Leaving Salem

My youngest son was baptized recently. I had the honor of dipping his little shaggy head under the river that runs near our home. It wasn’t quite like my own baptism, however. When I was his age, however, I was terrified of water. I didn’t learn to swim until I was an adult, so commanded by Jesus or not, there was no way I was going to put myself in a situation where I might drown, and in my effort to please Jesus, meet him face to face.

Therefore, I was the first person in my church and immediate family to be baptized in an indoor baptistery. We borrowed the sanctuary of another church for the event, and most of the old-timers were sure it was an act of high sacrilege.

By the time I became a pastor outdoor baptisms were anomalies. Every church, except for a few hold outs, had indoor dunking pools. In just such a pool I once baptized six little kids after summer Vacation Bible School. The third one into the water was a blond-headed boy named Vince, who was always getting into trouble. Baptism didn’t stop that. No sooner had he left the pool, and I turned to guide the next baptismal candidate into the water, from behind me, he cannon-balled back into the water and was doing the backstroke before we fished him out.

And there was a young man named John who made a profession of Christian faith and, of course, needed to be baptized. John was more than six feet tall and about three-hundred pounds. He worked as a carpenter and was a mountain of muscle. And here I was, all 170 pounds of me with arms of ribbon and in a denomination that insisted on dipping a candidate below the water – completely below the water. If there was ever a time I wanted to be a Methodist that was it.

I went to an old Baptist preacher I trusted and asked for advice: “How do I get this big guy back up, out of the water,” I asked him. He answered, “Get him up? Don’t worry about that. Just get him down. He’ll get up.” Thank God he did.

What is the meaning of baptism? It depends upon who you ask. Some say it is a sacrament. The pastor who dipped me in the water would say it is “only” a symbol. And then, if you could answer that question, how do you baptize properly? Do you pour, sprinkle, immerse, dip, spray, squirt, squeegee, soak, or flush? Again, it depends upon who you ask. Modes and means of baptism are as diverse as Christianity itself.

I understand baptism as neither a sacrament nor a symbol. I think it is a sign – a “pointer” Karl Barth might call it – aiming at something else. That something else is nothing less than a new humanity, a new creation God is bringing to his world through his Son, Jesus. More than anything else, I believe baptism is our statement of faith that a new future is coming, a new creation, and it states our willingness to be a part of that new world today. I believe baptism communicates to all onlookers that we have entered God’s radical, grace-filled, barrier-breaking community, and there is a different way to live in this world.

With this understanding of baptism, when someone is dipped under the water, or has water poured over his or her head, I can now say with enthusiasm, “Another person has boldly identified with the Christian community and has gotten in on God’s work in the world.” That’s what I explained to my own son after he rose from the chilly waters of the Cartecay River. I said, “Do not remember this as the day you received the necessary grace to get into heaven. Do not remember this as the day your name was put on a church roll. Remember this as the day you joined God in his work of making all things new. He has begun with you. Don’t keep it to yourself.”


When the ancients spoke of faith, they used a word that described a signature on a contract or a title deed. Faith was the oath that lay beneath such a document. A buyer may not have yet taken full possession of the property, but the closing documents gave them the faith that they one day would.

Faith, then, was not wishful thinking. It was not “blind.” For the heroes of old, it was a promise; a promise as good as the name of the person signing the contract. They believed that God’s word to them was trustworthy. That was the source of their faith.

I don’t know much about title deeds, but I know a little about another act of faith. As a minister, I’ve officiated my fair share of weddings. Though the names, faces, and stories change, most of these young, dreamy-eyed lovers who come to the altar all act the same. They are all filled with hope, love and visions for the future. They are overwhelmed with all these romantic notions of marriage.

And this is all good, for these wistful effects are all necessary ingredients for their happiness. These will serve as fuel to launch them forward. “I promise love, honor, cherish and protect, forsaking all others,” they say. And when they exchange their rings, and walk away married, they also launch out into one of the greatest acts of faith possible.

Those marriage vows will not protect them from the trials of life, matrimony, and family. Those vows will not pay the mortgage. Those vows will not prevent birth defects in their children, or ensure success with their business ventures, or keep the effects of economic recession outside their home.

Their faith in one another will not mean the end of sickness, disagreement, poverty, or any variegated means of gut-wrenching suffering. But if those vows mean anything at all, then their faith will carry them through these things. There is bound to be trouble; faith does not and can not stop that. But faith moves a person through it, even when they don’t know what is waiting on the other side.

