Category Archives: Faith

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.

Trying to explain denominations to an 11-year-old is hard.

Tonight, after our all-ages small group, in which Lutherans and Catholics were mentioned, my 11-year-old daughter asked me, “Dad, what are Catholics and Lutherans and Covenant?” (By “Covenant” she means the Evangelical Covenant Church, which is our denomination.)

There really isn’t a simple way to answer that question, but I did my best. This was my off-the-cuff (but somewhat polished after the fact) answer:

Well, to start with, right now you have Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants. In the beginning, after Jesus ascended, there was just The Church. Then, about a thousand years later, there was a disagreement in The Church about something they believed. So The Church split, East and West. In the East was the Orthodox Church, in the West was the Catholic Church.

About five hundred years after that, some people in the Catholic Church thought that there was too much corruption in it, that they were too concerned with power, so they wanted to clean it up from the inside. They came to be known as the Reformers. They wanted to clean it up on the inside, but the Catholic Church didn’t like that, so they left the Catholic church [or were kicked out] and they became what we know as Protestants, because they protested the bad things they saw in the Catholic Church.

[Now here is where it gets really complicated.]

So as Protestants you had Lutherans and Calvinists and Anglicans. You had Martin Luther, which is where “Lutherans” comes from, and the Reformed church, which was connected to John Calvin. Now there were some who didn’t think these reformers went far enough, and they were known as the “radical reformers”, out of which you get Mennonites and Baptists.

(“What does the Covenant have to do with this?”)

Well, we are connected to the Lutherans. In the 1800s there came what was known as “evangelicals.” They were people who were concerned with having a personal relationship with Jesus and reading their Bibles and telling people about Jesus. They were concerned that the other churches were too “formal” [I didn't have a better word for "rote" or "state-oriented" or what have you].

So the Covenant comes out of the Lutheran and evangelical groups [I mentioned Pietists but didn't explain them]. These days it doesn’t matter so much what denomination you are a part of. What matters is that you believe in Jesus and want to follow him. You can do that whether you are Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox.

This is all fairly simplistic, but I think it’s a pretty good distillation of the story. She seemed to understand, but I don’t know how much. All this protesting has made church history rather complicated!

Other than my ecumenical note at the end, which I’m sure some of you will have trouble with, what would you add or change (keeping in mind this is for an 11-year-old)?

Reciting the creed as counter-cultural act.

Luke Timothy Johnson, in The Creed, says that reciting the creed—he means the Nicene Creed, but I think it works for the Apostles’ Creed or others as well—is a counter-cultural act. What is being done when the creed is recited:

In a world that celebrates individuality, they are actually doing something together. In an age that avoids commitment, they pledge themselves to a set of convictions and thereby to each other. In a culture that rewards novelty and creativity, they use words written by others long ago. In a society where accepted wisdom changes by the minute, they claim that some truths are so critical that they must be repeated over and over again. In a throwaway, consumerist world, they accept, preserve, and continue tradition. Reciting the creed at worship is thus a counter-cultural act. (40)

That’s not to say that churches need to be counter-cultural for the sake of being counter-cultural. However, the gospel is itself counter-cultural and yet the church is often pro-cultural—and often subconsciously so—so to be consciously counter-cultural in our worship serves as a good reminder about where our allegiances lie.

Some people are uncomfortable with certain aspects of the creeds—say, the virgin birth—that they may be reluctant to recite it, thinking that doing so would lack integrity. Justo Gonzalez, writing about the Apostles’ Creed in The Apostles’ Creed for Today, has this to say in response:

…think of the creed not so much as a personal statement of faith but rather as a statement of what it is that makes the church the church, and of our allegiance to the essence of the gospel and therefore to the church that proclaims it. (7)

To recite the creed with that in mind is also a counter-cultural act.

[Added: I'm reading up a bit on the ecumenical creeds of the church for a small group discussing the basics or essentials of faith. We don't recite the creed (or at least we haven't in my time) at our church and our denomination is "non-creedal" while still affirming the major ecumenical creeds, but these writers make a convincing case!]

Closed hands and self-reliance.

