Sunday, August 13, 2017

Clarence Jordan's great disappointment

Earlier this weekend, I shared on social media:

As clergy prepare for another difficult day in Charlottesville and silence (not even a little bluster!) is likely from high places in our government, I recall this observation from Clarence Jordan.  In his efforts to support integration in 1950s Georgia, 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."

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.

Lord, have mercy.

Friday, August 11, 2017

A word on restraint

This week, we have watched the news clips of the leaders of two nations exchanging words that certainly escalate the chances of tension.  As I watched and indeed prayed my way through the headlines and the push notifications of news updates on my iPhone (with two major newspapers I follow sending notices within seconds of one another), I hear the words being said, and I keep slipping back to some other words.

From a sermon on Matthew 27:47-56, the late preacher Fred B. Craddock of Candler School of Theology (Atlanta, GA), told of his trip to Seoul, South Korea, at the request of the U.S. government.  In his remarkable sermon "He Could Have But He Didn't" (published in The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2011), we read of this experience (pp. 101-2):

"Twenty-five years ago, something like that, what's a year, I think it's twenty-five years ago that I was asked to speak at a president's prayer breakfast.  At that time, these prayer breakfasts were held in this country and around the world where we had troops and consulates.  I got a letter from Washington asking me if I would hold one of these.  I said I would and they said the place we want you to go is Seoul, South Korea.  "Well, sure, I'll just stop by on my way to Candler."  But I was glad to go and I went.

The general in charge, and my host, was General Stilwell, four stars.  He gathered officers and enlisted people in this large room and we had the president's prayer breakfast.  We had a nice breakfast and then we had prayers.  It was not just prayers in name only.  The general's assistant, a colonel, had the soldiers there enter into a period of sentence prayers.  I really was surprised.  I associate sentence prayers with an old Wednesday night service somewhere in the country. They had sentence prayers for mothers and fathers and sisters and babies and for my wife back home and for peace in the world, moving prayers.

There was a young man brought in from Formosa, a private who played the bagpipe.  He played "Amazing Grace" on the bagpipe just before I spoke.  The general sat there with tears and he said, "I love that song."

I spoke; he and I talked awhile.  There was a benediction; the room began to empty.  I shook hands with the general and thanked him for his gracious hospitality.  He said, "I want you to remember us in prayer."

And I said, "I will, you know I will."

He said, "Not for more power, we have the power.  We could just one afternoon destroy this whole place.  Pray that we have the restraint appropriate."  


When I left the room everybody was gone except the general and his aide, a colonel who said, "General, shall I bring the car around?"

He said, "Not now, I want to sit here awhile.  And he asked the private from Formosa to stay and the young man did, of course.  When I looked back before I went outside, there was the general seated alone in this big room.  There was a private out in front of him playing on the bagpipe "Amazing Grace".  

Now isn't that a picture?  Four stars shining, listening to a voice of restraint."

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Path of Life (Psalm 16)

The 16th Psalm revolves around the question of trust.  In the end, where do we place our trust?  While the word “trust” does not appear in the actual Psalm, the idea of trust permeates the text. The psalmist celebrates trust, placing his life and wellbeing in the hands of God.  No matter what happens, no matter what may befall, the psalmist is content to seek his life in God’s care.  He calls out:  “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you”. The psalmist has cast his lot with God, and nothing shall shake him from this resolve.

At this point, I know there are those who read this and harbor a thought or two along the vein of “Yeah, right”.  And that person might be in the majority.  Trust can be a tall order in our American culture.  Gallup opinion polls regularly chart the decline of public trust, especially among persons considered historically trustworthy.  Trust in institutions, authority and high profile individuals have eroded greatly.

When it comes to trust, the conventional wisdom of our culture runs along these lines:  Trust can be broken as soon as it is said to be given.  Trust can be offered only to find it left in tatters.  If you are too free with your trust, you might run into trouble of all sorts.   The best word on trust appears to be this observation:  “Trust:  It’s the hardest to earn; it’s the easiest to lose.”

So what should we make of this psalm with its enthusiastic word about trust in God?  Is it the word of some young writer, composing a song about life, though the psalmist is somebody still wet behind the years?  Does the psalm tether to a reality that you believe possible?

Let me tell you about one young person of faith who taught me a bit about trust. I met him only briefly, yet he left such an impression. He was a young Baptist minister who pastored a very unique congregation. From Liberia, the pastor was part of a temporary refugee camp.  Political upheaval caused this pastor and hundreds of others to flee their country.

The pastor came to the Baptist World Alliance meeting being held that year in Ghana.  He was invited to speak, thought it took much difficulty to procure a “day pass” so the pastor could attend. This refugee camp was fraught with anxiety. Politically, the UN and Ghana's government kept wrangling over how long the refugee camp could stay open. The refugee camp had very little clean drinking water, let alone enough water to meet basic hygiene and sanitation standards.   The pastor shared that among his fellow refugees, they had little knowledge of what would happen once the camps were closed. To many in the camp, returning to their home country itself was not of high attraction.

Curiously, the refugee camp pastor exuded a remarkable level of calm and grace.  He told stories of the church he planted in the midst of the refugee camp, creating a place for the people to gather to sing, to pray, and to support one another.  The gathering would scatter in a few weeks or months when the UN shut the camp down, yet something remarkable happened as the people gathered in the mud or the dust, even as they worried about their political future, or the lack of a decent meal.  The worship at this church for refugees offered them a connection beyond any political map or governmental power.  It may not have seemed the most tangible some days, yet they had called upon God, upon whom they placed their trust.

That day I heard a word about “trust” come to life.

Rather appropriately, I note that the 16th Psalm’s placement in the collection of psalms itself appears to be a little editorial license at work.  The 13th psalm is one of complaint.  The next psalm softens in tone a bit.  By the time the 16th psalm appears, the psalms have moved from edginess to reverence.  We read these psalms one after the other and find something of our own life story in this movement from complaint to confidence.

Even when we claim to be ardent in our love of God and take pride that we keep the faith, we find ourselves sometimes rattled by life circumstances going well beyond our control or go through times when there’s not much hope in sight.  On such days, we find ourselves closer to the psalms of complaint or lament rather than psalms centering on the praise of God or trust in God.  Yet, the Psalter reminds us that there is a word to the otherwise.  You can find lament and pain, suffering and weariness in this life, yet there is also the grace notes of faith, love, and hope to be found as well.

