17 June 2010

Waters of Baptism, Waters of Life

For weeks now the waters of the Gulf have been despoiled by somewhere between 12,000 and 20,000 barrels of oil a day gushing from a pipe a quarter of a mile deep in the ocean floor. The ruin to the ecosystem of the Gulf has been devastating. Not only has the fishing industry been stopped cold, but the ecosystem of four states has been ruined by the oil slicks and tarry residue that have soaked the marsh coastlands and beaches. The eggs of the blue fin tuna are covered with oil in the marshes of Louisiana. The oysters which are filter feeders cannot swim to avoid the slicks. It’s nesting season for the sea turtles, and they must come to the water’s surface to breathe, but this year the surface is coated in oil and so are the turtles. Pelicans are laying eggs in crude soaked nests, and many are simply so soaked with oil that they cannot move, much less fly.

Clean, fresh, pure water is an essential element to life. But when the water is spoiled as it is in the Gulf, it ruins everything and endangers life. The water of baptism is a sacrament not simply because it represents a Jewish rite of purification used when Jesus himself was baptized, but because water is part of the foundation of life. It points to the goodness and love of the One who gave it to us.

I once asked a confirmation class of junior high kids who were discussing baptism how we use water. “You wash with it,” one girl said. Another said, “You drink it. Without water we couldn’t live.” One after another the kids came up with familiar uses of water, until one boy said, “It holds you up.” Puzzled by his answer, I asked, “What do you mean?” “The child answered, “It holds you up, you know, like when you’re floating on your back when you’re out on the water and the water buoys you up. It holds you up!” And then I realized what he was saying. The water of baptism not only sustains our life, it buoys us up.

Baptism is the ordination of the Spirit in the church, the blessing of the person who receives it by the One who gives it. We are baptized by water and the Holy Spirit, and once that blessing has been received there is no taking it back. We are watermarked forever. It is the original ordination and the floodgate of Christian service. Ordination to the ministries of the church stream from the living waters of our baptism, including ordination to the offices of Elder, Deacon, and Minister of Word and Sacrament. As someone once, wisely said, “If they didn’t want me to answer the call to ministry, they shouldn’t have baptized me in the first place.”

The theme of this year’s General Assembly in Minneapolis, Minnesota (the land of 10,000 lakes) is, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” (John 7:38) As we approach the Assembly, once again we have an opportunity as a Church to filter the homophobia, fear, and misunderstanding from the living waters of baptism. There are overtures to remove G.6-0106b, overtures to support the recognition of same-gender marriage, and overtures to direct the Board of Pensions to include same-gender partners in the benefits plan of the PCUSA. These are all faithful approaches to purifying the waters, removing the oil slicks from the surface, and gathering up the sludge from the beachline and marshes of the Church’s life. I am hoping, praying, and working for the day when the Church buoys all of us up; supporting, celebrating, and honoring the call to love and serve God in the ordained ministries of the church without regard to sexual orientation. I hope and pray that this July, at the 219th General Assembly, “Out of believers hearts shall flow rivers of living water.”

The Rev. Dr. Jon M. Walton
Pastor, The First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York

11 June 2010


i can still here them now

the older black women of my grandmother’s generation

miss waddell
miss rosie
ms. montez
ms. hemphill
cousin willie mae

as they visited with each other (it was never called gossip)

in their kitchens

front yards

beauty shops

porches (stoops were a northern thing in southern pines, nc)

sunday school classes

church socials

i can still here them now

the older black men of my grandmother’s generation

mr. waddell
mr. press
bad bill
mr. hemphill
monkey joe

as they sat and discussed (it was never called gossip—that was what the women did)

in the barber shop

under the tree of knowledge outside the barber shop

out in the front yard or side yard tinkering with their cars

after church

during the church socials

and with a history (and a present) that includes such vulgar spectacles as auction blocks and lynchings and pedestals

it is ludicrous for any of us

to believe for one second

that there is any possibility that we work toward the church inclusive
without recognizing the powers that shape the worlds in which we live

living in a shadow box does not recognize the richness of black cultures

because it resorts to collapsing black realities into postmodern minstrel shows

it seeks to freeze frame black life

without recognizing our humanity

or the rhythms and cadences of our living

and sadly, oh so sadly

many of these brutalized and brutalizing images have been internalized in black communities

and in the individual lives of black women and children and men

and in church

for far too many of us

daily life means skipping rope with paralyzing demons

that slip into an endless spiral of horizontal violence

without martin's dream or malcolm's nightmare

we are called to be in bone deep community

not the media-driven images of black living that trick all of us into
believing and/or living into grotesque stereotypes of black life

