Decorating for Christmas

Aside from gorging on turkey and football, one of the strongest impulses generated by Thanksgiving Day among so many Americans is the urge to head to the attic, basement, or garage and pull out the holiday decorations. At this time of year, any sense of good taste is tossed out like moldy green-bean casserole that was pushed to the back of the refrigerator and forgotten for two weeks. Thanks to the development of inexpensive plastic, PVC, fiberglass, large-scale inflatable statuary, and sophisticated electrical components, some American homes and properties are transformed into dazzling spectacles that almost put to shame the illuminated facades of Las Vegas casino resorts.

The amount of time, energy, and financial resources that families dedicate to decorating varies considerably, but I suspect those who celebrate Christmas tend to be a bit more profuse than their Jewish counterparts. Muslims and Hindus use much less extravagant decorations for their special celebrations at other times of the year. Even among the folks who celebrate Christmas, the amount and type of decorations are quite diverse, with everything from simple nativity scenes to the construction of a North Pole Reindeer Flight School in the front yard that backs up neighborhood traffic for several blocks. The true zealots start their decorating activities the week before Thanksgiving, perhaps even earlier, and it can take them up to two weeks to get the job completely finished. I know a family that puts up a Christmas tree in every single room of the house, including miniature versions in all three bathrooms.

Such enthusiasts have a difficult time giving any decoration a well-deserved sabbatical or even retirement. They have an attachment to or fondness of every piece they ever purchased, so decorating through the years has a cumulative effect. At some point, all surfaces of the house are adorned with festive accessories in an attempt to display every single item they have accumulated. It can be a tad overwhelming. Some manage to pull it off better than others. Lest I be perceived as a decorating snob, I hastily confess that I have in years past clearly fallen into the camp of the unrestrained and over-exuberant. My wife has done an admirable job of intervening and helping me understand that less is better when it comes to Christmas ornamentation.

Christmas Tree and decorations
Christmas Tree and decorations

For most of its history, Christianity has been a remarkably adaptable religion, which partly explains its rapid expansion after the 4th century and its durability throughout a good portion of the western world and across many different cultures. A fine example of this adaptability can be found in Christmas decorations. Ancient Romans brought evergreen trees into their homes to celebrate the winter solstice. They also hung bright metal ornaments on trees around their homes. Pagan societies believed that the holly bush had magical qualities to repel evil spirits. Even beyond decorations, Christians managed to incorporate customs from other faith traditions into the celebration of Christmas.

Americans are a population heavily influenced by capitalism and commercialism. We market everything, including Christmas. We are also a flexible bunch, and we don’t mind bending the truth a little to sell the product. Again, we can see this characteristic exhibited in a fairly common holiday decoration: the nativity scene. We like to portray this pivotal point in human history as a nice package that can easily fit on a small side table or night stand. So we take all the elements of the story — the baby Jesus in the manger, Mary, Joseph, angels, the shepherds, the ox, the donkey, the star, and the wise men with their camels — and we fold them altogether into one, compact decoration. It is irrelevant that the wise men were not there on the night of the Christ child’s birth but at least a month or so later (perhaps much later) after he was presented at the Temple by his parents. We cannot be expected to have a separate set of figurines in the house to represent this part of the story. After all, we need to make room somewhere for a sleigh and eight or nine reindeer too!

The older I get, the more I appreciate celebrating the spirit of Christmas with simplicity and humility. Over the decades I have purchased, displayed, and discarded any number of decorations. I have suffered through finding just the right tree at a farm in the country, cutting it down, paying way too much for it, and hauling it home only to find that once we wrestled it into the stand, it was as crooked as a Washington politician. We have gone through several different artificial trees and are thrilled with the two we have now, one inside and one on our back porch, that came with lights already installed. Over the last few years we have started buying what my wife calls “timeless” decorations — pieces that are reminiscent of generations past. Some people would refer to them as classic decorations. A close friend of ours paints marvelous Santa faces on gourds, and we include our collection of them on the living room mantel every year.

