The baptism of Jesus was the central motif yesterday, as far as the liturgical calendar of the church year goes. I found myself reflecting quite a bit on that scene depicted in Matthew 3:13-17, where Jesus asks John to baptize him, and God’s Spirit descends like a dove to proclaim “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” I recalled wading in the waters of the Jordan a few years ago with my fellow travelers to Israel/Palestine, as we took the opportunity to remember our own baptisms in that simple yet sacred terrain. I reminisced about the tradition practiced on this Sunday by the church I attended in Boston; each member is invited to hear someone else say to them, “remember that you are God’s beloved child.” I thought about Henri Nouwen’s beautiful writings about how we must know our belovedness as we journey through the ups and downs of life and faith.
Yesterday, when I heard the news mid-afternoon that Rev. James Seawood, pastor of Brighton Heights Reformed Church in Staten Island, NY, had died on Sunday morning, I was also reminded of how baptism encompasses not only new life, and washing, and identity, but also death. In baptism we are submerged beneath the surface of life, mysteriously joined to Christ in his death just as we are mysteriously joined to his resurrection life. Our belovedness does not exempt us from the passage through death to new life, but it does see us through. Pondering this brought so many other faces to mind, of those who are newly grieving or anticipating impending loss.
I also immediately thought of how, exactly four years ago to the day, January 12, 2010, James Seawood, then the President of the RCA’s General Synod, and a few other RCA folks were in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, when the massive earthquake struck. They happened to be on the road, in a vehicle, and not in one of the innumerable flimsy buildings that collapsed. Hundreds of thousands of people died as a result of that earthquake. James’ life was spared that day, but it wasn’t spared from the bodily illness that claimed his life yesterday. God’s ways and God’s timing are mysterious, even seeming absurd sometimes. Truly our times are in God’s hands.
I give thanks for Rev. Seawood’s life and for his ministry and witness. I don’t pretend to know him as well as so many others did, but I certainly won’t forget the ways our paths intersected, especially during his General Synod Vice-Presidency and Presidency, which coincided with my years of working for the RCA’s staff. In particular I’ll remember the Sankofa bus journey (which I reflected on two years ago) and the experiences and perspectives that James and my other African-American companions brought to the trip. James’ own upbringing in segregated Arkansas (as recounted in this NPR Story Corps) and his subsequent experiences had instilled in him a deep passion to see the RCA, and all of Christ’s church, address the wounds and ongoing injuries caused by racism in America. He carried that passion through his General Synod service, and invited the denomination to look afresh at matters like our relationship with Native Americans, an issue as old as the denomination itself. And his belovedness as a pastor was plain to see—when he officially was installed as President at General Synod 2009, scores of members from his church on Staten Island made a 14-hour bus trek to Holland, Michigan, to be present for the occasion. I grieve for the congregation that has lost its pastor and for all those James leaves behind, especially his wife Emra.
Late yesterday I pulled out the videorecording of my ordination service, which happened in Brooklyn, NY in 2008, just a few months after Rev. Seawood had been elected as General Synod Vice-President. He took part in the ordination and issued the charge to the congregation. He included a bit of a charge to me as well (I guess he had to add to what Daniel Meeter had already offered!) and I wanted to hear his voice again, to remember what words of wisdom he had bestowed on me that day. I found James’ face and hit ‘play’ on the DVD, and received his words again. I heard echoes of the baptismal belovedness I had already been mulling over, and I was reminded that Christ’s baptism led him into the wilderness and into a ministry that would test him and cost him dearly as he poured out his life for all the beloved ones.
Some snippets of Rev. Seawod’s words to me:
“…there may be times when your service may be met with indifference, there may be times when your service is met with ingratitude, there may be times when you surely will be misunderstood, like the Lord. You should have a love for all humankind that is so great that it will outlive misunderstanding, a love for all humanity that will outlive misinterpretation, a love for the body of Christ that will outlive insult and injury and go on refueling itself day by day, month by month, year by year in self-sacrificing labor for those very ones who may misrepresent, misinterpret, insult and injure you. That love that forgives the coldest indifference. That love that forgives the wrong, that love that gives back in fullest measure of good.
… Know that we pray with you and for you … never feel that you’re all alone. When given great, challenging duties to perform, don’t hesitate to turn and call on a brother or a sister and ask for help in the name of Jesus … We love you, we love you. And when the going gets tough, remember the words that you have heard on this day.”
I know that Rev. James Seawood’s life and ministry were marked by belovedness, and by the exercise of a costly love for human beings. Now, as ever, James’ life is “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3), where belovedness is freed from brokenness. May we all find words that help us take heart in the midst of grief, confusion, doubt, and pain. Thanks be to God for the life and ministry of Rev. Seawood.