Saturday, April 30, 2016

Words to Live By (Acts 7:55-60)

The story is unsettling. There is no getting around it. It is easy to stay with the euphoria of the book of Acts, as it opens with the resurrected Christ commissioning the faithful to go forth and evangelize just before He ascends in glory, followed by the incredible day of Pentecost, as the early Christians suddenly go from a handful to three thousand. But then come the challenges. The tranquil image of Acts 2 of a community learning, breaking bread, sharing things in common, and praying together seems a far cry from this scene in Acts 7 as Stephen is martyred for speaking boldly and without thought of recanting his faith in Jesus Christ as the Messiah and Son of Man.

Martyrs are persons who die for their faith, or “one who suffers for the sake of principle” The history of religions, not just Christianity, refers to revered figures that bravely faced persecution, harassment, exile, and even death for keeping their faith. It can be a term negatively used, for example, when religious fanatics take twisted versions of faith too far. The 9/11 hijackers described themselves as martyrs. The mass suicides of the followers of Jim Jones in the 1970s also come to mind. “Martyr” is a word not to be blithely used. Indeed, neither a true martyr seeks his death, nor does she use her life in such a cavalier or blunt way that brings great harm to self and others. Martyrs are not fanatics.

Caveats and disclaimers now made, let me note that the Greek word for martyr is martereis, which the two-part story of Luke (aka the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts) use often when describing those who follow Jesus as “witnesses”. Jesus calls his disciples to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth, and Stephen’s witness to the faith is one way, albeit extreme and lamentable, that the faith is kept. We should be rightly disturbed by the story’s violence (and again, not for one second, give violence any valorizing), however, Stephen’s resolute and unshakable faith in times of great adversity and challenge should be an instructive word to us about living out faith in a world that turns a deaf ear to the voice of the prophet or the work of the saint or the witness of a believer speaking earnestly and humbly to deeply held convictions.

When Stephen defends his belief in Christ, he is not a great leader of the church in the typical sense of “great”. Instead, Stephen is a “behind-the-scenes” kind of guy. Not a bishop, not even a preacher, Stephen is a server of widows, providing food and care for those who are dispossessed and hungry. As one commentator puts it, “The first Christian martyr comes not from those preaching the word, but from those feeding the hungry.” (Scott Bader-Saye, “Living the Word”, The Christian Century, April 10-17, 2002, p. 16). The term for such people as Stephen is now commonplace: “deacon”.

Stephen was a guy who minded his own business. Stephen seems like a background player when you look at the “larger than life” figures like Peter and Paul. Not the “star” of the show, just a good actor with a few lines and modest billing in the credits. Yet, as his work as a deacon, server of the widows in need, grows, he is known as one “full of grace and of power”, a performer of “great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). Stephen serves as a wonderful reminder that the saints of God are not necessarily found among the spectacular types. He becomes a person who fits the wise words of St Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel always. Use words when necessary.”

Noted preacher and United Methodist bishop William Wilimon looks at this story of Stephen’s bold testimony and violent demise with a helpful question to ponder: “What is worth living and dying for?” The story of Stephen the server of widows would seem a bit puzzling, if it were not for the earnestness with how he lived and died. “As a Jew, Stephen knew that his life belonged to God, [and] his life was (as his dying prayer indicated) held in the hands of God.” (Willimon, Acts, p. 67).

Stephen finds himself in hot water with the religious authorities because he is feeding and tending people in need. He is the first in a long line of humble servants of Christ who are quiet subversives, who tend the margins, and often befuddle those in power because Stephen and his descendants in the faith are not exercising the same kind of power. The description of Stephen is not “high and mighty”, rather, he is “full of grace and power”, the same sort that Jesus exuded as “servant/King”.

I see Stephen in the modern story of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement. Day questioned why there were so many hungry and needy persons and why the Church was inattentive and aloof more often than not. I remember a photograph of an elderly Day sitting with her hands folded over her knee looking up at a police officer readying to tell her to move or she would be arrested. The determination on her face was not one of anger but of firm resolve.

When Stephen was hauled before the religious authorities, he launches into a long sermon, accusing the religious authorities of being blinded to the work of God found in Jesus. Their response is one of fury, and they take Stephen away to be stoned. The act of stoning is seen as a righteous and right thing to do. As far as they were concerned, he had spoke blasphemous words against God by declaring the religious leadership as unrighteous and Jesus as “the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God”.

