Broken Plates and Baptisms
Generally speaking, dining place settings come in equal numbers of various sizes of bowls, and plates. Dinner plates, salad plates, saucers, soup bowls, cups… Basic necessities for any well-adjusted American adult to ensure that whoever and however many people are in your home, they’re all eating off dishes that match. It is something that largely goes unnoticed or at least uncommented on, yet choosing the ‘daily use place setting’ is a Herculean task all its own.
When my then fiancé, now wife, and I sojourned through the dense forest of confusion that was planning a wedding and life together over an 18-month engagement, I remember trailing haplessly behind my bride-to-be as she inspected color, pattern, shape, and weight of countless nacho delivery systems, wandering from one store to the next, looking for a mythical object of old folk lore known as the “perfect plate.”
The decision was one that seemed simple at first, pedantic even, but one I was told would not only come to define the color scheme of our kitchens and homes for years to come, but would also determine which store we would begin to set up our main official wedding registry. The concept of devising a predetermined list of gifts that your friends and family are then obligated to give you, when it ain’t even your birthday, has always felt odd, but I’d been promised control of the scanner gun, so I was already pot committed. The stakes and the quest deepened from “patterns vs. solids?” to “are the light blue square plates at the store with the more affordable Cuisinart mixers more ‘us’ than the red round ones in the store with the wider range of bathroom decor?” “What about the plates at the store with the wi-fi enabled flat screen TV’s? Are they still on the table?” These are the decisions, not property or socio-political status, that modern marriages are founded on.
The only other time in life I’ve ever cared about matching plates was some 15 years earlier. It was one of the first nights that my parents left me and my sister home on our own without a babysitter. Four years my elder, and ever the willing delegator, my dear sister somehow manipulated me into washing the dishes, which I assume was the only chore our parents asked her to get done. In the course of my indentured sister servitude, I got a little cavalier with my towel drying techniques and dropped a small saucer, off white with black accents and trim, then stood, paralyzed, while I watched it descend in never-ending slow motion toward the kitchen tile…
Now, some plates chip when you drop them, as several of those red round plates (not from the Wi-Fi-enabled-tv store, btw) we still eat off of today will evidence. However, plate technology must have been different in the ‘80s, as this saucer proper shattered, and with it, I presumed, the prospect of my making my next birthday.
The significance of this moment was simple but profound: Had I messed up before? Of course, but to this point in life, a parent, grandparent, teacher, or some authority figure had been with me everywhere I had been, encouraging or correcting my activities in real time. Standing alone in the kitchen among the broken ceramic fragments of my carelessness, there was, for the first time I can remember, no one to tell me what was right or wrong. No immediate reprimand or reconciliation. No condemnation or clemency for my actions. No one to snatch me up or laugh it off. Not yet punished, not yet forgiven. No judgement; but also, no grace.
For the first time, I was in Purgatory.
As I saw it, I was presented with two options:
- clean up the broken plate, tell my parents what happened when they come home, and accept the consequences, or
- clean up the broken plate, say nothing, and hope no one notices.
You see, while, I may be an expert on place settings now, at that tender age, I had no idea that my mother knew exactly how many off white saucers with black accents and trim we owned. In my mind, we didn’t have eight of each, we had “a bunch” of them, so how would anyone know?
My parents were not due home for a couple hours, so I had a fair amount of time to weigh the outcomes and value of honesty in this situation, but no matter how I looked at the scenario the math on my side of the equation kept coming up: ‘you in trouble!’
If I admit to breaking a plate, that’s definitely my immediate ass. If I say nothing, it might be my eventual ass. Yes, it could be worse than immediate, but it might not occur at all. In these terms, the choice seemed obvious…silence. – (Shhhhhh! Don’t Tell NOOOOBODY, John Witherspoon style). I swept up every speck of broken plate like I was covering up a murder from a group of CSIs, threw the evidence in the kitchen trash, finished the dishes, and returned to my room to ‘act natural.’
As I laid in my bed resting in the comfort that no sane person keeps track of exactly how many matching plates they own and thus my indiscretion would likely go completely unnoticed, my logic failed to realize that things you put in trash cans don’t magically teleport to the dumpster at the curb. Before my mother could even begin an exhaustive inventory of her kitchen supplies, she simply found her broken plate while spitting out a piece of gum that had lost its flavor as soon as she got home.
“Did something happen to one of the plates, kids?” I heard her dulcet tone inquire from the kitchen.
“I don’t know. Ask B.J. He helped with the dishes.” Replied my sister, Benedict Arnold (some names have been changed to protect the identity of the innocent).
Mother: “Son, did something happen to one of the plates?”
Me: (be cool, you got this.) “…. what plates?” …. (nailed it.)
