Shall We Gather at the River? Maybe not.

It almost didn’t happen.

There were some who said it shouldn’t happen, who warned me, plainly, that when you hear the first distant boom of thunder at the public pool you have to get out for at least a half hour.

But this was no Sunday afternoon swim: this was the Fourth Annual River Baptism and there were twelve people lined up on the river bank ready to be “buried with Christ in a baptism like his” as Paul puts it.  That word, buried, seemed eerily appropriate as I waded out into the James River a little after five with the skies darkening to the west.  And just as the second hymn ended I heard it–the distant boom of thunder.

What’s a pastor to do?

There were those twelve candidates lined up on the river bank.  One of them had hugged me at church that morning and squealed, “Do you know what day this is?  It’s the day I get baptized!”  How could I disappoint her and the others who had waited so long for this day?  And what about Bill and Beverley Hundley, who had made their beautiful place on the river available to us and spent weeks getting everything ready, manicuring the lawn and even raking the river bed in preparation?  What about the members of the Baptism Team, who had brought robes for the candidates and helped them into makeshift changing booths and given them careful instructions about what to do and when to do it?  And what about those dozens, perhaps hundreds (Baptist preachers tend to estimate high), of family members and friends sitting and standing on the river bank expectantly, waiting for their loved ones to wade out into the water?  In the end I did the only thing that seemed reasonable at the time:

I ignored the thunder.

I motioned for Ralph Starling to assist me in the water.  He gulped hard and waded out.  And then the first candidate came, the one who had been so eager about her baptism day.  Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor hail was going to stop her from taking the plunge.  She came up out of the water triumphant, with a shout and a raised fist.  The others seemed just as determined, even when lightning flashed in the distance, even when the skies opened up briefly and the rain poured down.

“Welcome to the first mass baptism of 2012!” I shouted.  “Some of us are being immersed and others are being sprinkled!”  There was laughter from the riverbank and then the next candidate waded out, undaunted.

It was just after that shower that the skies cleared and the sun broke through the clouds.  When the last candidate had been baptized we sang “Amazing Grace” and Lynn Turner said a closing prayer.  People began to open up their picnic baskets and spread out their blankets and the evening was as soft and lovely as any you’ve ever seen.  I changed into some dry clothes and began to move among the crowd, meeting extended family members and friends, mooching food off of almost everybody, and breathing a huge sigh of relief that nobody had been struck by lightning at the Fourth Annual River Baptism.

On Tuesday morning our staff debriefed the event and agreed that next year we should definitely have a backup plan in case of inclement weather.  Definitely.  This year I’m just thanking God for watching over fools and children…

…and Baptist preachers.

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Photo courtesy of Julie Adams-Buchanan’s Facebook page.  Thanks, Julie!

Why the Baptist Church will never sanction the blessing of same-sex unions

ImageLast night the Episcopal Church in America approved a 3-year trial run of a service it calls “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant.”  The service is not considered a marriage ceremony, media affairs representative Nancy Davidge said. 

“We have authorized a blessing, and a blessing is different than a marriage,” she said.  “A blessing is a theological response to a committed, monogamous relationship.”

But I’m guessing some of the members of my brother-in-law’s church back in Waco, Texas, won’t see it that way.  Chuck is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal in that city, a church that is progressive by Texas standards and conservative by almost anyone else’s.  I’m guessing that someone will pull him aside when he gets home from the General Convention and ask, “Did you vote for the gay marriage thing?”

This is not a question anyone will ever ask me when I come home from a Baptist convention, because there is no such thing as “The Baptist Church.”  There is no single body of Baptists that makes decisions for all Baptists everywhere.  We have to make those decisions in our own local churches and when we do every member has a voice and every member has a vote.  So, if your Baptist church decides to vote on whether or not it will bless same-sex unions you will have a chance to speak your mind and vote your conscience.  No priest, no bishop, no general convention will do it for you; you will have to do it on your own. 

It’s a tremendous burden for Baptist churches.  A terrible freedom.  But we’re Baptists, and we love our freedom, and even if we have to make difficult decisions from time to time…

We wouldn’t have it any other way.