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.