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Friday, October 20, 2017

Light in the Lord

    For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light  (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. 
-Ephesians 5:8-13 (NIV)


We’re number one.
     Defending World Series Champs? Yep, but that’s not what I mean. Best pizza city in the nation? Debatable, but quite possibly. But that’s not what I’m talking about. First in medical research? Great museums? Best architecture? You could make a case for Chicago being number one in any of those areas. But, unfortunately, none of those are rankings that came out this week. The list I’m talking about is one that no city wants to be on, much less top. But there we are, right at number one.
     According to Orkin Pest Control's annual list, Chicago is the rattiest city in the United States.
     Somehow we’re rattier than New York (#2 on the list), where garbage bags sit piled on sidewalks. Somehow we have more rats that Washington D.C. (#3) — but only if you don’t count the ones making policy. Judging by the number of rodent treatments the company performed last year, Chicago is rattier than LA (#4), Philadelphia (#7), Detroit (#9), Boston (#12), and Cleveland (#15). 
     It’s apparently not for lack of trying to eradicate them. As long as I’ve been here there have been signs in alleys telling residents to make sure to keep their garbage bin lids closed. (Though something chews holes through the lids.) This past summer, Streets and San started a pilot program using contraceptive bait in addition to the usual poison. (Yes, we’re encouraging our rats to have safe sex.) And a few years ago, the city released 60 coyotes with radio tracking collars into the city with the idea that they’d find the rats delicious. (Probably the occasional Yorkshire terrier, too.) We call them, I kid you not, urban coyotes. Sounds to me like it’s going to take more than 60. And I’m not sure coyotes running wild through the city is all that preferable to rats. 
      To read about our rat problem, you’d think Chicagoans must be knee-deep in them. Here’s the thing, though: I’ve lived in Chicago for about a quarter of a century and in all that time I’ve seen, like, five rats. Tops.
     There’s a reason for that, and you don’t have to be a rodent expert to figure it out. The rats prefer it that way. They’d rather not be seen. They don’t care if you know about them, and in fact being known is exactly how they get killed. Rats can only thrive — get food and grow and reproduce (unless they’ve nibbled on Chicago’s contraceptive rat bait) — when they live in darkness and secrecy. And so they’ve learned really well how to stay hidden in a city of three million people. They seek out the dark places. They live in the disused places. The places no human beings want to go are paradise to them. 
     A lot of what human beings put their minds and hands to do thrives in places like that, also.
     For years, decades, a movie producer sexually harasses and assaults hopeful young actresses. This is someone who everyone in Hollywood knows. His habits are an open secret, something movie people warn each other about in whispers. But only in whispers. He’s too powerful, too rich, and has too much influence on the careers and lives of the people who might otherwise report him. So his victims receive his gifts and money and the roles he gives them, and try to forget. The bystanders — some powerful enough to actually do something about it — pretend that they don’t see anything, don’t know anything, that it was all consensual. Darkness is pulled tight around the acts, and they thrive. 
