Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Trust is a Big Deal



    Have you ever had one of those “Duh!” moments when things start to make sense for the first time? But there are also moments when we read scripture and we completely miss important things because we assume that the people in the Bible were just like us.  In our scripture lesson this week, we read the story of Moses leading the people of Israel through the dry path God had created in the depths of the Red Sea.  But after the chariots, horsemen and soldiers of Egypt’s army are drowned, we read these verses in Exodus 14:30-31:

That day the Lord saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore.  And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.

    Most of us read this and think, “So what? They trusted God. God is trustworthy. Duh.”  And, because we assume that the people of Israel were just like us, we completely miss what a big deal this really was.

    We have lived our lives in possession of the entire Old Testament as well as the New Testament.  For many of us, there has never really been much doubt that God was trustworthy, even when we weren’t sure that God was real.  But the people of the Exodus did not know what we know.  The world that they lived in, and the gods that they knew, were very different.

    In the story of the Exodus, despite coming from the family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Israelites had lived in the land of Egypt for 400 years.  At that time, they did not have a formal system of worship, or priesthood, they had stories.  The stories of their forefathers had been passed down to them from generation to generation, and even though the stories were magnificent, they lived in a world with very different stories.

    The Egyptians, like the Romans and the Greeks of the New Testament, were polytheists.  They believed, not in the one God of Israel, but in a collection of gods that were far from trustworthy.  The gods warred with one another through human agents and tens of thousands died for their amusement.  The gods of the Egyptians were capricious; they did what they wanted, when they wanted, often without any guiding morality.  To the gods, humans were little more than playthings and to humans, the gods were to be feared and not trusted.

    And so when the people of Israel saw that the God of Abraham had used his great power, not only to provide a means for them to escape their slavery, but to destroy those who sought to kill them, they saw, many for the first time, that their God was different.  Finally, the stories began to make sense.  They realized that the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph was different than the gods of the Egyptians. 

They realized that the God of Israel could be trusted.

And trust really is a big deal.





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Friday, September 12, 2014

Who Watches the Supplies? - A Football Meditation



    In the books of first and second Samuel we read the story of King David.  Many of us have heard stories about David, but there is at least one that we don’t often remember.  In 1 Samuel 30, we find David and 600 men who had just returned from fighting alongside Achish the king of the Philistines.  As they return home they discover that the Amalekites had raided their town, captured their wives (including two of David’s wives), their children, their livestock, as well as anything of value.  After consulting with their priest to find the will of God, David pursues the Amalekite raiding party.

    As they hurry to catch up to the raiders however, David finds that two hundred of his men are too exhausted to continue and so he leaves them behind with all their gear, supplies and what is left of their town.  David and the four hundred remaining men pursue the Amalekite raiding party and find them celebrating over all the loot that they had plundered.  David and his men attack and fight with the Amalekites from dusk that day, until the end of the following day, defeat them, and recapture every single animal, personal belonging, wife and family member.

    But when they return to their camp, the troublemakers began to stir things up.  They argued with David that the two hundred men who were left behind should not receive any of the plunder because they didn’t fight to get it.  They argued that these men should get their families back, but receive no share of the loot and plunder that they had taken from the Amalekites.

    David fights back.  David makes an argument that is important to every single one of us and one that is important to each of you on the football field.  David said:

“No, my brothers, you must not do that with what the Lord has given us. He has protected us and delivered into our hands the raiding party that came against us. 24 Who will listen to what you say? The share of the man who stayed with the supplies is to be the same as that of him who went down to the battle. All will share alike.” 25 David made this a statute and ordinance for Israel from that day to this.

    It is important to remember that when you win, it isn’t just the superstars and the heroes that win the game.  Every member of your team had a part, Every coach, every water boy, every trainer, every teacher you ever had who helped you to earn the grades you needed to play ball, it took the guy on the sidelines who sprained his ankle before the season started, every football booster, every friend who gave you a ride home from practice, every relative, every parent, and every brother or sister that comes to watch you play.  As David said, these are the people who “watch the supplies” for you. 

    When you win, it isn’t just because of the guy who threw the touchdown pass, or who caught the interception, or who made the big tackle.  Your victory didn’t come because of the superstars; it took every single one of you. 

And that includes the people who just watch the supplies.



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Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Baptism: Why Didn't I Feel Anything?



    After I wrote my recent blogs on baptism, my friend Tod Moses asked several questions regarding the supernatural participation of God in the ritual of baptism.  First, Tod found it odd that baptism is thought to be supernatural, when “most people feel nothing special upon baptism (other than knowing that they have done something good in terms of faith and duty.”  Later, Tod added, “I have known some pretty fine people of faith and had this baptism conversation with many of them. I've never come across one who said it felt supernatural or saving. Good, positive, affirming, obedient.... yes.”

    And so, the questions Tod is asking are these: If baptism is a supernatural experience, then why didn’t I feel anything?  Why have I not met people who thought that baptism felt “supernatural?”

These are all good questions. 

    Fundamental to the question is the assumption that because the act of baptism is supernatural, then baptism must therefore be miraculous.  Because we believe that God is the actor in baptism, we wonder why all baptisms are not like the one in Acts 19 where twelve men, immediately upon their baptism, began to speak in tongues and prophesy. But in fact, even in the New Testament, that sort of supernatural demonstration was rare. When Simon the Sorcerer came to faith in Acts 8, he is baptized by the Apostle Phillip, follows Phillip and was “astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.”  Luke never claims that the act of baptism was, in itself, at all astonishing.

Likewise, our theology makes no such claim.