I wonder if this psalm reflects life so well that its celebration of deep trust in God while still living in the world that this psalm is better understood as the word given by an old woman or man to the rest of us young whippersnappers. There is a certain world-weary (or better said, world-wise) tone that I hear in the text.  The psalm arises from a voice wise to the ups and downs of human life, knowing the sorrow, the frustration and the yearning that things played out differently.  The psalmist’s rather radical assertion that God alone is the source of one’s identity is a less than subtle word of challenge to anyone who says otherwise.

The preacher William Sloane Coffin, Jr. spent the last few years of his life knowing that his health was declining, yet he outlived his doctor’s prognoses enough that it became a little joke that he kept having “one last time” visits more than once with his friends. 

Speaking of death and the end of life, the old preacher observed that he found his last years bringing a change to his attitude and outlook.  He proclaimed this good word:

Although still outraged by callous behavior, particularly in high places, I feel more often serene, grateful for God’s gift of life.  For the compassions that fail not, I find myself saying daily to my loving Maker, “I can no other answer make than thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Strength & Splendor of Belief: Words for Consolation

Last week, I shared a gem of a story from Dr. Fred B. Craddock.   His stories never fail to inspire and stir the heart!  (Indeed, the feedback from last week's post has been quite wonderful as colleagues have learned of this particular story for the first time or joined me in giving thanks yet again for Craddock's insight as he learned around a baptism service that included a camp fire and a square dance!)

I was looking for some good words with the preaching task at hand for the upcoming Sunday.  Recently, one of our Region pastors had a young adult son die of cancer.  As part of the care of the pastor, his family and congregation, I offered to preach on the next available Sunday, which happened to be the day after the same church sanctuary held the son's funeral, officiated by his father the pastor.  Preaching for a colleague is part of the ministry work we do, though I imagine from my own experiences of being kin as well as the officiating clergy, it's good to have an opportunity to sit in the pews without the pressure to be in the pulpit immediately the next day.

I shared a passage from Romans 8:31-39 as my New Testament reading.  Here's what I shared on last Sunday morning:

In 1972, Fred Pratt Green wrote the hymn entitled: “How Blest Are They Who Trust in Christ.” In the last verse, Green ends with some words that I wish to use as this sermon’s beginning words:
In Christ, who tasted death for us,
We rise above our natural grief,
And witness to a stricken world
The strength and splendor of belief.

Over the last few days, I imagine you have been feeling, well,…. I suppose the options to finish this sentence to describe our feelings range from descriptors like: numbed, shaken, bereft, stunned, pained, and the list goes on, multiplied by the number of hearts deeply grieved by the death of Jake. When Death comes, grief follows, and we struggle to put words together to express what we feel. And, at the end of things, we find some respite in just being silent and still, pondering the past few days.

In sorting out our thoughts, we turn to the wisdom of sacred text, allowing the ancient cadence of Scripture to provide a rhythm to help us reclaim a measure of hope and grace. I find myself wading into the language of Pauline epistles, which may be an odd place to start. Sometimes, we forget that Paul wrote his various letters not so much for teaching for belief, but in the task of helping churches understand, often in the midst of deep conflict, how their faith called them to live a life together in Christ. In Paul’s letters, we are richly reminded that there is a great strength in the various people called “Church.”

We gather each week in this sacred house of worship, seeking a little respite from the rigors of our lives, yet during a week like this, with a great loss felt deeply within our fellowship, perhaps we sit in the pews feeling shaken as well. I find in the midst of such times to recall Paul’s words to the church at Rome. Despite anything and everything that could go wrong, God does not abandon us. “Nothing” separates us from the love we know in Christ Jesus.

Charles Spurgeon, the great British Baptist preacher of the 19th century, had a personal motto:  "Teneo et tenor".  For those of us (myself included) who did not grow up learning Latin (short of the variant known as "pig"), the phrase means "I hold, and I am held".  The saying is depicted in a stained glass panel in the Baptist ministry training school bearing his name in London.  It depicts one hand reaching up and another hand coming down to clasp it.  "I hold and I am held".  Indeed, “Nothing” separates us from Christ.

Many years ago, I attended Spurgeon's College for a semester, so my wife and I worshipped with various British Baptist churches. One common practice among these churches involved the benediction that was given each Sunday. The minister or worship leader would invite the congregation to say the benediction. The first couple of times, we were befuddled, as the churchgoers did not bow their heads. Instead, they looked around the room at one another, reciting together this verse of scripture: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us all.”

This practice of saying this verse together is a remarkable reminder of what draws a congregation together. While we are different in many ways, we are drawn together by a common confession and desire to follow God, known to us as Father, Son, and Spirit. Our congregation is shaped by grace, love, and fellowship given to us by God. We experience this especially at times when we face challenges and shoulder burdens alongside one another. Especially these days, Ed and Chris have endured much this week.  Such is the nature of "church", where we share the pain of loss with them, and many of you have brought food, cards, words of care, and love along with you.

It was the custom in that church at Easter to have a baptismal service, and my church immerses and it was held as baptismal service in Watts Barr Lake on Easter evening at sundown. Out on a sand bar, I — with the candidates for baptism — moved into the water and then they moved across to the shore where the little congregation was gathered singing around a fire and cooking supper. They had constructed little booths for changing clothes with blankets hanging, and — as the candidates moved from the water — they went in and changed clothes and went to the fire in the center. And finally — last of all — I went over, changed clothes, and went to the fire.
Once we were all around the fire, this is the ritual of that tradition. Glen Hickey — always Glen — introduced the new people: gave their names, where they lived, and their work. Then the rest of us formed a circle around them, while they stayed warm at the fire.

And the ritual was each person in the circle gave her or his name and said this,
“My name is ____, and if You ever need somebody to do washing and ironing...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to chop wood...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to baby-sit...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to repair Your house...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to sit with the sick...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need a car to go to town...”

And around the circle, and then we ate, and then we had a square dance. And, at a time they knew — I didn’t know, Percy Miller — with thumbs in his bibbed overalls — would stand up and say, “It’s time to go.”

And everybody left, and Percy lingered behind and — with his big shoe — kicked sand over the dying fire. And my first experience of that, he saw me standing there, still. And he looked at me and said, “Craddock, folks don’t ever get any closer than this.”

In that little community, they have a name for that.  I’ve heard it in other communities, too. In that community, their name for that is “church.” They call that “church.”
(Craddock Stories, by Fred B. Craddock, edited by Richard Ward and Mike Graves, Chalice Press, p. 152)

Once I visited a family who also lost a son unexpectedly.  As we drew the visit to a close, I said, “Please know that the church is concerned for you and will support you in this time.” The father said, “After the past few days, that is more than evident.”

