I am picking up here where I left off in the “Infant Baptism and the Bible” series. For the first part, see this. Or for more, just click on the “baptism” tag on the right hand side of the page.

When Carrie and I lived in Wilmore, there was one Sunday morning that I turned on the TV and watched the first few minutes of a sermon given by a preacher in Lexington that was broadcast on a local channel. In a sermon on baptism, the preacher opined a great deal about how infants “don’t know what’s going on in a baptism like those who are able to make a conscious decision are” and how wrong infant baptism is. He even suggested that infant baptism had pagan roots and declared that it is a “heathen practice.” And as if his lack of doing serious homework about the history and tradition of infant baptism wasn’t enough, I suppose he hadn’t considered that what he was about to say next went directly against the logic that he was spewing. In the very next sentence he began to make a connection between the practices of circumcision in the Old Testament and baptism in the New. He said, “just as circumcision was the outward sign of an inward change in the old covenant, so was baptism the sign of the same in the new covenant,” drawing on the connection Paul makes between the two practices in Colossians 2:11-12. (Ummmmm…Maybe he didn’t know about the practice of infant circumcision?)

Of course, opponents of infant baptism typically do not appeal to such a strong connection between these two practices, but the analogy between them is worth exploring and is part of the reasons why United Methodists baptize infants (see more in this official document of the UMC). The connecting point between them is that they are the distinguishing signs, or seals, of the covenant(s) God makes with God’s people. In making covenant, God initiates the relationship and agreement, through giving grace and making promises that would be unattainable through mere human effort or merit. Nonetheless, there are expectations of the covenant people to maintain their end of the covenant, which involves obedience to divine commands, living holy and loving lives in response to God’s gracious actions in claiming and redeeming the lost or enslaved people.

When God established covenant with Abram in Genesis 17 (and therein changes his name to Abraham), God says that circumcision will be the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham/his descendants. The commandment given to Abraham was that every male offspring from his line should be circumcised on the eighth day of his life. The covenant seal was to be given to males born in the lineage. Were the infants aware of the expectations they would be expected to meet when they were circumcised? Of course not. But they were taught from the beginning of their lives that they were an already graced and redeemed people in the midst of a dark and broken world. And that there were expectations of being the people of God for those who had been given this grace: expectations including continually turning to God and the ways of God, offering sacrifices for the ways in which they failed to live into their expectations of the covenant, as well as being a “light to the Gentiles.” For Abraham and Ishmael and for the uncircumcised Israelite men about to enter into Canaan (Joshua 5), the ritual signifying and sealing this was done (much to their pain) when they were adults or older youth, as they were about to embark upon the fulfilling of the promise. For every other male born into the lineage, the rite was to be done in infancy.

When God established the new covenant through the death and resurrection of God’s Son Jesus with those who identify as followers of the Christ, the sign and seal of the covenant is baptism. Baptism is the liturgical language used to describe Jesus’ death and resurrection (Romans 6:1-14, Mark 10:38-39 to name a couple). At the birth of the church (i.e., Pentecost), Peter urged the crowds to repent and be baptized that they might receive forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. His very next statement is that this promise is for the people who respond and for their children. By this, I see already the seeds of where the practice of infant baptism is congruent with this new covenant established by God in Christ. In baptism, we are washed in water and born of the Spirit and this, I read, is not just for adults but for children too. And much of what could be said above re: circumcision can be applied to this new covenant, sealed in baptism. That they (and we) are taught from the very beginning that we are an already graced and redeemed people in the midst of a dark and broken world. And there are expectations of being the people of God for us who have been given this grace in Christ: to live a life of continually turning to God and God’s ways through repentance and confirming or professing one’s faith to the community; receiving the grace of reconciliation and renewal offered through the body and blood of the Lord by partaking in the meal that celebrates the new covenant; and being the “light of the world” that stands in need of this grace.

There are a couple of differences worth mentioning, too. 1.) This sign of the covenant makes no distinction between ethnic distinction. When entering into the waters of baptism, there is no need to attempt to change your appearance, skin color, or ethnic identity. The good news is for all peoples. 2.) This sign of the covenant makes no distinction between genders. Whereas circumcision was a rite only done to males, baptism is for male and female, for in Christ there is no distinction (Galatians 3:28).

