Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘baptism’

Wholeness as a Lifestyle

Luke 3:1-6 NRSV

Luke’s Gospel has a lot of stuff in it that seems to relate to OT prophets. Makes sense. I mean, Luke is the only Gospel that goes into so much detail about how John the Baptizer’s life was foretold by prophets, so was Jesus’ birth, and oh by the way, a prominent character in the story is an Israelite priest, Zechariah. And then, consider John the Baptizer. He is a guy telling people to be purified, he speaks of fire and refining, and water is involved. But someone else is coming after him to do just that.

Okay, I get it. By this point, you should have made some connections between Malachi and Luke. There’s nothing wrong with that. But each book should stand on its own if we are to embrace their meaning.

In the case of Luke, we are talking about a cleansing and purifying, but it’s called baptism. Jewish baptism was commonplace and Luke’s readers would have understood. But baptism was more than just a religious ritual to be cleansed from sin. Baptism was marking an internal transformation in the person and a display of that transformation in the form of changed behavior. Baptism is an “unbinding” of people, i.e. freedom to become the fullest expression of what they can be.

I will call this wholeness.

Wholeness, to me, is when we are truly ourselves. It is when we fully express our humanity without convention, worry, or external influence.

One thing that helps me to daily consider if I am pursuing wholeness within myself is to consider my day-to-day activities and choices.

For me it is helpful to ask: Will this choice bring me into greater wholeness, coherency, harmony and integration, or take me further away from it?

We make choices every day. But how often do we consider whether or not these choices make us more whole?

So it’s Advent; Christmas is on its way. Gifts are on people’s minds. So here’s a take-home activity for you to consider. I want you to think about 3 gifts.

Gift 1: What would you like to give yourself?

Gift 2: What would you like to give to someone you care about?

Gift 3: What would you like to give a stranger?

Consider these three gifts. They will lead you to wholeness.


Dare to Serve

Mark 10:35-45

questionsQuestion of the day:
Who was one of the most effective leaders you have ever encountered?

Go ahead—think about him/her.
Now name some of his/her characteristics.

Okay, now examine those characteristics.

How many of them are related to strength, certainty, might, power, and authority?

And how many characteristics are related to humility and servanthood?

There are million books about leadership. Each one tries to make its case as to how leaders ought to be, what’s most effective, and why certain leaders are successful. I’ve ready my share of those books. I’m certainly interested in, no, fascinated by leadership. Why? Because leaders move people and things in this world—for good or for bad. For example, if an organization, be it a company or a nonprofit has poor leadership, they mostly fail in what they are trying to do, it’s a toxic environment, and they usually don’t survive. Likewise, if an organization has effective leaders within it, things thrive, the environment is positive, and people enjoy being part of it.

In college and in graduate school, I studied about leadership. I learned about the so-called greatest leaders of all time around the world who moved people and things [and even whole countries] to success, peace, safety, and community. I also learned about the infamous leaders throughout history who brought about war, poverty, destruction, and pain. So yes, leadership has always mattered, and it still does.

I’ve always found it quite curious, as I read leadership books and observe leadership in the world, that a large number of people still equate leadership with strength, muscle, and authority. It is still a quite popular belief that leaders have so-called masculine qualities and thus, people trust the leader, follow him [typically gender-specific and male], and will do as he says because…
He’s an effective leader.


I’ve never really bought that perspective, because far too often I’ve seen such “strong” leaders throw their weight around, intimidate, and manipulate. I’ve also seen people cower when certain leaders entered a room—silencing their voices out of fear of offending him or her. Sounds too dramatic, but it’s real. Those who follow such leaders often do so without limits. They are willing to follow said leader to any place, and they are willing to do anything, because they believe that the leader is right and will lead them to success.

When I first started working in the church as a pastor, I’ll never forget some of the comments that adults made in my first couple of years. They would say things like:

You’re just not cut out to be a leader. You’re too nice. You hang around kids and youth and listen to them too much. You’re not strong enough. You need to tell us what to do. Leaders lead, they don’t follow. They should be sure and narrowly focused on the goal.

I thought it would change as I gained more experience in my vocation, but it didn’t. Every place I’ve worked, there have always been plenty of people who have repeated those same things, but now they mostly say them because they want me to tell them what to do, or they want me to change something they don’t like, or they want to get rid of someone they dislike, or they want to be in charge of something that is currently under shared leadership.

