A Happy Baptism


22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

Matthew 5:21-37

Denise stood nervously at the edge of the deep end of the Herman’s scandalous inground pool. I saw her out of the corner of my left eye, never imagining her plans. The Hermans lived amidst the towering spruce and maple trees and Victorian homes of little Collingswood, New Jersey. Denise and her 14 friends gathered at the pool lived amidst the towering crime rates and low regard of nearby Camden. This was the scandal—black, brown, tan, and yellow kids diving in a place long preserved as a sea of whiteness. The Hermans gloried in the scandal, which was certainly the talk of the town. The spectacle of this color spectrum splashing about on hot afternoons was in full view for neighbors and passing cars; less visible were the curious graces that always seemed to find their way into the Herman’s pool—graces called forth through faithful adherence to God’s commandments.

Commandments seem difficult in our age of unprecedented privilege. The very word “commandment” invokes notions of restriction, limitation, and boundaries. Surely enough, the world’s systems use commandments for such purposes, but God’s Kingdom moves in the opposite direction. God’s commandments are crafted for us to fully enjoy the immeasurably mystical and liberating gifts of grace. We hear the ensuing joys of such mysteries ringing out in the Psalmist’s voice.

Happy are those whose lives are faultless, who live according to the law of the Lord. Happy are those who follow his commands, who obey him with all their heart. Psalms 199:1-2 (Good News Translation)

The Hermans embraced the scandal of God’s commandment to extravagantly love black, brown, tan, and yellow kids from America’s most dangerous city. Though their neighborhood was known for its scarcity of grace, the act of opening a backyard pool to a group of suspect kids from a despised city affected a movement of inclusion and the emergence of abundant grace among those who dared to take a closer look.

Denise had not figured out all the stuff about commandments and grace. Lots of nouns floated above her head: Jesus, Christian, church, Baptist, Methodist, and heaven. But Denise lived in a world where verbs were much more important than nouns. At home, she was much more concerned about what the people around her did, not how they named themselves. She was bright, young, beautiful, and much too shapely for a 13-year-old. Her father was nowhere to be found and her mother’s boyfriend was an absolute lecher. Denise was the kind of girl who needed some assurances that people like the Hermans and myself took God’s commandments seriously—that our “yes” truly meant “yes” and our “no” meant “no.” Thus, after telling her “yes, we love you” and “no, we will not cast you out,” she still stood on the edge at the deep end of the pool.

God’s commandments call us to profound relationships, both with humanity and with him. This is the point of the litany of commandments Jesus gives us in our Gospel reading, taken from Matthew 5:21-37. These commandments guide us to be profoundly connected to our sisters and brothers, our friends, enemies, and spouses…and to skeptical teenage girls living in danger. Denise, having made a point to announce she could not swim, waited until my gaze was solely on her, with all the shock of seeing her at the edge of the deep end, and then she jumped. She knew if my yes was true and if I was serious about all God’s commandants I professed to follow, I would have to plunge in with all I had—eyeglasses, street clothes, wallet, watch, shoes, dollar bills and all—but only if I was serious about salvation. I’ve rarely seen such an act of faith or a more impassioned challenge to take God’s commandments seriously. So, there in the Herman’s pool the mystically abundant waters of God’s grace once again showed up as a soggy youth worker emerged from the bottom of the pool with a new believer named Denise.

Tim Merrill
Friend of Street Psalms
Founder and Director, Watu Moja