Enough of this faith that professes the ability to change our circumstances; we need a faith that changes us. For if faith secured for every person who claimed to have it, a soft life, never a disappointment, abundance on every hand, the elimination of doubt, and the absence of fear, hospital bills, hunger, attorney fees or loss – well, then God owes a great many people a colossal apology.

We don’t need romantic, utopian faith. It is useless, nothing more than an opiate to dull our senses and keep us from seeing the way things really are. We need realistic, vow-keeping faith. We need a faith that says, “I know life is hard. I know things don’t always work out. I know that into every life some rain must fall, but he who promised is faithful to me – more faithful than any lover or spouse could ever be – and together, we will make it through.”

My favorite profession of faith does not roll off the lips of one of the Bible’s great well-known heroes of faith. It comes from a simple man, a faceless, nameless hero we know precious little about. His story is found in Mark 9.

This unknown man brings his sick child to Jesus, begging Jesus to heal the boy, if it all possible. Jesus replies, “All things are possible if you will believe.” The man, impulsively shouts back to Jesus – “I believe, but Lord, help me overcome my unbelief.”

That is the journey most of us are on. We believe – at least we want to. We have faith – tiny and feeble – but faith nonetheless. And we have doubts: Bone crushing doubts. That’s okay too. Countless heroes have gone before us, dying in the darkness, never making it to the light.

Did they doubt? Yes. Did they persevere? Absolutely. They held to a promise God made to them, that he would make everything right, even if they never lived to see it. I suppose that is the faith we all need.

There is an old hymn that goes, “There’s room at the cross for you. Though millions have come, there’s still room for one. Yes, there’s room at the cross for you.” I have sung it many times. The words apply to more than hard-core believers. There is also room for doubters who can’t seem to buy all this Jesus talk.

If that is you – a doubter – then come pull up a chair and sit with us. After all, some of us who believe don’t always hold to the party line. Yes, most days we are as trusting and unquestioning as a child. We see and we believe. Case closed.

But on other days, we are as cynical, jaded, and suspicious as a room full of Doubting Thomases. Case in point: A few days ago my phone rang with bad news. It was a call telling me that an old friend was sick.

This friend and I went to school together, and while in high school we both went to work for a new company that had moved to town: Wal-Mart. That was twenty years ago and my friend is still there, manager over the Lawn and Garden department.

We have cycled together, hiked all over theSmokeyMountainstogether, and in the last year he has been winning 5K and 10K races in his age division. He went to the doctor with hip pain, he thought from all the running and cycling. Instead, he has bone cancer.

It’s not right, no matter which way you cut it. If there is a person in this world who has never wished anyone harm, it is him – now this. It makes me wag my finger at God and wonder what in heaven or hell is going on.

In those moments when we believe, faith itself is its own comfort. But when we are struck with skepticism and our hearts are filled with questions and rages against heaven, our view of things gets more than a little cloudy.

Doubt is a sort of no-mans-land, a terrible back and forth of serving two masters. We want to believe, in spite of it all, but can’t always get there. And when we do believe, there is a nagging splinter in our brain that keeps us just uncertain enough not to move on. Torn between the two, it’s enough to make you lose your mind.

But here is the gift that doubt gives, that blind belief cannot offer: Doubt is the delivery room for something new and wonderful to be born into your life. Doubt is actually an indispensible element that makes faith grow.

I read about a lone survivor of a shipwreck who washed up on a small, desert island. He prayed and prayed for God to have mercy and rescue him. Every day he scanned the horizon for help, but none came.

Exhausted, he eventually began to make a life on the island. He built a little hut out of driftwood and palm branches to protect himself from the elements and to store his few possessions. But then one day, after scavenging for food, he arrived home to find his little hut in flames, the smoke rolling up to the sky.

As if shipwreck and loneliness were not enough, now his only home and few belongings were gone. He was stunned with anger, hurt, and doubt: “God, how could you do this to me?” he cried.

Early the next day, however, he was awakened by the sound of a ship that was approaching the island. It had come to rescue him. Tears of joy streamed down the man’s face: “How did you know I was here?” he asked his rescuers. “We saw your smoke signal asking for help,” they replied.

Doubt, rather than driving God away, may in fact, bring him to us. When we feel as if all the faith we can muster is burning to the ground, it just might be the necessary signal for God to somehow, someway, appear to us, in a way we never dreamed possible.

You might think my raving doubts an act of sacrilege. You’re probably right. But there’s even space for my questions, accusation, and doubts at the cross of Jesus. In the words of Frederick Buechner, “If God does not have enough room for doubt, he does not have enough room for me.”