Such is the nature of "church".  Little by little, even in ways we do not quite realize are graceful moments when we feel nothing but fumbling for the right words or if it's alright to offer a hug, in our own way, we have lived out the grace, love, and fellowship of our faith. Thanks be to God.

Friday, July 7, 2017

The name for that: A story about church

The great late preacher Fred Craddock learned many things in his early days of pastoral ministry. He tells this splendid story that I love and will be sharing this weekend in a sermon.

Craddock recalls,

 It was the custom in that church at Easter to have a baptismal service, and my church immerses and it was held as baptismal service in Watts Barr Lake on Easter evening at sundown. Out on a sand bar, I — with the candidates for baptism — moved into the water and then they moved across to the shore where the little congregation was gathered singing around a fire and cooking supper.

They had constructed little booths for changing clothes with blankets hanging, and — as the candidates moved from the water — they went in and changed clothes and went to the fire in the center. And finally — last of all — I went over, changed clothes, and went to the fire.

Once we were all around the fire, this is the ritual of that tradition. Glen Hickey — always Glen — introduced the new people: gave their names, where they lived, and their work. Then the rest of us formed a circle around them, while they stayed warm at the fire.

And the ritual was each person in the circle gave her or his name and said this,
“My name is ____, and if You ever need somebody to do washing and ironing...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to chop wood...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to baby-sit...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to repair Your house...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to sit with the sick...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need a car to go to town...”

And around the circle, and then we ate, and then we had a square dance. And, at a time they knew — I didn’t know, Percy Miller — with thumbs in his bibbed overalls — would stand up and say, “It’s time to go.” And everybody left, and Percy lingered behind and — with his big shoe — kicked sand over the dying fire.

And my first experience of that, he saw me standing there, still. And he looked at me and said, “Craddock, folks don’t ever get any closer than this.”

In that little community, they have a name for that. I’ve heard it in other communities, too. In that community, their name for that is “church.” They call that “church.”

 (Excerpted from Craddock Stories, by Fred B. Craddock, edited by Richard Ward and Mike Graves, Chalice Press, p. 152)

Friday, June 23, 2017

Installing a New Pastor: Planting Seeds in Earnest

Installing Rev. Perdue
FBC Cooperstown, NY
Special occasion preaching is part of the call to ministry.  We preach at life transitions most frequently (weddings and funerals) as well as for civic holidays (woe to the preacher who skirts a Mother's Day sermon too many years in a row!).  Also, we preach for occasions rare yet wonderful:  when a person is ordained to ministry or going into a new ministry call.  
It was my pleasure earlier in June 2017 to offer remarks at the installation of the Rev Joseph Perdue, recently called as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Cooperstown, NY.  Brevity is a virtue (and I am chief of sinners), so I decided to use a shorter scripture text that I think works well at the outset of a hopefully long and fruitful season of ministry for Joe and the congregation.
Hear now the Good News in brief---two verses to be exact!
The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. (Mark 4:26-27)
Two verses, and yet so much to unfurl and explore!  On one hand, we have the image of the Kingdom, the very crowning glory of Jesus’ vision of God made known in the world and yet it is like seed, to be tossed around willy-nilly. Jesus gives an image messy and unpredictable, far removed from the “cut and dried” understandings about following Jesus we often presume.
Worse, contrary to our churchly habits and sensibilities, Jesus presents us with the image of a farmer who goes out, plants the seed liberally, and then saunters off until the end time.
At this point, I hear from Kansas my old farmer father’s voice calling out:  “Son, what sort of fool does that?”
Admittedly, I have never met a non-anxious farmer, including my father. For farmers, something is always worrying you at the back of your mind: grain prices falling and rising (well, mostly falling), pests and pesticides, drought, deer turning your crop into a buffet, freak storms, too much rain, too little rain, flooding, hail, the bills coming in and not enough money to cover everything this month, and the list goes on.
Every farmer goes through this, having that moment when you laugh at yourself. That foolish dream you had, thinking yet again you could plant a crop and turn a profit. Sigh!
For the church “with ears to hear”, we have an unsettling thought.  The Church that Jesus seeks to sow in the world does not fit into plans we alone devise, let alone for us to micromanage!
The gospel will be planted where you least expect it, and trying to guess how it will flourish and yield a goodly harvest is at best guesswork and at worst presumptuous on our part.
Where the Kingdom of God grows, there shall be a harvest and we have to learn how to live within the mysterious ways of God.
But can we really handle mystery?  Further, can we be in that mystery as a Church and live to tell about it?
The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.
In the splendid Oscar-winning film Shakespeare in Love, William is a young man seeking money, not literary awards. He writes plays for the theatres with their raucous crowds. Theatre was very much a rough and tumble experience in Elizabethan England. There is a new play needed, and the theatre manager insists that writer’s block is not an excuse. He demands a script readied for the production of “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter”, a comedy about love and a bit with a dog doing tricks.
The film follows several characters as they rush around, trying to stage a play not quite written with a financial backer and his thugs threatening them with pain if there is no profit.  A young woman disguises herself as a man so she can tread the boards.  At the epicenter of this chaos is a young playwright named Will who seems too flaky to be the great Shakespeare.  Will this end in disaster?  Surely it will!  
Throughout the film, people ask the theatre manager Philip Henslowe what the play is about and more importantly when the play will be ready. Henslowe bluffs to buy Shakespeare and the company more time. When his financial backer storms in, ready to have his men beat him up, Henslowe begs for more time, claiming the theatre business is one whose “natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster”.
The financial backer asks, “So what do we do?” Henslowe replies, “Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.” “How?” the backer is incredulous.
Henslowe replies, “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”
If we let them be, the parables confound and unsettle us, defying a quick or complete interpretation alike. In these seed parables, we get a cautionary tale about thinking we know the ways of God and how we should be God’s people. We build our houses of worship, our traditions, our creeds, and still we have sacred texts that challenge and remind us of a faith more comfortable with welcoming children gladly, considering the lilies of the field, and scattering seed and letting things be.  Or as Jesus said,
The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.
I suppose the Markan parable would ask to keep things loose and try not to tame the Spirit’s movement. We certainly need to talk with one other. We need to pray and listen for God in the midst of our ministry and missional work. We need to work with purpose and hope, but at the same time, we are in God’s hands, not our own. The future holds much possibility. So much Kingdom/Reign work is yet to come. God scatters seed abundantly. The harvest shall be abundant. Rather than pondering the future or undercutting its potential by our reticence to embrace it, we enter into the mystery that is God at work in the world.
            So, here we are, in the midst of a mystery.  A long-time pastor retires.  A period of search and call happens.  A new pastor was called, arrived and has been serving here for a few months now.  What form will this new season of ministry take?  What will be different about it?  What will come up as the newest experience of an old challenge?   Will we grow, will we flourish, will we have so-so crop yields, will the future be anything like the past (a chronic question in every church), and can we handle a future that looks nothing like the past (a scary question for every church)?   What happens next?   What does the future hold?
            Hear the Good News:
The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Adventures in Baptist History: William Sawyer (1821-1909)

What does an old Bible, likely given as a “presentation” Bible to a young person, tell us about the 19th century in the Capital District of New York?

