Journeying on by Stages

Abram's Altar

It’s no secret that I’ve been part of several different varieties of Protestant church: Baptist, Evangelical, Charismatic, Emergent, Episcopal, Presbyterian…

All this time, I’ve been longing for a tradition, something bigger than my little self, of which I can be a part.  Each time I land somewhere new, I think I’ve found it, that is, the place where I will finally put down roots and stay forever.  And each time, I end up leaving after a few years.  I’m beginning to think my ecclesiology is not as strong as I once thought.

I tend to leave each tradition with a keen (and perhaps overdeveloped) sense of what is wrong with it.  My most severe criticism has been reserved for the one tradition that, during my youngest years, shaped me more than any other: the Baptists.

I graduated from a private Christian high school in the Bible belt that was run by a Baptist church (watch the film Saved! for an idea of my high school experience).  I got to see the very worst of the Baptist tradition there.  Theologically, they were the sweaty-brow, pulpit-pounding, Bible-beating, hellfire-and-damnation preachers for which the American south has become famous.  Their commitment to ignorance was the foundation of their stupidity.

At no time was their hypocrisy more apparent than during my senior year when the pastor of that church sexually assaulted a student and the church covered it up.  Meanwhile, that student’s mother (who happened to be a teacher at the school) was fired from her job.  Later that year, another student was expelled from school because she was caught drinking at a party.  The administration defended their actions, citing “discipleship” and not “evangelism” as the institution’s raison d’être.

After that experience, the one variety of church that I intentionally avoided was Baptist.  To me, they represented the very worst of dogmatic and legalistic Christianity that was devoid of any mysticism, relationality, or intellectual integrity.

More recently, as I’ve been exploring what it means to believe and live as a self-identified liberal Christian, I have been basking in the light of several authors whose lives and words have touched me deeply.  Specifically, I am referring to Howard Thurman, Walter Rauschenbusch, Harry Emerson Fosdick, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  These icons of liberal Protestantism have touched me deeply with their commitment to everything I thought was lacking in my experience of the Baptist tradition.

And then it hit me: these four men had one thing in common that had eluded my consciousness until now.  They were all Baptist ministers.

Delving a little more deeply, I discovered a whole new perspective on the Baptist tradition that I hadn’t noticed until now.  Apart from the die-hard fundamentalists among them, Baptists are (and have been for four hundred years) committed to the power of freedom.

Walter Shurden has articulated the Baptist commitment to freedom in terms of four central values (I have lifted the following summary from Wikipedia):

Soul freedom: the soul is competent before God, and capable of making decisions in matters of faith without coercion or compulsion by any larger religious or civil body

Church freedom: freedom of the local church from outside interference, whether government or civilian (subject only to the law where it does not interfere with the religious teachings and practices of the church)

Bible freedom: the individual is free to interpret the Bible for himself or herself, using the best tools of scholarship and biblical study available to the individual

Religious freedom: the individual is free to choose whether to practice their religion, another religion, or no religion; Separation of church and state is often called the “civil corollary” of religious freedom

Needless to say, this discovery has sparked a reconsideration of my theological roots, dare I say it, the tradition in which I was raised.  Upon further reflection and research, I came to another realization about my heritage:

Apart from the high school I attended, my experience of Baptist churches via the ones I attended as a child was an experience of very moderate to liberal Baptists.  My parents, who I would describe as moderate in most respects, brought us to two different Baptist churches during my youth: First Baptist Church of Melrose, Massachusetts and Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  First Baptist of Melrose is where I have my earliest memories of church.  Binkley Baptist is where I received my first Bible in the third grade.  Both of these churches are American Baptist, formerly known as Northern Baptist, a much more diverse and moderate denomination than its southern counterpart.  Binkley Baptist is also affiliated with the Alliance of Baptists, a very liberal denomination that split off from the Southern Baptist Convention in the mid-1980s.  That same church made waves decades ago by hiring an openly gay minister before it was popular, even among mainline Protestants.  Upon close re-examination, I would say that my perspective on my Baptist roots is shifting dramatically.

Having just completed my transition to the Presbyterian Church in the last twelve months, I’m not looking to make another switch.  However, if one were to ask me what I see God doing in my personal life right now, I would probably point to the way in which my relationship toward my Baptist heritage is being redeemed in my own memory.

For the last several years (before this process began in earnest), I’ve even had recurring dreams of returning to Binkley.  One involved making my way down a snowy path through the woods behind my childhood home and arriving at Binkley in order to talk with their pastor.  In another dream, I was worshiping in their sanctuary on a Sunday morning, but the internal arrangement of the church (pulpit, pews, etc.) was 180 degrees opposite to what it had been when I attended there.  Those are striking images, considering what I’ve been talking about here.  Could it be that this internal redemption of my denominational heritage was an unconscious work-in-progress for several ears?

All of this material came up in my mind yesterday during my personal devotions.  I was reading a passage from Genesis 12, where Abram is called away to an unknown land under divine guidance.  The voice said to him, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”  He had no idea of where he was going.  All Abram knew was that he would be blessed and would be a blessing to “all the families of the earth.”

You would think that this would be the beginning of a long epic that ended years later with his arrival in the Promised Land.  However, such is not the case.  We read in the text that Abram arrived in the Canaan by the end of the next paragraph.  That seems rather anti-climactic and counter-intuitive to me.  Where was the author’s sense of story and adventure?  Odysseus took fourteen years to get where he was going, Abram took a paragraph.

