One of my friends at college recently approached me and asked if she could be baptized. I explained to her that she would have to promise to do some things in front of the church and showed her our Baptismal covenant, to which she read and stated, “I like this.” and proceeded to contact my college pastor. I re-read them too and, even though I’ve heard them countless times said by those joining the church or baptizing their children, reading through them knowing the issues within our denomination made me tear up. Our church is deeply entrenched in a debate, to the point that we have decided that we are no longer capable of being under the same roof, at the same table, and in ministry with one another. I understand that reconciliation can sometimes be a divorce, but nevertheless in the moments of reflecting upon those words that have been repeated by millions, I began to question.
Are we, collectively, living up to our baptismal vows?
United Methodists understand both sacraments – The Lord’s Supper and Baptism, to be a means of grace. It isn’t something that we earn, or something that we can attain on our own, but instead something that we recognize that God gives us freely, a wonderful and mysterious gift that we accept as Christians. As part of our stated baptismal ritual, the person being baptized (or the parents, if an infant) take vows. These vows are deep, meaningful, and somewhat burdensome – eloquently worded by their authors - and outline the basics of our theology and our understanding of grace.
I invite you to read them carefully here.
In this time of discernment within the United Methodist Church on our continued union, I struggle with our collective commitment to these vows. How are we still living into our vow to resist evil, injustice, and oppression? Or to put our whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as our Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races? Are we supporting the church? – and even if you answered honestly yes to those questions, which I know many of my friends will be able to – does splitting the church allow us as a body to do this more effectively, collectively?
From my vantage point, we must use this time before General Conference to recognize what baptism signifies – it is our entrance into a family that started with a man in the desert preparing the way for the coming of Jesus of Nazareth, and before that men and women wandering in the wilderness, and before that man and woman struggling to follow the instructions of God in the Garden of Eden. It is a practice repeated over millennia in recognition of the power God has to renew our spirits that allows us to draw nearer to Him. And every time we “remember” our Baptisms, it should involve a recognition of this fact – a recognition that we are to try with all our being to live into God’s will for our lives and the Church.
The church has lost a lot of its communal aspects. In my opinion, this translates to (or is a product of) inauthenticity and is encouraging the slow and painful death of the Church. While I understand the acceptance of salvation to be an individual act, I cannot bring myself to believe that relationship is one that is undertaken alone – emphasized in Baptism. I think we emphasize the relationship between Christ and the individual Christ-Follower so much that we have lost the corporate aspects that bind us to one another – we often forget that our Baptismal Covenant is just that – a covenant, between God, the Church and the individual.
In boot camp, and throughout my early training in the Marines, we had this phrase: “Don’t be an individual,” it was meant to emphasize the importance of teamwork to the extreme, working to accomplish a mission, and to some extent forgetting our individual identity. In a similar sense, we are not individuals within the Body of Christ, but rather all one in Christ Jesus – a point that is an undertone within the whole of our Baptismal Covenant. The modern emphasis on the individual is not healthy, rooted in tradition, nor orthodox, and something I have noticed far more often of recent is the lack of creeds, liturgy, and songs sung together (as opposed to singing the same song). I don’t know if it is the division within the church that has me longing these things, or if it is a legitimate trend, but we need togetherness now more than ever. We should be carefully considering the schisms within the Kingdom before proceeding any further.
Sometimes I believe that we’ve been so busy fighting that we forget to be in ministry with one another. We are so focused on who can participate in or lead the church that we have neglected why the church exists in the first place. And now that a contingent within the church is dead set on leaving, I’m saddened that we seem to have forgotten the promises we made when we first signed up for this journey.
I’m tired of the debate like everyone else. Since I was a child at annual conference, serving as a youth page, human sexuality has dominated the conversation. I see the harm that has been so ever persistent, especially towards those within the queer community. But debate is healthy. Conversation is healthy. Fighting, done in a constructive way where we are all heard, is healthy. If the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace is passed, I encourage church members to seriously consider the meaning of the vows they took when they first became a member. I struggle with the seemingly lack of theological depth of leaving the Church over something we do not consider a sacrament, despite our sacramental vows to be in relationship with one another. I’m sure I’ll catch flak for this statement alone, and I’m positive this will be called a rant by those that disagree, but really, we ought to not rush hastily into a divorce that cannot be undone easily. We promised to do this together.
Remember your baptism and be thankful.