I have for a long time now recognized that one reality that characterizes my life is rootlessness.
I am an only child both of whose parents had died by the time I was twenty. My home church split while I was in seminary and, since most of the people who I associated with that church left it, my home church doesn’t feel like home anymore. I haven’t set foot in it in over twenty years. The seminary at which I spent seven years of my life fell in the onslaught of the so-called “Conservative Resurgence” in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and changed so dramatically and so suddenly that I do not think of it as the same school. In my mind I hold two degrees from a seminary that no longer exists.
That same fundamentalist movement changed the nature, direction, and focus of the SBC in ways that radically departed from its history and heritage just as I was falling in love with that history and heritage. It was hard to take when pharaohs arose who knew not Joseph, by which biblical metaphor I mean to say that the SBC fell under the control of leaders who regarded as unimportant and maybe even incorrect such cherished Baptist ideas as the autonomy of the local church, the priesthood of all believers, and the separation of church and state. It seemed to me that they were willing to take freedom and ball it up and toss it in the garbage can as casually as if it were yesterday’s newspaper.
Part of me just says “Oh well.” After all, so it is and so it ever shall be.
Such an attitude, though, does not address my sense of rootlessness. I still long for home.
I served two tours as pastor of the First Baptist Church in Adel, Georgia. After serving there for seven years, I became a professor in the Belmont University School of Religion. Following six years at Belmont, I returned to Adel as pastor. I did feel called to do so but there were times when I couldn’t quite understand all of the dynamics that went into that decision.
One day I found myself at a seminar led by Parker Palmer. He had put us into groups in which we were to share some of our personal story. As I described my inability to understand exactly why I had returned to Adel, a counselor friend in our group said, “Oh, it’s clear to me why you went back.” “Pray tell,” I said. He replied, “You went back because you were looking for home.”
I think he was right. During my first stint in Adel I had found a foundation and a community that I had not had in a long time. I was looking to reclaim it. But, of course, things were different; the folks there were different and I was different. You can go home again, I found, but you can only stay about half as long as you did the first time.
God has been good. He has given me a wonderful family. I hope that I have been half the blessing to them that my wife and children have been to me. I crave being home with them. In that sense, God has truly comforted me and given me roots.
But I still find myself longing for a Church home; by capitalizing the word I mean to signify a fellowship beyond the local church that I serve and attend. I long for a place where I belong and am accepted, which is to me the basic definition of “home.”
Perhaps that is part of what I was looking for when I attended the Celebration of the New Baptist Covenant (NBC) last week. I wanted to see if there I would be among Baptist Christians who valued what I value. Would they value sharing the gospel in all of its implications and applications? Would they demonstrate a commitment to the salvation of souls and to the healing of broken lives? Would they be interested in evangelism and in the environment?
Would they understand that God’s justice applies to both individuals and to systems? Would they value missions and ministry more than theological uniformity? Would they proclaim what they were for more than what they were against? Would the congregation look more like heaven is going to look in terms of diversity than most of our congregations look on Sunday morning? Would they demonstrate a willingness to partner with all Baptists—including those Southern Baptists who were quite critical of the gathering—in doing the work of the Lord?
I must say that my questions were answered in the affirmative. I must say that I felt at home.
Now, that feeling does not really give me a home, because the NBC is neither a denomination nor a convention. It is not that kind of organization. What I hope it will be is a pan-Baptist alliance or fellowship that will try to marshal the considerable resources of North American Baptists in the doing of missions and ministry. I hope that it will provide a public witness that Baptists of many colors (literally) and stripes (theologically and socially) can provide a healthy and balanced witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. I hope that it will continue to demonstrate that issues that have to do with the health and welfare of all people and which necessarily get us into the realm of politics, such as the environment, poverty, criminal justice, and human rights, can be discussed and treated in ways that are not partisan.
It’s a huge task that we have taken upon ourselves. But I hope that, to use Jimmy Allen’s words, it becomes a “movement” rather than a moment. I need a home that builds upon the positive aspects of Baptist history and moves beyond the negative aspects. I need a home that transcends petty differences and debates over theological minutiae. I need a home where Jesus is Lord, where freedom is cherished, where people are accepted, and where the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ is the paramount concern.
In his book The Longing for Home, Frederick Buechner writes, “The word longing comes from the same root as the word long in the sense of length in either time or space and also the word belong, so that in its full richness to long suggests to yearn for a long time for something that is a long way off and something that we feel we belong to and that belongs to us” (pp. 18-19). I have longed for a long time for something in my Church life that seemed to exist only a long time ago or maybe a long time in the future. Perhaps in the efforts to emerge from the Celebration of the New Baptist Covenant I will find some of my longing satisfied.