Earlier this week, I received an inquiry through the local ABCNYS Association about a family wishing to donate a Bible to an area American Baptist congregation. They were going through an elder parent’s household and found a number of Bibles. One Bible was clearly a family heirloom, given the name inscribed. Another Bible they found indeed had an inscription, but the family could not identify any connection to the family or any idea why the Bible had come into their loved one’s possession at one time in the past.

The Bible in question has a handwritten inscription to a person for their attendance of the Sunday School of the Robin Street Baptist Church in Albany, NY. The date given is 1886.

Living in Albany myself, I knew already that there is no American Baptist (formerly Northern Baptist) congregation by that name any longer. Through some Google searching, I discovered the beginnings of a bread crumb trail about the Robin Street church, which indeed has closed. One thing I discovered via Google Books was a lead on the formation of the Robin Street church.

In a two volume book on the history of Albany, NY, I discovered Robin Street Baptist was part of the efforts of church planting supported enthusiastically by businessman and abolitionist William Sawyer (1821-1909). In this Albany retrospective, we read:

In religious preferences, Mr. [William] Sawyer is a decided Baptist. In 1840 he united with the Pearl Street (now Emmanuel Baptist Church) while Elder Jacob Knapp was assisting Rev Dr B.T. Welch. In 1871, he removed his church relations to the Calvary Church. His interest in the Sabbath School and mission work of the Baptist Church has been great and constant for many years.
To it he has given much time and toil and money July 29, 1866, the Kenwood Chapel which was started in 1864 was duly dedicated, Rev. Dr. Magoon preaching the sermon. This he gave to the Albany Baptist Missionary Union as a chapel for church purposes forever. On the day of its dedication the cars of the Albany Railway made the first trip to Kenwood. The Sunday School here numbers about 100.
The Robin Street Baptist Chapel was established by Mr. Sawyer in the German Baptist Church on Washington Avenue, November 4, 1866, and removed to the Robin Street Baptist Chapel into a building formerly used as a cabinet factory which he had purchased and remodeled for that purpose April 7 1872 as an Independent Sunday School. To its interests he has ever given his most watchful care. The school now numbers about 300. The Madison Avenue Chapel was purchased by him for Sunday School purposes in the spring of 1867. The school was started August 4, 1867, and placed in charge of the First Baptist Church. It has about 150 members.
Mr. Sawyer was one of the earliest and most active workers for the establishment of the Home for Aged Men, in soliciting subscriptions, organizing, and in selecting its location. He was a member of the first Board of Trustees. He has often addressed audiences of young and old in exhortation and textual discourse. His knowledge of the Scriptures, his zealous spirit, his nervous and rather eccentric manner, have made these addresses effective.

Likely some additional research as time allows will help me connect more of the dots about how this Bible came to be presented to a young person attending the Sunday School on Robin Street. Such efforts remind us that congregations come and go, ministry efforts in a community may ebb and flow, but the furthering of the Gospel is always in the hands of one generation passing the faith onwards to the next.

Returning to the Bible's inscription, I realized that the book was presented by William Sawyer himself! 

We may not have a great statue or likely any real institutional memory about William Sawyer and his work among the churches in the area. Nonetheless, a presentation Bible mixed in with other odds and ends of a household yields a testament to sharing faith and spreading the Baptist witness in Albany, New York.  The mission work of a Baptist layman comes back to life once more, offering inspiration for those who might think about being this generation's William Sawyer, sharing the faith with a new generation!

RESEARCH SOURCES:  Behind the Scenes

To find out something regarding Robin Street Baptist, I referenced Google Books and found out about William Sawyer.


To discover Mr. Sawyer’s date of death, I played a hunch about cemeteries in the area and discovered his grave at the Albany Rural Cemetery where many luminaries of Albany’s past are interred. (For example, U.S. President Chester A. Arthur is buried there.)

LINK:  (I input William Sawyer's name and searched for a compatible date, knowing his birth date from the above source and seeing minor mentions of his name that he was still alive in the late 19th century.  Sawyer lived into his eighties!)

Friday, May 26, 2017

That Would Be An Ecumenical Matter

"That would be an ecumenical matter."

During the three year run of the venerable Irish comedy Father Ted, viewers around the world watched the exploits of three priests serving a small Roman Catholic parish on bedraggled Craggy Island.  Quite readily, viewers learn why these three priests are serving together.  Essentially, the Bishop exiled them to a place where they could not get into any more trouble than they had caused previously.

In one of my favorite episodes, the Vatican sends envoys to review the possible miracle of a certain holy relic on the island.  Father Ted and Father Dougal (the middle-aged and young priest of the household) quickly realize they have an issue.  How will the cantankerous, slovenly and erratic old Father Jack possibly be ready to meet the special visitors?   After all, he sits in his chair (mostly), sleeps, grunts and drinks (or sleeps and grunts in his sleep after passing out from too much drink). 

The barely verbal Father Jack is coached little by little to remember how to say socially acceptable phrases.  Eventually, Father Ted tries to help Father Jack learn a phrase that would please the bishops but not require Father Jack to remember much more than that.  They land on the phrase "That would be an ecumenical matter", which Ted observes is just enough to imply you are interested or are able to follow some arcane theological discussion some priests like to indulge in.  Just respond with that phrase, he has learned, and others will consider you profound and wise. 

(And hopefully leave you alone!)

Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the Baptist tradition has eschewed hierarchy and high structure.  Nonetheless, many Baptists around the world recognize their love of local church autonomy can lead to isolation and missed opportunities for mutual collaboration and encouragement.  While Baptists vary (cf. the "Heinz 57" ingredient list like nature of Baptists just in the United States!), we have local churches who are often relating to churches elsewhere of similar faith and order or common ground ministry and mission goals.

Saying "that would be an ecumenical matter" holds some amusing resonance when attending Baptist organizational meetings.  While low in structure and lines of authority, Baptist inter-church fellowships (Associations, denominations, networks, etc.) can be a great gathering of different and divergent voices, people gathering around common affinities for mission and ministry more than events listed on "the official program" for plenary sessions, etc.  Nonetheless, when such gatherings have discussions traveling down less engaging pathways of discussion, I think of old Father Jack grunting, "That would be an ecumenical matter."

