October 31, 2007

Baptismal Renewal

This article was submitted to our denomination's Office of Theology and Worship after a request for stories from local congregations about attempts to bring renewal to our sacramental practice. Read other examples of submissions here.

I serve a kirk of 140 active members, with 80-100 in worship every week. Over the years we've made a lot of small and subtle changes to bring baptism to the forefront of the congregation's worship. I was touched to have one of my older members say last year, "You know, I never knew there was so much to know about our baptism until these recent years. Who knew?!" 

One easy change we have made has to do with involving the congregation immediately after the baptism. I've never been a big fan of pastors "parading" a child up and down the aisle, as if it were a beauty pageant with the pastor as Master of Ceremonies. Among other issues, this seems only to reinforce the common idea that what we are really celebrating is the sweetness and light of infants.  Besides, would a pastor hike a newly baptized adult in his arms and carry him/her up and down the aisle?  Of course not. Yet this dichotomy illustrates how we tend to view infant and adult baptism as two separate and different acts. 

I thought for a long time about how to flip the show-and-tell-moment over, preserving the intended act of celebration but shedding the pageantry and solo role of the pastor. So, instead of the pastor taking the initiative and parading the child back and forth (plus the problem of having no corresponding action for baptized adults), immediately following the prayer and laying on of hands I invite the congregation to come forward, row by row, to greet the newly baptized child (or adult.) I place our large and generous wooden font in the aisle just before the family and child, such that each member must come forward, come into contact with the font (I usually invite them to dip their hand in the water and "remember" their own baptism), then move to greet the child.

I begin this whole effort by saying to the child: "____, this is the body of Christ."  Then to the congregation I say, "Body of Christ, this is ____.  Let us welcome ___ in the name of our Lord Jesus." 

The first few times, I helped the congregation understand my expectation of them by describing it as being similar to sharing in communion by Intinction:  Come forward to the font (table), greet (partake), and return to your pew. This makes for a simple yet deliberate action. As people are coming forward to greet, we usually sing Baptized in Water or some other appropriate hymn. And rather than returning to their pews, I normally have them leave the font and take a place around the perimeter of the inside walls forming a large circle for more singing, further prayer, and/or the charge and benediction.

What the congregation has come to love is that they now get to take the initiative to come and greet. Instead of the pastor being the star, they get to be the stars, so to speak.  That is to say, they are able to enact what they have just promised instead of just sitting and watching.  Best of all, this practice works just as well with adults, who are greeted with handshakes, hugs, and warm well wishes.

This practice goes a long way towards preserving the unity of infant and adult baptism, not to mention getting us away from the more passive role of a traditional Reformed congregation: holy onlookers. Our congregation has come to love this part of baptism, looking forward to it and getting pretend-angry with me if I tinker with the logistics of it too much! 

For All the Saints

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

—William Walsham How, 1864

I miss my grandfather. I miss him a lot.

I miss his gentle demeanor, his conciliatory style. He had to be this way, I imagine, to put up with the likes of my fiery, dispensationalist grandmother. People often looked to him in moments of conflict. His even-tempered, Big Easy style was a balm to many in tense times.

I miss his quiet, consistent Christian example. He was a Presbyterian's Presbyterian. The more decent and orderly the worship service, the more Christian it seemed to him. He liked being Clerk of his Session, giving glory to God with every little dotted "i" and crossed "t." And he was a pragmatist: Show me what this looks like in real life, preacher. His gospel was that of the ordinary man, the everyman, which more than anything else accounts for why he had the respect of those who daily worked below him. Probably because he believed, he never got too big for his britches. Still, he dressed to the nines on Sunday morning—an hourly warehouse manager at home among the double-breasted suits of 1950s midtown New Orleans. How is it that a man can fill out a sport coat with both humility and pride?

I miss him a great deal, and that pathos is made more poignant by the fact that I never had the chance to meet him. His heart gave out nearly two decades before my birth. Add to this loss the fact that I bear his name.

Call me crazy, but when over the years the going has gotten rough for me, I've found myself opening up my laptop and tapping away more than a few letters to him. What should I do? What's the right and wrong here? Did you ever get discouraged? confused? Of course I've never sent these notes anywhere, nor do I imagine he is necessarily on the "other end" of my pretend communications. Mostly I just find it helps a little to dabble in his memory. I'd like to think that somehow I am an inheritor of his Christian faith as much as I am his faded royal blue recliner that sits under wraps in my basement, badly in need of new upholstery.

Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us … (Hebrews 12:1)

I've never quite been certain what Hebrews means, metaphysically speaking, by a "cloud of witnesses." The precise architecture of the rest known to those who die in Christ is not known to me, though I am acquainted with the provocative Biblical clues. Yet the promise in 12:1 that we are not alone in this pilgrimage, that those faith-travelers who have walked before us somehow cheer us on even now, this is more than a bit encouraging to me. I know this much: I feel a strong and personal connection to a man I never met, and this bond is tied up more in our shared Christ-faith than in the simple fact of our shared biology. His example encourages me in desperate hours; his consistency gives me something for which to strive. His legacy surrounds me like a brooding cloud.

To be sure, the feet of those saints who have gone on before us were made of just as much clay as our own. It is not our place to idealize them, much less worship them. To whitewash their brokenness only obscures the very gospel many of them sought to teach us. What we give thanks for in our remembering, I think, are those rays of God's suffusing grace that shine through their lingering clouds of witness. We see through them, as it were, to catch here and there a glimpse of the living Christ and his good way.

Ralph Acey Hawkins was his name. He was yet another sinner-turned-saint by the inscrutable grace of God—made by the Father, claimed by the Son, sustained by the Spirit between them. We never met, he and I. Yet, strangely and wonderfully, we share a lasting bond, mostly because we share a living Lord. I very much look forward to meeting him in the promised resurrection to come.

But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Thursday is All Saints Day. Take more than a moment to thank the living God for the indelible gift of those family and friends who have gone on before you, especially those who have left faith, hope, and love in their wake. If you can name even one, you have much to treasure on the morrow.

October 25, 2007

Stewardship Fires

The topic at hand was the destructive fires currently raging in Southern California. Someone in the group posed a provocative question: If you had only ten minutes to return to your home before it burned to the ground, what would you take from it?

That question stayed with me all day, and it started me thinking about what would be in my own arms if I emerged from my house after 10 minutes of choosing what was most important to me. I further considered that the contents of my armload of possessions would certainly say a lot about who I am. Take a moment and ask yourself: What would you run in for if you knew everything else was going away? After all, there's nothing like a crisis for making tough but quick stewardship decisions.

The question of how we believers should treat our "stuff" is a tricky one. It seems to me that Christianity has historically had trouble deciding whether or not followers of Jesus should be ascetics. An ascetic is one who deliberately chooses to shun material goods and possessions for the sake of religious devotion. I note that many of us are prone to admire ascetics when we come upon them in history—monks, nuns, certain missionaries, the Amish, etc.—but I suspect few of us would actually be willing to live as one! (Maybe ascetics, like lions, are best viewed from afar.)

But then again, maybe we are not all called to shun possessions. To be sure, Jesus' response to the rich young ruler in Mark 10 rings vociferously in our ears of faith—"Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven." But I think this command must be balanced against the psalmists' gratitude for all of God's good gifts, as in Psalm 8 and similar prayers:

You have given [us] dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Generally, the Bible celebrates God's good provision in our lives, even while warning against hoarding, excess, and idolatry. As such, I think we Christians can celebrate with the Psalmist and embrace the good material gifts God entrusts to us without worshipping or hoarding those good gifts in a way that would prompt Jesus' strong Mark 10 command. It is not possessions, per se, but the worship of those possessions, our grasping them too tightly, that makes it hard to follow the Jesus-way. So, yes, run into your home and scoop up those possessions that are most essential to the stewardship of your life, loves, and labors. What you emerge holding may in fact be signs and symbols of God's grace in your life.

Asceticism, if a Christian feels called to it, is a good and right response to the gospel, no doubt. But a lively and generous stewardship and sharing of what we do possess can be just as faithful, for our worship of God in Christ necessarily loosens our tight grip on things as we learn to trust in God and God's gifts for labor, love, and life. Thus Paul can remind us: God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:8)

So when about this time of year we start talking again about stewardship season, we are not simply referring to the money we need to run the church. This is a crucial part of it, to be sure, but only a part. Stewardship is, more basically, that daily act of Christians whereby we consider all the gifts Christ entrusts to us—time, talent, treasure, etc.—and make good decisions on what to keep, what to share, and what to give away. It is, finally, an act of worship as much as it is an act of the wallet.

God forbid any of us ever be faced with the rush of a 10 minute decision because our home is being threatened by the abhorrent elements. Still, the mental exercise of deciding "what we would grab" may be worth it every now and then, if nothing else to remind us of what truly is important in this God-given, God-saved, God-blessed life.

