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Signs of the Times  •  6 January 2017  •  No. 103

Processional. “And my Lord, He said unto me / Do you like my garden so pure / You may live in this garden, if you keep the waters clean / And I'll return in the cool of the day.” —“Now is the Cool of the Day,” Kathy Mattea, performed by Coope, Boyes & Simpson

Above: Izvorul Bigăr (Bigar Waterfall) is among the most unusual waterfalls on earth, not because of its size or water volume but because of its shape. It is located in Cheile Nerei-Beușnița National Park of the Anina Mountains in southwest Romania, on the upper Anina River.

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Introduction. Among my treasured fatherly memories is the baptism of our oldest daughter on Easter morning, 1986. Nancy and I performed the ritual together in worship after having climbed Stone Mountain in Georgia to watch the sun rise. (See the photo below.)

        Truth is, I think a lot about baptism—as the several excerpts below attest. In fact, I believe a renewal of baptismal covenant, a return to baptismal integrity, is the believing community’s greatest need.

        Unfortunately, conflict over baptism—who gets it, when, by what means, and in accordance to what wording—is among the church’s most contentious internal debates, literally at the cost of bloodshed on occasion. —continue reading Ken Sehested’s “Shall we gather at the river? A reflection on baptismal integrity

Invocation.Shall We Gather At the River,” Anonymous 4.

¶”Concerning baptism, baptize in this way: after speaking all these words, baptize into the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in living [flowing] water. If you do not have living water, baptize in other water; if you are not able in cold water, in warm. If you do not have either, pour water on the head three times into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” —from the Didache [“teaching”] of the Twelve Apostles, a brief early Christian treatise dated by most scholars to the late first or early 2nd century.

Call to worship. “We thank you for the promise that one day justice will flow like the waters, righteousness like / an everflowing stream. We thank you for creating us / in the watery womb of our mothers and for recreating us in the watery womb of baptism.” —continue reading Ken & Nancy Hastings Sehested’s “Water of Life: A baptismal prayer

¶ “I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn’t work that way. So I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness.” —Emo Philips

The General Introduction of the Roman Catholic Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) states: “As the rite for baptizing, either immersion, which is more suitable as a symbol of participation in the death and resurrection of Christ, or pouring may lawfully be used” (no. 22).” —Msgr. M. Francis Mannion, “Baptism by immersion is a post-Vatican II development,” Catholic News Agency

Hymn of praise.Down By the Riverside,” Playing for Change.

¶ “When the convert emerges from the water, the world seems changed. The world has not changed, it is always wonderful and horrible, iniquitous and filled with beauty. But now, after baptism, the eyes that see the world have changed.” ―Liturgy Training Publications

Immediately after baptism in the Jordan River, Jesus wandered out into the wilderness. This region, east of Jerusalem, is called “Jeshimmon” elsewhere in the Older Testament, which in Hebrew means “the Desolation.” This is land where the sand blisters, a land of crumbling limestone and jagged rocks. The terrain runs downhill to the south where the Dead Sea is located.

      The shore of the Dead Sea is the lowest point of dry land on the face of the earth—some 1,300 feet down. And the bottom of the sea floor is nearly a half-mile below sea level. In other words, the region to which Jesus went was as low as it gets. Only from such a location can illusions disappear.

Confession. “Paul Ricouer wrote: ‘If you want to change people's obedience then you must change their imagination.’ My overriding passion is to insist that recovery of baptismal integrity is the Christian community’s most urgent political task.” —continue reading Ken Sehested’s “Wade in the water: Baptism as political mandate

¶ “Simple, powerful, poignant, the Sign of the Cross is a mnemonic device like the Mass, in which we sit down to table with one another and remember the Last Supper, or a baptism, where we remember John the Baptist's brawny arm pouring some of the Jordan River over Christ. So we remember the central miracle and paradox of the faith that binds us each to each: that we believe, against all evidence and sense, in life and love and light, in the victory of those things over death and evil and darkness.” ―Brian Doyle, Credo: Essays on Grace, Altar Boys, Bees, Kneeling, Saints, the Mass, Priests, Strong Women, Epiphanies, a Wake, and the Haun

Hymn of lamentation. “Trouble In the Water,” Common, Malik Yusef, Kumasi ft. Aaron Fresh, Choklate, Laci Kay.

¶ “On the occasion of my baptism, a friend wrote: ‘Try to remember deliberately once a day that you were and are baptized, that your life is underwritten by God and that in a sense this grandest position in life has already been achieved. You can never go higher than simple baptism. In a sense, this is a release from striving. What was sought for long and hard has not been found, it has found you.’ —Ellen Charry, “Sacraments for the Christian Life”

Role reversals in ecclesial traditions? “The lure of power and success seem an easy, quick way to spread the Gospel; we soon forget how the Kingdom of God works,” said Roman Catholic Pontiff Francis in a 20 November 2016 mass with over 200 cardinals and bishops. There was a time when my ana/baptist ancestors said the same.

Words of assurance. “There will be a shining river / There for you and there for me / There will be a sweet forever / There we will meet, and we will sing / Glory hallelujahs . . . / In that land of sorrowfree.” —Kate Campbell, “Sorrowfree"

Left: "Jesus' baptism,"

Professing our faith. “Christianity is about water: ‘Everyone who thirsteth, come ye to the waters.’ It is about baptism, for God’s sake. It’s about full immersion, about falling into something elemental and wet. Most of what we do in worldly life is geared toward our staying dry, looking good, not going under. But in baptism, in lakes and rain and tanks and fonts, you agree to do something that’s a little sloppy because at the same time it’s also holy, and absurd. It’s about surrender, giving in to all those things we can’t control; it’s a willingness to let go of the balance and decorum and get drenched.” —Anne Lamott

¶ “Baptism separates the tire kickers from the car buyers.” —Max Lucado

Hymn of intercession. “Troublesome waters, much blacker than night, / Are hiding from view, the harbour's bright light. / Tossed on the turmoil of life's troubled sea, / I cried to my Saviour: ‘Have mercy on me.’”—Iris Dement, “Troublesome Waters

¶ “The only way we shall break [with the world’s allure] is to be transferred to another dominion, to be cut loose from our old certainties, to be thrust under the flood and then pulled forth fresh and newborn. Baptism takes us there.” —William Willimon, Bread and Wine

When only the blues will do.Deep River,” Samford A Cappella Choir. (Thanks Jon.)

Short take. In its variant practices with regards to baptism—and in its best moments—the church has always attempted to say two important things about God’s redemptive work in the world.

      First, that the initiative of grace is God’s, not our own. We are not self-sufficient, nor are we self-generated. Those who argue for infant baptism—have (in their best moments) emphasized this reality, along with the insistence that faith is communally-formed. . . .

      Second, for a relationship to thrive it must be mutual. The Radical Reformers’ “believers’ baptism” tradition began not as an argument over how much water was necessary. The argument centered around this controversial assertion: Membership in the State and membership in the Church are not the same thing. Being a citizen is not the same as being a Christian. They argued that, in the New Testament, the decision to “follow” Jesus very often involved a rupture of social life, even a conflict with ruling authorities. —continue reading Ken Sehested’s “Baptism: ‘Infant’ or ‘believer’s” style?

Hymn of commitment. “Oh, I wanna come near and give ya / Every part of me / But there is blood on my hands / And my lips aren’t clean / Take me to your river / I wanna go / Go on, / Take me to your river / I wanna know.” —Leon Bridges, “River

¶  “You know it’s a real salvation when Baptists use cold water.” ―Jared Brock, A Year of Living Prayerfully: How a Curious Traveler Met the Pope, Walked on Coals, Danced with Rabbis, and Revived His Prayer Life

Preach it. “‘Dost thou renounce Satan, and all his Angels, and all his works, and all his services, and all his pride . . . ?’ The first act of the Christian life is a renunciation, a challenge. No one can be Christ's until he has, first, faced evil, and then become ready to fight it. How far is this spirit from the way in which we often proclaim, or to use a more modern term, ‘sell’ Christianity today!” ―Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy

Can’t makes this sh*t up. “When Trump takes over, take precautions [when traveling] abroad: Dressing in darker colors, being considerate of local customs can help you avoid trouble.” —headline of USA Today travel columnist Christopher Elliott

Right: Nancy Hastings Sehested performing baptisms on Easter Sunday at the men's maximum-security prison in Marion, NC.

Call to the table. Pious adoration of the table, the water and the cross—along with scrupulous barriers erected to "protect" them from the unwashed, and even greater barriers for those authorized to administer these acts—have always been effective means of exempting us from enlistment in the real-life struggles to which those vision-shaping, life-altering rituals direct. We get to parsing the syntax of the delivery system and forget all about the payload.

¶ “It is a long baptism into the seas of humankind, my daughter. Better immersion than to live untouched.” —Tillie Olsen

One of the most chilling cinematic episodes in the history of film (and brutal judgment on the church’s baptismal practice) is from Francis Ford Cappola’s The Godfather, of the baptism of Michael Corleone’s child, mixed with footage of assassinations of the Corleones’ rival mob bosses. (5:01 video)

For the beauty of the earth. “God turns a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. / ¡Aguas viva! / When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you. / ¡Aguas viva!—continue reading Ken Sehested’s “Living water: A litany for worship

Altar call. ". . . faith [is] a habitual confidence given us by Another in whose hands we can relax. . . . It means that what causes us to belong is a pattern of desire produced in us by someone we cannot see who is giving us the strength to live in the midst of this world as though death were not. And the access to this faith is desire: that we should want the gift of eternal life. It is the giving to us of this desire which we normally celebrate with that inverted religious rite called baptism.” —James Alison, Broken Hearts & New Creations: Intimations of a Great Reversal

Benediction. As Episcopalian theologian William Stringfellow suggested, for those on the Jesus Road every issue is an issue of baptism, because the issue of baptism is about questions of power.  With our confidence in the Resurrection—God’s power over the realm of death—we can risk much, because we are safe. Not even death can take away anything important. This is the secret of our freedom and our joy. Nothing frightens imperial agents of any sort more than free, fearless people.

¶ Recessional. “Wade in the Water,” Blind Boys of Alabama.

Just for fun.Professional Domino Artist” (yes, evidently, that’s a thing) spends 25 hours over 8 days building a triple spiral structure of 15,000 dominoes. It takes a full 2 minutes to collapse. (Thanks Hope.)

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Featured this week on prayer&politiks

• “Shall we gather at the river?a reflection on baptismal integrity

• “Water of Life,” a baptismal prayer

• “Wade in the water: Baptism as political mandate

• “Living water,” a litany for worship

• “Baptism: ‘Infant’ or ‘believer’s” style?

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