18 September 2008


Until about a year ago, I never had a birth certificate. Instead, I had a baptism certificate from the Lutheran parish where I was born. Somehow my atheist parents were persuaded to have me baptized as an infant. But for most of my life with them, their consistent message to me was that religion is for weaklings and hypocrites. So that piece of paper has always represented a puzzle to me.

I began musing about baptism a week or so ago, when I read J. Christina Hodgson's contributions to a Facebook discussion. (Group: The Emergent Church. Topic: Charismania Weird. [2021 update: unavailable.]) Starting from the cathartic and ecstatic experiences sometimes associated with Pentecostal and charismatic worship and with healing experiences, Christina went on to the topic of baptism as initiation.

Here's what got me thinking. Christina asks:
The question in my mind is: are today’s baptisms the same as what Jesus was having the disciples do? Are they outwardly the same but somehow different in the essence? Or are they completely, entirely different?

Perhaps people are baptizing with water nowadays and have forgotten how to "baptize with the Holy Spirit" as Jesus did? I will have to ask someone who knows, what baptism is supposed to do, beyond just indicating membership in the Christian community. Is Baptism seen as a transformation of the spirit, through initiation?
Shortly after I began attending Ottawa Meeting in Canada, back in 1974, I knew that this would become my spiritual home. I also knew from reading Geoffrey Hubbard's Quaker by Convincement that Friends did not baptize in any outward sense. (The book said nothing about the evangelical Quaker circles where baptism is sometimes permitted as an optional procedure.) When I asked a local Friend about a Quaker equivalent to baptism, she told me that Friends believe in "baptism by the Spirit." At the time I thought that this felt more like a debating point than an experienced reality, and that she probably did not know how important this very phrase was within the charismatic circles of my Canadian relatives.

Fast forward many years later to Reedwood Friends Church, where about seven years ago I sat in a Sunday school class studying Friends distinctives, and the subject of baptism came up. One participant, also from a Lutheran background, challenged us on the subject--specifically, what kind of threshold do Friends recognize between NOT being in the household of faith and BEING in the household of faith? What emotional cost is there in not recognizing or providing such a threshold?

One thing I love about Friends theology is its functional nature. We're not likely to agree on how baptism affects our eternal destiny, but may well be able to talk about whether and how we express repentance, convincement, and commitment to God, each other, and the world. I hope we do so, because for some Friends, our casual and tacit approach isn't adequate. (And it doesn't seem fair for those who are satisfied to impose a conversational embargo on those who aren't.)

Some Friends meetings welcome new members with a visit by a small committee of the meeting, or by a moment of dedication at a meeting for worship. But do such practices really take into account the underlying spiritual transformation and the hopes we have for the depth of the resulting new commitment? And how do we nurture (in our young people, our newcomers, and others within our sphere of influence) an expectation, an anticipation, of such a transformation, and a recognition that the Holy Spirit is already witnessing in each of them?

Some elements of that transformation and commitment might include:
  • repentance: facing the truths about my life in God's loving, searching light
  • conversion: committing to put God in the center of my life
  • convincement: becoming aware that the spiritual and ethical practices of Friends, and the community of Friends, is (for me) the best way to carry out that commitment
  • doing all of this in a supportive public context.
For some people, these steps that I've described so dryly may be very emotional, and for others, they may not. For some, there may be a huge intellectual struggle, but for others, not. In my case, stepping out of an abusive and anti-religious background into the household of faith was a massive emotional and intellectual shift, but I know others for whom Christian initiation was a quiet, natural, and gradual progression. Just as important: for some, the process ends with lifelong serenity, but others are apparently never granted total "victory" over doubt. I'm not advocating a form of baptism that pretends this variety doesn't exist, but I do want us to consider how we publicly recognize a new Christian commitment for the precious event that it is. As with so many other issues of spiritual communication, formulas may not suffice, but lack of effort implies (and eventually actually results in) neglect.

What is the difference between groups of friendly people who meet to discuss, meditate, listen to improving sermons, sing, etc., and a church? The first category is composed of people who gather to be with each other, although some may grant that individual transcendent experiences are possible. The second category includes people whose collective expectation is to meet God, and empowered by that meeting, to serve God's purposes in the world. With all the worthwhile attention being paid to lowering the threshold into the church, and improving its accessibility, we at least ought to provide a way of knowing (and saying!) when we're truly there to stay.

Related: The Quaker baptism

Righteous Links: Thanks to Sean's Russia Blog, here's a link to a brief but telling article, "Lunch with Putin." And two recent New York Times news stories show how imperial hypocrisy backfires, as Russia gives the USA and NATO a taste of what for us is normal practice on the international stage: "Medvedev promises Georgia enclaves protection" and "Venezuela-Russia ties deepen despite U.S. pressure." (Note: I'm not defending anyone's policies here!) ~~ While we're in the NYT Web site, a Quaker connection: the role that the Mohonk Mountain House in New York has played in climate research. ~~ From Quaker Life, a brief, tantalizing item: Diary of Anne Frank introduced to Ramallah students.

Bon voyage, Liz and Patrick! Our guests for the past week+ are back home today (Liz Seume) or on the way (Patrick Neifert). 

As Patrick left, he said, "Back to warmer weather." What could I say? -- the Moscow region has been in the 40's (F) for days. (It's still summer, supposedly.) 

I weakly replied, "At least we have hot water again."

(Photo at right: New hot water pipes under Pobeda Street will reward our patience today by saving energy tomorrow.)

Robert Cray and Albert Collins:

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