Birth, death, and promise-keeping

Colonel Laws died on Friday. His funeral is at two this afternoon. Those in our church who know Colonel have been sharing some of their memories, both in our online forum and at church yesterday. I appreciate this, because it adds some humanity to the name we've been praying for for years.

On Friday I had a line running through my head from the 1997 Wes King song "Thought You'd Be Here," which is about a struggle with infertility. "I never knew that I could miss someone I've never met." By now I know well of the possibility of missing someone I've never met, and I was feeling it afresh in the knowledge that a member of our congregation was gone.

I've been thinking of those prayers we pray each week for the infirm and the dying in relation to the vows we make at baptisms. Our book of order outlines the responsibilities of various parties involved in a baptism, including a pretty big one for the whole congregation: "The congregation as a whole, on behalf of the Church universal, assumes responsibility for nurturing the baptized person in the Christian life."

My favorite part of a baptism (especially since in my book Presbyterians usually don't get nearly wet enough -- an ideal baptism should involve a thorough soaking of both the baptizee and baptizer) is the congregational participation, the opportunity to join in the resounding "WE WILL!" when invited to make that pledge to the child and their parents and to God.

I take this vow seriously, even if I honor it mostly in the breech. It is a part of why I volunteer for nursery duty, although I hardly consider the vow discharged by my once-ever-six-weeks stint in the Puppies Room. It is very important to me that we, collectively, are pledged to nurture each other in the faith; that the spiritual journey is not a solitary one.

I think of the prayers we say for those no longer able to join us for worship as the other end of that baptismal commitment. Luther described infant baptism as a vivid illustration of the total gratuity of divine grace. Babies can do nothing for themselves, cannot even bring themselves to the baptismal font, but the God of grace reaches out to claim them as his own. Near the end of their lives, some of our elders are in a similar situation -- they have lost the ability to do many things for themselves, they can no longer bring themselves to the church, but they remain a part of the church as we remember them in our prayers.

And in a way, we, the present congregation, by praying for our elder members, are continuing to fulfill the vows made years ago by people who are mostly now long dead. I don't know the details of Colonel's baptism or of Presbyterian worship patterns in the early 20th century, but I imagine a young family bringing a baby boy, 89 years ago, before the same congregation (in a previous meeting place) for baptism, and the parents and the congregation declaring "WE WILL" do what is in our power to nurture this person in the life of faith. And since that congregation was taking on that responsibility on behalf of the Church universal, with the passing of the individuals who witnessed that event, their duty has fallen to us, their successors in faith in this particular congregation.

We never outgrow the need for Christian nurture, at least not before we reach our eternal home. It is a privilege and a sacred honor to be able to take part in that care of others, and a blessing to be recipients of others' care.

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