On Baptism and primary loyalty

It was one of those conversations that started before Sunday worship, just as we were waiting for the bell to ring and the opening anthem to begin, and goes all unwieldy.

In fact, it didn’t start as a conversation, it was a simple declaration by the parishioner. He was just giving me information. There had been a funeral the day before and I guess seeing me brought the subject to mind and he thought he should take the opportunity to make his views known: “At my funeral, I’m going to have a casket, and the casket is going to be draped in the American flag.”

He was a dear parishioner, faithful in worship, an active usher, and proud of his military service to his country. Our country.

A wise priest would have kept her wits about her and said, “I’m so glad you are thinking about making plans ahead of time for your funeral. I would be happy to talk about your plans and get them recorded for the church for when the time comes. Why don’t you call the church office . . .”

But no, I thought I would address his statement right there and then. I thought I could quickly give him a little information about the funeral liturgy and the meaning of baptism on the spot. He would begin worship with a new understanding, and I would have dropped a pearl of Episcopal wisdom in time for the Venite.

So I told him that our practice is you may have your casket draped in a flag on the way into the church and on the way out, but in the narthex, the flag will be removed and replaced for the liturgy by a white funeral pall, a symbol of our baptism. We come before God and find our primary identity as children of God, claimed as belonging to Jesus Christ in our baptism, not as American citizens. Our earthly citizenship may be very important to us, but it’s not the most important thing about us. Our country is not the kingdom of our primary allegiance.

That response did not go over well. Then the bell rang. Then I remembered to invite him to visit and discuss his plans.

I would still say the same things, but not at the same moment. And I would, I hope, better understand how emotionally laden the topic is, not just because we were talking about funeral planning, but because we were talking about loyalty and identity.

There are Episcopal parishes where you are allowed to have a flag instead of a pall (I googled it. I didn’t learn about this in seminary). I don’t think this is good practice, for a bunch of reasons, including the fact that when I come before God after my death, my only hope is to be wrapped in is the robe of Christ’s righteousness, not the red, white, and blue, or maple leaf (the flags of the two countries in which I hold legal citizenship). I’m good with the pall. I’m good with belonging first and foremost to Jesus, who apparently has sheep of other folds as well as sheep who want to be draped in other flags.

I recently read a really good novel by Rodney Clapp, one of the contributors to Common Prayer. The novel is The Second Baptism of Albert Simmel. Set in the future, after petroleum supplies have run out, Albert is on a journey through what used to be called Old America. As he travels on his particular quest, he meets people and finds himself in predicaments that cause him to reflect on his faith.

At one point he finds himself listening to a very popular prophet and preacher who, according to Albert, is telling untruths to his audience, both historical untruths and the claims that “God’s most important institution on the face of the earth is the family,” and that “America is the country where fathers can most truly be fathers, mothers can most truly be mothers, and children can truly be children of God.”

Following the prophet’s address, a time for affirmations and rebuttals is offered and Albert goes to the microphone. He says in part,

“Now, please hear me. I am not saying Jesus meant to eliminate the family. It’s clear that Jesus adored children. He hated divorce. He loved and respected his mother. What I am saying is that Jesus rearranged our loyalties. We are to be loyal to our families, to our country, but we are to be loyal first and above all to the kingdom of God, the kingdom of God revealed in Israel and in Jesus Christ. In the short time I have to speak, let me ask you to think about one thing. Think about your baptism. You, we, have been baptized into the body of Jesus Christ. And our baptisms were declarations of loyalty, loyalty first and last to Jesus Christ and the kingdom he inaugurated and will one day bring to its fullness. Paul says nothing is more basic than baptism. He says being slave or free is not more basic. He’s says being male or female is not more basic. He says being Jewish or the member of any nation is not more basic. For those of us who have been baptized in Christ, and I know that includes many of you, our root, our true, our most fundamental identity and loyalty has been named. And that is an identity and loyalty rooted in Christ, Christ alone. . .

“If that is so, we cannot say that our family, our kinship is the most important thing about us. It is important, but it is not more important than our baptism. The water of baptism is thicker than the blood of kinship. And we cannot say that being American is the most important thing about us. It is important that we are Americans, but we belong first and foremost to another polity, the polity of the apostolic church. Our founding document is not the Constitution of the United States but the Bible.

