KOH2RVA: Day 285

River Baptism

I got a call on Wednesday from a producer in New York who is working on a documentary film about faith—“the positive aspects of faith,” she said, suggesting by her tone of voice that there are some aspects of faith that are not so positive. She has in mind a very ambitious seven-part series, but the first part would be a two-hour documentary on “the birth of faith,” and that’s why she was talking to me.

She had found some pictures of First Baptist Richmond’s annual river baptism online and thought that it would be a wonderful way to talk about and think about the birth of faith. She was calling to find out more about it and, especially, to ask if I thought the church would be open to participating in the project.

She asked how the annual river baptism got started, and I surprised myself by saying, “Well, this town has a river running through it, a beautiful river” (in fact, Richmond was recently named the Number One River City in America by Outside magazine). “It seemed only natural to take advantage of that, and to do at least one baptism a year outdoors.”

She wanted to know about baptism itself. She had grown up Presbyterian, in Ohio. She knew about infant baptism followed by confirmation at a later age but she didn’t know about immersion. I told her I had grown up Presbyterian as well, but because my family moved around so much I had missed confirmation. And so, at the age of 14, I asked to be baptized, and a few weeks later my father—a Presbyterian minister—and a friend of his who was a Baptist minister dipped me down under the muddy waters of the Big Coal River in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I told her how the Apostle Paul seemed to think of baptism as a kind of death, burial, and resurrection; how the old “you” goes down into the water and “dies,” and a new you comes up (Romans 6:4-11). I told her that for some people it is the perfect symbol for leaving behind a life they’ve made a mess of and starting fresh.  I told her how the first breath they take when they come up out of the water is the first breath of their new life in Christ.

I must have done a good job because when I got finished she said, “That makes me want to get baptized!”

So, there may be a film crew at our annual river baptism on July 21. And there may be a producer who throws down her clipboard, rips off her headset, and wades out into the water. As you might have read on this blog a few days ago, baptism is one of those places where heaven comes closest to earth, and maybe that’s why we’re having a river baptism: because we’re trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia,

And this is one of the best ways we know to do it.

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.

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

What I Learned from the January Bible Study

The last session of the January Bible Study was cut short by our quarterly business meeting at First Baptist Church.  I had just a few minutes at the end of the meeting to try to summarize Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and didn’t get a chance to ask the question I had been wanting to ask. 

This one:

“If exegesis is figuring out what a text meant ‘then and there,’ and hermeneutics is applying that meaning ‘here and now,’ then what was Paul trying to say to the Galatians in this letter and what does this letter say to us now?”

The message “then and there” was clear: Paul had preached a gospel of grace to the Gentiles in Galatia, telling them they could be saved simply by believing in Jesus.  Some Jewish Christians had come along later and told them that if they really wanted to be saved, they would need to be circumcised and start keeping the Law of Moses.  Most of Galatians is Paul’s outraged response to that heretical notion, and when I say “outraged” I mean it.  The New International Version puts it mildly in 5:12: “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!”

Look it up.

Why is Paul so indignant?  Because he had told the Galatians “Jesus = Salvation” and now someone else was telling them “Jesus + Circumsion + Keeping the Law = Salvation.”  As my brother Scott once said:  “Jesus + Anything = Heresy” when it comes to salvation. 

My brother Paul would agree.

In my preparation for this year’s Bible study I read Justification by N. T. Wright, the former bishop of Durham, England, and one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars.  Part of the book is a careful exegesis of Galatians, in which Wright argues that for Paul justification is what makes us members of “God’s true family,” and that membership is ours not through circumcision or keeping the Law, but through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ and our faith in him.   

That word membership got my attention, as you might imagine.  For two years we wrestled with the question of who can be a member of Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  In the end we decided that if you are a member of “God’s true family” through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ and your faith in him, then you can also be a member of the First Baptist family, even if you come from another Christian tradition, and even if you haven’t been immersed.  We agreed that while baptism by immersion is a beautiful and powerful symbol of salvation, it does not save you. 

Only Jesus can do that.

That’s hermeneutics.  That’s applying the meaning of the biblical text “here and now.”  It’s not easy (as any member of First Baptist Church will attest), but it’s important.  I’d like to think that in the end we made the decision we did simply because we (Gentiles) know what it’s like to be welcomed into God’s true family, and we know that we were welcomed not because we were circumcised or because we faithfully kept the Law, but because God is good and gracious. 

