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Archive for October, 2008

God Bless the DMV!

Those of you who read the post “Gender Confusion” know that the new driver’s license I got at the Department of Motor Vehicles identified me as a “female.”  Although I didn’t file a formal complaint, you can imagine my delight at receiving this comment on that post:

Pastor Jim, please allow me to apologize on behalf of DMV for your recent unfavorable encounter with us. As a state agency, DMV literally comes in contact with more customers than any other agency in the Commonwealth. We make every effort to comply with the hundreds of laws that the legislators (people representatives) pass annually and at the same time provide our customer with the very best service we can.

We are directly and indirectly involved in millions of transactions; and out of those millions we are proud to say that our error rate is extremely low. But, we do make mistakes.

Our mission is to promote security, safety and service and our vision is to provide PEAK (People Ethics Accuracy Knowledge) service— everyone, every time.

Again, I am very sorry that you were the beneficiary of less than the high standard of service we strive to provide each and every one of our customers.

If I can assist in any way, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Gerald Slade, Deputy Director, Field Operations

Well, thank you, Mr. Slade!  If I have ever uttered an unkind word about the Department of Motor Vehicles I take it back.  And oh, by the way, about that vanity license plate…do you make one that says:

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Hear or download this post: Not A Black Eye in the House (mp3 file – 3:01)

Some of you may be eager to hear how the second round of Holy Conversations came out.  Let me give a brief summary and then we can move on to other, less important, things (like my next trip to the DMV).

We had another overflow crowd in the Dining Hall at Richmond’s First Baptist Church last night.  I started by thanking everyone for following the ground rules I had laid out the week before, and then asked them 1) to tell me how they felt about the idea of changing our membership requirements to include Christians from other denominations who had not been immersed, and 2) to try to do it in two minutes or less.  You could almost feel the tension in the air.  It was one of those moments when everyone sensed that things could either go very well, or very very badly. 

I tried to set an example, saying that I felt we should change our membership requirements, and that I felt that way because I knew too many sincere Christians who were hurt because they were being denied full membership in the church.  The next speaker said he didn’t feel we should change our requirements because believer’s baptism by immersion was the New Testament model, and that’s what we should follow.  With minor modifications to those two essential arguments (and occasional rhetorical flourishes), the rest of the evening’s speakers followed suit. 

Someone noted that if the Greek word baptizo had been translated (“immersed”) rather than transliterated (“baptize”), we might not be having this conversation.  Someone else noted that we welcome Christians of other denominations to take communion with us, but not to be on our church rolls.  One person said that the answer to the question “I’m not Baptist, may I join your church?” should be “Yes, if you want to be Baptist.”  Another implied that we are living in a post-denominational era, and we need to get over ourselves.

The remarkable thing, to me, was that the arguments didn’t get louder and louder, no one offered to punch anyone else in the eye, and we finished the evening with a sense that we had talked about a divisive issue without being divided.  It was what I had been praying for–a truly holy conversation.

From here our feelings (which were carefully recorded on a flip chart) will go to the deacons, who will pray over this issue for a month or more, discuss it, and decide whether or not it needs to go on to the church for a final vote.  If that happens we will vote as a congregation and live with the outcome.  I will live with the outcome, even if it’s not the outcome I was hoping for.  To me that’s just part of what it means to be Baptist, and it may be an even more important part than how much water we use when we baptize.

If you’d like to weigh in on this topic, please click on the word “comments” below and tell me how you feel.  And if you are a member (or think you might want to be), I will be glad to pass your feelings on to our deacons.

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My former church history professor (and current Dean of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University) Bill Leonard recently delivered a series of lectures at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary where he talked about (guess what?) baptism!  Leonard said that after four centuries, believers’ baptism remains the symbol of Baptist identity, but in the 21st century, Baptists must respond to two pressing “problems” with baptism — the widespread requirement that long-term Christians be immersed before joining a Baptist church and the rebaptism of church members.

I don’t know how often we rebaptize Baptists at FBC (do we do that?), but the matter of requiring Christians from other denominations to be immersed before they can become full members is something we will be talking about again this Wednesday night, as we enter Round Two of “Holy Conversations.”

Dr. Leonard posed some provocative questions in his remarks at Baylor.  I’ve copied a few of the more relevant ones below.  If you’d like to read the full article from the Associated Baptist Press, just click here.

I hope these questions will help you think about the issues involved, and I hope you will take some time to pray over these things as well, so that when you come to the Dining Hall this Wednesday night at 6:15 you will be ready to participate in truly holy conversation.

