Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Baptismal Mishaps

Some faith traditions embrace infant baptism. These are memorable occasions for everyone except the child, who is too young to remember anything, and only later knows of the event's significance through photos, stories and certificates.

For Baptists, however, baptisms are always memorable for each candidate as well as family and congregation. Baptists only immerse those who are old enough to have confessed Christ publicly.

Sometimes Baptist baptisms are memorable for all the wrong reasons.

My maternal grandmother's church believed that baptism should take place as soon as possible after one's public decision to follow Jesus. Unfortunately, she chose the middle of winter to walk the aisle.

Her North Carolina church had no baptistry, so they used the local river for baptisms. The pastor broke river ice the day he baptized my grandmother.

The rural Mississippi church my dad pastored when I made a public profession of faith had no baptistry either, but at least they had sense enough to wait until Spring to baptize candidates. When the weather was warm enough, the congregation gathered at a local creek for a Sunday afternoon baptismal service.

After checking the area for snakes and other critters, folks stood on the small bridge overlooking the creek banks where others had assembled near the line of baptismal candidates.

First, everyone sang gospel hymns accompanied by my mother on her accordion. Then the baptizing commenced.

When the service was done the youth swam, swinging out over deeper waters on a tire roped to a tree limb. Country baptisms were always fun events.

The day of my baptism I was seven years old. There were several other candidates, so my dad put me at the front of the line, thinking that since I'd seen other baptisms, I would set an example of proper decorum for everyone. Wrong.

I didn't know how to swim yet and had never had my head entirely underwater. When he dipped me I got strangled and emerged sputtering and crying, generally disrupting the entire service.

Since then, I've seen many other baptismal ceremonies go wrong:

My current pastor once entered the sanctuary baptismal pool too early during the congregational singing, creating large shadow effects as he moved around behind the lighted stained glass window before it was rolled aside for baptism.

On another occasion he was late returning to the worship service after baptism because his waders had leaked, soaking his sock and pants leg.

Another of my pastors was nearly always wet when he returned to the service. Invariably, he rolled up the wrong sleeve of his dress shirt prior to immersing candidates.

On several occasions I've seen short children suddenly "disappear" from the congregation's view because someone forgot to put a stool or cement block in the baptistry for them to stand on.

My dad once lost his balance during a baptism, nearly dropping a morbidly obese candidate.

Several times choir members in the loft have gotten splashed during baptisms. At one church a candidate accidentally sloshed the baptismal waters enough to create a tidal wave, thoroughly soaking the back two rows of the choir.  

At another church the new baptismal robes were discovered--too late--to be extremely opaque when wet.

One winter we discovered during Sunday School that the baptistry water heater was broken. The candidate decided to go ahead with her baptism anyway, since extended family had come for this special occasion. The water was so frigid her teeth chattered as she proclaimed, "Jesus is Lord."

In my former church the opposite happened. The baptism planned for the beginning of the service had to be postponed to the end (after the ushers added ice) because the water was practically boiling. The candidate would've been cooked like a lobster.    

When the heavy velvet baptistry curtains finally opened, a huge cloud of steam rolled out into the sanctuary.

Several years ago a video made the rounds on social media. In it the pastor was shown baptizing candidates, then reaching for a young boy who was next in line.

Rather than taking the pastor's hand and stepping into the baptismal waters, the boy impishly did a cannonball instead.

It took several minutes for the drenched pastor, shaking out his microphone and soggy Bible, to regain any composure.

Sometimes I think God does a belly laugh at some of the mishaps that occur as we try to have meaningful worship experiences together.

Despite our best planning, things often go awry as we Christians attempt to balance celebration and reverence, spontaneity and ritual in baptismal services and other spiritual events.

When things go wrong, it helps to remember that God only looks on the intents of our hearts. It is our sincere effort, not our perfection during worship that is most important to our Creator.

After all, God does know we're only human.

See you in worship this Sunday - Naomi

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Worship: Taking God's Name in Vain?

Most parents go through several phases of correcting inappropriate language their children have picked up somewhere--never from home, of course.

A former pastor of mine, trying to reframe his four-year old daughter's undesirable vocabulary, admonished her that whenever she used the word "God," she'd better be ready to pray…or else.  

One day she was riding with him in the car, and he again heard her exclaim, "O, God!"

Immediately catching his accusing glance out of the corner of her eye, she quickly bowed her head, closed her eyes and intoned, "Thank you for …," listing several of her favorite things, followed by "Amen."

He couldn't help but chuckle at her resourcefulness.

My first college roommate and I were both raised in devout Southern Baptist homes. As I look back, we were pretty conservative even for the late 1960s.

At the Christian-based college we attended there were many students who shared similar values as ours. There were also a lot of students who either rebelled at their fundamentalist upbringing and sowed wild oats during that tumultuous era, or who came from families barely recognizable as Christian.

One day my roommate and I were having a discussion about the preponderance of swearing on campus--there was a whole lotta cussin' goin' on.

True to our conservative upbringing, we believed that having a "dirty mouth," while undesirable, was not as bad as swearing, i.e., using God's (or Jesus') name as an expletive.

Since childhood, we'd been admonished that taking God's name in vain was a "thou shalt not" from The Ten Commandments. In other words, don't do it…or else.

Part of our discussion that day centered around the meaning of the phrase "taking God's name in vain." My roommate said that her dad once told her it meant to use God's name "insincerely." That definition has stuck with me through the years.

Not that every word that has ever poured from my lips has exactly been worthy of broadcasting, but generally I am not prone to using salty language (probably due to lack of usage during my formative years) .

The list of society's "bad" words is still evolving, but those words don't come to my mind very often, even when I'm angry or upset.

However (lest I appear annoyingly pious), according to my roommate's definition, I am definitely guilty of taking God's name in vain. This sometimes happens during worship, most often when I am singing.

Now, as a musician who has been "churched" all my life, I could probably be a successful contestant if there were ever a church music version of the old TV game show, Don't Forget the Lyrics.

I can sing verse after verse of dozens of hymns and gospel songs, sacred solos and oratorios, mostly from memory.

The problem is, it's too easy to sing only notes and words. To sing without engaging voice with mind and heart. To sing glibly or insincerely. To "take God's name in vain."

This is not just a "musician's curse"; it happens to non-musicians, too. In order to worship authentically, worshippers must focus on God, not just on matching notes and words correctly.

Author Gary Thomas (Sacred Pathways) reflects, "It amazes me how casually I can sing songs of deep, almost heroic commitment. It's as if I think, 'As long as I'm singing, the words I say don't really matter. God knows it's just a song.'

While my mind wanders I promise to bow before the Lord, to proclaim His name, …to go so far as to die to express my faith. Yet these words may be sung with scarcely more emotion than I feel when I'm ordering a hamburger."

Singing words glibly or just going-through-the-motions on Sunday mornings is not worship at all. Worship, like being Christian, involves much more than just showing up at church.

Authentic worshippers can't simply walk into a church building and slide into a pew with an indifferent attitude toward God: "Hey, I'm here, aren't I? What else could you possibly want?"

True worship is akin to active listening vs. passive listening. True worship requires intentionality and sustained effort--and God is worthy of our true worship.

Matthew 22 says to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." We are to offer our whole selves to God as an acceptable sacrifice during worship. To do less is to dishonor God.

"You are worthy, Father, Creator; You are worthy, Savior, Sustainer. You are worthy, worthy and wonderful; Worthy of worship and praise."*

See you in worship this Sunday - Naomi

*from Worthy of Worship, in Celebrating Grace Hymnal