MAINSTREAM MESSENGER

Vol. 4, No. 2     June 2001    Editor:  Bruce Prescott

Still a Baptist Woman

by Gladys S. Lewis

Gladys is professor of American Literature at the University of Central Oklahoma.  She and her husband Wilbur formerly served as SBC missionaries to Paraguay.

The planners for this conference invited me to address the subject, “Why I am still a Baptist.” They said, “We want you to tell your story.” I will give three reasons and tell you three stories to satisfy that assignment.

I am a Baptist because of my captivity, my exodus, and my pilgrimage. My captivity status helps me understand being human and defines me; my exodus experience helps me recognize the divine and shapes me; and my pilgrimage formation helps me synthesize the human and the divine and identifies me. Being Baptist puts those interpretative strategies in my power because of basic Baptist adherence to soul liberty and soul competency in the captivity; individual freedom in Bible study and prayer in the exodus, and priesthood of the believer and church autonomy in the pilgrimage. Because we connect with each other most thoroughly through our stories, I will tell you a story about each of those areas and explain it through my assimilation of its meaning in my life in the three areas I will address and interpret as I tell you why I am still a Baptist.

CAPTIVITY: Captivity is our basic human orientation. It describes our natural condition and provides a way to understand and define our life condition. The Old Testament overflows with allusions to being carried away captive, taking captives, and becoming captives. Bondage is a principal preoccupation. The overarching captivity analogy in accounts of the literal physical bondage of Israel in Egypt grants a bedrock for understanding Old and New Testament worlds. We are also captive in other ways. Paul writes about captivity: “But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (Romans 7:23). In spite of all the varieties of bondage, there is a positive side to captivity, which elevates our dismal condition. We meet it first in Isaiah 61:1 and again in the experience of Jesus when He goes to the synagogue and reads from the scroll (Luke 4:18) after his captivity shattering encounter with Satan on temptation mount: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord has anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek (poor); he has sent me to bind up (heal) the brokenhearted, to proclaim (preach) liberty to the captives, (and recovering sight to the blind), and the opening of the prison (set at liberty) to them that are bound (bruised).” We are not just a heard of cattle in a pen. We are individuals so worthy of saving that a living God engages Himself in our redemption.

That kind of importance defines us spiritually. That kind of individual worth also defines us culturally, a nation of individualists from our beginning.

The first prolonged collision the New England colonists suffered with the Indians occurred in the spring of 1675. King Philip’s War, as the two-year guerrilla battles were known, ended a half-century of cordial co-existence between the English settlers and the Algonquin tribes of southern New England. Metacomet, the Wampanoag chief, dubbed Philip by the colonists, hated the colonists and resented their high-handed ways and incursion on tribal lands.

In February 1676, a group of Narragansetts raided Lancaster, Massachusetts, a frontier community with about fifty families. Many were killed and other taken captive for ransom. Among the captives was Mary White Rowlandson (c. 1635-c.1678), a daughter of one of the town’s founders and wife of its clergyman. Eleven weeks later, just before the war ended, she was ransomed and reunited with her husband and two remaining children after twenty stages of flight, or “removes,” as the Indians moved through Massachusetts into Vermont, New Hampshire, and back. During those weeks, she endured unimaginable suffering. A couple of years later, Rowlandson recorded her “narrative of her captivity,” and it became immensely popular because it served her readers on so many literary, spiritual, and psychological levels. It was a lay sermon by a woman, a spiritual autobiography, and an amazing adventure tale. Her narrative does what captivity tales always do. The captive defines self in contrast to the captivity culture, and, if redeemed, returns to the prior community to share what was learned. We receive rich imagery from the Puritans in the concept of a mission into the wilderness and identity with the land. The Promised Land, which the Israelites in exile sought, by transference in the Puritan colonial’s mind, became the New Israel in the New World. The Bible re-inforced their experience of boundaries, wilderness, land, captivity, exile, and return. Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative birthed a principal literary genre in American writing, which comes straight from a Biblical model. But captivity is far more than a literary genre, which serves as a communication device. Captivity provides a metaphoric construct for our individual and group experience in that we learn from our suffering, or we are destroyed by it.

And there is more. Culturally, women have been captives of patriarchal institutions. Captivity is not new to our horizons. We have a grammar of captivity in our past, our present, and our future. The Fundamentalists and their overt program of exclusion is debilitating and embarrassing, but it is not new. In many ways, it is more honest in the present than that captivity we have known in the past. But we can turn all of it to our advantage. We will never be free from the captivity, which surrounds and threatens, but we can make it more negotiable, more pragmatically useful if we learn from marginal experience and teach our communities.