Another side note I deem necessary to reading this story sensitively: “religious authorities”, not all Jews by proxy, carry out the stoning of Stephen. What I read in this story is the challenge of practicing a healthy and well-grounded faith, not an indictment of Judaism, which has been one historic way of adding fuel to the ire against Jews by Christians throughout the past two millennia. Stephen is made a scapegoat because some cannot handle his faith differing from their own.

The story is paralleled in the lament of Clarence Jordan, a 20th-century Baptist who worked for racial integration in the 1950s and 1960s. Jordan had run-ins with the KKK and local authorities who wanted to perpetuate racial inequality, but his great sadness was the difficulty of being rejected by fellow Baptists and other Christians in southern churches: “I would rather face the frantic, childish mob, even with their shotguns and buggy whips, than the silent, insidious mob of good church people who give their assent to boycott and subtle psychological warfare” (i.e. keeping up Jim Crow laws). Jordan was nearly killed a number of times in his life by people driving by in the middle of the night, shooting at the family home, yet it was the silence of the Church that was worse.

When Jordan translated this very passage from Acts in his “Cotton Patch” translation, he rendered the story this way: “But they yelled bloody murder and put their fingers in their ears”. Religious martyrs are victim to the forces of society and religion alike that want to ignore what they don’t want to believe in. They know that their convictions will be for them “a vocation of agony”, as Martin Luther King once called his prophetic ministry.

As Stephen sees his life about to end, he has a vision of Christ that affirms that he will suffer not in vain. At the same time, as the stones begin to strike him, Stephen gives his final words: an affirmation of the Christ he believes in as well as a plea to God to forgive those who are stoning him. Even as he is dying, Stephen is as he has lived his life: in Christ, trusting in God, and believing that the sort of world that would ignore the hungry widows and kill off those who sought only to serve God and neighbor was not the “final word” on how life really worked. Stephen trusted that what he did in life was not in vain.

This past month, many remembered the day of Martin Luther King’s assassination, rightfully remembered as one of the tragic national events of the 1960s. Since that day, over and over friends and coworkers told stories of those fateful last days in Memphis where King was in town to support 1300 sanitation workers on strike. One of the strikers Taylor Rogers was 79 years old when NPR in 2008 asked Rogers to recount his experience in 1968. “You just really can’t describe it,” Rogers said. “He stopped everything, put everything aside to come to Memphis to see about the people on the bottom of the ladder, the sanitation workers.”  (As featured on NPR. Listen via: )

King would give a powerful sermon, concluding with words that would take on another level of
meaning when he was shot the next day:

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Taylor Rogers, forty years later, remembers what happened in Memphis right after the assassination.

“After his death, we marched. You couldn’t hear a sound. You couldn’t hear nothin’ but leather against pavement. But we survived and with God’s help, we came through.”

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Churches in Transition Thrive When Connecting to the Outside World

On Friday and Saturday, April 22-23, 2016, the American Baptist Churches of New York State will present an introductory conference for pastors seeking interim/transition skills.  For some, the event will be the first time they have encountered the skills for interim ministry.  These pastors may be thinking about post-retirement opportunities to serve congregations in a more short-term call.  Others may be seeking additional skill sets to help them in their current ministry setting.

I was trained back in 2006 and 2007 with the Interim Ministry Network (  The IMN organization started many years ago as an ecumenical effort (and now with some interfaith connections particularly with rabbis seeking this skill set).   Particularly for churches that call their clergy rather than have a pastor sent by a bishop or other ruling leadership, the choice of waiting a bit between pastors is quite helpful.  The temptation is to rush and "find a pastor".  Following the learning of interim ministry these past few decades, the smarter path for such times is to engage a trained interim to serve for 18 months or more.  During this time, an interim minister will continue the core work of an ordained pastor ("preach, teach, pastoral care"), yet also have the mandate and blessing (we hope!) of the congregation to engage the church in some times of reflection and deliberation.

Or in plain language:  Interim periods help shift the question of "Who is our pastor?" (with its attendant anxiety) to "Who are we?" (with a truthfulness in naming the good and the not so good parts of our congregational history, mission focus and identity) and "Who is God calling us to be next?"  (understanding that the times outside our four walls keep changing, so we need to realign and retool and then find a pastor who fits our better discerned vision!).

Or in the plainer language:  A pastoral transition works better when people spend more time on "Who is God calling our church to be next?" before even putting together a search committee to find the next called/settled pastor.

For many years, the interim ministry model has been to spend time in an interim exploring:
Congregational History
Discovering a New Identity
Leadership Changes during an Interim (especially in the lay leadership)
Exploring Denominational Connections
Commitments to a New Direction in Ministry

The book used by IMN for many years is often called "the Bible of Interim Ministry".  Edited by Roger S. Nicholson, Temporary Shepherds: A Congregational Handbook for Interim Ministry was published in 1998 by the Alban Institute.  After Alban's decision to close, this book and all other Alban titles (past and present) are published by Rowman & Littlefield. 