For the crowds gathered at Pentecost and for the world who was about to hear about the gospel of Jesus for the first time, the ritual signifying and sealing this was done (without the pain of circumcision) when they were adults as they were to receive the promised Spirit. For every other person born into a family of this faith, the rite could very well be done in infancy. “The promise is for you, and for your children…”

"All ages, nations, and races..." (photocredit: christiantheology.wordpress.com)

“…people of all ages, nations, and races…” (photocredit: christiantheology.wordpress.com)

Thanks for tuning in. More to come as we’ll look more at the book of Acts next time…but don’t let that stop you from commenting or or raising questions in the mean time! 🙂

In the midst of what is honestly a rather mediocre movie is a scene that has remained embedded in my memory ever since the only time I’ve watched it. Well I’ve gone back and seen this particular clip a time or two, the rest of the movie was “meh” so I haven’t sat through the whole thing again. The movie is Red Planet, starring Val Kilmer, Carrie Ann Moss, Benjamin Bratt and The Mentalist…er, I mean Simon Baker. (I had to be sure that I wasn’t confusing it with the movie Mission to Mars, since they were released about the same time. Ya know, kinda like Armageddon and Deep Impact were released the same summer, only the two movies about Mars were far less memorable.) Since there isn’t a good set of clips that tells everything you need to know, let me set up the scene for you…

Like most other movies that have their setting on “Mars,” this was set in the future when earth was running out of space and resources needed to sustain the life of our planet’s inhabitants. After a prior mission had gone to Mars to set up a large greenhouse of sorts to establish life through vegetation so that oxygen could begin to be introduced on Mars, the plot of the film involves the second mission, which involved the first humans to check up on the project and its progress. As the majority of the group took a smaller shuttle to the surface from the larger craft, which remained in orbit around Mars, they ran into some difficulty and realized that they would be in need of the oxygen that was present in the greenhouse. As they are moving toward the location of the greenhouse, they see the reflections of the sun against the shiny frame from a distance and their hearts immediately grew with excitement. However, their joy quickly turned to dread as they drew nearer and discovered that the greenhouse had been utterly destroyed and the frame was all that was left. To their knowledge and by the evidence of lifelessness before their eyes, they were without oxygen and thus, without hope of making it out alive. Some interesting things happened when they discovered this, including a fight that breaks out where one man gets thrown from a cliff to his quick demise. But the rest decide to just sit there and allow their oxygen tanks to run out and the question is asked right before this clip of what symptoms they would be experiencing as they were going to suffocate to death by lack of oxygen…

What happens next is Kilmer’s character realizes that he’s able to breathe Mars’ air and he quickly tells his colleagues that they can take off their masks and keep living. That raised the question of mystery: where did this air come from? And the rest of the movie is their search for where there might be some green things and life on the planet, which they discover not too long thereafter.

The metaphor always gripped me of the sufficiency of what was unseen in the air around them. We’re sometimes told of another world, another kingdom which is breaking in and invites us to participate, but there is sometimes difficulty in trusting the grace of what (or Who) is not seen. Earlier today, I was with a group of men praying over a friend and his daughter. One man asked that God’s grace would “flood” their lives. I began thinking about the issue of breathing and the impossibility of doing so underwater. Why would we pray for this? But I soon remembered the message of trusting that God would enable us to breathe in this new life. And my mind was brought back to this scene in the movie.

As far as they knew, the world in which they were stuck was full of aridity and lifelessness, or at the very least, an atmosphere to which their lungs could not possibly adapt. In one act of desperation (or perhaps it was mere luck or accident), one person took the leap and discovered that there was life in the midst of a seemingly lifeless world…that there was hope in the midst of a seemingly hopeless world. (Hitting near home yet?) And that unlocked the door for the search of where this was coming from. The goal became, in a sense, “Let’s get to the source of this Life.” That’s part of what I understand when thinking about the Kingdom of God: now & not yet; already inaugurated but still waiting to fully realized until the end; and hence, this search marks the race of kingdom living. Or, as I recall Robert Mulholland in chapel once paraphrased the request in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread”: “Nurture us today for kingdom living.” Lord of heaven and earth, enable me to breathe in your life as your kingdom continues to come on earth as it is in heaven.

