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Like a Child

Today I’m grateful to be sharing a guest post from James Stambaugh. James and his wife, Deborah, are dear friends of ours and some of my favorite people  to talk with about theology and its tangible effect on our lives, usually while drinking something interesting. We don’t see them nearly enough, and as I always learn something from our conversations, it’s a treat to hear James’ thoughts on the decision to baptize their son Edmund as an infant, and the ways children teach us how to approach God. 

Baptizing my son as an infant was a difficult choice.  I mentally accented to the doctrine.  I read the pertinent theology.  My wife and I worked through the information given to us by our parish, and met with the Christian education director.  We set a date to have Edmund James baptized, and chose godparents.  But there were complications.  These decisions are rarely only about theology.  Christian practice is messy.

Psychologically, it was hard to overcome twenty years of being told that infant baptism was wrong; that a person must choose for his or herself to be baptized.  I was baptized when I was nine after making a public profession of faith in Christ.  I don’t exactly remember choosing anything.  I remember it though, cold water on a January night, and value the memory.

The Anglican tradition, which I came to in young adulthood, affirms the value and the choice of baptism for older children and adults.  Since I began attending the Episcopal church I have seen many persons “of riper years”—as an old Prayer Book called it—get baptized, and it is always beautiful.  But, infant baptism is the normative practice of our church.  More by intuition than by dogmatics, I felt it was right for my son.

Some of our close family warned us before Edmund was born never to let them know if we baptized him as an infant.  They acted as if just knowing of an infant baptism in the family would cause too much shame and disappointment to bear.

My wife and I were faced with a decision between what we felt was right and what was normative in our faith community on the one hand, and what we were taught growing up and what our family wanted us to do on the other.

In the end, we went with our gut.  We brought our child to the font.  We promised in front of God and everyone to bring him up in the Christian faith, and help him to grow into the full stature of Christ.  We spoke the ancient words of the baptismal covenant, and our voices were strengthened by the voices of the whole congregation.  The priest poured water on his head, and anointed him with oil.  We received the light of Christ: a candle burning with Pascal fire.

That was two years ago.  Edmund is almost three.  Most Sundays we take him out of the nursery in time for Holy Communion.  He calls it “Jesus bread time.”

He points to the colors in the stained glass, listens to the rumbling organ, and says parts of the Lord’s Prayer—mostly just “Our Father” over and over.   Then we line up to go to the altar rail.  When he was younger we would take the wafer for him, break it up, make sure it all ended up in his mouth, but we don’t worry too much about that anymore.

Now Edmund kneels by himself.  His chin rests on the top of the wooden rail polished by a century of communicants.  He reaches up, palms open; absolutely committed to expectation.  He wastes no time shoving the whole wafer in his mouth.  He smiles as it melts on his tongue.  Once he grabbed the priest’s vestment as he walked past, and asked, “more please.”  The priest gave it to him.  Another time he begged a piece from the man kneeling next to him.  This man broke his wafer in half and gave it to my son.  As a member of our congregation, that gentleman also made a promise the day Edmund was baptized, and he took it seriously.

Edmund feasts on the Sacrament with unadulterated joy.  When he breaks free of my grasp and runs to the rail giggling, I see what Jesus meant when he told us to approach His kingdom like a child, with innocence, joy, and expectation; with careless laughter.  At the rail, receiving the Eucharist with Edmund, I know that baptizing him was right.  He is a member of the Body of Christ and participates in the life of the Church in his own, completely legitimate way.  And who cares that he approaches donuts in the fellowship hall the same way? [1]

Edmund is teaching me that children intuitively understand the Incarnation.  They make no distinction between sacred and profane, between spiritual and material.  They worship just as truly with sticky hands full of cake as with prayer book and hymnal (though the combination of all three is not recommended).

Some will still argue that children cannot worship, or be baptized, or take the Eucharist because they don’t know what they’re doing.  But do any of us really know what we’re doing?  Regardless of how ripe in years we are when it happens, we are all infants at baptism.  The extent to which we think we are spiritually mature is usually inversely related to how mature we really are.  If we do not approach the Sacraments as a mystery—with the spiritual discipline of expectant unknowing—we are in grave danger.  Children don’t have to worry about that.  God grant me grace to be like them.

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James is in the process of becoming an Episcopal priest and will be attending seminary in the fall of 2014.  Right now, he lives in Albuquerque, NM with his beautiful wife and darling children.  He occasionally blogs at cynoceph.wordpress.com.

[1] Who can deny the sacramentality of coffee hour?

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Epiphany

There’s a fair amount of second-guessing going on in my head as we settle into our wooden chairs on Epiphany Sunday. I’m preoccupied with thoughts about human stubbornness and the mysterious movement of the Holy Spirit ; how we force things and also how we can be too passive. Our family takes up a whole row, save one seat. We break the ice: we who braved frozen driveways and cold rain now jokingly congratulate ourselves, and when the pastor asks what church season we’re in, Nicky pipes up, “Winter!”  I laugh easily, and leave off the pondering for now.

Managing to remember a few phrases without consulting the printed service, I notice for the first time the closed eyes around me, the words being recited by heart.

I feel like a kid peeking out from under the covers. It’s hard to tell how much I’m super-imposing my own issues, but I sense that I may be in the company of seasoned question-lovers, which helps a great deal with my breathing. Actually, I’m not reminding myself to breathe at all. Huh.

Funny how it works: while I’m busy noticing the space left for the unknown, Belief herself slips in and sits in that extra seat on the end of the row, kind eyes and hair all a mess, and I hear her voice harmonizing with mine as we sing about thorns infesting the ground and wonders of His love.

