Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Profitable To Zion: Upon the Dissolution of First Baptist Church of Schenectady

Photo collages remind of ministry moments
On December 31, 2018, the First Baptist Church of Schenectady, NY, will conclude its 196 years of ministry.  Due to the holiday season, the church opted to have the formal celebration of closure on December 23rd to allow more people to participate before the Christmas holiday had some leaving town to be with loved ones elsewhere.

I was asked to preach the sermon, and I noted an interesting turn of phrase (see below) from their most recent church history from the days when the church was founded in the 1820s. 

The service was indeed celebratory.  They gathered for a light lunch afterwards to continue the time of fellowship.  During the service, a number of persons voiced their gratitude for the congregation's ministry and for the love and care they received from one another and their pastor Carole Miller.

Churches are started.  Churches are closed.  This is the reality throughout Christian history, yet it still seems "new" or "unprecedented", as such times are rarely fathomed and mostly feared.  In their decision to close, the congregation realized they were closing this church, but they had other churches in the area to go and become part of.  For everything there is a season, even for the local church. 
At the time of First Baptist’s centennial celebration in 1922, Rudolph Keller wrote:
At a meeting held on the 9th of October, 1822, a paper was drawn up stating that it was the belief of the subscribers that a Baptist church would be profitable to Zion and expressing their desire for such an organization.  At a meeting held November the 8th it was voted that a council be called to organize a church.  The council met on November 21, 1822....The Council unanimously advised the brethren to organize the church, which was done, and it was recognized by the council as the “First Baptist Church,” Schenectady, N.Y.   (History of the First Baptist Church, 1822 – 1922, revised edition, 1972, p. 1)
As I read your church history book, I noticed an unique turn of phrase:  “profitable to Zion”.  Language changes over time, even within the lingo of Baptists talking about establishing a church.  I turned to the internet to see if this was a phrase used in the 1820s or even in the 1920s.  To my surprise, I could not readily find other instances of that phrase popping up in my searches.  
While the dissolution came at the end of 2018,
the church faithfully observed the Advent season
to "watch and wait" as they have all these decades!
The phrase “profitable to Zion” was indeed important to the writer of the church history.  Perhaps it came from the minutes of the organizing meeting back in late 1822.  Or perhaps Rudolph Keller looked at the church’s history and said this phrase in light of the century that had passed since that organizing meeting.   Perhaps that phrase captured something of the moment then as it did for him looking back gratefully at what had come before.

