Category Archives: Musings

Infant baptism and the faith of parents.

I had a conversation today about baptism. The Evangelical Covenant Church as a denomination recognizes both infant baptism and adult baptism as legitimate baptisms. We leave it up to the parents to decide if they wish to dedicate or baptize their infant. While the ECC officially recognizes baptism as a sacrament, we have a wide embrace and welcome into fellowship those who have differing beliefs about baptism: that is, some may choose to not baptize infants because they don’t think that’s the right thing to do, and they, in turn, allow others to baptize their infants, and we happily worship and serve together. (There are some ongoing pastoral and theological tensions with the ECC position on baptism and they can be frustrating at times, though I have not yet had to wrestle with them beyond a theoretical level.)

The person I had a conversation with understood infant baptism and dedication to be the same thing, because they are both a choice of the child’s parents. This is a common understanding in evangelical circles: that unless one chooses to be baptized, how can the baptism have any significance? From this angle, baptism is an expression or confession of an individual’s faith. Baptism viewed as a sacrament, on the other hand—that is, as an visible sign of an invisible grace, or a movement of God’s grace in a person’s life (the official ECC position)—sees baptism as much as, if not more, an act of God as of the individual.

This can be a difficult hurdle to jump over for someone from a low-church, anti-infant baptism background. That’s the background I came from and it took some in-depth study of scripture for me to accept the ECC position on the subject. I realized that whether you emphasize believer’s baptism or infant baptism, you argue from scriptural silence. That is, scripture doesn’t say anything directly for or against infant baptism. There are hints and suggestions (for example, in Acts when households come to faith and are baptized), but we don’t explicitly read about infant baptisms. But then the church in Acts was very young and growing; everyone was a first generation Christian, but infants are (technically) baptized only when their parents are followers of Jesus. That is, baptized infants would be become second-generation Christians, which isn’t possible if there isn’t a first generation.

It occurred to me today, however, that there is something else to consider in this discussion. The difficulty for many evangelicals with infant baptism is that an infant cannot yet have faith of their own. It is the faith of the parents that motivates the baptism. This is a foreign concept in a Christian culture which values an individual’s personal relationship with Jesus above all else; faith and baptism can only be the choice of the one being baptized.

But there is scriptural precedence for the faith of someone else benefitting another. There is, for instance, the sense in which the faith(fulness) of Jesus is our salvation as much as, if not more than, our own faith. But I’m thinking particularly of the paralyzed man whose friends cut a hole in the roof of the house Jesus was in, lowering him down to Jesus. According to the gospel accounts, the man was healed not because of his own faith, but because of the faith of his friends (Luke 5:17-26; Matthew 9:2-8; Mark 2:3-12)! (I won’t go to 1 Corinthians 7:14, which is a little hairier a passage.) Initially this little detail—the man’s friends’ faith healing him—is surprising. But when you consider that we pray for others all the time and that those prayers, regardless of the others’ faith, are often answered affirmatively, it doesn’t seem so strange. And if these things aren’t strange, is it possible that the faith of a parent is connected the baptism of an infant?

We are a highly individualistic society and tend not to think in these sorts of communal terms, to the point that such a thing doesn’t even make sense to us. I imagine it made a lot more sense in the first century.

It seems so small, so long ago.

Late last night we planned to drive our kids to school this morning on our way to the city. So this morning I watched from the living room as their school bus pulled up to the driveway, sat in wait for a minute or so, and then pulled away. It reminded me of that morning in Manitoba (it seems so long ago) that our kids nearly missed the bus, when I ran out in my bathrobe (and little else) waving and yelling at the bus at the end of our road. I don’t remember all the details of that episode, although I’ve probably written about it here. I just remember it being late and Luke—probably 4 or 5 at the time—being upset because we couldn’t find his proper mittens. I was begging him, pleading with him to just take the (wrong) mittens I had given him because we needed to catch the bus, then running out in my bathrobe, waving frantically at the bus and starting the van to drive him there.

This morning I felt a wonderful calmness as I saw that bus sitting there for a moment and then pulling away. The kids wouldn’t need to run this morning or start their day in a panic induced by panicked parents.