There are two decorations that my wife and I cherish perhaps more than any others, and we put them out every year then carefully store them away until the next Christmas. One is a small, resin angel that her parents gave her when she was a child. It is beautiful and precious. The other is a little plastic illuminated church that houses a manually-wound chime player that plays “Silent Night.” It belonged to my mother, a woman to whom the Christmas story was fundamental and factual. The miraculous birth of Jesus was a mystery she embraced without question, with little or no struggle. She has been gone now for over a dozen Christmases, but that little church keeps the memory of her fresh and close for me. I am grateful to have this modest decoration that is somehow a perfect expression of her faith and this holiday.

Church and angel
Church and angel

Flannery O’Connor: A Born Writer

“He’s a born politician.” “She’s a born actress.” “He’s a born preacher.” “She’s a born lawyer.” These are examples of an expression I heard often when I was a young man describing someone who seems to possess an innate talent or skill for a profession or avocation. People who excel in this fashion often exhibited certain predispositions at an early age that their family and friends recall and associate with their success. I am not qualified to comment on the influences of DNA over environment in determining aptitude, but most of us can remember that one child who seemed almost obsessed with a certain activity, pursuit, or area of interest and eventually grew up to turn that fixation into a lifelong career.

  • The librarian who as a child organized into collections and sub-collections every single book, DVD, and CD in the house
  • The biology teacher who as a child captured and studied every living creature within a one-mile radius of home and could spout off a half dozen facts about almost any major species
  • The information technologist and software architect who as a child voraciously read encyclopedias and was fascinated by computers and programming (think young Bill Gates)

When I served as the director of the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation in Milledgeville, Georgia, I frequently gave presentations about O’Connor, which included a brief overview of her life that was cut short at the age of 39 from the effects of lupus. Along with many others who have studied her life and work, I perceived that Flannery O’Connor was indeed a born writer. I’m sure the same case could be made for any number of writers, but I know much more about the childhood of Flannery O’Connor than any other author.

Mary Flannery O’Connor (her full name) was born in 1925 in Savannah, Georgia, and was the only child of Edward and Regina O’Connor.  She was raised by a Catholic family that sometimes viewed children much like small versions of adults, a perspective largely abandoned by the 19th century. Young Mary Flannery thrived in this atmosphere. She was a bold, precocious little girl who took herself quite seriously. She referred to her parents by their first names, not “Daddy” or “Momma.” When he was away from home, her father wrote her affectionate letters that he playfully addressed to “Lord Flannery,” and she would sign her correspondence to him with the same title, addressing them to “King of Siam.”

Young Mary Flannery was encouraged to read, and perhaps the most recognizable photograph from her childhood shows her in profile sitting with a large book in her lap, staring down at the page with a look of determined concentration. She would later use that same fierce gaze to observe the world around her and depict it through a grotesque and outrageous filter. As a young reader she collected a small library of familiar children’s titles and took the liberty of writing brief reviews on the flyleaf or title page of the books. Always assertively opinionated, the young critic praised some books as “First rate,” while others, such as Georgina Finds Herself, she dismissed as “the worst book I have read next to Pinnochio.” It is worth noting that, at the height of her career, Flannery O’Connor wrote more than a hundred book reviews for two Catholic diocesan newspapers in Georgia. Also, she carried to adulthood her sharp words in assessing the value of books, as is illustrated in her acidic comments about the works of other southern writers such as Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams. To put it in today’s vernacular, she was savage.

Not unlike many bright children, Mary Flannery wrote stories from her own imagination. Some of them were about animals with human characteristics, which is a typical theme explored by aspiring young writers. However, she went a few steps further than most children. Not only did she write clever and often hilarious stories, she also illustrated them, bound them with yarn, and made multiple copies of them to distribute to friends and family.  She was absolutely fascinated by the whole process of both writing and publishing, which later translated to a keen understanding of writing as a profession. The volume of her published letters, The Habit of Being, includes correspondence to her agent, editors, publishers, and other professionals in the book industry where O’Connor demonstrated shrewd business acumen.

As a high school and undergraduate college student, Mary Flannery turned her artistic energy to cartoons, which she created through sketching and drawing but more elaborately through printing with linoleum blocks. Although she ended up in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop under the direction of Paul Engle, she initially entered graduate school at Iowa thanks to a scholarship in journalism — she intended to pursue a career as a cartoonist. O’Connor’s biting satire and wicked humor were clearly developing even as a cartoonist, not just in the illustrations, but perhaps even more so in the captions. Some critics have argued that, as a mature fiction writer, Flannery O’Connor continued to exhibit the eye of a cartoonist in the creation of her most exaggerated characters. Little wonder that, when asked why her stories were so shocking, O’Connor explained “for the almost blind, you draw large and starling figures.”

