Thursday, December 17, 2015

Giving Joseph his Due

Joseph gets the short shrift this time of year it seems to me.    In our crèches Mary sits close to the baby at the center of the scene, and Joseph often is standing behind and to the side looking on as a spectator.  In Luke, Mary does  get most of the attention.  But in Matthew’s Gospel Joseph is where the action is.

Mary and Joseph are engaged; but before they consummate the marriage, Mary is “found” to be with child [1:19].  One has to wonder how she was “found.”  Did the neighbors notice?  Did Joseph get suspicious at her expanding girth?  Was her mother the first to catch on?  In any case, this appears to be what we would describe as an unplanned out-of-wedlock teenage pregnancy.  We, the reader, and Mary know what has happened; but no one else in the story knows what we know—least of all Joseph.  To them, Mary looks like a girl who “got herself in trouble.”
I worked at a hospital while in seminary, and one night a woman brought her teenage daughter, who was having severe abdominal pain, into the emergency room .  The nurse quickly discovered that the girl was in labor.  The girl’s mother refused to believe it.  After the delivery, the doctor showed the woman the baby.  She accused them of trying to foist someone else’s baby on her daughter.  She asserted: “That can’t be my daughter’s baby; she is not married.”  Perhaps Mary’s mother struggled to find an explanation as well.

Joseph discovers his wife to be is pregnant. How he came to know we are not told; but certainly the news would have spawned feelings of betrayal, embarrassment, and probably anger.  But Matthew tells us Joseph is a righteous man; therefore, he chooses to break off the betrothal quietly, minimizing any pain or embarrassment to either family.  He could have chosen otherwise.  He could have publically accused her and had her stoned.  Because he was a righteous man, he chose simply to walk away.
There was one option that was not available to Joseph.  There was one course of action that never would have entered his mind.  There was one choice that would have been impossible in his world.  He could never take Mary as his wife and raise someone else’s child.  That was absolutely forbidden.  He was, after all, a righteous man.

Yet that is precisely what the angel of the Lord tells Joseph to do, and he does it straightway. Joseph appears to have had a predisposition to the more refined definition of righteousness that will be developed in Matthew’s Gospel, a predisposition that made him a good candidate for his role in the Christmas story.

Later in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus will say “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven [5:20].”  I suspect that his listeners looked at one another and thought they had no chance of making the cut.  The scribes and Pharisees were the epitome of law-abiding Jews, a standard that most people would never equal, let alone exceed.  Yet as we move through this Gospel, Jesus redefines righteousness.  Close to the end he will say to the religious leaders:  “You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill, and cumin.  But you neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness [23:23].”  There is something more important than a meticulous following of regulations; that more important piece of obedience is found in justice, mercy, and faithfulness. 

In chapter 9 Jesus says:  “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”  The leaders did not learn their lesson because in chapter 12 he accuses:  “If you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.”  This is what Joseph knew intuitively, and that is why he showed no hesitation in taking this pregnant woman as his wife and raising this son as his own.  He knew that greater righteousness grounded in mercy.

Like Mary, Joseph was an extraordinary human being used by God to usher in a new chapter in God’s pursuit of us.  Joseph heard the voice of mercy instead of the voice of sacrifice.  He already knew what God was doing through this baby.
Merry Christmas,
Jim Kelsey, Executive Minister--American Baptist Churches of New York State

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Real Presence of Christ

I could never keep them straight:  consubstantiation versus transubstantiation.  Luckily, in 25 years of ministry no one has ever asked me about this--one of the benefits of being Baptist.    There is sometimes a little discussion about the nuances of an ordinance and a memorial, but people soon lose interest and move on to what desserts will be at the potluck next week.
This past Sunday I gained a new appreciation of the meaning of the “real presence of Christ” during a communion service at the Zomi Christian Church in Buffalo, New York.  I noticed at the front of the sanctuary a large plastic tub with what looked to me like sawdust.  Early in the service, a young girl brought up a jar and poured something into the tub; I then realized it was rice.
After having led the observance of communion, I ended the service with the following benediction:
     You have been fed; the bread gives you new life born of God’s love.
     You have drunk; the cup gives you freedom born of God’s forgiveness.
     Live this week alive with God’s love and free in God’s forgiveness.
I wanted our observance to bring the felt presence of Christ in their lives that week

As I talked with church members after the service, I asked about the rice.  They said that each time a family prepares a meal they scoop up a handful of rice, put it in a jar, and bring the jar to church when they come.  The rice is then used to feed the poor. 

