Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Bubbles In The Baptristry


Church can be the funniest place on the planet. Too many people only see it in terms of the most holy and reverent, but if I’m actually made in God’s image then He must have a sense of humor because I certainly do.

Perhaps no ritual or rite in the church is fraught with more opportunity for disaster than a baptism service. I mean, think about it. You’ve got people in white see-through cotton robes, in water. You’ve got a tank of water and electrical cords for microphones and these days you have video cameras placed strategically in order to the the full impact of the visual image to be displayed on large screens in the front of the sanctuary. An entire reality show could be produced about baptism services.

The first time I tried to baptize people I was a rookie pastor in a nice church in Del City, Oklahoma. The church had a nice baptistery and I filled it with water mid week and turned on the heater. As the week progressed I realized that the “big boys” wore wading boots when they baptized someone. I didn’t have such boots. I was lucky to have shoes in those days. However, I knew that the Pastor of the big church up in Bethany had such boots. I asked to borrow them. Given approval I decided to run up after church Sunday morning and pick them up (I was doing the baptizing on Sunday night). Before making the 20 mile trip I looked once again at the water in the tank and realized that it had dropped about six inches in depth. I turned on the faucet to top it off and then did a few other things around the church before heading up to get the boots.

I was 20 miles away with the “had to have” boots in my car when I remembered that I had not shut off the water. Terror gripped my young heart as I stepped on the gas and broke every known land speed record getting back to my church. I could just see water running over the edge of the tank in a tidal wave down the center aisle. I prayed....oh how I prayed.  

When I arrived I couldn’t get the key in the lock fast enough. What a relief when I walked in and found no wet carpet, no flood. Water was still running into the tank and it was indeed full, but no tragedy.

Oh, and one more thing. Those high waders I was wearing? When I bent over to baptize the first candidate.....I stooped to low and they filled with water

When pastoring in Independence, Kansas our old church didn’t have a baptistery. As a result I would borrow my Baptist buddy’s church for a Sunday afternoon service. 

When you don’t have your own “tank” it becomes easy to put off having the number of baptismal services you might ordinarily have. Apparently Nazarenes hadn’t had such a service in quite a while for when I announced that we were going to be baptizing believers I had a great crop of converts lining up for the opportunity.

It was a precious time of worship until one particular lady stepped into the water with me. She was, she was old. She moved slow and she was proud. She didn’t want to get her hair wet and be seen in such a humbling condition in front of her church friends. Her answer to that problem was to wear a full wig. She wore a wig. Hear me. She WORE A WIG. And that wasn’t all. She had a shower cap over the wig. Lord, what are people thinking. There is no limit to what we’ll do to save our pride.

I held out my hand to help her as she descended the stairs into the water. I had her stand in front of me, put her hand over her nose and mouth and I pronounced, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” I held her firmly and placed her under the water. As I brought her up the the shower cap and the wig had moved.  Now she had a knot of plastic and hair on top of her head. There it sat, nestled like a bun balanced precariously held in place by the elastic around the bottom of the shower cap. A wad of good intentions sarcastically laughing at her efforts to remain dignified. A cute little pink Bon Bon shining brightly while a crowd of amused witnesses prayed it wouldn’t fall off. The amazing thing is that she managed to exit the baptistery with it still mounted to her cranium. 

While in Independence we relocated the church and built a new facility on 37 acres of property. You can bet that we had our own baptistry installed. And the first time we decided to use it we filled the thing with water and turned on the in-line heating element. But when we arrived early for the evening service the water was still cold and I found John Van Dyne up on the roof of the church with long wires looking for a way to connect his stock tank heater into the line that powered the air conditioners.  We all thanked God that before he could get that done, the water “miraculously” got warm.

In Denver I emphasized baptism during one particular season and, I browbeat people into submission to be baptized. On the Sunday night when the  event was to occur even I was surprised by the number of people who arrived wanting to participate in the sacred ritual.  We passed out robes until they were gone and realized that some were going to have to be used twice.

I donned my waders and stepped into the water. It was warm and the pressure of the water caused the boots to hug my legs tightly and the black robe hid the boots from the folks watching from the audience.

As people started stepping into the baptistery I realized that this was going to take a while. It did!! Two hours later the 95th person stepped out of the tank and I prayed a quick prayer of benediction and dismissed the crowd.  It was only then that I looked at the water I was standing in.  Can you imagine? 95 people. People wearing hairspray and makeup and deodorant? Some may not have bathed in a while?

