Yesterday was the First Sunday of Epiphany. The Feast of the Baptism of Jesus.
The story was told again, around the parts of the Christian world that follow the calendar of the Roman church, of John the Baptizer and Jesus and the river Jordan and the voice of God the Father saying “This is my beloved son.”
Yesterday, I took a memory journey back to my own baptism(s).
Now please understand that I grew up in an evangelical tradition where a public profession of faith and a public baptism was a pre-requisite for church ‘membership,’ or as I now understand, for being on the rolls of a particular congregation.
I also grew up in a tradition where every single church service concluded with an altar call. A call to repentance. A call to salvation.
So it was that, at age five, I walked an aisle after a church service and made my childish/childhood/childlike profession of faith. We had talked with the minister at the church prior to that evening service at Calvary Baptist in Columbia, Missouri. He assured my father that I understood what I was doing.
Of course I realize now that I understood nothing. This act was a five-year-old boy getting a fire insurance policy so he wouldn’t burn in hell.
But the experience was real enough that it’s emblazoned on my memory, unlike so many other experiences in my single-digit years.
I was a good kid. A preacher’s kid. I caused my parents very little worry and trouble as I matured. And in due time I committed my life to Christian ministry (read that as “Baptist church work”), took a college degree in religious studies, went to work for two different Baptist institutions in four years, and ended up employed in the secular world.
But I get ahead of myself.
January 1981. I’m taking a Jan-term course, several hours every day for three weeks, in the topic “The Uniqueness of Religious Language.” On a Friday morning that January forty years ago, Dr. Dan (who died last year, and about whom I wrote on this blog just a few weeks ago) spoke of how the New Testament words “and have everlasting life” (see John 3:16) should really be interpreted not as everlasting length of life (the soul living on in death, whatever that means), but instead as everlasting quality of life (the soul having a relationship with God even in death, again whatever that means).
And I left the dining hall after lunch that day to find myself on my knees in my dorm room in Landen Hall, repenting my childish ignorance. Claiming this quality of everlasting life. Finally gaining access to the salvation from myself, from destruction, from darkness that I thought I had understood at age five. The moment was profound, life-changing.
Two days later, at First Baptist, Bolivar, I walked the aisle on a Sunday morning, made an adult profession of my faith, and was baptized by full immersion a week later. My parents didn’t understand, but I knew in my heart that this was the beginning of my new life.
My father saved all the letters I wrote during and after college. I have read enough of them to note that I quickly became pretty religiously zealous in a 20-year-old evangelical sort of way.
I also realize now I was beginning to flee from the then-uncomfortable realization that I was not suited for a conventional marriage, and to feel self-loathing and shame that came from beginning to understand my own sexual orientation. (That process took fifteen more years.)
Jump forward to 1988 and 1989, the time of a more enlightened adoption and understanding of the fullness of my Christian faith.
Many Christian denominations practice infant baptism and confirmation at the age of 14, when a teenager is admitted into the fullness of the Church, and after chatechisis, a time of teaching and training. The idea is that the young Christian is now old enough to be an adult in the faith.
For me, that point of being adult enough was in the early Bush administration. I recall being vividly aware one day that the world was not binary (yes/no, right/wrong) but instead a thousand shades of gray. That the command of God was actually pretty simple: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and love your neighbors as yourself.” That, unlike what had been taught me as a child, my job wasn’t to find God’s perfect path for me (I mean, what kind of loving god plays perverse whack-a-mole like that?) but instead to walk a path in faith, loving others around, doing good works, being a light.
And when I converted to the Episcopal Church as my spiritual home and in whose liturgy I delight so, and gave up my ordination papers (for I was at that time The Rev. Jeffrey R. Carter) from my Southern Baptist home congregation, and the minister at that church said to me “we all believe the Apostles’ Creed, and the rest is just polity and practice,” I received a confirmation from him that I was now free to walk the path.
So I have for the past thirty years. So I will for the rest of my days.
Age five, an insurance policy. Age 19, an adult understanding of some things. Age 28, assumption of the full mantle of the Christian joy and burden and purpose.
The Lord has shown forth his glory. Blessed be the name of the Lord.
Christmas morning. Glitters and flashes of snow in the air for a few minutes. A warm house, good coffee, and the satisfaction of homemade sticky pecan rolls for breakfast.
