Baptized to Ask Questions

19th Century Baptism. Willisville, Illinois

Raised in the American Baptist denomination, it was up to me to declare that I felt led by God’s spirit to be ready for baptism.

“Who wants to give their life over to Christ?” The pastor asked at the end of worship. He seemed to study each member of the congregation.

Me!

I do!

Actually, it was a version of, “We do!” My older sister and I, probably after a few minutes of intense discussion (before scurrying outside to play) had decided to get holy and wet.

Which meant standing up in church when the pastor asked who would follow Jesus.

Which meant taking a class to prepare for the big day.

Which meant we’d eventually find ourselves on the other side of the expansive red velvet curtain hiding the baptismal pool from the pew view. Full immersion, baby!

Which meant I could finally receive the miniscule cube of white bread and drink from the thimble-sized glass of juice when communion was served (instead of watching it pass by while my parents ate and drank and shot me a cautionary look).

Which meant, I sure hoped, that Jesus would always be on my side.

I don’t recall the name of the couple who put up with my older sister and me (mostly me) as they taught us about being Baptist. Being Christian. Being a good disciple of Jesus. About loving God and serving neighbors.

In a haze of memory, of decades blurring, I can barely picture them. I know the couple seemed old, likely in their late thirties! And yet I forever recall and rejoice in how they gave us permission to ask any question we wanted to . . .

What is heaven like?

Where does God really live?

What was first, God or the big bang?

If I don’t get baptized, might I go to hell?

Do we know what Jesus actually looked like?

What if the pastor holds me under the water too long?

If I eat the bread and juice at communion, will I be better?

After Adam and Eve were thrown from Eden, what happened to it?

Why do we have grace before a meal rather than saying we’re praying?

Oh, how I loved (and love) the questions.

Since my baptism happened well over a half-century ago, there are other things I don’t recall beyond the names of the kind, gentle couple. Those questions above? I may not have asked all of them. I probably pushed hard on God’s residential zip code. I am a baby boomer, equally influenced by my Bible-trusting Christian faith and a scientific, rational view of the world. In the 1950s, Sputnik roared into space. Dogs and monkeys were strapped into rockets, blasting through the atmosphere and then returning to earth. Next were humans, Russian and American, headed for . . . heaven? Hey, was there really a heaven? No photos were taken, hinting at distant pearly gates. Beyond the spinning earth, scientists cautioned, it was dark, cold, and foreboding.

Some nod toward the sky or point fingers upward to gesture toward God or heaven or some version of a higher power or place. But I was increasingly confident, even as a baptism-bound kid, that God wasn’t cleverly lurking behind a star a zillion or more light years away.

Honestly, I oft wish there were answers for the questions. Wouldn’t the practice of faith be easier with answers that no one could argue with?

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When the students and teachers were gunned down at Florida’s Stoneman Douglas High School on Ash Wednesday of 2018, where was God? Let me shout the question!  Why would God—Creator of All Life, the Holy One of Infinite Love—allow such a nightmare? Now, three spare and bloody months later*, more students, days shy of graduation and summer—were shot to death in a Texas school as if they were no more than nameless characters in a video game.

God? Why? Where?

It’s not God’s fault. It’s the gun. It’s the bad person with the gun. It’s social media. It’s the NRA. It’s poor parenting. It’s crazy people. It’s refusing to address the myriad mental health issues burdening so many in modern society. It’s that we need more guns and hardened schools. It’s that we need to turn away from all guns. It’s . . .

And yet, who wants to keep arguing about God, guns, and America’s odd love-hate relationship with the Second Amendment? Too many bloody questions. No simple, common-ground answers.

Another mass murder of students. A moment before a trigger was pulled, were there mid-May arguments about grades? About girls? About the then upcoming royal wedding? And then a finger pressed against the trigger and futures died . . .

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Some of my why-why-why questions are barely whispers in the wind. I work in hospice with colleagues that visit hospitals to meet with parents confronted by the impending death of a child. Their child. The Angel Babies program, which has now served thousands of families, is a precious, awful program. How extraordinary it is to enter into a family’s life, offering support, reminding them they are not alone. And yet, it’s their child, who has or will die.

One of the Angel Babies staff recently shared about going to a hospital and not being able to meet with both of the parents of a child soon to die. The shocked and sorrowful mother was already in surgery. So, my colleague met the father. He was a burly, intimidating guy; someone you might avoid by crossing to other side of the street. My gentle co-worker (who personally knows grief and loss) asked if she could sit beside this hunk of a man. A nod. A yes. They talked. He cried. He shared deep, honest feelings. He wasn’t alone as his future collapsed . . .

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Where is God?

Most of the time, I don’t know. How I despise our national disagreements about gun violence. How I weep, outwardly or inwardly, upon learning of another family that has contacted our Angel Babies program.

I remember my baptism. I remember my questions. I remember sitting in straight-back chairs with my older sister in a Sunday school classroom and asking some befuddled, sweet, lovely adults about God. They tried to answer some questions. Couldn’t answer others. And yet they listened. Encouraged me to keep asking.

So, baptized and too often overwhelmed with a world of hatred and violence and death and anger and weeping, I still risk the questions.

I don’t stop with asking where God is, though.

I believe in the Christ-like question of, “Who is your neighbor? For it is everyone. The ones I hate. The ones I don’t understand. The ones I’ll soon meet. The ones with guns. The ones with children about to die. What can I do to help heal, help bring hope, help share and dare love?

I’ll try. I won’t look for God “above.” On my best days, trembling and uncertain, I’ll look for God with eyes open, at the person I’m with.

Long ago, the red velvet curtains parted. Symbolically, I drowned. I lived. Some of the hopeful, graceful water from that baptismal pool never dries.

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*The Washington Post conservatively guesses there have been sixteen school shootings in 2018 . . . so far. The sixteen range from the recent Texas killings to “a 6-year-old boy, who killed a classmate after saying he didn’t like her, and a 15-year-old girl, who did the same to a friend for rejecting her romantic overtures.”

Photo from: here.

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