In the private journals Flannery O’Connor kept as a college student, she undoubtedly believed that being an artist was so much more than a career choice.  It was a vocation. As she focused her attention toward writing, O’Connor yearned for her work to be used by God. She wanted to craft stories that would miraculously reveal God’s grace. As she matured into one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, she became less sentimental, but she never lost her appreciation for the mystery of art as it is interpreted by the Church, to which she remained devoted for the rest of her life. Perhaps she returned to the intensity of her younger years. She certainly became much more confident. When repeatedly asked why she decided to become a writer, without hesitation O’Connor always replied, “Because I’m good at it.”

Most of us get some level of education and eventually find a job that, with any luck, will get us out of our parents’ hair and their bank accounts. We will end up with about five different full-time jobs before we finally clock out for the last time, and our career paths will largely be determined by factors such as education, employment opportunities, salary, family obligations, and just plain old simple fate. But for a select few, a seed will be planted at a very early age that will germinate into a thriving métier that brings with it fulfillment and a deep sense of purpose. The term from my Southern Baptist heritage was “a calling.” The vocation of writing for Flannery O’Connor required serious devotion, discipline, sacrifice, and a form of genius that appears only a few times in each generation of artists. She was born with an incredible gift, which she carefully and skillfully nurtured, and her readers are the fortunate beneficiaries.

The Omega Point: Where Science and Religion Converge

I just finished reading The Luminous Web by Barbara Brown Taylor. This is the fourth book I have read by Taylor, and although it is not her best-known work, I think this short essay collection is very fine. Admittedly, my praise of the book comes out of my deep interest in the intersection (or polarization) of science and religion. Most scientists will not find it as compelling as those who are sympathetic to religious belief or even spirituality. Published in 2000, the book is perhaps somewhat dated now, but the principle thesis and the keen observations are still perfectly relevant. Taylor is a priest and a professor of religion with a sincere interest in science, which places her in good company with some of the greatest minds in history, going back to the Middle Ages with Thomas Aquinas and up to the 20th century with people like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who was both a priest and a scientist. I think Rev. Dr. Taylor believes in and is always searching for what Teilhard de Chardin named the “Omega Point,” that evolutionary conclusion where God and the physical universe are united, or as some have phrased it, a “divine unification.” To Taylor, God is not superseded by science nor is God made irrelevant by the scientific method.  She clings to the idea that science and religion are equally in pursuit of the truth — the former in its exploration and explanation of the physical universe and the latter in its attempts to find meaning and purpose.

The Luminous Web by Barbara Brown Taylor

I have been reading popular books on science and religion for about thirty years. I am drawn to authors who tend to challenge or even shatter long-held assumptions about religion, mainly Christianity since that is the faith of my heritage. In addition to Barbara Brown Taylor, a few that come to mind are Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Bart D. Ehrman, Philip Gulley, and James Mulholland. In recent years I have also been reading books by the modern atheists and humanists, like Carl Sagan, Stephen J. Gould, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Greg M. Epstein, Edward O. Wilson, Eugenie C. Scott, and Jerry A. Coyne. All of these writers have addressed the friction created where science and religion meet.

I certainly have issues with organized religion, although I am a member of the Episcopal Church. I am repelled by evangelical Christianity, fundamentalist factions across the globe, radical sects of all faiths, and any religious practice that results in division, discrimination, sexism, racism, and superiority. At the same time, I cannot agree with some of the modern atheists who have decided that all religion is superstitious nonsense with no purpose, no value to humanity. Some of these scholars claim that religion is not just a benign fantasy but a dangerous threat to the survival of humanity.  To judge religion based on the manner in which it is too often adulterated by immoral clergy, zealots, dictators, and politicians, to my way of thinking, is similar to faulting science when technology is used by power-hungry leaders to make weapons of mass destruction.

