Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Until it Becomes Your Own

I experienced a holy moment in worship on Sunday.  Perhaps some would be surprised and even disappointed to hear that some Sundays go by for preachers without experiencing any particular "holy moments," even though worship is both holy and sacred space.  But this Sunday, on a Palm Sunday celebrated minus the palms (oops - that fell through the cracks!), in a worship space filled with our regular attendance plus a third, in a space often dominated by gray and white hair, but which held more babies and children than I could count, filled with the beautiful music that babies make, I experienced a truly holy moment.  I presided over the baptism of a baby - a first for us in our ministry here.

I held Kingston and looked him in the eyes, trying to project my voice without a microphone without yelling in his ears.  I said to Kingston, "For you, little one, the Spirit of God moved over the waters at creation, and the Lord God made covenants with his people.  It was for you that the Word of God became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth. For you, Kingston Thomas, Jesus Christ suffered death crying out at the end, "It is finished!"  For you Christ triumphed over death, rose in newness of life, and ascended to rule over all. All of this was done for you, little one, though you do not know any of this yet. But we will continue to tell you this good news until it becomes your own."  As I baptized him in the name of the Triune God, I was overcome by the presence of the Holy Spirit.

During the prayer after baptism, Kingston reached down into the font to slap at the water, and I switched my arms to hold him "superman" style so that he could splash away.  Yes, Kingston, play in this water.  Let it splash over you, and remember it well.  Experience the joy of the Holy Spirit.  Return to this water frequently.  As you bathe, remember that you are a child of God.  When you jump through puddles and get caught in the rain, remember that God has claimed you as God's own.  When you experience heartache and tears roll down your face, be comforted by the Holy Spirit.  Remember these waters and be grateful.

After the service, an Elder in the church, who is pregnant with her first child, a son, who is due in July, approached me.  She and her husband (who grew up in the Baptist church) have talked and feel like they want their son to be able to choose baptism for himself.  They want him to actually remember his baptism, and so they want us to dedicate him after he is born.  Can Presbyterians do that?  Sure, I said.

I was not born into the Presbyterian Church, and I was dedicated to God on November 29th, 1979 - three months to the day after I was born.  Seven years later, on November 29th, 1987, I was baptized - immersed by my father, in the Assemblies of God church where my grandfather was pastor.  I remember my baptism.  I remember making the decision to be baptized, professing my faith and sharing my story in front of the congregation, speaking into the microphone with the big foam head covering (orange, I think).  I was dying to my old life and being reborn to a new life.  I remember my baptism, and I am grateful for those memories.  The elder was also baptized when she was older, and she remembers her baptism.  She wants her son to have the same opportunity.

I appreciate that, and in our theology there is no need to "rush" baptism.  We baptize youth and adults, as well as babies.  There are also those who were baptized as infants or youth, who went through some wild years, who desire to reaffirm their new life, and to be baptized again.  That, we don't do.  There is no need for it.  We can offer a reaffirmation of the baptismal vows, complete with water from the font, which is a good liturgical practice for the whole church.  But there is no need to be baptized again, no matter what has transpired in between.

When I baptized Kingston, I gave a brief retelling of our faith, but I also acknowledged that he did not know it yet, but we would continue to tell him until it became his own.  Baptism is a beginning.  In Jesus Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are always being transformed, always a work in progress.  Baptism is not like a diet - a new lifestyle that we choose to start "tomorrow."  If - and WHEN - we fail to uphold our baptismal vows, we do not start all over again, or quit in frustration.

When I was seven, I wanted to be baptized.  I had grown up hearing the stories of faith, nurtured in the Christian tradition, and it was becoming my own.  My decision to be baptized was an informed one.  I felt called and claimed by God and I responded to that claim by coming to be baptized.  And yet, my baptism didn't keep me from making some poor decisions.  My baptism didn't keep me in church when I was in college, or after I graduated.  Though I walked apart from the church for a while, God's call and claim on my life was still there, even if I fought it.  I experienced God's grace in my life not because I had chosen to be baptized, and not because of any choice that I made.  I experienced God's grace in spite of myself.

