The ‘visible sign of invisible grace’

Reflections from weekend of teaching, learning, and my installation as mission co-worker with Iglesia Presbiteriana de Honduras:

Part of my job is to assist with a pastoral education program offered by the Instituto Bíblico Pastoral from Universidad Bíblica Latinoamericana. The professors and facilitators asked me to teach a workshop on the sacraments from a Presbyterian/Reformed perspective. So I and my regional liaison, Tracey King-Ortega, prepared a two-hour lesson and activities.

I knew beforehand that the sacraments can be a delicate subject between Honduran and U.S. Presbyterians, because most U.S. Presbyterians baptize infants and children, and the Honduran church believes in a “believer’s baptism,” that is, a person must be of age and able to choose baptism for themselves. There are valid arguments in the Reformed tradition for both, so my goal was to present the varied arguments and discuss the reasons that the Honduran church believes one way and the U.S. church believes differently.

I wasn’t getting very far and had the feeling that most of the pastors/lay leaders in the room were somewhat unthinkingly entrenched. Finally I said, “For example, I was baptized as a baby. By my grandfather, who was a pastor.” I went on to explain that I was confirmed as a teenager in my church, and that was my own conscious decision, and I was not rebaptized. Later, I was ordained, first as a deacon and then as a pastor in my church, and in both cases was following a call by my community and by God, and in each case “remembered” and invoked my baptism but was not rebaptized. “Now not all North Americans feel this way. My mother, for example, was baptized as an infant, and then again as an adult, because she felt that it was important for her to make that decision for herself. But I don’t feel that way. In my heart, I feel baptized, even though I don’t technically remember it.

“Now, in your church, where I am now called to serve, do you think I can participate fully, without being rebaptized? For example, may I take communion, for which baptism is a prerequisite?”

Wide eyes and silence for a few seconds. I knew that at least some in the room were thinking to themselves that, yes, I probably ought to be baptized again, but how could they say that to a new pastor/teacher/missionary that they just met?

Discussion opened up again. The room was still split, but we were somehow no longer unthinkingly entrenched. We talked about the importance and meaning of baptism in our tradition, and we talked about the importance of inclusion as well as personal independence and liberty. We didn’t come to a consensus, but that didn’t matter. We started thinking about the reasons why we do what we do, and not only about how to convince others to think as we do.

Near the end of the discussion, a lay pastor, a 65-year-old farmer with no formal education outside this pastoral education program, shared his own story of personal conversion and baptism. And he said directly to me, “What matters most is your own conscience. If in your heart you are baptized, then you are baptized.”

What a pastor. I felt so affirmed by his response. I felt he was telling me, “I trust you and welcome you, even though we’re different.”

What I learned in teaching this workshop is that formal education, intellectualism, systematic theology, critical thinking are all important tools. It helps if you have them and use them. But they are not what make a pastor. A pastor is someone who touches your heart, who helps you feel seen and trusted and welcomed. And by feeling seen and trusted and welcomed, then we are able to see and trust and welcome others. Personal connection, tenderheartedness, vulnerability, and story sharing: Those are the most important tools of a pastor.

How appropriate, then, that we were discussing the sacraments, of which John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion said: “The seals which are affixed to diplomas, and other public deeds, are nothing considered in themselves, and would be affixed to no purpose if nothing was written on the parchment, and yet this does not prevent them from sealing and confirming when they are appended to writings. …  sacraments bring with them the clearest promises, and, when compared with the word, have this peculiarity, that they represent promises to the life, as if painted in a picture.”

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