Whew! That was close! I almost became a Baptist the other day. Not just any Baptist, but a (gulp!) Southern Baptist.
Let me add here that there have been times when the Rev. Dr. Gil Watson, the World’s Greatest Preacher, has become so weary of trying to save my sorry soul that he would gladly trade me to the Baptists, Presbyterians or even the Islamic Center for the Advancement of Self Pity in return for two altos, a Sunday School teacher and an usher to be named later. Dr. Gil only has these thoughts when I insult some demographic group, which is once a week.
The Rev. Bryant Wright, the senior minister of the 7,600-member Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Cobb County and current president of the 16-million member Southern Baptist Convention, recently invited me to lunch and I eagerly accepted. I had never met the man, but I have heard his inspirational messages, “Right from the Heart,” on local radio and felt that for a Baptist, he made a lot of sense. (Just kidding, folks! Put down the poison pens!)
I had the feeling that the Rev. Wright had gotten a lot of angry mail from around the country about my comments concerning a Southern Baptist Convention study to take “Southern” from the organization’s name; my views on women preachers (I am all for them and have one already picked out to participate at my funeral); divorced Baptist preachers; the evils of yoga and the Rev. Albert Mohler, of the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Ky., who suffers from Joe Biden foot-in-the-mouth disease and says stuff that I couldn’t make up on my most creative day. I had that feeling because I had gotten a lot of the same mail.
I figured I would get a Bible-thumping lesson of righteous indignation and before I had finished my French fries, I would be condemned to hellfire, damnation and told I was going to Downtown Atlanta for eternity, which would be worse than going to Hell. Imagine my surprise and relief when I sat down with the Rev. Wright. The man is low-key, full of good-humor, lacking in self-importance, willing to accept someone else’s point of view even if it is at odds with his own (are you listening, Bible Thumpers?) and — oh, yeah — a devout Christian who does credit to the faith.
Despite running what amounts to a mid-sized corporation at home and being president of a denomination with a population larger than many states, he must have felt I was worth his time. He was totally relaxed, unhurried and made me feel very comfortable. He joked he had suggested to people that I was ecumenical and picked on everybody, except the University of Georgia and Methodists.
Alas, he was wrong. I have reason to believe the UGA administration has a dart board with my face on it. Also, there was a Methodist from Emory University who came to preach at our church and kept referring to God as “Heeshee.” I thought that was a Biblical term I had missed — maybe I hadn’t studied Deuteronomy enough — until I figured out he was referring to God as “he” and “she.” Perhaps God was amused by that but I wasn’t and said so in this space.
The Rev. Wright says the task force will report to the SBC executive committee in February about any recommendations on a name change. He wouldn’t tell me their decision but I assume they are going to replace “Southern” in their name and try not to look too regional when trying to establish new churches outside the Southeast.
As for divorce, he said Baptist churches are all independent and can do whatever they want on that issue. (I suggest they read I Corinthians 7:11.) We agreed to disagree on women preachers. The Rev. Wright believes strongly there is biblical support for men being the spiritual leaders in church. I don’t think God gives a rip about stuff like that. I believe God wants us to love each other and to remember that just going to church won’t get you to heaven any more than going to a movie will get you the lead in the next Steven Spielberg epic.
It was a great lunch and I managed to get out of the restaurant still a Methodist but with a new friend in high Baptist circles. Who knows? Maybe the Rev. Bryant Wright will join Dr. Gil Watson in praying for my sorry soul. I can use all the help I can get.