Friday, November 18, 2005

Dunking and Being Dunked

"Going under symbolizes the end of everything about your life that is less-than-human. Coming up again symbolizes the beginning in you of something strange and new and hopeful. You can breathe again."
- Frederick Buechner on "Baptism"

There we were, a bunch of white-gowned seminary students, sandled or bare-footed, loitering at the main steps of the Student Life Center pool. Our professor, Dr. Price, also clad in the traditional baptizing gown, was preparing to take us carefully through the process of performing what is certainly the strangest sacrament of the Church, though not at all meaningless. In the SLC, the pool is an odd conglomeration of tile and cement. It is no discernable shape, but instead made up of different areas, including a few slightly-less-than-olympic-sized lap lanes, an open area next to a water basketball goal, a higher-set hot tub, a lazy river, and a large, spiraling water slide. As I entered the pool area, I joked that the use of a water slide in baptism might just be what the "church of tomorrow" needs. I could see it all right then: Extreme Baptism: Take the Plunge ... into Jesus! Youth ministers would suddenly have no problem getting kids to join the church. At age fourteen I was baptized, and I definitely would have been open to water-sliding into the sacrament. After all, there is not much else you can do to make Baptism more silly than it already is, at least as it appears on the surface.

It was the oddest of feelings, standing there in the three-foot high water, taking turns dunking my fellow students. We could not help but laugh as we were again and again welcomed into the Church. For the two or three lap swimmers across the pool area, there couldn't have been anything more absurd to behold as they surfaced from the water and removed their goggles. Yet, even as we laughed and made light of this practice, it was inspiring. Most of the students from this class will one day find themselves standing in a baptistry - or a creek or river - reaching out their hand, welcoming a brother or sister into the water. They will watch them tense at the first sensation at the temperature, shrug their shoulders as they descend into the pool as if they need to keep the water from soaking their torso too quickly, nervously fold their arms and hold their nose, and then these fellow students will guide the people under the water. They will raise them up, dripping and wiping their faces, and there is something wonderful in this act for both the baptized and the baptizer - a cleansing of both minister and congregant.

What is the appearance of this act, but the strange, ritualistic dunking of a person underwater? Sometimes they struggle to regain footing, sometimes the water splashes over the side onto the choir, sometimes there is sputtering and coughing - it is the most comic scene the Church regularly enacts. If you, in witnessing a baptism, are not at least quietly chuckling, just a little bit, you're missing something of the wonderful absurdity of the sacraments.

What is the meaning of this act? As Frederick Buechner wrote, that which is less-than-human within us is symbolically being put to death - buried; drowned if you will. When a person rises from the waters, they are, as the pastor in the home church of my childhood used to say, "raised to walk in newness of life." I have taught others the cute phrase that baptism is "an outward expression of an inward decision" and that is true, but there is much more to this. There is something very human and very holy in the practice of it. If it is only a declaration to a church body of the repentance you have professed, it is no more meaningful than if you set up a flannel board in front of the altar and walked the congregation through the steps you took to become a Christian. "First I knelt beside my bed, as you can see here ... then I folded my hands ... then I bowed my head and said, O God ..."
The sacrament of Baptism is a metaphor, and the most meaningful teachings and practices of the Church are done in metaphor. The understanding of God as father, of Christ as king, of the solemnity of the bread as flesh and the wine as blood, of the front of the stage as the "altar" at which to kneel and pray ... It is all wrapped up in metaphor. It is something that holds meaning beyond what our five senses report to us. The life of a Christian is a mess of failings and praisings, of penitence and patience. It is the story of a creature sick with humanity finding rehabilitation in that which is holy. It is as absurd a condition as what we gaze upon when a person is dunked under the water of a baptistry. That does not render it any less true - any less necessary. Baptism is the moment out of our lives when we can, in our limited human minds, recognize in a single, wonderful act this extended experience of redemption.

That old life left behind, you come up sputtering, sniffing, maybe even choking a little bit, but the air is fresh and you can fill your lungs anew and wipe your eyes and see clearly, and there are smiling faces and applause and those gathered before you begin singing a song that, even as your ears unclog, still sounds like touchable grace. There is that inkling that you have never been more home than you are at that moment. You take the loving hand offered you and step out of the water to walk in newness of life.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

A Good Death

There is most certainly the stuff of wonder intricately woven within the stuff of astonishing tragedy. Never has this truth been more clear to me than in this past week.

On Sunday, October 30, 2005, Kyle Lake died a good death. Kyle, who is pastor of University Baptist Church in Waco and a burgeoning author, was considered by hundreds to be an inspiring preacher, a loving husband and father, an energetic athlete and friend, a mentor, counselor, and wonderful example of someone who knew how to live life well.

I would have become Kyle's friend next year. We had spent an hour or so one afternoon talking about the possibility of me going into a mentorship under him - this is part of the degree plan I follow at Truett. I am interested in college ministry as it relates to the local church, and felt Kyle would be a great choice for a guide in such things. Over coffee one afternoon in late June, we shared with one another our views on ministry and the calling of a Christian - I found him to be insightful and intelligent and very, very fun. I looked forward to getting to know him better.

As I sat in the funeral service last Tuesday and listened to friends and family recount humorous and poignant stories of his life, I lamented that I did not have the chance to get to know Kyle better. Some might offer that this is a good thing, because I don't have to go through as severe a devastation at the loss. My response to that would be, Never exchange a relationship for an escape from experiencing pain - that is a tragic trade.

Kyle died a good death. He was electrocuted while preparing to perform the sacrament of baptism. It was terrible and heartrending, and it came at the most devastating time (he was only 33!), but it was a good death. There is no better way for him to have left his church than in the act of bringing someone into the Church. Seeing it one way, his life indeed came full circle. He is a testimony to us all, an example of a true minister of God.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing was not Kyle's sudden death, but what was shared at his funeral - the conclusion to what would be the last sermon Kyle would ever write. It is a closing statement like no other. In the word of my friend, Janalee, it is truly "divine." I humbly use this blog now as an opportunity to share Kyle's last words with all of you.

Live. And Live Well.
BREATHE. Breathe in and Breathe deeply. Be PRESENT. Do not be past. Do not be future. Be now.
On a crystal clear, breezy 70 degree day, roll down the windows and FEEL the wind against your skin. Feel the warmth of the sun.
If you run, then allow those first few breaths on a cool Autumn day to FREEZE your lungs and do not just be alarmed, be ALIVE.
Get knee-deep in a novel and LOSE track of time.
If you bike, pedal HARD ... and if you crash then crash well.
Feel the SATISFACTION of a job well done ... a paper well-written, a project thoroughly completed, a play well-performed.
If you must wipe the snot from your 3-year old’s nose, don’t be disgusted if the Kleenex didn’t catch it all ... because soon he’ll be wiping his own.
If you'’ve recently experienced loss, then GRIEVE. And Grieve well.
At the table with friends and family, LAUGH. If you're eating and laughing at the same time, then might as well laugh until you puke. And if you eat, then SMELL. The aromas are not impediments to your day. Steak on the grill, coffee beans freshly ground, cookies in the oven. And TASTE. Taste every ounce of flavor. Taste every ounce of friendship. Taste every ounce of Life. Because-it-is-most-definitely-a-Gift.

I will miss you, Kyle. Someday soon I will indeed become your friend.