I thought:  “Now this is ‘real presence.’”  When the rice is shared with a needy family, Jesus is present in a palpable way.  He once said, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat…Truly I tell you, whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine,
you did for me [Matt. 25:35 & 40].”  Jesus is present in the poor when they are given rice.  This is “real presence” even a Baptist can affirm.

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


Wednesday, October 7, 2015

An Autoimmune World

Your body’s immune system normally protects your body from disease and infection.   But if you have an autoimmune disease, your body attacks healthy cells by mistake; your body declares war on itself.  The human body is an integrated interdependent collection of systems and structures that work together to strengthen and protect one another.  For example, the nervous system causes you to pull your hand away from a hot pot before the hand is too badly burned.  A body that is not fully cooperating in its own wellbeing is sick.

In 1 Corinthians the Apostle Paul uses the human body as a model for how the Christian church should function; we are many parts but one body.  He summarizes: “So that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.  If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part is honored, every part rejoices in it [12:25-26].”

These days we seem to be increasingly aware of divisions within our national family.  This is a product of an election cycle gaining steam, which often involves politicians fostering divisiveness among us for the purpose of exploiting those divisions for the acquisition of power.  There have been high profile shootings by police and of police that call attention to the fractures in our society--racial, urban vs. rural, poor vs. rich, native born vs. immigrant.  We can come to believe that for someone else to get ahead, it will inevitably mean loss for us.  It is probably unrealistic to think that our nation will ever grow into the image of a healthy body as used by the Apostle Paul.  We will have to settle for something less until the Kingdom of God comes in its fullness; in other words, we will continue to have a cultural autoimmune disease.

The Christian church, on the other hand, is a different matter.  The church is to model now the Kingdom of God that will come someday.  We are to be a city set on a hill that gives light and demonstrates in the present what God will accomplish for all creation in the last day (Matt. 5:14).  In other words, within the Christian church, the autoimmune diseases of the world are to be already healed.

When we read Paul’s letters, too often we do not feel the weight of their implications for the people who first read them.  Paul writes that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus [Gal. 3:28].”  We do not appreciate the divisions and animosities between these various groups.  Paul lived in a decidedly autoimmune society.

In Romans, Paul speaks to the ethnic and cultural divisions between Jews and Gentiles within the church at Rome.  The Jewish believers thought they were superior because they had the history of the law and God’s having first chosen Israel.  Paul seeks to undermine their sense of superiority, most pointedly in 2:17-29.  On the other hand, the Gentiles thought themselves superior because of the widespread Jewish rejection of Jesus.  Paul sets about undermining their sense of superiority, most pointedly in 11:13-21.  Paul is seeking to heal within the church divisions imported in from the broader autoimmune culture.

Many of the problems that Paul responds to in First Corinthians are the result of ethnic and socioeconomic diversity within the church in Corinth.  Paul again tries to heal the attitudes and practices and resentments introduced into the fellowship from a decidedly divided culture.

