In joy! Oh! In joy do we gather: knowing we are all the image of God. This is the first verse of one of my favorite choral calls to prayer—one of the pieces we use to open the worship service at Riviera each Sunday morning. I heard it sung first at a Covenant Network conference by the group who composed it, a wonderfully odd collection of Lutherans known as “Bread for the Journey.”      

When we sing it, I am able to look out over the congregation—my own fabulous (and occasionally odd) gathering of family-of-faith—look at each face, and give thanks for the unique image of God reflected differently in each one of them. We have differing life experiences, backgrounds and work; come from different traditions and different places in the world; we see God differently and reflect the path of Christ with a wide variety of interests, volunteer efforts and connections. Our families are not all the same: the children we treasure have come to us from birth, surrogacy, national and international adoption, or foster care; and we connect with friend or partner or spouse in a variety of ways. One thing I believe is common among us:  that we all are formed in our relationships by Love, which comes from God; and that we all of us, are made truly in God’s image and living a life of faith intended to let that God-image shine forth more clearly.  We listen to one another, share our stories and practice community together because it is the way Christ has taught us to see the face of God.

Beginning in mid-July, we will enter on a beautiful season of baptisms. Beginning with the newly-adopted daughter of two men in our congregation on July 22, we will follow on August 5 by celebrating the welcome of new members, and the presentation for baptism by one of those families of their young sons, now that this young couple has claimed a church home that is as open and diverse as it is filled with children! Later in the summer or early fall, the congregation will at last celebrate the joining together of two dads and the two boys who have come to them out of our county foster care system. Baptism’s theological recognition that we are all adopted by grace into the family of God has special resonance here. Our church family has long been praying for the finalization of the boys’ adoption, and it will be a great joy to mark that union of a wonderful family with the sacrament of baptism. The image of God is so easy to see in these five precious children and the six parents (and one older sister!) who nurture them.

Later in the fall, the church will complete its season with a special service of baptismal renewal for one of our fellowship. The PCUSA Directory for Worship describes baptism as the sealing of the Word: the sign and seal of God’s grace and our response. . .the foundational recognition of Christian commitment. In addition to celebrating the sacrament of baptism for people of faith and their children, Presbyterian governance provides for services of baptismal renewal for those moments in an individual’s or congregation’s life when the remembrance and reaffirmation of baptismal promises may have special resonance.  Recently, our church newsletter featured a note of invitation from a long-time member. This individual, after a long journey with great struggles and powerful moments of spiritual and emotional insight, has accepted the challenge of gender reassignment, and will be transitioning from female to male over the remainder of this year. This has been a long journey for him and for his partner and their family.  Pastorally, it is a unique and powerful blessing to watch someone literally move more deeply into their own deepest self, even when that movement means risk and change; and to witness the image of God being brought forth in the midst of that re-birth, ever more powerfully. In his letter, the member thanks the church community, anticipating and having already experienced how this family of faith embraces people in their journeys, exactly as they are and as God has made them. Every person in this church with whom he has shared this news has embraced his journey with thoughtfulness, prayerful support, and love. Our session believes this is a rare experience for any community of faith, one that should be marked ritually as well as practically. The Book of Order states:  …baptism signifies the beginning of life in Christ, not its completion. God’s grace works steadily. . .God’s faithfulness needs no renewal. Human faithfulness to God needs repeated renewal. Baptism calls for decision at every subsequent stage of life’s way, both for those whose Baptism attends their profession of faith and for those who are nurtured from childhood within the family of faith. Baptism is received only once. There are many times in worship, however, when believers acknowledge the grace of God continually at work. As they participate in the celebration of another’s Baptism . . .and as they reaffirm the commitments made at Baptism, they confess their ongoing need of God’s grace and pledge their obedience to God’s covenant in Christ. (W-2.3007 and W-2.3009).  And so we will mark this child of God’s faithful decision at a truly unique “subsequent stage of life’s way”, welcome God’s continued fidelity, and pledge our own support and nurture as he and his family begin a new phase of life together.

What a great privilege, to have our tropical rainy summer season marked with so many moments of refreshment, renewal and recognition of the grace of God, to experience the blessing of baptism and baptismal renewal for members of our church family, all children created in the image of God.

I have a feeling we will be singing again and again in these good days:

In joy! oh, in joy do we gather! Knowing we are all the image of God.
            Be great, oh, be grateful and confident—Knowing we are all the image of God.
            Be well! Oh, be well and be welcome, knowing we are all the image of God.

Laurie Kraus, Pastor, Riviera Presbyterian Church, and Director, Covenant Network of Presbyterians