Thursday, January 19, 2017

When Did I Get an Eleven Year Old?!

Dear Brady:

This is an iconic image from the day I became your dad 11 years ago today.  I have this look of wonder don't I?  I think maybe I thought,  "Oh no!  I wonder what I've gotten myself into."   

January 19, 2006—A new dad looks with wonder on his son...
It's fair to say I really didn't know all that lay ahead for us that day.  What new parent really does when he or she gazes upon their firstborn?  We've discovered it walking together day-by-day over the last 11 years.  You taught me just as much about being a dad to a boy as I've taught you about being a son to a dad. By God's grace we've both come a ways since that photo. I now have a daughter and you have a sister (and one more in heaven). As my children have grown I've kept growing too, meeting new challenges with each passing year—or at least I hope I have!  And the teen years will be here all too soon so I'm quite certain: "Much to learn I still have."
It's been a wonderful journey so far Brady—I put some of the photos from just the last few months below.  Your mom and I love you and are proud of the fine young person you've become.  You love baseball, singing, Star Wars, The Simpsons, and Ninjago, Sakura, Szechuan Garden, and more... You like to win when you play games, but you also know winning isn't all that matters.  You are physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.  You are a good Cub Scout and a good person! :).  

Continue to "stand tall" in life Brady—and I don't just mean your 5'6"+ frame!!!   Make sure you keep doing the good things you've been doing so you  become a man that others can "look up" to.

I look forward to seeing what lies ahead for you in 2017 and beyond.  I'm thankful to have you as my son. 

Love, Dad

"The Boy" at bat during SMYO Fall Baseball

Brady singing with Operation Faith on Christmas Eve at church

Brady and Becca at the pumpkin patch this fall.

Everyone likes a sharp dressed Boy :).
Playing Escape from Titanic on Thanksgiving Day
at grandmomy's apartment.

Brady's Webelo-II "Arrow of Light" Den

Brady at Extreme Baseball's Winter Clinic

Brady singing at the Winter Concert

Dad, Brady, and Becca at the pumpkin patch this fall.
Brady playing chess in our garage with his friend Jack.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Baptism is a Life

Remember your baptism and be thankful.

I was baptized as an infant.  My parents were United Methodists, and our "tribe" baptizes infants, so that's what happened—not that I remember it.  Not so much as a photo survives that I am aware of.

When I was a senior in college I got involved in a church that required new members to be baptized.  Do I remember that moment?  Well, certainly more than I remember about the first time.  It was a March 28, 1993—a chilly early spring day as I recall, and this group did baptism by full immersion. But honestly, other facts about the day that you would think I might remember—like exactly who was present that day—I do not recall.  For example, while I could tell you some people's names whom I'm pretty sure were there, I honestly don't have too many vivid memories of the event.  What I remember most was being "dunked" in icy cold water.  I also remember calling my parents the night I was baptized to tell them I was "getting baptized".  The specific conversation happened nearly 24 years ago but I recall the gist of it was as follows:

"Mom, dad. I've decided to get baptized."
"Really, son.  Why?", my dad responded, clearly sounding worried.
"I've gotten involved in a new church now and I really want to do it." (My parents probably thought: Oh no, what cult has he joined?)
"But son, you are already baptized." (My dad was a good United Methodist!)
"Yeah.  But I don't remember it at all, and I don't know how much impact it had on me.  When I was a baby it was your decision, but this time it's mine." 

For a while, I think I would've told you that the baptism that "really counted" was the one I experienced in college.  That was the point in my life when the faith (i.e., the UM faith I sort of inherited from my parents) began to become my faith.  I became more active in practicing my faith; I ventured out of the familiar boundaries of the church I grew up in and experienced new expressions of faith that, while strange to me at first, I grew to appreciate and embrace.  My faith moved further and further away from that of my family of origin. 

But God has a sense of humor.  I didn't stay with the church that baptized me for very long. Suffice to say it just wasn't a good situation for me at the time...  Eventually I found my way into another non-denominational church that I really liked.  (No, I did not do a third baptism!)  I was happily worshipping there when I met this woman online—who just happened to be a UM pastor. In time, she ended up becoming my wife and my spiritual journey came "full circle" as I returned to worship in the UM church when we got married.

When I told my wife about my experience in college, it set off some interesting theological debates between us.  Why did I feel the need to be "baptized again"?  Because I don't remember my baptism.  But just because you don't remember it, does that mean it wasn't real?  Well, maybe not.  Was I so sinful I needed two events before "salvation would stick to me?  No... of course not. As a good UM Elder, Laurie has reminded me frequently over the years of the theological position of the UM church: "We don't rebaptize; we remember frequently—but we never redo"   .  