It put me in mind of quiet mornings in Manitoba when I didn’t have a class. I tried to imagine myself having breakfast and a cup of tea in our little kitchen. The trailer was 14 feet wide. Subtract another 4 feet or so for wall thickness and counter space. We had no more than a 10 x 12 chunk of floor space in our kitchen to use for cooking and for eating at a standard-sized table for six (four on the sides, two on the ends). In this tiny space we cooked, ate, played games, and welcomed many guests. Our living room was no bigger and our bedrooms were much smaller. Our headboard and bedside tables couldn’t fit side-by-side; we had to wedge the headboard behind the tables.

It was such a small space, but we made it work. Perhaps it helped that we knew we were there for only a short while. We live in a much bigger space now—a house that’s probably bigger than we even need. But we are no more or less happy in the larger space than in the smaller space.

That trailer was so small. Five of us, for three years. There’s a lesson in there.

(It seems so long ago!)

Desolation of Smaug and other thoughts

Yesterday, on her birthday, I took Madeline, one of her friends, and her siblings out to The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Here’s my short review: apart from the book, it’s an exciting, well-made film. Smaug is fantastic. Martin Freeman is, once again, wonderful as Bilbo (I think he is, all around, the best cast actor in all the Tolkien films). And, once again, there were too many lengthy, chaotic battle scenes for my taste, but I suppose some people like that sort of thing. I was annoyed with where Jackson ended this film—there are ways the audience could have received a little more, at least partial, closure—but it made sense from a marketing standpoint. All in all, I give this film a positive review.

Here are some lengthier reflections:

I think it was the film reviewer for The Globe and Mail that said “all goodwill Jackson earned with the Lord of the Rings trilogy is lost,” or something to that effect. I think he’s probably right. In terms of what those you might call Tolkien purists, the omissions, changes, and additions to Tolkien’s books in the LotR films were for the most part forgivable and forgiven. The first film in The Hobbit trilogy took some more egregious liberties with Tolkien’s story than the LotR films. This second in the series takes the liberties to the next level, to the point that in its details the film becoming a different story than the book, even if the overall plot is the same. I remember when I first heard that The Hobbit was going to be a two-part film. I thought that was already a bit much, given that the entirety of The Hobbit novel is shorter than The Fellowship of the Rings. Then he changed it to a trilogy! I now know why and how: more orcs, more fighting, inferred elements of the book added, more orcs, more fighting, more stubborn dwarves, more orcs, a new love interest (what would the spawn of an elf and a dwarf look like?), more fighting…

I’m of the opinion that as a rule the book is better than the film, but I also realize that by nature books and films will by necessity tell the same story differently. A literary/film theory about why this is so is beyond my skill. It just seems evident that this is the case: a film essentially has to be different than the book. There’s a good reason Tolkien would never hand over the film rights to his books (and it’s not clear to me how or why his estate, after his son Christopher made his disgust with the LotR films clear, gave up the rights to The Hobbit as well). As I was watching the movie, it occurred to me that a true-to-the-book film version probably wouldn’t have connected with a broad audience. For instance, it’s a children’s story whose plot moves along very quickly. And detailed battle scenes are, as in all of Tolkien’s work, lacking. In addition, in making the LotR films first, Jackson was almost forced into making the connection between them and The Hobbit clearer; in the interest of the film franchise, he could not make a children’s film version of The Hobbit after making LotR.

That’s not to say that I’m happy about the changes to the story. But I try to look at the movies as something other than an adaptation. The problem isn’t with the films so much, or even director Peter Jackson. The problem is with me and everyone other diehard Tolkien fan who has read these books numerous times and for whom the events and characters played out in a certain way in my imagination (augmented by Tolkien artists I knew prior to the films, as well as the 1977 Hobbit animated adaptation). Does Gandalf look like Ian McKellen does in the films? Yes. Does he speak and behave the way Ian McKellen does in character? Not really. Same goes for most of the other characters. (This is why I think Martin Freeman is great, because he gets it all pretty close to my imagination.) The reality is that, with the exception of some of the egregious changes to Tolkien’s stories, there is little Jackson could have done that would have completely pleased fans. The LotR films got fairly close, though I like them less after repeated viewings. With The Hobbit it’s almost as if Jackson came to terms with this and just forged ahead with what he thought would be a great film loosely based on the book.

