John 1: 4-13
Almost exactly 2/5 of my life ago, I stood behind a pulpit in Vancouver, British Colombia on the Monday night of Peace Camp. I had just finished my first year as the Managing Director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. (Please don’t translate that as Bautistas por la Paz because that is NOT who we were then.)
The conference had been a challenge to plan. Not only was it my first – but the Board had decided to go to Vancouver without scouting out whether or not there was a workable site there – and even once we’d found the University of British Columbia, there were the not so small matters of working in a different currency and three times zones away.
Beyond that there was still so very much to learn about this rather odd group of Baptists with whom I’d landed. I had figured out that the best shorthand way to describe the group to outsiders was to say, truthfully, that one of the biggest challenges of planning a board meeting was finding a beer that the Canadians would deign to drink, but there was so much I had yet to grasp. So, yes, I had sent out an email to the board asking them to get something back to me before Thanksgiving – only to get three very quick messages back asking if I meant November or October. And, yes, I had made and continued to make many such mistakes.
Feeling very young and inexperienced and vulnerable, I stressed about that opening address for months and months – and finally at the last minute wrote something I called “Why Wimps Like Me Need the Baptist Peace Fellowship.” How many of you were there?
And now this moment feels somewhat like a bookend. I stand behind another pulpit at another Peace Camp near the end of the week and near the end of this amazing 20-year ride as part of your staff. (Not the end of my ride with you all – but the end of being a part of this in a paid role.) Some things have not changed – after stressing about it for months and months, I finished this piece this morning – AND I still have so very much to learn about this rather odd – shall we say peculiar?-- group of Baptists with whom we’ve all landed. Not because I am a very slow study – but because we are not who we were. We are not who we were 20 years ago. We are not even who we were 2 years ago.
Thanks to a transformative conference last year in Mexico. Thanks to the love and hard work of many. And thanks to the amazing grace of God – we really are becoming God’s peculiar people known as -- BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz. To every one of you who has been a part of that journey – everyone who has pushed and prodded and challenged and poked – thank you.
I read recently that St. Gregory of Nyssa offered this succinct definition of sin. Sin, he said, is a refusal to keep growing.
We are growing, sometimes fitfully, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes reluctantly, often painfully – we are growing.
Sometimes I see it in small ways – In the US, using our signature colors of green and white is called “branding.” Our president Mayra Picos-Lee taught us another word for it. When we took our “seek peace and pursue it buttons” (in the signature green and white) and created “Busca la paz y síguela” buttons (in the signature green and white), she took one look at the design and saw not “branding” but “boring.” So – now the Spanish buttons are multi-colored. A tiny but real step toward being not just bilingual but bicultural.
Other ways are bigger and harder – When we met in Spokane five years ago, we hired Thea Racelis, an amazing Latina activist, as our conference planner. I asked her at some point in the planning process if we should offer the registration brochure in Spanish. She was firmly against it. It would, she said, be promising more than we could deliver. She was right. A lot of work by a lot of people has happened since then. This year, there was no question that we would print the brochures in Spanish, and think that we have – with the help of our musicians, our planners, our speakers, and the many volunteer translators -- actually delivered.
Last year our board adopted a policy that all e-mails and reports between board and staff must be bilingual. For many of us this means using Google Translate. For me this means that I include in many emails the phrase “Aquí está la versión de Google Translate. Sé que no es perfecto.” Here is the version from Google Translate. I know it isn’t perfect.
God, how I want to be “perfecto” – I despise making mistakes, I hate being seen as someone who doesn’t know any better, I am terrified of being found out– and that is the voice of white supremacy in my ear, in my head – that is the Center telling me “Stay here. Stay where you already know the rules and the language and the culture – where you’ll never get it wrong.”
But here is the truth –
“Aquí está la versión de LeDayne. Sé que no es perfecto.”
“Aquí está la versión de BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz. Sé que no es perfecto.”
I do not make light of our past and current failures. We have hurt one another and continue to do so. We sometimes say what would be best left unsaid and sometimes stay silent when we should speak. We sometimes focus on the petty and we fail to notice things that cry out for our attention. Our welcome to one another is never complete. The fact that it is not intentional does not make it any less true. People have suffered because of our failures of community, some of them are here, and some of them will not return. I feel the aching pain of that. We have NOT arrived. It will always be so. Sé que no es perfecto.
And yet – I hope that we can always remember that two things can be true at once – that we are growing – AND that we are always failing and in need of grace.