My wife can't remember the moment of her infant baptism either, nevertheless she will emphatically tell you that she feels baptized and, to her, that is what matters most .

So when was I baptized?  The time I can't consciously remember when I was an infant or the time I do remember (at least somewhat) when I was older?  Or should I go around calling myself, Alan, the twice-baptized—a.k.a., the United Methodist rebel?

Now I can't honestly say I lost lots of sleep over this over the years.  My wife spent her whole life as a UM, even going so far as to be ordained a UM pastor, but my spiritual journey has taken me to other types of churches, and I have incorporated aspects of various "streams" of Christianity into my faith practice.  And there are some whose theological position would be that my decision to be "rebaptized" as an adult, i.e., despite being baptized previously, was completely appropriate. 

What I ultimately think I've realized is that baptism is less about remembering a moment and more about making a lifetime commitment to follow Jesus.

In the UM church, every year in early January there is a Sunday set aside for Baptismal Renewal.  On that day, we remember Jesus' baptism and our baptisms, and we are thankful.  This year, the Gospel text for the day was Matthew's account of the story—which also appears in Mark and Luke. The Gospel of Matthew's author and target audience were likely part of an early community of Jewish followers of Jesus.   The writer emphasizes the fact Jesus is the King of the Jews—the "heir" to David in the Messianic line, so he presents the baptism of Jesus as a symbolic anointing of the "new king"—see Matthew 3:13-17.  Jesus comes to John in the wilderness where he has been baptizing and submits himself to the same ritual of purification that every disciple of John the Baptist went through.  But it soon becomes clear this is no ordinary baptism.  As Jesus comes up out of the water the Spirit descends "in bodily form like a dove" upon him and a voice is heard speaking: "This is my Son the beloved."

In this passage we have both the moment of baptism portrayed and the symbolism of a lifelong commitment.  We also witness the ongoing three-way interplay between the members of the Trinity: the Son is in the water "being baptized", the Spirit is descends like a dove, and the voice of the Father speaks. 

We see that community is absolutely critical context for both the moment of baptism and for living out a baptized life. The Trinity has always existed as a form of three-in-one Divine community—and they are all "present" to witness the baptism of Jesus. Perhaps this is why, during his earthly life, Jesus chose to assemble a community of followers around him to help one another live out their baptisms.  Jesus was used to being in community with the Trinity.  

So if Jesus needed community to live out his vows it stands to reason so do we.  Baptism is not  meant to be "one-time" event we do and then we go on living our lives independently—although I am afraid too many people think of it more as a "ticket to heaven when they die" than as a "commitment to a journey of discipleship".  But we are actually making serious vows to the community either ourselves or on behalf of our child; vows God expects us to honor.  Baptism is one of two sacraments in the UM tradition (and is a sacrament in most traditions); it is often called an outward sign of an inward grace, i.e., it shows on the outside what God is doing on the inside of us. We could think of it as a "coming out" party for a follower of Christ, when we "go public" and acknowledge to our community the work that God has been doing within us and ask for their help to continue to live out our baptized life.  Such a commitment is not something we should take lightly.

If the moment of baptism is early in life, parents typically make vows on behalf of their child.  They ask the community to help them nurture the child in faith until he/she is ready to take responsibility for his/her own spiritual journey—we UMs call that moment in time, confirmation.  (Other traditions will dedicate an infant to God, but the moment of baptism is reserved until the person is older and can make the choice themselves).  Even if we're older when the moment of baptism happens, though, the vows we make still require the context of a community to help us live them out.  It's as if we need the friction of real life to move the promises we make from abstract theological ideas to lived reality.

While purification (justifying grace) may happen in a moment, sanctification (sanctifying grace) is a lifelong journey.

Often there is a moment in time that we can remember "being baptized"—like my icy immersion in college—but my story also shows we aren't always able to pinpoint the "exact moment" when purification happened and that the memory of the moment can fade with the passage of time.  UMs believe that God's prevenient grace is at work in us even before we are consciously aware of it.   The moment of baptism might be compared to a wedding ceremony.  The typical couple coming to the altar to be married has begun building a life together before the wedding day; likewise, after the wedding ceremony ends, the real work begins as the lifetime commitment of building a marriage begins.   Similarly, the baptized life often begins within someone prior to the moment of public acknowledgment (being baptized), and often ends long after the memory of the moment has faded.

