Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Take and Read: Book review of Love Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life by Henri JM Nouwen

Looking for a Christmas present for your favorite clergy person or other readers of devotional writings?   May I suggest this new book collecting letters from Henri JM Nouwen, among the 20th century's most endearing Roman Catholic writers whose ministry and witness reached across ecumenical and religious/not so religious lines.  

This book review will appear in print in early 2017 for "Sharing the Practice", the quarterly journal of the Academy of Parish Clergy ( 

Take and read!

Nouwen, Henri J.M., Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life.  Gabrielle Earnshaw, editor.  (New York, NY: Convergent, 2016).  ISBN #978-1-101-90635-4.  $24.00. 

Henri JM Nouwen occupies an appreciable part of my devotional reading in college and seminary.  I count his book “In the Name of Jesus” among the most helpful in my early days of discerning a call to ministry. His journals and writings welcomed many Christians (and a number of not so religious persons) into his journey as a person seeking God’s love, embracing his own vulnerability and finding where he might find his deep calling and the world’s need connecting. 

After his death in 1996, his writings remain in print with a few “new” works culled from his writings and talks.  His literary legacy is being furthered by this new series of books featuring his correspondence with various persons, some well-known and others just drawn by his writings to send a note and ask his thoughts and counsel.  His generous spirit and gregarious approach to life resulted in a high volume of letters returned from friends and strangers, offering his thoughts personally with no thought to using a form letter or citing his schedule for not being able to respond personally.

Nouwen retained every piece of correspondence, resulting in over 16,000 letters, postcards, faxes and greeting cards gaining his response and later the challenge for archive preparation and this new series of publications.  When Gabrielle Earnshaw began her work with the Nouwen papers, she dealt with this incredible volume of mail.  Fifteen years later, sixty-five linear feet of material is now archived at St Michael’s College at the University of Toronto in Canada.  Future readers of Nouwen’s correspondence are indebted to Earnshaw’s careful and labor intensive work and St Michael’s College’s willingness to be the custodian for this correspondence to be available to scholars and others interested in reading the material first-hand.

This first volume is arranged chronologically into three eras:  1973-1985, 1986-1989, and 1990-96.  The letters chosen for this collection revolve around Nouwen’s correspondence around spiritual life matters.  Whether it is a parent grieving a child, a friend dealing with a health ailment or a colleague pondering some form of spiritual quandary, Nouwen’s letters are engaging, as if sitting across the table from his correspondent face to face.  (NOTE:  Appropriately, the letters published within the collection have been cleared for publication and public dissemination.)

Nouwen shares his own wrestling with matters, temporary and ongoing, practicing his vulnerability as much as he spoke about it.  During the 1970s, he wrestled with vocation, spending time back in his native Holland (only to opt to return to the US permanently), receiving a tenure track position at Yale Divinity School (yet wrestling with whether or not he should enter into monastic life as a Trappist) and wearying himself with a heavy speaking schedule (while pondering if he should spend more time withdrawn in order to pray and to write). 

The collection of letters trace Nouwen’s journey already in his previously published works:  seeking a place to call his home that also summons him to be the “Henri”, the “self” most desired by God.  As most readers know, a tenured Yale professor, temporary monk and missionary later in Latin America, would land in the midst of the L’Arche Community in Toronto, living as a priest to a community of disabled adults and their caregivers, living in community with one another.  The letters collected herein speak to that struggle as well as the contentment he eventually finds.

For most clergy, such internal arguments go on for years, shaping vocation or perhaps stunting it.  Nouwen keeps his tensions in perspective, wanting to be erring on the side of what God might be calling him to do.  In a side note in a 1979 letter, Nouwen shares, “I think I am going to buy myself Butler’s four volumes of the Lives of the Saints; the best way for me to get over my endless distractions is to look at God through the mirror of his saints.  Maybe later I will receive the grace to speak to Him and be with Him more directly” (p. 37).

Reading through Nouwen’s letters will be a matter of perspective of what value the reader has for this collection.  What letters of Nouwen speak to me will be different for other readers.  Some may come to this volume finding the letters marginally of interest.  Others will find a great treasure trove of spiritual wisdom with tic marks and marginalia as an insight resonates from a letter written decades ago.  Yet the beauty of Nouwen’s writings is that he has a good word for any reader, religious and otherwise.

