If you've ever wondered how little you know about God, then you should talk about God to a group of ten-year old boys. Describe the infinitely complex God with an acronym. Explain salvation with a word search. Give them free reign to ask questions. Children are great sparring partners. You don't know as much as you think, I promise.
Over the last four weeks, I sat around a table with a group of cub scouts who have put aside their pinewood derby to hear something about God. Here's what I've been reminded: Christians aren't born; they're made. Christianity is as strange as it is comfortable. It's irrational and commonsensical. It describes, prescribes, and upends. God lies just beneath the surface of everything and everyone, but we don't realize it until we've been given eyes to see.
I've also learned that children are terrible theologians, contrary to popular belief. To be fair, they'd also make terrible surgeons and lawyers. We’re mistaken when we assume that knowledge of God comes completely naturally. Theological wisdom is earned alongside wrinkles from restless nights of wrestling with God and community. Now, that's not to say that kids don't occasional surprise us with tidbits of profundity and delight us with even greater cuteness. Take this for instance: we were reading the Lord's Prayer when one of the boys lifted his head from the Bible to exclaim that he 'hallowed' out a pumpkin on Halloween. Not exactly. Though, it's a great pun. I told him that he made the pumpkin 'hole-y,' not ‘holy.’
Language is a terrible, confusing method for communication. It informs as much as it misinforms. But it's the best we've got.
Now, how do I explain holiness to a boy who hasn't learned fractions or read about the Israelites exodus from Egypt?
Some theologians have suggested that becoming Christian is like learning to speak a new language. Christianity shouldn't come naturally and it's unintelligible unless you've learned the lingo. Part of what it means to be holy, after all, is to be set apart. Do we know the language? I’d estimate that most Christians are semi-fluent at best and often illiterate. The problem is that many Christians have forgotten the language of faith. Worse, we’ve traded the language of Christianity for a distorted language that's shaped by culture and country instead of Scripture and tradition.
Christians cavalierly toss around a whole host of churchy words that sound familiar, but are as foreign as Greek (because they kind of are). Here's a working list: salvation, reconciliation, sin, justice, righteousness, born-again. All of these words sound like the kind of thing Christians should say, and often say, despite having any idea what these words actually mean.
We're saved without knowing what we’re saved from (or for). Or, suppose the congregation is lowering a body into the ground and someone hugs you and says, "peace" (and not 'God's got another angel in his choir'). That word is meaningless unless you’ve been trained to know that Christ has created peace between everything on heaven and on earth. Or, imagine someone says to you, "I don't believe in God." Who is God? It's significant to understand which God you believe in and which one they don't. It’s likely that you don’t believe in their god, either.
Words have the power to create, to bring the dead to life, but are meaningless if they're not used and understood within a community. How can we speak and understand without a shared vocabulary? We can't. And if you can't explain your vocabulary to a ten-year old, then you don't know the language.
I spent one of the sessions with my scouting disciples learning how to pray (which is Christian-speak for 'talking to God') through the Lord’s Prayer. One of the boys asked me about the word 'kingdom.' I told him to think about Lord of the Rings. What were the kingdoms like in that story? Now, consider this kind of kingdom: a boy tells his father he hates him, runs away from home, and takes everything his father owns. He wastes it all on riches (or a Nintendo Switch) and good food (or pizza). He's broke and homeless when he finally wanders back to his father. His father runs out to meet him on the road and embraces him with a hug and a kiss.
God's kingdom is like that.
Though, I still catch myself thinking that the kingdom of God will be inaugurated by William Wallace riding in on a white stallion. God's kingdom is only sensible in relation to a particular story, a larger narrative, and a rich tradition. We need to spend a lot of time reading Scripture, worshiping, and conversing with more fluent Christians for our language to become second-nature.
Does this make the church a members only club, excluding others with their esoteric language? Not necessarily. It's a statement about the way that language actually functions. When I was in high school everyone told me, 'Sniders talk the same.' We have the same cadence, mannerisms, and sarcastic flair. Here's what's even stranger: words have nuance and a variance in their meanings. The word 'maybe' actually means 'no.' ‘Good job’ can also mean ‘I love you.’ And the word 'sure' is closer to 'I'd love to!' I was never surprised by our linguistic similarities. After all, we lived together. If you spend enough time with the Sniders, you might start talking like one, too.
It’s unlikely that we’ll ever master the language, anyway. And this why we should become like children. Part of what it means to be a child is to admit that we don't know how to talk. Luckily, children pick up new languages pretty quickly. They are imaginative, willing to be wrong, and gracious enough to laugh at their folly. In other words, they're usually teachable, which is not often true of adults.
