Sunday, December 29, 2013

A few words for the end of 2013

Learning to navigate new waters
As 2013 draws to a close, I look back on a year of transition.  I left my seven year pastorate at the First Baptist Church of Bennington, Vermont, to begin my service as the Associate Executive Minister for the American Baptist Churches of New York State.  Moving into Regional ministry was not "on my radar" of possible directions that ministry would take me, especially still not yet hitting the "40" mark.  (Don't worry, it awaits me in 2014....)

I miss many of my congregants and friends from my time in Bennington.  Alas, ministry is only for a season.  I appreciate the chance to learn and grow in the practice of ministry in my years there, especially in the work of interfaith cooperation and helping create greater community-based collaborative efforts.  I am grateful for the community affirmation as I departed as well as the ABC/USA's Committee on Christian Unity and Interfaith Cooperation recognizing me with a certificate  for my Bennington work at the Mission Summit and Biennial in June 2013.

I was particularly fortunate to have a local newspaper that still keeps a religion "beat" going, allowing a gifted journalist, Mark Rondeau, the ability to write feature articles about part of Bennington's landscape sometimes less understood or given attention: its faith communities.   Mark wrote a nice article about my departure, available as of this posting via:

My wife and I took the opportunity to relocate to enter into the new world of setting up our own house. We had not owned a home prior to this.  For a growing number of clergy, parsonages are not as readily offered by congregations.  Worse, the experience of getting everything lined up can be a challenge.  Some of my colleagues have lived in temporary rental housing for a good six months to a year and beyond, not able to "move into the neighborhood" as readily as some folks might suppose.  It can be disruptive to a family to be living in boxes for some time after a new calling has started, and even tougher to find the time in that first couple of years to parlay the time needed to find housing, qualify for the loan (the more important time consumer) and settle into a new place.  We consider ourselves quite fortunate to have found a nice little home in a quiet neighborhood.   Likewise, the move of only one hour from our previous location helped with getting our stuff (especially the books!) here.  We are most grateful to the friends who helped us move when time and funds were tight!  (Initially, the pets thought it was a trip to the vet by a very circuitous route!)

Settling into new jobs, a new household and a new state (especially with my new ministry's road work component), we find ourselves grateful for the opportunities that change and transition have brought to us.  I am finding a new lease on life working with congregations, church leaders and pastoral colleagues.  Kerry is enjoying the great amenities of the metro area.  Most importantly, our cats and our beagle have made the transition to a smaller home fairly well, though we suspicion one cat dearly misses the stairs of the Bennington parsonage where she could race at top speed up and down (usually when I was trying to navigate the stairs with a full laundry basket obscuring my view!).

Some ministry highlights since joining ABCNYS ministry:

Some of my blog posts received additional publication via Associated Baptist Press and Ethics Daily:

A selection about the role of discernment during times of congregational transition was shared via:

ABP also carried a blog post where I highlighted congregational vitality as evidenced by one of our ABCNYS congregations:

An essay on closing churches (and caring for the flesh and blood implications of decisions about brick and mortar) began as a guest panelist presentation in Troy, NY, on adaptive uses of church facilities and wound up as part of Ethics Daily's offerings in late December:

We look forward to new opportunities in 2014, professional and personal alike.  I will be helping with the 2014 Biennial Meeting for the ABCNYS region (likely Fall 2014).  Churches are starting to call me for Sunday morning visits, support for pastoral transition and inviting me to journey alongside them, pondering some interesting questions about ministry and mission.

Times are always a' changin'.  Along with Jim Kelsey and the ABCNYS staff and leadership, I'm glad to be part of these times with the 290+ congregations of ABC/New York State.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas Eve: Welcoming the Light

The candles are lit one by one, until Christmas Eve when the holy haze of light begins rightly. The minister reads the Nativity story of Matthew or Luke, or if so fortunate, a child bravely stands in the pulpit.

Saying the words not quite with the polish of Linus Van Pelt of Charlie Brown Christmas Special fame, the child might as well be James Earl Jones, intoning the solemn words engrained in us from back in the day when we too were that child.

I grew up in a congregation where the pastor made it the highpoint of the Christmas Eve service to have the Prologue of the Gospel of St. John read. On anything other Sunday, it might have been called more plainly “this morning’s reading” or generally "today's sermon text".

But on this night, we were a bit more formal. Just as old ranchers and farmers (and other church allergic husbands) were coaxed into suits and ties (bolo or clip-on, if they were lucky) , so were the Baptists when it came to calling it “the gospel of St. John”. We did not swing incense, yet on such a night, we could not help but embrace the formalism. It felt right to precede such lofty words of the Fourth Gospel with due pomp and circumstance.

Of course, the trick of hearing such a good word is not in nodding along and then going home and forgetting what you heard. To hear of “the Word made flesh” who “dwelled among us” is a call to remember who we are as a people who have heard this word and believed. We are called to be congregations where newcomers and old-timers alike discover again and again what it means to follow Jesus, who became flesh to live in our midst. We serve a God whose love is so intense that even our faithful recitation of John latter verses in chapter three, verse sixteen, pale in comparison to our devotion and our deeds in Christ’s name.

Hearing the Nativity, whether by Matthew or by Luke, or by way of the earthy and ethereal language of John, is our challenge not just on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. It is a witness to this Word that aims to be part of our daily lives, 365 days per year. Only by living into the fullness of Jesus’ story of life, death and resurrection does our Christmas faith match up with the confession of belief and the obedience symbolized in our baptism. That’s when we truly hear the Word.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Advent Four: The guy off in the corner

          Alas, we tend to forget Joseph in the manager scene. 

          When I worked for a religious bookstore, we would assemble several Nativity sets for display (and hopefully purchase) to show our customers. We tried our best to offer a variety of Nativity sets from around the world, each beautiful in their own way, the product of hard working artisans getting a better deal through a Fair Trade cooperative.
            I remember well the great debate the store staff had over one such Nativity set from overseas.  We unboxed the set and realized that each piece was hand carved stone,  and not one piece had a great deal of detailing.  Thus, was this lump of stone a shepherd or a king?   Poor Joseph, though, was the hardest to identify.  He had no staff in hand or crown on his head.   Instead, Joseph was deemed to be the only piece that did not seem to have any other purpose than to be “the odd man out” in the Nativity of roughly fashioned angels, sheep, shepherds, kings, and animals.
           It can be an odd situation in life:  being the honorable type that still goes without notice.   The little guy tends to be lost in the shuffle, the guy who just does the right thing year round because that’s the way he’s wired.  There’s no desire for attention or credit.  No, that type just quietly makes sure that the good is taken care, regardless of the time or season.
          Garrison Keillor celebrates that type of person in his ongoing stories of life in small town Minnesota.  The typical Minnesotan in Keillor’s stories tends toward a near allergic reaction to pride, attention, or notice.   The “look at me” tendency of our human nature appears to be replaced by the raspy voice of an old Lutheran waving off the cheers with a word of “Ah, shucks, guys, it was nuthin’, don’t ya know” and then he passes you the plate of lutefisk.
            The story of the birth of Jesus could have ended before it started, primarily in the shunning of Mary, or worse, the type of punishment common in the day’s culture, which again, once described, goes beyond the “G” rating we tend to classify “Bible stories” under.
            Yet it is Joseph and Mary alike who say “yes” to the call of God to bring into the world the Christ child.   Despite the rigors of pregnancy and childrearing, despite the tenuous navigation of a culture’s purity understandings, this couple works through a difficult situation.  The old spiritual sings, “Mary had a baby”, and the gospel of Luke would respond, "And Mary raised that boy right!"
             For Matthew's gospel, Joseph gets his moment in the limelight, even for a guy who would prefer to be in the corner of the room.  Yet his story is our story in a sense:  hearing what God is doing in the world and being content to be part of a greater story.
              As Matthew's gospel unfolds, we realize when an angel said, "Call him Emmanuel, or 'God with us'", no truer words have been spoken.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Advent Three: Singing the (Advent) Blues

