By Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom
I see dead people. They scare me. I don’t know how they do it. Die, that is. I’m a born Christian, a born again Christian, and I’ve been baptized (once). That means, I am supposed to believe in conversion, salvation, and eternal life. I do, but I’m still afraid to die.
I heard a story on NPR last week. It chronicled the last few weeks of Doctors Without Borders working with Ebola patients in Sierra Leone. Health educator Emily Veltus’ spirit generates hope as she tells the story of returning members from quarantined hospitals to their communities. Veltus describes hugging an Ebola survivor as a public gesture signifying that the individual is no longer contagious. As she tells the story, Veltus has a hard time holding back the joy of death’s defeat and the power of the hug in an otherwise no-touch climate. NPR’s David Greene asks whether a corner has been turned in managing the disease. “No. No, no, no, no. Not at all. Absolutely not.” In spite of the dark ending to the interview, the embrace remains the story’s center.
What does death have to do with new life? The Covenant’s affirmation is a good one, but its description has a glaring omission. It forgets the thing that we all fear but nevertheless is part of new birth—baptism. Baptism is about conversion, salvation, and eternal life. Baptism bestows on us that wonderful identity that Geila named last week—children of God. Yet baptism is also about death and confronting our failures to live. I worry that the wonderful church I am a part of has neglected this aspect of new birth because, like me, it is afraid to die. It needs to remain in control. I get it, but I think Veltus’ life of facing Ebola every day, living for those one-in-less-than-four hugs, is an unproductive but faithful lesson.
Many churches today form their programs based on growth, numbers, and just plain “more” without asking ourselves what needs to die or even, how should we be honest in the face of the kind of utter submission that a life based on new birth in Christ calls us to. Birth and death are the two things that we have no control over, and it is interesting that they are among the most theological rich metaphors for describing conversion, salvation, and eternal life. I believe birth and death are the two things we are most afraid of, and our Savior took on both in one lifetime.
The necessity of new birth is not simply about saying yes to Jesus Christ. It is about painful growth that requires death. Usually, it’s the death of those things we hold most dearly—especially if one has security through power (of position, gender, ethnicity, class, age). The necessity (not option) of new birth is about taking the kind of risks that push us to face the fear of losing control of our well-ordered lives. We take the risk of embracing the things that might kill us, knowing that the embrace itself is a public witness to the healing potential of God.
I see dead people. None of them chose to die, they did it out of necessity. They have a name in Scripture. They are called the cloud. In what area of your life does the cloud confront you?