Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Navigating the World (Matthew 2:1-12)

Years back in The Christian Century, religious commentator Rodney Clapp whimsically recounts his experiences with a Tom-Tom GPS unit. Global positioning systems (GPS) can be a travel aide for long car trips and the directionally challenged. Like all technology, the GPS units can create complication while designed for ease of use. Clapp tells how the Tom-Tom GPS is capable of leading him right to his destination as surely as the GPS “got [him] lost in a tangle of new lanes and one-way streets in harborside Miami. And for a long, amusing stretch of rural Texas, it pictured [him] rocketing at 80 miles per hour through rivers and across wheat fields parallel to the highway on which [he] was actually traveling.”

For his amusement, Clapp reprogrammed his GPS to speak with the voice of British comedian John Cleese. When making a turn, Cleese instructs, “At the next exit, bear right, beaver left”. Upon arrival Cleese says, “You have now arrived at your destination and are on your own—I will not carry your bags”.

Rodney Clapp writes, “Even as we jet over oceans and view live TV transmissions from the other side of the world, we are more parochial than the ancients in one way. We have lost the sky.” Clapp notes how the US Navy no longer teaches celestial navigation, or sailing by the stars. We twenty-first century folks have precision technology to figure our bearings, though in the process, Clapp fears “we have lost our attention to the sky”. In his essay, Clapp recalls how the sky was so integral to generations past. He notes various stories about the constellations told by ancient Greeks, medieval Europeans, and Native Americans. The stars engaged the human imagination in ways Clapp feels is dissipating as GPS units keep our gaze on latitude and mileage, rather than searching out the Little Dipper for directions as well as wonder.

Clapp wonders, “Could the Magi have located the Christ child with modern navigational technology?” In one sense, yes, they could have programmed their GPS to guide them from somewhere in Persia, where it was presumed they traveled, to Bethlehem, provided they knew that was where they would wind up at journey’s end. The GPS could have told them which way to ride their camels, even where to find a decent inn while on layover in Jerusalem. The GPS could even insult them in the voice of John Cleese: “At the next exit, you will arrive at your destination—the Prince of Peace, the Messiah, God Incarnate, yea, verily, the only begotten son of Almighty God. And, please bear in mind—I will NOT carry your myrrh.”

In answering Clapp’s question, the gospel writer Matthew responds a polite “no”. The Magi made their travels as a sort of religious pilgrimage. They did not know where this star would take them, only that their readings of astrological signs and portents suggested royalty was about to be born. Such a worldview sounds a bit archaic to us, the stuff of legends, which speaks to Clapp’s observation. In today’s world, Matthew’s readers presume a world where precision navigation is the norm, and the Magi’s trip might strike a twenty-first century reader as a wild goose chase.

The story of the Magi asks us to think about the ways we see the world. One person can see a star and look away with indifference. Another person can write poetry. See Robert Frost’s poem “Take Something Like a Star”, wherein the poet beholds a star and starts trying to understand the star, eventually chastened to reverence by the star’s ability simply to be

“Say something!” the poet demands. The celestial response is terse and enigmatic. “And it says, ‘I burn.’” Thus, the poet rails,

Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.

The poet soon realizes there is something more to be learned from a star than he first thought possible. He writes of the star:

It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
to carry praise or blame too far,
we may take something like a star
to stay our minds on and be staid.

Matthew’s gospel makes it clear this is a devotional journey. The Magi model the reverence due the Christ child, providing a subtle counterpoint to Herod’s paranoid jealousies. The wise men travel from a far distance, while Herod prowls his throne room. The Magi are outsiders to the religious worldview of first century Judaism, yet they, not the people, and certainly not their king, are the ones paying homage. The Magi arrive to pay their respect, whereas Herod uses the full might of his court to reign death down upon countless innocents, as he fears the Magi’s word that competition has been born somewhere in his territories. While Herod sees nothing good has come of this, the Magi fall on their knees and as the King James Version puts it, “pay him homage”.

The Magi see above the petty world of Herod the mysterious hand of God at work in the world. To travel so far and to carry such extravagant gifts is not an act of checking out the competition. The Magi did not subscribe to local religious customs themselves, but they knew an event of great significance was unfolding. As part of Matthew’s gospel, their presence in the narrative reminds that even the outsider or those persons society deems contrary can see something new is at hand.

When the Magi find themselves at their long-awaited destination, they celebrate the little child. Most folks would find it puzzling, such a journey to find greatness ends with a wee boy in a backwater town. The magi started out upon their journey searching for a king. They found the current demagogue in Jerusalem, a bully whose moodiness kept an entire city on edge. Others might wonder why the Magi opted to risk Herod’s wrath by failing to report back as requested and heading home. In the graceful words of the King James Version, a vision prompts them “to go home by another way”.

This story of the Magi’s long, strange journey offers a redemptive word. We are journeyers along the path of life. In our daily lives, we navigate all manner of terrain, some not even remotely geographical. We navigate our identity as persons of means (some, much, and not much), as persons who live in this country and may or may not see the global privilege U.S. citizens enjoy at the expense of other countries. We are people who live on varying footings with those around us, as no one enjoys a completely level playing field in society. Our gender, racial/ethnic or social identities cause us to find doors open or closed to us on a regular basis. Some people help us get where our dreams hope to go. Other people take pleasure in hindering us. We travel miles to achieve things in our lives that others simply find right at the taking at their first opportunity. Add to this mix our journey of faith, and it gets even more complex. Faith complicates things as our religious values often ask us to take detours or roads less traveled (a little homage to Frost there). Sometimes, our beliefs embolden us to go places off the map. Like the Magi, our faith can prompt us to go home by another way.

The gospel itself welcomes the earnest outsider like the Magi reeking of frankincense or another one with an aching back from lugging a chest of gold. The gospel welcomes an earnest mother who says “yes” to God, despite the public shaming sure to follow. The carpenter Joseph who dreams like his namesake in Genesis and likewise follows those dreams with due reverence. The gospel helps us see where the truth lies in the world: that riddle called Jesus. A baby who sleeps, eats, learns to crawl then toddle, who all the while is God incarnate.

For the first time, we see a pathway unfolding before us, one not on any map produced by Rand-McNally or calculated by GPS. Whether swaddled in the manger, spinning a parable before the multitudes, eating and drinking with his beloved at table, Jesus offers a new pathway through this world, a new map for how we are to live in this world and treat one another. In hearing these narratives, we learn to see with new eyes. We see the futility of those who have worldly power as well as the magnificent vulnerability of God found in Christ Jesus.

Some might call it a wild goose chase.

