AND RICE TALK TO MODERATE BAPTISTS
an address by
Walter B. Shurden
Professor of Christianity and Executive Director of The Center for Baptist Studies
on the occasion of the presentation of the Judson Rice Award
presented by Baptists Today newspaper
to Walter B. Shurden
Loudermilk Conference Center
22 April 2005
I have two of those little yellow postums that I want to stick to your souls this evening. They come in the handwritings of Adoniram Judson (1788-1850) and Luther Rice (1783-1836).
Here is the first. It is in Judson’s handwriting. It says: UNDERLIVING IS A TRAGIC WASTE. “Be careful,” Judson says, “don’t underlive your life.”
Judson got that idea from Jesus. Jesus lived with an unmistakable sense of urgency about life. And Judson could not listen to Jesus about the importance of the only life Judson had and then casually go to the backyard of his New England home for a game of horseshoes. Neither can you nor I. What you do with the rest of your days matters to God. How you spend your life matters to Jesus. What you count important in life is a concern of Jesus.
One of life's greatest tragedies is a person with a 10 by 12 potential and a 2 by 4 commitment. That's what you call an underachiever, one who bites off less than she can chew!
You remember Jesus’ story about the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). Three men. The master gave the first five talents. He gave the second two talents. The last little fellow ended up with only one talent. I first read that story in my dorm room in my eighteenth year, and I have been chased by it ever since.
The master returns to get an accounting of what each has done with what each has been given. The first two doubled their money and got a “Well done” from their master.
When the little fellow with the one talent came before his master he showed his one talent and said, “I was afraid and I went and buried it in the ground.” What happened next was close to verbal abuse. The master, as we use to say in Mississippi, cleaned the little fellow’s plow. He called him names. He faulted his judgment. He punished him for unnecessary timidity.
I always wish Jesus had given us their ages. My best guess is that the first two guys graduated from college last spring. Their parents had paid their way through life, and they did not know the value of a dollar. They had learned risk-taking with other people’s money at an early age! So, during a down market, these two youngsters went out and bet high and hard and doubled their money.
The third guy, the one with the one talent, the one who was so cautious and conservative . . . I know exactly how old he was. He was sixty-eight years old! Because that’s my age, and sixty-eight is old enough for the bumps and bruises of life to instil unusual caution.
Since first reading the story, I have tended to side with the one who drew the little hand. In defense, I want to ask, "What's the big problem?" He was only being careful. Could he help it if he was inherently conservative? Can you? Had he lost anything? Had he blown anything with senseless living? He had not scorned what he had been given; he was only trying to preserve it. "What had he done?" I ask. The answer: Nothing! And that's the whole point of Jesus' parable.
The message of Jesus’ parable is a warning not to underlive life.1
Is it really any wonder to anybody in this room that Rick Warren has been on the New York Times best selling list for weeks with a simple book entitled The Purpose Driven Life?
No one has to try and scare us with hell anymore, do they? We know what hell is now. It is that garbage dump on the southwest corner of Jerusalem to which Jesus pointed and said,
“Don’t let that happen to you. Don’t end up that way. That’s waste. That’s refuse. That didn’t matter. Make your life count. Don’t chase the trivial, the frivolous, and the superficial in life. Invest the time you have left in something that will matter. Help somebody that is down get up. Feed someone who is hungry. Bind up some wounds. Be involved in something significant because Hell . . . HELL is an unlived live.”
Judson and Rice really believed that. And they acted upon it. In their twenties, these two young men from New England encouraged the Congregational Churches, of which they were members, to organize a foreign missionary society to send them out as America’s first foreign missionaries from any denomination of any kind. The Congregationalists heeded the call of these young men. Their vision funded, Judson and Rice sailed for India in 1812.
Shortly after reaching India, each of them became convinced of the Baptist way of believer’s baptism by immersion. Obeying their consciences, they were baptized by immersion, and they became two of the most prominent Baptist names in American history.