I thoroughly believe that what takes place in baptism happens not because of our choice or agency, but because of God's free choice of us.  God chooses us.  God claims us, in spite of ourselves.  That is the story of our faith heritage.  That is the story that we are told, that we recite, and that becomes our own not by our own virtue, but through the power of the Holy Spirit.  We respond to God's grace, and presenting ourselves or our children for baptism is a response to God's grace, but it is still God's grace that enables our response.

The practice of baptizing infants, in my mind, underscores the fact that it is not we who choose God, but God who chooses us.  Thank God for that.  An infant cannot make the choice to be baptized.  An infant cannot rely on his or her own understanding, learning, or action.  Children are as helpless as any of us, but unlike with us, there is no pretense in children that they have it all together.  We learn to put up that pretense later (though some of us learn it earlier than others).  Yet Jesus calls us to follow him as children, to embrace our helplessness and our dependence.  We affirm our baptismal vows "with God's help."  Whether we are six months or sixty years old, we are equally in need of God's grace and God's love, always in need of the nurture and care of the body of Christ, always in need of God's help to live into the calling to which we have been called.

I thank God for the mystery of the sacraments, for the ways in which God uses the ordinary elements of daily life as signs and seals of God's extraordinary grace.  I thank God for the holy moments in worship that startle us our of the reality we work so hard to create and startle us into the reality of God's love and presence that we cannot create or control, but only receive and experience as grateful beneficiaries.  Thanks be to God.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Practically (Im)Perfect

If the prospect of being seen reading a book with the "Self-Help" bookstore category label on the back makes you squirm, The Gifts of Imperfection is probably a book you need to read.  As I read this book, I was completely aware of the irony of feeling the need to hide what I was reading - a book from shame researcher Brene Brown, Ph.D., LMSW.  I was thankful to read in the "Final Thoughts" a disclaimer of sorts, "Despite where this book will be shelved in your local bookstore, I'm not at all sure that this work is about self-help." 

You see, those of us who struggle with perfectionism (when we are in a healthy enough place to admit it), dislike the idea of "self-help."  Certain images and associations come to mind.  Better label this "critical and reflective introspection," or something along those lines, and it will be easier to swallow.  As the title suggests, however, this book encourages the perfectionist in each of us to let go of caring about what others think, so however you label this book, and where ever you might find it, I would definitely recommend reading it.

This book has two subtitles: "Let God of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are," and "Your Guide to a Wholehearted Life."  I think the second subtitle is more descriptive of the contents.  The first sounds like a simple, "I'm ok, you're ok" book, which this is not.  Brown collected nearly 10,000 stories from individuals that she considers to be "wholehearted," and from those stories, draws connections to highlight 10 guideposts for wholehearted living.  Before one can get to those guideposts, however, one must look at "The Things That Get in the Way" of wholehearted living, including shame, anxiety, and the voices inside our heads that say, "I will be enough when..."  Between recognizing the things that get in the way of wholehearted living and incorporating practices to cultivate the guideposts of wholeheartedness, there are plenty of challenges to tackle.  Thankfully, if you're a perfectionist, you just might be determined enough to give it a go.

The "Gifts of Imperfection" Brown identifies as courage (speaking one's heart), compassion (recognizing shared humanity), and connection (energy that exists between people when they are seen, heard, and valued).  A key ingredient to wholeheartedness is having the courage to be vulnerable, to speak one's fears, shame, anxieties, and deep emotions with individuals who have earned the right to hear us.  I won't be baring all on my blog, facebook, or Twitter feed, but I have been discovering the gift of real vulnerability with individuals who have earned the right to hear me.  The road to true connection has to bypass self-sufficiency, which is something that I have prided in myself for a long time.  Brown importantly notes that true compassion is also accompanied by appropriate boundaries - setting them and holding others accountable to them.  Being vulnerable and compassionate, sharing our shame, embarrassment, and failures, is a very scary step to take, but when done in the appropriate contexts, with the appropriate people, it is the only path to true connection.

