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.

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