Tuesday, August 26, 2014

An Untucked Shirt and the Fear of a Father

They did not know I was there.  I stood in the backroom that housed the copier before the worship service.  The door to the outer office swung open, and a father and his 14-year-old son came in.  The father began to angrily castigate his son because the boy’s shirt was untucked.  The father finished his tirade with:  “You are not some dude standing on the street corner looking for trouble.  Now tuck in that shirt and never go out of the house like this again.”  The father walked out leaving his son behind.  The son tucked in his shirt and left.  I had witnessed a private moment between a father and his son, and I was surprised at the intensity of the father’s words. 

I knew this father and son well.  The father was a retired art teacher.  He was, himself, an accomplished artist and had established the first African-American-owned art gallery in the city of Philadelphia.  He was a soft-spoken man, with a gentle and reflective spirit.  He had appreciative eyes that took in the world around him with curiosity and compassion.

His son attended a prestigious private school and was a dedicated musician.  He spent most of his summer at music camp and math camp.  Although he had a reticence around adults typical of boys his age, he was invariably polite, respectful and well spoken.  He and his younger brother always wore a white shirt and tie on Sunday.

I thought about what I had witnessed and tried to make some sense of the father’s out-of-character angry reaction to his son’s untucked shirt.  It just did not add up.

Not long after that, my own 2-year-old son ran into the street in front of our row house.  I followed him into the street and abruptly snatched him up.  I sternly reprimanded him and told him how dangerous that was and that he must never do it again.  I then hauled him inside; play time was over.

A neighbor witnessing this scene might have thought that I was angry, but I was not.  I was scared.  My son could have been injured or killed.  City streets are dangerous places for 2 year olds.  That father who was so upset about his son’s shirt was not angry either; he too was scared.  He knew city streets could be dangerous places for young black men.

As I follow the news stories coming out of Ferguson, Missouri and reflect upon the broader issues raised through them, I think about that father and his son with the untucked shirt.  I heard the father died several years ago.  I don’t know where the son is these days.  I hope he is all right.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister

Monday, August 11, 2014

I'm a __________________.

The woman had just returned from a trip to Russia where she discovered some Jewish lineage in her distant forbearers.  At our clergy group meeting that week she effusively declared:  “I’m a white, black brown, Muslim, Jewish, Christian woman.”  (I’m not sure why she ignored the large menu of Eastern religions.)  I suggested to her that this was not possible, that she had to choose.  I pointed out that being all these things at once, she could not be any one of them with any depth. She countered that her spirit had grown too big for traditional categories of identity.  I lost interest in the conversation at that point but did suggest to her that I had some elderly black women in my church who had come North fleeing Jim Crow decades ago who would likely be glad to meet with her to assess the authenticity of her experience as a black woman.  I was not sure what part of growing up white in a wealthy neighborhood in Princeton, New Jersey; four years at Vassar; and then ten years as pastor of a suburban church in Montgomery county, the 51st wealthiest county in the nation, qualified her to such an all-encompassing appreciation of the human experience.  But as I said, I had lost interest in the conversation.

Having seen a great deal more of the world in the intervening twenty years, I am even more convinced today than I was then that she was incapable of wearing such a broad identity.  You cannot be all things to all people.  If you try, you quickly become very little to anyone.  One might cite the Apostle Paul to demonstrate the flaw in my thinking:
For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings. (1 Cor. 9:19-13).
Paul writes “I became as a Jew…as a one under the law.”  I do not think that Paul is saying that he is (any longer) any of these things but that he can successfully relate to and find affinities with these various types of people.  I think he is able to do so because he knows who he is in a starkly particular way and is entirely unapologetic about it.  Someone who writes  “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2)” and  “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I glorify my ministry in order to make my own people jealous, and thus save some of them (Romans 11:13-14)” is a person with a strong sense of identity.  Paul knows who he is and what he is living for; this gives him the freedom to engage people who do not share this same identity.  He is not trying to be all things to all people; rather he is demonstrating the power and confidence that comes from knowing who he is in Christ and what God has called him to do.