So here they are. Two young kids, thousands of miles from home, converts to a new denomination, and bereft of financial support. They did not expect a Congregational mission society to support Baptist missionaries. So Luther Rice got on a boat and returned to the United States. He came back to rally the Baptists of America to an enlarged vision of the Christian mission.
Judson stayed on foreign soil in Burma. He spent the rest of his life there as a missionary, coming back to the United States only once. It was a hard life. He was imprisoned for 17 months, and he almost died. He was harassed by the government. But he stayed. And he translated the entire Bible into Burmese. He wrote the first Burmese/English dictionary. But he also buried two wives. First, Ann Judson and then Sarah Judson, each of whom was every bit as committed and talented as her husband. The tragedy and the tears intensified. He buried six children. He knew deep depression. But he never quit. He died at age 62 and was buried at sea.
Burma (Myanmar) was and is primarily a Buddhist country. Baptists today, however, constitute the strongest Christian movement in Burma with more than 4,000 congregations and 650,000 church members.2
Adoniram Judson: Exhibit A of a Christian who did not underlive his life.
Now, here is the second yellow postum. It is in Luther Rice’s handwriting. It says: UNDERGIVING IS A HUGE TRAGEDY. UNDERLIVING IS A TRAGIC WASTE, BUT UNDERGIVING IS A HUGE TRAGEDY. Sooner or later Christian stewardship gets down to money, doesn’t it?
When 30 year old Luther Rice returned to America to rally Baptists, he did not have to look for something to do. At that time Baptists in America had no denomination. They consisted only of scattered local congregations and some Baptist associations. They had no national unity. They had no serious missionary organization, foreign or home. While he did not intend it, Rice returned and created the Baptist denomination in the U.S.
He set out to unify Baptists for foreign missions, to gain their support for Ann and Adoniram Judson. He formed the first national organization of Baptists in this country. It was called the Triennial Convention. It was exclusively a foreign missionary society.
But Luther Rice soon realized that missions demanded education. After all, his friend Adoniram Judson was a valedictorian from Brown University, and Rice himself was a graduate of Williams College. And both were graduates of Andover Seminary. So in 1821 he began a college in Washington, D.C. known as Columbian College. He poured his heart into it. Today Columbian College, no longer under Baptist auspices, is the famous George Washington University.
In 1825 the Theological department of Columbian College became the Newton Institute, the first Baptist theological seminary in America. Today it is known as the influential Andover Newton Theological Seminary.
Rice also realized that missions called for information and information for publications. So he supported a newspaper called the Columbian Star, founded in Washington, D.C. in 1822. Jesse Mercer purchased that paper in 1833, moved it to Georgia, and renamed it The Christian Index. In 1841 Mercer donated the paper to the Georgia Baptist Convention. Johnny Pierce was the Managing Editor of that newspaper for several years before becoming the editor of Baptists Today. So, we have not a Trail of Blood but a trail of ink from Luther Rice to Johnny Pierce in the newspaper we celebrate tonight.3
Luther Rice, a compelling preacher, became a Baptist beggar, pleading with Baptists to open their pocketbooks for missions, education, and publications. And he was up against a lot of Anti-forces. There were anti-missions Baptists, anti-educational Baptists, and anti-everything Baptists.
Nonetheless Rice traveled this country by horseback, by buggy, by boat, urging and cajoling Baptists not to undergive their resources. He found some willing Baptists. He found almost no wealthy Baptists.
But just look at us tonight here in Atlanta at the Loudermilk Conference Center! Since the time of Judson and Rice, we Baptists have had a vast comeuppance in society. Like the TV show, we have been “Moving on Up.” If Luther Rice walked in that door right now, he would not know us. We moderate Baptists have acquired Methodist manners, Presbyterian education, Lutheran liturgy, and a whole lot of Episcopalian money.
