At ABCUSA’s Biennial there was an interesting setup called a “prayer spiral.” Similar to a labyrinth, the spiral was made up of paper bags, each with a name of someone meaningful to a specific pilgrim’s spiritual journey. This was converted into a luminary via a battery-powered votive. Upon reaching the center pilgrims were encouraged to write their own name(s) on a bag and insert a votive. This bag was then carried out and added to the ever-growing spiral. Carrying my own luminary back through the spiral filled me with awe. When I knelt, prayed, and left my own luminary in the spiral it reminded me again of how I’m surrounded by Hebrew’s “great cloud of witnesses” — both living and dead.
At the center of the spiral was a cross, covered in chicken-wire. This sounds odd, but also in that center space were tags like the one displayed above. On these prayer requests were written, and then tied to the cross — surrounding the symbol of sin and death’s defeat in our prayers. When this cross was brought into worship Sunday morning it was filled with the prayers of the saints. A striking image which led me to ponder my own prayer for ABCUSA’s future.
See, I took a tag home with me as a reminder to ponder how I should pray for this awkward family known as ABCUSA. When explored on paper, there is no way our denomination should ever work. We’re comprised of independent churches who interact with one another on a volunteer-basis only. These voluntary associations are formed into regions which, again, are voluntary in nature. These regions are connected to the national denomination through three major separate corporations 1. While these voluntary associations are bound together by covenants, the American ethos, “don’t tell me what to do!” often trumps these commitments 2.
As loose and ill-forming this structure sounds it has worked, and some wonderful work continues to be done in the name of Jesus by the ABCUSA family. For it to thrive, however, we suffer under a bit of a handicap. Because our connections are all voluntary, we have to ride the continuous cusp of spiritual entrepreneurship to appear we are living life on the “cutting edge.” But, because we are an odd mix of independent and family, this requirement leads to broad conflicts when disagreements arise. This is especially true now, when the ideological divides which now permeate American culture have superseded the theological distinctives of the Christian faith, and the Baptist tradition in-particular. The potent mix of independence, American ideological tribalism, and loose connections breeds the sickness of mis-trust and cynicism — an ailment with which I myself struggle.
So, as I ponder my family’s future, how am I to pray? I am reminded of a turn of phrase which formed from some of my reflections during a Biennial “learning session.” One participant took two separate statements I made and conflated them into a single thought, contemplative moderate. I thought it was a brilliant synthesis, and embrace it to the core of my being. That is what I am, a person of moderate temperament, willing to both embrace the strengths and challenge the weaknesses across the theological spectrum 3, but who also feels the griefs and struggles from across that same spectrum. When it comes down to it, a contemplative moderate loves taking “group selfies,” but instead of a camera they encourage everyone to gather in front of a mirror — there we can celebrate but also say, “Why didn’t anyone tell me my eyebrows were so out of control 4?”
This is what I pray for the future of the ABCUSA family. I pray for the contemplative moderates to emerge from the corners into which we’ve often felt shoved, and help reveal who we are with those splendid group “mirror selfies.” It’s in that work we’ll all become more free to explore and champion the vast creative potential in the family — even if many people wouldn’t do it like I want.