January 18, 2014
I was in the States over the holidays and met many new people. The standard conversation would start with something like, “So what do you do?” I would respond, “I serve as an Episcopal missionary in Colombia.” The responses varied, but many were of the kind that I call “awe looks.” In some ways, it’s nice to be respected and to have people appreciate what you’re doing. In others, it feels a little strange as I’m still me, and my work in Colombia, or elsewhere, is just a part of my spiritual journey.
I remember the days when I was a doctoral student. As a PhD student there is a sense that you’ve “made it.” You’ve climbed the student ladder to the top. You were accepted into a program. You may have received a really nice financial package. And if you’re teaching, as most PhD students do, at some point you are treated like the professors. Students who don’t know the difference between doctoral students and faculty often refer to you as “Dr. ____” or “Prof. ____.” We often feel like “we’ve arrived.” When we complete our doctoral programs, though, we realize that the PhD wasn’t an end, but rather a beginning … a start of a career … a new opportunity to apply all of that knowledge we spent so many years nurturing.
Similarly, some people think of baptism as an end. It’s kind of like “you’ve made it” as a Christian by virtue of getting baptized. As I said in my homily last week, I think this is an incorrect way of thinking about baptism. Baptism is a fresh start. Paul said we emerge from baptism to walk “in newness of life.” Baptism transforms our lives leading us to think, speak, live, and act in ways that represent to the world the image of Christ. It transforms our behaviors, changing weakness into strength, greed into generosity, and hated into kindness. But all that doesn’t magically happen when we’re baptized. It happens throughout our lives as we spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out, and live into, what baptism means. The transformation happens throughout our lives as we continue to be open to what our baptism means to each of us as a member of the body of Christ. I think the Christian life, at its best, is an ongoing transformation in which we continue to be shaped by the presence of Christ within us.
This week we remember Martin Niemoeller (yes, I’m still reading, and reflecting on, the All Saints book I’ve referenced in previous posts), a Confessing Pastor in Germany who became famous for many of us because of the following quote:
When the Nazis came to get the Communists, I was silent, because I was not a Communist. When they came to get the Socialists, I was silent. When they came to get the Catholics, I was silent. When they came to get the Jews, I was silent. And when they came to get me, there was no one left to speak.
While many of us appreciate the quote and understand its sentiment, I suspect few of us fully appreciate Pastor Niemoeller’s spiritual journey behind it. Niemoeller began his career as an officer in the German military in WWI. He later became a Lutheran pastor following in the footsteps of his father. As a discontented German after the treaty of Versailles, he was an early supporter of the National Socialist movement (the Nazis). Also, like other Christians at that the time, he espoused Anti-Semitic sentiment “believing the Jewish people were to be condemned for their rejection of Christ” (All Saints, 1998). It was only after the Nazis began their rise to power, and Christian tradition was being twisted to support a brand of hatred espoused by Nazi leaders, that he began to grow uneasy with what was happening in Germany. And while he was growing concerned, he didn’t appreciate the terrible danger behind the Nazi position both to those who the Nazis treated as “others” and to the church until it was too late. It was only later that he realized how much he had failed to speak out about the wrongs being perpetrated in Nazi Germany, a failure that he journeyed with for the rest of his life.
Given the popular quote and the spiritual journey, in many ways I think Martin Niemoeller reflects the baptismal journey I’m trying to highlight. It’s the journey all of us baptized Christians are on, or ought to be on. My mission work in Colombia is just another part of that journey for me … another part of my living in to my baptismal call. It isn’t better or worse than any other journey. It doesn’t give me a special place in line at the Pearly Gates. It just is what it is. It’s not worthy of the “awe look” any more than all of the things the rest of us do … serving the poor at a soup kitchen … helping an elderly neighbor with basic chores … leading a short term domestic or international mission … working as an elementary school teacher … serving as a lay leader in a church … being an attentive parent … or??? … it’s just how I feel called to live out my baptismal call.
I think the ultimate question for all of us is, “How are we called to live out our baptismal call?” I also believe that as we answer that question for ourselves, we discover that we’re on a spiritual journey … one that helps us learn, grow, and transform into the person God wants and needs us to be.