Ecumenical PB&J

I have often joked that I was Baptist before I was Christian—but it’s not entirely a joke.

My mother never tired of reminding me that my father and she took me to church for the first time when I was ten days old, a fact that prompts me to share two asides.

Aside #1: I couldn’t help but smile when, in the course of my pastoral career, I encountered parents who, after they had a baby, couldn’t come to church for somewhere between six months and five years lest they expose their kid to a few germs.

Aside #2: Given that I wound up being a Baptist pastor, it was a good thing that I started building up my resistance to Baptist germs at such a young age. With all the sick Baptists that I’ve visited over the last four decades, I needed all the protection I could get.

But let’s get back to my story.

So I made my debut at the Midway Baptist Church (it’s located in rural Lamar County, Georgia, more or less halfway between Macon and Atlanta) when I was ten days old and so I was enrolled in the Baptist Sunday school on that day.

It’s just possible that I was enrolled before that day. Back in ancient times, Baptist churches had something called the “Cradle Roll”; someone from the church would visit a newborn and her/his family in the hospital or at home and offer to go ahead and sign up the little darling right then and there. It was kind of a waterless infant baptism. Given the close relationship that my folks had with the church, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that someone was there to sign me up as soon as I emerged from the womb.

So you can see why I say I was a Baptist before I was a Christian; I was enrolled in the Baptist Sunday school for over seven years before I was baptized.

I’ve always been a Baptist, or as I prefer to put it now, a Christian in the Baptist tradition. It’s a fair question, if someone wants to ask it, if I would have been a Methodist or a Presbyterian or an Episcopalian all of my life if my parents had raised me in a church of one of those denominations.

My answer: “Beats me. But probably.”

To me, it all comes down to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

PB_J_350When I was a boy, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich meant crunchy peanut butter and apple jelly on white bread. Anytime that Mama put a PB&J in front of me, it was two slices of white sandwich bread with crunchy PB and apple J. To this day—and I’m well into my sixth decade now—given the choice I’ll take the peanut butter and jelly sandwich of my childhood over any other.

Now, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t tried other varieties. I’ve had PB&Js with grape jelly and they’re mighty tasty. I’ve also had peanut butter and honey sandwiches and they’re good, too. I can see why folks like either of those varieties and if they were raised on them I can even understand why they’d prefer them. For the life of me, though, I can’t fathom people choosing creamy peanut butter over crunchy. There’s just no accounting for taste.

As of May 1, I found myself not being the pastor of a Baptist church for the first time in a long time. So my Good Wife and I decided that we’d do some visiting around. Over the last four Sundays we’ve worshipped in a Presbyterian church, in a Baptist church, in an Episcopal church, and in a Methodist church. I must say that there were elements in all of the non-Baptist services that I appreciated very much.

Here’s the way I look at it: it’s all a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. If you prefer grape jelly to apple or creamy peanut butter to crunchy, what difference does it make so long as we all agree that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are yummy?

I can worship anywhere where they call on the name of Jesus. Everything else is largely a matter of taste.

Like I said, I still prefer the religion of my childhood and the faith of my parents. But my version of it has come to look a little different than theirs.

Now that I’ve matured, I put my peanut butter and jelly on wheat bread.

Mama would probably think I’ve backslidden.

This article first appeared in “Ruffin’s Renderings” in the Thomaston (GA) Times on June 5, 2015.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra and father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin). A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. You can visit and communicate with him at MichaelRuffin.com. He is the Uniform Series Curriculum Editor.

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