               We gather this day as part of the concluding chapter of the history of First Baptist, Schenectady.  We are here to celebrate 196 years have passed since that day in 1822.  Many of you have been part of the most recent decades, keeping the church going in the 20th and 21st centuries.  (I will take for granted no one here will claim to have firsthand knowledge of the 1922 centennial year.  If so, we will gladly take a moment to ask you for your secrets to aging well!)
 Today, it can be a time for tears and sadness.  The church is dissolving itself.  You made the decision earlier this year to conclude and begin your pathway to the end of 2018, which is also the ending year of this congregation.
Today, it can be a time of gratitude and thanksgiving.  Nothing and no one can last forever.  Yet, we can live with gratitude for what has happened in the passage of time.  Surely you also have seen how this church could be a benefit, or “profitable”, in your life.  When we think of the ministry of the church, the caring of members for one another, the faithful service of pastors who you have known here through this congregation, it is a time to take heart that God was indeed in the midst of all of these years, those you participated in and those that have come long before you.
Generation to generation, this church has served the needs of Schenectady and blessed your life and that of your loved ones.   Without this church, your life would have been much different.   With FBC Schenectady, you have been part of a church family that has taken on challenges and opportunities and weathered together the storms of change personally and congregationally.
Being profitable to Zion is indeed the work of a congregation over the years, decades and centuries.   Congregations are places to hear the Word, to pray and to sing hymns to God, and to be with others of similar belief to live out faith together.  While you can believe, religion is not a solitary practice in itself.  We are called to be with others on the long journey of life and seek the ways of faith in the here and now as we watch and pray for the “yet to come” part of our faith.  
We look, if we aren’t also leaning forward eagerly, toward the time when our faith’s promises will be honored in full.  We may call that “the End Times”.  We may call it “the Sweet Bye and Bye”.  Yet for the first Baptists to organize First Baptist, Schenectady in 1822 and the present day members of First Baptist, Schenectady, preparing to dissolve the church, it is a matter of yearning for Zion to be made known to us.
Zion:  it’s that phrase you may have read in Scripture or sung in the lyrics of a hymn.   Zion is another name for Jerusalem, but not a mere “nickname”.  Rather, Zion is that term of endearment for what Jerusalem could be:  the city shining on the hill, the place where the very nations of this world will gather.   The hymn often sang in worship recalls the euphoria of ancient pilgrims heading up the mountains to be in Jerusalem:
“We’re marching to Zion,
beautiful, beautiful Zion!
We’re marching upward to Zion
the beautiful city of God!”
While our lives are difficult, while doubt can loom large over us, this talk of “Zion” in the Scriptures returns us to this overwhelming sense that “in the End, God shall have the last word.”  So the Psalmist can turn us toward language that is poetic and imaginative of a “glad river” where all the disruptive and sad parts of our existence have their resolution and their rest in the midst of God’s abiding goodness.
When the Baptists of 1822 set out to be “profitable to Zion”, they looked forward in expectation and anticipation.  There was a great eagerness to be a Baptist witness in Schenectady.  Other Christians and other Baptists were in the area, yet they wanted to plant themselves here in this place where they had settled, found work, and got to know their neighbors.  They had families and passed down that faith. 
Yet the story of 1822 is also the story of every year thereafter.  Your church history records in brief the long passage of time, highlighting the change of ministers, the moments when the congregation had an opportunity or a challenge and how they rose to the occasion.  The church members struggled with questions of location.  Mergers were considered.  Buildings were constructed, and then later sold. 
In the midst of these years, you kept marching toward Zion.   You shared the faith, you baptized new believers.  You were at the side of the bedside of those who died.  You rejoiced in newborn babies and presented them to the Lord.  You had committee meetings, Vacation Bible School in all of its glitter-covered craft glory.  You worshipped in all the seasons of the year, and helped one another as you journeyed through your own seasons of life.
A few of the worshippers at the dissolution worship service
 For all the seasons, all the years, all the love of Zion, you worshipped together in various places around Schenectady, most recently here in this wonderful partnership with Stanford Heights UMC.   You’ve had challenges, some recorded in the “official history” and others that I imagine you’d love to tell me about out in the parking lot.  You’ve joined together with community partners like SICM and been faithful participants in the life of the Capital Area Baptist Association and the American Baptist Churches of New York State. 
It may be tempting to ask today if you were not profitable to Zion.  Church closures can seem so “final”.  I realize they are a closing chapter of one story, yet how you move forward from this day will help the story continue!   Each of you can join another area American Baptist congregation.  While you were and will always be the “first” Baptist church of Schenectady, our sister congregations of Emmanuel Friedens, Friendship Baptist, Mt Olivet Missionary Baptist and Tabernacle Baptist would gladly welcome you to join their membership.   While the time of harvest has come in full here for First Baptist, each of you can be the grain of those 196 years of faithful witness and plant the things you’ve learned here, the talents and gifts of the Spirit each of you have, and be a blessing to another of our American Baptist congregations in the area.  In fact, I know that they would be glad to have you, as I’ve heard from the pastors over the past few months saying that they stand ready to receive you, if you so choose to unite with their congregations.   Such faithful folks as you here at FBC Schenectady are part of the great bounty and abundance God has gifted your church with over the years!
               And your church’s legacy will continue in the gifts you plan to give to various organizations and American Baptist partners.  Indeed, the work of our American Baptist Region is the beneficiary of a long and faithful history of Northern Baptists all across upstate New York, giving of their resources through ongoing gifts.  Your generosity as the church concludes its worship life ensures the aims and purposes of First Baptist will continue long into the future through your giving.
  • Profitable to Zion: that’s what your forbearers wanted to be when they convened a council to decide if there should be a Baptist church in Schenectady. 
  • Profitable to Zion:  that’s what you are being here in 2018 as you close the church at year’s end.  In the legacy of your planned giving, in the legacy of each of you who go forward now to be with other congregations, in the continuing ministry of Pastor Carole following her vocation to serve God’s people as faithfully as she has here among you these past twenty years, indeed, you have honored those who have gone on before you.
          Indeed, First Baptist, Schenectady, has lived up to its aspirations from long ago:  Profitable to Zion, from generation to generation, sharing the Gospel in word and deed alike.   One hundred ninety-six years of blessing the cities of Schenectady and Niskayuna, and being faithful witnesses to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
             Profitable to Zion:  from beginning to end! 
Profitable to Zion:  from 1822 to 2018!
             Profitable to Zion:  from going from this place and people to another place and people!
Profitable to Zion:  from generation to generation to yet another generation, AMEN!
Rev Carole Miller gives the benediction.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Living with the End (Mark 13:1-8)

A few years ago, documentarian Ken Burns offered a two part, four hour PBS documentary on the Dust Bowl. In his introduction, Burns reminds the viewer that the Dust Bowl was a decade-long manmade disaster, brought about by over cultivation of land not really suited for the overproduction farming forced upon it by farmers and speculators looking for easy wealth.

Burns claims the Dust Bowl was "an epic of human pain and suffering—a crucible of dust, drought and Depression, when normally self-reliant fathers found themselves unable to provide for their families; when even the most vigilant mothers were unable to stop the dirt that invaded their houses from killing their children by "dust pneumonia;" when thousands of desperate Americans were torn from their homes and forced on the road in an exodus unlike anything the United States has ever seen."

I admit more than a passing interest in this disaster, as the Dust Bowl figures into my family lore, particularly the experiences of my grandmother and grandfather Hugenot. As a young married couple with a small daughter (my father and his brother not quite on the scene yet!), they lived and farmed in “Dust Bowl” country, close to Dodge City, Kansas. My father recalls his parents talking about memories of thick, choking dust and the complications and hardship it brought along.

The Dust Bowl is a story perhaps forgotten today, save the dwindling number of first hand witnesses and high school students still required to read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, a story of the Joad family, who lose their crops to the Dust Bowl and then their homestead to the bank. Steinbeck’s novel is a fictional accounting rooted in the pain and loss known to many farm families in that era. The Grapes of Wrath is a book I have found far more profound than under the pressure of junior year book reports and the youthful naiveté that I was reading “just” a story.

It was not something my grandmother talked much about in my recollection, yet as I read through Ken Burns’ book that accompanies the film, I felt like part of my family history was being brought back to life in the black and white photos, the newspaper clippings and the chilling stories of farmers drove to despair by financial ruin and livestock killed where they stood in the field if they were caught outside in an unexpected dust storm. Indeed, for those living through the Dust Bowl, Burns claims the experience was “a ten year apocalypse”.