While these five areas (sometimes called "focus areas" or "developmental tasks") are the core skills being taught, how these concepts are taught in interim training today have been changed or tweaked a bit.  For example, more churches are facing the need to address their financial and property management issues.  It may be time to admit bylaws ratified in the mid-20th century do not work for 2016 and beyond, especially as they pertain to a greater number of lay leadership roles (boards/committees) than the present day congregation often has members! 

One area of change regards how the fourth area is taught, regarding denominational connections.  In 2006/7, when I had my training, the model was still to talk about the ways of deepening connections with denominations that a church is affiliated with or has grown distant.  For many Baptist churches, it can be a chance to realize that they are "not alone" in ministry and mission, yet as local churches have lost some ground in their numbers (financial and attendance), so have the waves of destabilization hit the denominational bodies themselves. 

Today, the Interim Ministry Network is proposing a broader understanding of what is possible when a church explores its connections beyond itself.  While the denominational connections are still in the mix (and I cannot stress enough a vital part of a church's potential future, as even we Baptists cannot do everything alone), the area of focus has shifted to include the challenge to look at the community context of your congregation more perceptively. 

In an essay reflecting on how the Interim Ministry Network and its counterpart The Center for Congregational Health has changed in its training methods, John Keydel talks of the importance of knowing your "Connections" in a way far deeper than just seeing them as "links" for acknowledgement or passive connection.  Keydel observes:
A congregation that fully engages Connections will find that it possesses a deep wealth of community-based assets that can be combined with a renewed sense of heritage and mission as it prepares to move into a well-connected and supported future.
(From Chapter 4 of Transitional Ministry Today: Successful Strategies for Churches and Pastors, ed. Norman B. Bendroth, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015, p. 57).

As part of my work with interims and congregations, I recommend highly that an outcome for a time of transition be spent in reflection about the interior needs of the church, but congregations should also study and engage their community for questions of how to be relevant to the "here and now" all around them.  For some churches, they may have a plum place on Main Street and been there for decades, if not a good century or so, yet have very little awareness let alone effective outreach to that community.

Here are some tools I suggest for getting to know your community:


Getting to Know Your Context for Ministry and Mission

US Census data, reports and findings (

Federal Guidelines for Poverty Thresholds:

New York Poverty Reports (state wide and county by county analysis.  Updated each March/April

ABCUSA Provided Statistical Reports by Zip Code (contact with your zip codes)

American Baptist Home Mission Societies                                                        

ABHMS Workbook of Analysis Tools:

 Getting to Know Your Possible New Identity as a Missional Church

Mission from the Gospels:  Online curriculum ( and ABCNYS (Contact Region office to be connected with a trainer to work with your church and other congregations)

ABHMS online community:  

7 Creative Models for Community Ministry (from the book by Joy Skjestad, Judson Press, 2014)

Donate Goods or Money                                   Engage in Community Organizing

Mobilize Volunteers                                           Develop a Ministry Program

Partner with Another Organization                    Create a Church-Based Non-Profit

Advocate around Public Policy


The role of Missional Church methods (what will make or break your work being sustainable):

               1/3   your church

               1/3   others from other congregations

               1/3   others from your community (especially those without any faith background)
Getting to Know Your Resources for Service and Potential Collaboration

New York Help Lines:    Dial “211” (more counties are joining, but not quite at 100% yet)

Ministry Grants for Community Needs  (Contact for leads on possibilities)

Template for creating your own community services access hand-outs:

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Primary reflections

This week, the State of New York holds its presidential primaries.  Living in Albany, the state capital, I could have attended rallies featuring the five remaining Presidential candidates.  As neither main Party has settled on a candidate, for the first time in four decades, the NY primary is late in the season yet now a hot ticket for candidates seeking all important delegates prior to their respective national convention.  Of course, this does not guarantee success, as floor fights have been bandied about in political spin.

Around this time forty years ago, a Baptist minister penned a searing letter commenting on his era's tumult.  Perhaps a bit of time travel back to Birmingham Alabama might give us some insight on what sort of word is needed sorely in American political discourse.

