Who Really Holds the Keys?

Recently I had an opportunity to visit Rome, Italy, where I rendezvoused with our Sanctuary Choir and Orchestra on their International Choir Tour, an event that is planned every four years. This year our choir visited Munich, Venice, Florence, and Rome, singing in Mass at a variety of cathedrals, and sharing concerts in local churches and piazzas.

Other than one Anglican church and two Baptist churches, our choir primarily sang in Catholic settings. I was privileged to join our group as they sang during Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica and then later shared a full concert in The Artist’s Church, a local cathedral that customarily hosts a variety of musical guests.

One of our ladies commented on how much she enjoyed Mass and yet missed the kind of worship services we enjoy at home. “I know they are more formal, but I believe they are definitely worshipping God. What are the major differences between us and them?”

“It really comes down to who you believe holds the keys,” I responded. Although we share a common story about Christ, there really are a lot of differences between Baptists and Catholics, and perhaps at my age, I am more appreciative of our distinctness and theirs.

As a child growing up on the rural south, I didn’t know a Catholic until junior high school. In my rural Baptist heritage, folks were generally suspect of the Methodists, because they didn’t have church on Sunday night and they used an insufficient amount of water for baptism. But on more than one occasion I heard that Catholics were not really Christian since they had not “accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Savior.”

Through the years I have come to appreciate the faith perspectives of Catholic friends and colleagues, though we do not always fully agree. In each of the communities where I have served, I have developed friendships with the local priests who taught me a few of the basics about Catholic theology, even as they exemplified the presence of Christ.

When I became pastor at the First Baptist Church in Corbin, Kentucky, in the heart of Appalachia, in the mid-1990’s, the congregation hosted a reception on Sunday afternoon after my first worship service. I was moved to discover that, in addition to the beautiful altar flowers which had been provided by my previous church at First Baptist Church of Williams near Jacksonville, Alabama, a huge peace lily had been sent by Corbin’s Sacred Heart Catholic Church to welcome me to the area. Also, near the front of the receiving line at the reception I met Father Roger Arnsparger, priest at Sacred Heart, accompanied by two of the nuns from the St. Camillus Academy, the local Catholic School.

During our ensuing friendship and ecumenical service to the community, Father Arnsparger gave me a whole new appreciation for catechism, confirmation, genuflection, and iconography. However, as a Catholic priest and a Baptist minister, we each held a different perspective about the keys to the kingdom.

In Matthew 16:18, just after Simon Peter confesses, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God,” Jesus says to Peter rather emphatically, 18And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be] loosed in heaven.”

The way I responded to the question about our differences is a bit over simplistic. Catholics emphasize a process of confirmation and Baptists emphasize the need for conversion. Catholics say their prayers through intercessors while Baptists pray directly to God. But perhaps the most distinctive difference regards the stewardship of the keys to the kingdom. Catholic tradition contends that, according to Matthew 16:19, Jesus was conveying to Simon Peter specific and unique authority to “hold the keys to the kingdom” and to establish and oversee the church. Simon Peter became the first bishop of Rome and was later believed to have been the first pope, shepherding and governing the church, until being put to death by Nero.

Our Baptist ancestors have understood that Jesus gave to Simon Peter and all of his disciples a priestly commission, indicating that their ministries were the very keys to the kingdom that would open the door to invite others in. One of our foundational Baptist distinctives is that we contend for the priesthood of every believer, believing that we as individual believers have both priestly access and priestly responsibilities. Priestly access reminds us that we approach God directly to confess our sins and say our prayers. Priestly responsibility calls us to be priests to one another by encouraging each other, praying for one another, and participating in acts of service for the good of the community.

I love my priest friends and I enjoy the order and liturgy of Mass on occasion, but I am Baptist in heart and in conviction. Baptist is more than a denominational label you write on a church sign. It is a way of holding the keys to the kingdom. And the kingdom is not just a reference to the “sweet by and by” but in invitation to live life God’s way in the “real here and now.”

While I am enjoying a few days of visiting some of the largest and most beautiful basilicas and cathedrals in the world, I am reminded of the significance of Simon Peter’s bold faith and courageous ministry.

And yes, I believe that Jesus did give to Simon Peter the keys to the kingdom. But he also gave them to James and John. And Jesus also gave the keys to you and to me.

