The first time I heard about Mary was through her daughter. Out of the blue, the daughter called to interview me. She searched for, “A liberal pastor that would not be bothered by my mother’s tattoos.”
“And,” the daughter said, “I am a lesbian and not a Christian.” But her mother was Christian, even though she hadn’t been part of any church for a long time.
“Mom doesn’t need someone telling her that she or I are headed for hell. You won’t say that will you? She’s dying from cancer and doesn’t need fire and brimstone stuff from anybody. But she’d like to see a pastor and I told her I’d find one. So, are you liberal?”
If I’m forced to check one box, and the only two choices are “liberal” and “conservative,” I’d probably scratch an “X” by the “L” word. Does the daughter being 1) Lesbian, 2) non-Christian, and 3) a person who gives pastors quizzes over the phone bother me?
Not one bit.
Does the mother having 1) tattoos, 2) a daughter who gives quizzes, and 3) no affiliation with a church bother me?
Not one bit.
I passed all the tests; nothing like being a winner.
These moments happen. The phone call or visit comes into your life, and suddenly you are involved with a stranger who wants-needs-hopes some thing. Most pastors (or imams, rabbis, or priests) can share story after story about those unbidden wants-needs-hopes that are often clever—or not so clever—scams to get money or attention or both.
But Mary was not a scam. One thing I deeply and truthfully know about her is that her daughter loves her. Loves her enough to make a cold call to a pastor, and loves her enough to ask a few blunt questions to hope this might be the “right” person to visit her mother.
So I took a chair beside a mother’s bedside.
As she shares about her life, it’s obvious there have been troubles of many kinds in her past: wrong choices, failures, doubt, and anger. This is not the first time she’s battled cancer. But this will be the final time.
In bed, with an afghan partially covering her shoulders, I see the beginnings or endings of colorful tattoos, spirals of red and green. She says nothing about them. Instead she asks if her daughter told me she wasn’t a member of a church.
“She did. It doesn’t matter to me.”
Mary looks away, blinking, and then turns back to meet my eyes. A steady gaze. “What about baptism? I’ve never been baptized.”
She doesn’t want to be baptized because it’s a slick ticket to heaven or a cheap get-out-of-hell pass. Instead we talk of baptism as a celebration, a watery gift where we humans claim a trust in a loving Creator. It’s a ritual daring to say that the last breath we take may be the end of what we know, but it’s not the end of what the Holy has in store for us.
She nods. We hold hands.
I suspect I will not adequately explain baptism to her. I’m probably more confident with what it isn’t. It is not that heavenly ticket. It’s not a ritual that makes a Christian better than a non-Christian. And yet, with words as foolish as flapping my arms to take flight, I am honored to offer her baptism. She has stopped all radiation and chemotherapy and her doctors talk about weeks left in her life. Her daughter will soon make more cold calls—to a hospice and funeral home—which she’d rather not make.
What matters now? Blessing, I believe. Giving and receiving thanks, I believe. Choosing life over death, I believe. In my Christian tradition, Jesus said of baptism, “do this.”
The Gospels’ proclaim, with enigmatic and wistful descriptions, that the heavens opened at Jesus’ baptism. And—in Matthew, Luke and Mark’s account—the divine voice said (or did the Holy shout?), “This is my beloved.”
Beloved. It was a word and a declaration that mattered then. It matters now.