The heavy dread, the great uncertainty, the fear of everything about to come crashing down, all of this figures into such a word as apocalypse. We are given a number of moments in the Bible when the text turns ominous and indeed here we get the oft-quoted phrase “war and rumors of war”.

 Such passages resound with images of absolute chaos, deep fear and unthinkable hardship. In Mark 13, we get nations and kingdoms against one another, earthquakes and famines predicted. While the Book of Revelation is most popularly known for such talk, the gospel, aka the “good” news, is also the place where the Bible turns solemn and frightening.

 The teachings of Jesus include passages where he predicts and pronounces judgment upon the world. He does not skirt around the idea of his followers knowing hardship and persecution. Indeed, the gospel of Mark is thought to be written with the author’s likely first-hand experience of being a persecuted mid-first century Christian. He gathered together the oral traditions being passed around about Jesus among the early churches with the goal of telling “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”.

 In the midst of his recounting of the parables and miracles, Mark ensures the reader does not lose sight of faith’s costliness. Love your life, and you lose it. Lose your life and find it. Take up your cross and follow. These words take especial meaning when you realize the challenge of the first decades of Christianity. One could argue the early Christians found the stories of what apocalypse would bring about all too familiar.

 Long before gaining favor and standing in the Roman Empire, the Christians would know great persecution and violence, marginalization and martyrdom. One could also argue that they recalled the apocalyptic teachings of Jesus and also found great hope and joy there as well. For in the midst of these frightening images of dread to befall the world and the faithful alike, the apocalyptic serves also as a reminder that while an ending is coming, a beginning is also promised.

 We hear remarkable poetic language of God bringing an “end to death, to crying and to pain”, bringing Creation to New Creation. Such language may not be overtly stated in Mark: “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come”. In Mark 13, we hear of the end bringing not “doom” but this wondrous and poetic imagery of birth pangs, the first sign of new life, rebirth about to take place.

For those who have experienced birth, one might have all manner of terms for birth pangs. For some, the birthing process is graceful. For others, it is a test of endurance. The end result is often the same: an overwhelming sense of joy. Certainly it is mixed with pain, yet the wee miracle before you is worth it all. In that liminal moment between pain and joy, one might even say that in the delivery room, the baby’s not the only one crying. The apocalyptic has this same mixture of joy and pain, chaos and certainty. We live in a world yet to be birthed into this new Creation where all things will be made well. So it is that every generation will deal with challenges and indeed for some, tests of endurance where we think God somehow absent or aloof. Such teachings of Jesus offer the warning of peril and the promise of God’s good End.

Scholar NT Wright observes, "Jesus’ warnings to his followers are to be taken very seriously by those who are called to work for the kingdom today. Many Christians today face persecution every bit as severe as that which the early church suffered; and those Christians who don’t face persecution often face the opposite temptation, to stagnate, to become cynical, to suppose that nothing much is happening, that the kingdom of God is just a pious dream.” (Mark for Everyone, 179-80)

Some questions I ponder when reading passages like Mark 13: Do we read this passage as a long past word, spoken to a situation not necessarily ever like our own? Or do we read this text as the good word, spurring us to take heart when we feel the world crashing down around us? Does the text spur us to care and become involved when we hear of fellow Christians or other religious groups are enduring religious persecution today?

The apocalyptic teachings of Jesus echo down the centuries to us. From generation to generation, we hear these words tinged with sadness and hope, and we ponder the question of how we live out the faith handed down long ago by those who first heard Mark’s gospel. We are here because of Christians who kept the faith in difficult times, not least the Christians who lived in that difficult time of the first century when women and men lived under constant threat for their faith.

Mark 13 reads as a good word for persons who found themselves in unpredictable times with little resources other than their faith and one another. I thought about Mark 13’s predictions of hardship and its affirmation of trust in God when reading Ken Burns’ observations about the Dust Bowl as people struggled through the “ten year apocalypse” experience.

 He writes, " But the story of the Dust Bowl is also the story of heroic perseverance—of a resilient people who, against all odds, somehow managed to endure one unimaginable hardship after another to hold onto their lives, their land and the ones they loved."

May we read the New Testament and likewise discover the stories of a similar resilient people who, against all odds, kept the faith and lived into the fullness of their belief in Christ Jesus.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

The Last and Lasting Word: Notes on All Saints Day 2018

Stories have a powerful way of shaping our lives.

 Over the years, I still remember my Grandmother Hugenot reading the story of “Button Soup”. I have the book among my books, and I will never part with it. The physical book is precious to me.

The story of “Button Soup”, a tale of a miser who learns to be generous by sharing of his abundance with his neighbors, is one that I claim as a “core story” I retain from my childhood.  And, thanks to corporate marketing strategies, I know it thanks to the Gospel according to Walt.  Daisy Duck outwits champion miser Uncle Scrooge to share his resources with his other Disneyland neighbors.

I remember with great fondness my grandmother reading me many stories over and over, yet that particular story, a variant of “Stone Soup”, is the one that nestled down deep within me. The story makes sense of the world, or the way the world ought to be. As a grownup, I find myself telling people another story, one that I find deep down in my bones just like “Button/Stone Soup”.

The story I tell involves the very end of human existence, aka "the Eschaton" (for those wanting a cool Scrabble winning word).  Where I tell this story as a preacher is less a matter of standing in a pulpit and more when I stand on a hillside. It’s a quiet time when I tell this story. It’s time for that final ritual up there among family and friends. We have been telling stories already, sometimes told with rollicking detail during an eulogy delivered by a friend (clergy sometimes blanche at the stories of the deceased that get told at funerals). Now it’s approaching time for that last word.

