Some Lenten meditations for baptists

Some Lenten meditations for baptists February 20, 2012

I grew up Pentecostal and became Baptist. I tell Baptists attracted to high church worship that “Baptist is as high church as I can go.”

I composed this little axiom to explain much of what goes on in American Christianity: Pentecostals want to be Baptists or Methodists; Baptists and Methodists want to be Presbyterians or Episcopalians; Presbyterians and Episcopalians want to be Catholics; Catholics want to be Pentecostal.

Over the years I’ve observed what I call (I didn’t coin this phrase!) “the lure of the other” in churches and among Christians. Especially those with education seem never satisfied to be what they have been. They are always looking around for something better to imitate.

Yes, I succumbed to that lure. But I didn’t really have a choice. I desperately wanted to remain Pentecostal, but my Scandinavian-Germanic genes just wouldn’t let me get my hands high enough (is the way I like to put the fact that I just couldn’t be sufficiently emotional to please my Pentecostal mentors and friends). Also, I was kicked out; I didn’t leave voluntarily. The Baptists took me in.

Several Baptist churches and institutions I’ve been part of want very much to incorporate high church Protestant and Catholic practices into Baptist worship and spirituality. And it’s not only among churches with the word “Baptist” in their name. So I’ll switch now and speak instead of “baptist” by which I mean free churches James McClendon’s sense. It includes Pentecostals, Evangelical Free, Brethren, etc.

Baptists (baptists) often realize that our tradition focuses too much on “learning and serving” and not enough on experiencing God. Some of us discover and embrace the latent Pietism in our own tradition. But I fear for the most part we’ve put it in the closet and closed the door out of fear of fanaticism. But true, historical Pietism is not fanatical. It’s just heartfelt Christianity. We often talk it, but when it comes to “doing” we emphasize “learning and serving” instead.

Not that there’s anything wrong with learning and serving! Certainly not. But can man or woman live by them alone? That is, in the immortal words of the song “Is that all there is?” Our own Pietist heritage says no, but we’ve by and large only paid lip service to that because we fear more than anything else being perceived as “like those holy rollers.” We know Lutherans (for example) think Baptists are holy rollers and we want to run from anything that would reinforce that impression. So we’ve pretty much set the Holy Spirit aside except to mention him/her once in a while as the source of our ability to serve.

But many baptists yearn for something more than “learning and serving” (and doing our Sunday morning duty). Especially those of us with college educations who call ourselves “moderates” turn toward Canterbury or Rome. Well, God forbid we’d ever say “Rome!” So let’s just say Canterbury and try to forget it was those folks who imprisoned our spiritual ancestors for refusing to use the Book of Common Prayer. Now we get comfortable with it.

So, we celebrate the church calendar, including Lent. That’s our moderate baptist way of moving beyond just “learning and serving” and doing our Sunday duty. I have nothing against it except it doesn’t really go far toward enhancing one’s experience of God “in the inner man” (as the Pietists used to say). It could, and we do our best to help it, but by itself it doesn’t fill the need we feel.

Why don’t we baptists plumb our own tradition, including its Pietist aspects, to go beyond the “learning and serving” and doing our Sunday duty syndrome? I’m not saying throw out the church calendar or Lent and all that, but I’m sad when baptists think observing Ash Wednesday is by itself a step toward experiencing God. In fact, I think for many people, all this baptist flirting with high church is just a way of putting more distance between ourselves as God. It makes us feel more in touch with Christian tradition; it helps us feel less “sectarian” and more ecumenical, but how does it really enhance a profound personal experience of God that is life transforming? By itself it can’t and won’t.

Why do we baptists, especially those of us who have some education and like to think of ourselves as sophisticated, run from everything emotional? Like I said, I’m Scandinavian-Germanic and displaying emotions doen’t come easy to me. But what I’d like to know is why we baptists are so afraid of showing a little emotion in church or talking about what God has done and is doing in our lives? In my opinion, for what it is worth, bells and smells (and observing the church calendar) just isn’t part of our heritage and always comes off as a little artificial when we do it. But warm, personal, even emotional relationship with God is part of our revivalistic heritage. (Yes, I know all about the “two Southern Baptist traditions”–Charleston and Sandy Creek and all that. But virtually all Baptists in America, anyway, have been touched by revivalism in some way. My point is that even those of us in the Sandy Creek tradition for some reason want to embrace the Charleston tradition once we get educated, affluent and sophisticated.)

IF we are going to observe the church calendar, let’s also return to our own roots and sing emotional hymns and gospel songs and give our testimonies and talk about Jesus and memorize our Bibles and give altar calls and kneel at the altar to pray. What I have observed in many “moderate” baptist churches is a tendency to run from all those things toward something we perceive as more appropriate for our stations in life and theology.

I, for one, won’t be observing Lent. I have nothing against those who do–especially if it’s part of their ecclesial tradition. Fasting has never been easy for me, but I’d prefer to observe fasting and praying throughout the year rather than during one season. The church I grew up in didn’t observe Lent, not because it was “too Catholic,” but because, for us, Good Friday was really, really good. We didn’t believe in mourning our Savior’s sacrifice; we believed in celebrating it every “communion Sunday.”

So, that’s my baptist two cents worth. Sometimes I think people who grew up baptist are a little embarrassed by it. I’m not. I’m not even embarrassed about growing up Pentecostal. I’m a little embarrassed that I took a Presbyterian detour for three years, but I’m quick to point out that it was to earn a living (as youth pastor) while working on my doctoral degree. I left as soon as I could.  But I don’t think Presbyterians by birth or by choice should be embarrassed. The only reason I’m a little embarrassed about that is that my participation wasn’t authentic. It wasn’t me. I was pretending to be something I was not. Sometimes I think some baptists are pretending to be something they’re not because they long for respectability from sophisticated society.

Those are my Lenten meditations. Please don’t be offended. If the shoes doesn’t fit, don’t wear it.

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