(Barry Howard serves as senior minister of the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)

Exploring the Vatican Museums

July 22, 2010

On Thursday morning, our group met at the entrance to the Musei Vaticani, the Vatican Museums, at 8:20 to begin an 8:30 tour. Imagine the irony of a group of Baptists from the southeastern United States meandering naively through the displays and exhibits chronicling the history of Catholicism. Contrary to that stereotype, I was pleasantly surprised at how eager, inquisitive, and knowledgeable our group turned out to be.

The galleries were filled with art, sculptures, and shrines from a variety of periods beginning with the time of Christ and continuing through the contemporary era. We spent a good three hours surveying the treasures, some of us following a printed guide and others listening via headsets to an audio tour guide.

Similar to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. the Musei Vatacani is a collection of museums where an avid student of history could spend days observing and investigating. Of the variety of exhibits, three areas were more significant to me than the others. First, the Gregorian Etruscan Museum contains relics from a period in Italy’s history that lasted roughly from 800 B.C. until just after 500 B.C. Etruci was in the general area where Tuscany is today, but the culture influenced all of Italy and especially the emergence of Rome. The Etruscan style of government seems to have begun as a theocracy, shifted to a monarchy, and by the 6th century transitioned to an oligarchal democracy, eventually giving rise to the Roman Republic.

Etruscans also were appreciative of art and music, and utilized several musical instruments, including a variety of pipes, percussion instruments, and stringed instruments including the lyre and kithara. It is also worth noting that the Etruscans were a monogamous in marriage and, unusual for their time, Etruscan wives were invited to socialize publicly alongside their husbands.

Second, the Pinacoteca is the gallery where many of the larger pieces of historical art are displayed. Two paintings captured my imagination. One is The Transfiguration by Renaissance artist Raphael. It is commonly believed that the painting was left unfinished by Raphael but was completed by his student, Guilio Romano in 1520 shortly after Raphael’s death. In the darkened room, the image of the transfigured Christ seemed to glow with spiritual energy as onlookers past and present stood with awe and astonishment.

After tearing myself away from this powerful presentation, I made my way to one of the final viewing rooms to see Adam and Eve in the Garden by Austrian painter Wenzel Peter. Centered around Adam and Eve enjoying the pleasures of the garden prior to the fall, over 200 animals from all over the world roam about freely, seemingly without predatory instincts, across a paradisiacal landscape.

The third monumental stop for me on the tour, and the most popular at the Museo Vaticani, was the Sistine Chapel. Known for its multiple frescoed paintings, I discovered the sequential artwork of the chapel to be an inspiring collage of notable scenes from the Bible. Michelangelo painted 12,000 square feet of the ceiling panels. The ceiling panels in the dome include depictions of Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, the Great Flood, and The Last Judgment. In addition to Michelangelo’s work, the Chapel also includes paintings by Bemini, Raphael, and Botticeli.

At the conclusion of our tour, several in our group commented that we had sensory overload. More than one said, “I wish I had paid more attention in my World History class.”

A local member of the parish who was volunteering as a guide was overheard in English to say, “The museum is not about history. The Vatican tells a story with many parts and that story is still alive today.” Even those of us who practice our Christian faith with Baptist convictions came away appreciating the story and heritage we share with the Catholic side of our spiritual family.

Baptists Fill St. Peter’s Basilica with Song

July 22, 2010

The group gathering in St. Peter’s Square dressed in formal attire on this hot Thursday afternoon in July was attracting a lot of attention from locals and from tourists. The men in the group were decked out in black tuxedoes and the women were wearing black skirts, black tops, and gray jackets as they were assembling in a typical Baptist choir formation, four rows deep, for a photo in front of the papale basilica in which they were about to sing.

The Sanctuary Choir and Orchestra from the First Baptist Church of Pensacola was preparing to enter St. Peter’s Basilica, known in this part of the world as the Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano, to sing during 5:00 o’clock Mass. After singing in Munich, Venice, Florence, and Rome during a two week International Music Tour, on this final night of concerts, the choir was privileged to sing at the most famous church in the world. Our high school choir has sung at St. Peter’s a couple of times and this was the second opportunity for our adult choir, having sung here previously in 2002. As their pastor, I was honored to be present for this occasion.

There were ninety six persons in our group posing for the photo, including 66 singers, 16 orchestra members, and 14 missioners. We quickly learned that one reason we were getting such attention was because of the size of our group. While St. Peter’s frequently host guest groups, most of the visiting choirs are much smaller.