Current rules and dicta don’t affect us as Baptists moving in soul liberty and soul competency. A conscience free Baptist can survive the wilderness captivity. I am still Baptist because soul competency allows me to work out my own faith positions when life gives me conditions not covered by doctrine. We are all Catholics pragmatically. We want someone to make the rules, tell us how to live in them, bless us when we succeed, and correct us with assignments for extra credit when we fail. In Baptist circles right now, we call that Fundamentalism, but it is a Catholic position by ecclesiology, and it is Fascist politically. The trouble with that kind of rigidity comes when life dishes up a serving of something without rules for solutions. I live on a plane daily where nothing of faith markers has been mapped. Soul liberty and competency allows me to be my own cartographer without losing my way on the journey. I learn from my captivity about my humanity. Engagement with my soul in the experience defines my humanity.

EXODUS: My exodus experience helps me recognize the divine and shapes me. When God set Israel free, the people needed 40 years to become free before they could go on into their promise. In the “removes,” or stages, of the exodus, they learned of God’s reality and presence to take the form He intended for them. Usually, we read the exodus from the point of view of Moses, or the people, or the text writers. In Isaiah 51 and 52, we have God’s account: ”… Hearken unto me, my people … for a law shall proceed from me … The captive exile hastens that he may be loosed … But I am the Lord thy God, that divided the sea, whose waves roared … And I have put my words in your mouth, and I have covered you in the shadow of my hand, that I may .… say …You are my people … I have taken out of your hand the cup of trembling … you shall no more drink it again …S hake yourself from the dust … loose yourself from the bands of your neck … Break forth into joy … for the Lord has comforted his people.”

The New Testament position on our exile condition as Gentiles outside grace beckons us from Ephesians 2:12 and 19: Remember, Paul says, “… at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God … Now … you are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God.” My exodus experience helps me recognize the divine and it shapes me.

For many years, our family went to Copper Mountain, Colorado, to ski during the interim between Christmas and New Year’s when the Physician’s Winter Retreat, sponsored by the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, features a continuing medical education forum. In 1993, my surgeon husband, Wilbur, and I arrived two days before Christmas with our children: Karen and her husband, Howard; David, his wife, Sadako, and baby, Jason; and Leanne and her husband, Carey; and Cristen. Wilbur, an excellent skier, was coming down B slope at Copper Mountain, on Monday, December 27, a bit after 12:30 p.m., with Leanne, Carey, and David. The day was somewhat snowy and overcast, so there were no shadows to indicate ridges or other elevations in the terrain or flags to alert skiers. Leanne, the front of the pack, went right and took off her skis to go in to lunch. Wilbur followed her, but turned to the left. Just a few steps from the door to the inn was a drainage ditch with a culvert into it, making a slight elevation which did not create a shadow. Because it was not flagged, Wilbur did not note its presence. He was not going fast, because he was headed toward a snow bank to remove his skis. As he skied over the area, the tips of his skis caught in the elevation and he fell full-face forward into the ground. The impact caused a ring fracture of his first cervical vertebra and shattered the second one. His injury was the

kind often associated with those which divers receive. (It is exactly the injury of actor, Christopher Reeve.) Because that area of the spinal cord services autonomic systems of the body, such as breathing, he was immediately without the ability to breathe. Carey saw the entire scenario, and rushed to him, calling for help. David, last in the group, came just after the fall, hurried to help with resuscitation, but watched in panic as he saw his father turning blue. Leanne ran to Wilbur, and he mouthed, “Get help! Get help!” Attending our same conference were a cardiologist and his physician assistant wife who immediately began CPR. The ski patrol came quickly with oxygen and carried Wilbur to the nearby clinic. After emergency attention, he was evacuated to Denver to St. Anthony Central, a trauma center, placed on a ventilator, and diagnosed as quadriplegic: paralyzed from the neck down. His condition was so grave that he was not expected to live through the night. However, when his vital signs and mental condition improved by Tuesday morning, his orthopedist, neurologist, and general surgeon operated.

After his surgeries and several interchanges between his mouthed questions and our carefully explained narratives, he knew exactly his condition and what we faced. Wilbur is a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic, a bleak, grim, dismal reality. We have learned our exodus expulsion was not at the Red Sea; it was at the base of a ski slope in the Colorado Rockies. At that instant around noon, December 27, 1993, our lives were shot into another orbit forever as long as we live -- an existence of exodus where we live on a plane somewhere between life and death, neither totally one or the other. Not a day goes by when he does not face death in life, nor I face life in death. We are neither where we were, nor where we are going on the existence level we have been awarded where we try to marshal our exodus. We go to sleep and wake with Death’s arm about our shoulders. We fight on two fronts; his is despair and mine is cynicism. His comes from living on the brink of death. Mine comes from facing the threats to our survival each day, knowing as soon as I solve one set of problems, another will take its place. We have two sides of the same problem: time. He cannot do one thing, and is oppressed by time. I must do everything and am oppressed by time.