As his children, we want to be more and more like that.

157 yes, 6 no

When I was a pastor in Wingate, NC, we took a vote on building a new fellowship hall.  Our old hall was a 40 X 40 foot room, and the new program we had started on Wednesday nights was bringing in well over a hundred people for supper.  There just wasn’t room for them all.  I can still remember the day somebody came into the church office and slapped down a check “for the new fellowship hall.”  “What new fellowship hall?” I asked.  “The one we need!” she said.

And so we started talking about it.

Just a few months later the church voted on a new fellowship hall estimated at $492,940, a staggering amount of money for that congregation.  But with the architect’s rendering on an easel at the front of the sanctuary and a surge of optimism sweeping through the pews the recommendation passed, 157 to 6.  The chairman of the deacons stepped down from the platform triumphant, the victory had been overwhelming, but all I could think about was those 6 people. 

I stepped up to the microphone and tried to say something comforting.  I don’t think I did a very good job.  When I stepped back down the deacon chairman said, “Jim, you don’t need to apologize.  The vote was 157 to 6!”  As if those six didn’t matter.  But they did matter, and I went looking for them.

I found one of them in the church annex as the crowd was dispersing.  He approached me and said, “Jim, don’t worry about it too much.  I voted against it, but only because I moved my membership here from a church that had just finished building a new fellowship hall.  It took us three years, and it was all anybody could talk about, and so, when my wife and I came here we were happy to be done with all that.  Now it looks like we’re right back in it.  But it’s all right,” he said, smiling.  “We supported that effort and we will support this one, too.”

“Now that’s the right spirit,” I thought, and frankly that’s my hope for Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  691 people voted on Sunday, and while 464 were in favor of the change in our membership policy, 221 were against it—a solid third of the voters.  Today it’s those 221 I’m thinking about.  They came and cast their ballots.  They did it on the strength of their convictions.  And yet the thing they didn’t want to happen happened: the motion carried.

I’m hoping that they will be able to see they weren’t alone in their views, not by a long shot.  But I’m also hoping that they will be able to accept the outcome of this vote, and recognize that some of the people they respect most in the church may have voted the other way.  Jesus didn’t tell us we all had to think the same way, he only told us that we had to love one another (John 13:35).

Today, even though we don’t all agree, I’m hoping we can all do that.

The Motion Carries

On Sunday, September 19, the members of Richmond’s First Baptist Church voted to change their membership policy to allow committed Christians from other denominations to become full members of the church without having to be re-baptized.  The meeting took place during the Sunday school hour.  One amendment (requiring believer’s baptism but not immersion) was considered but not approved.  691 people voted on the main motion by secret ballot.  464 of those (67.15%) were in favor of the change,  221 (31.98%) were opposed, and 6 ballots could not be determined either way.

Senior Pastor Jim Somerville commented:

For Baptists, membership is a matter of local church autonomy.  No pope, or bishop, or even the pastor gets to decide who can be a member of a local Baptist church.  And although the deacons can make a recommendation, in the end it is the congregation that gets to decide.

Today the congregation of Richmond’s First Baptist Church did just that.  The answer to the question of whether committed Christians from other denominations could become full members without having to be re-baptized was yes.

At the beginning of this process I expressed my hope that, no matter what the outcome, we would spend some time thinking deeply about what it means to be baptized and what it means to be a member.  We have certainly done that.  Now it is my hope that we will be the kind of members who can accept the outcome of this vote and go forward together.  While a two-thirds majority is decisive, it is not a landslide.  We were closer to the same mind on this matter than we knew.  Now it is my hope that we can share the same heart, and get on with the crucial work of putting God’s love into action. 

I am grateful for the spirit in which this decision was made, and for the remarkable body of believers that is Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  I learned today that there are Baptists in the world who can disagree without being disagreeable—who can speak their mind, vote their conscience, and move on to more important things.

God bless them, every one.

—September 19, 2010

Like Water Out of a Tub

Recent comments on my blog and conversations in the church hallway have convinced me that there is another line of reasoning in our current debate about baptism and membership, one that I haven’t fully understood.  As these people have explained to me (gently, patiently) our membership requirement doesn’t imply that people from other denominations are not Christian, it only points to the fact that they are not Baptist.  And if they want to be Baptist they must submit to believer’s baptism by immersion. 