Image from PenelopeEpiscopal, via:
SINGING THE (ADVENT) BLUES--a sermon for Advent Three, for worship with the Old Stone Baptist Church of Ballston Spa, NY.
           A Tony Award winning Broadway play opens its first scene with a conversation between an old man and a young woman who is applying to be the caretaker for the man's aging and very difficult wife.  Curiously, for the rest of the three hour drama, the old man does not appear again, and why that happens would be giving away much of the plot.  Suffice it to say, despite the brevity of his appearance on the stage, the old man sets the tone for the play about to unfold.         
           Likewise, John the Baptist appears at the beginning of the text, the wild eyed and boisterous herald of the Messiah.  It is great fun to read these texts, as John electrifies the Gospel early on.  When he roars about “broods of vipers” or growls about the unrepentant being tossed aside, he leaves the audience wide awake.  He sets the tone, and then Jesus begins to take center stage.

          Today’s gospel is somewhere in the middle of the gospel.  Jesus is spinning parables, performing healings, and his ministry gaining notoriety.  Then the gospel writer brings the lights up on a side stage, a little set with a chair and a small wash basin.  Slumped in the chair, the figure in the shadows is the very image of defeat.  As the lights come up, you realize it is John the Baptist, though not as you remembered him from earlier.

          The firebrand John the Baptist sits now in jail, the prophetic spark seems near extinguished.  He spoke a powerful word; he baptized the multitudes, even baptized Jesus himself.  Yet, here he is, the forerunner, nearing the end of the race.

          Look closely at this once charismatic figure.  Is there a tin cup in his hand, that type you can clink on the bars and yell for the guard to remember to feed you?  No, John seems to be the model prisoner, a model one if you are the warden, who wants to keep his charges in line.  John makes very little conversation.  He sits there in his cell and just seems to be waiting.  Not much to look forward about.  The ink has dried on what shall come to pass.  The king has ordered his death.  What more is there to say?

         From time to time, his disciples appear, trying to bring a bit of food, some fresh water.  They try their best to bring something even more nourishing:  words of encouragement.  They offer these words of support, yet John sits there impassively, that distant look on his face.
         There’s grimness to that look, yet we know it, for we've been there ourselves.  Despair can settle into our minds, worse than some illness that lingers in the body.  The mind works on just a few points, not willing to see beyond the dull future that seems unstoppable in playing out. Impassive is the best description of the look as well as its effect:  nothing good shall come my way.

         I find this passage an odd choice for the “third” Sunday of Advent.  This is the day we light the “pink” candle.  Two purples and then the pink candle means we’re almost in the home stretch.  The reason the Advent candles are three purple and one pink goes back to the tradition when Latin was the predominate language of the Church.  On this particular Sunday, the service would begin with the words:  "Rejoice (gaudete) in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice."  In the midst of Advent’s call to a penitential frame of mind and devotion, the Church would give itself time to celebrate anticipatory joy.  The “rose” candle, as it is more formally known, is a beacon in the midst of Advent’s more downbeat practices, calling the people to ready themselves for the coming season of joy.

         So why does John appear today, off in jail and away from the giddy crowds watching Jesus in the midst of his ministry with his parables and healings and sly ways of infuriating his religious opponents?  Why should we hear something so dreadful: a prophet broken, feeling discredited, off in the lonely place, awaiting a certain fate?  This is not a joyful image.  The only words John seems able to muster are ones formed by his discouragement:  “Jesus, are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

        “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”   I imagine we’ve all had that moment where God seems so distant, or that moment when God seems so detached, or that moment when God seems so absent.  John’s question comes out of a place of searing honesty.  Is there really a point to this?  Belief is easy when life is lively, but when pain, suffering, marginalization or death loom, the believer is tested in ways that crumble the quick and easy answers and the questions pile up.
        The response Jesus sends back is not the most expected.  “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
        In this response, Jesus offers a glimpse of the gospel being brought to bear on the world.  It is not the conventional answer hoped for in certain understandings of the Messiah’s coming prevalent in the day.  People thought the Messiah would bring about a political and military upheaval which would restore Israel.  Even after his resurrection, Jesus contends with his disciples’ hope for something great to happen.  Instead of dominance and power, Jesus gives them the call to go out in his name and share his word.

       Now here in Matthew 11, we get a foretaste of what this gospel story is about.  We learn that God has indeed come, and the Messiah is about the work of God.  The ways that the story plays out might not have perfect endings as we would want for ourselves, yet in the end, the gospel story points to an ending that shall surpass the old story of “life and death”.   The gospel plays out in a world well acquainted with the jailhouse blues, yet the Resurrection beckons with a different song, soaring above our longings and our loathing, and our angst in life and our cries in the night.

      Two stories of belief in the midst of remarkably difficult circumstances give witness to this faith:

      Gardner Taylor, long considered the dean of African American preachers, recalls the difficult days he spent with the family of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr.  In late June 1974, the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta was in the midst of worship when gunshots rang out.  A gunman aimed for King, yet it was Mrs. King, the church organist, who was killed in the gunfire.

      As Gardner Taylor and other colleagues came from around the nation to support the King family, Taylor recalls the way the Ebenezer Church members pulled together with its singing hymns of faith, led by the choir who had been in the midst of the tragedy just a few days before.  The church resonated with hymns of faith, sung in full knowledge of their loss, yet giving testimony to the beliefs that helped them make sense out of yet another tragedy in their congregation’s life.  That same week, Taylor was a visitor to the King family home.  He recalls:

     Midst the tall Georgia pines, in the King family home, touched with the strange stillness of death, I sat with Martin Luther King, Sr., on Tuesday evening.  He bit his lips and said, “They killed Martin, [my other son] A.D. is dead, and now they’ve killed Bunch [his wife’s nickname]. “  He stopped awhile.  Then he said, clutching my hand, “A.D.’s third son came to me the other day, and he said is going to preach [or, that is called to ministry].”  Then he looked at me and said, “They won’t be able to kill us off.”  (Gardner Taylor, Fifty Years of Timeless Treasures, Words of Gardner Taylor, vol. VI, Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2002).

     Even though one chapter seems to come to a close, the Christian faith affirms there is more to the story.   Belief can be shaken, souls can be troubled, yet in the midst of life when it comes crashing down, the gospel claims life’s heartache is not the last word.  Our lives will have an unfinished quality to them (i.e. we will still know failure and loss, pain and suffering), yet our trust in the greater framework of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection offers a hope far more resilient than we might lead ourselves to believe.