From its earliest days, the Christian church was to be a community where the divisions and alienation and injustices of the broader world are eradicated by the power of God.  To this end, pastors and lay people from the Capital Area Baptist and the Mid-Hudson/Union Baptist
Associations met on Saturday, September 26th, at the Second Baptist Church of Poughkeepsie to share a meal and conversation about the things that divide us.  We came from rural and urban communities, upstate and down state and were Euro-American and African-American.  That last distinction generated the most conversation.  We shared about our experiences of being white and of being black in America.  We listened to one another and spoke honestly in an environment of candor and trust.  The acts of sharing and being heard had a healing effect on the relationships of the people in the room.  We readily admitted that we were all shaped to some degree, inevitably, by the racial divisions that permeate our society.  It was sometimes an uncomfortable conversation but not one without hope; we acknowledged that we were all in the process of being remade by the Holy Spirit.  This ongoing conversion, being made ever more into the image of Jesus Christ, assured us that healing can take place.  On that day we gathered as Christian brothers and sisters and modeled what a community of healing and health can look like.

These two Associations plan to gather again and wage further war on those things that divide our fellowship and our nation.  Our hope is that other Associations will take up this endeavor and sow health among our fellowship.  We as Christian brothers and sisters—claiming the same Lord and having been baptized by one Spirit—can make progress in healing those things that divide us.  Hope for our broader communities, our nation, and our world begins there.



Friday, July 31, 2015

What is Old is New Again

My first grade teacher was an innovator.   She pushed the desks against the wall and placed carpets on the floor.  We often sat in a circle and learned by stories, songs, and interactive games.  After that first year, it was 11 years of desk rows, lectures, and copying things off the blackboard. At some points I was convinced I could feel brain cells dying as the school day wore on.  My first grade teacher was w woman before her time.

Education has changed.  People who grew up on Sesame Street and Blues Clues and now entertain themselves with YouTube videos resist sitting in neat rows listening to someone talk.  Schools have adapted.  Education has become more interactive and utilizes multiple forms of media simultaneously—sound, movement, images, and words together.  Lecturing and orderly outlines don’t resonate with younger folks much anymore.  The church could learn something from this as we attempt to disciple people.

 M. Rex Weber (The Millennium Matrix: Reclaiming the Past, Reframing the Future of the Church) writes about “Impartational Discipleship” where the church takes on the dynamic of a family in which the more experienced (normally parents and grandparents) impart to the less experienced (normally the children) what they have learned from their journey. This means that we disciple people in the same way we raise our children.  We do not weekly sit our children down, give them a lecture on moral development, safety, and good hygiene and then send them out for the week.  Rather we walk with them through their lives helping them draw lessons from their successes and failures.  We listen to what is happening in them and around them and then help them sort out their decisions and weigh competing values.  Impartational discipleship is like that.  David Kinnaman wrote that disciples are handmade one at a time; they cannot be mass produced.  Growing in faith and obedience is not a classroom exercise; it is a lab project.  The church provides the graduate students who supervise the experience.  Note that those supervising are students themselves, still learning and growing.  Those teaching others demonstrate what faith looks like.  This makes discipleship an interactive enterprise rather than a passing on of information.  Another way of putting it is, we hang out together and make sense of what is happening in our lives and sort out what faithfulness might look like in our situation.

Does this sound innovative or ring of something you have read of someplace else?  I’ll give you a few hints.  Paul wrote:  “Indeed, in Christ Jesus I became your father through the Gospel. I appeal to you then, be imitators of me [1 Cor. 4:15-16]” and “To Timothy my true son in the faith [1 Tim. 1:2].”  And what about the three years Jesus spent with his disciples, helping them draw instructive lessons at the growth edges of their lives?  His preference was to ask probing questions rather than to lecture. He demonstrated daily what obedience and love and justice looked like.  The disciples were to take note and do the same.  Jesus was the master practitioner of impartational discipleship.  Life was the lab, and his follower were his students.

Yes, what is old is new again.  It was there all the time.
Executive Minister-American Baptist Churches of New York State

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Downsizing But Not Calling It Quits

One of our ABC/NYS pastors recently called my attention to an article about what churches can learn from the “Tiny House Movement.”  This is where people move into houses measuring 150 to 600 square feet to simplify and focus their lives.   They ask:  What do I really need to live? Then they get rid of everything else.  There is even a show on HGTV entitled “Tiny House Hunters.”  For many years we have heard about downsizing our living space as we age.  We realize that we simply don’t need as much house as we used to need. The “Tiny House Movement” is like extreme downsizing.

