Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Unrequited Love

When they heard (Jesus’ words), all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. (Luke 4:28-30)

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (I Corinthians 13:13)

In my teen years, I was a bit of an expert on love and rejection.

I fell serially in love with beautiful classmates who shared a common trait of needing to wash their hair on the Saturday evenings I proposed a quiet date at the movies.  I won’t mention their names because I feel sure they have deeply regretted their split ends and romantic miscalculations over the ensuing decades.

And there were other fish in the sea. Besides the girls next door, I was in love with Annette Funicello of the Mickey Mouse Club. I was in love with Gail Davis, television’s buxom Annie Oakley.

I even set a new standard for unrequited adoration by falling tragically for Thelma Todd, the “Hot Toddy” of Marx Brothers movies, who died 11 years before I was born.

Maybe my wistful affair with Hot Toddy was even useful on some level because I certainly was not among those who mocked Manti Te’o for having a girl friend he couldn’t quite put his finger on.

No one really knows what goes on in the hearts and minds of males before their cerebral cortex is fully developed.

And when it comes to love, the only thing we can say for sure that it is inexplicable and often cruel and especially so when one is young.

At the time Hot Toddy and I were an item, I am sure I had no idea what was going on in the Synagogue in Jerusalem when the crowd turned abruptly from adoring Jesus to wanting to throw him off a cliff.

And I’m sure I grasped little of Paul’s magnificent love poetry in I Corinthians, except for the part about seeing through a mirror dimly, which is a valuable skill if your girl friend has been a ghost since 1935.

Perhaps the incident in the Nazareth synagogue is the easier passage to understand because we know from more recent experience that public opinion is fickle and the crowds that cry Hosanna on Sunday may be crying “crucify him” on Friday.

We see this all the time in our media.  Five years ago contending politicians complained the press was praising and building up an unknown and untested first-term senator from Illinois. With media hosannas ringing in his ears, Barack Obama wrested the presidential nomination from a better-known and more experienced candidate, and then went on to win the White House following a contest with a long-time senator and lifelong public servant.

But the hosannas stopped quickly enough. Led by rhetorical charges from Fox News, Mr. Obama was declared weak, indecisive, and “disappointing.”

A lot of this is politics as usual, of course. A reporter once asked President Kennedy about a report that the Republican National Committee had passed a resolution that JFK was “pretty much of a failure.”  Kennedy stifled a smile and said, “Well, I assume it passed unanimously.”

John Kennedy is one politician who didn’t live to see the hosannas fade. He was still riding high in the polls when he was cut down in Dallas 50 years ago. In the immediate aftermath of his assassination, he was virtually deified by grieving admirers. But as the years passed and his affairs with teen-age interns and the girlfriends of Mafia chieftains became known, JFK became the target of derision. Crowds are fickle. If they don’t like what you say or do, they’ll turn on you.

As he entered the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus was also riding high in the polls. Word of his sermons and miracles had reached his hometown, and the local crowd was eager to see what he would do. The synagogue leaders honored Jesus with an invitation to speak, and one can imagine the resonant authority in his voice as he read the passage from Isaiah.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

As Jesus carefully rolled up the scroll and sat down, he would have been safer to smile benignly at the audience and keep his mouth closed. No doubt the old boys would haves smiled back in civic pride that a local boy had made them all feel so good.

Instead, Jesus said, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”


The old boys’ jaws dropped as they gaped at the young upstart. Jesus felt the love hiss out of the bromance like helium from a balloon.

He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”

And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown.

But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.

They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.

But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. (Luke 4:23-30)

The crowd may have been expecting miracles, but not the ones they got: a Scripture reading by God’s son and a declaration that Jesus was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy.

The old boys descended into paroxysms of rage, sputtering among themselves that this lad who thought he was all that was the son of a lowly carpenter, and they knew his family, and none of them were all that either. The religious leaders of Nazareth became a lynch mob, joining arms and hands to force Jesus to the edge of a cliff at the end of town. They had every intention of hurling him off the cliff, onto the rocks below.

But Jesus stared them down and, in another miracle the old boys weren’t expecting, he walked back through the crowd to safety “and went on his way.”

