Dear Elin Lucy,
Though your recognition has quickened these last twelve months, perhaps I should introduce myself. I am your godfather, which makes you, as your mother likes to joke, my “bonus daughter.” Soon enough, forced by maternal mandate to read another letter such as this, no doubt you’ll observe the injustice of having had no say whatsoever in this relationship. By virtue of baptism, your life is now bound inextricably to mine. You did not get to choose me for this place in your life and, in time, you might discover I am someone you would never choose to share in your life. In this foolish way, our obligation to one another is your first training in what it means to be a Christian, for often the most difficult challenge of loving Jesus is learning to love his friends.
I am humbled and, to be honest— I promise always to be truthful with you— I am not a little frightened to have been asked to be your godfather. It is a role that tempts me to be more than I am. Unfortunately, your mother has known me too long and knows me too well for me to pretend to be anyone other than who I am, and who I am, the collar and the regular pulpit gigs notwithstanding, is someone who is wholly inadequate to the task your parents have laid upon me. If I am to succeed in any way in this summons to be your godparent, then your baptism, Elin, as well as my own, will need to prove more than a rite of passage.
Our baptisms must not be sentimental tokens.
Our baptisms must be true.
For if it is not the case that the Holy Spirit, which rested on Christ’s body at his own baptism, has alighted on both of us in ours, indeed if it is not the case that the Holy Spirit is on the move, real and at work in the world, creating from nothing by working in and upon and through our words, then we should cut the bullshit (Because you live in Texas, I’m assuming you’ve heard this word already) and admit that I’m just someone your parents guessed could be relied upon to be a not entirely inappropriate role model and a dependable rememberer of Christmas and birthday gifts. To paraphrase Paul, about whom I will teach you a few years hence, if Christ has not been raised from the grave and we along with him in baptism, then of all the people in the world we are the most pathetic. Apart from the Spirit’s work at baptism, your parents and I committed you to living a lie, which would leave me with nothing to offer you except the very worst word, advice. Instead what I have to offer you, Elin Lucy, is not only true, it is a promise so good and an adventure so demanding it is extraordinary how many have managed to make it boring as hell. Every cliche has a bit of truth to it. In this case, God does love you and have a wonderful plan for your life. The water with which we baptized you is the proof of it.
Sometime after your movie-watching Mom has catechized you with the Billy Crystal oeuvre, I’m sure you two will view the Godfather films together. But rather than a general mistrust of men carrying violin cases or eliciting disappointed retching at the sight Andy Garcia’s prodigious back hair, the term godfather is meant to convey a peculiar responsibility. As Stanley Hauerwas says to his own godchild, the role of the godparent is “to tell you the stories of the faith and in particular the stories of the church into which you were baptized, and then to tell back to that church the stories of your life. That’s the way church is built up in holiness. By the mutual telling of our stories, we discover that we are more together than we could ever be on our own.” In other words, Elin, I’ve been given a task that, apart from grace, is impossible; namely, it is my role to help you become a saint and, through you, to help the church believe that they too, God being their helper, can become holy. Needless to say, this is an odd sort of friendship to which your parents have stuck you. For that reason, even though I know you’d prefer I give you blueberries or a trip to the seashore, I’ve committed to “telling you the stories of the faith” by writing to you every year on the anniversary of your baptism. While I forgot your birthday gift, the day of your baptism is easy enough to remember: Pentecost.
Speaking of stories of the faith, there is a story I will insist your mother read to you when you are the age your brother is now. It is called The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and the aim of this fantasy story, besides being a wonderful story, is to help us rinse out everything that is stale in our thinking about Christianity so that we might discover, again or for the very first time, the wonder of what it is to be encountered by the particular God of the Bible. I thought of this story because its heroine is a little girl with the same name as you. Playing hide and seek with her older brothers and sister in the home of a distant relative, one rainy afternoon Lucy Pevensie discovers an entrance to another world, a realm called Narnia, through the back end of a wardrobe that smells like mothballs and furs. Though under the grip of the White Witch, the rightful King of Narnia is a lion called Aslan. If I’ve done even a passing job at being your godparent, it won’t take you long to figure out that Aslan, who is “not safe but good,” is a certain shepherd in lion’s clothing.