What will it be? At the graveside, I tell one story. It’s really the best one for times like these. As the liturgy draws to a close, I am nearing the amen, but I still have this story to tell. I say in the midst of the sadness and as that sense of finality hangs a bit thick in the air: “We look forward to that time, when the one who has made us shall not leave us in the dust. For as scriptures promise, there shall be an end to death, and to crying and to pain, for the old order has passed away”.

The Christian cannot speak of any other last word. We sometimes forget when the anxieties of the day make us think things are otherwise contrary to our knowledge of the promised End. Indeed, there are times when we lose sight of that which is promised, or we let another story take precedence.

Those who are able to stay the course, those who are able to keep “their eyes on the prize”, we have a word for these sort of folks: saints.

The book of Revelation mentions saints quite frequently, the people who live a faithful witness on the earth, even in its broken down state, and once up in the heavenly choirs, just can’t stop praising the Lord. The saints are those who live in this world with the same frailty and fallibility as any other human being, yet they are able to live a faithful and unshakable witness to Christ. It does not happen overnight for these folks: the process varies, yet the result is the same: people who are able to be the faithful and beloved of Christ.

 They take the long view, knowing that God will have the last word, not the powers and ideologies of the day, or the belief that things will end in disarray or without meaning. They see the world as a place where the gospel can indeed take root, no matter how tough and stubborn the soil appears to be.

The Baptist saint Clarence Jordan lived through the difficulties of mid-20th century racism as a witness to racial reconciliation and peace. Only a saint could take the long view, despite the many forces against him. Jordan spoke prophetically when he observed, “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change”.

In other words, God shall have the last word, and it shall be one that is glorious and just.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

A prayer for Regional Ministry in upstate New York

The American Baptist Churches of New York State has its Regional Biennial gathering every other year.  It is an opportunity to welcome as many of our 284 churches as possible to convene in one place for a weekend.

As part of the Friday evening worship, I was invited to offer a "pastoral prayer" for the Region and this gathering.  Working with the theme of "Finding Hope in Brokenness" (Isaiah 58:8a), I offered these words for the evening prayer:

O God, we gather this weekend as a family of faith, joined together in prayer and praise, ministry and mission. We give all glory and honor to you as Maker of Heaven and Earth, Redeemer of Humanity and Creation and the Breath of all Creation and the sometimes gentle and other times gale force Wind summoning us to be your people called “Church”. We are pilgrims together on a journey, following the Gospel way of Jesus Christ.

We pause here for two days for fellowship and being together. We come from busy schedules of work and ministry, the rigors of our family and congregational needs not necessarily set aside from our minds.

 Yet, we are here, ready to be challenged, ready to be affirmed, ready to encounter the wide ranging family of God called ABC/NYS. We hear the ancient prophet Isaiah, summoning people to greater belief and more holy action. We know that these words are not just for then, but surely, we need to hear them anew in the here and now. We are in the midst of difficult times, whether in our local churches or in the wider communities we are located within and called to serve. Sometimes, our hope and trust made known in Jesus will falter as we worry about lack or resist the Spirit’s prompting to risk. We let the four walls of the church building sometimes be the limits of our sense of what ministry we are called to undertake.

Challenge us, O God, to see the abundance You give to us, even when our churches worry about attendance, buildings and cash flow. Challenge us, O God, to find our voices to testify and speak truth to power. Challenge us, O God, to lift up the many who are kept down in this world through circumstances and systems that separate us and classify people as “us” and “them” in so many, many ways.

Bless the work of this weekend’s meetings. May we hear the words of Isaiah resound in workshops and seminars, business meetings and plenary worship sessions. May we go and tell this good word of American Baptists united together in ministry across upstate New York, living in the power of the Spirit, by the New Life given to us by Jesus, to the glory and honor of God almighty. AMEN.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Celebrating a new church building

This past Sunday, it was my pleasure to represent the American Baptist family of New York State and the Capital Area Baptist Association at the dedication of a new church building.  The Gethsemane Karen Baptist Church is a congregation of persons relocated from Burma and Thailand to the United States.  In the upstate New York area, we are blessed with several churches with Burma connections, speaking Karen, Chin and Burmese languages.  Churches have formed in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica and in the greater Albany area.

Gethsemane Karen Baptist Church shared facilities with the Emmanuel Baptist Church of Albany, whose congregation encouraged the Gethsemane congregation as they developed their ministry, shared Sunday School resources and other ways of working together.   This eventually led to this happy day as the Gethsemane Karen Baptist Church purchasing a former Episcopal church in Castleton-on-Hudson, just south of Albany.  The church's dedication service was a celebration shared by many Karen churches from across New York and even a church from Connecticut was present.  Baptist leaders from Burma and the Karen Baptist Church/USA attended, offering words of encouragement. 

On  behalf of ABCNYS (with the thankful help of a translator!), I offered these words:

From Psalm 100

A Psalm of thanksgiving.
 Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth.
Worship the LORD with gladness; come into his presence with singing.
Know that the LORD is God.
It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name.
For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

This is a great day in the life of your church. This is a great day for American Baptists and Karen Baptists. We celebrate the dedication of your church building. All of us together give praise and thanks to God, who provides for His people in times of plenty and in times of want. We are blessed by God greatly today and always!

This day comes after a long time of looking for a church building. Many prayers, many meetings and many hours were spent looking for the place God called you to be.

