Acts 16 Now and Then

Close up of metal chain hung across a pillar in a dark room

In one of those turns of thought that sometimes open like a door, I wondered this morning how the Philippian jailer and his conversion in Acts 16 might have been greeted if he were to try baptizing all his household today.

Then [Paul and Silas] spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptized. Now when he had brought them into his house, he set food before them and he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household.

This is not the only time when an entire household was baptized. Just a few verses before this story, Lydia of Thyatira is baptized with all her household. As a successful business owner, her household likely included servants or slaves. The jailer’s family doubtless included a wife and children. In the modern instance, wouldn’t our first question be whether the central convert had imposed a chosen faith on a collection of dependents who had not chosen it?

Verses such as these are part of the argument for infant baptism, indicating a precedent whereby the “age of reason” or even basic egalitarian agency seem to be missing from the decision to become Christian. What can we make of that now, surrounded by voices declaring that everything, absolutely everything, should be a choice?

Today’s secular western culture would object to this baptism hastily and heartily. Did the jailer’s wife want to be baptized? Did he ask her? Even if he did ask her, did she really feel free to object if she wanted to? Were Lydia’s servants actually converted, or did they receive baptism in the same spirit as they received the roof over their heads and their inability to leave it of their own free will?

Little, if anything, is known about the actual historical people in question. We don’t know even the jailer’s name, let alone the identity of his family members, and Lydia’s household is equally cloaked under thousands of years of lost information. We can’t know what they thought, or why. Speculation is all that remains to us.

Thus, I speculate that this question of consent and freedom is wholly modern. And that it is modern not simply because, at least in the secular west, we no longer own slaves, we allow women to vote, and far more decision and intelligence are attributed to children now than may have been then. (One could argue that we attribute less to them, as they are boxed into a supervised and regimented existence long after their ancient counterparts would have been able to fend for themselves on the streets. But that is a topic for another day.)

The question of whether it was fair for the jailer, Lydia, and others to baptize their entire households is modern because it is based on a modern understanding of religion. Religion now is a legal right, a choice, an act of self-expression, and something considered safe to choose or not choose for oneself or others. In the time of Acts, religion could hardly be called by that name at all. It was almost a default – a powerful, expected force, something no one could or did imagine the world without. The idea of choosing a religion was more a question of whether you guessed right, whether you safely attached yourself and your loved ones to the real God, the right God, the God who could protect and save you and was attentively considering your every move and responding accordingly.

Seen in that light, God was as vital and ordinary as food or water. Stunned and convinced, the jailer would no sooner have decided to convert by himself than he would have chosen to provide any other necessity only for himself, while his household languished and died in want.

It reminds me, surprisingly, of an old Peter, Paul, and Mary recording of a folk song called, alternately, Bahamian Lullaby or All My Trials. The speaker in the song is a mother on her deathbed, comforting her children by reminding them that her suffering will be over soon, and that the Tree of Life and paradise are awaiting her. The religious imagery seems odd to me for song that became popular in the 1960s, when perceived conventions of every kind were overthrown. Yet there it is. And in this song is a line that speaks directly to the jailer and his family, and Lydia and her household.

“If religion were a thing that money could buy, the rich would live and the poor would die.”

If the jailer, the male and the wage-earner for his family, the only member with something approaching power, were to hear the Gospel and keep it to himself, it would not be a sign of respect for his family’s liberty or self-expression. It would be an act of selfishness, even cruelty, and a direct violation of the generous Christ he had so newly embraced.

This is what we have lost, I think. There is much of the old world that deserved to die, and perhaps nothing more so than slavery and oppression. But in our striving to avoid those old wrongs, we have formed the habit of avoiding too many other things besides. We are frightened of conviction, wary of acting on behalf of anyone but ourselves. It’s as if we no longer trust discernment, or truly believe there is anything beyond the tangible to discern. If everything is personal and relative, our sense of rightness, our faithfulness, somehow becomes a flaw.

Can we even imagine that moment of conversion? Could we step into the wretched prison and hear the hymns? Would we survive the earthquake and the suicidal urge to destroy ourselves before the destructive judgments of our peers can do it for us? What shattering beauty must have been his as the jailer risked his life to bring these prisoners home and bathe their wounds. The world as he understood it up to that point had ended. He had no precedent for men who praised God in shackles, who stayed when they could have escaped, and who offered him salvation when vengeance would have been understandable, even expected. He himself was likely outside the limits of his own imagining. If someone had asked him the day before whether he would risk his life to save two hymn-singing prisoners, how would he have answered? Who in his world could even have formed the question?

And so I conclude that our relativity has, ironically, made us rigid, unable, unwilling to peer outside the acceptable rut. It is our courage that suffers most, in this age of judgmental tolerance and litigated freedom. More even than physical courage, do we lack mental courage? Are we still able to conceive that what we cannot accept exists, that it is even possible for it to exist? Are we able to believe that the common judgment of reality is no more final and perfected now than it was when Paul and Silas lay in prison and were free?

-Photo by Daniel von Appen on Unsplash

 

 

The “To Don’t” List

Closeup of cherry blossoms with blue sky behind them

I am a close friend of the “To Do” list. My work space is home to assorted spiral notebooks, paper scraps, and post-its, and it gives me great satisfaction to outline my tasks – all of them, as many as I can think of – and march through them, crossing them off as I complete them. Although I recognize the value of online task managers, and use them professionally, it will never be as much fun to click a check mark on a digital list as it is to carve a check mark into a paper list and then scribble-obliterate the item beside it.

