“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:19-20
One Sunday Christmas Eve morning, still in the season of Advent, amid the hustle and bustle of preparing for a full evening of three different services, counting candles for the third time, organizing stacks of bulletins, ensuring that the wireless microphone had fresh batteries, and watering a choir room full of poinsettias waiting to be arranged in glorious splendor around the chancel, worship happened.
Not just any worship, but a baptism. And not just any baptism, but Larry’s baptism — Larry in the last half of the last year of his six-odd decades of life already dying of cancer, the drugs holding it at bay for a while, but unable to conquer, unable to cure.
We met a few years before that Christmas Eve. Larry’s sister-in-law invited my wife and I to a family get-together since I was her pastor and she was generous with her hospitality. Over time we entered into their extended family and found ourselves a part of many of their gatherings.
No one could miss Larry, a man well over 6 feet tall, a medical doctor with a keen intellect, full of thoughtful questions and with a deep well of grace and wisdom.
I’m interested, but
I’ll never forget the day that Larry pulled me aside and informed me: “I’m thinking about it, but I have questions.” It was Larry’s way of sharing his interest in being baptized. We talked a lot, Larry and I.
These conversations covered a lot of ground: his faith journey, his observations about life and the way that the world worked, his deep wonderings about life after death, heaven and hell, grace and the workings of God.
And then came the cancer and the drugs, one after another holding it at bay for a while, then surrendering, giving way to another drug, another battle. His face grew thinner. His suits hung about his body, ill-fitting. He grew unsteady on his feet.
“It’s time,” he said one Sunday, pulling me aside, away from family.
“Are you sure that this is what you want to do?” I asked.
And it was exactly what he wanted to do — years in the making.
On my birthday, some six months later, my wife and I rushed over after a frantic phone call because he could not be roused. Hours later, a confused and now awake Larry wanted to know what all of the fuss was about. It became a dress rehearsal for the day that was surely coming and did as we all knew it would.
I have been with a handful of people in their death and only once, this one time, assisted the worker from the coroner’s office in carrying the body out. Letting go of Larry, entrusting him to God’s care, grieving the loss of a friend and brother in Christ proved a struggle.
As much as I had walked with him over the years in his faith journey culminating in his baptism, he also taught me so much about the power of relationships in this ministry of ours to live out the Great Commission.
It is one thing to talk about living out the Great Commission and another to truly invest in friendships in our embodying of the gospel.
What do you see?
Gaze into the future with me and tell me what you see. With congregations renewing their mission, finding their passion to empower and equip disciples and send them out into the world, encouraging their people to embody Christ in their life, in their relationships — what do you see? Or perhaps looking at it in another way: What are the consequences of such bold actions for our congregations and the people that compose them?
The days of young church families bringing their babies to be baptized may continue, perhaps more so in some contexts than in others, but the reality is that if we embrace what it means to live into the future together and embrace the call of the Great Commission to become communities of discipling disciples, we will hopefully baptize a lot more Larrys.
And since I would never ask someone to do something that I myself would not risk, I’ll share. When I gaze into the future I see people. I see people like Larry and families of unchurched people like “Bill” and his kids and teenagers whose families remain unchurched but come because others have invested in relationships with them.
People have taken the time to get to know them and make them feel safe in asking their questions, cared about their journeys without judgment, and welcomed them to worship as an act of hospitality.
And I see them soaking wet. And I’m smiling. Laughing! Because as the water drips down their faces and makes a mess everywhere, challenging makeup and assaulting hair gel, they look up at me and smile. And that smile does not communicate: “Is this it?” But rather “This IS it!”
Look into your future and what do you see?