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The Baptist light: free and fragile: in March 1993 the "Storm of the Century" inundated the Deep South. In a region where a dozen or so snowflakes in mid-air can lead to massive school closings, an inch has been known to bring all movement to a grinding halt.

In the space of a few nighttime hours that March, a snowstorm unlike any other in recent memory dumped over a foot of snow in some I portions of the Deep South, paralyzing north Georgia, north Alabama, and much of Tennessee and the Carolinas.

As one of many unfortunate travelers caught on the road away from home in the aftermath of the storm, I was stranded. With me was a vanload of college students; we were returning from a spring break mission trip. My best efforts to get us home that day came up short, and at nightfall we found ourselves stuck in the unbroken snow in the middle of a country road on a lonely hillside in northern Alabama.

As the frigid evening settled in, we left the van to search for shelter in one of the nearby farm houses I had spotted a short way down the road. By now it was completely dark, and there was no electricity. The houses were set back from the road; merely catching sight of one would be difficult. Yet we trudged along, swishing through the snow, peering intently into the darkness, and finally spotting the tiniest of lights far back from the road. Breaking through the snow drifts, we located the house ... and discovered that we had been led to warmth and safety by a single candle flame shining through a very small opening between curtains in a window.

I have used this true story on a number of occasions to illustrate how one small light can cut through vast darkness to bring hope to those in bondage and meaning to those living in despair. Unfortunately, Christians have not always done the greatest job, through the course of history, of holding up the light of the love of Christ as the gospel commands (Matthew 15:16). Baptist history, in particular, is filled with both shining moments and dark times. For example, although Baptists for centuries firmly held forth the light of full religious liberty and separation of church and state for the world to see, today many Baptists would snuff out that light in return for government favoritism. In a similar fashion, although Baptists have long held forth the light of the priesthood of all believers, some Baptists today would extinguish that light in favor of the authoritarian pastor model.

In other instances, the Baptist light arrived late on the scene but today burns brighter than ever. For example, although the earliest Baptists did not shine forth the light of missions, in the nineteenth century, many embraced missions wholeheartedly. Today, more and more local Baptist churches are involved in hands-on mission projects to a greater extent than ever before. In similar fashion, far too many white Baptists in America of previous generations perpetuated racial injustices. "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that," Martin Luther King, Jr., declared. His prophetic words jarred some white Baptists into action in the 1960s, and in the ensuing decades, most Baptists stepped into the light on this issue.

Sadly, some Baptists have never fully been allowed to let their lights shine. Baptist women, frequently outnumbering men within the Baptist community, have often been forced to hide the light of their witness, if allowed a visible light in the first place. Although the light of Baptist women today shines brighter than ever, the flame yet flickers against strong winds of opposition from within Baptist ranks.

In the end, and despite those who would snuff out the flame, the Baptist light above all is a light of freedom that shines in a world of bondage and despair. Some Baptists today seem to prefer bondage to freedom. Others want freedom only for themselves. Yet, the genius of the time-tested Baptist flame is that it burns brightly at the darkest of times, beckoning to one and all Mike: "Come, through Christ be free of your bondage and despair, free to be the person you were created to be."

Bruce Gourley

Associate Director

The Center for Baptist Studies

Mercer University, Macon, Georgia
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Author:Gourley, Bruce
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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