did when we went to bed on Saturday night.  War, poverty, infidelity, sin of all sorts, tornadoes and floods—they will all persist right through this holy weekend.  If we look at our world, we could get the idea that the cross is the last word in the story.   We could resign ourselves to the reality, in words of Frederick Buechner:

…that the world holds nothing sacred; that even the wisest and bravest and loveliest decay and die; that even the noblest ideas that men have had—ideas about love and freedom and justice—have always in the end been twisted out of shape by selfish men for selfish ends (The Magnificent Defeat, p.85).

It could look as if death has won, that the cross is the last word.  This is the way it looks on Holy Saturday.

We know this is not true.  We know what follows on the heels of Holy Saturday; we couldn’t forget it if we tried. Paul ends the passage in Romans 8 with these words:
For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one hope for what he also sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait for it (8:24-25)
We are people of hope.  We live between Good Friday, what God has begun in Jesus Christ, and Easter Sunday, an image of what we and all creation shall become someday in Jesus Christ.  For now we live in a perpetual Holy Saturday, that in-between time.  We know Good Friday is not the last word, but we are still awaiting the final punctuation of God’s sentence of salvation.  We wait in hope because we know the last thing is always the best thing with God.  Easter has already taught us that.

May hope fill your hearts and drive your living,
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister
As American Baptists of New York State, we will embrace God’s future and these core operational values: honesty, connectedness, and hope

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

There is a Reason Why They Call it Holy Week


It is only a matter of days, less than a week now, until we will take up our palm branches.  What do we call it: Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday?  It is hard to properly name this day of such stark contradictions. 

Luke tells us that as Jesus approached the city of Jerusalem, the crowd of disciples began praising God joyfully with a loud voice.  Matthew tells us that the crowd spread their coats and palm branches on the road before him.  We can envision this noisy parade as Jesus approaches the city for the biggest Jewish festival of the year.  The city would already be jammed with tourists and pilgrims.  The Roman soldiers would be on high alert with such a large crowd. It was like New Orleans during Mardi Gras, the Temple precinct like Bourbon Street.  Palm Sunday is a good name for this day.

But as Jesus reaches the top of the Mount of Olives and for the first time can take in the city, Luke draws the camera in close.  The sound of the crowd breaks off raggedly, and we hear the strangest thing.  As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it (Luke 19:41).  Jesus is crying; the ground beneath his colt is damp with the tears of the Son of God.  We realize that we are standing on holy ground; the sound of the parade around us fades away.  We might want to turn away, act as if we don’t hear him.  But we need to pause here and see what his sobbing can teach us. 

The crowd sees the sun glistening off the golden dome of the Temple, the commerce in the streets, the happy families, and old friends being reunited after a year apart.  Life is good.  It is morning in the land.  But Jesus sees something quite different.  He sees a city that will make a terrible choice in the coming days.  He knows the violence that waits in the wings; he knows this parade will be short-lived.  He knows that those who cry “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord” within the week will cry “Crucify him.”  He knows where it all will lead for him and for these people.  He laments:
"If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44 They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God." (19:42-44).
Passion Sunday is a good name for this day that introduces a week that races toward betrayal, desertion, and death..

This Sunday opens our eyes to the tragic choice those people will make, how quickly their happy enthusiasm will dissipate in disappointed fearful betrayal.  We become aware of the tragic fearful choices that we, too, are prone to make in our lives.  We, too, are often oblivious to those things that make for peace; our eyes are blind to the visitation of God.

One Sunday, I was standing at the rear of the sanctuary greeting people as they left the service.  A woman paused as I shook her hand and said, “Dr. Kelsey, sometimes when I leave here I’m not happy.  Worship should make me happy.”  I felt disturbed.  I didn’t want worship to depress people.  I wanted worship to encourage and strengthen people.  I thought about what she had said for several days.  I felt I owed her something, perhaps an apology.  After some reflection I came to a realization.  I called her up and told her that I hoped she found encouragement and joy through her participation in worship, but I went on to say that the primary purpose of worship is not to make us happy; the primary purpose of worship is to make us holy.  I wanted us all to be happy, but there was a higher, nobler purpose to what we were doing:  holiness.  The path to holiness sometimes involves challenge and loss; at some pints we are called to make painful changes in our lives.  It is not always a happy holiday at the beach.

Parades are fun, but the Christian life is not primarily a parade; it is a pilgrimage.  The journey demands some things of us along the way; we have to leave some things behind that we should like to retain.  As we travel, the journey changes us; we are being made more into the image of Jesus Christ.

As we journey through Holy Week, we are on a pilgrimage to Easter Sunday.  On the way to resurrection, we pass through some difficult days.  This is no parade, but at the end lays renewed and greater life.

