Sunday, February 19, 2006

More about Initation rites

I was just having an interesting conversation with J about initiation. I'm reading a chapter from James White about historical beliefs on fencing the Eucharist table, and in discussing the communing of children he brought up the issue of mental capacity. At what point do churches with believer's baptism and requirements for cognitive understanding prior to communing allow those with mental disabilities to participate in these activities? It's one thing if you're a child who'll eventually grow up and understand. What if you'll never advance developmentally past the point of 7 or 4 or even 2 years old? Are you out of the body of Christ? Is it not important or possibly to be baptized or to take communion? What does this say about our ecclesiology - and our inclusion? What about Jesus' work - he would frequently forgive sins prior to healing physical disabilities. Does this have implications on the discussion?

Anyway that got us talking about our own initiations, and I realized that mine actually included an additional step beyond baptism, confirmation, and first communion: praying the Sinner's Prayer or prayer of conversion. In my life, they happened in this order: 3 or 4 years old, prayer of conversion ("ask Jesus into your heart"). 8 or 9, baptism. Junior High, confirmation. And I don't remember when I first took communion, but it was probably after baptism. I think that was part of our belief system, to be baptized first. Hard to remember now. And I may have those years off (if someone who remembers is reading, correct me).

And that seems to be the pretty typical case in many of my friends' children's lives. Somehow this prayer of conversion is allowed - even encouraged - years before anyone would remotely consider baptizing these children. So what is that about? How can you supposedly be a Christian for several years prior to baptism and communion? (I guess it's a lot less important when those are "ordinances" not "sacraments") As best as I can remember, there was something about a private confession just between you & God (or Jesus), and only when you were ready for public profession of faith did you get baptized.

But J was really taken aback that I wasn't immediately baptized when I prayed the prayer. He said at his church, Southern Baptist, your prayer wouldn't "count" unless you were willing to get up and publicly confess your faith. Thus, the two always went together. Which is at least a bit more consistent. And I guess in his church, you wouldn't be encouraged to pray the prayer until you were at an appropriate age for baptism, which is defined as an age with cognitive understanding of the faith. I think his prayer/baptism was at 5 or 6 years old.

Anyway, I'm now questioning whether I like my friends telling their children to ask Jesus into their hearts. I got a letter from a friend rejoicing that their son, who is probably 3 or 4, had done so. But I don't know if it's really a very good idea. Seems like it causes confusion. For one thing, there's no external thing to point to to say for sure whether it was done or effective. This is why most people I know pray the conversion prayer several times throughout their lives, especially during high school at youth camps when the pressure's on, but really any time one feels one may be drifting. If salvation is based on a private prayer only, it's nerve-wracking to think you may have done it wrong, or how could you possibly have done it right when you could barely talk at 3 years old??

I remember a friend who did it every year at Vacation Bible School so she could get whatever prize they were awarding that summer. That's so funny to me now.

But seriously, that's why baptism and/or confirmation and/or first communion are better - they are public, they are ritual, they require external signs and circumstances. They are recorded and witnessed by other people. You can point to them and say Yes, it happened, and I know it was done right.

Anyway, those are a few more thoughts. I never thought about the Sinner's Prayer as an initiation rite before. What do you think?


Emily said...

One of the reasons I believe in infant baptism is that I believe we keep growing in our faith--I've had a "conversion experience" even though I was deeply involved in my church, but I don't know that that was separate from my baptism, but maybe I had it because I was baptized as a baby and raised in the church.

Since I'm an Episcopalian from the get-go, it's helpful to me to read this post because I don't know much about the Sinner's prayer and how it relates to baptism and all that.

But I do wish we in the Episcopal Church had some way of marking those signficant, non-baptismal moments later in life, in front of one's congregation, that didn't need the presence of a bishop, perhaps? Something that was meaningful and well-crafted and that didn't feel artificial.

Devon said...

I have a couple of comments. First, just an intereting tidbit--at my grandparents' church (Christian Reformed) you have to learn and recite certain lengthy passages of catechism to become a member; thus, some people as old as my grandparents have attended their entire lives but never become members because they can't memorize. I really feel like that can't be constructive.

Second, I kind of take issue with the institution of the "sinner's prayer" as a universal watershed. I grew up in the church, and although I prayed the sinner's prayer multiple times (often at youth camps, like you said) and although I was baptized finally at 18 (which wasn't a particularly significant time, I just hadn't gotten around to it before), none of those individual moments are more significant to me than the whole of them together and all the moments in between. There wasn't ever a time that I didn't believe in God (there were times I wasn't sure, but that was in my 20s), so any time I prayed the sinner's prayer, it was sort of like buckling my seatbelt after I'd already been driving for a few hours. (How's that for a random analogy?)

Anyway, I know that epiphanic moments are important for many people, but I've never really had epiphanies. Things just grow on me gradually until eventually I look back and realized I've changed. And I've found myself at a loss many times over the years being asked to recount my conversion "experience" because our tradition doesn't seem to have words for how I am a Christian. This is most likely due to so much of our tradition and language being based in the gospels and early church; when Christianity was brand new, pretty much everyone was an adult convert.

Anyway, I hope this contributes to your discussion. I continue to enjoy your blog.

M.J. said...

You raise incredibly significant points, I wish more individuals in seminary and ministry would consider how we minister to children have such global impact in the future.

