And that got me thinking.
Maybe this will sound odd coming from a preacher- professional, full-time Christian that I am.
Or maybe this will just sound overly obvious in a ‘it takes a village…’ vein.
Perhaps it will be neither.
Perhaps this will just strike you as undistilled self-interest, coming from a toadie of ‘organized religion’ who daily computes the correlation between butts in the pews and food on my dinner table.
Trust me, as a pastor I’m well-acquainted with how dysfunctional, mean and petty Christians can be to one another. I get a first-hand experience of what other people get to abstractly bemoan as ‘the problem with organized religion.’ Just as it is in the Gospels, the devil only shows up when Jesus is around; the downside to spending a career among Jesus’ people is that the devil shows up plenty.
But trust me, as a father I know without a doubt how much I need the Church. For my boys. How much they need the Church.
I need to expose my boys to folks whose generosity indicts my own impoverished sense of generosity.
I need to show my boys people for whom prayer is their first language not like it is for me, down there with high school German.
I want my boys to know people who have it harder than I do: people who have to figure out how to apply the Kingdom to their everyday, workaday lives.
To illustrate this a bit better, I’ve pasted in here a sermon I wrote looking forward to my son Gabriel’s baptism. It was 5 years this Eastertide that Dennis sprinkled wet promises on his head.
My wife and I have not baptized Gabriel yet.
Not for any theological reason, not because we want to wait until he’s older and can choose for himself. Nothing like that. It’s just that when you’re a pastor, scheduling a baptism for your own child is surprisingly difficult. So we haven’t yet baptized him but at some point we will.
Some Saturday or Sunday worship service Ali and I will drag Gabriel up here against his will and, depending on how close it is to his naptime, some of you will probably whisper that a pastor’s son should be more cooperative with the administration of the sacrament.
At some point soon we’ll hold him up here at the altar table. And you all will pray over a bowl of water and you will remember that water, which hardly seems mysterious or auspicious when it’s in Gabriel’s bathtub, is somehow the vessel of both God’s judgment and God’s new creation.
You all will then say ‘Amen’ and Gabriel might echo your ‘Amen’ only it will be on a three second delay.
You’ll close your hymnals and, standing up here, Ali and I will have to answer questions that I’ve asked of others countless times. And I will probably discover in that moment that it’s easier to ask the questions than answer them.
A minute or two later, with either fear or wonder in his round, brown eyes, he’ll gaze at Dennis as Dennis shocks him awake with a handful of H2O. Dennis will do so with the authority of a Name that still has too many syllables for Gabriel to say: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In case any of you mistakes this for a purely sentimental moment, Dennis will then dip his thumb in Holy Oil and he will trace a Cross, of all things, on Gabriel’s forehead- right on the spot where you can just barely see his red birthmark. And then Dennis will give Gabriel a candle that Gabriel will probably try to blow out.
Just as Gabriel begins to wonder where the cake is that comes with that candle, Dennis will say to him- but loud enough for all of you to hear too- that Jesus says that he’s the light of the world. And his parent’s wet eyes will say ‘Ditto.’
Finally, before it’s done, against my better judgment, Dennis will take Gabriel and he’ll turn him over to all of you. He’ll charge you all to raise Gabriel as much in the likeness of Christ as is possible this side of the Kingdom.
It will all be over in a few moments and we’ll get on with the worship service, but you might as well have given him a new name for as much as you will have promised to meddle in his life.
“What are you looking for?” Those are the first words Jesus speaks in the fourth Gospel. A question. The two disciples should have an answer for him. If they’ve made their way to the muddy banks of the Jordan River, then they’re clearly searching for something.
John the Baptist is an acquired taste. He’s not for everyone nor is he for the faint of heart. In his camel hair clothes, diet of locusts and honey, wild-eyes and street-corner sermons about repentance- he’s the sort you seek out only if you’re desperately looking for answers.
‘What are you looking for?’ Jesus asks.