“Yet so many religious people are in bondage to their religion! They are like John Wesley in his post-graduate Oxford days in the Holy Club. He was the son of a clergyman and already a clergyman himself. He was orthodox in belief, religious in practice, upright in conduct and full of good works. He and his friends visited the inmates of the prisons and work-houses of Oxford. They took pity on the slum children of the city, providing them with food, clothing and education. They observed Saturday as the Sabbath as well as Sunday. They went to church and to Holy Communion. They gave alms, searched the Scriptures, fasted and prayed. But they were bound in the fetters of their own religion, for they were trusting in themselves that they were righteous, instead of putting their trust in Jesus Christ and Him crucified. A few years later, John Wesley (in his own words) came to ‘trust in Christ, in Christ only for salvation’…” (John Stott, commenting on Galatians 4:1-11, in The Message of Galatians).

Yes indeed. Salvation through faith as nothing more than open hands and surrender.

The things Wesley and his friend did were all good and admirable and appropriate to do. It’s the motivation that’s the problem. All of those things should be a response to a salvation freely offered, an act of gratitude for God’s prior gift to us, rather than a “necessary” act to earn something from God.

Faith as surrender (and Garrison Keillor as theologian)

Several years ago I posted about Miroslav Volf’s definition of faith, which goes as follows:

Faith is not something we give to God. In that case, faith would be a work, and a silly kind of work because it would be work we do even though it doesn’t benefit anyone. But exactly the opposite is true. To have faith in God is to be “without works” before God (Romans 4:5). Faith is the way we as receivers relate appropriately to God as the giver. It is empty hands held open for God to fill.

On the way home from some care home services this evening, I listened to Garrison Keillor’s “News from Lake Wobegon” podcast from August 31, 2013. He concluded the week’s story with the following reflection:

“I used to think that faith… was sort of like a building block and you’d put all these blocks together and you’d build a house, sort of like the one the little pig built that the wolf could not blow down. And now I get older and I feel that faith is a matter of surrender, it’s a matter of just giving up and leaving that house and just walking out and experiencing the cold and the rain and doubt and confusion and trying to keep up your hope and some sense of gratitude. If you just keep up hope and gratitude maybe that’s… all you need…”

Not exactly the same thing as what Volf said, but then Keillor’s a storyteller first, theologian second. But open hands held open for God to fill and the notion of surrender to God run along the same lines. I like it.

An Apocalypse of Love

(This is my Christmas Eve meditation from this year’s Christmas Eve service at our church.)

It has been a strange couple of weeks. Just over a week ago, there was the horrible shooting at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, in which 27 people, including 20 children, were killed. This last Friday was anticipated by some to be the end of the world, based on a particular interpretation and understanding of the Mayan calendar. People were buying bomb shelters, survival supplies, and some even stockpiling weapons. That same day, much closer to home, several Alberta school received what appeared to be threats of violence. Some of them were false alarms, but in Ponoka the school was locked down and a young man in possession of firearms was arrested in relation to this even–perhaps in imitation of Newtown, perhaps in anticipation of an apocalypse, perhaps for entirely different reasons.

It was a week or so of hatred, grief, and fear, and of nervous watching.

One question asked by many people this week was “Where was God?” It is a fair question and we are not the first to ask it. It is an ancient question. Biblical Israel used to ask essentially the same thing. “How long, O Lord?” is a question peppered throughout the Psalms and the prophets. “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?”

* * *

We live between two Advents, two “comings” of Jesus. The last several weeks and especially tonight and tomorrow, we mostly look back at the first Advent, but–let’s not forget–we also look forward to the second Advent. The first coming and the second coming. Both those Advents mark the end of the world as we know it. This time of year we actually do anticipate an apocalypse, but not, perhaps, as popularly depicted or understood.

The first Coming–the one that was promised long ago, was announced to a young girl, began in her womb, and was revealed in a manger, an animal’s feeding trough–this first coming was the coming of Love, with a capital “L”, into the world. Not a sentimental love, not love as some kind of nice, but abstract idea, but a living, self-giving Love, which took on flesh, became human, became a baby, helpless and weak. And the world was changed. It was the end of the world as it was known.

Why did Love come down? “For God so loved the world,” it says in the Bible. Love came down because the world was and is messed up and God loves this messed up world–not because it’s messed up, not because it may have potential–but because God is love and so loves the world in spite of what it is. And God knew that no effort of our own would be able to clean up the mess, no sentimental love or goodwill, no sweet notion of making the world a better place. Only Love with capital “L”, only love in its greatest, holiest, and most powerful sense, only a love in its purest most uncompromising form–only a love that gave itself fully for others–could make things right. Humans all ultimately turn away from this kind of true love, so Love had to come to us. That Love became human–became the baby named Jesus.