This is not to say that leaders shouldn’t make decisions or suggestions or envision a goal and help people set out to accomplish it.
But we’ve foolishly accepted the status quo ideas of leadership that have unfortunately lived on throughout history. Perhaps this is why I found yet another book on leadership to actually be refreshing.


Dare to Serve: How To Drive Superior Results While Serving Others, written by Cheryl Bachelder, details how embodying certain servant leader characteristics has helped her to achieve dramatic results in her vocation and in her life. When Bachelder was named CEO of the fast food chain Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen, things were bad. Store sales were negative. The company and its franchisees were practically coming to blows. Today, however, Popeye’s market share has grown from 14% to 21%. Margins have increased from 17% to 21%. And the franchisees are so delighted with the turnaround they’re taking an active role in remodeling the restaurants. According to Bacheldor, the difference-maker is servant leadership. In her book she shows how she and other like-minded CEOs have applied a concept often derided as weak and sappy to deliver superior business results and supercharge employee retention and customer loyalty. If you love leading, Bachelder insists, you must love serving.

If you love leading, you love serving.

Some notable quotes from the book:

Leaders are courageous enough to take people to a daring destination, and humble enough to selflessly serve others on the journey.

Leaders have the courage to set big goals and the humility to put the needs of their followers above their own.

For sure, I would consider Jesus of Nazareth to be this type of servant leader. And if you read the Gospel stories about him and his followers, you also get the sense that his own disciples viewed leadership as more of an authoritative position and not so much about serving others. It’s for that reason that James and John approach their teacher and ask him to grant them a lofty position. They have no idea what they’re asking for. Jesus clarifies by reminding them that following the way is not at all about obtaining lofty positions for yourself. It is instead about serving others. If James and John wish to follow Jesus, are they willing to drink from the same cup and be baptized in the same way as Jesus?

The cup is a reference to what is to come in the story—Jesus’ symbolic gesture with a cup of wine in Jerusalem, while dining with his followers. The cup is suffering, but not for the sake of suffering. The cup represents suffering with people in the world, the empathy of that act that can encourage and heal.

The baptism reference is of course to the way Jesus was baptized by John—immersed in water just as so many others were, in the river Jordan. If you recall, John did not want to baptize Jesus because he felt that he was unworthy to do so. The fact that Jesus insisted upon it shows again Jesus’ emphasis on servanthood and the rejection of authoritative, lofty status.

James and John are surprisingly confident that they are able to do what Jesus describes. But sensing that they are still more worried about status, Jesus reminds them that not even he has the ability to grant them a seat at his right or left.

This whole conversation angers the others disciples. Were they mad because James and John were bogarting their rabbi? Or were they also trying to figure out how to get the same lofty status? It’s not clear in the story, but what is clear is Jesus’ idea of what leadership looks like. He mentions the typical, status quo type of leaders who lord over others and are tyrants. And then he contrasts those hierarchical leaders with the servant leaders.

For Jesus, a leader doesn’t come to be served, but to serve.

If there is any authority or greatness in leadership, it comes from serving others. Therefore, any dominant or oppressive leadership denies everything that Jesus taught and lived.

This is counter-culture, to be sure. But I think it is a life-giving mentality, if we choose to listen and then apply it in life. Many of us may feel like we’re not leaders because we’re too introverted or shy, or because we don’t like to take charge, or because we prefer collaboration to authority. But you can be leaders, and more than that, you can make a positive impact by being a servant leader. You can shun the spotlight and instead shine light on others.

spotlightsYou can listen carefully, and cooperate. You can help make decisions that serve the greater whole rather than a select few. You can encourage and build up.

So in this life, what kind of leader will you choose to be?

Will you dare to serve others? Will you dare to go to risky places?

Friends, in your home life, at school, at work, at church—wherever you are—be courageous to walk with others to daring destinations, and be humble enough to selflessly serve others along that journey.


Still Speaking and Water Still Flowing

Matthew 3:13-17

funny-baby-catholic-baptismBaptism stories are always fun to tell because if you think about it, what is stranger, funnier, or more awkward than dressing up someone in white clothes, sprinkling water on his/her head and rubbing it into his/her hair while people stare? Or, if you come from another tradition, what is odder than dunking the person in a religious bathtub, a pond, or some body of water while people stare? Wearing white in this case is also awkward because that means whatever is underneath is of great importance.

