The rite of Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church. The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble. – From The Book of Common Prayer
“It really bothers me that the kids don’t have any beliefs at all,” Marge moaned. “How will they manage if they don’t think someone powerful is looking out for them?” Marge had long white hair done up in a low bun which sat directly on the top of her dark purple turtleneck. Her glasses had slid down her nose, as they often did when she fretted.
Marge and her best friend Sue sipped their coffee and broke off pieces of their bran muffins. Emily’s Café had big windows, and the rare February sunshine provided a cheerful atmosphere for their serious conversation.
Sue looked concerned and confused. “Why is this upsetting you now? I don’t remember you being upset when those babies weren’t christened after they were born – Jack and Lisa weren’t even married in a church, and you didn’t say anything. Never even came up. You’ve always said the kids are doing fine – that little one is a handful, but no real problems.” Sue had recently had cataract surgery and so wore no glasses. She had closely shorn graying red hair and wore fingerless gloves even indoors because of her arthritis. Today’s gloves were bright green and her pink fingers looked like seedlings peeking out of the ground.
Marge shook her head. “It’s the news,” she admitted. “The apocalypse. Climate disasters. Fires. Nuclear accidents. Maybe nuclear wars someday.”
Marge and Sue were cradle Episcopalians. The two widows both went to church regularly, served on committees, helped with the soup kitchen, but neither of them were particularly religious nor even consistent believers. Their faith waxed and waned. Marge tended to get closest to being a true believer during Advent and Christmas. She loved the birth of the Babe out of the long darkness. Sue became fervent during Lent and loved the Easter vigil which ended in the opening of the tomb. They knew the prayers, read occasional book recommended by Sally, the church deacon, and compared notes on the weekly sermon by their aging Rector, George. No one would label them evangelists or missionaries.
Sue took in her friend’s obvious misery. “Going to church isn’t going to stop any of that from happening. We’ve all been praying about those things for years and they only get worse.”
“It’s not that I think that it would save them or anything. You know I don’t believe in the pie in the sky stuff. But it might make them feel better. Those kids will endure some hard times; they are going to suffer. I want them to feel like it will all come out OK in the end. That God is up in heaven looking out for them.”
As Marge talked, she began to remember why she had her son christened. When Jack was born been to church for more than a decade – since high school. But she felt she had to find a church for the sake of her helpless baby. Then too, she was propelled by fear. Post-partum hormones were raging – and there were those horrible pictures from Africa, of that butcher Idi Amin. She wanted Jack to be safe, not to worry about the butchers of the world. All so long ago – Jack probably didn’t even know who Idi Amin was. Marge’s husband declared himself a lapsed Catholic with a serious determination to stay lapsed. So she started back to the only church she knew. Christening, Sunday School, Children’s Choir, Youth Group.
Sue finished her muffin and nodded. “I hear what you’re saying, but those kids are already six and eight. Probably too late. I assume the older one doesn’t even believe in Santa anymore.”
Marge laughed. “Jason swears he believes in Santa, but I think that it’s probably only because the pay-off is so great. And when his cat died, the neighbor gave him a picture of the ‘rainbow bridge’ – so at least he thinks Mitzie is waiting for him when he dies.”
After Marge got home, she watched the news and continued to think about the world situation. CNN always increased her blood pressure and suppressed her mood. Marge didn’t worry about dying (not very actively, at least); she knew she approached her actuarial limits. No. She feared for the young people, the grandchildren, the neighbor kids.
Marge separated her garbage, she sent contributions to the Sierra Club, she voted for activist candidates. She couldn’t bring herself to chain herself to a pipeline or take in refugees, so she knew her limits. There didn’t seem to be much more she could do. And so she prayed, even though – after all these years of conscientious church-going – Marge was still not sure what kind of “Whom” she prayed to. Seventy-three-year-old Marge had mostly reconciled herself to dying soon; it didn’t matter so much if she had doubts. But the kids. It bothered her so much she finally went to see the deacon at her church.
They sat in the deacon’s tiny office, and Sally took it all in. “Have you ever discussed this with your son and his wife? Maybe they have their own reasons. In any case, they might be willing to talk about it.”
Marge admitted that she had asked once, when the first grandchild appeared, if there would be a christening. They responded that they doubted it, and the subject had never come up again.
“You know,” continued Sally, “they’re not along. We don’t do many christenings – I would say that funerals outnumber christenings about twenty to one in this diocese. Maybe we’re failing the young, but they don’t think we have what they want. And remember – even if they agreed, part of the baptism rite is that the parents have to agree to give them a Christian upbringing. It’s really their decision.”
