The Pew Forum Report and Ordination in the Mainline

Father Henri Nouwen

Father Henri Nouwen

In one week, my bishop will place his hands on my head and invoke the Holy Spirit as he ordains me to the office and work of an Elder in The United Methodist Church. Those of you who are United Methodist clergy or working towards orders know that the process can be long, arduous, and at times overwhelming. While I can only speak to my experience, I have found the process to be an incredible, Spirit-filled journey, and as I reflect on my growth and development over these past 6 years (from declared candidacy to the present), the grace of God is clear. I began in spring 2009; during that time, I switched from Deacon to Elder track and even transferred my membership from the New England Conference to the Greater New Jersey Conference. Each step of the way, I have been surrounded by people who have loved me, nurtured me, and, at times, told me some hard truths. I have done my best to be open to the process, and the willingness to do what was required of me and my trust in the presence of the Holy Spirit has made all the difference.

Last month, those to be commissioned and ordained went on an overnight retreat with the Bishop. He gave each of us Henri Nouwen’s book In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership (Drew McIntyre has an excellent reflection on this book here). This small book could not be more timely. In light of the recent Pew Forum report that indicates certain expressions of Christianity (namely mainline Protestantism, Catholicism, and, to a lesser extent, evangelicalism) are continuing to lose influence and that millennials are overwhelmingly not finding the spiritual food of these traditions nourishing, one might find this an anxious time to be in ministry. In light of the ongoing debates and disagreement over human sexuality in The United Methodist Church and numerous proposals to fundamentally alter our denomination over this, and in light of the denomination’s continual narrative of crisis, one might find this an anxious time to be in ministry. It might appear that ministry in The United Methodist Church — a mainline Protestant church — is an exercise in religious irrelevance.

Catholic priest Henri Nouwen, writing out of his experience of living and working with mentally and physically handicapped people at the L’Arche Daybreak community in Ontario, Canada, wrote:

The leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows them to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success, and to bring the light of Jesus there.

As I prepare to enter a new phase of ministry that is the culmination of a long process, I believe now more than ever that leaders must refuse the temptation to be relevant. It would be easy to jump on the latest church fad wagon in pursuit of the glitter of religious success. Instead, we must claim the unfashionable radicalness of the Gospel that says that God loves us not because of what we have accomplished, but because we have been created in God’s image and redeemed by the love of God made known in Jesus Christ. Leaders that are rooted in this God-given identity and are committed to this proclamation and praxis by offering their own vulnerable, authentic selves with no conditions develop a Biblical relevance for which many are hungry, a relevance that seeks the face of God instead of the accolades of people. Institutional decline, denominational politics, and generation gaps offer leaders an opportunity to stand in the midst of all this with the Gospel message, to take risks to be the church in new ways, to develop a spiritual life that engages deeply with the hurt of the world. 

It might appear to many that mainline Protestantism is in its twilight.

However, embracing our irrelevance might lead to our renewal.


Lamentations and a Suggestion

Most of what I witness in my denomination gives me grief right now. The United Methodist Church seems to be insistent on pushing itself into a narrow trajectory of winners and losers. No matter what your belief is on the issues facing the church today we seem content on setting the stage for GC 2016 to be a battleground that leaves no one unscathed.

A lament is a passionate expression of grief and sorrow. The Bible is full of laments. For the Great 40 days I have been preaching through the Psalms. These hymns are filled with expressions lament. In Matthew 23:37-39 Jesus laments over all Jerusalem wanting to embrace the city as a mother hen embraces her young. There is an entire book in the Bible called Lamentations that is filled with laments. Laments are expressions of our faith.

