Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A Beautiful Summer Morning Outdoors with Coffee and Conversation

A couple of weeks ago I had an appointment to meet a young woman whose wedding I officiated at a few years ago.  She and her husband are not members of my congregation; I got to know them through her grandmother, who I knew quite well as a devout and active member.  ("She talked about Jesus all the time," someone said about her at her funeral.)

I had enjoyed getting to know this young couple during our pre-marital sessions.  I remembered their wedding on a September evening in a nearby park.  I remembered how fun it was.  Occasionally, I would still run into them because of our church and family connections.  But lately, she had been emailing me regarding baptism for their two young children.

We have a policy that we baptize people at one of our church services (although I have been known to bend this rule for extenuating circumstances).  We also, generally speaking, baptize the children of members of the congregation.  There have been times when complete strangers call us on the phone and ask if we will just baptize their child.  They have never been to our church before, and they they don't intend to become regular attenders.  They just wonder if we will "do a baptism."

In these instances, it is not so difficult to say "no."

But this was different.  I had a relationship with this couple.  I wanted to know what they were thinking about; I wanted to know about their faith, their questions, their convictions, their doubts.  So one summer morning we set up an appointment to have coffee.

We got caught up with each other's lives.  I learned a little about their two young boys, the ones who would be baptized.  We talked about the importance of growing up in a faith community, the connection between baptism and the people who will help the baptized grow in their faith.

She talked about how hard it was to find a church, although they had visited several.  They just hadn't found the right one yet.  She confessed that the church she liked the best so far was the church her mother went to.  But that church only had baby dedications, not baptisms, and they felt they wanted more for their children.

So we talked a little bit about the difference between baptism and dedication, me being careful to speak with the utmost respect about the practice of baby dedication, even though it is not my tradition.  I also recommended some churches of our denomination in her neighborhood that I thought they might like.  Then I asked (because I was curious):

"Just what is it about your mother's church that your like so well?"

As it turns out, there were two practices that attracted her to this faith community.  At worship, there was a time for people to get up and tell stories about their faith.  These were genuine, warm and truthful moments for her.  She wanted to belong to a community where people shared their faith.

The other practice that attracted her was service.  This congregation gave her opportunities to serve.

It was not the choir, not the dynamic preaching, not even the warm personality of the senior pastor.  It was not the theology (liberal or conservative), not the architecture, not the amazing array of educational programs.

It was the ability to share faith, and the commitment to service. 

Now I know that this was an isolated conversation, just one anecdote.  But something rings true about it for me, as a mainline Christian in a denomination that I am convinced still has a lot to offer.  We don't even know how much most of the time.  We take beautiful liturgy for granted.  We don't often plumb the depths of our own theology, all of the wideness of grace amid the persistent questions.  

I am convinced that mainline Christians have a lot to offer the world.  But I am also convinced that we have some things to learn.  For example, we have to get over our reticence in speaking about our faith.  Whether we know it or not, we do have a faith story, that we have many faith stories, and we need to learn to tell them, too.  This is something we need to learn from our evangelical brothers and sisters, from the richness of their traditions.  

We need to learn to testify.  We need to learn to testify to the goodness of God in our lives.  

We don't have to hand out tracts, and we don't have to accost people on street corners.  We just have to learn to say, "Here's where I saw God last week."

He was in a stranger that I met; he was in the streak of sunlight that fell across the page of a book I was reading;  He was in a conversation I had, a conversation with coffee on a summer morning.


8thday said...

I really don’t understand why churches will not baptize children unless at least one parent is a member of the church. When my partner and I had children, there were no churches that would let us join openly as a couple and we struggled to find a church that would baptize our children. We finally found one church that had “separate but equal” gay services and they graciously conducted a beautiful baptism at one of those services. Unfortunately the church was too far away for us to consider joining or attending on a regular basis. But we are forever grateful for this one church that accepted and baptized our children out of love and not rules.

Diane Roth said...

I would say that your situation is a poster child for exceptions to the 'rule.' And I don't think of it as a rule in terms of membership (what does it mean to be a member) but a desire to have an ongoing relationship with a family, since baptism for me is entry into a community of faith as well as a relationship with Jesus.

my desire would never be to just say 'no' (or even just say 'yes'), but always to want to have a relationship with the family, get to know them, find out what their questions, concerns, desires are.

8thday said...

Of course, it is really no great fun to be the poster child for anything.

I think I have always had difficulty with this kind of exclusion for baptism because I always thought of it as being welcomed into the family of Christians, not the family of a particular church. But I am curious (if you have the time to respond ) - according to your post, for the sacraments of baptism and marriage someone should ideally be a member of your church. Is that true of all the sacraments, say communion? And if not, why not?

Diane Roth said...

well, it appears that I phrased that wrongly. I don't think of this as a rule, and no, I don't think that people are baptized only into my church. So, communion is for all believers, not just people who are active in my congregation.

I suppose what I mean is that people are making promises when a baby or young child is baptized, that they will be active participants in a particular community. It doesn't have to be mine, and it doesn't have to be my denomination, even. But that's the congregation where the baptism is occurring, so it seems like it might be a candidate for the particular community a family might associate with.

Curtis G said...

Baptism is not about the child. Baptism is about the community. It doesn't make sense to baptize when there is no intent to be part of the community in some way.

8thday said...

Yes, Diane has been very helpful in educating me about that perspective. Unfortunately though, looking through that lens - “it doesn’t make any sense to baptize when there is no intent to be part of the community” - that would render my children’s baptism senseless, as we had no intent (and the congregation knew we had no intent) of joining the church where they were baptized. And I really don’t believe their baptisms were senseless.

I guess my ignorance goes more to the definition of “part of the community.” Many churches say that means a particular church community (as in at least one parent has to be part of the church doing the baptizing). I would take it to mean the universal community of faith, however a person chooses to define and practice that for themselves. But I do realize I am spitting into the wind.

Diane Roth said...

Hi Curtis and 8th Day: I am going to say a couple of things, not complete responses by any means.

Curtis: I don't believe that baptism is only about the community and not the child. It is a both/and, not an either/or.

so 8th day: I do not believe your children's baptisms were senseless. Neither would Martin Luther. In the church in the last couple of decades or so, there has been a reaction against a sort of 'cultural expectations' view of baptism, where some people want to have their children baptized just because that is what their family has always done. Sometimes this push back is a good thing, but Lutherans also want to emphasize grace, so it's a tough dance. and the concrete particular community of faith that people choose to be nurtured in and the larger family of God: you are baptized into both of them. that is not an either or, but a both/and.

I am just leaving this post up for a little while longer but then I am going to delete and re-write. I do believe that I will write something about baptism, but I want to re-write this one to emphasize more my conversation with this young woman, and what I learned from it.

then can deal with the thorny issue of baptism in another post all its own, complicated by the fact that every denomination has its own perspective on what God does in baptism and why it is important.