(And for the record, Father Ted's advice translates well in my own context!)

I am quite pleased with a recent article from Dr. Neville Callum, the General Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance.  A pastor and scholar, Dr. Callum's writings on the Baptist movement and particularly the large network of Baptists embodied in the BWA are always a welcome discovery when he publishes in a journal or online posting.  Recently, Dr Callum shared a word about Baptists and connecting together:

"From as early as 1644, seven Particular Baptist congregations in England stated in the celebrated Article 47 of what has come to be called the "First London Confession of Faith" that "Although the particular Congregations be distinct and severall Bodies, everyone as a compact and knit Citie in it selfe; yet are they to walk by one and the same Rule, and by all meanes convenient to have the counsell and help one of another in all needful affaires; of the Church, as members of one body in the common faith under Christ their only head."

Eight years later, the Abingdon Association in England affirmed the urgent need of Baptist churches "to hold firm communion with each other."

Over the years, churches existing in close geographical proximity have affirmed their inter-relationship and have developed patterns of cooperation deriving from their fellowship.
This has happened trans-locally in regions and nations and, with the passage of time, internationally, both at the continental and the worldwide levels.

More reflection needs to be given to the precise nature and meaning, not simply the purpose, of Baptists associating at the global level.

Baptist interdependency is capable of bearing the burden of the associational obligation that celebrated Baptist historian William Brackney had in mind when, writing about associations, he emphasized the need for Baptists "to learn again how to wrestle in love with difficult issues and to celebrate one another's successes and bear one another's burdens."


In his essay linked above, Dr. Callum notes the shortcomings of Baptist connections and the need for revisiting the nature of what we take for granted as the current form for those relationships and any implications they may have among Baptist bodies around the world.  He reminds that even in our efforts to be radical Reformers, we are still part of "Church".  

We have a "church" minded ecclesiology, yet that lowercase "c" is as much part of our theological heritage as it can be an impediment to following Christ's High Priestly prayer often cited in ecumenical circles, "that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us,[so that the world may believe that you have sent me."  (John 17:21).

With such a prayer, it is indeed always "an ecumenical matter."

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Mourning at Church

Since the beginning of May, three congregations up in the Adirondacks have been in a season of loss and mourning their pastors.   On Friday, May 5, 2017, Rev Linda Hoeschel died.  Then on May 12, 2017, Pastor Joyce Bruce passed away.  Both women served congregations in rural communities and provided splendid leadership during their time as ministers.

I write this column on the other side of these life transitions, responding to the needs of the congregations going through a very unique form of loss and grief.  As I shared with Linda's two churches recently, it's one thing to go through the loss of a congregant, especially one who was engaged in the midst of the life of a local church.  The loss and grief of losing a pastor is even more complex as pastors are woven into the fabric of a congregation.  It's a shared loss as congregations are families in their own way, regardless of how many people are actually kin by blood relation. 

When Jesus called together his first followers, some of these men and women were indeed related (the brothers Zebedee).  Each person who followed Jesus navigated a challenge with their own biological family, as they would take leave of their kinfolk with no small measure of disruption to the "normal" life they led before hearing Jesus' call.  Dropping your fishing nets to go "fish for people" continues to vex generations of Christians about what it means to hear and follow.  Congregations can be a place where believers can gather together and learn together what the faith calls us to do.  (I realize churches are also prone to circle the wagons and avoid anything that disrupts comfort, but I keep having hope that the Spirit works at ensuring our foundations are solid but our forms are not so set in ruts that we lose our way.)

Pastor Joyce Bruce

About my colleagues in ministry:

Pastor Joyce Bruce served the Jay Baptist Church in the upper Adirondacks for nearly twenty years.  As a lay preacher, she provided her gifts and care to the congregation in this small town church.  The church recalls its origins in a barn, using hay bales for pews back in 1798.  The church has a long history of lay women preachers, as her predecessor served for many years before Joyce was called in 1996.  For the past two generations, the minister of Jay Baptist has been a laywoman preaching, teaching and caring for the needs of the flock!

At her visitation hours on Tuesday afternoon, I brought words of greetings and thanksgiving for her years of service to one of our Region churches.  Her family had musical instruments close at hand, and from time to time, they would take a break from greeting friends and family to play a bit on guitars, clarinets, or mandolins.  A number of persons spoke about Joyce's own musical gifts, starting Sunday morning worship for many years with some "ragtime Gospel" at the piano.

Rev Linda Hoeschel
Rev Linda Hoeschel served a shorter season of ministry, called in March 2015 to her first called position with the shared pastoral call of the Village Baptist Church (Fort Edward, NY) and the First Baptist Church of Glens Falls, NY.  Ordained in 2016, she was a second career minister, called later in life to prepare for the ministry.  She was remembered throughout the May 12th memorial service and celebration as a person with great enthusiasm, care and love for her call and the two flocks who called her to serve. 

After joining the Region staff four years ago, I worked closely with the Ft Edward and Glens Falls pastoral search.  Like the congregation in Jay, NY, the ministry model for the two churches leaned toward a part-time model.  Linda dove into the ministry of two churches, and even as her health challenges came from time to time, her sense of call and the drive to serve God and neighbor sustained her in remarkable ways. 

Grieving a pastor's death is difficult.  Remembering the minister for their gifts and graces, their strengths and their challenges--all of these things allow congregations to rehearse their beliefs in life, death and the Resurrection.  We mourn and grieve differently in such times and at differing pace, yet churches can be a place of remembering well what death means for Christians.  Such memory recasts the loss with hope, the sorrow with a foretaste of faith's promises being fulfilled in God's good End.

Note:  A resource on the unique situation of a pastor's dying while serving a congregation is the book  "Speaking of Dying: Recovering the Church's Voice in the Face of Death" (Brazos, 2012).  Learn more via this link:

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Pilgrims on the Journey (Luke 24:13-35)

The writer Nora Gallagher speaks of being “outside” the church for many years, until she went to a place where she felt something different within herself about faith and being among others keeping the faith. Her wonderful line is that she came to the church “as a tourist, but stayed a pilgrim.”

Over time, her time in church became less of attendance and became participation, and her faith less a matter of inquiry and more of belief. The beauty of her writing is not skill but of depth: the depth of belief and experience growing in the faith in the care of a congregation that did likewise.

