Monday, June 29, 2009

You're a, a, ah Baptist?

A funny thing happened to me on vacation. I met one of my relatives (by marriage) for the first time. She had been told that: “I was a Baptist preacher.” Living in “the north”—the only thing she knew about Baptists were Reverends like the late Jerry Falwell, Charles Stanley—and a couple of other TV luminaries. She was scared to death. I tried to allay her fears by saying that I was really not rabid (most days), that I would not hit her with a Bible or salivate about the Second Coming. I even whispered that the highlight of my wife’s week was not sitting on the front row of Wednesday night prayer meeting. I told her I felt the same way she did about the kind of Baptists she was afraid of. I think it was H.L. Mencken that used to say about preachers was that the thing he hated most about them was that their goal in life was to make sure that nobody anywhere at any time was having any fun.

Once upon a time when we first started Baptists were freedom loving, not just for their own selfish interests but for everybody. Having lived under the tyranny of Kings who tried to force them into certain molds or else—they were determined to find a better way. When they finally got to this country they found, to their dismay that some folk were trying desperately to bring a little touch of the established church to the new land. That meant only certain kind of services were permitted, only those they deemed qualified could preach, and they had no business thinking they could choose their own worship or even their own hymns.

Early Baptist preachers filled many of the jails “in the north” as well as Virginia in protest. But when our forebears came to write our Constitution and Bill of Rights a couple of Baptists made sure that church and state were separated and people were free to worship—or not to worship at all—as they chose. Contrary to popular opinion, the litmus test for holding office was not tied to religious affiliation. Roger Williams founded the free state of Rhode Island where anybody of any persuasion could come and not be officially harassed.

That’s the kind of Baptist I want to be. I believe in freedom for me and everybody else—including the poor, the gays, the rich, the immigrants, the atheists and the transgendered. One of the reasons I feel so strongly about this is a true story I heard over 40 years ago when I was in Seminary. A young man who was gay at that time was having a terrible time with his identity. Who could he tell back then? Where could he go for someone just to listen and not judge? He told my friend that he visited every mainline church in a large Tennessee town and he was turned away from every church. Nobody would listen to him or take him seriously. It is no wonder he never went to a church again.

The Baptist Church I believe in may be getting smaller every year. But here and there, thank God there are little battalions of folk who work in their own quiet ways for peace and justice for everyone. Deep in their hearts they really do believe that we shall all overcome some day. I am proud to be a member of that club.

Every once in a while I'll read something and think: "I wish I had written that." I felt that way about Joe Phelps' blog piece.

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