Monday, August 22, 2011

The Response of Faith (Baptismal Covenant, part 3)

(continued from here)

The Book of Common Prayer talks about Covenant as well. The story of Abram and the firepot puts our biblical understanding of covenant in the realm of God's unilateral grace. What understanding does the Prayer Book have?

The BCP makes a distinction between the Covenant God has made and the covenant we make with God and with one another

In response to the question, "What is meant by a covenant with God?" the Catechism responds, "A covenant is a relationship initiated by God, to which a body of people responds in faith" (BCP, 846).

There are two movements in this answer. The first is the relationship initiated by God. This aspect of covenant we have already seen in the story of Abram and the firepot. The second is our response in faith. The first is God's movement towards us. The second is our movement towards God. But, the Catechism does not say that the Covenant is both of these movements. No, "a covenant is a relationship initiated by God." We respond to the gracious, unilateral covenant in faith.

The Catechism distinguishes between the Old and New Covenants, but it maintains God's gracious, unilateral movement in each. Any talk of a Baptismal Covenant falls squarely under the rubric of the New Covenant, however.

Q. What is the New Covenant?
A. The New Covenant is the new relationship with God given by Jesus Christ, the Messiah, to the apostles; and through them, to all who believe in him (BCP, 850).

This gracious, unilateral movement of God towards us in Christ demands a response. The response that Christ requires is summarized in the Catechism by the Summary of the Law (You shall love the Lord your God… and You shall love your neighbor as yourself) and the New Commandment (Love one another as Christ loved us) (BCP, 851).

The New Covenant is God's gracious movement towards us (and our human response towards God) in Christ. Our response in faith  is lived out in the Summary of the Law and the New Commandment. The Baptismal Covenant found in the Book of Common Prayer is nothing more than an exegesis of these two responses to the New Covenant of grace. In other words, the Baptismal Covenant gives us nothing more than can be 'proved' from Holy Scripture. Even if the Episcopal Church did not express the Baptismal Covenant in the way they do, the same ordinances are incumbent upon all Christians. Formalizing a minimum standard of discipleship in this way adds nothing to what Christ our Lord himself demanded of his followers. If anything, it helps us along the way.

The Baptismal Covenant consists of eight questions and answers. The first three comprise the Apostles' Creed. They are "Do you believe?" questions. The remaining five are about the Christian life. They are "Will you do?" questions.

Questions 1-2 outline Christianity's 'portable narrative.' This is the story that Christ followers believe about the past so that they can follow Christ in the present. Following Christ in the present is the theme of the remaining questions, each of which characterizes the baptized life by a different but interrelated aspect. The baptized life is the life of the Spirit (q. 3-4), the life of Proclamation (q. 5-6), and the life of Service (q. 7-8). In abstraction, we might say that the baptized life is the life of Spirit-empowered Witness.

In the next installment, we will discuss articles 1-2.

Monday, August 08, 2011

The Baptismal Covenant, Part 2

Photo by Billy Alexander
Several weeks ago, I started a series on the Baptismal Covenant, found starting on p. 304 of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Today, I want to continue our discussion around the idea of covenant. This week we will explore a biblical image of God's covenant making. Next week, we will talk about the way the Baptismal Covenant is portrayed in the Book of Common Prayer.

Abram and the Firepot

Genesis 15 contains a curious story. In Genesis 12, God called Abram out of Ur of the Chaldeans. Genesis 13 sees Abram parting ways with Lot. In Genesis 14, Abram goes to war to rescue Lot and afterwards is blessed by the enigmatic prophet-king Melchizedek. Genesis 15 sees Abram receiving a vision from the Lord.

God promises Abram many things, including descendants as numerous as the stars. When Abram asks how he will know that he will possess it, the really strange stuff begins.

God asks Abram to bring a heifer, a goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon. Abram cuts them in two and places them across from one another; a bloody path lies between. This was a customary way to seal a covenant between two parties. They would walk among the pieces as they made the deal, essentially saying "If I don't hold up my end, let it be to me as it is to these animals."

