August 10, 2016

Persuaded That What We Teach Is True, Undertake To Live Accordingly

“As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we pray and fast with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated.”

Justin Martyr, First Apology

She’s been going through a particularly difficult time – “rough,” I’m sure any of us would say. A significant death in her family, struggles with her job and making ends meet, and add to that internal strife within the remaining members of her family have left her nearly broken. “I’m not nearly as bad as where I was some time ago,” she said, referring to an even darker period, “but I’m not well, either.”

She wanted, she needed to talk, and that’s why she wrote the other night. She was at her wit’s end and she needed to find someone on the other end of the line, someone to listen, someone to pray with. That next morning, at the time we agreed, we sat together, and talked and prayed.

She also wanted to talk about baptism. She hasn’t been baptized. Not that she’s there yet, and she doesn’t expect baptism to happen anytime soon, but she wants to start to pull her life more closely with God’s life, to begin to put in place those practices that draw one closer to the God who is already drawn so closely to us. We discussed the beginning of a process – more regular worship at the Sunday service that’s more convenient for her work schedule, regular meetings with me.

When we said goodbye, I ducked back into my office – stealing a few moments before the next meeting that afternoon – and re-opened my Book of Occassional Services. I remember reading about the detailed description of that publication’s ‘Catechumenate’ or “Preparation of Adults for Holy Baptism: The Catechumenate.” I think I spent a little time with this in seminary, but it was little more than a brief introduction. I spent more significant time in Divinity School looking at adult rites of formation, specifically the Roman church’s Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). But, even having had that coursework, this is not something I feel readily trained and formed in. Forming adults in the way of Jesus, leading them from where they are to more complete dependence on Jesus as the Lord of their life, well, these are matters I’m not sure I’m completely ready for.

And, yet, this is a focus to which I feel deeply called. I want to talk more about an adult relationship with Christ. If only for the constant interactions I have with folks around St. Mary’s County, my home, I feel compelled to do more of this, focus more energy on these concerns.

And I don’t think it has to do, exclusively, with preparing an adult who is not yet baptized for Holy Baptism, even though the particular rite is clearly designed as such. Maybe this isn’t about a ritual whatsoever. Maybe this is about a new and special focus, whether baptized or not. Identifying a sponsor, or a spiritual mentor, and journeying with that person through a process of self-discovery and deepening faith in Christ – I can think of people I see most every Sunday who would leap at that opportunity, whether as mentors or inquirers. Being called into a dedicated season to inquire and re-orient one’s life to the Good News that we’re not in charge and, in fact, Jesus is – I know of so many folks in my community, myself included, who would receive this as a gift, not a chore.

This is what is framing my own thinking as I prepare notes and plans for our new program year. But I’m also aware that this isn’t about ‘programs’ and ‘programming’ either; it’s about a desire, a gift, a focus. A colleague called me the other day to ask what resources I was using to engage St. George’s, Valley Lee in talking about increasing membership requirements and a shared commitment to deepen our faith lives. Sadly, for him, my answer was: “Nothing. There is no resource, no book, no plan.” My longer answer is that I’m working with the members of my community – listening to their stories, accompanying them on their journey, walking with them to where we, together, might sense God inviting us. There’s no curriculum, no rite, no book, no set process for this. Indeed, our operating assumption that the catechumenate, as such, is exclusively geared towards preparation for believer baptism, I think, fails to consider that we have congregations full of already-baptized disciples of Jesus who want, who need deeper formation – not so they can become more productive members of the church, nor that they will give more money at stewardship time, but so that this creation will be better reconciled to God in Christ.

I’m aware that I’m stepping on the history of baptismal theology in the Anglican theological tradition, the larger historical argument revolving around baptismal regeneration. Without going there, entirely, I do think that this is an issue, for those of us in this ‘business,’ at first, about a right desire. I suspect we won’t be able to talk about a higher criteria for what it means to be an active “member” of any congregation until we have given even a few folks the foretaste – literally the lived experience – of the grace and goodness of being a “living member of the Body of Christ.”

Perhaps we could do this well before someone’s life begins to unravel, long before they are at their wit’s end and reach out to their clergyperson late at night because they feel themselves coming apart. Or maybe those encounters are God-moments, reminders that real people are really hurting and hoping out there, and that our presence and our pointing to Christ’s Good News are still very much needed – perhaps now, even more so than ever.

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