This post won’t make sense unless you have read Part I. Go HERE to read it.
Doris has thrown me a curve ball. I am inclined to duck out of the batter’s box, but my internal umpire doesn’t allow it, telling me to “Play Ball”. In the corner of my eye I see Jack, disinterested and offering me a bit of an eye roll. Before I can ask some questions, Doris is talking. “Since I am Catholic I don’t even know if you can do Last Rites for me….well, I know you can DO them, but does it count? Does it STICK?”
This makes me smile. Sacramental stickiness is not a topic we covered much in seminary. So I probe a bit, “Well, Doris, we can talk about that. But first, can you share with me what is going on? Why do you want Last Rites?” Her deep, theologically grounded reply provides little help for me. “Why not?” she asks. “Is there a problem with me that you can’t do Last Rites?” Doris is on the offensive. This is going to take a while.
Just a week before, I was having a cup of coffee and working on a sermon at a local diner. It’s a place we go when we want to splurge on some awesome waffles or pancakes. I have found it a great mid-afternoon spot for thinking and writing. There are rarely more than one or two customers when I am there, I get my coffee filled up regularly, and the wait staff doesn’t bother me when they see me pull out a notebook and Bible. Except this one time. The waitress, Hannah, kept stopping at my booth, whether she needed to or not. I could tell she wanted to ask something or share something with me. Finally she sat in the booth across from me and just blurted it out. “What kind of church are you at?” she asked me, my Priest collar giving me away. “I am an Episcopal Priest here in town,” I offer. “Well, Father…..do I call you Father?” I give my usual response, “David is fine unless you feel you need to call me Father, it’s up to you. I answer to a lot of names.” “Ok, David. I am Catholic but I don’t go very often.” Squirming a little in the seat she confesses, “Sometimes I go to St. Mary’s down the road, but I usually work Sunday mornings and the Saturday service is really crowded.” “No judgment here,” I say with a smile. “Well, Father – I think I just have to call you Father – do you know where I can go to get my grandkids baptized?”
Ah, the sacraments, sticky or not. She goes on to explain that her daughter doesn’t take the kids to church and they are 2 and 6 years old and she is really worried about it. So I told her she was welcome to bring them to my church, to see if this is a community of faith they may want to belong to. I explained that we baptize children into the body of Christ, and the body present promises to help them grow in the faith. It is a community commitment, a recognition that we are all in this together, that Christian faith has always been meant to be practiced within a community where we come together to worship and pray and support one another and then are sent out into the world to live our faith as best we can, remembering our baptismal promises that always conclude with “I will, with God’s help.”
Hannah listened politely, then wandered off to serve another customer. Eventually she came back and asked if it was possible for her to find a pastor in the classifieds or somewhere that could just come over to her house and baptize them.
Not very sticky.
I have some one I am close to, he is a fine young man, good job, good home. Like me he married above himself (out kicked his coverage as the Arkansas football coach famously claimed). His wife is delightful, they have two precious children. His wife had some exposure to church growing up, but had never been baptized. As their kids have gotten older, they have toyed with the idea of finding a church home, although the fits and starts towards that have produced no fruit. My friend was raised in a church and he asked me about baptizing his children. I encouraged him to find a church home and if they wanted me to baptize them I would be delighted to, if their minister was ok with it. His next question was very interesting. “Do you think if you came here to baptize them, you could baptize my wife too? But without telling her you were going to – you know, surprise her.” A surprise baptism! He may be on to something. “Here is water, why can’t I be baptized?” the eunuch says to Philip in the book of Acts. A slight alteration may work. “Here is water – SURPRISE, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit!”