     Until one person pulls back the curtain and the light rushes in.
     If God’s people won’t do that, who should we expect will? If God’s people won’t function as the element of our society that exposes evil to the light, why aren’t we surprised that others won’t?
     That’s part of being "the light of the world,” Paul seems to suggest. It’s one thing to say we should “live as children of the light,” uninfluenced by the darkness. Children of light is who we are — not because of ourselves, but because of Jesus. Goodness, righteousness, truth — these things should characterize us. Our lives should be marked by a love for what’s good, a commitment to righteousness in our personal lives and in our relationships with others, and an obligation to tell the truth.
     We haven’t always been good at this. Sometimes, we have to admit, the church has lived in darkness. Other times we have been complicit in allowing what’s done in the darkness to go unchallenged by refusing to shine the light of Christ on some particular shadows. We have to repent of those times and ask the Lord to help us be better.
     Then there are the times when we’ve been content to live in a bubble that we’ve created for ourselves:  Good people, living good lives, but isolated from the world around us. We gather in our ghettoes of light and moan about the darkness around us and promise to have nothing to do with it, but convince ourselves that the Gospel doesn’t make the darkness “out there” our problem.
     But not only should we have nothing to do with the darkness — we should expose it. That’s what light does to shadow, of course. It dissipates it. It isn’t about self-righteously and hypocritically sitting in judgment on everyone who sees one social issue or the other differently from us. That we’ve done at times. We’ve become known for it, in fact. Many in our world still today associate the church with this kind of narrow moralizing that we’ve been guilty of cudgeling “sinners” with. It doesn’t roll back the darkness because it isn’t the light of Christ. It’s the garish neon of our smugness and pride and fear. It isn’t living as children of light; it just makes those in darkness dart further into the shadows.
     The light of Christ warms as well as illuminates. It defends the weak by exposing those who take advantage of them. It offers hope to people resigned to living in the cold shadows of poverty, disease, death, grief, and tyranny. It shows people who thought they were alone that the darkness they were living in just made them think so. It offers dawn to those who are living in the constant night of addiction, bitterness, and guilt. It illuminates people who have been lost in sin and turns them into light, too.
     Aaron Courtney knows something about that. At a protest outside a white supremacist rally at the University of Florida this week, Courtney, a black man, came face to face with a man in a swastika t-shirt in the crowd. Courtney yelled over the screaming, “Why don’t you like me, dog?” When the man wouldn’t answer Courtney’s repeated question, Courtney finally said, “Give me a hug.” After a moment, he wrapped his arms around Courtney. “Why don’t you like me?” Courtney asked again. 
     “I don’t know,” was the answer.
      Light. I don’t know what difference Courtney’s hug made in that guy’s life. But it made one. “I heard God whisper in my ear, ‘you changed his life,’” was Courtney’s take.