Some scientists posit that, since the beginning of the Enlightenment, science has been rapidly replacing religion as a unified explanation for all existence. In other words, we don’t need religion anymore. As much as Dawkins and others have tried to make the case of science’s ability to answer all our questions, I believe there will always be significant gaps. My argument for the existence and validity of religion is primarily built on its longevity, that it has been a hallmark of hominids at least as far back as the Neanderthals. Evolutionary theory teaches us that nature selects what will and will not survive based on characteristics such as fitness, adaptability, necessity, and the ability to pass on vital information from one generation to the next.  It works for genes, language, technology, and yes, religion. Humans have passed down faith and myth for thousands of years, not because they are entertained by them, but because they need them.

As contemplative animals who are consciously aware of their existence, their past, and their possible future, humans have evolved a thirst for answers to questions about our place in the universe, how it all began, and the meaning of life. But, we also need a practice to help us appreciate and absorb emotion, beauty, and a whole host of other experiences. Sometimes science falls short, not because of what is yet undiscovered, but because so many people need the most treasured part of life to remain a mystery. Is religion nothing more than a panacea? Is it “the opium of the people” as Karl Marx observed? Is it a vestige that we will eventually slough off like dead skin? I suppose it’s possible, but I don’t think that we will see that next stage in our evolutionary development nearly as soon as some of our atheist friends are predicting.

Godless Ethics

Good Without God by Greg M. Epstein is a nice overview of how people who do not believe in God live an ethical life, how they are charitable, loving, compassionate, fulfilled, and inspired without religion as their primary motivation. Epstein is obviously trying to soften the message of the irreligious that has been expressed by leading atheists with sarcasm, indignation, and even rudeness. In some sense, he is playing the role of a modern Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor who is trying to find consensus between the religious and the secular world.

It does seem to me, especially toward the end of the book, that Epstein is attempting to find ways in which humanists can enjoy the worldly fruits of religion through culture and ritual, as if living a humanist life without the type of community that faith offers is empty or disconnected. No doubt, his Jewish heritage is coming into play here, which he fully discloses. Perhaps this perspective also comes out of his role as a humanist chaplain (still an odd title for a humanist in my opinion) at Harvard.

I get the sense that he thinks the creation of humanists organizations that look and function like churches, synagogues, or mosques will somehow make humanism more “competitive” or more attractive or perhaps even more palatable to the skeptics or the indecisive. It reminds me of vegetarians and vegans who eat foods that are considered meat substitutes because they crave meat but won’t eat it. I think humanists can find community and social interaction outside organizations that look and sound like religious ones. In fact, I would venture to say that plenty of believers find their most meaningful connections outside their religious circles.

This is a very accessible book that is well written, thoughtful, and completely unoffensive to left-leaning, progressive readers. Evangelicals and other orthodox or fundamentalist faithful will hate it. There is no doubt that Epstein was very encouraged by the election of Obama, which occurred one year before the book was published. For people who were raised in strong religious environments but now find themselves in the camp with agnostics or even atheists, Epstein’s conclusions can be reaffirming, perhaps even comforting

.

The Terrorist Name Game

I have understood all along why President Obama has resisted using terms like “Muslim extremists” or “radical Muslims” to identify terrorists who pervert Islam for evil purposes. Peaceful Muslims in this country are in a precarious state. However, his resistance to associate some terrorists acts with fundamentalist Muslims denies the very real danger presented by radical religious practice everywhere. Islam does not have a monopoly on terrorists who claim to be part of a religion. Peace-loving Christians have no trouble distinguishing the faith they practice from the hate-filled ideology of the Westboro Baptists or the KKKs of this country, but they rarely deny that these groups are identified with Christianity. They may call them fundamentalists, evangelicals, zealots, nutcases, or even ultra-conservatives, or they may use quotation marks to imply they are not truly “Christians” at all, but they don’t call them atheists or agnostics either. Bands of Hindu radicals have been responsible for murdering scores of Muslims and Christians. We need to accept the fact that evil people use religions — all religions — as excuses to carry out horrific acts of violence.

