Friday, November 27, 2015

Advent One: Being the Church Expectant

The liturgical scholar and theologian Laurence Hull Stookey wrote a series of books oft used in seminary classrooms. Among them is his book on the liturgical year, fleshing out the theological rationale for the rituals and practices common among many Western Christians. His book Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996) is especially helpful in dispelling many misconceptions or thin understandings of the ancient patterns of Christianity marking its days and years faithfully.

For example, when Stookey arrives at the Advent section, he observes,
The primary focus of Advent is on what is popularly called “the second coming.” Thus Advent concerns the future of the Risen One, who will judge wickedness and prevail over every evil. Advent is the celebration of the promise that Christ will bring an end to all that is contrary to the ways of God; the resurrection of Jesus is the first sign of this destruction of the powers of death, the inauguration and anticipation of what is yet to come in fullness. As such, the opening Sundays of Advent bring to sharp focus themes that in the lectionary system have been accumulating for some weeks; for as the lectionary year closes, the Gospel readings, in particular, deal with signs of the end. (Calendar, p. 121).
For many in worship this Sunday, it’s the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend. Or, worse, it’s the Sunday when the local church should be just like the local radio station, expecting to open the hymnal to the “greatest hits”. Indeed, a liturgically observant worship planner comes off like Scrooge himself, explaining (hopefully patiently!) that the most popular Christmas Eve service hymns are indeed only for then. For now, enjoy the pondersome somberness of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”, for “the primary focus of Advent” is about “signs of the end”.

The longer I have observed the Advent season, the more I love its contrary spirit, drawing us away from the immediate gratification brought on by Black Friday sales and sometimes challenging times of family gatherings or one’s first bout of “blue Christmas” depression. On the first Sunday, we hear texts from the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament calling us to remember that the world is not measured by the “powers that be” but by the faithful witness of the Church anticipating, even as the texts of Advent gain another year’s distance from the first time such texts were heard and inspired hope among God’s people in captivity, oppression or just enduring the long doldrums of years turning into decades into centuries into millennia.

I would hope from the pulpits this Sunday that the Good Word of Advent’s first Sunday is heard. It will be a slower start than most expect, yet we need the time to ponder, to wait and to receive at God’s pace, not our own.

We need faithful Christians who do not rush by the needs of the many in our neighborhoods and nations and engage in ministries of compassion, justice, solidarity and peacemaking on grand and local scales alike. We need churches to rise up from worries about poinsettia placement and enter into the aching questions vexing the hearts of the first-time worshipper in the pews and welcome the stranger at our doors and borders.

Waiting for the Lord is not just fairytale talk for a Sunday morning four weeks before Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. This first Sunday of Advent is a time not to be the church complacent, but the Church Expectant, acting out in the here and now the fullness of the Gospel that shapes us.

Being a body of believers who is found not yearning for the “sweet bye-and-bye” but looking expectantly for the Lord to come and be involved in the here and now pain of the world as well.

NOTE:  I share with gratitude what is likely the "last word" while in office for the retiring General Secretary of the American Baptist Churches/USA.   Rev. A. Roy Medley offers a powerful word about the current politics of Syrian refugee acceptance and resettlement.   LINK:

Without a doubt, it is a good graceful word that makes perfect sense as a last public writing in this role as Roy retires.  (We're a small denomination, so anyone who calls him "General Secretary Medley" must be surely among the uninitiated or at least failed Baptist polity....)

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Confluence of Faith and the World Right Now

The liturgical observance coming up this Sunday is called traditionally "Christ the King" Sunday.   For most congregants, it's the Sunday before Thanksgiving.  And among a few churchgoers (and most certainly all clergy!), it's remembered that the Sunday after that will begin the Advent cycle, though the majority in the pews will dream this next week not of candles but Black Friday deals….

Any preacher aware of the headlines, however, will find this an odd time to think of civic festivity or sacred seasons.  The anxieties, fear and political posturing following the explosion of a Russian plane and the tragedies befalling Paris and other countries less covered by mainstream US media occupy the minds of many pastors and congregants.  The French President speaks of being "at war" after the attacks.  Within a few days, over thirty governors of U.S. states vowed no interest in Syrian refugee resettlement citing security and immigration screening concerns.  Social media posts continue to fill my Facebook feed with cross-posted news stories of persons being beaten or verbally harassed in retaliation for happening to be a Muslim, appearing to fit a stereotype in the attacker's mind, or otherwise somehow suspect.

Perhaps right now is the best time for the Church to hear the texts, sing the hymns and offer prayers  focused on Christ the King Sunday with the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday around the corner.  For the former, we celebrate Christ as a benevolent, peaceable ruler, not aloof but alongside the suffering of the world.  The marks of pain and suffering are to be found readily on the glorified Resurrected One, so why not call the Church be summoned and even chastened into action and solidarity with the suffering people of the world?   The refugee, the stranger, and the person who we define in oppositional terms to ourselves (and our sense of safety and security) is indeed said to be the Christ walking to us, yearning for our welcome.

