KOH2RVA:Day 233

confusion4I got a call from Mary Ann Delano yesterday telling me that people had been “confused” by Sunday’s sermon. Mary Ann is the chair of the deacons at First Baptist. When she calls I listen. But I did wonder what people were confused about. I thought the sermon had flown like an arrow through the air toward its crystal-clear conclusion, which was this:

Bless my heart, every time I hear this story (about Peter and Cornelius) it forces me to deal with the possibility that God is willing to accept people I am not, and every time I hear it I need to ask, “Lord, am I calling something ‘unclean’ that you have made clean? And if so, would you show me?”

But I did refer to gay people in the sermon, as an example of those we might have difficulty accepting, and that reference came just a few weeks after I spoke up for a church in the Richmond Baptist Association that ordained an openly gay man. Put those two together and you might jump to the conclusion that the pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church was on a crusade of some kind.

Let me be clear: I am not.

But every time I preach from Acts 11:1-18 (the lectionary text for the day, selected months and years before the recent meeting of the Richmond Baptist Association) I seem to get in trouble, and it’s because the text forces us to consider those people we think of as “unclean.” In fact, someone sent me a copy of (Pastor Emeritus) Jim Flamming’s sermon on this same text from 2004—“Who Is Unacceptable to You?”—where he talked about the sheet that came down out of heaven in Peter’s vision, the one with all those unclean animals in it. He said it becomes quickly evident that the point of this vision is not animals but people. “Which people or groups of people do you consider ‘unclean’?” Dr. Flamming asked. “Who would be at the center of your sheet?”

But he didn’t preach that sermon a month after the Richmond Baptist Association had voted to maintain fellowship with a church that ordained an openly gay man, and he didn’t speak up for that church in that meeting. I did, and I can see how some people would make a connection, and think that I was on some sort of crusade.

Let me be clear: I am not.

I don’t think the two are unrelated, but when I spoke up for Ginter Park Baptist Church I was speaking up for the mission of the Richmond Baptist Association. I was trying to say, “Let’s not let the action of one church derail our mission.” Baptist churches are autonomous. We can’t tell them who to ordain and they can’t tell us. But we can work together in spite of our differences for the greater good and that’s what I was arguing for. I was thinking about Camp Alkulana and the three Baptist centers in Richmond that do such good work. I was hoping we wouldn’t lose Ginter Park’s contribution to that mission.

But now I understand some 15 churches are considering leaving the Association because we voted not to kick Ginter Park out. I called the pastor of one of those churches last week—a big church—and asked, “Is it true? Are you going to let the action of one small church cause you to abandon your long-term commitment to the mission of the Richmond Baptist Association? Isn’t that like the tail wagging the dog?”

I tried to imagine why his church would even consider such a thing and in the end decided that it must be fear. The churches that are thinking of pulling out are afraid that if they don’t they will become guilty by association—quite literally—and that everyone will assume they affirm gay ordination. They are afraid that by working with a church they consider “unclean” they, themselves, will become unclean.

That fear of contamination was the same fear that kept the early church from having anything to do with Gentiles until that day on a rooftop in Joppa when God told Peter not to call unclean what he had made clean. Suppose Peter hadn’t gone to the home of Cornelius? Suppose he had been too afraid? God’s mission could have stalled out right there, the Richmond Baptist Association would have never existed, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

I don’t want God’s mission to stall out, and I certainly don’t want it to stall out because of fear, but I also don’t want it to stall out because of confusion. I’ve tried to be clear about why I preached what I preached and why I did what I did. If you have questions or comments please post them below.  In the meantime, let’s get on with our mission.  This is Day 233 of KOH2RVA:

There is good work waiting to be done.

KOH2RVA: Day 133

Suzii Paynter of Austin, Texas, has been named candidate for the position of Executive Coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  That’s a  bold move for CBF, and one that is probably overdue.

Women have always been the driving force behind missions in Baptist life.  They are the ones who have taught us about missions, asked us to pray for our missionaries, and promoted the annual missions offerings.  Suzii has done all those things in her Baptist life, but she has also paid attention to the way the world is changing.  We live in a world where young people, especially, are not content to let someone else do missions for them—they want to do it themselves, they want to get their hands dirty helping others.

“The era of the passive listener is over,” Suzii says.

That’s a strong endorsement of the thinking behind KOH2RVA, our year-long, every-member mission trip.  We’re not only asking our members to support and pray for career missionaries in other places, but to become missionaries right here where we are—to roll up their sleeves and go to work in this place that we love, this place where we live.

I hope you will take the six minutes and 52 seconds required to watch the entire video and get to know Suzii Paynter a little better.  She will be visiting First Baptist Church on April 21 and staying for lunch in our dining hall afterward to talk with anyone interested in knowing more about her, about CBF, or about a new way of doing missions.  If you’d like to come let me know by sending an email message to somerville@fbcrichmond.org and typing “CBF Lunch” in the subject line.

