Thinning Memory, Ethical Wallop and Other Questions about Baptism

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I. Excerpted from, “Long-Term Memory: Anamnesis and Christian Worship,” An Anniversary Lecture, First Church in Cambridge, Congregational: 375 Years on the Way, February 15, 2011

…I see the loss of the church’s deep experiential memory play out, among other examples I could cite, in the thinning of the baptismal ritual in many of the churches I’ve worshiped in during the last couple of years. Baptism in those communities is understood mostly as the symbolic act whereby we welcome a child (or occasionally an adult) into “the Christian family.” Even though most of the baptismal liturgies in use in those churches include bracing promises to renounce evil and engage in a life of demanding discipleship; and even though most retain all the scriptural references to mystical dying and rising with Christ, and some ever refer to the radical egalitarianism in which the rite implicates believers, the emphasis in many of these services remains laser-focused on family and welcome.

Now, I would be more content with this single focus if I thought, for example, that “welcome to the family” was widely understood in congregations as a “welcome to The Family that challenges families as the world understands them”; or if it carried within it the deep imperatives to be new creatures that relate to one another as original siblings, kin in the Sprit, that our ancient forbears found so immensely convincing about the Christian message. I wouldn’t mind it so much if what was being proclaimed in that welcome were the good news that there is a family for everyone, even for you; the grateful knowledge that without this new forgiving, healing, incorporating family born of water and the Spirit, we would all be profoundly homeless; and the urgent mission (therefore), the “thirst for souls”, that impels the baptized Christian to the side of the neighbor to extend to everyone God’s generous adoption. That kind of welcome I could be glad about. But most of the time the child is welcomed only to the Little White Church on the Green—which is not bad, of course; but it is niggardly. It withholds. It conveys only an infinitesimal fraction of the grace of the great Christian memory that baptism is, and not even its most saving one.  And if baptism is not about saving in some sense—choose your theology—it has nothing to tell us that the world can’t also say.

Were we remembering more deeply as the ritual unfolds, we would find ourselves thrust into the experience of Moses at the Red Sea fleeing for his life with his people, heading down in terror between walls of water, down to the seabed, to the very bottom of things; and there and only there, in trust and self-surrender, in a kind of death, finding liberation just as God promised; and then coming up alive and whole on the other side. And that shore then would be a shore here and now. It would be us standing on it with Miriam, ready to dance and praise in the face of every tyranny. It would be us who, with our own eyes now, see oppression’s inevitable future played out. It was, it is now, and it always will be washed up, broken, and destroyed.

Were we remembering more deeply, we would find ourselves in the presence of Jonah, so unwilling and so despairing over God’s love for Jonah’s enemies, swallowed by the big fish and taken deep, but not left to languish in that watery death. Hauled up, spit out, made new, he goes to preach mercy, almost against his will. And that same fish would swim right in here and gobble us up too. It would be us in that belly, us spit up on the shore newly gasping for air, us bringing mercy to an improbably repentant people, us weeping under a bush as we come to terms with the unpalatable good news that God will do anything to save.

And we would see Naaman, too, the proud general washed clean in Israel’s unprepossessing river; and the man born blind (the newly-baptized in the ancient church were called “illuminati”, and the story of the restoration of his sight was often read at baptisms); and our dear brother Jesus at the Jordan, unembarrassed, as he always is, to be found smack in the middle of a line of sinners on the bank, ready to undergo a baptism he didn’t need but passionately desired. All this would all be happening in and for us too, right now, as with water we baptize.

Mighty stories, dangerous rituals, deep memory… these are the things that makes for communal transformation and human joy. If they have grown pale and weak in our churches, how shall we go about recovering them? …

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II. Excerpted from “Just Praise, The Ethical Wallop of Worship,” Keynote Address for Christians for Justice Action, UCC General Synod 28, July 4, 2011

…. What would happen if the sacrament of baptism were celebrated with greater and more creative attention to the sign value of its characteristic elements, gestures, and words? Take away the teacup and candy dish fonts that are in use in many congregations where child baptism is celebrated, for example, and replace them with generous pools that can accommodate great volumes of water—so much that you might finally believe it when you’re told that baptism is a watery grave, a healing bath, a cataract of grace. And stop sprinkling little dainty drops over foreheads, but instead plunge the child or the adult into the water and get everyone good and wet in the process. Then watch what happens bit by bit over time as a congregation begins to see and hear and feel the risk and danger of it, the extraordinary joy of it, the healing peace of it. Watch what happens when you marry the mighty water stories of scripture—the flood of Noah, the swallowing of Jonah, the parting of the Red Sea, the Woman at the Well—to the dangerous ritual of water; what happens when the Christian imagination does its work. It may not be long before someone asks whether to baptize like this, drenching people with abundant clean water, is not only a sign of God’s abundance and of God’s will to heal and save us in the water’s depths (thanks be to God!), but might also be a counter-sign of privilege and wealth, as it is in all those places around the globe where people die for want of water. Then let someone wonder why it is that water, which should be free to all, has become a capitalist commodity. Then let your immersed people wonder what, as baptized Christians, they should be doing about that. Then you’ll know that worship is slowly working justice into the marrow of the bones of that church.

You have to be careful with this stuff, though. In one congregation, the Deacon who habitually assisted with baptisms got tired of reading the same few lines about little children being allowed to come to Jesus every time the sacrament was administered. He figured there was more to the story. So he began reading from Galatians 3 instead—‘for those baptized into Christ, there is no longer Jew nor Greek, male nor female, but all are equal in Christ.’ One year months and six baptisms later, he went to his pastor with a question about why the font was located so far away from the people, why only ordained deacons and ministers got to say anything, and why only the clergy could pour the water. He’d noticed that the Word and the ritual seemed to be contradicting each other, and thus he also noticed for the first time the subtle reality of hierarchy and clericalism in his supposedly non-hierarchical, non-clericalist church, as well as the potential of baptism to be subversive of it just by being baptism. That question caused trouble in his church. Either they had to stop baptizing, or they had to change the way they did things so that the sign value squared with their practice.

And take those baptismal promises we ask people to say. What if we were to stop trying to find inoffensive, progressive ways to say what the baptismal liturgy has traditionally named unflinchingly: that Satan and all his minions really are roaming the world seeking the ruin of souls and employing every wile to seduce us into evil’s kingdom, and that without the shield and strength of our baptism, we are easy prey, and that our subtle and overt compacts with this death-dealing cohort must be broken and renounced once and for all? What if we stopped laughing at that quaint language and re-appropriated those bold and bizarre images as straight talk that pulls no punches about what we are actually up against in this world. Over time, baptism and after baptism, what if our communities were to experience the power of the ancient act of abjuration, the determined swearing off of evil, the costly renunciation of the deeply satisfying rewards of sin, growing thereby a sharp consciousness of our vulnerability and a holy confidence that we can do all things in Christ, who claims us through these waters?  Over time, ritual act by repeated ritual act, might it happen that the baptized community becomes a disciplined and resistant community, increasingly detached from everything that could distract, allure, and encumber us when the time comes to choose up sides, increasingly daring in its death-defying confrontation with evil in themselves, in the church, and in the world? …

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