Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Umbilical Cord of Christianity

For many years, I've struggled with the developing tradition of inviting people to receive communion prior to being baptized. It is specifically prohibited in the canons (rules) of the Episcopal Church, and yet many churches do so. It is often referred to as Communion Without Baptism or CWOB. Perhaps the most visible example of someone coming to faith in Christ through this practice is Sara Miles who wrote Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion. She is just out with another book Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead. I just read an interview with her and I'm struck again by how she really battles against the church's attempt to control or constrain God. I'm struck by her faith and by the fact that she accurately portrays some of the chief obsticles to that faith that lie within the church itself.

As I thought about that, I thought about how we think about baptism and communion. The idea is that we join in this meal at God's table after we have been born (actually, re-born) into God's family through baptism. In other words, we're born and then we are fed. That makes a certain kind of sense. However, if one takes this metaphor a bit further, how are "pre-Christians" or yet-to-be-(re-)born Christians fed before they are born into God's family? In other words, what provides the "womb" in which a person's first cells of faith can grow and the "umbilical cord" that provides the "nutrition" or spiritual food without which the unborn-again person will spiritually starve? It seems like, for Sara, that umbilical cord was, at least in part, communion itself.

I don't know exactly what to do with this metaphor, but I do think it is worth asking whether the church is a place that provides a safe place for spiritual growth and the "food" necessary for such growth or whether the church can only provide solid food, as it were, to those already in God's family. If it can only feed those who are already Christians, then we become essentially spiritually barren--unable to receive the gift of the beginnings of a new life that is growing within someone and nurturing it to in climax in someone's rebirth. Thomas Brackett, the Program Officer for Church Planting and Redevelopment of the Episcopal Church, talks about "midwifing" what God is already doing--nurturing it and helping it along. How might we best do that, I wonder, and what would it take to move from hospital or restaurant to birthing center?

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