I suspect every minister of a church which practices infant or young children baptism has baptized many a child to satisfy a grandparent. Or perhaps one or both parents felt baptism was something they “should” have done, like a vaccination against hell or one more item to check off the list of milestones for their children. Baptized at 2 months, walked at 11 months, talked at 19 months, yep, all in order here. How many of these sweet families never return to church? What about the baptism of grandchildren whose parents give in to pressure and get this silly ole sacrament over with, enjoy a lovely christening party and have pictures in the hand-me-down christening gown to cherish forever (oh, what was the name of that Priest who baptized Charlie? She was real nice)? Some churches do a much better job than others insisting on some sort of baptismal formation for the parents, materials to practice their faith at home, and a schedule of all the things they do for children and parents – won’t you join us? Why don’t those sacramental moments stick?
Don’t get me wrong, I love baptisms. No matter the motivation, the sacrament is the real deal. It is the coolest thing I get to do as a Priest. Something happens at that font. The Spirit, the prayers, the blessed water and oil, this is holy stuff. Yet I wonder if we should get out of the infant baptism business. I grew up in a denomination which practiced believer baptism, and baptizing babies was the most difficult part of becoming an Episcopalian for me. I entered seminary hoping to get clarity. I even took a wonderful class on baptism, co-taught by our liturgy professor (an expert on baptism who has written a couple of books on the subject) who was the infant baptism proponent, and a professor from a nearby seminary who was on the believer baptism team. The class was great. At some point the teachers had each of us defend the opposite side from what our own tradition was – which left me squarely in the middle.
There was no clarity for me.
Perhaps just as infant baptism evolved into the practice of the church after Christendom became the rule of the land, now as Christendom fades away we should re-examine the practice. Saying this may get me defrocked, or at least mocked in certain circles, but I think we should at least have the conversation. Let me give a living example of why.
Our church has a growing ministry to young adults, called “Seekers”. They meet for dinner church on Sunday evenings, led by a husband and wife who volunteer their time to plan worship, preach and teach, and coordinate food. From very small beginnings the group continues to grow with upwards of 25 to 30 attending most Sundays. At their request, the clergy join them from time to time, offering Eucharist once a month and taking our turns at preaching. I spent a lot of time with them this past summer, and the question of sacraments kept bubbling up. Many of these young people had been wounded by the church, judged unfit or ignored because of their age. Many have heistantly stuck a toe in the water of organized religion once again by joining this group. They are passionate about their faith and yearning to learn more about Jesus. So I began a conversation with them about baptism. I asked them if they had been baptized, a handful said yes, most of the others said they weren’t really sure. So I asked them to find out – talk to a parent or grandparent if they were able to. When they reported back most gave exactly the same story. Yes, they had been baptized as babies, but their family didn’t go to church. They got the baptism “done”, and that was it. They didn’t remember it of course. And they asked me if they could be “really” baptized now.
Over several weeks my associate, myself, and the leaders taught about baptism and sacraments. Then we did it. On a Sunday afternoon we met at the beach, liturgy in hand, guitar music leading us to “Wade in the water, wade in the water children, God’s gonna trouble the water.” Two of the seekers had not been baptized and it was my privilege to offer the sacrament, standing in the surf of the Atlantic. For the others we did a renewal of baptism vows. Of course I had explained to them you cannot be baptized twice and that nothing can break the bond established at their baptism, even if they didn’t remember it. But that evening, they made promises and we poured water on them to remind them of their baptism, anointed them with oil to remind them that they have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own, forever. Fourteen young people between 20 and 30 years old ventured into the water and came out of it delighted to have made a commitment to Christ, this time one they fully participated in and fully agreed with and will forever remember. So will I.
Traditional Anglicans will ask why we just didn’t have them confirmed? I believe for some of them they will be confirmed as they become more comfortable with the Episcopal church and organized religion. They just are not there yet. But they are changed. They are different. And the Holy Spirit was present in a powerful way on that beach, in that water, and in their hearts.
I think it will stick.In fact, I know it will.
Which brings us back to Doris. “Will it stick?” she asked me. Glancing at Jack, who shrugs his obviously Protestant shoulders, I reply, “Before I answer you, can you tell me why you want Last Rites? What’s going on with you?”
