Text: 2 Kings 2:10-10
What are the life events that define you? One of my earliest defining moments came in kindergarten when I, along with two other compadres, tried to sneak out to the playground during rest-time. Our punishment was standing at the blackboard with our noses in a circle that the teacher had drawn on the board—one for each of us—that was just high enough that we had to stand on our tiptoes. In that moment, I realized that someone other than my parents could punish me. The second defining moment came just one year later in first grade. It had become a ritual that at recess, when it was hot outside, the boys would take their shirts off while playing dodge ball. Wanting desperately to be one of the boys, I asked my teacher if I could take my shirt off. Her response, “No, little girls don’t do that,” didn’t sit well with me. Several minutes later, when I appeared on the field shirtless, I learned that the rules are different for girls and boys. It was a deeply defining moment. Equally defining at seven years of age was my father telling me that I could be anything I wanted to be—even if that was a pro-basketball player. Moving from childhood into adolescence, through becoming a young adult, and then maturing into adulthood, there have been those defining moments that have shaped me into who I am today.
For our namesake, John T. Pullen, one of his defining moments, if not the defining moment of his life, came on November 6, 1881, when his church (First Baptist Church Raleigh) cited him “to answer to the church for unchristian-like conduct toward the church in that he declined to conform to a rule of the church.” There is question as to what John T. Pullen’s “unchristian-like conduct” was. However, in an article published in The State in 1934, Josiah Bailey offered some clues. Bailey described Pullen:
He was a young man living the worldly, self-indulgent life rather than the really bad life. He was a good fellow—the best field-shot in Raleigh, if not in the state, and one of the best at pool. The bar-room and the pool-room in his day were usually one—and the bar-room was his loafing place. He drank but was not a drunkard. He kept late hours, and coming home late, would find his mother on her knees praying for him. She loved him with a mother’s love and would not give him up.
Now church did things a little different back then. If you didn’t show up for a period of time (I think it was three consecutive meetings), or if there were concerns—something like, unchristian-like conduct—then the church would bring you up on charges and request an explanation. First they would send a committee to visit with you, inform you of the charges, and request your presence at a church conference held specifically to hear your response to the charge. If the committee was unable to persuade you to come to the meeting then the pastor was sent. With J.T. Pullen the committee was unsuccessful, so the pastor was sent to talk with him.
Bailey reports that Dr. T. E. Skinner, pastor of First Baptist Church, “went to Pullen in the pool hall to inform him of the church’s action.” In a report Bailey wrote, some fifty years after the encounter with John T. Pullen, he describes what took place between himself and Pullen that day. He writes:
[I] found him in a saloon playing pool, apprised him of the accusations, and urged him to attend the church conference that night. John, quick of temper and impatient of the minister’s intrusion, retorted with an oath: “I am not going to be there—they can do as they please; I don’t care.”
“Young man,” replied the minister, “you do not know what this means. I cannot compel you to come. But all this day you will have on your mind what you have said, and tonight when the church bell rings, with every stroke you hear, remember what you have said—and you will come.”
John did remember. All day long he bitterly reproached himself. His pride urged him not to attend the conference. “I ought to be turned out of the church and I shall be—why should I go? Upon the first stroke of the bell he was resolved not to move. But as the sound came again and again, he found himself on the way, and with the last stroke he entered the church door.
When the accusations were presented he came forward, and with profound humility, confessed his wrongdoings, and declared that no one realized as keenly as he that he ought to be turned out. But, he added, he believed he could do better; that for years he knew his mother had been praying for (him) while he was indulging himself; that he hoped he might have a chance and it was for her he hoped not to be turned out of the church.
The church readily responded. His name remained on the roll—he was given the chance.
Oh, how we all need second chances!
Roger Crook writes in Our Heritage and Our Hope: A History of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church that, “this experience was a turning point for John Pullen. Bailey reports that on the next day [Pullen] told his friends of his intention to live a Christian life. For him that meant the abandonment of a carefree attitude and of that way of life which Bailey characterized as ‘worldly’ and ‘self-indulgent.’ So determined was he to be a different kind of man that he even gave away his shotgun and buried his shells!”
Defining moments are turning points in our lives, when something happens and we see more clearly. Often, these are moments when we first know something we have or could not have known, or see something we have not been able or willing to see before. They are breaking open times, that are not just about what happens to us, but about who we choose to be in response to the twists of life. None of us knows when these defining moments will happen, or exactly how we will handle them, or how they will change us. One could argue that these defining moments create us, but that is not what I believe. I believe, rather that these defining moments reveal us. Whether it is an elementary school yard or a pool hall or a congregational meeting, defining moments reflect something deep about who we already are and who we want to be. They are expressions of action—living out what we say we believe. And just as individuals experience these defining moments, so do institutions, and especially churches. For congregations, defining moments are about carrying forth, from one generation to the next, the values and principles and spirit of those who have bequeathed to us a great spiritual heritage.
When it comes to being a prophetic voice in our world, every generation of the Pullen community has had their defining moment—civil rights, the Vietnam war, not requiring baptism by immersion, valuing ecumenism and interfaith dialogue, women’s rights, gay rights, marriage equality—are just a few of the defining moments of the last 60 years. As we prepare to honor the 20th anniversary of the Holy Union vote next Sunday, it is essential that we remember that the defining moment of 1992 is not an isolated event. It is one of many defining moments in our life together. Like those before us, who gave us the gift of courage and wisdom to be God’s prophetic voice in the world, the decision to be a welcoming and affirming congregation to gays and lesbians is a gift from generation to generation. That decision comes through a long line of one generation passing the mantle to the next. Or as our scripture suggests, it is one generation of Pullenites inheriting a double share of spirit from previous generations of Pullenites. But it doesn’t stop there. Roger Crook reminds us in our history book that, “the heritage of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church is a long and honorable Baptist tradition.” He writes:
From their beginnings as the radical wing of the Reformation, Baptists have stressed the grace of God in God’s dealings with people, the freedom of each person to respond to God’s grace in his or her own way, and the responsibility of God’s people to reach out into the world with the good news of God’s love.
Pullen’s courage to be a prophetic voice in the world doesn’t just come from generations of Pullenites. It comes from generation to generation of Baptists who have stood on the spiritual values and principles of God’s grace, soul freedom, and the good news of God’s love for all people.
As we enter the coming week of remembrance and recognition of that 1992 congregational decision, when we pause to honor a defining moment for Pullen Memorial and for gays and lesbians across the country, I am aware that Pullen’s defining moments are worth honoring, not only because of what they have meant for each generation of Pullenites, or even to the church community at large, but because of what they mean for us today and for the generations of Pullenites to come. When Elisha requests a double portion of prophetic wisdom, Elijah says that what he asked for is a hard thing. We do not know when our next defining moment will come. We do not know how we will react to that defining moment. But we can know that we have a deep and powerful tradition of taking risks to be God’s love and grace in the world, and a strong commitment to passing that mantle from generation to generation.