Is The Hobbit a faithful interpretation of the book? Not really. Is it a good film? Yes.

An old Inuit song for Advent

Just finished Farley Mowat’s classic book, Never Cry Wolf. It’s apparently autobiographical, though this is controversial. Whatever the case may be—fact or fiction—it was a fascinating and enjoyable read. In anticipation of finishing the book, I put the 1984 Disney film-of-the-book on my birthday wish list and Dixie was kind enough to gift it to me. I watched it last night.

The plot of both the the book and the film follows a biologist who the government sent to the Canadian north to study the relationship of arctic wolves to the declining caribou population. In the more specific details the film is quite different from the book, but it’s beautifully done and stands on its own.

The film ends with an epilogue, an “Old Inuit Song”, which I thought quite beautiful:

I think over again my small adventures,

My fears,
These small ones that seemed so big,

For all the vital things
I had to get and to reach.

And yet there is only one great thing,
The only thing,

To live and to see the great day that dawns
And the light that fills the world.

A fitting song, it seems, for Advent.

Not that it needs the connection, but the song put me in mind of Zechariah’s song in Luke 1, which says,

By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace. (vv. 78-79)

The pastor-theologian

“When I was at seminary back in the early 1970s, my tutor told me firmly one day that I would have to choose between being an academic and being a pastor. I decided, sitting there in his office, that I was not going to make that choice… That has resulted in a lifetime of shifting from one foot to the other, as it were, in a world for which for whatever reason — and this is odd in the history of the church…theologians of the past have mostly been pastors — think of Augustine or Luther or whoever — they were pastors, they were preachers, they were teachers, they worked with people, they prayed with people, they didn’t sit in a study and do a cerebral thing away from that, and I fail to see why we should collude with this split world of post-Enlightenment ‘either the brain or the heart’…”

N.T. Wright, here.

The psychology of technology.

We cancelled church this morning due to heavy snowfall and poor driving conditions. The word has gone out, but I’m in my office at the church just in case some poor soul who didn’t hear the news comes to the church. The coffee’s on.

This morning I was thinking about how technology and development has made us more cautious. I think of when Dixie and I were dating and then married and living in Regina. When we would visit her parents in Prince Albert, we preferred to take the single-lane secondary highways because they were more scenic and fun than the two-lane highway between Regina and Saskatoon. Somewhere along the line Dixie got a cell phone, mostly for when she was on the road. Then either the contract expired or the phone died and we no longer had that phone as a safety net. Now when we drove up to Prince Albert in winter there was always some concern about whether we should take that route since we didn’t have a phone. This wasn’t an issue before we had the phone, but after we’d had the phone it was a significant concern. I’ve always been fascinated by the psychology of that shift.

This morning there are probably elderly men saying that when they were young they would get to church even if they had to walk or drive uphill, backwards, through 5 feet of snow and zero visibility in -40 degree weather. We now have better vehicles with more powerful engines, more sophisticated traction control, and better tires than in those days of legend, yet we’re more likely to cancel events due to weather. It’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Maybe it’s not that we’re more cautious but that we’re more conscious, more aware of dangers that can be avoided. Or maybe it’s simply the fact that communication is so easy these days: telephones, emails, blogs, texts, Facebook… back then fast, effective communication was not such a guarantee. Even if they wanted to cancel the service, they’d have limited means to communicate that to the church community.

We can look back and say, “There was a time when we wouldn’t dream of cancelling church, no matter what the reason.” But then how do we really know? Perhaps they were dreaming of cancelling church on a cold and snowy morning in 1932 or 1873 but couldn’t, but maybe, had they eyes to see into the future, they’d have said, “Boy, I wish we’d have that kind of communication ability now!”

So we stared at each other for a while.

I had an odd experience at a place of business today. I was sent to buy something at a certain establishment. I was redirected to another area of that establishment, where two women were speaking to each other: a superior giving instructions to an underling. They carried on for a while as I stood at the counter; they did not acknowledge me. After a few moments, the underling left and the superior turned and looked at me. She said nothing.

