The water is fine

One of my favorite movies is the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?. One scene always makes me smile and that’s when the escaped convict Delmar tries to convince the other two-thirds of his group to jump in the waters of baptism by exclaiming, “C’mon in, boys, the water is fine!”. I grew up in the South but I never witnessed a crowd of people going into a river for baptism. I only saw pictures of days gone by.

Since August of 2012 I have baptized nine youth or adults by immersing them completely in water, one of them in a portable baptismal and the rest in the flowing waters of the surrounding country. I am a cradle Methodist and an elder in the United Methodist Church. I had never seen an immersion baptism done by a Methodist until I was 27 years old and almost one year into my first appointment as a pastor. In the last five years of my current appointment, I have baptized 15 people by immersion. It thrills me to see people respond to Jesus’ call to “follow me” and ask, “what shall we do?” like the people who heard Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2. I tell them the same thing Peter said, “Repent and be baptized.” So, that’s what they’ve done.

As I baptize more and more people by immersion, people ask me “Why are you immersing them? We are Methodists and I thought it was the Baptists who immerse people.” It’s a fair question. Given our demographics and decline as a denomination in the last forty-five years, I suspect that many United Methodists have never seen one of their own baptized by immersion. Many United Methodist Churches do not see even one baptism a year and as paedobaptists (infant baptizers), it is even more rare to see a person baptized by immersion[1]. So, I want to answer the question that has been raised in my church and for all of us who call ourselves United Methodist.

On page 81 of the United Methodist Book of Worship, we read:

United Methodists may baptize by any of the modes used by Christians. Candidates or their parents have the choice of sprinkling, pouring, or immersion; and pastors and congregations should be prepared to honor requests for baptism in any of these modes. (Emphasis mine)

A Methodist might think immersion is what the Baptists do (as if what our Baptist brothers and sisters do is repulsive to us - it’s not - but that’s a topic for another post), but as our Book of Worship notes, we can and do practice baptism by immersion. Those who think immersion “isn’t Methodist” are wrong and one doesn’t have to look too hard to find instances in which John Wesley or Francis Asbury supported this practice[2]. As far as I’m concerned, if they did it, that’s as Methodist as it gets and I’m proud to stand as one of their spiritual and ministerial heirs.

This is a cut and dried case as far as our worship practices go as a denomination, but that’s not the answer I typically give when I’ve been asked this question. When asked, “Why are you immersing people?” I usually respond by saying, “Because the Holy Spirit is working in the hearts of the people of our church.” That’s a much better answer because that’s exactly what is happening. The love of God is poured into hearts (“shed abroad” in Wesley’s King James Bible) “by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5).The Spirit calls men and women, making alive those who are dead in their trespasses, and makes them new creations. Since they’ve never been baptized before, we baptize them because through baptism they are initiated into Christ’s holy church. That is an amazing thing and I rejoice in it.

The confusion as to why Methodists are immersing people points to something else altogether. The reason adult baptism by immersion is so alien to our congregations is because we do not see dead people come to life through the grace of God given to us by the atoning work of Christ on the cross, the power of the resurrection, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. We assume that everyone around us is a Christian or that they go to church so we shouldn’t bother them. Our assumptions are wrong and when we share the good news of Jesus Christ with our neighbors and even those in our worship services there is no predicting how God might work and move in our hearts.

I want to perform more baptisms by immersion because I want to see people come to faith in Jesus Christ and follow him for the rest of their lives. This is what we’ve been called to do and we must be faithful.

  1. Adult baptisms by immersion are not only rare because we baptize infants, but also because we do not re-baptize anyone. Re-baptism is a chargeable offense in our Book of Discipline.  ↩

  2. From memory, there are a couple of accounts concerning immersion in the southern Methodist churches in Wigger’s biography of Asbury, but since it’s at my house you’ll just have to get a copy for yourself and look it up.  ↩

Disappearing Faith

So all evangelistic work depends on the ministry of people who themselves have a strong faith. But can we always count on that in the church?

It’s not always clear that those in the church have a strong faith. That’s true even for some people who did have a strong faith in the beginning.

A big part of John Wesley’s own concern was around the danger of “dissipation.” He used that word to describe what can happen to faith when it is not continually nurtured over time. Neglected faith can dissipate like a pool of water under a glaring sun.