Maybe not all of us, but certainly most of us in this room tonight are far better off than our parents or grandparents. And most of us got where we are financially by coming up from a lower income bracket. In the process, we have learned, haven’t we, that one of the most difficult things in life is to continue to "let go" of it as you “move up.” The instinct is to hold on to it, to spend it on ourselves, to leave it for children who may already have more than we have, or to die with it in our pockets.
My friends, the Moderate Baptist movement is a partnership, and it is not sectarian to claim it to be God's business. We will keep it alive the same way any business is kept alive—by investing in it, by digging down, by digging deep, by sacrificing. Each one of us in this room has a role to play, an investment to make in moderate Baptist life, some money to ante up.
When Kay and I were in high school, growing up in Greenville, Mississippi, we kids spent a lot of hours on Saturdays simply driving around downtown. Occasionally we’d want to stop downtown for a twenty-five cent hamburger and a nickel coke. We didn’t have any money to waste, so we would drive around the block in downtown Greenville, really slowly, looking for a parking meter that still had some time left on it. Did you ever see someone do that, drive around the block looking for a meter with time left on it? Have you ever done anything like that? Wanting to piggyback on someone else, wanting someone else to pay your way?
God’s people ought not to go through life parking on somebody else's quarter. We are partners, not parasites.
Luther Rice died broke. On his death bed he asked that they sell his horse and his buggy and give the proceeds to Columbian College. And at one point in his life Adoniram Judson gave all his private wealth of about $6,000 to the Baptist Board of Foreign Missions, and then he asked that his salary be reduced by one quarter so that they could send more missionaries.
Before they died, Luther Rice and Adoniram Judson left a whole lot of time on the Baptist parking meter. Others followed, and they, too, dropped tithes and offerings into the meter. Now it is our turn. It’s my turn. And it is your turn not to undergive our resources.
It is our turn to leave something on the meter for Baptist organizations such as Baptists Today. It is a newspaper that needs to be endowed. It would be a good place to “park” some of God’s money.
I have come to believe that whatever else Christian maturity is, much of it has to do with learning to "let go" in the face of the very strong temptation to “hold on.”
To be young is to swim in pools you did not dig; to be mature is to dig pools in which you will not swim.
To be young is to study in schools that you did not build; to be mature is to build schools in which you will not study.
To be young is to benefit from a church you did not begin; to be mature is to build a church from which you will not benefit.
Judson and Rice! Two regal Baptist names.
No wonder Baptists Today named an award in their honor.
They spent their lives on things that mattered.
They spent their money on things that endured.
When Yogi Bera got too old and his knees got too weak to catch for the New York Yankees, they put him out in left field. Being a catcher all his life, he was not accustomed to the afternoon sun coming upon him so soon. When someone asked him how he liked playing left field, he said: “It’s ok, but It gets late early out here.”
It does, doesn’t it?
It gets late early.
Day before yesterday you waited with the minister at the front of the church for the woman you loved.
Yesterday you escorted your last child down the aisle. And today your oldest granddaughter graduates from high school.
It gets late early.
And this is the only life you have.
To underlive it is a huge waste.
And to undergive what we have while we live is a huge tragedy.
If I had the courage tonight, I would give one of those old time Baptist invitations, one of those when we sang forty-six verses of “Have Thine Own Way, Lord.” And I would ask us all to come and bump the altar of God one more time and make two vows.
I would ask to vow tonight to live till we die.
And I would ask us to vow to give while we can.
I would ask us to make those two vows because it gets late, very, very early.
1. I have borrowed the idea and the language of “Underliving” from my favorite preacher of the last thirty-five years, Ernest T. Campbell. See his sermon, “Hanging Back” that he preached at Riverside Church in New York City on July 8, 1973.
2. See, <http://www.bwanet.org/Contact%20Us/MemberBodies.htm> as of 21 April 2005.
3. I refer facetiously to the little booklet called The Trail of Blood written by Dr. J. M. Carroll that traces the Baptist denomination as “the true church” from the time of John the Baptist down through the centuries through a trail of persecution and blood. It is sad and misinformed piece of Baptist historical writing that has misled some Baptists for years.