Monday, July 6, 2009

Worshipping with the Regular Baptists on the shores of Lake Chautauqua

The lovely and talented Raina, 19 mos. oldThe lovely and talented Raina, playing on the shore of Lake ChautauquaThe lovely and talented Raina, playing in her tent and mugging for the camera, a natural born performerCHAUTAUQUA LAKE, NY – Every July 4th since I married my lovely wife in 2002, we have trekked north from our home in Rockingham, NC, to the shores of Lake Chautauqua in the southwestern corner of New York State, where her family has a summer home.

She is one of six siblings who try to coordinate vacations to spend a week together in the dome home their parents built here as a retirement home. This year they all made it, three from St. Louis, one from Baltimore, one from Pittsburgh, plus my sweet wife’s daughter and the first grandchild in the family, the lovely and talented Raina, now 19 months old.

Jessie, my wife’s daughter, her husband Chris, the siblings and me, the sole Southern redneck in the family, arrived the weekend before the 4th and have already begun to disperse as I write this on Sunday, July 5th. They’re all good people, raised by wonderful godly parents, but alas, I am alone when it comes to being a regular Sunday worshipper.

My wife sometimes comes with me when I seek a place to worship here amongst the barren northern steppes, where Southern Baptists are quite thin on the ground. A few years back, we attended the sole representation of the SBC in this neck of the woods.

I’ll name no names to protect the guilty, but suffice it to say that Sunday worship service was a bit too cut and dried for my tastes. That was probably my first trip here in 2003 and since then I have cast about for warmer, more lively worship experiences.

One summer I went on the grounds of Chautauqua Institute for a Baptist service that shall again remain nameless for the same reason as above. I have also attended nondenominational services at the Chautauqua amphitheater with varying degrees of spiritual satisfaction. A Presbyterian chaplain to the Queen of England was better than I expected, as was a black minister from Baltimore who spoke on the eve of last year’s election on the more or less topic of how to be a successful community organizer.

On these and other similar occasions, I have gleaned a butterbean or two from amongst the buckets of theological slop, but overall been significantly underwhelmed.

Today was a refreshing change. I feel perhaps a bit Darwinian as this Sunday I discovered a new-to-me species, the GARBs, the General Assembly of the Regular Baptists, whose local representative is the First Baptist Church of Mayville, NY.

I generally shy away from 1st Baptist churches. It’s like a Baptist friend of mine said is the chief reason people don’t attend Sunday School – because they’ve been there before.

I’ve been to a few 1st Baptist churches before and didn’t intend to repeat the experience. I had spotted a storefront church on Main Street in Mayville and intended to give it a try.

But as I drove the few miles to Mayville this morning it occurred to me that I didn’t even know what denomination the two downtown churches are, or had forgotten. So I paid attention as I drove up Main Street. First was Episcopal. Nada. But the second church which I vaguely recalled as Presbyterian or Methodist, was Mayville 1st Baptist.

How had I ignored it earlier? Prejudice against 1st Baptists I expect. I parked on the street with the nondenominational storefront church in front of me and the 1st Baptist to my left. Perhaps because I’m a lefty, I chose on the spur of the moment to cross the street. It was 9:45 a.m. and the front door stood open so I strolled in and took a seat.

I’m pretty ancient, 61, but I prefer the company of young folks so I was a bit disappointed to find a handful of other ancients meeting for the adult Sunday School class. As I was debating the wisdom of seeking another class in the back of the church, the teacher arrived, a young man in his mid to late 20s, with his young wife. His long hair to his shoulders, goatee and mustache raised my curiosity enough to stay put.

His topic was a continuing series in 1st Peter and to my delight he paused after each verse and posed a question to the class and waited for responses, which he got. I much prefer an open discussion forum and have used that style for Sunday School in the last two churches where I’ve taught. I joined the discussion with a couple of brief comments.

After Sunday School, I asked the lady behind me what version of Baptists they are? She asked if I meant what version of the Bible they use? My Southern tongue does cause linguistic difficulties in northern climes, but her supposition is not surprising as many Baptists think the 11th commandment is Thou Shalt Use The King James Bible or its converse, Thou Shalt Not Use Any Other Version Than The King James Bible.

I’m not one of those so I didn’t ask that, just repeated my question … slowly. Then came my brief Darwinian moment. “We’re Independent Baptists, but we have been affiliated with the GARB,” she explained. GARB? “General Assembly of Regular Baptists.”

I guess I’m sorta regular Baptist, too. I was raised Methodist but it never “took.”

I got saved outside of church in 1977 at age 29 and since have been a member of two independent Baptist churches and one Southern Baptist. The church where I now belong started out nondenominational, turned Free Will Baptist for a while, then returned to its founding nature.

To make a long blog post even longer, let me digress to yesterday. The afternoon of the 4th, I went shopping with my wife and her childhood chum, which means I spent a lot of time sitting waiting while they shopped.

Four young folks can jogging down the sidewalk and as they got opposite me, they broke into song, clapping cadence to their steps: “God bless America, Land that I love…”

Wow! Just when you feel like agreeing with Plato that the younger generation is going to hell on a handcart, something like that happens to restore your faith in humanity’s future.

And of course, at the congregation of Regular Baptists the next day, guess what they sang to kick off the worship service? First was America the Beautiful, which nearly always gives me goose bumps and I can envision Ray Charles belting it out on his piano.

Then the choir began with My Country ‘Tis of Thee and finished off with God Bless America. I wanted to stand up real bad as they got to the chorus and invited us to join in and God bless him, one of the members stood so I joined him with all the congregation.

I could barely sing as my throat seized up and my eyes got watery. I love this nation with all my heart but I’ve been heartsick and worse about recent political developments.

Then the pastor, Dr. Ray Mitchell, a clean-cut young man, brought his message: “Help! I’m in a moral crisis.” America is in a financial crisis, a housing crisis and several other crisises, he ticked off in his opening list. But the biggest crisis is moral. Amen brother.

He talked about a four-week drought the early Pilgrims suffered shortly after planting crops in the spring of 1621 and how they repented and prayed for rain, which God promptly sent, impressing the Indians who also had been praying for rain with no results.

And he used 1 Kings 18 as his text, the 3-year drought God sent on the nation of Israel because of their sins and those of their evil king, Ahab and his lovely wife Jezebel.

From Solomon’s death, the nation of Israel had been in a spiritual decline for 75 years and Ahab and Jezebel made it far worse with their institution of the worship of Baal, the sex God, adding to evil King Jereboam’s institution of worship of the Golden Calf.

But God used the prophet Elijah to turn the people’s hearts back toward Him. Would God there was an Elijah on the scene today to turn the people of America back toward God.

After worshipping with the Regular Baptists, I’m much more hopeful Elijah will come.

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