I tend to agree with some commentators lately who have started identifying ISIS as a cult, a term that typically has negative connotations for most people, especially people of faith. Just to clarify, I am thinking in terms of the ISIS organization. Even though the recent Orlando shooter apparently invoked the name of Allah in his 911 call, that doesn’t necessarily put him in the league with ISIS, and it certainly doesn’t qualify him to be a Muslim as it is defined by millions of members of that faith around the world. I am quite sure that assassins throughout history have shouted “God’s will be done” before committing similar acts of cowardliness and evil. Doing so did not make them Christians in my view. At the same time, the only real difference between a cult and a religion is the number of people who claim allegiance. I do think we need to recognize that some of these attacks on our soil are inspired by maniacs with a warped, perverted sense of religion. Sometimes it’s Christianity; other times it’s Islam. Ignoring that fact doesn’t help us understand the motivations any better and may actually hinder us from addressing this global problem.

I don’t really think that the labels the President or anyone else chooses to use to describe these monsters are going to diminish their zeal and their thirst for blood, but I do think understanding their identification with the religion can be helpful in combating them. Rather than marginalizing peaceful Muslims, perhaps we can get more of them to help us stamp out the “cult.” Peace-loving Christians sat in church with KKK members for decades, and probably still do now. The KKK certainly fits the description of a cult in my mind, and I would bet my next paycheck that a lot of people outside the Christian faith would identify the KKK as a Christian cult or a perverted Christian organization because of the language and symbols used by the organization. I have never heard anyone claim that the KKK was an independent cult that has no identification with Christianity. They would have said the same about Koresh’s clan. I can remember growing up in a Baptist church and being taught that Mormons were members of a cult, yet almost any scholarly treatment of Mormonism identifies it as a Protestant denomination. In other words, it is very difficult to define what a cult is, and most cults historically have had their roots in existing religions. We ignore what inspires young people to join radical, hateful groups at our peril, and a perverted affiliation with a major world religion is a strong incentive for a weak, impressionable mind.

The way many people distinguish violent religious fanatics from the mainstream practitioners is by claiming that the fanatics aren’t practicing the “true” faith. And yet, the pro-lifer who turns murderer by bombing an abortion clinic may embrace all the trappings of Christian practice: attending church regularly, giving to Christian charitable causes, praying every day, reading the Bible, etc. He believes that he is doing God’s will by sacrificing the evil doctor who, in his mind, is murdering the unborn. As twisted as he is in his thinking, he still identifies with fundamental Christian beliefs, many of which he will justify with the Bible. His friends and acquaintances will identify him as a Christian, and some of them will continue to do so after he commits murder, even though they may not condone his actions. They will say things like “his convictions were strong, but he went about it the wrong way.” The real irony is that the abortion doctor may actually believe many of the same tenants of the faith that his killer does. I think this same paradigm is sometimes at play with ISIS members and their sympathizers. Most peaceful Muslims are horrified by their actions and are in fact victims of their evil deeds. But I don’t think we can escape that a perverted interpretation of Islam is what drives ISIS and what attracts sympathizers.  Again, as peaceful people, we ignore that unavoidable truth at our own risk and by doing so hinder our ability to overcome terrorism in all its manifestations.

Evangelicals and the Problem of Free Will

Having been raised as a Southern Baptist, I was taught from a very early age that the Bible is God’s holy word, that it is infallible, and that it presents humanity with essentially a road map of how to live on earth and how to ensure one’s soul goes to be with God in heaven for all eternity after life on earth is over.  The central truth of the Bible is the work of God’s only son, Jesus, on the cross.  The only source of salvation and forgiveness of sins is through his death and resurrection.  This is still the basic creed of all Christian evangelicals, not just Baptists.  As the Christian fundamentalist movement swept through the South in the 1970s, the dogma became more emphatic, especially the concept of the Bible being inerrant.  I can remember pastors only half-joking when they stood in their pulpits, held the Bible up over their heads, and said, “I believe every word of this book.  Even when it says ‘genuine leather’ on the cover, I believe it!”

Evangelicals believe that God loves his creation and that he also has desires, the strongest of which is for humanity to return his love.  Humans express this love by obeying God’s commandments.  But, above all, humans demonstrate their devotion to God by believing that Jesus is his only son and that accepting his sacrificial death as atonement for their natural sinful state miraculously repairs the fallen relationship with God (Adam, Eve, rotten fruit, etc.).  Again, for evangelicals this part of the plan is crucial.  It is only the cleansing power of the blood of Jesus that can bring God and humanity together, which not only empowers humans to obey God’s commandments but also grants their souls an eternity with Jesus, who is actually God in human form just to complicate matters further.  The alternative is rejecting God and facing an eternity in hell — complete separation from God with a whole lot of torture, anguish, teeth gnashing, ill-tempered serpents, and the like.  God wants humans to love him, and by its very definition, love is something that has to be voluntary.  God doesn’t force humans to love him, which wouldn’t be genuine love.  Humans have the freedom to either love God or reject him, another key component of the whole arrangement.