The first lament I have is, we have traded real community for virtual community. I used to be addicted to World of Warcraft and would spend hour after hour playing online in a virtual world. We had a slang term for not being online: RL or IRL(Real Life or In Real Life). When someone wasn’t online in the virtual world they were operating in real life. The 16 year old movie, The Matrix, explores this concept brilliantly. When Neo is freed from the virtual world of The Matrix he has trouble believing the real world. Morpheus tells him, “We have a rule. We never free a mind once it’s reached a certain age. It’s dangerous, the mind has trouble letting go.” I can identify. Our minds have trouble letting go of selfie online hyper connected world of the internet. At a recent pastor’s gathering there were smart phones everywhere (myself included).   We have virtual relationships. If our pictures, selfies, and blog posts can get enough likes we are satisfied. It doesn’t matter who we have to step on to get there, only that we get there. Online relationships have become commodities that are bought and sold with each click. With the recent hoopla over online communion, drive thru ashes, and independent blogs from across the political spectrum (including this one) we no longer need real life relationships. We no longer need to share a common meal together. We can eat at home while tweeting away. Ashes become the same thing as a happy meal when they are stripped of the confession and peace. Blogs can continue to produce hit piece after hit piece for just a few more clicks. After all it doesn’t matter in the virtual world if that person on the other side is a real person or not.

The second lament I had is that we have traded our story for my story. One thing I have noticed with conversations among people from my neighborhood is that our culture is shaped by this myth of individualism. The grand narrative of God working in human history has been replaced by my own personal narrative. Instead of any type of grand meta narrative of us as a body of people, there are multiple narratives each with a different version of the truth. We can no longer identify with each other because they are so foreign to us. My own church is struggling with people of different races, cultures, and socio economic backgrounds encountering one another. It is amazing to witness, but it is difficult to be in the midst of. There is a lot of anxiety in encountering the other and building relationships with the other. In Galatians 3:28, Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” I believe Paul was seeing this as a hoped for reality. One where all our stories could be joined together in God’s redeeming story.

Which brings me to my final lament, we have traded God for gods. It doesn’t matter if that god is the god of orthodoxy, fundamentalism, liberalism, evangelicalism, emergent, post liberalism, post modern, progressive, missional, or whatever term is next. We all have developed our own concept of god (who usually ends up being just like us or just like we imagine god to be). Our god talks like us, thinks like us, acts like us, and wants the same things we want. Our definition of justice becomes God’s definition of justice. Sin becomes a corporate only thing or an individual only thing. We cannot conceive of a God who might have different desires then we do. God then fits into whatever box we want god to fit in. Anslem’s ontological argument points out that God is above our own thought processes. Whenever my god becomes just like me, I think my conception of God is flawed.

Already I am beginning to see rhetoric lining up along the battle lines that seek to turn this battle into one that lays waste to a denomination. We call each other names, but we fail to see each other. So as we begin to ready our stones, swords, picket signs, and crosses
I want to offer a suggestion for finding a better way. Share a meal. Put down your phone and talk to the person you are eating with. Stop worrying about your number of hits if you don’t put out a blog on something controversial. Stop using rhetoric that defines the other as intolerant or theologically weak. Listen to their story, their hopes and dreams, their hurts, their joys. You might just find out something unexpected. Allow the other to challenge your preconceived notions of God, and vice versa. The ancient mystics Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross had spiritual mentors to talk stuff over with that would challenge them and keep them focused on deepening their relationship with Christ. We need one another to challenge us and keep us focused on Christ. Now I am not saying we will abandon our theological presuppositions for that of the other. I am saying that if we understand where the other person is coming from it might better inform our own thoughts.    Now is the time before the battle begins to take that pause and really talk about what is best for the body of Christ and the people called Methodists.

Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another. – Proverbs 27:17

Guest Post: Itinerancy: A Response

Asbury statue

A statue of Francis Asbury at Drew University, Madison, NJ.

I appreciate the opportunity to offer a response to Drew’s article about the itinerancy. I find things I agree with, and things I disagree with. The dialogue keeps us all thinking about what could be best for the people called United Methodist. My words come from the viewpoint of one of the first group of district superintendents who has lived under the newer task of being a “chief missional strategist.” This is my 5th year appointed as a superintendent.