And they should have all kinds of answers at the ready: Permanence/Purpose/Proof/Something Lasting/Forgiveness/A New Beginning/Something that Will Endure or Rise Above the Ordinary of their Lives/Something They Can Pass Down to their Children.
But instead they ask him: ‘Where are you staying?’
But that translation doesn’t quite get at it. They’re not asking for an address. ‘Where do you abide?’ is more like it. ‘Where or with whom do you dwell?’ That’s closer to what they ask the Messiah.
‘Where can you be found again and again and again?’ That’s what they want to know. That’s what they’re searching for.
And Jesus offers the newly baptized not answer but an invitation. ‘Come and See.’
And with just little water and a few words, their lives are changed forever.
One night this week, Gabriel woke up in the night. The house was cold and quiet. The dog barked once at the wind-chime outside. I got out of bed and, willfully violating all the tips and wisdom in our shelf full of parenting books, I brought Gabriel back into our room and laid him asleep in our bed.
I couldn’t go back to sleep though. So I turned on the bedside lamp and I sat up and I began reading this weekend’s scripture passage- the baptism of Jesus and the commissioning of the first disciples. As I read it, I looked over at Gabriel, his knees tucked up beneath chest, his eyes closed and his Lightening McQueen blanket beneath his head. And I began to imagine his baptism, and what it will mean.
We haven’t yet baptized him but soon we will and soon after he’ll start in Sunday School. He’ll learn to sing “This Little Light of Mine” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” He’ll color and cut-out pictures of David and Jonah and Noah. He’ll confuse the pictures of Moses for Dr. Perry, and by the fourth grade he’ll discover that all the good stories are in the Old Testament.
At the same time he’s learning to make a fist, you all will teach him how to fold his hands to pray for those who trespass against him and how to hold his hands to receive the grace of the Body of Christ.
And before the world can convince him otherwise, Gabriel will need a community who will teach him that this world is filled with the joy and wonder of the God who made it, that lions lying down with lambs isn’t such strange and impossible image and that what Dennis said at his baptism is true: Jesus really does love him and all the children of the world.
We haven’t yet baptized Gabriel, but soon we will and after we do it will be no time at all until he hits adolescence. Then his hormones will kick in and conspire to undo all the good you’ve done in him, and his parents will take comfort that at least Jesus has the wherewithal to love all the children of the world.
These will be the years that he’ll push you. He’ll suddenly wonder how Jonah could survive that dark trip in the whale’s belly.
He’ll argue that David may have bested Goliath but that he’s no match for Tom Brady and, besides, David’s hardly the unblemished hero his Sunday School teachers made him out to be.
Proud of himself, he’ll point out that Noah never would have had to build the ark had God not decided to flood everything and everyone in the world.
He’ll push you, and if you’re not up to the challenge he’ll be tempted conclude that everything you’ve taught him and everything you teach is, at best, a fairy tale and, at worst, a lie.
And this might be the first time someone he knows or loves dies. When that happens, you better not resort to clichés. You better be prepared to show him resurrection hope at work among you.
You might as well get ready now because when those years arrive you will have to struggle just to have your voice heard above all the callings that claim his attention and tempt his loyalty. Just when time seems to race by for his parents, tomorrow will seem forever away to Gabriel. He will feel caught between childhood and adulthood. Everything, from the face he sees in the morning mirror to the fickle loyalties of his friends, will change almost every day.
And whether he knows it or not, what he will need from you all is a community of constancy. He will need a people who refuse to let go of him, who refuse to let go of what they know to be true and enduring, who refuse to let him slip away before he learns to describe his world with the language you all use in this place.
And he’ll never admit it, but what he’ll need in those years is a place where he need not wear a mask, a place where vulnerability isn’t a dirty word, a place where a life of mercy and love and gratitude is a viable and even compelling alternative.
And then he’ll start high school. Just as everyone begins to comment on how his father hasn’t aged a bit, you will be remarking how old Gabriel looks now. You might use the word ‘mature’ or ‘handsome.’ You’ll only have four years of Sundays left with him. It will be harder for you to get his attention because he’ll no longer be listening to your words. He’ll be looking at your life.
