COLUMN: Ed Olfert — May 29, 2014

Ed Olfert
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Ed Olfert

This past weekend we drove to Saskatoon to be present at the baptism of a niece.

In our spiritual culture, baptism is chosen by mature individuals. Jill is in her early twenties. The local congregation was swelled by her extended family and friends, and it was an inspirational event.

As usual, my mind was in several places. It was certainly with Jill as she talked about her journey, growing up in warm and supportive circles, grounding her faith decisions in those circles, then moving out into a larger world with sharper challenges. It was a familiar journey, and at the same time, entirely unique.

My mind also suggested that the choice of baptism seems to be diminishing, at least in our denomination. Fifty years ago there was a pretty common assumption that baptism was a largely annual event for youth in their mid to late teens. Of course, in my contrariness, that ensured I would wait into my thirties.

For better or worse, fewer folks seem to be going that traditional route. I won’t try to identify all of the reasons for that, though my contrariness might well be contagious. In a delightful kind of paradox, I see in Jill’s choice of baptism her own expression of the family contrariness.

A year or more ago, I found myself at a farm auction far out of my usual circle. In the crowd, I encountered an old friend, a peer from my active ministry days. All this friend wanted to discuss, morosely, were declining church attendances in the provincial group of churches where he still ministered. I considered suggesting happy pills.

I’m not one to fret and stew much over changing church dynamics and culture, shrinking memberships, and blue/zero haired congregations. Those who give time to bemoaning encroaching Biblical illiteracy will bemoan without me. Religion has undoubtedly been both boon and bane to the cultures it has influenced. In a cultural era where the search seems more about authenticity and inclusion, much of what is religion may well be jettisoned. That might well mean church doors closing, programs disappearing, priorities realigned. Certainly grieving will be part of what lies ahead. Hopefully, excitement will show up as well.

In this information age, where you can no longer muse, “I wonder why …” without somebody, within 37 seconds, consulting Google and telling you why, church cannot remain the same. Faith structures were formed in other times, and will be bloodied, bruised, and wrestled low. Strangely, I’m mostly at peace with that. There are too many unhealthy examples of harm, of bullying, of control in the story of the church. Available information and instant communication will move toward eroding unhealthy power. Language of faith will change.

And yet, human determination to explore spirituality will push ahead, as it has since the beginning. Whatever is discovered, and named, and worshipped, will be good. It will also have a shadow side.

A favourite author suggests that “all saying must be balanced by unsaying, and knowing must be humbled by unknowing. Without this balance, all religion invariably becomes arrogant, exclusionary, even violent.” I hope future generations live this sooner and better than we do.

Meanwhile, I celebrate, and find very hopeful, the decision by Jill for baptism. In our tradition, baptism is a signal that you have reached a level of spiritual maturity that moves you to invest in a faith community, for your nurture, and for the community’s nurture. It is not a beginning nor an end, but rather a step toward vulnerability. Without vulnerability, God will not be discovered, nor served. 

The human determination to live well is a fascinating thing. That determination invariably brings together a like minded community at levels that range from local to global. That determination is not without a desperation that makes it rife for running askew, seeking all manner of unhealthy gratification.

Thank you, Jill, for modelling trust, humility, strength, hope.


Ed Olfert is a Prince Albert freelance writer.

Organizations: Google, Prince Albert

Geographic location: Saskatoon

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