Celebrating the Risen Savior

cropped-caravaggio.jpgBy Joe LaGuardia

Religion has been in the news lately.  ISIS is marching across the Middle East decimating thousands of lives while recruiting thousands a day. A religious liberty law in Indiana recently clogged the news cycle.  An HBO documentary scrutinized the church of Scientology, if that can be considered a religion at all.

A few weekends ago, churches were packed with people who wanted to be present for Easter.  It is, for many, a religious observance.  For others, it is a family obligation.

Truth is, we have just enough religion to be comfortable.  We have just enough religion to make us care about our causes, attend church a few times a year, and check the “I Believe in God” box on surveys.

In some cases, we can live up to the old saying by Jonathon Swift: “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough religion to make us love one another.”

Our Christian faith is more than a religion, however.  We don’t attend church or have a nice, family Easter meal because we celebrate a religion.  We do so because we celebrate a Risen Savior.

We believers serve a living Lord, a King of all kings, and a God who is not a name among other religious names, but the Name above all names.

Perhaps we only live our lives with a marginal sense of religiosity because we’ve fooled ourselves into thinking we are Christians.  We adhere to the religion of our upbringing and consider ourselves a “religious voter,” but having a relationship with Jesus Christ, who lives with us today, is not on the agenda.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my religion.  I love rituals, too.  Just as brushing my teeth daily keeps me healthy, so too does going through the religious motions keep my faith fresh even when it threatens to go stale.

My relationship with Jesus is the only life-giving source of my religion because that relationship is actually what saves and sustains me.  Ours is a faith not of some stuffy creeds or sacred texts hidden in the vaults of time; ours is a faith of sacrifice to the Living Lamb of God.

Jesus once said, “I came that my disciples may have life, and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).  This life of abundance and redemption is predicated on believing in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul wrote, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (10:9).

But believing in a religion is not enough.  In fact, you can believe in anything you want.  Atheists believe that there is no god.  The Bible says that, “Even the demons believe and tremble” (James 2:19).

When you believe in a real, living person, however, belief must translate into trust.

Several children in my community of faith (some families who attend Crosspoint Church, and some at Trinity Baptist), including my son, were baptized in the last few weeks.  Despite, their age, they know in their hearts that they love and believe in Jesus.

But their baptism is only a beginning for them. It is like a wedding day that launches a life-long journey of faith, hope, and love.

More significantly, it is a journey in which belief must become trust, and aspiration into concrete hope in a living, loving God.

When I got married to my wife, we were young–20 and 21 years of age.  We believed in our marriage, vows, and commitment to one another.  We went through the religious routine that accompany weddings.  But trust?  That came with time–in learning one another’s habits and preferences, in caring deeply for each other even in the midst of hard times, and in giving our life for the sake of the other.

In a day when religion is prevalent and people who believe in something are a dime a dozen, we who serve a Risen Savior must live as resurrected people who can prove that we not only believe in God, but trust God too.

The Magic of Baptism

Nerves taking hold!

By Emily Holladay

“Can I just put my toe in real quick?” the girls squeaked as we waited behind the baptistry for the service to begin. Nervous energy invaded the space between each of us and the girls wanted to do something… anything to feel prepared.

With a twinkle in my eye and a knowing smile on my face, I replied, “Yes, but just your toe and don’t let anyone see you.”

“Oh! Miss Emily – it’s so warm! It feels so good. Did you feel it? You have to come feel it!”

I didn’t feel it. As the girls ran in succession to get closer to the water, I backed further away. Because the closer I was to the water – the more I could feel the humidity rising through each strand of my hair – the more I could sense the magic and wonder of the cleansing waters calling out to me.

Today, I will stand in those waters as God’s chosen vessel, welcoming three young girls into the body of Christ. Today, I will lead in the ritual that all ministers love to do and none get to nearly enough. Today, I will be bonded to three beautiful, innocent, eager children forever.

But, as I look at the water, I am scared out of my mind. I was 7-years-old the last time I stood in front of a sanctuary full of people soaked in water. Twenty years have passed since that day and now I am on the other side.

When I was 7, my dad stood beside me, holding me up and guiding me into the waters. His arm kept me steady as I became submerged, kicking my feet up (even thought he told me not to).

Twenty years later, my dad is not here, and I am the one called to stand beside these jittery young ladies as their robes absorb the warm water and their eyes take in the number of faces staring back at them – many with tear stained eyes. I am the one who will rub their back as their little fingers shake and their stomachs turn to knots. And I will be the one to hold them steady as they lean back and take the plunge into the holy waters of baptism.

When they come back up, I will be the first face they see, smiling back at them, reminding them of God’s words just for them, “You Morgan. You Lily. You Carli – are my child whom I love. With you, I am well pleased.”

Some people will tell you that there’s no magic in the water – that we’re Baptist, so it’s just a symbol. But, today, as I creep toward the water, hesitant to stick my toe in and claim my role as God’s minister, I know those people are wrong.

Baptist or not, there is magic in those waters, and I know because I can see it in the eyes of three little girls who are as eager as they are nervous. I know because I sense it in the pride of the community gathered in the sanctuary, knowing that in this moment, these three girls join them on a journey that transcends generations.

I know that there is magic in the water, because I feel it in the presence of the saints like Amanda and Madison, Kim and Mike, Truett and Ernie, and all those who have entered the water before as baptized and baptizer alike.

This water is full of magic, and as I dip my toe, foot, ankle, leg, and body down the stairs and into the pool, I feel the hand of God resting on my back, holding me up and guiding me through the water. I know that my Father God is standing beside me, just as my own dad stood firmly planted to my left those 20-years-ago, and more than ever before, I am aware of my ordination and my calling to be God’s messenger and to share God’s story for such a time as this.

The Reverend Emily Holladay is an ordained Baptist Minister and author from Decatur, Georgia.  This article is reprinted with permission.  It first appeared under the title, “There is Magic in the Water,” on Rev. Holladay’s blog, Rev On the Edge.

Conversion is a Baptist’s cup of tea, fraught with diverse theologies

I.

I guess you can say that we Baptists have a love affair with conversions.  Audacious, Damascus-road conversions.  If someone comes up to you on the street and asks if you’re saved, I’ll bet my Bible he’s a Baptist.  To this day, despite the fact that I’m in the ministry, I still have Baptist pastors–“preacher men,” I call them–ask me if I’m saved.

You might think its offensive to ask a pastor that question; but, in these parts of the South, a conversion or salvation experience is what separates the Christians from everyone else.  You might also think that the answer is an easy yes.  Wrong again. For a guy like me, who grew up as a Christian mutt, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

II.

The Baptist love affair with conversions isn’t new.  Conversions became a litmus test for faith around the turn of the twentieth century, when tent revivals inspired believers to get right with God.

“If you were to die tonight,” the preacher man yelled, “Are you sure you’d go to heaven?”  It was a question that would make Jonathon Edwards proud.

The goal of revivalist preaching was to cast a shadow of doubt upon a person’s eternal security.  Only the people who reached “the age of accountability” can choose to follow Christ; church upbringing or infant baptism did not insure salvation.  “Walking the aisle,” writes Baptist historian Bill Leonard, “replaced baptism as public profession of faith.”*  Jesus must be one’s personal Savior.  Choose, or have that shadow darken your life forever.

Not everyone agreed with this line of thinking.  As revivalism spread, many theologians deemed the movement too sensational.  Mainline churches and liberals in particular argued that emotional conversion experiences were not adequate to raise a person in faith.  Salvation must accompany a process of baptism, discipleship, sanctification, and education.*

Furthermore, infants and children were saved and baptized because their parents raised them in the womb of the church.  After all, the Bible does say that Cornelius’ entire household got baptized when he believed in the Gospel, a household that likely included children of various ages (Acts 10).

Theologians also questioned how revivalists read the Bible. Saul’s Damascus road experience (Acts 9:1-15), which became the model for revivalist conversion theology, is not about conversion at all.  When he met Christ in a blinding light, Saul did not convert from one religion to another.  He was Jewish before and after the event; the only difference was his new-found conviction that Jesus was God’s messiah.

The schism between revivalists and mainline theologians created confusion over the nature of conversion and, eventually, the substance of salvation.  Is salvation a one-time event or a process?  Jesus told his followers to enter the narrow door and walk the narrow road (Matthew 7:13-14).  So what is it: a door or a road?

Thankfully, this schism has evolved over time, and many Christians have a more nuanced approach to conversion.  My own journey of faith attests to the confusion that results from this evolution, as well as the way people see conversion differently these days.  If anything, my life’s story sheds light on the importance of holding both views–conversion as a process and as a one-time event–together in a balanced, creative tension.

III.

I grew up in a Christian household.  My parents were reared in the Catholic church, but they insisted on “getting saved” at a conservative evangelical church in New York shortly after I was born.  When I was young, I just assumed that I was a Christian too.

As I was entering middle school–a very important time of religious discovery in a person’s life–we moved to Florida and started attending a Southern Baptist Church.  There, I heard the Gospel call of the preacher man for the first time:

“Little Brother,” he said, “Did you ask Jesus into your heart, because if you don’t you won’t be saved.”

“I grew up going to church, Sir,” I said, shifting uncomfortably in my seat, “My parents are Christian.”

“Makes no difference where you grew up if you haven’t asked Jesus in your heart.”  The preacher man bent down and leaned on one knee, his breathing labored from carrying his weight that low to the ground. “Do you want Jesus in your heart today?”

I was not sure how to answer, and the preacher man was quite convincing.  I walked the aisle and said a “sinner’s prayer” to make sure my destiny was sealed in heaven.

Despite this decision, I still had my doubts.  I kept a tract in my bedroom so that when those doubts arose or I had sinned in some way, I would simply flip to the last page and say the prayer all over again.  This was a confusing time.  I thought I had been a Christian all of my life; now I wasn’t so sure.

This confusion created an acute guilt that haunted me throughout adolescence.  I resisted baptism when asked because I still wasn’t sure whether I was a child of God.

In high school and college, I moved my membership to a Presbyterian church that provided a more positive picture of the Christian life.  The youth group was affirming and encouraged participation in missions, ministry, and social justice.  While there, I decided to go into ministry, and I couldn’t be a minister if I hadn’t been baptized.  So, finally, my youth pastor baptized me in the lake behind the church building.  It was an emotional event although we did it on some random day of the week without my parents present.   Witnesses consisted of only a half-dozen close friends.

I entered seminary immediately after college and pursued ministry in Baptist life.  I decided to go Baptist because they championed soul competency.  That, and I never understood Reformed theology anyway, so how could I make for a good Presbyterian preacher man?

IV.

Going back to Baptist life was not easy.  My inner spiritual war, with all of its guilt and doubt, reared its ugly head once again.  I became anxious; my wife became annoyed.  Things were uncertain.  I asked a lot of questions: Was I really “saved” since I never had a Damascus road experience?  Did I love Jesus as much as those preacher men did if I didn’t insist on telling everyone I met about Him?

Fortunately, the seminary was progressive enough to welcome a more nuanced definition of conversion.  Salvation, it seemed, can indeed happen via a one-time event or as a process over a long period of time.  In fact, there was such a nonchalant attitude about conversion at the seminary, I started to wonder whether salvation was even necessary to get into heaven in the first place.  When I posed this to my wife, she said I was going too far.  She was right.

V.

The Baptist church I attended, the very one that eventually called me to be its pastor, also honored both views of conversion.  In theology and theory, one may be saved over a long period of time, even from very young.  In practice, the church insists on keeping an “invitation” in worship every Sunday to give people the chance to respond immediately to God’s call to repent and walk the aisle if necessary.