This day comes after a long journey. Many church members come from Burma, Thailand and other places as refugees. You and your family have had many challenges, many times of discouragement. Yet God has blessed you and kept you, bringing you here to New York and to become Gethesemane Karen Baptist Church.

At a church building dedication, we remember the stories of Israel, building tabernacles and temple. Such work was to praise God, to provide a place for His holy people to gather, to pray and to be in God’s holy presence. This church building is part of that tradition. We gather here to be holy people in a holy place, carrying out the holy work of following Jesus.

A church building is a blessing. It is a place where you sing, you pray, you listen to God’s word. You gather together to baptize believers in the name of Jesus. You gather together for Communion, sharing the bread and the cup and remembering Jesus.

 A church building is also a place where you have joyful times: eating together, learning together in Bible study, watching your children and grandchildren run and play. It is a place of many happy memories.

A church building can also be a challenge. Just like a house, a church building can have roof problems, issues with water, and things can break. Having your own church building means you will have repair work to do. You will have decisions to make about what to do with a repair or a building improvement. Buildings are brick and stone, water pipes and electric wiring. All of these things will have their challenges. Sometimes when we do not expect them!

Moving to this church brings new opportunity! I know that the church building will be a blessing and a challenge. Yet, I know something even greater than this building: the people of Gethsemane Karen Baptist Church. Each member has contributed to make this day possible. Looking to God for your hope and trust, you will do many great things for the Lord in all the days to follow.

As you have moved from Albany to Castleton on Hudson, you can be assured the support of the Capital Area Baptist Association and the American Baptist Churches of New York State will be with you. We hope you will invite our sister churches to come here in the future, to meet together, to eat together, and to praise God together.

You have the blessing and the challenge to be the church. Use this building well to bless God and one another with what happens inside the church building.

May this building be a place that:
     * shares the Gospel in word and action welcomes all who want to know God, wherever in the world or this neighborhood they come from.
     * Opens its doors to those who are needy, sick or in trouble,
     * So that your church members can help them.
     * Offers ways to grow as disciples of Jesus, Who follow and serve in His name.

PRAYER: O God, bless the holy people of this holy place, so that they may share the word here and throughout the community. Bless the building to long years of worship services, Bible studies, children and youth ministry, and caring for all who come through these doors. We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ, AMEN.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Roger Williams: An American Baptist to Remember

Back in the 17th century, as Baptists began to emerge in Europe, their beliefs and teachings began to work in the minds of these upstart colonists in America. Roger Williams founded the “first” Baptist church in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1638, part of his personal odyssey of living a contrary-minded faith. When he arrived in America in 1630, Williams was a controversial figure, aggravating the Puritan colonial government to the point that within six years, he was banished from Massachusetts.

To avoid deportment to England where he was equally unwelcome, Williams set off in the dead of winter 1636 for the wilderness....later known as "Rhode Island".

Ironically, the British crown and the Puritan government thought of themselves along the same lines: both forms of government thought they alone knew what God had ordained for the order of things. To both, Williams would speak out against theocratic rule, embracing that religion is a matter of conscience and church and state kept separate. What we take for granted today came only because persons like Roger Williams argued for it and suffered consequences.

 Recently, I came across a quote taken from Williams’ writings about his banishment from the Bay Colony. Williams set his reflections to verse:

God makes a Path, provides a Guide,

And feeds in Wilderness!

His glorious name while breath remaines, O that I may confesse.

Lost many a time, I have had no Guide, No House, but Hollow Tree!

In stormy Winter night no Fire, no Food, no Company:

In him I have found a House, a Bed,

A Table, a Company:

No Cup so bitter, but’s made sweet. When God shall Sweet’ning be.

(Edwin Gaustad, Liberty of Conscience, Eerdmans, 1991; current edition, Judson, 1999).

In the midst of tangling with English and then colonial legal and religious leaders, Williams found strength in reading the sacred text. Surely you heard the refrain of the 23rd Psalm weaving through his reflections. As he established Rhode Island and a Baptist congregation, Williams worked for religious tolerance, creating the first place within North America where persons of any or no religious background were welcome. The subsequent Constitution and Bill of Rights would be indebted to Williams’ early advocacy for religious liberty.
When visiting the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, I saw Thomas Jefferson’s historic 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, assuring them of his likeminded desire to establish the separation of church and state. Jefferson and the Danbury Baptists were indebted to the witness of Roger Williams, the first person in America to speak of the need for such separation. In the 1630s, however, Williams was a pariah and a pest, a threat against the status quo.

In more modern times, we have Roger as a fine example of what a Baptist in America could be like.  Like Roger tromping off into the wilderness called “the unknown” toward his future, we present day Baptists who advocate for religious freedom and the liberty of conscience can also feel a bit “out there” in the wilderness. Nonetheless, we see what happens when the prophetic learns these words of hope and fills with the divine Spirit of God. Hopeful future births, even when all witness and wisdom alike say or fathom otherwise.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Preaching and Film

From time to time, I have short form pieces that appear in places other than this blog.  Last week, The Christian Citizen, a primarily e-journal with some print publication, published a piece I wrote on the Oscar winning film "The Shape of Water".

To read this essay, click this link:

Informing my interest in film and faith is indeed my love of good stories.  Over the years, I have tapped many sources of popular culture to assist my work with weekly preaching and teaching.  I watch films in theatres, but I also enjoy a good binge watch session on Hulu or Netflix.  I also enjoy the patient (and not so patient) times between issues of a comic book story, where it may take 5-6 issues for a storyline to be completed.  (I know, I know, I could "trade wait" and read everything at once after the comic book publisher releases a trade paperback of the whole story all at once months later, but it's still a great thing to "wait" and watch the story unfold, if not prognosticate a bit on how the writer has sorted out how to resolve the storyline, part by part.)