Lucy doesn’t meet Aslan until the middle of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In chapter seven, Mr. Beaver confides “in a low whisper” to Lucy and her siblings (Yes, animals can talk in Narnia— I told you, it’s a wonderful story) that “they say Aslan is on the move.” At that point in the story, Lucy and her brothers and sister have no more idea who Aslan is than the reader. Nonetheless, Aslan’s name alone calls up among them “some enormous meaning.” Lucy’s brother, Edmund, immediately feels horror at the name. The name makes her brother, Peter, feel “brave and adventurous” while her sister Susan senses a snatch of music in the name. But Lucy, we’re told by the storyteller, “got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.”
Though the name of Aslan evokes different reactions among Mr. Beaver, Mrs. Beaver, Lucy, and the other Pevensie children, for all of them this “enormous meaning” quickly becomes something subversive. While Aslan is Narnia’s true King, he first appears on the scene as a rebel against the established order of the White Witch. In Narnia, the White Witch is the personification of what the Bible calls the Powers of Sin and Death. Your Mother always insists on asking questions about how that works out in the “real world” too. We’ll explore it all in due time, trust me kid.
Much like Lucy falling into Narnia through a wardrobe and finding herself conscripted into and outfitted for a rebellion of the good, your baptism, Elin Lucy, enlists you in an uprising against the disorder of the world. Before it has any other meaning, Karl Barth says baptism is a human act that responds to a divine act. Barth didn’t like speaking of baptism with any of the usual sacramental mumbo jumbo because he worried the philosophical categories it entailed obscured the more fundamental ethical nature of baptism. By calling baptism a human act, Barth means baptism is an act of obedience by which we emulate Christ’s own solidarity with sinful humanity and struggle against the Principalities and Powers.
Baptism is a two-sided event, pointing back to the work of this faithful God and pointing forward to your life freed for faithfulness to God. On the floor of many ancient baptistries, the church typically painted an icon of Jesus’s own baptism in the Jordan. The ancient church chose this image from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry rather than the great commission at the end of his ministry (“Go, therefore, to all the nations, baptizing…”) because Jesus’ baptism was the beginning of his revolution, suffering with captive humanity and freeing humanity from the Pharaoh that binds them. Your baptism, Elin Lucy, is the beginning of a long obedience in that same direction to bear witness to the world that Aslan has landed and the White Witch, though she does not yet know it, already has been defeated. You’ll soon learn, little one, that ours is world that’s as reluctant to take seriously Christ’s lordship as grown-ups are to believe in noble beavers, talking lions, or Father Christmas (He shows up in Narnia too!). The witness you’ve been baptized to bear can, and often does, lead to cross-bearing.
But even this is good news!
Many reject God on the grounds that the world as it is should not be. “If there’s a God why is there suffering and evil in the world?” many, rightly, wonder. I often wonder if they so wonder because we baptized types have done a deliciously bad job at telling the stories of the faith.
Listen up, Elin Lucy.
Like Aslan, the God of Jesus is not the guarantor of the world as we know it.
He is its deadly enemy.
With the enemy defeated, Lucy and her siblings grow old ruling Narnia in Aslan’s stead for many years. They return to our world through the wardrobe to discover themselves children again. Years upon years in Narnia have passed as mere moments in the real world. Still, what happened with Aslan in Narnia forever determined the shape of Lucy’s life. Something she could never cite on her CV or post on her Facebook Timeline remained the most determinative fact about her. Likewise, Elin Lucy, something Jesus did long ago in a Galilee far, far away comprises the fundamental determining characteristic of your existence here and now.
To speak briefly as a preacher instead of as your bonus dad: Your salvation— the reconciliation of all, for that matter— has taken place already, objectively, de jure in Jesus’ own history. But at some point that salvation must become actual, de facto in one’s life. Baptism is the way we mark that “at some point.”