I will take Drew’s points one at a time:

1) Itinerancy is intended for a very different context than United Methodists (at least in the US) face today. I think it would be more accurate to say, itinerancy was originally designed for a different context. However, the philosophy behind the original context and the present context seems to be a good mix: what is the best strategy to (1) deploy clergy, (2) match giftedness of pastors to the needs of a congregation, and (3) can a third but involved and prayerful party (the cabinet) partner with clergy and congregations in discerning how we can best do evangelism and discipleship in a changing reality? While it is unfortunate that we have come full circle from Wesley’s desire to reform the Anglican Church, it seems that our present manner of supplying clergy to churches may be more appropriate than ever. While Asbury and Wesley might not recognize what itinerancy has morphed into, I believe they would certainly recognize the need for it, more than ever. The need to strategically match pastors and congregations is greater than ever.

2) Itinerancy primarily benefits single white men. I couldn’t disagree more. I doubt that we would have as many female clergy and people of color in pulpits were it not for the itinerancy. We are far, far from perfect in that area, and clergy couples and professional spouses are certainly a challenge. But I know from experience that many congregations would not “take” a woman or person of color as a pastor were it not for the system we presently have. And, I am happy to add, many churches have learned through the itinerancy to change their views regarding women and race. We still have work to do.

3) Itinerancy is designed for short-term service. Again, I think it is more accurate to say, “Itinerancy was originally designed for short-term service.” However, it changed as the church changed. Are there tweaks and adaptations that could make it better? Absolutely. But I know in my conversation with others in different traditions that many “envy” our way of providing pastoral leadership. There is certainly nothing “sacred” about the itinerancy, but I think the charge of “organizational habit that is no longer effective” discounts the ability for adaptability, and disregards the itinerancy’s main function: to deploy clergy who are missionally sent. It is also a reminder to churches and pastor that we are not self-made, but formed and transformed by a community of faith, yoked together with Christ. Together, let us try to perfect it, rather than do away with it.

The Rev’d Sky McCracken, OSL, is District Superintendent of the Purchase District of the Memphis Conference of The United Methodist Church.

3 Reasons Why Itinerancy is an Idea Whose Time Has Come…and Gone #UMC

asbury horse

Bishop Asbury struggling with his horse, courstesy Asbury Seminary. What if Asbury is the UMC and the horse is itinerancy?

Here are three reasons why the itinerancy (the United Methodist system of deploying clergy) should go.

1) Itinerancy is intended for a very different context than United Methodists (at least in the US) face today.  Originally, itinerancy emerged in a context where a large number of laity were being served by too few clergy.  Then, itinerancy strengthened the ministry of the laity, as preachers served a “circuit,” only visiting local parishes semi-regularly.  In their absence, a strong system of lay leadership maintained and grew Methodist communities.  The situation is now the opposite: the church has come to be a support network for a large number of clergy to hold down jobs, and lay leadership has suffered.  The Order of Elders functions more as a guild or union to protect clergy rather than a covenant community deployed for God’s mission.  What remains of itinerancy today is at best a husk; I daresay neither Wesley or Asbury would recognize much of the machine we call “itinerancy.”

2) Itinerancy primarily benefits single white men.  Itinerancy, as conceived by the early Methodists, was not designed to be a system for anything but single men.  Preachers who wanted to have families were “located,” that is, taken off of the circuit.  Itinerancy has not evolved to handle the realities of female clergy, clergy families, or clergy couples; despite the excellent service many of these clergy render, they are still considered a burden to a system that thus rewards men, unmarried clergy and clergy whose spouses do not work outside of the home.  Oh, and it’s (still) a system that rewards white men in particular.

3) Itinerancy is designed for short-term service.  The UMC is coming around to something that many other denominations and church networks have already figured out: longer appointments are better for churches and for clergy.  The old standard – a 3 or 4 year term – is now recognized as the bare minimum amount of time a pastor generally needs to start earning trust and be able to lead serious change.  Some conferences are now telling their clergy not to even request a move until 4 or 5 years in.  Yes, John Wesley did argue, “We have found by long and consistent experience that a frequent exchange of preachers is best.”  With all do regards to our denominational progenitor, we have found by longer experience that this is no longer the case.

