We Will

On Sunday morning our family walked up and stood in front of the church I have been called to help lead. Me, I’m used to that. In fact, it’s expected. It is, despite my serious introversion, a job requirement.

My wife doesn’t enjoy being up front; she avoids it at almost all costs. My daughter, at least so far, is happy as long as there is somewhere to sleep and a pacifier nearby. And yet, there Erin and I were, standing with our daughter and our parents while everyone else stared at us as we prepared to answer some questions from a preacher.

They weren’t just any questions either, but questions about our faith. We were asked what we believe is most fundamentally true – about God and the world that God loves. We were asked about life – particularly the kind of life we believe is worth living, the life we want for ourselves and the one we want for our daughter. We were asked about our commitments – what we were willing to do and what we weren’t willing to do.

Question 1: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sin?

We do.

Question 2: Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

We do.

Question 3: Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations and races?

We do.

Question 4: Will you nurture your daughter in Christ’s holy Church, that by your teaching and example she may be guided to accept God’s grace for herself, to profess her faith openly and to lead a Christian life?

We will.

Serious questions these are, questions that require serious answers. There’s nothing that forces you to come to grips with what you really believe is important quite like trying to raise a child.

My wife and I were raised in two different church traditions, particularly when it comes to baptism. She grew up in a tradition that prefers adult baptism and infant dedication. I grew up in one that practices infant baptism and mostly teenage confirmation.

Before our daughter was born we had plenty of conversations about the sacrament– when and how it would be offered if we had a child, why each tradition made sense and what it all meant to receive the waters and blessing of being baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And so we made the walk from our seats to the front of the church Sunday not in respect to tradition or out of some ecclesial obligation, but because of what we have come to believe is true about the way God works in our lives and in the world.

We looked at each other and smiled as we heard a friend pronounce the words over our daughter:

I baptize you in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Because this we believe – these questions are impossible to truthfully answer yes to on our own.

Sin and evil lurk around every corner and find their way into our lives when we are looking and when we aren’t. How could we possibly reject them by ourselves?

Rejecting evil, injustice and oppression is a supersized task, even if the freedom does come from God. There isn’t a day that goes by when we aren’t aware – even as privileged and relatively comfortable people – of the injustices and evils and oppression that friends and neighbors face on a near constant basis. Rejecting these is God-sized work.

The very nature of faith is trust and yet we are keenly aware of how easy it is to place trust in other things – reputation, money, popularity, and comfort just to name a few. And while the Gospel breaks down every barrier, many of which we don’t name in the liturgy, I admit that I’m still pretty good at clinging to the old identities and ways of being.

And then there’s the real tough one – that our lives are to be examples to our daughter that will lead her to Christ. We’re supposed to live in such a way that she will reject the idolatries of the world and find freedom from the sins that bind us and might bind her. It isn’t our intellect or powers of persuasion that we are being asked to affirm, but the integrity of how we try to follow Jesus.

How could anyone say yes to these questions?

And yet there we were, declaring with boldness and confidence that we will resist evil and oppression, that we will  live in the freedom of God, that we will put our whole trust in God’s grace and that our lives will bear witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

We did it because we know that the same grace our daughter was receiving in the water – the power to resist sin and grow in grace – was at work in our lives. The same grace that was drawing her to God before she is even aware of it is the same grace that is sustaining and pulling us forward in our life with God as well. Our own strength and faith commitments announce a dreary No. But with God’s grace, working in our lives and the lives of our faithful friends and community we can shout a joy-filled Yes.

Christ is alive. Grace is ever-present. God is at work.

Will you follow Jesus and show your daughter how to do the same?

Without reservation – We Will!

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The Grace Is In The Details

Sometimes you just need to spell it out – or at least when you are going to dump water on somebody.

I’ve been thinking a lot about baptism lately. I know, something only preachers probably do, but at least I have an excuse. It all started with Jason’s Micheli’s wonderful piece on infant baptism over at Jesus Creed and then it continued when we remembered our baptisms to begin 2015 at my church a few weeks ago and continued this past Sunday when I had the privilege to participate in an adult baptism.

WaterIn my particular context for following Jesus, the United Methodist Church – whenever someone is baptized, whether that someone is a committed adult making a conscious decision or an infant who doesn’t know what church is much less how they are going to reject the forces of evil – we affirm that the sacrament is an act that involves more than God, the preacher and the person about to receive the water. No, instead baptism takes place in the context of a community of sacramental faith and discipleship; it involves the people in the pews, the chairs, the benches, or wherever they are gathered for worship.  And so they have to answer some questions too, about whether they will commit to helping the newly baptized live out the earth-shaking promises they have just made.   

