General CBF

Holy Remembering

By Jonathan Balmer

Moses said to the people, “Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, because the Lord brought you out from there by strength of hand; no leavened bread shall be eaten.  – Exodus 13:3

In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” – 1 Corinthians 11:15

Lately, I’ve been thinking about History. How it can so often go ignored, and how the Bible so frequently instructs Israel and the Church to “remember”. In the Bible, often, the Exodus or Christ’s cross are treated not as mere past historical events, but as present realities vital for our faith and life.

You see, God has a pattern of intervening and delivering in History. Our salvation is both “once and for all” and God’s mercies are “new every morning,” all at the same time.

All of us have our histories to contend with, not least those of us who live in the American South. As James Baldwin is right when he wrote, “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.[1]

It is 2019, and by some estimations it is 400 years since the first Africans were brought as slaves unto land which now makes up the continental United States.[2] CBF sessions, which took place before General Assembly this year, focused on that terrible history of white supremacy which failingly tries to justify the oppression of Black Americans.

And recognizing that history, and the white church’s complicity in white supremacy, is not an optional task. As Historian Jemar Tisby wrote, “Jumping ahead to the victories means skipping the hard but necessary work of examining what went wrong with race and the church.”[3]

As a white Baptist, I have much to learn.

History humbles. It instructs. To riff off Flannery O’Connor, its “ghosts” are fierce and instructive.[4]

But I also see signs of joy, and hope, and perseverance that only the hope of Christ’s cross, the love of the Father, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit can bring.

On March 31st, Second Missionary Baptist Church and my church, 7th & James Baptist Church, gathered together for worship. It is a relationship dating back to the 1970s.

Every year, the churches rotate location, and the pastor preaching changes. The two congregations, one historically white and one historically black, both with histories of being churches located very close to Baylor University, worship together.

My pastor, Erin Conaway, preached this year on the Prodigal Son, inviting us to see this story as our own. Where were we creating barriers to God’s grace? How were we wayward children tarrying before our long-awaited and warm welcome? Jesus, after all, invites us home.

Before the sermon, we exchanged greetings for a long time. In the service, we lined the aisle to the altar. We held hands, and we prayed that we may come to know God’s salvation—and if we knew it that we would remember it and come to know it again.

“Holy remembering,” one might call it. It is a recognition that the past is not really the past, and God not only has worked in the past, but God is able today. Holy remembering is not sentimental. But it is hopeful. It sees the sin in us, and in the world, but has faith-filled hope that God is greater than it all.

This Summer, in Birmingham for CBF Assembly, I remembered again. One of the most moving examples of God’s grace breaking into History happened in that city. Andrew Young’s describes what happened Easter Sunday, 1964, on the march from New Pilgrim Baptist Church to the City Jail where Martin Luther King, Jr. was imprisoned:

“The marchers set out in a festive mood. Suddenly they saw police, fire engines, and firemen with hoses in front of them, blocking their path. ‘Bull’ Connor bellowed, ‘Turn this group around!’ Five thousand people stopped and waited for instruction from their leaders.”

One marcher re-called, “‘Wyatt Walker and I were leading the march. I can’t say we knew what to do. I know I didn’t want to turn the arch around. . . . I asked the people to get down on their knees and offer a prayer. . . . Suddenly Rev. Charles Billups, one of the most faithful and fearless leaders of the old Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, jumped up and hollered, ‘The Lord is with this movement! Off your knees! We’re going on!” . . . Stunned at first, Bull Connor yelled, ‘Stop ‘em, stop ‘em!” But none of the police moved a muscle. . . . Even the police dogs that had been growling and straining at their leashes. . . were now perfectly calm. . . . I saw one fireman, tears in his eyes, just let the hose drop at his feet. Our people marched right between the red fire trucks, singing, ‘I want Jesus to walk with me.’

. . . [Bull Connor’s] policemen had refused to arrest us, his fireman had refused to hose us, and his dogs had refused to bite us. It was quite a moment to witness. I’ll never forget one old woman who became ecstatic when she marched through the barricades. As she passed through, she shouted, ‘Great God Almighty done parted the Red Sea one mo’ time!”[5]

We cannot avoid the hard, good, work of remembering.

We cannot forget our God is the God who delivers.

Jonathan Balmer is a seminarian at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary. He serves as Youth minister at 7th and James Baptist Church in Waco, Texas. Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, he attended undergrad at Georgetown College (KY), and taught high school English in Kentucky, and middle-school ESL in South Korea before attending seminary. He also lives at the Good Neighbor Settlement House in Waco and works for Truett’s Online Certificate of Ministry program.

 

[1]  This comes from James Baldwin’s essay “Unnameable Objects, Unspeakable Crimes” (1966).

[2] “Amid 1619 Anniversary, Virginia Grapples with History of Slavery in America.” Public Radio International, www.pri.org/stories/2019-01-17/amid-1619-anniversary-virginia-grapples-history-slavery-america.

[3]Tisby, Jemar. The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Churchs Complicity in Racism. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019), 10-11

[4] O’Connor on history as inspiring fiction can be seen in her essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction” (1960).

[5] Andrew Young,  An Easy Burden, The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 223.

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