At this point in my memory the events slow down. I had a mental debate about whether or not I should initiate speech in this situation. Dixie told me recently that I’m not gregarious. I also know what kind of negative first impression my dad would often make on people and I sometimes wonder if I haven’t inherited something of his “ability”. Those two thoughts pushed me towards initiating the conversation.

However, I was at the same time intrigued that this woman would simply turn to me and stare at me without saying a word (perhaps an attempt to communicate telepathically?). Since I was in a place of business, another part of my thinking — the part that eventually won the mental debate — was that courtesy and customer service would have her initiate dialogue, perhaps with a gentle “How can I help you?”

Instead, neither one of us spoke for some time. It was probably less than five seconds, but when you’re staring at a complete stranger, expecting them to speak and wondering what they’re thinking, it seems much longer.

So we stared at each other for a while.

The silence was broken by a curt “Yes?” from the lady and time returned to its normal speed. The transaction was carried out without further incident, other than a perhaps edgy subtext (not much more was said between us during the transaction).

Sometimes you just have one of those days where you wish you had a RESTART button.

Somewhere recently I heard the term “The Facebook Lie”, which refers to the lies we tell on Facebook about our lives: the glowing portraits of a healthily functioning family at play, the hilarious things that we say to each other on a daily basis, the delicious meals, the serene setting in which we live. It’s not that those things individually are not true, but the overall picture we paint is a false one. Our lives are not living Norman Rockwell or Thomas Kinkade paintings. Where are the arguments, the tears, the yelling, the mess? It’s one sided. I’ve thought more than once that maybe I should record some of those messy, ugly times with stylized Instagram photos and gritty Facebook statuses. I haven’t done that yet, except in what follows I guess.

I went to bed quite late last night. I knew it was a bad idea and all that prevented me from going to sleep was mindless browsing of the internet and hitting “refresh.” My body was tired, but I just didn’t want to go to sleep yet. I guess I did eventually watch a movie, but still, not a good reason to stay up these days.

Dixie was in Calgary for the week and I chatted with her a bit toward the end of the evening. I said, “I shouldn’t have stayed up so late. Now I’ll be grumpy with the kids tomorrow and generally useless.”

And so it was.

I turned my light off at about 12:15 or 12:30, about two hours later than we normally do. There was no school today, so I let the kids stay up a little later on the assumption that they would sleep in. They did a little, but not much. I was woken up at 7:39 by Olivia’s tapping on the railing of her bunk bed. That’s about 40 minutes later than I normally get up, it wasn’t enough to make up for the late night and I couldn’t get back to sleep.

Until about mid-afternoon, it was one of those days in which I repeatedly wished I had a “RESTART” button I could press to have a second (or third or fourth) go at the day. I was tired and didn’t feel like doing what the kids wanted to do (“The Game of Life”? Really?) and I was edgy. I’d snap at the kids, show them very little mercy (in other words: wouldn’t let them be kids), raised my voice in irritation and anger. Of course, they were the problem. My day would be much better if they would just stop…being them.

Later on the day I reflected on this. The problem wasn’t the kids. I mean, they had their moments of fighting, loudness, rudeness, disobedience and poor listening, but that’s not unusual. They’re kids, after all. The problem was me. I was cranky, I was on edge, I was impatient, which meant that I reacted where I didn’t need to react and, worse, I would set both them and myself up for further failure. One of them does something that isn’t wrong in itself, but it really bugs me because I’m tired, so I tell that one to stop it. They do it again and so I get angry with them for disobeying me. And things escalate. My crankiness leads me to set up unreasonable and unnecessary expectations for my children, which leads to further crankiness when those expectations are inevitably not met.

I attempted a couple of restarts today. I walked the few hundred yards to the mailbox and back, in hopes that the blue skies and fresh winter air would brighten my mood. It only worked for a couple of minutes. I tried napping after lunch but was woken twice by the kids right at that moment of transition between wakefulness and sleep. Then I just laid there restlessly for a while, unable to get back to that transition point. Later, at Madeline’s request, we went out for a walk. Luke and Olivia didn’t want to go outside initially, but pretty soon they were having some fun sliding down some piles of snow-covered dirt in the yard. They wanted to stay outside, but none of us (except Olivia) were dressed properly and I, being grumpy and the attempt at revival failing miserably, wanted to go back inside.

