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Ira Vinson "Jack" Birdwhistell

The Baptists and Me

Ed: partially-finished, candid reflections on his faith leading up to 1975. 

THE BAPTISTS AND ME    This is not an easy one to write, because it’s much less concrete than the others.  The ‘Baptist’/‘church’ part is more tangible, so that’s where I’ll spend my time.  I have a few vague memories of ‘the old church’ at Sand Spring Baptist, Lawrenceburg, but mostly I recall ‘the church that Krusch built’ in 1951, when I was about six years old.  The theme line of this story is my personality as a ‘people pleaser,’ devoted for whatever reasons to doing ‘what I was supposed to do.’  Early on some of the people I wished to please were Mrs. Gladys Thacker (when I was a “Sunbeam”, a member of a little kids missions group) and Mrs. Martha Ware (in Vacation Bible School), for whom I memorized the books of the Bible along with many other Bible passages which I have never forgotten.

    In 1956, when I was ten, during the spring revival at Sand Spring (the evangelist was Dr. Joe Dick Estes of Louisville), in the Sunday School opening exercises, the preachers asked those who had not made a profession of faith to stand up (or some such gimmick).  I was immediately struck with something akin to fear/panic.  I was ‘left out’--I hadn’t done what was expected—I have no memory of fear of hell, awareness of sin, or even love of Jesus.  I just knew that I was supposed to join the church--so I did that very night.  I recall striding down the aisle of the church to much affirmation, and a memorable baptismal service which made me feel very grown up and accepted.

    From then on I continued to do what I was supposed to do—Sunday School with teachers David Drury and Gene Stratton, RAs with Pastor Melvin Torstrick, and some Sunday Evening Training Union.  I well recall a Sunday School class session with David Drury when, because of the text being studied, I asked the question, “What is circumcision?”  I never got a real answer.  Later on David Drury took over the ‘youth’ Training Union Class, where he was very effective. It was during this time that I ‘read’ the Bible (KJV) all the way through, because I was supposed to.  I also prayed occasionally.  Two of my most fervent prayers between 11 and 12:  “Lord, help me at least hit the ball and not strike out!” and “Lord, please let Sue Cole (a blonde hottie from Sinai Western) be my girlfriend!”

    And then along came Hugh Brooks, Sand Spring’s new pastor and a very important character in this story.   Hugh Brooks was a native of Corbin (I think), a grad of Eastern and Southern Seminary, and one of the most talented people ever.  He could sing like an angel, was a gifted athlete (swimmer, especially), and sharp as a tack.  When he arrived in mid-1959, he found a church filled with “Builders” (like my parents) and their “Boomer” children (like my friends and I)—the result, the church’s first ever “youth program.”  Since Brooks was such a good musician, the program was built around a youth choir.  Since I couldn’t (and can’t) sing a lick, I occupied space in the choir and sometimes served as concert narrator.  Hugh Brooks also took us to summer camp, usually at Camp Piomingo, a YMCA facility near Louisville.  Here begins another significant step in my story.  About this time, Bro. Brooks began to give an “invitation” focused directly at youth:  “I want you to come forward tonight saying to the Lord, ‘Lord, whatever it is you want me to do, I’ll do it!’”  For whatever reasons, that invitation made the conclusion of services at Sand Spring miserable for me.  As the choir sang, I held on to the pew as hard as I could, resisting the ‘pull’ to go forward (that “feeling akin to fear” again).  At that point, I thought I was wrestling with the spirit of God—maybe I was, or was it a struggle with a massive Superego?  In any case, Bro. Brooks gave the same invitation at a campfire service at Camp Piomingo—and I stood up!  And then when I went forward the following Sunday, the sense of “pull/fear” disappeared.  Although some folks assumed I had “surrendered to preach”, as the terminology was then, I was clear that I had agreed only to what the preacher had asked for, and I thought it would be as a high school math teacher.  However, I did begin to speak some at church meetings and receive Biblical commentaries as gifts from former pastors at Sand Spring,  M. D. Morton and John Kruschwitz.

    By now I’m in high school, seen by many as a future preacher, played some basketball (see “me and Basketball”), and had a white-hot romance with the notorious Cheri Brown.  By now our new pastor, Louis Twyman, had arrived, and took the ‘youth’ to the Baptist camp at Ridgecrest, NC, for “Youth Week.”  We met hundreds of other youth from all over the southeast—kids who thought about God/Jesus, talked and sang about God/Jesus.  It was all very cool—great preparation for entering Georgetown College in the fall.

