Thursday, April 30, 2015

Countries and Communities in Crisis: What Is Our Role?

I grew up in Kansas with the season for tornadoes to thunder across the prairie and communities, particularly those unfortunately located in what is called "Tornado Alley".  While I have not personally been in the midst of a tornado, part of my extended family lost their long-time home a few years ago when Joplin, MO, had a terrible storm.  The closest I have come to being in the midst of a disaster was the time I served in Vermont when Hurricane Irene did some significant damage to local communities, and I helped with whatever resources and connections I could help make, especially through the local interfaith community's efforts.

One realization (epiphany?) that I had early on in my upbringing was the connection between the crisis at hand and the faithful helping hands that arrived via denominational and faith-related responses.   The ABC/Central Region had a dedicated group of volunteers at the ready with their Disaster Response trailer and a phone tree ready to mobilize people to meet the needs of whatever Kansas community found itself picking up the pieces by daybreak.  I learned early on that there was a direct connection between the appeal to support "One Great Hour of Sharing" and the capacity for assistance its funding and partnerships could bring to a town dealing with sudden challenge.

As I became a pastor and helped promote OGHS in the churches I served, I told my Kansas, then Vermont and now New York fellow American Baptists of the great good possible by offering their support to OGHS in the usual time of June/July as well as whenever the request came from the denomination/Region office for special designated giving.   I knew early on that the minute after the disaster, the response was already being formulated and then mobilized by great volunteers, supported by denominational and ecumenical partners.

As it seems to happen more than I care to admit, the headlines of late have been laden with deeply grieving news.  The tumult in Baltimore and the devastation of earthquake and aftershocks befalling Nepal and neighboring countries keep our news coverage focused grimly on both "US" and "world" coverage more than usual.  (The typical complaint, of course, is quite apt that if you want to know what's really going on, you may have to depend on news sources beyond US-produced broadcast and cable channel journalism.)  
In both situations, I can find a good word of affirmation for the role of non-profits, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and religious communities.  While infrastructure was leveled in Katmandu and civil unrest in Maryland brought to the surface long simmering distrust, the news stories came and will continue to bear witness to the determination of persons and organizations to step into the breach and provide compassion, care and community.  

American Baptists have issued a call for donations designated for Nepali earthquake relief.  With a simple online donation (via or through your local church offering plate (designate checks and envelopes specifically OGHS--Nepal), a congregant in upstate New York can support the efforts through ABCUSA and its partners.  Press release: 

A special OGHS appeal bulletin insert is now available:

The good word from Dr. Roy Medley, ABCUSA General Secretary:  “In tragedies such as this, our faith calls us to compassion and solidarity with those who have suffered loss.  Our networks of relationship through the Baptist World Alliance and Church World Service offer us channels for relief efforts. Gifts can be given through ABC One Great Hour of Sharing, earmarked for the Nepal earthquake.”

National Public Radio offers a helpful resource about ensuring your donation is handled by an organization that is well suited to meet disaster response.  The article also notes the common mistakes made by donors with the best of intentions but the least realization of what type of "help" actually helps!

Likewise, the efforts of many organizations are helping Baltimore in its time of need.  Just as the Ferguson, MO, area libraries did so remarkably in recent months, the Baltimore Public Library system is opening its doors and staying open late to provide open space for persons in need of care, shelter and support.

Rev. Dr. James Perkins, President of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc., offered a word on the unrest in Baltimore.   Recalling the influence of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the PNBC leader advocates for a return to the principles of non-violence and the need to train a new generation about the difference between anger and turning to violence.  Commentary:

As part of the response, area clergy are notably marching in the midst of the crowds, providing a witness for peace and calm.   An article by the Christian Science Monitor notes that the Baltimore clergy are no strangers to involvement with community issues regarding law enforcement.  Their witness has been going on longer than the cameras captured and continues well beyond the news cycle shifting its attention away.