     Another story of hope and joy in the midst of tragedy comes in the writings of Dietrich Bonheoffer, a German theologian.  Branded an enemy of the state for his writings and his efforts in a plot to assassinate Hitler, Bonheoffer spent the last years of his life as a political prisoner of the Nazis, executed just days before Allied forces liberated the camp.
     In the midst of his imprisonment, Bonheoffer wrote prodigiously, keeping up with his theological writings and his correspondence with friends and family.  A collection of his letters and papers from this period of his life continues to attract new generations of readers.   These writings are particularly powerful, given Bonheoffer wrote in the midst of a prison sentence with full knowledge that his time was not long for the world.

      The editor of new critical edition of this body of “prison” writings observes that Bonheoffer wrote during his time of imprisonment with “concern [for] a future of a humanity beset by oppressions, violence, and war; his desire was that the next generation would inherit not only a more faithful and relevant church but also a more humane and just world” (John W. de Gruchy, “Theology for Dark Times: Rereading Letters and Papers”, Christian Century, October 19, 2010, p. 33).

      During his incarceration, Bonheoffer was asked to write prayers for his fellow prisoners to use during the holiday season.  One of these prayers is particularly powerful:

      Lord Jesus Christ, you were poor and miserable, imprisoned and abandoned as I am.  You know all human need, you remain wth me when no human being stands by me, you do not forget and you seek me, you want me to recognize you and turn back to you.  Lord, I hear your call and I follow.  Help me!

(Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer Works, Vo. VIII.  (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010, 195).

Friday, December 6, 2013

Advent Two: Making Room in the Nativity Set

During Advent, we are a contrary people, reading and preaching from texts about John the Baptist, all grizzled and not terribly "ready for his close-up".   The Christ child is still yet to be born, and we have to hear a message most contrary from the prophet bellowing waist deep in the river Jordan.

As it is today, so it was back in the day:  Such polemical preaching is not usually paid much attention, yet John attracts many to his side and who follow him into the waters.  He spoke a word that was aware of the failings of Temple and Empire, a word that countered the many other voices seeking the soul of the people.  Just as God’s prophets spoke in times past, John’s ministry was not one readily welcomed (see next week’s lections), yet in the midst of his fire and his contrary ways, the people heard him gladly.
            Yet for all of his speechifying, John the Baptist pointed not to himself but to one yet to come.  For all his power, John spoke humbly. John knew that his place was first, yet he was never to be foremost.  When Jesus appears on the scene, ready for baptism, John the fierce voice in the wilderness begins to step away from the spotlight, leaving it for the one he knows to be greater.

            This is the time of year (unless you snuck it in right after waking up from your turkey-induced coma last weekend) we start getting out the Advent sets for our mantles (and in some places, front lawns).  One of the stories I tell about Nativity sets is about the Nativity set with a piece that I believe is missing.  Every Advent, as we put together a Nativity set, I catch myself musing about what type of figurine John the Baptist would make in the Nativity set.  He is very much part of the Advent texts, yet he does not fit into the traditional (and nowadays mass marketed) image of the Nativity, with its shepherds, magi, and Holy Families.
            To me, I imagine John, peeking around the corner of the manger scene, his shaggy head of hair looking out of place with the well dressed magi and beautifully garbed angel.  Perhaps late at night after the lights are off and the household is asleep, John comes to life and slinks his way past all of the “pretty” figurines to the cradle.  Looking around him, John frowns a bit and fiddles a bit with the manger crib’s placement.  He wants to make sure that that little baby is stage center.
            John’s message might seem a street preacher’s noise, yet he sets the tone for the gospel about to unfold.  He is the forerunner, and now shall come the one who will lead, though not in the most anticipated of ways.  His message signals what shall come to pass:  when the promised one arrives, it will be as the prophets of old predicted.  The good grain and the chaff will be separated, just as Jesus will later say in Matthew’s gospel that the sheep will be separated from the goats.  Those who lived a life that is just and good shall receive due honor and welcome.  Those who do not, as John claims, bear fruit worthy of repentance, shall see the consequence of living life by poor or prideful choices.  The axe and the winnowing hook shall come, taking away the unfruitful, yet through this tending and cultivating, those who live with upright ways shall be allowed to blossom and flourish.

              During the time of Advent, we use a lot of purple.  It is not the marketer’s choice for the “holiday” season, with the palette staying primarily in reds and greens.  In the liturgical development of Christianity, purple is the color used for penitential seasons, when it is a time to reflect upon your life before God and admit those things on your heart and in your life that need examination and confession.  More readily, we associate the purple colors with Lent, a season known for its downward movement as the Church moves into a season to prepare for Easter with appropriate humility.
               Purple during Advent runs counter-point to the cultural “Christmas” season where the story of Jesus is overlooked in favor of more marketable narratives of elves, jolly snowmen, and sleigh bells.  Yet, here is the purple of Advent, a subtle challenge to those who come to the four Sundays of Advent rather than just for Christmas Eve.  It is a time to gather together as a community of people who rehearse the patterns of the story called “gospel”, and let the provocative and contrary words of Jesus work their way down into our hearts.
              The word that came from John was best heard when his listeners chose to step away from the familiar or those things that distract or seduce us away from life with God.  The Baptist beckons to us, asking us to come and join him on a journey less hyped, on the road less taken.  Getting on the right pathways is difficult, yet it is a journey we must undertake, if we are to follow the way from Bethlehem to Calvary, from life’s fullness to death’s silence, from death’s word to resurrection’s final word.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Advent One: A Season to Prepare

Perhaps just like you, I find myself somewhere between the heady rush of the season’s good tidings and the weighty counterpoint of “reality”.  How does one navigate the “Christmas season” while admitting that it’s a difficult time for people, whether feeling the impact of a lingering down economy or when you or another loved one find it a tough time of year to “fit in” when our culture kicks into “red/green overdrive” with its love of radio stations playing 24-hour Christmas music and seasonal festivities abound?

How do we make it through all of the good and the not-so good?  How about a good dose of Advent?

The British writer Margaret Hebblethwaite offers a helpful word.  She writes,

I have a friend who says that Advent is his favorite season.  Why?  I think because Advent is a time of exquisite balance between the sadness of the mess we live in and the bliss of the world we would like to live in. (As quoted in Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, eds. Resources for Preaching and Worship, Year B, W/JKP, 2002, p. 1)

Often, even long-time churchgoers find Advent a curious season, thanks in part to the changes brought by cultural and economic forces that reshape what “Christmas” is all about.  In our culture, “Christmas” becomes shorthand for the season between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, yet the Church holds a different, and far more ancient practice to be authoritative.  It’s one of rituals and readings, prayers and proclamation that speaks and looks decidedly different when compared to its commercialized version.

For Christians, we get out some candles with specific colors you don’t see in church the rest of the year.  (Ever wonder why it’s “three purple and one pink”?  Come and join us on the third Sunday of Advent when we light the “rose-colored” candle and we talk a lot about “joy”.)  We read scriptures usually not associated with “a child is born in Bethlehem”, as the ancient practices tell us to watch for Jesus’ return in glory as well as his arrival in the manger.  We sing Advent hymns, only starting the more familiar “Christmas carols” close to time, as we are encouraged to sing of waiting and watching.

Again, Margaret Hebblethwaite shares,
Advent is when we acknowledge that bliss is not the blotting out of pain with [syrupy tradition], but a process, a pilgrimage, a pregnancy, and—admidst the chaos of the world’s governing—a cry for the coming of the reign of God.

And along the way, if we let these odd rituals, scripture passages and “three purple and one rose” colored candles kindle their message within us, Advent begins to reshape the way we look at this season, providing us with a little perspective, one able to let the “exquisite balance” of living in a world we know to be messy counter with something we can really rally around, an abiding hope and the promise of our faith that God shall make all things well.