I look forward to future volumes of this remarkable series of Nouwen’s correspondence.  Even twenty years after his passing, Nouwen continues to tend souls and offer insights into our lives even as he was wrestling with what mattered most in his own.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Advent One: Liberating Eschatology (Matthew 24:36-44)

When you looked at the sermon title "Liberating Eschatology", perhaps there was an unfamiliar word: “eschatology”. It is a theological term, a word that helps define the faith. The “…ology” part is easy enough, meaning “the study of”, but then there is that first part “eschat...” that we have to address. Oddly enough, “eschatology” is better translated as “the study of the End”. The early Church had a variety of views on what would happen, and quite honestly, many of the New Testament writers presume that “the End” would happen very soon, that is, in their lifetime, or soon enough thereafter. Two millennia later, we are around, looking at these texts and wondering how to “read” them appropriately.

In the hands of some Christians over the centuries, to speak of the End has become the seedbed for some increasingly bizarre theories about what will happen. Over the centuries, stories of destruction, desolation, and the Devil have framed a way of belief for some Christians. Other Christians look at these texts and consider them less relevant, perhaps the “odd texts” that we skip over as we read our Bibles. Should the church bother with “eschatology”?

I suggest that we must talk of our beliefs about “the End”, but we must recognize that with all matters of interpretation and belief, we exercise a degree of humility. There have been too many instances (past and present) of excessive interpretation and malformed belief, but to say that our faith can be fine without talk of “the End” is to do even more harm to one’s faith and practice. This morning, let me help “liberate” eschatology a bit so we might hear the Gospel text (and others like it) with due reverence.

Let me offer two stories along the way with some commentary:

A few years ago, I was standing in line to check out at one of those warehouse stores like BJ’s. Just behind me, I heard a young woman read aloud the name of a book she picked up. It was the latest volume of the Left Behind books, a series of books about the apocalyptic end and the return of Christ. Ever the curious sort, I turned around slightly to see what she would do next. She read a little bit of the dust jacket’s description of the book, and she wrinkled up her nose a bit, “I don’t need that scary stuff!” She tossed it back where she found it: upon a pile of the same book, five feet high, sitting on one of those heavy wooden palates that require a forklift to move them. I thought, “Apparently, some folks do need that scary stuff”.

My observation is this: anxious times often produce anxious eschatology. The Left Behind series began publication in the years leading up to the millennium. The books reflect a certain take on eschatology, but an undercurrent of fear informs the writers, their plot reflecting a belief that something ominous is coming.  As a friend who takes this line of thinking seriously said, “What good is the future? It will be all over soon!”

Putting my own cards on the table, I am skeptical of eschatology derived out of a place of deep fear, as such interpretations have a degree of resignation creeping in.  Thus, faith becomes an affair of watching and waiting, but with an edge of disregard for much of anything in the here and now. It can be understandable that such a view can be attractive, especially to persons for whom the suffering and brokenness of this world seems to be pervasive, or when world events are reaching critical (or that is your perception). Nonetheless, fear-suffused belief does not ultimately lead in a good direction.
So, what should we do if we wish to claim eschatology as part of our belief but not freight it with the wrong baggage?

Another story to help us along the way:

Once, I discovered a store with a large collection of bumper stickers for sale. While I never use them, I enjoy reading them. The box held a few political slogans here (your choice of red state or blue state politics to skewer), a few stickers protesting or supporting the War in Iraq there, and a few promoting just about every social cause imaginable. In the back of the box of bumper stickers were the ones with religious themes, including one that read: “JESUS IS COMING! LOOK BUSY!”

Eschatology is more rightly concerned with the return of Christ and the drawing to a close of this present age. Rather than trading upon the edge of these texts (especially those of Revelation with its terrible battles), the better path is to go back and question the friend who said, “What good is the future?” A good response is to say, “The future is in God’s hands. What more could we want?”
However, the bumper sticker’s sarcasm highlights the question that goes without asking when people speak of eschatology. Rather than keep up appearances (“look busy!”), eschatology beckons to the Christian believer to take up a way of discipleship that is expectant as well as tethered down to the ground as the body of believers called Church, Christ’s visible reminder of Christ’s reign being at hand. We are called to a faith that says, “Jesus is coming! Live faithfully!”