“It’s not the christening itself that bother me. I want the children to think that someone is looking out for them. Someone with a lot of power. When Jack was five, he once crayoned a picture of God – a big old man with a white beard and robes – sitting on a cloud looking down on all the animals below. I still have it.”
Sally sympathized, but pointed out that Marge was talking about the kind of God almost no one believed in anymore. Marge agreed and she also agreed she should talk to Jack and Lisa.
Marge kept pondering the problem and talked about it with friends in the various groups she attended during the week. Marge’s friend, Polly, from yoga, said she bribed her son to do a Catholic baptism for his twins – $50,000 for each in a college fund. Polly admitted that they probably hadn’t set foot in church since, but she still thought she had gotten a bargain. Marge didn’t have $100,000 to spare, and besides – it just didn’t seem right.
Linda, from Marge’s book club, was a fervent Evangelical – which became a problem at times when they were discussing books with any religious element. Linda admitted she and her husband once arranged their granddaughter’s “christening” while the parents were away tending to a sick father-in-law. The parents found out and had still not gotten over it. In the end, Linda thought it made things worse because they seldom asked her to babysit anymore and firmly forbid taking the child with them to church. Marge surely wasn’t going to try to get Father Rick to baptize the kids in secret. First of all, they were old enough to tell their parents. Baptism wasn’t the point anyway. She wanted the kids to believe in a kindly benefactor with superpowers.
Then, poor Marge made the mistake of watching a new movie, “Don’t Look Up,” wherein scenes of families watching a giant asteroid come down through the atmosphere to end life on earth just haunted her. She knew an asteroid hit was unlikely. But the reviews said that the movie was a metaphor for climate change, and she firmly believed that climate change would have an equally bad – if more gradual – catastrophic ending. She finally decided that Deacon Sally was right; she needed to talk to her son and his wife.
When Marge finally cornered the two parents in a moment when the kids were off watching television. Jack and Lisa put down their phones and listened politely, but looked a little confused.
“You mean you want us to get them baptized? It’s a little late for that, isn’t it? We considered it when they were born – you know, just as a way of having a celebration to welcome them into the world and all – but we really don’t believe in all that stuff.” This was from Lisa who came from a Unitarian home and thus, Marge surmised, could give up God fairly easily.
Jack jumped in. “And I appreciate what you are saying – I still find myself saying a prayer sometimes when I am in trouble or one of the kids is sick – but I don’t really believe in it. Just habit.”
Marge carefully pulled his old picture out of her purse, rolled up like a scroll with a pink rubber band around it. She unfurled his juvenile art and pointed to the old man. “You used to believe in this guy. If the world ended, you believed, you trusted, He would take care of you.”
Jack picked up the picture and chuckled. “Yeah. I suppose I would have. Mostly I wondered why he didn’t answer my prayers when I asked for a pony.”
“So, I’m still confused,” Lisa admitted. “What is it you want us to do? Christen them? Send them to Sunday school? Take them to one of those big box churches to get saved?” She smiled as she spoke to her mother-in-law, but her smile mocked more than comforted.
“I’m not sure, but it bothers me that they don’t believe in anything. They celebrate Christmas for presents, Easter for candy. They believe in Santa, but they hardly think Santa is going to stop global warming. What happens if the presents and candy stop coming? What happens if we cannot keep them safe?” On this last question, Marge’s voice broke.
Lisa looked sympathetic, patted her mother-in-law on the back, and went to the counter to fill the coffee pot and set out some snacks. She was obviously in deep thought. Jack tried (and failed) to catch his wife’s eye, with a lop-sided smile on his face – perhaps considering placating his mother.
As Lisa put out cups, spoon, sugar, cream and napkins to go with the snickerdoodles already on the table, she pursed her lips as if suppressing speech from herself or anyone else. Lisa had a calm way about her and never rushed into anything. Marge thought that Lisa was a beautiful woman – dark hair and light blue eyes. Jason looked just like her, a look which would surely drive the girls in middle school crazy.
By the time they were all seated with coffee, Marge had recovered her equanimity and felt more than a little foolish about making such a scene. Lisa finally took Marge’s hand and spoke.
“I hear you. But if there is some kind of disaster in their life, do you want them to think that there is a God somewhere that let it happen? Who caused it to happen? I think it’s better that they just come to terms with the way things are in life. It’s not easy. But I don’t see all many true believers doing things to save the planet while they’re waiting for the rapture. If there is a God, you can’t believe that’s what She wants.”
Marge did not know what God wanted. She did know what a grandmother wanted, but surely they should all know by now that what human beings wanted was not always a good indication of the way things should be.