We’ve heard a lot about “apocalypse” lately, in books, in movies, in this news. This first coming of Jesus was an apocalypse. See, the word “apocalypse” does not mean “a time of zombies and nuclear bombs” as popular use suggests. The word means, simply and literally, “reveal” or “revelation”. Biblically, apocalypse is about revealing reality and God–telling us about the way the world is and the way it will be and the God who’s in charge of it all. God revealed himself in Jesus–this weak, helpless baby, who in the name of love would give himself for us. God’s love was revealed in this first Advent, in Jesus’ first Coming.

It was an Apocalypse of Love.

It was the beginning of the end. The world would be transformed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who turned this world of revenge, injustice, and pride upside-down with God’s world of mercy, justice, forgiveness, and love. Mary saw this, as we heard in her song, read a few minutes ago: the hungry filled, the oppressors overthrown.

The birth of Jesus is the answer to the question of God’s whereabouts. He’s right here, at work in the world. And the birth of Jesus is also the answer to that similar question that Israel had been asking for generations: “How long, O Lord?” The answer, in the fullness of time, was both “Now” and “Not yet.”

We still, in weeks like this one particularly, cry out, “How long, O Lord?”

And so we anticipate the second Advent, the Second Coming of Jesus. That will once again mark the end of the world as we know it. Not the end of God’s good creation, but the end of “the world” as we know it–the world of hatred, fear, violence, grief, death. This, too, will be an Apocalypse of Love.

It’s interesting that The End of the World, the “End Times”, the Apocalypse (whatever you want to call it) has become a thing of fear. We see this every time someone predicts the end of the world, whether it’s the Mayans or some obscure Christian sect: people buying shelters, stockpiling food and weapons; images of fire, zombies, death. Popular depictions of the end are terrifying–nightmare-inducing, even. Yes, there are beasts and boils in the book of Revelation, and facing Almighty God could put a different kind of fear in a person, but that book is meant to be encouraging, not terrifying, precisely because Jesus has come and is coming. It’s supposed to be good news.

Why? Because it tells us that in the end evil doesn’t have its way, but that Good prevails; that the God of Love will have his way and set the world right.

The post-apocalyptic world won’t be a barren, smoky desert of bedraggled wanderers, who daily live in fear of violence and death. It will be a lush, healing garden, where fear and grieving and death will have no place, because they will have been done away with.

Near the end of the book of Revelation, God says, “Look, I am making everything new!” And that work began with the baby in the manger, the Christ-child, the first of many brothers and sisters. God becomes human, born a baby–new, clean, innocent, trusting, loving–so that we can once again become children: reborn new, clean, innocent, trusting, loving.

There’s an apocalypse we can look forward to!

* *

We live between two Advents. We remember and celebrate the first Advent; we watch and wait for the second. In the meantime, God is at work in the world, and in and through us. When Jesus left the first time, he promised not only that he would return, but that his Spirit would come and live in us, that in this way he would remain with us. And so he did, and so he does, and while we wait, with the Spirit’s help we can each be a little apocalypse of God’s self-giving love.

“Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”

Keeping the ‘X’ in ‘Christmas’.

It’s that time of year again, folks, where Christ begins to disappear from Christmas…

These days we are likely to see “Xmas” written as often as “Christmas,” and this is of major concern for many Christians. Christ disappearing from Christmas is certainly something to give us pause, but this has been going on for a long time, and the way “Christmas” is written is not, ultimately, the problem.

In Koine Greek (the common language of the early church and the original language of the New Testament), “Christ” is written (here in equivalent English letters) “Xristos”(pronounced “Kris-toss”). The early church would use “X” as shorthand for “Christ”. Look at one of those Jesus fish sometime. Inside some of these fish are these Greek letters: IX[TH]YS.* These signs have been found at ancient Christian sites. Each of these Greek letters is the first letter in the words that say: “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Saviour”. You see the “X” there is short for “Christ”.

In English, there is no natural correlation between “X” and “Christ”. It is such an unlikely connection, in fact, that I’m inclined to think that it’s origin in English is most likely Christian as well, from someone or a group familiar with Koine Greek. So there’s nothing for Christians fear there–the loss is not in the name but (potentially) in the way the occasion is celebrated.

What we call Christmas is ultimately irrelevant. It is now for most people a cultural, consumption-based holiday event, including for most Christians. Whether or not the the word “Christ” is in the name is not going to change that fact. The name “Easter” has nothing whatsoever to do with Christ or the Resurrection event, so far as I can tell (wheras “Paschal” does), and it takes nothing away from the religious end of that season for those who choose to focus on it that way.

