Baptism, Sarah Palin, and How Long Will God Hold Us Under?

This photo of me, my aunt, and my mom is from the summer of 2012.

The first of fourteen people went under the water and then came up. New life, with water rushing off of them. We clapped, and I felt the beginnings of tears form in the corners of my eyes because I knew that person, I knew where they had come from, I knew the changed direction of their life. I put my arm around my 9-year-old daughter. It was almost her turn to be baptized.

She poked my shoulder with one of her long, narrow fingers. I see it in her hands, you know, the passing of time, her getting older. I see it in the way she walks, the way her feet have grown. She poked me again. I leaned towards her so that she could whisper into my ear.

“How long do they hold you under the water?” she asked, and I could see the anxiety in her eyes. We never know how to approach this kind of dying. We never know what it holds for us.

“Only twenty minutes or so,” I said in a serious voice.

“Dad!” she said, smiling.

“It’s only for a moment,” I reassured her, kissing her cheek. “They’ll only hold you under for a moment.”

* * * * *

“Waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists,” Sarah Palin said, and there are so many things wrong with that sentence that I don’t even know where to begin. I think of my daughter’s baptism, beautiful and pure. I think of torture, holding someone under the water until they believe they are drowning, until they truly think you are killing them.

I think that Sarah Palin and I have a very different understanding of baptism, of the beauty involved in that symbolic death, of what it means to come up again, to open your eyes. I think we have a very different understanding of freedom.

There is so much trust inherent in the act of baptism. It’s not just a proclamation of faith – it’s our expressing a willingness to die, to go under with Christ. It’s a physical sign of our trust that he will only hold us under for a moment.

Only a moment, and then we rise.

* * * * *

I got one of those texts you never want to get, the kind of text about a beautiful, wonderful aunt who underwent treatment for cancer, what, a year ago? Not even? Time is irrelevant when it comes to cancer. Time stretches and shortens. When you’re given years to live, how long are those years? How short? I don’t know. I don’t think those years have the same value as other years. I think they are like eras. Epochs. Each is a millennium.

Or a moment. Less than a second. The time it takes to kiss my daughter’s cheek.

The text started out with the words, “I really don’t feel like talking about this but I wouldn’t want you to hear it from anyone else.” The text involved more lousy phrases, things like “they found more cancer.” Later the beautiful aunt herself wrote a post on Facebook with more gut-wrenching phrases, things like “the fluid is positive for breast cancer cells,” and “stage four.”

I can barely keep it together while I type.

I sent a text telling this beautiful person how sad I was, and she called me right away because of course she would. She insisted it wasn’t time to be sad.

“After all, there is a wedding,” she said, in reference to my sister’s wedding next weekend. “We cannot be sad at your sister’s wedding. We will not be sad.”

“I know. I know,” I said reluctantly.

“When you tell your children about this,” she said, slowly, thoughtfully, “please don’t tell them I’m dying of cancer. Tell them I’m learning how to live with cancer.”

It is an act of trust, this kind of living. It is the baptism by fire that Jesus promised us.

I feel like a child waiting for my turn. I feel so young, so fragile, and I lean over and poke him and ask, How long will you hold us under, Lord?

And somehow I know, in the way that you really, really know something, that it’s just for a moment. How it will feel to come up out of this murky water! How it will feel, when that death runs off of us!

How long will you hold us under, Lord?

I know. I know.

It’s just for a moment.

8 Replies to “Baptism, Sarah Palin, and How Long Will God Hold Us Under?”

  1. Oh Shawn. And yet you made time for a sad little heretic.

    Yesterday would have been my mother’s 71st birthday. You can, of course, correctly infer from the words “would have been” that she is no longer around to celebrate it by giving morning final exams, as she was nearly always scheduled to do, as I did when you saw me.

    Your aunt sounds pretty cool, in her ability to frame this for the kids not least, but it’s true. The whole last year of my mother’s life, she insisted on having hummingbird feeders hung in her line of sight — she left her chair very little, mostly to go to dialysis or have her hair dry-shampooed — and “got rid of” one of her favorite home care aides by tutoring her on the math necessary to take the entrance exam and go back to school. So you of course know this, but I just wanted to say that living with it, even when it is very grave (you should excuse the expression), is not just a reframing for the kids. People with big spirits really actually do it. It doesn’t negate how sick they are. But they actually — well, you know about the girl with leukemia who got her Christmas wish for carolers. They get their moments. They do.

    Hang in there. I don’t know what it is about you that makes people (like me) fall over ourselves to confide in you. I was about to say I wouldn’t necessarily pick you out of a lineup as the guy who bears others’ stories, but actually I think I would in a live lineup… it’s the eyes. Something there gives you away.

    Thank you for bearing your aunt’s story. Being there for her is a powerful gift.

  2. What a powerful and beautiful image. Thank you for this. I feel like God’s been holding me under for a long, long time. I’m still waiting. I guess that’s faith.

  3. I wish I could meet Sarah Palin–you know, sit across from her–so as to find a reason to like her. I do not understand why we are still listening to someone who quit her state.

  4. My mom uttered nearly the same words as your aunt when she was interviewed by a newspaper reporter a few months before her death. “I chose to live like I was living with cancer, instead of dying from it.” Attitudes don’t add time to the clock, but they make the minutes we have left count for something more, I think.

    I’m so sorry to hear of your aunt’s diagnosis, Shawn. All of you will be in my prayers, that your time together will be life-giving in all the eternal ways.

  5. This is beautiful, really beautiful and full of grace. Praying for Linda. God give her hope and peace as well as all your loved ones. I have a brother who is, “learning to live with cancer”. It’s hard, but God is good. Hold on.

  6. This is so beautiful, Shawn. Deeply true and deeply sad, too. Your aunt sounds like a remarkable person – praying for all of you as you walk through family celebrations of all different kinds these days.

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