A little something about baptizing children… (or “let the little children come unto me and do not hinder them”)

Last night at Bloom (during the first service), I had the wonderful privilege of baptizing one of the newer members of the Bloom family, Emma Johnson.  The experience was totally thrilling.  An immense honor and joy.  As long as I live, I will never forget making the sign of the cross on Emma’s forehead with oil and watching her face light up (I swear I’ve never seen a baby smile like that) as I prayed over her and pleaded that every good purpose of God for her life would come to pass.  It was just SO special.

Since Emma’s was the first such baptism we’ve done at Bloom, I thought it might be worth saying a few things about it… how it came about, what our “position” on baptism is, etc etc.

About two years ago, the Johnson family began attending Bloom.  Mega-interesting and wonderful couple.  The husband (Nathan) grew up a pretty straightforward, card-carrying, devoted evangelical.  The wife (Bri) grew up a pretty straightforward, card-carrying, devoted Catholic.  Naturally, when they met in college, they fell madly in love.  Haha.  (I absolutely love this stuff.)

Of course, wanting to respect and be enriched by each other’s traditions, Nathan and Bri had a lot of questions to answer, chief among them being, “Where do we go to church?”  Neither of them wanted their experience to cannibalize the other’s, and so they settled on a compromise, which ultimately deeply enriched both of their respective faith journeys: in the mornings they would attend Mass, and in the evenings would attend a more or less evangelical worship service.  A pretty awesome arrangement if you ask me…

…until you have kids, and of course that turns into a wildly taxing Sunday.  Somethin’ had to give, and when Nathan and Bri discovered Bloom, they found what was (to their minds) the perfect blend of what they most desired out of a church experience: evangelical fervor combined with a deep respect, appreciation for, and enfleshment-of the great Tradition of the Church.  So they started coming, and instantly found the Bloom community to be “home.”

Their oldest two children had been baptized in the Catholic Church, and when they had baby Emma last year, the question became, obviously, “What will we do with her?”  At that point, Bloom had basically just done Baby Dedications for newborns, and there wasn’t a ton of conversation about whether we should do more (except from one of our staffers, Rusty, a Lutheran-turned-Baptist-turned-Neo-Reformed-turned-quasi-charismatic-turned-whatever-it-is-Bloom-is who constantly bugged me about it).  When Nathan and Bri brought the question up to us, it forced the issue.

Now I should admit that as a born and bred non-denominational charismatic, infant baptism totally freaks me out (I can’t even tell you how nervous I was last night… I was a total mess before the service).  I have no idea why, it just does.  For me, Baby Dedication always made so much sense.  We anoint the baby with oil (a symbol of the Holy Spirit) and trust that even from that moment, the Spirit who awakens saving faith would begin his gracious work in the life of the child.  When the child is old enough to make a public, credible profession of faith, they can be baptized.  Makes total sense…

EXCEPT that there was always this sort of theological and practical “hanging chad” (get the year 2000 reference there?) – namely, that in my tradition, we didn’t treat our children (the unbaptized) as though they were unbaptized.  We treated them like “little disciples” of Jesus who were being taught to obey all that he commanded, and were even capable of loving and responding to him in faith.  We would teach them to worship Jesus as Lord (who can do that but the regenerate?), to pray (ditto), to read the Bible in faith (ditto), to follow Jesus’ teaching (ditto), to take Communion (ditto), and even – oddity of all oddities – to share their faith.  Haha.  Somehow the irony of that escaped our grasp.  We didn’t *formally* accept them as full members of the Body of Christ, but we expected them to act like they were.  Strange stuff, eh?

All of that always bothered me, but I didn’t really know what to do about it.  I think the biggest part of me was afraid that if I “surrendered” on the infant baptism piece, I’d have my low-church credentials revoked.  Could I ever seriously claim my non-denominational charismatic-ness again after walking down that road???  (Fear is never a good way to make or not make decisions, by the way.)

Having Nathan and Bri pose the question about Emma to us forced some reflection… in the end (greatly helped by a marvelous study of baptism by the New Testament scholar Ben Witherington… definitely worth the read if you’re interested in the subject), we landed on a few biblical and theological convictions that have helped clarify how we should think about this matter.  All Christians everywhere (to my knowledge), whether they believe in believer’s or infant baptism believe points #1-3; most Christians in most places believe point #4.  Together these can help us think through the issue with clarity.

