Divine Mystery, Resilience
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Baptists Love Freely

In 1638 twenty three Baptist exiles from the colony of Massachusetts had signed the Portsmouth Compact, and baptized each other in Founder’s Brook to create America’s first Baptist church, soon to be located in Providence, RI. On my second birthday, October 6, 1957, my father Rev. Edward Sherblom at the age of 36 became the founding pastor of Founder’s Memorial Baptist Church in Portsmouth RI with three dozen members in this newly covenanted freely loving Baptist congregation. That Sunday’s Providence Journal includes a wonderful picture of Ed holding me, his two year old son James Peter, named after James the first head of the church in Jerusalem and Peter the first head of the church in Rome, explaining the Portsmouth Compact to me. Growing up in a minister’s family, as a preacher’s kid, often has an incredible impact on a child, usually positive.
In the Baptist tradition a minister is expected to look for signs of the Holy Spirit in at least one child in every generation and groom that child for the Baptist ministry. Years later I discovered my father saw the gifts of ministry in me in my earliest years. He carefully cultivated my spirit in order that I could be called by God when the time was right. Like many small children I sometimes confused my father with my father who art in heaven causing considerable confusion about the nature of both. Both would end up having enormous impacts on how my story unfolds. I resisted the strictness of my upbringing, what it meant to be a good Christian, and often did things that were beyond the pale in order to establish my own independence as a human being. Preacher’s kids often rebel, often in surprisingly dysfunctional ways, and yet often have more intimate relationships with the divine mystery. All of which became part of my inheritance. When I think about belonging to a religious community, really belonging, and the incredible transformative difference it can make in one’s life, it is this emergent Baptist church that holds my heart. A community entirely dependent upon the will of God.
Three years after beginning to meet in a rented hall the congregation borrowed $14,000, all they could manage to borrow, to purchase a small farm on a Portsmouth hill overlooking the Sakonnet River. Converting the barn through $3000 good will offerings into a sanctuary. Using the farmhouse as an educational wing. Money was always tight. The congregation did nearly all the renovations by hand. Our family lived in poverty for the ten years that Ed served as the pastor of this struggling working class Baptist church. Yet it seemed with God anything was possible. My family celebrated my ninth birthday by attending the Billy Graham Crusade in Boston. Billy Graham spoke of the power of God’s love, and the community of saints, and he was talking about us. At ten years old I helped dig the foundation for and then helped construct our new fellowship hall. Every summer I worked in the Baptist Youth Summer Camp completing our church buildings.
I studied my bible, reading it cover to cover several times, and memorizing key passages. It was clear that love of God was all. King David wildly misbehaved, getting drunk, having sex outside marriage, killing people, and yet God continued to love and cherish him. Job behaved perfectly, following all God’s rules, and yet God and the devil took away all that Job had. The divine mystery obviously had little to do with following rules. At the age of 13 I was awarded my own Bible after being baptized in Founder’s Brook. I routinely won any church Bible contests and in high school would sometimes preach from the pulpit on Youth Sundays. I was in high school before Ed, and then Rae, returned to school to earn MA’s in education so they could teach in the Tiverton public schools, returning our family to a middle class existence. So unlike some of my older or younger siblings my childhood was growing up Baptist working class poor.
Yet I always felt religiously different. I always felt beloved. I knew deep in my heart that I was a child of God. Even in my worst times to come I always felt more like a prodigal son than I did a sinner. I could always count on God’s forgiveness. I might sin but never felt like a sinner. Especially as I came to experience the joys of drinking, dancing, profane music, lying, gambling, and inappropriate sex. None of which in my experience of the Holy Spirit felt like it alienated me from the love of God. Doing bad things is wrong, but sometimes can also be expressions of love, and hence potentially life giving in a suitable context. Jesus loves me this I know. God’s devotion is all. The Bible told me so. Our Founders Memorial Baptist Church Covenant begins: “Having been influenced by the Holy Spirit, as we humbly trust, to turn from our sins and to receive Jesus as our Lord and Savior; and on profession of our faith in him, having been baptized into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we do covenant and agree together that we will walk with the help of God, in all the commandments of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Walking together with the help of God. It just made sense to me. Bad things do happen to good people, but with God’s help all is possible, and we should never let anyone tell us ever that we are not loved. God loves everyone. No exceptions.

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