Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Not a Tame Lion, part 1

I grew up in a deeply religious family, although they would have denied being religious, because in the Baptist church we attended, as in others like it, "religion" was a bad word. "I'm not religious," we learned to say, "I just love the Lord."

We didn't repeat prayers out of a book. That would be "vain repetition as the heathen." Even repeating the Lord's prayer didn't count as a "real" prayer. We learned that Jesus gave it to us as a sort of outline for making up our own prayers, but didn't mean for us to literally repeat His words as our own. I guess that would be plaigarisim. We crafted our heartfelt prayers on the fly, which made them real, although they did tend to follow the same patterns and be built from the same collection of stock phrases.

"Tradition" was another bad word. We had a strong tradition of not having any traditions that we were aware of. We had certain ways of doing things; we did them that way over and over, with little variation, and woe to anyone who joined our group and tried to change them (or, being unaware of them, blundered out of bounds) but that's not the same thing.

I remember being shocked the first time I visited a church that had Sunday School after the worship service. Can you do that? They didn't even take an offering. There was a box (padlocked, of course) by the door, and you dropped your offering through the slot in the top. After attending that church for several years, I happened to be out of town one Sunday morning, and visited another church. The pastor called some men up front, one of them said a money blessing, the organist played some mood music, and they circulated through the pews collecting money. After several years of not seeing that procedure, man, did it look tacky!

We didn't have rituals either. Actually, we always said we didn't have empty rituals. Those words usually went together, and it was strongly implied that there was no other kind. We had baptism and the Lord's Supper because, well, because Jesus said to, and we did them very solemnly, like a funeral. But we went to great lengths to explain that they were only symbols, with no power in themselves. (We also went to great lengths to explain that when Jesus said wine, he didn't really mean wine, but grape juice, because wine contains alcohol, and we were convinced that drinking alcohol was a sin. And if Jesus drank wine, it was only because he didn't have the good fortune to be born in the days of refrigeration, so it was the best He could do. But He probably drank the weakest wine available.)

Before partaking of either baptism or the Lord's Supper, you had to say the appropriate prayer, but the power wasn't in the words of the prayer, either, it was in somehow getting your heart right with God. Once you cleaned up your dirty mind and straightened up your crooked or slipshod ways, you could be filled with the Holy Spirit. After that, He'd be giving orders and so long as you followed them, well and good. When you didn't, He would make sure you felt terrible. Then you would have to go back and ask for an extension on your original forgiveness, and try again to shape up.

We didn't have infant baptism, but we didn't call it adult baptism either; it was Believer's Baptism. You didn't have to be an adult; you just had to be old enough to believe.* Baptism didn't save you, believing did. Once you believed (remembering the exact time was considered good evidence, as was praying the Sinner's Prayer) then if you died that minute, that night, or a hundred years later, you were going to Heaven with no further preparation required. Once saved, always saved. But you really still ought to be baptized because, well, Jesus said to, and it was a "testimony"—sort of a commercial for being saved. We kind of overlooked the verses that say, "Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins."

I "came forward" (another of our non-rituals) when I was very young. A man took me to a small room and led me in a prayer. I don't remember a lot of details, but he said if I didn't, I'd go be with the Devil, and I didn't want that. When we got home, I told my mom that I'd asked Jesus in my heart, and I was a Christian now. She was so happy, she cried. I was confused. Hadn't I done something good? I was four. The next day, I decided I wanted my sister to have Jesus in her heart, too. She was agreeable to the idea, so I prayed for her, and then went and told my mom that I had prayed for my sister and made her a Christian, too. Mom said it didn't work that way.

Salvation and belief were equivalent, and considered a one-time event. So was baptism, unless you went to a church that did it wrong. Then you had to do it again to get it right. I figured I had the salvation thing taken care of, but I was not ready to be baptized. Have you seen how deep those baptistries are? They had a concrete block for little people to stand on, but what if the pastor dropped me? I decided there was no way I was going in that tank until I learned how to swim. I learned to swim when I was eight, but had to pinch my nose with one hand to keep the water out, so I could only swim in circles. The next year, I learned to swim a little better, but it took me yet another year to work up the nerve to get baptized. I was ten.
So I was saved and baptized, and my past sins were forgiven. I probably could have coasted for a long time without thinking about sin if it weren't for Communion. In my church, to receive Communion, you had to be "saved". That meant you understood and believed that you were a sinner, Jesus died for your sins, and you accepted His forgiveness. You also had to understand what Communion represented. Baptism was not required.

We had Communion once a month. Every time, the pastor would read 1 Corinthians 11:23-32. I especially took notice of verses 27-29: "Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body." I don't know about you, but I sin more than once a month. When I examine myself, I find it's a whole lot more. I was surprised how often I sinned. I had the mistaken impression that God was surprised, too.

So I confessed my latest sins, and asked forgiveness. I knew God wiped out my past sins, but I thought then I could stop sinning. Or at least go longer between sins, and overcome them one by one. I found myself confessing the same sins over and over. I knew I only obtained forgiveness by the grace of God, but I felt as if I were required to reform on my own. I was failing miserably.

I don't mean to say that my church's theology was really this confused, but this is how I understood it as a child. Then I happened to hear a sermon on the radio that explained something I think my church had been trying to teach, but I had somehow missed. It described three "levels" of Christian living, and identified them with three verses:
1 John 1:9 "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." I knew this verse. I would sin, then confess, and He would forgive. But I kept on sinning.

1 Corinthians 10:13 "There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it." So God actually limits the temptation to what we can handle, AND provides a way out? I'd had the impression that once He gave us a fresh start, we were sort of on probation, and required to make it the rest of the way on our own. But here He is, actually stacking the deck in our favor!

Galatians 2:20 "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me." I'd heard this verse before, but this preacher explained something I hadn't understood: you can't stop sinning on your own. You don't have the strength. God's power is required to remove your old sins, and God's power is required to keep you from new sins. You're like a baby who can stand while holding on to something, but not walk on his own. You can continue circling the coffee table all day, but if you want to go anywhere, you have to reach out for His hand. Holding His hand, you can walk, but the minute you let go, you'll fall down. God is not disappointed that you need His hand every step of the way. He is not surprised when you fall down. In fact, He only lets you fall so you'll reach out for His hand.

*Naturally, that age varied with the individual. If you died before you could understand "the plan of salvation" you went to Heaven anyway because you were below the "age of accountability" a concept that seems to have developed because no one wants to tell the grieving parents of a dead infant or toddler that their child went to Hell. (If ignorance is an excuse, why send missionaries? Well, because Jesus said to. That simplifies a lot of decisions.) I suspect that infant baptism arose for the same reason. What happens to children who die very young? I don't see any reason God couldn't give them a free pass, but I don't see an explicit promise in Scripture that He does. This is an emotional question for me because I have ten children who died before they were born. I don't have any easy answers. I'll trust that whatever God does is right, even if I don't know what that is, because that's all I can do.

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