Sunday, February 22, 2015

First Contact – Part 21 – Baptists

The Baptist Church is the church I was first exposed to and with which I have had the longest contact. When my parents were young, it was common for people to have a home church yet visit churches of different denominations whenever they had revivals or gospel meetings or whatever. My mother grew up primarily in the Baptist church. I never heard my dad speak of having a home church. I believe that was because he really didn’t attend church very much. You see, he only had a 4th grade education and couldn’t speak very well. As he got older, he became more and more embarrassed about it and therefore didn’t feel comfortable in a group setting, especially if it was likely someone might call on him to speak or lead a prayer. Even so, I know that he did attend church services on occasion.

As I was growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, I do not recall a single time that my dad attended a class or worship service at a church.  He would go to a church building for a funeral or a party or whatnot, but not for a service. My mom didn’t drive, so she was dependent on someone taking her to church. My dad mostly worked evening shift at his place of employment, so was used to sleeping late in the mornings. Fortunately, Mom had a cousin that drove herself to church, so she started picking my mom up to go with her. As a young child I attended with them. I went to Sunday School, but I don’t remember anything about it other than being in a Christmas play one year. We performed the play in a room, the stage being in one corner. I recall it being my turn to talk and totally forgetting my lines. My SS teacher started prompting me from offstage by saying the first few words. I repeated the words and was able to finish.

My mom had a fear of putting her head under water. So, although she had attended church for years, she had never been baptized. It took a lot of courage on her part, but she finally decided she needed to be baptized. I remember going to that service. I was sitting about halfway back in the sanctuary and watched the event unfold. I was concerned about what she might do upon being dunked under the water. She came out of the water floundering a bit and wiping her face, but nothing too embarrassing. I was proud of her for overcoming her fears for the sake of doing something she really believed in and had wanted to do for many years.

I believe I was in junior high school when a good friend of mine invited me to go to church with him. He attended a Baptist Church not too far from my home. A young man was teaching our Sunday School class, and somehow he got onto the topic of marriage. He asked the class what we thought about interracial marriage. I guess he felt the need to address this topic since it was becoming a societal issue after the civil rights movement. Being young whippersnappers with keen insight, we all sat there like bumps on a log. Hey, how was a bunch of dumb youth supposed to answer a deep philosophical and religious question like that? Well, I actually had some thoughts on the matter, but feared they might not be the right ones, so I kept my mouth shut. He went on to explain how he thought the Bible taught us to keep the races pure. He may have made a point about the Jews in the Old Testament being commanded to not intermarry with other nations, but I don’t recall for sure. He did say something about how the birds of a feather flock together and how the natural thing to do was to only marry your own kind. I have not been able to find this justification for same-race marriages in the New Testament, so I guess he was trying to make his point by observing nature. But apparently he somehow overlooked dogs during those observations. As he was making his argument for same-race marriages, something just didn’t feel right about it. Why would God care what race of person someone married? It just seemed like a non-issue to me, but I didn’t say anything. After all, who was I to question an adult? I wasn’t yet aware of the story in the New Testament about the 12-year-old Jesus questioning the teachers of his day.

When I was in high school, I had several friends who attended Hazelwood Baptist Church, which was near the school. As it turned out, it was the same church that my future mother-in-law and father-in-law would join when they left the United Church of Christ. Occasionally, these friends would invite me to participate in their youth group activities. One day we went to a Putt-Putt miniature golf course. In the middle of a game, a large thunderstorm started approaching, so the youth pastor decided we needed to leave early so we could get back to the church building before the storm actually hit. We all piled into the vehicles and headed back. When the vehicle I was in came to a stop at the back of the church building, I opened the passenger door, got out, and then closed the door. Just as it slammed shut there was a loud explosion. I froze, thinking, “The Lord has returned.” But I soon realized that I was still standing next to the car in the church parking lot. I looked up and saw purple smoke wafting away from a transformer on a nearby power pole. “Okay,” I thought, “it was just lightning hitting a transformer.” But then I realized that the lightning was right overhead, so I hightailed it to safety inside the church building.

I don’t recall ever attending an actual youth group meeting or a Sunday School class or a worship service at my friends’ church. I just remember doing things with the youth group or a few of the people in that group. I remember one girl from this church that apparently wanted to be a race car driver and proved it on the streets. One night I went out with a group when she was driving. She drove as fast as she could down the street, slowed some at red lights, and then ran them when she didn’t see any cars coming her way. Needless to say, I was a bit terrified. I promised myself that I would never again get in a car that she was driving. I kept that promise.