Others might say that we have found our bearings, heading for home.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Advent 4: The Guy Off in the Corner (Matthew 1:18-25)

Where does Joseph fit into the Nativity story?
          It should have been different.  By “different”, actually it should have been the predictable way.  This way, well….it was not the most commendable of stories to get around town.  A young virgin finds herself in a family way, and well, people start talking about all manner of things.   “Virgin birth” is most decidedly NOT among the suggestions.  Instead, it’s a bit of a scandal, a whisper campaign about to get underway.  It is improper, inappropriate, and most importantly, difficult to explain away.
            I wonder about Joseph.  He’s been around town for years, yet right now, he feels as if under friendly fire.  He’s the subject of curious stares, hostile looks, and the occasional salacious and conspiratorial wink.  He does not return any of these jibes or criticisms.  Instead, he holds his head high.
             So, is he a proud man or a fool trying desperately to save the remaining shred of dignity and decorum he has left?

             The Bible is rife with stories of rogues and scoundrels.  Jacob, the trickster, occupies much of Genesis, getting in and out of trouble with as much talent for getting out of it as he does getting into it.    Abraham, the great patriarch, is a complex figure.  Read the whole Abrahamic cycle of stories and you’ll find a guy that might look good in a Sunday school quarterly but really is not that out of place with the great flawed figures of other literary works.   The list could go on, but we need to keep our "G" rating for the Sunday morning worship service.

             Among this checkered history of the people of God and the reality God still used these people, despite their failings and flaws, Joseph really is a dull figure.  He does not have any great faults or failings.  In fact, he’s an astonishingly graceful character, not wanting any fuss and more important, any harm to come to this young woman now on the cusp of public shunning.
             Joseph wants to do the right thing.  He’ll likely take heat for it.  The conservatives in the community will be likely disparaging him around the clock as if a hapless politician in a modern cable news channel’s crosshairs.  He’s going to lose face, but he has decided quietly in his own way that it’s all right.

               Yet alas, we tend to forget Joseph in the manager scene.

               When I worked for Cokesbury (back in its long gone brick and mortar days), 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 writer responds, “And Joseph and Mary raised him right!”
            At this point in the Advent season, you know Christmas is just around the corner.  Perhaps you just got around to putting up your tree.  Others may be so busy that they do not realize that Christmas is just next week.  (And retail stores are standing by in hopes you will come by and buy them out of everything!)
            For pastors, the Fourth Sunday of Advent can seem the less important item on the "To Do" list with all of the other Christmas festivities to help plan and lead.  I remember spending more time figuring out how to wrangle unruly kids for a Christmas pageant than I did for a sermon one year.  Bringing peace to the Middle East may be easier than dealing with a six year old shepherd ready to use his staff over the head of a wise man.
             I remember sitting in my pastor's office, trying to figure things out, and there sitting in a chair was the Fourth Sunday of Advent.  She looked rather calm, just sitting there and grinned at me real big.  
           I could not understand why the Fourth Sunday of Advent looked so serene and pleased with itself.  “Why are you so happy?  Don’t you see that I’m in the middle of a great big week?  I have a sermon to preach, and yet there's countless other things taking up my attention right now. Can’t you tell I need help?”
            Advent 4 just laughed.  “Did you look at the Matthew reading yet?”
            “No, I’m too busy.  Got to get things done.”
            “Well, make sure you read that passage,” this Sunday said. "You'll thank me." Then, it went back to reading its magazine.

            Later, I sat down during a quiet moment in the office and pulled out a Bible.  I found the passage for Matthew, and I could see why the Fourth Sunday of Advent looked so serene.
            There, in the midst of a story about life seeming to go haywire, off the map, or getting dreadfully difficult, the angel of the Lord appears.  In the midst of the seeming chaos and turmoil, the angel tells what this baby ought to be called.
            “Call him Emmanuel, or that is, God with us.”

            God with us….In the midst of life, in the midst of trying times and challenge, in the midst of mourning a loss that we likely bear for what is best described as a season, the faith we try our best to keep revolves around this radical assumption that God humbly(!) dwells with us.

           God with us….Nothing, not a thing about human life is exempt or beneath the Christ.  Indeed, Jesus knows the fullness of being human just as surely as he was divine.  Jesus does not check out early or take the easy path around pain and suffering.  Jesus even dies.   Talk about God with us!
            The story we tell of Jesus is shaped by the pattern of life, death, and resurrection.  We might forget that story’s full “arc” (i.e. to understand Jesus is to understand that he does not ever check out of life experience).  Preacher Fred Craddock has quipped, most of us, when we think of life and death, we hope that when our time comes, we can call in sick (Sorry, we’re not coming in today!) or take an incomplete on the test.

            I suspicion if there’s any good connection between the gospel reading and the harried pace of this week, with its mourning and its scrambling to get everything “just right” in time, it is this assurance that God is with us, no matter what might befall or bedevil.  After all, Jesus did not exempt himself from the fullness of life.  He lived, he cried, he got angry, he hungered, he mourned, he dreamed, he spoke out, he loved his family and friends.

            I know that we tend to look at a child and say (sometimes with delight, and sometimes with disdain), “Yep, he’s just like his mother”, or “Yep, she reminds me of her daddy”.  I know poor Joseph does not get much credit (after all, he only appears around Christmas, then just disappears from the gospels after the first chapters).  I think, though, that there’s something of Joseph in Jesus, not that it would be DNA.  Instead, we see a bit of that dreamer, who always sought out how to do the right thing, how to open his heart and mind to God’s good intent, with trust, obedience, and a whole lot of concern that he managed to do the right thing.

            In the midst of the Advent season, nearing the Christmas Eve celebrations, in the midst of family gatherings, in the midst of times of mourning, loneliness, or hardship (cause the holidays do not exempt us from such experiences), we are a people in search of what it means to live life well, or at least how to get through today or this week.

            And the fourth Sunday of Advent, perhaps overshadowed by the holiday rush and the rush to get things done, just politely reminds us:  “Don’t forget:  What you are feeling now is not lost on God.  In fact, God decided to get down in the trenches with us.

           When the angel says, ‘call him Emmanuel’, the angel meant just that.”

Friday, December 9, 2016

Advent 3: Singing the (Advent) Blues (Matthew 11:2-11)

A recent Broadway play begins with its first scene depicting a conversation between an old man and a young woman.  The young woman is applying to be the caretaker for the man's aging and very difficult wife.  Interestingly, the old man appears only in the opening scene.  For the rest of the three hour drama told in three acts, the old man does not appear again. Why that happens would be giving away much of the plot that is about to unfold.  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 is the 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 it is with us, more often than we care to admit.  It settles into our minds, which is 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).