To say there was a ring around the tub would be an understatement. It was grimy, almost thick, with gunk. I was so glad I was wearing waders and sleeves. 

I guess it was the detergent residue in the baptismal robes and thrashing around in that tub that created the suds. But by the time we were finished it looked like I was standing in a bubble bath

What I did was wrong. To subject people to that kind of toxic waste was a sin for which I’m still asking God for forgiveness.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Pope and the Pedestal


Jane and I attend a church in a small mountain community that probably runs 125 or so in worship attendance on Sunday mornings. A few weeks ago we were driving home following the morning service and we stopped at Wal Mart to pick up a few things. On the way in I suggested that we just grab lunch at the Subway shop inside before we did the shopping. 

As we sat there I started thinking about other Sunday afternoons. “Jane” I said, “remember when Sunday lunches were actually brunches at some Country Club or a fine restaurant up in Denver? We’ve come a long way baby.” And indeed, we have. Life is different off the pedestal.

I’ve been impressed by the early days in the ministry of the new Pope. Francis I.  I see him washing the feet of young detainees in a juvenile detention facility and rejecting the temptation to live in the palatial residence, opting rather for a simple, humble apartment. I see him leaving the ruby slippers for someone else and even wearing a much simpler form of attire. I admire what I see him doing.

And as I watch him I reflect on how easy it is in ministry to be caught up on the “pedestal” mentality....and I’m guilty.   Some might ask “what do you mean?” Simply this, it’s easy to begin to believe what your admirers say and to totally dismiss what your distractors are saying.  

Understanding that I may be the only one to suffer from the “pedestal syndrome” (but believing I’m not) I offer the following explanation.

MInistry is fraught with opportunity to begin to believe that you deserve more, that you have paid a bigger price, that other people just don’t understand what you have to deal with. On some level that’s true. But it’s true of every profession. Unless you’ve actually done it, you DON’T understand.

But in ministry it’s easy to allow, even encourage, people to put you on a pedestal. After all, you represent all that’s holy.  If you were to ask people if they put you on a pedestal they would deny it, they wouldn’t believe it. They would say that they don’t. In reality, they probably don’t know that they have. But every time they walk out the door of the church and tell you how wonderful you are or how great the sermon was it’s easy to begin to feel that you really are something special. And if you grew up with as little self confidence as I did, those remarks are better than any drug.

And the pedestal is a wonderful place to live...until others come along who see you as a pretty normal human being, perhaps even less. They begin to shake the base of the pedestal and you become unsettled. “What’s wrong with these knuckleheads?” you think. “Can’t they see how important I am? How necessary I am to the future of this organization? How loved I am?”

And the air on the pedestal becomes addictive. Once there, whether actually placed there or having just ASSUMED that others thought you should be there, you don’t want to come down.

I had perks. I spoke to large crowds. I was invited to speak in other settings, not because I was talented, but because I held such an envied position in a popular pulpit. I had an expense account, a car allowance, a library allowance, a generous salary, and terrific benefits. The car was brought around for me, reservations were made in the finest establishments for me.

 “The Pedestal.”

 People used their best language around me, rarely allowing me to hear the earthy or the vulgar. I was with them when they were married, I dedicated their babies, I buried their family members. And all those activities only amplified the feeling of the pedestal. Not to mention that I was there when they were at their lowest. Bankruptcy, divorce, death, children in trouble. “Call the pastor.”

Oh, and the size of the church didn’t matter. Every church and every pastor has a pedestal to deal with. The only difference is how tall it is. The larger the church, the higher the pedestal and the rarer the air.

Now in retirement I reflect back on 40 years and wish that I’d resisted the pedestal more than I did and instead had been more like the new Pope.  And I’ve realized that it’s not too late. My life now is pretty much void of fancy restaurants and such. But without the vestments of clergy I’ve discovered that it’s much easier. I walk “incognito” through life. I’m usually called “Tim” instead of “Pastor” and I fit in to situations where people used to hold me at arms length because of my title.

Yes, I miss some of those perks, but in reality it’s much easier to be authentic. You see, being authentic in the church was dangerous. Dangerous because some people WANT you to be on a pedestal. When they find out that you battle the same issues they do, that you’re normal, suddenly your damaged goods. Once you try to climb down from the pedestal, they’re ready to find someone else to occupy that space.

I like the Pope. I want my remaining years to be lived more like him and less like me. I think I’ll take my ruby slippers to Goodwill.