Friend and colleague, Andrew Thompson, writes a thought-provoking post about cultivating a vibrant faith

Jesus, Priceless Treasure

Jesus, priceless treasure,
source of purest pleasure,
truest friend to me,
long my heart hath panted,
till it well-nigh fainted,
thirsting after thee.
Thine I am, O spotless Lamb,
I will suffer naught to hide thee,
ask for naught beside thee.

In thine arms I rest me;
foes who would molest me
cannot reach me here.
Though the earth be shaking,
every heart be quaking,
Jesus calms our fear;
sin and hell in conflict fell
with their heaviest storms assail us;
Jesus will not fail us.

Hence, all thoughts of sadness!
For the Lord of gladness,
Jesus, enters in.
Those who love the Father,
though the storms may gather,
still have peace within;
yea, whate'er we here must bear,
still in thee lies purest pleasure,
Jesus, priceless treasure!

-Johann Franck United Methodist Hymnal 532

Smart Playlists in iTunes and Dr. Kinlaw

My last post contained what's becoming an increasingly popular link among the #andcanitbe crowd on Twitter. That link was to Dr. Dennis Kinlaw's sermon page and in the spirit of sharing wonderful online goodies, I thought I'd share a trick I picked up reading Merlin Man's smart playlist tutorial for iTunes.

This may not be that important for many of you but if you're a regular iTunes user and especially if you're using iTunes Match for your music library you'll find this advice helpful. I'm using iTunes Match and one of the great things about Match and the sermon archive I linked in the first paragraph is that the bit rate on the downloaded files is higher than 96kbps which means they are eligible for Match. That's great news. What's not great news is that if you're like me, you probably won't be running or driving your vehicle enough a span of time that will allow you to listen to a whole message (they are close to an hour a piece). No problem, right? You'll just pause the message and listen to it later. The problem with that is that on iOS devices the music player doesn't always remember where you paused it. That's a frustrating problem that I've not found a solution for. What I have done is to try and mitigate that frustration at least a little.

Many times I'd scan through the list of messages and pick one but if I paused in the middle of it and came back to the music player later I'd even forget which message I'd started to listen to or which messages I'd already listened to. What to do? Thanks to smart playlists in iTunes I've figured out a listening pattern that I can live with. What I did was to create a smart playlist in iTunes I called "Unplayed Kinlaw". In it I set a rule that the artist must be "Dr. Dennis Kinlaw". That put every message into this particular playlist. But, I wanted to eliminate messages that I had already listened to so I set another rule "Plays is 0". Starting at the top of that playlist I'll listen to the next message in the queue. When I've completed it, the message magically disappears from the playlist.

What happens here is that even if the music player forgets where I paused a message, I can scrub forward until I roughly find the place where I paused it and since I'm listening in order I know it's always the message at the top of the playlist.

It may not be pretty or even all that helpful, but it's cut down on my frustration in trying to listen to these wonderful messages from one of my spiritual heroes.

A Book Recommendation for Wesleyan-minded People

This isn't a book review but it is a recommendation. The reason it's not a review is that I need to reread it. No, I must reread this book. The book is Prayer: Bearing the World as Jesus Did by Dennis Kinlaw who is one of the founders of the Francis Asbury Society and former president of Asbury College (now University). I would rank Dr. Kinlaw as the most influential Christian in my life even though we've never met. I've read nearly all his books (I'm working through two right now) and I've downloaded for free a slew of his sermons from Sermon Index. No one I know has challenged my thinking and my heart the way this man has and I thank God for his witness.

I would have purchased this new book for no other reason than the fact that Dr. Kinlaw wrote it. I had an additional reason which was that I wanted someone I felt I could trust to instruct me in the life of prayer, especially since I felt like I was in another dry spell. I got instructed all right; I found out pretty quickly that the problem wasn't a dry spell but the state of my heart. This book is probably the best and clearest explanation of entire sanctification that I've read in my life and I've read a few being a son of Asbury Seminary. Dr. Kinlaw's book challenged my mind and moved my heart. I could sense the work of the Holy Spirit in my soul, calling me to confess and repent that I might be cleansed like God promised in 1 John 1:9.