I have iTunes playing a shuffle of all the Christmas albums that are loaded into my ‘Holiday’ genre. And behold! — back-to-back are Ball State University Singers performing “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” and my own setting of “The Oxen,” sung by the Masterworks Chorale. And now comes “This Christmastide” by the American Boychoir, conducted by James Litton. The choral wealth overwhelms.
As usual, I saved presents from my students to open today. And last evening I joined on Zoom with the Baileys for a gift exchange. Several months ago, I sat with Lou and Leah and Dennis by their firepit one Friday evening. Dennis thought conversation was lagging, and so he called up a website about candy. A spirited discussion ensued. Little did I know that Leah was making notes on what I liked. And little did they know that I went home that evening thinking about finding international candy assortments for the boys.
And so it was that, unknownst to each other, we planned gifts of candy for this year.
Christmas Eve evening included Lessons and Carols beautifully sung by the Schola of The Church of St. Michael and St. George in Clayton, then the 2019 Midnight Mass from Croydon Minster (found on YouTube, and broadcast in the UK by the BBC), and then the George C. Scott version for television of A Christmas Carol.
I’ll run goodies by a couple of homes in a bit, then likely have a nap later today. First I must tend to the apple pie that’s in the oven. And this evening I Zoom with my sisters and their kids (and grandkids).
This strange season of separation doesn’t change the wonder of this day.
I have friends who call this day “Christmas Adam.”
Tomorrow is Christmas Eve.
My Bible tells me to pray without ceasing. Nelson’s canine version tells him “bark without ceasing,” especially when outdoors with the construction guys at the house to the south. One would think Nelson would tire, but he doesn’t.
I was pondering this morning the strange fact that 24 years ago tomorrow was the last time I saw my mother. From my loft apartment in the River Market in Kansas City, I listened to the international broadcast of the King’s College service, then drove to Lee’s Summit to collect her and drive her to the airport to return to Argentina. She had been home on medical leave (and to see her new granddaughter). We parted at the airport. She died 15 months later.
What does one do with some canned mango and some blueberries in the fridge? Add sugar, of course, and heat, and some lime juice and zest. And make mango blueberry jam!
I drove to Columbia yesterday to see my sister Beth, niece Kristen, and great-nephew Leo. Nelson accompanied me. The purpose was a hug and the handoff of some Christmas decorations. I must say that this aging body does not deal as well any more with four hours of sitting in the driver’s seat of a car. I needed a heating pad and some naproxen last evening!
And Beth brought me some Cheetos. I proved yet again that this is a bad thing, as this morning there are no Cheetos.
This morning I read Morning Prayer with a special intention for the Feast of Lottie Moon, who is now provisionally included in the calendar of saints in the Episcopal Church. Lottie Moon was a Southern Baptist missionary to China in the 1800s, and to this day churches in the denomination in which I was raised gather offerings in December to support international missions. My parents were supported by these offerings.
I found the collect for today to be especially meaningful:
O God, in Christ Jesus you have brought Good News to those who are far off and to those who are near: We praise you for awakening in your servant Lottie Moon a zeal for your mission and for her faithful witness among the peoples of China. Stir up in us the same desire for your work throughout the world, and give us the grace and means to accomplish it; through the same Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
I’m slowly working through several months of Sojourners magazine. This article lead by Jim Wallis caught my eye today:
WHO WOULD HAVE thought that a verse from the first chapter of the Bible would become an “altar call” for a presidential election? Here is our call to faith as we look to Nov. 3: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.’ ... So God created humankind in [God’s] image” (Genesis 1:26-27).
I believe this text about the creation of humankind in God’s likeness is the foundation of politics for people of faith. It means how we treat other human beings, including our fellow citizens, is a theological matter and not just a political one. Mistreatment of our fellow human beings and citizens is also not just a political problem but an offense to the image of God, an assault on imago dei.
Dear friends and family and readers around the world,
So . . . we near the end of this year that has felt like an eternity suspended. Stop-time. Profound disruption and uncertainty.
But in these darkest days, promises of light have emerged. While we do not know the lasting-ness of the damage that Trump has done to our republic (the damage is known, but how long it will linger is an open question), we seem to have weathered the storm of the 2020 election. And a vaccine for this pernicious virus is now offering hope of a return to somewhat normal life earlier in 2021 than later.