The Bottom Line

There is nothing sacred about itinerancy, as best as I can tell.  It is an organizational habit that is no longer effective; like a post for tying up horses, it is frontier architecture to which the United Methodist Church of the 21st century has no need to retain.  That is not to say itinerancy is without any merit; Joel Watts raises an excellent point that itinerancy serves as a safeguard against cults of personality (a danger any alternative system would have to attend to, as well).  But there are plenty of communions that avoid this danger absent the itinerancy.  All in all, I think the picture above sums up itinerancy nicely: represented by the horse, itinerancy is a system designed before both cars and trains, which was effective for a time, but which is now a burden to accomplishing our mission.*

But What Alternative?

For more on this conversation, and what an alternative might look like, I recommend you check out the discussion on the latest episode of the WesleyCast, available here (and even if you aren’t interested in the itinerancy discussion, listen for the interview with Duke Divinity School’s Warren Smith).

*As I am not familiar with the realities on the ground outside of the US, I am open to suggestion as whether this is still an effective system for clergy deployment in other areas of the Connection.  The last thing we need is the US dictating policy to the rest of the world in yet another area.

Sanctification After Brené Brown

gifts of imperfection“There is scarce any expression in Holy Writ which has given more offense than this. The word perfect is what many cannot bear. The very sound of it is an abomination to them.”

-John Wesley, Sermon 40, “Christian Perfection”

“Perfectionism is self-destructive simply because there is no such thing as perfect.”

-Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

A problem: I believe in the biblical, ancient view that salvation involves a radical transformation of character by the power of the Holy Spirit, a process named theosis by some and sanctification by others.  I also count myself a fan of sociologist and author Brené Brown.  This is particularly problematic because Wesleyan Christians (Methodists, Nazarenes, Pentecostals, etc.) believe that sanctification can be “entire,” or, as Wesley himself put it, that Christian Perfection is not only attainable in this life but is God’s will for all people.  But if Brown is correct that “perfectionism” is not not only a bad idea, but an addictive attitude that is immensely harmful, what do we do with the cherished Christian teaching that our goal and calling is to become like God?

Of course I realize that Dr. Brown’s research is secular in nature, and that her books are usually found in the section of the bookstore labelled “self-improvement” – a genre into which far too many preachers thoughtlessly venture.  I do believe, however, that it behooves those of us in the Wesleyan (and broader Christian) family to assess her work in light of our most sacred teachings, not just because of her popularity, but because Christians committed to authentic community and spiritual vitality cannot ignore either the classic teachings about holiness or Brown’s research into shame, vulnerability, and perfectionism.  Wesley himself was a voracious reader of the latest science of his day, and I believe he would appreciate the effort to bring Christian teaching into conversation with cutting-edge research.

An ancient Eastern dictum states the Biblical case succinctly: “God became human so that humans could become God.”  Many Christians today focus so much on justification (forgiveness, pardon), that sanctification is an afterthought at best.  But full-orbed Christian thinkers do otherwise, including prominent evangelicals such as C.S. Lewis:

“The command ‘Be ye perfect’ is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command….The process will be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said.” (Mere Christianity)

To be sure, this is a noble ideal, a beautiful picture of what full salvation can look like.  But what do we do with this if we’ve read Brown or (along with millions of others) watched one of her TED Talks?  She is blunt about trying to be perfect.  “Where perfectionism exists,” says Professor Brown, “shame is always lurking.”

Christian Perfection via Wesley is not about shame, but love.

Christian Perfection via Wesley is not about shame, but love.

Wesley holds the answer. Sanctification, even the language of entire sanctification or perfection, is too biblical to simply let go of it.  Were the Church only to promote doctrines which were immediately accessible and palatable to anyone and everyone, we would soon be left with a banal non-starter like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism or worse, instead of the faith once and for all delivered.  As Wesley says,

“We may not, therefore, lay these expressions aside, seeing they are the words of God, and not of man. But we may and ought to explain the meaning of them…”

Wesley goes on to do just that in Sermon 40.  Christian Perfection is not a kind of angelic or gnostic state, free from error or temptation.  For Wesley, it is a perfection in love, in which our tempers, our habits of heart are fully conformed to God. “Christian perfection, therefore, does not imply (as some men seem to have imagined) an exemption either from ignorance or mistake, or infirmities or temptations,” says Wesley.  He adds, “Indeed, it is only another term for holiness.”  And what Christian would say we should not strive for holiness?

