As I write this I am sitting in the pastor’s study of Williamsburg Baptist Church, where I am serving as interim pastor. Outside the window a large red-tailed hawk stands like a sentinel in a stout, leafless walnut tree growing between the church yard and Richmond Road directly across from the College of William and Mary. Since female raptors tend to be larger and heavier than males, due to a phenomenon known as reverse sexual dimorphism, I assume it’s a “she.”
She has been sitting almost motionless for more than an hour waiting, I suppose, for just the right meal to scamper along the dry leaves that the wind has piled along the sidewalk. For a time, a squirrel played a few limbs beneath her, seemingly oblivious to the predator’s presence. The hawk seemed uninterested.
I couldn’t help but wonder at her lonely vigil and her patience as she waited … and waited. A part of me can identify with that hawk. Before the Religious Herald trustees and the Associated Baptist Press directors officially voted in early October, merger was something I pushed for and prepared for but which was still somewhat theoretical. But with the votes came the stark awareness that the Herald and ABP would merge and that, as a consequence of my own planning, I would no longer be employed as of January 1.
I have had wonderful ministry privileges in my life. I served as a pastor for 25 years in two exciting and growing churches; I edited the Deacon magazine for the old Baptist Sunday School Board for a time; John Upton asked me to lead the empowering leaders team for the Virginia Baptist Mission Board before becoming the Herald’s eighth editor in 185 years.
In all my adult days, never have I been without a ministry position. Yet, here I am, like that hawk, sitting, waiting for what will come along next. This has been a new experience for me — and, frankly, one I have needed. As with most preachers, I boldly proclaimed the certainty of God’s provision. Now I am having to practice what I have been preaching. Although, with their blessing, I will continue the interim at Williamsburg, and the calendar says I could contemplate retirement, in my spirit I can’t help but believe that in his timing, the Lord will bring a new assignment.
From the pulpit I have spoken often about Abram and Sarai setting off for a land they knew not of, but my present circumstance gives me an opportunity to let my faith guide me. And, though it is unnerving, it is also invigorating!
Somewhat like the hawk’s lofty perch, my vantage point as editor has provided opportunity to observe Virginia Baptist life and to draw a few conclusions. I offer these as my parting thoughts to my spiritual family.
Although we are largely over the SBC controversy, vestiges of that struggle still impact us. Before the 1979 turning point, Virginia Baptists lived a charmed life. We were outspoken proponents of religious liberties both for ourselves and even for those with whom we disagreed and had little in common.
We were systematic in our theological positions in that we were careful to consider many of our doctrines as multifaceted and not fully formed because our human understanding of God is incomplete. Historically, we were highly opinionated, but inevitably gracious in allowing others to hold and express opinions of their own. Moreover, we were humble enough to admit the possibility that we were wrong, however unlikely that might have been.
We were balanced biblical scholars and practitioners who resisted biblicism and bibliolatry. On the whole, historically speaking, we saw ample reasons to be pretty pleased with ourselves.
But, during the SBC controversy, we came to identify ourselves by what we are not. We are not fundamentalists; we are not closed to women in ministry; we are not like “them.”
But it seems to me that in the process of saying who we are not, we have not yet become clear about who we are. We need to find a way to describe who we are that isn’t reactionary. The term “moderate” requires a descriptor to which it is compared to have meaning. We are “moderate” compared to whom? The term requires the “them, the fundamentalists” to give our moderation definition.
Almost of necessity, being “moderate” means the fires of extremist passion will diminish. We need to find a way of saying who we are in words that speak forcefully, eloquently and powerfully to capture our commitment to living as faithful biblical practitioners. I have looked, but have not found these words in my vocabulary, so I will depend on some of you to discover them.
As I leave my post, my final words are these: We need to rekindle the fires of devotion to God. I’m not talking about trying to resuscitate outmoded, culturally ineffective monastic models. But God didn’t give “good news” so his people could hide it under a bushel. As a natural outgrowth of their relationship with the Lord, the early church found a way to share its faith without the advantages of mass communication and social media. I suggest a return to the basics. Love God. Love people enough to share Christ with them.
What we need is something I’m not sure we can design or program. At the risk of sounding like somebody we’re not, we need the Holy Spirit to empower us. I believe it was Richard Foster who remarked that we are more likely to get gas in our tank if we pull into the station and stop at the pump. We are more apt to be empowered by the Spirit if we place our minds and hearts in positions to be influenced by him.
Come, Almighty God, and confront us. Come, Lord Jesus, and deliver us. Come, Holy Spirit, and empower us. Amen.
Jim White (email@example.com) is executive editor of the Religious Herald.