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A letter to watch over you

I was baptized as infant in a white clapboard church in the rural Canadian Rocky Mountains. The week before I received the sacrament, a dozen or so people in that tiny Moravian congregation painted the sanctuary.

They painted the entire sanctuary.

Monday morning, they lugged ladders inside and draped pews. They spent the rest of the week sloshing paint on the walls with rollers and brushes. When the sun set on Saturday afternoon, that holy room glowed in white like a baby in his baptismal gown. And these faithful folks went through this extraordinary effort knowing full well that, in just a few months, my family would leave — for good. And then their church, which had existed for almost 150 years, would close its doors — forever.

Thirty-seven years later, I am now a Presbyterian pastor. And I have the grace of writing a letter to each child about to be baptized. The child’s caregivers then save my note until she has grown and is ready for confirmation. I write with the future in mind, imagining the baby as an adolescent who has grown up in our congregation. On the morning of the baptism, I read this letter to the entire congregation as the sermon.

Sitting down at my writing desk with a blank page in front of me, I imagine those sanctuary painters all those years ago.

Hemingway told young writers to “get the weather in there for God’s sake” and that is as good a starting place as any. I write about the recent snowfall or the humidity so thick I felt like I could swim to my car. How the slanting light from a harvest moon hung like smoke upon the fields. Or, how spring had escaped the icy clutches of Old Man Winter like a frolicking colt.

Every baptism is marked by a thickening of time. Kairos, the Greeks claimed, is a time out of time. The eternal made present is the true gift. Yet we must ground ourselves here and now if we are to notice the “thin places” where the boundary between this experience and the next becomes almost permeable.

So, after the weather, I write about what I know of this child about to be baptized. His lizard named Tom Petty. The baseball glove worn on top of her head. The goldfish crackers squirreled away in the front pocket of the OshKosh B’gosh overalls. I’ll pen something about the caregivers as well. Mama’s banana bread coming out of the oven with the Grateful Dead in the air. Dad’s habit of counting the number of words the toddler uses — at the moment, up to 43 different ones of various shapes and sizes! And I mention the siblings, too. How she taught him to bark like a dog, for instance. How their mother used to find them snuggled like three puppies in the same bed.

Paint a scene. Add a little color here and there.

A 7-year-old boy I baptized had the habit of snagging one of the pillows from the rather expensive sofa in the church parlor and skipping outside onto the church lawn, where he would unceremoniously drop his heist into the green grass and lay down upon it, his face turned toward the blue sky, his smile bright in the sun.

Another young person, about 4 years old, once stood under the copper beech visible from my same window. The tree is so named for the ruddy red its leaves turn in the fall. This, however, was winter and the child was bundled in layers like the Michelin Tire Man. She stood a foot from the base of the trunk, her neck craned toward the canopy. Slipping on my own heavy coat, I sidled next to her and we watched the bare limbs rattle in the wind like brittle fingers. Her mitten hand pulled the scarf from her mouth:

“Mister, I’m trying to see summer.”

The world is charged with the grandeur of God (Gerard Manley Hopkins); attentiveness is the beginning of all prayer (Mary Oliver); every day, all around us, there’s a shimmer of something beyond Vast just waiting for us to notice (Brian Doyle). Before he died, Brian Doyle also claimed that stories are the best prayers.

I pray that story about painting the church when I was baptized; now I include stories about the church where these children receive the same sacrament. This congregation is only slightly older than the children. A few years ago, before the sanctuary was built, the faithful met in a fish restaurant, a little dive still open today. On Tuesday night, we have a meal here in a building we named the Hall for All. After scarfing a taco, I watched the one about to be baptized play tag with other chair-dodging, table-ducking adventurers his age. His younger sister toddled around with her good buds, laughing at their private jokes in their secret language. In the baptism letter, I wrote that it is my prayer that all children would continue to find their footing here among us.

There is a gentleman here who made crosses from the leftover wooden floorboards of our sanctuary. The scraps might have been thrown away; but he saved them and made gifts for baptisms. For the recipients, we pray that Jesus will be their foundation as surely as we stand upon this holy floor.

In my letters, I locate time, not only in terms of the weather, but also the political climate. The personal is political. I write because, like the weather, such things are in the air we breathe.

There was this phenomenon involving the attachment of a safety pin to the lapel or shirt collar. Might not seem like much, but this safety pin served as a sign of safety for people of color, immigrants, Muslims, gays and lesbians. The safety pin communicated to any person that the one wearing it not only loves kindness but also will do justice by standing up to aggressors in the event of harassment. In my letter, I noted that, tragically, the cross so many of us wear around our necks does not always mean the same solidarity.

I wrote to a baby girl about stained-glass ceilings and #MeToo; about being beautiful and strong, being kind and brave; and about an older woman whose funeral occurred on the same day the child was born. As part of our witness to the resurrection, we recalled stories of this woman’s strength, how she grew up on a dirt floor and taught herself to read by the newspapers that covered the holes in the wall of her house. As long as she was alive, any child had a safe place to stay up in the holler. She used to say, “It’s so good to have someone a-watchin’ o’er you.” I wrote about the difference between watching and leering, between objectifying and empowering.

