I even went so far as to become a Southern Baptist for a while, until I realized that they didn’t hold ’em under long enough. — Kinky Friedman
Anyone remember The Muppet Show back in the late seventies, early eighties, and the segment Pigs In Space? For this to be funny, you need to remember or picture the announcer saying, “Pigs (pause, pause, pause) In (pause, pause, pause) Space – with the echo effect turned on. Kermit, Miss Piggy, and the rest of the cast wore some great, shiny uniforms as they whizzed through space. Sorry, my mind attacks me on occasion and one thing leads to another, then another . . . and finally gets to something that may seem completely unrelated – to you. Makes perfect sense, however, to me. While I realize it may seem like a huge leap, thinking about Baptists in general made me think of the Muppets. It’s probably part of the healing process. Of course, it could also just mean I’ve finally completely lost my mind.
So, who knew Baptists could live in captivity for so long? No, really. I know Baptists who have been in church since before they were born! In fact, I have to count myself in that group. My mother was an avid, regular-as-clockwork churchgoer, so that meant my church attendance would have started back in the spring of 1952. I’m not sure I was singing the hymns yet, but I assure you I was there – a lot.
It’s this side of birth, however, where some of my problems with Baptists came in. It took a little while, but they came.
My father used to say, “Ben, once a Baptist, always a Baptist.” By the time he first said that to me, I thought it was a horrible thing to say to anyone, especially one who was raised Baptist and had been left hurt and disillusioned. And that wasn’t the worst of it – he said it many times over the years. What did that say about free will? Was he trying to say there’s no breaking free of the Baptist grip once they’ve gotten their hooks in you? I do believe, in fact, that’s exactly what he was saying. I never quite figured out whether he considered that a positive thing or a negative.
I don’t remember precisely now, but I’m thinking that, after my parents split, Dad went from being Baptist to perhaps becoming Presbyterian, on to becoming Episcopalian. At the very least, my father and step-mother were married by a friend who was a Presbyterian minister. My step-mother was originally Methodist and I guess they decided the Episcopalians were an acceptable compromise between the two. Episcopalians drink in church, you know, and I remember showing up drunk one Christmas Eve for a midnight service. I don’t remember, but my father probably unsuspectingly invited me to that midnight service. And, hey, they were serving wine! I tried not to breathe on anyone until after communion. I don’t believe I ever returned to church there.
My father and step-mother finally ended up back in the Baptist church. And my father, predictably, said, “Ben, once a Baptist, always a Baptist.” I’m not sure what that said about Methodists, but it still sounded very much like a death sentence to me.
For many years, I made it a goal to steer clear of Baptists as often as was possible. Frankly, it was my goal to avoid churches of any flavor, but I avoided Baptists in particular. Sure, I might show up at Easter or Christmas or Mother’s Day to sit with my mother in church, but it was always under protest. It always felt very much like visiting the inmates at the asylum.
I don’t believe God said there’s only one way to do this and that the Christians are the only ones who have it right. Lots of Baptists I knew, however, seemed to think they held the patent on the loving God, going to heaven thing. Problem is, the Church of Christ folks felt pretty much the same way. The Presbyterians let you smoke in Sunday School when I was a teenager, so what could they know? I don’t think I knew any Lutherans, but they were probably pretty certain they also had the corner on God. The Catholics, I figure, just shook their heads in dismay. The disputes have lasted a long, long time, effectively ruling out a licensing agreement among the litigants. I think we all lose out in this scenario.
My main concern, however, was the Baptists. So, I made it my mission for many years to perform a sort of a trap-and-release program. You know how endangered animals are trapped, tagged for tracking, then released back into the wild? Something like that, only I was trying to release those deluded, frightened, oil-soaked Baptists back into a world where they were safe from, well, Baptists. It simply seemed like the humane thing to do.
There was a pretty major hitch in my plan, however. In order to do the catch-and-release thing, I was going to have to get close enough to catch the unsuspecting Baptist. And since I was avoiding them like the plague, my success rate was, admittedly, pretty slim. Undeterred, I drank at them for many years. That’d show ’em!
Some folks think my humor is a little, uh, you know, off the wall. I’m not trying to say they’re wrong, mind you, but my mother seemed to sort of like my humor. She’s not the only one, but she was probably the first. My understanding is that I was quite the little entertainer from a very early age. To say I can be a little irreverent would be something of an understatement. I think my mother understood, though, that most of my humor wasn’t mean-spirited. Well, at least the humor I used around her. It is my firm belief that unless we’re able to laugh at ourselves, we’ve already lost the battle to be truly useful in the world. It means we’ve come to take ourselves too seriously and there’s something distinctly unattractive about that. Now, I’m not saying my mother didn’t do a lot of eye-rolling at much of what I said, but she recognized long before I did that my humor came from a good place. Much of the time I didn’t intend it to be that way, but I was apparently unable to help myself.
