Mike is a quiet, rugged man who keeps mostly to himself. He is very slowly dying of liver cancer.
After many monthly visits to his home, Mike blurts out one day that he wants to be baptized. We have never discussed this before; usually we chat about the weather, TV shows, his fractured family, and occasionally about his struggles and losses. He has a great sense of history, but also seems good at playing the victim in his often troubled relationships.
So we talk about what Christian baptism is and is not. As a minister and chaplain, I am aware of the denominational differences. Here I focus on the primary similarities.
One of the main implications of baptism, I say, is forgiveness: from God, from others, of others, and of ourselves.
That last part gets him. Although forgiveness is seen by Mike as weakness, the idea of really being forgiven rocks his fragile boat.
I explain that to forgive is not to forget or condone what happened, but to put it aside to allow a relationship to occur. Forgiveness allows restitution or reconciliation to happen, but it must precede them as unmerited grace, not follow them as conditions.
It is not mine to force Mike to reveal the inner hurts of his mind, heart and soul. That's his own sacred space that I honor and respect.
My role is to clarify the meaning and purpose of this ancient religious ritual and rite of passage into the world of faith. My role is to invite him into holy waters of mystery and love, in the presence of those who care about him and the one who cares most deeply and unconditionally for us all.
A few days later, several family and friends gather in his humble home to witness and support his decision. Dressed in a new white shirt, he haltingly speaks simple words of apology and regret to those present. He humbly asks for forgiveness. Then he painfully kneels on the floor and I cup my hands into a basin of warm water and pour it over his head three times in the name of the Holy Trinity.
Tears are indistinguishable from water. I lay hands on his head and lead the tiny congregation in a prayer of blessing and forgiveness. Then with help, he arises and sits quietly in his chair while we file outside to give him a few moments of spiritual after-glow. Soon, we return to share a few gifts, hugs, and collective gratitude.
"So what?" you might say.
Does Mike the sinner become Michael the saint? Are all his wounds -- physical, emotional, relational, spiritual -- healed and made whole?
Again it is not mine to force God to reveal the mysteries of divine grace, save what I witness that afternoon. But know this: If Mike -- or I -- or any of us have any hope for meaning and purpose in our short lives, it will depend mightily on large doses of love, grace, faith, peace and joy -- which is what baptism is all about.
-- Timothy J. Ledbetter, DMin, BCC is an American Baptist clergy, board certified chaplain and member of Shalom United Church of Christ. Questions and comments should be directed to editor Lucy Luginbill in care of the Tri-City Herald newsroom, 333 W. Canal Drive, Kennewick, WA 99336. Or email firstname.lastname@example.org.