Speaking of driving, there was a two lane winding hilly road just outside of Louisville that was affectionately referred to as The Devil’s Backbone. It was a good test of one’s driving skill if you could make it all the way along this road at an elevated speed. One evening I was out with some friends, including Lester from Hazelwood. He was driving his Pinto and decided he wanted to try out his skills on The Devil’s Backbone. Although he had never driven it before, meaning he wasn’t familiar with where the sharpest turns were located, he decided to drive it at an elevated speed. He was navigating the turns pretty well until he came to a sharp 90 degree left-hand turn. As he was about to attempt the turn, he realized there was no way he could make the turn at the speed he was driving. Fortunately, there was a gravel driveway near the turn and Lester was able to hit his brakes and skid to a halt in the driveway. Wheeeeew!

After joining the Church of Christ, but before I was married, I hung out with a group of Christian friends consisting of both girls and boys. We did a number of things together such as taking a trip to Gatlinburg one winter. One thing we did occasionally was play volleyball. Ken was an avid runner and a member of Woodmont Baptist Church (WBC). At that time WBC had a gymnasium that doubled as their worship center. They also had a volleyball net and ball. Ken would reserve the gym for us and we’d set up everything to play volleyball. It was always a blast. I recall being at Ken’s house one time and our conversation turning to the topic of salvation and whether or not it could be lost. As you may know, most Baptists believe in “Once saved, always saved”. This basically means that once you have gotten right with God and have been saved, you can’t lose that salvation under any circumstances. But what about a person who was saved, but comes to reject his faith? What happens to him? Some skirt the issue by saying that that person was never saved to begin with. Others say that he will still be saved. Ken was one of these latter people. I remember asking him, “What if a person comes to a point where he totally rejects his belief that Jesus is the Savior and shakes his fist to the heavens telling God he doesn’t want to be saved? What happens to him?” Ken’s response was, “He’ll still go to heaven.” I was dumbfounded. At that time I was a member of the Church of Christ and believed that a person’s salvation could be lost. I wanted to get into the Bible with Ken and discuss it further, but Ken said he had studied this issue in depth years before and was totally convinced of his position, so didn’t want to study it further. There was nothing more for me to do.

When Kathy and I first married, we would attend Camden Ave Christian Church whenever we visited her parents in Louisville, Kentucky. This was the church where Kathy had been a member and where we were married. However, this church eventually disbanded. Afterwards we started attending Hazelwood Baptist Church, which I mentioned earlier. It’s where a number of high school friends attended and where Kathy’s mother and father moved to from the United Church of Christ. One of my good friends from high school, John, was still a member there along with his wife and kids. John is the person who got me interested in playing classical guitar. He is still very interested in music, playing a number of different instruments. He would lead some of the worship at the church and eventually became its music minister even though he had a fulltime job as a veterinarian. Hazelwood was a pretty traditional Baptist Church and I enjoyed attending there when we were in town. John always did a good job leading the music.

Kathy had quit her teaching job when our son, Andrew, was born in the early 1990’s. When he was about to enter K-5, we had decided to put him in an all-day program at Woodmont Christian School, which was a part of Woodmont Baptist Church (WBC). As it so happened, the school was about to expand their top grade from the sixth to the ninth and needed a new math teacher. Kathy applied and got the job. As a result of teaching there, she made friends with several other teachers who attended WBC. She decided to attend there to see how she liked it. She liked it so much that she decided to switch her membership. Before she did, however, she asked me if I minded her switching. I was not attending church much at the time so I told her it was totally her decision.

Shortly after Kathy started attending WBC, someone told her that I might like attending a Sunday School class taught by a local lawyer named Jess. I decided to try it out. One Sunday Jess started off the class by having us read some verses about people having demons driven out of them by Jesus. Then he started discussing homosexuality. At first I wasn’t quite sure the point he was trying to make, but eventually it became clear. He was attempting to blame homosexuality on demon possession. As the discussion progressed, I could feel my insides about to burst. I wanted to respond to what he was saying, but was unsure if I should. I eventually could not stand it any longer. I raised my hand and said, “Could I express an opinion from a non-Christian perspective?” I was told I could. So, I began expressing my opinion that homosexuality was not caused by demon possession. I told them that I did not necessarily agree with every agenda item in the homosexual movement, but I had no problem with homosexuality itself. Anyway, the rest of the class time ended up centering on me and my religious background. A discussion ensued as to whether or not I was still saved since I had once confessed the name of Jesus and had joined the church. Opinions varied. Anyway, the discussion was very cordial, and no one attempted to throw me out of class. In fact, one lady came up to me after class and told me how impressed she was with my courage to speak out given the venue. She said that she didn’t know if she would speak out in an opposite situation or not. She encouraged me to come back to class, and I intended to. However, the following Saturday morning I received a call from Jess asking me to meet him at a local restaurant for lunch. I did. He told me that he could not continue to have his class disrupted as it was the previous Sunday. I told him I understood and that I never intended for it to go the way it went in the last class. He told me that I could attend his class as often as I wanted, but I couldn’t speak during it. I told him that I totally understood since it was his class and he could set the ground rules anyway he wanted. At first I planned to attend again, but then I realized how difficult it was for me to keep my mouth shut when I really needed to say something. So, I never returned.

