Not that Kind of Baptist

in Lent

Lord Who Throughout These Forty Days...

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Amidst the hurried distractions of our lives comes the regular liturgical heartbeat of this time of year known as Lent.  And yes, we peculiar Baptists do observe Lent.  We find that the tried and true rhythms of Christian liturgical worship carry a deep resonance.  

Lent comes from a word meaning "lengthen" and during these days our souls will lengthen and hopefully become more pliable, open, and receptive of the Holy Spirit.  May God lengthen our spiritual "attention spans" during this Lent.  

Here at NDBC, in place of the Gloria Patri, we'll sing Lord Who Throughout These Forty Days by Claudia Frances Hernaman (1873).  

The opening stanza of this hymn contains this beautiful lyric:

Lord, who throughout these forty days
For us didst fast and pray,
Teach us with thee to mourn our sins
And close by thee to stay. 

Just as Christ experienced the harrowing of his soul for forty days and nights in the wilderness, so too are Christ's followers called to fast, repent, and reflect.   Listen as you sing or read these words for some ancient cadences and peculiar vocabulary.   

The hymn uses words like "sin" and "mourn"...and later it asks Jesus "to teach us, gracious Lord, to die to self."  There's not much talk in popular culture about "dying to self."    The Church uses ancient words which have an increasingly difficult time finding purchase in modern parlance.   But these words are both richer and more capable of leading to spiritual growth than the language of pop psychology or something purloined from the self-help aisle. 

Imagine going to the bookstore and asking "where is the dying to self aisle?"  That might occasion a puzzled look.  Christians understand that the resources we have independent of God are so inadequate and scarce, that we cannot take the first step without the enabling power of God's grace.  Lent without grace is like the law without mercy: nobody wants to be subject to such a regime.  So, may grace come. 

On Ash Wednesday we will talk of sin and of repentance and of grace.  Sin as a deep theological category, not the convenient list of Things We Don't Approve Of.  Sin has an ontological and existential condition, and therefore on Ash Wednesday we are encouraged to reflect deeply on the ways in which we have harmed self and others.  The good news is that there is forgiveness.  The good news is that Easter is coming.  The good news is that grace always trumps the law.  

The ashes we'll receive on our foreheads are a sign of both our belonging to God and our status as sinful creation.  We are not perfect.  We have sinned.  But under the sign of the Cross we continue our journey, seeking repentance, renewal, transformation, and finally: Resurrection.  Lent begins with ashes, signalling this great truth of all human existence that we all will die.  Each one of us.   And yet death will not have the final word.  We are an Easter people, so death can never have the final word.  

 

Fractured Denominations

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This week's news that the United Methodist Church is suffering the pain of denominational fracture over same sex marriage and exclusion of LGBTQIA persons from their midst is devastating.  We pray for all of those persons who experience profound pain and loss at this news, including especially persons who identify as members of the community under exclusion.  

Prior to my call as the Associate Pastor, in 2016 Northside Drive Baptist Church approved a non-discrimination policy which states that

“Northside Drive Baptist Church, believing in the love of God for all persons, will provide equal access to all facets of the life and ministry of our church (including membership, baptism, ordination, marriage, teaching, staffing, and leadership) without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity.” 

If NDBC had not already left the Southern Baptist and Georgia Baptist Conventions years earlier, this policy would have resulted in a forced departure.  We had exercised a preemptive use of local church autonomy.  We sadly named that these Baptist tents had shrunk; and though we had not moved, we were suddenly outside of the tent in the rain.

Baptists have walked the road of fractured denominations before.  Many a seminary professor and graduate alike I’ve encountered over the years wear the marks of denominational trauma.  Ask any of them where they attended seminary and after listing the seminary, to a person you'll get the same follow up remark: before the Fall

Before the Fall.  That’s strong language, given the Fall’s grip on our theological imagination.  Original Sin.  The forbidden fruit.  All that is bound up in such weighty language used to describe the violent takeover of seminaries.  What is being named is the profound sense of loss that accompanies the history of the "takeover" to use another shorthand term.  There used to be academic freedom, room for women in ministry, and diversity...but then came the takeover with its forced creedalism.  

So strong is the taint of fundamentalism’s original sin that guilt by association must have its own theological language.  I get that.  

The Baptist principle moderates and progressives rallied behind then, as they do now, was local church autonomy.  Each church had the power and responsibility to decide its own polity, governance, and discipline.  Voluntary associations like denominational bodies may be convenient ways to pool resources for missions and brainstorming, but they should never supplant the church. 

Our Methodist brothers and sisters are experiencing the pain of denominational fracture.  This week, the United Methodist Church, by a rather slim margin, voted to strengthen its ban on same-sex marriages and LGBTQ inclusion in clergy and leadership.  There was a movement afoot for something called the “One Church Plan” which would have allowed individual churches to set their own policy regarding LGBTQ inclusion and same-sex marriage. 

That plan was voted down, causing much grief and consternation for many of my friends, some family, and colleagues.  I get the theology and principle of the One Church Plan.  Baptists who supported women in ministry, a non-fundamentalist reading of Scripture, and eventually full LGBTQ inclusion have always resorted to their own One Church Plan when threatened with expulsion or denominational “excommunication.”    

