Thursday, November 1, 2018

The Last and Lasting Word: Notes on All Saints Day 2018

Stories have a powerful way of shaping our lives.

 Over the years, I still remember my Grandmother Hugenot reading the story of “Button Soup”. I have the book among my books, and I will never part with it. The physical book is precious to me.

The story of “Button Soup”, a tale of a miser who learns to be generous by sharing of his abundance with his neighbors, is one that I claim as a “core story” I retain from my childhood.  And, thanks to corporate marketing strategies, I know it thanks to the Gospel according to Walt.  Daisy Duck outwits champion miser Uncle Scrooge to share his resources with his other Disneyland neighbors.

I remember with great fondness my grandmother reading me many stories over and over, yet that particular story, a variant of “Stone Soup”, is the one that nestled down deep within me. The story makes sense of the world, or the way the world ought to be. As a grownup, I find myself telling people another story, one that I find deep down in my bones just like “Button/Stone Soup”.

The story I tell involves the very end of human existence, aka "the Eschaton" (for those wanting a cool Scrabble winning word).  Where I tell this story as a preacher is less a matter of standing in a pulpit and more when I stand on a hillside. It’s a quiet time when I tell this story. It’s time for that final ritual up there among family and friends. We have been telling stories already, sometimes told with rollicking detail during an eulogy delivered by a friend (clergy sometimes blanche at the stories of the deceased that get told at funerals). Now it’s approaching time for that last word.

What will it be? At the graveside, I tell one story. It’s really the best one for times like these. As the liturgy draws to a close, I am nearing the amen, but I still have this story to tell. I say in the midst of the sadness and as that sense of finality hangs a bit thick in the air: “We look forward to that time, when the one who has made us shall not leave us in the dust. For as scriptures promise, there shall be an end to death, and to crying and to pain, for the old order has passed away”.

The Christian cannot speak of any other last word. We sometimes forget when the anxieties of the day make us think things are otherwise contrary to our knowledge of the promised End. Indeed, there are times when we lose sight of that which is promised, or we let another story take precedence.

Those who are able to stay the course, those who are able to keep “their eyes on the prize”, we have a word for these sort of folks: saints.

The book of Revelation mentions saints quite frequently, the people who live a faithful witness on the earth, even in its broken down state, and once up in the heavenly choirs, just can’t stop praising the Lord. The saints are those who live in this world with the same frailty and fallibility as any other human being, yet they are able to live a faithful and unshakable witness to Christ. It does not happen overnight for these folks: the process varies, yet the result is the same: people who are able to be the faithful and beloved of Christ.

 They take the long view, knowing that God will have the last word, not the powers and ideologies of the day, or the belief that things will end in disarray or without meaning. They see the world as a place where the gospel can indeed take root, no matter how tough and stubborn the soil appears to be.

The Baptist saint Clarence Jordan lived through the difficulties of mid-20th century racism as a witness to racial reconciliation and peace. Only a saint could take the long view, despite the many forces against him. Jordan spoke prophetically when he observed, “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change”.

In other words, God shall have the last word, and it shall be one that is glorious and just.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

A prayer for Regional Ministry in upstate New York

The American Baptist Churches of New York State has its Regional Biennial gathering every other year.  It is an opportunity to welcome as many of our 284 churches as possible to convene in one place for a weekend.

As part of the Friday evening worship, I was invited to offer a "pastoral prayer" for the Region and this gathering.  Working with the theme of "Finding Hope in Brokenness" (Isaiah 58:8a), I offered these words for the evening prayer:

O God, we gather this weekend as a family of faith, joined together in prayer and praise, ministry and mission. We give all glory and honor to you as Maker of Heaven and Earth, Redeemer of Humanity and Creation and the Breath of all Creation and the sometimes gentle and other times gale force Wind summoning us to be your people called “Church”. We are pilgrims together on a journey, following the Gospel way of Jesus Christ.

We pause here for two days for fellowship and being together. We come from busy schedules of work and ministry, the rigors of our family and congregational needs not necessarily set aside from our minds.

 Yet, we are here, ready to be challenged, ready to be affirmed, ready to encounter the wide ranging family of God called ABC/NYS. We hear the ancient prophet Isaiah, summoning people to greater belief and more holy action. We know that these words are not just for then, but surely, we need to hear them anew in the here and now. We are in the midst of difficult times, whether in our local churches or in the wider communities we are located within and called to serve. Sometimes, our hope and trust made known in Jesus will falter as we worry about lack or resist the Spirit’s prompting to risk. We let the four walls of the church building sometimes be the limits of our sense of what ministry we are called to undertake.

