Being baptist (Lenten Reflection on 1 Peter 3:18-22)

There was a dream and one day I could see it; Like a bird in a cage I broke in And demanded that somebody free it And there was a kid with a head full of doubt; So I’ll scream ’til I die; And the last of those bad thoughts are finally out.

I’m baptist. That’s a quirky self-identification these days. However, it’s one that is a core part of who I am. Along the way, I was ordained by a wonderful congregation. So I’m a Reverend baptist. But we push for the priesthood of all believers, so Rev. Sam Harrelson seems superfluous.

I wasn’t necessarily born into being baptist. I had choice and made decisions along the way. MaNy of those choices are why I’m probably not a full time pastor in some congregation in Rhode Island or North Carolina right now at age 42. My family started attending church somewhere around my 12th-13th birthday. We ended up at Little Bethel Baptist Church in Mullins, SC as that’s where a number of our family members and family friends attended. Most of my friends growing up were either Presbyterian or Methodist (including my high school girlfriend). My Aunt Lib and Uncle Herbert were also staunchly Methodist. They were thrilled when I went off to Wofford College, being that it is tightly associated with the United Methodist Church and still produces many fine and upright Methodist pastors in the 21st Century.

While at Wofford, I eschewed the Baptist Student Union for the more progressive theology (and alcohol) friendly Wesleyan Fellowship. I changed my major from Chemistry / Computer Science to Religion sophomore year and worked my way to deciding that I’d attend Yale University Divinity School. My Wofford Religion professors were all good Methodists as was the beloved College Chaplain (obviously). Rev. Skinner urged me a number of times to join a Methodist church and go off to Yale with the intention of being a Methodist minister or academic or some combination in-between.

My beloved roommate was a Lutheran-turned Methodist (now turned Lutheran… or maybe Greek Orthodox?) who would depart to a Methodist seminary after our graduation. Somehow, he lived with me for four years and was there for the many late night conversations we’d have about “going Catholic” after attending a moving Mass at St. Peter’s or perhaps exploring the monastic lifestyle after drinking too many beers at a monastery in Salzburg. We still have many of those conversations late at night after our children have fallen asleep and our minds wander in the darkness. My fiancé at the time was going off to a Methodist seminary herself and in many ways, my reluctance to switch teams led to our eventual breakup. She’s now a fine and upstanding Methodist minister.

Surprisingly to myself (and Rev. Skinner), I declared myself “Baptist (Southern)” on my Yale Divinity application. For some reason, they admitted me. I think it was partly out of pity and partly out of amusement.

I was a fish out of water in New Haven and quickly regretted that I hadn’t taken up Rev. Skinner’s admonition to become Methodist. There were no polity classes for Southern Baptists at Yale Div, so they lumped me into a very welcoming but coldly New Englandly American Baptist group. I learned the ins-and-outs of American Baptist tradition and found it very similar to the Methodist kudzu that surrounded my baptist trunk. The professor was a Pastor of a local American Baptist congregation and urged me to come visit with them and see if I’d be interested in becoming American Baptist. I thought about it, but ended up wandering across Whitney Ave from my apartment to a stately and very New Haven-y United Church of Christ on most Sundays for service. I was surprised to find their minister was a female and self-identified LBTQ. There were rainbow flags. Sermons included social justice themes. Depictions of Jesus were all non-white (and some non-male). It was 2000 and I felt my world was changing rapidly.

I almost joined the UCC. I identified that church as my “home church” in polity classes and became this enigma trapped inside of a riddle with my Yale Div classmates. “I thought you were a Baptist?” was a question I often heard as we discussed a theological point over coffee. Oddly enough, it was there at Yale and in Connecticut that I discovered why I self-identified as baptist (and rekindled my love of NASCAR and wearing cowboy boots). I dove into the history of Baptists and Anabaptists and Baptists in America. I wrote papers explaining the Southern Baptist conservative takeover in light of 1970’s eschatological theologies and political maneuverings with Revelation as the anchor text. I read as much as I could about the various responses that Baptists had in the North and the South to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. I traveled to NYC by train every year for the Martin Luther King Jr. Service at Riverside Church (famous anchor Baptist church were MLK Jr had preached). The more I studied being baptist, the more I appreciated the complicated history of the movement(s) and the nuances of this particular quirky expression of faith.