Furthermore, my favorite show of all time is Doctor Who, which has spent most of its existence being told in episodic, multi-part form, complete with the grand cliffhanger tradition.  Why not leave them at the edge of their seats?  It can also work on Sunday mornings!

In the pulpit, I find myself remiss if I haven't thought about the ancient text and cast around for contemporary examples to further the work I have done with translation, exegesis and commentary.  The "creative process" depends on keeping the faith lively and relevant, even if you find that moment of grace coming from less conventional sources.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Words that Bless and Unite: Remembering Howard Sheffey

On Monday, April 16, 2018, the Rev Howard Sheffey, pastor of the Old Stone Church near Ballston Spa, NY, died of cancer.  As part of his home going service at his long-time “home church” Friendship Baptist in Schenectady, NY, I spoke on behalf of Howard’s colleagues and the ABCNYS Region as part of the tributes to his life and ministry. I offered words extemporaneously, so I have reconstructed what I said after the fact, followed by a personal note that I did not share that morning.

I come in praise of God for the life of our brother Rev Howard Sheffey.  Without a doubt, Howard loved his congregations:  Friendship Baptist, where he served as a lay leader, usher, deacon and later called to ministry and ordained, and the Old Stone Church, where he served faithfully for many years while also keeping connected with Friendship.
Howard believed in cooperative work between Baptists.  Most Baptists have been known to be particular minded more than united.  Indeed, like the King James Version says, we are a “peculiar” people.
Yet, for Howard, he did not let too many conversations go by without his affection and concern for the local Baptist Association (aka Capital Area Baptist Association, part of ABCNYS) or the Central Hudson Association (part of the NYS Empire State National Baptists) coming up in conversation.  He wanted to see more cooperation, more energy in ministry together and for one another.
Once he accepted his call, Howard never said never to his call to preach and serve God’s people, especially at the Old Stone Church.  We will miss him greatly, for he was a colleague and a friend to us all.   Thanks be to God!  Amen.
When speaking at such gatherings, it is a virtue to be brief, so I did not share this next word at the memorial service.  I did share it at the Old Stone Church at their worship service the next day (again, a reconstruction of my extemporaneous remarks):
One of the last conversations I had with Howard was over the phone, just before he went into the hospital.  I was calling from time to time to check in with Howard and Doris (his wife).  At the end of the brief conversation, Howard said he wanted to offer a prayer for me.  He offered words of thanksgiving for my work with churches and prayed for God to strengthen me for the journey ahead.
Certainly, one thing we heard repeatedly was the testimony of family and friends coming to see Howard and his efforts to care for them, even though he was the one dealing with the illness and discomfort.  Even in his last few days as verbal communication lessened, his smile and his gestures spoke for his gratitude and delight in seeing loved ones at his side.
Know that in the days ahead, Old Stone, that you are not alone in this time of transition.  Our Association, our pastors and our Region is ready to help you in whatever is needed.  Thanks be to God! Amen.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Singing at a funeral

On Saturday, April 7, 2018, a celebration of life was held for Rev Douglas Deer, who died in February.  Retired in 2014 from First Baptist Cooperstown, Doug was remembered for his many years of ministry and his influence on the lives of many people.

We sang quite a number of hymns as part of the service.  Doug loved to sing, so we sang many hymms familiar to many Baptists.  Indeed, I knew most of the hymn lyrics (at least the first and last verses) thanks to my own upbringing in similar churches.  You could say we sang our way through a veritable  American (Baptist) Songbook!

I was asked to share some recollections as part time of the service:

I first met Doug during the summer of 2013. I had just started working with churches as Region staff and Doug was looking toward retirement.

At the end of that first conversation over at the parsonage, I knew of his great love of this church and community.  There was no doubt he and Susan had a good season of life together here.

In retirement, Doug spent a number of Sundays with churches, continuing his love of preaching.  While his health sometimes slowed him down, I knew he would be back in the pulpit once he was feeling up to it again, especially in Groton City.

When Joe Perdue shared word of Doug’s passing via the church’s Fb Page, he wrote, “We know Doug is in a better place, surrounded by the many people he ministered to” (FB post 2/28). Joe also speculated on the many train sets that surely awaited him.

This image of Doug working with his train sets is fairly easy to imagine.  Yet the other one of Doug alongside his congregants, that image captivated me even more so, for it is part of the faith he proclaimed and shared, that God would gather together those who believed in the gospel.  I can imagine pulpit and fellowship hall folding chairs are just as likely close at hand for Doug as the train tracks are in the sweet bye and bye.

It is good to note this, as ministers often feel more challenge than celebration.  It is a burdensome and joyful vocation, though in uneven proportions most days.  Pastors journey alongside  people in times of joy and concern, well acquainted with the tragic and the inexplicable.  Ministry is not easy nor does the stress level ever completely subside.  Sometimes a sense of fulfillment or vocational contentment for pastors can be elusive.

Yet I know what I sensed even in that first conversation with Doug over at the parsonage:  he was a person who kept the faith, kept saying “yes” to his vocation to serve Christ and the people within and well beyond these four walls.