October 24, 2007

Acorns Abound

He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches. - Matthew 13

About this time of year, my yard is riddled with the presuming spread of the nearest oak tree. And with each bothersome crunch under my foot, I cannot decide if my tall, wooded friend is supremely arrogant or merely hedging his bets. Either way, he casts a blanket of minuscule abundance all over my lawn—a thousand and one little deposits in a future not yet come to pass. Surely he sees the marvelous joke in all of this: one of these (looking up) from one of those (looking down)? Please. Only small things come in small packages. Where’s my rake?

And yet. Maybe the joke’s on me. Maybe in ways I am only just learning, those annoying little seeds are parables cracking open under foot. Maybe the germs of God’s great and final purposes litter our lives today.

It’s the great joke of the New Testament: Call us Jesus’ little band of nuts, slowly but surely taking root in a different kind of soil. One day soon: trees of life.

Now that’s funny.

October 11, 2007

How Good and Pleasant It Is

Last Sunday, October 7, was World Communion Sunday. In the evening on that day, some five dozen Christians from various congregations across our little community gathered for what we pastors have dubbed the Altavista Area Church Leadership Summit. In its fifth year, it is a time of worship, fellowship, and learning for all those leaders in our local congregations other than pastors. After all, “ministry” is not what preachers do; ministry is what Christians do together. Even better: Ministry is what the living God does. (His people are simply lucky enough to be included.) So it is, then, that we pastors gather our church leaders once a year and hope to bless them with encouragement and empowerment for the awesome tasks they have been given as stewards of Christ’s body.

What occurs to me is just how pleasant it is when Christians get together and don’t fight. No, really. Between getting my hair cut and reading my e-mails, sometimes I think the only thing I hear about churches is that they are falling apart. Christ’s body: riddled with triangular aches and pains. It’s not really always that bad, of course. But sometimes it can feel that way. (I occassionaly wonder if the sharers of such bad news somehow need it to be that bad.)

So imagine what a delight it is when seven different Christian denomination sit down around the Lord’s table together, break open the Word and break apart some Bread, and spend an evening talking about what makes for better leadership, and therefore better ministry. Differences among us? To be sure. There are plenty. From tastes in music to trends in worship to understandings on every major facet of Christian conviction—many of them passionately held. I’m certain there is plenty to keep us squirming and squabbling for some time.

But how much more generous is God’s gift of communion when, precisely in light of those many differences, God’s covenant family gathers for worship and work? It is not so much about the sometimes tired slogan of “unity within diversity.” Honestly, I think this gift appears more readily when there is maturity within humility. Finally, however, sweet communion is not something we can force into being. It is a pleasant gift from a gracious God. No wonder the Psalmist can break out in celebration as he does:

How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred live together in unity!
Psalm 133:1

Pictures and Conversations—Part 2

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”

—from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Several weeks ago, I pulled up to a stop light behind a car that had a leather-bound Bible wedged between its back headrests and the rear window. The book’s cover had been dulled by the sun to the point of nearly matching the faded upholstery in the car. Clearly, it had not moved from its shelf in quite some time. That’s a shame.

Whenever someone concludes that the Bible is a rather useless book—whether such a conclusion is actually declared or simply evidenced by an unworn cover and crisp pages—I can always tell that this person has never actually read it. After all, no one who has seriously walked in these extraordinary pages could ever be so dismissive. Between the true-to-life narratives in the Old Testament, the from-the-gut prayers of the psalmists, the in-your-face demands of the prophets, the curiously-quirky parables of Jesus, and the practical how-to bits in the epistles, I imagine that no one could truly engage this book and walk away unaffected. Yet in these frenzied times, too many possess Alice’s short attention span: One hasty glance and a snap decision is made as to the usefulness of a thing.

A Bible makes a poor window dressing, but its content makes for great conversation. And in fact, sprinkled throughout the canon are some truly great conversations. Surely this would delight Alice, whose attention, if not caught by glossy pictures, will at least be held by the back-and-forth of a good tête-à-tête. Indeed, a good conversation is a like playing a good tennis match: After a while of back-and-forth, back-and-forth, it’s not so much that you are playing a good game as it is a good game is playing you. It draws you in, changes you, affects you. A good conversation makes all the difference in a relationship. Just ask your spouse.

So, here are three conversations in the Bible that have captured and held my faith-imagination. I pray they will bless you as they have blessed me.

Joshua 24 – My grandmother Pauline stitched for every one of her Hawkins grandchildren a needlepoint of Joshua’s bold statement in this famous chapter of the Old Testament. Not certain if the people are really up to faith in this holiest of Gods, Joshua differentiates and at least speaks for himself: “… but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (24:15). Such words hang near the front of the manse.

