I wrote this piece several years ago and was reminded of it yesterday during a baptism and so I offer it now.
“And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Child, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”
After all those years as the preacher’s kid or the preacher, I can’t quite shake the habit of Sunday morning services. These days I often attend an odd spiritual community that meets in a rehabbed downtown storefront. We sit in folding chairs arranged in concentric circles around a delicately carved sculpture of the earth hanging from the ceiling. The band plays pop, folk, and reggae standards in their own jazzy style.
A renegade and now defrocked Methodist minister, who also happens to be a jazz musician, started this community (which is not a church and does not worship, but celebrates, and not in a sanctuary but in the celebration center, and has no sermons, though the minister stands and talks for 20 minutes every week … you get the idea). Jubilee, as it is named, likes to call itself interfaith because we can point to a handful of Buddhists and Jews and Pagans among the membership and plenty of folks who don’t like the idea of going to church, much less a Christian church. Nonetheless, it is a church with a Christian minister who routinely performs more or less Christian baptisms.
Which routinely make me cry.
For almost twenty years I performed baptisms as a Presbyterian minister. A favorite part of the job, I almost always managed to get through them dry-eyed. More often I beamed or laughed out loud. What could be better than blessing a baby? Taking a just-minted, not-yet-tainted, tiny pre-verbal human being, and with the water of life, that most basic of elements, touching and naming and promising to love this newborn creature in all of its glory. What’s not to adore about that?
Now that I’m not up front, holding the baby and grinning at the parents, now that I’m just watching the action from the sidelines, I cry every time. Every damn time.
Howard, the not-minister of my not-church, says something like this to the parents:
“Will you endeavor in every way, by what you say and what you do to enable this child to know that she is loved by God and brings God great pleasure? To enable this child to know the inestimable value of living by faith? To enable this child to grow in the way God has created her to grow, not just how you want her to grow?” Then, with the water, he baptizes the child in the name of “the One who creates you, the One who sustains you, the One who calls you to fullness of life.”
He presents the child to the community as we stand, hold hands, and repeat a spontaneous blessing. Finally, the parents walk through the congregation with the freshly blessed child while we all sing Joe Cocker’s (RIP, oh you of blessed memory) “You are so beautiful to me.”
Howard uses less traditional words than I did, but the sentiment is the same. Baptisms are that moment when we name and claim that this child is not simply beloved in our eyes but is loved by The Beloved. That this child is, in fact, created in the image of The Beloved and therefore, absolutely and everlastingly loved, no matter what stupid or stupendous, criminal or creative, or just plain boring behaviors may emerge over time.
I cry every time because I believe this Absolute Belovedness is the most important information that any of us ever need to know. And because I forget it over and over and over again. I forget it about myself, mostly. But I even forget it about the people who are most dear to me. When my teen son is snarling and sullen and stubborn, it is nearly impossible for me to look at him with that same unconditional, open-hearted adoration I offer those babies I don’t even know.
But can you imagine the difference if I did? What if, every single time I wanted to slap him upside his smart-alecky head, I looked at my son as if he were being held in the middle of a sacred circle, cradled in all his vulnerability and beauty, offered up to the loving kindness of the universe as the most precious child ever born?
On the day this occurs to me, I greet Luke at the door when he comes home from middle school, and throw my arms around his skinny shoulders. “Welcome home, you wonderful, beloved child of God!” Shaking his head, he slips out under my arm and mutters, “Awkward.”
But, he is, after all, my kid. My beloved child. So even if he is a brat sometimes, I do love him with all my heart.
What, though, about those other people? The ones that I don’t love with all my heart? Honestly, I mean the ones I don’t even like.
As I am pondering these deep thoughts, I get a call from a friend going through a custody struggle. She, in her optimistic belief that her children would benefit most by having equal connection to both parents, has worked very hard at a 50/50 arrangement for several years. Then last year her former husband, Ben, took up with a psychopath. I don’t just say that because I’m taking my friend’s side. The other woman had serious criminal charges against her. After a legal battle, it was agreed in court that the children should have no contact with said other woman.
Now months have passed and while Ben is technically following orders, things are still not good for the kids. The daughter is depressed and ill and my friend decides to suggest to Ben that she take full custody of the kids.
She calls me before she goes into a mediated session with him. “Look, I know I have other people praying for me.” (This is an understatement. At least half of her friends are Episcopal priests.) “But I’d just like a little spiritual perspective going into this today.” After we talk through the details for a while, I clear my throat.
“This may sound a little outrageous, but hear me out. I was just thinking about baptism. You know, about how we are all, in spite of our worst selves, utterly and completely beloved?”
A pause. “Uh huh.”
“Well, maybe before you go into this session you could take a minute to visualize Ben that way. You know, as a child of God … someone deeply loved?”
A longer pause. “I know I should pray for him more,” she offers slowly.
“Wait, no, please,” I interrupt. “I am not trying to should you into anything.”
I pause and rethink. “I tell you what. This is why we have faith communities, right? We need each other. Like how we know forgiveness is a really good idea and it’s great when you can pull it off, but until then, you can let other people do it on your behalf. So that’s what I’m going to do. While you’re in this session today, I’m going to hold a vision of Ben as God’s beloved child.”
She sighs. “I’m glad someone can. Lord knows he needs it.”
After I hang up, I close my laptop, light a candle, say a short prayer (more or less, “Oh, shit, help us out here”) and spend some time imagining Ben bathed in light. I think about my own ex and offer a prayer for him, too. And then I think about the person I most dislike in the world.
Well, three of them actually.
OK, four. And I try it with each of them.
I see each one in my mind’s eye. And I see light pouring in on them. I say their full names and pronounce, “You are a beloved child of God and with you, God is well pleased.”
I shift around a bit in my seat. Clear my throat. My emotions do not quite match my words. With one person in particular I can barely say the words, even in the silence, even to myself. I stop and start, coughing my way through the one line. It is almost beyond my imagining that this statement could be true. God is well pleased with such a jerk?
And then, in that moment, I remember what a jerk I can be. And I recall that I am conceived with God’s genes, my atoms steeped in holiness, my DNA dancing with divinity. I know this as solid fact, sturdy as a paving stone. I know it like the waves know they are the ocean. And if it is true for me, how can it not be true for her?
I decide that this is enough for now and blow out the candles.
I’ll leave Dick Cheney for another day.