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

Monday, March 19, 2018

Why Lent matters

From the 4th century Desert Fathers tradition, as translated by Benedicta Ward:

Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?”

Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Part Time Shepherding: Ministry Trends in the Here and Now

Do clergy wear multiple hats
or choose which hat to wear?
Part-time clergy.  Bi-Vocational Pastors.  Shared/Yoked Ministers.  Multiple income clergy.

These are part of the lived realities of the churches I serve alongside in upstate New York.  While we have a few "full-time" positions (i.e. sufficient resources for compensation, full medical and pension and reimbursements for ministry expenses), we have a much higher number of churches with pastors who serve less than full-time (or are paid for less than full time and sometimes struggle with churches still expecting more than their pastoral budget really allows). 

Ponder these things....

The Episcopal Church conducted a survey of its denominational clergy and found some very familiar patterns if you know anything about the trends (mostly downward) of full-time clergy becoming less likely.

Read the report via this link:

A few years ago, a report on "Alternative Pastoral Models" was written by Dr C. Jeff Woods, Associate General Secretary of the American Baptist Churches/USA (aka "my home team").  Jeff's thoughtful piece is now several years old, yet I believe it is likely to be appreciated anew or perhaps now can be appreciated with the change already felt and experienced actively among many of our churches.

Read Jeff's piece via:  https://alban.org/archive/alternative-pastoral-models/

One of my own contributions to this changed trend in ministry (note:  it's not "changing" as it has already "changed") is my essay "4 Ways Your Church Can Pay Your Next Minister Fairly", written back in September 2014.   After I posted my original version on this blog on a Friday and shared word of its availability through social media (FB), I had over 100 views by the end of the weekend.  I realized then that I had written something more off the cuff really struck a chord.  I continue to refer churches to it as they wrestle with how to be "fair" not only to the minister but also the congregation as everyone will be more realistic about the balancing act in the long run. 

Here's a version edited for Ethics Daily's use:  http://www.ethicsdaily.com/4-ways-your-church-can-pay-your-next-minister-fairly-cms-22127

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Listen Before Speaking: MLK Holiday 2018 and 1 Samuel 3:1-20

I offered the sermon at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Albany, NY, on the Sunday of what some consider the MLK Holiday Weekend, an expansion of the one day civic holiday to include opportunities for learning and service in the spirit of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Seeing that the Revised Common Lectionary readings suggested 1 Samuel 3:1-20 (aka "the call of Samuel"), I revisited key events in King's life where a sense of call was sensed and sometimes wrestled with by even Dr. King himself.  Here's the sermon:

The call of the prophet Samuel might strike you as “low key”. Many times, we think of God’s voice booming, yet here, God is subtle, drawing in the young man through a quiet calling out that at first leaves young Samuel thinking it’s the voice of his elderly mentor Eli.

When Eli sagely realizes Samuel is not just “hearing things”, he gives some advice: When God speaks again, say “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” It’s an unexpected moment, a call given as a “stage whisper” by the divine voice that could otherwise rumble across the heavens! Yet God works in a variety of ways, most often in ways we’re sometimes not subtle enough to catch onto!

The call of God can happen to anyone. God knows no partiality! We can be called to serve as pastors or missionaries or chaplains or all manner of church-related vocations. And indeed, God calls and gifts each believer for serving others through “secular” and “sacred” means. For a Christian believer, the “call of God” happens in a variety of ways and sometimes crystal clear and other times at first mostly opaque. Yet God calls. Will we know how to listen and respond? How do we hear God when times are so uncertain that it could be said, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (1 Samuel 3:1b)

In the summer of 1959, Joan Thatcher, publicity officer of the American Baptist Convention (now ABC/USA) was seeking material for the “Life Service” Sunday. This was an initiative to encourage churches to place especial emphasis in Sunday worship on church vocations, most particularly the importance of people being called to ministry. The publicity office sought testimony and insight from notable people who epitomized a life lived in service to Christ and the Church. Joan Thatcher reached out to a minister with a rising profile in the late 1950s and certainly a good number of American Baptist connections. She sent a letter to Atlanta, asking Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., asking him to write about his call to ministry. As part of her request to Dr King, Joan Thatcher noted, “Apparently many of our young people still feel that unless they see a burning bush or a blinding light on the road Damascus, they haven’t been called.”

Dr King wrote back:

My call to the ministry was neither dramatic nor spectacular. It came neither by some miraculous vision nor by some blinding light experience on the road of life. Moreover, it did not come as a sudden realization. Rather, it was a response to an inner urge that gradually came upon me. This urge expressed itself in a desire to serve God and humanity, and the feeling that my talent and my commitment could best be expressed through the ministry. At first I planned to be a physician; then I turned my attention in the direction of law. But as I passed through the preparation stages of these two professions, I still felt within that undying urge to serve God and humanity through the ministry. During my senior year in college, I finally decided to accept the challenge to enter the ministry. I came to see that God had placed a responsibility upon my shoulders and the more I tried to escape it the more frustrated I would become. A few months after preaching my first sermon I entered theological seminary. This, in brief, is an account of my call and pilgrimage to the ministry. (LINK: http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/documentsentry/my_call_to_the_ministry/index.html)

These words about “call” were shared across the denomination as part of the 1960 Life Service initiative. We hear this word thanks to the careful archiving of the King Papers, held at Stanford University, and made available online for everyone to access. King is on our minds this weekend with the civic holiday and the various ways communities and organizations recall King’s legacy through celebration and times of service to others in need. We hear these words from 1959 with the benefit of hindsight, knowing what significance King would take on for the Civil Rights Movement, his greatest public speeches yet to be seared into the minds of generations yet to come.