May you be changed in the week ahead. 
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister
American Baptist Churches of New York

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Power of "You"


I always enjoy leading in worship.  In worship leadership, one speaks on behalf of the congregation, articulating the thanksgivings, requests, confessions, hopes, and convictions of the worshippers.  One also shares the Word of God with the congregation, expressing words of forgiveness, hope, challenge, comfort, and guidance.  There is power in the corporate experience of worship.

There is also great power in personalized, individualized moments in worship.  Some of my most moving moments in worship leadership are when the service narrows its focus down to a solitary individual.  When people come forward to take communion, one of these moments is created.  I look into the person’s eyes, perhaps calling them by name, and say:  “This is the body of Christ broken for You” or “This is the cup of Christ poured out for You.”  In that moment the weight of those words come to bear directly on a single person; the rest of the world falls away, and they stand robed in the mercy and grace of God in Jesus Christ.

Another one of those moments can come on Ash Wednesday.  The worshipper leader physically touches the worshipper, making the mark of the cross on their forehead, and says:  “From dust You have come and to dust You shall return.”  These words should be experienced as depressing, discouraging, and diminishing; but they are not.  We experience them as liberating and encouraging; they in some way lighten the load of our lives. Why?

They remind us that life in this world is not the only thing.  It is fleeting and fragile; but that is all right with us.  We were created for something grander, more lasting, deeper and broader.  This reminder gives us permission to hold our lives and ourselves more lightly.  G. K. Chesterton wrote:  “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”  Those ashes give us permission to fly a bit.

The ashes come to us in the shape of a cross.  This reminds us that someone has done something wonderful for us.  It is true that from dust we have come and to dust we shall return, but we are a great deal more than dust.  Through the cross we have become the daughters and sons of God.  The cruciform ashes remind us of who we really are in spite of present dusty appearance.

So we begin our 40 days of preparation for Holy Week and Easter with a reminder of what we are—dust.   We are also reminded of who we are—a great deal more than dust.

James Kelsey
Ash Wednesday 2013

Friday, February 8, 2013

On Cell Phone Coverage and Congregations

Have you seen the AT&T wireless commercial where a man is talking with some young children around a table and he asks: “What’s better bigger or smaller?  Would you rather have a big tree house or a small tree house?”  The kids want a large tree house because they could have a disco and get a larger TV in it.  The assumption is that the question is silly; bigger is always better.  When it comes to cell phone coverage, this is undoubtedly true.  A larger coverage area is better than a smaller area.   When it comes to churches, the answer may not be as obvious.

Steve Willis, in his book Imagining the Small Church—Celebrating a Simpler Path, makes a case for the special qualities of a small church.  He writes that small churches find their “unique resiliency in the loving depths of its people’s relationships and its commitments to the special place where it resides.”  When people in a small church think about their congregation, they see the faces and the specifics of the place.  They talk about love, belonging, and faithfulness (pp. xii-xiii).   People are important in these churches; they remember that great cloud of witnesses who spent a lifetime learning to love one another in that place (p. 34).  “Checking in” with one another is a central piece of congregational gatherings, more important that program (p. 50). 

He writes about the simplicity of life in most small churches; what is non-essential is stripped away.  Willis says that they are not places of pretense (p.18).  Small churches are not afforded the luxury of indulging in things that don’t matter.  They cannot afford to invest resources in things whose purpose is to flatter the image of the congregation.  In small churches people know what is and what is not important.

Small churches are places of remembrance; they elicit memories and feelings that people had in the past.  Conserving the relationship between people, place, and remembered events is a source of strength in these congregations.  Small churches are not against change; they simply feel that conserving memories of the past is important (p. 36).  Conserving the past and preserving the past is not the same thing.  To conserve the past is to protect and honor the memories; to preserve the past is to try to live in a time and place that no longer exists.

Our internet-driven, television-altered minds are addicted to changing scenery, sounds, images, and patterns p. 40-41). Wendell Barry writes that novelty is a new kind of loneliness.  Novelty is the faint surprises of minds no longer capable of wonder (Wendell Barry, What Are People For?, p. 9).  We view continuity as a sign of bored indifference.  Yet small churches provide a sense of continuity to our lives.  Is this not something we long for—to see that our lives are part of a broader web of relationships, a longer story than our short years?  Small congregations can help to heal the fragmentation and alienation that many in our society feel through their attention to people, place, and formative stories about those who came before us in this particular place.

Willis makes a good case for the distinctive and enviable characteristics of small congregations; but they seem so small, so powerless, and so insignificant.  They are so easy to drive by, pass over, dismiss.  Three stonemasons were preparing stone for a cathedral.  A visitor to the stone yard asked them what they were doing.  The first one replied: “I’m busting rocks.”  The second replied:  “I’m making blocks.”  The third one replied:  “I’m building a cathedral.”  This third mason would never walk under the arch of the completed cathedral, but he knew he was part of something bigger than himself and more lasting than his own life.  Small churches are part of something bigger than themselves and the lives of their members.  They are a single block in a magnificent cathedral.  That single block is worth our love and dedication and esteem.

Jim Kelsey
February 2013