After the photo, our group lined to pass through a security checkpoint, similar to those commonly used at airports. Once inside, the group was escorted to a small chancel area surrounding a massive pipe organ on the left side of the north end of the basilica where mass was to be held. The chancel was small, providing seats for just over half of the choir members. Others stood to the left and right of the chancel behind the organist seated in the center.

Although there has been a church on this site since the 4th century, construction of the present basilica lasted 120 years and was completed on November 18, 1626. The basilica has a maximum capacity of about 60,000, but on this day as the basilica remained open to tourists, a couple of thousand seats were petitioned off beyond the Papal Alter and Baldacchino (Bemini’s masterpiece canopy) which cover the burial place of St. Peter, and toward the Cathedra Petri, or Altar of the Chair, for evening Mass.

Mass started promptly at five o’clock. After the first song, the lead priest welcomed the worshippers in Italian, and then introduced our choir in English and expressed appreciation for the choir “helping us to pray in song.” With the exception of one portion of the homily, which was rendered in Italian, then English, and finally Spanish, the remainder of the Mass was celebrated in Italian and Latin.

The Mass at St. Peter’s included more singing than I’ve experienced while attending Mass at other cathedrals. In addition to the four selections presented by our choir, Cantate Domino (O Sing Ye to the Lord), Alleluia, Come Unto Me, and O Filii et Filiae (Ye Sons and Daughters), the lead priest and the attending priests sang portions of the liturgy, with responses sung by four cantors who were standing near a microphone in front of our choir. The lead cantor, who also served as the music coordinator for the basilica, turned during one of the early response times and prompted our choir, without prior notice, to join in singing the antiphonal responses in Latin. Despite the astonished looks on a few faces, the choir caught on quickly, singing phonetically and with worshipful expression, even though I am sure they had limited understanding of the words.

I am quite sure that our English-speaking group understood only a few of the words spoken during the entire Mass, though names like Christos, Mary Magdalena, and John the Baptist rang with familiarity. Basically, we participated in the passing of the peace and stood at the appropriate times during the liturgy. However, our group resonated with the spirit of worship, we seemed to intuitively know when scripture was being read, and we were aware that we were among brothers and sisters in Christ who spoke a different language.

We realized that though we articulate our faith and celebrate worship much differently than our Catholic friends, we share a history and a story about the Christ who was crucified, buried, and raised to life to provide forgiveness for our sins and to show the way to salvation. Our theology has many divergent points, but on this day we shared in common worship of God.

Our choir was honored to sing for evening Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. And the hunch of this proud and biased pastor is that this Baptist choir lifted their voices in a way that rang the rafters of this historic church in a powerful way.

There’s No Place Like Rome

(During the next few days, I will post a few notes about our travels in Italy. Frequency of posts will depend upon availability of internet access.)

July 20-21, 2010

I love the Pensacola airport. From the time my friend dropped me off, it took a total of six minutes to check in, show my passport, pass through security and arrive at my departure gate.

This is my first trip to Italy. My first stop was Rome where I was to meet Amanda and the choir from our church for the last 4 days of their International Choir Tour. Then she and I will be striking out on a few days of vacation as an early celebration of our 25th wedding anniversary.

The connecting flight to Atlanta took an hour and twenty minutes total. Then the flight to Rome took eight hours and fifty minutes. We actually arrived at the Rome airport at 6:40 a.m. (IST) on Wednesday morning, 30 minutes ahead of schedule.

After riding the train to the Rome Termini, I caught the Metro (subway) to the Repubblica exit and emerged on the street about two blocks from the Eurostar Hotel. Amanda was waiting in the lobby. She eagerly updated me on the highlights of the first half of her week and the itinerary for the day.

I dropped my bags in the hotel room and took a quick shower. Then Amanda and I took off to catch up with our group who had already embarked on a guided walking tour.

We took the Metro to the Colossae exit and stepped off right in front of the Colosseum, which looked like the ruins of a modern day college football stadium. We turned right and headed toward the Capital district. We passed Palentine Hill and the Roman Forum to our left, all sites we plan to visit on Friday.

Amanda made a quick stop to fill our water bottle at a public fountain. I learned that because of the abundant springs in Italy, most cities have numerous public fountains providing spring water, for drinking, for washing, or for cooling off.

As we proceeded, I learned the huge building ahead, called the wedding cake by tourists, was the Arts and Exhibition Center. Bearing left again we caught up with our group en route to the Pantheon. After a few greetings, meeting our guide, and getting a headset, our group proceeded into the Pantheon which was an incredible dome-shaped structure, with an opening at the top of the dome, forming a kind of sundial on the inside. I knew that a variety of deities are represented by the shrines inside the Pantheon, but I was surprised to find out that Mass and other services are still held inside.

