In my younger days, as a Southern Baptist, I was somewhat jealous of my Episcopalian friends. We called them “whiskeypalians.” They got to dance and drink, and we did not. Or, more accurately, they got to dance and drink without GUILT. We felt guilty about doing almost anything fun.
Had I fallen? Or, to borrow Father Richard Rohr’s words, had I “fallen upward”?
Or had my faith journey followed the words of the Apostle Paul, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways”? (1 Corinthians 13:11)
My failed attempt to leave the church behind
I have always been a church-type guy ever since my parents put me on the “cradle roll” at the Palma Ceia Baptist Church in Tampa, 1948. Even during my college days, when I rarely went to church on Sunday, I substituted attendance with feeling guilty about sleeping in.
I tried to get my name off the membership roll of the church I had joined during college. My faith journey had led me to a summer ministry in the inner city of Newark, New Jersey, in 1968, a year after the riots. I was so appalled by the lack of a church presence in the face of such urban poverty, I wrote to my church and asked to have my name removed.
They replied that there were two ways to get my name off the roll. One was to transfer my membership to another church. The other was to die. Neither option was appealing.
They got the last laugh. By the time I was about to graduate, I had decided to go into the ministry. I needed the church’s endorsement to get into The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
I groveled. They endorsed.
The long and winding road, Southern Baptist to Episcopalian
After ordination, I served a Southern Baptist church in Macon, Georgia, and for a number of years was a member at the ecumenical Church of the Saviour (CofS) in D.C. Having left the professional ministry at that time, I asked myself, “Do I have a spiritual life…even when my job does not require it?”
The answer was “yes.”
For the next 32 years, while I was a healthcare chaplain, I was deeply involved in a more liberal American Baptist church. In a story too long to recount here, my wife and I found ourselves living in Oxford, Mississippi, with no church to call home.
I had moved so far – physically and spiritually – from my Southern Baptist roots. Now that we were back in the deep South, where to turn? Freed of any expectations, I asked myself, “What do I want in a church?”
Discovering what I wanted in a church
I walked into St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. The building had been erected in the 1850s with slave labor. [See my video about this experience.] Here is what I found out about myself in the process of becoming an Episcopalian:
- I am nourished by the excellent biblical preaching I encounter every Sunday. Who knew?
- I have lived most of my adult life by scripture, tradition, and reason, the “three-legged stool” that retired bishop Duncan Gray taught us about during confirmation class. It was nice to have a metaphor to explain it.
- I am touched by Christian mysticism; or the experience of God’s presence. [I did a short video about my reverence for the silence I found in Trappist monasteries.] After further conversation with bishop Gray, I added a fourth leg: experience.
- I found the Christian words and symbols were a familiar home. I could now be instructed by those same metaphors while leaving behind the orthodox baggage that was no longer helpful.
- Perhaps my greatest discovery was learning how much I value engagement with small groups of people. A place where people know my name, a community on mission together. For example, on Wednesday afternoons, I go with three men from St. Peter’s to sit in silent meditation with a dozen incarcerated men at the county jail across the street from the church. Jailed and free, White and Black, church-types and seekers. We sit.
I can now dance and drink without guilt.