1) Water Baptism is a rite of passage that unites a person with the covenant community, the visible Body of Christ.  Paul writes that “We were all baptized by one Spirit as to form one Body” (1 Co 12:13).  In much the same way that the rite of circumcision marked one out as belonging to the commonwealth of Israel in the Old Testament, in the New Testament baptism marks one out as belonging to the Church.

2) Water Baptism looks back to and preaches the death of Christ.  When the New Testament believers sank into the watery depths, it seems that they were harkening back to and, in a sense, “proclaiming” the death of Christ as THE determinative event in world history… and they saw themselves as participating in that event.  Paul, again – “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death…” (Rom 6:4)

3) Water Baptism looks forward to and depicts the Baptism of the Holy Spirit.  John the Baptist declared, “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt 3:11).  The immersion in water looked forward to (or “depicted”, which is an important qualifier, since many in the New Testament were baptized with water AFTER being “filled with the Holy Spirit”) the far greater (and more important) baptism/immersion-in and filling-of the Holy Spirit.

4) Finally, Water Baptism is a SACRAMENT that PUTS INTO MOTION the very things that it declares.  In the same way that we believe that when we take the Bread and the Cup of Communion into our bodies, that some mystical encounter is taking place with the body and blood of Christ (Paul says, “Is not the bread that we break a koinonia in the body of Christ?” – 1 Co 10:16), so we believe that in baptism the realities depicted are also, in some way that is beyond human comprehension, going into motion.  That is, the initiate is somehow from that moment beginning to experience that union with Christ that will hopefully grow into a mature faith.

Now, before any of my low-church friends start chucking their tambourines at me… let me just make a point of connection.  In our tradition, when we anointed the babies (or the sick, or those we were consecrating for ministry) with oil, what did we think was happening there?  If we didn’t think ANYTHING “special” or “supernatural” was happening, why the heck did we do it at all?

The truth is that we did it because we believed that through the physical act of anointing the person, the reality depicted by the anointing was in fact beginning to happen… that the Spirit was working through OUR faith IN the act of anointing to awaken saving faith in the life of the child (or to heal, or to consecrate and fill for a special task).

[For at least my charismatic brethren and sistren… y’all have always been pretty dang mystical and sacramental.  Just fess up to it already!  In fact, I’ve always said that it was my charismatic roots that laid the groundwork for me to be as mystical and sacramental as I am… So you’re to blame for all of my shenanigans]

All of this being the case, and given the diversity of the Body of Christ, it seemed wise for us to follow suit with what many denominations have chosen to do and simply (for the time being anyway) to leave it up to the family to decide what they’d like to do.  We’re not in the business of violating anyone’s conscience, so if a family is not for it… we’re not going to force it upon them.  But we’re also not going to let one group’s view of baptism determine the whole.  We think there’s space enough within the Body of Christ for a diversity here.

And truth be told, our great hope is that this gesture will result in (1) more baptisms and (2) a reclaiming of the centrality of this sacrament for our liturgical space.  That latter hope is a concern we’ve constantly wrestled with–if baptism is so important and so central for the Church, why do we do it only a few times a year, and OUTSIDE OF the normal flow of our worship services (“down by the river” as it were)?  We hope to bring this sacrament front and center for our community, where it should be.

So there’s our story.  I should close by saying I totally love Bloom, and love the journey we’re on.  Reclaiming and re-imagining how to “do” our faith is a constantly inspiring and challenging part of my job… just SO much fun.

If you’d like to read a little “whitepaper” (a position paper, essentially) we wrote up for our Bloom family to read – click here

If you’d like a sample of the liturgy we wrote up for Emma’s baptism, email me at andrew@bloomchurchdenver.com

Grace and peace to you, the Baptized

Andrew

Ask Eugene Peterson a Question!!

Ok friends, here’s a sweet opportunity for you.

In two weeks, me and a few friends are heading out to friggin Eugene Peterson’s house (if you don’t know who Eugene Peterson is, he’s the guy that wrote The Message Bible and like a bazillion other amazing books including the popular Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places) in Montana to sit down with him for a day and talk about why the work of our hands matters.  I know, right?!?!  We get to hang with a living legend!

