Saturday, January 5, 2013

Got Baptism?

 John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." 

I'm working on a sermon on the problem of evil. It's not my first and it won't be my last.

In seminary I was taught to run, far and fast, from anyone who said they had figured out the problem of evil, and never look back. I still think that is excellent advice.

Religion is supposed to help people wrestle with evil. It doesn't solve the problem of evil, and as for religions that claim to, see above. The irony of this, acknowledged in the Bible (and, I assume, in other classical religious texts) is this: that which we seek to destroy we often become.

I learned about this paradox in seminary as well, from a wise man named William D "Chip" Aldridge Jr. : "If you cut off the dragon's head, another one grows in its place," Chip said to me, one day, when we were talking about the evils of bureaucracy.  "If you slay the dragon, you become him."

Yeah, I know it's not from the Bible, but it was a revelation to me at the time and it rings even more true to me now. Evil is tough to overcome, because it is like a black hole that leads to more evil.

I've been thinking a lot about the problem of evil lately, in the wake of the terrible shootings at Sandy Hook elementary. 

This horrifying event brought so much good to the fore, beginning with the teachers and administrators who sought to stop the shooter, and then the first responders, the local, state and national officials, and thousands of untold others who prayed, sent cards and gifts and organized and attended candlelight vigils. 

All of that vast immensity of goodness can never erase those minutes when evil held sway at Sandy Hook. This is why evil is such a terrible problem. A few minutes of evil can wreak havoc on countless lifetimes of goodness.

There are many aphorisms about good and evil, and for good reason. Evil has a glamorous  appeal. It is simultaneously attractive and repulsive. It is seductive. We all succumb to the allure of evil to some degree or other, whether the temptation is a small one, such as a minor social slight, or more serious, such as participating in a criminal act.

Evil is a shapeshifter, a con artist that often clothes itself in the wardrobe of righteousness. Another paradox about evil is that if a particular opinion or act makes you feel self-righteous there is a greater than average likelihood that it is to some extent evil. More than one mass killer felt particularly virtuous in performing the act. We may never know if the Sandy Hook killer fell into that category, but it would not surprise me.

The problem of evil is fascinating and frustrating, sort of like evil itself. And it is also the reason why I am a Christian.

I'm not a Christian because I believe that the words of the Bible should be taken literally, or that scripture is inerrant. In fact, I'm not even sure what it would take for the Bible to be inerrant.  The very idea strikes me as facile nonsense, easily dismissed out of hand. 

I'm not a Christian because I think the pope is always right. The pope is a person. People make mistakes. And anyway I'm not Catholic. My family moved away from the Catholic church when my Great-Great-Grandmother got disowned for marrying a Protestant. Yes, I think that was evil, but I don't believe my relatives were completely evil because they made a mistake. And I don't think that religion is the root of all evil. Religion is an ideology, and rigid, doctrinaire thinking about any ideology leads to evil.  Religion isn't special that way. Yeah, it purports to be about ultimate reality, which means that the evil that comes out of religion can be extra-evil but  it also means the good that comes out of religion can be extra good. (Exhibit A: the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. You may think that didn't come out of religion, but if that's what you think, you're just factually incorrect.)

I'm not a Christian because I believe that Churches or Christians are perfect. The church is a human institution. Christians are humans. Humans aren't perfect, and the institutions we manage are not perfect. And by the way I don't like the bumper sticker that says, "Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven." Forgiveness is for everyone. Christians should be too busy figuring out who they should forgive and who they should ask for forgiveness to have time bragging about the forgiveness they have received.

 I'm not a Christian because I hate science and logic. In fact, I love science and logic. Neither are perfect but life is better with them than without them.

I'm not a Christian because I believe that if I'm not I will be tortured for eternity if I don't believe a set of doctrines. I wouldn't even know how to make myself believe things that go against my own logic. Maybe there is a hell, and maybe I deserve to go there because I don't follow the right brand of religion. One thing is for sure: I am going to find out, because I am going to die, as are we all. However, I'm concerned about life on earth and give much more thought to this life than life eternal. I think trying to be good is its own reward, and doing evil is something to be avoided because doing evil puts more evil in the world, and the evil in the world leads to terrible deeds, like war and murder.

I'm not a Christian because I doubt the basic goodness of most people. Most people are basically good most of the time. I believe this basic goodness is not just a by-product of society, it is the only product of society that really matters.

I'm not a Christian because I've studied every religion carefully and decided that Christianity is the only, or even necessarily the best, way. I do know that it feels like the best way for me. And I firmly believe that an endless search for truth that involves no commitment is one of the temptations that evil offers. This is one of the tricky aspects of evil--a search for truth is good, but an ongoing rejection of the good in favor of a fruitless questing after the perfect is evil because it is a road to nowhere. (Don't get me wrong: the inquiry itself is not evil, but seeking after perfection and rejecting everything less eventually leads to misery. Seek perfection, and don't settle for less, but know that sometimes perfection clothes itself in imperfection. Yeah, I know: another paradox. True faith, faith worth having, is loaded with 'em.)

