Isobel and me at her baptism at the Holy Wisdom Monastery last Sunday morning.
  • Happy 90th birthday to my dad today.  I got a chance to spend a little time with him and he was talking and doing as well as I have seen him do since his stroke.  Still wobbly (in need of assistance for walking around) and only gets a sentence or two into what he wants to say.  But he was only able to get a couple words out at a time when he first had his stroke.
  • I also saw my mom (recovering at Memorial Hospital) from fluid (an after effect of heart surgery.)  She is also doing much better and we hope she will be able to go home sometime this week.
  • Last Sunday I was in Madison, Wisconsin for the family for Isobel's baptism (see picture at right) at the Holy Wisdom Monastery.  We also celebrated Isobel's first birthday (a week early.)
  • This is my first letter in three weeks.  Two weeks ago Jie and I had a wonderful trip to Yellowstone with 9 Chinese scholars and one nine year old boy (with his scholar mother.)
  • Finished reading a very good novel, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens.  It is a great murder mystery with lots of thoughtful social issues.

September  8, 2019
A Baby, A Grandpa, and a Baptism
Our family has a history of grandpas doing baptisms.   In December of 1954, when I was six month old, I got baptized in the First Evangelical United Brethren Church in Wood River, Illinois by my maternal grandfather, F. Murray Haworth.  We came full circle last Sunday when Isobel Smith Long, almost a year old, got baptized by her maternal grandfather (me!) at the Holy Wisdom Monastery in Madison, Wisconsin.  

I also had the joy of baptizing my daughter Mindy when she was almost three months old and my daughter Alison when she was almost nine months old.
While most baptisms are fun, they usually aren't funny.  And unlike many funerals or weddings, there is seldom anything outrageous that happens at a baptism. On occasion a baby will throw a tantrum, or pee on the pastor...or someone will forget to fill the baptismal font.  And if it is an older person, sometimes the pastor will pull a muscle trying to lift a large convert out of the water.  I once heard about a baptism in an Arkansas river for an ornery teenager who got plunged into the water once for the Father, once for the Son, and when the preacher put him under the third time for the Holy Spirit, the kid had enough, escaped, and swam away...never to attend church again.

And then there was the time I baptized a baby with water I had brought back from the Jordan River (in a Sprite bottle).  I mistakenly left the bottle in the church kitchen during the worship service...where it got poured into the punch bowl for the baptismal reception.
Christians have been getting baptized since New Testament times.  It is most certainly a more humane ritual than circumcision for denoting one's entrance into the family of faith.  Plus, it is more gender inclusive.  
Various denominations have, of course, found ways to argue over baptism.  Should we sprinkle, pour, or dunk to get the job done?  Should you be old enough to consent in order to get baptized?  Are you going to hell if you  don't  get baptized?  Christianity has a history of grand debates over those questions, and other questions...and even occasional hostilities.  
But there are almost never hostilities present at any particular baptism.  Only joy, deep emotion, and resolve.  
There are four essential elements in any baptism:  water, words, actions, and community.  The water may be from a bowl, a font, a fountain, a tub, a river, or even an ocean. The words consist naming the person to be baptized and then saying, "I baptize you" in the name of God. The action includes whatever it takes to get the person wet enough to satisfy the church authorities.  And the community consists of those who are gathered around the baptized, praying for them and pledging their love, faith, and nurture.
Methodists and Catholics and Lutherans have a few peculiar takes on baptism that are not generally shared by Baptists or Pentecostals or so-called non-denominational churches. We believe that baptism is primarily a sign of God's love:  God's gift of a community to the baptized person.  In baptism, we see a signs of faith, a gift that begins to shape us from the first days of our lives.  Therefore, we baptize people from the very beginning, as babies.  We also believe that you will NOT go to hell if you are not baptized.  And we believe that you should not be re-baptized...since baptism is an act of God, it isn't God who needs a do-over (re-baptism) but us.  If anything needs to be redone, it would be  our  conversion, rededication, or commitment.  And in such cases, it is far more important to have a long follow-through than a splashy ritual.  We would no more think of re-baptizing a person than we would making them go through a courthouse citizenship ceremony if they were already born here.  
Someone asked if it felt special that I got to baptize my own granddaughter.  And it did.  But the thing that most caught my emotion last week was the community at the monastery that gathered around us when we baptized Isobel.  

It is a community that I have known for three decades.  I started going there on pilgrimage back when I was in my thirties.  The sisters, Joanne, Mary David, and Lynn have welcomed me once or twice a year, sharing the hospitality of the guest house.  They have included me in their worship and prayers, and shared more kindness with me than I deserve.  

The sisters of the monastery also gather an assembly to worship each Sunday morning, made up of people from all denominations and perspectives.  The operative idea at the Holy Wisdom Monastery is "community," acceptance of one another no matter what.  Nearly everyone who assembles there feels such freedom and grace that there is no need to hide the fact that every one of them is a misfit, a sincere misfit.  
Isobel and her parents live only a few minutes from the monastery, and that is where they have been attending Sunday worship for several months now.  

One-year old Isobel is now the monastery's newest misfit. And I know from my long association and love of this community, that this little misfit will fit right in.  After all, the  real  body of Christ on this earth is where  all  God's children have a place, whatever uniqueness they may possess.


 The Sunday letter is something I have done now for over 20 years.  It is a disciplined musing:  mindfulness, memory, and imagination.  I write it when I first wake up on a Sunday morning and then share it with the congregation.  The letter you see published here is usually revised from what the congregation receives.  This discipline of thinking and writing puts me in the place of describing rather than advising.  It prepares me to proclaim the gospel rather than get preachy with the souls who will sit before me.  --JMS


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