     Of course he did. That’s what light does. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

One of Us

“Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”
     “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.
-Mark 9:38-41 (NIV)


The last day of October this year is something a little more than just Halloween. It marks a significant event in the history of Christianity. On October 31, 1517, a German priest had had it up to here with what he regarded as the blatant corruption and abuse of spiritual authority that was clustered around many of the practices of the church in his era. He was particularly (but not exclusively) incensed over the sale of indulgences to fund the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
     Indulgences actually had a more solid theological foundation than is often assumed, but they were popularly regarded as a way to purchase freedom from the consequences of sin, whether for self or loved ones. While indulgences were more often given in return for prayer or good deeds, in 1517 the basilica needed some work, and so the good deed most prized by the church was the giving of money. And so priests were sent from village to village “selling” indulgences. When this particular priest heard that there was to be an indulgence sale in his village of Wartburg, he decided to make public a few criticisms of the church he had so far kept more or less to himself. Ninety-five of them, in fact. He nailed them to the door of the Castle Church, and when they were printed and published a few months later Martin Luther found himself at the center of a firestorm that remade the religious landscape of Europe and eventually the world. Luther’s 95 Theses launched what would become known as the Protestant Reformation.
     Many of the denominations that make up the Christian world today connect in one way or another to Luther’s criticisms of the church. Predictably, of course, many who agreed that reformation was needed disagreed as to the specifics. Many of those reformation efforts would later go through reformations of their own. Still, that date almost 500 years ago has marked our world indelibly. Especially for those of us who wear the name of Jesus.
     I noticed an article recently on this topic that I think sort of missed the point. The author (who I’m sure has good intentions) points out that all this occurred 500 years ago, and so he concludes “there is no Protestant denomination which is older than 500 years, certainly none that reaches back to the time of Christ and the apostles.” The author goes on to argue that “denominationalism is not in harmony with the teaching of the Scriptures” and that “the disciples were not encouraged to wear the names of men in religion.” OK, fair enough, as far as it goes. He talks about the “worthy things” Luther accomplished, like making the Bible accessible and undermining the power that was possessed and often misused by the church hierarchy. 
     “Yet,” the author writes, “he did not go far enough.” He lays at Luther’s feet the formation of “denominationalism with its multiplicity of creeds, names, and organizations. None of this conformed to the ‘one body’ revealed in the New Testament.”
     It is easy to see the splinter in brother Martin’s eye and fail to see the beam in our own.
     This all reminds me of the time Jesus’ followers “caught” someone casting out demons in Jesus' name. “Don’t worry,” they told Jesus later when recounting the story. “We shut him down since he wasn’t one of us.”
     That’s so easy, so alluring. It’s maybe the path of least resistance to fall into Watchdog Mode and think the Lord needs us to monitor who’s “one of us” and who isn’t. In pointing out this tendency in my brother’s article, I don’t want to pretend that I’m immune to it. There's something rewarding about it. It provides clarity. It locates “correct” comfortably close to where I’m sitting. It makes what’s familiar and easy for me into the norm for all believers, everywhere, at all times.
     The disciples didn’t exactly have it all together, did they? We’re like them in that. We have 500 years of hindsight that Luther didn’t enjoy, and yet we want to sit in judgment on his efforts? “Nice try, Martin. Really, you had some good ideas there. Too bad you didn’t carry them through.” Well, look: Luther stood up to Popes. His faith didn’t wither under the pain of excommunication. When the church could bring dire consequences to bear, he didn’t blink. Through his work and suffering, the Spirit brought fresh air and new life into the church. How dare we dismiss him with a wave of our hands and a patronizing “A for effort”? How dare we pretend that we’re somehow superior to him?
     The author of this article would say that the fellowship of Christians of which he and I are members is different. Instead of just reforming the church, we’ve restored the church of the New Testament. If that sounds like a matter of semantics to you, that’s because it is. The spiritual forebears at the headwaters of “my” tribe stood on the shoulders of Martin Luther and others like him — even if we don’t always acknowledge that. Yes, our intent is just to be the church of the New Testament; Luther's intent was the same. Don’t put on him the frailties of those who came later. And don't pretend we aren’t subject to those same frailties. And don’t for a moment imagine that any of us have the authority or responsibility to evaluate Luther’s work. To his own Master he will stand or fall.
     I know it goes against our impulses to nail down and control everything, but let’s just allow Jesus’ word to his disciples to be enough for us: “Don’t stop him.” Don’t consider anyone doing great things in the name of Jesus to be an antagonist who must be prevented from serving the Lord until they have “our" imprimatur. There’s a time to discuss theology and debate best practice, but that time is not when we see someone honoring the name of Jesus. When we see that, we need to welcome a friend and acknowledge his ministry. To do so is not necessarily to embrace everything that friend believes or practices. It’s simply to take seriously what Jesus himself said: there’s no “us” to safeguard. If we truly believe in the “one body” of the New Testament, then we should also believe that it’s loved by Christ, that he gave himself up for it, and that he is cleansing it through water and the word. And more, that through his sacrifice he will present that body to himself radiant, unstained, and blameless.
     If we believe in that one body, we believe it’s his, and so we’ll let him evaluate who’s a part of it and who isn’t. And we’ll bend over backward to safeguard its unity.
     No one needs to be one of us. Not if they’re already one of his.  
     One day, when the new creation is all that exists, maybe I’ll get a chance to argue with Martin Luther about baptism or something, though I suspect by then I won’t want to. If I do, my guess is he’ll be there. 