Likewise, while Brown rejections “perfectionism,” this does not mean she rejects a holistic vision of betterment.  She clarifies the difference thus:

  • “Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment and shame….”

  • “Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance.  Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports)….we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it.  Please. Perform. Perfect. Healthy striving is self-focused – How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused – what will they think?”

So for Brown, there is a drive for improvement that is healthy, but short of “perfectionism.”  For Wesley, similarly, Christian perfection is not a mistake-free state that seeks to guard against disappointing others.  We would say that Christian perfection is other-focused, not on other people but on the One who is Wholly Other.  Viewed within the larger framework of Wesley’s teaching on grace, we can also add that this focus on God is not in search of approval (for prevenient grace already means God has reached out to us in love and compassion).  Sanctification viewed as Wesley intended and, I believe, in a manner that Brown would recognize as healthy is about striving to respond to God’s perfect, amazing, radical love in kind.

To conclude, Christian perfection or entire sanctification, thus rightly ordered, ought not to drive the perfectionism from which Brené Brown rightly seeks us to steer.  A church which teaches and prays for theosis is doing nothing more or less than equipping God’s people to be what God has declared them already in Christ: saints.  Event the most sanctified among us will not be “perfect,” at least in the usual sense of the term.  But they will have hearts renewed after the Image of God,  restored to the Love they were made to receive and to share.  As Charles Wesley envisioned it, this is a beautiful vision of

A heart in every thought renewed

and full of love divine,

perfect and right and pure and good,

a copy, Lord, of thine.

Source: Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection (Center: Hazelden 2010), 55-57.

The Quadrilateral or the Word of God?

Portrait of John Wesley with his most favorite of books.

Portrait of John Wesley with his most favorite of books.

“My ground is the Bible. Yea, I am a Bible-bigot. I follow it in all things, both great and small.”

-John Wesley

In too many UMC conversations, from worship to trustee meetings to bake sales, the Bible is little more than window dressing.  Rather than living under the authority of God’s Word, we use it for our own ends.  We piously reference Scripture, tacking it on to the end of this or that, when in truth neither this nor that have been informed by God or God’s story preserved in Scripture.  At our best, Christians live in, through, and by the narrative of God’s self-gift in Christ.  At our worst, we twist the story to make it serve our own purposes.  The Bible is used to justify war, poverty, wealth, homophobia, abortion, quietism, and every other sin or vice imaginable.  But, as Raneiro Cantalamessa suggests, our efforts to tame the text ultimately stand under the judgment of their Author:

“The Word of God revolts against being reduced to ideology. Ideology is what is left once the current from the Word of God has been cut off, once the word has been unplugged from the transcendent and personal reality of God, so that it is no longer the Word disposing of me and leading me where it chooses but I who am disposing of it and leading it where I choose. God will not tolerate his almighty Word being used to garnish a speech for this occasion or that, nor to cloak with divine authority speeches already composed and entirely human. In recent times we have seen where such tendency can lead. The gospel has been exploited in support of every kind of human project, from class war to the death of God. But this is all old hat…the gospel has been bent this way and that to say whatever happened to be socially fashionable at any given period.”

In United Methodist circles, it can be argued that the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral has contributed to this ‘bending’ of the gospel over the last several decades.  Opinions vary as to whether Outler’s construct was defunct from the beginning or misunderstood and misapplied, but the results are the same: Scripture, despite efforts to re-narrate the Quadrilateral to the contrary, has become just one of four implicitly equal sources from which we can draw on for theological truth.

