For more than fifty years, Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker has devoted himself to local church ministry as a pastor and as a student of theological, biblical, and liturgical studies. Currently pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Statesville, North Carolina, he has also pastored churches in Louisville, Kentucky; Ft. Worth, Texas; and Charlotte, North Carolina. He has also served as an adjunct and visiting professor at several universities. He is the author of nine books and a frequent contributor to journals and magazines.
What is your hope for your new book, Baptism: A Living Sacrament of the Christian Life?
I have four main hopes for the book. The first is the renewal of the meaning and practice of baptism in a time when baptism is playing a less important role in the church, even among Baptist churches. The second is for its use in preaching and teaching about baptism and in the preparation of those considering baptism. The third is the enrichment of the practice of baptism and the practice of the renewal of baptism vows in worship during the great seasons of the Church year, particularly during Lent to Easter. This is why I have included worship resources. Baptismal renewal begins in the local congregation. The fourth is that I believe baptism is the most complete emblem or symbol of the living of the Christian life, more than even the cross. My hope then is that this book can be used as a spiritual resource for individuals and groups who want to explore the meaning of their life in Christ. This fourth hope could easily have been the first!
How did you come to write a book centered on the “meeting place” of baptism?
The sacred action of baptism has always been what the Celtic Christians called “a thin place” for me, where heaven and earth seem so close as to be one. All sacraments are meeting places with God. God has promised to meet us there at the baptismal waters, as at the Table of our Lord. I have thought and preached about it for many years and wanted to put my work in book form.
In your introduction, you break down the structure of your book into ten key meanings of baptism with each chapter focusing on a myriad of quotes, anecdotes,
etc. Why did you put it together the way you did and how did you decide what quotations to use?
The development of the ten themes have been developed over the years. I love the constellation of them together to convey the fullest meaning of baptism. I use a number of quotes, anecdotes and illustrations to underline the sensory character of baptism. All our senses are involved. Baptism is not just a way of thinking. Often literature enhances the sensory quality of life, so I make use of stories, poems, songs and hymns. I use anecdotes because baptism is a deeply personal event placed in the midst of a person’s life. There is more going on than what happens in the pool.
What are some misunderstandings and/or differences about baptism as a concept and as a practice? Do these differences come from denominations, biblical interpretation, or possible societal influence?
Baptism has sadly, even tragically, become an occasion of division, sometimes persecution in the church through the centuries. Differences in biblical interpretation and cultural influences have played a part. So has the human mania to be, as Richard Rohr phrases it, “separate and superior”. The different denominations and churches have grasped one part of what baptism means and does, but none captures the full meaning of the mystery of baptism. So we, like the old tale of the blind men and the elephant, argue that the part of the elephant we have hold of is the whole elephant. My book hopes to offer an expansive meaning of baptism that transcends our denominational differences and contributes to the ecumenical conversation about baptism.
In your book, you share about “salvation anxiety.” Would you mind expanding upon this term and how we, as a people of faith, can be more conscious and active in understanding such an anxiety?
The church sometimes creates a salvation anxiety and preys upon those most anxious about themselves and their relationship to God. Did I have right motive or know enough to be baptized? Did I pray “the sinner’s prayer” sincerely or in the right way? There was a time in Southern Baptist life in the latter part of the 20th century when revivals were held across the country that promoted salvation anxiety and called for immediate re-baptism. Do we believe in salvation by grace or salvation by observing the ritual perfectly? It is God’s work or ours? There is, as I discuss in the book occasions when “baptismal repair” can be spiritually appropriate, but such occasions must be approached with utmost care. When a person feels continually anxious about their salvation or their spiritual life we must offer spiritual counsel in a way that avoids manipulation. Good psychological counseling may be needed. A psychological scrupulosity can be addressed that keeps the Christian anxious and unsure of their standing before God.
How does your writing impact your faith? What does the writing process mean to you?
Writing is a spiritual practice for me, a form of prayer by which I seek to love God with my mind, heart, soul and strength. Writing is by nature a solitary act that requires solitude. I am at my desk almost every morning of the week as I write sermons, essays, books and articles and prepare to lead worship. This solitude is a saving thing to me. Thomas Merton the famous monk of Gethsemane Abby went to the Abbot in the 1950’s and asked that he might build a small hermitage where he would live alone and not in community and join the community for worship alone. Even though Merton was his most famous monk who brought the proceeds of his books into the monastic treasury, the Abbot said no. In the 1960’s he was granted the request. But what did Merton do after that refusal? He converted an old woodshed, brought in a small table and chair and set up a place for daily writing. “Writing, he wrote, “is my hermitage”. In the midst of my busy weeks and daily responsibilities, writing has been and is my hermitage. It is prayer, joy, fancy and hard work in the presence of God.
Outside of your ministry, how do you enjoy spending time? What nurtures your imagination and hope?
What nurtures me outside my work? Daily walks in God’s creation with my wife Sue. Reading literature, both fiction and non- fiction, of late, more fiction. Playing the cello, which I’ve done for 65 years, mostly for myself, sometimes for worship in my church. And golf which somedays is as one said “a good walk ruined”, but mostly is great fun with my friends.