But God does not let Abram walk through the pieces. Abram falls into a deep sleep, and a firepot and a torch passed between the pieces. "On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, 'To your descendants, I give this land …' (Gen 15:18)." It is as if God says, "You and I are in this covenant, but I take full responsibility for it, both for you and for all generations."

I've heard this called God's 'unconditional' covenant. I don't think this is quite fair. God's expectation is "Walk before me and be perfect," and the OT is full of God threatening through the prophets to remove the covenant from Israel. The covenant carries blessings and curses. It is a dreadful thing to be in covenant with God, as the name "Israel," "the one who struggles with God," attests. But, even if the covenant is not unconditional, it is at least unilateral. It is God's desire to establish covenant with humanity. There is a willing human partner, but God does not meet Abram halfway. God comes all the way to Abram and pitches his tent with the children of Israel. God graciously moves toward humanity, and this movement is unilateral, full of promise and life. It makes a people where there was no people.

If the Baptismal Covenant is meaningful in the broad sweep of the biblical narrative, then it must be meaningful in relationship to this, the establishment of the Old Covenant, as well as the living out of the New Covenant inaugurated in Jesus Christ. Next post, we will explore the way the Book of Common Prayer talks about Covenant, and the relationship of the Baptismal Covenant to the Old and New Covenants attested in Scripture.

Monday, August 01, 2011

I help people talk to God

Photo by Steve Todey

"What do you do?"

Notice that when people ask you what you do, they are asking about an action, not an identity statement.

We all know this awkward conversation:

"So, what do you do?"
"I'm an accountant."
"Oh, ummmm. What do accountants do?"

Claiming an identity in response to a question about activity can shut down a conversation. Conversations are like a friendly match of volleyball. Both sides take turns hitting the ball back and forth over the net. They're not trying to score points, just spending time together. In the situation above, responding with "I'm an accountant" interrupts this friendly game with a surprise spike. It leaves your conversation partner diving and scrambling to return the ball.

In the book, How to Talk to Anyone, the author Leil Lowndes suggests a course of action for this dinner party stock question. She calls it the "Nutshell résumé."

A nutshell résumé is designed to answer the "What do you do?" question straight-on while giving your conversation partner something to latch onto. It deposits information into the conversation and gives the other person a lot of time, space, and options in returning the ball.

"I’m an accountant" could become "I help individuals survive tax day," or "I keep my company financially honest," or even, "I help people hide their money." Any of these are better for small talk than "I'm an accountant."

Turning now to the priesthood. If "I'm an accountant" can maim a conversation, then "I'm a priest" shoves it out an airlock into the cold heart of space. What are some options for nutshell résumés for priests?

Here's a list of possibilities:
  • I help people find God
  • I introduce people to God
  • I help people thrive
  • I help people find who they really are
  • I help people live in tune with the earth
  • I help people live in tune with the world
  • I help people live in tune with God
  • I introduce people to Jesus Christ
  • I'm a spiritual midwife
  • I lead people to the throne of God
  • I help people discover the secret of the world

Each of these has its own resonances. All of them are true in their own way, and they each provide different options for expanding the conversation.

But, I finally alighted upon something else entirely: "I help people talk to God."

Priests help people talk to God. We do. It's wrongheaded to think that people have to come to us to talk to God. We're coaches. We come alongside our parishioners to equip them to be the royal priests that God has called them to be in their secular vocations.

And think of the ways that a stranger might take that answer. "Oh, how do you do that?" "Which God is that?" "What kind of people can talk to God?" "What set you on that course?" "Can you help me talk to God?" Any direction the conversation goes from there is evangelism of one sort or another. Any conversation that follows is an opportunity to invite a new acquaintance further into your life, which is hidden with Christ in God.

I can hardly wait until my next cocktail party so that I can try it out.

Are you a minister? How do you introduce yourself at parties?