Magazine article The Christian Century

Baptist Again: Going Back to Church

Magazine article The Christian Century

Baptist Again: Going Back to Church

Article excerpt

IN A BAPTIST church at age seven I "accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior"--an emotional and powerful experience that I have tried to respectfully write about in fiction. Sixty years later, I sometimes think about what drove me toward that decision. My mother influenced me, that's for sure. So did the total experience of the church and its embrace of me.

Back then I believed that something substantial existed up beyond the blue sky--a place as solid and touchable as the nearest Dairy Queen. That was heaven, and I was headed there.

Heaven was no less certain than ice cream, but if I was bad I could never go there. This part got complicated: I would go there only if I were forgiven for my sins--which happened when Jesus died on the cross. In spite of that death on the cross, I had to confess my sins or I wouldn't make it to heaven. Finally, with an acceptance of Jesus Christ as my personal savior the question was settled.

At 18 I left home for the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, about a 30-minute drive from where I lived. When I came home on weekends I'd attend church. One Sunday the preacher talked about what an evil place Chapel Hill was. I was coming to love Chapel Hill. I thought the preacher was wrong to assign evil to a place, but I was not brave enough to tell him so.

And at about this time, in the early 1960s, the civil rights movement was beginning to shake the earth around me. One Sunday in a church business meeting a member of our church asked what the church should do if a black person (other than the janitor) came to the church door and asked to enter. After some discussion an answer was reached: "Inform him that he has his own church." I remember sensing that the person who asked the question was in trouble. I've always wondered if he agreed with the answer he was given.

I can't help noting that at a time when many people are examining their church's attitude to outsiders, the Southern Baptist Convention's website lets us know that the Bible condemns homosexuality and tells us that women shouldn't be preachers. If it had had a website during the Civil War, it would have told us that the Bible condoned slavery.

At 22 I left North Carolina and my church. I wasn't particularly bitter, but I never planned to be back in a Baptist church. The strings holding me had become too frayed.

Some years ago my wife Kristina and I started having little services in the backyard with our three children (all under seven). I'd read a short scripture (often from a New Testament as recorded by Thomas Jefferson or Tolstoy), usually about doing unto others as you would yourself or about serving the least of these. I'd follow with a one-minute sermon, then we'd look for a bird and try to name it, and finally each of us would name something we were thankful for (in addition to the bird). We'd finish by singing a song.

Soon we decided we needed a regular church so that we could offer the kids-and perhaps ourselves--something a little more structured. We started attending different Protestant churches in our hometown, and for one reason or another didn't feel comfortable with any.

In the meantime our children were attending a fine preschool at a Baptist church affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. I accidentally ran into the preacher one day, and we had a good conversation about fiction writing. Kristina and I decided to attend a service at his church. …

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