Upon leaving the Pantheon, we traveled a few backstreets viewing architectural styles of the ancient city and the newer additions. We walked by the Senate building and actually saw a few well-dressed government officials entering and exiting. After a brief historical summary, our tour concluded near the Piazza della Rotunda.

Immediately following the tour, Amanda and I went searching for a place to have lunch. There are ristorantes, cafes, and Gelaterias on almost every block. After walking down a couple of narrow market-lined streets, we found an appealing home-owned pizzeria where we shared a pizza margherita (tomato sauce and cheese) and salad. I quickly learned that Italian pizza is not exactly like American versions. In Rome the pizza had crust as thin as a tortilla, the tomatoes were fresh, and the cheese was bountiful. The salad consisted of a bowl of mixed greens, sliced cherry tomatoes, and fresh locally grown olives.

After lunch we returned to our room to begin getting ready for the evening concert at Rome Baptist Church. Groups from First Baptist Church of Pensacola have been hosted by RBC on numerous occasions. Dave Hodgdon has served as pastor for almost nine years and has become a good friend to our Minister of Music, Bob Morrison.

We departed for the church at 5:30 on foot. It was a short walk. After setting up our orchestral instruments, the choir began warming up, which has a dual meaning in the unairconditioned venues in Italy. Prior to the concert, two significant events happened. First, Bob Gowing, the chair of our Missions Committee at FBCP, present Pastor Dave with a financial gift from our church family to assist their church family in hiring a music intern who enrich their ministry. Pastor Dave was overwhelmed.

Secondly, after the presentation our church exited the church building onto the piazza to sing a few selections. As the choir began to sing, spectators began to gather, and patrons of local restaurants stopped eating and turned their chairs to watch and listen to the music of the choir. As the choir returned to the church, a few dozen onlookers followed them inside and many stayed for the entire concert.

The choir sounded awesome. I admire the devotion and commitment of each choir member to pay their own way, memorize 17 pieces of music (including 4 in Latin), and then pace themselves to endure 14 days of international travel.

After the concert we returned to the hotel room where I was more than ready for good night’s sleep. In just a few hours, I had already seen some of the most significant sites in Western Civilization. Next up on Thursday is a tour of the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica. I drifted off to sleep thinking, “There’s no place like Rome.”

A View from the Gulf: The Perspective of a Local Seaman

Several weeks ago when the Deepwater Horizon explosion triggered an oil spill crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, those who live on along the coast and around the country began praying for containment and clean-up of the oil. Many, like me, also began getting better educated about the oil industry and the specific ways this industry functions in the Gulf.

In the past two months, as I have read or listened to a variety of perspectives and scenarios from politicians, media commentators, BP executives, and “expert” analysts, I have been curious to hear the perspectives and opinions of those who work jobs related to the oil industry in the Gulf.

I learned in Sociology 101 that all of us have a bias in our perspective. Biases are not a bad thing. We simply must be aware of a person’s bias in order to better understand and interpret where that person is coming from. For example, politicians are biased toward the interests of their constituency. Media personalities have a vested interest presenting news in a way that captures public attention and elevates the ratings of their network. BP Executives are charged with framing and re-shaping the public relations image of their company and restoring profitability once this crisis is over. Expert analysts are interested in making a persuasive argument that could perhaps lead to other invitations to share their insight. And those who work in the oil industry would likely be biased toward preserving their jobs.

With awareness of those biases, I wanted to hear from someone who works in the Gulf, someone who depends on the oil industry for their livelihood, and someone whom I could trust to give honest straightforward answers to my questions without being concerned about constituency or public image.

I contacted Adam, one of the young men in our church, who is a devoted father and husband, and who has a perspective that is based on firsthand experience. Adam is an experienced seaman who is away from his family and our church for weeks at a time to do his job. I asked Adam several questions and he gave straight answers. Here are my questions and his responses:

Barry: What are your primary job responsibilities and how do they relate to the Oil Industry?
Adam: I work on a 285 foot supply boat. My job title is Able Body Seaman (AB). My job responsibilities are to keep the outside area of the boat in ship-shape, which entails painting, rust removal, handling of boat’s mooring lines (tying and untying the boat), and numerous other jobs. When at the rigs, I have to do the rigging of deck cargo. I work with the crane operator in getting the cargo from the boat to the rig’s floor. Sometimes it can be an easy job; at other times when the seas are rough it can be scary and sometimes dangerous. Our boat carries everything that a rig needs to drill for oil and natural gas. We provide all supplies, from the food for the platform crew to the liquid mud used to hold the oil down when they strike it.