The message we receive is one that speaks not only to the story of a Child to be born in Bethlehem.  The Advent season dares to reach within us, bringing the light of the season into the sad and frustrated places within our hearts in ways not quite touched by the latest Christmas single playing on the radio.  As we will sing in worship in a few short weeks, the old hymn revels in the call:  "Let every heart prepare Him room".

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Blessing the Karen and the Karen blessing us

Dr. Robert E. Johnson, CBTS Academic Dean,
and Marcia and Duane Binkely (ABC/CBF Missionaries)
celebrate the graduation of 60 Karen leaders and pastors
at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Utica, NY. 
On Sunday, November 10, 2013, Central Baptist Theological Seminary and the Tabernacle Baptist Church of Utica, NY, celebrated a special day for sixty Karen church leaders and pastors and Duane and Marcia Binkley, ABC and CBF missionaries to the Karen/Burmese refugee resettlement communities across the United States.   This happy day coincides with recent celebrations around the United States, celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Judsons arriving in Burma for their mission work to the Karen people.  Earlier last week, a conference celebrated this anniversary in Atlanta, GA.  (Press release:

The "Utica" group of Karen leaders and pastors from congregations around New York, Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut traveled to Tabernacle Baptist fourteen times to undertake a course of study offered by CBTS and the Binkleys.   Entitled "Judson Learning Communities", the program served as an introduction to ministry offered by CBTS.  Under CBTS' FOUNDATIONS certificate studies program, this cohort received learning opportunities contextualized to the ministry needs of Karen congregational ministry.  Fourteen instructors provided different modules for learning new skills and building upon existing skills to serve in a new day for ministry in the United States, a context for ministry some Karen are still adjusting to as a resettling community.  Adjunct faculty included the Rev. Dan Buttry, ABC Missionary for Global Peace and Justice (conflict transformation and peacemaking), the Rev. Wallace Smith (church planting and new church starts), and the Rev. Dr. James Kelsey, ABCNYS' regional minister (church administration).

Tabernacle Baptist is a leader in Karen/Burmese refugee and resettlement ministry. For the past fifteen years, the church has grown in its welcome, hospitality and shared ministry.  On an average Sunday morning, Tabernacle offers two worship services (one in English with many Karen attending) and a Karen language worship service.  The senior minister is Euro American.  The associate pastor is Karen.  Together, they minister and lead the congregation into the ongoing experience of two cultures and languages joined together in their ministry.   I was the guest preacher back in August 2013, and here is the link to my reflections from that day:

Central Baptist Theological Seminary (CBTS) is located primarily in the Kansas City metro area.  I am a graduate (M.A. and M.Div, 2002) of CBTS and a one-time adjunct faculty member (Theology).  The seminary flourishes under the leadership of Dr. Molly T. Marshall, President and Professor of Theology and Spiritual Formation.  In recent years, CBTS formed an intentional partnership with International Ministries (ABC/USA) and the Myanmar Institute of Theology to provide opportunities for mutual learning and support between CBTS and MIT.  The seminary's D.Min course students visit MIT as part of their cohort experience, and other CBTS students and faculty are frequent exchange learners/teachers with MIT.   MIT students and faculty are also traveling to Kansas City as part of the MIT's ministry and D.Min study programs.  Such a partnership is further enabled by grants, particularly from the Henry Luce Foundation.  To learn more about CBTS and its dozen sites for ministry studies (including two new Korean language M.Div programs in Dallas and Seattle), visit

Rev. Jerrod Hugenot, ABCNYS Associate Regional Minister
and CBTS Alum (2002, M.A. and M.Div) offers a charge and blessing
for the FOUNDATIONS/Judson Learning Communities participants.
For my part in the graduation, I provided the "charge" to the students, serving on behalf of the ABCNYS Region.  As I prepared for this prayer of thanksgiving and word of encouragement, I realized that the blessing is indeed offered in two different ways.  I am glad to bless the Karen in my capacity as a denominational representative, supportive of the American Baptist mission tradition stretching back 200 years with the Judson missionary legacy.  Yet I am humbled to be in the presence of sixty Karen pastors and church leaders, who have risked greatly to come to this country, to be part of a different culture (and in the Northeast, certainly a different climate from their homeland during the winter months!).   Such dedication is a testament to their faithfulness to the gospel, a witness to those of us living in a time when "decline" seems to be our watchword and our worry.   As I suggest in my charge, these pastors and leaders are indeed missionaries among our congregations worried about the future.  The vitality and vibrancy of the Karen congregations are a blessing to our denomination and other Baptists around the United States.  Indeed, the legacy of the Judsons continues to testify to what God is doing in the midst of our world.

Here is the charge that I prepared (and had translated that morning by a volunteer Karen pastor):

The apostle Paul calls upon us to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.  He encourages us to live “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

For all being honored today, you are continuing in your faithfulness to God’s call in your lives.  God called you to the ministry, living in service to God and neighbor alike.  You have a love of Jesus in your heart and by the Holy Spirit, you share that love evangelistically and in humble service.

You have faced many challenges, yet this day symbolizes the hope and possibility found in your faithfulness to the gospel.  This past year, you have come to Utica to learn, growing in your love of God and your understanding of ministry in times of new situations and new challenges.  You have learned new skills and met fellow pastors and leaders.  May these classes and the instructors strengthen you for your ministry now and into the future.

At graduations, words of encouragement, or a charge, are given to encourage the graduates to use their education to its fullest and to keep learning and growing.

So may it be so:

For all those receiving a certificate today, may this program continue to bless you in your ministry.  May this time together in Utica continue in your contacts with other learners and keep encouraging one another in ministry.  May these times of learning be of continuing benefit to your congregations and to the glory of God.

Following in the footsteps of the Judsons, you are now missionaries in the land where the Judsons came from.  Share your stories with others, so that your experiences of challenge and faithfulness might inspire others to come to Christ Jesus.   Let your witness to life with Christ be an inspiration and a calling to others to follow Jesus. 

We give thanks to God for each of you gathered this day.  May God’s richest blessings continue in your lives.   AMEN!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Praying and Blessing (Baptist Edition)

This past weekend, I was asked to conduct the presentation of certificates to candidates completing the ABCNYS Certified Lay Minister program in the Wayne Association (ABC churches located in New York's Wayne County, close to Rochester).  The Wayne Association is to be commended for their diligence in calling forth women and men to study and prepare for lay ministry.  Each of these CLM program graduates will bless congregations through their commitment to prepare for ministry and to serve in churches who might not otherwise be able to call a minister to serve.

The flipside of this happy occasion was the realization that I would need to prepare some materials to facilitate this part of the association's worship.  For non-Baptist blog readers, you may not know that the Baptist tradition does not have a "book of worship" in the manner of other Christian traditions.  Often, worship planning for Baptist ministers and others can be a matter of adapting what others have said or daring to strike out into the unknown of extemporaneous words or the advance work of writing from scratch the prayers of worship just as we would prepare the sermon. 

I have tended to be an adapter of other worship resources as well as trying my hand at writing the prayers out in advance.  I grew up among those who were convinced a prayer written down "didn't count 'cause it ought to be from the heart", and I admit it took awhile to realize not everybody can pray "in the moment", just as surely as not every preacher can speak without notes.  I believe God welcomes our prayers, whether off the cuff or on the page, as all good prayers aim for the same goal:  the praise of God and the desire to grow closer to God through the regularity and honesty of one's prayer life.