I’ll save a place for you at the table.

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.

An Old Joke and the New Jerusalem

I found this version of an old joke that you’ve probably heard before:

A man arrives at the gates of heaven. St. Peter asks, “Religion?”  The man says, “Methodist.”  St. Peter looks down his list, and says, “Go to room 24, but be very quiet as you pass room 8.”

Another man arrives at the gates of heaven. “Religion?”  “Lutheran.”  “Go to room 18, but be very quiet as you pass room 8.”

A third man arrives at the gates. “Religion?”  “Presbyterian.”  “Go to room 11, but be very quiet as you pass room 8.” 

The man says, “I can understand there being different rooms for different denominations, but why must I be quiet when I pass room 8?”

St. Peter tells him, “Well the Baptists are in room 8, and they think they’re the only ones here.”

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Thinking about that joke I remembered a passage from the Book of Revelation, where the new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven “adorned as a bride for her husband” (21:3).  A little later in the passage John tells us:  “It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and [each gate was made of a single pearl]…. There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west” (vss. 12-13).  And I smiled, wondering if there was a sign on each of those pearly gates, one that said “Methodists,” one that said “Lutherans,” one that said “Presbyterians,” one that said, “Baptists,” and so forth, all around the wall.

The joke, I thought, would be on all of us, when we dutifully entered through our respective gates and discovered that we were (in fact) all in the same place.  I hope we would only stare at each other for a moment before we all burst out laughing and said, “Good one, God!”

You know what’s funny?  In that passage there are actually names on the gates of the New Jerusalem.  “On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel” (vs. 12).  It makes me wonder if those twelve tribes sometimes had trouble getting along, if the tribe of Benjamin occasionally turned up its nose at the tribe of Dan, for example.  Would the twelve tribes be surprised when they came through their respective gates and found that they were (in fact) all in the same place?  Would they stare at each other for a long moment before they all burst out laughing? 

It doesn’t seem to be God’s intention to keep us separated.  He seems to want to bring his big, scattered family together in one place.  One of my favorite parts of this passage comes a few verses later, where John tells us that there wasn’t a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple; and it didn’t need the sun or the moon, because the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp; and the nations will walk by that light and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into that place, and the gates will be open by day, and there is no night there (vss. 22-25).

Did you catch that last part?  The “nations” will walk by that light (the word in Greek is the same one used for “Gentiles”).  The kings of the earth will bring their splendor into the New Jerusalem.  It doesn’t sound like it’s only going to be a place for God’s chosen people; it sounds like it’s going to be a place for all of God’s people.  And the gates will be open by day, and there is no night there, which means, of course, that the gates of that city will never be closed.

The New Jerusalem will always be open.

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.

Getting to Know You

If men could only know each other, they would neither idolize nor hate. 
                                                                              —Elbert Hubbard

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Articles in last week’s Time magazine and the August 23rd edition of the Washington Post hint at a growing anti-Muslim sentiment among Americans.  Or maybe I should say “anti-Muslims” sentiment—plural—because that’s part of the problem.  When you lump people together you tend to stereotype, and judge the whole group on the behavior of a few. 

It’s happened to me. 

Three decades ago a Southern Baptist evangelist named Bailey Smith said publicly, “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.”  He claimed that he said it “with all due respect to those dear people,” but last Sunday afternoon I was invited to an open house at a local synagogue where I got the feeling that some of those dear people had not forgotten what he said.  They greeted me warmly, thinking I might be a prospect, but when I introduced myself as pastor of First Baptist Church there was a brief  pause and then the question: “Are you…Southern Baptist?”

This kind of thing happens to me often, and not only in Jewish synagogues.  Because some Baptists have done or said offensive things, many people assume that all Baptists are like that.  I encourage them to get to know some Baptists, because no two of us are exactly alike.  Billy Graham is a Baptist, but so is Bill Clinton.  Jesse Helms was a Baptist, but so is Jesse Jackson.  Lottie Moon was a Baptist, but so is Britney Spears.

See what I mean? 

I would guess that the same is true for Muslims, that if we would take the time to get to know some of them we would find that they are like people everywhere: concerned for the health and well-being of their families, for their children’s education, and for the freedom to enjoy some of the simple pleasures of life, like a picnic lunch on the Fourth of July.  And in the same way I wouldn’t want anyone to judge me on the basis of the worst they have ever heard about Baptists, I wouldn’t want to judge an entire religion or its 1.5 billion adherents on the basis of what some Muslims have done, would you?

So, get to know your new Muslim neighbor.  You may find that he has as much in common with Osama bin Laden as I have in common with Britney Spears, which is to say…not much.

BONUS: Here’s a song that will have you humming the rest of the day.

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.