Sing, and Keep Walking


(Spectrumbot) #1

For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. Hebrews 4:15, 16, AV

One of the memories that ties Protestants of a certain vintage and social class together is the revival meeting. In my religious neighborhood this was visited upon us longsuffering teenagers during our annual Week of Prayer. At our parochial elementary school or high school, a speaker, usually known as a ‘youth pastor’ for his position in guiding the youth, would take up residence in our midst for a week to bring us to the Lord. This meant that we had chapel every day of the week, instead of our usual assembly once a week. Invariably, the last day of the week would be given over — we were tensed for it — a Call, in which the speaker would appeal to us to give our hearts to Jesus.

The organ or piano would play, the speaker would stand astride the platform, an immovable object through whom we would have to pass in order to see the sky, the light, the earth again. Our ticket, our passport to freedom, was to admit our sins and to publicly stand for Jesus, proclaiming by our verticality that we had cast aside our old life and had given ourselves over to a new attempt at sanctification. I was usually tolerant of this, sometimes moved by it, but on one occasion I hardened my heart toward the speaker and his wiles.

For wiles they were, and he wielded them with the skill of a trained propagandist. There were the glittering generalities, the card stacking (only certain facts allowed), the plain folks approach (I’m just like you; I sin too), the testimonials (I turned my life over to Jesus and you can too), and—as the numbers of those standing inched upward — the bandwagon effect (won’t you join us?). But the twin screws of fear and guilt were usually enough to break the most recalcitrant. It was our sins that had nailed Jesus to the cross and that kept Him there — never mind the resurrection and the promise of eternal life. The sight of squirming 14-year-olds trying to come up with sins toxic enough to kill Christ was disheartening.

There was a point in this emotional fire-hosing when we realized that we’d left a real encounter with Christ behind and that now the speaker was running up the score, carving notches on his belt, and counting scalps. That’s when I hardened my heart and prayed for release. Not wanting to offend or cause another to stumble, I was struggling to stay in my seat, and yet I knew I should not be false to my own relation to Christ. I had a tentative, but sincere, connection with God; if there remained anything standing between me and a commitment to Jesus, it would not be bulldozed aside just to give The Speaker the satisfaction. So, I remained sitting, to the consternation of my teachers and some of my friends, since I occasionally assisted as a student leader in religious activities.

Fear and guilt, endemic as they are to humans, are not the best roads to paradise. I think guilt has a place in waking us up to our situation — the move is called repentance, metanoia in the Greek, and it means ‘to turn around’ — but no one ever built a lasting and healthy communion with another based on fear and guilt alone.

Moreover, such tactics in the hands of a skilled and unscrupulous religious leader too easily result in counting for numbers, herding impressionable people toward a decision they barely comprehend and cannot articulate. It is enough that we see how futile our efforts to walk on water really are and that we reach out to God in Christ.

Wendell Berry has said that “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.” It is in that context that we can ask what it means to say that Jesus was tempted as we are.

However, we derail ourselves if we insist on a detailed catalogue of the temptations that a first-century Jesus couldn’t have been subjected to. How would Jesus have handled the easy access to online pornography, the money to be made in drugs, plagiarism by students of term papers, or vaping?

If we broaden the scope beyond personal temptation to include ethical dilemmas made unavoidable through advanced technology, it illustrates the fact that as a society our achievements are double-edged: they are gifts that change our environment and our values even as they benefit us. What about genetic screening for inherited diseases, surrogate pregnancies, assisted suicide and DNRs, biological and neurological enhancement, and the use of placebos in clinical testing? Science and technology in our era often outrun ethics; this is the world that we have made. So, presenting God with a list of exemptions based on our technology isn’t going to help us nor does claiming that He couldn’t possibly understand what we are going through. As the Buddha said about discussions on the afterlife: “This does not lead to edification.”

We are opened to a new perspective with Richmond Lattimore’s translation of Hebrews 4:15, 16 as he writes: “For the high priest we have is not one who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, since he has suffered all the trials we have, except that he did not sin.” The solidarity Jesus extends to us comes not from specific temptations faced, but from suffering the weaknesses of being human.

To be human is to live in paradox. We are made of earth but aspire to the heavens. We wish to be infinite but are bounded on all sides. We want to please those whom we love, placate those whom we fear, be admired by those we admire. We want to be the masters of our destiny, but on some days we fall and we can’t get up.

We work our jobs

Collect our pay

Believe we're gliding down the highway

When in fact we're slip slidin' away1

We can stand apart from the path we are on in the present and ask ourselves what the trajectory of our lives points toward and where we might arrive at if we continue. No other creature can do that, and it is both the blessing and the curse of our condition that we can perceive — if only in hindsight — our misdirections, wrong turns, willful diversions from the way, and lost opportunities.