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Take and Read: Book review of Love Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life by Henri JM Nouwen

Looking for a Christmas present for your favorite clergy person or other readers of devotional writings?   May I suggest this new book collecting letters from Henri JM Nouwen, among the 20th century's most endearing Roman Catholic writers whose ministry and witness reached across ecumenical and religious/not so religious lines.  

This book review will appear in print in early 2017 for "Sharing the Practice", the quarterly journal of the Academy of Parish Clergy (www.apc.org). 

Take and read!

Nouwen, Henri J.M., Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life.  Gabrielle Earnshaw, editor.  (New York, NY: Convergent, 2016).  ISBN #978-1-101-90635-4.  $24.00. 

Henri JM Nouwen occupies an appreciable part of my devotional reading in college and seminary.  I count his book “In the Name of Jesus” among the most helpful in my early days of discerning a call to ministry. His journals and writings welcomed many Christians (and a number of not so religious persons) into his journey as a person seeking God’s love, embracing his own vulnerability and finding where he might find his deep calling and the world’s need connecting. 

After his death in 1996, his writings remain in print with a few “new” works culled from his writings and talks.  His literary legacy is being furthered by this new series of books featuring his correspondence with various persons, some well-known and others just drawn by his writings to send a note and ask his thoughts and counsel.  His generous spirit and gregarious approach to life resulted in a high volume of letters returned from friends and strangers, offering his thoughts personally with no thought to using a form letter or citing his schedule for not being able to respond personally.

Nouwen retained every piece of correspondence, resulting in over 16,000 letters, postcards, faxes and greeting cards gaining his response and later the challenge for archive preparation and this new series of publications.  When Gabrielle Earnshaw began her work with the Nouwen papers, she dealt with this incredible volume of mail.  Fifteen years later, sixty-five linear feet of material is now archived at St Michael’s College at the University of Toronto in Canada.  Future readers of Nouwen’s correspondence are indebted to Earnshaw’s careful and labor intensive work and St Michael’s College’s willingness to be the custodian for this correspondence to be available to scholars and others interested in reading the material first-hand.

This first volume is arranged chronologically into three eras:  1973-1985, 1986-1989, and 1990-96.  The letters chosen for this collection revolve around Nouwen’s correspondence around spiritual life matters.  Whether it is a parent grieving a child, a friend dealing with a health ailment or a colleague pondering some form of spiritual quandary, Nouwen’s letters are engaging, as if sitting across the table from his correspondent face to face.  (NOTE:  Appropriately, the letters published within the collection have been cleared for publication and public dissemination.)

Nouwen shares his own wrestling with matters, temporary and ongoing, practicing his vulnerability as much as he spoke about it.  During the 1970s, he wrestled with vocation, spending time back in his native Holland (only to opt to return to the US permanently), receiving a tenure track position at Yale Divinity School (yet wrestling with whether or not he should enter into monastic life as a Trappist) and wearying himself with a heavy speaking schedule (while pondering if he should spend more time withdrawn in order to pray and to write). 

The collection of letters trace Nouwen’s journey already in his previously published works:  seeking a place to call his home that also summons him to be the “Henri”, the “self” most desired by God.  As most readers know, a tenured Yale professor, temporary monk and missionary later in Latin America, would land in the midst of the L’Arche Community in Toronto, living as a priest to a community of disabled adults and their caregivers, living in community with one another.  The letters collected herein speak to that struggle as well as the contentment he eventually finds.

For most clergy, such internal arguments go on for years, shaping vocation or perhaps stunting it.  Nouwen keeps his tensions in perspective, wanting to be erring on the side of what God might be calling him to do.  In a side note in a 1979 letter, Nouwen shares, “I think I am going to buy myself Butler’s four volumes of the Lives of the Saints; the best way for me to get over my endless distractions is to look at God through the mirror of his saints.  Maybe later I will receive the grace to speak to Him and be with Him more directly” (p. 37).

Reading through Nouwen’s letters will be a matter of perspective of what value the reader has for this collection.  What letters of Nouwen speak to me will be different for other readers.  Some may come to this volume finding the letters marginally of interest.  Others will find a great treasure trove of spiritual wisdom with tic marks and marginalia as an insight resonates from a letter written decades ago.  Yet the beauty of Nouwen’s writings is that he has a good word for any reader, religious and otherwise.

I look forward to future volumes of this remarkable series of Nouwen’s correspondence.  Even twenty years after his passing, Nouwen continues to tend souls and offer insights into our lives even as he was wrestling with what mattered most in his own.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Advent One: Liberating Eschatology (Matthew 24:36-44)

When you looked at the sermon title "Liberating Eschatology", perhaps there was an unfamiliar word: “eschatology”. It is a theological term, a word that helps define the faith. The “…ology” part is easy enough, meaning “the study of”, but then there is that first part “eschat...” that we have to address. Oddly enough, “eschatology” is better translated as “the study of the End”. The early Church had a variety of views on what would happen, and quite honestly, many of the New Testament writers presume that “the End” would happen very soon, that is, in their lifetime, or soon enough thereafter. Two millennia later, we are around, looking at these texts and wondering how to “read” them appropriately.

In the hands of some Christians over the centuries, to speak of the End has become the seedbed for some increasingly bizarre theories about what will happen. Over the centuries, stories of destruction, desolation, and the Devil have framed a way of belief for some Christians. Other Christians look at these texts and consider them less relevant, perhaps the “odd texts” that we skip over as we read our Bibles. Should the church bother with “eschatology”?

I suggest that we must talk of our beliefs about “the End”, but we must recognize that with all matters of interpretation and belief, we exercise a degree of humility. There have been too many instances (past and present) of excessive interpretation and malformed belief, but to say that our faith can be fine without talk of “the End” is to do even more harm to one’s faith and practice. This morning, let me help “liberate” eschatology a bit so we might hear the Gospel text (and others like it) with due reverence.

Let me offer two stories along the way with some commentary:

A few years ago, I was standing in line to check out at one of those warehouse stores like BJ’s. Just behind me, I heard a young woman read aloud the name of a book she picked up. It was the latest volume of the Left Behind books, a series of books about the apocalyptic end and the return of Christ. Ever the curious sort, I turned around slightly to see what she would do next. She read a little bit of the dust jacket’s description of the book, and she wrinkled up her nose a bit, “I don’t need that scary stuff!” She tossed it back where she found it: upon a pile of the same book, five feet high, sitting on one of those heavy wooden palates that require a forklift to move them. I thought, “Apparently, some folks do need that scary stuff”.