It usually goes something like this:

“With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ.We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God, and be found faithful in their service to others.We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.” – United Methodist Book of Worship Service of the Baptismal Covenant I

And most of us can admit that at one point or another we have mumbled through this, skipped a word or two or even missed the whole thing while waiting to move on to the next part of worship. That’s a shame, though.  Because I have become more and more convinced that this is one of the most important parts of the whole deal, more important than how many people surround the one being baptized or even how cute a baby looks during the obligatory pictures.

It’s why I’ve come to appreciate the leaders who not only showcase the newly baptized to the congregation, but in so doing remind us just what we are committing to.  It’s at this moment that the church comes together to declare its purpose and how it will play a part in being a conveyor of God’s grace to the newly baptized.  It’s at this moment that the church will come together and say you aren’t on your own, you aren’t in this by yourself, that when faith gets hard and you don’t know where to turn you can turn to us, and we’ll show you the way because we’ve been in your shoes and we’ve come out the other side.  It’s at this point that we say boldly and in unison that we are willing to share our stories with you, to walk beside you and to let you know how we made it and how we have remained  faithful in the good times and especially in the bad ones.

The truth is that we don’t experience God’s power and grace in general affirmations or overly spiritual language. No, we feel the power of grace in the specific, in the particular, in the times and places where we really need it, when in the middle of our calendars and schedules God breaks in and we experience something so divine that we know it can only come from a power beyond ourselves. And that’s why in our promise to walk with the newly baptized, we should get specific.  We need, in this beautiful and powerful moment of God’s grace breaking in to another life, to get concrete and go into the real life stuff, the ways and the places where we really experience this grace. So, I wish we would say something like this:

– We will commit to actually being fully devoted disciples of Jesus and to live our faith in such a way that you know what a fully committed follower of Jesus looks like because they are all around you.  You will worship with them, you will learn with them, you will serve with them at the soup kitchen and see them sharing life in your family.

– We will commit to seriously studying and learning and applying the Bible – the beautiful story of God’s ever expanding covenant that now includes you – in a way that will not bore you but inspire you and spark your imagination.

– We will commit to being with you and staying in covenant with you when you ask different questions than we do, when you struggle with the hard questions and when you provoke us to examine our accepted ways of life in light of the way, the truth and the life of Jesus.  We can do this, even when its tough and painful, because we take seriously what Jesus said when he promised he would always be with us.

– We will commit to wrestling with and searching for who God is in such a way that we will help you face the biggest questions of life, because belief in the Incarnation means that the Gospel has something to say about every aspect of the human condition.  Our faith isn’t scared of questions of war or politics or violence or inequality or health, human relationships or countless other life-shaking and life-shaping issues. We’ll promise to help you as you come to terms for yourself with how an ancient story intersects with the rapidly changing world of the 21st Century as we connect with people of different faiths, live in a global world brought into our homes and hands, and experience the struggle to find a way of hope between the division, polarity and cynicism of our shared life together.

– We commit to being with you in the good times and the bad, rejoicing when you rejoice and weeping with when you weep, praying for you and loving you – all while bringing you casseroles and coffee.

– We commit to living and helping you live a life of meaning and beauty and truth so you can see and know that following Jesus isn’t only about where you spend the hereafter but is the best way to thrive as you live your life in the here and now.

This of course would make the worship service a whole lot longer, and there are plenty of other things we could say, plenty of other truths we could promise to live out, plenty other situations in which we could make vows to be the hands and feet of Christ to the newly baptized.  

But to get specific, to drill down into the grime and the grit of real life, reminds us that baptism isn’t the end but the beginning, it helps us remember the promises made at our own baptism, it helps us recall the ways that God has been faithful in our lives, it brings to mind the larger-than-our-life-purpose of the church that can get lost in our attempts to make the mission of God safe and comfortable, and it sends us out into the world more aware of the obstacles we face and the incredible opportunities we have to experience and share God’s grace in a hungry and hurting world.

I’ve grown up in this particular tribe of the Church, and like so many I left it only to be drawn back to it, and I have been identified as one of its leaders in one of the turns of God’s way I never saw coming.  I was baptized before I was aware of it, without a choice in the matter, and certainly without any say in what I wore to the event.

And yet I have experienced over and over again, in ways typical and radical, the grace that comes from people taking seriously that promise they made, when they prayed for me when I was struggling, taught me in word and deed what following Jesus looked like, held onto me when I wasn’t sure I could hold onto the church anymore, showed me how to forgive someone even when that was the last thing I wanted to do, saw gifts in me that I never saw in myself and who reminded me again and again that no matter what, I belonged to God.

We do these things each and every day.  We take seriously what it means to be a community who walk with the baptized.

So let’s start saying it – together.

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