We are flesh and spirit; we are blind, but we can see that we are blind. We give in to the power of sin and yet we resist. “The fact that we accuse ourselves,” said Paul Tillich, “proves that we still have an awareness of what we truly are, and therefore ought to be. And the fact that we excuse ourselves shows that we cannot acknowledge our estrangement from our true nature. The fact that we are ashamed shows that we still know what we ought to be.”2

God may not snatch us out of temptation or even necessarily lessen our suffering. We may ask, then, how God is present to us in our time of trial. Christ’s credentials here are not a smug “been there, done that” throwaway line. Nor does he peddle cheap grace like some ham-fisted TV evangelist. Christ lives with us in our temptations, suffers with us in our temptations, and does not abandon us when we are tempted.

Christian Wiman says in My Bright Abyss, that “Herein lies the great difference between divine weakness and human weakness, the wounds of Christ and the wounds of man. Two human weaknesses only intensify each other. But human weakness plus Christ’s weakness equals a supernatural strength.” And, we might add, “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”

“Let us sing alleluia,” says Augustine in a sermon from 418 CE. God doesn’t say he will keep us from temptation, but “with the temptation he will also make a way out, so that you may be able to endure it (1 Cor. 10:13).”

I wish I’d understood that when I chose to remain seated during that call to stand. The way it was presented to me, I was either in or out: sunk in sin and at war with Jesus or cleansed and on the right side. Somehow, instinctively, I knew that it wasn’t that cut and dried. My heart’s cry and my intention were to live in Christ; the reality was that this would take some time.

What I later came to realize is that Christ takes the intention of our hearts as what we really are. Living up to that intention is living within the new being, the new reality, one day at a time. “So now, my dear brothers and sisters,” concludes Augustine in his sermon, “let us sing, not to delight our leisure, but to ease our toil…Sing, and keep on walking. Don’t stray off the road, don’t go back, don’t stay where you are.”

Sing, and keep on walking.

Notes & References:

1. Paul Simon, “Slip Slidin’ Away,” 1975. Universal Music Publishing Group

2. Paul Tillich, “The Good That I Will, I Do Not,” The Eternal Now. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963, p. 54.

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, ethics, and communications for 37 years at universities in Maryland and Washington, DC. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. Email him at darmokjilad@gmail.com.

Image: Nathan McBride / Unsplash.com

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9328

(Thomas J Zwemer) #2

His best yet. I can say Amen. So can thre Adult children who endure boarding academy until they said no mas. They are Christain but not trophies.


(Cfowler) #3

This is all unscrupulous…

Not having been raised SDA, my daughter, who was probably in 7th grade, was subject to this. I had no idea about such things until they happened. I really hate that she was denied the real opportunity to make a decision about baptism until she was older. The pressure put on children is despicable. No one, much less children, should be subject to such spiritual manipulation. It is sickening reading about it, and thinking about this happening to my child and other’s children.

Does this still go on? I’m sure it does…it’s one of the major ways to grab very impressionable children and manipulate them into the SDA church, then use fear and guilt to innoculate them against ever attending any other church, or listening to any other Christians. Thankfully, many people have seen past this terrible practice and aren’t buying into it. They have said “bye-bye”.


(Sirje) #4

Give yourself an A++ on this one - the others are only A+. This is so well written, aside from the thoughts and insights. I especially appreciate your quote from Wendell Berry. I’m almost at that point - hoping to reach it soon - still think I know some stuff.

…and the next verse says: “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Rom. 8:1


#5

Exceptional, grace-filled insights from a humble heart.
Many thanks Barry.

At this time of year - beginning 2019 - I hear you whisper:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God,
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
(Minnie Haskins, Gate of the Year)


(Sirje) #6

You betcha. My grandson had one of those, and I decided to attend just to see if it is “still going on”. It’s a familiar scenario - some guy, who had gone off the Adventist tracks finds his way back. The farther off the tracks, the more phenomenal the comeback. Wait till they start having bon fires for computer games - (that might not be such a bad idea, actually :thinking:).

My husband had thought you had to be baptized in order to get promoted out of sixth grade. (that’s more than a few years ago) and then he couldn’t understand why his grandmother was crying when he did get baptized - total non-comprendo.


(Barry Casey) #7

Thank you! I am remembering that my grandparents always read that poem out on New Year’s Day every year that I lived with them.


(Cfowler) #8

LOL…maybe they used to imply that to the kids! :grin: Nothing would surprise me.

Reading about this brought to mind again how awful this is, and how angry it makes me that my daughter was robbed of making a mature decision about something so important in her life. Not much riles me up more than spiritual manipulation…especially when it is intentionally directed toward children.