Another part of the Baptist training was embracing the perfect nature of God.  The Bible is infallible because it is inspired, if not ghost authored, by God himself.  God is omnipotent and omniscient — there is nothing God cannot do, although he certainly elects not to do plenty of things.  All options are open to him.  He knows everything that has ever happened and will happen, past and future.  In fact, everything that happens ultimately conforms to God’s will.  So even the most mortal sins committed by humanity, although contrary to God’s wishes, eventually fold into the greater plan of God for the universe.  God’s will is unavoidable.  When I was growing up, it would have been inconceivable that there could be anything that God didn’t already know.  The evidence for this concept for evangelicals is found in the Bible in Jeremiah 1:5. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”  Putting aside the fact that this verse refers specifically to the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, my fellow Baptists cited this verse as proof that God knows individuals, and individual souls, before they are conceived and born.  Remember, time is irrelevant for God. Past, present, and future are all in his command.

Now we come to the problem that is free will.  As stated earlier, evangelicals adhere to the principle that God loves humanity and wants his love returned.  John 3:16 is probably the most important verse in the entire Bible to evangelicals: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  People are given the option to believe that Jesus is God’s son and that his sacrifice is the source of their salvation and relationship with God. However, it is painfully obvious that millions, if not billions, of people do not accept Jesus as their savior and therefore miss the salvation boat altogether.  Which brings us to the troubling question about the true personality of God.  If indeed God knows everything, and if he is not constrained by time, and if he knows all that is going to happen, then it reasonably follows that he knows which individuals will return his love and which ones will reject him, before they are even born.  Given this premise, it follows that the God who can do anything actually chooses to allow people to be born even though he knows they will ultimately reject him and thus be cursed to an eternity in hell.  Is this lais·sez-faire approach the only means by which God can secure the love of humanity?  Do billions of people have to be cast into hell to gather a minority of people who will love God, accept his gift of salvation, and share eternity with him?

Evangelicals who adopt this paradigm are faced with a God who is at once all-loving while also being extremely negligent of the majority of those he apparently loves.  In the case of humanity’s free will, God is obviously electing not to impose his omnipotence and letting humanity chart its eternal course.  Is this a situation where God is simply choosing not to know something?  Keeping secrets from himself?  If we think about this for more than a minute or two, we must come to terms with a God who is “writing off” a significant portion of the population as damned, when he could have easily spared them an eternity of torment by not allowing them to be born in the first place.  As a father, I would do anything within my power to prevent my son from committing suicide, especially if I could ensure that he had a bright future.  What kind of father would I be if I didn’t attempt to intervene?  Given the same circumstances, most fathers would do the same.  If parents could know, without a shadow of a doubt, that they were going to conceive a child who would suffer horrific pain for an entire lifetime, would they elect to have such a child just for the sake of starting a family?  Are we more compassionate than God?  Free will doesn’t seem like such a valuable gift when we consider the stakes.  If this is God’s plan for getting the love he wants, what does this really tell us about God?  Something’s missing here.  It’s a problem.

Worship Without Music

As stated previously in this blog, I was raised in a Southern Baptist Church (SBC).  Generally speaking, Southern Baptist worship, especially during the main service on Sunday mornings, could be described as a passive experience by the majority of people present, namely the congregation.  There are a couple of exceptions.  In recent decades, it has become popular to insert a time of greeting around the midway point of the service, which involves handshaking, hugging, some folks walking all around the sanctuary to apparently greet as many people as possible until forced by embarrassment to finally get back to their seat.  This practice is not limited to the Baptists either.  The only other part of a SBC service that encourages participation by everyone in the sanctuary is music, and for Baptists, music is a central part of worship.  SBCs give music a lot of space and time, from large pianos and organs for traditional worship services, to full-scale bands for “praise” services, and even small orchestras for the mega-churches.  They include several hymns for the congregation to join together singing.  SBCs also tend to employ full-time ministers of music, who typically are paid better than other support staff in most denominations with comparable-sized churches.  They typically have choirs for all age groups, along with an adult choir that practices weekly to present calls-to-worship, anthems, benedictions, etc.  Some churches even have special musical groups like hand-bell choirs, vocal or instrumental ensembles, and pop bands.

