No longer post-evangelical. Episcopal life after the life after being Baptist. A birthday meditation.
I grew up Southern Baptist, but I am no longer an ex-Southern Baptist. My turn away from my turn began when in an interview with my then bishop-to-be Robert Shahan said, “Make sure you bring the gifts of your Baptist life to the Episcopal Church, your love of salvation and personal relationship with Christ.” It was not what I expected to hear.
Leaving the Southern Baptist life was tied up in a number of decisions; much like becoming vegetarian, it was something that was more emergent than a breaking point. The social issues and the salvation message (without much beyond it), the Bible as fourth person of the trinity, all of it was there, and I had had a conversion about women in ministry [not much of a leap beyond the women of my family.] But it wasn’t any one of these things or even the culmination of them that led me to leave.
Sometimes I say it was the liturgy, and I suppose in a real way it was; but it wasn’t just the liturgy. I was looking for a way of embodying the teachings of Jesus, a lived community salvation. What I found was the ascetic theology of the Book of Common Prayer. It was these things too, and it was something else.
It felt right. Which is not what I want to write. I want to say that it was this great theological or worshipful ideal that arose out some depth of study and worship. And it was, but it was also this internal place of feeling in my bones the things I had hoped for in those hours in that tiny apartment at Grand Canyon between worship services, classes, and a handful of jobs reading all those books alongside the Bible and trying to imagine what the community of God would look like at worship.
I am not sure after the last twenty years if I have really found what I set out after in college, at least not as a repeatable form, but there are these moments where the Spirit slips into our hearts, and the worship just lifts up into praise and intimacy, drunken joy and transformation. Sometimes that is Sunday mornings, and sometimes it is the simple eucharist on Wednesdays, and sometimes it is sitting around the table in my office where my work gets smaller and infinitely more detailed.
O Wisdom! The Spirit comes dancing in and whisks away the dust and crud of build up that clings to us in our daily lives. She takes these tired hands and goes swinging through in time to the angels lift of praise. She comes with light and lights, and the dance is so much more and so much less than liturgy. It is worship and praise, tears and joy, laughter and love, intimacy and reverence. It is repentance and coming home. It is the slake of thirst of that first drink in the desert. It is touch of God.
On those days, you can watch God work like wind twisting trees. Sure, there is almost always wind to the attentive finger in the air, and trees never really sit still, being living things. But when you have watched the leaves of fall in Michigan go dancing, you can’t compare the everyday with the manifestation of the Day at all.
Back to what I left. When I left the Baptist church, I was leaving a way of being Christian. It didn’t fit. And I had been ridiculed a couple of times for not being the right size. I was persecuted. If I can make that awesome word small and tiny and not have it stand in the same way it does for those who really suffer harm and danger, then I can say I was persecuted. When I think of North India and Syria and the Christians of Iraq, I should say, I was talked about impolitely. I was ribbed. I was teased. I felt persecuted when I was too young to know what suffering entails. Mostly I was loved and supported by the people who packed my bags.
I left looking for a place to be the kind of Christian I hoped I was. I left looking for worship that embodied the teachings of Jesus my Lord. I found the cathedral in Phoenix and the women who led her, Trinity. Rebecca and Veronica embodied something about the mystical body of Christ; with them I could bow. The people were raw and holy without any pretense of being good at being a church. As an institution they were living in ruins. They were faithful and hopeful and honest and kind, but they were not successful and hadn’t been for a long time. I was one of a very few under forty. Truly I was one of a few, period.
Later it would grow. Later it would become the community and institutions that it is now, but twenty years ago, it was a remnant in the ruins of past success. And among those ruins I found a people, and in their honest participation in a liturgy that was bigger than any of us, I joined with adults in the life of the Church. I found a voice and a calling there. It was there that Bishop Shahan told me not to leave behind the heritage of Scripture and relationship. He even hired me to teach youth and young adult ministry and confirmed and ordained me.
I had left behind a church in transition, a denomination that continues to grow and evolve, though they don’t like that word particularly. Many of my cohort stayed to live beautiful and fruitful Christian lives. Many of my friends became Emergent Christians, founding hip communities and doing amazing things, living the life of God in new and exciting ways. They became part of the revolution that is always going on in the evangelical church. I went backwards crawling back through revivals and revivalism, Methodism and evangelical Anglicanism, looking for a pure sacrament. I left the post-modern and found myself pre-modern.
I was looking for authentic worship, rooted in history. I was looking for the upper room and freshly broken bread. I wanted to get as close to Christ as I possibly could. I crawled into the liturgy of the church and discovered how broken the body can be. I discovered with the rest of my generation and probably yours that the church is always happening right now.
There is no pure sacrament, because it is always a sign held by human hands. God moves through us like trees, and we twist and fall. But our fall is only the chance for the Spirit to take us dancing again. When the dance is over we become part of the landscape, the long geological work of redeeming a world that is fallen and free, but still formed like river clay and breathed by the One who loved it and loves it still. We are always breathed creatures.
And sometimes that Breath breathes in our liturgies so strongly I want to call people to the altar, to tell them the stories of the Bible like a parent on a car trip telling childhood hijinks to those we tell to be better than us, and I want to break bread for the world. No I am not a post-evangelical. I am not a former Southern Baptist. I am a part of the broken body of the world, for the world. I am a part of the body of Christ, redeemed and gone dancing.
I am an Episcopal priest, a member of the Anglican communion, if one can be, and I keep the Offices and could no more give up the eucharist than my pen, and I still lament that my people don’t love Scripture, but am glad they don’t worship it. I live a sacramental life, if you can accept that no sacrament is pure, and I am held up by the Body of Christ, in robes and no robes, carrying leather Bibles and Books of Common Prayer in hands still dirty from the clay of the River of Life.
I am still baptized if not Baptist. I didn’t get far in my leaving. I just went backwards. I am not not a Baptist anymore. I am evangelical and Anglican, catholic and praying and Biblical, imperfect and still looking for a pure sacrament. I still read the Bible and I love Jesus; and we should go dancing sometime, but I don’t dance.
One thought on “No, I am not an ex-Baptist. I am a Episcopal Christian.”
Father Richards was my teacher at St. Michael’s School in 2003. He deeply impacted my life. How exciting to stumble upon his writings so many years later.