Questions for churches to consider

“Can churches that require immersion of non-immersed, long-time Christians articulate a clear biblical mandate for doing so, especially when ‘New Testament baptism’ is given to those who have made immediate profession of faith?”

“Does immersion given to long-term Christians on the basis of a profession of faith require recipients to repudiate at least implicitly their earlier faith and the Christian tradition that nurtured them to grace?”

“Should immersion of long-time Christians at least be distinguished from the immersion of new converts?”

“Given that the New Testament knows nothing of child baptism, can Baptist churches that require immersion of all members claim ‘the true New Testament baptism’ if they baptize children under the age of 12, when Jewish children confirm their faith?

“Given that many Baptist churches accept children — some even in the preschool ages — as members, how will they define the nature of a believers’ church?

If you have good answers to these questions, or if you have some additional questions of your own, feel free to comment by clicking on the word “comments” below.

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Gender Confusion

Well, here’s one more thing you should probably know about the new pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  I would have mentioned it sooner, but I only just found out myself.

I went to get my new Virginia driver’s license several weeks ago, but didn’t notice until after I left the Department of Motor Vehicles that right there on the front of the card, just under the word sex, was a small capital “F.”  That’s right: Female.  I laughed about it and thought I would ignore it until a few weeks later when I was going through airport security.  The security officer looked at my driver’s license, looked at me, and then looked back down at the license.  She didn’t say it, but I could almost hear her thinking, “She looks like a man but it says here she’s a woman.”  It happened again on my next trip and since the airport is not a place you want to arouse the suspicions of security officers I decided to get it fixed next time I went to the DMV.  That turned out to be today.

I recently bought the car I’ve been leasing for the last three years and needed to get it registered.  So, I went to the DMV with a sheaf of documents in my hand, got my number (B148), and sat down to wait.  When they called me up a little later I showed my papers to the man behind the counter and explained my situation.  “I want to register my car and get some Virginia license plates,” I said, eagerly.  I had been looking over the options while I waited and was excited about the possibility of getting one of those “vanity plates,” although I didn’t know what I would put on it if I did.  I need not have worried.  After looking over my papers the man behind the counter (who had some very interesting tattoos) said I was missing the crucial document and that I would have to come back when I had it. 

“Well, while I’m here,” I said, “can I ask you about this?”  And then I showed him my driver’s license.  “It says I’m an ‘F,'” I said, “but I am not now nor have I ever been an ‘F.'” 

“Hmmm,” he said, looking at the card and then looking up at me.  “Hold on a second.” 

And then he went to talk to his supervisor.  When he came back a minute later he gave back my license and apologized.  “I’m sorry,” he said, “but you’re going to have to come back with your passport or birth certificate…something that identifies you as a male.” 

I looked at him in disbelief. 

“You’d be surprised at some of the people we get in here,” he said, smiling. 

I took my driver’s license and left the building slowly, still shaking my head over what had just happened.  In the end I wrote it off as just another encounter with the DMV.  I’ll get my documentation together; I’ll go back on another day; I may even get one of those vanity license plates.  But I’m glad I didn’t get it today.   If I had it would have read:

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Listen to Holy Conversation #1: Baptism (October 22, 2008) (mp3)

 

I started last night’s “Holy Conversation” with a story about a time, early in my marriage, when I decided to surprise Christy by washing the dishes.  I filled one basin with warm, soapy water and the other with clean, scalding water.  And then I washed all the dishes, starting with the cups and saucers, ending with the pots and pans, washing them in the warm, soapy water, rinsing them in clean, scalding water, well on my way to surprising Christy when…she came home early.  She asked me what I was doing.  “I’m washing the dishes,” I said, magnanimously, waiting for her praise.  “That’s not how you wash dishes,” she said, patiently.  “You just turn on the tap, let a little warm water flow, and wash the dishes under the stream.  That way the water is always clean and you’re not washing dishes in (she looked into the murky wash basin) that.”

 

For years I’ve been telling that story to couples as an example of how conflict can crop up in a marriage when you confuse “a” way with “the” way.  I was doing dishes my way, the way my mother had taught me.  And Christy did them her way, the way her mother had taught her.  It didn’t dawn on me until years later that I did dishes the way I did because we didn’t have running water when I was growing up.  Washing them under that warm stream Christy recommended wasn’t an option.  We had to haul water, heat it on the stove, and pour it into basins.  Often there are good reasons for doing things the way we do them, or at least, there were good reasons.  What Christy and I had to figure out for the sake of our marriage was a way of washing dishes that was neither my way nor her way but our way, together.  And we did.  These days we simply load the dishwasher, push the button, and move on to other things.