“So I ask you, when you wonder who you are, to think on your baptism. When you sort out your deepest loyalties, think on your baptism And when you ask what social bodies, what polities, point first and foremost to the gospel and the kingdom of God, think on your baptism.”

The preacher disagrees strongly with Al and responds in part, “I ask you further, sir, are you an American? Are you a patriot? Or do you use my Jesus as the refuge of a scoundrel, a man disloyal to his country? If so, . . . I say again: UNHAND MY JESUS!”

Al replies, “It is not a matter of ‘your Jesus’ or ‘my Jesus.’ If Jesus is Lord, he is Lord of all and not just of you or me. If Jesus is Lord, he is not in my hands or your hands–rather, it is you or I or us who are in his hands.”

Al has more clarity about his beliefs and his need to express them, but the crowd is unconvinced. Al goes on his way, the crowd “giving him the wide berth of a contagious leper.”

Read the whole scene, the whole novel sometime. Lots of food for thought and conversation here.

An Interview about Common Prayer

Here’s an interview we recently did with the publishers of Common Prayer.

How did you come up with the idea for this book?

Increasingly, people inside and outside the church wonder why they should worship. The pulls of family life, sports, and employment raise questions about why spend one’s valuable time in common prayer. We asked a group of talented writers to offer personal and provocative essays about their experience of worship. In a certain sense, we wanted a collection of testimony for why regular worship is essential, irreplaceable, transformative. 

How is this book different from other books about worship?

There are many fine books about the history and theology of worship. These tend to be abstract, objective, general. We wanted a collection of very strong and distinctive voices, personal essays, first-person accounts that provide entrees into the experience of common prayer through the particularities of flesh and blood lives. We call it theological memoir.

How did you select the contributors?

We wanted a collection that reflects the variety of people and experiences one finds in The Episcopal Church. The writers include academics, priests, lay people, fiction writers, non-fiction writers, musicians, acolytes, missionaries, vestry members, poets. The most important thing was that they be willing to be put themselves out there and share something personal.

You edited this book while teaching theology at an Anglican College in South Africa. How did that context shape your experience of working on this book?

It brought home the gift of common prayer, shared forms and patterns of worship. The Episcopal Church is part of the Anglican tradition and our prayers and liturgies are similar all over the world. Our experiences of worship in South Africa were both familiar and unfamiliar. That’s similar to what we experienced as we read the essays for this book—people opened up the familiar and shed light on differences.

Is this book just for Episcopalians and Anglicans?

Not at all. One of the great gifts of excellent memoir is that through people’s sharing the particulars of their lives, and in this case, experiences of Episcopal worship, readers are drawn in to reflect on their own lives. That is, the particular opens a door to the universal. So people who worship in other denominations or are curious about Christian worship, as well as Episcopalians, can find inspiration for their own reflections on encounters with the divine.

There are pictures in this book. Why? 

Our great editor at Wipf and Stock, Robin Parry, suggested that since these are personal essays, it would be good to put the faces of the writers with the stories. We are so glad he did.

Students at the College of Transfiguration in Makhanda/Grahamstown

An Excerpt From Common Prayer

There are several wonderful books about the theology and development of liturgy. This isn’t one of them. In this book, we gather insights about worship by a number of people in the Episcopal Church who are bold enough to try to find language to describe how worship has formed them, surprised them, amazed them, comforted or confronted them; or rather, how God has done that through Episcopal liturgy. 

We are priests, people who get asked the questions priests get asked: Why worship? Why at that time? In that place? With those words? Sometimes the questions are asked as challenges, other times in wonderment or bafflement, particularly by people who aren’t as in the habit of showing up in church on Sundays as we are. These essays don’t so much answer these questions as they name some truths, some longing, some Love we know we can’t live without.

We originally envisioned this collection as focused on the experience of worship on Sundays, with the working title “Sunday Morning: Reflections on Episcopal Worship.” Some authors, appropriately, ventured beyond Sundays, and the book is all the richer for it. Hence the title Common Prayer.