We’ll be videotaping the conversations in order to put on an event in October (which will be open to the public) celebrating and wrestling with why and how our work fits within the plan of God.  The event’s centerpiece will be large segments of the conversation we had with Eugene, as well as some panel- and round-table discussion.

Our deep desire is that what we ask Eugene would be reflective of what people in our congregations are asking and wondering about the meaning and purpose of their work.  So rather than just assuming we know those questions are, we thought we’d ask you!

So here’s the so-called “sweet opportunity”: we’re inviting submissions of questions you’d like to hear Eugene answer on the topic of work, calling, vocation, etc.

The questions need not be “deep”; just honest (the more honest, the better).  The top three submissions will make it into our final interview script, and the submitters will get free registration to the event in October.

Awesome, eh?

So… if this is something you think about, fire away!  Go ahead and submit them in the comments section below.

Thanks!

Andrew

An Ash Wednesday Lament

Our service at Bloom was stunningly beautiful last night.  Together with our friends at Hope Community Church, in a near standing-room-only basement, we gathered together to “name” and lament the many deaths, and our responsibility and complicity in those deaths, that surround us.  It was powerful.

Part of the night included a prayer I wrote to help guide us into a spirit of lament.  I figured I’d share it here.

Blessings,

Andrew

Lord of life, we come to you tonight to name and grieve the many “deaths” that surround us…

The death of hopes

The death of dreams

The death of expectations

We put so much in our idea of what the future will be, and when it becomes obvious that it will not be as we imagined, it is hard for us… Still, we name it

Tonight we grieve…

That our relationships are estranged

That our bodies are broken

That our pet projects are failing

These things are impossibly difficult for us to say, and they cause us great embarrassment… But we say them anyway

We lament before you, our Lord and Maker

That deep down

We don’t trust you

We don’t love you

And we have persistent, nagging doubts about your goodness

And it feels like mutiny to say so

Everyone told us that life with you would be bliss, but instead we have experienced only… Confusion, frustration, rejection, and deep feelings of being abandoned by you

It hurts

All of it hurts

And add to it the vague feeling that it’s our own stupid, rebellious choices that have been largely responsible for the mess we’re in, and it’s like salt in the wound

It’s not working, Lord

None of it is working

All of it is going to ashes

And you seem far

It’s as bad as it seems

And so we lift our hearts to you tonight, Lord of life

If it pleases you, hear us

And breathe life into our every desolation

In the Name of the One who entered our desolation we dare to ask.  Amen.

Space to Tell the Truth – An Ash Wednesday Reflection

Ash Wednesday.  A day to have ashes smeared on your forehead, acknowledge and publicly confess what a miserable wretch you are, and sit quietly pondering the fact that one day, you are going to die.

Awesome.

I grew up in a tradition that greatly eschewed moments in the Christian calendar like Ash Wednesday.  If Jesus is alive, if sin and death have already been defeated. If we have already been given to drink of the Spirit, why all the doom and gloom?  Why on earth would we want to mope around like the Catholics?  It just didn’t make sense.  Shouldn’t the Christian life be a nonstop experience of joy, freedom, victory, and power?

What I did not know then that I know now, is that part of the power of Christianity lies in its steadfast refusal to cover up and deny the truth.  While it is of course true that Jesus is alive, that sin and death have been defeated, and that we have already been given to drink of the Spirit, our own lives and life of the world around us still often reek of death.  What shall we do with this reality?

One option that we have is simply to give in to it, to acquiesce to things as they are, to our lives as they are, and go on living.  Many people do this.  They become utterly pragmatic in their assessment of the situation, throw their hands up in the air and declare with confidence, “It all just is what it is.”  This abandonment of hope is responsible for much grief, sadness, and loss of vitality in our culture (not to mention despairing self-gratification which often leads to addiction).

Another option is to deny the truth of our situation.  Western culture is studied in the practice of denial, and as a consequence, our lives are incoherent, hypocritical, and often unwittingly destructive.  We spend billions of dollars every year on music and media that simultaneously glorifies and degrades sex, and then wail and lament the reality of sex trafficking.  We pollute our land, our food, and our bodies and then bemoan our many diseases (and try to create new and expensive pills to cure our broken bodies).  We worship the plastic and superficial lives of our celebrities and then wonder aloud why our lives feel meaningless and without purpose.

