Here’s to God!

During the second Skype interview a lovely woman from Holland said, “We don’t know many Baptists, so we need to ask three Baptist questions. The first is, ‘How do you feel about communion twice a month?’”
I said, “That sounds great. The table is central to worship.”
Arina seemed suspicious, “Okay, second question. What do you think about infant baptism?”
I said, “Throughout church history, most Christians have practiced infant baptism. It’s a beautiful picture of God’s love.”
Arina said, “Alright, I guess. The third question is the hardest. The culture in Chile is different from yours. We have wine at church socials. Is that going to be a problem?”
I said, “I’m not sure what kind of Baptists you’ve met, but we’re the other kind.”
But now I’m not so sure I’m really the other kind.
I knew it was coming, but it was disconcerting. On Saturday night the church where I am serving as the Interim Pastor had an international dinner. Ninety of us—eighty-five of which qualify as international—gathered for appetizers from the Middle East, meat and potatoes from the Netherlands, and desserts from Argentina. On a given Sunday we are likely to have worshippers from Australia, Canada, England, Finland, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand, Peru, South Africa, and Uruguay.
Our new congregation had Heineken in the serving line and two bottles of wine at every table.
As the meal began I said, “This is the first time that I’ve been to a meal in a church fellowship hall where wine was served.”
The ushers, Sunday school teachers, and church council members at my table were incredulous. They were as shocked as if I had said, “This is the first time I’ve been to a meal in a church fellowship hall without crack cocaine.”
They were stunned: “What do you mean?”
I said, “I’ve been to thousands of church suppers and we’ve never had beer or wine.”
They were stupefied: “You’re joking. Are you serious?”
I said, “I wish I was joking, but the churches I’ve been part of have been serious about not serving alcohol at church.”
They were dumbfounded: “That makes no sense.”
I tried to explain Baptists, prohibition, and the dangers of alcoholism, but I didn’t get far. I was a Church of Christ minister explaining to Mozart why we do not like pianos. I was a Mormon bishop telling Dr Pepper how bad caffeine is. I was a Jewish rabbi attempting to help Jimmy Dean see the wisdom of not eating sausage.
The members of my new church were thrown by the sheer ludicrousness of the arguments I was offering, but they recovered enough to state the obvious: “Jesus turned water in wine. Don’t your people think he knew what he was doing?”
“He gave the disciples wine at the Lord’s Supper, but your churches serve a children’s drink. Don’t you think grape juice is horrible?”
Here’s what I didn’t say: I grew up in churches where it was important to identify sinners. In order to be the good people we needed to recognize the bad people, so we decided what was sinful and what was okay. Drinking, smoking, and cussing were bad. Materialism, militarism, and homophobia were fine.
You could park in the church lot with a gun rack on your pick-up without questions, but if someone saw a Budweiser in your fridge you would be the subject of conversation. Our church covenant included the promise “to abstain from the sale of, and use of, intoxicating drinks as a beverage,” but did not have a word about the racism that surrounded us. I remember a sermon calling us to shop at Piggly Wiggly rather than Jitney Jungle because Piggly Wiggly did not sell beer, but I don’t recall anything about the sexism that denied women opportunities.
I did not have a drink of wine until I was thirty years of age—at an Episcopal Communion service—because the need to feel superior had been so ingrained in me.
At the end of a delightful meal, the church treasurer said, “You must go home and tell your Baptist friends how much fun we have. Take a bottle of wine to your next church fellowship.”
I do not think this is the evangelism to which God calls me, but I might raise a glass to the kingdom bigger than I was taught.

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Fumbling the Bread of Life

When you go to a new place you hope that the new people will think you are smarter than you are—or at least smarter than the people at the old place think you are. Moving is a chance to leave behind every time you dropped something you needed to hold on to, tripped over your shoestrings, or forgot what you were supposed to remember.

Carol and I recently began serving as interim ministers at Santiago Community Church in Santiago, Chile, more than 4,000 miles from any of our old places. This international, interdenominational congregation is made up of gracious Christians who have never been to a Baptist church—or even wanted to!

I went to worship the first Sunday hoping that our new congregation will think that I am smarter than I really am. I was concerned about the details of the Lord’s Supper in this Anglican/Presbyterian/Methodist/just-about-everything-but-Baptist church. After the sermon (which they keep telling me is shorter in Chile) the minister walks to the front, receives the offering plates, holds up the money, says a prayer, calls for the passing of the peace, walks to the table, leads the Great Thanksgiving, recites the words of institution, eats the bread, drinks the wine that is not Welch’s, moves along the railing sharing the bread, circles the choir, along the rail, and around the choir several more times. I did almost none of this when I was pastor of Mother Neff Baptist Church in Moody, Texas.

The service is going as planned. I receive the offering (pesos weigh more than you think) and the congregation willingly passes the peace. But when it comes time to share the bread, I walk towards the railing, stumble just a little, and fumble several pieces of the body of Christ. If this was a Roman Catholic congregation I would have been on the next plane back to Georgia.

I kneel to pick up the bread of life and hide those pieces under my thumb. I stand and say, “This is the body of Christ,” and hear the sacred response, “Your shoe is untied.” This is not what I expect, but it is accurate and explains why communion wafers have hit the floor. I kneel on the other side of the choir to tie my shoe, a skill that most master as a child.

Then I remember that I was supposed to take communion first. I am now the loser with his shoe untied who dropped the bread and took communion at the wrong time. I wanted them to think of me as the kind of minister who keeps his shoes tied, holds on to the body of Christ, and takes communion at the right time, but that is not going to happen.

Most of us want the people at church to think we are better than we are. We would like to be admired, but communion is for people who are not always impressive. The Lord’s Supper does not depend on us doing it perfectly, because communion is about the forgiveness God gives in the bread of life and cup of grace.

One of the requirements for coming to the table is admitting that we are not as smart as we wish. We are part of the church because we are imperfect. Christ’s table is for those who need a place to go when they do something wrong. We tell a seemingly insignificant lie that threatens to poison everything. We speak a careless word that haunts us. We betray someone we love. We wish our mistakes would fade away, but they keep showing up to remind us that we are not all we hope to be.

We need the church because we need a place to go when we feel empty. We bend under the weight of unfulfilling routines. The glories of motherhood give way to baby-related chores that must be repeated with nauseating monotony. The subject we loved in college becomes a dull job we must keep to pay the bills. The retirement we looked forward to for twenty years shows up five years too late to be enjoyed the way a fifty-year-old imagines retirement.

The hope of the Christian faith is not that we will get it right, but that God loves us in spite of our foolish ways. The gospel is not “Be good, kind, and friendly.” The gospel is not “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” The gospel is “We fumble the bread of life, and God loves us anyway.”

You and I need the Lord’s Supper because sometimes we trip. We drop things. We forget what we should have remembered. We need a place where we can join with others who, like us, need God’s grace.

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