In this passage from Matthew 24, if you read through the lens provided by AM radio preachers, you see a passage about “the Rapture”, a New Testament idea that the faithful will be taken up into God’s embrace, which has been laden with a lot of modern era interpretation. If you read this text through the lens of fear or anxiety, you miss what Jesus is really saying. Jesus affirms that the “Father” alone knows when the End shall come. Thus, live as if it will come suddenly, but do not try to ask questions or find answers about these matters. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas observes, “Jesus tells [his disciples] how they must learn to wait in this time between the times” (Matthew: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, Brazos Press, 2006, p. 204).

The friend who said, “What good is the future? It will be all over soon!” misses the invitation to be a disciple living fully in the way of discipleship. To hope for God’s end is part of faith, to wait expectantly is part of faith, but to give up or grow idle or withdrawn is a distortion of faith. It is as misfortunate as the people who spend their time feverishly looking for “the End Times” at hand in the latest headlines of the New York Times or the latest chapter in a book that predicts this political movement or incident is the lynchpin of the doom about to unfold. Hauerwas says,

Jesus is trying to help the disciples understand how they must live when their questions should not have been asked and cannot be answered. Or put differently, Jesus is trying to help the disciples live when his life must shape any questions to be asked. (Hauerwas, Matthew, p. 204)

You and I deal with the various types of baggage that this holiday season (or perhaps just this week alone) seems to have piled on our backs. In the midst of the cacophony of life as we know it, we are summoned to discipleship by the Son of Man, whose very appearance shall be the end of what we know and fear and bring about the peace that eludes us, even in our modern delusion of such things being solved by policies, superior military strength, and power.

We abide by Christ’s call to live the life of faith well, shaped by a belief that Jesus is indeed Lord of our lives. We are called to humility that God alone knows when these things shall draw to a close. We live in trust and abundant hope that when this day comes to pass, we will be found in the midst of the work of Christ, faithful ‘til the End.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Reign of Christ Sunday: King Quixote (Luke 23:33-43)

In last week's Gospel reading, we heard the stark words of Jesus as he predicted the destruction of the Temple.  This week, we hear Jesus speaking in the midst of great pain and misery as he hangs crucified.   For persons expecting the gospel reading to be “Thanksgiving” or “nearly Christmas”, instead we hear a text oft-heard around Easter.  What does “Good Friday” have to do with our lives, as we cannot wait for those door-busting “Black Friday” sales?

I found myself a bit puzzled why this text was suggested for this day.  Not only does it sound “off key” when our department stores and radio stations are switching over to Christmas muzak, Christ crucified appears with little apology, the tragic breaking into the midst of a time more given over to cheer.  Why now?

During the course of the year, Christianity has crafted a cycle of seasons to help mark different sacred times in the Church’s life and worship.  The Sunday just before Advent is considered “the last” of a given year, with Advent as the rather appropriate “beginning”, anticipating and celebrating Christ’s coming.  So this Sunday, the one just before the Advent candles grace the altar once more, we celebrate the kingship or ruling power of Christ.  This is the Sunday when we think of Christ the triumphant, the Word who is indeed the “final” word of this life and Creation alike.  We sing grand hymns and hear the celebratory praise of Colossians, extolling the fullness of Christ’s claim to Creation, old and New.

Yet, when the gospel writer enters, Luke clears his throat and offers another sort of moment of high drama.  The crowds jeer, the disciples scatter, and Jesus upon the cross, with death very close at hand.  Why today does this story appear?

In college, our theatre department produced the musical Man of La Mancha.  Somehow, we were able to put together the entire musical in about four weeks.  The set was still being finished right up until the first performance.  I was a bit uncertain of what cues I needed for the songs, as we had only worked with the full orchestra just during the week of production.  Yet, as they say, the show must go on!

            I joke that working in a small university theatre with limited funding was part of the great training experiences I had for small church ministry.  Somehow, we’re still working on projects right up till the curtain is to rise, and small churches know quite a bit about being unfunded.  And just like my college theatre experience years ago, no matter what happens during a week, there’s always a Sunday morning awaiting.  The robe must go on!