But today, the sun is shining, the house is mine alone, and I am observing a pause in the domestic and creative frenzy that is my daily life. Today, it is time for the “To Don’t” List.

On such a day, my instructions to myself, in no particular order, are as follows.

  1. Don’t wake up in time for anything.
  2. Don’t eat lunch at your desk.
  3. Don’t vacuum. Don’t.
  4. Don’t get a jump on Monday. If you must jump, go outside and jump in the grass.
  5. Don’t make telephone calls. Your telephone is also observing a “To Don’t” Day.
  6. Bless it.
  7. Don’t sort closets, coffee tables, kitchen drawers, desk tops, or book ideas.
  8. Don’t read a single page you can’t get through without exhorting yourself to pay attention.
  9. Don’t forget to feed the fish. [Not everything can be part of a “To Don’t” list.]
  10. Don’t read the news.
  11. Don’t enter any space, virtual or real, in which you might read the news by accident.

Of course, a “To Don’t” list is more apophatic than the human activity it’s meant to inspire. I can’t cease existing for the day, nor do I want to. It is only an exercise in removing myself from the deep ruts of habit and responsibility. I need and respect these ruts. But I also need the space outside them.

Because I exist even when I lay the ordinary aside, I replace everything I’ve removed with that “To Don’t” List. Yes, that means I am writing a “To Do” List, but as you will see, it is not the kind you’ll find on the paper pile around my desk.

  1. Sleep until you wake.
  2. Eat when you are hungry.
  3. Go outside.
  4. Write.
  5. Look out of windows.
  6. Daydream.
  7. Enjoy the deep quiet.
  8. Be present, but remember this, too, will pass.

It will pass. I am an energetic adult. I am responsible for work, and I love my work. Work is part of my meaning, and I treasure that. A “To Don’t” List can never be permanent, in the way that a “To Do” List can. If I’m responsible for painting the deck or submitting a manuscript, the tangible outcome of those accomplishments will make a mark on my world that I will see for days to come. Whereas I can only look out the window for a time. That moment will end. I will step away from the window, release the day dream, open the door to the returning voices of my household. I will stop saying “don’t” and begin again to “do” the parts of my life I took exception to for this set of hours.

But the effects of this day I’m spending in the peaceful sunshine of imagination and stillness will linger with me. I will have strength for the journey, food for the thought, creativity for the tasks that return to me, because of this day I spent away from the working world.

 

-Photo by Amy Luo on Unsplash

Tree Change Dolls – Why We Care

Four days ago, I discovered Tree Change Dolls. When I discovered them, the Facebook page had 23,000+ likes. I checked again at intervals, during the day, and every time, there were about 10,000 more likes. Today, four days later, there are 87,193.

Tree Change Dolls are abandoned in thrift stores, or “tip shops,” in Tasmania, until Sonia Singh finds them and recreates them. They are old Bratz dolls, or Barbie dolls – the kind of toy that make you clutch your head and mourn because all the little girls you know are walking around in a world that does not welcome or cherish womanly beauty.

But then, there is Sonia.

She washes off their terrible makeup, paints natural faces on them, and dresses them in tiny homemade clothes, provided by her mother. The result is enough to bring tears to your eyes. Their little dolly faces are full of joy – even relief? – and they look just like ordinary little girls, ready to play in the garden.

Nearly 100,000 people have watched the news video about Sonia and her dolls (see above). The response to these dolls is fascinating — perhaps especially to an Orthodox observer. The comments on Sonia’s Facebook page are my favorite part – the dolls look happy, the dolls look like my children’s friends, and (the best) “The dolls look like you gave them back their childhood.”

The rapid, overwhelmingly positive (even emotional!) response to these dolls, world-wide, says a LOT.

A lot about toys – who’s selling them, and to whom? How could a Bratz doll possibly be a good idea? Who is the person who thought it was? Why did so many people believe this person and buy the dolls?

A lot about women – women are buying the Bratz dolls, women are hating the Bratz dolls, women are LONGING for Tree Change Dolls for their daughters and even for themselves. Women are still, after centuries, struggling against the disintegrating apathy of that losing fight to be equally human, equally valued in their natural state.

A lot about problems – what Sonia is doing seems simple and obvious, now that she’s thought of it and showed us how she did it. How can the weight of a cultural trend become so heavy? If we are so relieved to see it shattered, why did we allow it in the first place? Why didn’t we all think of this, on the very first day the very first Bratz doll came out?

But perhaps the most thought-provoking response came to me from someone I know, who said, when he heard about the dolls, that it’s not so easy when it’s a person — not a doll — that you’re trying to rescue. We all want the darkness washed away, don’t we? You’d think so, until you actually tried to help someone who needed the help.

I don’t argue that. Not at all. I don’t ever forget that if solving the problem were simple, the problem would already be solved.

I think that explains the powerful response to Sonia, rescuing one little doll at a time.

We wish it could happen for us that way. We wish we could heal our loved ones so simply, so gently, and so completely. We wish that we ourselves could be so well healed.

So we click on Sonia’s video and watch her do it again – watch her wash the make-up off the tiny face, paint the eyes, and the smile, and the freckles, watch her mom knit the tiny sweater and sew the tiny skirt, and we see the recreated doll sitting in the grass in Sonia’s garden. Sitting there for all of us who wish we could make it to that place ourselves. Clothed and in our right mind. In the garden.

Never confuse the person formed in the image of God, with the evil that is in him; because evil is but a chance misfortune, an illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.

— St. John of Kronstadt