The result is rather like what we’ve seen in the The Episcopal Church: though our official liturgies and doctrinal standards speak in accord with the Church across time and space about the Triunity of God and the centrality of Christ, it is quite possible that the presiding clergy and any number of congregants may actually be worshiping the Giant Spaghetti Monster.  God becomes whatever and wherever one finds meaning, and the only dogma recognized is that all dogma is stifling and harmful.  This is not how Wesley, the “man of one book,” did it.  His approach was much closer to what Cantalamessa, the official preacher to the Papal household, suggests:

“When dealing with the Church’s doctrinal and disciplinary problems, therefore, we need bravely to start out more often from the Word of God, especially as revealed in the New Testament, and stay bound to it, chained to it, certain that in this way we shall much more surely achieve our purpose, which is, in any question, to discover where the will of God lies.”

For too many, the Quadrilateral has meant (maybe) starting with Scripture and then going to to something a bit more flexible or likable.  Cantalamessa, though, invites us to consider the radical alternative: treating God’s Word as God’s Word.  We have traded true freedom for a bondage to our own fancies.  Only in binding ourselves to Scripture are we truly free to hear, discern, and live out God’s will.

Source: Cantalamessa, Raneiro. The Mystery of God’s Word (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press 1994), 49-50.

Is Sprinkling the Best Way to Baptize?

dropsHere in the Bible Belt, sacramental Christians sometimes feel like the nerdy kid on the playground when it comes to explaining our practices of baptism.  In many Baptist, Pentecostal, and non-denominational congregations, baptism is only done “like John the Baptist did it.” That means getting dunked like an early morning cruller in hot coffee. For many in my part of the world, baptism means one thing: immersion.

United Methodists actually aren’t against immersion (which is a common misconception).  We are people of the via media, after all, and we simply recognize that God’s grace, rather than the amount of water, is the most important agent of baptism.  Our official church teaching on baptism states,

“In United Methodist tradition, the water of baptism may be administered by sprinkling, pouring, or immersion. However it is administered, water should be utilized with enough generosity to enhance our appreciation of its symbolic meanings.”

A “generosity” of water is encouraged, not because it makes the baptism more legitimate, but because it suggests symbolically what we proclaim in the liturgy: that God’s grace is abundant, free, and there is plenty to go around.  Thus, even when sprinkling, I will pour a large amount of water into the font, as noisily as possible.  I run my hands through the water for emphasis.  Sacraments rely on the reality of the Incarnation, after all, and best experienced through as many senses as possible.  But the effectiveness of the sacrament does not rely on getting as much of that water onto the newly minted Christian as possible.  In fact, God seems to relish in working powerfully through the small, the inferior, the minute, and the insufficient.  Consider:

  • Hebrew families are spared the death of their firstborn sons in Egypt by the blood of the lamb painted over their doorways.
  • Israel is sustained in the wilderness by manna, a heavenly bread, but they are only allowed to keep enough for each day, not store it in CostCo-sized jars.
  • Jesus feeds thousands with just a loaf of bread and two small fish.
  • Jesus compares both the faith that moves mountains and the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed. (They are tiny.)

God, it seems, can do a lot with a little.

Hence the logic of baptism by sprinkling.  Because it is water that has been touched the Spirit which hovered over the waters at creation and over the Jordan at Jesus’ baptism as a dove, the amount is irrelevant.  Just a few drops are enough to make a Christian.  For Hebrew men, all that separated them from the covenant community was a little bit of skin.  For us, it is a little bit of water and some prayers.

We live in a consumer culture that constantly stresses more, and larger, and greater.  Why get the V-6 when the V-8 goes so much faster?  Surely you need the 50″ flatscreen because your 46″ has already become boring and your neighbors have a 56″!  Why settle for a standard cheeseburger when you can get two or three patties?

In such a world, I can think of few better witnesses to Kingdom of God than making a new Christian with just a few drops of water.  By sprinkling, the pilgrim church on earth dares to say that death and resurrection, new birth, and covenant identity in Christ Jesus can all be granted by the smallest of gifts from God’s abundant storehouse of grace.

Just a few droplets leave an indelible mark that cannot be removed.  Luther points out the power of sprinkled grace in his Large Catechism:

“Therefore our Baptism abides forever; and even though some one should fall from it and sin, nevertheless we always have access thereto, that we may again subdue the old man.  But we need not again be sprinkled with water; for though we were put under the water a hundred times, it would nevertheless be only one Baptism, although the operation and signification continue and remain.”