Barry: How much time do you spend in the Gulf and what is your typical work schedule?
Adam: It seems like sometimes this is my home. Normally I work 28 days on the boat and 14 off. Here recently the company has put us on a 2 week on / 2 week off schedule. It didn’t have anything to do with the spill in the Gulf. This was done before the spill. My company recently sent a lot of their boats down to work in Brazil. They are waiting on the arrival of three new boats being built before putting us back to our regular schedule. But I don’t know yet how the oil spill in the Gulf may affect us. We normally work 12 hour shifts and our boat sleeps about 35 people.

Barry: What kind of marine life do you typically see?
Adam: While at sea, we do see various types of marine life such as dolphins, sea turtles, sharks, assorted fish, and birds. We’ve even seen a whale shark that came right up to the boat. A couple of months ago a sea hawk flew up on our back deck and stayed awhile. The rig we are currently working is about 9 hours (90 miles) from the dock which is in Fusion, Louisiana. We haven’t seen a lot of the oil spill because we are about 30 miles south of where the Deepwater Horizon was. Most of the oil seems to be going north.

Barry: How has your work changed since the Deepwater Horizon accident?
Adam: Since the accident things for us haven’t changed much. It’s not to say that changes are not on the way. If things continue to go as they seem to be going, change will be here before we know it and I don’t think it will be good.

Barry: What is the atmosphere and mood among your co-workers?
Adam: Everyone around here is a little scared about the possibility of their jobs going away….even if they wouldn’t admit it. We are all trying to keep our heads up and praying that this huge mess we are in the middle of goes away.

Barry: What are your fears and concerns about public perceptions of the oil industry?
Adam: I know everyone is upset about the crisis in the Gulf. I believe the last thing they should want is for the oil companies to leave the Gulf and go overseas. I don’t think the public would really want this in the long run. We need to keep drilling in our waters and keep our dependence on other countries down.

Barry: Do you think the efforts to achieve containment and cleanup of the current spill are being managed well? Do you have ideas about how containment and clean-up efforts could be managed more effectively?
Adam: I don’t think it was handled right from the start – from the putting out of the fire to what we have going on today. From the start we had too much red tape and Homeland Security involvement. We should have gotten what we needed when we needed it. For example, the big filter boats should have been brought in at the beginning. At least we could have been sucking up the oil from the start. It was crazy to refuse help from abroad. I believe that the people overseeing these affairs should have acted quicker.

Barry: Do you believe that drilling in the Gulf can continue in a way that is safe for the environment? Why?
Adam: Of course I believe drilling in the Gulf waters is not as safe as it can be. We can definitely do more, even as individuals, to keep our Gulf waters clean. I have seen dumping of soluble materials from the rigs. I’m pretty sure that somehow it has to have a negative effect on the Gulf, but what that effect is, I don’t know for sure. If they are putting this stuff in the Gulf, someone has told them it is okay to do so. What I do know is the company I work for is doing our part to help keep it clean. For example, we have a zero pollution policy which means zero discharge. We don’t put or discharge anything from the boat into the water. Everything is brought back to the dock for proper disposal.

Barry: What are some of the safety standards in place in your work environment?
Adam: On my boat we conduct weekly safety meetings and “drills.” We have drills on everything from fire safety to fuel spills. We try to cover all that is needed to keep us and the environment safe.

Barry: You are a resident of the Gulf Coast. How do you think we can balance utilizing and preserving the vast resources of the Gulf?
Adam: This is a question I will have to give more thought to. It is a difficult balance to achieve, but necessary for the quality of life as we know it.

Barry: Are there other things you want the public to know about your work, the oil industry, or oil drilling in the Gulf?
Adam: To do this job you have to be Coast Guard Certified and hold a license for each position you hold on the boat. You must go through a rigorous government and law enforcement background check. During my career in this industry I have experienced many things including two trips by boat to Africa where piracy remains a serious threat. I do sacrifice time from my family, but my job provides a living for my family and a product for the public that is a consumer driven need.