Why do we sometimes feel we need to be all things to all people?  We sometimes confuse a commitment to pluralism with a neutrality born of the desire to iron over any tension generated by conviction.  As a nation we are committed to pluralism; it is one of the core values of our society.   Pluralism, however, does not relativize all conviction and smother all passionate commitment; it does not mean a homogenization of our beliefs.   Pluralism says that we deliberately make room for passionate commitment to highly particularized convictions and their expression in our living.  Pluralism does not mean we apologize for our faith; it means we are free to practice it with vigor.  Baptists have long maintained that only in an atmosphere of freedom—where we can choose otherwise—can we authentically choose for Christian faith.  The loving father in the parable in Luke chapter 15 knew that for his younger son to truly choose obedience and belonging, he had to be free to choose otherwise.  American Baptists have worked hard to guard this freedom that is so essential to freely chosen authentic faith.   I am unapologetically Christian; more than that, I am unashamedly Baptist.  Pluralism means that I can openly revel in this identity among others who are of a different tribe. 

By choosing to be a Christian of the Baptist persuasion, I am choosing against a multitude of other identities.  There are many things I cannot be; one identity excludes others.  A piece of knowing who we are is knowing who we are not.  We cannot, with authenticity, be all things to all people.

Pluralism provides space for each of us to passionately and unapologetically declare who we are and what matters to us.  It does not necessitate that we apologize for our beliefs or suppress our convictions.  I am
  • a follower of Jesus Christ, being day by day transformed by the Spirit into his image,
  • shaped for better or for worse by where and when I was born and those people who have shaped my life,
  • called to love to the point of sacrifice those whom God loves,
  • being slowly but surely prepared for the day when God’s reign will come in its fullness. 

When I claim this identity in an immediate and fresh way, I am better equipped to relate to and find affinities with those who are not quite like me.  A strong sense of identity does not cut us off from others, rather it frees us to engage and even love others who are unlike us.  The Apostle Paul knew unapologetically who he was and who he was not; thus he was able to build bridges to everyone he met.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister

Friday, August 1, 2014

Remembering and Planning

It was a week of looking back and giving thanks and a week of looking forward and believing.  Debbie, Ben, and I — along with some other New York American Baptists—attended the International Ministries/ABC-USA World Mission Conference at Green Lake Conference Center last week.  It was the 200th anniversary of American Baptist Mission efforts around the world. Over a thousand people from across the country and around the world joined to celebrate the past, present and future, seeking the Lord's leading for our third century of mission together.

Although the conference was a 200th anniversary celebration, the theme for the week was “Rise to the Challenge.”  Our 200-year heritage of faithful ministry challenges us to do our part in our day to continue this tradition in new and creative ways, adapting to a changing world.  When Debbie and I were in missionary orientation, we heard stories of missionaries traveling months to their field of service, arriving in a land that they knew little about, and going decades without seeing their family in the States, connected only with irregular letters.  We flew to our field of service in less than a day, had been in close contact with the national partner with whom we would be working, and had seen (via email) pictures of the house where we would be living.  In so many ways, missionary service has changed in the last 200 years.  Yet the values that shape ministry have remained much the same. 

One core value that is still honored by International Ministries is respect for the national partners with whom our missionaries work.  This was evidenced by the many leaders from other countries present at the mission conference.  It was a great joy to me to be able to spend time with several of the Vietnamese pastors with whom I had worked in Vietnam and to hear how they are advancing the work of Christ in their country. As I served on the mission field, I was surprised by the number of North American missionaries who served for years in a country without any connection to or even a conversation with those faithful indigenous Christians who had been living and serving their whole life in that place.  Building competencies and sustainability among local leaders and congregations is a key piece of what American Baptist missionaries do.  That is why they are the most sought-after North American missionaries.

If you or your congregation are not currently supporting an American Baptist missionary, I encourage you to go to http://www.internationalministries.org/give and find a particular missionary whose ministry or place of service is of interest to you and begin to pray for them, write to them, and support them financially.  If you want a taste of mission service yourself and to make a good connection with two of our finest ABC/USA missionaries, check out our ABC/NYS mission trip to Nicaragua in April 2015 at http://www.abc-nys.org/programs/missions/nicaragua. If you cannot go in 2015, you can still support the trip by making a contribution to the cost of materials by going to the above link and following the instructions at: “To support the Water Purification Project:

The strength of our international mission effort is tied to the vitality of our ABC New York congregations.  The Region works to strengthen the lives of these congregations.  All of us in partnership with one another bring greater glory to God’s kingdom.  Thank you for your participation in this important work.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister