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Baptism is a sensitive subject for me. 

I was baptized as an infant.  And while I love the church I grew up attending, the truth is that my faith came alive through a para-church ministry.  So for a dozen years, I’ve wrestled with the meaning of my infant baptism: If baptism is a sign of repentance, a response we make to the Gospel, then what on earth did my infant baptism mean?   It wasn’t that I didn’t approve of infant baptism – I understood the theological justifications of it, and agreed with them enough in theory to pursue ordination in a denomination that baptized infants.  But on a practical level, those justifications just didn’t fit with my experience. I don’t feel like I was a Christian from birth – I feel like a convert.  So I’ve wrestled with my baptism a lot.  A lot.  Internally and sometimes externally

But over the past few months some of that wrestling’s paid off.  God’s brought me around a corner in my understanding of baptism.  So here goes some more external processing:

I think the reason my infant baptism was so puzzling for me is that I was seeing it with too human eyes.  Most ordinary Presbyterians are closet Zwinglians (i.e., see the baptism and the Lord’s Supper as metaphorical, rather than a tangible acts of grace).  The Reformers did move away from medieval Catholic understandings of the Eucharist, but they didn’t all reject the idea that grace could be communicated through tangible acts.  Their western descendents who are shaped by Enlightenment rationalism, though, don’t usually know this.  And, because we’re products of the Enlightenment, we tend to look at the sacraments metaphorically, or as symbols without an actual connection to an action of God.  In short, we act like they are purely human actions.  We perform them, but we don’t really believe God does anything through them.

But what if God actually does do something in baptism and the Eucharist? As a pastor of a church that calls itself “Sacramental”, we’ve been celebrating the Lord’s Supper together every week for more than a year.  It’s at the center of our worship gathering.  And while I have always believed that there’s something more-than-what-meets-the-eye going on in the Eucharist, that conviction has been strengthened by regular practice.  Nevertheless, baptism has remained much harder for me to see as more than a human act. 

Until last fall.  Then I read some things in Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain and No Man is An Island that opened my mind up to the possibility of God acting through the human action of baptism.  Now, as I’m continuing to read the Church Fathers with my friends from ACFI, I’m seeing how much they really believe in the power of God’s action in baptism.  Some quotes from the Philokalia:

Grace has been given mystically to those who have been baptized into Christ; and it becomes active within them to the extend that they actively observe the commandments.  – St. Mark the Ascetic, #61 of No Righteousness by Works

Everyone baptized in the orthodox manner has received mystically the fulness of grace; but he becomes conscious of this grace only to the extent that he actively observes the commandments. – St. Mark the Ascetic, #92 of No Righteousness by Works

From the instant we are baptized, grace is hidden in the depths of the intellect, concealing its presence even from the perception of the intellect itself. – St. Diadochos of Photiki, # 77 of On Spiritual Knowledge

Grace at first conceals its presence in those who have been baptized, waiting to see which way the soul inclines; but when the whole man has turned towards the Lord, it then reveals to the heart its presence there with a feeling which words cannot express, once again waiting to see which way the soul inclines. – St. Diadochos of Photiki, # 85 of On Spiritual Knowledge

These quotes make me picture baptism this way: in baptism, a seed of grace is planted which then grows and bears fruit at the appropriate times, depending on how (and if) it’s watered.  One is united with Christ (“baptized into Christ”, in biblical words) in the act of baptism, but growing to full “maturity in Christ” or sanctification happens later, depending on the nourishment received. 

I didn’t know how to process this at first.  On the one hand, it gave meaning to my infant baptism.  Or, more accurately, now the meaning ascribed to my infant baptism matched my experience.   But is this view of baptism Reformed?  Do Presbyterians believe this?  Happily, yes.  Yesterday I was surprised to discover that Calvin says something very similar in the Institutes. In section 4.16.20, he’s defending infant baptism and says “children are baptised for future repentance and faith. Though these are not yet formed in them, yet the seed of both lies hid in them by the secret operation of the Spirit.” Again, it seems that baptism deposits a seed which then grows and bears fruit later in life. 

This may sound like common sense to some, or it may sound shocking and bizarre to others.  I think the difference in perception again may lie in whether we look at baptism with human eyes or the eyes of faith.  And if the Church really is the Church, then why can’t the action of the Church in the sacraments be an extension of God’s action?  Is that too much to believe?

“Have you ever seen a dock at low tide?  That’s what your teeth will look like if you don’t floss.”  My dentist said these words to me two weeks ago in the midst of the most compelling lecture on flossing I’ve ever heard.

After I graduated from college, my dad took me out to dinner with a handful of his friends.  I asked them all what words of wisdom they wished they had been given years ago when they graduated.  There was a uniform response: “Floss!” No career or money-management wisdom, no deep truths about relationships.  Gum health trumped all such topics of conversation that night. I took note.  And on the rare occasions that I’ve remembered their advice, I’ve obeyed.  But that doesn’t mean it ever became a daily habit – honestly it was more like weekly – hence why my dentist found it necessary to tell me again: “Floss!”

I had gone to the dentist for an ordinary cleaning.  Thankfully, I’ve been blessed with healthy teeth – never had a cavity – which the dentist happily confirmed was still the case.  This good news was followed, however, by the aforementioned lengthy and informative lecture on the value of flossingHere’s the abridged version:  When we brush our teeth, we’re really only cleaning the top and side surfaces.  The space between the teeth and at the gumline remains filled with hungry bacteria, resulting in bad breath, gum disease, and eventually completely eroded gums.   When you look at a dental x-ray, you see little triangles of space between the teeth.  The only way to keep this space clean is to floss.  But we don’t often realize that because we don’t see it: our teeth stick up from the jawbone like pillars supporting a dock.  When the gums are healthy, it’s like the sea is at high tide, right up against the dock making the space below invisible.  When the gums aren’t healthy, they recede and you wind up with painful visible roots and teeth sticking up like pylons.  And as if the pain in the mouth isn’t threat enough, poor oral health has now been linked to heart disease.

So why do I care so much about flossing suddenly and why write about it today?  Because it seems to me like such a great example of the power of small daily habits to transform a person’s life for good or for ill.  All of us perform certain actions every day purely out of habit.  Some are of little consequence, while others matter deeply (like flossing).  

Today is Fat Tuesday, which means that tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.  At Upper Room’s Ash Wednesday Service, I get to give an introduction to Lenten disciplines. Most people are familiar with the idea of giving up something for Lent (i.e., chocolate, coffee, etc.).  But rather than focusing on what to give up this Lent, I’m thinking about it more in terms of what to addWhat if for Lent we all tried to adopt one small habit that would make a big difference in our lives (spiritually, emotionally, physically)? The practice of a small additional discipline for 40 days can leave quite an impression. For Christians, a daily discipline of reading scripture is analogous to flossing.  It can take only a few minutes, but the cumulative effect really does show in one’s spiritual health.  It cleans us up in the places that don’t normally show above the surface, and it prevents heart-disease, too – though of a different kind.  (Yes, I know that was a cheesy comment, but I couldn’t resist.)  Reading scripture regularly is just a small example, though.  One could also adopt practices of gratitude, hospitality, stillness, or prayer.  The Eastern Church often uses this prayer by St. Ephrem the Syrian during Lent:

O Lord and Master of my life, give me not a spirit of sloth, vain curiosity, lust for power, and idle talk, but give to me Thy servant a spirit of soberness, humility, patience, and love.  O Lord and King, grand me to see my own faults and not to condemn my brother: for blessed are Thou to the ages of ages. Amen. O God, clean me a sinner.

Perhaps praying this or another specific prayer each day would have a surprising effect.  What other small but powerful daily habits could we adopt during this season?

 

Several weeks ago, some friends and I were discussing the lack of financial committment on the part of younger members in their church.  Simply put, writing big checks to a church doesn’t appeal to the typical person in my generation.  One explanation of this which I offered is that we may have too human a view of the Church.

In my last post, I talked about repenting from a humanistic view of worship. But worship isn’t isolated theologically from other doctrines.  Specifically, I think that at the root of one’s view of a worship service, is ecclesiology – how one understands the nature of the Church.   For me and many in my generation, though, ecclessiology has up until now not been a priority.

Let me explain: We in the missional church and emerging church movements tend to like realized eschatology.  That’s a fancy term meaning this: The Kingdom of God, salvation, all that good stuff, is not only far off in the future, waiting for us in heaven or postponed until Jesus comes back.  Instead, the Kingdom of God on earth is already happening – beginning in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and continually building until the Kingdom fully comes on earth as in heaven.  This tastes good to us because we care about justice, service, and a holistic gospel.  It also tastes good because it means we get to talk about “the Kingdom” instead of “the Church”.  And why do we like talking Kingdom-language rather than Church-language? 

Because we don’t like the institution.  A lot of us have been hurt, chewed up and spit out, even abused by “the Church.”  We have a real hard time seeing the institutional Church (whether local or denominational) as the divine Body of Christ because we’re all too aware of human flaws. The Church is full of sinners who end up sinning against other sinners.  So why on earth would we give our money (or time, or any other form of committment) to it?  If we have a realized eschatology, it makes more sense to give money to feed the orphans on another continent than to give to pay a pastor’s salary or pay for a space to worship in. After all – the Kingdom is what matters, so let’s pay attention to Kingdom-work in the world, like feeding the poor.  Amen. I concur. Kind-of.

Here’s the problem in that line of theological logic: we’re separating eschatology from ecclesiology.  If the reign of God is breaking into the world, making foretastes of life in the new creation available even now, wouldn’t that mean that the Church also participates in that realized eschatology?  In other words, if God’s Kingdom is truly manifest in the humanitarian work going on in Haiti right now, then why would God’s Kingdom be any less truly manifest in the authentic worship of a local congregation?  Humanitarian organizations can be just as broken as churches.  The same sinful people are at work in both.  But if both are movements towards God’s desires for the world, then why would either be considered more divine or real than the other?  

What if the Church really is the Body of Christ?  We like to talk about this for the sake of mission – “Let’s get out there are really be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.”  But if the Church really is the Body of Christ, then the gathering of the community for worship and all that supports that worship participates in Christ just as much as mission in Jesus’ name.  The songs we sing really are songs of praise to God.  The reading of scripture and the sermon really are places where God speaks to us.  Communion really is a time when Christ meets us and when the community is united as the Body of Christ.  And the offering really is an offering to God.   

How would our understanding of worship change if we really believed that?  What about stewardship?  Would this lead to greater or lesser activity in mission?  Can we really believe the Church is the Body of Christ despite the failures of individual Christians?

I’m repenting of much of what I’ve long believed about worship (or the lack thereof).

One night last week, after a closing shift at the cafe, I sat down in my study and started to read.  It was nearly midnight and I had hopes of making myself sleepy by reading.  Then I remembered that I could also pray.  Specifically, I could pray the “Prayer at The Close of Day” liturgy from the Book of Common Worship – a short liturgy which I’ve become fond of using as a way to close out my day.  But this night something was different: I had no desire to pray.  I wanted to read, get sleepy, and go to bed.  Then a thought occurred to me which surprised me in its conviction: I should pray now because God is worthy of worship.

Not long ago, such a thought would not have had such a powerful effect on me.  I “knew” God was worthy of worship.  I “knew” we gathered at church to “praise” God.  But, for all practical purposes, I had a much more humanistic perspective on churchy-worship.  The feeling I got from a service, the message that I hoped was communicated to the congregation, the service we were sent out to do – all these were priorities for me.  Worshipping God because of God’s beauty and worthiness in Godself was something I did, but not during church on Sunday. 

That’s not to say I never had moments of genuinely worshipping for the love of God. Tasting a delicious piece of fruit or a good cup of coffee makes me thank God for the beauty of creation.  Hallelujah for taste buds.   And moments of grace – times when I feel spoken to by a song or something I’ve read – inspire genuine praise in my heart.  But these spontaneous expressions of worship have always felt different from Sunday morning church “worship” to me.  The gatherings we call worship frankly seem so much more human.

Alexander Schmemann wrote in For the Life of the World that secularism is the negation of worship.  “It is the negation of man as a worshipping being, as homo adorans: the one for whom worship is the essential act which both ‘posists’ his humanity and fulfills it” (p. 118).  For Schmemann, the human creature exists in order to worship.  It is the highest act of who we are.  Is this true? Are we really made to worship? Is it the fullest expression of our humanity to give glory back to the God whose image we bear? 

Since I “became a Christian” in high school, I’ve pushed against this prioritization of worship precisely because I saw it leading to the negation of mission.  In my mind, churches that poured all their energy into maintaining elaborate Sunday services often did so to the exclusion of mission and evangelism, failing to put into practice the Word members supposedly heard in the service.  Better, I thought, to privilege mission – even make worship subservient to mission.  Whatever happened on Sunday morning only mattered as far as it led to the proclamation of the Gospel and prompted action bearing witness to God’s concern for justice in the world.  In other words, whatever happened on Sunday morning only mattered in terms of human response. Schmemann would say I was a secularist even within the church: In reaction against worship to the exclusion of mission, I promoted mission without a genuine attitude of worship.  I reacted to one extreme by pushing to the other. 

I repent.  I still have questions about the relationship of worship and mission: Certainly a worship service should communicate Gospel, even to the unchurched. So how much should evangelism and mission dictate the shape of a worship service?  What actually is “missional worship”?   Good questions.  But the more important question presently is why should we worship?  And the answer to that question lies not in my feelings in about or response to a worship service, but in who God is as the only One worthy of worship and who we are in relation to that One.

