Friday, April 19, 2019

A Tithe of Baptisms

There are some weekends in ministry you just feel intuitively that, many years from now,  when you are chewing a long piece of grass, while rocking yourself to sleep on the front porch of your retirement home, that you are sure you will remember.  This coming weekend at Burlpres (The First Presbyterian Church of Burlingame), is shaping up to be one of them.

This weekend is Easter, and we will be celebrating 51 baptisms and re-affirmations of baptism in our church!

Five weeks ago, we began a Lenten preaching series on the topic of baptism.  Using each of the baptismal questions as a guide for the sermon series (Who is the Lord of your life?, Do you Trust him?, Do you want to be a faithful Disciple?, Do you recognize the power of Sin and evil in the world and promise to do your best to turn against them?, Do you want to Devote yourself to the life and ministry of the congregation?), we preached through these basic tenets of the Christian faith.  The series was called, "Coming Clean", a play on the use of water as a baptismal symbol, and the process of a spiritual cleaning of the inner self.  We talked about how baptism is a "renaming", a "miracle", a "sealing", and a "mark" of God's promise.  We discussed the historical fact that in the first century church, all baptisms took place on Easter.

And yet...we didn't expect this outpouring of response.

In my twenty years of ministry, I have never known a congregation to be more responsive or more excited about the concept of baptism than this one.  What began with an oblique goal of having around 20 people baptized or reaffirmed in their baptism, has turned into a larger movement of the Holy Spirit.  Most people, myself included, thought 20 baptisms was an ambitious goal, but one worth shooting for.  What has resulted has culminated in a veritable...

Tide of Baptisms

Or should I say...

Tithe of Baptisms

I say tithe, because at around 700 members, 51 baptisms (and we could have more before Saturday and Sunday when our services take place) is a little less than 10% of our church.  This idea of 10% of the church being baptized has also helped me see another important facet of the baptism experience.  Like tithing (giving 10% of our time, talent and treasure to the church), baptism is a way of giving back.

When a person stands before a worshipping community and answers the baptismal questions and has water put on their head in the name of the, "Father, Son and Holy Spirit", it is a way of saying, "Lord, this life does not belong to me.  This life belongs to you.  I do not own my life.  You do!  You're in charge.  Take back this life you gave to me, clean it, and make it new, and use it for your larger purposes."  When 10% of a congregation gives back their hearts, minds, bodies and souls to God, I can only assume that God is pleased with this offering.  It's a...

Tithe of Baptisms

What has been so powerful for me are the individual stories of renewal that I have been privileged to be a part of.  There is the teen age girl in Sonoma who is on her way to college, and has never been baptized, but wants to do it before she makes this next big step in her life.  There is the retired man, who, having completed a successful business career, now wants to do something spiritually significant with the rest of his life.  There is the couple who live in San Mateo, who just started coming to the church who have a crazy Bay Area existence, and want to dedicate their two children in baptism.  There is the couple who lost their son-in-law to suicide less than a month ago, and wants a reminder that even in a world of brokenness, that God still exists.  There is the woman who is now separated from her husband in a potential divorce dynamic, and wants a reminder of the special mark God still has on her life.  And the list goes on and on.

Churches, of course, are made up of more than just a collection of individual stories.  A church is also more than simply a large handful of people, from a varying array of backgrounds, who are gathered in one place to worship God.  Churches are comprised of significant groups of people who do big things for God.  It was this concept of a small but powerful gathering (of disciples, of apostles, of servants, of 70 workers) that God had in mind as having the power to stand against the gates of hell, and also the power to lean towards the gates of heaven.

I am so grateful for this call and this church and this ministry at this time in my life.  There was a time when I actually wondered if God was really still calling me to the ministry of the Word and Sacrament.  However, it is weekends like this one that reaffirms my commitment to the ministry.  It is weekends like this one that also remind me of the baptismal vows that my parents once dedicated my life to as an infant, 47 years ago.  God is still God.  And God still has a plan. And that plan is very good!

Oh and one more thing - I am one of the 51 who will be re-affirming their baptismal vows.  So, excitingly, I too can say that I may be playing a very small role in a larger contribution to the...

Tithe of Baptisms

All for now,


Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Stories that Heal

After twenty years of preaching ministry, I am finally beginning to see the healing value in the telling of a well crafted story.

Not too long ago, I was trying to explain to someone the need for churches to stand up for people who are oppressed - particularly by bullies.  So, I told this story...

When I was about 12 years old, and in Junior High, I was at the gym one day with my Dad.  I was a very scrawny kid when I was younger, so the weights I was lifting on that particular day, were not very heavy.  In the same corner of the gym where I was curling 20 pound dumbbells, was a very muscled out, dare I say steroid infused, body builder.  When he saw me lifting the small weights, he sort of started to make fun of me, belittling the amount of weight that I was lifting.  Though I didn't care too much about the taunts at the time, when my father saw what was going on, he was incensed. Walking up to the 250 pound body builder, the Rev. Dr. Donald Baird (in good shape, but no body builder) said, "That is my son that you are picking on.  If you have something to say, then say it to me."  The body builder, taking my dad up on his offer, said, "Sure, let's scuffle, old man."  At that point, my dad and I high tailed it out of the gym together.  Though we didn't "win the fight that day," these many 30 plus years later, I will never forget how my father, risking his own safety, stood up for me, his son.

The moral to the story?  Sometimes bigger people need to stand up for oppressed people, even if they won't win the fight.  Sometimes churches need to stand up to bullies.

As I have told that story to a few people, I have begun to see a HEALING light go be turned on in their hearts and minds.  The telling of the story, and the framing of an idea within a narrative space, gives the subject matter deeper meaning.

A lot of great leaders through history have used the power of stories to win people towards their ideas.  Abraham Lincoln was famous for story telling as a political medium.  Often Lincoln's stories took the shape of a joke.  Sometimes they were more like metaphors.  Once, when told that a particular senator was not voting the way he wanted him to, about the end of the Civil War, Lincoln said; [I am paraphrasing], "There's more than one way to get a horse to move.  You can try to pull him by the bit, or you can put a horse fly on his back side.  The horsefly often gets better results."

Jesus told most of his deepest truths through stories (parables).  Jesus was the sort of person, who, if you came to him with a problem, he would tell a story.  When asked about what heaven looks like, Jesus told story after story starting with the line, "The kingdom of heaven is like...a mustard seed."  When asked about justice, Jesus told a story about a widow, who came to a judge day in and day out. When asked about who we should love, Jesus told a story about a man who was beaten up on a distant and rural road.

So, for example, if Jesus were on the earth today, and you asked him about the immigrant crisis, and whether we should care for children, he would most likely answer in this way, "There once was a farmer who had lots of field hands.  Some of the field hands came from the north, some lived locally, and some came from the south.  The field hands from the south were the hardest working, but nobody cared for them...." (or something like that - of course, I am not Jesus, so my story telling ability is not up to the messiah's).

If you have a problem you are working through, or you are in the middle of a tough issue, or you are in the middle of a debate in a work place setting, try telling a story.  You just might find that stories have the greatest capacity to heal.

All For now,