Nothing to Be Afraid of

I thought I had said everything about baptism and membership that could be said, but here’s one more thing: 

I’m realizing the role fear plays in this decision. 

Fear, as in fear of the unknown, as in, “What will happen if we let Christians from other denominations into our membership without re-baptizing them?  Will we end up with a church full of Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians?” 

And this is where I recognize that I have an advantage over so many at First Baptist, because I’ve been a member of a Baptist church with an open membership policy.  In fact, I’ve been a member of five such churches, and all of them had made the decision long before I arrived on the scene.  Before coming to Richmond I had never experienced closed membership, and that’s why it was such a shock to my system (in the same way it has been shocking to some people to suggest that we change our membership policy). 

The fear of the unknown often leads us to imagine the worst.  When this church was trying to decide what to do with two Nigerian students who presented themselves for membership back in 1965 weren’t there some who feared that if we let these two in the church would soon be “overrun with negroes”?  That didn’t happen.  And when we decided to ordain women as deacons and ministers a decade later weren’t there some who feared that soon all our deacons, and all our ministers, would be women?  That didn’t happen either.  As for those who think that if we open our doors to Christians from other denominations “we might as well take the name ‘Baptist’ off the building,” I beg to differ.  I’ve been in churches like that.  In fact, I’m thinking of the first church I served as pastor, the First Baptist Church of New Castle, Kentucky, where: 

  • We had a men’s quartet—the “Gospel Echoes”—led by the rambunctious piano-playing math teacher at the local high school.
  • We had an active Woman’s Missionary Union that kept us up to date on Southern Baptist mission activity and led us to pray for missionaries and support them through the Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong offerings.
  • We had church business meetings, just after the monthly potluck luncheon, where every committee chairman brought a report.
  • We held an annual revival and the deacons picked the evangelist.
  • We sang hymns like “Power in the Blood” and “The Old Rugged Cross.”
  • We taught Sunday School from the Baptist Sunday School Board quarterlies.
  • We had Vacation Bible School, and kids from all the other churches in town came.
  • We sometimes had visits from “real live” missionaries who displayed trinkets from exotic countries, dressed in native dress, spoke the native language, and showed slides from the countries they had served.
  • I attended the monthly meetings of the Henry County Baptist Association.
  • I was a student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
  • I baptized believers by immersion.

Oh, and there were a few other things:

  • We used the lectionary.
  • We had women deacons.
  • We had an open membership policy.

When I think of that church I cannot imagine how we could have been any more Baptist, and so I’m not afraid that if we change our membership policy here we will suddenly—overnight—turn into Lutherans.  But I realize I have an advantage over most of the members of First Baptist:  I’ve experienced open membership, and I know…

…there’s nothing to be afraid of.

What, finally, shall we say?

homeless-streetsA great poem, shared with me by my friend Roberta Damon:

What, finally, shall we say
In the last moment
When we will be confronted
By the Unimaginable,
The One
Who could not be measured
or contained
In space or time
Who was Love
Unlimited?

What shall we answer
When the question is asked
About our undeeds
Committed
In his name—
In the name of him
For whose sake we promised
To have courage
To abandon everything?

Shall we say
That we didn’t know—
That we couldn’t hear the clatter
Of hearts breaking—
Millions of them—
In lonely rooms, in alleys
     and prisons
And in bars?

Shall we explain
That we thought it mattered
That buildings were constructed
And maintained
In his honor—
That we were occupied
With the arrangements
Of hymns and prayers
And the proper, responsible way
Of doing things?

Shall we tell him
That we had to take care
Of the orderly definition
     of dogmas
So that there was no time
To listen to the
     sobbing
Of the little ones
Huddled in corners
Or the silent despair
Of those already beyond
     sobbing?

Or, shall we say this, too:
That we were afraid—
That we were keeping busy
     with all this
To avoid confrontation
Wih the reality of his
     meaning
Which would lead us to
     repentance—-
That it was fear that
     kept us
Hiding in church pews
And in important boards
     and committees
When he went by?

                     —Ursula Solek

 

Bonus:  Take a look at these pictures and the accompanying story by Ryan Phillips, grandson of Irma Lee Hardie, one of our regular volunteers in Community Missions.

Jingle Bell Angel

angelAt staff meeting this week Mary Hiteman was telling us about “Dress-Up-Like-a-Biblical-Character-Day” at our preschool. 

All the children had come in costume, some more imaginative than others.  For example: there were a dozen or so “Marys,” lots of shepherds, four Noahs, and one Jonah (who carried a small, blue whale).  The most imaginative costume, according to Mary, was the one worn by Menley Blanchard, who came to preschool holding hands with her mother Susan, each of them wearing half of a large, red “C.”  When Mary seemed puzzled Susan and Menley stepped apart and Susan said, “Get it?  The parting of the Red ‘C’!”

But my favorite was the little boy who came in an Angels’ baseball uniform.  Instead of the Los Angeles Angels, however, this little fellow was one of “God’s Angels,” Gabriel to be precise, as the name on the back of the uniform clearly indicated.  He was wearing wings and a baseball cap with a halo attached, but on the front of his jersey were the words “Do not fear!” (which is what angels always say), and on each of his shoes there was a small jingle bell, to let others know he was coming, so that they would not be afraid. 

I love that, and I think some of those biblical characters would have loved it, too.  Zechariah, for example, who was “terrified” when Gabriel surprised him in the temple.  Mary, for example, who must have been startled almost out of her wits when Gabriel dropped in to tell her she was going to have a baby.  Those shepherds, for example, who were “sore afraid” when an angel sneaked up on them while they were watching their flocks by night. 

There is a reason angels always say “Do not fear.”  It’s not only because they show up suddenly and unexpectedly, often in the middle of the night.  It’s because they know that fear is the thing most likely to keep us from doing the will of God.  I’m going to try to remember that the next time I hear jingle bells.  I’m going to try to think not so much of Santa and his reindeer as Gabriel in a baseball cap reminding us not to be afraid.  Because if God’s will is ever going to be done on earth as it is in heaven…

…it’s going to require some fearlessness.