However one thing will not be missed. Being casual. It is not difficult to trace its roots to the shifts and turns associated with what is often called postmodernism - but I won't do that here. I quite like the casual in the culture. I can see the value of the casual in the church from time to time. But one thing I do not understand. Why is casual with God so popular? For example, consider two of the practices, often called sacraments, we do in the sight of God and for God's sake. Weddings. Baptisms. Read more...
As one who rarely does formal, would you permit me to respectfully respond to your curse of the casual. Speaking as one on whom the suit and tie only appear at funerals (all too often at times) and the occasional wedding, never at baptisms or communions, not being suited for everyday use, I beseech you to consider the blessed value of the casual, the in-formal, a word for which you seem mal-content for it is an opportunity to be sacramental in a society where for-mal is largely out - mal-igned as stiff and ceremonious - for the bad. Whilst you don’t mind casual as usual in the culture and infrequent or irregular casual in church, you denounce casual in the sacramental as not in accord with accepted forms hence not serious, even nonchalant with God.
Whilst I agree with the importance of preparation for a wedding, I fail to see how preparation and formality go hand and hand to the altar; how the form, whether formal or informal, determines the seriousness of the performance of the performative or measures the intentions of the vows made. Surely in coming to the point of marriage, where society says co-habiting is as much commitment as you can expect, the couple are showing a serious commitment to each other, subverting culture by committing to a life together before the house and the kids. It is not the structure of the ceremony but the preparation of the couple for marriage and their actions that follow within marriage (some which needs be spontaneous to be genuine) that determine either the development of close intimacy or a decent into shallow casual acquaintance. It is not the “have and to hold” but the having and the holding from this day forward, not the “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health until death do us part” but the faithfulness in good times and bad times when your partner is happy or puking, to love and honour them all the days of your life. In NZ society in-formality connotes genuineness, whilst out-formality is assumed put on, well suited but unsuitably synthetic. So in defence of the casual in the holy sacrament of matrimony, I would suggest that good preparation for marriage and good preparation for the wedding service could lead to a relaxed service with some spontaneity; you don’t have to be serious to be serious. The act of marriage, de jure, need not be serious to be sacramental – a sign of commitment to faithfulness in a de facto world.
I love to hear baptism testimonies – to hear how someone realizes that their story is a sub-plot of history, to hear the variety of stories of God at work in people's lives. As way of a testimonial, I was baptised at age 11 in a Church of Christ church by our neighbour, because my Salvation Army movement (not Church!) didn’t practice the sacraments, seeing them as non-essential outward signs of an inward experience that should speak for itself. But my Officer father, upon my enquiry as to why we didn’t follow the Bible at this point, encouraged me to talk to his pastor-mate next door who did – and within the year our whole family (except my young sister age 8) were baptised in secret, least my father be fired from the Blood and Fire. There was nothing casual about this decision, but we didn’t share our testimony in the secret service; our lives were testimony to our faith and our considered decision to obedience in baptism after exploring its meaning ourselves, not in accord with the accepted regulations of the Salvation Army, was sufficient for the sacrament to be carried out according to the forms of the Church of Christ. Despite the CoC belief that baptism saves, we did not see this event as some kinda magic – only a step of obedience. Many years later, working with Southern Baptist missionaries, I learnt that you have to be baptized in a baptistic way to be an IBM-SBC missionary – so my baptism wasn’t good enough for them (the IBM not the missionaries), they would have had me re-dunked the proper way, perhaps to see, in a Saleem kinda way, if I floated or sunk. Then there is the pastor friend who was upset that I had baptised a young man in our paddling pool who asked me why I hadn’t baptised him yet after he came to Christ a year earlier. The pastor said he wouldn’t stop fellowshipping with me over that, but he knew some who would! Or there are the Jesus Only folk who called our house church baptisms invalid because we baptised in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and not in the Name of Jesus only; or the ordained senior pastor of the Alliance church who couldn’t baptise anyone because he wasn’t married. So I happily agree with you that the only conditions for baptism are repentance and faith. Yet that is something that is confirmed in relationship with the person wanting to be baptised. If you have to wait to hear their testimony in the pre-moment of baptism, isn’t it too late to back out if they fail to perform as per the checklist? Surely their life should be speaking before then. Yet if they can’t enunciate the magic words in the moment then I’m with the Sallies and the Southern Baptists in that it is the inward experience, not the magical words (neither their testimony nor the incantation) that saves them, but the grace of God that is poured over them in the actual action of turning back to God and putting their faith in Jesus. The performative of the sacrament of baptism is a sign of this faith, courageously acted out in a society that mal-igns Christianity as the only view not to be tolerated because it is seen as mal-ignantly in-tolerant. Anyone who is prepared to take the plunge and face immersion in the incredulity of their incredulous friends and family is ready for the waters of baptism, for it is no casual decision or nonchalant attitude towards God – it is hot!. I love to hear impassioned testimonies and clear explanation at a baptismal service, not because it validates the baptism but because it augments the sign to the non-believer, not for the believer; moreover they are the sign.
Luther’s On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church is primarily an attack on the Roman Church’s sacramental system which gave it spiritual and temporal authority – control over Christians lives from birth to death. His counter was that faith was necessary, least these become “incitements to impiety.” He saw only Baptism and the Eucharist as true sacraments (not marriage). He was not speaking of marrying ourselves to cultural values but divorcing ourselves from the for-mal of an over-sacramentalization, nor of baptizing cultural trends but un-baptizing the formalism of the sacraments as the currency of a corrupt church. Insomuch as his words, which seem at times uncharitable to us especially in his polemic against the papacy are, in context understandable and helped light the fires of the Reformation, likewise today, living here in NZ we can see informality in the sacraments not as syncretism but contextualization. They are subversive acts of devotion that speak to those who are listening, but their sound can be silenced if an over-formality causes a press of the mental skip button.
If we are to recover the sacramental as a pathway to effective mission we need to primarily offer up our Christian communities as living sacrifices, pointing to God, being instrumental in bringing people into relationship with him, existing for the sake of others. If this means becoming casual for casual people and formal for formal people then hopefully we can point to a God who is transcendent of the in/formal dichotomy, yet who condescended to be my friend (not my boyfriend☺ ) whilst remaining the creator of the universe. In the end it is the living sacrifice of genuine community not the half-listened to words that speak loudest. That is why the casualness decried by the prophets is casualness in mis-treating the marginalized and of putting anything before God; it is not about robe-on or robe-off. The triad of sacred-solemn-serious is at its root an issue of attitude not form. Genuinely asking God to be part of the triple-braided-rope, not just at the start, but throughout marriage is more important than a reverential solemn occasion. Perhaps to stop people falling away we should return to the 2-3 year waiting period for baptism or like Tertullian advised:
The unwed should be deferred for temptation is waiting for them as alike in the case of the virgins because of their maturity, as in the case of the widowed because they are without partners. Let them wait until they marry, or until they are strengthened for continence. Those who understand the importance of baptism will rather fear its attainment rather than its delay.
Yeah, right! Jerry Harrison was mostly confused in Casual Gods but his “Song for Angels” is no “too late” repentance nor was he just a talking head when he sung, “I remember, where I should have gone. And I feel the time is coming. When we are all angels.” That’s not in Christian-speak but were he to profess faith, he’s kinda got the right idea and baptism would be a memory that just “can’t wait.”
So I bless the casual if it means no-r-mal , accessible, genuine, real and the formal if it isn’t for-mal but is relevant to those seeking to be a sign and those looking for one. But as Jesus said to the woman at the well (in my informal paraphrase), its neither here nor there, its what’s in there that counts.
In the words of my extremely-informal jandal-wearing tutor, who, like me, thinks that dress-casual means wear jeans and a t-shirt, words taught to me on my first day of learning Spanish:
Fue un placer haber conversado contigo. It was a pleasure having talked with you (fam.)