For me, personally, being baptist became a philosophical thought technology as much as a walk of faith. I realized I could attend a UCC or Methodist church and still “be baptist” without compromising those deeply held and recently uncovered historical kernels I’d just discovered in the musty but exhilarating tight corners of the 13th floor of Yale’s Sterling Library that seemed to swallow readers whole as one ventured through the stacks.

After Yale, I moved back to South Carolina and found myself teaching Middle School Science at an Independent school (as one does). I loved teaching even though I was back to my days of studying chemistry rather than theology. I let it slip that I’d been to Divinity School and identified myself as a Baptist during a few conversations. Turned out that the Math teacher on my team was married to the head of the state Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. She took me under her wing and I found myself attending a CBF church and discussing ministry again with the Senior Pastor.

A couple of years later, I was off to Gardner-Webb Divinity School for another go at being a baptist in theological studies. This time, I would be surrounded by other Cooperative Baptists and Southern Baptists and Missionary Baptists in the context of the unique culture of South-Central North Carolina. I met professors there who pulled and tugged at my conception of baptist and encouraged me to dig deeper. I’m still friends with many of them today. It was a wonderful time to be at Gardner-Webb because of the strong academics and collegial atmosphere. There were young people straight from college looking to become pastors. There were pastors in their 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s who were looking to complete a seminary degree and finalize their MDiv (not always a requirement to be a baptist pastor here in the South). The school was diverse in thought, race, gender, and expressions. I appreciated my time there and look back on it as an experience that helped define my own conception of being baptist and myself in a way that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. I finally might take up a calling to become a pastor, I often thought on the long drives from Asheville to Gardner-Webb in Boiling Springs, NC.

Then, my mentor there unexpectedly passed away at the young age of 40 and I felt all of that warmness turned cool. He had guided me through Gardner-Webb and many aspects of life over the previous two years. He was patient with my procrastination and encouraging of my righteous indignation. We often talked of baptist-as-a-philosophy and he shared his passion of Jewish-Baptist relation with us. For him to be gone from my life so suddenly and completely was a major hole I couldn’t patch. I was on the “preaching circuit” around Western and Central North Carolina, preaching in various sizes (and styles) of Baptist churches most weekends. There were a few job offers and interviews. I came close to taking one pastor position in particular. But I was still grieving and that clouded what should have been easy decisions about my future. I lasted until the end of that year but decided not to finish my last semester of study and go back to the Middle School classroom to teach.

I had another great experience in the classroom while also working on the side to rekindle my consulting business. I was able to quell that still small voice calling me to something theological by podcasting with my friend about religion, writing papers and sermons no one would read, and having long conversations with myself on drives between Spartanburg and Asheville. But after 4 more years in the classroom, I knew it was time to hang up the bow ties and try my hand one last time to finish the MDiv I had started years ago.

My business was taking off with a number of high profile local and regional clients. I had a new girlfriend that was amazing and encouraged me to pursue my theological side more often. Things seemed inevitable. I submitted my admission papers (re-admission?) back to Gardner-Webb and planned to continue building my business while attending the last few classes and maybe picking up some preaching gigs on the weekends. Everything seemed to finally be on track and inevitable. For the first time since I began this journey with God and the Bible and my own baptist faith and message back as a 14 year old, I felt that things were coming full circle towards a completion of sorts. I finally knew what I was going to do with my life. Well, I finally knew how I was going to do what I was supposed to do with my life.