I invite you to read afresh The Letter from Birminham Jail, written by Martin Luther King, Jr., and ponder what these words would say to us in the midst of these days.  Click this link to see a pdf of a typewritten early version held by Stanford University's special archives:

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Podcasts: The Radio We Listen to These Days

Earlier this year, I appeared as a guest on a podcast.  If you have no clue what a podcast is, consider this:  In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the talk of radio (i.e. words, but no pictures) was doom and gloom.  Very few folks thought such a medium had any longevity left in it.  Garrison Keillor wrote about the sentiment in his script for Robert Altman's film based loosely around Keillor's long running show.  The film has a grim certainty about it that the old time radio programs were long gone, Keillor was running a show that shouldn't really exist anymore, and the wrecking ball for the quaint old theatre where performances are held to an aging crowd is literally coming on next Monday morning.

As this summer brings Keillor's 40+ year tenure as host to a close and a format change to more music with host Chris Thile has been quietly underway in this current season, it seems oddly delightful to note how the gloom of 1996 or 2006 about radio's future is largely forgotten.  The general format of a radio show (i.e. something  you listen to without any thought of needing the moving image) is still kicking on the FM and AM dial, as well as through satellite and online stations.  Further, a variety of creative content is out there for persons to stream or download for later listening in podcast form.

As a person who drives quite a bit, the podcast has been a welcome companion on the journey.  I routinely listen to eight different shows.  Some have weekly content, dropping a new episode that may have just aired on a public radio station, or others may have an occasional schedule as the team behind the podcast can get to recording, mixing and uploading new shows.  (And in some cases, it may be just one industrious person hosting as well as producing the podcast.)

The podcast allows my brain to think in other directions and muse about other topics, stay current on the news and popular culture and sometimes laugh a little at the satire or humor interlaced in the ways most podcasters talk.  (Snark...It is the lifeblood of many GenXers and millennials).

One podcast series is "Twelve Enough", hosted and produced by the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Malone, who pastors an American Baptist congregation in Rhode Island.  Jonathan has been a long-time colleague, and he actually hails from where I live.  We met up at my home, and he recorded enough material (clergy are chatty!) for two podcast episodes.  My dog Fable spent some time patiently listening to the recording session, though she did start begging for treats at points as the second hour wore on.  She makes some vocal interjections at some points.  I appreciate Jonathan's patience with myself and my beagle assistant.

This week, I offer readers of the blog here a chance to go stream or download these episodes via Jonathan's podcast page.  You can also do the same by looking up his show on iTunes and other places where you cast for pods (pardon the pun).

Part I:

Part II:

Some day when I have more time and tech to record the show, I'd love to experiment with podcasting.  The opportunities to share ideas and invite listeners into the conversation is quite winsome.

And best of all, for those of us with a face fit for radio, it's much more forgiving than the camera!

Friday, April 1, 2016

With Broken Bread and Amended Hearts (Luke 24:13-35)

Wendell Berry is a novelist, poet, theologian, and farmer (all interesting vocations in themselves, but even more intriguing to encounter someone who does all of the above). In his 1973 poem “The Mad Farmer Manifesto”, Berry ends his piece with these words:
Be like the fox, who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Berry’s poem warns us against trusting too much in the predictable. There is a conventional wisdom that says “dead is dead”, and these disciples bound for home in little Emmaus were keeping to the story that they knew best. Jesus had died, thanks to the usual suspects among the authorities of the day (religious and imperial alike) who were used to dealing out death to those who questioned too much the status quo. Jesus had inspired them, given them hope, but now that the turbulent time in Jerusalem was over, the disciples were trudging away from Jerusalem, mournful, bleak, and chastened by bitter reality.

It is an odd scene to follow the Resurrection story. In the early rays of morning, the tomb is empty, and the risen Christ is encountered. Break out the alleluias and start spreading the news! Sound the trumpets and begin the dance.

Yet here are two disciples who have missed the story. They heard the women who Jesus sent out with the news, but they dismiss the stories as “idle tales”. It’s late afternoon on Easter, but these folks are moping about, tired from the stress and the anxiety of the past few days and resigned to the fate that the story never changes.

They encounter a fellow traveler down the road, and they begin sharing their sorrow and resignation with this stranger. The joke for Luke’s audience, however, is that the stranger is the risen Christ, yet these two do not see him for who he really is. Here is a bit of hilarity to the story to go along with the plot twist of what happened earlier that day back in Jerusalem.

In The Last Battle, the final book in the Narnia series, C.S. Lewis depicts the strange case of a group of dwarves who sit in the middle of a sunny meadow. These dwarves are a bit confused, thinking instead of being in the midst of such beauty, they are instead in the darkened corner of a stable. The dwarves refuse to believe any other sort of reality is possible, even when offered evidence to the contrary. (I first became aware of this story via reading Frederick Buechner’s Telling Secrets.)