 

That little parable served as preface to last night’s meeting in which a crowd of some 400 people engaged in conversation about the Baptist way of making disciples (baptizing believers by immersion), and the other way (baptizing infants who are later confirmed as believers).  Former Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and others, stood up and talked about their experiences while lifelong Baptists sat and listened.  Some of the experiences were funny, like the woman who remembered that when she finally decided to be immersed a girl who was baptized along with her wore a swim cap, so as not to ruin her gorgeous new hairdo.  Some of them were humbling, like the man who said he resisted being re-baptized, but when he finally submitted out of a sense of obedience found it to be one of the most meaningful experiences of his life.  Some of them were powerful, like the young man who remembered his confirmation in the Methodist Church, and the sure sense that in that moment he had received the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Some of them were sad, like the woman who told us her Presbyterian way of being Christian had never been accepted in 25 years of Baptist churchgoing.

 

What I’m hoping for in these holy conversations is that we will talk to, and listen to, each other long enough to come up with a First Baptist way of receiving members that is neither my way nor your way but our way together.  I’d like to think we would continue to make disciples as we always have—baptizing believers by immersion—while opening the door of membership to let in those who have been discipled in other ways. 

 

I’ll have to wait and see how things turn out, because one of our Baptist ways (and one I affirm wholeheartedly) is a congregational form of government that doesn’t permit the pastor to make the church’s big decisions.  Instead, as in a healthy marriage, we talk about these things, listen to each other, and make our decisions together. 

 

That’s just our way.

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Someone asked me over the weekend why we’re having a “Holy Conversation” about baptism and church membership, and specifically why we would talk about changing our practice of re-baptizing Christians from other denominations.  The short answer is: me.  I’m the one who put the event on the calendar.  But the reason I put it on the calendar is interesting. 

Since I’ve been at First Baptist I’ve had conversations with dozens of people who grew up in other denominations.  Some of them (Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, etc.) were surprised to hear that in order to become full members of the church they would have to be baptized by immersion.  Actually, I was surprised to hear it.  I grew up Presbyterian, was immersed at 14 at my own request, and joined a Southern Baptist church at 22.  But of the six Baptist churches I’ve belonged to this is the first that requires new members from other denominations to be immersed, which is why I never thought to ask the search committee about it.  I hear from other Baptists in Virginia that my experience is not typical, not even close, which explains why the search committee never thought to mention it to me.  It’s nobody’s fault, but it does explain why I would raise the question.

Still, some people don’t understand why we’re setting aside two Wednesday nights to talk about baptism and church membership.  “I got sprinkled as a baby and dunked as an adult,” one said with a smile.  It’s just water.  It’s just a symbol.  What’s the big deal?  But for some people it is a big deal.  They’ve been Christians for years and the suggestion that their baptism “isn’t good enough,” and that they would need to “start all over again,” offends them.  It would be like renouncing their faith.  “No, no!” others say.  “It’s not renouncing your faith at all.  We know you’re a Christian; you’re just not a Baptist.”

Hmmm. 

I’m guessing that wouldn’t be the end of the conversation, but only the beginning.  And I’m hoping you can join us in the Dining Hall this Wednesday night at 6:15 for the first round, where we will listen to the stories of people who became Christians in our tradition and others.  Maybe by the end of the evening we will all have a better feel for the complexities of this issue, and understand why, for some people, it’s a very big deal indeed.

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For a few weeks now I’ve been toying with the idea of buying a piece of property in the mountains.  Not much, really, just enough to pitch a tent or build a rustic cabin.  An acre or two would probably do it.  But have you priced mountain property lately?  It’s expensive!  I didn’t see how I would be able to buy more than a few square feet.

Still, the mountains have been calling me and so, on my day off this week, I got on Interstate 64 and drove west, all the way to Shenandoah National Park.  The ranger at the entrance told me I could pay $15 for the day or $30 for an annual pass, and that’s when it hit me: I couldn’t afford to buy a piece of property in the mountains but for $30 I could go anytime I wanted, drive on beautiful Skyline Drive, hike to the top of a mountain, have lunch later at one of the lodges.  In other words, for $30 I could have a place in the mountains, a place I will never have to worry about or maintain.

In his classic book, Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster says that one of the keys to simplicity is resisting the temptation to own.  He suggests that we go to the library instead of the bookstore, rent a cottage at the beach instead of buying one.  I think he would say the $30 I spent on an annual pass to Shenandoah National Park was a good investment because now, even though I don’t own it, I have a place in the mountains, and as you can tell from this picture I took…the views are incredible!

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