On the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, two disciples of Jesus are walking back home, despondent with the news of the crucifixion and unaware of the Easter Good News.  The Resurrected Christ joins them on the journey, yet the two disciples do not "see" him (an ongoing motif of the Gospels, where God's mighty works unfold in plain sight, yet people reserve their judgment to near epic proportions).

Hearing their woeful tale of belief crushed by the powers that be, Jesus engages in a time of “bible study” while walking alongside them. He guides them through the texts that speak of what God had in mind through the patriarchs, prophets, and other writings. Jesus walks them through these narratives so that when they have made the trip, they will see the Savior who weaves all of these threads together.

When I was in seminary, I helped with a congregation in transition. They had endured a church split, and the folks who “left” form fed a separate congregation. The immediate problem, however, was the fact that the newly formed group had no place to worship in. They were fortunate to find an old urban neighborhood church that had been turned in a community outreach center. The current occupants had kept the pews, pulpits, and the stained glass, so it was quite a good rental opportunity for churches in transition who came inquiring about space.

However, as the church folks settled, they realized that they were missing more than (literally!) a roof over their head. They had to create and recreate a number of things that they didn’t realize one took for granted, including Sunday School curriculum. How could they teach the young children without what they used to have?

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

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

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

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

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

What is it that does that? 

They have seen the Lord.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Way of Belief (John 20:19-31)

During my first year of college, an introductory course engaged students around questions of critical thinking. College takes your worldview and challenges your suppositions, convictions, and myopias alike. Other life experiences can do the same, a time when life challenges you to the extent you learn a new way of seeing things.

As part of this college course, we looked at an image of a young shepherd boy. Somehow, he has stumbled and fallen to the ground. As he picks himself up, he realizes that he has left his familiar meadow and the hillside full of sheep, discovering instead a strange and different world, a place where the unknown and fantastic lurks in a landscape of unknown planets and stars. The college instructor loved using this image as a teaching tool. The little shepherd has a choice now before him: does he crawl back to what he has known (the meadow and hills of a shepherd) or does he crawl forward into this strange and different world?

At the end of John's gospel, we encounter Thomas, crawling through the world in the valley of the shadow of death.  At first, he denies what has happened (i.e. Resurrection) and lists his pre-conditions for belief.  Yet when he beholds the cross-marked Risen Christ, Thomas decides to leap up and confess his faith that something new and different was happening.

“My Lord and my God!” is the resounding confession of the first Christian believers, the culmination of a theological narrative woven throughout the gospel by John, who tells us in the first chapter, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known."

Belief is seeing the world beyond the obvious, seeking to see God at work in the world even when we feel as if God is absent or we obsess about the signs we expect, even demand, to see if we are to believe. Belief asks us to engage a worldview that surprises us anew and sends us off on journeys previously unimagined. As Raymond Brown translates Jesus’ word to Thomas (and to us): “Do not persist in your disbelief, but become a believer”.

This month, a number of commemorative events took place to remember Dr. Martin Luther King's speech against the Vietnam War. During the period from 1967 to 1968, King challenged the Johnson administration’s ongoing war in Vietnam and the critical needs of the poor. King found the result of such prophetic vision resulted with immediate challenge from critics, ranging from the White House down to fellow religious and civil rights leaders. The advice was “stick with your field”.

King rebuffed the criticism,
Before I became a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the gospel. When my father and others put their hands on my head and ordained me to the Christian ministry, it was a commission. Something said to me that the fire of truth is shut up in my bones. When it burns me, I must tell it.

King’s social witness is part of that same Easter witness required of those who believe in Christ’s resurrection. The gospel is not just a mere set of beliefs or a collection of wise sayings and tales given by a first century Jew from backwater Nazareth. The gospel is about being a believer in Easter, not just when it is time to break out the Easter baskets and enjoy the beautiful lily on the mantle. The Easter story should be deep down in you, words that confess Christ as Lord and God. The struggle to believe is mighty, for you wrestle with the life of faith all along life’s journey. Yet, there is truth found in the resurrection that cannot be tamed, one that pushes us beyond the world as we know it, beyond a sense of inevitable fate.

Belief in Christ, rightfully understood, is one that dances with joy and burns deep down in our bones, knowing that there is a greater reality where God is made known.

Becoming a believer is what the Easter faith calls us to embrace. As John's gospel puts it at narrative's end, these things are written down so that you may come to believe. These words are offered to you so that you, who have never seen Christ as these disciples did, may believe and have life. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Easter is always upon us
For the first time in awhile, I had the opportunity to preach on Easter Sunday with two congregations in the Adirondacks.  A piece of that sermon also made it into a blog post for Ethics Daily (  Here's the part that I shared via pulpit and blog over the last few days:
Years ago, I was in Savannah, Georgia, for yet another Baptist meeting. Spreadsheets, memorandums, and documents to read, meetings to sit through, and then, the dreaded conference hotel meal: “chicken ala something” for lunch or dinner (and occasionally breakfast). However, at this meeting, I felt an earthquake.
Toward the end of the meeting, our committees boarded chartered buses and toured the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum. Recounting the history of segregation and the crucible of birthing civil rights in Savannah, the museum displayed many historical reminders of the era before and after the mid-20th century. In the midst of these exhibits was a collage of various signs created by protestors during the 1950s and 1960s. One sign stopped me in my tracks. The sign said, “We sacrificed Easter”.
For years, the downtown Savannah stores practiced segregationist ways: no African Americans could sit at the food counter, yet the merchants still sold to the African American community, especially at Easter time, when the demand for “Easter best” clothes was high. Businesses made a bundle, but Jim Crow still ruled without question.

That is, until the black church leaders called for a boycott of stores at Easter. Soon, the businesses discovered that they faced either changing the rules or boarding up their stores from the loss of business. The witness of a group of disciples willing to speak truth to power made a lasting change possible in their town.
Again, I wonder what would happen if we stepped back from the overly familiar way of thinking of Easter (positively, the “fluffy fun” of Easter bonnets, baskets, and bunnies and negatively in many churches with the lament of “our pews are not as full as Easters long ago”). Instead, could we read this text and ask ourselves, “What does this story tell us we need to be seeing as we live out and share the gospel in this community?” Instead, could we let go and experience this text as a story powerful enough to shake the ground beneath our feet?
Easter is not just this one Sunday. Easter is the beginning and the end: the end of our world in its sinful and broken ways and the beginning of a gathering of disciples who do not fear but move forward in the confidence of a faith that summons us not to familiarity and indifference. Rather, we are told “go forth” as a community that can move forth, even though the earth be shaking, even though Caesar would rather have us not being the radical and contrary types that Jesus’ followers are called to be, and speak and live as if Easter is always upon us.
Alleluia! He is risen! Let the people say, “AMEN.”