            Musical rehearsals are a challenge, as you have to work out a number of things, rather than just your lines and blocking.  As we worked our way through both acts of the musical, the actor playing Don Quixote had the toughest role.  Was Quixote a mad man who saw things in a delusional sense, or was he the only sane one?  His great line was that he wanted to see “the world not as it is, but as it ought to be”.

Every night at rehearsal, I never lost the moment of wonder when Quixote would rise up and say this.  Even at last performance, the line did not fail to seem electric to me, an old man rising up against the same old, same old of this world, ready to tilt at windmills.  The actor playing Quixote played the scene as if each word of his great line drew energy and life back into his aged and battered body. 

Such a line made splendid sense, a line from a modern musical that resonates with the ancient faith we are called to keep.

In England, the city of Coventry sustained significant air raid damage when German planes bombed this town heavily.  At city center, the magnificent cathedral was destroyed, a sad loss for the parish as well as the citizenry.  In the midst of this dreadful war, in the midst of the destruction and death, the fear and the anxiety, in the midst of great international conflict, the very next day after the cathedral sustained massive damage, the priests found people of all denominations gathering in the ruins.  Rather than shaking fist and vowing revenge, the people gathered to pray.

The cathedral website offers a word on what happened next:

The decision to rebuild the cathedral was taken the morning after its destruction.  Rebuilding would not be an act of defiance, but rather a sign of faith, trust and hope for the future of the world.  It was the vision of the Provost at the time, Dick Howard, which led the people of Coventry away from feelings of bitterness and hatred.  This has led to the cathedral's Ministry of Peace and Reconciliation, which has provided spiritual and practical support, in areas of conflict throughout the world.

The congregation of Coventry Cathedral would later engraved a saying along one of the sanctuary walls that survived the bombing.  The saying reads:  “Father, forgive.”

It could be argued that they chose to see the world not as it is.  You could even claim they were a bit foolish, placing their hope in reconciliation and peace.  The story of Coventry Cathedral was marked by the great loss, yet they found a different take on the story than one might expect.  Indeed, another prominent feature of the cathedral ruins is the former altar area where some charred roof timbers were placed.  They were found after the fires subsided, two pieces of roof supports that fell to the floor below.  Why were these retained?  They are in the shape of the cross.

            Curious, isn’t it?  This story of great loss turns with the remarkable “plot twist” of Easter.  While the New Testament has its grand moments of praise to Christ, the gospel reading today reminds us that this great narrative of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection that defines the faith is not a story left up in the lofty clouds.  Indeed, there is a visceral dimension to Christianity, inescapably rooted in life “as we know it”.  Christ’s death was not just the stuff of stories perhaps some of you learned on the old Flannel graph years ago.  This story is all too three-dimensional, played out on a hill not too far away from the despair and angst of human existence.

            Christian faith is a religion with its feet on the ground, even as we claim to be a people looking expectantly for Christ to return from the heavens above.  The story of the crucifixion goes right along with the grand epistolary words of praise. The shadow of Good Friday and the euphoria of Easter are meant to be part of our Advent/Christmas observances.  We find ourselves called to be a people who know how the story is going to end.  The plot of life inevitably weaves its way through the valley of the shadow of death, yet we look forward to a much different ending.

            On this day, we celebrate the King who comes foremost as servant.  Even as he is dying, Christ is said to offer words of grace and welcome to the fellow crucified alongside him who confesses his belief.  Christ, the Servant King, appears as a curious figure to us, as we are well educated by 24-hour news cycles to live by the competing sound bites and the images we are persuaded to believe in crafted by the myth makers behind the thrones of this world.  Christ the Servant King, or Christ the peaceable Ruler, offers a quixotic take on what really matters about existence.  His teachings presume more grace and no “getting even”.  His healings presume all persons have dignity and worth, rather than bearing the brunt of majority opinion or the invisibility rendered by reigning economic forces.  Even as his last day is fading down into remaining hours, then dwindling minutes, Jesus demonstrates a life hard to live, yet imperative to follow if we wish to live our lives in faithfulness to God.