Jesus teaches them the stories of scripture, bringing the faithful testimony of the past to bear on the incredible present that His resurrection brings. One might wonder why Jesus keeps up the guise of stranger. It will be all the way to Emmaus and even at the dinner table before something dawns on these two disciples.

For starters, Luke’s gospel trades not on “obvious” things. To understand Luke, recall the story of the Prodigal Son. The obvious thing would be to let that prodigal go off and party hard, and then be allowed to slink back in contrition. Instead, the father embraces that child, puts on a big celebration, and he ensures that the child is fully back in the household. When I deal with pastoral care issues regarding family dynamics, I know more often than not that this parable seems more “flight of fancy” than “what really happened” in stories of families dealing with conflict and estrangement. But I still want the less “obvious” outcome to happen—that is my prayer for all families and relationships: that God’s grace will be experienced and practiced abundantly, even if it doesn’t seem like the most obvious option or outcome!

Now, you would think that a refresher course in Bible 101 taught by Jesus himself would get these two disciples to realize Jesus was in their midst. Even this study of Scriptures did not break through their resolve that Resurrection was “an idle tale”. Jesus was about ready to go onwards when they reached Emmaus, but they invited him to stay. Jesus took the opportunity to show them one more time.

Hear again Wendell Berry’s poetic lines:
Be like the fox, who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

This may seem an odd comment, but I believe that grocery lists might not seem a common topic for sermons to include, however, I am certain more than a few grocery lists have been made while listening to sermons. On most grocery lists, you might list a few things with specificity (i.e. need Prego pasta sauce) but other things you would list simply as “need bread”. Most of us have our favorite brand of bread. Others of us just play the market, grabbing whatever is on sale. After all, it’s only bread….

Bread can seem perfunctory, as my late Grandmother Hugenot noted on her weekly grocery list: “Need milk, bread, and spuds”. I have learned that there is “bread” and then there’s “bread”. European bread is wonderful. Brand X white bread is terrible, even with the amazing taste of Miracle Whip. Bread is either “just there” on the table, or it is an experience in itself.

Jesus took bread, he gave thanks, he broke bread, and he gave it to his disciples. To our ears, that sounds all very familiar. To Luke’s audience as well, the idea of Jesus presiding at table, making fellowship possible between an often-divergent crowd of folks is very much the story of Jesus as told by Luke. Yet, in that quite familiar (and perhaps even “mundane”) moment of getting ready to eat around the table, something happened.

In one of the churches I grew up in, there was a lady named Anna Brown, who was one of those quiet saints. She never said a cross word, very even keel and wonderful, and she was also gifted with making dinner rolls that flew from the little basket she brought them in fresh from the oven (she lived across the street from the church). My recollections of Anna are all uniform: she tended those in need, she practiced gracious ways, and you felt a better person in her presence. I look back on those memories and now realize something else: she mirrored a bit of the Christ and her strong belief in Christ’s ways shaped her profoundly. Something wondrous over the years had happened over the years in this woman's life, shaped by Word and Table, so much so that I could glimpse the Christ in her.

And Wendell Berry’s poem becomes clearer:
Be like the fox, who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

The resurrection of Jesus is a story that refuses to be tamed down, whether you think you know it by heart or you’ve seen most any Jesus-related film possible, or looked at the wealth of paintings and other art depicting the resurrection. The astonishing tale that would kick a group of disciples from “idle” to “bold” in their tales of Christ and his teachings to the ends of the earth. The gospel of Luke and its sequel the Book of Acts really depends on the contrary-minded moments of two disciples “seeing” Jesus through the breaking of bread. You will either perceive this moment as bizarre religious wishful thinking or a sublime moment that opens up the prospect of a different story at work than “conventional wisdom” can opine.

The stories of Easter as told by the gospels are all contrary-minded stories. Like the fox, the Easter faith makes what seems like illogical tracks across the world “as we know it,” sometimes appearing to go right across the deeply rutted pathway of “the way things are”. The Emmaus story moves us along a different sort of journey, a trail that is always being blazed by ardent pilgrims who wish to see an Easter faith take root in an otherwise gloomy world. The story here points to a world where the mundane can unveil the mystical, where resurrection is not a term in a dictionary, but an entire way of life. “Practice resurrection” is shorthand for the faithful to take notice and be encouraged by the life-giving power of God that shakes our world from its complacency.  May life abundant be the new tale upon our hearts and minds.

Let’s celebrate that story via Wendell Berry’s wise words:
Be like the fox, who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.
Alleluia! AMEN!