Yet, in this moment of reflection, King recalls a shifting of vocations, uncertain until he was certain about his life’s pathway. It was not in the clarity of a singular moment. I am reminded of J├╝rgen Moltmann who looked back at his life and career as a theologian and observed, “The road emerged only as I walked it.” King came to the realization, yet it was not ultimately a one-time event that overwhelmed. Instead, he found his call to ministry “a response to an inner urge that gradually came upon me.” He had to hear it, live with it, perhaps run from it, and then embrace it, and as any pastor will admit, then keep embracing it through thick and thin (and there’s plenty of that, if you didn’t know already!).

The life of following Jesus, whether we are a pastor or lay person, a new Christian or a long time believer, is about being on that journey, even when it’s uncertain what will come next. We are gifted to serve Christ and the world in various ways, yet we also know we are not meant to have it “all together” (or if you think you must have it all together, may I give you this kind and liberating word that you do not have to be perfect to be part of God’s Kingdom-Reign)?

Certainly, our brother Martin was given a great call and endured much in his following of that call, yet he could also look back and see where there was a dynamic at work where gradually he came into what God called him to become for the church and most certainly matters of a nation’s soul. King was the son of another Baptist minister, Rev Martin Luther King, Sr. Some accounts recall “Daddy King” as resolute in his vision of his two sons, Martin and A.D., becoming pastors, joining him in the ministry of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. He sent Martin at age 15 to the Morehouse College, a prestigious historic black college. (A PBS special next month will explore the HBCU. Similarly, the American Baptist Home Mission Society has a video recalling efforts to establish colleges and universities in the South with Morehouse itself named after a significant executive director of ABHMS, Dr. Henry Morehouse.)

Morehouse College was, as it is well known today, a fine school where King was challenged, especially as a younger than average undergraduate. He made it through his studies, and the time came as he said in his 1959 recollection, “I still felt within that undying urge to serve God and humanity through the ministry. During my senior year in college, I finally decided to accept the challenge to enter the ministry.” I note here that later this year, 2018 will mark the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination in Memphis, TN.

Such a moment will be a sad commemoration, yet it will be remembered because of the witness King had built up in the nation’s conscience. We know the “rest of the story” element of King’s life, yet I think again it is well worth noting another “50th anniversary”, remembering that in February 1948, King was sent forth from Ebenezer and his studies completed at Morehouse that may to become a seminary student at Crozer Seminary in September 1948. (Crozer would later close its Chesterfield, PA, school and merge in with Colgate Rochester, thus giving students and alums for years to come a bit of challenge trying to say their alma mater is “Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School” in one breath…) Such moments in a pastor’s life like an ordination service may get shuffled away in the hectic pace of ministry with its mix of sermons to write, meetings to attend, appointments to keep, yet I find recalling these “milestone moments” in my life as a pastor are helpful. Once heard, the call to preach is hard to shake loose.

Yet for King in 1959, he looked back at his vocational pathway, exploring other tracks of professional development, embracing the call, then living it out in the years since 1948. Over that next eleven year period, he would marry, start a family, earn a Ph.D, and be called to his first “solo” pastorate, Dexter Avenue Baptist in Montgomery, Alabama. From there, King would become part of the Montgomery Bus boycott alongside Rosa Parks, help found activist groups, including what is now known as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He would become known increasingly around the United States, meeting with presidents and other national leaders. He would feature on the cover of TIME Magazine and publish his first book Stride Toward Freedom.

 Yet, that same time period, those years of “saying yes” to his call also came with the experience of unsettling anonymous calls and letters threatening violence. In late January 1958, King would be sleepless after a disturbing phone call. He found himself in prayer, “Lord, I'm down here trying to do what's right. I think I'm right. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But Lord, I must confess that I'm weak now, I'm faltering. I'm losing my courage. Now, I am afraid. And I can't let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone.”

In response, King recalls, It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: "Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world." I tell you I've seen the lightning flash. I've heard the thunder roar. I've felt sin breakers dashing trying to conquer my soul. But I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me alone. At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. Three nights later, King’s home would be bombed. Mercifully, no one was hurt, yet he knew it could have been easily otherwise for his family. Remarkably, King would call for nonviolent response, even as the violence around him threatened to continue. [LINK: https://swap.stanford.edu/20141218230026/http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/kingweb/publications/autobiography/chp_8.htm]

Flash forward to 1959 and he receives this correspondence from the American Baptist Convention. “Could you tell us about your call to ministry, Dr. King? What can you say to inspire especially our youth to explore God’s calling to ministry and mission?” Considering the long path from that initial call to preach, to the wrestling to accept it, to the affirmation and blessing of ordination to schooling and then to such a ministry as this, Dr. King could write of ministry as a call to be embraced and a pilgrimage he found himself on, not for his gain or glory, but to serve the God who called him to live and serve in difficult times in sore need of conscience, non-violence and a beloved community. What do you hear in this word today, whether it is taken from the call to a young child of ancient Israel or a 20th century Baptist whose legend and legacy may make us miss out on the man who struggled through the long haul and tumult?

How do we understand how to live and serve in difficult times in sore need of conscience, non-violence and a beloved community? Like Samuel, King was called to tell the people that the Lord was ready to bring a mighty word: “See, I am about to do something….that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle” (cf. I Samuel 3:11)

So I leave you with this troubling yet fruitful word: God calls. Will we know how to listen and respond?

(Most helpful for this sermon: the MLK chronology published by Stanford’s King Papers Project: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-resources/major-king-events-chronology-1929-1968)