Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Baptism and the brain

From Wikipedia we find these references to baptism:

Baptism signifies: [Romans 4:11-12] [Colossians 2:11-12] [111]
From an article by Curt Thompson, M.D., author of  Anatomy of the Soul,
we read these words:

Current neuroscience supports the idea that spiritual disciplines line us up to allow God to change us in ways for which we hunger and thirst. As we meditate, pray (especially contemplatively), fast, seek proper solitude, confess, submit, study, and engage in other such disciplines, we create space for change. In this sense, when Paul writes in Romans 12:2 that we are to no longer “be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect,” he’s not kidding. This transformation of which he speaks is not metaphor.

Paul was no neuroscientist, he wrote that which neuroscience would now confirm: that the transformation that God began with the resurrection of Jesus is now being extended and grounded in our very brains. This is where hope resides. This transformation of our minds is no mere abstract concept conjured up by a first century apostle. No, it is God physically at work through His Spirit, doing the very thing Jesus claimed he would do. Real change. Real hope—for our relationships with our friends (and enemies), our spouses, children, neighbors, and the creation. God’s Kingdom come on earth (or, as it were, in our brains) as it is in heaven. http://thepoint.breakpoint.org/features-columns/articles/entry/12/15831

I was born into and raised in the community of the Presbyterians. I have spent 30 years as a communing member of 3 different Presbyterian congregations. This foundation and a 16 year visit into the Methodist denomination, have convinced me of my need for divine intervention. When one looks in from the outside at the Presbyterians usually the first 2 associations that come to mind are predestination and infant baptism or in more glorious terms, the sovereignty of God and salvation through grace. But, unlike most born and raised in this denomination, I was not baptized as an infant. Nor was I baptised when I made a profession of faith when I was “born again” in my teen years. I was baptized as a child.

I think I was around 4 years old. I remember the small chapel with green carpet and soft low lighting. I remember it was a cold, wet, and blustery day, maybe a Sunday afternoon. I remember standing to the right of my mother and father as they brought my new sister in their arms and handed her to the minister for baptism.

From the Presbyterian Book of Church Order we read:
Although our young children do not yet understand these things, they are nevertheless to be baptized. For the promise of the covenant is made to believers and to their seed, as God declared unto Abraham: "And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee and to thy seed after thee." In the new dispensation no less than in the old, the seed of the faithful, born within the church, have, by virtue of their birth, interest in the covenant and right to the seal of it and to the outward privileges of the church. For the covenant of grace is the same in substance under both dispensations, and the grace of God for the consolation of believers is even more fully manifested in the new dispensation. Moreover, our Saviour admitted little children into his presence, embracing and blessing them, and saying, "Of such is the kingdom of God." So the children of the covenant are by baptism distinguished from the world and solemnly received into the visible church.          http://www.opc.org/BCO/DPW.html#Chapter_IV

I remember the sense of mystery and otherliness that saturated the room. My older brother and sister were there and likely an elder to witness the sacrament. But, somehow, I knew it was not about them. It all seemed very important. Likely, I had been sternly instructed that I should stand very still and be quiet. The fact that I had to wear a dress had already pressed heavily upon me the gravity of the event. I was told that the minister would place water on my head. First, my parents placed my baby sister in the arms of the minister. Words were spoken and questions were asked and answered. Then she was given back to them. Next, it was my turn. I don’t recall if the minister asked me any questions. I don’t know that I said anything. But, I remember His hand on my head.

Now, more than 50 years later, I continue to experience the mystery of the covenant forged between me and God through identification with Christ in his death and resurrection. I know now that that moment in the chapel when I was just a child was not so much a turning point, but instead a moment in time in which eternal truth was declared. I know that when I was baptized is not as important as is the fact that I have been and am baptized. And within my union with Christ, I am being transformed. As we read in Curt Thompson’s article, what began with Christ and into which I have been united, there is a very real and new life that was birthed and is being shaped. In active participation in the sacraments and spiritual disciplines and through fellowship within the kingdom of God I am being changed. It is possible, in fact promised, that I will be changed. Though the evidence of my transformation has not been seen in an instantaneous miracle, it has, nonetheless been amazing and miraculous. I know that my Creator is still at work in my mind and body and spirit. I know He will finish what He began.

This morning I reread the story of the taking of the Promised Land by God’s children led by Joshua. My journal entry of notes on Joshua 11 looked like this:
   ….a huge army;
  …..numerous as the sand;
   ….all the Kings joined forces together to fight against Israel;
   THE LORD SAID: DO NOT BE AFRAID OF THEM, because I will hand them over slain.

Later, in chapter 24, I read these words:
“I sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove them out before you—also the two Amorite kings. You did not do it with your own sword and bow. 13 So I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant. 14 Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness.”

I saw yet again, the confluence of the very real Divine Life and the very real Human life. I saw again the impossibility of gaining salvation and victory over sin by human effort alone. I heard the call again to yield to the collision that brings death and then life. I hear again, “Now, Fear the Lord.”

Over the years, I have come to recognize the power in the discipline of confession, and not just confession of sins, but confessions of faith. I believe it is true that much happens when we declare, shout out, sing and speak praises, proclaim, acknowledge, and ascribe glory to the Lord. After years of reading scripture and listening and hearing the Word of God proclaimed through preaching and teaching, there is now evidence of it’s impact on my mind. I think differently, I speak differently, I feel differently, and I live differently because I am under the influence of a very real covenant relationship with the One who redeemed me.

I confess with my mouth and declare aloud that baptism has engaged all of me to Christ. At the same time that I am one with Him and He with me, it is this covenant relationship that does not allow me to live in isolation or separated by self protection. In fact, I can not. In my baptism I am immersed in the fellowship of all God’s children. I am being transformed. We are being transformed.

