You Have a Graspable God: Letter to My Goddaughter

Dear Elin, 

I suffer no illusions that you will find this letter nearly as interesting as you presently find the Cat in the Hat, If You Give a Pig a Pancake, or Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. Unless you grow up to be some sort of Shiite Christian (which I suppose is always a possibility when you grow up in Texas), I doubt you will ever demand from the back seat of the car to read one of these letters as you do now for your Elmo book. As an aside, sweet girl, Dr. Seuss is the worst. Utterly insipid. The Blippi of children’s “literature.” I know your Mom disagrees, but if you were going to rank the absolute dregs of children’s franchises, it would go something like this: Curious George > Richard Scarry > The Berenstein Bears > Dr. Seuss. Even still, it’s likely that by the time you can read this for yourself, your ranking of reading material will score Dr. Seuss  > Godfather Jason. Nevertheless, Elin, the moral life of Christians is really nothing more than mutual accountability to one another who are in Christ, and, where it comes to you and your baptism, the people called Church have commissioned me with a task. I’m no Mo Willems. I can’t even draw very well, as you’ve already discovered, but I trust that, if nothing else, the doing of these letters to you, my bonus daughter, on the anniversary of your baptism, will illustrate how, through the sacrament, Christ makes us members of one another. 

Just a couple of weeks ago, Elin, right after your birthday, I visited you in Austin. As with all the women in my life, I attempted to win your love with food, in your case strawberries. You pretty much gave me your Mom’s skeptical stink-eye; that is, until I appeared to win your approval by squirting you with water from the plastic frog in your bathtub. “Mo” you insisted in between delightful giggles. Indeed you love water, Elin. From hot, sudsy showers with your Mom to playing in the puddles caused by the new drainage routes from your parents’s still-under-construction pool, to the sand and gentle waves of the gulf at Port Aransas, you find water to be a wonderful thing. 

All the same, you might wonder, when all is said and done, how an ordinary, everyday bath is different from washing in the triune name? How is it that the latter form of washing and not the former can gift to you your justification, your sanctification, the Holy Spirit and all the fullness of the Spirit’s fruit? How can this bath and not the one on Parkdale transfer you to an altogether new realm just as surely and concretely as the Israelites found themselves on the freedom side of the Red Sea? 

In other words—

Baptism is a claim that provokes.

As Martin Luther asked the question in the catechism I hope you’ve learned by now, “How can water do such great things?” How can all of the above be true? Luther’s answer is short and to the point because he wants you to remember it. “Water as such indeed does not do it,” Luther teaches, “but the word of God with and accompanying the water.” It’s a feature of the biblical story that I know your Mom appreciates. The Living God is a loquacious God, creating worlds, making ways where there is no way, and bringing into existence things that do not exist by speech. It’s not the water but the washing that saves because God promises to be present in the particular washing called baptism, applying to you the forgiveness of sins and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. 

Baptism is a visible promise. 

Again, because the Living God is a loquacious God, the visible promise is the very presence of God. This makes the true God very different from what most, including many Christians, suppose we mean by the word “God.” God, baptism asserts, is more than the answer to the question, “Why is there something instead of nothing?” That is, God is more than an originating hypothesis, first principal, or an idea that is logically necessary but otherwise uninvolved in your everyday life. God is no hands-off cosmic butler. In the baptismal font, the Church drowns the life out of “moral therapeutic deism” (Look it up, kid). Often, especially in the Church and, oddly enough, frequently from clergy, you’ll hear people say, “God is too big to be put into a box.” The boxes to which they refer are typically the conclusions the Church has drawn from the fact that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” Usually the people who say such things are attempting to avoid suffering the social embarrassment that Christian convictions can occasion in a secular culture that allegedly values inclusion and diversity. The witness of scripture, however, is that our God loves to hide himself in the tiniest of boxes. Don’t forget, Elin, this the Maker of Heaven and Earth who hid himself in Mary as snugly as you once were inside your mother’s womb. 

God clings to baptism. 

The loquacious God cleaves to the water, making it a visible promise. Therefore, baptism makes the claim that ours is a graspable God. God is not abstract, disembodied, mysterious, aloof, or far-removed from us. Just as Mary cradled the Christ child, God can be touched and tasted, held and heard precisely because God loves to hide himself behind particular creatures like water, wine and bread, and the word of absolution. 

And this is not, Elin, a matter akin to asking “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” And it’s not an instance of me trying to impress you with how I can theologize like a Jedi Master. That the Logos is in the washing guarantees that God is no different for you than any other person in your life. An old teacher of mine, who is now where there is nothing but “mo nusic,” refers to this as the “temporal locatability” that is essential to any relationship with a person. Some of our most important, abiding relationships in life are with people we seldom see; however, for someone to be truly present to you, it belongs to the body side of your presence that there was a fixed, first event in your biography to which you can point and say, “Then and there we were introduced and shook hands.” Your Mom and I met long ago at counselor orientation at a camp called Westview on the James. Pentecost at All Saints Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas is where you met the Risen Christ, Elin. Or rather, where and when you were met by him. Baptism is the risen Lord’s temporal locatability for you. Baptism is what the Risen Lord does for you to locate himself, fixing himself in a time and a place for you; so that, you know, no matter how you perceive the quality of it, the relationship is as real as the one we share with each other. 