I hate those kinds of days. I loathe myself as a father on those days. And that loathing feeds my crankiness. I feel much regret on those days, cycling through failure and regret, failure and regret, failure and regret. And then I experience low levels of anxiety about alienating my kids, so I give them big hugs and tell them I love them and that I sometimes have grumpy days and that today is one of them. Moments later I’m likely to be Unreasonably Grumpy Dad again. Failure, regret, reconciliation attempt, failure, regret…

But you know what’s crazy (and this is perhaps what I should really take away from the day)? The kids are unfazed. They know their dad. They know I have grumpy days, and they are always forgiving. At lunch I apologized for my grumpiness. I asked them if they would forgive me. Luke said, “I’ll always forgive you, dad!”

What a gift! What a gift! It encourages me and it shames me.

It’s difficult to forgive myself on these days, to do that thing that seems to come so naturally to my own children. Is it possible give ourselves as parents the room to be who we are on these days without also justifying the way we are? Our kids seem to give us that room, but we are left only with regret.

Jesus seemed to think we had quite a lot to learn from children. I think he was onto something.

The afternoon was salvaged with pop, a big bowl of popcorn, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and the kids with me on the couch, Luke snuggled up under my arm.

Kitchen conversations

The other day I was walking to work, between open fields pure white with snow. It was a clear blue day, the sun shining bright, but there was a cool breeze blowing across the fields, setting the power lines to humming. It put me in a bit of a melancholic mood, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I felt a bit of the isolation out here in this beautiful place we live, maybe a bit of loneliness.

I thought of my friends from Providence Seminary and the conversations we would have almost every day during class breaks. We’d wander the halls, almost inevitably ending up in the seminary kitchen area. Someone would boil water for tea, and we’d lean back against the counters or sit on them while we waited. We would discuss and debate and question and explain. There would be a number of conversations going on at once, spilling out into the hallway. It was mostly theology we talked about, stuff that came up in class, stuff we read, controversies we heard about, and all of it peppered with wit. Later we’d run into each other in the library or near the bookstore and we’d pick up where we left off.

Those were good years. And I miss them right now (water rises to my eyes).

I started this blog nine years ago last December. I didn’t own theeagleandchild.com at the time, but it was called The Eagle & Child right from the beginning.

The Eagle & Child is a pub in Oxford, England, where J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and other members of the Inklings would gather Tuesday mornings for a pint and some good discussion. They discussed their own literary works-in-progress, and I imagine theology and philosophy was also covered.

… The concept of the Inkling’s gatherings was sort of what I had in mind for this blog. It was to be a place where people “gather” to discuss life, faith, literature, philosophy, and so on. (from my About… page)

And for a time, at least, that’s what happened here. Lots of theological (and sometimes political) discussion and debate, and a bit of a community developed. I started blogging less and less frequently around the time I started to move towards vocational ministry and it almost died completely through the last three years of seminary. That was surprising to me, since I had expected seminary to provide lots of “blog fodder”. I’m sure there were a number of reasons for the decrease in blogging, but it occurs to me now that what I had envisioned for this blog–the, as it were, Eagle & Child experience–was happening in the hallways of Providence Seminary. I didn’t need this blog, because I was having face-t0-face discussion and debate.

That seminary kitchen was my Eagle & Child! Were I to start a blog like this now, I might just call it “Kitchen Conversations.” Kitchens are where the best conversations happen most of the time, and that particular kitchen in the seminary is where “the Eagle & Child” became real for me.

Maybe I’m idealizing. Maybe nostalgia has taken control of my memory and my emotions and circumstances and created something didn’t exist in quite the way I remember it. But I don’t have access to that kitchen any more. I won’t be discussing Torrance or Bonhoeffer or Wright or even Bell while leaning against that kitchen counter as the kettle begins to gurgle and spit. Not anytime soon, anyway.