As I thought about this, the First Baptist Church of Oneonta came to mind.  This congregation was struggling under the responsibility and financial burden of maintaining a building that was much
larger than they needed.  Their resources and time were absorbed in preoccupations that no longer enhanced their ministry.  They wanted a grander purpose than paying the gas bill and monitoring the roof.
They were not, however, interested in calling it quits as a congregation.  They still had energy for ministry and an ongoing commitment to one another and their community.  They simply wanted to get back to their core purpose of equipping one another for ministry and sharing the love of Christ.  Their building had become a hindrance and was no longer a useful tool in that endeavor.  They made the difficult but brave decision to sell their church building and start using the parsonage as their base for ministry. 

I visited the congregation several weeks ago and was delighted to see the transition they are making.  We worshipped in the living room, rearranged as worship space.  The service felt warm and lively.  One could feel the depth of the relationships among the worshippers.  After the service we ate in the dining room and had a good discussion about what they were learning through their experiences.  It felt much like the discussion an extended family might have at a holiday meal.  I thought back to a meal and discussion I had shared with them about 18 months earlier in the large fellowship hall of their old building.  The difference as remarkable. The atmosphere was more upbeat; they seemed to feel a sense of liberation from a burden they had been carrying for quite a while.   As we sat around the table in their new home, they were honest about the challenges they have overcome and the ones that still lie before them.  They are still not sure precisely how their future will look, but they are walking into it by faith trusting in God.

Gail Irwin, in her book Toward the Better Country:  Church Closure and Resurrection, talks about the menu of futures from which churches can choose when they come to a critical juncture in their lives.  First Baptist Church of Oneonta has cast their lot in the direction of resurrection.
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister-American Baptist Churches of New York State

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Nothing in This World is Forever

Our Cavalier King Charles Spaniel of 11 years died Sunday night in his sleep.  He was quite likely the greatest dog that ever lived; it is simply an objective observation based upon the facts.  He was a tricolor Cavalier with
broken patches of black and white, brown highlights here and there.  We named him Oreo after the American cookie.  He was a Belgian dog and had a European passport. He understood Dutch, English, and a little Pidgin English that he picked up from a Nigerian family in Italy with whom he would stay when we were gone. He never really got Italian.

Oreo was a Christmas dog.  On Christmas morning when Ben was 8 years old he opened a letter addressed to him and his brother Luke telling them that Debbie and I were to get them a puppy.  He shouted to his brother:  “They have to get us a puppy.  They have to do it.  Santa says so.”  And so began Oreo’s sojourn with us.  He stayed with us as we moved from place to place—Belgium, Ohio, Italy, New York.  He spent brief sojourns with my parents and Debbie’s parents as we made transitions.  In this way he became integrated into our extended families.  As we left homes and people and places behind, Oreo was a thread of continuity among us.  In each new place and set of circumstances his insatiable capacity to receive and give affection was unaffected; he was always the same Oreo.  He lent a dimension of constancy to our shifting lives. 
As you can see, this is about more than the death of dog.  He sat by as Luke and Ben learned to read and write in Dutch.  He sat in the chair with us as we read to them.  He walked to school to bring them home in the afternoon.  He regularly attended services in our house church in Belgium, sleeping through the sermon but waking up for the last song; he was not alone in this. He swam off the beaches of Normandy and patiently waited outside the cathedrals of Italy.  He suffered with us through hot Mediterranean summers and learned to navigate the snow of upstate New York.  He soaked up every precious moment of Ben and Luke’s visits home during college breaks. Oreo was a witness to our lives.  He carried the accumulated associations of the journey we have been on.
I never really marked Oreo’s getting older until last Christmas when I was watching some home videos.  I saw the difference between that young dog who seemed never to stop moving, interested in everyone and everything, and the still dog lying beside me on the couch.  Lately he was sleeping more and attempting fewer leaps.  We began hoisting him up on the couch and carrying him up the stairs at night; arthritis and too many treats were taking their toll.  He was, however, still Oreo with his insatiable capacity to receive and give affection.  His unchanging character had given the impression that he was eternal, that he would always be there.