In turn, the civic holiday of Thanksgiving should remind us that the majority of U.S. citizens are themselves the descendants of a multitude of nations, races and ethnicities.  We are a plurality of ideologies, theologies and moralities.  There is no one singular American archetype, even as our culture and politics tend to privilege the Euro/white, male and affluent as the arbiters of the status quo.  The celebration of Thanksgiving is a reminder of civic pride as well as a reminder that our nation's history is built upon ideologies that have their shadow sides (i.e. colonialism, Manifest Destiny and no small dose of American exceptionalism).   A refugee or immigrant should be welcomed, as our forebears themselves were welcomed. 

As I noted on my Facebook status earlier this week, I try to move in the midst of these troubling times with profound sorrow for the hurt and the anger and the violence occupying our minds and fueling our fears.  My family name (Hugenot or Huguenot) is synonymous with religious conflicts between Christians.  I am the descendant of immigrants who arrived in the US from France in the 1830s.  Subsequent generations moved across the country as it developed and opportunities for a better life beckoned.  I humbly suggest we start looking beyond present day panic and welcome the stranger, the refugee and the "other" at our door.

Thus we are living into the positive side of the Thanksgiving civic holiday.  And at Sunday morning worship this weekend, we are hearing of the true Kingdom/Reign and how to ensure our Ruler knows us when coming to separate those who lived the gospel ways of compassion and care from those who chose to live as if nobody else mattered.  

Friday, November 13, 2015

Affirming the ministry of the many not the one

Members of the congregation gather around
to lay hands and bless their newly called lay pastor
at the South New Berlin Baptist Church (NY).
Part of my work involves celebrating the "big moments" in the life of a local church or a pastor's ministerial journey. Recently, I was asked to represent the ABC New York State Region at two installations of local church pastors. One pastor is in the midst of the Lay Study program and serving in a rural central New York congregation where he grew up. Another pastor attended seminary as a second career student and was called in recent months to serve as a pastor shared by two congregations in the Adirondacks.

Here are some thoughts I have shared with these recent churches celebrating the call of a new minister and the commitment such work takes for the part-time pastor and the many called to be "church".   (NOTE:  In both cases, I contextualized these remarks to reflect the individuals being called to these churches and celebrating unique strengths of their respective congregations.  This version is reset for a general audience readership.)

Often, we talk about ministry as a vocation, a calling to sacred work, particularly in the case of a minister who is ordained and spends her life serving the needs of Christ and the Church. Alas, the word “vocation” was not meant just for the ordained pastor. Indeed, every Christian is called to be a minister, and we Baptists affirm the priesthood of all believers. Yet in practice, many churches become accustomed to the priesthood of the believer, that is, the pastor who is implicitly or outright told “do the ministry for us”.

Understanding that pastors do suffer from a habit of taking on more than they should (or taking on everything but Sabbath and rest), the pattern becomes problematic, and very little ministry gets done, as it is left increasingly to the “one” rather than the “many” working together.

I give this cautionary tale at the outset to remind us of why when we talk of God’s call in our midst, it is not just to those who go and study to be a minister of the Gospel. This word on vocation is for the whole people of God, for we are all gifted uniquely and particularly for furthering the gospel. Each of us has something to add to the work of the ministry. From the pulpit to the person in the back pew, each of us has a vocation, a calling, to serve God and make the gospel known. Some of us may be ordained to this work, dedicated and set aside to a lifetime’s worth, but no Christian is without a call from God to serve in some manner in a way where those gifts of the Spirit are active and engaged in ways that serve God and neighbor alike.

So a sense of call for all congregants is especially important as a church involved with a bi-vocational pastor (that is, one who is part-time in active ministry and the other part is a matter of earning income elsewhere to help make ends meet for their household). The pastor was called to serve as your pastor, yet the call of God on each of you has not gone away once the pastor arrived on the scene. Your gifts to help the ministry and mission of this church flourish are needed and also, the church could not reach its higher potential if it was just left up to the “priesthood of the one”. All of you are called into this, especially now and in this model of ministry.

So you are here today not only to affirm your pastor’s gifts for ministry. You are here today to affirm to one another and to your pastor that you will be committed to the work of the church. You are installing a pastor as well as holding one another in prayer and accountability that you too will help with the ministry. A pastor cannot do much alone. None of us can. Indeed, hear the good news that the Lord has sent workers into the harvest fields, and the answer to your prayer of “Who will do this work?” is already answered in you, and you, and you, and you, and the pastor as well!