Later, someone suggested I attend a Sunday School class taught by a friend of mine from work named Bill. I was hesitant at first, but decided I would tell Bill about my experience in Jess’ class and see what he thought. Bill told me that his class was pretty tolerant of other ideas and that I should fit in just fine. So, I started attending. I was greatly impressed. The class members were very tolerant of my speaking my mind and even engaged in conversation about my positions. There was really only one conflict to speak of. It was Easter and of course we were discussing Jesus’ resurrection. I made a few comments about the possibility that Jesus was not really resurrected. One of the regular class members then said to me, “But he’s resurrected nonetheless, right?” I said I didn’t think so. “Then where’s the body?” he asked. I answered, “We don’t know. It could have been buried in a pauper’s grave. Just because we don’t know where a body is doesn’t mean that it was resurrected.” I said this off the cuff because I had just read this as a possibility in a book I had been reading. It was the end of the class, so the conversation ended that way. The next week my wife was in class but I was not. I heard Kathy getting home early and soon after the doorbell ringing. I found out later that the fellow I’d had the discussion with the previous week had been offended by my comment and thought I was intentionally trying to provoke him. My comments had ruined Easter for him. He apparently wanted Bill to chastise me over it. Kathy defended me by saying that I was just speaking what I believed and was not trying to provoke anyone. After all, he had asked me a question. I answered it honestly. The conversation apparently got a bit heated. Kathy got very upset and came home rather than go to worship service. The doorbell was the SS teacher, Bill, coming to check on her. Upon talking to Bill later, he did not think I had been out of line and had no intention of chastising me in class. When I showed up in class the next week, the fellow brought it up again, but Bill refused to rebuke me. This impressed me very much. I told Bill that I would gladly quit attending his class if my presence was going to cause problems. But Bill was insistent that I had done nothing wrong and encouraged me to keep attending. I did.

We were attending WBC when Andrew decided to become a Christian. The pastor at the time was Bill Trapp, and he baptized Andrew. I can still remember going with Andrew to the back of the baptistery and helping him prepare for this event. Unfortunately, Bill later came down with Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) and eventually had to relinquish his pulpit ministry. He ended up dying from this disease despite an around-the-clock prayer vigil. While Brother Bill was sick a visiting evangelist was speaking at a WBC revival meeting. He said that he had been talking to the Lord on his way to our city and He had told him something. But he was hesitant to say what it was. He then relented and said that the Lord had told him that Brother Bill was going to be healed. I was stunned. This preacher was really going out on a limb with that prediction. But then he clarified that the Lord had told him that Bill would either be healed in this lifetime or the next. My jaw dropped. Even though a number of people in the audience were Amen-ing him, I considered this statement to be an insult. He basically was saying that the Lord had revealed to him that Brother Bill was going to either live or die. I could have told the audience that without consulting the Lord.

You might be wondering what my thoughts and feelings were about Andrew being baptized when I had just a few years before converted from Christianity to agnosticism. Well, when I fell away from Christianity, Kathy and I had a serious discussion about how we would raise any children we had. We both agreed that our children would have to determine their own faith themselves; else it would not truly be their faith. Thus we were both okay with having children. As it turned out we only had one child. Over the years Andrew has delved into a number of different religions and asked his mom and me about our beliefs. We never pushed him into any particular belief, letting him decide what he personally believed based on his own search.

I often hear atheists and agnostics talk about the narrow-mindedness of religious people. However, my experience at Woodmont Baptist Church does not reflect that at all. Everybody knows I am an agnostic, yet they are all very warm and inviting. In fact, one time when I was attending a discipleship class on Sunday afternoons, the teacher actually asked me to conduct the class one week when he was going to be out of town. I was friends with Bill Trapp, the pastor who was there when we first started attending. I was also friends with the interim pastors after his passing. The current pastor, Jerry, is a friend also. Occasionally I run into him at the YMCA. It rarely fails that we end up having a 1-2 hour theological discussion. When I was completing my “God Is” book, he actually read part of it and discussed it with me in his office. I love it when people with differing beliefs can discuss their differences in a calm and rational way. Nothing can be learned by shutting others out and not allowing them to speak.

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