I note with gratitude the work of some Baptists to provide worship resources for the rest of us, even if we have our polity's allergy to anything prescriptive or proscribed beyond that of the local church.  Particularly, I recommend the good work of American Baptists Brad Berglund, Mindy Welton-Mitchell and John Skoglund as well as the remarkable gift of the Baptist Union of Great Britain in the form of their worship manual and its chief editor Chris Ellis, who authored a very helpful historical/theological/liturgical exploration of Baptists at worship.  I share the books and websites below in the end notes.

To prepare for the association's recognition of Certified Lay Minister program graduates, I turned to some helpful resources:  scripture (Ephesians 4:1-16), contemplating what I have learned over the years about ordination and its role in Baptist circles, and the desire to affirm the role local churches play in the call of God to serve Christ and the Church (even as we shy from talk of "Church, capital C"). 

Here's what I prepared for the service (with some stage notes to give a sense of what I'm aiming to do in each part of this):

[From the pulpit, I call the assembled worshippers into a time of thanksgiving and celebration for God's call to ministry]

As we celebrate the completion of studies for these three lay pastors, may we give thanks to God and affirm God’s calling in their lives to ministry:

O God, we give thanks for your calling made known in the lives of each believer.  You summon us to follow the way of Jesus Christ, taking up crosses of our own and following pathways often contrary to the ways of the world.  By the calling upon these three lives, may your Spirit move in the midst of their ministry, summoning believers and congregations to new life.  Bless each of us gathered here this day, that all of us may live into the fullness of the priesthood of all believers, so that we may be ministers one to another.  AMEN.

Will those being certified please join with me?
[Note:  I deliberately did not call up those receiving the CLM certificates, keeping the first prayer for ministry over the entire gathering, reminding us that it's not "the people up front on the altar area" who are those called to ministry.  We Baptists affirm the priesthood of all believers foremost.]

Upon completion of the Lay Pastoral Studies program, George, Lois and Marie have satisfied the standards of the American Baptist Churches of New York State to be recognized as Certified Lay Ministers.  These certificates bearing your name are a sign of thanksgiving for your call as well as the trust and support of many who have helped you hear God’s calling and explore how your faith and gifts can be further given over to the glory of God and the ministry.  
[Like a seminary commencement or an ordination service, it is helpful to affirm the successful completion of studies and preparation for ministry.  Even for we Baptists, such work is understood as the work of the individual as well as the support network of congregants, pastors, and family who encourage us all the way along the journey.]

In presenting each of you with this certificate, may God’s blessing continue to bless you richly in the service of Christ and the Church.  May the Spirit continue to beckon you to greater service for the cause of the gospel and the Great Commission.   May Christ’s love be made known in all your words and deeds for His sake.  AMEN.
[The certificates were presented by the ABCNYS Committee on Ministry and the Lay Studies Program, represented by an association leader who also serves on our ABCNYS Board of Mission.  The gathering's host minister also added in a time to recognize those present who have been with the candidates on this journey, something that I inferred in my language yet forgot to include overtly in my worship leading at this point in the service.  Then again, this moment points to the importance of worship as a collaborative effort, sometimes in the planning and sometimes in the experience of worship itself.]

Berglund, Brad.  Reinventing Sunday: Prayers, Readings, Special Services and More. Judson Press, 2006.
Ellis, Christopher J.  Gathering: A Spirituality and Theology of Worship in Free Church Tradition.  SCM Press, 2004. 

Ellis, Christopher J. and Myra Blyth.  Gathering for Worship:  Patterns and Prayers for the Community of Disciples.  Canterbury Press, 2005.
Skoglund, John and Nancy E. Hall.  A Manual for Worship: New Edition.  Judson Press, 1993.
Welton-Mitchell, Mindi.  Rev-O-Lution Blog of worship resources, following the Revised Common Lectionary.  Available online via:

Friday, November 8, 2013

The design of churches

The late (b)aptist theologian James Wm. McClendon shared a story from his years of teaching the faith.  One of his students was “an architect turned divinity student.”  McClendon recalls that she
wrote her theological honors treatise on church architecture.  Architects like to illustrate what they write. On the cover she drew a picture that summed up the church builder. I anticipated a bold postmodern structure, or perhaps one of the classic buildings of the past, maybe a Christopher Wren church uniquely fitted to its site.

To my surprise, the picture was not a building at all. It showed a baptism. The city church had no baptistery, and had placed in the churchyard a moveable plastic pool of the sort one finds in suburban backyards. It was filled with water, and a small table stood nearby. Around the pool the people gathered; in it, the baptism began.
That was the scene.  The architect-turned-theologian thus elegantly made her point: space for worship is not defined by this or that style, or by buildings at all; it is defined by the gathered people and by the signs enacted in their midst.  (cf. McClendon, Doctrine: Systematic Theology, Vol, II, Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1994: 412)
            I love this story for many reasons.  First of all, it makes perfect sense for a Baptist theologian to recount this story when he is the midst of writing about the identity and purpose of the church.  Without the faithful living out the gospel in Christ’s name, there is no church.  We can have all of the grand buildings and structures, erected to the glory of God, yet God’s glory is more fully known in those who follow Jesus as disciples, living out the gospel, which, by the way, has some thoughts on what it really thinks of humanity’s quest for “status”.  
Our best investment in God’s Kingdom/Reign is ourselves, not our possessions.  With worldly metrics, we tend to count numbers and look for whatever it takes to be “successful”. As our General Secretary Roy Medley once put it, he is delighted when he meets churches whom measure “their faithfulness [not] by the brick and mortar they possess but by the lives they help reshape and redeem.” 
            I am continually humbled and delighted by the stories of our churches across New York State engaged in mission with their local communities.  The welcoming presence of a church building provides refuge for those struggling with life challenges.  The compassionate and justice-seeking spirit can be felt among churches supporting the socially marginalized and the economically vulnerable through food pantries, refugee ministry, collaborative partnerships with ecumenical and community initiatives for healthcare, shelter and affordable housing, and the list goes on.  They share the gospel as St Francis of Assisi famously quipped, “Preach the gospel always.  Use words when necessary.”
Sometimes these active congregations will say to me, “Well, we’re just a few people and not much can be done with so few”.  Yet when they share what they do in their local communities, it tends to speak volumes.  I have learned from ABCNYS churches these past few months:  small churches can have remarkably big footprints in their community!  
In the midst of such work, they spend less time worrying about “the brick and mortar” and more about the joyous adventures far beyond the four walls that otherwise tend to define us a bit more than we care to admit.  Getting everybody involved in the ministry of the church is not only “smart”, it is what Christ intended when he called disciples.  He knew no particularity, calling upon all to take up their cross and follow, regardless of who they were.  Indeed, when He prepared to ascend into the heavens above, Jesus gave us a commission to go to the “ends of the earth”, even to those places we would not think or prefer to go, so that all may know the gospel and follow Him.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Why regional ministry matters

Worried about the decline in your congregation?  November can be a prime season for stewardship emphasis, yet do our worries about the financials and the weekly worship attendance threaten to eclipse our willingness to risk and reach out beyond our four walls in our planning of budgets and commitments of 2014 ministry priorities?