Let this day be a celebration of a new pastor who will care, teach and lead, yet also a day to celebrate that you are learning to live in a way that harkens back to the earliest days of Baptists. Our earliest generations of forebears did not have a largely well heeled, educated clergy. No, the early Baptist preachers, hymn writers and missionaries may have been closer to “bivocational pastors” in training and a sense of vocation. So, you are being the best of your past as you move into your future.

And futher more, the bivocational ministry is not a matter of one doing what they can part-time (or being at least paid a part-time wage with full-time service given to them). You are claiming your congregational identity as a partner in ministry with your pastor. You are claiming to God and these witnesses from other churches that you intend to be more committed and more involved in the life of this church, even as active attendance, financial resources and volunteer time to serve are at a thinner margin than most can remember.

Bivocational ministry is about calling. What is God calling you to do with your pastor and one another? Bivocational ministry is about commitment. Are you really ready to live within a model of ministry that asks for “believers” than “a believer” being that priesthood? Bivocational ministry is about collaboration. Are you ready to share of your own unique giftedness to help others learn and grow so that they too may join you in discovering the Gospel in all its fullness? 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Book Review: Baptists in America

Kidd, Thomas S. and Barry Hankins.  Baptists in America: A History.  (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015).  ISBN # 978-0-19-9977536.  $29.99.
To attempt a book on the story of Baptists in the United States is in itself a challenge.  Among themselves, Baptists will be quite aware of what separates and differs, and many of us will find the interpretation of past events a matter of contention.  Fewer will be dedicated to foster intra-Baptist (internal) relations, though that number seems to be growing in recent decades.  To tell a story of Baptists in this country, as well as any global history, necessarily opens up long-held wounds and rivalries.   Indeed, when mentioning this book had been received for review, more than a few Baptist clergy colleagues asked how certain angles of the history were told or expressed concern that there might be “southern” bias when discovering the authors are faculty at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.  Yea verily, the divides between “North” and “South” are felt still among Baptists.
I admit I pick up any Baptist polity or history text with similar wonderings, though I have learned over the years to be an appreciative reader of any Baptist identity resource.  While it may not be written from a perspective I readily embrace, each text reveals a little more of the bigger patchwork quilt that Free Church ecclesiology encourages.   Also, I have long appreciated the work of Barry Hankins, who has written perceptively about the rascals and charismatic figures of early 20th century evangelicalism including his book Jesus and Gin (St. Martin’s Press, 2010).  His co-author Thomas Kidd offered a great text in recent years, exploring the issue of religion and the American Revolutionary period (God of Liberty, Basic Books, 2012).
Taking up the task of writing a text, Hankins and Kidd acknowledge that they are themselves Baptists of differing perspectives from one another.  With such awareness of the personal and political dimensions of writing history, especially to be read by other Baptists, they offer an insightful short history of the Baptist movement.  Marginalized at their beginnings in colonial times and quite influential and prolific by the late 20th century, Baptists are woven into the political and social fabric of American history.  One can appreciate how Baptists spent the last four centuries, reflecting the growth and development of the United States as well as sometimes improving or bedeviling the public square with the particular mindedness of various Baptist luminaries who were intent on keeping the Gospel at the forefront of their engagement with society.
The book traces a variety of stories and events familiar to many Baptists, yet the authors take the opportunity to highlight the ironies of history’s unfolding.  Caught up in the crossfire of Revolutionary battles in upstate New York, one town’s Baptists find themselves of divided political loyalties, with some defecting to the arriving British forces.  In turn, some are forced by the British to take up arms against their fellow congregants (p. 53).  Missionaries to the Cherokee tribes in Michigan find themselves struggling to learn the language of the people, and then they scramble to keep connected to the tribes as they are uprooted and forcibly relocated to other parts of the country.  The zeal of mission is confronted by the machinations of governmental policies and the brutality of the Trail of Tears experience (p. 107-10).  Disturbingly over the passage of time, some Baptists will forget their roots as a persecuted minority and become part of the Establishment with implications religious and political alike).
Kidd and Hankins explore efforts among some Baptists to enforce doctrinal and creedal standards. As a minister within the American Baptist Churches/USA, I knew of the difficulties experienced in my denomination’s early 20th century battles over fundamentalist/modernist views.  The co-authors revisit the source material, bringing arguments from long ago into sharp relief, demonstrating how the divergent perspectives among some Baptists are a hard won reality.  Such tussles over biblical interpretation and the autonomy of local churches continue to flare up within ABCUSA circles just as equivalent battles continue within other mainline Protestant polities).  Certainly, the growth of fundamentalism among Southern Baptists could have taken root just as easily within the Northern Baptist Convention (now ABCUSA) if it were not for some quick thinking on the convention floor and a broader sense of the criterion for being counted among the faithful.