So we beg for manna to have nourishment for our paralyzed wanderings. Food comes with prayer and Bible study, but not the kind of devotional exercise I had known in the past. Set apart rituals for spiritual enhancement require time, and I have none. None. For many months, I existed on 1-3 hours of sleep in 24 as I cared for Wilbur, kept my job, and supervised closing his office, managing caregiver, and struggling with financial survival at the hands of people who should have been helping us.

In learning from the exodus, we discover we all have different experiences of grace. One of my grace gifts came the day I realized I could be a spiritual person on the hoof. I could “read” the Bible in my mind and hear God’s voice. I could “speak” my thoughts and ideas to him at red lights, and it counted as prayer. My discipline with language helps me at this point. I have so many words in me, good investments I have made of great artists. At any given moment, I can “read” Shakespeare’s sonnets, Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, God’s New Testament, or my husband’s love letters, none of which any of them will ever write again. I love words. I can roll around in them, pull them over my head as a blanket, and be renewed. When I am locked in linguistic combat with a laboratory, I “read” Shakespeare’s, “A man can smile and smile and be a villain;” when I recall the days of our other life, I “read” Fitzgerald’s benediction on Gatsby that he drove on to that vision not knowing his dream was behind him; when I think of what I face each day, I “read” Jesus in the gospels, “Take up my yoke and learn of me;” when I finally reach the end of my day, I “read” Wilbur’s “To my loving wife.” In the process, I have read through a window on all of life experience, and I pray, “Thank you.”

What do we learn in our captivity margins of exile and exodus? Wilbur is a captive of his poor, diminished, suffering, petrified body. And so am I. The alienated American cultural subject is the soul we recognize as our own in our particular captivities. Anthropologist Victor Turner’s work in studies of people in liminal landscapes examines what happens to groups and individuals with a retreat or forced exile into the marginal, into an existence where the boundary is removed, the exile position. We should feel at home as Baptists in our culture if we understand the secular expression to be a fruition of an ancient correlation between Old Israel and New Israel as our founders compared themselves. We go into the wilderness for testing and growth. We must look to this current alienation as opportunity for expansion of self, group, and context. When colonial captives were redeemed from captivity, they returned with stories of lessons learned which would benefit the group. Our task as human beings and Baptist women? Learn our stories well and teach them ethically as we learn in the exodus how the divine and human interact to shape us.

Baptists are uniquely equipped to deal with the marginal experience and proving of exodus living because of our historic emphasis on Bible study and prayer. Two weeks ago, I read again Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, “Self-Reliance,” because I had assigned it to a class. I have read that essay a dozen times, but his comments on prayer grasped my mind as never before. He said, “Prayer looks abroad and asks for some foreign addition to come through some foreign virtue, and loses itself in endless mazes of natural and supernatural … Prayer that craves a particular commodity-anything less than all good, is vicious. Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul. It is the spirit of God, pronouncing His works good. But prayer as a means to effect a private end, is theft and meanness … As soon as [we] are at one with God, [we] will not beg. [We] will see prayer in all action…” An exodus lesson? Prayer is not selfish, not an insurance policy for what we want.

Wilbur suffers especially at night when real darkness joins the other shadows on life. He wrestles with Jacob’s night angel. And so do I. Because I have wrestled with the angel, I have had to learn how to re-negotiate previous patterns, because I can’t walk the same way. We do get the blessing, Wilbur and I, but blessings come at a price. We are crippled. Coming to grips with the disintegration of my life as the wife of my husband and the shift in my position in my family with my husband’s injury sabotages these ridiculous rules which say I must wait on my husband for direction and authority. My husband is paralyzed and ventilator-dependent. I am our wage earner, business manager, and linch pin. What nonsense to pose as weak and dependent. I wrestle with the angel in an ambiguous stranglehold. Jacob never saw the angel’s face; we have never seen our angel’s face, but we know him. Wilbur wrestles with the Angel of Death; I wrestle with the Angel of Life-and they are both God. We are equally blessed, but we remain horribly wounded. And I am independently wounded with my own pain.