Hmmm….do I go with the Steelers jersey underneath the white, see-through robe, or the Led Zeppelin t-shirt?
Whether someone is baptized as an infant or a child, as a teenager or as an adult…we have to admit that this ceremony is a bit weird.

So last Sunday I was asked to lead such a ceremony at a friend’s house. Mom and dad, two honest people, were just not sure what it was…a baptism, a dedication, a christening…what do these things mean and what we were actually going to do?

Really good questions, actually.

What are these things and what are we going to do?

50+ people were staring intently at this baby boy all dressed in white and screaming his eyelids out. He was red in the face; would he ever stop crying? Mom and dad tried to soothe him and so did the two godparents looking on. But he just wailed louder. I finally put the water on his head.

First time [Creator]: kid is still screaming.
Second time [Jesus]: tears rolling down like a waterfall.
Third time will be the charm, right? Spirit: he didn’t like it one bit.

Even his dad was like…geez, this kid is not content right now. So I said the blessing and a benediction—as fast as I could. Poor kid—he probably just wanted to eat; or sleep; or get the diaper changed. And here I was talking about him to all those people and asking his parents questions and then putting water on his head and oh, that white outfit just wasn’t a good look for him. I don’t blame him for crying. Man, these baptism/dedication/christening things are so weird.

I still think that the parent’s questions were right on.

What is this and what are we going to do?

heQiBaptismWhat is this Christian rite of baptism [just another way of saying tradition]? What is this so-called sacrament? There are a hundred different answers and it depends on your tradition. For the sake of time, let’s just say that a sacrament in general terms is a ceremony or ritual that has some sort of religious or spiritual significance. But some people take that much more seriously than others. I would argue, though, that most people take it just about as seriously as my two friends who had their kid screaming through the whole thing. They both wanted to do something to mark the occasion of the birth of their child. They wanted family and friends to be there and experience it. They wanted to celebrate and eat and drink.

But it was less about religious tradition and more about all that other stuff.

For the house was filled with Catholics, all kinds of Protestants, and plenty of agnostics/atheists and non-religious folks.

What is this?

What are we going to do?

The water ceremony—at least for me—is more about identity and community than anything else. I said this to the whole group gathered: it takes a whole village to raise a child. I asked them to agree to be part of that village. I asked mom and dad to agree to give freedom to their kid to explore spirituality and to ask questions. I asked the godparents be honest and to be mentors.

And I reminded everybody that this crying baby was….a baby. All of this won’t be remembered. He will have no recollection of the so-called sacrament. Even one day when he’s older and people show him pictures, he will still not directly connect to that experience.

So what was this?

It was, in all honesty, a moment for the adults—the friends and family—to embrace each other and their commitment to be the village that raises the kid.

And what will they do?

That question is yet to be answered. The kid, as he grows up, will answer with his own life. His family and friends will answer by how they accept and love him, mentor him, and teach him.

Fortunately for him, it’s quite possible that he will never again have some strange guy rub water on his head or say strange words while he’s crying.

You know, Jesus was baptized, too, but it was a lot different. It’s a story told by all 4 Gospels. Jesus wasn’t a baby, but an adult. And there was no ordained clergy to put water on his head in the name of the Trinity or whatever. Jesus’ baptism story must have been strange, because all 4 Gospels tell a very different version of the same event.

Kind of makes we wonder if this cartoon about Jesus’ famous sermon on the mount is right:
funny-pictures-auto-scumbag-jesus-469460Yep. The Gospels of the NT often tell very different versions of the same story. Why? In storytelling, the audience matters. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John’s Gospels were all written for and to different people. So each Gospel tells its own story so as to make sense to the hearers.

Matthew’s version includes a unique dialogue between John and Jesus. John is hesitant to baptize Jesus. “No, Jesus, I should be baptized by you—not the other way around.” It’s almost like a “you first, no you first” kind of kid’s game. Well, that happens until Jesus reassures John that it’s okay for John to be the baptizer. Jesus literally tells John: Release it. Let it go. All the ideas of hierarchical relationships—who should baptize, who should be baptized, religious rites, etc.—let it go. This is a clear attempt by Matthew to address some controversy in the early church. You see, some people were uncomfortable with Jesus being baptized by someone else. That would imply John in the role of priest and Jesus as underneath John. At least, that was their worldview.