Christian culture often fares no better on this front.  Because we have an expectation that taking the “God pill” will cure whatever ails us, we are incapable of admitting that our lives are often sad, purposeless, and deeply warped.  In the absence of having space for such an admission, the only possible result is duplicity, and it is no wonder that so many Christians feel forced to live “double lives.”  That things like alcohol abuse and sex addictions are as rampant among the faithful as those outside the walls of the Church is proof positive that denial is a poor strategy for living.

But gladly, there is another option in front of us; an option that Christianity (at its best) in general and Ash Wednesday in particular makes available to us: we can name and grieve our situation.  We don’t have to keep up the pretenses, we can abandon the facade, we can admit that the jig is up.  The lives that we’ve built aren’t working, the practices we’ve embraced are killing us, there are profound gaps between what we say we believe and how we live, and it is destroying ourselves and the world around us.  We no longer have to live a lie.  We can lay it down, let it go, admit we were wrong and that we need help.  And in a paradoxical way, we find that in the midst of that naming and grieving of our situation there is a reservoir of deep joy, for our coming into the light creates space for new possibilities to emerge.

When I was in eighth grade, my friends and I got “busted” (by our parents) for our involvement in some activities we shouldn’t have been involved in.  In the months leading up to our “busting”, I vividly remember a quiet desperation building in my soul.  I just wanted it to be done, to be out of it, to get a fresh start, to have it all come into the light.  I just didn’t know how to get there.  And I was terrified at what would happen if and when my parents found out.  When one of my own friends admitted to his father what we had been doing, I experienced firsthand “what would happen.”  And I was frankly surprised.

In the first place, my parents were visibly upset and disappointed in me.  How could I do such a despicable thing?  Hadn’t they raised me better than that?  I knew that  such disappointment was inevitable, and that’s not what scared me.  What scared me was the “wrath.”  What sort of punishment would I receive?  When my dad looked at me and said, “We’re not going to punish you, but you need to take a hard look in the mirror and ask yourself  the question, ‘Is this the kind of person I want to become?’ ” I was shocked.  I had imagined everything but this sort of response.

That evening, after our little discussion, I went out to the driveway to shoot some baskets at our basketball hoop (it’s where I often went to think and process).  I had expected wrath.  What I got was mercy.  And not just mercy, but challenge.  And as I sat there pondering that, all of a sudden I felt strangely free.  I felt full of hope and emboldened to live into a better future for myself.  That moment was a turning point that set the stage for how my high school career would unfold: laser-focused, devoted to God, full of light.

That’s what Ash Wednesday is all about.  It is a truth-telling moment.  A moment to allow ourselves to name the distance in our lives between what we are and what we say we believe and grieve it.  When we have the ashes smeared on our foreheads, we’re remembering before God that we are “dust and ashes”, made from the dirt and destined for dirt, yet promised glory if we’ll have the courage to admit our failure and cleave to the God of mercy.

And in reality, this is the heart and hope of Lent.  Easter, yes… but before that – Golgotha.  If we wish to enter into glory, we must pass through death.  No one who shirks this call will taste the deep bliss available to us human beings.  “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

Amen.  Help us, Lord Jesus.

[If you’re in Denver, feel free to join the friends at Bloom Church for our Ash Wednesday service.  7:00pm.  Childcare 0-4 years old.)

In Response to the “What Should I Do For Lent?” Question

Growing up in the non-denominational, evangelical world, my background was largely devoid of robust tradition.  By the time I got to my early 20’s, that lack became a great felt need for me.  I began to long for rootedness, stability, and a sense of connectedness to the great Tradition of the Church.  When I started to experiment with a Christian-calendar centered spirituality in my mid-20s, I found what my soul had been looking for.  Years later, the practice (in particular) of a “Holy Lent” has proven annually to be a high point of my walk with Jesus.  It strips me, centers me, and renews me in so many ways.

