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.