Studying the history of conversion is one thing, but to preach in a Baptist church that does an invitation week after week is another. I honed my theology of conversion in this precarious context.  After all, I needed some way to answer those preacher men in our community who insisted on questioning my salvation.

How do you explain to an enthusiastic preacher man that your conversion didn’t happen in one, tidy experience?  Do you make an appointment to take the time and explain the whole thing?

If anything, a true conversion is living (and, at times, surviving) through a series of cycles that include orientation, disorientation, and reorientation.  Those terms aren’t original to me, but they certainly sum up the narrative flow of my entire life.  Orientation occurs when you think you have it all together.  Then, all of a sudden, disorientation: Mystery interrupts your life.  A dark night of the soul may prevail for one evening, one season, or, in some cases, an entire year.

Reorientation happens when you start to put the pieces of your life back together again, and you realize that the thing you put together looks nothing like what it was before.  There is no going back.

In other words, conversion is more like being married than deciding to marry.  Asking my wife to marry me was the easy part; it’s the staying married part that requires daily commitment and sacrifice.

I could explain all of this, but it’s not as dramatic as some evangelists prefer.  Half-way through the conversation, they might start fidgeting and wondering where Jesus is in all of this.  Preachers love their Jesus, and they love it when people meet Jesus in one explosive encounter.  I am sorry to disappoint.

At best, my life is filled with not one but many conversion experiences.  There was my conversion from childhood to adulthood, when my faith became my own.  There was conversion from being somewhat of a culture-warrior bigot to inclusive advocate who befriends “misfits” who are socially marginalized.  There was my conversion from one political party to another when I found out that Jesus did care about how I voted.

I had a powerful conversion experience about seven years ago when my daughter was born and I realized my life was no longer my own.  Her birth and my son’s birth shortly thereafter gave a new meaning to some words we Baptists sing every now and then: “There is power, power, wonder-working power in the precious blood…”*  Holding a newborn baby gives new meaning to being “baptized” by water and blood.

VI.

Recently, I was cleaning out a bookshelf when I found a small envelope my mother had given me about a year ago.  She said it was my dedication certificate, so I thought it was from that evangelical church of my childhood.  I put it aside to look at later, but it must have gotten misplaced over the months.

When I opened the envelope, I quickly realized that it wasn’t a dedication record.  It was a baptism certificate.  I got baptized in the Catholic church one month after I was born.

I called my mother and asked her about it.  Apparently, my parents were visiting the evangelical church while I was a baby, but still maintained ties to the Catholic church.   They baptized me Catholic just in case that whole “getting saved” stuff at the evangelical church was a fluke.

Here, in my hand, was the proof that God did indeed seal me as His child even before I could remember, or doubt for that matter.  My whole life’s faith journey flashed before my eyes.  Mine was a difficult road, but I had already decided long ago that I would turn this whole, harrowing wrestling match with conversion into something positive for other Christians.

As for me, I’m just glad I can answer those preachers once and for all:

“Are you saved, Brother?” the preacher man will ask.

“Yes,” I will say with boldness, “I was saved on April 16, 1978, when my Catholic brothers and sisters baptized me at The Church of the Holy Family, Staten Island, New York.”

It won’t take all day to explain that, and it will do just fine.  Just fine indeed.

Sources:

*(1) Bill Leonard, “Southern Baptists and Conversion: An Evangelical Sacramentalism,” in Ties That Bind: Life Together in the Baptist Vision, ed. Gary Furr and Curtis Freeman (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 1994), 17.

*(2) James Reed, “Horace Bushnell, Spiritual Formation, and Conversion,” in Ties That Bind: Life Together in the Baptist Vision, ed. Gary Furr and Curtis Freeman (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 1994), see pp. 49-55.

*(3) “There Is Power in the Blood.”  Words and music by Lewis E. Jones.