Monday, September 10, 2007

nurtured in the water of a womb (why we baptize children)

Before Jeremiah knew God, God knew Jeremiah. Before you knew God, God knew you. Before you claimed the name of Jesus, Jesus claimed your name. In a few sentences of scripture we learn much about a sixth century prophet, and also a lot about ourselves. We think it all depends on us. We think it‘s all about us. But it’s not about me. And it’s not about you.

I don’t know when I first heard that phrase, “it’s not about you”, but I like it. It is relevant to so much about life. Someone is tailgating you and saying hostile things to you in their car, and they speed away, when you make a turn. You wonder what’s going on? It’s not about you. Someone blows up at you in a meeting at work. It’s not about you. A guy in the baseball stands is berating the umpires, screaming at the top of his lungs. It’s not about you. You get a hostile letter about something that is happening in the neighborhood. It would be easy to take all of that personally…but it’s not about you.

The central character in life is God. That’s where Jeremiah begins. And in these first verses of the book of the prophet we discover something about this God. We discover that God knows us….

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, God says,

And before you were born I consecrated you…

This is a verse loaded with meaning. To know in scripture implied the most intimate form of relationship. You only have I known among all the nations of the earth, the Lord said through Amos to the people of Israel in the 8th century. Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, God says to and about Jeremiah, and before you were born I consecrated you…

To be consecrated is to be set apart, to be made holy. What does it mean to consecrate a child? We see it in the scriptures. Hannah praying for Samuel, Elizabeth praying for John the Baptist, Mary praying for Jesus. The deep, profound longing within a mother who knows that the life of her child will be special, unique.

I’ve known parents who have consecrated their children, standing at the baptismal font, holding a son or a daughter, giving them to me, and it is a holy moment because it is not about me and it is not about them. And so we baptize children into a faith that precedes consciousness, a sign of prevenient grace that goes before our response. Faith, in some mysterious way, is nurtured in the water of a womb. It is not about you or me, your choice or my decision. Grace is about something else. It is about God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come. It is about the God who speaks to Jeremiah, and maybe to us:

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you

And before you were born I consecrated you…

And this reminds us of a core truth about life: you are not an accident. Before we were formed in the womb, God knew us.

The word continues: I appointed you a prophet to the nations. I have a plan, a purpose for your life, God says. This goes a little bit against our grain. We are a nation that values choice and freedom. We think we are choosing something, but what if life is not really that way at all. What if a lot about life is chosen for us. I was riding with one of our daughters in the car, this was a number of years ago, and she looked at me and said, “Dad, I don’t like school, and I don’t like church”. There was an extended silence. And I looked at her and said, “That’s very unfortunate…, you were just born into the wrong family!”

You didn’t choose me, Jesus says in John 15. 16, I chose you. I have a friend who has a graduate degree in creative writing and a background in drama and has a very effective ministry at a church in Jacksonville. He baptized our younger daughter, Abby. Once he was having a rich and full discussion with a member of his church, and finally the lady, a saint of the church I’m sure, said what she really felt: “Skip, you don’t really want to be a minister!” And it kind of caught him off guard, and he said, “You’re right, I don’t want to be a minister, but God called me to be a minister! ”.

That’s a lot like the call of the prophet. God says, “Jeremiah, you didn’t choose me, you didn’t choose this, I chose you, I chose this”. Maybe this is the way the work of God gets done in the world. If it were about our choices, it might never happen. Sometimes God chooses it for us.

I can share a personal experience, something I learned about only recently. When I was a freshman in college I joined the church, made a profession of faith and was baptized. I had not had the benefit of a confirmation experience, and I had not had the kind of opportunities our youth are blessed to have. So that’s when it happened. I walked down the aisle. I said, “I want to be a Christian”. A week later I was baptized into that church. I was about nineteen years old.

About five years ago I was talking with someone in my family. I was influenced by my grandparents, and even knew my great-grandfather. His name was Fred but we called him Grampa. He was a Congregational Christian minister. He lived into his nineties, in Sanford, Florida, but he would come up for weeks at a time in the summer.