A good word from the ABCNYS Region President, the Rev. Dr. Greg Johnson sums things well:  "Pray with me as we intercede on behalf of lives that have been shaken and shattered by these events.  Let us pray for an expeditious recovery and that when social media has found some other interest story that the hearts of American Baptists and Americans not so quickly move on.  More can be done".  (Region Notes, 4/30/2015)

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Appreciating A Riveting Icon

This week brought news of the death of Mary Doyle Keefe, a 92 year old woman living in Simsbury, CT.

Keefe's name may not be instantly recognizable, but she contributed as a life model to an iconic image in 20th-century US history.

A 19 year old telephone operator, Keefe agreed to model for Norman Rockwell during his years living in southwestern Vermont.   The finished portrait appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post, a publication widely read in that era.  Appropriately, the cover art appeared on the Memorial Day issue for May 29, 1943.  The original painting was sold by Sotheby's in 2002 to a privately held collection.

Rockwell's art is virtually synonymous with the magazine.  His rendering of Keefe as the hardworking, industrious woman stepping up during the height of WWII celebrates as much as it demonstrates the smashing of long-held gender bias about what is really the scope of "woman's work".   

The Rockwell image is often confused with another famous image, celebrating much the same spirit and tenacity.  Arguably this other image ("We Can Do It!", rendered by J. Howard Miller and commissioned by the Westinghouse Company for propaganda purposes) has far much pop culture use, and some folks confused the Rockwell/Keefe image with the "We Can Do It!" one.

The Miller/Westinghouse image appears in posters, refrigerator magnets and adorns the walls of people born long after WWII who take inspiration from the courage, strength and determination exuding from the "can do" spirit of its subject.  This image actually predates the Rockwell image by a year, and certainly images of "Rosie the Riveter" abound in multiple forms.   (See the article summary on Wikipedia via: 

The women who embodied the "Rosie the Riveter" experience were largely European American women.  Racial/ethnic minority women were not as able to find this work, due to the discriminatory practices of the time.  After WWII, many of the real life "Rosies" found that their jobs were finished, now that men were home from war, looking for work again.

Today, Rosie the Riveter remains a symbol of women's contributions and potential (even if intermittently recognized).  Our society still encodes overt and covert ways of promoting gender roles that inhibit more than empower.  The economic impact of women earning often only 70% of what men would earn in the same position is deeply scandalous and unsettling. 

So we must continue to lift up images like the one of Mary Doyle Keefe, as decades later, Rockwell's rendering of her still resounds as a stirring image of strength and fortitude.  Keefe gave generations and will continue to give to generations yet to come a powerful image of what women can do in the midst of a world that needs the fullness of their gifts, talents and tenacity.

Rest in peace, Mary Doyle Keefe.  Rosie's still with us.  AMEN.

A news story covering Keefe's life:

Keefe's time with Rockwell was brief.  She was photographed in the pose by one of Rockwell's assistants.  She earned just a few dollars for her time.  A number of "Rockwell life models" were sourced from around the area where Rockwell lived at the time (Arlington, Vermont), though understandably, most of these models are now quite elderly or have passed away in recent years.  A reunion is sometimes held for the life models to return to Arlington on occasion.  During my years in Vermont, I met an African American woman who appeared as a child along with her brother in the famous Rockwell "United Nations" mural.  Here's a fascinating look at the conservation efforts to keep Rockwell's art conserved for future generations:

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Pilgrims on the Way (Luke 24)

Pilgrims. For some of us it invokes images of the founding of this country, or at least the people with the funny hats with buckles on them. Pilgrims. It’s a good Christian word that describes those who are on a journey for religious purposes, usually devotional in nature. Pilgrims. Through the ages, Christians have trod to various holy places: the Catholic goes to Rome, the Episcopal go to Canterbury Cathedral, and the Baptists go to wherever the potluck is. (No, seriously, as a congregational movement, we have no sacred site that inspires pilgrimage on the same level Perhaps for American Baptists; we might go to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where the denomination’s main mission center is located. It’s a circular building, forever known as “the Holy Doughnut,” though it’s debatable how well a pilgrimage might go as you’re always walking in circles.)