     Even if he wasn’t one of us.

Friday, October 6, 2017

"Lord Willing"

     Now listen,  you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will,  we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them. 
     Now listen,  you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 
-James 4:13-5:3 (NIV)


Good news. I’ve found something new to be prideful about. It’s about time: I was tired of the same old things.
     This newest source of egomania comes to me weekly in the form of an email. It’s from a company that has created a grammar-checker app that can be embedded in the web browsers, word processors, and email clients that you use. It works like a spell-checker, only it makes sure your participles aren’t dangling and your infinitives aren’t split. (Which sounds way worse than it is, by the way.)
     Here’s the neat thing: this weekly email from the company gives me my statistics for the week. 
     These are last week’s:
I was more productive than 82% of the users of the app.
I was more accurate than 98%.
I used more unique words than 74%.
     Now you see why I’m so proud of myself, don’t you?
     I’m joking, of course. But, well, not entirely. I was really proud of that 98%. I was kind of disappointed…no, crestfallen…dolefulwoebegone…about that 74% in usage of unique words. Part of me knows that the email is mainly a marketing gimmick to get me to buy the “pro” version of the app. But part of me is still unreasonably proud of how well it thinks I write.  
     It doesn’t take much, does it, to make us proud of ourselves? My grammar usage is just the silliest source of pride for me, and therefore the easiest to “confess.” I can sort of wink at it, poke a little fun at myself. But if I was really confessing I’d have to own up to other forms of pride — and their consequences — that aren’t funny at all. 
     You might reasonably ask if it’s even such a bad thing to take some pride in your work, your accomplishments, your success. Don’t we sometimes wonder at people who debase themselves? Don’t they have any pride in themselves? we ask. Don’t we tell our kids regularly that we’re proud of their accomplishments, their hard work, their character? Surely we do, and I wouldn’t want to tell you that expecting people to take pride in themselves or letting your kids know how proud you are of them or feeling good about the things you’re able to accomplish are negative things. In fact, I’d say a lack of appropriate pride can create as many problems as inappropriate pride does. To fail to tell a child she’s done well when she has or to recognize someone for a job well done is to cause resentment and undermine achievement. 
     That said, there are forms of pride that Scripture consistently and unanimously warns us against. What the Bible seems to mean with its frequent condemnations of pride is what we’d more often call arrogance. It’s one thing to be proud of the things you do well. It’s quite another to let that pride inflate your sense of self-importance to the point that you see yourself as superior to others. It’s quite another to let that inflated sense of self-importance make you blind to your dependence on God and to his call on your life.
     James says that our calendar events ought to include the note, “if the Lord wills.” I knew a guy who used to attach that suffix to every mention he made of future plans. Sometimes he’d even do it for someone else: “I’ll meet you Thursday for lunch.”  “Lord willing.” That might strike you as a little extreme. You may doubt that what James wanted was literally for people to attach a phrase like that to every plan they make. But this guy was trying to let the reminder that “we are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” push against the human tendency to “boast in [our] arrogant schemes.” Scripture suggests that a misplaced confidence in our own competencies leads to a dismissal of the necessity of God’s grace in allowing us to live and carry out those plans. 
     If you don’t think it matters, look at what James thinks will happen when we become too proud of ourselves and fail to acknowledge God’s place at the center of all our plans and all our successes. He leads us to glimpse a future where all our accomplishments have rotted and corroded, and we’re left with nothing but misery. He warns us that the end of that kind of pride and arrogance is a life in which we line our pockets at the expense of others and live in luxury and self-indulgence. And that what that arrogance has caused us to withhold from those in need will “cry out against” us before God.
     To hear some of us — and sometimes it is believers — argue against care for the poor by saying “no one ever gave me anything” is to be reminded that the arrogance James warns us about lives on. To believe in the grace and generosity of God, however, is to believe that none of us are self-made men and women. We have talents and abilities and strengths, but receiving them and having the opportunities to develop them are in one way or another the gift of God. We may earn our salaries or wages, but long before we had marketable skills that translate into those salaries and wages God was at work in our lives, providing opportunities to learn and grow despite the many variables that might have derailed us. And the moment we start to think that in some way or another we’re more deserving of success than anyone else is the moment we fall victim to arrogance. 
     It’s ingrained in our culture: we are the architects of our own prosperity. It lets us take the credit for all we accomplish while absolving us of the responsibility for those who aren’t so successful. It allows us to forget our relative weakness, our inability to predict even the nearest of futures, and the trivialities of most of our best-laid plans. To boast in any of that would be laughable if the stakes weren’t so high.  
     Instead of boasting in the plans we’ve made and the resources we bring to the table, James counsels patience. He reminds us of the way a farmer waits: he waits for the rain, he waits for the crop to grow and mature. He doesn’t mean, of course, that a farmer doesn’t work hard. Of course he does. But all his hard work is for naught if the rain doesn’t come, or the seed is bad, or pests or disease attack his fields. 
     So it is with us. Don’t boast of your achievements as though they make you better than anyone else. Don’t imagine that the plans you make or the work you do are the most important parts of the story of your life. As much as we’d like to think we’ve figured it all out, there is so much in our lives of which we have little or no control. And that’s why we trust in the God who is in control. That’s why we say, in everything, "If the Lord wills". And that’s why we wait for his coming, knowing that our lives will never be complete and our accomplishments will never find their true meaning and fall into their proper context until that day.

     If only there was an app that could check for arrogance. I’d score high on that one too.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Hating Your Neighbor Makes You Dumb

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
     “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ ;  and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
     “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” 
     But he wanted to justify himself,  so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”. 
-Luke 10:25-29 (NIV)