not the death-dealing images of success that trick us into thinking our
accomplishments are ours alone

not the mind-numbing bromides of racism, sexism, classim, heterosexism, homophobia, and militarism that include fear tactics, terrorist acts, bullying, lying, avoiding, fronting, and simply not giving a damn about anything but amassing power, getting your way, and piling up legacies

not the church, that when my uncle pete, who was dying from complications from aids, told my aunt to tell me to do his memorial service because he didn’t trust the church that loved him and raised him in his youth would love him in
his death

community, christian community is the place where the realities of diversity, difference, disagreement, harmony, hope, justice all exist

this is the place of morrison’s dancing mind

walker’s world in our eye

sanchez’s house of lions

danticat’s krik, krak

it is a place, that we should be building, life by life

to be an inclusive community we are called to

listen for the voices

accept the variety

allowing the voices within our communities

the young and the old

the lesbian and the gay

the propertied and the propertyless

the heterosexual and the celibate

the dark and the light

the bisexual and the transgender,

the female and the male

the conservative and the radical

the thoughtful and the clueless

all these and more

to have a full and authentic and valued place as we sort through how to lead and how to follow

realizing that there are many paths to freedom-and slavery-and death

we must tackle the gross iconization of our lives

that comes from the false dichotomy of sacred and profane in white western self- absorbed penile thought

i first learned about this body from the older black women in my life

and it was years before i realized that they were not just talking about my body

they included miss hemphill down the road

miss rosie across the street

miss montez around the corner

and cousin willie mae down by the juke house

my body was placed in a witness of women and men

who knew violation

enjoyed sex

moved with dignity

and shook from religious ecstasy

what they taught me was that to love myself was also to love God

not the other way around

because to love myself meant that i really accepted that i am made in God’s image

they crafted a community of healing that was a refuge of loving women and men

to heal a scarred throat

or bruised knuckles

or brutalized body

all those women and men are gone now

but what they left me with is the deep knowledge that the community they created and gifted me with

must be re-created by caring for others and caring for myself

but it takes the strong and the weak together who will refuse to accept inept silence or self-abnegating sacrifice as healthy, vital ministry

who will hold themselves accountable to the spirit

who will choose to live rather than die

because silence suffocates when it is prompted from violence and fear

and this is a truly slow and obscene death

yes, i can still hear them

those old black folk who raised me

loved me

and taught me

that the true church is bigger than anything you and i can imagine and as wide as god’s eye

and you and i must keep a-working

because God will not let us stop

and that God gifts us with an enduring faith

and an outright colored stubbornness that simply will not stop until justice comes

no just us

but for all of us

who live here

way down under the sun

Dr. Emilie M. Townes

03 June 2010

Living Waters

Peace be with you all, as you begin the patient journey towards your 219th General Assembly, and hopefully also to greater inclusion within the PCUSA. Our journey together, towards a church where the LGBT community has a full and accepted place is proving a rather long one, and the obstacles on the road are many. They include, but are not limited to– prejudice, homophobia, misunderstanding, cultural mores– the list goes on.

But on thinking of your theme, of living waters, I am reminded of many happy days I had as a young boy in the Scottish hills, next to burns (streams) that bubble and meander down hillsides. As a young lad, camped next to a burn for a picnic I would try and find enough large stones to build a dam – just to see if I could beat nature, and stop the flow of the water. Of course, one can’t.

However large the stone, however well it seems to fit the makeshift dam, much to the frustration of this young boy, the water found a way through. Even the advice of parents that the odds could not be beaten, didn’t put me off trying. Mind, sometimes that determination can serve one well in life.

The Spirit of Christ is much the same. People, institutions, those with privilege they want to keep, put all kinds of barriers in the way of its progress, but in the end its futile. The Spirit always finds a way through the obstacles we put in its way.

The church universal has a long history of not being able to deal with the radical inclusivity of Christ, but in the end it gets there. Like water, the Spirit of God will not be deterred from her purpose, and we arrive at a day when all members of our churches are loved and valued, and hearts are truly opened to the love and compassion of Christ.

I leave you with the verse of a hymn written by Helen Kennedy,

Lord, how I thirst, my Lord i am weak.
Lord, come to me, you alone do I seek.
Lord, you are life and love and hope,
Come, fill me with living water.

The Rev. Scott M. Rennie
Minister, Queen's Cross Parish Church of Scotland