Kerry and I have been to Rome and to Canterbury Cathedral (no; we weren’t church shopping!). One of the things that impressed me about Canterbury was the long flight of steps into the building. Well, it was impressive until I tried to walk up them. For years turned to decades and centuries, this old set of steps has been walked by generations of the faithful. Thus, the stone of the steps had started to wear a groove in the steps, a smooth, nearly polished surface that spoke well of the historic devotion but nearly dangerous to walk on nowadays. I gripped the railings at the side for dear life!

The disciples who walked to Emmaus were gripping the railings when Jesus found them. They were leaving Jerusalem with heavy hearts and did not know how to journey on. In the biblical narratives, there are affirmations of how great it is to travel towards Jerusalem, where all of the religious hope is centered in the worldview of the scriptures. Festivals, sacrifices, great celebration. Jerusalem was a place as much in the heart as it was on the map.

And yet, here are two pilgrims traveling AWAY from Jerusalem. As far as they were concerned, Jesus was killed by the powers that be. They haven’t picked up a water bottle for the last leg of the journey; they’ve thrown in the towel.

Yet, this stranger encountered on the road is the Lord himself that they mourn. As Luke notes, they did not see him, for “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” That’s an odd little statement. Jesus is standing there right in front of them, and yet they do not see him. It sounds puzzling, yet it is not a physical ailment, but one more of the heart. When they tell “this stranger” about Jesus, this is what they say: “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

At first, one might take these particular words and see the beginnings of a confession of faith. Christians throughout the centuries have taken words to shape their faith and give praise to God, and some of the hopes held by the Emmaus disciples might be the beginnings of a pattern to help shape a confessional statement: Jesus as a prophet, redeemer of Israel, yet in the midst of all these words, there’s an impasse when they get to the notion of the crucifixion. The disciples speak to Jesus’ teachings and acts, yet they find an impasse at the cross. They have heard of the women who come from the tomb proclaiming the resurrection (and in Luke’s Gospel, these women in his telling “get it” atthe outset and go forward proclaiming—yes, it’s different than Mark’s ending, but then again, this is Luke’s story, so we live in the tension of four Gospels that nonetheless tell the story differently). They have heard the story, yet they have not made the connection with what really matters. They have not yet seen the risen Christ with their eyes or their hearts!

Pilgrims. One might wonder why somebody would take a week off from work, get in the car or board a plane, and just go walking towards a place that is considered sacred. What brings some people to church? In the ancient cathedrals of Europe, there’s never a quiet moment in the tourist season. People flock to see the ancient treasures, take pictures, buy a postcard in the gift shop, but few are spotted lighting a candle or pausing in the summer’s day for a time of prayer.

There are many people who pass by a church, yet they never realize that they are on holy ground. Nora Gallagher, a religious writer that I like, spoke of being “outside” the church for many years, until she went to a place where she felt something different. Her wonderful line is that she came to the church “as a tourist, but stayed a pilgrim.” Over time, her time in church became less of attendance and became participation, and her faith less a matter of inquiry and more of belief. The beauty of her writing is not skill but of depth: the depth of belief and experience growing in the faith in the care of a congregation that did likewise. Jesus takes these disciples to task and begins a time of “bible study” while walking alongside them. He guides them through the texts that speak of what God had in mind through the patriarchs, prophets, and other writings. Jesus walks them through these narratives so that when they have made the trip, they will see the Savior who weaves all of these threads together.