The format of worship in a SBC was certainly a suitable environment for my development with respect to the central role of music.  I was raised in a family that appreciated music, had some musical abilities, but above all encouraged musical skill and performance in my generation of youngsters.  My sister and I both took music lessons — she with the piano and I with the guitar.  I was brought up to sing church songs from a very early age, even before I can remember.  My earliest memory of singing was when my mother and grandmother took me out in the countryside to visit a bedridden relative of my grandmother (a sister or cousin, I’m not sure which), and I was instructed to sing a short song I had learned in Sunday School.  The song was titled “He’s Able.”  I still remember the words and the tune to this day:

He’s able, He’s able, I know He’s able
I know my Lord is able to carry me through
He healed the broken hearted, and he set the captive free
He made the lame to walk again, and He caused the blind to see
He’s able, He’s able, I know He’s able
I know my Lord is able to carry me through

As I became a teenager, my guitar skills developed enough that I could accompany myself singing, and could also play for youth group gatherings in my church.  My voice also matured to a fairly solid tenor, perhaps with a higher range than most guys my age.  I sang in choirs, performed at church functions (often with my sister and a cousin), and eventually reached what some would have considered the pinnacle of the music scene in a SBC — presenting “the special” during Sunday morning worship.  This song, typically a solo but sometimes a duet or trio, was usually placed in the service just before the pastor’s sermon.  For the 40+ years I was in a SBC, that part of the music service was always referred to by ministers and congregants as “the special” or “special music.”  Unfortunately, a label like that can encourage a certain sense of pride, if not arrogance, by the person offered such a place of distinction.

My love for music at an early age, combined with the ability to play the guitar (fair, but not very skilled) and a voice that my friends and family thought was pleasant, presented me with the opportunity to be a regular part of the special music rotation, almost always as a solo.  As I grew to adulthood, moved away from home, and started a family, I settled in another SBC where I continued with this practice.  I taught myself to play the piano and eventually began to accompany myself with that instrument.  It is with humility and perhaps some shame now that I look back on the decades of my musical contributions as a soloist because I realize that, all too often, I know what I was doing more than anything else was performing.  More than providing a meaningful worship experience for myself and the congregation, I was seeking to be an entertainer, to impress an audience, to attract their attention, to win their love.  So many people in SBCs will tell you that music is essential to their worship experience.  They will boast about their choir and exalt their music ministers.  But, they usually reserve their highest admiration for the people who perform special music, posting or sharing videos of them on their social media pages.  I enjoyed this kind of adulation all the time, and it was a rush.  My fellow church members were kind and gracious, and I have no doubt they were perfectly sincere when they told me how much a song I sang or wrote meant to them and enhanced their worship experience. I was touched by their encouragement, but what I craved was to amaze them.  Alas, I am vain.

After a divorce and a time of transitioning away from the Baptist church (I had left it theologically many years before), I met a beautiful Episcopalian.  And then I married her.  Everything changed, and for the better — much better.  I found a home in the Episcopal Church, with a theology that I could embrace without too much difficulty.  My wife introduced me to an early morning service at our small town church that she really liked because it was quiet, peaceful, reverent, and completely without music.  I had never been to such a service, and much to my surprise, I loved this style of worship.  After decades of being in churches where music was so central and where I was such a visible participant, it took me a while to understand why I was attracted to a service without music.  I think it is because I know that music was too often a distraction for me.  Instead of helping me get beyond myself to seek communion with the divine, it fed my ego and kept me in the foreground.  Performing caused me to focus on technique, style, quality, and even appearance.  It was way too much about me.

My wife and I have moved and are at another parish now.  They don’t have a service without music yet, although the priest has talked about introducing one.  There is resistance from the parish, which is to be expected.  I hope we can try it at some point. I will never stop loving music, and that includes church music.  And, I can certainly enjoy a worship service with music, even if I’m not at all familiar with so many of the songs from the Episcopal tradition.  In a way, that’s a good place to be.  It’s awfully hard to perform a song you don’t know very well.