God always goes first
In three weeks, I’ll have come to the end of my internship year in this seminary journey. As I’ve mentioned, part of my internship has been serving as a chaplain at our local Detention Center (I’ll say ‘DC’ for short) in Reno, NV (any rabid Reno 9-1-1 fans out there?) as well as serving a local parish.
Lately, I’ve been filling out a metric buttload of paperwork for the last stage of this journey before I get ordained. It’s called the ‘approval’ stage, and it’s where, God-willing - my denominational candidacy committee gives me the green light to pursue my “first call” at a parish as a pastor. Well, one of the (many) essay prompts that I received in my approval docs asks about “my core theological convictions around Baptism and Holy Communion.”
To answer this prompt, I had to tell a story about a certain theological inner wrestling match that I faced a little while back. I thought I’d share it with you here…
We baptize a lot (!) of people at the DC. This past year, I’ve baptized close to 100 inmates. Our Lutheran belief is that baptism is an unearned gift from God. Full stop. This means we’re quite liberal with who we baptize (everyone who asks for it1). I thought this was so cool. We were so open and accepting! Yay, Lutherans!
Well, one day, we received a request for an inmate to be baptized, as we often do. As usual, I went out to his housing unit to say hello, check in, and have a general discussion about baptism. The inmate was in maximum security, so I had to talk to him through the door of his cell, which is always awkward and difficult, but nothing out of the ordinary. He told me that his cell mate told him he’d recently been baptized in the DC and since hearing that, he couldn’t get it out of his heart. He told me that his life was a disaster and he was done with his ways. He was, as with so many incarcerated people whom I get to talk to, at the end of his rope. So, he decided to surrender to God’s urgings and get ‘er done, so they say. He told me he didn’t grow up in the church. In fact, he’d never even been to church before.
I bid the man a temporary farewell as I went back to the office to print his baptism certificate and grab my handy dandy baptism kit which consists of a bottle of water, a towel, and my little pastor’s book that has the rite of baptism in it. When I sat down at my desk, I opened up my email and saw a press release that had just come out. I opened it, scrolled down, and low and behold - there was the inmate’s name. What I learned from the press release made me cringe...
I learned that the man was a convicted sex trafficker held on multiple counts of sexual misconduct, some with underage people. I inquired deeper into his situation and found that he’s also a white supremacist and an Odinist.
Ugh... THIS is why we don’t typically check people’s charges before we visit someone. Because finding out what landed them in jail can easily make you DESPISE that person.
Personally, I have no problem with murderers. I’ve prayed with and baptized many a murderer. Most of the open murderers I’ve dealt with are woefully repentant and the situation they found themselves in was often far beyond just a “bad choice.” But when it comes to harming children or sex trafficking, the brake on my heart slams pretty quickly. And then you throw in some white supremacy and I’m like, nope. (Odinism/paganism doesn’t bother me much, but it does when asshole white supremacists use it as a religious excuse to, well, be an asshole white supremacist.)
I had to take a good moment. I put my handy baptism bag down, took some deep breaths, and talked it over with my supervisor. I told her that I was having hard feelings about this one. I had a great connection with this inmate. He looked me in the eye and I believed that his urge to be baptized was sincere. But, now that I knew what I knew… How could I pull the trigger?
As I write this, I see that God was teaching me what Her scandalous grace actually looked like on the ground.
I’ve heard Christians say that grace is making a choice for God. That God gives us option ‘good’ and option ‘bad’ and grace is when we choose option ‘good’.
Um… Hells no.
I knew the only option I had before me and it was NOT a ‘good’ one. I was about to baptize someone I deemed absolutely despicable. What a piece of human trash, right? I wanted to send that dude straight to hell. Give me the button to the eternal trap door and I’da pushed it right then and there.
But this would be blasphemous. Who am I to turn down God’s blessing on one of Her children? Unfortunately/fortunately, God’s belovedness doesn’t wait for my approval. God doesn’t wait for me to give the green light before revealing Godself in the waters of baptism to the most despicable human I’d ever met (as far as I knew).
So, I prayed on it. Ate some lunch. And we baptized him in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I believe he was sincere, but EVEN THAT is not a prerequisite. He doesn’t need to reach a certain level on the faith-o-meter before getting the go-ahead for baptism.
The sacraments are where God confronts us in the middle of our deepest sin to name us, claim us, and love us back to life.
As Luther reminds us, “A person is thus pure by the gracious imputation of God, rather than by virtue of his/her own nature.”
So many of us Christians miss this.
It’s easy to think that we/they need to have strong faith or perfect behavior BEFORE getting baptized. Or that we have to go through a series of classes BEFORE we can go to the table for Holy Communion.
But this is bass-ackwards.
[Note: Whoever thinks they actually have perfect faith or flawlessly righteous behavior (even remotely so) is obtusely delusional.]
Thinking this way puts me first. It’s a me-centric faith and puts me in charge of earning rewards from God.
God acts first.
It’s not MY faith and morality that I bring to the baptismal font. MY faith is mostly insufficient and fake. My morality is often counterproductive, harmful, and performative.
You and I go to the baptismal waters with NOTHING. This is the authentic truth of the matter (it’s why Lutherans love baptizing babies). And in those waters, God’s faith fills us up for the rest of our earthly life. Again…
God always acts first.
I go to the table, not as someone who has gone through years of classes and testing in order to progress spiritually to a certain place where I’m worthy of the bread and wine. No! I go to the table as a broken and busted human who is on a funeral march towards the grave. And in that Holy meal, God gives me new life in His body and blood. I, a broken vessel, am filled up.
I’m thankful that God messed up my theological hair on this one. I’m grateful that Sh brought me to that inmate and made me baptize him. It is one of the most defining moments of my life. So, my theology of baptism and Holy Communion is as such...
God always acts first.
You and I come as we are...
Truly broken. Truly empty.
And wholly loved.
If it were in a normal parish setting, there might be a few classes leading up to baptism to disclose the way Lutherans view the sacrament, etc. But in the DC, most inmates are either getting released or sent to prison pretty quickly, so all we have time for is a quick check-in beforehand to answer questions, make sure the inmate doesn’t have any harmful theology around baptism, etc.
Along the Way with Jonas Ellison is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.