My observation is this: anxious times often produce anxious eschatology. The Left Behind series began publication in the years leading up to the millennium. The books reflect a certain take on eschatology, but an undercurrent of fear informs the writers, their plot reflecting a belief that something ominous is coming.  As a friend who takes this line of thinking seriously said, “What good is the future? It will be all over soon!”

Putting my own cards on the table, I am skeptical of eschatology derived out of a place of deep fear, as such interpretations have a degree of resignation creeping in.  Thus, faith becomes an affair of watching and waiting, but with an edge of disregard for much of anything in the here and now. It can be understandable that such a view can be attractive, especially to persons for whom the suffering and brokenness of this world seems to be pervasive, or when world events are reaching critical (or that is your perception). Nonetheless, fear-suffused belief does not ultimately lead in a good direction.
So, what should we do if we wish to claim eschatology as part of our belief but not freight it with the wrong baggage?

Another story to help us along the way:

Once, I discovered a store with a large collection of bumper stickers for sale. While I never use them, I enjoy reading them. The box held a few political slogans here (your choice of red state or blue state politics to skewer), a few stickers protesting or supporting the War in Iraq there, and a few promoting just about every social cause imaginable. In the back of the box of bumper stickers were the ones with religious themes, including one that read: “JESUS IS COMING! LOOK BUSY!”

Eschatology is more rightly concerned with the return of Christ and the drawing to a close of this present age. Rather than trading upon the edge of these texts (especially those of Revelation with its terrible battles), the better path is to go back and question the friend who said, “What good is the future?” A good response is to say, “The future is in God’s hands. What more could we want?”
However, the bumper sticker’s sarcasm highlights the question that goes without asking when people speak of eschatology. Rather than keep up appearances (“look busy!”), eschatology beckons to the Christian believer to take up a way of discipleship that is expectant as well as tethered down to the ground as the body of believers called Church, Christ’s visible reminder of Christ’s reign being at hand. We are called to a faith that says, “Jesus is coming! Live faithfully!”

In this passage from Matthew 24, if you read through the lens provided by AM radio preachers, you see a passage about “the Rapture”, a New Testament idea that the faithful will be taken up into God’s embrace, which has been laden with a lot of modern era interpretation. If you read this text through the lens of fear or anxiety, you miss what Jesus is really saying. Jesus affirms that the “Father” alone knows when the End shall come. Thus, live as if it will come suddenly, but do not try to ask questions or find answers about these matters. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas observes, “Jesus tells [his disciples] how they must learn to wait in this time between the times” (Matthew: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, Brazos Press, 2006, p. 204).

The friend who said, “What good is the future? It will be all over soon!” misses the invitation to be a disciple living fully in the way of discipleship. To hope for God’s end is part of faith, to wait expectantly is part of faith, but to give up or grow idle or withdrawn is a distortion of faith. It is as misfortunate as the people who spend their time feverishly looking for “the End Times” at hand in the latest headlines of the New York Times or the latest chapter in a book that predicts this political movement or incident is the lynchpin of the doom about to unfold. Hauerwas says,

Jesus is trying to help the disciples understand how they must live when their questions should not have been asked and cannot be answered. Or put differently, Jesus is trying to help the disciples live when his life must shape any questions to be asked. (Hauerwas, Matthew, p. 204)

You and I deal with the various types of baggage that this holiday season (or perhaps just this week alone) seems to have piled on our backs. In the midst of the cacophony of life as we know it, we are summoned to discipleship by the Son of Man, whose very appearance shall be the end of what we know and fear and bring about the peace that eludes us, even in our modern delusion of such things being solved by policies, superior military strength, and power.

We abide by Christ’s call to live the life of faith well, shaped by a belief that Jesus is indeed Lord of our lives. We are called to humility that God alone knows when these things shall draw to a close. We live in trust and abundant hope that when this day comes to pass, we will be found in the midst of the work of Christ, faithful ‘til the End.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Reign of Christ Sunday: King Quixote (Luke 23:33-43)

In last week's Gospel reading, we heard the stark words of Jesus as he predicted the destruction of the Temple.  This week, we hear Jesus speaking in the midst of great pain and misery as he hangs crucified.   For persons expecting the gospel reading to be “Thanksgiving” or “nearly Christmas”, instead we hear a text oft-heard around Easter.  What does “Good Friday” have to do with our lives, as we cannot wait for those door-busting “Black Friday” sales?

I found myself a bit puzzled why this text was suggested for this day.  Not only does it sound “off key” when our department stores and radio stations are switching over to Christmas muzak, Christ crucified appears with little apology, the tragic breaking into the midst of a time more given over to cheer.  Why now?

During the course of the year, Christianity has crafted a cycle of seasons to help mark different sacred times in the Church’s life and worship.  The Sunday just before Advent is considered “the last” of a given year, with Advent as the rather appropriate “beginning”, anticipating and celebrating Christ’s coming.  So this Sunday, the one just before the Advent candles grace the altar once more, we celebrate the kingship or ruling power of Christ.  This is the Sunday when we think of Christ the triumphant, the Word who is indeed the “final” word of this life and Creation alike.  We sing grand hymns and hear the celebratory praise of Colossians, extolling the fullness of Christ’s claim to Creation, old and New.

Yet, when the gospel writer enters, Luke clears his throat and offers another sort of moment of high drama.  The crowds jeer, the disciples scatter, and Jesus upon the cross, with death very close at hand.  Why today does this story appear?

In college, our theatre department produced the musical Man of La Mancha.  Somehow, we were able to put together the entire musical in about four weeks.  The set was still being finished right up until the first performance.  I was a bit uncertain of what cues I needed for the songs, as we had only worked with the full orchestra just during the week of production.  Yet, as they say, the show must go on!

            I joke that working in a small university theatre with limited funding was part of the great training experiences I had for small church ministry.  Somehow, we’re still working on projects right up till the curtain is to rise, and small churches know quite a bit about being unfunded.  And just like my college theatre experience years ago, no matter what happens during a week, there’s always a Sunday morning awaiting.  The robe must go on!

            Musical rehearsals are a challenge, as you have to work out a number of things, rather than just your lines and blocking.  As we worked our way through both acts of the musical, the actor playing Don Quixote had the toughest role.  Was Quixote a mad man who saw things in a delusional sense, or was he the only sane one?  His great line was that he wanted to see “the world not as it is, but as it ought to be”.

