I am usually late to church. On a typical Sunday, I arrive after the parking lot is full, park my car at the far end of the block, have a brief conversation with the snippy lady at the far end of the block who has an extremely proprietary attitude toward the patch of curb immediately in front of her house, climb into my car again and move it backwards two feet, race across the street with the snippy lady watching from her front porch, bolt in through a side door, and arrive just as the choir is beginning to process. Sometimes I slip into the sanctuary by a side aisle; other times, I just scuttle along after the choir, like a deranged parade bystander who wants to join the show.
On mornings when I’m IN the service, though, I have to get there before the choir does. There is only one thing that can spur me to leave the house early on a Sunday morning, and I’m ashamed to say that the service of the Lord isn’t it.
No, that one thing is pie.
Concealed amidst the massage parlors, used-car lots, and questionable taco joints that line the streets of my church’s neighborhood, there lies one little coffee shop that serves really good pie. There is not much else to be said for the place, unless you are the sort of person who fancies standing at a self-serve coffee station and waiting a very long time for a smirking twentysomething in inappropriately narrow pants to refill the milk jug.
I’m pretty sure they put opiate derivatives in it.
The following morning, I sprang out of bed, showered and dressed in record time, and blazed out the door. I had even allowed extra time for my cat’s daily escape attempt and the long line at the coffee shop. I strolled into the church’s dressing room right on schedule, fifteen minutes before the service, with a towering slice of raspberry pie in my hands and a song in my heart.
I was looking forward to a quiet moment alone with my breakfast. Instead, I found a flurry of activity.
The clergy were there, looking harried. The music director was there, looking grumpy. Somebody grabbed a book and thrust it at me.
“We’re having a baptism today. You’re reading the prayers. Here.”
As I’ve mentioned before, my church is a go-with-the-flow kind of place. People unwilling to ride that flow don’t stick around very long. I tried to stay cool. A stealth baptism? Sure! Why not?!
But amidst all the fluster and bluster and changes in plans, while the music director complained that he had no baptism-themed songs prepared and the sacristan tried to figure out what to do with the extra set of altar flowers and the deacon rushed off to make sure there was clean water in the font, I felt a terrible sinking sensation.
I WAS NOT GOING TO GET TO EAT MY PIE.
I was right, of course. By the time I had stashed my coat behind a pile of hymnals, carried vases for the sacristan, shot a sympathetic glance at the music director, gotten dressed, looked over the prayers for Holy Baptism, and snatched a bulletin so that I could figure out which reading I was doing, the processional hymn was starting to play.
I sulked through the entire first half of the service.
My stomach rumbling, I scanned the congregation, looking for the offending party. There she was: a wide-eyed infant in a long white dress, accompanied by a whole slew of people I had never seen before.
There was also one person I knew. Ruth has been a member of my church for more than seventy years, but recent health and mobility challenges have made it hard for her to come to church lately. That morning, though, she was there in a beautiful spring suit, sitting in her wheelchair at the end of the pew, emitting a glow of happiness that lit up the entire church.
Who were all these people?
I pieced it together. It turned out that they were Ruth’s family, and the infant was her great-granddaughter. The generations in between aren’t heavy on churchgoers, but having the baby baptized meant so much to Ruth that the family had decided to go through with it. I pictured them making the decision late at night, drowsy on their living-room couch. Sure, we can get her a white dress. What could it hurt?
When the readings were read and the prayers were prayed and it came time for the baptism, the priest, the deacon, and I approached the font. Having had no time whatsoever to prepare for this most holy of sacraments, we displayed all the liturgical pomp of a brood of ducklings who are transitioning off their Concerta for the summer. I dropped a hymnal, tripping the deacon and nearly sending her flying down the altar stairs. Nobody was standing in the right spot. It was eminently unclear who was reading what. At least there was water in the font.
Meanwhile, the baby’s mother and godmother had carried her up to join us. They couldn’t have been any older than me, and they looked uncertain, shifting awkwardly from foot to foot while they waited to see what would happen next. I wondered if they had ever been to church before.
The godmother wore torn jeans and enormous hoop earrrings. She fiddled with an earring as she waited for the priest to nod toward her, then opened the prayer book and read in a halting voice:
“I present these persons for Confirmation.”
The priest smiled and murmured into her ear. She flushed, flipped some pages, and tried again:
“We present to you Eleanora to be ordained a priest in Christ’s holy catholic Church.”
Still not right. Her lip began to quiver. Very gently, the priest lifted the book from her hands, turned to the correct page, and handed it back to her, using his finger to mark the place.
With triumph and no small amount of relief, she read aloud:
“I present Eleanora to receive the Sacrament of Baptism!”
Managing your nerves and a book and a baby in front of a church full of people is not easy under the best of circumstances, and if you are not used to the rhythm of a liturgical service, it is well nigh impossible. Something had to give; in this instance, that something was the prayer book. Eleanora’s godmother, who was probably ready to run screaming by that point in the proceedings, carefully closed the cover and set it on the floor. This meant that certain responses in the service, which normally go “I will, with God’s help” or “I renounce them!”, were a bit off-script.
Priest: Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?
Mother and godmother: Uh, yeah.
Priest: Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
(Mother and godmother exchange a nervous glance.)
Mother: Uh, yes. I think so.
I stole a moment to look around the church. Ruth was radiant. I wasn’t sure how well she could hear us, but she knew her baby’s baby’s baby girl was being welcomed into her church as a beloved child of God. Everyone else wore the expression you see on parents at a school play: C’mon c’mon c’mon c’mon! You can do it! We love you!
Standing there in my threadbare white robe, I watched the people in the pews. Even the most hardened sticklers for propriety and order were softening, their eyes bright. They were rooting for this little girl, for the nervous young women entrusted with her care, for grace and hope to wash over the lives all of them would lead after they left this place. Eleanora’s mother and godmother felt it, and they softened too, looking less panicked and standing up a little straighter. I’m not sure what to call the change, unless it was the simple movement of the Spirit. But the transformation was so immediate and complete that when the priest asked this group of people who had never seen this child before and probably never would again:
Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support this person in her life in Christ?
And they answered with one joyful voice:
Somehow, I believed them.
The rest of the service went more or less as planned: We all renewed our baptismal covenants, I read the prayers aloud, and the priest, with a practiced hand, poured water on the baby’s head in the name of the Father … and the Son … and the Holy Spirit. Eleanora blinked and didn’t seem to mind. Her grown-up attendants watched, bemused, and when it was finished everyone clapped and rose from their seats and ran to embrace these strangers, saying: What a pleasure to have you here. The baby looks beautiful and so do you.
Now tiny Eleanora is sealed in the Holy Spirit, marked as Christ’s own forever, although it would be a mighty surprise to me if she set foot in a church again any time soon. She may never return to church at all, except for the occasional wedding or funeral. But I like to imagine her mother telling her the story of that morning.
Oh, this little dress? I bought that for your christening. Great-Grandma was begging to have you baptized, so I took you to her church. It was all pretty weird and confusing, but the priest was really nice, and so were the church people. It was funny; at first I felt so awkward, just out of place, but then I started to relax and before I knew it all these people were giving me hugs and saying how beautiful you looked. It turned out to be kind of a nice day …
And my pie? I got around to it eventually. Oddly, the urgency had worn off.