Friday, April 7, 2017

Following Jesus, Despite the Crowds

When we gather the children with palm fronds (and pray they don’t start whacking each other over the head!), we engage in recreating the Palm procession of Jesus. It’s wonderful, euphoric and full of beaming congregants watching the familiar drama unfold.

Ironically, what appears cute and photogenic is really more along the lines of political street theatre. What type of grown-ups are we if we do not tell our kids that this waving of palm branches is being faithful to a king who is unlike no other king or ruler they will learn about in school?

If we do things right, we will raise our kids what it means to be a follower of Jesus, who was unafraid of empires and “powers that be”, speaking of God’s sovereign claim to the world.

As Holy Week unfolds, we tell a story of colliding worlds; as the differences are drawn between the Roman empire/Jerusalem’s political and religious elite and the Reign of God with its Servant King Jesus. The question for Christ’s follower looms: can we give a witness when our world collides with the one proclaimed by the gospel?

In the mid-20th century, the unthinkable happened. A woman named Grace Thomas ran for governor of Georgia. Not only breaking customs about women running for high office, Grace also ran on a desegregation platform. She finished dead last.

A few years later, she ran again in 1962. As the Civil Rights era was gaining momentum, her platform of racial tolerance was still unthinkable.

 On a campaign stop in Louisville, Georgia, she deliberately chose the town square for her remarks. The town square was once a slave market in times past.

Telling her story, the preacher Thomas Long recalls:

As she stood on the very spot where slaves had been auctioned, a hostile crowd of storekeepers and farmers gathered to hear what she would say. “The old has passed away,” she began, “and the new has come. This place represents all about our past over which we must repent. A new day is here, a day when Georgians white and black can join hands to work together.”

The crowd stirred. “Are you a communist?” someone shouted at her.

Grace paused in midsentence. She said softly. “I am not.”

“Well, then,” continued the heckler, “where’d you get all those [blasted] ideas?”

Grace thought for a minute, and then she pointed to a steeple of a nearby church. “I got them over there,” she said, “in Sunday school.”

 (From Long's book Preaching From Memory to Hope, p. 19-20).

Hosanna...praise be....Hosanna....Lord, save us.....Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna.

An oral history interview was conducted in 1979 with Grace Thomas. Listen to her reflections via this link:

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Remembering Dr Hazel Roper

Burying the saints is part of ministry.  I have long become accustomed, though not numbed from the familiarity of being part of a funeral service where a beloved congregant, family member or friend has died and the people of God gathered for the holy task of burying a beloved one.  Presiding or officiating as a pastor at funerals is particularly difficult when you have to manage your own grief in the midst of this sacred yet fraught moment.  I find such work keeps us connected to our core beliefs, as clergy are tasked with leading people to remember that we are dust at best and this life and its pain and success is fleeting.

On Monday, a difficult yet joyous day happened at the Calvary Baptist Church of Lowell, MA.  A sanctuary full of mourners gathered together to say farewell to a beloved family member, friend, colleague, mentor and veritable legend.  The Rev. Dr. Hazel Roper lived out her ministry in local church pulpits, around the table with churches all around upstate New York and advocating for clergy and churches in the sometimes difficult discussions about clergy compensation, clergy pensions and everything else that most of us struggle to speak about, let alone discuss frankly about "money and church" matters.

Hazel Roper excelled in pastoral ministry, whether in local church or denominational work.  I count myself as one of the many pastors who benefited from her keen insight, firm resolve and wise ways.  She assisted a congregation I served with understanding the complexities of clergy pay and pension, something that when I myself retire in the 2040s will be most thankful got started years ago with her skillful advising.  She kept in touch after I moved into the Regional ministry work with upstate New York churches myself, working with a number of congregations in pastor searches and other needs where Hazel's interactions years ago created moments of clarity during conflict and challenge.  Indeed, as I told her once, I could work with healthier churches in the present day thanks in part to the helpful and insightful work she did with pastors and congregations.  Indeed, I have heard it said in recent days that Hazel is considered the reason some churches remain in better shape all these years later, thanks to her careful work in the 1990s and early 2000's. 

As I passed word to colleagues about Hazel's unexpected passing, I kept hearing stories of mentoring conversations.  A number of clergywomen serving today give thanks to Hazel as a mentor, an inspiration and an exemplar of a determined Baptist woman called to serve God and the Church through ordained ministry.  A pastor at the funeral gave a brief testimony, simply saying Hazel was her example and a "she-ro" of the faith.

When the family offered their memories, it was noted that Hazel was a long-time member of the Lowell church, going back to her childhood.  When she retired decades later from ministry, she served again as a lay leader, providing her talents as the church moderator.  When the Calvary church burned when Hazel was nine, she offered the pastor her piggy bank's contents to help rebuild the church.  Fittingly, memorial gifts in her memory are suggested for the present day church's roof repair fund! 

As I listened to the many words of testimony given by family and friends, congregants and colleagues, I noticed the two stained glass panels flanking either side of the altar area.  To the left, the traditional image of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, benevolently tended the sheepfold.  On the right, the image was of Jesus kneeling in prayer with his gaze heavenward, most likely in that moment alone in the time just before his betrayal and death.   While such images are overly familiar subject matter for stained glass, the two images paired well with the liturgy and testimony unfolding in the altar area.

As we journey through the Lenten season, I ponder mortality and what it means to live a life of significance.  Hazel left a legacy that is like faith itself, a matter of things seen and unseen. As the call went forth that day earlier this week, we have the challenge to raise up more Hazels to serve Christ and God's people.  Her legacy is already enriching the lives of people who attend churches who are healthier for her ministry work years ago.  Her legacy lives on in the women and men she encouraged to stick out ministry's most difficult moments or when vocations seemed too distant to be "ours" to accept and undertake.

When somebody asked how the funeral went, I said, "It was the best type: you laughed, you cried, you listened to the Good Word and good words and then you went downstairs for a great big meal."  How else should a Baptist be remembered than a rousing time to sing, to give thanks to God and to be nourished by the memories and table fellowship afterwards?

Thanks be to God!