In these pages, Spencer Reece dresses for his little entrance; Rhonda Mawhood Lee falls in love with Jesus by flashlight; J. Neil Alexander confesses that he is a Sunday-keeper; Sophfronia Scott gets a taste of grace; Lauren Winner wonders what the deal is with communion wafers; Rodney Clapp plays on Sundays; Melissa Deckman Fallon worries she is a bad Episcopalian; Steve Fowl provides a view from the choir; Amy Richter believes in demons; Cameron Dezen Hammon wants to belong to something; Duane Miller sweats in the calid Spanish summer; Paul Fromberg dances in friendship with God; Michael Battle ponders Zen-like riddles and bubble gum-blowing acolytes; BJ Heyboer finds a home at the foot of the cross; Ian Markham tries to be an atheist but fails; Kim Edwards realizes there is no such thing as ordinary time; Luisa E. Bonillas crosses the US-Mexico border every Sunday to go to church; worship saves Joe Pagano’s marriage; Kathryn Greene-McCreight smears ashes on her children’s foreheads; C. K. Robertson blesses heroes; Batman, Robin, and Supergirl show up for the blessing of Amy Peterson’s home; Rachel Stone longs to bring her pets with her everywhere, including church; and Fred Bahnson recounts the legendary chainsaw Eucharist.

We asked this group of writers to engage in an exercise of theological memoir, to write in their own strong, distinct voices about their experiences of Episcopal worship. We were both thrilled with and awed by the result: personal essays that are funny, vulnerable, faithful; people telling of loss, joy, play, belonging, love. This way of writing is risky. But so is engaging whole-heartedly in worship. These authors show us that this way of writing, this way of worshiping, this way of living is worth it. They share their flesh and blood lives with us and we meet the God who meets us in worship. This shouldn’t surprise us. In worship, Jesus shares his flesh and blood life with us; he pours himself out so we may have life and have life more abundantly.

Through the particularity of their reflections on life and worship, we don’t just get to know the authors. There are twenty-three authors in this collection, but the main character who emerges is the God we know in Jesus Christ, the God of, as Steve Fowl puts it, “unrelenting and eager openness.” This book is an invitation to risk offering the particularities of your own life in the worship of the same God.

Praise for Common Prayer

“This gracefully edited collection is a window into the transformative experience of shared liturgy in all its particularity, difficulty, and beauty. May these honest reflections open the eyes of our faith.”

—Sara Miles, author of Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion  and City of God: Faith in the Streets

“If Anglicanism claims to be catholic and reformed, then this winsome volume has the best of both: catholic in liturgy, protestant in testimony. Open this volume and meanwhile open your heart to be strangely warmed by the quirky, the moving, the profound, and the playful.”

—Sam Wells, Vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London

“In these pages you will see the Way of Jesus—the Way of Love—in reflections and recollections that both move the heart and inspire the spirit.”

—The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, Presiding Bishop and Primate of The Episcopal Church

 Find out more: www.wipfandstock.com http://www.common-prayer.net

Available at Wipf and Stock and on Amazon.

Great Words about Worship

What is worship? What happens when we worship?

Here are 10 great Quotes about Worship from contributors to Common Prayer.

It is too easy to think that the success of our worship depends on the choir, or the preacher, or the celebrant when it really depends on God’s unrelenting and eager openness to our offerings. Remember, this is the God to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.

Stephen Fowl, “Singing in the Choir”

In worship, in holy play, we engage in a game with one another and most of all with God. There is no end or purpose to it. It is a glorious waste of time.

Rodney Clapp, “The Play of the People”

As I kneel and stand, sing and pray, my voice melds with a hundred other voices, and time falls away.

Kim Edwards, “Ordinary Time”

I participated in the liturgy with my whole being: hands, feet, legs, knees, ears, voice, lips, tears, body, mind, and spirit. In the silence of deep remembrance, I was recognized as a daughter of God and welcomed by others as a living member of Christ’s body.

BJ Heyboer, “Being Remembered in the Liturgy”

If worship is about participation in the self-giving love of the triune God that liberates and creates new life, then that means we must also share in God’s solidarity with the vulnerable and God’s hope for the whole creation.

Michael Battle, “The Sound of One Hand Clapping”

Episcopal worship is far from passive. It is engaging and physical: a workout for body, mind, and spirit.