“Well Father”, she began, glancing sideways at Jack. “Jack and I have been talking about this. But…he’s Protestant and I am Catholic and so we don’t agree on a lot of things. Neither one of us goes to church very much any more. But I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. My father’s illness reminded me, sitting here glad that he is going to be ok and knowing I had prayed more in these last two weeks than I have in a long time, and wondering about what happens when you die, and then I saw you….”. Her voice tailed off at the end of all that, sounding unsure of herself, perhaps wondering why she had called me over in the first place. As was I. Still.
I took a deep breath and asked what I thought was the real question. “Doris I know we have just met. But you did call me over here for a reason. Can you tell me – what are you afraid of?”
That’s when the tears started.
Clergy are privileged to be invited into such raw moments of life. Sometimes they are joyful, sometimes heart rending. Sometimes they are with members of our church whom we love and maybe even like. Sometimes they are named Doris and the elevator comes too slowly prohibiting my escape, so she screwed up the courage to call out to an unknown minister while harboring an unnamed fear in an unlikely place sitting beside an uncatholic. Sometimes clergy collars open up windows into a soul, other times that same collar bars a door. The key, I think, is to just be available to how the Holy Spirit may blow, as Jesus said, like the wind, here and there and everywhere, unpredictable and unexpected and at times unwanted.
And, oh yeah, tears help too. Tears get me every time.
Spying a tissue box on the table, I hand Doris one. “Would you like to tell me about it?” I ask. Dabbing at the wet spots on her cheeks, she does. “I haven’t been to church in a long time. I’ve been praying a lot this week and I wonder if God hears me. Does God hear me even if I don’t go to church?” Not waiting for a reply, she continues, “I haven’t been a real good person. I’ve done some things I am not proud of. So I don’t think I can walk into a church without confessing and I am afraid that if I confess God will punish me.” My mind tries to wrap itself around this really poor theology, but before I can respond, Doris goes on. “I am afraid….you asked what I was afraid of….I am afraid of dying because I don’t think I am good enough to go to heaven. And I am really afraid that if I don’t have a chance to receive Last Rites before I die, I for sure won’t go to heaven. Can you do Last Rites for me, now, right now?” she asks, getting louder and a tad desperate. “I am so worried that I will die before I have Last Rites, I might have a stroke or get hit by a bus when I leave here and I don’t even know the name of the Priest at the church I used to go to….”.
Jack the Protestant (his name forever remembered that way in my mind, like “Attila the Hun” or “Barriston the Bold”) is no help. He gets up and wanders down the hall, shrugging his shoulders as he catches my eye.
Taking her hand, hoping to get a word or two in, I say, “Doris, I would like to say a prayer with you. But before we do that, you need to know something. Every church there is and has ever been and ever will be has one thing in common – they are full of sinners. Full of people that are most likely not good enough. Thanks be to God, that doesn’t matter. It is not our goodness but God’s grace that promises us not only eternal life, but life as we were meant to live it right here, right now. God knows we sin and God desires we don’t. Meanwhile, grace is given freely to us because most of all God wants to reconcile with us. And the way God does that is through Jesus Christ. We can be forgiven. And we are called to forgive others. Sometimes we wander in a desert of our own making, with a thirst that can only be quenched by living water” (yes I was that hokey). “I don’t think you need last rites,” I continued, “I think you just need to remember you are already a beloved child of God. And then, with God’s help, maybe you can find a church home with a bunch of other sinners like you. And me.”
Yes, I was exactly that profound. OK maybe not exactly. I can be far more brilliant after the fact.
We prayed. I led Doris in a mini-confession of sorts and told her God did forgive her. She then asked me if I could take “just one more minute” and go with her to her father’s room to pray for him. We got up to head down the hall and as we took a few steps, the elevator pinged and the doors opened right as we walked by. It seemed to be smiling at me, enjoying the irony. And the floor of the elevator car – it looked a tad bit sticky.