By now, this being the third letter I’ve written for the anniversary of your drowning day, you’re old enough and smart enough to be thinking to yourself, “I didn’t choose you, Jason, to be my dogfather.” And, because you’re at that wonderfully honest age where you’re still unpracticed in the lies we grown-ups call “manners,” you’ve probably also embarrassed your parents by observing out loud how you didn’t get to choose me.
Of course, if you have muttered something along the lines of “I wish Uncle Teer was my godfather instead,” then it’s time your parents taught you some damn manners.
Besides, you wouldn’t have gotten to choose him either. Just as your Mom and Dad baptized you without your consent— I was there, kid, they did it against your will even— so too did they stick you with me, hoping that I would aid and abet the Holy Ghost’s work of affixing the way of Jesus onto you. It’s an odd job to be sure. Don’t let my collar fool you, it’s work for which I am wholly inadequate to the task. The more you get to know me, Elijah, the liklier it becomes that I’ll be but one reason you grow to suspect your parent’s judgment, for I’m neither an exemplary father nor am I particulary holy when it comes to God. Nonetheless, if you learn anything about Jesus in the years ahead, Elijah, you should know that he delights in calling losers like me to impossible tasks in order to make their lives more interesting than they deserve. If God had a fraction of the hiring standards as your church preschool, then the gospel would’ve become but a rumor by the first anniversary of Easter. Christianity, I hope you’ll one day discover, is neither a religion nor a club. It’s an adventure.
Stanley Hauerwas, a mentor important to both your Dad and me who preached your baptism, says in his memoir, Hannah’s Child, that he thinks he had to become a theologian in order to be a Christian. Trust, belief, and the habits necessary to sustain a Christian life simply came too unnaturally for him. He needed the obligation of a vocation to hold him accountable to the implications of his baptism. I think I needed to be a pastor in order to be a Christian. Without an every Sunday deadline looming over me and forcing me to engage God’s Word, Jesus Christ, my discipleship would’ve remained shallow and unthinking. I would’ve remained content to live a life of functional atheism. My life still fails to meet the measure I think Jesus sets for us; that is, I do not sufficiently live in a manner that makes no sense if God has not raised Christ from the dead. But, thanks to being a pastor, I’m at least haunted by the possibilities I’m too much the coward to venture. Ministry forces me to recognize there’s more to life than that for which we settle.
Like Stanley, I needed the burdens of my vocation in order to live into my baptism. Maybe you’ve noticed already, Elijah, a large part of being a pastor is working with words. I’m a skeptic in remission, Elijah, and working with words is how I make sense of the God who makes sense of us. It seems to me, then, that working with words— writing you these letters— is the only sensible way for me to attempt your parent’s silly gambit of making me your godfather.
Of course, all of my consternation is unnecessary because, right about now, your baptism is not the calendar date heavy on your mind. After all, this is October, and the leaves have turned. That means it’s nearly Halloween. Despite my suggestion that with your crazy curls and your shit-eating grin you should dress as Gene Wilder from Willy Wonka and the Chocalate Factory, you insist on trick-or-treating this year as Spiderman. My son Gabriel, whom you adore more than Uncle Teer or myself, went through his own Spiderman craze at your age, shooting make-believe webs at unsuspecting bystanders and would-be villains. Perhaps the anniversary of your drowning day and All Hallowed’s Eve aren’t so far apart, Elijah.
Even a novice theologian like yourself might be able to work out the ways in which Spiderman is the perfect doppleganger for the life of the baptized. Peter Parker is just an everyday kid at Midtown High School. Moreso than any other superheroes, Peter Parker struggles with the burden he feels from the mantle that has been placed upon him. Though he did not choose it for himself, Peter wants to live up to the life he’s been given; at the same, Peter wants to be ordinary, freed in the world from his calling to be different.
Elijah, if he hasn’t already, your Dad can tell you the Bible word for different.
My boys are obsessed with comic books, Elijah, so I know of what I speak. What makes Peter Parker extraordinary is not his spidey-sense or his superstrength. It’s the candid and genuine way he wrestles with the easier life he’d prefer versus the peculiar life providence has placed upon him. You can’t shoot webs or swing from skyscrapers, Elijah (sorry, pal), but, like Peter Parker, God’s great power has placed upon you great responsibility.
Actually, I hate that word responsibility, Elijah. It makes God sound like the lunch lady who shushes all the kids trying to swap their string cheese for oreos. And Lord knows there are plenty of Christians who specialize in making the God of Grace sound like an IRS auditor. God’s not a librarian reminding you of your overdue books, little man; God’s a librarian who throws her job away forgiving all the fines.