Every night at rehearsal, I never lost the moment of wonder when Quixote would rise up and say this.  Even at last performance, the line did not fail to seem electric to me, an old man rising up against the same old, same old of this world, ready to tilt at windmills.  The actor playing Quixote played the scene as if each word of his great line drew energy and life back into his aged and battered body. 

Such a line made splendid sense, a line from a modern musical that resonates with the ancient faith we are called to keep.

In England, the city of Coventry sustained significant air raid damage when German planes bombed this town heavily.  At city center, the magnificent cathedral was destroyed, a sad loss for the parish as well as the citizenry.  In the midst of this dreadful war, in the midst of the destruction and death, the fear and the anxiety, in the midst of great international conflict, the very next day after the cathedral sustained massive damage, the priests found people of all denominations gathering in the ruins.  Rather than shaking fist and vowing revenge, the people gathered to pray.

The cathedral website offers a word on what happened next:

The decision to rebuild the cathedral was taken the morning after its destruction.  Rebuilding would not be an act of defiance, but rather a sign of faith, trust and hope for the future of the world.  It was the vision of the Provost at the time, Dick Howard, which led the people of Coventry away from feelings of bitterness and hatred.  This has led to the cathedral's Ministry of Peace and Reconciliation, which has provided spiritual and practical support, in areas of conflict throughout the world.

The congregation of Coventry Cathedral would later engraved a saying along one of the sanctuary walls that survived the bombing.  The saying reads:  “Father, forgive.”

It could be argued that they chose to see the world not as it is.  You could even claim they were a bit foolish, placing their hope in reconciliation and peace.  The story of Coventry Cathedral was marked by the great loss, yet they found a different take on the story than one might expect.  Indeed, another prominent feature of the cathedral ruins is the former altar area where some charred roof timbers were placed.  They were found after the fires subsided, two pieces of roof supports that fell to the floor below.  Why were these retained?  They are in the shape of the cross.

            Curious, isn’t it?  This story of great loss turns with the remarkable “plot twist” of Easter.  While the New Testament has its grand moments of praise to Christ, the gospel reading today reminds us that this great narrative of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection that defines the faith is not a story left up in the lofty clouds.  Indeed, there is a visceral dimension to Christianity, inescapably rooted in life “as we know it”.  Christ’s death was not just the stuff of stories perhaps some of you learned on the old Flannel graph years ago.  This story is all too three-dimensional, played out on a hill not too far away from the despair and angst of human existence.

            Christian faith is a religion with its feet on the ground, even as we claim to be a people looking expectantly for Christ to return from the heavens above.  The story of the crucifixion goes right along with the grand epistolary words of praise. The shadow of Good Friday and the euphoria of Easter are meant to be part of our Advent/Christmas observances.  We find ourselves called to be a people who know how the story is going to end.  The plot of life inevitably weaves its way through the valley of the shadow of death, yet we look forward to a much different ending.

            On this day, we celebrate the King who comes foremost as servant.  Even as he is dying, Christ is said to offer words of grace and welcome to the fellow crucified alongside him who confesses his belief.  Christ, the Servant King, appears as a curious figure to us, as we are well educated by 24-hour news cycles to live by the competing sound bites and the images we are persuaded to believe in crafted by the myth makers behind the thrones of this world.  Christ the Servant King, or Christ the peaceable Ruler, offers a quixotic take on what really matters about existence.  His teachings presume more grace and no “getting even”.  His healings presume all persons have dignity and worth, rather than bearing the brunt of majority opinion or the invisibility rendered by reigning economic forces.  Even as his last day is fading down into remaining hours, then dwindling minutes, Jesus demonstrates a life hard to live, yet imperative to follow if we wish to live our lives in faithfulness to God.

    On this last Sunday of the “Christian year”, we hear words of praise and stories difficult to hear side by side.  What better way to bring things to a close than an epistle writer giddy with joy about the Christ triumphant?  What better story to tell than a gospel writer telling the good news that cannot ignore the reality that Jesus’ crown and authority comes in the strange yet merciful story of staring into the very face of death and seeing a greater force at work than anything good or ill the cosmos could throw at us?

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Ways to Worship When December 25 Is a Sunday

A lay leader called with a problem I suspicion some church leaders are also wrestling with: a likely low attendance on the last Sunday of the year (aka "Christmas Day", December 25).  He asked for some ideas about Lessons & Carols, a way to have an easier service working with limited numbers and likely weary pastors and organists.

While not necessarily created with small churches in mind, the Lessons and Carols service can be adapted to fit.  I realize this may be heresy to some readers, given the elegant origins of the service.  It is indeed a sublime service for large choirs, rumbling pipe organs and a great crowd ready to sing boisterously when a popular Christmas carol is offered as a congregational hymn in the midst of great pomp and formalism.

The tradition of the Lessons & Carols service is nearly a century old, first held by Kings’ College in Cambridge, UK. You can read about the history of this via the College’s website and view what the “mother church” of this tradition has offered in recent years with PDFs of worship bulletins (1997 to present).

Link: http://www.kings.cam.ac.uk/events/chapel-services/nine-lessons.html

You can also hear recent BBC recordings. Look particularly at the special carol commissioned in 2015 to offer reflection on the world refugee crisis and the resonance with the Gospel of Matthew’s story of the flight from danger undertaken by the Holy Family.

Calvin College and the related seminary (Grand Rapids, MI) offers a great website (http://worship.calvin.edu) of worship resources, particularly in the more Reformed tradition.

For Baptists, it depends on which church, so I suspicion that elements of this website might be helpful for you to bookmark for treasure troves to explore for present and future worship planning. They offer via this link below a copy of several years’ worth of the College’s own Lessons & Carols, where there’s a thematic variation each year. Ergo, it again serves as a touchstone for different ideas around the same concept: http://worship.calvin.edu/resources/resource-library/lessons-and-carols

The United Methodist Book of Worship has one available to review online: http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/christmas-eve-festival-of-nine-lessons-and-carols

I suggest if you explore this with a congregation, read through the Lessons outlined by the form and then spend time looking at your church hymnal to see how your hymnal may or may not lend itself. I like to spend the first half avoiding anything that’s too “Christmas carol” (overly familiar) and give honor to the more pensive “Advent hymns”.

I have worked in churches where the hymnal’s editorial decisions limited the Advent hymns and stressed a higher number of the “usual suspect” Christmas carols, so it may be a choice to bring in a hymn from another source (with due copyright clearances obtained, if not in public domain!).