(Carolyn Wesner) #9

Particularly good this time, Barry, thanks very much! In sixth grade there was one kid who resisted baptismal class and did escape. We were all pretty much in the same boat, being pressured, pressured, PRESSURED, but he refused and skipped the mass baptism of teenagers thing. He wasn’t any better or worse than the rest of us, and years later he was baptized of his own volition, but I really respected him for thinking independently. After baptism, we all went through the annual evangelistic series with The Call at the end (“with every head bowed and every eye closed” except the guy up front counting coup aloud). Later, I asked my mom why all this pressure - she said “Well, if you don’t get baptized early, you might never get baptized. Too risky to wait.” Okay, if that’s true, maybe there’s something to be said for infant baptism… So. All three of my kids were baptized, as adults, elsewhere.


(Cfowler) #10

This really illustrates the wrong headed belief about baptism. “I got dunked when I was 12, so I’m good.” :roll_eyes: As if it’s some kind of guarantee of salvation, or if you’re not baptized, it’s going to keep you from salvation.

Looking at baptism as some kind of talisman is bad enough, but using it to manipulate kids, some not even teenagers, is shameful.


#11

Oh boy, this brings back memories. At my school, baptismal classes were made part of the middle school Bible class curriculum. No escape! Most of the class got baptized, if they weren’t already. I was a holdout until high school, when my mother became exasperated (embarrassed?) and said maybe a health problem I was having would go away if only I would “make the decision.” I gave in to make it stop.


(Alice C ) #12

Oh, my, do I remember those sermons. Academy and college. Still, I found early baptism to be protective for me, because I knew the people who would be disappointed if I strayed–and that was probably the word/feeling I had as a young adult when I was questioning many things.

But it had been very much my own decision to be baptized. I sat through Bible studies with my parents when 4 and 5, with my mother opening the Bible in front of me to the texts I couldn’t read yet. Not expected of me; siblings and children of the layperson giving the studies were playing in the next room. I wanted to be baptized with her, but she thought I should be able to read the Bible and then it was the Junior baptismal manual. Decoding reading didn’t happen any faster for me, but her expectations make sense now. Took me another year to persuade the pastor, so I was about 8.5 years old.

I don’t recommend baptism that early, but for me it was right. I knew I loved God and I understood the doctrines as well as a child that age could. My understanding has grown over the years; I’m not happy about what I’ve seen happening in the church; I’ll admit I’m less persuaded of some of the church’s leaders certainty about some things; but it is still my church and I’m not going anywhere. I refuse to let the manipulators, etc., push me aside.

As a baptism deaconess, I’ve met a few children almost that young and am always impressed by the depth of their understanding, considering their age and developmental status. But I’ve also met many people who are being baptized again, with a more mature and deeper understanding of what it means. Not as a rite of passage, but as a symbol of their commitment to God.

I am offended by manipulation of anyone of any age, especially when the goal is to count coup. Such things should always be an un-manipulated, personal decision.


(Steve Mga) #13

It is too bad that SDAs do Baptism and Confirmation all in one action.
Baptism is the agreement that we want to begin the journey. We are usually too
ignorant to understand the “map”. Too immature to really understand what we need
to put in our backpacks to make our journey more pleasant.
And at that young age [like when I was baptized] don’t understand that there are
“stores” set up along the way where one can get new, fresh supplies. One’s that
are more helpful than the ones started out with.
Sometimes “Baptism” is the END of mentoring that is helpful.

Some years ago I read a study done by one of the Baptist organizations. They found
that it is IMPORTANT for a child to make the decision for Christ by age 13. To be
Baptized. The waiting until later the chance that one will do decreases by years, and
by 25 a very low % will make that decision.
Another fascinating tidbit came out of the study. It found that being baptized by 13:
If a person decided to become un-churched in teen, early adulthood, the fact to having
gone through Baptism drew them back to church at a later age.


(Cfowler) #14

This should be between the child, the parents and the pastor. Not some guy coming in, putting on a show to manipulate, then be part of exerting peer pressure. We all know what that is about. Lipstick on a pig…still a pig.

With the attrition rate so high in the SDA church, I don’t think this “plan” works. Perhaps the child in the Baptist church was baptized, not through peer pressure and the “show”, but through an authentic connection. And, even though they might drift away for a while, they still remember something real and genuine. Whereas, the Sevie kids probably remember something forced, with no real connection or conviction of why they made that choice. This kind of fake, forced conversion/baptism leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth, possibly to the point of a total turning away from God.

This kind of thing is a very serious breach of person’s spiritual autonomy. It really, really needs to stop…but it won’t.


(Thomas J Zwemer) #15

My son was in the sixth grade. the pastor had a young son killed in an auto accident without having been baptized. so he had a passion to get kid dunked as early as possible. so he always had week of prayer as a baptismal class. my son felt the pressure. he said dad the pasto want me to be baptized and zi don’t want to be. I said that’s fine. I added do you think you will ever want to be baptized? He said yes. I said O.K. I will handle it. That Sabbath the pastor made his call. then he walked down the aisle and stopped at each pew with a child not yet baptized.I had the end seat. as he approached our pew. I stood with arms folded and blocked his view of my son.I slowly shook my head NO.He turned and continued down the aisle.


(Spectrumbot) closed #16

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