Hating your neighbor will make you dumb.
     Maybe I should be more careful how I phrase that. I don’t mean that it is dumb. I don’t even mean that you’re dumb if you do. (Though no one ever admits to hating their neighbor, so I doubt anyone will take offense there. Not yet, at least.) 
     I mean that when you hate your neighbor your mind and heart are clouded. Your vision is obscured. You get tone-deaf.
     The “expert in the law” who questions Jesus in Luke’s Gospel is a good example. In Luke, the confrontation comes right after Jesus has praised God for hiding his work “from the wise and learned” and letting “little children” see it instead. I’m reminded of how kids have to learn to hate. Grown-ups bring everything they’ve learned and know to the table: to be suspicious, to doubt the integrity of others, to presume that their own worldviews are the only ones. They bring their prejudices and assumptions and bitterness over past hurts. Kids have less of that, and so they have to be taught to hate. 
     So this wise, learned “expert” in religion (think seminary professor instead of lawyer) comes to Jesus with a question: “What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” The question is reasonable: he seems to be asking whether there’s a way to get around this death thing. It’s kind of the question religion exists to answer, right? Makes sense that he might want to know what Jesus thinks about it — if for no other reason than as a test.
     Because he feels like he knows the answer, doesn’t he? Jesus answers his question by asking his thoughts on the subject, and the guy isn’t at a loss for words. He quotes some Scripture: Love God with an undivided being and love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. And Jesus agrees: “Right on. Do that and you’ll be in good shape.”
     Reasonable question, good answer. Except that’s not all. There’s more in this guy’s heart. He wants to “justify himself,” Luke tells us. The easy answer doesn’t quite cut it for him. He has one more question, and it’s the hot-button one. No one argues about “love your neighbor as yourself.” What they argue about is what comes next: “Who is my neighbor?”
     Now you know exactly why he asks that. It’s not that he’s there with a notepad and a pencil, ready to jot down a list of neighbors he then needs to go love. He’s asking for the same reason any of us ask that question: he already has a list. And it’s a list of people he’s absolutely not going to love.
     This is what I mean: hating your neighbor will make you dumb. It will make intelligent, capable, and even religious people behave like morons. It will make us unable to see, hear, or feel anything beyond our narrow self-concern. It will make us tone-deaf do the love and grace of God. It will make it impossible for the hurts of anyone else to register on our consciousness.
     You know that’s true from the parable Jesus tells to answer the “Who is my neighbor?” question. A guy gets mugged on the way from Jerusalem to Jericho. He’s robbed, beaten, and left injured by the side of the road. Thankfully, someone comes by: a priest, a religious person. Say it with me, though: he passed by on the other side of the road. Then another religious guy, a temple helper called a Levite, comes along. But he does the same: he passes by
     Over the last few years, greater numbers of people are speaking out more definitively about the struggles and suffering of immigrants and minorities in America. People throughout our country, the one many of us think is the greatest in the world, are making credible claims backed up by real experiences that they can’t get fair treatment because of the color of their skin. Some professional athletes, by and large the most well-known people of color in our country, are using their stature to draw attention to this injustice. And you know what I hear the most outrage, passion, and feeling about among whites — even Christians? That they shouldn’t “disrespect the flag” by protesting during the National Anthem.
     I’m thankful for our country, but I’m a Christian first, and I don’t think Jesus would disregard those who were marginalized by telling them that the National Anthem “isn’t the time or place” to protest. That sounds more like what folks said to black students sitting in at lunch counters than it does Jesus. 
     Perhaps our preoccupation with honoring the flag only serves to let us pass by the plight of our neighbors without bending down and getting our hands dirty. Perhaps it serves to justify ourselves in the same way that “expert’s” question did: “Who is my neighbor? Who do I have to love as myself? Surely not them.”
     OK, now is when you can get offended: If you think the thing to be outraged about these days is what grown men choose to do when the flag is waved, then let me suggest as gently and respectfully as I can that you’re passing your neighbor by, too. You’re passing by the real experiences of people of color. You’re passing by the injustice they’ve received; demonstrable, measurable injustice that needs to be known. It’s ugly, I know. It’s uncomfortable. Sometimes these experiences will be expressed in ways that seem disrespectful. (That’s what protest is.) We’ll want to pass by. We’ll want to cross the street. We’ll be tempted to justify ourselves. We can’t, though. Not if we want to follow Jesus.
    The punchline of Jesus’ parable, you might remember, doesn’t exactly answer the expert’s question. While he asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus asks “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Who acted with compassion and love toward a human being in need? And it was, of course, the one who had mercy on him. Turns out that neighbor is more a verb than it is a noun.
     Compassion, mercy, and love start with listening. You don’t have to agree in order to listen. You don’t have to affirm everything a person does in order to listen to their stories and care about them. All you have to do is care enough to come to their sides instead of crossing the street. Come and hear their stories without arguing, without correcting. 
     This isn’t about politics. It’s about giving people the respect of listening to what they’re saying. A human being created by God deserves that. You deserve it. So do those around us, even those with whom we disagree.
     So don’t cross the street. Love your neighbor as yourself. Listen to the words of people who have suffered. Get to know their stories. And don’t turn away. Don’t hold them at arm’s length. Who will be their neighbors?

     The ones who show them mercy.     