So let’s say it this way:
God’s great power over words and water has placed upon you great opportunity.
Like Peter his webs, your baptism has thrust upon you a life that would not be possible apart from your incorporation into Jesus Christ.
And like Peter, this isn’t necessarily a choice, even now, you’d make for yourself. Honestly, I suspect the Church baptizes babies because too many adults would run the other way if they got wise to the fact that they weren’t actually inviting Jesus into their hearts but Jesus was instead conscripting them into his kingdom. Elijah, the irony is that while you didn’t get to choose your baptism your baptism commits you to struggling with some inconvenient choices. In other words, by baptizing you against your will, Elijah, your parents have done a fanatical perhaps even cruel act. They’ve said yes to the possibility that you will one day have to suffer because of their convictions. They’ve burdened you with choices you would not need to negotiate if you knew not Jesus Christ exactly because to be a Christian is not to be someone who assents to the articles of the creed. That would be easy. Rather, the articles of the creed make intelligible the way Christians act in the world.
Christians act in the world as though Jesus Christ really is Lord, and that presents us with no end of choices to navigate.
“Will you serve God or Money?” is one such dilemma.
“Will you study hard to get as far up the ladder as you can or will you live the posture of servant?” is another.
“Will you trust that happiness is what can be captured in a filtered, homogenized Instagram pic or will you cross your fingers and trust that happiness is found among those who hunger and thirst for God’s justice?” is still another choice.
They’re inconvenient choices because in every case the choice your baptism commits you to goes against the grain of both country and culture.
Therefore, your baptism— if done rightly— will make you not just a Christian.
It will make you different.
And by the time you’re able to read and comprehend this letter, Elijah, you’ll be the age when “odd” is about the last thing you’ll want to be. Like Peter Parker, what you’ll want most is to conform, to blend in, to be normal. Once such a desire settles in us, we seldom recover. Rightly understood, Elijah, your baptism may be the most counter-cultural act your parents ever commit, moreso even than they’re support for Bernie Sanders. By baptizing you into the way of the cross before you can make up your mind for yourself, your parents prophetically, counter-culturally acknowledge that you don’t have a mind worth making up. You don’t have a mind worth making up; that is, not until you’ve had your mind (and your heart and your habits too) shaped by Christ.
How could you possibly make up your own mind, Elijah? Choose for yourself?
After all, what it means to be free, to be fully human, is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself just as Jesus loved. So how could you ever make up your own mind, choose for yourself, until after you’ve apprenticed under Jesus?
Elijah, I realize telling you you don’t have a mind worth making up on your own sounds offensive. I no choice but to be offensive, for we live in a culture that thinks Christianity is something you get to choose (or not), as though it’s no different than choosing between an iPhone or a Droid. But notice, Elijah, no one in our country thinks it unusual to raise their children to love their country, to serve their country and even die for it. Your Dad hasn’t even given you the choice about whether or not you’ll follow Washington’s NFL team. As the son of your father, you will be a fan. And so it goes for all sorts of the features that constitute our lives. But people do think their kids loving God, serving God, and possibly suffering for God should be left up to their own personal “choice.” As the aforementioned Stanley likes to point out, it’s just such a prejudice that produces nonsense like the statement: “I believe Jesus Christ is Lord but that’s just my personal opinion.”
When engaged couples tell your Dad or me that they’re going to let their children choose their religion for themselves when they’re older, we often reply to those couples that they should raise their kids to be atheists. In addition to being more honest, straight up, unapologetic atheism would at least require their children to see their parents held convictions. Our (pagan) culture teaches us to think we should get to choose the story of our life for ourselves, which, in itself, is a story none of us got to choose. This makes it not just a story but a fiction, a lie.
And a lie is a very serious thing if you are a Christian, Elijah.
Listen up, kid.
Ours is a loquacious God, as Karl Barth said— a God who reveals himself through speech. Indeed the name the gospel gives to the Father’s Son is Word. We are made, says the Bible, by the Word wording us into existence. Therefore, there can be no graver and no more fundamental betrayal of our faith than the lie. Gene Wilder, the dude whom I think you should go as for Halloween, once said, “If you’re not going to tell the truth, then why start talking?” I don’t know if Gene Wilder realized it but in saying “If you’re not going to tell the truth, then why start talking?” he was speaking Christian. The Creator, Genesis tells us, creates by a speech-act. Gpd’s saying it makes it so. As creatures of this Creator, we reflect the image of God most proximately by our speech. The commandments “Thou shall not bear false witness” and “I am the Lord your God, thou shall have no other gods but me” are redundant, for the lie is a form of idolatry. To open your mouth and speak a true word is to imitate the God who declared, “It is good;” whereas, to open your mouth and lie is pervert God’s creation to other ends. This, no doubt, is what Jesus’ brother is after when he warns, “The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity.”