Here’s the point: language helps construct a reality. Our entire lives will change when we learn to speak like Christians. There's a grammar to the faith that's been developed throughout years of study and proclamation, misspeak and correction. In the Christian syntax God is always the subject and we are but a letter in a word. Grace can be an adverb that modifies every movement in the sentence. And there are plenty of commas for us to pause in silence before another phrase is written. If we are lucky to be a part of a phrase, it will placed in the company of millions of others all over the world.
One last thing:
"Open your Bibles to the very center," I told the group of smiling boys.
"To the book of 'Plasma'?" one kid asked.
It's actually called the book of Psalms. Be careful with those poems. If you read them enough, your life might become one of them.
One of the greatest plot twists in life is waking up and realizing that friendship is hard. It’s incongruous. Nothing heretofore has suggested that I might find myself sitting on the couch alone with no time or energy to go out for a drink, even as an introvert.
Childhood was the golden age of friendships. They were easy and plentiful--full of afternoons in the woods, swing sets, and gangs of bicycles patrolling the streets. My adolescent years were invested around cars in the high school parking lot, in church vans, or on open fields with soccer balls and frisbees. All of this escalated until I went to college and lived among another person’s dirty laundry, but oddly organized DVD collection. Friendships are arguably the most efficient curriculum for the self-discovery that leads to maturity. Find someone to pose difficult questions over burnt coffee and greasy hash browns, and then who will walk with you until you discover the answers (which are usually more difficult questions).
Friendships were not a part of my life, but life itself.
Then, you enter your thirties.
I still have great friends and I hardly ever wish for new ones. I only wish that I would tend to the ones I have. The problem is that friendship requires space for another take up residence in your life, and that space has already been filled with other competing goods—usually kids and sleep. Or, sleep because of kids. My priorities have changed. For instance, playgrounds have become cool again. The workforce is also a culprit. Friendships are terribly inefficient because they require time around kitchen tables, and time is in short supply. Life is complicated and busy enough without another person’s issues.
Acquaintances, on the other hand, are perfect because they’re undemanding. You know, the coworkers who are fun around the office, but will thankfully disappear when you take a new job. There’s the person who will meet you at the playground (remember, they're cool again) to complain about children. Others might even share an interest in hoppy beer or esoteric theology written by dead white men. If you're lucky, they'll like both. These people are great to have around, if only as a form of capital—a service for utility and pleasure, or what Aristotle calls imperfect friendships. But few of them will come to love our peculiarities or care to learn what keeps us up at night. (Spoiler: their names are Pax and Eden).
And yet, we also need people to share more than parenting hacks, our lament over politics, and an affinity for Duke basketball. What about the friends who are comfortable enough to share (mostly) everything, including being together in silence? The people who are, as Augustine says, sweet beyond the sweetness of life?
I’ve discovered that we’ve got our priorities all backward, or that we’ve forgotten what we learned so early on in life—there is no growth apart from another human being. Friendship is more than an escape from life; it’s the very substance of living well. Aristotle also wrote that “Without friends, no one would want to live, even if he had all other goods” (EN 8.1). And that’s why the most meaningful parts of my life happen around a table, when my kids are sitting in another person’s lap, and the rest of us open ourselves to see and be seen. It takes work. But it’s good work because the American Dream’s promise of success and self-sufficiency is accompanied with twin vices: loneliness and emptiness.
Aristotle also believed that friendship was a virtue, or at the least, requires virtues to be sustained. I think he’s right—friendships don’t spontaneously mature without proper care. It takes forgiveness to see past another’s posturing, masquerading, and inability to return text messages. Or, how about the patience it takes to send another text message, anyway? There’s the benevolence to drop off a care packages of soup when one can’t get off the couch. Endurance will reignite a lapsed relationship after years of dormancy. Hospitality can open the doors of your heart for a stranger to step inside regardless of risk and mistrust. Most of all, how about the sacrifice to see another person’s well-being as your most important priority? That can't be natural.
Turns out that friendship is the best pattern for becoming a Christian—to love and be loved by God and one another. The reverse must also be true, that Christianity bestows the kinds of virtues necessary to sustain a friendship. After all, what is Christianity except becoming a friend of the world?
Scripture could be read as the story of God’s befriending of the world. It’s the grafting of our stories into God’s eternal love story with the world. God’s heart is for friendship, and not because it’s compulsory or beneficial, but because it’s true and beautiful. I think this is why Jesus called his disciples friends: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends” (Jn. 15:15). It was a surprising move. God could have left us aloof as servants, or even as subordinate children, but has instead invited us into all the love and pain that resides in God’s own heart.