For some smaller churches trying to sort out the Christmas Day service when numbers may be fewer, this could help provide a different way to do a “Christmas Day hymn sing”. You could add in the elements of a pastoral prayer, an offering and perhaps forgo a sermon for the morning, focusing on the Lessons to share the abundant Good News of Christ.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Some thoughts on saints

Over the next few days, Christians have the opportunity to celebrate history as well as their commitment to furthering the future of our faith.  For Protestants, October 31st is more than a day for trick or treat.  It is a time to remember the famous moment of the Reformation when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the proverbial church door.  On November 1, the Roman Catholic tradition and increasingly more Protestants are remembering the great cloud of faithful witnesses on All Saints' Day.

Ironically, the Reformation led to a general Protestant malaise towards talk of the saints. The end result, though, was that in eschewing excess, the reformers left their theological descendants (including we Baptists) with little interest in taking stock of a wonderful word that goes back to the New Testament era church: “saint.”

Saints are those people who are known not for their ability to be great. They rarely want “greatness.” And often it is not the fabulous excess that the world considers "great".  These are the people that really aren’t aiming to be noticed. They just do good work. They are kind. They do major things, but prefer not to be upfront about it. (Most of us aren’t given to this sort of way of life. We have to keep learning and just hope to get this deep down good someday.)

The wonderful thing about saints, in the New Testament sense, is that we are indeed able to be saints, if we choose to be. In his writings, Paul presumed that saints were just as much part of the mix. It’s a good thing to aim for a congregation to be a place where people learn the ways of living faithfully to God and neighbor.

I recall the rich words of Mother Teresa, recently canonized as a saint, who said, “I am Albanian by birth. Now I am a citizen of India. I am also a Catholic nun. In my work, I belong to the whole world. But in my heart, I belong to Christ.”  Teresa’s life was one given to Christ in the deepest way. “Saint” is the best title one could call her. And as you think about those people who have enriched your life--indeed, who may be instrumental in why you yourself attend a congregation and keep the faith, should we not give thanks for the saints of God know in our own lives?

The book of Hebrews talks of “a cloud of witnesses” who cheer us on, who encourage us in running the race. In a time when many churches struggle with a sense of relevance or seem to allow themselves defined by what they do not have or lack, I consider the past history of Christianity and suggest that God has provided abundantly and continues to do so. 

And we are that abundance.

Friday, October 21, 2016

At the Center, Even As Things Change

One-time Baptist Church building
now fitness center
downtown Catskill, NY
Recently, I discovered I was at the center of the known Baptist universe.

Well, in 1817.  And among "Northern" (now "American") Baptists.

Late last month, I was in Catskill, New York, for a meeting with a fellow Baptist.  Arriving early, I had time to explore the downtown area, and I noticed this very beautiful church in the midst of the downtown district.  Alas, the church building itself was now repurposed for a completely different reason.  A fitness club now occupied the large space once filled by the sanctuary's pews, altar and other fittings.  It shared the facility with a center offering physical therapy.

It is not that uncommon these days to be in a historic town in upstate New York, southwestern Vermont or the Berkshires in western Massachusetts and discover a number of church buildings now closed, up for sale or completely repurposed for secular/commercial use.  I follow an entire Facebook group ("Congregational Seasons") dedicated to the challenges many churches face when facilities threaten to eat up increasingly high margin of offerings, if not endowed funds, for upkeep and maintenance, leaving very little for mission, ministry or even adequate clergy compensation.

What church used to worship here?, I wondered.  Given my spare time (and the fact I am increasingly a church history arm chair scholar/nerd/lost cause), I began to sort out what I could learn.  With no cornerstone or external signage/plaques, etc., and ironically a card access only to the building for work-out or therapy staff, I had no immediate way of gleaning basic information.

Instead, I found myself conducting two forms of "on the fly" research.  One version is increasingly familiar: using one's smartphone to look up online resources.  I find that strategic use of Google can often turn up some interesting facts or connection points. With my burgeoning know-how, I was able to learn that this building was built originally for the Second Baptist Church of Catskill, NY.  The congregation is still in existence, in another location elsewhere in town.   I was able to spot contact information for local historical societies, however, given the volunteer nature and available hours of said places, I was not able to call at that time of morning.

The second form of research is still my favorite: asking a local.  I happened across an older gentleman sitting on the bench.  Back home in Kansas, a lot of the retired farmers and ranchers would spend time sitting on benches, watching the slow paced world of small town life.  You could always count on them sitting there, until of course, the weekly paper brought word of their passing.  A few of them were Baptists, so I also remembered seeing them in the same pew, week after week.  They did not say much, but they loved to talk about what they remembered.  They also had opinions on politicians and voting, but their commentary now seems so tame and eloquent in these days.

I honestly cannot remember their names.  But their absence after years of seeing them on the benches outside the local hardware store made me realize that a town loses a lot the locals passed on.  Sometimes, print and online resources are just what happened to be written or recorded.  Other bits of history are kept in the oral tradition, no matter how many devices we develop and tote around.

Here, I surely found a similar person around downtown Catskill.  I asked if he knew much about the church across the street from the courthouse.  About twenty minutes later, I learned a great deal about the history of the building since Second Baptist relocated.  A Pentecostal church had been there once after the Baptists moved on.  Then a developer bought the building in hopes of converting it into a restaurant.  When plans were not able to move forward, the building remained "on the market" (or "dormant", depending on who was telling the story apparently) until the health club and therapy center moved in.

The great surprise, however, emerged when I was Googling my way through the various online resources.  In the "Google Books" search I did for "Baptist church" and "Catskill, NY", I discovered a real treat.  In the early 19th century, the Catskill Baptists ordained to ministry a very noteworthy Baptist:  John Mason Peck.   Peck was likely ordained by the First Baptist Church of Catskill, NY, as Second Baptist (where the building above used to host their worship and congregational life) was not yet formed.  I believe also First Baptist, Catskill, is also continuing as a worshipping group, however, neither congregation happens to be presently affiliated with ABCUSA, the successor name of the Northern Baptist Convention.

For a Midwesterner, the name of John Mason Peck carries a great deal of lore.  He made his mark on spreading Baptist churches across the developing country during that time period. While native to New England and ordained in the Catskills in New York, his story goes well beyond the immediate area.  His remarkable career included work as a church planter, preacher, anti-slavery advocate and progenitor of the American Baptist Home Mission Society (the first of two Societies formed among Northern Baptists for "home" mission that continue onwards today).  You can read the Wikipedia entry via:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Mason_Peck.  His legacy is shared by many other Baptists, including Luther Rice, but Peck himself is quite noteworthy for his industry and sense of call to minister, kindled by early Baptist congregations in the Catskill Mountains.

