Thursday, July 21, 2011

First Baptist Church in Memphis

I read a story in the newspaper about a special guest coming to First Baptist Church last Sunday morning. Bert Montgomery, a Baptist minister in Starkville, Mississippi,and a university professor,would be selling copies of his book, preaching in worship and performing a one-man show on Sunday evening. I was curious. I calculated if he teaches in a state school he has to have legitimate academic credentials. Added to my calculation, about the probable value of this event, was my previous experience with First Baptist Church. I heard Kate Campbell sing there one Saturday night a few years ago. I know a few members of the congregation and I like them. None of them have pounded me on the back and tried to drag me to my knees, demanding that I give my life to Jesus Christ. So I put on some nice clothes and went to a Baptist church on Sunday morning.

A banner hung over the door: "A Different Way To Be Baptist." I went through the door and was immediately greeted warmly by a woman who saw to it that I found the sanctuary and a seat. I sat where I have always sat in traditional sanctuaries, on the third pew back from the front and on the aisle. The stained glass windows poured a hopeful glow into the room and softened everything, even my anxiety about feeling so vulnerable. I settled in and enjoyed a familiar sense of belonging.

When the organ began to play my eyes filled with tears. That was the first of several "wet" moments for me during the hour of worship. The first hymn was "Rescue the Perishing" and the words were not updated for political correctness. I could lustily sing along without looking at the hymnbook. The lyrics were set deeply in my memory from childhood. I could feel my mother standing beside me. I could hear her harmony with every verse and I was back in the Church of the Nazarene where I was raised. The music leader looked genuinely happy to be singing and to be leading us and the choir in song. The guest preacher was jovial and his message was clear: "Following Jesus is not an easy thing to do but we do not walk alone."

I was struck by the emphasis on Jesus. Since 1994, I have been part of a church where Jesus is important and social justice is even more important. I have focused so much on matters of social justice that I often forget about the possibility of trusting in the presence and power of Jesus. In the pew at First Baptist Church, with nice maroon carpet under my feet, I liked feeling sheltered and befriended rather than drafted into front-line service. I put cash in the plate when it passed by. And my offering came from a place of genuine desire to support what was happening around me. Everything felt familiar.

The call to commitment felt too familiar and I avoided eye contact with the minister while he stood and invited us to make a decision for Christ. That seemed too old-fashioned, even tacky. That kind of thing was done back when women with blue hair wore little foxes that chased each other around their necks. Altar calls were given when men wore thin ties and big hats. I had far too many wild and ecstatic altar call experiences as a child to feel safe around them now. People whooped, shouted, ran the aisles while waving handkerchiefs and sometimes removing their entire shirts. (Men only, of course.) There were Sunday services when only a few of us remained seated in the pew, watching as the entire congregation whipped up a frenzy-- running around and around the sanctuary. No one at the Baptist Church ripped off their shirts or took off running. I started breathing again when the organ introduced the final hymn.

First Baptist Church is part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, more theologically progressive than the Southern Baptists and not as socially liberal as the American Baptists or the Alliance of Baptists. Like all Christian denominations, the Baptists have various brands.

I enjoyed my worship experience at First Baptist Church. Although I will most likely not start calling myself a Baptist, I do not mind confessing that it was spiritually rewarding to be with them. It felt like the old days in a new and good way. I truly met Jesus there and gave honor to his life and love.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

United Church of Christ 's 28th General Synod: Tampa, Florida

From the UCC Web-Site (
Honored Laywomen’s Luncheon Extols the Power of Story
Written by Micki Carter
July 3, 2011

The power of story took center stage Sunday afternoon as 56 laywomen from across the United Church of Christ were honored at a luncheon at General Synod 28.
The honorees were introduced in groups that followed dramatic readings by Debbie Hoogesteger and Rachel Chapman who represented the “foremothers in the faith, those whose names stir up images of strength and story: Rebekah, Sarah, Elizabeth, Mary, Rachel, Deborah, Judith, Priscilla and Miriam.”

But the story that most of the attendees will remember is the one told, in Arkansas twang, by Elaine Blanchard who reset the familiar story of The Woman at the Well in a West Memphis bar. The story was told from the point-of-view of the woman’s mother. The teller told about her daughter, Diana, and an amazing encounter with Jesus on a bar stool while drinking a beer.

“Jesus and the disciples were on their way from Little Rock to Nashville,” Blanchard began. “That old van of theirs broke down. It was a donation, you know. The disciples went to look for an honest and affordable mechanic. Good luck with that! They left Jesus behind to rest.”

“There was an old ramshackle bar, called The Well, beside the road and Jesus had just taken a seat at the bar when my daughter, Diana, came through the door. I’d like to tell you she was there to deliver the mail. I’d like to say she was applying for a job. But the truth of the matter is- she was there for a little hair of the dog.”

The story continued with an engaging, deeply touching and often hilarious discussion about living water. Then Blanchard said, “The disciples came back looking all sideways at my daughter, their mouths twisted up with judgments. The very idea that Jesus would be sitting there drinking a beer with a West Memphis woman! But Diana didn’t give them any time or attention. She took off, on her way to Family Dollar, telling her co-workers there that she had just met a man who claimed to be Jesus. And she was pretty sure he was telling the truth!”

“Now people from all over this region come to hear the story of how Jesus and my daughter met at The Well and had a beer together. Funny how one conversation, one afternoon and one man could change this whole town…”

Loey Powell, who followed Blanchard to the podium, said, “Never before in the history of General Synod luncheons have I ever seen the convention center staff stop and listen to a speaker. Now that’s the power of story.” Powell is executive for administration and women’s justice, Justice and Witness Ministries.