When I was in seminary, I helped with a congregation in transition. They had endured a nasty church split, and the folks who “left” formed a separate congregation. The immediate problem, however, was the fact that they had no place to worship in. They were fortunate to find an old church that had been turned in a community outreach center. The current occupants had kept the pews, pulpits, and the stained glass, so it was quite a good rental opportunity. However, as the church folks settled, they realized that they were missing more than (literally!) a roof over their head. They had to create and recreate a number of things that they didn’t realize one took for granted, including curriculum. How could they teach the young children without what they used to have? I sat in on a Christian education meeting where they wondered what direction to go.

I suggested that they could do something without spending any money. The congregation had these beautiful stained glass windows with a bible story in each one. And so the next Sunday, the children got led around the sanctuary of this old church, the stories of Adam and Eve in the Garden, Noah’s Ark (a crowd pleaser for the tots), Abraham being called to sacrifice Isaac (not a crowd pleaser for the tots!). Moses on the mountain with the two tablets, and so forth. As they rounded the sanctuary, the kids were asked who this person was in the last stained glass. They said, “Jesus!”

That’s the sort of work that Jesus did on the road to Emmaus, building up the knowledge among those who needed to be acquainted with the texts that led them to this point on the road to Emmaus. It’s drawing close to evening by this point, and the disciples invite him to stay for dinner. Jesus consents, though he is ready to go on the way. (Another sly Gospel shorthand: if the disciples cannot “see” Jesus, they also cannot go “on the way” with Jesus either!) They gather at table and have a simple meal. It’s when Jesus breaks bread that these disciples finally “see” Jesus.

For those perplexed why food and not words get the message across finally, read Luke and its companion, the Book of Acts. There is a great deal of eating that happens in these two books. There are scholarly books that trace the importance in Luke/Acts of the Christians and their meals, because in the breaking of bread, something so simple, the abundance of God becomes clear. In particular, recollect how Jesus breaks bread in the Last Supper, and notice the repetition here at Emmaus: Jesus takes bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and gives it to them. In the Last Supper, Jesus foretells of his broken body in the symbolism of the last supper. In the Emmaus meal, the same words and actions are used. And over in Acts, when the early Christians break bread as part of their prayers, proclamation, and sharing in common, they call it not “suppertime” but “Church.” And when it happens at that table in Emmaus, it’s not just a meal. It’s “belief!”

“Were our hearts not burning eagerly within us?” these disciples ask. This experience of the risen Lord prompts them to get up from their table and head back to Jerusalem. They went home despondent, and now they run back to Jerusalem with the news.

Pilgrims. You go to a church service, and you see them out there in the pews at worship. They might light a candle, read the pew Bible, or sit or kneel in prayer. They come in all shapes and sizes, all walks of life. But there’s one thing that sets them apart from the tourists.

What is it that does that? They have seen the Lord.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Remembering Gardner Taylor

Gardner Taylor, long considered the dean of African American preachers, died on Easter Sunday morning, April 5, 2015.  With his passing, many generations of preachers and congregants mourned the loss of a veritable giant in the pulpit, ministry and the academy of preachers.  

At the White House Prayer Breakfast earlier this week, President Barak Obama remembered Taylor, saying:

"Anybody who had the privilege of hearing him speak knows what power he had. He was a civil rights hero. He was a friend of Dr. King, who used his spellbinding sermons to spread the gospel and open people’s hearts and minds. He taught and mentored countless young ministers.  So as we mourn his absence today, we also take solace knowing that he lives a living legacy and that he is in a better place."

The American Baptist Churches/USA and the American Baptist Home Mission Societies joined with other Baptist and ecumenical leaders, giving praise and thanksgiving for Dr. Taylor's rich ministry and faithful life.  To read the ABC/USA responses, visit

A great video clip of Taylor reflecting about his call to preach and his senior years appeared on PBS in 2006:   (Transcript and video available)

As for myself, I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Taylor in the pulpit of The Riverside Church of New York City.  He spoke at a large event full of noted preachers and scholars convened as the 5th Fosdick Convocation (October 23-26, 2006).  Taylor certainly brought the house down while bringing the congregation to their feet.  I had the great pleasure of meeting Dr. Taylor at his book signing, where he autographed copies of his sermons published in a best-selling multi-volume set by Judson Press.

