"Training Union will be a little different tonight. I'm going to talk about mixed dating."
This is about the only thing I remember our Minister of Youth saying. Tommy said it after the bell rang to signal the end of Sunday school. None of us wanted to admit that we did not know what mixed dating is so we hurried off to big church. We were seated in our pew in the back before my friend Meatball had the courage to ask, "What the heck is mixed dating?"
"I think it's double dating."
"No, it's dating someone two years younger than you."
"If he's talking about dating black people, my dad is not going to be happy." (Mississippi, 1974)
That night we felt more anticipation than usual as Tommy began to speak: "I want to tell you about an error in judgment I made because I don't want you to make the same mistake. I saw her the first day of senior English. She was wearing a blue shirt with white criss-crossed strings down the side. I fell in love, but I didn't ask Donna out on a date until October. We went to see The Jungle Book, but I wasn't paying attention to the message-the jungle boy needed to be with his own kind. Like Mowgli, Donna and I didn't talk about the elephant in the room. For six months we did everything together, except for the most important thing. We didn't go to the same church. You see, Donna was a Methodist, so we ended up with broken hearts. Don't date someone you can't marry. Don't get on the train if you can't go to Baltimore."
I thought about Donna and Tommy's ill-fated love when I read about the "One in Christ" Prayer Focus. Southern Baptist leaders are urging their churches to unite through prayer between June 15 (Father's Day suggests "One Father") and June 21. The hope is "to lead Southern Baptists from diverse backgrounds to unite under the lordship of Jesus" and "remind Southern Baptists to focus on what unites them-Jesus" (SBC Life, Pre-convention Special Issue, 2014, 8).
Focusing on Jesus is a fine idea, but pushing for unity among Southern Baptists on the far right and Southern Baptists on the far-flung right is setting the bar too low. Donna shouldn't be off limits any more.
Any Baptist arguing for unity has the credibility of Donald Sterling speaking on equality. For most of our four hundred years, Baptist contributions to the ecumenical movement would fit in a thimble and still rattle around like a bb in a boxcar. Baptists can't get along with each other, much less other Christians.
The church has divided and subdivided. If you can still find a copy of the Yellow Pages, let your fingers stroll through the church section. Greater Atlanta claims eighty-five denominations including Full Gospel (not a compliment to the rest of us) and United Church of Christ (as if there is such a thing).
John Calvin thundered, "There cannot be two or three churches unless Christ is torn asunder" and then started his own denomination. The "one body" has been dismembered with arms and legs strewn all around.
We hope God smiles over our differences, because the dark side of our divisions is that we have learned to measure other groups by how close they are to our group. We find it easy to define orthodoxy as our doxy and heresy as everyone else's ideas. We get used to our songs, traditions, and provincialism. We tend to think of ourselves as a team competing against other teams. We buy into the American idea that competition is good for everyone-"free enterprise religion."
Father Joseph and I were competing over which of our two churches is more welcoming: "Joe, if I came to your church, you wouldn't let me take communion."
If we were playing chess, I would have said "check."
Father Joe countered: "If, after a lifetime as a Christian minister, I went to a Baptist church most of them would insist I be baptized again."
I should stop having mixed feelings when one of my seminary's graduates gets a job with the Methodists. We should recognize others' baptisms and ordinations. We should realize that our Baptist distinctives are not as distinct as we were taught. (Most Protestants claim the priesthood of the believers.)
We should be committed to important truths, but the boundaries, whatever boundaries there are, belong to God. Someone should have said that to Tommy and Donna. They would have loved Baltimore.