    On this last Sunday of the “Christian year”, we hear words of praise and stories difficult to hear side by side.  What better way to bring things to a close than an epistle writer giddy with joy about the Christ triumphant?  What better story to tell than a gospel writer telling the good news that cannot ignore the reality that Jesus’ crown and authority comes in the strange yet merciful story of staring into the very face of death and seeing a greater force at work than anything good or ill the cosmos could throw at us?

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Ways to Worship When December 25 Is a Sunday

A lay leader called with a problem I suspicion some church leaders are also wrestling with: a likely low attendance on the last Sunday of the year (aka "Christmas Day", December 25).  He asked for some ideas about Lessons & Carols, a way to have an easier service working with limited numbers and likely weary pastors and organists.

While not necessarily created with small churches in mind, the Lessons and Carols service can be adapted to fit.  I realize this may be heresy to some readers, given the elegant origins of the service.  It is indeed a sublime service for large choirs, rumbling pipe organs and a great crowd ready to sing boisterously when a popular Christmas carol is offered as a congregational hymn in the midst of great pomp and formalism.

The tradition of the Lessons & Carols service is nearly a century old, first held by Kings’ College in Cambridge, UK. You can read about the history of this via the College’s website and view what the “mother church” of this tradition has offered in recent years with PDFs of worship bulletins (1997 to present).


You can also hear recent BBC recordings. Look particularly at the special carol commissioned in 2015 to offer reflection on the world refugee crisis and the resonance with the Gospel of Matthew’s story of the flight from danger undertaken by the Holy Family.

Calvin College and the related seminary (Grand Rapids, MI) offers a great website ( of worship resources, particularly in the more Reformed tradition.

For Baptists, it depends on which church, so I suspicion that elements of this website might be helpful for you to bookmark for treasure troves to explore for present and future worship planning. They offer via this link below a copy of several years’ worth of the College’s own Lessons & Carols, where there’s a thematic variation each year. Ergo, it again serves as a touchstone for different ideas around the same concept:

The United Methodist Book of Worship has one available to review online:

I suggest if you explore this with a congregation, read through the Lessons outlined by the form and then spend time looking at your church hymnal to see how your hymnal may or may not lend itself. I like to spend the first half avoiding anything that’s too “Christmas carol” (overly familiar) and give honor to the more pensive “Advent hymns”.

I have worked in churches where the hymnal’s editorial decisions limited the Advent hymns and stressed a higher number of the “usual suspect” Christmas carols, so it may be a choice to bring in a hymn from another source (with due copyright clearances obtained, if not in public domain!).

For some smaller churches trying to sort out the Christmas Day service when numbers may be fewer, this could help provide a different way to do a “Christmas Day hymn sing”. You could add in the elements of a pastoral prayer, an offering and perhaps forgo a sermon for the morning, focusing on the Lessons to share the abundant Good News of Christ.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Some thoughts on saints

Over the next few days, Christians have the opportunity to celebrate history as well as their commitment to furthering the future of our faith.  For Protestants, October 31st is more than a day for trick or treat.  It is a time to remember the famous moment of the Reformation when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the proverbial church door.  On November 1, the Roman Catholic tradition and increasingly more Protestants are remembering the great cloud of faithful witnesses on All Saints' Day.

Ironically, the Reformation led to a general Protestant malaise towards talk of the saints. The end result, though, was that in eschewing excess, the reformers left their theological descendants (including we Baptists) with little interest in taking stock of a wonderful word that goes back to the New Testament era church: “saint.”

Saints are those people who are known not for their ability to be great. They rarely want “greatness.” And often it is not the fabulous excess that the world considers "great".  These are the people that really aren’t aiming to be noticed. They just do good work. They are kind. They do major things, but prefer not to be upfront about it. (Most of us aren’t given to this sort of way of life. We have to keep learning and just hope to get this deep down good someday.)

The wonderful thing about saints, in the New Testament sense, is that we are indeed able to be saints, if we choose to be. In his writings, Paul presumed that saints were just as much part of the mix. It’s a good thing to aim for a congregation to be a place where people learn the ways of living faithfully to God and neighbor.

I recall the rich words of Mother Teresa, recently canonized as a saint, who said, “I am Albanian by birth. Now I am a citizen of India. I am also a Catholic nun. In my work, I belong to the whole world. But in my heart, I belong to Christ.”  Teresa’s life was one given to Christ in the deepest way. “Saint” is the best title one could call her. And as you think about those people who have enriched your life--indeed, who may be instrumental in why you yourself attend a congregation and keep the faith, should we not give thanks for the saints of God know in our own lives?