With you unawares, against your will even, by water and the Spirit, your parents acknowledged that what many dismiss as fantasy is not only real but it is the most true thing about you, Elin Lucy. Your life, as Paul writes, is now hidden with Christ in God ready to be revealed. It’s my favorite verse of scripture; you should probably know that, I suppose. And notice, Paul doesn’t say your life hid with Christ is ready to be realized. It’s ready to be revealed. That is, it’s all already taken care of, for you, on the house. In Christ Jesus, whether we believe it or not, no matter what your two eyes tell you, you are hidden with Christ in God. With Christ, in God— never at all apart from Him, never at all independently of Him, never at all at risk of losing Him. No matter what you’ve done or left undone, nothing can undo the fact that you are hidden safely in Narnia.
Let me tell you, kid. Right now, life is grand and the worst you can imagine is running out of Pirate Booty to eat on your stroller rides. But times are coming when everything about your life will feel unspooled, and then, if you trust it, this promise which speaks of your true geography can be an anchor in the storm.
Christ’s history does not erase your history, but, like Narnia does to Lucy’s life in the “real world,” Jesus’ history does displace and reconfigure your life. In baptism, we acknowledged and the Spirit actualized the Son’s history as the foundation of your life. Now, what was true for the Apostle Paul is now true for you too. You have been crucified with Christ and you no longer live, but Christ lives in you. Thus the origin and beginning of your life is no longer 2019 in Austin, Texas but Christ’s own life. In him, you have been begotten anew and, consequently, you have received more than I or anyone can ever give you.
Of course, the hard and patient work of responding to such a gift, Elin Lucy, is that with Christ’s own story as the determinative beginning of your own story, you now you must live in a manner that makes that story intelligible. You cannot live only for yourself now that the story of your life begins not on Parkdale Lane but with the Sermon on the Mount.
Fair warning, kid. Christianity is like baseball. You’re going to fail at it more often than you’ll barrel up on the ball. Not to worry, your failure to live consistently in a manner that makes no sense if Jesus is not Lord does not disqualify you as a Christian. Sure, Christians are called to embody a peculiar way of life in the world, but your identity as a Christian, Elin Lucy, does not come down to what you do in the world. In baptism, you have been gifted with Christ’s own permanent perfect record— that’s what your heirloom white gown was meant to signify. With Jesus, God’s gone out of the scorekeeping game forever. So do not worry about failing. Just as the Gospel is news about what God has done for you not an exhortation of what you must do for God, to be a Christian is not fundamentally about what you do for God but what you know God has done for you.
Like Aslan evoking in Lucy the feeling you get when you rise and realize it is Christmas morning, Christians, Karl Barth says, are simply those who are awakened again and again to the fact that their lives are hidden with Christ in God. I became a Christian not long before I met your mother, and I can tell you— your trust in the truth of this hiddenness will ebb and flow during your life. Just as the Israelites learned to trust that the manna they needed would be provided, new every morning, a good part of what it means to have faith, I think, is to trust that your faith (in the truth of your life hid with Christ) will return. The language of return rather than finding is crucial, for faith is not an ability you can acquire. Faith is a gift of God. Your Mom might remember from her catechism. When we profess the third article of the creed, Luther teaches, we mean to say, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel…and kept me in the true faith.”
The Holy Spirit gives faith to some. That some do not receive this gift, Paul writes, is God’s mysterious way of working out the reconciliation of all things. Much like wondering how Mrs. Beaver is able to serve Lucy and her sibling potatoes amidst a one hundred year winter, it is sometimes best not to push too hard on specific parts of our story.
Faith is very much like Lucy falling fortuitously into Narnia.
Faith is a gift, Elin Lucy.
Faith is not an accomplishment.
Which means— this is important— a lack of faith can never be construed as a failure.
Whatever amount of faith you enjoy, whether it’s as tiny as the mice who chew through Aslan’s ropes or as big as the Texas sky, you’re sitting on a miracle. Therefore, Elin, everything I’ve attempted to say with all these many words can be distilled into only three.
Enjoy your forgiveness.