Later on, when I began reading the volume I had autographed by Dr. Taylor, I was stunned at one particular story he shared of 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 he 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.”

(From Gardner Taylor, Fifty Years of Timeless Treasures, Words of Gardner Taylor, vol. VI, Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2002).


Sunday, April 5, 2015

Preaching Easter at Sunrise Services in Albany

A "word cloud" takes a passage of text and reforms it into a "cloud" of words.

For fun, I tried a single paragraph from my Easter sermon delivered at the Sunrise Service offered by the FOCUS Churches of Albany, NY. The results capture some of the key words of Easter Sunday: Mark's Gospel. Tomb. Yet.

The sunrise service was held at a park area by the New York State Capital Building. The first Christians gathered in the shadow of "Empire". Guess these 21st-century believers did the same, gathered in the shadow of the symbols of Empire State power.

MARK 16:1-8:

On Easter Sunday a few years ago, the service began with the children’s sermon. The children heard me inviting them forward to sit on the altar steps. That much was very familiar in weekly worship. They knew what to do, so they came forward and sat on the steps.

Yet after the children settled down, they began to look quizzically at one another wondering what was wrong. They heard my voice however they could not see me in the sanctuary anywhere.

Then a side door to the sanctuary opened and I popped my head in and said, “Happy Easter!”

The adults laughed, yet the children were not amused. They looked perplexed, puzzled and a little perturbed. As I made my way down to the altar steps, one child stood up in her freshly pressed Easter dress and said, “Why did you do that?”

Mark’s gospel leaves his readers feeling the same way. He tells the Easter story, yet he is not giving us what we expect. The tomb is found to be empty. That is familiar. The women are told of the resurrection by a man (angel?) dressed in white. They have heard the good news!

Yet, according to the most ancient Greek manuscripts, Mark’s gospel ends on a very odd note: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

“Why did you do that?” we might say. With little thought to apology, let alone decorum, Mark ends abruptly at verse 8. What type of “good news” ends with “for they were afraid”? No wonder that later manuscripts of Mark’s gospel are found with more verses, trying to give a much happier, sensible ending than “They heard the word and then headed for the hills”.

Yet, if you read Mark from beginning to end, Mark’s gospel is quite fond of upending our expectations. Jesus reverses the expectations of the world around him. People who are at the margins are brought into the center of his ministry. The people in high places are brought low by a parable told at dinner among friends and sinners, foes and disciples alike. More than mere spectacle, miracles restore dignity and worth to people written off by religion and society alike. The world as the disciples knew it, the world as Pilate and the Temple leaders knew it just didn’t look the same through the teachings of Jesus.

Death, the most “final word” that this world can offer, ends much, much differently. Easter provides a different and very specific ‘last word’ on the life and death of Jesus. Even if at first, such a defeat of death with resurrection is met with terror and amazement by his own followers.

How does that story continue? Perhaps we see glimpses of the gospel, even while we struggle our way through life, living in the midst of terror and amazement, fear and uncertainty. As the disciples recover their wits and live out their convictions, Mark’s ending shows the shaking of the status quo is unfinished, left for the gathered people called “church” to keep stirring and bringing God’s Kingdom/Reign to bear in the world while we look for Christ’s return.

Mark’s ending opens up life anew as well as a way of life, where the faithful understand “what matters” in a different light.  For instance, look at the discipleship values of the FOCUS Churches.  The gospel is glimpsed when the hungry find a warm breakfast meal and provision of food, not judgment or inattention, when the pantry doors open, when clergy and lay leaders protest “the powers that be” who seem more capable of budget protecting yacht buyers from sales tax while threatening cuts to the truly needed type of entitlement programs. Or when we practice the ancient and ever needed ministry of hospitality, providing welcome to the stranger, the refugee and the marginalized.

Otherwise, why do we do that?