FTE Day 2: Learning to Let Go

I’m one of like five Baptists here at FTE’s Leadership in Ministry Conference. This is not a bad thing, and I think that most of the denominations here only have about five or six representatives among the various fellows anyway. It’s a beautifully ecumenical environment. But being one Baptist among many non-Baptists at a conference that places so much emphasis on story-telling means telling some painful stories. Today I had to recount for a Mennonite friend the story of the Takeover.

I hate living that narrative. I hate that that story (effectively narrated here, by Wes Spears) forms a part of my own story. I hate that battle scars earned before I was even born continue to effect the way I explore my ministry and my calling. I hate that I cannot attend a denominational school for fear of being rejected as a heretic. I hate all the hate that still exists.

But tonight, as we reflected on our busy days exploring ministry in a post-Katrina New Orleans, Juan asked us to share a story from our days wherein we imagined our future ministry taking a dramatically new direction. And for the first time in my life, I was able to tell a new story. It went like this:

We had a traditional New Orleans meal at All Saints Episcopal Church (a beautiful and inspiring community that has positioned itself in an old Walgreens in the heart of the Lower Ninth Ward), and as we were eating, we talked. I asked Ben (the Mennonite friend from above) what it was like growing up as a Mennonite and being part of a community that so powerfully includes a commitment to peace as a part of its identity. As I listened to his stories of the intentionality of the Mennonite peace witness, my pacifist heart was gladdened, but immediately challenged by Nell Bolton, Executive Director of the Episcopal Community Services of Louisiana . Nell asked me if, taking into account the historic Baptist commitment to peace, I felt free to explore and express my pacifism within my own tradition.

I had to tell her no. While I identify myself as a member of the Co-operative Baptist Fellowship, I had to admit to Nell that the SBC still has a mysterious dominion over Baptist life in the Deep South, and especially on the campus of a Baptist school. I had to explain that many of the people I interact with – and many of the people I react to – have managed to enmesh their faith and their patriotism, that to challenge the ideas of war and death were to almost challenge the existence of Christ. I had to explain that I live in a culture dominated by a Convention that supports capital punishment and has no official problems with prosecuting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a Convention that spends more time worrying about the literal nature of hell than the literal suffering of people. I had to explain that this vision still captures the imaginations of so many Baptists, that this was my context, and that in such a world I felt that my prophetic voice of peace was drowned out.

But in that moment, as I was preparing to say what I almost always say (that there’s room for reform in the SBC, that we can change these things, that it won’t always be that way) I had one of the clearest moments of my young life. I could see myself turning around and walking away from the SBC.

In that moment, I envisioned a new future for myself, one where my theology and my ministry is defined by whom I am and what I feel God calling me to, rather than as a reaction to the madcap antics of the Convention. I saw a future where the long shadow of the Takeover did not dominate me or define me or shape my ministry. I saw a life, possibly even a life in the Deep South, which was not defined by the monolithic and magisterial Southern Baptist Convention. And for the first time in my Baptist life, I breathed easy. In that moment, I took a step away and began letting go.

Does this mean that the Takeover is no longer a part of my story? Certainly not. It is enmeshed in my narrative in ways that many other stories never can be. Does this mean that those wounds will not affect my ministry? Hardly. There are still scarred veterans out there who need healing. What this does mean is that I will refuse to let the Southern Baptist Convention execute a stranglehold on my identity and my ministry. It means that I refuse to identify myself as something over and against something else. It means that I am committed to my own Baptist identity, not the identity Paige Patterson and Al Mohler and Paul Pressler and Adrian Rogers think I should possess. It means that in the future I will embrace the freedom inherent in Baptist life. It means that I will focus my pastoral life on meeting the very real needs of congregations, not trying to undo the damage done simply to prove a point. It means that I’m letting go of the hatred and the bitterness that has so heavily defined my Baptist relationships. It means that I’m moving forward.

How about you? Is there something in your life you need to let go of? What might God be asking you to walk away from? What will that look like? Will it lead you to a sense of the genuine in yourself? Explore this idea in the next few days. You might be surprised at the results.

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