So, again I ask: When was I baptized?  Looking back, I think my moment was probably as an infant—and I reaffirmed my commitment in college.  My wife can be persuasive. :) The second time was more about what I wanted to do (and what others wanted me to do or said I had to do) to mark the occasion. God didn't "require" what I chose to do that night no matter how memorable it was.  It wasn't wrong; it just wasn't strictly necessary.  God had already claimed me long ago—and had been working in me for years.  God at bought me to that icy baptistry somewhere near the University of Maryland campus nearly 24 years ago, and God has been with me on my journey ever since.

I've come to realize that more important than knowing the exact moment in time when I was baptized is knowing without a doubt that I am baptized—and living life like it's true.

Pastor and author Nadia Bolz–Weber says that when the darkness threatens to consume her, she cries out: "I am baptized!"   She does this to remind herself who she is and whose she is—that God has named her and claimed her.   Paul likewise reminded the believers in Galatia who they were and whose they were when he said: "I've been crucified with Christ but I'm alive for Christ is raised and now he lives in me. The life I live I live by faith in the risen son of God, who loves me and gave himself for me"Galatians 2:19-20.

Baptism is a life. 
I was baptized—I am baptized—I will always be baptized.
am who I am through "I Am" who lives in me.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Operation Immanuel

[NOTE: This post contains minor spoilers for the plot of Rogue One. I think it's mostly what is widely known already but if you really don't want to know anything you may wish to wait until you see the film to read this...] 

Like many, I have enjoyed seeing Rogue One: A Star Wars Story—twice so far. The movie tells the story of how the Rebellion comes into possession of the plans for the Death Star and is an excellent prequel to Star WarsEpisode IV: "A New Hope".

After a great struggle, the Rogue One team succeeds in sending the plans back to the Rebellion and the film ends with a data disc being handed to Princess Leia Organa—which she will download into R2-D2 at the beginning of Episode IV.  

As the soldier hands the plans to Leia, he asks, “What have we given them?”  Leia’s one-word answer is: “Hope.”  That line has stuck with me this week as I ponder the Christmas Story.

When Jesus was born, the world of his day was ruled by an Empire.  Rome was the dominant power at the time; they didn’t have a Death Star superweapon, but their military was the best in the world.  No one could stand against them on the field of battle. Anyone who tried and failed would face brutal retribution. Caesar’s decree was the law of the land; no one questioned if there was a better way since doing so could get you killed.  (Jesus would ultimately die at the hands of the Empire.) The Jewish people were proud of their heritage; they clung to memories of their heroic past.  While they had always been oppressed under a series of Empires throughout history, Rome seemed particularly harsh—the situation seemed particularly hopeless. The people lived Isaiah’s prophecy.  They “sat in darkness” waiting for any sign of light.  But with no words from the Prophets since Malachi spoke over 400 years ago, “their fire had gone out of the galaxy”.  Or so it seemed…

And then it happened…. Against that backdrop, God launched what you might call a “rebellion”, a daring operation that deployed a “team” into the heart of Enemy-held territory to set in motion the plan that would set his People free.   Try to imagine a “conversation” amongst the Trinity as the time came to put their audacious plan into action.[1] Maybe it went something like this…

Father: The Roman Empire is oppressing my People terribly.  I’ve heard their cry as I did in the time of Moses.  We cannot delay any longer.  It’s time to put our plan to rescue the world into action.

Holy Spirit:  You mean Operation Immanuel.  That’s a rather bold step.  You are sure there is no other option for us?  You are sure the world is ready for it?

Father:  I think we all agreed that we’ve exhausted all other options at this point.  We’ve tried personal communication, patriarchal families, holy nations, priests, and prophets. You name it, we tried it.  None of them have worked as fully as we hoped.  We only have one option left.  We have to go there ourselves and be with them in every way—we have to become one of them. It’s time to send Immanuel.

Son: Excellent!  It’s settled then; my time has come… It was my destiny before the creation of all things to go and be with them.   I will go and make final preparations for my departure.  [He gives the Father a long hug before his departure.]

Father:  Now we need to assemble our team: the “boots on the ground” if you will, who will help us pull this thing off.  Ironically, we’re fully Divine but in some ways that limits us; this plan relies on human help—and lots of it—to succeed.    Begin by sending an angel to Zechariah.  He is to tell the Priest that his wife Elizabeth will soon give birth to a son who fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy and “prepare the way” for the Son’s arrival.  He should name him John.  He’ll be a great prophet; a worthy “heir” to Elijah.