Missional church thinking can be the helpful additive to your congregation's diet.  Indeed, it may help address the malaise or nudge us in new, more vital directions.   When congregations budget with the subtext of woe and worry, do we have the courage to ask ourselves questions that reframe our situation and identity?  

Our American Baptist region provides best practices and companionable presence in the form of our ordained region staff members Dr. Jim Kelsey and Rev. Jerrod Hugenot.  In fact, we welcome your calls and your emails to engage in good conversations about your church.   We can help you connect with ABCNYS and ABC/USA resources to help you know more about your community, explore new opportunities for ministry and mission, etc.  

Why do we do this?   Because strengthening local churches is our business!  

For example, with one congregation, we are exploring together questions of what sort of interim ministry is needed to create strategies for building up its future.  With another congregation, I am helping the church body discern what their strategic planning needs look like for the coming year.  (It's right after a potluck, which is always a good way to gather a group of Baptists!)

The ability to have these conversations and journey with a variety of congregations dealing with varied challenges and possibilities happens thanks to our congregations supporting the ABCNYS Region Offering and United Mission.  The churches who are in these conversations and on these journeys thank you for making this sort of support possible!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Remarks on "When a church must close"

On Saturday, October 19, I served as a panelist for the "Everyone's Architecture" conference, exploring the presence and use of sacred spaces in local communities.  Hosted in downtown Troy, NY, the conference offered a variety of speakers involved with the challenges and opportunities of congregations with facilities that might be outmoded, increasingly too expensive or in dire need of a decision often not easily made.  Some panelists spoke of church conflict over the sale of facilities.  Others spoke of churches becoming community centers where sacred and secular purposes can be explored.

It was a fascinating conference, tinged with some sadness that church buildings are becoming increasingly the subject of much of a congregation's focus, funds and worries.  Preservationists, non-profit and for-profit development experts, architects, clergy and laity pondered together what life (and new life?) is possible among the many churches and diminishing congregations.

I was invited to serve as a panelist exploring the question "When a Church Must Close".  Admittedly, I did not relish having to focus on the scenario we really don't like thinking about, yet the conveners invited the question as an opportunity to reflect on the care of the congregations who are in the midst of the big decisions and the struggle to say "yes" or "no" to the options arising from situations of decline, low funds or overwhelming odds.  

My panel was preceded by another panel exploring the legal struggle of local Roman Catholics trying to save a historic church building.  (Unfortunately, the building was demolished by a developer.)  This prior panel discussion raised a goodly number of questions as we explored how losing a church building has an undeniable need for grieving and an equally important need for such decisions to be held up in prayer and much care of the "flesh and blood" involved in making the decision about the "brick and mortar".

With their request in mind, here's what I said:

The conference focuses rightly on the religious edifice as a communal asset, and indeed, such buildings can be places, hubs even, of community benefit, a sort of hybrid “sacred/secular” multipurpose facility.  I have experience with this work during a seven year pastorate just completed in Bennington, Vermont, at the First Baptist Church in the historic downtown district.  In my new capacity as a denominational associate executive for American Baptist congregations around upstate New York, I am working with congregations in a variety of “life stages”: some enjoying new or renewed ministry, others dealing with years of decline or difficulties brought about by the current economic climate.   So, what do we do when "a church must close"?

In approaching the subject, I want to speak briefly to the importance of legal and due diligence matters.  Engaging the “closure” question must be with a commitment to being thorough, transparent, and timely (how congregations make decisions about the closure of a church must be a shared decision, even as some parts of the process require work by committee or outside assistance, especially in the ecclesiastical, legal and realty side.  It is a dramatic moment that does not need the extra drama of members feeling uninformed or rushed in making big decisions.  As I like to say, informed congregants make informed decisions!)

To understand the process, we have the prevailing legal issues of the state and varying levels of denominational polity implications regarding church property.  Yet, I must add a pastoral word of concern about those for whom the closure or sale of a religious building is not just a matter of parting ways with a building.  For those under a church’s roof and within its walls, you are losing a part of your identity, where lives have been nurtured while in the midst of this brick and mortar.  
Paying close attention to the ways we feel deep down about this structure is not to be ignored or dismissed.  There is a great need for the congregation to experience the discernment process to leave a building or close down its ministry as an opportunity for care, ritual and exploring the ways our given faith tradition speaks of transitions, change, lament and hope.   

A clergy person may find it helpful to spend time with her judicatory official to talk about the “pastoral” implications of what is happening.  You may even find it personally and pastorally helpful to sit down for some intentional conversation with a mental health provider (the stress load of weathering such times is high for lay persons, but honestly, the clergy person bears much as a shepherd leading a flock of divided minds and breaking hearts).  A clergy collegiality group could be a source for stepping away and having the shared wisdom around the table as you think through how the decisions and process of a building’s closure should be cared for via the sermon, pastoral care, worship planning, etc.   You are navigating a major decision as well as something akin to a trauma, as churches making the decision to close a building are very much like the family going through the difficult, emotional and sometimes contentious decisions about selling the family home or the old homestead. To clergy: Don’t feel alone when in the midst of these difficult questions!

If a building must be closed, congregations can find some hope in the midst of the grief when they think about legacy.  A church in St. Louis, MO, decided to sell its building.  The proceeds were donated to my alma mater Central Seminary in Kansas City to endow a faculty position for congregational health.  Another congregation opted to gift its building to another church for a minimal sale with some of the contents remaining to help the “new” congregation continue and other assets given to other congregations or sold, with the proceeds benefiting religious or community charitable purposes.   Being thorough about leaving a building in good condition, addressing the interior and exterior issues at hand (i.e. building contents, grounds maintenance, etc.), is part of the good stewardship of leaving a facility in the next owners’ hands.

A religious building can give up its “life” and yet live on. Finding a way to put the facility into community use as a place for non-profit benefit is especially attractive, as the tending of those in need is consonant with religious values.  However things end, aim to end with ways that speak of “hope”.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Words that work within us

A few years ago, I met with Fr. Edward Hays, a Catholic priest and writer from the Kansas City area who was sort of a minor celebrity among some of my mentors and friends. Author of a number of books on spirituality, his writing style is a bit difficult to describe. Some might find him a little off the beaten path. Others might find him the first person to make prayer a deeply moving experience. I found myself simply inspired by his way of speaking of prayer.  One of his comments to me: "Some treat prayer as if it is like calling 9-1-1. Only in case of emergency do we call to God."

Hays shared a variety of other observations, but what I recollect most is his measured pace of talking about prayer. He was not "dispensing advice". Instead, I felt like he reached deep inside himself to give these answers. These remarks were part of a rich life spent in prayer, sort of like receiving a bit of honeycomb, something wonderful that comes only at the end of a very long process.

For Christianity, one such prayer is the one known as the Lord's Prayer, or the Prayer of Jesus. When you pray "God's will be done", when you pray for daily bread, when you ask and give forgiveness, it is not something that will happen magically. It takes learning the Prayer of Jesus and then allowing yourself to be shaped by it. As you pray, the Lord's Prayer becomes confession as well as covenant with God as the words of the prayer work their way down into your bones and the deepest places in your heart.

A word to the wise:  We can become too familiar with the Lord's Prayer, reciting its words in a way that is better described as by rote. It is one thing to have memorized the words.  It is quite another to practice the Prayer in the midst of your life.  Do we find the words connecting our words of our lips with the inner workings of the heart within? The Lord's Prayer points to a way of prayer, a spirituality, if you like, that is lived as much as recited.