Oreo's death marks the passage of time for me.  It is as if all those places and people and experiences we have left behind are made afresh for just a moment in his death.  The Buddhist priest Kenko wrote in his Essays in Idleness (1330-1033): 
"If man were never to fade away like the dew...never to vanish like the smoke…but lingered on forever in the world, how things would lose their power to move us. The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.” 
Nothing in this world is eternal, no person, no place, no thing, not even Oreo in his unchanging character.  That is why it all so precious; it will not last forever.  Sometimes when I prayed, I would thank God for Oreo.  I am still thankful but a bit sad too.  He was, in all likelihood, the greatest dog that ever lived. It is just an objective observation based upon the evidence.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die (Eccl. 3:1-2).
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love (1 Cor. 13:13).

Jim Kelsey



Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The World is a Bit Emptier These Days

Dr. G. Daniel Jones, the pastor Emeritus of Grace Baptist Church in Germantown, Philadelphia, died recently, and I sensed a bit of a vacancy in the world.
I arrived at the Second Baptist Church of Germantown in the Spring of 1992.  It was my first pastorate and my first experience living in a real city; I had grown up in suburban Ohio.  It was my first time living in a racially diverse environment as well, indeed being in the minority. The overwhelming majority of my church members were black.   I was in a challenging new place.

Dr. Jones called me my first week in Philadelphia and offered to come by and visit with me.  Our two churches had a long and cooperative history.  As we talked Dr. Jones, in his melodious Virginia accent, offered to be my cultural and civic guide.  He said that as I came across things I did not understand, I was free to call him; and he perhaps could unpack the situation for me.  I did that on a number of occasions.  He would give me some background and gently suggest some possible courses of action.  In those first years of ministry he helped me to feel welcome, more confident and competent.  He was God’s good gift to me.

As I reflect upon G. Daniel’s passing, I am aware of all the people who have shaped me, encouraged me, and sometimes challenged me to grow up a bit.  None of us are self-made people.  All of us, for better or for worse, show the fingerprints of those who have walked with us along the way. I am grateful for those people who have made me a better person, a more competent minister, and a more faithful believer.
I am also aware of the responsibility that comes with the investment others have made in me.  I too am to be mindful to share with others the investment that has been made in me.  To whom much is given much is required.  All of us have spheres of influence, regardless of who we are, where we are, or what we do.  All of us can sow encouragement, comfort, and challenge in the life of someone else.

I am grateful for the good gifts Dr. G. Daniel Jones gave to me years ago.  Upon news of his passing, the world felt a bit emptier for me.

To Timothy, my dear son: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord...I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.   For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands.  (2 Timothy 1:1-5)