I am a Christian because Christianity has stood the test of time. I'm not talking about a particular "way" of being a Christian, such as Presbyterianism, or the contemplative tradition, or whatever. Wisdom and goodness and truth have come from Christianity for 2000 years. Yeah, stupidity and evil and lies have come from Christianity as well, but again, the perfect is the enemy of the good. 

I am a Christian because when I think about my Baptism, I am thankful. It is true that I was a young child when I received my Baptism, and when I consented to be Baptized I didn't really fully understand what I was saying (do any of us ever fully understand anything?) but when I think about all the good things that have flowed from that day, love and friendship and moral education and peace and comfort and joy, I'm so so thankful. 

I know that some of you have had a different experience of religion. Here's the thing: so have I. I've been a victim of narrow-mindedness and stupidity and mendacity committed in the name of religion. The world is an evil place. But I believe that a light shines into all this darkness, and the darkness has not yet overcome it. And for me, Christianity is at least a part of that light. And so I embrace that light, and seek to walk in it for the remainder of my days. This commitment has been a blessing to me.

And so, at the start of a new year, and in the face of evil that sometimes takes an unspeakable form, I offer: Baptism.

I don't do a lot of Baptisms. I think I did one last year. I do even fewer Baptisms than marriages, because right now in our culture, we believe more in marriage than in Baptism, and that is saying something, because as a culture we don't believe very much in marriage.

But I believe in Baptism. And so I am making an offer: I will Baptize you. No matter who you are or where you are on life's journey. If you have already been Baptized, I can't re-Baptize you (because Baptism is supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime thing), but I can offer you an affirmation of Baptism, in which you repeat the actions of your Baptism and give thanks for it. 

I will Baptize you (or affirm your Baptism) in any way you like: with a sprinkling of a few drops of water on your forehead, by immersing you in a river, lake or pool, in the church or outside of it, in a public space or private, while you are clad in a white gown or a pair of blue jeans and a t-shirt, at any hour of the day or night, whether you are free or in rehab or a halfway house or even if you are in jail. I will Baptize you.  I can Baptize you in an all-night diner with the water from the water glass. I can Baptize you with the remains of a puddle in your driveway. All that I need is: me, you, some water and the Holy Spirit. If you bring yourself, and I bring me, and we find some water, the Holy Spirit will be there.  

I once offered to Baptize a (mostly secular, Jewish) friend with the water from the flower vase on a table at a Borders Books and Music in Towson, Maryland. We were talking about Baptism.

"Could you Baptize me right now?" He joked.

"Sure," I said, in a lighthearted way but not exactly joking. "We can use the water from the flowers. Do you acknowledge Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior and renounce the powers of evil?"

"How about one out of two?" He joked.

I didn't end up doing a Baptism that day, and of course, we are still friends. But if he had answered yes to both questions, it could have gone the other way. I would have Baptized him then and there, if he had truly wanted it, if he wasn't really joking but just saying something serious in a kidding way, the way sometimes people do.

If you are a rational person, a person who calls yourself an agnostic or an Atheist, you probably don't believe in the Holy Spirit.

Do you believe in love?

Do you believe in goodness?

Do you believe that people can change?

Then you believe in the Holy Spirit. You may not call it that and you may be extremely upset at the idea that I am projecting my own religion onto your anti-religion. Or maybe this inspires you, somehow. Whatever. All you need to know right now is that if you ever decide you want it, I will Baptize you, the way John the Baptist Baptized people thousands of years ago except unlike John I live in a house and I don't eat locusts. (I do eat wild honey. It tastes good. Try it in your tea, or on toast with peanut butter or almond butter.)

I want to do some Baptisms. It may not seem like much, but it is what I can do and I want to do it.

Are you in?

I know, maybe it is the "Lord and Savior" bit that you don't get. What does that mean, anyway?

It means different things to different people. If you are curious about how rational people who believe in science and logic think about it, I would encourage you to check out Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus Borg. (And yes, it is available on Kindle, and you can get the Kindle App for free on your computer so if you are reading this you can most likely be reading this book within a minute.)

I always say I was Baptized because my mom wanted the best for me, and to her, the Christian faith was a gateway to the very best that this world has to offer. And Mom was right. Through the church I was exposed to music, art, the niceties of polite society, and most of all the idea that my life mattered, and what I did and didn't do with it mattered.

Maybe you think that Christianity is a religion for poor people, or for people who are down and out and desperate, people who tend to extremes like addiction, people who are not the brightest or most educated, and the answer is: Yes. Christianity has something to offer everyone, including the folks that other folks despise and reject, as well as the most popular and successful folks, (because though it is a hoary cliche, worldly success and popularity aren't everything.)

So I'm asking you, in a lighthearted but completely serious way: Got Baptism?

Because if you don't, I want to help you change that.

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