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.

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.

See Paris First

istock_000002390324xsmallAs a follow up to my Ash Wednesday sermon about overcoming our fear of death by denying ourselves, taking up our crosses, and following Jesus (“volunteering to die” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would put it), let me offer this wonderful poem by M. Truman Cooper, first shared with me by my dear friend Judy Skeen.  It’s called “See Paris First,” and it’s about knowing what it is you fear and facing up to it–approaching it squarely and head on–so that you don’t have to spend the rest of your life being afraid.  The poem itself is simple and spare.  It may take more than one reading to appreciate it, but I assure you…it’s worth it.


Suppose what you fear
could be trapped
and held in Paris.

Then you would have the courage
to go everywhere in the world.
All the directions of the compass
open to you,
except
the degrees east or west
of true north
that lead to Paris.

Still, you wouldn’t dare
to put your toes smack dab
on the city limit line.

And you’re not really willing to stand on a mountainside
miles away
and watch the Paris lights
come up at night.
And just to be on the safe side, you decide to stay completely
out of France.

But then danger
seems too close
even to those boundaries,
and you feel the timid part of you
covering the whole globe again.

You need the kind of friend
who learns your secret and says,
“See Paris first.”

—M. Truman Cooper