Challenge us, O God, to see the abundance You give to us, even when our churches worry about attendance, buildings and cash flow. Challenge us, O God, to find our voices to testify and speak truth to power. Challenge us, O God, to lift up the many who are kept down in this world through circumstances and systems that separate us and classify people as “us” and “them” in so many, many ways.

Bless the work of this weekend’s meetings. May we hear the words of Isaiah resound in workshops and seminars, business meetings and plenary worship sessions. May we go and tell this good word of American Baptists united together in ministry across upstate New York, living in the power of the Spirit, by the New Life given to us by Jesus, to the glory and honor of God almighty. AMEN.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Celebrating a new church building

This past Sunday, it was my pleasure to represent the American Baptist family of New York State and the Capital Area Baptist Association at the dedication of a new church building.  The Gethsemane Karen Baptist Church is a congregation of persons relocated from Burma and Thailand to the United States.  In the upstate New York area, we are blessed with several churches with Burma connections, speaking Karen, Chin and Burmese languages.  Churches have formed in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica and in the greater Albany area.

Gethsemane Karen Baptist Church shared facilities with the Emmanuel Baptist Church of Albany, whose congregation encouraged the Gethsemane congregation as they developed their ministry, shared Sunday School resources and other ways of working together.   This eventually led to this happy day as the Gethsemane Karen Baptist Church purchasing a former Episcopal church in Castleton-on-Hudson, just south of Albany.  The church's dedication service was a celebration shared by many Karen churches from across New York and even a church from Connecticut was present.  Baptist leaders from Burma and the Karen Baptist Church/USA attended, offering words of encouragement. 

On  behalf of ABCNYS (with the thankful help of a translator!), I offered these words:

From Psalm 100

A Psalm of thanksgiving.
 Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth.
Worship the LORD with gladness; come into his presence with singing.
Know that the LORD is God.
It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name.
For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

This is a great day in the life of your church. This is a great day for American Baptists and Karen Baptists. We celebrate the dedication of your church building. All of us together give praise and thanks to God, who provides for His people in times of plenty and in times of want. We are blessed by God greatly today and always!

This day comes after a long time of looking for a church building. Many prayers, many meetings and many hours were spent looking for the place God called you to be.

This day comes after a long journey. Many church members come from Burma, Thailand and other places as refugees. You and your family have had many challenges, many times of discouragement. Yet God has blessed you and kept you, bringing you here to New York and to become Gethesemane Karen Baptist Church.

At a church building dedication, we remember the stories of Israel, building tabernacles and temple. Such work was to praise God, to provide a place for His holy people to gather, to pray and to be in God’s holy presence. This church building is part of that tradition. We gather here to be holy people in a holy place, carrying out the holy work of following Jesus.

A church building is a blessing. It is a place where you sing, you pray, you listen to God’s word. You gather together to baptize believers in the name of Jesus. You gather together for Communion, sharing the bread and the cup and remembering Jesus.

 A church building is also a place where you have joyful times: eating together, learning together in Bible study, watching your children and grandchildren run and play. It is a place of many happy memories.

A church building can also be a challenge. Just like a house, a church building can have roof problems, issues with water, and things can break. Having your own church building means you will have repair work to do. You will have decisions to make about what to do with a repair or a building improvement. Buildings are brick and stone, water pipes and electric wiring. All of these things will have their challenges. Sometimes when we do not expect them!

Moving to this church brings new opportunity! I know that the church building will be a blessing and a challenge. Yet, I know something even greater than this building: the people of Gethsemane Karen Baptist Church. Each member has contributed to make this day possible. Looking to God for your hope and trust, you will do many great things for the Lord in all the days to follow.

As you have moved from Albany to Castleton on Hudson, you can be assured the support of the Capital Area Baptist Association and the American Baptist Churches of New York State will be with you. We hope you will invite our sister churches to come here in the future, to meet together, to eat together, and to praise God together.

You have the blessing and the challenge to be the church. Use this building well to bless God and one another with what happens inside the church building.

May this building be a place that:
     * shares the Gospel in word and action welcomes all who want to know God, wherever in the world or this neighborhood they come from.
     * Opens its doors to those who are needy, sick or in trouble,
     * So that your church members can help them.
     * Offers ways to grow as disciples of Jesus, Who follow and serve in His name.

