Thursday, January 17, 2013

IF Baptists Had Saints

I had not been in Belgium very long before I saw the advantage of living in an officially Roman Catholic country with a long history of the intermingling of church and State.  We got lots of holidays; it seemed as if every other week our kids were out of school for some saint’s birthday.  I developed a new appreciation for the process of canonization.

As Baptists, we don’t canonize saints.  We maintain that all believers are saints and that all of us are being made into the image of Jesus Christ on the anvil of our daily living by the power of God.  But if Baptists had special saints, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be at the top of the list.  Dr. King was many things—sociologist, community organizer, and political activist; but first and foremost he was a Baptist pastor and a theologian.  He cared for people, and he interpreted their lives through the lens of the Gospel.

What did he teach us?  He taught us that nonviolence is the way of the strong, not the refuge of the weak.  He taught that accepting unjust suffering rather than inflicting it on others is a form of power.  He wrote in The Strength to Love:
 “I have lived with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive.  There are some who still find the cross a stumbling block, others consider it foolishness.  But I am more convinced than ever that it is the power of God to social and individual salvation.”
He showed us that the proper goal of our conflicts is not the humiliation and defeat of our opponents but reconciliation and community; we are to be fostering understanding and friendship with our enemies.  In the same book he wrote: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering.  Do to us what you will and we shall continue to love you.”  He believed that he had an ally in the soul of his adversary, and he never ceased appealing to it, wrote columnist Paul Greenfield. 

He believed that we battle greater powers than human error and ignorance.  He believed that we contend not against “flesh and blood but against principalities and powers, the rulers of darkness, against spiritual hosts of wickedness”—to quote the Apostle Paul.  He saw the oppressor as a victim as well.

In the face of his struggle, he maintained a vibrant hope in God.  He wrote “There is a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspect of reality into a harmonious whole”  (Strive Toward Freedom.)  He loved to the end; he hoped to the end.

He showed a pastoral interest in the soul of the oppressed as well as the soul of the oppressor.  That is, perhaps, his greatest contribution to our understanding of Christian faithfulness.  We are all saints on the road to maturity.  But some of us are farther along than others of us.  Martin Luther King was well on his way.

James Kelsey
Executive Minister American Baptist Churches of New York State

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Questions That Will Not Be Asked--Conversations That Will Not Be Had

This coming Saturday, Debbie, Ben, and I will go to Ohio for a memorial service for my mother and father.  We will pick up Luke along the way.  My father died in October and my mother on New Year’s Eve.  A piece of who I am must now be reformed.  I used to be my parents’ son—an adult son but a son nonetheless.  How are things different now?

I find myself aware of the questions I will never ask my father.  Our house has a septic tank.  What should I do to care for it?  I would’ve asked him that.  Roughly, how much would it cost to put in a gas fireplace?  Another question I would’ve asked.  What kind of tomato plant would do well in a colder climate?  He would’ve known.  These are questions I will never ask.  I still live with the sense that at some point I will have the opportunity to ask these accumulated queries.  I suspect, with time, that sensation will fade; but for now he lives on in these unanswered questions.

There are conversations I would have had that will never be.  I feel as if I should have taken a picture of how deep the snow is and sent it to my parents and then called them and exaggerated a bit.  Our dog got stuck in the snow on our deck; he is a small dog.  I would tell my mother about that, and she would laugh.  Now she will never know.

Practical questions never asked, mundane conversations never had—these are the ways I sense their growing absence in my life.  There is something so irreversible, so unrecoverable about death.  It was nice having them there for 56 years.  I was blessed; I had a faithful presence in my life that I did not deserve.  I can’t think of a single thing I said to them that I regret.  I can’t think of a deliberately hurtful thing they said to me.  They did the best they could given who they were and what they had.  We cannot ask anything more of anyone.

I know that they are at peace now.  I know that they have inherited the life for which they were originally created, a life of wholeness and unbroken joy.  I know that they have seen the face of God in all its unimaginable beauty and radiant mercy.  Oh, the things they could now tell me! I don’t grieve for them, but I do miss them.  I will continue to have questions, things to tell them; and they will not be there.  I guess this is good thing—that I am hungry for more conversation with them, that I was not yet done telling them things.  The curtain between my parents and me will grow thicker with the passage of time.  I feel an urgency to say more to those who still live and fill my life with conversation and love and laughter—those people for whom there is no curtain.  These moments are not forever, thus, they are precious.

Jim Kelsey
Epiphany 2013