That's all I'm going to say for now, at least until I get the chance to read it one or two more times. I'm going to buy several to make available for the folks in my church. You won't regret picking up a copy for yourself.

Gas Station Ashes

Four years ago, the church I serve had an Ash Wednesday service for the first time that anyone could remember. We had about fifteen people show up for a short and simple service in which the Scriptures were read and ashes imposed. I'm pretty sure I remember we had a tornado warning that night, too. Thankfully, it didn't scare anyone off and we've seen an increase in Ash Wednesday attendance each year. I love Lent and its beginning on this Wednesday.

This morning I tried something new. After reading this article a month ago, I asked the owner of the convenience store where many in our community get their morning coffee and breakfast if I could come on Ash Wednesday and impose ashes on people who wanted to come by on their way to work. He's a member of our church and I wanted to make sure he felt free to tell me no and he said he couldn't think of a reason to say no, so we were off and running!

This morning I arrived at 6:30 and for the next hour and a half I ate, visited, and imposed ashes on about a dozen people. We got some strange looks and a few questions, which I expected. We also experienced together the power of being a part of the body of Christ in our community. We were able to be the church outside of our building. What an amazing feeling!

Most of them will be back in about 40 minutes as we have our regular Ash Wednesday service, but I can't help but imagine what the next few years will bring in terms of participation and witness as we openly practice our faith outside of our building.

Cleaning out Instapaper

I'm going through my Instapaper account and thought I'd share some interesting links:

Wesley a Week at a Time: Week 2

Last week, I began a program for 2013 in which I will read the one of the 52 Standard Sermons of John Wesley each week for the year. It’s not a daunting task by any means. It takes no longer than 30 minutes to read one of the sermons so one could forgo one television show a week and read one of these sermons which make up a part of our doctrinal standards as United Methodists. In addition, I thought I would write some short posts each week for the wonderful people in the church I serve. I met with some of those folks last night and they offered ideas and insight toward planning a preaching calendar for 2013. They made some great observations about how I sometimes take for granted the knowledge I have as a “cradle Methodist” about the United Methodist Church and John Wesley. These posts might make for a handy introduction to interested persons. I hope you find them useful and helpful.

Last week, I read Salvation by Faith. I had not read that sermon since my last semester of seminary. Back then I read it for a class, but this time around I was reading it with fresh eyes and an eager heart[1] and what a joy it was. I read a portion that was so moving I had tears in my eyes. It found its way into the sermon I preached yesterday. Since I’m a week past, I think I’ll skip over any introduction to that sermon and go straight into sermon #2.

This week’s sermon, The Almost Christian, didn’t elicit the same kind of joy in my soul that Salvation by Faith did. It’s a fantastic message, don’t get me wrong, but it was a hard sermon as I reflected on the state of my heart. Wesley puts forth two people: the almost Christian and the altogether Christian. As I read the marks of the almost Christian I thought, “What’s so bad about that person? The almost Christian is a better Christian than most Christians I know. Including me!”

The Almost Christian is a classic in understanding what Wesley believed to be the most crucial aspect of the Christian life - “the disposition of the heart” as he calls it in Salvation by Faith. What is the disposition or character of your heart? Is it full of the love of God? Is that love expressing itself in loving your neighbors? Is God your all in all or are you looking to the idols of self-sufficiency and mammon? If you answer “no” to any of those three questions, I have some good news and bad news. The bad news is that you’re an almost Christian. The good news is Jesus Christ. No kidding. As John Meunier notes in my favorite of all his posts:

For many Christians, the key question is something like “When were you saved?” For the Methodist, the key question is always “How is it with your heart?” Our “once saved, always saved” brothers and sisters often speak as if the most important thing in our faith is something that happened in the past. Methodists believe the most important thing in our faith is what we are doing today, right now.

The good news is that Jesus Christ does not turn away repentant sinners. Go to him! Turn from your idols and be filled with the love of God, your all in all, and love your neighbor. Then you will be an altogether Christian[2] .