For example, in the Reformation era, a Christian was brought before the city authorities in Geneva, accused of being silent when the congregation was to pray the Lord's Prayer.  (Caveat:  Calvin's Geneva was a bit too theocratic for its own good, but I digress...). The citizen admitted he did not pray the Lord's Prayer, as he did not wish to pray the part about "forgiving those who trespass against us". If he did so pray, he knew he must forgive a person who "trespassed against" him, and he was not ready to forgive.  The words of the Lord's Prayer illumine the better way, even as we see ourselves wanting to stick closer to the shadows within our own hearts.

The next time you pray the Lord's Prayer, ponder what words or phrases catch your attention.  Are these words working within us?  Is it time to let the Prayer of Jesus be our own prayer to God as well?

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Here in this place (Churches struggling with their churches)

Deferred maintenance.  Utility rates on the rise.  Cobwebs.

These are a few of the laments heard among many churches these days.  Church edifices built in previous eras reflect the high aspirations and even presumptions about the usefulness of such space and property in the coming generations.  

As I journey with congregations dealing with property and financial management challenges, I observe that it's a shame church buildings cannot shrink or expand to match the present day congregation's needs. More often than not, a church built for hundreds in mind now is the management challenge of the dozen(s) who gather for worship each Sunday.  A Midwestern ELCA bishop was known for saying around his metropolitan area synod that he never imagined his skill sets should have included "landlord", as small member congregations opted to merge, move on, or close, leaving the judicatory with the challenge of older structures with sometimes little possibility for redevelopment (sacred or secular alike).  The bishop found realtors his newest closely consulted advisors!

For some churches, missional thinking can help reframe the questions and challenges in ways that move a congregation away from feeling "stuck".  A dusty church nursery can turn into a community-need serving opportunity (i.e. inviting a non-profit to share space with a congregation or creating a food pantry ministry).  With a few good questions, a congregation can see a different sort of future than the two most dwelled upon: some sort of divine intervention out of left field or the prospect of just throwing in the towel.  

ABC NYS offers support for congregations wanting to explore good conversations about their presence in a local community.  The building you worship in could be underutilized in its possibility, or it could be time to have a conversation about whether or not a given facility realistically should be part of a church's future.  The church is ultimately the people of God, not necessarily the steeple long familiar in a congregation and community's memory.

One ABC NYS church celebrates this weekend a milestone in their journey.  First Baptist, Poughkeepsie, NY, sold their historic downtown church and relocated to a new building elsewhere in town.  I'm working with the minister and church leadership to have additional conversations now that the congregation has relocated.  Being in a new neighborhood with a new facility raises a new set of variables to explore as a congregation.  Who are we now that we are here in this particular space and place in the community?

In my words of greeting and congratulations to the congregation, I offer these words of blessing:

May your new church home be:
            a sacred place where people learn to share the gospel in deed and word alike;
            a welcoming space where souls can be tended and mended,
            an open door into the Kingdom/Reign of God
for those who are in need of love, care, dignity and inclusion;
            a hub for mission within and beyond these walls;
            a collection of bricks and mortar, all too temporal and temporary,
                        yet well blessed in its holy purposes
for a holy people in worship and service to the most holy Triune God.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

And now a word from our heritage

       As one entered our seminary chapel, you passed by a variety of things: a wooden sign saying “Quiet please—chapel in progress”, a little guestbook register that had been in service since Moses was young, a wooden stand with the day’s bulletin available, a place to store book bags, coffee mugs (truly a tool for classroom learning) and other items in hand, and a small table with usually a few flowers and a little wooden cross.
       It took most chapel attendees about five seconds to walk past through the entranceway. Habit made this hallway overly familiar, needing no great reason to pause and look around. One day, I did take my time entering the chapel, and I noticed that there was a small note on the cross itself. Written in careful small letters, the note read, “This cross is fashioned from wood taken from a renovation of William Carey’s home.”
        Unless you slept through seminary courses in church history, world mission class, or even Baptist history 101 (and many did get drowsy in one or all three), you would recognize the name of William Carey, considered to be the “father” of the modern mission movement. William Carey was a British Baptist living in a time when “missions” was not a concern for Baptists. Indeed, the theological view of many British Baptists of the late 18th century was that God did not need believers to spread the Gospel. Those who would believe would believe if God wanted them to do so.
         A crash course in early Baptist beliefs would be helpful to explain this, but the fact that this notion sounds odd and pretty bizarre to your ears means that William Carey’s appeal for Baptists to go forth with the gospel around the world worked. The notion of Baptists being mission-minded is just as deeply engrained in our Baptist spiritual DNA as our love for gallons, of water to baptize believers and the passion for a good potluck dinner.
       Today we begin our month of offerings to support the World Mission Offering, benefiting the work of American Baptists through the Board of International Ministries. It is our way to make certain that our mission work continues a proud tradition stretching back to the era of persons like William Carey and Adnoiram Judson. American Baptists celebrate many good ministries around the world, and it is our responsibility and calling as churches and American Baptists to support our missionaries and mission.
       In my mind’s eye and with a good belief in the New Testament notion of the communion of saints above cheering us on, William Carey leans over the side of the heavens above, and says, “Go, American Baptists, go!"

       To learn more, visit  Materials about our World Mission Offering are already at our congregations via a mailing earlier this fall.  Ensure you offer a weekly "Moment for Mission" highlighting the critical work of our International Ministries missionaries and partnerships.


Closer to home, I encourage you to support regional mission in New York State, remind your congregations to ensure participation in the ABCNYS 2013 Region Offering to help us finish our own ministry and mission year strong.  To learn more about the Region Offering, please contact Dr. Kelsey or myself.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Listening for God's Answers Rather than Worrying About Our Own


It's not the easiest sell in a fast-moving, "decision now" type world, yet I would hazard God speaks most clearly to us when we allow ourselves to ponder and more importantly listen attentively.

Over the past few weeks, I have been invited into a variety of church situations where decision making might seem best made "right here and right now".  The need for a quick fix or something to make the anxiety of the moment go away hurriedly is often the mode we operate in as human beings as well as institutions.  We do not want the pain or the uncertainty.  With these churches and leaders, I shared the good word of pausing, waiting and listening.  What might seem best in the moment does not necessarily lead us to the right paths, let alone "answers".  Wisdom comes in the slower and deliberative, not so much when we are rattled or feel like somebody mixed anxiety with Mountain Dew!

Peter Steinke, a popular author on family systems and congregational leadership, published two influential books:  How Your Church Family Works and the later volume Healthy Congregations.  While I learned a great deal from these earlier works, his later volume "Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What" helped me realize there's a lot of "noise" often going on within myself, often of my own devising.  Steinke's insights into understanding the anxious element helped me understand myself and in turn, the situations I was involved in as well as the personalities and behaviors of those around me.   (Note: Peter Steinke's books listed above are available via the Alban Institute.)

When we handle our anxiety, we begin to think with a clearer mind and gain some perspective.  We realize the energy we expend on frittering away nervously could be refocused into more constructive ways of thinking and acting.  (I often joke we tend to have so much energy tied up in worrying, a church could otherwise power Las Vegas for a few months.)

Clearing our heads leads to the ability to discern carefully what God is calling us to do next.  For congregations considering how to realign mission and vision or facing tough situations (i.e. pastoral transition, governance challenges, financial or property woes), handling the interior noise created by more anxiety-prone ways will open us to the possibilities before us and puzzling out the way(s) ahead.  We can listen for God more perceptively now that we've allowed ourselves to quiet down the nerves and interior chatter within.