But then I noticed something else: Abram’s journey did not end with his arrival in the Promised Land.  It was only beginning.  He continued to live as a nomad in Canaan, moving from place to place, “journeying on by stages,” as the text says.  And at each stage along the way, he set up an altar.  He acknowledged the sacredness of each patch of earth and gave thanks to the One who had called him in the beginning, guided him thus far, and promised to bless him until the end.

As it was with Abram, so I believe it is with me.  Perhaps I have been in the Promised Land all along, still living as a nomad, traveling from place to place and church to church.  Perhaps that sense of tradition and belonging for which I yearn has been with me the whole time.  Maybe it is only now, as I am being led to embrace the part of my heritage I have despised most, that I am finally able to see my real tradition.

I build an altar here, acknowledging the sacredness of this patch of earth called ‘Baptist’ and blessing the One who brought me to and through its territory.  I do likewise for the other theological provinces I have visited: Evangelical, Charismatic, Emergent, Episcopal, and Presbyterian.  I do not know where my journey will lead me from here, but I look forward to exploring the land that is being shown to me and experiencing the mutual interflow of blessing between myself and all the families of the earth.

Get Loud

Getting loud... Sue Sylvester knows what I'm talking about.

Earlier this week, I posted an article on Facebook about a Stella Harville and Ticha Chikuni, a couple who was denied membership at Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church in eastern Kentucky because they are an interracial couple.

You can read the article by clicking here.

In the comments, my new friend Jaime asked, “What can I do, how can I have a positive impact as a Christian against this type of hate and bigotry?”  I started sketching my thoughts and decided to post them in my blog, rather than on Facebook.

What can we do?  That’s the big question.  What gets to me at this time each year is the constant, self-righteous whining about “keeping ‘Christ’ in ‘Christmas'”.  If there’s anything that’s going to make Christ mad enough to flip over some tables, I’m guessing it’s probably going to be the above article, rather than ‘Happy Holidays’.  I also seem to remember that the most famous example of Jesus getting THAT angry took place in a house of worship.

I don’t have the answer to that question.  Whoever does will be the next Martin Luther.  All I’ve got right now are a few ideas that I’ve been trying to work out in my life.  I’ll share them here.  If anyone finds them helpful, please feel free to steal them.  Again: no answers, just ideas.

1. Honesty.  I want to own the truth about how racist/sexist/homophobic I really am.  It seems like everybody likes to start these discussions with the phrase: “I’m not racist/sexist/homophobic but…”.  But the cold, hard fact is that, half a century after Martin Luther King, I still live in a country where 85% of the people on death row are African American, women make 75 cents for every dollar a man makes, and the suicide rate among LGBT youth is twice that of their peers.  It’s like we’ve settled into this pattern where it’s okay to BE racist/sexist/homophobic as long as I don’t SAY I am.  As a privileged white, male, heterosexual Christian, I’m thinking it’s time for me to sit with the prophet Isaiah and confess, “Woe is me!  For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, yet I am encountering the face of reality!”

2. Proximity.  Our culture has sped up the amount and rate of information exchange to the point where it’s all becoming a big blur that goes by while we stay isolated behind ‘screens’ (kind of like I’m doing right now).  We don’t actually have to face each other or get close to one another anymore.  We can just blast them in anonymous comments on YouTube.  We end up saying things we would never say in the real world.  I wonder if it’s really a coincidence that political dialogue became so extremely polarized in the same decade that Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter emerged?  How many members of Westboro Baptist Church have openly gay friends/family?  How many members of the church in the above article have close friends of another race?  Speaking for myself, the point when I started questioning my homophobia came when I realized that some people I love are gay.  I care a whole lot more about sexism now that I have a daughter.  And so on…

It’s hard to hate (or ignore) a group when people you love are part of it.

3. Education.  I am woefully ignorant about issues of inequality and established injustice.  I find that most folks are.  It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve become aware of the difference between personal prejudice and systemic oppression.  Most folks seem to think that racism/sexism/homophobia has to do with their personal feelings.  Cornel West and bell hooks have been most enlightening in helping me recognize that one can have friends of another race and still be racist.  I have a lot more to learn if dismantling injustice really matters to me.

4. Simplicity.  The flip-side of the need for education is our need to keep the message clear to those who are not educated.  The Right seems to claim a monopoly on ‘common sense’, folksy wisdom, and ‘family values’.  We tend to show up with charts and figures of trends and projections.  All of that is super-important because we need the facts to support what we’re saying, but I’ve noticed that a lot of people eventually get lost and check out of the conversation before we’ve even made our point.  We’ve got to find some way to keep it clear, simple, and short.

5. Volume.  I was recently listening to Dan Savage talk about how frustrated he gets when liberal Christians come up to him and whisper, “Psst!  We’re not all homophobic.”  Dan said how he wants to tell them to stop whispering that to him and start shouting it to Pat Robertson.  Progressive types (especially progressive Christians) are so eager to appear different from the screaming Bible-thumpers, we hardly raise our voices at all.  We sit quietly in our churches and don’t bother anyone else… ever.  Well, what if people need to be bothered?  To paraphrase Gustavo Gutierrez: Silence is a vote in favor of oppression.  Being “liberal” or progressive does not equal “politically correct”.  I need to get up off my fat butt, get over my fear of offending someone, get out there where people are suffering, and GET LOUD.

Those are my ideas.  Who is with me?