The old boys came to the synagogue to see Jesus perform the tricks they had heard stories about: water made into wine, the blind made to see, the lame made to walk. The miracles they got were not what they were expecting – the revelation that Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s historic prophecies, and a quiet demonstration of God’s power over mob rule. These were perhaps the greatest miracles Jesus had performed to date, and the old boys missed them entirely.

The old boys also missed another point Jesus was making when read the passage from Isaiah.

The passage has long been regarded a prophetic call for justice for all.

At the same time, the passage is a remarkable declaration of love because of the affection it expresses for so many of God’s unloved people: the poor, the sick, the prisoners, the victims of oppression, those drowning in debt.

When the old boys rejected Jesus at Nazareth, it was more than one of those historic incidents in which the public places you on a lofty pedestal so it will have the smug satisfaction of knocking you off.

When the old boys rejected Jesus at Nazareth, it was also a callous spurning of a suitor who came to them with words of love. Jesus opened him arms and urged his listeners to embrace not only one another, but to reach out in love to those they instinctively scorned. The poor. The sick. Prisoners. The oppressed. People who owed them money.

Alas, the old boys had no patience for that. When they rejected Jesus at Nazareth, they rejected the messiah, the Son of God, the fulfillment of all prophecy.

They also rejected the strongest power in the universe: love.

Fortunately, though we may willfully reject God’s love , God’s love for us never stops.

Paul, the apostle who began his religious career as a Pharisee spewing hatred to the followers of Jesus, experienced the power of God’s love.

And very few writers have expressed love more eloquently or in words more worth savoring than the former hater.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;

it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.

It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.

For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part;
but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (I Corinthians 13:1-13)

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Chairman Jesus

I don’t remember their names and I haven’t been in touch with them for fifty years. But they were the source of a major epiphany in my youth.

I was 17 years old in 1964 and I was enjoying my last summer at home before enlisting in the Air Force. In August I volunteered to be a counselor at Camp Pathfinder, the Baptist camp near Cooperstown, N.Y., and the staff orientation meeting took place Saturday afternoon. All the counselors were, as usual, under 20 and white.

Among the volunteers were two young women who had completed their freshman year at Cortland State College.

As a newly minted high school graduate, I regarded them as wise in the ways of an adult world I had not yet joined.

Both of the young women wore a small black button labeled “CORE.”

Overcoming my reluctance to look stupid, I asked, “What is CORE?”

The women smiled indulgently.

“Congress of Racial Equality,” one said.

Of course, I thought to myself. I had heard of CORE.

Then came the epiphany: “Of course!”

Here were two Christian women a few months older than I who used tiny buttons to proclaim a fundamental tenet of faith.

Of course! “Love thy neighbor” was not limited to the families living next door to my house on Cedar Street. The commandment to love neighbors included everyone, regardless of how different they looked from my family.

The little CORE buttons were as unambiguous a Christian symbol as cross pendants.

Of course! Fifteen months earlier I had sat in front of our black-and-white Admiral television to watch President Kennedy make the political case for civil rights. He had hinted at the theological basis for equality and justice:

The Negro baby born in America today, regardless of the section of the State in which he is born, has about one-half as much chance of completing a high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day, one-third as much chance of completing college, one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man, twice as much chance of becoming unemployed, about one-seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year, a life expectancy which is 7 years shorter, and the prospects of earning only half as much … We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.

It is always embarrassing to look back on one’s youth to confront the self-absorbed ignorance that prevents us from seeing great truths. I am duly chastened to remember a time when my faith was so limited.

At 17, my youthful conscience tormented me about many things, mostly sexual caprices, lies to my parents, secret beer blasts, and taking Jesus’ name in vain. I imagined God scowling down at me like an annoyed George Carlin, fuming at my transgressions. It would not have occurred to me that the God who weeps as millions are crushed by injustice would hardly care about my fervent tributes to Miss July’s centerfold charms.

Throughout high school, my theology focused on my futile efforts to be a good boy. My myopic faith did not include worrying about fellow students who suffered in abject poverty in Madison County, or about the daily verbal abuse endured by the handful of African American or Onondaga children in school, or the routine taunting of children born too short, or too tall, or too androgynous for comfort.

Being a conformist – which is frequently the same thing as striving to be a good boy – I may even have participated in the abuse. I am sure I never intervened to stop it. If God ever frowned down on me like an annoyed George Carlin, those would have been the times I should have felt the heat.

