A dust-up over the Catholic priest who didn’t precisely recite the words for baptism underscores the two different approaches to religion.
In case you haven’t heard, a well-intentioned pastor in Phoenix said “we baptize you” – recognizing he represents Jesus and the entire faith community – instead of the assigned “I baptize you” in the church’s rulebook. A furor followed.
The beloved pastor resigned. The diocese suggested thousands of baptisms performed by the priest were invalid, meaning other sacraments that followed – including marriage and ordination – could be invalid as well.
Because, well, the rules, you know.
It must be pointed out that the Catholic church’s practice of baptism has changed significantly over the centuries. Are those baptisms invalid as well because they deviated from today’s proscribed formula?
And if we say those baptisms were valid even though they differed, why the kerfuffle? Is it about the words, or something else?
Which brings us to the foundational question: Is faith about parroting words, or something more? Are sacraments about dried ink on a page, or are they about the Spirit living in the hearts of people?
Dried ink on a page
In one view, God dictates – Scripture, doctrines, rulebooks, what have you – and we’re the recording secretaries who write things down, memorize them, and repeat them accurately.
Memorize, recite, repeat.
In this approach, our rituals must be tightly regulated and closely policed, with major penalties for even a small deviation. If we misread one word or substitute one pronoun, we lose points and pastors.
It also bears repeating that Jesus frequently got in trouble for going off-script. Eating with the wrong people. Yes, saying the wrong things. Loving in the wrong ways. Baptism is an invitation into this off-script way of living.
His teachings remind us that faith isn’t about duplicating rituals or parroting words.
Faith is about trying to live in the Spirit of the words – words of love, compassion, healing, inclusion, peacemaking, forgiveness, reconciliation, helping the needy, welcoming the stranger, renouncing power and wealth and self-interest.
Basically, faith is about living in the love from which and for which we were made. It’s about moving beyond the fears and the insecurities and self-interest that separate us from one another and from God.
It’s not about reciting correct words; it’s about living in the Spirit that is the inkwell for those words.
An off-script faith
It’s about sharing meals with those who are hungry, giving a word of encouragement to someone who is struggling, sharing our authentic self with others so they, too, can be their authentic self with us.
It’s about seeing the many injustices around us and putting ourselves into the struggle to right these wrongs.
It’s about seeking and questioning and being open to different perspectives and new experiences of God in every place, in every circumstance, in every life.
It’s about becoming more gracious, more compassionate, more accepting. Becoming a little more in love with God and life, with one another, and with all God’s creation.
A living faith always begins with a “we” instead of an “I” or a “me”. Faith isn’t a solo endeavor. We grow collectively – that’s aim of any Spirit-filled community. Two or more, as the saying goes. An “us” and a “we”.
Together, we create space for people to be their authentic self, share their stories, hold one other in their joys and their struggles, and experience the God of love together. Then we go into the wider world embodying this transformative way of living.
Every moment becomes baptism, bringing us more deeply into the Spirit that washes over us without exception, without word, without end.