His ministry and faithful witness shall continue in the lives of those he pastored and shared Christ’s light with.  Indeed, we saw in Doug’s life and ministry the words of Jesus flourish:

He said, “How will we liken the Kingdom of God? Or with what parable will we illustrate it? It’s like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, though it is less than all the seeds that are on the earth, yet when it is sown, grows up, and becomes greater than all the herbs, and puts out great branches, so that the birds of the sky can lodge under its shadow.”
— Mark 4:30–32

Monday, March 19, 2018

Why Lent matters

From the 4th century Desert Fathers tradition, as translated by Benedicta Ward:

Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?”

Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Part Time Shepherding: Ministry Trends in the Here and Now

Do clergy wear multiple hats
or choose which hat to wear?
Part-time clergy.  Bi-Vocational Pastors.  Shared/Yoked Ministers.  Multiple income clergy.

These are part of the lived realities of the churches I serve alongside in upstate New York.  While we have a few "full-time" positions (i.e. sufficient resources for compensation, full medical and pension and reimbursements for ministry expenses), we have a much higher number of churches with pastors who serve less than full-time (or are paid for less than full time and sometimes struggle with churches still expecting more than their pastoral budget really allows). 

Ponder these things....

The Episcopal Church conducted a survey of its denominational clergy and found some very familiar patterns if you know anything about the trends (mostly downward) of full-time clergy becoming less likely.

Read the report via this link:

A few years ago, a report on "Alternative Pastoral Models" was written by Dr C. Jeff Woods, Associate General Secretary of the American Baptist Churches/USA (aka "my home team").  Jeff's thoughtful piece is now several years old, yet I believe it is likely to be appreciated anew or perhaps now can be appreciated with the change already felt and experienced actively among many of our churches.

Read Jeff's piece via:

One of my own contributions to this changed trend in ministry (note:  it's not "changing" as it has already "changed") is my essay "4 Ways Your Church Can Pay Your Next Minister Fairly", written back in September 2014.   After I posted my original version on this blog on a Friday and shared word of its availability through social media (FB), I had over 100 views by the end of the weekend.  I realized then that I had written something more off the cuff really struck a chord.  I continue to refer churches to it as they wrestle with how to be "fair" not only to the minister but also the congregation as everyone will be more realistic about the balancing act in the long run. 

Here's a version edited for Ethics Daily's use:

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Listen Before Speaking: MLK Holiday 2018 and 1 Samuel 3:1-20

I offered the sermon at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Albany, NY, on the Sunday of what some consider the MLK Holiday Weekend, an expansion of the one day civic holiday to include opportunities for learning and service in the spirit of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Seeing that the Revised Common Lectionary readings suggested 1 Samuel 3:1-20 (aka "the call of Samuel"), I revisited key events in King's life where a sense of call was sensed and sometimes wrestled with by even Dr. King himself.  Here's the sermon:

The call of the prophet Samuel might strike you as “low key”. Many times, we think of God’s voice booming, yet here, God is subtle, drawing in the young man through a quiet calling out that at first leaves young Samuel thinking it’s the voice of his elderly mentor Eli.

When Eli sagely realizes Samuel is not just “hearing things”, he gives some advice: When God speaks again, say “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” It’s an unexpected moment, a call given as a “stage whisper” by the divine voice that could otherwise rumble across the heavens! Yet God works in a variety of ways, most often in ways we’re sometimes not subtle enough to catch onto!

The call of God can happen to anyone. God knows no partiality! We can be called to serve as pastors or missionaries or chaplains or all manner of church-related vocations. And indeed, God calls and gifts each believer for serving others through “secular” and “sacred” means. For a Christian believer, the “call of God” happens in a variety of ways and sometimes crystal clear and other times at first mostly opaque. Yet God calls. Will we know how to listen and respond? How do we hear God when times are so uncertain that it could be said, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (1 Samuel 3:1b)

In the summer of 1959, Joan Thatcher, publicity officer of the American Baptist Convention (now ABC/USA) was seeking material for the “Life Service” Sunday. This was an initiative to encourage churches to place especial emphasis in Sunday worship on church vocations, most particularly the importance of people being called to ministry. The publicity office sought testimony and insight from notable people who epitomized a life lived in service to Christ and the Church. Joan Thatcher reached out to a minister with a rising profile in the late 1950s and certainly a good number of American Baptist connections. She sent a letter to Atlanta, asking Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., asking him to write about his call to ministry. As part of her request to Dr King, Joan Thatcher noted, “Apparently many of our young people still feel that unless they see a burning bush or a blinding light on the road Damascus, they haven’t been called.”

Dr King wrote back:

My call to the ministry was neither dramatic nor spectacular. It came neither by some miraculous vision nor by some blinding light experience on the road of life. Moreover, it did not come as a sudden realization. Rather, it was a response to an inner urge that gradually came upon me. This urge expressed itself in a desire to serve God and humanity, and the feeling that my talent and my commitment could best be expressed through the ministry. At first I planned to be a physician; then I turned my attention in the direction of law. But as I passed through the preparation stages of these two professions, I still felt within that undying urge to serve God and humanity through the ministry. During my senior year in college, I finally decided to accept the challenge to enter the ministry. I came to see that God had placed a responsibility upon my shoulders and the more I tried to escape it the more frustrated I would become. A few months after preaching my first sermon I entered theological seminary. This, in brief, is an account of my call and pilgrimage to the ministry. (LINK:

These words about “call” were shared across the denomination as part of the 1960 Life Service initiative. We hear this word thanks to the careful archiving of the King Papers, held at Stanford University, and made available online for everyone to access. King is on our minds this weekend with the civic holiday and the various ways communities and organizations recall King’s legacy through celebration and times of service to others in need. We hear these words from 1959 with the benefit of hindsight, knowing what significance King would take on for the Civil Rights Movement, his greatest public speeches yet to be seared into the minds of generations yet to come.

