When the Guy You Baptized Won’t Take Your Call

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. 

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13 Comments

  1. LOL Well…definitely send him a link to this post.
    But …I’m wondering…did you at any point ask him why he wanted to be baptized?

    1. Yes, of course I asked, in different ways and on different occasions. 🙂 As I mentioned in the post, his response was just that he felt like it was something he needed to do.

    1. I’m not sure it would be the goodness of God that I would naturally connect to a Tim Hortons across the street… Perhaps the inscrutability of God’s will?

      (I’m not a fan, as you can tell. About the best you can say about Tim Hortons coffee is that it’s black, it’s hot, and it occasionally smells like something approximating a decent cup of coffee. But I would go almost anywhere else first 🙂 )

      1. Seriously though, I Thank you for sharing this story.

        I would guess that sometime/somewhere Duane heard a message that required Baptism FOR Salvation and simply wanted to cover all his bases. Shaun had no desire whatsoever to join a church. A good fundamentalist Evangelical would have whipped out the “Sinners Prayer” from their toolbox and not bothered with the cumbersome details of quizzing him whether he actually believed Jesus of Nazareth was the long awaited Christ/Messiah.

        Epic Pastor fail?..No, not even close. God’s got it covered.

        “All that the Father giveth me shall come to ME; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out. For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me. And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day.” John 6:36-39

      1. Thank you, Mike. My sense of the motivations at work in this story is roughly the same as yours, but who really knows.

        I also take comfort in passages like John 6:38-40, particularly verse 39:

        And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day.

        It locates the primary agency in salvation where it belongs: with God.

  2. The Ethiopian eunuch moved north? Wonder how Philip felt when he never saw the testical-free African?

  3. I just read this in the Mennonite World review which I rarely really read. It caught my eye because my unchurched granddaughter who is13 says “ I wish I was baptized.” This has lead to many discussions as her parents ,especially her Russian mother, hold religion at arms length. The thought crossed my mind as I read this. Did The followers of Jesus ,in His days on earth ,have to go through sessions and were they asked tons of questions or were they just baptized? Maybe the prerequisite should just be “ I believe in God, help thou my unbelief”. We aren’t really a country club…or are we?

    1. No, I doubt the early followers of Jesus would have had the various catechetical processes that the church has instituted ever since. I suspect their proximity to the actual person and work of Christ would have something to do with that. In our day and age, we have a bit more work to do to understand what baptism even is and what it’s supposed to represent.

      For me, “I believe in God, help thou my unbelief” is a perfectly acceptable starting point, but as a pastor I would feel irresponsible if I didn’t make it clear that being baptized in the name of Christ entails a commitment to follow Jesus (which means understanding at least something of who he is and what he taught) and a conviction that the name “Jesus” adds specificity and clarity to the word “God,” which is used in a wide variety of ways in our pluralistic, post-Christian context.

      I agree, we’re not a country club (at least we shouldn’t be!). I also don’t think we’re free to use Christian baptism as a ratification for whatever vague spiritual impulses people bring to the table (I’m not suggesting you were saying this, just reflecting on other experiences that I’ve had pastorally over the years).

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