Among the many opinions about managing the oil spill crisis, the risks of the drilling in the Gulf, and the long-impact on the coastal economy, there are many good seamen like Adam who do their work with integrity, and whose lives and careers are uniquely impacted by this crisis. This conversation is too important for their voice not to be heard.

(Barry Howard serves as senior minister at First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida. Adam Gafford is an Able Body Seaman who is employed by a family-based company out of Des Allemands, Louisiana.)

A Prayer for Independence Day 2010

Freedom-loving and grace-giving God, you have given us the privilege and the responsibility of living in the most resourceful land in the world. From sea to shining sea most of us enjoy unprecedented freedom, comfortable homes, regular meals, preferred vocations, and unique religious liberty.

As we give thanks for the numerous blessings associated with living in this great country, we are aware that we live in a season of heightened anxiety. Our military men and women are engaged in multiple international conflicts. Our economy is slow to emerge from the recent recession. Many are unemployed. We are facing an oil spill crisis in the Gulf. And we are lacking consensus on major issues.

These concerns remind us of our need to confess our sins, individually and collectively, and to follow your plan for living with purpose and integrity.

We confess that we have too often taken our freedom for granted and we have too frequently neglected the responsibilities of our citizenship.

We confess that we are often too quick to criticize and too slow to intercede.

We confess that our selfish interests have too often taken priority over our interests in the common good of our nation and for our world.

We confess that we have been negligent in our stewardship of health and wealth, often expending and consuming carelessly when we should be managing carefully, investing wisely, and sharing generously.

We confess that we have too often trusted in our own initiatives and ingenuity more than we have trusted in you.

We pray with the psalmist, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.” (Psalm 51:1-3)

Therefore, as we prepare to celebrate this Independence Day, we ask you to, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10)

On this day, we pray for our President and for all of the leaders of our nation, our state, and our community that they will lead with moral courage, bipartisan cooperation, and astute wisdom.

We pray for the men and women who serve in our nation’s military that they will perform their humanitarian mission with effectiveness and precision, complete their assignments, and return home safely and soon.

We pray for our enemies that their swords, and ours, will be “turned into plowshares.”

We pray for the churches, cathedrals, and temples of our nation and our community that we will be dispensaries of grace and mercy, living our convictions with consistency, engaging in our discourse with civility, and fulfilling our ministries with hospitality.

Because you are the freedom-loving and grace-giving God, lead us to exercise our freedom responsibly and to pursue “liberty and justice for all” your children around the globe, especially the “least of these.”

We present our prayer in the strong name of Jesus, the one who personifies the truth that makes us free indeed. Amen.

Celebrate July 4th: Exercise Your Freedom to Worship

July 4th falls on Sunday this year. Where will you be this Sunday morning?

Independence Day falls on Sunday only every few years. The last time this occurred was 2004. The next time July 4th falls on our designated day of worship will be in 2021.

While many of us have appropriate plans in place to celebrate our nation’s independence with picnics, barbeques, ice cream, and fireworks, one of the most fitting ways to celebrate Independence Day this year is to exercise our freedom to worship.

Our Baptists ancestors were among the many who contended for religious liberty for all faiths. The first amendment to the Constitution of the United States confirms that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

As citizens of these United States, we enjoy greater freedoms than any people group on earth. In light of our religious liberty, let us pray fervently for those who live in regions subject to harsh religious persecution. As we freely choose where to spend July 4th, let us remember our brothers and sisters who will gather anxiously but faithfully in underground churches, taking risks unfamiliar to me in order to worship God and gather with their fellow believers.

From my perspective, joining regularly with other believers to worship nurtures spiritual growth, fosters moral character, and encourages humanitarian service. Hebrews 10:25 reminds us, “Some people have gotten out of the habit of meeting for worship, but we must not do that. We should keep on encouraging each other, especially since you know that the day of the Lord’s coming is getting closer.” (CEV)

Of all Sundays to neglect gathering with other believers, failing to prioritize worship on Sunday July 4th is to trivialize the tremendous price paid for our freedom to assemble and worship God without fear of reprisal or repercussion. Perhaps the worst expression of historical amnesia is the tendency to take freedom for granted.

I think we best celebrate and preserve our freedom by exercising our freedom. This Sunday is Independence Day. Whether you are at home or traveling, I hope you are making plans for a fun day of celebration with family and friends. I hope you will take time to give thanks for our great heritage and to pray for our nation’s leaders and country’s future. Most importantly, I hope you will celebrate July 4th by exercising your freedom to worship.