Okay, back to those Baptists. As you know (if you’ve been reading along), I dropped in on a church – innocently enough – around three years ago. Surprise the step-mother, endure the service, get the heck out of Dodge. That was the plan. Mind you, I’d known that particular church was there for years. In fact, I voted there once. Showing up on a Sunday in any church, however, was simply not in the plan. I’d always counted on my mother to get me safely out the door back to freedom any time I went to a service with her. But in this instance, I was working without a net. That, I think, may have been my first mistake.
Ever have that sensation while sleeping of being in free fall? You know, the feeling in your stomach as you continue to fall, knowing you can’t stop it? It was sort of like that. There was a time in my childhood when I wanted to be a high-wire performer. I wanted to try walking across the top of the swing set as practice, but by the time I climbed up the side, it seemed an awfully long way down and I thought better of it. Yeah, like that. I walked down the center aisle that morning with a feeling much like the wobble you see when the high-wire performer is in trouble, trying to regain balance. As soon as I’d walked into the church, I’d felt like it was time to strike the tents and head on to the next town.
And yet, the inmates in this asylum seemed pretty docile. Still, I felt a little like the gates had been opened to allow them out to roam for a while – get a little exercise. I tried my best not to make any sudden, threatening moves. I was, after all, surrounded.
I might have been okay but, near the end, I realized they were going to have a supper of some kind. Well, I simply couldn’t sit still for that. It really was time to try my escape. I stepped back into the aisle and walked slowly through a stream of moving Baptists. I tried not to make eye contact – ready to drop, curl into a ball and play dead if necessary.
Long story short, I made it out alive. I’d faced the firing squad and they’d missed! Triumphantly, I drove away – never again to return.
And that could have been the end of that. But there was something, I suppose, about the gentle purring of the hymns that tugged at my insides. Horrified, I realized I might actually want to admit that my roots came from these people. There’d been a missing piece of my heart for so many years I’d almost forgotten that I knew what belonged there.
Cautiously, I returned the following week. I knew at that point that I’d surely lost my mind. Or, perhaps, I’d found it. The jury may still be out on that one.
I’ve come to learn some things in the last few years about Baptists. While these same things may also apply to Catholics, Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists, Jews, Presbyterians, Muslims, Buddhists, et al., my main concern here is with Baptists. They seem the most endangered – or perhaps it’s just that some of them seem to think they are. Here are a few of the things I’ve learned. You may find them helpful if you find yourself needing to deal with a Baptist.
Care and Feeding of Baptists
- Baptists love to eat. If you’re wanting to ensure a crowd, put the word “potluck” somewhere in the announcement.
- Most Baptists are actually pretty good people – once you get to know them. While you may want to keep an eye on your wallet in some Baptist churches, many are trying their best to share with their neighbors.
- Volunteer for nothing. If you stay around long enough, you’ll be volunteered anyway, so why waste the energy to raise your hand? If you’d rather not be volunteered, change churches frequently. Plead newness at each new church. It works for a while. It’s a bit of a nuisance to move frequently but, hey, there’s most likely another Baptist church about a block away.
- When approached before the service by a Baptist with a hand stuck out, don’t assume right off the bat that they’re after something. They probably are, but it’s just never a good thing to make assumptions.
- Don’t simply assume that the person across the aisle from you who looks sort of snooty is really stuck-up. They may simply be as frightened about being there as you. [See above about assumptions.]
- When uncertain about anything, smile and nod. This throws many of them just long enough for you to get away.
- Say “amen” a lot during worship. This makes you seem spiritual and affirms to others that you’re still awake.
- Baptists tend to pray a lot. Humor them – God does.
While I realize this isn’t a comprehensive list, it’s enough to get you started. Keep alert and try to make note of anything you don’t understand. Don’t, for God’s sake, ask any questions, though – someone may decide to explain it to you. If you find yourself wanting to show up at a service in order to see for yourself, be sure to wear clean underwear. I’m not sure why, but you may be asked about it.
Above all, try to remember that Baptists are a lot like children – children of God, I mean. Many are trying as hard as they can and are still just treading water. And, that’s okay. None of us get it right all the time. A little patience goes a long way during an encounter with a Baptist. Speak distinctly and remember the no-sudden-moves thing. If you still feel like you’ve been snarled at after a service with the Baptists, don’t fret. As I said, there’s likely another Baptist church about a block away. Try another and another until you find a place where the only time the Baptists show their teeth is when they smile and say, “welcome home.”
Why not hug a Baptist or two today. They probably really, really need it. You may also find you need it, too.