Chapter 24 is a long conversation between Joshua and the people of Israel. Joshua’s time as their leader-pastor is growing short, and he knows it. He also knows that they have some serious decisions to make. He recounts for them God’s miraculous history in their midst, reminding them from whence they have come. Joshua almost paraphrases Francis Schaeffer’s famous question to the contemporary church: How should we then live? Indeed, faith in God always requires decisions. One cannot remain neutral before this God. There is no holiness in ambivalence. As such, what choices will we make this very day?

Read for yourself and listen to what resonates for you in Joshua 24.

Ezekiel 37 – As I’ve suggested in several sermons, I don’t think we Christians have much use for optimism, at least not when it is confused with hope. Optimism is often about trying to reinterpret reality with a positive spin. The danger comes when too much optimism gives birth to denial, and we are no longer in touch with what needs to be changed, mended, or transformed by God’s grace. Obsessive optimism makes one too numb to hurt … and therefore too numb to hope.

Round about Ezekiel chapter 37 in the Old Testament, things are bad for Israel. Really bad. The nation is decimated and in exile; they are deported from their homeland and demoralized in spirit. The prophet catches a vision from God, who promptly takes him “down in the valley.” (Don’t think geology here, think theology.) Ezekiel sees tired old Israel as a heaping pile of bones in a valley of death. After taking it all in, God eventually asks the obvious but haunting question: “Can these bones live again?” Ezekiel wonders. This is no time for the prophet to be cheeky-optimistic. Reality says no way! Hope says maybe! Wise Ezekiel turns the entire matter over to God (v. 3).

How many of us at one point or another have stood over some heap of rubble-bones in our lives and quietly asked (prayed), “Can this live again?” Sure: One can try to be positive, try to think the best, try to spin the matter this way or that … or one can pray, naming the truth of death but hoping (trusting! believing!) in the promise of new life. Old Ezekiel chooses the latter, and the results are incredible. rattle-rattle-rattle. snap-snap-snap. Israel is reborn. This is the Bible’s first glimpse of resurrection faith.

Read for yourself and listen to what resonates for you in Ezekiel 37.

John 3 – The biggest danger in a significant conversation comes when two people think they are “on the same page,” but later turn out not to be. Unmended misunderstanding only leads to further confusion and complication. When an exchange really matters, when there is much at stake in our speech, we would be wise always to take a moment and mirror back what we think we are hearing. “I hear you saying … Is that right?” One can never be too certain about this kind of accuracy.

Nicodemus thought he was on the same page with Jesus. After all, he was a wise old Jew, no dummy; one the best among the Pharisees of the day. How hard could it be to talk to a rabbi about his signs and wonders (v. 2)? But when Jesus informs him that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (sometimes rendered ‘born again’), Nicodemus assumes Jesus is talking obstetrics, not obedience. It is hard to tell whether old Nicky chuckles or chokes on the mental image of an old man like him crawling back into his mother’s womb (v. 4). Either way, he is now irreparably off-track in this most important conversation. After all, there is hearing and there is hearing, seeing and seeing. In gospel of John, Jesus is always dealing in the latter, while those around him seem hopelessly stuck in the former. Jesus speaks in the Spirit; people seem prone to hear in the flesh. Look closely Nicodemus, church: “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness rather than light.” Beloved, let us learn to see while the seeing is good. Let us listen, not with eardrum alone, but with our whole lives. Let us be born from above.

Read for yourself and listen to what resonates for you in John 3.

October 10, 2007


--one who with some unmerited regularity is granted visions of world imbued with grace in every color and dimension now known, only to be called upon to replicate such visions with mere pencil and scratch paper.

One rests in the comfort of the Spirit's guiding hand.

During most of the week, I feast at a table adorned with the richest of narratives. Sunday morning comes, and I can only invite this flock to sit at table with my vocal bread and water.

One rests in the comfort of the Spirit’s knack for spices.

Is there a word for me?

Narrow steps ascended
Papers checked in care
Throat cleared, readied

Meanwhile they wait in
the impossible hope that
something of what will

soon come forth is really
a word from this heaven
they cannot even see. A

glance at their faces: one
sees a lifetime of asking

October 5, 2007

Pictures and Conversations—Part 1

Lewis Carroll's fanciful classic Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, "and what is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversations?"

Alice is probably right, at least about the pictures. Admit it: We love to look at images first, only later, if ever, moving on to text. It's the stuff of waiting rooms and magazine racks. Indeed, it was two decades before I came to appreciate that my father's monthly Trains magazine was in fact full of text to read, not merely about the big glossies I loved to scan as a kid.

Recently stumbling again upon Carroll's humorous opener got me thinking about the Bible in this light. Would young Alice find it engaging or not? On the one hand, the Bible is a big book chock full of provocative conversations (a subject for next week's MwM). So that's useful enough, at least according to her standards.