Holy Spirit: You are nothing if not consistent—the barren woman gives birth yet again.  You do know Zechariah won’t be as accepting as Sarah and Hannah were?  He won’t want to go against family tradition for naming his child easily.  He plays by the Jewish rules.

Father: Well, he may take some convincing, but his wife Elizabeth is the chosen one.  Her womb is not the only part of her ready to receive Us.  She’s patiently endured the shame of barrenness for long enough.  It’s time she is rewarded for remaining faithful all these years.  And more importantly, she will be a good mentor in mothering for her cousin Mary, another devout woman who walks with Us.  I’ve chosen her to be the God-bearer.  Alert Gabriel that he’s got another mission coming up.

Holy Spirit: There were so many choices on that list.  Why Mary?  Not the strongest resume: poor, young, unmarried?  It could cause a scandal—or worse—if not handled carefully…  Do you really think she is ready to be “mother of God”?

Father:  Well, who is truly ready for that kind of calling?  But Mary is firmly rooted in Us; that will be her biggest asset on this journey.  Yes, she will struggle to accept this at first but ultimately she will trust and obey…  And we all know Gabriel can be quite convincing when he needs to be.  We’ll also send him to her fiancĂ© Joseph to confirm the message that Mary receives.  I’m sure he will need some convincing too. 

Holy Spirit:  Yes.  He might not be thrilled with this news either but he’s key to the plan’s success.  He has to be there to support Mary—and the Son will be fully human at that point, so he’ll need a good father too.    I’m sure this isn’t what Joseph has mapped out for his life. 

Father:  It will stretch him to be the “stepfather of God” to be sure but he too is up for the challenge…   Okay then, we’re all set.  Now, after that we’ll need some witnesses. 

Holy Spirit:  Would you like to summon King Herod?   Maybe the High Priest Caiaphas?

Father:  No.  They would probably turn Us down anyway.  Too busy doing important things to listen; too concerned about soiling their robes at the manger.   And anyway, we’re keeping this operation low key.  Inside their palace and temple, they might not even notice the summons.  In fact, most people will be too preoccupied to notice.  I’m kind of counting on that, actually… 

The ones with eyes that see will see; the ones with ears that hear will hear.   

I have in mind some shepherds near Bethlehem to have the angels visit.  Living out on the outskirts of the civilized world, working day after day in the fields tending their sheep, they are in the perfect place to “see” and “hear” Us when we come.

Holy Spirit:  Shepherds huh?   I should have known they’d be involved.   Just like when we summoned David to be king all those years ago. We’re nothing if not consistent.  Always the least likely heroes.  I guess we learned our lesson with Saul.

God:  Hey, technically Saul wasn’t our choice.  We gave the people exactly what they asked for. For the record, we tried to warn them through Samuel.   Anyway, I digress; back to the plan.  How are we coming on trying to find some “outsiders” to witness the birth?

Holy Spirit:  That was a little more difficult but I think I have found the perfect choice.  They may not call Us by the same name, but they do call Us.  They are also in tune with the Universe so when they see the “star” they’ll be curious about it, prone to wonder, and desiring to follow wherever it leads.  That should lead them here in a couple of years.

God:  Perfect.  He’ll be back in Nazareth by then… Okay.  Let’s see.   We have our players: Zecariah, Elizabeth, and their son John, Mary and Joseph, shepherds, wise men, and of course we’ll send some angels to herald the birth.   But just a small group though.  Humans struggle to greet one angel much less a Legion.  Have Gabriel select a few of his best to send. 

Holy Spirit:  Okay. Will do...  I still think it’s risky to send him as an infant.  Is there a more fragile creature in all of creation than a human baby?  What does this give them again?

God: We’ve been over this before.  In a word—it gives them HOPE.  It gives them the promise that comes with each new birth—human potential released into the world and succeeding against all odds like Isaiah’s image of a sapling coming up from the dry Root of Jesse. Like a rock at the top of a hill set into motion and picking up speed as it goes, this birth will light a spark of hope in the dark that fan a flame of hope.  The flame may wax and wane throughout the years, and they’ll be moments when it seems dark, but the smoldering wick will never be fully quenched.  The lullaby of hope sung at the manger will echo into Eternity…

Most of all, this birth is a reminder to humanity that We are all-in with them.

[1] I’m not sure what a “conversation” among the Trinity would really sound like; I doubt it involves language we would recognize or words we know.  I’m anthropomorphizing here for the purposes of this creative exercise.