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

Friday, April 24, 2015

Going to Keep the Mud a While Longer
Last night I finally finished unpacking my bags from our mission trip to the community of El Socorro among the coffee plantations of Nicaragua.  I have my accumulated email count down to double digits, and most of the laundry is done.  My mud-covered boots still sit in the corner untouched.
 The challenges that the poor of Nicaragua face lend an immediacy to their lives.  Survival is a daily task.  Getting your children to adulthood is not an endeavor that always succeeds.  People suffer accidents while doing the rigorous work on coffee plantations, and the injuries often go without proper treatment.  There is no safety net insulating families from disaster. 
Everything is a struggle.  Children walk more than an hour up and down the sides of mountains to get to school.  Women arise at 4:00 am to begin preparing meals from basic foodstuffs cooked over wood fires.  There is no power or labor-saving devices.  Everything must be wrestled into usefulness by human effort.  The stakes are high for poor communities in Nicaragua. 
 During my tenure among them, this sense of urgency leavened my spirit.  We arose in the morning in a shelter with dirt floors and light coming through the walls.  We stepped out into the morning and ate in the open air. We bathed by pouring cold water over our bodies. It was all inconvenient in comparison to life in middle class North America.  There was an unmediated physicality to it all; you know you are alive.
My time there was quite brief.  I always knew I was just passing through.  My experience of life in that community was in no way comparable to the lives of the people who were born there, live there, and will someday die there.  I am not sentimentalizing poverty and a life of grinding physical labor.  I am saying that I learned something from the good people among whom I briefly lived.  They live interdependent lives; they rely upon and care for one another.  They enter into cooperative endeavors. They must; alone and isolated from one another, they would not survive.
It seems to me our churches could learn something from these communities about resourcefulness in the face of challenge.  Our churches become transformative places when we live into cooperative community, where we care for one another.  This not a bad image for our Region: a cooperative community of churches who know that together they are better equipped to embrace the opportunities and challenges that lie before them
I am not quite ready to knock the mud off my boots yet, to sever that physical connection with a place that taught some good lessons.
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister ABC/NYS

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Choices of Holy Week

The Palm branches have been waved; the hosannas have been sung; the customary sermon has been preached.  Now we are into Holy Week.  Throughout the Gospel narrative, the tension between Jesus and his detractors has been thickening, the shadow of their threatening desperation growing more ominous.  Although we call it Palm Sunday, Jesus diminished the importance of the palms and brought to center stage the lethal plot waiting in the wings as he enters Jerusalem and the future that plot would yield:
As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, "If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace--but now it is hidden from your eyes.  The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment  against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side.  They will dash you to the ground, you and your children within your walls.  They will not leave one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of God's coming to you [Luke 19:41-44]."
It is, perhaps, better called Passion Sunday.
Holy Week is a week of stark choices for the city that will lead to both tragic and transformative consequences.  Holy Week is an appropriate time for us to think about our choices.  They don’t usually seem as stark as those that stood before Jerusalem, but they nonetheless are building a certain future for us and those around us.
A young pastor received a call in the middle of the night.  The woman said in a hushed tone:  “Pastor, I need you.  John is on a rampage.”  The pastor rose and dressed and drove through streets of darkened windows.  When he arrived at the house where the woman lived, every light was on.  He went to front door and knocked; the door was unlatched and opened slightly under the force of his knocking.  He heard angry voices in the back of the house.  He walked through the house toward the voices.  As he turned into the family room, he saw the woman sitting on the couch with a bloodied mouth.  Her husband was standing by the sliding glass door with a hunting rifle in his hands.
The young pastor stood for a moment and thought through his seminary training.  He could not remember ever receiving any guidance on how to deal with a desperate man holding a gun; it just never came up in class.  After a moment, he asked the man, whose name he fortunately remembered from the phone call:  John, what type of future are you building for yourself?  The question so surprised the man that he put down his rifle and began to talk.  He had come home that night to find his wife involved in an affair.  This discovery so devastated his life, so stripped him if all his securities, that he felt he had no future.  He saw no place beyond that moment; his life was over.  The realization that he still had a choice about his future stunned him.  The chance that some life worth living could lie beyond this moment woke him from his darkness.
Holy Week is a week where we remember the poor choices Jerusalem made, the terrified choices the disciples made, and the faithful choices some followers made as they stood at the cross.  We are reminded that our choices matter; we are always building a future of one sort or another.
We endure the weight of our power to choose with the hope that on Sunday God will turn these people’s choices inside out and raise new, unprecedented possibilities.  The glimmer of Easter lightens our load, knowing God can redeem even our worst choices.  But during Holy Week, it is good for us to bear for a few days the awesome weight of our freedom.  Day by day we are choosing.  What type of future are we building for ourselves, our families, and our world?
Holy Week 2015
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister-The American Baptist Churches of New York State