But on the other hand: no pictures. That's a downer for a little girl. (I say no pictures, but in fact I do possess a "Children's Bible" from my childhood that has artist's renderings of well-known Biblical stories sprinkled throughout it. Looking at it now, it seems so hopelessly stuck in the 60's! Jesus looks more like a washed-out poet from Soho than a first-century Jew.) So alas, dear Alice, the Bible is picture-free. It comes to us unadorned.

And yet: Inspired writing can surely paint pictures in the mind, if nowhere else. Time spent with a Biblical passage—especially stories, parables, or visions—can often create lasting mental images that fuel great faith. And I find it also works in reverse: a glance at a certain scene in a painting, a picture, or in person quickly calls to mind a certain Biblical narrative. This is, admittedly, not quite what Alice (and many others) yearn for, but it is nevertheless worth our while to consider this indirect gift of the Word.

Toward that end, I offer to you this week three examples from my own picture-taking past that have helped me to reflect on certain Biblical motifs. All three were snapped by me and appear here unedited, except for adding a frame. And which came first—the mental or the actual picture—I do not know. All I know is that I have come to appreciate these scenes both for their own beauty and for how they resonate prophetically in me. If nothing else, I pray that a moment lingering over these pictures and ideas will be a reprieve from your otherwise busy day.

 I snapped this photo at Smith Mt. Lake State Park on an overcast day in November. Almost immediately, I thought of what for me is the most provocative line in the Lord's Prayer: … on earth as it is in heaven. When the Bible speaks endlessly about "heaven and earth," I tend not to hear it talking so much about geography as much as I hear theology. Heaven is God's space; the earth, ours. Whereas for generations Christianity has often been assumed to be mostly an escapist religion, Jesus-faith turns out to be rooted firmly in the sod of the here-and-now. His prayer, after all, is not that his followers would be whisked away while Rome burns, but rather that what is already true in God's space—truth, beauty, grace—would in fact become true in ours. We preach neither collusion nor escape; we preach transformation—God in us, God through us (Romans 12:2; 2 Corinthians 3:18). Dark, spindly pine branches bathed in such intrusive light resonate that vision for me. What do you see?

 You have to work to notice the little bystander in the corner of this photo, and maybe that's the point. Snapped on the Outer Banks two years ago, this sky spread out like a rippled blanket always makes me think of Psalm 8. The Message, albeit a bit verbose, renders verses 3-4 nicely:

I look up at your macro-skies, dark and enormous,
your handmade sky-jewelry,
Moon and stars mounted in their settings.
Then I look at my micro-self and wonder,
Why do you bother with us?
Why take a second look our way?

Carl Sagan, certainly no friend to Christianity, once asked: "Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people." Fair enough, Carl, at least from the thin view of pure physics. And I think the psalmist understands you when you speak of our smallness. What is the beach-walker, really, when compared to that expansive, rippling sky? Yet for the psalmist in the Old Testament (Psalm 8:5) and the Apostle Paul in the New (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-31), our obvious littleness in the universe is precisely the punch line of God's unlikely grace. Consider the humor: I snapped the photo, but do not know the man on the beach from Adam. God has created the sweeping heavens and seas, yet knows this stranger better than the man likely knows himself. (Now that's funny.) On this beach, grace seems to me both massive and microscopic. What do you see?

 Finally, looking over this scene of the sun setting at Cadillac Mountain in Maine last summer brings to mind for me the closing chapters of Revelation. The last book of the Bible is surely a perilous one, with its bizarre visions of slain lambs, hell-horses, and expectant mothers clothed in the sun (huh?). Most decent Presbyterians give up by chapter 3. But to those brave souls that endure to the end (indeed—maybe the difficult reading is itself a parable), one discovers in chapter 24 a truly beatific vision. The craziness of apocalypse (such as Revelation 10) yields to the tenderness of hope (Revelation 21-22). John sees a vision of a new city: a new place of work, worship, and wonder. Only this time,

the city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. (21:23)

There are days when such Revelation-hope seems to me like a foolish, embarrassing pipe-dream. There are also many days when my life is so comfortable in the here-and-now that such a bold promise matters very little. But there are just as many days when the vision of a fresh city, a new country, a resurrected time—one brought forth by an Easter-morning-God out of the transformed ruins of our demise—gives me strength and courage to live better than I otherwise would. Would that there be a time soon to come when even the potent sun will be obsolete; God's luminous glory quite enough. This most grand hope, in a descending ball over the hills of Maine. What do you see?

Next week, for Alice's sake, three of my favorite Biblical conversations.