Late last year, a friend invited us to a fundraising gala to benefit a local charity.
We are not gala people.
Gala people wear fancy clothes. Gala people know which fork to use. Gala people start foundations and have their names on university buildings and hospitals.
Gabby and I tell loud, somewhat inappropriate stories. We snort when we laugh. We use our pinky fingernail to pick food out of our teeth. At the table.
No. We are not gala people.
But there we were, browsing the tables laden with offerings for the silent auction. Artwork. Box seats to NFL football games. Gift baskets overflowing with wines and restaurant gift cards. Money raised from all of this stuff would go to provide support services for kids in foster care, or those who have aged out of the program.
“Should we bid on something? We don’t really have a lot of money.” Gabby asked.
“I don’t know. It is for a good cause.”
I wondered aloud, whispering “This could be our tithe. We still haven’t written our latest giving check. Maybe we could just tithe to the auction?”
“Does that count?” Gabby asked skeptically. In addition to diagnosing car problems and performing triage in medical emergencies, my wife is the de facto moral compass in our relationship. And her compass was telling her that tithing at the charity auction is like putting money in the church offering plate and then asking the pastor to make you a meatball sub with the communion loaf.
“Sure! It’s giving!” I started placing bids before Gabby could ask any more questions.
I told you. We’re not gala people.
Caught up in the frenzy of gifts financed by Our Lord and Savior, we kept adding our name to the bid lists. We upped the ante by a dollar or two each time we were outbid on something. The whole affair was drenched in euphoria. Excitement at the thought of winning. And by winning, I mean in the same way eighty-year-old billionaires “win” trophy wives half their age. By the end of the evening we had “won” a dinner for two at an Italian restaurant and weekend lodging at a Tennessee lake house for a small army.
And Jesus wept. A little.
In an effort to put a pretty face on our ill-gotten gains, we decided to share the lake house with our family as a Christmas present. After all, nothing says “let’s celebrate the birth of Christ” more than cramming eighteen people into one house for three days in a no-holds-barred test of will to see who will emerge unscathed. They make reality shows about stuff like that. Only on reality television, the house mates don’t ever have to see each other again. In the Dannemiller version of the show, there are some long-term ramifications to the togetherness. Stealing the “big bedroom” at the lake house could come back to haunt you one day when you are in desperate need of a blood-relative match for a kidney.
Gabby and I would be lying if we said we weren’t anxious about the whole thing. For one, even though we weren’t technically buying any “stuff”, a big lake house seemed like an extravagance considering our Year Without A Purchase. Second, my family loves to be in nature so long as it is air conditioned and bug-free. The lake has things like algae. And spiders. And hair-crushing humidity.
But most of my personal anxiety was due to an unexpected turn of events. At a family gathering this past spring, my sixteen-year-old niece Mia tapped me on the shoulder to ask a question.
“Hey Uncle Scott. I was wondering if you would baptize me and Julianna when we all go to the lake this summer.”
I had to get five stitches in my chin from my jaw dropping to the kitchen floor. First, most teenagers only speak to adults in a special language of angst-ridden grunts and clicks. And here were both my nieces, mature beyond their years, speaking to me about something of deep personal significance.
Second, last time I checked, I am not a pastor. I have no formal training in baptism. My only qualifications are a summer of swim lessons when I was five years old and having a slight OCD tendency toward personal cleanliness that requires 2-3 showers per day.
My brain told me to launch into an explanation of how I am not certified for this sort of thing. How I love to speak in front of large groups so long as they are complete strangers. How there are whole books in my Bible that still have that new book smell (ever read Amos? Anyone?). But my impulsive heart said,
God definitely has a sense of humor.
When I got home, I immediately launched into some research, recalling passages in the Bible of ordinary people baptizing others. None of these folks had seminary degrees or had been ordained in a church. So, I technically had a leg up on all of them, since I have spent a year as a missionary and received an ordination through the First International Church of the Web. For $25 and a 250-word statement of faith, they send you a really nice certificate and a laminated card to place in your dash that reads “Clergy”, giving you some choice parking spots at the hospital.
But, even with these extra credentials, I wanted to make sure things were on the up and up. So I chose to consult a higher authority.
I went to my computer and typed in “Am I allowed to baptize somebody?” A long list of links appeared. Some were official church websites. Others were blogs from pastors. Essentially, they all said the same thing, which was, “Jesus says it’s OK.” Citing Matthew 28: 16-20:
16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Knowing that I had been given the green light by the Savior of the World himself, I was feeling better about things. I started to build a baptism service using a format that our church would approve. I stressed over the details, wanting to make sure all of the prayers were just right. Making sure I used some official sounding language. But I kept coming back to what Jesus said.
It’s not about the water.
No. The water is the easy part. Like taking a shower. The hard part is what comes after the baptism. The “…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” part. That’s where the real work is. The baptism is a symbol. But commitment is what we do afterwards. Both the wet ones and the dry ones.
Our lake weekend was filled with a lot of fun. Fishing. Swimming. Boating. Bouncing around on inner tubes. Birthday celebrations with chocolate fondue. There were bumps and bruises. Laughs and stories all around.
*Audrey and Cori on the tube
* Cori, Uncle Jeff, and his biceps with the catch of the day
* Jake and cousin Jack
* Ava, Jake, Jack and Audrey enjoyin' the sun
* Gabby's art photography shoot. Title: Pasty man on noodles
And then came the baptism.
On Sunday morning, our entire family gathered on the top deck of a two-story boat dock. Eighteen in all. We came together to celebrate the lives of two sixteen-year-old girls. Mia and Julianna. All they have meant to our family, and all of the promise of their futures. Mia, with a personality to match her fiery red hair. Filled with relentless determination, drive and discipline. And her twin sister, Julianna. With a heart so big it can hardly fit inside her chest, overflowing with compassion and confidence.
And I just got out of the way.
For several minutes, people shared thoughts about each of the girls. Not surface stories of embarrassing moments or trophies won. They were tearful, meaningful stories of shared history. Of admiration. Of unconditional love. A large family, stopping for a moment to thank God for the lives of two young women, and, in turn, giving thanks for the beauty of family. A family that loves abundantly. A family bound together by commitment. Teaching one another, each and every day.
And with hands outstretched, this same family prayed over the water as two amazing girls took the plunge. Both with courage and confidence. One choosing to jump from the second story, diving twenty feet into the world’s largest baptismal font. The other, deciding to hang from the ladder and fall backward into the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
* Leap of faith
No. It’s not about the water. It’s about stripping away the day-to-day and reminding ourselves of the things that really matter in this life. It’s about celebrating grace and our shared commitment to each other.
I looked up the definition of “gala” today. And Webster defines it as “a festive celebration of a special occasion.”
So… Maybe we are gala people after all?