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