So maybe this will mark a return to this space. And maybe it’ll mean more of a contribution to the joint blog I occasionally contribute to with the very guys I was having those discussions with. And new face-to-face conversations will be had where we live now, and they, too, will be good.

But I’ll still miss those seminary kitchen conversations.

We are all theologians…

…whether we like it or not.

For many, “theology” is a field of the academic world, out of the mental reach of the average person, and not really all that valuable in day-to-day life. It’s certainly true that much of what is known as theology is often written in nearly impenetrable prose. In this respect it really is “the science of God”, because people who “do” theology for a living (I’ll call them “vocational theologians”) have created specialized terminology in order to make dialogue between vocational theologians a little simpler: they could string a bunch of verbs and adjectives together when talking about God or some concept relating to God, or they could come up with a single word that encapsulates all of them. The one-word option makes communication much less cumbersome and less confusing within the field, just like the latin names of plants and animals may be a more efficient form of communication for botanists and entomologists (or for me to say “entomologist” instead of “guy or girl who studies bugs”). But to the rest of us, this also makes theology seem like the exclusive field of vocational theologians.

But here’s the thing: theology is simply “thinking about God” or “words about God”. Theology is what we do when we try to come to grips with who God is or understand what God is doing in the world, when we ask “Who is God?” or “What is God like?”. And we all do this. All of us. Even you. When you say, “Jesus loves you,” you are doing theology; when you say “God is love,” you are doing theology; when you confess that “Jesus is Lord,” you are doing theology. Even if you say “There is no God” or “God doesn’t care about the world anymore,” you are in some sense doing theology.

What the vocational theologians–the ones we may think of as impenetrable-prose, know-it-all hot shots–are doing is unpacking theological ideas, trying to get behind them. They are curious and want to know what it means, for example, that “God is love” or how the Three-in-One God might work. And the deeper they go, the more complicated it can sound. But just because you or I don’t go to these levels doesn’t make us any less theologians or make theology any less our business.

Karl Barth–possibly the most famous and important  theologian (at least within vocational theological circles) of the 20th century–wrote a 13-volume (6 million words!) theological tome called Church Dogmatics, on top of many other books. It’s not an easy read–it takes work to read. I think. That’s what I hear. I purchased a copy of the set on a whim (or possibly through mob shopping mentality) when they were made available at a once-in-a-lifetime price. I’ve opened the books on occasion and I will again, but they’re not easy. That much was clear after reading a page or two. But here’s the thing: there’s a story told (it’s not just a legend) in which someone asked Barth after one of his lectures how he would summarize his life’s work as a theologian. His answer was this: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

What Barth and other vocational theologians do is unpack and examine the implications of our theological beliefs, asking the question “What does it mean when we or the Bible say ‘God is love’” But Barth and you and I are ultimately all thinking and talking about the same thing: Jesus love me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Most of us just don’t have the desire or privilege to spend our days thinking about little else, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable for others to do so, or for us to draw on their thoughts and learning for our own benefit as individuals and as the Christian church.

 

Why do theology?

I can think of a couple of reasons why we might want to be more actively theological (as opposed to being accidentally theological). First, theology can be an act of worship and discipleship. There is value in contemplating the God we serve and to try and understand this God who seeks us out and who promises that he is with us. Theology is part of the pursuit of God, of getting to know God better, and in meditating what who God is means for our day-to-day lives.

This leads into the second reason theology is important for everyone: it shapes who we are, what we do, how we act, the choices we make. If God loves his creation so much that he enters into that creation to make things right, it has implications for how we deal with the wrongs in our lives and in the rest of the world, and with our broken relationships. If God says his creation is “very good,” it has implications for how we care for that creation. In other words, theology is connected to our action; how we understand God influences how we act.

So… theology is not by nature complicated. It can sound complicated, just like conversations about the mechanics of cars or farm machinery can sound complicated to those who are not mechanically inclined. But, unlike the world of the mechanics of internal combustion engines which not everyone can engage in, we are all theologians whether we know it or not.

To mangle a phrase from Larry Norman, “Why should all the vocational theologians enjoy all the theology?” They shouldn’t. You and I should too. Maybe not to the point of unintelligibility, but at the very least to think on who God is and what that means for us and for the world.