As societal changes in law and culture herald a greater inclusivity (in some quarters) on grounds of gender, sexual orientation, and race, test cases emerge in Christian life concerning how much agreement we must have in order to continue in communion with each other.  Yet, culture and law are not the truest authorities for churches.  God is.  Theology informs our humanity and how we humanely treat one another, since all are made in God’s image.  For Baptists in the 70s and 80s, the test case was women in ministry and the reactionary hermeneutic of the fundamentalists.  (They would frame it, as conservatives do today, as “standing for the Bible”). 

For Baptists today, the question of whether LGBTQ persons may become married in the church, become ordained clergy and deacons, and otherwise participate in the life of the church on the same grounds as heterosexual persons has emerged as a test case.

In Texas, several Baptist churches exercising Baptist local church autonomy (read: “The One Church Plan”) embraced a welcoming and affirming theology and polity.  They  were subsequently expelled from the Baptist General Convention of Texas.  At the state level, the Kentucky Baptist Convention has recently entered the fray, ending relationships with any church associated with the CBF.  That move, in turn, was a reaction to the CBF's Illumination Project, the name for a 2-year effort to broker a compromise regarding CBF's own internal hiring policy for LGBTQ persons.  The compromise was that leadership positions would not be open to active LGBTQ persons, but other staff positions would be.  Conservatives were angered that the door to inclusion had been opened at all; progressives were angered that it was not opened far enough. 

All of that to say, Baptists have their own history and experience with the pain of fracture within voluntary associations and denominational bodies.  That our Methodist friends now walk this road of sorrow is not shocking, but we should mourn with them and continue to keep them in prayer.  It is in some ways inevitable as our society continues to fragment and polarize.   And yet, God’s specialty is broken things: broken people, broken churches, broken hope.  God is bigger than broken denominations.  With Easter soon coming, we remember that God can do a lot, even when death steps in.

Gays, lesbians, and transgendered persons have long suffered the trauma of exclusion from the Church's table.  Churches which have promised to be welcoming in generic terms have been unable to do so when specific persons experiencing same-sex attraction come forward for baptism, communion,  ordination, and marriage.    The narratives of pain because the church did not know how to show God's love to all of God's children continue to be told and wept over.  This is just the latest chapter.  

The weeks ahead will be painful for those Methodists returning to their local communities and sorting out the way forward.  I pray for wisdom and discernment for each church struggling to be faithful in this time of division…and new possibilities. 

 

Posted by Rev. Daniel Headrick with

Love Never Ends

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Love never ends

Every time I reflect on the scope and scale of cosmic history I feel a little bit of cynicism and perhaps despair creeping in.  We humans are late additions to the history of the cosmos, and every day it seems we’re learning about distant galaxies, complete with a new panoply of stars.  There are trillions and trillions of stars, perhaps each with a planet in orbit. 

It is easy to feel quite small in the grasp of such “bigness.” 

Many of us labor under the conceit that our impact on the world will outlive us.  Perhaps it is our ego that drives such imagination.  When you think about human history on a cosmic scale, the work we do may seem infinitesimal.  We touch a life with the best we have to offer, and then time fades away. 

We are suffused with an ocean of words, stimuli, and impressions which threaten to overwhelm. 

I enjoy looking at this thing called the Cosmic Calendar online.  There are different versions of this online, but they all trend in the same direction.  Namely, that all of human history happened just a few seconds ago.  13.8 billion years ago is as far back as scientists can trace the material world. 

The Cosmic Calendar imagines that entire 13.8 billion year period as one 365 day calendar.  Put in those terms, on the final month of the “Cosmic Year”…during the final day... humans first started walking upright around 9:25pm.  The whimsical nature of this imaginative exercise makes me smile.

Christ was born a little less than 5 seconds ago.

Columbus came to America 1.2 seconds ago. 

And so on. 

I suppose a cynical read of the Cosmic Calendar would indeed affirm that our human lives don’t amount to much.

Long after we’ve been forgotten, when American civilization and its landmarks and eccentricities and cultural artifacts are buried in debris, when every trace of our modern culture has been erased, when the Sun dies and vaporizes the Earth billions of years from now, will there be anything left?

Oh yes, the Bible tells us.  Love never ends

Paul says that love never ends in 1 Corinthians 13:8.  In the midst of this hymn of praise to love, we could very well substitute “God” or "Christ" for "love.” 

Because, as 1 John 4:8 tells us, God is love.  Therefore, love that will outlast every violent act and outburst of hatred and oppression. 

God is the source and ground of love.  From such an infinite well, love can never be depleted.  When people say things like “life is too short to hate” they are on to something powerful.  Why would we humans waste time with something so ephemeral and destructive as hatred?   And yet, hatred seems to be on the rise. 

Acts of Anti-Semitism have increased dramatically in the last years.  White supremacy is on the rise.  Political divisions seem increasingly sharp and polarized.  Hatred seems to have the upper hand. 

And yet, hear again these words: love never ends

Love never ends because God never ends.  Love never ends because God’s solidarity with humanity was made before the “Big Bang” or whatever you want to call it.  Love never ends because Jesus died on the Cross for you and for me and for every human being.  The eternal invaded the temporal. 

And so I do believe that the antidote to our feeling of smallness, despair, and cynicism when we gaze into the night sky is a healthy dose of wonder that after all that has faded away, love remains. 

After all the stars have died, love never ends. 

The life we live today does matter.  The lives we touch today do matter.  Because when our thoughts and actions are motivated by love we come to know the eternal God, and God comes to know us.  Take that, Cosmic Calendar!

(Attribution of the image used above to By Efbrazil, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18385338)

Posted by Rev. Daniel Headrick with

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