When he worships with us, he’ll wonder if we’re as friendly as we think we are. He’ll wonder if we ever experience awe and mystery or whether we’re just ticking off our weekly obligation and hoping it won’t be too boring. He’ll wonder if we’re loose and free enough to allow the Spirit to enter our worship and our lives.
He’ll look at our lives and he’ll question whether we conform our views and values to the God of Jesus Christ or whether we’ve sketched an idol in our own unthreatening image.
In these years, his BS Radar will be acute so you better not patronize him. You better learn how to treat him as a member of the Body of the Christ.
This may be the last time you have his attention. So, for his sake, I hope you all lead lives that lead to the Gospel. And I pray that, just when he’s being pressured and pushed to get ahead, to pursue his future, to achieve success, and to grab after his dreams, by then you all will have taught him that servant-hood is the only path that leads to treasure.
One morning this week, Dennis and I gathered around his kitchen table with just our paper and pens and prayers. We attempted to assess where Aldersgate Church is in this present moment in terms of its mission and ministry, what future we thought God had for the Church and how we get there. Every now and then, Dr. Perry has a good idea and on that morning he suggested that we set about this work by imagining the sort of Church that he or I would choose to attend.
‘How does the sanctuary look?’ we wondered. How do the architecture and the art and the arrangement and the play of light and darkness- how do they converge to create sacred space? How does the space overwhelm you with the majesty of God and yet still comfort you with the proximity of his grace?
What first impressions does that sort of Church give you? How are you welcomed? What are the sights and the smells and the sounds that immediately hit you?
How does that imagined, ideal Church worship? How is it both reverent and free? How does its liturgy bridge the ancient and the now, the year 38 AD to 2008?
What are the marching orders of such a Church? What is its mission? And, more importantly, how do you know it and how are you made a part in it?
We imagined and chatted and sketched notes and made plans. All good.
Later that same night, when everything in the house was cold and quiet save the dog barking at the wind-chime, Gabriel stirred awake. I got out of bed and, when he heard my feet creak on the floorboards, he sat up in his crib. I picked him up and laid him between Ali and me. He fast returned to that place where dreams live, but I was awake.
Sitting in bed, I read today’s scripture passage. The image of Jesus’ baptism and the disciples’ commissioning led me to imagine Gabriel’s own baptism and his henceforth life. It was a memory of the future.
That same night after Dennis and I had done our imagining, it struck me that the sort of Church I want to attend, the sort of community I want to be a part of, the sort of people I want to pastor- is a Church that will make Gabriel into the sort of Christian that I know some of you are.
A place where he’ll find the Lamb of God in your flesh. A place where he’ll discover the coming Kingdom previewed in your lives. A place where he’ll learn that God is to be found among the lame and the poor and the outcast- not because you tell him but because you invite him to come and see for himself.
A place where Gabriel will learn that, because of a little water that Dennis put on his head, he’s called to abide with the God who abides with us and that that means he’s called to dwell with Christ in a Kingdom world where the first will be last and the last first, where the sick will be embraced and homeless sheltered and the poor served and prodigal welcomed with open arms.
I want Gabriel to have such a community that when he gets to be the age his father is now, when his waist is slightly thicker and his hair a little thinner- when he has a whole new set of questions, new hopes and different struggles ahead, he will be able to remember his baptism and be thankful.
I want there to be such a Church that when Gabriel’s looking desperately for where the Living God can be found, he will have a community who won’t just shrug their shoulders, who won’t refer him to the pastor, who won’t quote the Bible at him or try to prove anything to him.
I want there to be such a people who will be able, because of the integrity of their lives, to say to him: ‘Come and See.’
That’s the sort of Church I would want to give my life to.
Ali and I…we haven’t baptized Gabriel yet. We will though. Soon. And I hope by then the irony will have hit you: that Gabriel will never be able to live out his baptism if you don’t live out yours.