She stands by my side as I hold my hands in front of me, I daresay eagerly, for bread. Earlier this morning I chose a shower over breakfast; now the generous portion placed in my palm satisfies in more ways than one. Fed by this, warmed by wine, I return to my seat and find my place in the hymnal.

It occurs to me that all of my hunger has met at this one point. I’m not sure I’ve ever allowed it all to exist in the same sphere before. Reverent, ravenous, here I am. Sitting next to Belief in this row of wooden chairs.

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all are fed

Recently I read a book called Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint  by Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. She’s intrigued me ever since I saw this video of her speaking at a youth conference last year, and actually Ricky and I visited her church in Denver when we were there earlier this year . She wasn’t there that particular Sunday, but that wasn’t really the point I suppose. I count it as a healing experience, something I tucked away in my memory for safekeeping. Church can be like this. Remember.

Nadia’s a good public figure to pay attention to if, like me,  you’re fascinated by what church has the potential to be. Her willingness to simply be herself is refreshing, when it’s felt to me for so long that in order to really belong within the Christian subculture I’ve known, a certain pretense is required.

See, I grew up thinking that I would gradually gain more and more control over my bad habits, not-so-lovely personality traits, and temper. That, through the process of sanctification, I would someday “look” like I should as a Christian. Because Christians are salt and light, right? So aren’t we supposed to stand out and be “better” in some ways? I don’t know how much of that to attribute to teaching I received, and how much to attribute to my interpretation of it, but it’s what I believed for a long time.

Life has only shown me that this isn’t the case. Every single day I disappoint myself in some way, and to be honest, it’s exhausting. Even when I respond to frustration in a way I’m pleased with, I still feel burdened by the frustration itself. That pretense I spoke of earlier–this is where it comes from. If people really know me, then I can’t lead the small group/sing on the worship team/teach the kids/mentor the youth. Those jobs are for people who have it together. What ministry can I have if I can’t even get a hold on my own issues? It’s no wonder that we’re really, really good at pretending. 

I used to respond to my own behavior vs. ideal conflicts by making spiritual to-do lists for myself. Pray more. Spend more time reading Scripture. Meditate on the fruits of the Spirit. None of these things are bad–in fact they can be quite helpful. But all of my efforts to be better have never yet changed my tendencies. And that has created a nasty cycle of self-loathing that I continue to fall into.

There must be a better way.

Nadia writes:

Yet despite my experiences of rejection and my years of theological education, countless prayers, an ordination, and a life centered on serving the church, I still have the same personality I was born with. I am often impatient and cranky. And my first response to almost everything is “f__ you.” I don’t often stay there, but I almost always start there. I’m still me. Yet the fact that I manage to now move from “f__ you” to something less hostile, and the fact that I am often able to make that move quickly, well, once again, all of it makes me believe in God. And every time, it feels like repentance. (kindle loc 192)

I almost always start there. Sure, some days are better than others, but we bump up against our true nature repeatedly. Maybe that’s what keeps us needing grace. Maybe the more we need grace, the more we extend it. Nadia tells the story of one of her parishioners, a man named Rick. He’s a con artist who has gone by many names and lied to a lot of people, and eventually shows up at Nadia’s church. She’s not happy to have him there, but she considers how Jesus would respond to someone like Rick. She goes on to talk about human nature and our struggle against it, and this is the part the really resonates with me.

Rick…is trying to be a real person for the first time in his life and he doesn’t really know who that person is anymore. But he sees a glimpse of it at the communion table. He sees it in the eyes of the person serving him the wine and bread, saying, “Child of God, the body of Christ, given for you.” That’s his repentance. (loc 192)

I love that she places repentance in an act. A movement away from hostility, away from falseness, toward the gift of bread and wine. Here, repentance is simply a movement toward grace. God takes it from there.

My ingrained, childish way of thinking demands a resolution to all of this. Before, after. Good, bad. Black, white. In need of grace, and then what? What is the antithesis of needing grace? Perfection, which is an impossible, exhausting, graceless destination.

“It hurts a little, being loved for who I really am,” he told me recently. Rick has been sober now for six months, he is getting help for his manic depression, and recently moved indoors. He is also one of the loudest people I’ve ever met and is so spastically hyperactive that I often wonder if he’s lying about taking his medication. He could be lying about everything, but that’s true of everybody. All I know for sure is that he’s still unbelievably helpful at every church function and that he is loved and wanted at House for All.

In the fall of 2011, during the Occupy Denver actions, he organized and oversaw all of the food distribution at the hub of the local protests. “Distributing food at Occupy Denver is awesome!” Rick chirped to me over the phone. “Everyone is fed. It doesn’t matter if you are a homeless guy who is scamming and doesn’t even care about Occupy or a lawyer on a lunch break.” He pauses. “The only place I’ve ever really seen that is at communion.” (loc 194)

May my repentance be to move toward grace today, rather than run from it. May the love I feel there enable me to love better, and may I move toward grace again tomorrow. I will need it.

Ricky and I went to see Nadia speak on Tuesday night in Washington D.C. as part of her book tour. There was also a lively conversation with Amy Butler, a pastor in D.C., about the future of church. The perfect church nerd date night, we called it. She read several passages from the book, including one about Rick, and commented that his is maybe not the sort of success stories that one typically hears from a pulpit: he was this way, now he’s that way. Rather, he’s still a mess, but he’s their mess now.

I’d like to be salt and light, really I would.  But what is it that gives flavor and warmth? I think it’s honesty. Vulnerability. And perhaps most importantly, kindness to others who are brave enough to embrace those things, and also to those who are still working up the courage.

I’m finding out that church can be as simple, and as miraculous, as approaching the table. All are fed there.

 

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