So, let me see if I’ve got this right: believer’s baptism by immersion is what makes you Baptist?

Maybe that’s where I’m confused.  I’ve always thought that baptism was a symbol of entering the new life in Christ.  I thought that’s what Paul was talking about when he said in Romans 6 that it’s like dying with Jesus, and being buried with him, and then being raised from the dead.  I thought it’s what Jesus was referring to in John 3 when he told Nicodemus that in order to enter the Kingdom he had to be “born again.”

The language of resurrection and re-birth is powerful language.  I sometimes refer to it as “transfer terminology”: it’s about making the move from one way of life to another.  And I can see how, if you have come out of a life of sin and selfishness, you might want to drown the “old man” (as Paul calls him) in a watery grave, and let God raise up the “new man” just as he raised Jesus.  You might want to be “born again,” in the way Jesus described it to Nicodemus, if that really meant you could make a fresh start of your life.  The waters of baptism—to me—have always been a place where people entered the new life in Christ, where they were raised from the dead or born again, but they have never been—to me—a place where you make a Methodist into a Baptist.

Is that what Paul was talking about?  Is that what Jesus meant?  I cannot find any scriptural support for the idea of making Christians from other denominations into Baptists by baptizing them.  To me it empties the meaning of baptism; it drains it out of the baptistry like water out of a tub.  Instead of doing it “to fulfill all righteousness” (the words chiseled in stone above our baptistry) we do it to fulfill a membership requirement. 

That’s not even in the Bible.

I don’t want to empty baptism of its meaning.  I don’t want to use our baptistry to make Methodists (or Presbyterians, or Episcopalians, or Lutherans) into Baptists.  I want to use it to symbolize that moment when someone becomes a Christian, when they rise up from that watery grave or take the first breath of their new life in Christ.  That’s when the angels rejoice in heaven, that’s when the Hallelujah chorus begins.  Transferring your church membership from one denomination to another is not the same thing at all.

And shouldn’t be.

“I just can’t accept infant baptism”

That’s what people often tell me after they’ve heard all my arguments for welcoming Christians from other denominations into our membership without re-baptizing them.  To them baptism is believer’s baptism by immersion, and therefore infant baptism is no baptism at all since it isn’t (usually) by immersion and since an infant is incapable of making a profession of faith.  They say, “We’re not re-baptizing these people; we’re baptizing them!” 

And the argument starts all over again.

But at the end of it I rarely have the feeling that I have been understood.  So, let me see if I can put it another way, a way that would make sense to lifelong Baptists, and let’s talk about those people Baptists often place at the opposite end of the Christian spectrum—Catholics. 

  1. Baptists baptize believers by immersion; Catholics baptize infants by pouring water over their heads three times in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. 
  2. As Baptists, we do not believe that infant baptism is sufficient (as some Catholics apparently do).  We do not believe that it “saves” the child or “washes away the taint of original sin.”  We believe that salvation requires our faith as well as God’s grace.
  3. This is why we wait to baptize until a child is old enough to profess his faith.  Then baptism becomes a celebration of salvation in which the gift of God’s grace is received through the believer’s faith. 
  4. This is why we believe that infant baptism—on its own—is unacceptable.

But (and you knew it was coming), when infant baptism is followed by an extended period of Christian formation, by a confirmation process in which children learn what it means to believe in Jesus and belong to the church, and by a public opportunity to claim their baptism and profess their faith, then it becomes one piece of a process whereby the grace of God that was celebrated in baptism is received through faith.  As Paul might put it: grace + faith = salvation (Eph. 2:8).

What I’m trying to say is that I can’t accept infant baptism either, not on its own, but I can accept it as part of a process of authentic Christian discipleship.  Understood in that way it is almost identical to our own practice of baby dedication, and I don’t think any of us want to do away with that.  What we mean when we say “I can’t accept infant baptism” is that we don’t believe water, by itself, does anything for that child, but we need to carry that thinking all the way out.  Water, by itself, doesn’t do anything for the person who gets into our baptistry, either.  It’s just water.  We use it as a symbol of God’s grace and our surrender to it. 

Which makes me think that being a Christian is a matter of the heart, and not a matter of how much water was used or when it was applied.

What do you think?