God had all the time in the world to eat with sinners, to take bread and fish and feed a multitude, to set a table for those who wished to linger in his presence. It was a terrible deal. These poor and marginalized peasants could never reciprocate the gesture. The cost to benefit ratio was lousy. It resulted in death. And yet, Jesus reminded us that, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn. 15:15). Here, Jesus shows us the kind of sacrifice that threatens the purely economic character of our relationships which sees people only for their usefulness or future benefit.
Friends are worth dying for.
Friendship may be a virtue particularly necessary for a culture that’s ripe with depression, partisanship, and busyness. Aristotle thought that friendship should be the primary human institution, and that the overall health of a society could measured by its conditions to sustain friendships. When considering our society’s addiction to fast food, to technology, and long work hours—we may be on life-support. Though, there is hope, if only because God became friends with us.
The church exists to form a people who would have no reason to be near each other, unless there was a God who calls us friend. That’s Christ’s body. And part of the church's mission is to remind us that our lives can’t be lived alone. To be clear, church doesn’t always appear to work. Many churches are cold, individualistic, and as exclusive as country clubs. But I haven’t given up on the hope that we might allow ourselves to be a people that rejoices when a stranger rejoices and suffers when a stranger suffers. It won’t always make our lives easier, but it might fill them with friends.
I end up around a table with friends most weeks, and it’s not usually by accident-at the church, a house, a restaurant. Oftentimes, I want to be there, but it’s equally often a chore. I’d rather get the kids to bed on time, put on pajamas, and fire up Netflix. I’ve learned, though, that friendships don’t spontaneously organize. If friendships are a habit that might make us into better human beings, then they must be written in a little box on a calendar and practiced (even when your general hygiene is put on the back burner). Now, that may sound a little depressing, but it's also true.
I guess what I’ve learned is that friendship is a spiritual discipline, or a means to abide in God by abiding in another. If this is true, then there’s always reason to gather with another and lay down your lives. After all, it might end up saving it.
When scholar and pastor Eugene Peterson died, his son, Leif, noted that his father "only had one sermon, one message.”
At Eugene’s funeral, Leif shared this poem about his father:
“It's almost laughable how you fooled them, how for 30 years every week you made them think you were saying something new. They thought you were a magician in your long black robe hiding so much in your ample sleeves, always pulling something fresh and making them think it was just for them. They didn't know how simple it all was. They were blind to your secret.”
Leif Peterson knew this because he heard the sermon every night,
"For 50 years you steal into my room at night and whispered softly to my sleeping head. It's the same message over and over: 'God loves you. He's on your side. He's coming after you. He's relentless.’"
The secret is out: that’s the only sermon in my closet, too. I pull it out and accessorize it with stories, high-brow theology, and flowery language. But it’s all I will ever say because it’s all I know to say. This is gospel. One important theologian, who wrote masses of texts, was once asked how he would summarize the millions of words he had published. His answer? "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Though, to be fair, sometimes it lands harsher, like law, when the same blessing is proclaimed about our neighbors. We’re given commandments because we fail to believe that the gospel holds true for all, and not just the people we deem worthy.
At the very least, the church can preach love with confidence, and has been seeking to for two thousand years. The sermon has yet to go out of style or become inessential in a world starved for good news. Like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the mountain, only for it to roll back down the hill, I stand behind the pulpit and proclaim this message, which is more or less the same one that God gave to Jesus at his baptism. And then, I do it again the following week.
At least I’ll never be out of a job.
Jesus’ baptism is a microcosm of salvation history and a recapitulation of what has happened prior. Jesus is down at the Jordan River, that is, the same place where the Israelites entered the promised land after being led by Moses through the Red Sea into freedom out of Egypt. He is there alongside streams of people who are looking for a fresh start. In came the racists and addicts, the spouses in the midst of infidelity, the CEOs and stockholders. Surely, there were others who appeared healthy and happy, but were harboring some kind of guilt or darkness deep in their souls. It was a shameful and embarrassing lot of people for a king and messiah to be caught naked with. But Jesus, who didn’t need the water, hopped in line because we did.
We can’t reach up to God. There’s no tower of Babel that can climb to the heavens. God descends low enough to take a bath alongside us— like a parent who reaches down into the bathtub to scrub a screaming toddler and then, climbs in to be with her, soothe her, show her all will be well. God comes down, down, down until God was immersed into the scum and slime of a river. In other words, Jesus emptied himself into every part of our world so that we might be immersed into all of God.