PRAYER: O God, bless the holy people of this holy place, so that they may share the word here and throughout the community. Bless the building to long years of worship services, Bible studies, children and youth ministry, and caring for all who come through these doors. We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ, AMEN.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Roger Williams: An American Baptist to Remember

Back in the 17th century, as Baptists began to emerge in Europe, their beliefs and teachings began to work in the minds of these upstart colonists in America. Roger Williams founded the “first” Baptist church in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1638, part of his personal odyssey of living a contrary-minded faith. When he arrived in America in 1630, Williams was a controversial figure, aggravating the Puritan colonial government to the point that within six years, he was banished from Massachusetts.

To avoid deportment to England where he was equally unwelcome, Williams set off in the dead of winter 1636 for the wilderness....later known as "Rhode Island".

Ironically, the British crown and the Puritan government thought of themselves along the same lines: both forms of government thought they alone knew what God had ordained for the order of things. To both, Williams would speak out against theocratic rule, embracing that religion is a matter of conscience and church and state kept separate. What we take for granted today came only because persons like Roger Williams argued for it and suffered consequences.

 Recently, I came across a quote taken from Williams’ writings about his banishment from the Bay Colony. Williams set his reflections to verse:

God makes a Path, provides a Guide,

And feeds in Wilderness!

His glorious name while breath remaines, O that I may confesse.

Lost many a time, I have had no Guide, No House, but Hollow Tree!

In stormy Winter night no Fire, no Food, no Company:

In him I have found a House, a Bed,

A Table, a Company:

No Cup so bitter, but’s made sweet. When God shall Sweet’ning be.

(Edwin Gaustad, Liberty of Conscience, Eerdmans, 1991; current edition, Judson, 1999).

In the midst of tangling with English and then colonial legal and religious leaders, Williams found strength in reading the sacred text. Surely you heard the refrain of the 23rd Psalm weaving through his reflections. As he established Rhode Island and a Baptist congregation, Williams worked for religious tolerance, creating the first place within North America where persons of any or no religious background were welcome. The subsequent Constitution and Bill of Rights would be indebted to Williams’ early advocacy for religious liberty.
When visiting the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, I saw Thomas Jefferson’s historic 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, assuring them of his likeminded desire to establish the separation of church and state. Jefferson and the Danbury Baptists were indebted to the witness of Roger Williams, the first person in America to speak of the need for such separation. In the 1630s, however, Williams was a pariah and a pest, a threat against the status quo.

In more modern times, we have Roger as a fine example of what a Baptist in America could be like.  Like Roger tromping off into the wilderness called “the unknown” toward his future, we present day Baptists who advocate for religious freedom and the liberty of conscience can also feel a bit “out there” in the wilderness. Nonetheless, we see what happens when the prophetic learns these words of hope and fills with the divine Spirit of God. Hopeful future births, even when all witness and wisdom alike say or fathom otherwise.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Preaching and Film

From time to time, I have short form pieces that appear in places other than this blog.  Last week, The Christian Citizen, a primarily e-journal with some print publication, published a piece I wrote on the Oscar winning film "The Shape of Water".

To read this essay, click this link:

Informing my interest in film and faith is indeed my love of good stories.  Over the years, I have tapped many sources of popular culture to assist my work with weekly preaching and teaching.  I watch films in theatres, but I also enjoy a good binge watch session on Hulu or Netflix.  I also enjoy the patient (and not so patient) times between issues of a comic book story, where it may take 5-6 issues for a storyline to be completed.  (I know, I know, I could "trade wait" and read everything at once after the comic book publisher releases a trade paperback of the whole story all at once months later, but it's still a great thing to "wait" and watch the story unfold, if not prognosticate a bit on how the writer has sorted out how to resolve the storyline, part by part.)

Furthermore, my favorite show of all time is Doctor Who, which has spent most of its existence being told in episodic, multi-part form, complete with the grand cliffhanger tradition.  Why not leave them at the edge of their seats?  It can also work on Sunday mornings!

In the pulpit, I find myself remiss if I haven't thought about the ancient text and cast around for contemporary examples to further the work I have done with translation, exegesis and commentary.  The "creative process" depends on keeping the faith lively and relevant, even if you find that moment of grace coming from less conventional sources.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Words that Bless and Unite: Remembering Howard Sheffey

On Monday, April 16, 2018, the Rev Howard Sheffey, pastor of the Old Stone Church near Ballston Spa, NY, died of cancer.  As part of his home going service at his long-time “home church” Friendship Baptist in Schenectady, NY, I spoke on behalf of Howard’s colleagues and the ABCNYS Region as part of the tributes to his life and ministry. I offered words extemporaneously, so I have reconstructed what I said after the fact, followed by a personal note that I did not share that morning.