The book of Hebrews talks of “a cloud of witnesses” who cheer us on, who encourage us in running the race. In a time when many churches struggle with a sense of relevance or seem to allow themselves defined by what they do not have or lack, I consider the past history of Christianity and suggest that God has provided abundantly and continues to do so. 

And we are that abundance.

Friday, October 21, 2016

At the Center, Even As Things Change

One-time Baptist Church building
now fitness center
downtown Catskill, NY
Recently, I discovered I was at the center of the known Baptist universe.

Well, in 1817.  And among "Northern" (now "American") Baptists.

Late last month, I was in Catskill, New York, for a meeting with a fellow Baptist.  Arriving early, I had time to explore the downtown area, and I noticed this very beautiful church in the midst of the downtown district.  Alas, the church building itself was now repurposed for a completely different reason.  A fitness club now occupied the large space once filled by the sanctuary's pews, altar and other fittings.  It shared the facility with a center offering physical therapy.

It is not that uncommon these days to be in a historic town in upstate New York, southwestern Vermont or the Berkshires in western Massachusetts and discover a number of church buildings now closed, up for sale or completely repurposed for secular/commercial use.  I follow an entire Facebook group ("Congregational Seasons") dedicated to the challenges many churches face when facilities threaten to eat up increasingly high margin of offerings, if not endowed funds, for upkeep and maintenance, leaving very little for mission, ministry or even adequate clergy compensation.

What church used to worship here?, I wondered.  Given my spare time (and the fact I am increasingly a church history arm chair scholar/nerd/lost cause), I began to sort out what I could learn.  With no cornerstone or external signage/plaques, etc., and ironically a card access only to the building for work-out or therapy staff, I had no immediate way of gleaning basic information.

Instead, I found myself conducting two forms of "on the fly" research.  One version is increasingly familiar: using one's smartphone to look up online resources.  I find that strategic use of Google can often turn up some interesting facts or connection points. With my burgeoning know-how, I was able to learn that this building was built originally for the Second Baptist Church of Catskill, NY.  The congregation is still in existence, in another location elsewhere in town.   I was able to spot contact information for local historical societies, however, given the volunteer nature and available hours of said places, I was not able to call at that time of morning.

The second form of research is still my favorite: asking a local.  I happened across an older gentleman sitting on the bench.  Back home in Kansas, a lot of the retired farmers and ranchers would spend time sitting on benches, watching the slow paced world of small town life.  You could always count on them sitting there, until of course, the weekly paper brought word of their passing.  A few of them were Baptists, so I also remembered seeing them in the same pew, week after week.  They did not say much, but they loved to talk about what they remembered.  They also had opinions on politicians and voting, but their commentary now seems so tame and eloquent in these days.

I honestly cannot remember their names.  But their absence after years of seeing them on the benches outside the local hardware store made me realize that a town loses a lot the locals passed on.  Sometimes, print and online resources are just what happened to be written or recorded.  Other bits of history are kept in the oral tradition, no matter how many devices we develop and tote around.

Here, I surely found a similar person around downtown Catskill.  I asked if he knew much about the church across the street from the courthouse.  About twenty minutes later, I learned a great deal about the history of the building since Second Baptist relocated.  A Pentecostal church had been there once after the Baptists moved on.  Then a developer bought the building in hopes of converting it into a restaurant.  When plans were not able to move forward, the building remained "on the market" (or "dormant", depending on who was telling the story apparently) until the health club and therapy center moved in.

The great surprise, however, emerged when I was Googling my way through the various online resources.  In the "Google Books" search I did for "Baptist church" and "Catskill, NY", I discovered a real treat.  In the early 19th century, the Catskill Baptists ordained to ministry a very noteworthy Baptist:  John Mason Peck.   Peck was likely ordained by the First Baptist Church of Catskill, NY, as Second Baptist (where the building above used to host their worship and congregational life) was not yet formed.  I believe also First Baptist, Catskill, is also continuing as a worshipping group, however, neither congregation happens to be presently affiliated with ABCUSA, the successor name of the Northern Baptist Convention.