I found myself really resonating with the author, and I bet that I am not alone in that.  For anyone who finds themselves veering towards the lone wolf, self-sufficient, able to do it all mode of being, this is a must-read.  Though there are spiritual pieces to the work, it is not religiously based.  However, I think it would be an important read for most pastors - or at least those like me who feel intense internal and external pressure to be perfect (in the myriad of definitions of perfection that are thrust upon us).

I still have some processing to do, and I just might need to keep the book handy for a while as a reference.  While I work to let go of who I think I am supposed to be, does anyone know where I can buy some book covers?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Wellbeing - The art of Being Well

I just finished a 10-day course of antibiotics.  A little over a week and a half ago, in the midst of a very stressful week, I felt a swollen spot just under my jaw line that was tender to the touch, and I felt generally run down.  I searched webmd.com to try to discern whether it merited a trip to the doctor, and I finally called and went in to see him.  On my way out, I realized that I have been to the doctor more frequently in the two and a half years we have been here than I ever have anywhere else in my life.  At first I was getting upper-respiratory infections every six months or so - a combination of the many central Kentucky allergens and shaking too many hands after worship, but in the past year, it has gone to every 4 months, and my course of antibiotics that I just finished last week was my third in 3 1/2 months.  I have also increased the frequency of visits to my chiropractor, who informed me that I have the kind of body that manifests stress in physical ways.  Beyond the tight muscles and misalignments, my stress is literally making me sick!

Back in Seminary I started to do something I hadn't ever really done: I began to work out regularly.  By my final year of Seminary, I was working out almost every day, using a combination of boot camp fitness classes, weight and cardio training, and yoga to stay in shape.  I found that when life got particularly stressful, working out was absolutely necessary - I craved it, as much as I craved water after boot camp.  Then Andy and I met and were traveling back and forth, busy with wedding planning, finishing up our coursework, and getting ready to make major transitions, and going to the gym fell by the wayside.  I remember canceling my membership in March with great sadness, realizing that with my travel schedule alone, the most I would be able to go to the gym would be about 1 day a week.  Andy had also been in a regular exercise routine, so both of us wanted to prioritize getting back into a schedule of working out once we got settled.

Once we got settled.  After graduation, we moved out of our two apartments and lived in Montreat, NC for the summer.  Then we were loosely based in Virginia for a few months while we traveled, interviewed, and negotiated our terms of call to come to Kentucky.  Once here, it took us a while to get settled in, but we finally found a gym to join in April two years ago.  Then we bought a house, and had the move... and let's face it, it can be really hard to find time to work out when your mornings are in the office, your afternoons and evenings are variable but often in meetings, and so on...

Finally, about two months ago, I began to do what I never thought I could do - wake up early to get moving.  At first, I was just walking.  For half an hour.  That's it.  Now I am trying to make it to the gym to do training and cardio work each morning.  It is really hard to get to bed at a decent hour to get enough sleep to make that sustainable, but I am trying.  This morning, however, I woke up to the 6am alarm only to fall back asleep again, waking up just before 7 - too late to make it to the gym.  I agonized over whether to get up and go for a walk (but it was still dark), to do some body-weight exercises in the living room, or whether to stay in bed and get the sleep I so desperately needed.  Finally, I got up and went into the living room to do some stretching and work on the foam roller (soft tissue), and to read the morning lectionary.  I have still been feeling badly about missing the workout this morning, trying to figure out when I can get one in today (hopefully after a committee meeting tonight, if it doesn't go too long).

I don't eat as well as I should.  I don't exercise as much as I should.  I know there are things I should be doing to take better care of myself so that I stay healthy, grounded, and in balance.  This morning I came across the new site, runrevrun.net, and read an entry by Bethany Stolle.  In looking back on a journal entry from three years ago she writes, "Three years later, I still get mad at my scale. And I’ll go through phases where my eating habits look like a picky toddler’s. But I’m committed. To exercise at least three times per week. To try to eat healthier. And to forgive myself and keep moving forward."

I am thankful for the reminder that part of the art of being well involves the willingness and ability to forgive ourselves for failing to live up to the expectations that we set, in order that we might keep moving forward.  I may or may not get to the gym today.  But that is ok.  I'll keep moving forward tomorrow.