I am woman; I love God; He loves me. In the words of C.S. Lewis, my “pain is his mega-phone.” I will not let others define me as an intrusion before that which I know exists between myself and the one I worship and move in day by day. I … will … not. That was a struggle I faced long before the arrival of the current set of silly sibilant sayings some sources set before us as sacred. The contemporary crowd of creed makers is a bunch of children piping in the market, to use Jesus’ words about immaturity in serious spiritual issues. Baptist women have a history of facing sophisticated obstacles. This current language is helpful, in fact. We shrug, smile, and re-engage in lives where that mind-set has absolutely no connection and certainly no collegiality.

In our exodus, I have gained a new attitude and understanding about Bible study. I am glad I spent all those years on the six point record system and study courses and Bible study in Sunday School. But in my current exodus, I am reading the Bible by the way I live. Remember the Vacation Bible School memorization programs? My two are: “Thy word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against thee” and the watchword: “I will do the best I can with what I have for Jesus’ sake today.” The two go together and must be present for us to survive in the exodus. From my wilderness vantage, I have noticed people do two things with Bible study. They make it a substitute for practical ministry or a substitute for belief. What else can be deduced when people drive miles to a Bible study but won’t go across the street to help someone? What else can be deduced when so much language extols its precise merits but not a word offers its spirit?

The Bible is a collection of narratives of violence: murder, betrayal, brokenness; in our connections with it through the collegiality of our own brokenness, we find meaning for our narratives-inspiration from the violence done to us AND those which we perpetrate on others. To make it a totem, an object of worship, or a lucky charm violates its spirit and diminishes its force for healing. It is a road map for our journey, a diary for our reflection, and a compass for our direction: a text with many voices, many narrators, many themes, many interpretations.

We learn a great deal by reading the Bible about Jesus which affirms us spiritually and culturally. Especially as women. Especially Jesus and non-Jewish women. He first announced his ministry to one: the woman at the well. Jesus never got entangled with doctrine; he lived it, and while living it, told stories and took care of people. I think this is the edge women have with Jesus. He announced He was the Messiah to a non-Jewish woman-that event came out in a practical ministry setting and conversation — he wanted a drink of water. Of course, the emphasis we get is on his knowing she was a woman with a bad reputation and being kind to her anyway -- chalk one up for male rhetoric.

The Syro-Phoenician woman helped Jesus clarify his ministry by using his language against him. Does the jingo-ism and ethnic chauvinism of Jesus in that passage bother you? After he had fed the multitudes, she came asking him to heal her daughter. He said, “I can’t take the children’s bread and throw it before dogs.” He called her a dog, and I don’t think it was because she was not cute. She said, “Dogs eat crumbs under the children’s table. I would take those.” Jesus checks himself. I am helped enormously by thinking of Jesus as a teacher. I think Jesus had just re-stated the syllabus to 15 freshmen and this Syro-Phoenician woman graduate student walked up with a real question, and Jesus responded in a tone he wanted to use for the freshmen. But she, knowing how to use language and metaphor, turned it on him. Submissiveness? Bah! Balderdash! My exodus experience helps me recognize the divine and it shapes me.

PILGRIMAGE: My pilgrimage formation helps me synthesize the human and the divine and identifies me. My pilgrimage comes from my salvation story which rises from my being my own priest in spiritual matters. The altar stone in our cherished belief in the priesthood of the believer as Baptists is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world [in its captivity, its exodus, and its pilgrimage] He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever [every single individual] believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

My salvation story and my service stories all have Baptist bindings. As a 17 year-old, I converted to Christianity at the Exchange Avenue Baptist Church in south Oklahoma City in one of those youth-led revivals when OBU student at the time Milton Ferguson, former President of Midwestern Seminary before the purge, was the preacher. Very soon afterward, I became a mission volunteer and prepared myself as a nurse. I met Wilbur. We fell in love. (I did. He sort of eased into it, but I knew I had him. I could tell by the little things.) We finished our education, had two babies, spent two terms on the mission field at the Baptist Hospital in Asuncion, Paraguay, had two more babies there, and had to leave because of political shifts in the government which surfaced in the Public Health Ministry, the license granting authority of us. We have lived in the Oklahoma City area since 1970. Wilbur developed a prominent private surgical practice, was one of the seven original founders of the Baptist Medical-Dental Fellowship, and gave of his total means in service to others from the Grace Rescue Mission clinic locally to mission hospitals in South America and East Asia. I moved into a role I call my professional Baptist era, and gave my time, energy, and talent to Baptist churches, Woman’s Missionary Union, and Southern Baptist Convention boards. We went all over the world in service capacities through medicine and Baptists. I was on the SBC’s Committee on Order of Business the year the Fundamentalist takeover occurred. I sat in meetings and listened and knew my days as a woman Baptist in the circles I have been traveling in had ended. By that time, I also knew that volunteerism, satisfying as it was, could not substitute for professional engagement in a work. So I returned to study, earned a Master of Arts in English and Creative Writing, and found my niche in academia. I went on to earn a Ph.D. in American and British Literature and have been an English Professor at the University of Central Oklahoma since 1990. All of that had finished, and I had been at my post two years when our accident happened. My work forms a backdrop for our lives and provides the financial means I must have to care for Wilbur as well as maintain my own sense of reality and contribution beyond myself.