Dr Hazel Roper's obituary appears via:

A retrospective on the occasion of her 50th year of ordained ministry appeared in 2014:

Friday, March 24, 2017

Wandering the Park and Facing the Future

In Albany, New York’s Washington Park, you will be able soon literally to “tiptoe through the tulips” with the annual Tulip Festival.  If you like tulips, Washington Park will be laden with many beautiful beds of tulips.  They crown a Tulip Queen and the festival weekend provides all manner of amusement and enough fried foods to make a cardiologist weep.
In the midst of the Park, the great fountain will be soon home to pennies and quarters tossed in, the screams of joy as children splash in the waters (especially on a hot summer’s day) and undoubtedly, more than a few youth and grown-ups who decide to give in to their own urge to splash in the waters as well!
When I first visited Washington Park, I noticed the beautiful statuary all around the fountain’s center.  From a distance, I wondered if it was Poseidon with his trident upraised and attended by his court.  As I got closer, I realized that it was a different scene being recreated.
I knew what the subject of the fountain was thanks to years spent in Baptist Sunday School.  The fountain recreates this moment of Moses striking the rocks with his staff and the waters pouring forth. For many around the statue that day, some likely had no clue at what inspired the fountain’s subject matter. 

As an obviously religious person (the robe is always a dead giveaway at church, isn’t it?), I found myself wondering how the generations of Park visitors saw this same fountain.  Surely when it was dedicated, it was with great pride and common knowledge of this story from Scripture.  But today, with the Capital District ranking highly (and nearby Vermont the same) with a distinct “religiously disinclined” or “nones” populace, did the fountain in Washington Park resonate with mere aesthetics (for it is beautiful) and really not with the biblical text inspiring its creation?
For all of us, those who see Poseidon, those who see Moses and those who just go “cool fountain” and move on through the snow banks today (wishing for the tulips sooner than later), I say “Welcome to 2017!”   This is the context every local congregation (American Baptist, Christian or otherwise) deals with on a day to day basis.  The brave faith communities are the ones who understand it, mourn the change and then look for ways to move into the challenges such a time as this presents.
When I visit congregations, I find that for many, there’s a very offensive four letter word that I likely get into trouble for bringing up.  The word is (and I hope your ears will not burn as I utter it):  RISK.
Risk is what makes a church or any other organization do something other than feel left on the sidelines by change.  Change comes at us, change rushes past, without looking to see if we’ve reacted to it.  Change, after all, is not the “enemy”.  It’s part of the world we live in.  How we decide to engage what change brings, well, there’s the big question.
Most of us would enjoy church if it were more like the park we can visit in Albany.  A stroll, a bit of leisure and beautiful fountains and tulips appeal far more than church business meetings, balancing budgets and counting attendance.   Yet that park is also the creation and ongoing commitment of a city to keep up the park, plow the snow, plant the tulips and repair the fountain when Moses strikes the rock yet the piping underneath is being difficult and requires more of a plumber than a patriarch to bang upon it.
Church is about brick and mortar (and if you are a Trustee, you pray for the brick and the mortar each night as you remember the last time pointing had to be done and the bills and headaches that followed).  Church is about the worship services that happen (and if you are involved with worship, you know it comes with the weekly wrestling match of getting a sermon to come together, preferably before 3 AM Sunday morning, and the difficulty of getting everything “just right” to help the gathered worshippers sing and pray together, unless a snow storm rolls through the night before).  Church is about the little stuff that makes a person feel connected enough to move from being a visitor to becoming a member (and even learning how to pitch in with committee work, while praying that a term on a church board is for three years, rather than a life sentence).
Church is a lot of things, but it’s more than all of this.  It’s also about evangelism, outreach and being part of a community and its needs.  You’ve undoubtedly heard this over the years in various forms and with opinions about what was tried and what failed.  Indeed, you may have heard the people and Moses and thought to yourself, “Are sure that was back in ancient times?  Some of it sounded quite familiar and hits close to home!”
Every congregation has its ups and its downs.  How it learns to thrive, how to become more resilient to challenge (and in fact even energized by taking the punches and rolling with them as well) will be a matter of learning how to risk and live to tell about it.
What the future holds is uncertain and involves a decision about what risk you are willing to explore.  But remember that whatever each person has on their hearts and minds, whatever each person here wishes to say out loud at the meeting (or outside in the parking lot afterwards), each of us has the blessing of this story about Moses, the people and a rock that sprang forth with water.  God is with us, even when we think God has given up on us (or we’ve just given up on our own).
I’d like to think that the church can be that park where much toil and effort happens by the work of many hands willing to engage in the mundane tasks of day-to-day needs as well as the short moments when tulips are admired briefly over a weekend.  Churches are places where much good can come even from people wearied or worried by the circumstances at hand.   For God is the God of abundance, and with that hope, how can we not move from grumbling and wanting to being given the refreshing sustenance of holy waters that lift us back up and out into the desert once more, knowing that indeed, there will be a Promised Land?

Friday, March 17, 2017

Making Baptist life faithful and alive

Last week Baptist ethicist Robert Parnham died.  Many Baptists around the world have shared their lament at his passing and much thanksgiving for his life and work.

I met Robert a couple of times over the years, and I have been a contributor to the Ethics Daily website for years.  Without a doubt, Robert offered his keen intellect and deep faith to the task of encouraging Baptists to think and act out the implications of following the Gospel.

Recently, Ethics Daily carried a recent blog post of mine.  They tagged the article to identify it along with other articles about "Baptist life".  Looking at the other articles similarly tagged on Ethics Daily show the stories of Baptists involved in a number of needs, local and global.  You learn of Baptists learning to explore faith within and well beyond the four walls of the local church.

Read these articles via:

Once you have explored these essays and articles, you can see the ongoing legacy of Robert Parnham, faithful Baptist, and be inspired to go and do likewise.

Note:  For the articles I've contributed to Ethics Daily (since 2005--wow, has it been that long?), click this link:

Friday, March 3, 2017

Entering into Lent: Life Awaits

This past week, I was part of three different meetings.  Each was unique in that the conversations were specific to a set of questions and quandaries.  Each was quite similar in that the groups gathered around each table earnestly wanted to seek God's will in the midst of a time of challenge.

Sometimes my work is to bring resources.  I shy away from suggesting that I, or anyone else around the table, will have "the" answer or worse, a "quick fix".  Instead, I advise the slower, the patient, the less anxious, the less immediately understood way forward.  (Admittedly, such work is a tough sell, especially when I'm feeling the need for expedience or anxiety drives more than I care to admit.)

As we begin Lent, Christians have the opportunity to examine the spiritual life and decide what priorities have to be claimed or reclaimed, what practices and habits should be given up, and how to learn these things with a spirit of humility and provisional grace (for others as well as ourselves!).

Thomas Merton offers a prayer that I often share with groups when conversations come to an end.  I share it with you:
MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Thomas Merton, “Thoughts in Solitude”