Before we get into the “how” of Lent, however, we should take a minute to understand the “where” and “why” of it.  Lent, you see, originated in the very earliest days of the Church.  When new converts (catechumens) were preparing for baptism, the seven or so weeks leading up to Easter would be used to help the soon-to-be-initiated understand just what their faith required of them.  To be baptized, of course, meant to die with Christ and be raised to new life in the Spirit, and that required two things.  First, a stripping off of the old.  Second, a putting on of the new.  The catechumen was being ushered into an experience of repudiating death-breathing ways in order to embrace the way of life in Christ Jesus, in all its color and complexity.

As this practice grew within the early church, eventually it seemed wise to turn the entire season not just into a time of preparation for the catechumens, but into a time of renewal for the whole congregation.  Each year, the congregation would re-enter into the depths of their “baptismal vows” to leave behind death and walk in life.  It would be a sort of annual spiritual house-cleaning and stock-taking, with the memory and meaning of baptism at the very center of it.  As Robert Webber writes: “The Lenten journey is a baptismal spirituality…To live in one’s baptism is to be continually renewed by the commitment of our original spiritual experience.” (Ancient-Future Time, 112)

Understanding this historical context can help give us a framework for thinking about how to engage the season of Lent.  Set within the movement of “stripping off” and “putting on”, we can think about constructing a Lenten spirituality that is both a “no” and a “yes.”  We can say “no” to what dissipates us, destroys us, robs us of our energy for love and service, and thwarts human life.  And at the same time, we can say “yes” to those things that ground us in God, orient us towards “the other”, and allow the life of Christ to shine in us.

What might that look like?  Here are some suggestions:

Saying “No”

  • Fast one meal (or one day) per week
  • Watch less TV
  • Watch no TV
  • Take up a social media fast
  • Cut out junk food
  • Cut out sugar
  • Cut out caffeine
  • Cut out eating out
  • Cut out all of the above
  • Weep and wail (because if you follow the previous instruction, you will likely need to)
  • Give up cussing
  • Give up raising your voice
  • Drive less
  • Be more thoughtful of destructive mental habits (paranoia, comparison, judgmentalism, etc)
  • Give something valuable away (a book, clothes, furniture, money, your car)

The idea here is that you want to think about those things that either pollute you, dissipate you, or harm you and others.  Junk food is a pollution.  Certain kinds of television are a pollution.  Would you be better off without them?  Social media and other lazy habits tend to dissipate us.  We find ourselves wasting our best energy trolling around the internet and playing silly games, which can put us into a mental and emotional haze.  Can we do without those things?  Cussing, raising our voices, and engaging in destructive mental habits can harm ourselves and others.  Can we fathom giving those things up?  And what would life be like if we did?  Asking those questions is the heart of the “stripping off” part of Lent.

Saying “yes”

  • Eat something green every day
  • Make dinner together as a family/couple X amount of nights per week
  • Read a chapter from the Gospels in the morning and a Psalm before bed
  • Take your lunch break to pray for ten minutes
  • Read a novel
  • Create something
  • Start a blog
  • Paint a picture
  • Keep a journal
  • Write a song
  • Listen to good music… choral, orchestral, classical, etc
  • Take 5 minutes out of your day to breathe deeply
  • Take your spouse, or child, on a weekly date
  • Clean something (your house, your desk, your garage, your car, your inbox)
  • Find a piece of art that you really connect with, and take time every day to look at it and think about the meaning of it
  • Exercise regularly
  • Take daily walks
  • Find a way each day to affirm or bless someone close to you
  • Practice “listening with your heart” to what people say
  • Smile more
  • Keep a running list that you add to each day of all the things you love about your life

As with “stripping off”, the idea here is to engage in practices that enhance our humanness, consolidate and focus our energies, and lead to a sense of wellbeing and coherence for ourselves and others.  The activities need not be explicitly “religious”–they need only orient you towards love of God and neighbor, and respect for yourself and the world around you.

You are welcome, of course, to be creative with all of this, and to make use of what others have done (for instance, check out this really great resource – http://www.catholicallyear.com/2014/02/outside-box-66-things-to-give-up-or.html; you might also be interested in downloading our “Cycle of Life: A Lenten Guide” that we put together at Bloom this year).  The key is to identify the deathliness in your life and take intentional steps to walk deliberately into the life.

Grace and peace to you on your journey.

Andrew