“Tell Your Story.” “Why are you still a Baptist?” I am still a Baptist because that is who I am. I was a Baptist long before the current epidemic of theological soul eating bacteria infected us. Baptist is my name. My life orientation and soul habits have always emanated from that name which identifies me. I suppose I could move into another room in the Father’s house and live in the Presbyterian room of the Methodist room or some other. But I am more comfortable with the furniture in the Baptist room. I became a Baptist by choice, and I remain one by choice. That is not to say I have not considered rearranging the furniture or engaging in some more radical activity within those walls, but Baptist I remain, because those parameters help me define my faith system in the most practical manner. In response to being my own priest in salvation matters and being in a church that is autonomous under the will and direction of God, I move forward in my pilgrimage and sharpen my identity. I was born and given a name. When I converted, I chose a name. When I married, I took another name. All of those names constitute who I am. I will not change; I cannot change. We have Baptist connections, Wilbur and I, and we continue to enjoy a sustaining collegiality with people who share our history.

I am my own agent in salvation matters because we cling to our belief in the priesthood of the believer. I work it out with God who has provided the way through Christ. We must not allow current language of disenfranchisement rob us of our history of the struggle -- the good old days were good because we had years of experience in subversive success. We knew how to work within the system to make our contributions, fuel our personal sense of mission. When women began to move out of those parameters, you will recall that we were met with resistance. We should do now what we did then: continue to respond to the free moving Spirit in our hearts, talents, and sensitivity to God’s claim on our gifts to respond to Him in soul liberty.

I am still a Baptist, because I am part of an autonomous church. The emphasis and the New Testament imagery of church always fixes on individuals and their metaphoric analogy as body and body parts to underscore the necessity of cooperative action in our individual reality. Under God, we are free gifted individuals voluntarily participating in the Body of Christ, his church, to do His will and honor him. Romans 12:4-5 (“For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office; So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another.”) and 1 Corinthians 10:17 sketch this portrait for us (“For we being many are one bread and one body; for we are all partakers of that one bread.”) But this community of service never supplants individual worth before God. Galatians 3:26 stresses that fact: (“For you are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.”) An individual moves out of captivity, through exile, into pilgrimage as an individual. A church is a group of freed, experience exiles, helping other strangers bring order to their pilgrimages.

A major problem exists with the current SBC regime’s dictating to churches and getting away with it. I am not shocked by the patriarchy in recent SBC resolutions. But I am surprised that Southern Baptist churches have gone along with the trickle down theology that becomes polarizing in the congregational context. Some of our shameful present comes from religious people’s basic insecurity with women, because they are insecure about their own identity and cast that doubt in religious robes. It has always been that way. My generation was taught Roger Williams was the great pioneer in soul liberty-the first Baptist-founder of Rhode Island, the historians tell us. And he was, but he was taught by a woman, Anne Hutchinson, who challenged the group control of the early puritan ministers over individual Biblical interpretations. So Mistress Hutchinson held weekly Bible studies in her home and re-taught the Bible lessons from the Sunday sermons. Roger Williams was a member of her Monday School Class. I did not learn that in a church or seminary context. I had to go to one of those secular humanist institutions and get a degree in Early American literature to get the skinny on Mistress Anne. Her story parallels the demonizing of Woman’s Missionary Union promoted by, of all groups, the Foreign Mission Board, now the International Mission Board. Her movement, the Anti-nomian Crisis, meaning against authority, or freedom with authority is WMU’s history. They give us credit for being witches, but not for being principal actors and causative agents in the creation of church history. My pilgrimage formation helps me synthesize the human and the divine and identifies me.

I am Baptist because of my captivity, my exodus, and my pilgrimage. My captivity status helps me understand being human and defines me; my exodus experience helps me recognize the divine and shapes me; and my pilgrimage formation helps me synthesize the human and the divine and identifies me. Being Baptist grants me those interpretative strategies because of basic Baptist adherence to soul liberty and soul competency in the captivity; individual freedom in Bible study and prayer in the exodus, and priesthood of the believer and church autonomy in the pilgrimage. Because we connect with each other most thoroughly through our stories, I have told you mine, proclaiming as I do I am still a Baptist woman.

 

 

 

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