by Gary Burton – Pastor, Pintlala Baptist Church, Alabama
An address delivered to the Baptist History & Heritage Society
May 20, 2011
I am truly humbled at the thought of sharing the same space with you. During my academic life, characterized more by struggle than success, I was awestruck by teachers and professors. The idea of a casual conversation with a classroom instructor was preposterous. Even now I get nervous thinking about it. Those towering intellects lived in an elevated stratosphere and I lived in the miasmic swamp of a less than ordinary life. The gods would never converse with an introvert and underling such as I.
At this moment those sensations are creating quite a flashback for me. So forgive my nervousness which I hope can by mitigated with a matter of high-level intelligence: Did you hear the one about two green beans crossing the road? Two green beans were crossing the road when, out of nowhere, came a careening vehicle which struck one of the green beans and severely injured him. An ambulance was summoned. The bean was taken to the ER; extensive surgery was performed. Finally the surgeon emerged after hours in the operating room and said to the other green bean, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is your friend is going to live; the bad news is he will be a vegetable the rest of his life.”
Today I too have good news and bad news. The bad news first: There is much in our culture which would discourage us from telling the Baptist story. Societal factors and ecclesiastical apathy would impose a vegetative state on our common mission. But the good news is that there are wonderful people like yourselves who continue to speak and write about Baptist history and why our distinctives are important. Further we live in an age which provides us with the means to make the telling of our past incredibly appealing.
I am truly grateful for each of you; your enthusiasm for Baptist history and heritage gives this pastor hope for our future. I have admired so many of you from a distance and your work is something I treasure.
This leads me to a conviction I have about this organization. The BH&HS is confronting a moment in time unlike any other. Together we possess a unique and absolutely essential role in shaping the identity of Baptists for years to come. Thank you for teaching, preaching and preserving and perpetuating the richness of the Baptist influence in our world.
The Holy Scripture is, among other things, a record of God’s mighty acts in history. But this record is laced with an imperative so often and so repeatedly stated that we have become hardened to its staccato-like command. Over and over the Bible challenges us with words like. “Do not forget” or “Remember.” These commands seem incessant throughout the sacred text. If theology were like a cookbook we would be asking, “How many different ways can this advice be prepared and served?” Don’t forget. Always remember. It can be like monotonous manna.
From Moses to Jesus, our ability to recall and recollect is summoned. This summons is a preventative against superficial living.
Moses will say, “Be careful not to forget the covenant of the Lord your God that he made with you … Be careful that you do not forget the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery (Deut. 4:23; 6:12)
Jesus will say, “Do this to remember me.” The Bible is punctuated thoroughly with the imperative to acknowledge God’s past intervention with his people.
Currently I am trying to cope with the loss of a close friend. He is not dead. He is still walking, talking, eating, sleeping. But his mind has been dramatically diminished. The evacuation of my friend’s memory has made it impossible for him to experience two things: He cannot grieve the death of his wife last August and he no longer has the capacity for gratitude. Grief and gratitude are dependent on memory. Psychological and spiritual health require the ability to process grief and express gratitude. Is this not also true for the Body of Christ? For our purposes I wish to focus, not on grief, but on gratitude.
If a person cannot or does not remember, then there can be no true expression of gratitude. Further, if there is no gratitude, there is also the absence of a sense of moral debt. Let me restate this logic. If Baptists do not remember their heritage and history, then Baptists cannot be grateful and they will never have a sense of moral indebtedness to those who have paid a prior price for their freedoms. The ability to remember is foundational for a grateful church and gratitude, if authentic, will become the basis for discharging a moral debt.
The BH&HS stands on the threshold of a new future if we are willing to help the Baptist family remember. We must do so because we owe something to those who sacrificed themselves for us. We will never see God’s redemption in the broad sweep of history unless we remember. Therefore, our Society must harness ideas from the brightest minds among us and use the best in technology: in addition we must use print, visual, and social media to renew our love for the story of Baptists. We must invigorate our preaching and our scholarship with an enthusiasm emerging from sincere gratitude. Just maybe sin can be defined as forgetting, a forgetting born of thoughtlessness. I know of no other organization which exists for this mission and this mission alone: to call Baptists to connect with their past in order to shape a more compelling future.
Of course, we must deal with a very sobering reality: a person cannot forget what he/she has never known.
Three years ago I attended a special meeting of the Montgomery Antiquarian Society to hear a presentation by Daniel P. Jordan who was, at the time, President of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation of Charlottesville, Virginia. Jordan’s presentation was typically superb and stimulating. During the question/answer period someone asked Daniel Jordan to respond to the critical famine of historical knowledge and the public’s disinterest in history. I will never forget the way in which he responded. Like ringing a firebell in the night, Daniel Jordan quoted a friend who said that our country now faced a crisis of unprecedented proportions with regard to our nation’s apathy toward matters of history. Further, he stated that this issue had become so alarmingly critical that the situation was now a matter of national defense, for he asked, “How can we defend what we do not know?”
If our national defense is perilously threatened by our public’s detachment from our historical underpinnings, then our Baptist family is equally in danger. Is it not foreboding to think of churches perpetually engaged in missions and ministry, Bible study and worship and doing so without the slightest hint of historical influences? When years go by and not a word of Baptist history or heritage is articulated from our pulpits or taught in Sunday School classes or lyrically set to music, are we not in deep trouble?
Our challenges are formidable. But we have a 402-year old debt to pay to John Smyth and Thomas Helwys. That debt has accrued interest in the work of John Leland, Isaac Bacchus, Carey, Judson, Furman and Mercer. The voices of Dorothy Hazard, Martha Stearns Marshall, Ann Judson, Lottie Moon, Fannie Heck, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Addie Davis, and Baptists of many cultures and climes must be proclaimed as well. The roll call is lengthy and includes those whose identities are unknown to us.
Together we must renew our embrace to tell the multifaceted story of Baptists to those who need reminding, but we must relish the opportunities to tell the story for those who will hear it for the first time.
Frankly, I am encouraged by the capable, innovative leadership of Bruce Gourley, who will help us to explore and exploit various media to transmit our message. Further, he will guide us to establish the right connections and partnerships in vital ways. I am energized when I connect with those of you who continue to research, write, teach and preach with a fire in the belly which continues to burn with undiminished fervor.
We all take refuge in the words of Ann Lamott: “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up, and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work. You don’t give up.”