Here is one implication of the life into which we’ve baptized you, Elijah.
You must not lie.
I wish it were hyperbole, but the third anniversary of your baptism is a time of moral anarchy in America.
You’re still too little to notice, perhaps, but there are liars all over the news.
We grown-ups call them “leaders.”
The fact that that previous sentence will be taken by many as a partisan polemic, Elijah, is but an indication of how complicated is the path of the baptized onto which we’ve set you. If Christians are not mindful, our lies will deliver us into the same inconvenient truth as Caiphas, who confessed, “We have no King but Caesar.”
Maybe you can sense, Elijah, how truth-telling, for Christians, isn’t merely about honesty it’s about witness. To tell the truth entails telling the truth about Jesus Christ; that is, truth-telling requires the insistence that what God has revealed to us in Jesus Christ— despite all evidence to the contrary— is the true story of the world. This means in part, Elijah, that to live out your baptism is to call bullshit on all the other lies by which the Principalities and Powers attempt to narrate our world. Our mentor Stanley likes to tell the story of how, during the period when America illegally bombed Cambodia, he trained his young son that whenever President Nixon’s name was mentioned in school he was to raise his hand and ask, “You mean, the murderer?” Likewise, your godmother and I trained our boys to stand respectfully but otherwise refrain from participating in the pledge of allegiance at school. “You’re Christians,” we taught them, “You can pledge allegiance to no one else but Jesus.”
This did not go over well with teachers.
And, among their peers, it made them odd.
But we had baptized them, Elijah, and, in baptizing them, we were prepared to make them suffer for our convictions, which is how it should go, I suppose, for that word holy can just as easily be translated odd.
In no small part, faith is the trust that what seems odd to the “real world” is, in fact, reality. Faith is trusting that the patient, peaceable way of Jesus’ cruciform love reveals the logic of creation. This is what the Bible means by calling Jesus the Second Adam. In the incarnation, God has broken through all our obfuscations and, in Jesus, given to us a new definition for what is truly human. And in baptism God’s killed off the Old Adam in you so that, in the New Adam, you might live according to the grain of the universe.
Truth-telling, you see, requires more than avoiding the lie whilst living however you will. Even the President manages occassion to avoid lying but that does not make him a truthful person. To tell the truth, Elijah, is to live according to the truth that is Jesus Christ. To so live is harder even than it sounds, for it will require you to refuse letting the “real world” determine for you what is real. You’re already a natural at not taking the real world as a given, but— the Bible tells me so— grown-ups are good at keeping children from coming to Jesus. Grown-ups will work to convince you that Christ’s Kingdom is an impossible ideal or an accusing burden, but the water speaks a different word. Your baptism, Elijah, has commissioned you to live as though Christ is Lord.
Christians do not welcome the stranger because we think, in welcoming them, the stranger will cease being strange to us. We do not attempt to love our enemies because, in attempting to love them, our enemies will cease to be our enemies. Nor do we feed the poor because we believe, in feeding them, the poor will express gratitude or because we think the watching world will be inspired by our example and end hunger. The way of Jesus isn’t a strategy to make the world come out right. The way of Jesus is the way those who believe Jesus has already made the world come out right live. Christians practice such work because we believe, for example, the giver of the sermon on the mount is our King and, in a world of violence and injustice and poverty, he has, by water and the Spirit, made us the peculiar people who witness to his authority.
Will God still love you if you fail to live in a way that is commensurate with the truth who is Jesus Christ? Will God still accept you if you live a lie?
Yes, of course. But that’s not what your baptism is for.
We’ve baptized into death, Elijah, so that you will live as though Jesus matters when it comes to matters that matter.
If you insist on trick-or-treating as Spiderman instead of Gene Wilder, then I hope you’ll at least watch Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. In last line of the film, Willy Wonka smiles a smile like yours and says, “Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he wanted….He lived happily ever after.”
It’s not easy to live truthfully in a world that refuses to be the world— that refuses to live as God’s gratuitous creation. I pray, Elijah, that in baptizing you into this odd way of life, you will look back and discover that, despite the challenges, this odd way of life gave you everything you ever wanted precisely by Christ giving you desires you would not have had had you not been baptized.