So keep the ‘X’ in Christmas and keep the ‘Christ’, too, for that matter. Keep Christ in there not by means of spelling the word a certain way, but by entering into the season reflectively and with open hearts, preparing for his arrival, remembering his birth and anticipating his second advent. That’s a choice we all have to make, regardless of how we spell “Christmas”.

______________________
*in Greek there is one letter that represents the English “th” sound.

Lots of news.

I suppose it’s time for me to say something about what’s next for us. I’m generally inclined to keep things like this to myself until such time as it feels right to talk about it, and that takes time to build as I process and begin to understand my own feelings and perceptions and let things settle in me. And I also kinda sorta wanted to wait for the official letter from the church, more as a formality than anything, or maybe as something to confirm that this is really real (’cause it’s a bit surreal). It’s easier to keep things from you, dear readers, but not so easily from friends who have traveled with us on this journey and who know the stages we are at and want to know what’s happening. And information is seeping its way out into the world, by word-of-mouth, Facebook, etc. (and Dixie writing a post about it today).

So I’ve been called to The Field. That’ll mean something to some of you and nothing to others. So: I’ve been called by a church in a field quite literally in the middle of nowhere (that is, it is not in or near a town). Plopped in a field in the middle of the the Wetaskiwin-Camrose-Ponoka triangle of Alberta. It’s called Malmo Mission Covenant Church.

It’s an associate pastor position, with responsibilities for youth, families, discipleship, intergenerational stuff, etc. A pretty broad position, in my view (hold the weight jokes, folks), with room for growth and learning and change and shaping. I’m quite excited (and nervous) about that. This is a process that started last fall sometime when I put my name into my denomination’s “system.” That was followed by phone calls, interviews, prayer, votes, and so on. Well, I suppose it goes back farther than that and even farther still.

The name of the church may sound familiar to some of you. That’s because it’s the one Randall is pastoring. That’s what makes this additionally surreal. Randall was there when the stirring began and had a big part to play in my developing sense of “calling.” To work with my friend, mentor, former pastor, and someone with experience and wisdom to share is quite a privilege as well.

So, the Vanderfamily will be moving to Alberta. When we got the announcement of the church’s vote while traveling in the car a couple of weeks ago, I said to the kids, “I got the job in Alberta. What do you guys think of that?” And Luke replied, “Okay I guess. But we’ll miss you.”

Adorable! Funny! So innocent! Or should I be concerned that he seemed unphased, that it didn’t seem like a big deal that Daddy was going away while they stayed here?

In some sense we have been for some time now carrying the burden of our childrens’ grief at moving away from their friends. Particularly Madeline’s. But the kids are excited at the prospect of this new adventure. I don’t think it has quite hit us yet that we are leaving friends as well. We’ve built some lasting ones here and it will be difficult to leave them. Of course, if we weren’t leaving them, they’d eventually be leaving us. That’s the nature of friendships made at educational institutions. But I do think that I am at least subconsciously beginning to grieve, if such a thing is possible. So I’m worried a bit that this post will sound too melancholic for what is actually good and exciting news. The excitement is building with each day, but that doesn’t mean grieving doesn’t get added to the mix.

A new chapter. A new adventure. A new home. A new community. New friends. New experiences. New joys. New mistakes. New successes. New lessons. Lots of news in the next couple of months.

Mystery

I realize I’m cross-posting with Facebook here, which seems a little off, but this is such a wonderful quote that it needs to be preserved here. It’s from Gilead, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Marilynne Robinson. The book is a letter written by an aging/dying pastor to his young son. It is a sort of reflection on his life? for the future benefit of his son.

…six months later I baptized her. And I felt like asking her, ‘What have I done? What does it mean?’ That was a question that came to me often, not because I felt less certain I had done something that did mean something, but because no matter how much I thought and read and prayed, I felt outside the mystery of it.

Ah, mystery. Western Christians tend to not like it. We like everything explained in detail. Yet it often seems like we’re trying to paint a picture of something we have experienced and witnessed but not actually seen, if you know what I mean, and so these explanations can never be more than a blurred “impressionist” depiction.

Anyway, Gilead has been wonderful so far. It has that “Pulitzer Tone,” to use a term I just made up a second ago, kind of like The Shipping News or Buechner’s Godric (which was nominated) or Alistair MacLeod’s short stories (which were not nominated, but probably should have been).