But that’s not all. Many wondered: isn’t baptism supposed to be reserved for sinners? So how in the world could Jesus be baptized? Some people believed that Jesus was without sin. So to them, this makes no sense!

Matthew’s Gospel is of course making a point—or at least trying to. Unfortunately, many so-called religious people limit the waters of baptism to a chosen few—people they choose. But Jesus, in Matthew’s story, contradicts that. Water [and baptism] is for everyone. It’s for all who are not perfect.

And that’s everyone.

Jesus is on the same level as us; he is immersed in water just like anybody else; he identifies as real person. The heavens open, but not to prove some sort of religious doctrine or to fit into church hierarchy.

The heavens open to mark the occasion as important, for sure. Pay attention, world. God doesn’t show favoritism. God is pleased because God desires for humans to understand identity. God is not some cold, non-empathetic deity equipped with rotating, exploding judgment lightning bolts, although that might be a cool anime movie.
GodInstead, God understands suffering, and crying, and doubt, and fear, and love, and curiosity, and confusion, and humanity…as it is.

People have tried for so long [and still try] to say that God only loves some people and only cares about my people and not them; and people still say this person who is gay or lesbian or Arab or from another land or speaking a different language or someone who is just plain different is outside of grace and mercy.

What is this?

What are we going to do?

Here’s the thing—if someone is never baptized formally in a church or even in a house—this is not really important.

Now some people will NOT like this on FB or repost this, for sure. But questions are much more important than the ceremony.

And how we treat people is way more important than baptism.

So what is this water?

stillwaterWater itself is a flowing, renewing, refreshing source of life for all living things—including us. When babies are well, babies—they are almost ALL water [75-78%]. That’s why they are so squishy. Water is part of our physical makeup. The rest of us are 50-60% water. We need it in order to survive. When the heavens open, so to speak, water comes down in the form of rain or snow.

So if you need to, forget the word baptism. Forget the word sacrament.

But remember to notice water.

Water is a sign of life. And water is provided for the whole planet.

Water should be available to everybody in the world.

The fact that some people in our world do not have access to water is a sign of our degrading humanity and our need to change. Water itself is essential—not to be a symbol for religions to argue about—but as a physical source of life.

And focus on identity. Because the second question of what will we do is one we must ask every day of our lives. It doesn’t matter if you’re an infant, a kid, a youth, or an adult. I think that God still speaks to anyone and everyone. Yes, we all talk about that differently and that’s fine. But I do think that God is still communicating with us. And I do think that God is pleased with people as they are. There is no hierarchy in humanity. We have created this lie ourselves. No one is more important than another, no one loved more or blessed more. We don’t have to wear white outfits or jump through religious hoops for God to love and accept us.

God is pleased with how you are you.

If you have ever been made to feel or have ever been told that the waters of healing, compassion, and purpose aren’t meant for you, then let the water wash over you. Put those harmful words aside. Let them go. Anyone who excludes certain people is just trying to control the water.

But the water is strong and free to flow and move as it will.

Just as God’s love is free to flow and move as it will.

I was at a Bat Mitzvah yesterday, and the girl chose this poem to be read in her rite of passage ceremony. It is a beautiful way to finish this.

200px-Lucille_cliftonLucille Clifton’s poem, blessing the boats:

 May the tide that is entering
Even now the lip of our understanding
Carry you out beyond the face of fear
May you kiss the wind then turn from it certain
That it will love your back
May you open your eyes to water
Water waving forever
And may you in your innocence sail through this to that

Water you can notice every day. It pours from the sky and comes up from the ground. It is not limited to a sacrament or a building or a church. Water is the still speaking, still flowing creator at work. And so be baptized, sprinkled, immersed, washed, refreshed and renewed by it every day. And be inspired to love, to show compassion to others…and be inspired to forgive. Because we are all filled with and surrounded by water….all of us. May the rivers carry us on our journey and lead us to live with love. May the still speaking and flowing water move through us and be shared with all creation.


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