I come in praise of God for the life of our brother Rev Howard Sheffey.  Without a doubt, Howard loved his congregations:  Friendship Baptist, where he served as a lay leader, usher, deacon and later called to ministry and ordained, and the Old Stone Church, where he served faithfully for many years while also keeping connected with Friendship.
Howard believed in cooperative work between Baptists.  Most Baptists have been known to be particular minded more than united.  Indeed, like the King James Version says, we are a “peculiar” people.
Yet, for Howard, he did not let too many conversations go by without his affection and concern for the local Baptist Association (aka Capital Area Baptist Association, part of ABCNYS) or the Central Hudson Association (part of the NYS Empire State National Baptists) coming up in conversation.  He wanted to see more cooperation, more energy in ministry together and for one another.
Once he accepted his call, Howard never said never to his call to preach and serve God’s people, especially at the Old Stone Church.  We will miss him greatly, for he was a colleague and a friend to us all.   Thanks be to God!  Amen.
When speaking at such gatherings, it is a virtue to be brief, so I did not share this next word at the memorial service.  I did share it at the Old Stone Church at their worship service the next day (again, a reconstruction of my extemporaneous remarks):
One of the last conversations I had with Howard was over the phone, just before he went into the hospital.  I was calling from time to time to check in with Howard and Doris (his wife).  At the end of the brief conversation, Howard said he wanted to offer a prayer for me.  He offered words of thanksgiving for my work with churches and prayed for God to strengthen me for the journey ahead.
Certainly, one thing we heard repeatedly was the testimony of family and friends coming to see Howard and his efforts to care for them, even though he was the one dealing with the illness and discomfort.  Even in his last few days as verbal communication lessened, his smile and his gestures spoke for his gratitude and delight in seeing loved ones at his side.
Know that in the days ahead, Old Stone, that you are not alone in this time of transition.  Our Association, our pastors and our Region is ready to help you in whatever is needed.  Thanks be to God! Amen.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Singing at a funeral

On Saturday, April 7, 2018, a celebration of life was held for Rev Douglas Deer, who died in February.  Retired in 2014 from First Baptist Cooperstown, Doug was remembered for his many years of ministry and his influence on the lives of many people.

We sang quite a number of hymns as part of the service.  Doug loved to sing, so we sang many hymms familiar to many Baptists.  Indeed, I knew most of the hymn lyrics (at least the first and last verses) thanks to my own upbringing in similar churches.  You could say we sang our way through a veritable  American (Baptist) Songbook!

I was asked to share some recollections as part time of the service:

I first met Doug during the summer of 2013. I had just started working with churches as Region staff and Doug was looking toward retirement.

At the end of that first conversation over at the parsonage, I knew of his great love of this church and community.  There was no doubt he and Susan had a good season of life together here.

In retirement, Doug spent a number of Sundays with churches, continuing his love of preaching.  While his health sometimes slowed him down, I knew he would be back in the pulpit once he was feeling up to it again, especially in Groton City.

When Joe Perdue shared word of Doug’s passing via the church’s Fb Page, he wrote, “We know Doug is in a better place, surrounded by the many people he ministered to” (FB post 2/28). Joe also speculated on the many train sets that surely awaited him.

This image of Doug working with his train sets is fairly easy to imagine.  Yet the other one of Doug alongside his congregants, that image captivated me even more so, for it is part of the faith he proclaimed and shared, that God would gather together those who believed in the gospel.  I can imagine pulpit and fellowship hall folding chairs are just as likely close at hand for Doug as the train tracks are in the sweet bye and bye.

It is good to note this, as ministers often feel more challenge than celebration.  It is a burdensome and joyful vocation, though in uneven proportions most days.  Pastors journey alongside  people in times of joy and concern, well acquainted with the tragic and the inexplicable.  Ministry is not easy nor does the stress level ever completely subside.  Sometimes a sense of fulfillment or vocational contentment for pastors can be elusive.

Yet I know what I sensed even in that first conversation with Doug over at the parsonage:  he was a person who kept the faith, kept saying “yes” to his vocation to serve Christ and the people within and well beyond these four walls.

His ministry and faithful witness shall continue in the lives of those he pastored and shared Christ’s light with.  Indeed, we saw in Doug’s life and ministry the words of Jesus flourish:

He said, “How will we liken the Kingdom of God? Or with what parable will we illustrate it? It’s like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, though it is less than all the seeds that are on the earth, yet when it is sown, grows up, and becomes greater than all the herbs, and puts out great branches, so that the birds of the sky can lodge under its shadow.”
— Mark 4:30–32