I wrote about how many of us thought that, after the gunning down of elementary school children in 2012, the hearts and minds of adults would finally turn toward enacting gun control. But a half dozen years later, it has taken teenagers to put pressure on our politicians to get the assault rifles made for killing humans out of the hands of citizens. The teenagers are leading the way! The weekend after this particular baptism, teenagers marched for school safety in nearly eight hundred cities across the nation, including our nation’s capital. These marches took place on the weekend of Palm Sunday — the day to claim God’s life-force over the death-dealing lords, including monied interests wedded to power. I wrote about how I imagined the recipient of this letter one day reading my words as a teenager. You, too, can make a difference, I added.

I admire Gary Charles, a Presbyterian pastor who believes that the decline of the so-called mainline churches is less about demographics and social changes than it is about theology: bad theology. We have excused ourselves from the call to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Like Pilate, we have washed our hands of the world, claiming “I’ll fly away” from it. Nothing wrong with coming to church seeking a little peace and comfort. As long as we are then sent out to seek a greater peace and justice.

The point is not to be political from the pulpit, but rather relevant. The word “relevant” comes from the Latin for “raise up” and pastors should use our elevated position in the community on behalf of those who need a hand. If we refuse to march, if we do not write, if we take to the sidelines and do not raise our voices, then the next generation of leaders will take their causes elsewhere.

I would hope that the recipients of my letters will still belong to the church when the read the letter. I would hope there would still be a church worthy of the hope of our calling.

We don’t know the future. The grass withers, the flower fadeth. Only the Word of the Lord stands forever.

I was baptized Moravian. One of the traditions I inherited is a watchword, meaning a selected verse of Scripture that is prayerfully selected. In the baptism letter, I share the child’s watchword and what drew me to these words on that child’s behalf.

Micah 6:8 was her great grandfather’s favorite verse, words he and I often remembered together when we came tottering to the edge of despair and decided to drop into prayer instead.

The Hebrew word for blessed can also be translated happy, which was his very first word. Upon entering the sanctuary, he would intone in a surprisingly husky voice, “Happy.”

Usually, only the teenagers sit on high in the balcony — “the Amen corner” as I called it. But one Sunday her parents were running late and, during a silent prayer for the confession of our sins, everyone heard her slurping away at a bottle from on high. That was a moment of merciful assurance: Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings has Thou ordained strength, sings the eighth Psalm.

Consider the lilies, Jesus preaches. Consider the lilies, yes, like your banana-bread-baking, Grateful-Dead-jamming Mama!

I do not know how the story of those I baptize will play out by the time they can read these words for themselves. After only a couple of years, I know certain recipients of these letters have already suffered pain. Parents have divorced. Grandparents have died. Jobs have been lost and families have moved to a land far away. Such children will likely never know the tree outside my office window or the fish restaurant down the road, not to mention the gentleman who made the cross or the women and men of all ages who, on that Sunday morning, vowed to tell them stories about Jesus. Of course, none of us really know anything about the future.

The most recent watchword was 1 John 3:2. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. In the baptism letter, I wrote about how the semicolon is my favorite punctuation mark; it’s a strong pause between two independent yet related clauses. Because we are baptized into Christ Jesus, death is not a period at the end of life’s sentence; but it’s a gateway into the hope of a future.

The hardest part of the letter to write is the ending. I have this problem with my usual sermons as well. Fred Craddock used to advise preachers to begin with the ending, which is sage advice that I always seem to remember only when I am supposed to be finished.

I can always fall back on a couple of methods. A “call back” is what comedians refer to as an echo of a previous joke or punchline. I might bring back a refrain from earlier in the letter like “trying to see summer” or maybe even that lizard named Tom Petty. An ending may also come from a formula. I have concluded by evoking the same blessing I give at the baptism: May the love of God dwell mightily in you, both now, and forever more.

But I deeply believe that Brian Doyle was right: stories are the best prayers. Whenever I follow Martin Luther’s advice and remember my baptism, I think of that tiny church painted white. I smile to myself whenever I call to mind this creative labor, which seems a brave defiance in the face of great fear. You may close our doors; our hearts remain open.

I always remember my watchword: Jeremiah 29:11.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

I cannot predict the future. I write this letter before the sacrament; I don’t have any details from the Sunday morning service. Hoping my words will be read one day down the corridor of time, I implore the child to ask about her baptism! Take note of what your loved ones remember, including the little details like what you wore, what the weather was like, and whether you laughed or cried or kept a poker face as I graced you around the sanctuary, the water shimmering on your face. Part of living into our baptismal vows, I write, is that we will pay attention that we might notice a shimmer of something beyond Vast. We shall paint with our words. And remember for you.

The other day, my young friend, who is the proud owner of the cricket-gobbling Tom Petty, strolled into my office. Like always, he was looking for a snack and I happened to have a bowl of ripe, red strawberries. Chewing, he noticed the framed picture hanging on the wall for the first time. He’s too young to read, but I explained that this was my watchword. Did he remember that he had a watchword? He nodded, very solemnly. With strawberry-stained lips, he pronounced: “I remember. Watchin’ over you.”

Andrew Taylor-Troutman serves as pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Recently his essays have appeared in Mockingbird and his poetry in Bearings. His wife, Ginny, is also a Presbyterian pastor and they have three children to love. He wrote this piece in memory of Brian Doyle.

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