Romans 12:2 says “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  A book I read recently revealed how physically this renewing of the mind needs to take place.  And I think wisdom from a different, more ancient book can teach us a lot about that physical renewal. 

InterVarsity Press recently released a new book by William Struthers called Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain. It describes in scientific detail the neurological processes involved in at least one pattern of sin: lust.  And the most surprising – and for some, terrifying – insight of the book is that theses processes are dynamic.  Viewing pornography actually shapes men’s brains, creating neural pathways designed to speed the brian’s processing of sexual images.  Male brains are already programmed to respond to erotic imagery, but this is about nurture on top of nature:  “Like a path is created in the woods with each successive hiker, so do the neural paths set the course for the next time an erotic image is viewed. Over time these neural paths become wider as they are repeatedly traveled with each exposure to pornography. . . . Repeated exposure to pornography creates a one-way neurological superhighway where a man’s mental life is over-sexualized and narrowed” (p. 85). 

Obviously porn is a tremendous issue:  it’s a growing multi-billion dollar business in the US, thanks in part to its addictive character. Internet access only increases the likelihood of people viewing porn “privately” where there’s little fear of getting caught.  (I’m curious how many more hits than usual this post will get, simply because it contains words like porn.)  Regardless of the lies the entertainment industry produces about it, the truth is that porn is demeaning and violent toward both women and men, it’s destructive to relationships, and – as this book shows –  it even rots the brain.  Struthers chronicles in scientific detail the process described above with the hiking metaphor, especially in the male brain. (Struthers does helpfully distinguish between physiological sex and gender-identity; the scientific portion of the book addresses the physiological male brain, but Struthers does also discuss what constitutes masculinity.)  Succinctly put, for men, indulgence in porn and masturbation is “playing with neurochemical fire.”   

But then what? If porn has a brain-rotting, chemical-fire singing effect, how can this be reversed?  The final chapter, with the promising title “Rewiring and Sanctification” has great ideas, but doesn’t seem to me to go as far as it could in suggesting how one’s mind can be rewired and renewed.  Struthers recommends confession, practices like “chaining” to help identify triggers which cause men to stumble, and the establishment of healthy relationships as ways to rewire the brain. All good things. But I have a question:  if the distorted neural pathways of a porn-addicts mind were created through a dynamic process that  the physical neurology of the brain, won’t even more embodied physical practices be helpful in positively rewiring the brain?  Example: Fasting.  Earlier in the book, on page 92, Struthers notes that the hypothalamus is the part of the brain that directs the body’s three drives: eating, drinking, and sex.  He writes there that “It is important to note that the sexual drive is located in the same region as the centers for eating and drinking.  Thus the sexual/reproductive drive is experienced as a survival need similar to the drive for eating and drinking.”  Obviously one can die from not eating or drinking properly, but a human will never die from lack of sex.  Might physical disciplines like fasting train the brain that it can survive abstaining from a physical drive?

Here’s where I think modern science dovetails beautifully with centuries-old monastic wisdom.  In the fourth century, St. John Cassian wrote about how to fight lustful temptations through fasting: “This harsh struggle has to be fought in both the soul and the body, and not simply in the soul, as is the case with other faults.”  Thus fasting is one of the prescriptions he gives for fighting against lust.  Interestingly, St. Mark the Ascetic – another monk whose work is included after St. John Cassian’s in the Philokalia – systematically describes the psychological processes of sin in ways that parallel the scientific discussion in Struthers’ book.  These stages of temptation for Mark are provocation (a tempting thought popped into my head, but I ignored it), disturbance (I barely thought about the tempting thought), communion (seriously thought about the tempting thought, toyed with it), assent (gave in and indulged in tempting thought, at least mentally), prepossession (have given in so many times that I’m reminded of it even when I don’t want to be), and passion (powerless over the temptation, subject to it, within its control).  These stages are recognizable in Struthers’ discussion of compulsion and addiction to porn. The early monks of the Church were aware mentally of the processes shaping their minds in sin, even without the scientific language to depict it. And, they recommended physical asceticism as a way to assist in retraining the mind.  Perhaps it’s time to do some research on the neural pathways created by spiritual disciplines.

All that said, I think Wired For Intimacy and the resources it recommends will be helpful for anyone wrestling with porn (or counseling, pastoring, or caring for those wrestling with it). Those interested should check out the author’s blog.  May God bless the transformation and renewal of all our minds.