Then a few days short of my 18th birthday, two young women wearing CORE buttons broke through my obtuseness and expanded my theological horizons. I found myself re-assessing what God thinks is important. In the words attributed to All-American lineman Buck Buchanan, “God don’t care who wins ball games.” But God does care about what you think is important in the game of life.

In Luke 4:14-21, Jesus helped clarify what is important in the game of life by citing the scripture he would adopt as his spiritual and political manifesto:

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

It’s hard to overestimate the radical nature of Jesus’ declaration.

In a world in which untold millions endured poverty and hunger, Jesus proclaimed good news based on the premise that God’s children should to do something about it.

In a world in which thousands were imprisoned and enslaved by oppressive Roman rulers and paranoid kings, Jesus declared it had to change, and God’s children should do something about it.

In a world in which millions were blinded by self-imposed ignorance or physical disorders, in a world in which thousands suffering from incurable diseases were shunned and cast aside, Jesus said he would restore sight and remove the afflictions, and God’s people should stop treating the sick as inhuman nonentities.

In a world in which ninety-nine percent of the population was beaten down by the one percent who had fortune and power, Jesus proclaimed the emancipation of the oppressed. And God’s children should stop oppressing one another.

In Roman occupied Palestine, Jesus message was revolutionary. It scared the hell out of his listeners, especially the Romans and Pharisees whose livelihood depended on preventing people from thinking outside their boxes. And when Jesus sat down and said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” all that changed.

Jesus' reading of the Scripture so completely unnerved the old boys (and they were old boys) in the synagogue in Jerusalem that they tried to throw him off a cliff.

The Scripture still scares the hell out of a lot of people. Not long after I met the two women with CORE buttons, I found myself sitting in a bible study in an Air Force chapel. I was still new to the Air Force game and would have identified with what Ike told his son, Second Lieutenant John S.D. Eisenhower, when the new West Point grad visited the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe: “Every officer in this theater is senior to you and junior to me.” Sitting among colonels and senior sergeants, I listened respectfully to the Baptist style of dismissing the radicalism of Luke 4.

“Jesus didn’t mean it literally,” a lieutenant colonel opined as I sat at attention. “He was talking about folks who were spiritually blind and oppressed.”

“That’s right, Sir,” said a Chief Master Sergeant who didn’t get his eight stripes by disagreeing with colonels. “Jesus was saving souls, not talking politics.”

I’m sure I nodded in silent assent like a bobble-head puppet.

But of course high-ranking military officers are not always right (pause to savor the understatement) and in this case they were probably wrong. The last statement Jesus read to the assembly in the Synagogue was the most political of all: “To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The reference is to the year of Jubilee in Leviticus when, according to the law of the Torah, debts would be forgiven, property would be returned to its original owners, and slaves would be freed.

“And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.” Leviticus 25:10)

It doesn’t get more political than that. It also doesn’t get more problematic and history records that the Israelites had difficulty implementing the plan. No other geopolitical entity has ever tried to establish a regular schedule to liberate people from bondage and indebtedness.

But the proclamation of Jubilee remains one of history’s most revolutionary documents promoting equality and justice. It’s no coincidence that the radicalism of Leviticus is inscribed on the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all (emphasis on “all”) its inhabitants.” And in the Nazareth Synagogue, Jesus made it plain this was one promise God meant to keep. “Read My Lips. Liberty for all.”

If Jesus was as spiritually radical as we know he was – he did, after all, give his life to wash away the sins of all us rebellious humans after we turned our backs in God and rescued us from eternal death – it makes sense that he would be politically radical as well.

Jesus’ radical politics are terrifying to those who believe they have a God-given right to fortune and property and they owe nothing to the poor and oppressed. Jesus’ radical politics frighten us, too.  If you were among the PBS viewers who grieved when Lord Grantham lost all his money and would have to sell Downton Abbey – and relieved when Matthew Crawley came to the rescue and made it possible for the series to last another season – it’s hard to realize that Jesus had another plot twist in mind: Sell the damn place and give the money to the poor.

In 1971, my last year in college, David Kirk published a wonderful little book called, Quotations from Chairman Jesus. The book appeared at the height of the Vietnam War and in the midst of painful political, racial, economic, and generational strife in the U.S.

The militant words in the book (modified only slightly, as when Kirk rendered the Good Samaritan as the Good Black Panther) are Jesus’ own.