I always loved the saying that C, a priest that I knew at our old church in BH said about his son and communion - that he was thrilled that there would never be in which his son did not know that Eucharist was available to him. A member of my current pastoral team that I am a part of takes the sacraments incredibly seriously - as we all should - yet speaks with grave concern of children and individuals bringing on the Lord's judgment for taking communion in an unworthy manner, and links not being a believer as one of those factors. I differ. I think that there is power - transforming power in the Eucharist, the Lord's Supper and that in that very act, no matter how small the amount of faith it is one indiividual approaching the table and God indicating they are willing to attempt to believe and are asking God to continue the process of maturing a belief to a more solid level.

When I departed from the ECUSA, I searched high and low for a denomination which still held to a sacramental identity in both baptism and communion and found it in the Covenant Church. There we allow both baptism and dedication yet prefer families to baptize their infants - in fact in the four times that I have witnessed infants being brought before the congregation, I have only seen on dedication - all were baptism.

It is interesting, that now that I am "clergy" I do take the sacrament even more seriously, and do personally prefer that a child waits until they at least understand on a small level what the sacrament is about - which is why I am moving units about baptism and Communion into the courses twice a year and including children in the sacrament - so they have an opportunity to experience and understand what is going on - to me that is the true crime in churches where children are not a part of the liturgy - they never have an experience of God's symbols and reality in sacraments on a regular basis because they've been sequestered away in another part of the building coloring sheets!

Stasi said...

Wow! Such great comments already. I hope the thread continues.

Devon, I'm very taken with your statement that "our tradition doesn't seem to have words for how I am a Christian." I felt this way for many years, too.

This is an unfortunate byproduct of the anti-Rome backlash that threw out, if you'll excuse the phrase, the baby with the baptismal water (really must credit Prof. Todd Johnson for that groaner). If we can only have adult converts, or only believe the "early church" (fyi: there's no such thing - if people say something is "early church" they are choosing one tradition out of several or making up a romanticized fiction based on a conglomeration that will necessarily be incomplete) had it right, then we lose the tradition of how to bring children into the community (wait until they are adults like the first converts, I suppose). But wait - the question of children's salvation would have come up right away - as soon as the first adult converts had babies! Still, many Protestant denominations have no way to relate children to the Church. This is why they wind up in a separate room. A sad result of making the faith so cognitive, so reliant upon understanding and rational argument. Children understand relationality before cognitive thought - and shouldn't we be about relationship anyway? - so why not bring them into the body from the beginning?

Jeanette raises the important point that what happens in Eucharist (or any sacrament) is God's doing, not ours. Therefore, it's not up to us whether we're (or our child or nonbeliving friend) ready for it or not, have enough understanding or not - it's up to God to impart the benefits of the sacrament. So again, why not include children? I mean, if God wants to share herself with them, who are we to say no?

And finally to Lynn, ALL our churches could claim the committee-philia you bemoan - so take heart!

Anonymous said...

Again you raise important questions.

I was brought up by parents that belonged to (but never attended) the Unitarian Church. I had a half sister whose father insisted that she continue be raised Roman Catholic. Each Sunday we dropped her off at St. Theresa's on the way to our own "Sunday School." We were an ecumenical family. There were few issues that we failed to thrash out at an early age.

In our Sunday School we were taught the usual Bible storys. Moses in the bullrushes, Sampson, Angels we have heard on high etc. Perhaps it was Easter season. "Miss Bothfield, had spent a lesson revealing to us a number of Jesus' miracles. Out of genuine confusion I asked, "Are Jesus and God the same?" Ms B's reaction told me I had stumbled on something important. She fixed her on mine searching for any indication of guile. After some seconds, she took a breath, and pointed as she said with emphasis "Young Man, That IS the question."

She was right! It was the only important thing I was taught in any church. ever!

Thirty years later, Jesus himself answered that question to my complete satisfaction. Not however in a Church!

I wonder from time to time if perhaps it wasn't a mistake to send my children to Evangelical Churches and later to Evangelical institutions of higher education. Over the years they took part in any number of rites and confessions of faith. One now proclaims Atheism, neither gives much evidence of the truth of any.

For some years, I participated in a church education of "Adults with Disabilities." We presented "Holy communion" weekly. The question J raises was often asked. Frankly, I never found it troublesome. It certainly did no harm to these wonderful people and perhaps some good. If it bothered others, the Lord God Jesus Christ was not among them.

janinsanfran said...

Okay, I can't resist adding another story of initiation and the sacraments.

I was born into the Protestant Episcopal Church and so baptized as an infant in what was really a marginally religous social event as befitted what was then a "social church" as current categories of congregational development would define it.

Within this church setting, I was expected to be confirmed in the 8th grade with my peers, after which I was to "take communion," a mysterious ritual that happened once a month. My best friend, the minister's daughter, and I resisted being confirmed because we didn't "believe" what we were being taught. This however would have been a social catastrophe, so under pressure, we were in fact confirmed and aced the bishop's examination of candidates.

Not surprisingly, I later avoided churches for some years, though gradually I came to "believe" and intermitantly availed myself of the Sacrament in various settings.

After many years absence, I rejoined the ECUSA less than ten years ago and find no longer a social or Prostestant denomination, but a sacramental one. I am now part of an urban parish that has few children and is trying to discern how to incorporate those we do have more intentionally. It's fun! I love it that our current practice offers the Sacrament to anyone who wishes to receive, even the very young. Babies eat the bread and lick the wine in our services, every week. Seems right to me.