St. Paul told us, in his first letter to the church in Corinth, that “faith, hope, and love abide” but “the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor. 13:13)  One of the chief ways that these three, and chiefly God’s love, abide in us throughout our lives is by the gift of baptism.

All the more amazing, then, that God’s grace can mark, claim, save, and sustain us with only a few sprinkled drops.  In that sense, baptism by sprinkling is not just one of several “good” options.  Might it be that, of all the possible modes, baptism by sprinkling tells the good news (“gospel”) of God’s grace better than any other?

Infant Baptism: God’s Gift


My daughters, Auden and Amelia, at their baptism.

On Sunday, December 7, as Bishop John Schol sprinkled water on the heads of my twin girls, Auden and Amelia, they were named as God’s own. Through an indescribable and unfathomable gift of grace, my girls were “initiated into Christ’s holy Church, incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation, and given new birth through water and the Spirit.”* It was a beautiful, holy moment.

I grew up in a tradition that does not baptize babies. Baptism is understood as an ordinance; not a sacrament, and something only for those who can understand and choose for themselves. This is typically called “believer’s baptism.” One of the primary distinguishing features between an ordinance and a sacrament is the primary actor. Who is taking the initiative? In an ordinance, the individual is the prime mover; the baptismal ordinance is an individual’s response to God’s activity. A sacrament, however, posits that God takes the action. God loves us, calls us by name, and embraces us before we can know or understand it. And let’s be honest: if any of us had to wait to receive baptism until we really understood it, most of us would still be dry. This is why prevenient grace is so clearly integral to our baptismal liturgy: it is in the Invitation and Welcome, the Thanksgiving over the Water, the Commendation and Welcome into the Body of Christ. It’s the grace greater than our understanding.

John Wesley articulated and defended infant baptism in his work “Treatise on Baptism” (you can find that here; it begins on page 225). He offered support for the practice in several ways, addressing Jesus’ welcome of children and the practice of infant baptism by the Apostles and in the early church.  However, perhaps his most persuasive and nuanced argument was his understanding of covenant. He pointed to the necessary inclusion of infants in the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 17 and St. Paul’s linking of circumcision and baptism, namely in Galatians and Colossians. After all, under the Abrahamic covenant, infants were admitted into the covenant through circumcision. Wesley said, “Infants are capable of entering into covenant with God. As they always were, so they still are, under the evangelical covenant. Therefore they have a right to baptism, which is now the entering seal thereof.” The covenant made available through Jesus Christ — the “evangelical covenant,” to use Wesley’s phrase — is all grace. It is something God has done for us; we need not demand certain criteria such as age, understanding, or family status, to be welcomed into it.

At the same time, my wife Amanda and I, along with all those who witnessed the baptism that day, have a significant part to play in Auden and Amelia’s growth in grace. We all promised to raise them in the life of faith and to nurture that in them, until they are able to publicly profess the faith for themselves. As Amanda and I made vows to live our faith that our children may in time live out theirs, I felt the weight of this responsibility. To put an ecclesial spin on a cliched phrase, “it takes a church” to live into baptismal vows. Covenant means we who have received this sacramental gift from God are in this journey together, and it is a journey that will only bear fruit if its roots drink deeply from the generous source of Living Water.

The following is the blessing in our baptismal covenant that the presider offers after the commendation and congregational welcome:

The God of all grace,
who has called us to eternal glory in Christ,
establish you and strengthen you
by the power of the Holy Spirit,
that you may live in grace and peace.

May it be so. Amen.

* Click here to access our United Methodist baptismal liturgies.

Photo by Aaron Harrington.

Abortion Is Not Funny

social principles

Let me put my cards on the table. I agree 100% with the official United Methodist stance on abortion. You can read the full text here, but let me highlight some of the most important aspects of our official stance:

Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion.

But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child.