“We’ve got too many pastors serving 3-point charges in this conference…” a Bishop was quoted as saying in my United Methodist Polity class in seminary. The statement continued, “…the church they used to serve, the church they’re appointed to now, and the one they want to be appointed to next.”

The professor used this line as a way of discussing boundaries within pastoral ministry; that you do not (or at least should not) converse much, if at all, with parishioners who used to be under your care and/or are being served by another pastor now. There is great wisdom in this statement, though it is all the more challenging now in the age of social media where networking with friends and acquaintances who live a few hours or half the globe away is possible through venues like facebook, twitter, and so on.

While the statement that led this post off is certainly true of some who have been entrusted to lead in the United Methodist Church, it is my hope that it does not mark the attitude of many or most. Call me naïve, and maybe you’re right, but the fear that some other pastor may be “out to get me or my [current or desired] appointment” feeds a profound, even if subtle, sense of mistrust among United Methodist pastors.

Still, maintaining healthy boundaries is important during the steady or growing seasons when there is neither a need nor desire for a change in pastoral leadership of a charge, but I echo the suggestion Joey Reed, the pastor who preceded me at Liberty & Post Oak UMCs, has made in calling for more transparency when a transition is projected. (You can and should read his side of the story here.) It’s been four weeks since I’ve moved into the parsonage & charge he previously inhabited. I’m not sure where I’d be if it weren’t for his helpful responses to the many questions I raised in preparation for moving into pastoral ministry.

Handing off the baton in a relay requires keen timing, vision, and trust between relay partners. Listen to the way Gail Devers describes it about 20 seconds into the video of this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQCi3mayB3Q The implications abound for how this is analogous to changes in pastoral leadership. (Photo credit: blog.orgsync.com)

Yes, this is my first appointment, and that means that there were fewer responsibilities on my part as I wasn’t saying goodbye as a pastor to another congregation, though saying goodbye to our friends at Nicholasville UMC was difficult and tear-filled. Since I didn’t have the same sort of duties that most other UM Pastors have who go through the process of saying goodbye to one charge and hello to the new one, my preparation looked a little different than most. Still, I had in the back of my mind the territorialism I was warned about so often during my education. Therefore, I proceeded with caution when I approached Joey with a few questions about the Liberty and Post Oak churches, to which I was projected to be appointed. I even asked for forgiveness in advance if I happened to overstep a boundary.

I didn’t know Joey before my projected appointment but I had actually encountered his name before. I had been living in central Kentucky for the past decade before moving back to the Memphis Conference. I confided in my college roommate and longtime close friend (a United Methodist pastor in the Kentucky Conference) that I was pursuing re-entrance into the ordination process (another story for another day) in the UMC and hoping for an appointment in the Memphis Conference, in which I was raised as a child and youth and was previously a certified candidate for ordained ministry. Upon sharing this news with my friend, his wife said, “Oh, my cousin’s husband is a pastor in the Memphis Conference!” That cousin’s husband was…you guessed it, Joey Reed.

So I knew his name, but I didn’t really know him, so (again) I proceeded with caution. When I first made contact with him via email, he promised to be as open as he could, with obvious exceptions like maintaining confidentiality of conversations with parishioners where it was expressed or assumed. Needless to say, I was very relieved to have his promised candor, and he did not disappoint as he followed through in that regard. He and his family even opened up the parsonage for my family to view and measure each room. This was very helpful for my wife, an avid planner, who did a blueprint of each room to be able to plan out in advance how to arrange the furniture, etc. This brings up a significant issue in pastoral transitions and how more transparency can help: the role of the pastor’s family and the changes, emotions, and expectations they experience along the way. Joey’s family made us feel right at home as they sent pictures and measurements, opened their homes, and even gave gifts to our kids (ages 5 & 2 at the time; think about how much that meant to them!).