Here, at Jesus’ baptism, Israel’s longings are answered. Isaiah’s prayer, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” is finally answered. The Spirit that hovered over the chaotic waters when the world was birthed is now hovering over Jesus’ water-logged body, bestowing a new creation. The dove that Noah sent out when the ark waded on sea waves has returned with another olive branch—Jesus. Finally, God speaks from the heavens: “You are my child, my beloved, and I am pleased with you.”
There it is, the sermon, and the reason why God goes to all this trouble to play with water.
Water is completely ordinary, just a compound of hydrogen and oxygen atoms, but it also sustains all life. Water nourishes us in the womb and runs through our veins. It’s the only satisfaction for a dry mouth and the foundation for all food that is complex and delicious. It is water that cleanses our children following an afternoon of marching through the forests and later becomes the bubble bath for the overworked mother or the sponge bath for the elderly resident in the nursing home. Even tears are drops of water that cleanse our eyes and hearts. But that's not all, water is security, sustenance for the future, and as the Israelites who crossed through the Red Sea remind us, an escape route.
Water: cleansing, sustaining, and saving. The best news about your past, present, and future.
The first thing that I do every Sunday is walk over to the baptismal font and pour water into a bowl. It’s a sermon that splashes and trickles. I plagiarize the sermon given to Jesus by saying something like this: “Remember your baptism. You are a beloved child of God. This is your family. Welcome home.” We are baptized only once, but we are called upon to remember our baptism every day. To bathe in it. Splash in it. Die in it. Be born in it.
Baptism doesn’t always seem to work, at least not immediately. Change, I’ve learned, takes time—especially the kind that reorients your entire constitution of desire. This is why we have to keep reminding ourselves of the water. It’s not that the gift is imperfect, but that we are. We must die to ourselves in order to rise with Christ, but sin is a hard thing to drown. Right when we think we’ve gotten it under control, it rears its head, takes another breath, and whispers 'there are other means of salvation, like that new toy from REI or your next one-click purchase. Shove the cleansing and healing water back into the font and close the lid. Forgot about it. Drink from the water of Starbucks while worshipping at the altar of Target. Turn back to the gods on your screens and in your wallet (or maybe a Dairy Queen Blizzard) to quench the ‘worthiness’ thirst.' Or, thus says the little voice in my head.
I think this must be why Martin Luther often dipped his finger in water during times of great stress and said to himself, ‘remember you’ve been baptized.’ The water was a reminder of his identity, and also a calling to live into a new identity. Now, he may have equally often picked up a stein of beer. But one of the two bestowed true life and the other bestowed life that was followed by a headache.
There is a paradox at the core of baptism: everything changes and nothing completely changes. If baptism is efficacious, then it works slowly like a seed that is planted and still needs watering, a marriage that must be attended to, a child who grows into the life that waits for him. In a sense, we’ve not exited the pool; we’re still immersed in the waters—dying, reforming in the womb, and rising into new life.
Baptism is more than a rite of passage, or a graduation ceremony for infants. It’s a death and resurrection. The start of something new. TS Eliot in his Four Quartets writes that “In my beginning is my end.” He must have been speaking of baptism. The font is the starting point for the journey and it’s also the endpoint. We can’t say in what oceans we’ll end up swimming or who ends up with us in the boat. We’re not promised calm or tumultuous waters, but only a Christ who will walk toward us on the waters. And when we come to the end of all our exploration, we’ll realize we’ve been at the end all along— swimming in the deep, rich pools of God’s grace claimed as God’s own children.
We need to be reminded of the truth about ourselves from time to time. After all, it can take a lifetime to claim what was named at the waters. And so every week we gather at the waters and I share the only message I know: you are beloved.
Danielle carried him out of the bedroom, his hair tousled from a restless night. He smiled and his eyebrows wrapped around his face in a cartoonish sort of way. Today is the last Monday I’ll count Pax’s age using months. Next Monday, he’ll be a year and two days old. It will also be Christmas Eve, and the day we brought him home from the hospital.
It’s serendipitous that we came home from the hospital on Christmas Eve, baby in tow, preparing to celebrate another baby. Saint Ephrem the Syrian said that at Christmas a baby grabs the reigns of the universe.i Our reigns were also taken by a seven and a half pound ball of flesh—though, in a less cosmic sort of way.
