Dear Rachael, Bekah, Hannah, Naomi, Tommy and Esther,
Whew, I’m going to have to find a shorter way of addressing you all. That’s a lot of typing for a ‘hunt and pecker’ like myself (TOMMY! NAOMI! Stop snickering. I know; leave it alone) I’ll try ‘You Young ‘uns’ or something similar in the future. You’ll know whom it’s for.
This past Sunday we brought little Annalise to our God for baptism. I was so thankful that each of you was there. Through Fr. Tom’s voice you heard God’s word to her. In our pastor’s hands you saw Christ take her to himself. Though the splashing of water fell short of the thunderous roar we might have expected from such an event, through it Annalise left one creation and emerged in another.
It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to see on the SciFi channel.
Each of you has been spoken to in a similar way. Our king has called each of you by name. By his grace (for it was before you even knew that he existed) he took you from the world into which you were born and placed you into another- a world which is yet to be seen in all of its fullness.
I know that sounds a little over the top. It’s also true that I’m prone to…. extravagances. It must be genetic, because one or two of you have inherited the trait, but in this case I’m just giving the unembellished truth.
I wanted to remind each of you of your own baptisms and the reality each spoke into being. This is just a long way of saying that I wanted to remind you of who you are.
Of course you know that you are you. I realize that, but perhaps you forget that there are many different ways of telling ‘The Story of You.’ If you think about it, y’all will realize that there has never been a just you.
Every morning you wake up in a bed. There are blankets on top and a whole world outside. Every day you pester your brother or sisters. There is no ‘you’ apart from the world you inhabit, and so ‘the story of you’ ripples out to include everything else- friends, trees, stinky cheese and even school teachers.
It works the other way, too. The stories that help us understand the world ripple back to color how we tell ‘The Story of You.’ Perhaps it would be better to talk about ‘The Story of You…. (wait for it,) and… The World and Everything.’
People don’t choose their own personal Story of You– at least we don’t choose who we are until we are old enough and mature enough to realize that we wish to be someone else.
When such a decision happens, we don’t begin at that point to be a real person with a real identity. Instead, we are trading in the person we were for the person we have chosen to be. We are changing our old Story of Me so that it becomes an entirely different story.
It an ugly blindness of our time to think that the only persons who matter are those who are mature, productive and independent. It seems to me that the very smallest compliment we can give to any person is to simply acknowledge their identity as a person- that they are someone.
But if an identity has to be chosen to be real, then who are they before they are old enough to choose?
It would be wrong to believe that a story becomes our own only when we reach an age or understanding where we can purposefully choose it. That would leave little children without real identities. Instead of persons to be loved, they could only be considered as commodities, liabilities or potential resources.
This is the only identity children, the disabled or the elderly have in the larger stories of many people in the world.
I hope you notice that the life of the church tells their story in a radically different way. From the very beginning, children have a story. They have an identity. They are someone, but they haven’t chosen that identity themselves. Its ‘real’ apart from any personal and conscious decision.
It’s encouraging to me to find that the church’s ‘Story of You,’ The World and Everything’ seems to correspond to life as men, women and children actually experience it. Every child is born into a community that shares the same story. Every newborn is shaped by their family’s ‘story of everything.’ Every family is part of a larger community that tells the story of the world in this way and not that way. That shared story is part of what makes them a community.
Think how different your understanding of yourself would be if you had born fifty years ago to parents in the Soviet Union. You’d see Americans as the enemy; the State would be your ultimate family, and shopping malls would be the heart of the world’s evils.
Or what would you have thought of a dark lake, if you had been born 1500 years ago in a world thought to be inhabited by dragons? If I had warned you that a Wyrm slept at the bottom, would you think twice about jumping in?
People who share the same story about themselves and the world can still disagree on the details. Arni and Magnus may know that dragons live on mountain tops, but disagree with Sigrid and Mani’s idea that beasts live at the bottom of lakes, too.
Beliefs (or smaller stories) that inhabit the same larger story are what we mean by the word ‘doctrine.’ These beliefs can be hugely important, but though they differ they assume the same deeper version of ‘You, the World and Everything.’
The deeper stories of ‘You, the World and Everything’ are what we mean by the word ‘Dogma.’ These are the stories that we don’t argue for or against. Everyone knows them to be true. It’s just the way things are.
Fr. Homer Rogers explained that we believe someone who disagrees with our doctrine is wrong, but we tell someone who disagrees with our dogma that they are crazy.
Everyone has Dogma. Everyone- the Christian priest, the unbelieving scientist and even the lonely drug addict.
These deep stories tell us who we are, what’s up with the world, and what does or doesn’t really matter. We spend our lives inside of these stories- living according to what they tell us it means to be a man or a woman.
This is what the Christian thing is about: being fully human. St Irenaeus put it this way- ‘the glory of God is man fully alive!’
This in part was what little Annelise’s baptism was about. Through it she was brought into the deep story that answers all questions about you, the universe and everything by looking to the story of the crucified and risen Christ.
Our ancient way of looking at reality is preserved and passed on by statements that we believe to be true (‘I believe in God the Father almighty…. Etc), but it also lives by the things that we do- the rituals and symbols that shape our lives. This is the way it is for all Dogma- for every community and the deep stories that create and preserve them.
There are communities and deep stories that deny this. They limit the real or important to stuff that goes on between your ears, but the church sees the world and our humanity differently and makes the point by passing on her existence not only through ideas but actions and ritual, too.
Different dogmas subvert each other. Affirming that one is true often means affirming that the other is not. Think about it. Either god exists or he does not. Either human life matters or it does not. Either walls are solid or they are not.
The point is that our ancient story about you, the world and Everything has many competitors. It would be good for you to give some thought about what they are. A good way to start is by asking about the players in your life- maybe Wal-Mart, democracy, health, money, happiness, speed and efficiency, entertainment, convenience or America, itself.
Each of these things has a place in our ancient story, but it ought to be different from the place each has in the lives of those who tell the deepest story, differently.
Too often our lives are not that different. When this is the case, we can be sure that what was once Christian dogma has become another story’s doctrine.
Hmmmm. That was pretty good. ‘What was once Christian dogma has become another story’s doctrine.” Think about that.
Imagine that people are cakes of one kind or another.
Our baptisms include us in the life of Christ’s body. Her stories and traditions form us according to her vision of reality. We are, by God’s declaration, Christian cakes, but there is plenty of room for various icings. Strawberry icing here; chocolate icing there; American icing here; socialist icing there, but cut into us and you’ll find Christian cake. This is how it should be, if we are true to who are baptisms declare us to be.
For way too many, something very different is going on. Cut into our lives and you’ll find American cakes that are smeared with a layer of Christian Icing.
Our identity is not found in the stories of scripture and the life of the church. Instead our story of You, The World and Everything is identical to the one told by every American media outlet.
This might not matter… except that it determines you, the world and everything! and the world has it wrong.
You young ‘uns need to remember who you are in virtue of God’s claim on you in your baptism. Learn and love the church’s stories and traditions so that you can be who you are- fully and gloriously human.
I’ll try to make next week’s letter a little shorter.
Love you all,