  1. I’ll also admit that I’m gleaning as much as I can for my upcoming dissertation.  ↩

  2. A great resource on the recommendation of my friend and colleague, Dr. Steve Pulliam, is Praying in the Wesleyan Spirit by Paul Chilcote. There are 52 prayers, each based upon one of Wesley’s 52 sermons, and they are excellent. I’ll be praying the one for the Almost Christian all week.  ↩

What are You Reading in 2013?

2013 is almost upon us and I'm sure, like many Christians, you're thinking of reading the Bible through in some fashion. I'll be reading along with some of my friends and classmates but I wanted to add a couple of things to spice up my yearly reading. Here are a few links to consider and you might enjoy jumping in:

What are your reading plans for 2013?

World War Z and United Methodism

I finished my last paper for the Theology of Ministry class I took in August - got an "A". Let me brag, won't you? I didn't get many of those as a younger student - and I wanted to read something different than the books on sanctification I had been reading. So, I decided to reread World War Z which is a pretty awesome book. Read it.

Since I have the Kindle version and this was a reread, I noticed that I highlighted two passages in this fictional account of the worldwide war for humanity's survival against the zombies. One of them really caught my attention. In constructing a plan to avoid human eradication, a South African named Redeker devised a plan that worked even though it was incredibly distasteful in that it left many people to die. Redeker said, "'The first casualty of the conflict must be our own sentimentality' was the closing statement for his proposal, 'for its survival will mean our destruction.'"

I think this is part of our problem as a denomination. Our sentimentality is one of the factors leading us to further decline. We want to hold on to the glory days of the baby boom, the way worship and ministry used to be, thinking that if we tweak all of that just a tad then all will be well. But it won’t. As we say in the South, that’s merely putting lipstick on a pig - it’s still a pig. Are we willing to let our sentimentality be the first casualty in our effort to fulfill the Great Commission? I hope so, for the Great Commission is the only thing worth following. We’ve got to identify those sentimental patterns, structures, ministries, and programs that compete with our mission and let them die otherwise our denomination is doomed to resemble the Walking Dead rather than the resurrection.

For She Loved Much

The most beautiful people in heaven may be the ones in whom the Holy Spirit has wrought the greatest transformation. We do not glorify God by lessening the standards for those we determine could never meet them. We glorify God by recognizing all of his holiness and recognizing that some- how, in the miracle of redemption, Jesus can make any person compatible for fellowship with the Father, the Son, and the Spirit—holy, clean, and beautiful.

Dennis Kinlaw This Day with the Master

The Bible and Archaeology

Dr. Sandra Richter is one of the rare teachers who can move someone to joyful tears while lecturing on the patrilocality of ancient near eastern culture. Her introduction to the Old Testament is one of the best books I've ever read. It's a book I can hold in one hand with my other hand raised in worship. That. Good. I can't speak highly enough about her which is why you want to watch the video below from the Seedbed's 7-Minute Seminary.


This morning I read Zephaniah (one of those books near the middle with no fingerprints or underlines) and was grabbed by one part of a verse in the 3rd chapter:

3:17 The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.

I looked up the Hebrew word for "quiet" in a lexicon and a theological dictionary and you know what I found? It means, "quiet." I was hoping for some hidden, obscure facet in this gem of a word but, as best as I can tell, it means what it says. Quiet. "He will quiet you by his love."

When I was a kid, if I did something wrong or got hurt doing something I shouldn't have been doing, I'd try to blubber out an explanation to my mom between deep gasps for breath. I notice my daughter does the same thing, like when she got stung by a wasp a couple of weeks ago. She wanted to tell me what she was doing as she sobbed and all I wanted to do was hold her close to me and love her (even though my wife was the one she ran to - my impulse was to hold her, rub her back, and say "Shhhh."). I didn't need an explanation. I needed to be her daddy.

In Luke 15, a son leaves home as badly as one could. He alienates everyone and wastes what his daddy gave him on trying to outdo Solomon in Ecclesiastes. He realizes his terrible, terrible choice and decides to go home. He prepares his speech but before he can get it all out his daddy starts throwing a homecoming party. I think of Rembrandt's painting and hear the father saying, "Shhhh," quieting the young man with his love.

I pray that we all experience this kind of loving forgiveness and that instead of preparing our explanations, excuses, or whatever it is occupying our minds that the love of God would quiet you and embrace you like you've never experienced before.