December 3, 2016. One of the richest days of two very rich decades. Daniel Hunter emailed in the morning to say, “If you want to speak to Mom before she goes, today is the day.” Daniel, his sister Rae, and his parents Bob and Carol were integral to this group for many years. And Carol, beloved to many of us, was near the end of her journey with cancer. I called, of course, and spoke with Carol one last time. Her voice was weak, it was hard to make out all the words, but it was still clearly Carol. I assured her that this, her community, loved her deeply and that we would continue to love her family. I thanked her for her lifelong work for peace rooted in justice. I prayed out loud for Carol, Bob, Rae and Daniel, and then I hung up the phone. Tears still in my eyes, I walked out the door into the Toronto sunshine – to attend a celebration. Heather Steeves and Karen Turner, also long-time members, were having the wedding that had been so long denied to them, and they’d done me the honor of asking me to offer the homily. The service was achingly beautiful – the liturgy so rich, the music so joyful, the congregation so diverse and so happy, the knowledge that this union, finally acknowledged by both church and state, represented such a great turning toward justice. It was one of the most amazing celebrations I’ve ever been a part of.
December 3 is to me the essence of what it is to be community, pain and joy, loss and love, raging grief and blessed beauty all rolled in together. Sé que no es perfecto. But it can be good, very good.
Last year we gathered in Mexico and were transformed. There were many reasons. It was the first time we’d gathered as a conference in one of our Spanish-speaking countries, the first time Spanish was the lead language and English speakers wore headphones, the first time the number of Spanish-speaking attendees matched the number of English-speaking ones, the first time there were as many people of color as whites in attendance, and the first time that the leadership was predominantly from the Global South. All of that was important, but we were transformed by the love and the hospitality and the joy of our Mexican hosts. People kept saying “We will never be the same.” Soon thereafter, our board proved them right. When the group planning the sixth Global Baptist Peace Conference came to us to say, “Let’s do this together. Let’s take Peace Camp to Colombia,” our response was not what it would have been the year before: “Are you nuts? We’d never be able to pull that off.” It was instead “Si. Claro.” “Yes. Of Course.” And I have no doubt that next year in Cali people will be saying, “We will never be the same again.” And they’ll be right.
Mark begins his gospel with people streaming toward a light they have not found in the Center -- they find truth, forgiveness, and a new way of being in the borderland from a wild man clad in camel’s hair with locusts on his breath. When Jesus steps into those muddy waters, he does so in a very deliberate challenge to the Center, the city, the temple, the authorities. Mark sets the baptismal story in a wilderness and follows it with Jesus’ temptation and John’s arrest. I expect his first readers resonated with his acknowledgement of deep struggle and desperate danger. The politics of that day were little different than the politics of our own. Caesar may not have Tweeted – but he too held the lives of others, the families of others, the worth of others in little regard – and had the power to dismiss and destroy them. Yet even as Mark acknowledges all of that, he speaks of the tearing open of the heavens that assures God is with us and the baptism of the Spirit that assures that God is, in fact, within us. Revelation, incarnation, redemption, mercy, forgiveness and fullness of life are found right in the midst of the world as we know it.
We too, living in dangerous and desperate days, are being called to that same water – that same muddy water filled with the muck of real life. To be baptized again in that water is to be called out of the Center which has been our home and into something wholly new.
A few months ago, I was able to speak as my friend and former colleague Scott Hayes was installed as the pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Danielson, CT. At one point in the service, I glanced over and saw the worship bulletin. I saw the words “Rev. LeDayne McLeese Polaski, Executive Director, BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz.” I caught my breath. I see those words all the time, of course. They are on my business cards and at the bottom of every imperfect email I send. And yet that day, I was caught by the sudden awareness that early in my life every single one of those words – except the name with which I was born – LeDayne McLeese – would have been an shock. Reverend? Polaski? Bautistas por la Paz? Executive Director? Not one of those was something I expected or could have foreseen, but there they all were. I find myself wondering these days, five year from now when I glance over, what will I see that I cannot now begin to imagine?
And what about us? And, yes, it will still be “us” – this group has left an imprint on my soul and I will always be a part of it – most of us did not see “Bautistas por la Paz” coming. We did not see grappling with white supremacy and meaning not people out there – but ourselves and this organization -- coming. We did not see the wonders of our conference in Mexico coming. We did not even see multi-colored buttons coming. And we surely did not see Cali coming. And so I wonder – what might be next? When we glance at ourselves, five years from now, what will we see?
I don’t know what my next job will be. I don’t know who we might yet become. Isn’t that exciting?
I do know that if we keep going back to the Water found only in the wilderness – we will be more than we can imagine.
We are BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz. Who we will become is not yet known. We know it is and will not be not perfect – But it can be good, very good.