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A Little Bit of Presbyterian Pride

Numerous surveys tell us that denominational identity is in decline. Someone will not automatically attend a Presbyterian church, for example, just because their parents did. One survey even claims that white, mainline Protestants are more loyal to their brand of toothpaste!

Could this relate to the fact that Crest brands its product far better than the Presbyterian church?

In seminary, I learned certain theological and organizational attributes that defined Presbyterianism. In practice, I have discovered that, when people in rural areas identify as Presbyterian, they base this claim much more on intuition than reason. They are referring to “my people” and their way of existing in the world. To be Presbyterian is an attitude, a worldview, and a commitment to others. It is almost tribal. And people are extremely loyal such ways of life.

Doris Betts brilliantly illustrates these themes in her story, “This Is the Only Time I’ll Tell It.” The narrative begins when a recently widowed father is caught abusing his newborn. In fact, he is holding her by the legs and dunking her into a bucket of water! Zelene, who had been walking by the house, hears the infant’s screams and literally throws herself through the back window to come to the rescue. The father runs away, while she gives CPR and brings the child back to life.

Zelene is obviously bold, courageous, and heroic; she is also a member of the town’s Presbyterian church. The father is eventually incarcerated and 37 lifetime Presbyterians tell the state authorities a “righteous lie” about the existence of next-of-kin. They want Zelene, who had never married nor had children, to raise the baby instead of the father’s notoriously drunk relatives. As Betts’ narrator puts it, “There’s nobody can lie like a Presbyterian if he thinks good sense requires it.” Presbyterians believe that our ultimate allegiance is to the kingdom of God, not to the so-called powers that be.

A few sentences later we read, “And Zelene was a Presbyterian–God, yes.” Why such an adamant statement? To be Presbyterian means that Zelene goes to church every week on foot, rain or snow. And every week, she faithfully offers to the preacher a hand-woven, oakstave basket full of produce from her garden. But then her parishioners would refill those same baskets and put them back on Zelene’s porch. The commitment to sacrificial giving ran both ways. What a profound understanding of stewardship!

Zelene knew that life was hard. As she puts it, “You have to be Presbyterian to feel that bitter in the dark.” Ironically, Zelene names her adopted child, Silver, and raises her on a subsistence farm. They work from dawn to dusk, eeking out a living with a garden, a few chickens, a cow, and “one hound dog so dumb it split one ear and then two on the same barbwire fence.” Silver grows up learning the value of work. When she was six, she recited the Children’s Catechism to the whole congregation–she had memorized thirty-one pages! Was she Presbyterian? God, yes!

Throughout history, those outside the denomination have pointed to this aspect as our defining feature. Max Weber famously coined the phrase, “the Protestant work ethic,” to describe people who willed a better life by their daily sacrifices. But what often goes unnoticed is that Presbyterian theology is rooted in grace, not works.

In this, Zelene proves herself to be a true Presbyterian. She baptized Silver as an infant, shortly after her near-murder at the hands of her father. Zelene felt this ritual meant “that water meant for drowning had gone inside this child, that no grown body–at any size–would ever be fully dry of that knowledge.”

I’ve read pages and pages of theology, and that is one of the most beautiful rationales for public, infant baptism I have ever encountered. As we learn in the catechism, we are baptized into Christ’s death in the promise of new life. Silver’s life made this story come alive. Zelene knew that baptism is a public testimony to what God had already done; it is a declaration of absolute faith in the transforming love of God over every evil. Am I proud to claim that as part of my denomination’s heritage? God, yes!

About Andrew Taylor-Troutman

I am a pastor and a preacher, a writer, a husband and a father. My professional and personal lives are deeply involved with story-telling: stories that are silly and poignant or profound and commonplace. Stories that are tear-jerkers and belly-shakers. Stories about my son, Sam, and the congregation I serve, New Dublin Presbyterian Church. Each in its own way, these personal narratives shed light on the great story that God is writing with humankind and all of creation.

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10 Responses to A Little Bit of Presbyterian Pride

  1. Melanie Amaro June 25, 2012 at 10:00 am #

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  3. Chutimon June 19, 2012 at 6:40 pm #

    Hello, I’m a cradle Catholic that bughot your book on a whim on the Kindle a few weeks ago. I just started reading it today and haven’t finished it, but I think it is one of the best apologetics books I’ve read. I’ve also read conversion story/apologetics books such as Dr. Scott Hahn and his wife Kimberly’s book Rome Sweet Home, as well as Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic by David Currie which were both great books as well. I think you write just as insightful as Dr. Scott Hahn and bring some interesting perspectives that even he hadn’t brought up much in any of his books that I have read. So, I hope all the best for you, and pray your book gets the recognition it deserves. I would look forward to reading any future books you may come out with if you decide to write any more.

    • Andrew Taylor-Troutman June 19, 2012 at 8:57 pm #

      Hello friend,

      Thank you for those kind words. I do think that my work is apologetic in the sense that I try to paint the small, rural church as a community to learn from, rather than a problem to be overcome. I am not familiar with the books you reference, but will look into these resources. Finally, as a Presbyterian pastor, it is great to be in dialogue with a Roman Catholic! I hope that my work helps in a small way to bridge the Protestant/Catholic divide.

      Once again, thanks for your support.

      Andrew

  4. Jessica Sanchez June 19, 2012 at 4:03 am #

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  5. Janel Releford June 17, 2012 at 2:39 pm #

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    • Andrew Taylor-Troutman June 20, 2012 at 12:04 pm #

      Thank you, friend, for your kind words. I am glad to be of help.

      Also, thank your brother for the recommendation.

      Best,
      Andrew

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