One online reviewer of the book who identified himself as “Rain Cloud” wrote:

This book is still relevant because of all the people who--God knows how--believe Jesus was a republican. I can only believe these blow-hards have never taken the time to sit down and read the New Testament. This was a man who told his disciples when they went out on a trip to carry the message to not even carry a coin purse. Not even a coin purse! He said to them, if you have an extra coat, give it to the poor. The body is more than clothes, life is more than food. Does that sound like a stock portfolio loving conservative republican to you?

Of course (I hasten to point out) all of us, not just Republicans, have a tendency to seek material pleasures and enhanced riches.

I don’t think Jesus condemns us for that.

But Jesus did proclaim in the Synagogue in Nazareth that the pursuit of such happiness should be available to all people: the poor, the blind, the oppressed, and those entrapped by an economic system that drowns them in debt.

No one, Jesus said, should get rich or surround themselves with possessions at the expense of anyone else.

And having said this to each of us, Jesus rolls up the scroll, sits down, and calmly returns our startled stares.

“Today,” he says quietly, “this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The rest is up to us radicals.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

I'll Drink to That

There are Baptists, believe it or not, who believe Jesus turned ordinary Galilean well water into Welch's grape juice.

Granted, that would be impressive as miracles go. But it’s not the same as a palate pleasing cabernet sauvignon.

Nor does it seem to ring true with the biblical account of the wedding feast at Cana. Despite the Baptist bias, it seems doubtful that the sudden disappearance of grape juice would distress a host so visibly that it would capture Mary’s attention.

There are also Baptists, believe it or not, who insist Jesus’ beverage of choice—at wedding feasts, dinners, celebrations, and his Last Supper -- was unfermented juice, and that this is what the Bible means by wine. 

How they reach this conclusion is a mystery because the Bible clearly knows real wine.

There are at least 75 references in the bible to the deleterious effects of alcohol, and anyone who has over-imbibed will identify with the author of Proverbs 23:29-35. There is no doubt this dude has experienced something stronger than Welch's:

Who has woe? Who has sorrow?
Who has strife? Who has complaining?
Who has wounds without cause?
Who has redness of eyes?
Those who linger late over wine,
those who keep trying mixed wines.
Do not look at wine when it is red,
when it sparkles in the cup
 and goes down smoothly.
At the last it bites like a serpent,
and stings like an adder.
Your eyes will see strange things,
 and your mind utter perverse things.
You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea,
 like one who lies on the top of a mast.
“They struck me,” you will say, “but I was not hurt;
they beat me, but I did not feel it.
When shall I awake?
I will seek another drink.”  

Be that as it may, the second chapter of John finds Jesus in the midst of a wedding revelry in which the wine has been flowing so freely the urns have been prematurely drained.

The guests are still at the point at which the wine sparkles in their cups and they want more.

Jesus, a 30-year-old woodworker living with his parents, is schmoozing with his twelve hangers-on and doesn’t notice the pending crisis.

But his mother notices. Mary knows Messiahs-in-Waiting have their obtuse moments, and this is one of them.

“They have no wine,” she says.

Taken aback, Jesus looks down his nose at his mother.

“Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”

But according to John, Jesus already has disciples following him and Mary may well be tired of thirteen grown men hanging around the place, adjusting each others’ phylacteries while waiting for the hour to come.

Ignoring her son’s rather insolent response, she gives him a firm nudge toward the servants. “Do whatever he tells you,” she says.

For most Christians, what happens next is a joyous sign of the power God has given Jesus over the laws of nature.

British humorist Rowan Atkinson, imitating an Anglican priest, captures the delight better than most preachers do. Summoning a sonorous and slightly condescending tone, he reads the ersatz scripture:

“And on the third day there was a marriage in Cana in Galilee. And it came to pass that all the wine was drunk. And the mother of Jesus said unto the lord, ‘they have no more wine.’ And Jesus said unto the servants. ‘Fill six water pots with water.’ And they did. And when the steward of the feast tasted the water from the pot it had become wine and he knew not from whence it had come. But the servants did know, and they applauded loudly in the kitchen. And they said unto the lord, ‘How the hell did you do that?’ and inquired of him, ‘Do you do children's parties?’ And the Lord said, ‘No.’ But the servants did press him, saying, ‘Go on, give us another one.’”                    

