Half a decade or so, I watched from the window of my study as a beat-up old truck covered in mud pulled into our church parking lot. I think it was on a Tuesday morning, just like today. The driver just sat there for a while. I watched from my window, puzzled. Were they lost? Confused? Was the Tim Hortons parking lot across the road full and they were just looking for a peaceful place to nurse their double double? Were they actually in the right place but struggling to muster the courage to come inside? Eventually, a young man opened the door tentatively made his way into the building. I’ll call him Duane.
Duane was nineteen years old and skinny as a rake. He had a few wispy strands of peach fuzz on his chin and wore a pair of oversized cowboy boots underneath his mechanic’s coveralls. He had a kind of aw-shucks demeanour and gave off a vibe that wondered if his very presence might be an imposition. As far as first impressions go, his was all kinds of awkward. I assured him that he was most welcome and inquired as to the reason for his visit.
“Well, you know, I was wondering if you would baptize me.” I peered at him incredulously. A stranger walking in off the street and asking to be baptized is not exactly a common occurrence for a Tuesday morning. Or any other morning. “What, you mean like right now?” I asked (thus proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that pastors can have their thick moments! A better response might have been something like, “Wonderful, I’m so glad you’re interested in baptism!” or “Praise God!” Or pretty much anything other than what I in fact said). “I dunno,” he responded. “Whenever. I just was wanting to get baptized.”
After the shock had subsided, I invited Duane to sit down and tell me a bit of his story. He was a mechanic, he said, but that was just his day job. He was really a musician, an aspiring drummer in a country music band. They were pretty good. They had played the casino the other night. I asked why he wanted to get baptized and why he had chosen our church. He offered surprisingly little. It was just something he felt like he needed to do. He had heard about Mennonites from a grandmother or aunt or something back in Manitoba. He thought this would be as good a place as any. I told him about our church’s protocol—that he would need to meet with me for a few sessions where I’d learn more about his faith journey, where I’d explain our church’s theology of baptism, where we’d discuss logistics for the day itself, etc. He nodded brightly. Yup, that all sounded good to him.
And so, we met at Tim Hortons for our baptism classes. He read the material. We opened our bibles and read some passages I had chosen. I asked if he understood. He nodded. I asked him if he had any questions. He had none. Literally, none. There was no crisis driving him to get baptized, no evidence of a spiritual quest or anything like existential angst. His main interests seemed to be his truck and his drumming. I remember remarking to my wife after one of our sessions that Duane was just about the most spiritually uninquisitive person I had ever encountered. He just wanted to get baptized.
After our initial meeting, I told Duane, “You know, as Mennonites we take pretty seriously the idea that baptism isn’t just about the individual but about the community. We are baptized into the church and the church is the context in which we live out the commitment it symbolizes, where we are strengthened and where we grow in faith. We don’t believe that baptism is magic or that it saves you or anything like that. It’s a public declaration made in community. So, it would be really great if you would start to, you know, be part of the community. Start with this Sunday. Come to worship and start to meet people.” Yup, that all sounded good to Duane. He smiled and said he’d see me on Sunday.
He didn’t show up that first Sunday. Or the one after that (despite being reminded again of the importance of it.) He came on the third Sunday. People were warm and curious toward him. He smiled, shook a few hands, and left. He didn’t come the fourth Sunday. I think he came the fifth. And then it was the day of the baptism. I scratched my head all that week about how utterly strange it was going to be to baptize someone who had shown up for worship precisely two times, who almost nobody in our church even knew, and who seemed almost completely uninterested in faith or Christian community.
I baptized Duane that morning. He smiled broadly when it was done. We had a potluck afterward and he stayed for lunch before walking out the door to begin living into the glorious truth and freedom of his baptismal vows.
That was the last time I saw him.
I texted and called him repeatedly. Had something happened? Was he ok? All I got was silence. He evidently had no interest in me or in the church any longer. We had baptized him. That was all he wanted.
I have thought about Duane periodically over the intervening years. I wondered where he went, what happened to him. The experience has lodged itself in my brain as a flashing neon sign screaming, “Pastor fail!” I must have done something wrong for someone to so utterly and thoroughly misunderstand the act of baptism or the role of the church in it. I should have made him wait longer. I should have pushed him harder on certain questions. I should have dug deeper to try to figure out what was going on underneath this strange experience. I should have done something differently, surely.
For the last six years or so, Duane’s name has sat there in our church directory. He’s a “member,” after all. The incongruity would be laughable if not for the regret that comes with it. A “member” who came to church twice and had a drive-by baptism. The kingdom of God is a strange thing to be sure, but not that kind of strange. That’s just weird. Tonight, at a congregational meeting, we will formally remove Duane’s name from our membership roll. Much as it gives the membership numbers an incremental boost (and which church wouldn’t want that, these days?!), his name on a membership list simply doesn’t reflect reality.
On a whim, though, I googled Duane this morning. It seems he lives in a different city and is a professional drummer now. I spent about ten minutes scrolling through pictures of concerts and bars and smiles and cowboy hats and good times. He’s been nominated for a few awards, it seems. One profile picture says he’s “chasin’ the dream and loving every second of it.” That made me smile.
I don’t know if Duane ever thinks about his baptism any more. I don’t really even know what he thought about it back then. Was he trying to wash out a stain? Was it a strange kind of penance or insurance policy? Was he doing it to make his mom happy? Or, against all odds, was it an expression of faith in Jesus Christ. I don’t know. Obviously. There’s so much that is hard to know when the guy you baptized won’t take your calls.
One thing I do know, though, is that Jesus is more stubborn and persistent than I am. And Jesus has his ways of getting through—of reminding all his children of promises made and forgotten, of commitments made and abandoned, of loves ignited and untended. The Hound of Heaven is no respecter of membership rolls and “correct procedures.” And for this, I suppose we should all be thankful.