Melissa Deckman Fallon, “Bad Episcopalian”

The Sunday liturgy ingrains in us the gracious, ineffable scheme of God to pour out God’s saving love for a world that has lamentably and with pronounced consistency turned its face away from God.

Duane A. Miller, “Spreading Blessing to Those Who Don’t Work for It: Liturgical Reflections of a Cross-Cultural Missionary”

[W]ithin the liturgy, God has space to heal, help, and illuminate.

Ian Markham, “How the Book of Common Prayer Kept Me in the Family of Faith”

The Risen One gives himself to me, not just theoretically, but sacramentally. I feed upon the fullness of his risen life and it nourishes both soul and body. It is not for me commemorative, but generative. It makes me me, in Christ.

J. Neil Alexander, “Of Sacraments and Sundays”

We join in worship and service, creating a community that shares the unconditional welcome offered at Jesus’s table.

Paul Fromberg, “Dancing in Friendship with God”

Rodney Clapp: The Play of the People

Meet Rodney Clapp, author of “The Play of the People.”

Rodney Clapp is an editor at Cascade Books. He and his wife pray at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Glen Ellyn, Illinois.

Q & A with Rodney Clapp

Q: What are your two favorite hymns or songs for worship?

A: There are so many. But what comes immediately to mind is “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” with its inimitable lines, “Jesus sought me when a stranger / Wandering from the fold of God / He to rescue me from danger / Interposed his precious blood.” I am also moved every time when singing “Prone to wander / Lord I feel it / Prone to leave the God I love.” A second hymn I revel in is the eschatological “I Will Raise Them Up.” Always thrilling.

Q: What is your favorite worship service or part of the Book of Common Prayer?

A: Eucharistic Prayer C especially resonates, in a time of climate change crisis, with its declaration, “At your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.” I also need and appreciate Prayer C’s exhortation, “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.”

Q: What project are you working on now? 

A: My current project is heavier than recent ones. I am researching and writing a book I call Living Out of Control: A Postliberal Christian Manifesto. It is an engagement with the overwhelming reality and ideology of our day, neoliberalism. For pastors and thoughtful laity, I hope to show how neoliberalism reigns through nationalism, consumer capitalism, the construction of sexuality, the debilitation of the earth, and the fear of death. An apocalyptic gospel helps us to name neoliberalism and resist its destructive tendencies.

Q: In your essay, you mention a childhood desire to fly. Do you still wish you could fly? Or has some other super power taken the place of flying?

A: I would still love to fly. Occasionally, in dreams, I lift off and float to the treetops. But it’s usually unnerving, because I am never sure how I can get back down. This brings to mind Jesus’ temptation in the desert, where he refuses the devil’s offer of superpowers. The same is true when he faces the cross, and declines to call down a legion of angels for protection. So I suspect we as Christians are called to live in vulnerability, out of control, alongside the “least of these.” All this is why comic books and superhero movies are so poor at depicting themes of Christian victory through cross and resurrection: they always end with spectacular (if supposedly benign) displays of violence.

Q: Besides liturgy, how else do you play?

A: My dog, Ury, is a constant source of amusement and playfulness. I also love reading fiction, and listen to a lot of jazz and country music. My wife and I in recent years are less enamored with movies and more involved with TV series produced by the likes of HBO, Amazon Prime, and Netflix. There, free of commercials, we can watch long-form development of characters, fascinating plots unfolding, and the fruits of excellent writing. Streamed TV series are more like novels than short stories. The best among them (and of course there is lots of dross) give us something to look forward to every evening.

Q: In your essay, you reflection your experience as an acolyte. Is there anything you notice in worship from your vantage point as an acolyte that you wish others could see?

A: I love the tactile and kinetic involvement in all parts of the eucharistic celebration. Serving as an acolyte makes me more aware of how the body is enmeshed and intricated in our worship. 

Rodney is the author of several award-winning books, including A Peculiar People: Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society and Tortured Wonders: Christian Spirituality for People, Not Angels. His most recent book is New Creation: A Primer on Living in the Time Between the Times.

Check out some of his books below and also at Wipf & Stock.

Rodney Clapp, Tortured Wonders

Rodney Clapp, Peculiar People