Even if it’s the only time you’ve ever spoken, baptism is where the Creator of all things said to you, “Elin, I U.”

Growing up in a place like Texas, no doubt you’ll encounter Christians who will question the validity of that fixed time and place in a past you yourself cannot even recall. Baptism, they’ll insist, is a decision you must make for Jesus Christ not a choice made for you, against your will even. You can be damn certain, Elin, that any Christians who so esteem human agency are, despite their protestations to the contrary, allergic to the grace of God. After all, there is no better illustration of the unmerited, unconditional, incongruent grace of God than when it’s applied to a drooling sinner wearing diapers. 

It’s also odd that we think baptism, if it’s indeed an act of ultimate consequence, should be something we select by our own volition. As much as we pay lip service to choice, we seldom stop to notice how our most determinative identities are the ones we did not choose. You did not decide to be born three years ago this May. You did not select Zack and Johanna to be your parents. You did not choose American— sorry, I mean, Texan— to be your nationality. Even the “choices” we make, like marriage, we discover later were decisions we made when we did not actually know what we were doing. “Yet just those circumstances,” Robert Jenson writes, “utterly unyielding in their sheer factuality are the most existentially decisive of our lives.” Likewise, your baptism, Elin, is another unyielding fact of your history in light of which, as St. Paul writes to the Romans, you must learn to live the balance of your time. In this way, you’re no different, sweet girl, than those for whom the New Testament was written. Paul and the other apostles wrote to those for whom baptism was already an irrevocable part of their past. This is why Paul responds to the Romans’s question (Well, now that we’re baptized, can we do whatever we want?) by insisting that, because of their baptisms, righteousness is the only real possibility available to them. The transfer from the old age to the new age, the incorporation in Jesus Christ, the full gifting of the Spirit, and the free forgiveness of sins is all finished fact. Just as being born to your Father, Zack, makes it an impossibility that you should ever be a Texas A&M fan, baptism, to Paul’s way of thinking, forever forecloses others kinds of life for you. 

For the baptized, Paul’s message is simple. 

 

Become who you already are.

Because your baptism is one of those dates on your timeline, utterly unyielding in its sheer factuality, baptism relates to faith in a particular way, Elin. 

Baptism does not require faith. 

Faith requires baptism. 

Notice how the creed we profess in worship speaks of baptism as an object of faith rather than the outworking of faith: “We believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” In no small part, Elin, the relationship between faith and baptism gets at the heart of the Protestant Reformation. Rather than faith being a condition for baptism or faith being the goal of baptism, Martin Luther taught that the promise and washing of baptism are what faith believes. “Faith must have something it believes,” Luther explains in the catechism, “that is, to which it can cling and on which it can stand. So here faith clings to water…They are indeed foolish who separate faith and the thing it clings and is bound to, however outward it is. Indeed it must be outward.” As St. John writes in his epistle, “No one has ever seen God.” God remains hidden in our world apart from the means by which he’s elected to reveal himself— word and water, wine and bread. If it only has God as its object, faith has nothing to grasp and thus it becomes easy either for our faith to float away or, perhaps worse, for us to fashion God into an idol. 

Baptism is meant to be used. 

You introduced me to Daniel Tiger during my visit this month, Elin. One of the songs the parents sing to Daniel— before they drop him off at school— is the reminder that “Grown-ups come back.” Baptism is meant to be used as a similar reminder, as something to which you can return continually to rebut whatever others in your life, or the accuser, or even the voices in your head say about you. For example, Elin, your teachers already note how you don’t easily tolerate anything less than excellence. As a fixed point in your past, unyielding in its sheer factuality, baptism is always there to help you accept your own imperfections and to help you forgive your impatience with the imperfections of others. As the catechism puts it, “When sin or conscience afflict us, we say, “I am nevertheless baptized, and if I am baptized, I am promised that I shall be made blessed.” 

Some day, Elin, even if you don’t believe it, you’ll understand the depths of this good news. Because the real world is not as constant as Daniel Tiger and, as you’ll eventually discover, part of the answer to the question “What is the matter with the world?” is you. And it’s me too. We bend other people’s words. We break our promises. And Lord do we self-justify. This is inexorable. But the good news, little one, is that your baptism is irrevocable. It sits there in your past, May 23, 2019, making it impossible for whatever else is in your past to “pervert the future.” No matter what you’ve done or left undone (and, chances are, the latter is your real problem), you have no right to question whether you’re forgiven and free. All basis for any answer than yes has been drowned to death by your baptism.

To insist otherwise is to call God a liar. 

Baptism allows faith to be certain. 

You are justified not by the sincerity of belief nor by any subjective experience. You are justified through faith and faith clings to a fact, “I am baptized.”

I don’t know when you’ll read this, where you will be or who. Just as you did not believe this good news at your baptism, you may not believe it now. No matter. As Luther would say, believe it tomorrow or the next day. Through water and the word, you’ve already been gifted Christ and everything that belongs to him. You have nothing to lose by your doubting. And you have nothing to gain by your believing— except, becoming fully who you already are. 

Enjoy Your Forgiveness, 

Jason

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