Disclaimer: It has been (rightfully) pointed out to me that I may have left some ambiguity in this post. As you read down, you’ll see me refer to my friend and pastor Ryan as “an ass.” I don’t want to take it out, because busting his chops is a right I reserve in exchange him busting my chops. . . because that’s what friends do! But I also want to mention that, aside from being my friend, Ryan is a pastor that I respect and love like a big brother. So when you get to the part where I refer to the pastor of Hillside Church as “some ass”, please take that as the joke (and expression of love) that it is.
So it’s last Sunday at Hillside Church, and I’m sitting in an out-of-the-way corner of the church with my wife and two other women. Our associate pastor, Jay, is with us. He’s got some papers in his hand that he’s referencing every now and then, and he’s talking about what’s going to happen to those of us in the room with him, after the morning’s message – we’re going to be baptized.
“People have different reactions to being baptized,” he says at one point. “Some people have visions. Some people feel God move in their hearts. Some people don’t notice anything different right away, but down the line they feel God moving them.
“So going into this,” he concludes, “expect God to do something.”
At this point I had been attending church for something like six months. I’d gone from a hard-line agnostic slash sometimes atheist to a smarmy, Christ-loving “Jesus guy.” While I never referred to myself as a “convert,” I often say I was “newly convinced” that Jesus was an important piece of the mystery that was life in God. And while baptism is one of the two sacraments that is still practiced at my church (which is filled with many ex-Lutherans), I didn’t really believe that it was more than a symbol.
Our Baptismal was a kiddy pool – proudly purchased, or so said our pastor Ryan Bauers, for a sum of $49.99 at walmart.com. We were asked to wear shorts and dark t-shirts into the water, instead of the fancy robes I’ve seen at Baptist baptisms (wow, redundant) during my childhood inFlorida. We were asked to be ready for the baptism before the sermon started – so those of us getting dunked sat through church in our casual clothes, making it look like we were heading to the lake for a dip after a little Jesus chat.
In between worship songs, those four of us about to take the plunge were called up on stage to get ready. Another worship song played, and Ryan walked up to me with a serious look on his face.
“Uh, I didn’t know you had a tattoo,” he told me in a low murmur, referencing the large tattoo of John Constantine on my left calf. “Uh, you can’t get baptized now, sorry.”
Ryan is an ass.
Anyway, I got dunked, got out of the kiddy pool, and wrapped myself in a towel to watch everyone else get submerged. People cheered and hugged me and gave me high fives, and overall it was a pretty cool experience. I had showed, publicly, my dedication to the way of life that Jesus taught – and my dedication to following the example that Jesus set, minus the miracles and stuff. I didn’t feel God do anything in particular, but that’s okay. . . I figured the Baptism was mostly for show.
Brandi and I changed into dry clothes, and I was walking around with wet hair. The cutest little girl in church comes up to me and asks me, super serious, “Did you get baptized?”
“Yes, sweetheart, I sure did,” I answered her. She smiled and broke my heart and walked back to her mom.
Anyway, so now it’s Sunday afternoon, and what is the logical next thing to do after getting baptized? Hunger Games.
We’re at the theater, got our popcorn and our bottle of water, and suddenly my heart skips a beat for no reason. Then a few seconds later, it does it again. And then, like a bad case of hiccups, my PVC’s (premature ventricular contractions) start up just like they used to, before God took them away at the Blue Ocean conference. For maybe 40 minutes, my ventricles would “thump” an extra beat every five to ten seconds.
“What does this mean?” I asked myself. “Did God undo the healing? Did the healing never really happen? What does it mean?”
After that forty minutes or so, the PVC’s stopped.
The next couple of days saw me feeling. . . not good. I wasn’t physically sick, but it seemed that all I could think about was, well. . . my sin. I thought about myself like I never had before.
That requires some explanation.
Some of you may have, by now, noticed that I’m a bit of a smarmy bastard. I take pride in my smarminess, in general. When I came to God, I did so because I wanted to believe that God was real, that life had meaning, that I wasn’t alone. I did not come to God because I felt I was a sinner. I was, and am, a pretty decent person by most standards. While I know that “everyone is a sinner”, I took that to mean something like, “Well, people are people.” You know what I mean – we all do things we shouldn’t do sometimes, we all make bad decisions instead of good decisions sometimes, we all treat people worse than we should sometimes. It didn’t bother me – I wasn’t a drug-dealer, or an alcoholic, or a wife-beater, or anything that I needed to be saved from. I was just a normal guy – and to be honest, in my head, I was a bit more moral than “normal”.
Well, for the first couple of days after being baptized, I realized for the first time in my life that I am a serious asshole. It seemed like all I could think about were my sins. It’s not that I realized that I was doing more wrong than I had before, but it’s more like the wrong I had always been doing suddenly sucked more. Same stuff, but now I felt way worse about it. And I realized that my worst sin – my grand mal sin – is pride. I was so proud to just be who I was, that I always thought that needing God to make you a better person was something that other people did. I took pride in the fact that I came to God, not out of the need for help, but out of a desire to know the Creator. While I understood that we are all intrinsically broken, I don’t think I really got that. It was an intellectual understanding, but something that didn’t really pertain to me.
Pride, you see.
But now, I think I get it. I am broken. More than that, I have been broken for so long that I have, until recently, been completely numb to how broken I was. I honestly felt that there was an acceptable amount of sin that I could live with. Now I realize what an ignorant thing that was to feel. See, when I sin, I don’t know if I’m sinning against God, but I know I’m sinning against the people I love. Lust sins against my wife. Coveting sins against her too. Gluttony (I know I’m getting all medieval here, but it’s a problem for me) sins against me. I sin against my friends, my family, the people who help me and support me, and they don’t even do anything to earn it.
So how much of that is “okay”? How much can I betray Brandi and still be alright with it? Now that I’m really paying attention, the answer, of course, is Not at all, you fucking asshole.
Six months into this whole “church” thing, and now I realize that being “broken” is not just an intellectual concept – it’s about the hurt I cause, and realizing that I need help to stop hurting people. And just because some people hurt other people more, that is not a reason for me to be okay with betraying my wife. Obviously.
Long story short, guys – I don’t think baptism is just a symbolic gesture. At least, it wasn’t for me. Maybe the PVC’s I got during Hunger Games were God’s way of tapping me on the shoulder and letting me know that I was overdue for some truth bombs – and now that I’d taken the plunge, he was gonna let me have ‘em.
I guess the moral of this story is to never underestimate the life-changing properties of an inflatable kiddy pool.