Happy Birthday Elijah!
Don’t let your mother read this letter or she’ll surely have some of her salty language for me. Even at whatever age you’re reading this letter, your grandmother will not appreciate you hearing such language. How she’s tolerated me for so long is a mystery. I meant your grandmother but that probably goes for your mother at this point too.
Obviously, Elijah, my memory isn’t as bad as your father suspects. I know October 23 is not the day your mother gave birth to you.
It’s the day you died.
Which is to say, as I said already: Happy Birthday!
Chances are, your mother would like me writing about your death even less than she’d appreciate me getting your birthday wrong; nonetheless, if I’ve done my job as your Godfather, then hopefully you know by now that ‘the day you were born’ and the ‘the day you died’ are redundant, simultaneous phrases.
As paranoid as your parents are about your safety, you should’ve seen what happy and willing accomplices they made on the day you died. They stood right next to me, wearing shit-eating grins (apologize to your grandmother for me), and acquiesced as we drowned you in water. We destroyed you- well, not you but the Old Elijah.
We baptized you. By ‘we,’ I mean the Church.
Baptism, I’m sure your Dad has taught you, is what the Church calls a ‘sacrament.’ The Church likes fancy $10 words to justify the pay and pensions of people like your Dad and me. A sacrament, to put it plain, is a sign accompanied by a promise. The sign on the Table, that other sacrament, is the bread and the wine. The sign in the bowl-shaped-grave is the water.
Signs: you can see them, taste them, touch them; they’re the tangible, seeing-is-believing proof one of Jesus’ dunderheaded disciples demanded.
While the words we pray at the Table sound different, the promise attached to both signs sounds the same when you make it simple: they’re for you.
It’s a promise, in other words, with your name attached: it’s for you, Elijah. Christ and all his benefits.
God takes his ginormous Gospel promise of grace in Jesus Christ and he sticks it on a creature called bread or water or wine, and he signs your name on it.
They’re for you, Elijah. Christ and his benefits.
“Just who the Hell are you to be bestowing Jesus Christ and his benefits?!” you’d be correct in thinking to yourself right about now, for in truth, the parlance of piety aside, I did not baptize you. Your Dad didn’t baptize you either though he had wanted to do so. I talked him out it. Precisely because you’d grow up to love him so much and look up to him, I feared that the fact your Dad had baptized you would obscure who really baptized you.
God baptized you, Elijah.
God did. I was every bit the bystander as your blood family.
Despite the junk you see on Cable TV Christianity, these sacraments are not ways you seek out a spiritual connection to God. They’re certainly not symbols by which you signify having found a connection to God.
The true God, the God of Jesus Christ, isn’t a God who can be found.
If I’ve done my job as Godfather then you already know how fraught is the passive voice of that preceding sentence. God isn’t a God who can be found by us.
If we’re the subject of the sentence, Elijah, then you know the clause that comes next can never lead to an accursed cross and a crucified God.
We don’t find God. God finds us.
The former St. Paul calls the Law.
The latter is the Gospel your Dad was ordained to proclaim.
We’re found by God, Elijah. In the sacraments.
The sacraments, like your baptism Elijah, are more than signs affixed to promises. They’re events in which God breaks through to us.
Your Aunts will tell you how I’m prone to exaggeration and hyperbole, but I couldn’t be more serious on this point, Nugget. If your slice of eternity resembles at all the collective calendar that has come before you, then you will have already and you will henceforth experience plenty of people- maybe yourself included- wondering where God is in this broken world. And, I’m willing to bet, the latitude-longitude point that most bedevils them is the one that intersects through their own broken heart.
Notice, Elijah, the questions we ask about God and the accusations we make at God, shaking our fist at the sky, all assume that God is there, up in the sky. Even if we only think figuratively that God is up on the clouds we nevertheless believe God, literally, is not here.
The true God isn’t sought.
The true God seeks.
And God does so in and through these sacraments.
God does not want to be known as far off in the heaven, the subject of our speculations. God does not want to be known in general, the object of our manipulations. No matter what the religious marketplace tries to hawk you, the life of faith is not a journey of becoming a better you, ever upwards to God- have you been to the gym?! Only a sadist enjoys the stair-master.
No, the God who puts on skin to get too close for comfort in Christ is a God who never stops condescending. He comes to us. He meets us in the watery grave and the broken bread. He’s really there, killing the old you and making you new again. He’s really there, filling your belly, him inside you so that you’re forever in him.
Wherever in your life this letter finds you, Elijah, if you haven’t already experienced brokenness and death then you will so soon. I hope to God the Church will have taught you to look for the aforementioned in the muck of your life and not to blame him for it.
God makes himself known in the broken bread and in the morbid water in part so that we’ll know he’s not to blame. But rather, he’s at work, most especially, in the shame and muck of our lives, in the fist-shaking brokenness of the world.