    The first year at Georgetown was pivotal.  It was almost like Ridgecrest—all sorts of kids who loved God/Jesus and wanted to serve them.  Through the influence of Billy Kruschwitz, I got involved in BSU and met tons of great people, including Dr. Glenn Yarbrough, Director of Religious Activities) and Nancy Forgy, my future wife.  In late September, my friends and I signed up to ride a bus to Lexington for something called the State BSU Convention, a gathering of BSU kids from all over Kentucky—it met in 1964 at Calvary Baptist in Lexington.  The service the first night was pretty routine—the preacher was a missionary guy named Keith Parks, who later became a major Southern Baptist leader.  At the end he gave an invitation, as usual—suddenly, there was that “pull” again—that “feeling akin to fear.”  What did it mean this time?  I went through the options and concluded that this was what a “call to ministry” felt like—but I successfully fought it off.  But wait—there was to be a Georgetown only after-meeting, presided over by BSU president Kenny (Moose) Mahanes.  In his gentle, country way, Kenny said something like, “I just feel like there is somebody here that the Lord was working with who needs to make a ‘decision’.”  How did he know?  Feeling “outed,” I stood and with trembling voice told my friends what I had experienced and that I was going to do it (what I was supposed to do).  A week or so later I went forward at Sand Spring to tell my home church, and my pre-ministerial career officially began.

    Throughout my Georgetown career, I went out on lots of Youth Revival Teams to nearby churches, spent a lot of time as an officer in the Baptist Student Union, and tried to be a better pray-er (not very successfully).  I even became Georgetown’s BSU President, and , by some accident, KY BSU president.  During my junior year, I took a couple of Old Testament courses with Dr. Vernon Mallow which rocked my intellectual world with a whole new approach to the Bible.  Dr. Mallow was ‘gently critical’ compared to my pre-modern Sand Spring teaching.  However, the timing was perfect for my intellectual development—my friends and I had already begun to discuss how much of all this was literally true.  I was headed for Southern Seminary and was elated that Nancy Forgy was headed there as well, so we could conveniently continue our very serious courtship.  By this time I had become Youth Minister at Sand Spring, mainly teaching and providing activities for a large group of 12-16 year-olds, including my brothers.  I recall how pleased I was when ten or so of those kids “accepted Christ” during a Sand Spring revival.

    Then it was on to Southern Seminary, where I relished all that I was learning, especially in Biblical studies and church history.  So much began to fall into place and make sense.  My name was sent out to churches looking for pastors, and the first nibble was from East Rhudes Creek Baptist, in rural Hardin County.   After I preached my heart out for them (or so I thought), they voted not to call me.  Nancy and I married in December, 1969, and in early 1970 I received a call to Canmer Baptist Church in Hart County, KY, a Sunday morning only church in a small village in Highway 25E.

    Canmer Baptist is a lovely white frame building with a tiny basement.  Its small congregation was dominated by a couple of families; there were few ‘youth.’  Early on, Nancy and I (I can’t recall how) began to drive out into the country to bring in five or six children of a ‘family’ (non-married mother), each with a different last name.  The kids were generally well-behaved and appeared to enjoy everything about church.  It was probably the most Christian thing we did there.  I did my best at preaching (from my Seminary perspective), visited the elderly on a regular basis, did some hospital visitation in Glasgow, and had a fruitless ‘counseling’ experience with a desperately unhappy 30-something married woman.  I found the first of several true saints I’ve encountered in church—Mrs. Mayme Lawson and her daughter, Lizzie. I’ve pondered since what ‘makes’ such people—is ‘it’ available to all?  Vacation Bible Schools and a couple of revivals, a summer wedding in a blistering hot church, a memorable baptism of a surprisingly strong elderly woman, and a funeral or two made up our ministry at Canmer.  Not really much ‘spiritual growth’ on anyone’s part, including mine, but I did “what I was supposed to do.”  When, in 1973, I became an Instructor in the doctoral program at Southern Seminary (I had decided by then to pursue a career as an academic), I resigned at Canmer, and we became members at the splendid Highland Baptist in the Highlands of Louisville.

    From the Spring of 1974 on, life was mostly academic—even a great trip to Europe in the summer of 1971 had been mostly academic-- but a grand adventure.  It appeared as if I was on track to replace Dr. Penrose St.Amant as a professor in the church history department, so I entered into my teaching duties with great enthusiasm, to the detriment of my dissertation—bad move.  When it became clear that the job was going to Bill Leonard, a genuine superstar Ph.D. from Boston University, it was a tough blow.  From “certainty” to “nothing”, it felt.  At some point in the next months, I encountered something more or less supernatural.  Almost in desperation, I attended a Wednesday evening prayer meeting at Highland Baptist.  The small group read a ‘responsive reading’ from the hymnal, part of which was the part of II Corinthians where Paul speaks of ‘comfort’—I was very grateful and found it very comforting!

    Somehow I managed to finish my dissertation with the help of all sorts of people, especially my unflappable typist David Hicks and a quick trip to Louisville by Grandmamma and Mark to help me collate the monster in June, 1975.  In the fall of 1975 one of my several part-time jobs was as interim pastor at a small Baptist Church in Irvington, KY, where I learned that maybe I could do this ‘pastor’ thing—and not exclusively be a professor.  Interim pastor, substitute teacher in Jefferson County, indexer in the Library, grounds crew worker—you name it, I did it, because in late 1975 we learned that Cory was on the way.