For a Midwesterner, the name of John Mason Peck carries a great deal of lore.  He made his mark on spreading Baptist churches across the developing country during that time period. While native to New England and ordained in the Catskills in New York, his story goes well beyond the immediate area.  His remarkable career included work as a church planter, preacher, anti-slavery advocate and progenitor of the American Baptist Home Mission Society (the first of two Societies formed among Northern Baptists for "home" mission that continue onwards today).  You can read the Wikipedia entry via:  His legacy is shared by many other Baptists, including Luther Rice, but Peck himself is quite noteworthy for his industry and sense of call to minister, kindled by early Baptist congregations in the Catskill Mountains.

One book digitized through Google Books provided the insight about John Mason Peck's work, observing that Catskill, NY, happened to be then the center of Northern Baptist churches in the 1810s.  How appropriate that the place where Peck was ordained in 1813 was at the center, for thanks to Peck's work alongside his contemporaries, the center kept shifting ever westward.  Indeed, Peck ensured the seeding of many churches throughout Missouri, beginning in St Louis and then moving westward.  That the "Northern Baptists" could rename themselves "American Baptists", having presence in many states in the North and even in the South, by the mid-20th century was surely also thanks to Peck's faithful work.

Standing in the one-time "center of the Baptist universe" (for at least when considering just my own denomination's reckoning of Baptist presence in the burgeoning United States), I stood before a church building now repurposed into something completely different than its builders intended.  Such adaptive use of church properties for sacred and yes even secular purposes is to be expected.  No one institution or movement or organization can stay upwards without change, variation, set backs, and the reality that things "morph" even when each generation thinks to itself that "it can't get better than it is now" (or more likely of late, "what happened to what was?"). 

I took a photo and noted some opportunities for further research when I got back home and had time to continue my armchair inquiries.  Then I went into a great little bookshop and browsed.  Then I went to my meeting and talked about how to keep Baptists in upstate New York encouraged, faithful and willing to risk. 

Hopefully the spirit of John Mason Peck is not just consigned to history and nostalgia.  At our meeting over Subway sandwiches, two Baptists hoped for the same call to go and share the good word in places near and far.


To read more about John Mason Peck, click this link to a Google Book scan of a 1917 retrospective on Peck and the 100 years (by then) of Home Mission written by Austen Kennedy De Blois:

To read a 1914 history thesis on Peck written by Matthew Lawrence, a student of the University of Illinois, click:

A special collection highlighting Peck's career and links to some writings:

Friday, October 14, 2016

Thinking Clearly on the Journey Ahead

Earlier tonight, my wife and I walked our beagle pup around Buckingham Lake in Albany.  One day, we happened across it not too far from our home, yet at the time of our first encounter, we were rushing by as we got turned around with directions.

Flash forward a couple of years later, we have added this lake to our places where the dog can happily run ahead on the long lead and sniff everything in sight.  (She is a beagle after all!)

Our trip this time came in the midst of what will be the heaviest travel week I have for my Regional ministry work (five out of seven days does not happen that often).  At the mid-point of this week of travel, I looked ahead up the path and saw this rather inviting image of the pathway in the midst of the trees.

Sometimes, we struggle to see much of anything when we are trudging down the road (or in my case, moving along various parts of the New York ThruWay and parts of upstate New York from nearly NYC to nearly Canada this week).  It can be hard to "lift up thine eyes" when thine eyelids are craving a longer time to sleep in and one's body feels the miles.

Like everyone else, clergy have to choose when to say "enough" and when to keep on keeping on.  I know I have been remiss in taking my full vacation days in a given year.  I sometimes work ahead like my forebearers did the Kansas sod:  just keep on going, as it won't get done otherwise.

Deprogramming me is my growing awareness of the idea that boundaries, rest and common sense are ministry tools that help church leaders (ordained and lay alike) meet their goal of serving God and neighbor rather than collapsing and meeting God and getting one's harp and halo a bit earlier than really one should.

Consider my reflection this evening in your own life and work.  When is it okay to lift up your head, heart and mind to the reality that God offers us a life that includes Sabbath by design.  Even God took the seventh day.

Ensure you see the pathway ahead.  It may give you pause....for good reason!