Some people flee from the city to the mountains during the summer; he traded the Florida heat for the south Georgia heat. I was talking with someone in my family and they said, “I remember we all went down when you were very little, to Sanford, and your great-grandfather baptized you. It was a wonderful day”.

I thought I was starting something, walking down that aisle. But it had begun long before I was aware of it. Do you know the hymn:

I sought the Lord and afterward I knew

He moved my soul to seek Him, seeking me.

It was not I who found O savior true

No I was found of Thee. (Hymnal, 341)

You did not choose me, Jesus says. I chose you.

And here is something I have learned about life. Sometimes God chooses something for us as a door opens. And sometimes God chooses something for us as a door closes. I think of the prayer in the covenant tradition of John Wesley: “Give me the work you would have me to do. Give me many tasks, Or have me step aside while you call others”.

As life passes, this all becomes more clear. The Quakers have a simple word of counsel: “have faith and way will open”. In his wonderful memoir Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer confesses his discouragement in hearing these words: “Have faith and way will open”. He was aging, time was passing, he did not want to wait for the time when “way will open”. Then a companion shared this with him: “I am a birthright Friend, and in over sixty years of living, “way has never opened in front of me. But a lot of way has closed behind me, and that has had the same guiding effect”.

God’s way can be an opening, or a closing. The good news of the Bible is that God chooses us, and for this reason our lives have purpose. God knows us—we are not an accident. God chooses us—our lives have a purpose. And then, God gives us a mission…

Do not say, I am only a boy, I am only a girl…Do not be afraid, for I am with you. We feel inadequate. If we sense that God has set us apart for some purpose we might very well say, like Moses did, “Lord, what about my brother Aaron”. If we sense that God is choosing us, and the way is hard, we might very well say, like Israel, on the way to the promised land, “it was better when we were back in Egypt”. We feel inadequate. We are overwhelmed. We wonder what God was thinking. We feel so insignificant in light of all that needs to be done.

Forty years ago a congregation in Philadelphia watched as three 9 year old boys were baptized and joined the church. Not long after, unable to continue with a dwindling membership, the church sold the building and disbanded.

One of those boys was Tony Campolo, who has written books, inspired people to service, advised presidents and lived a radical and evangelical Christian faith. He looked back upon his life, and that experience:

“Years later I was doing some research in the archives of my denomination, and I decided to look up the church report of the year of my baptism. There was my name, and Dick White’s and Bert Newman’s. Dick White is a missionary. Bert Newman teaches in Africa. Then I read the church report for “my” year:

“It has not been a good year for our church. We have lost 27 members. Three joined, and they were only children.”

Do not say, I am only a boy, I am only a girl…Do not be afraid, for I am with you. What seems inadequate and insignificant may be the very work of God. God gives that work, that mission to Jeremiah: I’ve put my words in your mouth I appoint you over nations and other kingdoms, To pluck up and to pull down, To destroy and to overthrow To build and to plant.

An old way of life is dying for God’s people. A new creation is emerging. It was true in Jeremiah’s time. The temple, the very center of their lives, the dwelling place of go, had been destroyed. It is true in our time. A neighbor moves. A loved one dies. A friend is ill. Children leave home. A company goes out of business, or merges. Life slows down or speeds up. Jeremiah came to remind them, and us, that God was at work, that throughout all of the changes in life God was in a relationship with them.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.

We bear witness to the astonishingly good news of a grace nurtured in the water of a womb, lived and breathed in prophets who listened for the voice and spoke to their people and speak to us, we place our feet into a river of life that is already flowing,

and who knows the dramatic difference it will make, in the life of a child or a young person who comes our way, who is taught or prayed for or encouraged… who knows the mission God might have in store for them, the way that is ahead. It is amazing to imagine, and we are limited only when we think it is all about us. But it is not about you, or me. The hymn again reminds us:

I find, I walk, I love,

But oh, the whole of love is but my answer Lord to thee.

For thou wert long beforehand with my soul.

Always thou lovedst me. (“I Sought The Lord”, Hymnal, 341).


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