Contrary to the viewpoints of many Baptists, there is no question that Jesus was a connoisseur of wine. He openly acknowledged that he came into the world “eating and drinking,” leading enemies to call him a “glutton and a wine bibber.” But there are Baptists who can’t bring themselves to believe it.

When I worked for American Baptists Churches USA, the staff had a certain amount of freedom to express their personal and theological viewpoints on controversial topics, ranging from pacifism to sexual orientation.

“But don’t drink in public,” we were warned. One staff leader put it this way: “If a Baptist saw a member of the staff drink, it would be as if we had uncovered the body of Jesus.”

Some staff were suspected of getting around the prohibition by disguising their Jack Daniels in porcelain cups where it took on the appearance of innocent java.

But those who tried it knew they were risking their jobs. Even Baptists who accepted that Jesus drank wine were not happy about it. “It’s the one thing I didn’t like about him,” an aging dowager once told me.

Baptist teetotaling preceded the temperance and prohibition movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. The same crusading evangelicals who opposed slavery and demanded women’s suffrage also followed Carrie Nation into bars where she threatened property and patrons with her ax. Nation, a 6-foot-tall prohibitionist terrorist, said she was “a bull dog following at the feet of Jesus, barking at what he doesn’t like,” and she claimed God had ordained her to wield her ax. As far as Carrie Nation was concerned, and despite the evidence in her bible, Jesus didn’t like booze.

Just to be clear, the Baptist aversion to devil drink has modified over the years. I have friends who refer to themselves as “beer drinking Baptists” as if they had joined a specialized sect. A sizable number of Baptists now follow their Lord in wine bibbing, but they don’t like to tipple in front of each other. I once overheard a Baptist staff leader discussing annual meetings with his counterpart in another denomination.

“Times have changed,” said the counterpart. “The local bars no longer lose business when our church descends en masse on a city.”

“It’s different with us,” the Baptist leader said. “When Baptists come to town the bars lose money but room service charges soar.”

The wine-soaked wedding feast in Cana will be preached about in many thousands of Christian churches this Sunday, and once again Baptists will be forced to struggle with their attitudes toward alcohol.

As a member of the beer drinking Baptist sect, I try to keep an open mind about my teetotaling sisters and brothers.
Many of them are convinced that alcohol is satanic, and many have the anecdotes to back them up. God knows wine and demon run have obliterated many a liver and destroyed many lives and families. There is no question that, in the wrong hands, alcohol is evil.

Then again, there are many things that are evil in the wrong hands. Polls suggest a majority of Americans now think guns are evil enough to be controlled. But guns are designed solely to shoot things, so the burden of proof is on those who think they re good to have. There are many other things that are not intrinsically evil but can be used for evil purposes, and these could include the Internet, WiFi, and the keyboard of my MacBook Air.

People who think wine is evil or is too likely to be used for evil purposes will not be easily dissuaded.

And therein, perhaps, lies the key to the miracle at Cana.
Jesus and his mother (and his twelve hangers-on) were at a wedding where the mood was joyous and the wine was flowing. When the wine stopped flowing, Jesus – when prompted by his mother – saw nothing evil or ungodly about resuming the flow to keep joy alive.

In fact, for the first time in his ministry, Jesus discovered his effortless power to intervene in basic laws of physics and biology and fundamentally change them.

Change water into wine? Nice trick, you say, if you can do it.

But the wedding feast at Cana was more than that. It was there that Jesus – again, prompted by his mother – took the first step through the door that would lead to even more amazing miracles: miracles of teaching, healing, and the ultimate miracles of resurrection and redemption.

When Jesus turned water into wine, he took the first step toward changing the human condition from hate to love, from doubt to faith, from death to life.

When the wine jugs were drained at Cana, a pall was cast upon a gathering that was intended to celebrate the joys of human love.

When Jesus enabled the wine to flow again, the celebration was dramatically renewed, and the imbibers suddenly experienced the love of God that is boundless, eternal, and unconditional.

Even a Baptist would drink to that.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Wet Grace

Remember your baptism?

If you don’t, it says a lot about your theological orientation.