    In Wesleyan theology, baptism is held to be a “means of grace,” a path through which God comes close to us and pours grace into our lives.  Moreover, even though baptism is a sacrament of the church and the sacraments are considered to be among these “means of grace,” in his sermons, John Wesley “does not list baptism in the places where the means of grace are discussed.”[i]  While baptism is an outward sign of an inward grace, and it is an avenue through which God draws near to us and through which chooses to pour out grace, and while it is a potent symbol of our membership in the body of Christ, baptism is not, in and of itself, transformative.

    Baptism is, however, a beginning.  It is the opening of a door that leads to grace.  When we choose baptism, we can choose to walk through that door and receive God’s grace and at an infant baptism, the parents vow to raise that child in an environment of grace.  But ultimately it is our choice whether or not we will follow the path that leads onward from that door.

    If baptism was transformational or at all miraculous, baptized people wouldn't go off the rails and do all sorts of unchristian things. We all know it happens and it isn't a new problem.  John Wesley once said, “Say not then in your heart, “I was once baptized, therefore I am now a child of God.” Alas, that consequence will by no means hold. How many are the baptized gluttons and drunkards, the baptized liars and common swearers, the baptized railers and evil-speakers, the baptized whoremongers, thieves, extortioners? What think you? Are these now the children of God? Verily, I say unto you, whosoever you are, unto whom any one of the preceding characters belongs, “Ye are of your father the devil, and the works of your father ye do.” Unto you I call, in the name of Him whom you crucify afresh, and in his words to your circumcised predecessors, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?”[ii]

    Baptism is a gift, an invitation, an opening.  It is, as Tod declared, “Good, positive, affirming, obedient” but not, in and of itself, saving or miraculous.  The supernatural aspect of baptism is not that we are miraculously transformed in some way, but that, as in communion, God promises to be present and uses that opportunity to open the door to grace.  So is baptism ever feel supernatural?  Sure, it happens for some people.  I have met one or two over the years, but for most of us, "Good, positive, affirming" and "something good in terms of faith and duty.” is about as much as we can expect.

    For most of us, that grace flows into our lives a little at a time, sometimes in waves but at other times in what feels like a trickle but truth be told, the limiting factor is not God, but us and our willingness “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly” with our God. (Micah 6”8)

    I once stood on a dock in England from which the HMS Beagle, the Mayflower and many other famous ships had set sail.  All along the dock, signs were erected to remember them.  It was not the dock that made those voyages famous or memorable, but the adventures themselves.  Likewise, we mark the occasion of baptism, not because baptism itself is remarkable, but because, knowing that God chooses to be a part of that life, we have confidence that the adventure that is beginning will be remarkable.



 Previously: 

Why do we baptize infants?
Why Don't We Baptize Older Children?

Others questions in this series can be found here: Ask the Pastor


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Other questions and answers in this series can be found here: Ask the Pastor

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[i] United Methodist Doctrine, The Extreme Center, Scott J. Jones, Abingdon Press, Nashville, p.244

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Why Don’t We Baptize Older Children?


Note: I asked our youth to write down any questions that they had about faith, the church, or life in general.  This is a part of that series.

Question: Why don't we baptize older children?

     The original question I received from our youth was why it seems like older children are required to belong to the church for a while before we will baptize them.  The questioner also wonders if it has to do with accepting the Lord fully or completely.

    Honestly, there is no rule about baptizing older children.  As I noted in my last blog (Why do we Baptize Infants?), our church baptizes babies, so baptizing children shouldn’t really be a problem either, and the reality is that we will, and we do.  It may seem like we wait for older children for some reasons that often have more to do with the parents than the children.  Generally, children who are not baptized fall into two groups, those who weren’t baptized simply because the parents didn’t get around to it or weren’t going to church when the children were born, and those whose parents wanted them to be old enough to either choose baptism for themselves or simply be old enough to remember their baptism when they were adults.

    Parents who aren’t active in church often “forget” to baptize their children for a variety of reasons but more than likely if church isn’t a priority for them, then baptism probably isn’t a pressing item on their agenda either.  But when these same parents return to church, there is no reason that their children cannot be baptized and I have done such baptisms several times.  What often happens in these cases is that the children are already old enough to go to school.  They can talk, read, write and think and so their parents may want to make sure that they understand what is happening before they are baptized.   At some point the children are close to the age when they can take confirmation classes and join the church, so perhaps parents are thinking, “We’ve waited this long, why not wait until then?”  In any case, we see parents with older children return to church and it appears that they wait for a while before baptism.  Theologically, there is no need to wait, but whenever everyone feels “ready” then baptism can happen.

    The second group of parents have thought about it and made a conscious decision not to have their children baptized.  Some, despite our church’s belief in the effectiveness of infant baptism, find their personal theology to be more in line with a “believer’s baptism” (see my blog about this) and want their children to be old enough to choose.  Other parents simply want their children to remember the experience of being baptized.  John Wesley preferred infant baptism, but did not require it saying, “I believe infants ought to be baptized, and this may be done by either dipping or sprinkling.  If you are otherwise persuaded, be so still, and follow your own persuasion.”[i]  Remember that The United Methodist Church came about through the merger of the Methodist Episcopal (ME) Church and the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) Church.  The ME Church commonly performed infant baptisms, but the EUB church performed both infant baptism and infant dedication.  In dedication, parents bring their children to the church, and before God, to commit their lives to God and both they, and the church, make many of the same vows that are made at baptism, but they choose to wait until the children are older for baptism to happen.  Because the remnants of both the ME and the EUB churches remain a part of us and who we are, there are United Methodist churches where this continues to happen.  

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 Previously: 

 

Why do we baptize infants?


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Other questions and answers in this series can be found here: Ask the Pastor

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[i] Kenneth J. Collins, A Faithful Witness, John Wesley’s Homiletical Theology (Wilmore, KY, Wesley Heritage Press, 1993), 94.

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