Most of my questions were logistical in nature, trying to get a sense of the way things were run at each congregation, the time of the services, how structured the liturgy was at each church, etc. We didn’t discuss personalities or mention names, except to point out the names of people in certain positions of leadership at the churches. But the questions I asked that required the more lengthy discussions (where he writes we had to take some breaks for meals…lol!) were the ones about the direction and vision of the churches. Now, these conversations should always take place between the new pastor and her/his congregation(s) and I would need to hear these matters from the folks at the churches themselves also, but knowing that Joey was transitioning out of Liberty and Post Oak on good terms made the dialogue appropriate, in my view, as he gave me some perspective in preparation. (Obviously, the pastor leaving on “good terms” is not always the case, so practicing discernment on which questions to ask and which to wait to ask until arrival is obviously significant.) That Joey left Liberty & Post Oak on good terms has had the blessings of being able to be more prepared, even if that meant more challenges in filling the shoes of one who was so well-liked by the people. I experienced and witnessed that he was beloved by the congregations in several ways and I especially saw this at a reception, a meet-and-greet of sorts for me and my family at the churches where both his family & mine were in attendance. I had already been told of the abundant hospitality of both the Reeds and the churches. When I experienced it firsthand and saw his encouraging them to warmly welcome us, that meant the world to me.

But even if you’ve read Joey’s previous post and if you’re reading this thinking I’m being too naïve and that little if any of this would work in many situations, would you please incorporate one thing into the life of your church the next time you are in the midst of pastoral transition? Please pray for the incoming pastor, by name, in the service, every week from the time when the projected appointment is made until the new pastor moves into the pulpit. As helpful as Joey’s transparency and the churches’ hospitality was in preparation for the move, these prayers were the most important part and gave fuel to the process that made my transition as easy as it could be. We Methodists believe in prevenient grace…that God’s grace has gone before us wherever we are. But belief in prevenient grace also includes the notion that God’s grace is going before us wherever we will go next. Once the projection of a transition has been made, as long as you’re alive and conscious there’s nothing (except your own will and pride) that could prevent your prayers for the new pastor and his/her family in the transition that lies ahead of them. And maybe, just maybe, if we genuinely lift up to God in prayer those who are heading our way, we might find that our hearts will be moved to make the landing strip a little more smooth than what has been the norm and fewer batons will be dropped.

Sunday was my first go at leading Post Oak & Liberty in the sacrament of Holy Communion. It was really enjoyable to be able to guide the congregations in confessing sin and repenting, declaring the good news of forgiveness in the name of Christ, and expressing tokens of reconciliation as Christ would be present in the meal we shared together.

As I am in the midst of a series on “New Beginnings,” I read the Scriptural text of Luke 24:13-35, where the story of the walk on the road to Emmaus is recounted. Jesus joined two disciples who were walking along still puzzled by the events that had taken place, primarily of the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus and the alleged report that he was alive again. The new beginning for these disciples was that Christ led them out of confusion into clarity of the identity and mission of the Messiah, who had to suffer before entering into victory (24:26).

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But even as their eyes were beginning to open and their hearts were burning within them, they still were unable to fully recognize Jesus until they had invited him to share the evening with them and after he took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them.

This Scripture passage leads quite well into the liturgy of the Service of Word and Table found in the United Methodist Hymnal & Book of Worship. The liturgy begins: “Christ our Lord invites…”

This notion of invitation is central to this passage of Scripture as well as the liturgy of Holy Communion. When we hear and read the story in Luke’s Gospel, our ears and eyes are alerted to the fact that the disciples urgently invited Jesus to stay with them in Emmaus and have fellowship rather than continuing on the road without them (24:28-29). But while the text speaks of their invitation, in reality and underneath the surface we can read that Jesus was inviting them all along. He met them on their road of confusion, disbelief, and despair, and opened the Scriptures (and their minds) to the reality of the suffering Messiah who would conquer death by death in order to bring the hope and promise of the resurrected life. That long walk down the road when Jesus revealed to them the nature of his Messianic role of rescuing us from the grip of sin & death was preparing their hearts, minds, and eyes for what they would behold later that day in the breaking of bread.

This is a great example of what John Wesley was speaking about when he wrote of prevenient (or preventing) grace. That is, God’s grace goes before any response or action we take in inviting Christ into our lives and living out his mission in the world. We love because he first loved us. We invite because he first invited us. “Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another…”