Most people in the Christian world, including more than a billion Catholics, experience baptism as tiny, pre-cognitive infants. They squirm and often scream in a priest’s arms as water is poured gently on their heads. When the sacrament is finished, they fall sleep, as innocent as they were before they were sprinkled. This pre-conscious experience is also common to millions of infants born to Orthodox, Anglican, and main line Protestant families.

There are no eyewitnesses left, but I am sure I was baptized sometime in 1946, probably in the United Church of Morrisville.

My Presbyterian mother and Methodist father were not practicing theologians, but they knew the baptism of a fragile infant should not wait.

That was also the case when my spouse was born to Catholic parents in Havana. I doubt either set of parents really believed unbaptized babies go to Hell or Limbo if they die, but all four parents lived in church dominated communities. An unsprinkled kid would look awfully nonconformist.

Billions of us slept or wept through our baptisms, perfectly sinless. The seasoned sinners involved in the rite were the clergy, parents, and Godparents who winked at the irony of accepting Jesus and renouncing Satan on behalf of a blameless baby. The drama behind every infant baptism may be less extreme than the closing scene of The Godfather, when Don Michael Corleone recites words of faith for his tiny nephew while his orders to whack his many enemies are executed out of sight of the baptismal party. But in every case, it is the adults who have an urgent need to renounce sin and Satan, not the innocent babe.

It’s hard to explain how the church evolved to the point of baptizing the innocent when the rite was originally intended for the guilty. John the Baptist made this clear by calling baptismal candidates a “brood of vipers,” (Luke 3:7), and by offering the rite as an opportunity for sinners to repent.

That original intention for baptism must be one of the reasons John was so unnerved when Jesus, whom he believed to be sinless, came to him and asked to be baptized. In Matthew, John demurs, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus answered, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” (Matthew 3:14-15)

Unlike every other adult who seeks baptism, Jesus came to the rite without sin. But like every adult, Jesus used the ceremony to announce a change in lifestyle. He was leaving behind his life as a Nazareth carpenter and beginning a new messianic mission. What better place to announce his new life than in a watering hole filled with sinners eager to turn away from sin? And what better audience to watch slack jawed as heaven opens, a dove descends, and God’s voice speaks: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22). It’s the Bible’s brass age way of shouting, “Look, up in the sky, it’s heaven, it’s a bird, it’s the Son of God!”

Most everyone agrees that the John baptized only adults seeking redemption and there is no biblical evidence that infants were ever baptized.

Many scholars also believe that John baptized by immersion – a good Baptist term that means full body dunking – in part because the Jordan River was deep enough to do it.

Others surmise John asked people to stand waist-deep in the water as he sprinkled their heads. That’s the form many artists imagine when they depict Jesus’ baptism. To stand with dignity in water is certainly more esthetically attractive than the image of a drenched person splashing and gasping for air as dripping strands of hair clog their nostrils. (Baptists know all about that.)

But, truth be told, the Bible is silent about the specific form of John’s baptism leaves us wondering if it involved full or partial immersion. John may even have sprinkled heads as converts stood comfortably on the dry bank. But I doubt it.

Across the centuries, churches reached different conclusions about the manner of baptism and who should do the baptizing. Just to be wonkish about it, the basic forms of baptism are aspersion, the sprinkling of water on the head; affusion, the pouring of water on the head; and immersion, by which Baptists (among others) mean full body dunking.

Baptists and their Anabaptist relatives are not the only groups that practice full body dunking. Submersion (of infants) is practiced by Orthodox and in the Ambrosian rite of western Catholics.

But the Baptist style of adult believers baptism is distinctive and attention getting. Many non-dunkers are amused that otherwise sane people would submit to the soggy rite:

MINISTER (forcing a wretched man’s head beneath the water): Do you believe?
MAN: (Choking and sputtering) Y –
MINISTER (dunking the man again): Do you BELIEVE?
MAN: (Choking and sputtering): YES!
MINISTER (dunking the man again): WHAT do you believe?
MAN: (Gasping for air): I believe you’re gonna DROWN me …

The rite of believer’s baptism has been portrayed hundreds of times in cinema but rarely accompanied by such beautiful music and inadvertently dead-on theology as the Coen brothers’ 2000 classic O Brother, Where Art Thou. Delmar, one of three escaped jail birds in Depression era Alabama, sees a baptismal service in the river and is pushed by powerful forces, perhaps the Holy Spirit, to join in:

Everett: Well, I guess hard times flush the chumps. Everybody's lookin' for answers... Where the hell's he goin'?
[Delmar runs out to be baptized]
Pete: Well I'll be a sonofabitch. Delmar's been saved.
Delmar: Well that's it, boys. I've been redeemed. The preacher's done warshed away all my sins and transmissions. It's the straight and narrow from here on out, and heaven everlasting's my reward.
Everett: Delmar, what are you talking about? We've got bigger fish to fry.
Delmar: The preacher says all my sins is warshed away, including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo.
Everett: I thought you said you was innocent of those charges?
Delmar: Well I was lyin'. And the preacher says that that sin's been warshed away too. Neither God nor man's got nothin' on me now. C'mon in boys, the water is fine.

As I said earlier, I was baptized as an infant sometime in the late summer or early fall of 1946. Then in 1966, while fighting the Cold War at an Air Force base in England, I was convinced by the relentless testimony of Southern Baptist friends that my baptism didn’t count because back then I was too young to “know the Lord.”

I think at 20 I was almost as sinless as I was in 1946 (if you don’t count bad intentions and dirty thinking) but I succumbed to the pressure to get dunked Baptist style.

Air Force chapels don’t have baptismal pools so the congregation gathered in the Baptist Church in Woodbridge, Suffolk, for some serial baptizing. It was a frigid November 6, and the water in the pool was no warmer than icy Martlesham Creek that flowed nearby. A small paraffin heater was ignited and tilted precariously toward the water but I could see it wasn’t warming anything. As I stood among the candidates for baptism I thought I could see ice forming along the edges of the pool. When I went under, the witnesses to my baptism turned their heads and winced.

As it turned out, I was never in danger of downing. The freezing water paralyzed my diaphragm.

Nearly half a century later, I must question whether it is necessary for believers to be re-baptized to assert their faith – to, as Jesus put it, “fulfill all righteousness.” To be baptized a second time suggests you don’t believe the Holy Spirit was present the first time. Of course the Holy Spirit was present then, just as the Spirit is present at every breath you take.

It’s not that I think my second baptism was unnecessary, like a redundant vaccination, or that it was in any way offensive to the Holy Spirit.  I just think I could have made the same testimony in other ways.

In the 1990s, as a member of the staff of the World Council of Churches, I attended a dialogue in Costa Rica between Orthodox and Pentecostal Christians. There were several Pentecostal pastors from Nicaragua and one of the Orthodox bishops asked them whether they re-baptized their Roman Catholic converts.  Somewhat to everyone’s surprise, one of the pastors replied, “No, not if a priest baptized them when they were babies because the Holy Spirit was there.”

The Pentecostal pastors said they had reached that conclusion through a prayerful reading of Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, the World Council of Churches’ celebrated Lima document published in 1982 and republished scores of times afterwards.

Among the document’s comments about baptism is this:

The Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of people before, in and after their baptism. It is the same Spirit who revealed Jesus as the Son (Mark 1:10-11) and who empowered and united the disciples at Pentecost (Acts 2). God bestows upon all baptized persons the anointing and the promise of the Holy Spirit, marks them with a seal and implants in their hearts the first installment of their inheritance as sons and daughters of God. The Holy Spirit nurtures the life of faith in their hearts until the final deliverance when they will enter into its full possession, to the praise of the glory of God (II Cor. 1:21-22; Eph. 1:13-14).

I had decided to get re-baptized in 1966 in order to make a public testimony of faith that I couldn’t have made in 1946. I did it in the spirit of the Southern Baptist message that was codified years later in The Baptist Faith and Message, adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention on June 14, 2000:

For the majority of Baptists, Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer's faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Savior, the believer's death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to the believer's faith in the final resurrection of the dead.

Looking back on a baptismal event in 1946, through which I may have slept or wailed but certainly do not recall, I am persuaded that same testimony of faith was made. I could well have chosen to restate that testimony in 1966 and could and should reiterate it in 2013. But additional baptisms are not necessary to do it.

When Jesus came to John to be baptized, God made visible what has been invisible in the billions of baptisms that have taken place since: Heaven opens and the Holy Spirit descends.

We may not see it with our eyes as the witnesses did when Jesus was baptized.

But Jesus’ baptism is an eternal reminder that whenever any one is baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the miracle is sufficient for all time.