Monday, December 29, 2014

All About the Bs

For the baptism of a 1 year old.

My computer was working extremely slow recently, so much so that pages loading would time out. So I ran my cleanup software, which removed a lot of temporary files and cookies and other stuff. Then I went back to work. But things hadn't really improved. So I did the old standby of shutting down the computer and starting it up again. And it worked as it should. Sometimes the way to fix something is to just start over. And that's what baptism is about.

That's especially true for adult baptism. I just baptized an inmate in the jail and it was obviously a turning point for her. She is trying to get her life reoriented for her sake and for the sake of her child and her husband, who is a Christian. For her, baptism is truly a new beginning, a new start in life.

So why do we baptize babies? They already are a new start. Part of the reason is that baptism parallels the sign of the old covenant: circumcision. When he is circumcised on the 8th day, a Jewish baby has no idea that he is thereby becoming a member of God's covenant people. But he is included nevertheless. At about the time the boy hits puberty he is trained in the beliefs of Judaism and learns to read the Torah and he is declared a man. At his bar mitzvah (or bat mitzvah if it is a girl) the child takes ownership of the faith that he or she belonged to since shortly after birth.

We Christians tend to do the same. We baptize babies as a sign of the new covenant in Christ. It is extended to them as a sign of God's grace, his undeserved, unreserved goodness toward us, which none of us can earn. Later when kids are capable of a deeper understanding of the faith, they learn the catechism and are confirmed. That's when they take ownership of their faith.

But why not just wait till they reach that age before baptizing them? Certain Christian denominations do, often dedicating infants to God rather than baptizing them. But if a fresh start is desirable, how much more is starting off on the right foot? Baptism isn't, as some think, a magic ritual to protect babies from hell. It is a rite of entrance, a welcoming into the body of Christ, into fellowship with his followers, into full citizenship in the kingdom of God. In this world we are all born into families and as citizens of nations as infants. These bestow upon us rights, responsibilities and benefits which we do not comprehend till later. What are our rights, responsibilities and benefits as citizens of God's kingdom?

In John 1:12, it says that to all who have received Jesus Christ, he gives the right to become God's children. Understand that we are not God's children simply by virtue of being born. We are his creations. But through Christ we are adopted by God as his children. That makes us heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, as Paul says (Romans 8:17). And as heirs that means we are the recipients of the promises God made to Abraham and his descendants, both physical and spiritual (Hebrews 6:17). The Bible tells us what we inherit: salvation (Heb 1:14), eternal life (Titus 3:7), grace (1 Peter 3:7), the right relationship with God (Heb 11:7), and the kingdom of God (James 2:5). Again, inheritance is not something you earn. It comes to you simply by being the child of someone. If we are children of God, we inherit all these good things.

But just as being a citizen of the kingdom means having rights, it also means responsibilities. All citizens must obey the law. Jesus summarized the law in just 2 commandments: to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. No other commandment is greater and all the others are just footnotes to these. The night before he died Jesus raised the bar on the second commandment. He told us to love one another as he has loved us. That's a tall order. How can we possibly do that?

Only through the power of God's Holy Spirit, which Jesus promised his Father would send. As suggested by the word Jesus uses for the Spirit, he has several functions in relation to us. The Greek word parakletos covers a whole range of roles. It means “counselor, helper, encourager, and advocate.” The Spirit is our counselor in the sense that he leads us into the truth, helps us remember what Jesus told us, and gives us the words we need to defend our faith. The Spirit is our helper in that he equips us with gifts and abilities to serve God. The Spirit is our encourager in that he gives us the ability to trust God, to obey him, to repent when we fall and to praise God for his grace and mercy. The Spirit is our advocate in that he helps us pray, communicates our needs to the Father when words fail us and speaks up for us as penitent sinners.

Scholars speak of the 3 Bs of religion: Belief, Behavior and Belonging. Our beliefs come from Scripture, are summarized in the creeds and are explored by theologians and expounded by preachers. Our behavior also comes from the Bible, supplemented by tradition and extended by reason. But today a lot of people are asserting that they can be good Christians without belonging to a church. The trouble is that ours is a faith that asserts that God is love and that our primary duty is to love him and to love each other. How are we to practice and grow in love if we do not belong to a group of people dedicated to precisely that? Are churches perfect? No. But neither are we. And neither are the people we are called to love. The church is a place where you can practice getting to know and loving people different than you under conditions that are less than ideal, which is to say, real world conditions. And if you let it, the church should equip you for the battlefield conditions you often find outside its walls.

I want to add another B to the previous 3: Benefits. I am surprised that often secular people think we simply belong to a faith from which we derive no real benefits. But the benefits of being part of a church have actually been studied. In fact the only way for scientists to objectively measure people's religious devotion is by counting how often they attend services. And after eliminating all other possible contributing factors, they have found that people who attend regularly tend to be happier, healthier and live longer. When they do get sick, they tend to get better faster and have less complications. They are less likely to get depression and more likely to recover if they do get it. Children who go regularly are less likely to get involved with alcohol and drug abuse or promiscuous sex. They tend to do better in school. Those are a lot of benefits.

Also we live in a time when what is legal for you to do is not necessarily connected to what it is moral for you to do, or what is physically or spiritually healthy for you. How are your children to learn that, as Paul said, all things may be lawful but not all things are beneficial? (1 Corinthians 6:12) Unless you are going to devote at least an hour every week discussing with your children what is good behavior and what is not and explaining the criteria for deciding why, there is little alternative to letting them fend for themselves other than taking them to Sunday school. Which do you want to frame the way your child looks at the world--the commercialized, sensationalized, and pandering media plus your kids' peers, or people who are sincerely trying to follow Jesus? Do you want them to think that life is all about chasing personal happiness by accumulating more and more stuff and saturating every appetite with more and more exotic tastes or that life is about loving God and other people in the Spirit of Jesus and that finding happiness is a side effect of losing yourself in that which you love? Do you want them to think that the highest value in life is a socially acceptable level of selfishness or that the highest values are trust, hope and love? If you chose the second option each time, you should take your kids to a church that teaches and practices those things.

We are facing a new year. A new year is about beginnings. Baptism is about beginnings. It's about making a new path, starting a new journey. It's about seeing things, even old and familiar things, with new eyes. Contrary to what people often think, God is not just a thing of the past, nor is he opposed to everything new. In the Book of Revelation, after the unveiling of the new heavens and the new earth and the new Jerusalem, God says, “Behold, I am making all things new!” That renewal of creation starts with us and our baptism. For Eva, that starts today.   

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