One book digitized through Google Books provided the insight about John Mason Peck's work, observing that Catskill, NY, happened to be then the center of Northern Baptist churches in the 1810s.  How appropriate that the place where Peck was ordained in 1813 was at the center, for thanks to Peck's work alongside his contemporaries, the center kept shifting ever westward.  Indeed, Peck ensured the seeding of many churches throughout Missouri, beginning in St Louis and then moving westward.  That the "Northern Baptists" could rename themselves "American Baptists", having presence in many states in the North and even in the South, by the mid-20th century was surely also thanks to Peck's faithful work.

Standing in the one-time "center of the Baptist universe" (for at least when considering just my own denomination's reckoning of Baptist presence in the burgeoning United States), I stood before a church building now repurposed into something completely different than its builders intended.  Such adaptive use of church properties for sacred and yes even secular purposes is to be expected.  No one institution or movement or organization can stay upwards without change, variation, set backs, and the reality that things "morph" even when each generation thinks to itself that "it can't get better than it is now" (or more likely of late, "what happened to what was?"). 

I took a photo and noted some opportunities for further research when I got back home and had time to continue my armchair inquiries.  Then I went into a great little bookshop and browsed.  Then I went to my meeting and talked about how to keep Baptists in upstate New York encouraged, faithful and willing to risk. 

Hopefully the spirit of John Mason Peck is not just consigned to history and nostalgia.  At our meeting over Subway sandwiches, two Baptists hoped for the same call to go and share the good word in places near and far.


To read more about John Mason Peck, click this link to a Google Book scan of a 1917 retrospective on Peck and the 100 years (by then) of Home Mission written by Austen Kennedy De Blois:   https://books.google.com/books?id=sUlGAAAAYAAJ&dq=%22John%20Mason%20Peck%20and%20One%20Hundred%20Years%20of%20Home%20missions&pg=PA1#v=onepage&q&f=false

To read a 1914 history thesis on Peck written by Matthew Lawrence, a student of the University of Illinois, click:  https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=3&ved=0ahUKEwjmnpKmjdbPAhXCCD4KHWgSD7YQFggoMAI&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.ideals.illinois.edu%2Fbitstream%2Fhandle%2F2142%2F52828%2Fjohnmasonpeckbio00lawr.pdf%3Fsequence%3D2&usg=AFQjCNGNBTZBfUSV4x2Bc1kCm-MucKb45w&sig2=ht1veYUQp_E7QP6Lf5TH5w

A special collection highlighting Peck's career and links to some writings:

Friday, October 14, 2016

Thinking Clearly on the Journey Ahead

Earlier tonight, my wife and I walked our beagle pup around Buckingham Lake in Albany.  One day, we happened across it not too far from our home, yet at the time of our first encounter, we were rushing by as we got turned around with directions.

Flash forward a couple of years later, we have added this lake to our places where the dog can happily run ahead on the long lead and sniff everything in sight.  (She is a beagle after all!)

Our trip this time came in the midst of what will be the heaviest travel week I have for my Regional ministry work (five out of seven days does not happen that often).  At the mid-point of this week of travel, I looked ahead up the path and saw this rather inviting image of the pathway in the midst of the trees.

Sometimes, we struggle to see much of anything when we are trudging down the road (or in my case, moving along various parts of the New York ThruWay and parts of upstate New York from nearly NYC to nearly Canada this week).  It can be hard to "lift up thine eyes" when thine eyelids are craving a longer time to sleep in and one's body feels the miles.

Like everyone else, clergy have to choose when to say "enough" and when to keep on keeping on.  I know I have been remiss in taking my full vacation days in a given year.  I sometimes work ahead like my forebearers did the Kansas sod:  just keep on going, as it won't get done otherwise.

Deprogramming me is my growing awareness of the idea that boundaries, rest and common sense are ministry tools that help church leaders (ordained and lay alike) meet their goal of serving God and neighbor rather than collapsing and meeting God and getting one's harp and halo a bit earlier than really one should.

Consider my reflection this evening in your own life and work.  When is it okay to lift up your head, heart and mind to the reality that God offers us a life that includes Sabbath by design.  Even God took the seventh day.

Ensure you see the pathway ahead.  It may give you pause....for good reason!

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Pastoral Excellence in the Adirondacks: An Interview with Pastor Sandra Spaulding

For her ministry in rural communities,
Pastor Sandra Spaulding (second from left)
received the Rosa O Hall Award in June 2015.
In my work around upstate New York, many churches are blessed by pastors who came into ministry through what are sometimes called "non-traditional" training.  Such language is becoming dated.  Certainly, one can seek their theological education and training through an accredited seminary.  I am one of those persons.  However, other pastors come through a variety of educational routes, and certainly, such pastors have been part of the story of Christianity since its beginning.  What some call a ministry training that is "non-traditional" has been traditional, except when we forget our history and refer to it as such.  Like many Protestants, American Baptists are blessed by persons who are called and seek learning in a variety of ways to serve Christ and the Church.  

I am pleased to introduce you to one of the finest pastors I work with.  Pastor Sandra Spaulding brings a great deal of wisdom, joy and compassion to her ministry work in the southern part of the Adirondacks in upstate New York. it was my pleasure to join the effort to nominate her for the Rosa O. Hall Award given by the American Baptist Home Mission Societies to recognize persons who make significant contributions to rural and small town ministry.  Pastor Spaulding was awarded this honor in June 2015 as part of the American Baptist Mission Summit and Biennial in Overland Park, Kansas.   

What follows is an interview about her ministry and how she came to hear the call to serve.  Pastor Sandra responded to my questions via email correspondence:

1)        You are a pastor of two rural churches in the Adirondacks in upstate New York.  How did you and the two congregations come to the decision to share a pastor?   What were early challenges in starting this up?  (Or, had the churches had any previous history of sharing clergy, and if so, how far back did this model start?)

I have been the pastor of Lakeville Baptist Church in Cossayuna since August of 1998.  This small church located in a hamlet of Greenwich, New York has employed part time, bi vocational, pastoral leadership for many years.  During the first ten years I served as pastor of this church I also held a full time position as an corporate manager for the Travelers and later as an Education Director of a local museum.  In 2006, the search committee of the Bottskill Baptist Church, located in the Village of Greenwich, approached me about serving as their ¾ time pastor in a shared relationship with Lakeville.  They had not previously shared pastoral leadership with another congregation but were ready to consider this idea.  After careful consideration and prayer I met with both churches to  explore this idea. The Lakeville congregation was very supportive of this idea after the initial worry about whether or not I would continue to serve as their pastor in the long term.     
The transition for these two churches went quite well from the start and after eight years together they are pretty much like family.  The challenges are as expected.  Scheduling special service times for both churches, deciding when and where to met together for some occasions and vacation coverage for my vacation times are the main challenges.  The churches are located 11.4 miles apart hold separate services each week.  Sometimes the churches hold separate special services and at other times they will meet together.   In the past two years, I have noticed many occasions where members of one church will attend service or bible study at the other church when it better fits their personal schedule.  This has been an exciting change for both churches.      