This is why it’s so dangerous to sentimentalize a baby’s baptism, particularly, and the Christian religion, broadly.
The very pain, shame, and ugliness of life we’re tempted to gloss over with kitsch and sentimentality is, in fact, the crucible where the true God is to be found.
I mean, it’s the crucible in which the true God finds us.
He’s really here, in bread and water and wine. He’s not far off. I hope to God the Church has taught you so.
Of course as Samuel L. Jackson says in the Long Kiss Goodnight, when you make an assumption you risk making “an ass out of you and umption.” I don’t know who Umption is, Elijah, but I want you to be clear. If there’s anyone who might not appreciate the definition of the Church it’s the son whose father is an employee of its moribund, institutionalized form.
Robert Jenson, a giant who died just before the anniversary of your death-in-Christ day, wrote
“The church is the gathering of the tellers and the hearers of the gospel word of promise.”
Jens also said what the Church is not:
“The message of the Church is a specific word.
If the Church does not get this word said, all other words it might say are better said by someone else.”
Again, as a preacher’s son you’ll likely know better than most how Jens was dead-on.
The Church is the People who tell and hear the promise of God affixed to those signs we call sacraments. If we’re God’s People then Jenson’s is a good definition for the Church. Scripture says that “all will know God is the true God when his last promise is fulfilled.”
i.e., what reveals God as God are the promises God keeps; ergo, God’s People, the Church, are tellers and hearers of the promise.
If you’re near marrying age, Godson, then you may already perceive how the beauty of a promise is that it offers the future as a gift. I promise to be yours in sickness and in health. A promise makes the future not an obligation (think: student debt, if you have any…you no doubt do). A promise makes the future not an object of dread ( think: sickness and health).
A promise binds the future to a prior condition, to a past (think: future love to past and present failure); as such, a promise makes the past depend upon the future rather than vice versa (think: the way of the world).
A promise grants a future free of the past, for if you’re accepted regardless of your past, you’re free to recast and reevaluate your past. If you’re loved forever into the future, then your past isn’t quite as shameful or tragic as you once feared.
You were baptized with people of the promise as happy bystanders. We’re all accomplices to the blood on the bowl. We made the promise that your future is not nor will it ever be determined by your past. God’s grace, as the song goes (do you sing it?) is amazing and unconditional.
All our promises in life, in our religious and secular lives alike, are conditioned by 1 hidden ‘umption.’
We all die.
Death comes to us all.
I’ll love you through sickness and health, for richer and poor, but I will die.
Every promise in this life, no matter how unconditional we try to make it, is conditioned by Death. Until we are parted by death I made your parents say when they made their vows to one another.
The only promise that is unconditional is the promise where Death is behind it.
Love, forgiveness, friendship…they can only be unconditional promises where Death, and the fear of it, is swallowed up in the past.
But you’ve died Elijah! The only Death that matters is behind you. Take it from someone who thought he was going to do and just well may even still: that’s good news.
We’ve killed you. Happy Birthday! The only Death that matters is behind you now and forever. Freed from the fear of Death you can learn to love, forgive, and befriend. No matter what the world tells you, death doesn’t come at the end of life. For the baptized, life follows death and so it can be a life lived without dread.
Lately, Elijah, you’ve learned the word ‘cookie’ and have been saying it with equal parts glee and insistence. You’ve learned how the word itself can effect what the word promises; saying the word ‘cookie’ with your lips can produce a cookie in your hand.
In the same way the promises we make do something to others (e.g., reevaluate the past), the promise of God does not just declares. The promise of your baptism doesn’t just declare through sign that you, Elijah, have died and risen in and with Christ and so forever belong to God, come what may. The promise of baptism is the means by which God creates faith in us to trust that promise for each of us every time we see someone like you drowned in the bowl-shaped-grave.
That’s why, Elijah, we didn’t wait until you were out of diapers and could ‘choose’ for yourself (whatever that may mean).
Faith isn’t a precondition for baptism.
God isn’t content to wait around, fingers crossed, hoping we’ll ‘make a decision’ for him. God doesn’t wait for us. God comes at us in the sacrament, killing and making new and giving faith. Maybe you’ll hear in that how fraught is our language about ‘having faith’ as though faith is our possession having first been our achievement.
Faith isn’t so much something we have, implying we’re the doers. Faith is received. It’s a gift.
It’s grace; that is, it’s a gift we do not deserve that God gives to us without price or merit.
If faith is grace, if it’s chiefly God’s work, then I’m in no position as your Godfather to give you faith. What I can do, what I hope I’ve helped do by the time you read this, even if but a little, is teach you to receive faith.
We’ve held hands, you and I, but maybe my role as your Godfather is to teach you to hold out your hands, open for the gift only God can give.