Friday, September 22, 2017

Baptism

  Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
     For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.
     Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.
     In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.. 
-Romans 6:3-11 (NIV)


Please forgive me for saying so, but baptism is kind of embarrassing, isn’t it?
     Now, before you get mad at me, hear me out. I still believe what I was taught since I was a child: that baptism is important, that it “washes away sins” and connects us with Jesus and that it’s the place where the Holy Spirit descends on us like that dove did Jesus in the Jordan River. Every Sunday I have the privilege (and I see it as one) of inviting people to be baptized into Christ. Every now and then, someone will even take me up on the offer. So I’m definitely on board with the concept.
     It’s the execution of it that can be, well, a little embarrassing.
     First of all, baptism usually necessitates a clothing change. That in itself is a little awkward. Then there’s the whole thing of dunking someone in a tank of water. (No one ever looks photo-ready when they first come up.) Folks who practice infant baptism have solved those problems; those of us who practice believer’s baptism still wrestle with them.
     And then there’s this: baptism has always seemed to me to be a little…anticlimactic. We look at it, and rightly so, as a big moment. We look forward to and pray for people to decide they want to follow Jesus and come for baptism. And then when it happens we ask them if they believe in Jesus and want to follow him, we send them to the back for the aforementioned wardrobe change while the rest of us sing a couple of songs, and then when it’s time the baptizer speaks a sentence or two and then — splash — it’s over. Literally takes a few seconds.
     Imagine you brought a visitor to church on a Sunday when there's a baptism. They know nothing about Christianity. In whispers, you explain to this visitor what’s about to happen: forgiveness of sins, the Holy Spirit, new life in Christ, etc. And then the baptizee and baptizer are in the tank…and then it’s over. 
     You would understand, wouldn’t you, if your visitor turned to you and said, “That’s it?” Your explanation would have taken much longer than the event itself.
     See what I mean? A little embarrassing. Am I the only one who thinks so?
     If I’m not, then maybe what’s missing is a little imagination.
     Imagine the Holy Spirit hovering over the primeval waters, preparing to create a new world. There’s nothing but darkness and chaos. And water. But there’s about to be light and life.
     Imagine for example that God, frustrated and fed up with the horrific way human beings were treating one another and the creation with which he had entrusted them, flooded the world. In a catastrophe of, well, biblical proportions, he opened the clouds and the springs and submerged the mountains.  Every living thing on earth except the family huddled in a homemade cruise ship and the animals God had put in there with them died. Only this family was saved. Saved through water.
     Or how about this: imagine that God took an ethnic group that existed merely as slave labor and set them on the way to nationhood by promising them a land of their own. Now imagine that he led these people out of the land of their captivity through a sea on dry land, between walls of water stacked up on either side of them. And imagine that he wiped away those who would have kept them in slavery by bringing the water down at their heels, engulfing the army following them. Imagine a generation later that he led their children and grandchildren through a river in the same way as he finally overcame their sin and resistance and brought them to the land he had promised them.
     And imagine, if you will, two young men wading out into that same river that God had brought Israel through millennia earlier. Imagine one of them baptizing the other in that murky water. And imagine a voice booming from heaven: “This is my Son, whom I love. With him I am well pleased.”
     Yep, maybe my problem is a failure of imagination. I forget what God does with a little water. 
     He creates order out of chaos, light in darkness, life in desolation.
     He judges sin and saves those who trust in him so that they can go on to begin a new world.
     He destroys everything that would enslave and dehumanize us and leads us on to the new life of freedom he always intended for human beings to have.
     He announces the pleasure he takes in his sons and daughters who put their trust in him.
     When you think of it that way, baptism isn’t really all that embarrassing at all, is it? It’s a small act, but it brings us into contact with something infinitely large. Maybe that’s the point, really: it’s a small act. Not much for us to do, wardrobe change and wet hair notwithstanding. It’s not our power or initiative. All we do, quite literally, is get wet. And yet it puts us in touch with the power of God that creates and recreates worlds, that tears down oppressors while setting free those they oppress, that removes the sins that compromise our identity as God’s image-bearers, that makes alienated human beings into sons and daughters of God and brothers and sisters of one another.
     What God didn’t accomplish in the flood or in the Red Sea, he accomplishes in baptism. He sends his Spirit to us. He changes hearts. He destroys the power sin and death have over us. He unites us with Jesus in new life.
     Such a small little act. You would understand that it would take great faith for someone to see it and believe all that was going on. 
     Which is, of course, the point.
     So the next time you see a baptism, don’t be embarrassed. Think about creation. The flood. The Red Sea. The voice that called Jesus “son”. Think about all that God has done in and with water. 

     And then think about how this tops them all.   

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