2) What does the average week in your ministry work look like?

 As the pastor of  the two churches my duties fall into three categories as detailed below.
  • Direct Ministry to the Churches 
  • Community Ministry and Outreach
  • American Baptist Ministry
Volunteers from both churches are also involved in various ministry projects.  At this time, all of the boards and committees of each church are separate and for most ministry projects within the scope of direct ministry they act independently.  Both churches are very active in Greenwich Interfaith projects and supportive of many other community ministry projects as well.  Representatives of both churches serve on the executive board of the Interfaith Fellowship.  (see projects below)   Both churches support ABC NYS projects as well.     
My 2016 Pastoral Focus:  
Direct Ministry to the Church
  • Planning and leading worship and special services at Bottskill and Lakeville Baptist Churches.  I also work with music leaders to prepare music selections.
  • Prayerful Research of scriptures and other sources to compose a weekly message and lead/plan study opportunities.
  • Leading, coordinating and/or participating in Bible Study at the churches to include regular studies, new member sessions, baptism classes, and special study opportunities.   
  • Participating in meetings as a non voting member of all boards and committees 
  • Serve as the Moderator of Lakeville Baptist Church 
  • Visitation to those unable to attend regular services to include hospital, nursing facility and home visits upon invitation.  
  • Serve as “on call” responder to congregational families and community members in crisis as requested. 
  • Plan and officiate Weddings, Funerals, Baby Dedications and Blessings, Home Blessings and other special services as invited.    
Community Ministry and Outreach   2016 Ministry Involvement   
  • Volunteer Coordinator ~ Greenwich/ Cosayuna, Comfort Food Community Pantry
  • Washington County Team Lead for the Suicide Postvention Team of the Coalition for the Prevention of Suicide to be launched in October 2016.  I will act as the point of contact for activation of the team. This team is designed to intervene and support families and communities in the event of a traumatic event such as suicide.  Training Completed:  Youth Mental Health First Aid, Adult Mental Health First Aid and Suicide Postvention Team training 
  • Member of the Executive Board of the Greenwich Interfaith Fellowship Inc. This group is the lead organization for Van Go, The Jim Patrick Ministry Fund ( to help those in emergency need) Food For Kids, School Supply  Giveaway, CROP WALK,  Eccumenical events and Special Services such as Baccalaureate, Thanksgiving and Good Friday Services, Jumpstart Jesus and much more.  I serve on the planning committees for Jesus Jumpstart and Food For Kids.    
  • Member of the of the core team in Washington County working on the Bridges Out of Poverty project.  We are working to establish ways to aid and education  families and individuals affected by generational poverty in our county. Attended Bridges Out of Poverty Training 
  • Member of volunteer clergy team at Washington Center in Argyle  I lead worship services at the center assisted by several volunteers from the Lakeville Baptist congregation six times each year.  
  • Volunteer for aftercare for Upstate Jail Ministries as needed.   Assist Women leaving Jail/prison with getting settled back into their community after incarceration.
  • Member of the Town of Greenwich Ethics Committee  
American Baptist Ministry 
  • Secretary of the Adirondack Association of American Baptist Churches NYS. 
  • Member of the Regional Enhancement Team of the Adirondack Association of ABC  NYS.  This team aids churches in our association with the pastoral search process during transition.
  • Member of ABC-NYS Board of Mission as a representative of the Adirondack Association of American Baptist Church NYS.  This is the governing body of the denominational region ABC NYS.
  • Member of the Biennial Planning Committee for the ABC NYS  November 2016 event to be held Liverpool, NY   
  • Member of  Nehemiah leadership Network This fellowship is committed to equipping pastors to be more effective change leaders.  Components to the 3-year NLN experience: Individualized learning plan, mentored colleague group's, annual conference learning event.  Each participant commits to a covenantal partnership between pastors, congregations, regions, the American Baptist Home Mission Societies and MMBB. NN graduates earn continuing education credits, and are certified by the Office of the General Secretary ABCUSA as having achieved a mark of pastoral excellence.  I will graduate in February 2017. 

3)        Who were the mentors who encouraged your call and helped you get into ministry?
Rev. Dr. Sheldon Hurst served as my pastor at Village Baptist Church in Fort Edward, New York.  He has been an incredible source of support and learning in my life and ministry.  He served as my mentor during my the entire certification process for the Lay Study program and as watch care during my first years in pastoral ministry at Lakeville Baptist. 
Rev. Kathleen Davie has been my friend, colleague and a mentor in ministry for me throughout the past 20 years.   We both took part in a collegue group funded by the Lilly foundation called “Women in Ministry Together” for many years.  Pastor Ila Smith, Rev. Regina Haag, Rev. Brooke Newell and Rev. Marcia Spain Bell were also part of this group and very important to my development in ministry. 

Rev. Dr, Hazel Roper was the driving factor in my leadership at Lakeville Baptist Church.  She is one great woman. 

Rev. Howard Washburn and his wife Amy have been incredible friends in ministry for me and Guy over these past 20 years.      

4)        What ministries are your churches engaged in and how has the community responded to your outreach and presence?

As you can see in the section above on Community Ministry, the churches are involved in a number of projects and lots of outreach programs.  Both churches are well know in the community as places where help can be found in need.  The Bottskill Church building also acts as a community center in many ways.  Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, 4 H, Dairy Bowl, a quilting club and some Greenwich School programs are among the groups that met in the building at no cost.  The Lakeville Baptist church has served as the only church in the hamlet since 1834 and is considered the community church.  

In 2017, the Bottskill Baptist Church will celebrate 250 years as a congregation as the church was established in 1767. We are going to open our church quarterly for unique activities and worship open to the public during a year of celebration.  We are in hope that these occasions will be a new way to get the community excited about our church as a worship center in new ways. 

5)        Any concluding thoughts to share?  

In the 21st century church I believe there is no one model of ministry and mission.  We are called to reflect love of Jesus to our unique community in ways that are needed in each specific situation. Working with two different churches IS DIFFERENT!  Each church and each community has unique people, problems, resources and skills.  I urge all of our ABC  NYS churches explore their unique gifts and ways to to find their God Blessed place in the larger community of faith.