The ache to be with has grown ever more present and powerful as the year has gone by. I posted a series of songs about touching back in April. Little did I imagine that so long would go by without the warmth of human flesh nearby in a hug or handshake. (And just after I wrote this, a friend stopped by with a yummy treat. She’s had the virus and is now safe to hug. So we did. In 30-degree weather on the porch. Bundled up and masked. And the embrace was deee-vine.).
I have worked from home for eight months now. My home offices, as they appeared in April:
So yes, daily life has felt suspended since March, but it’s also been sustained. Nelson has brought unending joy and comfort since joining me in late May. My weekly conclave with the Saturday Supper group (Karin, Jessica, Lou and Leah) has provided welcome connection, conversation, kvetching, and loads of laughter. (Little did I know how much running away and joining Circus Harmony would change my life.) The kitchen has become my sanctuary, and I now need an intervention and moratorium on cookbook purchases.
During the warm months, my garden and a new interest in birding helped while away the days. So much new music has passed through my eyes and into my fingers at the piano as I’ve worked on building my own knowledge of contemporary musical theatre. I took four graduate credits this summer at Shenandoah University, and rebooted my voice teaching. A brief summer holiday at a farm in southern Illinois was a balm for the soul.
Creativity has not slackened this year, but it has changed focus somewhat. Circus Harmony’s Fluente in January featured a number of new charts from me. And then the virus led to a September show built around the idea of “the balancing act,” for which I wrote a half-dozen new charts as well.
As the world around us grapples with inequity, inequality, and division & hate & racism & fear & so many other destructive impulses, I am attempting to own my own privilege in the face of caste and race, and actually do something about it. The first steps are the least tangible, but they are happening.
Daily Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer have been a mainstay and daily fence-posts for spiritual grounding in 2020. With worship in person suspended, I bounce back and forth on YouTube and Vimeo and Facebook between the National Cathedral, St. Mary’s Bourne Street in London, Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral in Kansas City, and local parishes.
I have finally this year dealt the last of my father’s detritus of papers and piles. I purged the basement of unneeded junk and so much choral music that I’m never going to conduct or teach again, so much has my profile changed.
And I’m preparing for my next act. As I write this weekend, I have fewer than 165 days left as Chair of the Department of Music at Webster University. I’m eager to strengthen my teaching, and up my service profile as professor, both inside the university and in engagement with a wider community. This next summer promises to be my first summer of no university teaching or administrative duties in more than 30 years!
I’ll post next week a year-in-review-in-pictures.
And I leave this letter with a text I penned last week, for this year’s Advent Carol:
In this time of profound uncertainty, In these months of joyless despair, We hope again and joyous see: A Savior comes, our sorrows to bear.
I am writing on Saturday, one that is only my second Saturday completely free since Labor Day. The freedom manifests itself as luxury.
So I take long pauses in Morning Prayer at my home altar. I say extra prayers for those I love, those in need, those who are traveling. And I ponder how best to focus my year-end giving for maximum impact on immediate needs.
The Great British Baking Show is such a delight, no? Peter nailed it this week, with a handshake and a star baker.
Full disclosure: in the last couple of weeks I have rewatched the Nadiya and Tamal season, and also devoured Nadiya’s Time to Cook on Netflix, from the BBC. Her ‘egg roll’ has become a quick favorite.
I’m outsourcing Thanksgiving turkey this year, purchasing 12 pounds of smoked turkey from Kenrick’s. And some of their traditional stuffing.
Meanwhile, the obscene fricktard cheese puff in the White House fiddles and furies while Rome burns. In the last week alone, this country has progressed to 12 million confirmed COVID cases this year from the 11 million one week ago. This appears to be a virus out of control, and only a massive unified federal response can lift us out of the horrible winter to come. But His Orangeness cannot think of anything but grift and grab and trying to overturn a valid election through whatever mean he can. He himself is illegal, methinks.
At school we will actually have a full faculty recital this week, streamed on YouTube for a sense of occasion. We have 1.5 class weeks left, and then a week of finals, and this long, strange semester will be over.
I am increasingly hopeful that we will be back to normal early in the third quarter of 2021, perhaps by my birthday.
How quickly a dog can go from fresh-smelling to dog-smelling.
I made an apple galette on Friday, in the midst of lessons, class, a faculty meeting, a webinar, and a recruiting fair in Dallas (all on Zoom).
As this is published, we will be in the Last Sunday of Pentecost, the end of the church year, Christ the King Sunday. Advent is but a week away.