There’s this great section in Jean Paul Sartre’s autobiography where he reflects on a childhood experience that ended with a burn on his grandmother’s bathroom carpet, a torrent of profanity, and a look in the mirror. It was that moment, Sartre writes, that he left God behind:
“You ask me if I ever think of God? I think of him like an old beau thinks about a belle from his childhood. You always wonder what might have been.”
To some degree, that’s what I felt like today walking around the Baltimore Convention Center as a few thousand Southern Baptists milled among various tents and tabernacles in the Exhibit Hall, in and out of the Preacherpalooza that is now a shadow of the former glory once known as the Southern Baptist Pastor’s Conference.
I was nostalgic, but not wistful. Thoroughly grateful for the years that have passed, and equally grateful that their number is set. I was happy to see old friends, and interested to make new ones.
I found some things funny, some things peculiar, some things pleasant, and some things sad.
The music is just awful, and when you hear it thumping and droning fresh for the first time in years, you realize why men like Jerry Vines and Fred Wolfe prefer to kick up their heels in the Hilton hotel lobby and visit instead of enduring the awful unappealing din of contemporary Christian worship songs. At some point, I swear the praise team was backmasking an old Carmen song.
But what I find funny is this. The central element in Southern Baptist worship is the proclaimed word. It is, after all, supposed to be a Preacher’s conference. But during the preaching, there is constant motion, constant noise. People are walking around, talking with each other, coming and going.
But when somebody says, “Let’s pray,” the motion comes to a complete stop. It’s like the only time you can’t walk or talk is when somebody on stage is praying.
Reading Scripture? What the heck, go ahead and talk on your cell phone.
Somebody’s preaching? Sure, talk to your buddy about last night’s dinner.
But somebody prays? Full stop.
What I find funny is that Southern Baptists got all hung up a few years ago about prayer walking. But now, it’s like ministerial multitasking no longer exists during intercessions of one form or another. If I was running the Pastor’s Conference, I’d have some fun with that, like having the convention center crew remove a few seats every time somebody prays so the end result would be like musical chairs.
Except only like 1/4th of the chairs are being used anyway.
I also thought it would have been funny to shell out a few hundred bucks and get some local students from the Baltimore School for the Arts to dress up as Pashtun tribesmen, carry their prayer rugs right into the Exhibit Hall, and conduct their ritual salat at the Southwestern Seminary booth.
Why was there a giant Transformer?
And who let Tom Ascol and his Founders cousins have a booth this year?
And where can a guy get his hands on a student newsletter from Cedarville University?
O.S. Hawkins is a class act. Always has been.
Frank Page handles awkward moments with grace. Like when his Executive Board Chairman announces to a packed room that the reason the meeting hasn’t started is because the ExComm President is late. Yeah, that time.
And the lonely little lady in the prayer room by herself who is quietly sitting there with a stack of prayer cards in her hand, going through them one by one.
Or the fact that more and more people are wearing jeans, without ties, and that pointy pocket squares are increasingly absent.
Or that Danny Akin’s toothy grin is authentic.
Or that a handful of people still remember that time you helped Wiley Drake get elected 2nd Vice President. And they still laugh about his nomination speech.
At some point in the afternoon, my iPhone battery died. In desperate need of a charger, I went to the Hilton concierge to see if they might have one. Standing there in front of me was a man who could look like hundreds of other men at the Southern Baptist Convention.
He had on a Hawaiian shirt. He was wearing ill-fitted, pleated chinos with dress shoes. He had apparently never gotten the memo about mustaches.
So there he was, asking the nice girl at the concierge for restaurant recommendations. He wanted a nice restaurant to take his wife to for their anniversary — at church expense, no doubt.
I read his name badge carefully. I remember his face.
He was quite demanding, though I’ve grown used to that at Conventions. Lots of pastors have it rough, and when they get to the one vacation they have every year they like to splurge, live like the other half, bark orders at waitresses and “the help.” It helps them feel powerful. Truth be told, I’ve acted like that more times than I care to admit.
The whole thing was painstaking. He groomed over the menus she printed. He looked over her shoulder as she typed and at times, he was condescending. Finally, at long last, she made his reservation and he walked away.
No tip. None.
And it turns out he wasn’t even staying at the Hilton, but down the street at another hotel.
When he’d walked away, she rolled her eyes at me and said, “I’m really sorry about that.”
But I was the one who was sorry. And he probably will be if he ever reads this. Or at least he should be.
The only other thing that seemed sad to me was the talk about the SBC Presidential election tomorrow. Nobody really cares who the president is anymore, and most people almost pity the guy who gets elected. I suspect Ronnie Floyd will win tomorrow, perhaps on a second ballot.
I worked hard to keep that from happening 8 years ago this month. At the time, it seemed like the SBC Presidency was something worth fighting over. But a good friend of mine put it like this today:
“It’s like watching two kids fight over a toy truck. At that moment, they both think getting that little truck is the most important thing in the world. But the adults in the room know better. There’s a whole world out there. Why would you want that one little plastic truck so badly?”
There was a time I cared about who got the little plastic truck. That I spent so much energy making sure one little boy got it, and not the other, also seems sad.
6 thoughts on “Baltimore . . . and then some.”
It is not very difficult to become disappointed with people like the man you mentioned —-I even disappoint myself quite regularly. I still remember the Easter sermonette I preached at your church in Fayetville, NC back in the day along with several others.who also preached I hope that you are doing well these days, and using your influence in the public sector to point people to the Savior.—–..Kevin Apperson
Hard to believe eight years have passed since the annual meeting in NC. Sounds like nothing has changed for the better. I still feel a little bile rise in my throat when I think of it, though remembering Wiley Drake’s nomination makes me smile.
The image of the solitary woman, quietly praying, gives one hope…
On the pastor in making his reservations…Lord help us with bi-polar preachers who believe they can live one way at church and another way when they are in their other “comfort zone”. If he treats a woman like this I bet his wedding anniversary was more of a peace treaty.
Hey, Ben! Glad to see you back even though it may be only temporary. Your posts back in the day helped me while attending SWBTS. It was good to know I wasn’t crazy (well…at least not when it came to that stuff).
I’m with a SBC church but I don’t attend the conventions. The analogy of the two kids fighting over the truck is accurate. I just don’t care. I have more important things to do in my community than to leave and try to prove to people who don’t know me or care about me that I’m “truly Baptist” and “truly conservative”.
Church at the local level is great. The SBC politics are somewhere between comical and pathetic.
I heard you’re presently serving in the national political realm. Did your experience in SBC prepare you “for a time such as this”?
Your mind and your pen seem sharp as ever Ben. There is a sense of melancholy that comes over me when I read your words. You are one of the brightest minds to ever come through the SBC machine. I wanted to let you know that one of our old friends, Clark Ford, is now a State Trooper with the SC Highway Patrol. I am sure he would love to hear from you.
Ah, Greensboro. Good times…