Yet, in this moment of reflection, King recalls a shifting of vocations, uncertain until he was certain about his life’s pathway. It was not in the clarity of a singular moment. I am reminded of Jürgen Moltmann who looked back at his life and career as a theologian and observed, “The road emerged only as I walked it.” King came to the realization, yet it was not ultimately a one-time event that overwhelmed. Instead, he found his call to ministry “a response to an inner urge that gradually came upon me.” He had to hear it, live with it, perhaps run from it, and then embrace it, and as any pastor will admit, then keep embracing it through thick and thin (and there’s plenty of that, if you didn’t know already!).

The life of following Jesus, whether we are a pastor or lay person, a new Christian or a long time believer, is about being on that journey, even when it’s uncertain what will come next. We are gifted to serve Christ and the world in various ways, yet we also know we are not meant to have it “all together” (or if you think you must have it all together, may I give you this kind and liberating word that you do not have to be perfect to be part of God’s Kingdom-Reign)?

Certainly, our brother Martin was given a great call and endured much in his following of that call, yet he could also look back and see where there was a dynamic at work where gradually he came into what God called him to become for the church and most certainly matters of a nation’s soul. King was the son of another Baptist minister, Rev Martin Luther King, Sr. Some accounts recall “Daddy King” as resolute in his vision of his two sons, Martin and A.D., becoming pastors, joining him in the ministry of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. He sent Martin at age 15 to the Morehouse College, a prestigious historic black college. (A PBS special next month will explore the HBCU. Similarly, the American Baptist Home Mission Society has a video recalling efforts to establish colleges and universities in the South with Morehouse itself named after a significant executive director of ABHMS, Dr. Henry Morehouse.)

Morehouse College was, as it is well known today, a fine school where King was challenged, especially as a younger than average undergraduate. He made it through his studies, and the time came as he said in his 1959 recollection, “I still felt within that undying urge to serve God and humanity through the ministry. During my senior year in college, I finally decided to accept the challenge to enter the ministry.” I note here that later this year, 2018 will mark the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination in Memphis, TN.

Such a moment will be a sad commemoration, yet it will be remembered because of the witness King had built up in the nation’s conscience. We know the “rest of the story” element of King’s life, yet I think again it is well worth noting another “50th anniversary”, remembering that in February 1948, King was sent forth from Ebenezer and his studies completed at Morehouse that may to become a seminary student at Crozer Seminary in September 1948. (Crozer would later close its Chesterfield, PA, school and merge in with Colgate Rochester, thus giving students and alums for years to come a bit of challenge trying to say their alma mater is “Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School” in one breath…) Such moments in a pastor’s life like an ordination service may get shuffled away in the hectic pace of ministry with its mix of sermons to write, meetings to attend, appointments to keep, yet I find recalling these “milestone moments” in my life as a pastor are helpful. Once heard, the call to preach is hard to shake loose.

Yet for King in 1959, he looked back at his vocational pathway, exploring other tracks of professional development, embracing the call, then living it out in the years since 1948. Over that next eleven year period, he would marry, start a family, earn a Ph.D, and be called to his first “solo” pastorate, Dexter Avenue Baptist in Montgomery, Alabama. From there, King would become part of the Montgomery Bus boycott alongside Rosa Parks, help found activist groups, including what is now known as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He would become known increasingly around the United States, meeting with presidents and other national leaders. He would feature on the cover of TIME Magazine and publish his first book Stride Toward Freedom.

 Yet, that same time period, those years of “saying yes” to his call also came with the experience of unsettling anonymous calls and letters threatening violence. In late January 1958, King would be sleepless after a disturbing phone call. He found himself in prayer, “Lord, I'm down here trying to do what's right. I think I'm right. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But Lord, I must confess that I'm weak now, I'm faltering. I'm losing my courage. Now, I am afraid. And I can't let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone.”

In response, King recalls, It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: "Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world." I tell you I've seen the lightning flash. I've heard the thunder roar. I've felt sin breakers dashing trying to conquer my soul. But I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me alone. At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. Three nights later, King’s home would be bombed. Mercifully, no one was hurt, yet he knew it could have been easily otherwise for his family. Remarkably, King would call for nonviolent response, even as the violence around him threatened to continue. [LINK:]

Flash forward to 1959 and he receives this correspondence from the American Baptist Convention. “Could you tell us about your call to ministry, Dr. King? What can you say to inspire especially our youth to explore God’s calling to ministry and mission?” Considering the long path from that initial call to preach, to the wrestling to accept it, to the affirmation and blessing of ordination to schooling and then to such a ministry as this, Dr. King could write of ministry as a call to be embraced and a pilgrimage he found himself on, not for his gain or glory, but to serve the God who called him to live and serve in difficult times in sore need of conscience, non-violence and a beloved community. What do you hear in this word today, whether it is taken from the call to a young child of ancient Israel or a 20th century Baptist whose legend and legacy may make us miss out on the man who struggled through the long haul and tumult?

How do we understand how to live and serve in difficult times in sore need of conscience, non-violence and a beloved community? Like Samuel, King was called to tell the people that the Lord was ready to bring a mighty word: “See, I am about to do something….that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle” (cf. I Samuel 3:11)

So I leave you with this troubling yet fruitful word: God calls. Will we know how to listen and respond?

(Most helpful for this sermon: the MLK chronology published by Stanford’s King Papers Project: