Monday, July 4, 2011

For a Baptism

I wrote this for a baptism. I removed the name of the child because I don't know if the parents want their child to be Google-able.

In my other job, as a nurse, I've been taking care of an infant with health issues for the better part of a year. So I've been paying attention to whether he is hitting certain developmental landmarks. And it suddenly hit me one day that this is only possible because these landmarks are programmed into us. Practically all healthy children can smile when smiled at by 3 months and smile at themselves in a mirror at 6 months. By 1 year, a healthy child should say at least one word, crawl, and walk while holding onto furniture or another person's hand. There is a range of time in which these things are achieved, of course, with some kids talking or walking a few months earlier and others a few months later. But the fact that the vast majority of children reach these landmarks at approximately the same time means this is not a random process. It is hardwired into them. If a child is very far behind in most of these, his or her doctor will suggest medical tests to see what might be causing these developmental delays.

It used to be thought that morality was not part of human pre-programming. But now we know that a sense of fairness is found in certain primates and other animals. And any parent with more than one child will tell you that they demand equality of treatment--for themselves, at least. If his sister gets a cookie, he will insist on getting one himself. And heaven forbid you should give her chocolate milk in a glass shorter than the one you give her brother. Kids don't understand how the same volume of liquid can look unequal in different diameter glasses. But aside from such basics, much of morality's finer points must be taught. Yet in our society we pretty much leave the development of moral impulses, such as fairness and empathy, into more complex moral concepts, such as justice, forgiveness and duty, to our schools, special episodes of TV shows, and occasional long talks when specific issues rear their heads. This leads to our children getting mixed messages from various sources rather than learning any kind of systematic approach to morality. It's too bad there isn't some place in every community where people could take their kids and have them educated in a comprehensive system of time-tested morality and age old wisdom! Somewhere so dedicated to teaching people how to think and act ethically that they don't charge a set fee but let people voluntarily pay whatever they can and feel they should pay. Where would you find such a place?

Today we will witness the baptism of a child. And in a few minutes, I will be asking the parents and godparents if they will bring him up in the Christian faith and life. Because baptism is not a magic spell; we are not imposing our will on reality. It is a sacrament; we are accepting God's offer of grace on behalf of this child. It is like giving him dual citizenship: that of earth and the Kingdom of God. But like all those with dual citizenship, one day he'll have to choose for himself. But how will he choose if he doesn't know the treasured heritage to which he is heir?

Forget the arguments about whether the U. S. was ever intended to be a Christian nation. Today, it is, at best, post-Christian. And I'm not talking about the fact that Americans identifying themselves as Christians has dropped from 86% to 76% of the population, or that, at most, less than 20% of the population go to church on an average Sunday. I am talking about the fact that many Christians do not live very differently than non-Christians and do not seem to know much about the Bible. The only part of the Gospel that most Christians know is that God loves us and forgives us. The necessary response to that, repentance and obedience, has been quietly dropped. And this is part of the reason we see the culture coarsening. Our society is much more indulgent towards, if not actually encouraging, rage, lust, envy, laziness, gluttony, arrogance, and, until recently, greed. Those used to be considered by Christian society as deadly sins; now they are seen as, at worst, stupid and, at best, as natural. Our leaders and celebrities flout them. Only if someone has gone too far and been caught does he make a show of regret and talk of going into rehab. I have nothing against rehab, but it seldom seems to come from a true realization that one must totally change one's lifestyle. Only a radical rethinking of how one lives will do, as anyone working in rehabilitation knows.

We have a wealth of information of the effects regular church attendance has on kids. Children who go to church at least once a week are less likely to commit crimes, less prone to drug and alcohol abuse and have higher recovery rates, less likely to have sex or get pregnant outside marriage, less likely to divorce as adults, less likely to engage in domestic abuse, less likely to commit suicide, less prone to depression and more likely to recover faster, more likely to do better in school, be happier, be healthier and live 8 years longer. If I could bottle that, I'd be a millionaire. But it's like exercise: to get the full benefit, you have to commit yourself and just do it.

We also know that a child's church attendance is usually dependent upon his parent's attendance, especially that of the father. And, of course, it doesn't work as well if the things they learn in church are not modeled in the home. Children have first rate BS detectors. If your works do not match your words, they will see that and live their lives accordingly.

So it is with faith and hope and love that his parents and godparents present this child and make these promises on his behalf. They will vow to renounce all evil, be it spiritual, worldly or personal. They will promise to turn to Jesus Christ, accept him as Savior, trust, obey and follow him as Lord. And then we will all of us renew our own baptismal vows, to continue in the apostle's teachings and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and prayers. We will vow to persist in resisting evil, to repent when we do wrong, to proclaim the Gospel by with our lips and in our lives, to seek and serve Christ in all people and to work for justice, peace and dignity for all created in God's image. We are conspiring, so to speak, to be Christlike and raise this child to be the same.

And we all need to be reminded periodically of what that entails, because we are all developing short attention spans and humans are already terrible at spotting slow motion threats. Thus we are only vaguely aware of the things gradually eroding our faith. Like the sense that all is or will be well. The vast majority of scientists see the signs of global climate change but absent something with the scale and speed of a Hollywood disaster, much of the public doesn't perceive it as worrisome. So, too, we Christians have let essential articles of the faith be silently dropped from serious consideration because of the relentless waves of materialism, secularism, hedonism and political correctness. The proclamation that there is one God, revealed in Scripture as our righteous and loving creator, is dismissed as naïve. The uniqueness of the Incarnation of God in Christ is denounced as exclusivist. The death of Christ on the cross for our sins is seen not as a revelation of God's deep love but of his barbarism. Jesus' bodily resurrection from the dead is considered irreconcilable with science. And his command to go throughout the world and teach others to believe in and follow him is intrusive on other cultures. Other systems of thought may assert themselves wherever they wish but for us to do so is thought disruptive. And so we are left with a timid inoffensive message that would not seem out of place in a greeting card and which is just as memorable a call to action.

And action is what we need today. But not just any kind of action. We need action based on the affirmation that God created this world, pronounced it good and is working to make it so again. We need action based on the belief that God so loved the world that he entered it in the form of Jesus Christ so that in him we see both what God is like and what we can become. We need action based on the example of God's self-sacrificial love revealed in Christ willingly crucified to save us from our sins. We need action based on the proclamation that God raised Jesus from the dead, so we need not fear anything in following Jesus. And we need action based on Jesus' command to share the Good News about what God has done and is doing in Christ, to make disciples and spread his reign and his kingdom.

Don't worry: we are not putting all this on this child. But he has a part, large or small, to play in God's plan. Even if his role is small, we know that from God's point of view, size and importance are two different things. David was the smallest of his brothers but God selected him to become a great king. The mustard seed was the smallest that the ancient Jews knew and yet it grew into a huge plant. We don't know this child's destiny. But our task is to make sure he is planted on solid ground, to properly nourish his body, mind and spirit and then watch him blossom.

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