We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers. We support parental, guardian, or other responsible adult notification and consent before abortions can be performed on girls who have not yet reached the age of legal adulthood. We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control, and we unconditionally reject it as a means of gender selection or eugenics.

Two things jump out at me almost immediately when I read these excerpts:

  1. We believe in the sanctity of unborn human life.
  2. Our approval of abortion is intrinsically connected to the concern for the mother.

We even go on to say that “We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control.” The answer behind 92% of women surveyed in 2004 about why they were getting an abortion was birth control. The United Methodist Church is not a blanket “pro-choice” denomination. We allow for abortion in extreme circumstances with which most pro-life people would agree.

So when the Director of Civil and Human Rights at the General Board of Church and Society decides to be funny on a day filled with emotions around the issue of abortion, it makes me upset. His apology is that it was meant to be a joke, but i don’t know if that makes it any better. Is this an issue to be humorous about?

Maybe I should reveal another card. I don’t think abortion is funny because my wife and I cannot have biological children; so, we have been foster/adoptive parents for two years. We have seen unwanted children; we want them to know that they are wanted. There is nothing funny about unwanted children. Thousands of children are in the system today because they are unwanted, but there is a growing number of us who want these children to know that they are loved and that they are wanted. Everyone I know who is a foster/adoptive parent would tell you that they are pro-life. We put our money where our mouth is every single day. We believe that all babies and children need and deserve a loving home. They should be allowed civil and human rights too! We can never affirm abortion as a means of birth control.

Want to know something really ironic? People who are foster/adoptive parents are Republicans and Democrats, Christian and non-Christian, gay and straight, rich and poor, black and white. We became foster/adoptive parents thanks to a lesbian couple who were members of my church. Being pro-life is an issue for many us foster/adoptive parents that bridges a lot of different divides that we have in the church today.

And nothing about abortion is funny.

Baptism: A Gift Remembered (But Never Repeated)

baptism water

I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins
and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

For much of my life growing up, I attended a Southern Baptist school.  Though I was baptized United Methodist and we had faithfully attended a UM church in my earliest years, my parents sent me to an SBC school for middle and high school.  For much of this time, mostly because of my parents’ work, we did not attend church regularly.  That makes the next fact all the more interesting.  My parents could have saved a lot of money on my education had we been members of the church to which my school was attached.  A LOT of money.  But we never joined.  We thought about it, but never could pull the trigger.

For me, a major part of my lack of interest in joining that baptist church is that I would have to be re-baptized (and dunked, of course, because baptist water has such a small amount of grace that it takes a whole tub).  Mind you, I had no sacramental theology of which to speak at this time.  I simply knew that I had been baptized, and I felt their insistence that I be re-baptized to join their congregation was deeply wrong.  It was an instinct, a powerful instinct, more than a conscious thought.

Later, I would learn that historically Christians do not re-baptize, but instead recognize “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins” as we have at least since the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed was adopted in the 4th century.  As the title of Stookey’s excellent book on baptism underscores, baptism is Christ’s Act in the Church.  Because it is a gift that the Triune God shares in God’s holy church, to repeat it would be to insult the One who hovered over the waters to make us new creatures.  In short, it would suggest that Christ’s work was ineffective, or that he went back on his promise.

One of the worship practices I greatly appreciate in the United Methodist tradition is the remembrance of baptism, in which the congregation is invited to touch water that has been prayed over and recall God’s claim upon them.  This is done often, though not exclusively, on the 1st Sunday after the Epiphany, commonly known as Baptism of the Lord Sunday.

Perhaps I appreciate this so much because I am a forgetful person.  I am, in the words of my favorite hymn, “prone to wander…prone to leave the God I love.”  And so it helps, now and again, to center down, to come back to the natal waters, and remember that God’s claim upon me is more powerful than my spiritual dementia.

Baptism is never repeated, but it is to be remembered, to be claimed.  Like a tattoo or a branding iron, God’s mark does not go away.  But it can dull or fade over time, and when that happens, a few drops is enough to wake us up, to jerk us back to reality, to bring us back to that strange and wonderful river of grace that makes us Christ’s own.