What is God saying to us now that we are listening?



To have a good conversation about tough questions, your regional ministry staff is available to come to your church and help out!  Dr. Kelsey offers a workshop around Gil Rendle's Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches (Abingdon, 2009).  I am glad to come and speak with your leaders about strategic planning tools to rethink ministry and realign a church for missional purposes.  We are also available to assist with conflict resolution (Jim Kelsey) and understanding transition in churches and pastoral seasons of ministry (Jerrod).  All of these services are brought to you by your congregation's support of the Regional Offering and United Mission!

For books on discernment (personally or corporately), authors Judith Todd and Valerie Isenhower offer two great books from Upper Room Books:

Listening for God's Leading:  A Workbook for Corporate Spiritual Discernment
Living into the Answers:  A Workbook for Personal Spiritual Discernment

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Upcoming oddities

Advent 2009
Weston Priory
Weston, Vermont
For many congregations, Rally Day and other signs of "beginning of Fall" around churches are taking place.  While our Sunday school teachers prepare classrooms for new learners, young and old alike, and the choir gears up to learn new anthems for upcoming services, the minister finds herself caught in the odd time known well to many long-time pastors, organists, choir directors, etc.   The trees will start saying "autumn" outside, yet in the church office and pastor's study, we start thinking about the upcoming season of Advent and Christmas.

When I worked for the Central Seminary Cokesbury bookstore, I soon learned the wisdom of having the Advent section well stocked by Labor Day.  For many students beginning the Fall term, they thought it an odd sight with the seasonal books and resources (and Advent candles!) right beside the rows of textbooks soon to be purchased (and the professors prayed, read this term!).

Yet for the graduates now in their pulpit callings, the alumni gratefully returned to the seminary bookstore to stock up for Advent planning.  For some, it was the first Advent they had to plan "solo" as ministers in small churches.  For others, they arrived with the mandate from worship planning committees to try something different and novel for the Advent/Christmas season.  And for a few, they just liked seeing what was new to the market this season in case a bright new set of liturgies, responsive readings, mini-dramas, sermon resources, etc., had arrived, ready to take their worship planning to new heights of creativity and inspiration.

And yes, Virginia, there would be some folks who called in a complete panic at the close of Friday business with the first Sunday of Advent that weekend, desperate for candles.

Advent planning is even more curious as the church sets up for Christmas by waiting.  Last month, back to school shoppers found Christmas trees awaiting to entice early sales.  Now the Halloween candy seems crammed in, with the Christmas garland at the ready to be the Kudzu of fall retail strategies.  When radio stations are selling ads in anticipation of the lucrative programming change to "Christmas Music Around the Clock" just after Thanksgiving dinner table scraps are tucked away in the fridge, what possible enticement can there be for a group of people who say no thanks to singing a raft of Christmas carols for four straight weeks?

Instead, visitors will encounter a strange lot who read stories from Matthew's gospel this lectionary year, and it doesn't sound instantly like the Charlie Brown Christmas special.  Cranky prophets will wilt the insta-Cheer most Americans associate with the time of year.  They will hear more from the grown-up Jesus in the Advent lections before they will hear a cry coming from the manger.

It's a bizarre and contrary spectacle, this Advent season of waiting, watching and not rushing ahead.

Happy Advent planning!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Parables of the Lost and Found

            In Luke's gospel, the narrative often lingers at the dinner table.  Indeed, a good meal in the gospel is often accompanied with a parable spun by Jesus.  Luke's fifteenth chapter is a good example of this sort of experience, where Jesus tells of the Kingdom/Reign of God and its subverting of the current order.  He often tells this good news to an assemblage of folks marginalized or rendered "less than" by the political, social and religious leaders.  Good news from Jesus is indeed good news for all!
            Unfortunately, the Pharisees never got the memo on this.  They see Jesus spending time with, heavens, even eating with people who the Pharisees know to be “sinners”.  They stand there aghast at how (yet again!) Jesus befriends those who ought to be kept at arm’s length.  So Jesus directly addresses the issues through three interlinked parables.  One is historically the more famous, yet read together, all three stories invite us into the parables of the lost and found.
            A lost sheep, a lost coin, a lost son: each of them might seem fruitless to search for, yet the woman, the shepherd, and the father never give up.  The Pharisees are told these stories as they see Jesus sitting among people they have considered “lost”.  To Jesus, these folks may be conflicted, may be rough around the edges, but as far as Jesus is concerned, they are “found”.  These people are not “those people”, that infamous phrase oft-heard when one group thinks another group inferior, suspect, or of little worth.   The parables point to this dinner crowd not as “undesirable riffraff” but beloved children of God.

         At the start of Luke 15, before the parables start rolling, one after the other, the Pharisees are off in the corner, grumbling.  The Greek text uses a word that harkens back to the days when Israel wandered in the wilderness and did not like much of their life, not least Moses’ leadership or the manna provided by God.  The Pharisees are not only grumbling to themselves, they are grumbling hopefully in the earshot of any passersby.
        Ironically, their chief grumble (“This person welcomes sinners and eats with them”) is exactly what Jesus wishes to be caught doing:  welcoming.  You see, the Greek word for “welcoming” or “to welcome” (prosdechomai) appears elsewhere in Luke’s writings when people are looking forward to God’s own visitation, when they are yearning to see God bring about comfort, hope, and an end to the woes of life.  The Pharisees see Jesus welcoming the seedy and unclean.  Jesus sees a group of people who really need to hear God’s welcome.
        Now, here in this story of “a dinner party for the unwelcome and the written off” appears this word where “welcome” means hospitality as well as hope.  When Jesus welcomes the sinners in, it is the gospel he preaches being acted out.  Indeed, he does welcome people, to table as well as to hear of the Kingdom of God.  As one Baptist New Testament scholar observes,  “Place Jesus at a dining table filled with all kinds of folk whom the religious tradition had rejected, and you will see Luke’s [gospel] clear and undiluted” (Linda McKinnish Bridges, The Church’s Portraits of Jesus, Smyth & Helwys, 1997, p. 68).

         Each of these three parables offers very little instruction about how one repents.  Each parable avoids moralizing, instead ending on a celebratory note.  The shepherd invites his friends to celebrate, the woman claims the angels dance in heaven above with joy, and the father throws one of the wildest parties the neighborhood has seen.  The lost are found by the God who is like a shepherd searching, who is like a woman diligently seeking, or who is like a father long pained by a child’s absence and now overjoyed at receiving the prodigal.
         In his recent and masterful commentary on the Gospel of Luke, scholar John T. Carroll observes, "The parables of Luke 15 are a vigorous attempt at persuasion (deliberative rhetoric); the third parable leaves the outcome in the hands of the Pharisees: will they be able to move beyond offense at Jesus' gracious hospitality toward the lost and join the party, symbol of the realm of God?"  (Luke: A Commentary, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2012, p. 319).

         The evangelist and American Baptist Tony Campolo shares a story of traveling by train around the United Kingdom.  He notices in his train car is a young man, looking ragged from what Campolo presumed was an annual rock music festival going on near that part of the country.  Oddly, the man has just one shoe on.
          Campolo asks the young man, "Sir?  Have you lost a shoe?"
          The young man replied, "No, man.  I found one!"