Turns out my “ministry” as a baptist (as it were) didn’t turn out exactly like I had expected. In the next few weeks, I would have a series of conversations with my then girlfriend and now partner, Merianna, about her own calling. That would lead to her deciding to apply to Gardner-Webb for seminary as well in pursuit of understanding and following her call to ministry. It was an exciting moment in our relationship. I loved our exploration of her Baptist tradition and seeing her while she went through an extended process of discernment. I tried, in my limited way, to be both an advocate and a supporter. As the first day of classes approached, I was also in a process of discernment about my path again. I made another decision to forgo those last few classes of the MDiv program.

Now looking back on that pivotal point in my life, I realize it was the right decision to make. Merianna’s ministry has flourished and paved an amazing path for both herself and other people in both Baptist and now UCC life to listen to their callings and pursue theological education. Being able to contribute occasional pulpit supply or Sunday School series or pastoral care duties along side her over the years has been the truest expression of being baptist that I could have experienced. We’ve laughed, cried, argued, agreed, under thought, and over thought about her own experiences as well as mine.

To be walking alongside her in this path and attempting to do what I can to support her has opened my own eyes to the systematic sexism (and misogyny) that infects much of religious life in the United States still. That’s especially true in my the Baptist ecosystem regardless of regional or identification flavor. From the Southern Baptist Convention to the American Baptist Church to the Alliance of Baptists to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (there are many others, those are just the ones I’ve been affiliated with or participated through in some way), issues around gender, identification, ableness, and identity run rampant in local churches large to small and progressive to conservative.

That eye opening realization has led my own consulting work with churches (and nonprofits) to focus on some of these issues with clients. What begins as a conversation about tech or messaging and public relations often turns to a deeper look at the intrinsic nature of underlying problems within a church instead of outside a church.

“How can we get more people to like our Facebook page and attend our (virtual) services?”
“Why aren’t young families participating and giving like they once did?”

These are the style of questions that I address with many churches that often lead to a discernment process which uncovers the same sort of systematic rot that lies at the heart of congregations on the brink of having to cut staff, sell property, and make tough decisions about the future. I don’t know if I’ve “saved” any churches directly through my work, but I know that some have blamed me for being able to keep the lights on a few months later. That is a form of ministry I never would have experienced had it not been for that intrusion of Merianna’s calling in my own life.

As an Ivy-league educated white male with a head full of doubt but a road full of promise in the Baptist world, I would have taken a pastor position at a small church and worked my way dutifully up the ranks until landing a coveted Senior Pastor position at some large Baptist congregation with a six figure income and a nice vacation and health insurance package (and maybe a country club membership or Chamber of Commerce speaking opportunities thrown in) while I worked on my eventual series of books about spiritual guidance in troubled times while passing off difficult pastoral care duties to Associate Ministers due to my heavy schedule of speaking arrangements and decisions I had to make regarding committee budgets.

I’m glad I chose not to pursue that path.

Being baptist isn’t a career ladder nor is it a call to the ordinary. It’s not a phase or a stage. It’s not something we get over, but it’s a process of thought. It’s about listening and hearing that still small voice inside all of us calling our souls to competency but also calling us to be outwardly be transformed by an inner revelation. That means working for good for all. That means standing up for those who have been shut out of the board rooms of decision and the committee calls of power and allowing space for their voices to be recognized.

Perhaps the fictional Jerry Maguire’s Mission Statement / Memo sums it up the best:

That happens when we don’t listen to the loud sound of the quiet voice inside. Life, I believe, is not a country club where we forget the difficulties and anxieties. Life is the duty of confronting all of that within ourselves. I am the most successful male in my family, but I am hardly the happiest. My brother works for Nasa, helping grow blue-green algae that will one day feed the world. He was originally targeted as the “successful” one in my family. But he gave up early, for a quieter kind of success. He was once tortured, now he is quietly making the world a better place. He learned earlier what I am just now starting to wake up to. He sleeps well at night. And he doesn’t worry about being too preoccupied or too busy to get the dance right. He dances for something greater.

Don’t dance (as we Baptists would say) for people, but dance for something greater than yourself.

1 Peter 3:18-22

3:18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit,

3:19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison

3:20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.

3:21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you–not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

3:22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.