When I stand to sing with the congregation something happens. When I join with believers and say the words of the Apostle’s Creed and pray the Lord’s Prayer there is a creative, transforming power that is in us and amongst us. There are times I perceive it  physically and emotionally and sometimes I simply choose to believe. When I stood as a witness to my grandson’s baptism and remembered my own, I believed with all of me that God had placed His hand in the water and, through His baptism, continues to work with us as the potter with the clay.

I continue to feel His hand on my head, the cleansing water washing my conscience, the words of acceptance and blessing, and the declaration of my adoption into his family. I believe he lives with me and in me. I believe He moves and has His being even in my brain, in the space between the synapses, in the electrical charges, and in the mix of serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, melatonin and other chemicals. Even at times when it seems I have been left at the mercy of these chemicals and that surely they have joined to form a huge army, numerous as the sand, I hear, “Do not be afraid, because I will hand them over slain.” I remember, I know, I feel, and I live immersed in Him and He is greater than my heart, my mind, and my spirit. Even as I wait and circle in and move through this wilderness, I know the results of His and my sufferings will produce satisfaction. The very real work of transformation will be completed.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Life Out of Death

The light slides across my front yard from a different angle this afternoon and takes on a color that is unique to this time of year. In spite of my grief over the loss of light as we march toward winter, I have to say that what light we do have is beautiful. The movement of the light through the trees half laden with leaves no longer green, stirred the sluggish waters of my soul to declare with my mouth that there is One greater than me. And He is worthy of praise just because He is.

I dug out my running tights and laced up my shoes for what I thought would be an obligatory 30 minute jog down and back on the greenway trail behind my house. I needed exercise, but these days it feels huge to get unstuck from my lethargy long enough to get started out the door.  But, today I made it through the door and to the trail. Surprisingly, I kept going past the end of the trail and onto the pipeline right of way that eventually takes me to the river. It was a beautiful afternoon with the rich variety of autumnal colors and smells drawing me on and into conversation with the One who made the seasonal cycles. I had a lot of not so new things on my heart and mind.

I have been reading a book written by Kent Gilges, entitled A Grace Given. On the front of the book are these word: “There is a blessing sent from God in every burden of sorrow. There is hope in that, hope even in a dying child.” The author tells the story of his first born daughter, Elie, who as an infant had a tumor growing in the middle of her brain. The story weaves through doctors offices, hope springing out of despair through a promising surgery, a near deadly seizure, a long hospital stay, a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, and countless encounters between Elie and her parents, grandparents and others impacted by her dying self over her 10 years of life. Gilges says this of his daughter: “More than a handmaiden, Elie herself is the hand of God, the dove that descends. A child purely innocently and utterly dependent is the gateway to divinity. Elie has been a centering point for God in our family.” pg. 192

I thought about death and dying on my walk/run through the woods along the pipeline. My father died this past spring after  living with cancer for a year and a half. That year and a half was bitter sweet and brought my family many blessings out of sorrow. The greatest blessing we gained was time...time to live and breathe and have our being together. My Father was our centering point for God in our family. He knew where he had come from and where he was going. We were blessed to be with him.

The grief I have experienced since his death and made complicated by other losses coinciding has been dressed in the familiar expressions of depression. For most of my life I have felt the vacillating force and moulding weight of depression. Winston Churchill named his depression “the black dog on my back”. Depression, in it’s endless shapes and forms and degrees of power, seems to always want to destroy one’s life. Sometimes the threat is very real. Depression can be dark and mysterious, wild and potentially deadly. But, today, on my walk, the “black dog” just trotted alongside me, almost manageable. I even felt free to think that this force of death has been for me a “gateway to divinity”.

Today’s display of autumnal creativity comes because of death. In the same way that reduced light and increasing cold yields brilliant variations in color as the leaves finish their season of life, I found myself allowing for the truth that there are some beautiful results of the lessening light and the cold passages through my seasons of depression.

I watched a movie last night in which a woman was caught up by a tsunami and the raging waters carried her through the small town. At one point she crashes headfirst into a submerged structure. Her life ebbs away and the waters drag her under. What she “sees” as she is dying cannot be described to others after being resuscitated. Yet, she has been transformed. Her death and encounter with that which is beyond death transfigures her. Others think she is crazy. She is forced into a place that isolates her. In a similar way, depression, in its greatest strength, is like being overwhelmed and dragged down and under with a sense that your life is ebbing away. You feel isolated and alone. You feel blind and powerless, helpless and desperate. You struggle and thrash. Sometimes fear runs rampant and screams at you in many voices at the same time. And then sometimes you crash. The struggle is over. The fighting stops. It is in this passing through to surrender that you see the light and afterwards nothing is quite the same.

Of course life with depression is full of these life/death/life experiences. Sometimes the “dying” lasts for days or months or longer. All the while, you are reminded that the “black dog” can never be tamed completely in this life. But, of course, you have to try. You have to pay attention. Consistent efforts to discipline must be practiced. Medications must be dispensed. You research the best ways to train him. You pay out lots of money for the latest whisperer class. You blame your husband for creating the monster. You blame anyone and everyone and every circumstance. Mostly, you blame yourself.

But, it is possible the black dog, the powerless child, or the drowning self leads you to a place that otherwise you might never see. You catch a glimpse of life after death...full of faith, hope, and love as everlasting truths. Promises become greater than reality. Then, you know. You have to believe. Not to believe will give power to death. In believing, you begin to see the One who creates beauty through the dying. You know Him when He draws alongside and partners in the suffering. You know He has been that way before. He walks with you amidst the fire. He goes down into the deep water ahead of you. He finds you in your misery. He releases your feet from the snare. He saves you from your shame. He is greater than your body chemistry. He is the Potter, you are the clay. He turns your mourning into dancing. He is the One greater.