All babies, not just the salvific kind, wield tremendous amounts of power. A newborn’s yawn disarms the hardest soul. Go ahead and try not to smile. A child’s complete reliance demands every minute of your day. All of it. It’s a full-time job and not a once a week, for an hour, kind of a thing. All hail King Baby. I’ve had pregnant friends tell me, “I’m going to make my baby’s schedule when she’s born. I’ll still have a life outside of baby.” And that’s when the universe gives them a baby with colic.
When we were pregnant with Eden, one friend put it to me like this: “Every day is more difficult, but I can’t imagine life any other way.” That seems right. And I think I could say the same thing about anything that really matters.
Luckily, Paxton has been gentle with the reigns, by not pulling them as taut as he might. There has been plenty of slack—quiet dinners out, decent sleep, and self-entertainment. Still, he holds the reigns. All it takes is one missed nap or an incoming tooth and I remember that I don’t captain this ship. This morning, I set up a barricade around outlets and wires because he was chewing on an I-Phone cable like a wad of bubble gum. To spite me, Pax staggered straight to the coffee table and swiped my cup of coffee to the ground.
“Uh oh!” he chirps.
It’s an apt first phrase for our species. We come into this world delicate and beautiful, and while the beauty remains, we immediately start making a mess of things. Or, maybe it’s parents who make a mess of their children. That will depend on your theology of original sin and sin, or maybe Family Systems Theory. What’s clear is that children are more like bulldozers than flowers. Last month, I gave Paxton the silent treatment for half a day when he pulled my computer off the table and caused irreparable damage to the hard drive. Uh oh.
And he smiled. He smiles all the time.
My favorite part of Monday is putting him to sleep. Pax reclined on me, facing outward, nestled into me like I’m a La-Z-Boy. The soft, morning light shone through the crack between the broken, crooked curtain and window casing. He grabbed my finger like it was a life preserver before he sunk into deep waves of sleep. His shirt rode up and his rolls hung over the elastic waistband. I’d have laughed if it wouldn’t wake him. Most mornings he hits himself in the face to stay awake, or he flicks his bottom lip up and down, but today his eyes rolled around, flipped upward, and eventually closed. He snored like an old man.
When Paxton woke up from his nap he cried out, “Uh oh!” (I usually feel the same way). He woke up crying after his second nap, because he wasn't quite ready. He quickly fell back asleep to Pachelbel’s Canon in D.
Daytime consists of the simplest forms of entertainment: standing and falling. He pinballs from the coffee table to the couch, to the side table. He falls over. Most of the time he’s looking to swallow some object that will end his short life. I’ve already pried the remote control from his hands twice, as he tried to pry out the silver batteries. I chased him when he crawled down the hallway. He stopped, turned his head, and giggled. Then, he kept crawling away.
Nothing’s extraordinary, but everything is extraordinary. Nothing’s unique, but everything is unique. Objectivity doesn’t exist with your children. As far as I’m concerned, mine are the best. Is that how God looks at us? I wish I could look at others in the same way.
When we walk into Eden’s school to pick her up from class, Pax grabs my left thumb when someone starts talking to us. I’m not sure what it means, but it’s reassuring for both of us—we’ll survive the small talk. Pax misses his sister on Mondays. She makes him laugh like no one else. Eden misses him, too, I think. She ran to him, wrapped her arms around him, planted one on his cheek, rammed her fingers under his flabby arms and said, “tickle tickle.” At home, he laughed when Eden asked Alexa to play Can’t Stop the Feeling. He flung his arms in the air just like her.
My life has the potential to be interrupted by a flash mob of dancing and I'd have it no other way.
I should mention that Pax eats—he eats a lot. If there’s a plate in front of him, and food is on it, then life is good. When he wants more to eat he says, “Mmmm,” which isn’t at all demanding. It’s more like a southern-passive way of asking for more food. I interpret it like this: “Mmmm. That apple pie sure was great. It’s a shame I only got one slice.” We gave him strawberries, rice, and other vegetables that he shoveled into his mouth by the fistful.
The day ended soon, but not too soon.
I work night hours so I had to leave right after dinner. I made it home to hear a story with Eden, but Pax was already down for the night—at least, the first shift of the night. He ended up in our bed at some point and we wrestled with the dark until his eyes rose to meet the sun and we rose to meet him. Almost a year ago we held him in our arms on winter solstice, the longest night of the year, just as the sun rose. With every passing day and year, the sun rises a little more over horizon revealing who he is and who he is becoming—who we are all becoming—it happens Monday after Monday.
i. This was Jason Byassee's observation here