Mother: “Son, I’m going to ask you one… more… time if you know what might have happened to one of my plates… Did something happen to one of my plates?”
Me: (Weren’t they ‘the’ plates a second ago? Why are they ‘my’ plates all of a sudden? That can’t be good right? Crap, answer quickly, you look suspect!) “Mom… What plate?”
Now, I’d seen anger in my mother’s face before. I was a very well-behaved child, but I was still a little boy. So, I’d seen frustration, exasperation, confusion, downright dumbfoundedness, even the occasional bewilderment only the smells emanating from a boy’s room can create, but disappointment was new. Disappointment speaks to the violation of something outside of oneself. I hadn’t done something “boyish,” I’d done something “wrong.” My mother said we’d never know if what really happened to the plate was worthy of punishment because that ship had now sailed. I had lied, and the lie was worse.
I caught a strong L for this decision in the form of a lecture on honesty delivered to the staccato rhythm of leather on denim. While walking around the house afterwards, either contemplating my actions or unable to find a comfortable seat, who can remember, it was my mother’s look of disappointment that ultimately burned into the parts of my brain that modulate character.
I was a bit of a spacey kid. I suspect many of us were. I was always in my own little world interacting with characters only I could see, typically oblivious to the world around me. I’d get so wrapped up in my imagination that I rarely considered real world issues such as “what might happen if I__” or “what just happened because I__?” I just did stuff. The kind of “trouble” I was used to, I got in for spontaneously doing something I honestly didn’t know my parents wouldn’t like until I’d already done it right in front of them. “You really didn’t know you weren’t supposed to do that?” was a common exacerbated refrain in my household, and no, I really didn’t. It really hadn’t occurred to me. I was pure Id purely Iding, so to an overdramatic grade schooler, this made punishments feel a little more personal. Didn’t Mom and Dad understand I wouldn’t do things I thought were “bad” or “wrong” on purpose? Did they not believe that I really was fairly clueless?
However, the Broken Plate betrayed this innocent naivete. This lie lacked my typical impulsiveness, my lack of common sense and spatial awareness. It was a long con. I had unwittingly devised a plan to ultimately convince my mother, at some unforeseen moment in the future, that she must have always had an odd number of saucers, or perhaps had broken one herself and simply forgotten. I mean, I broke one so easily, surely someone else had too.
Despite my rationalizing, I’d purposely chosen to “bear false witness” and, in turn “dishonored my mother and father.” I didn’t make a simple mistake, I made a conscious choice that violated not 1, but 2 of the 10 Commandments. 20% up in flames. That was why my mother’s gaze enshrouded me in disappointment, and I knew it. I felt it: guilt, shame, sin, the purposeful disruption of shalom. I was a conscious part of it now. The base sensation that led the Ideal Original Couple to hide their newfound nakedness from their Creator, that caused a murderous brother’s deflective inquisition, and that which made a grandfather curse a grandson for a son’s mockery. I’d joined a long tradition of seemingly good people “doing evil in the eyes of the Lord.”
There’s a concept in Christianity known as the “age of accountability.” It is not, per se, biblical, but affords one of the apologetic gap-fillers that makes an exclusive theology more palatable. If Adam’s sin in Eden has been inherited by all humanity after him, then all are born in sin, needing a savior. As the psalmist wrote in Psalms 51: “Surely, I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” So, if acceptance of Christ as one’s personal savior, before one’s death, is imperative to that individual’s salvation from hellfire and acceptance into eternal life and divine grace, what happens when a young child who has not had the opportunity to make this decision dies? This theological problem, if not resolved, leads to a God who kills innocent little babies simply for being born. This is untenable; therefore, for God not to be that kind of monster, there must be a buffer period built in wherein a child cannot be held accountable for its own sinful nature.
Our forefathers in the Judeo-Christian tradition set the age at 13, hence the rights of passage our Jewish brothers and sisters go through at Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. Where I come from, there is not set age; you are accountable when you begin to understand. There’s an interesting consequence to this idea: the more committed you are to your parent’s religion, or at least the more attention you are paying, the earlier you will begin to pick up on the concepts being discussed at church. The more committed you are, the earlier you begin to understand. The more committed you are to learning, the younger you become accountable to what you’ve learned. So, in my religious tradition, I believed that the piety and dedication of my parents covered my salvation up until the point I saw that look in my mother’s eyes when I denied knowing anything about her plate. Now, suddenly, I felt like I was in God’s gunsights. I was my mother’s saucer plate’s keeper and its shards cried out to God like Abel’s blood on the ground. I was no longer an innocent child finding his path, but now an enemy of God, having purposely acted in league with the accuser. I was now in danger of eternal punishment from a loving God.
Soon after, I asked my parents if I could get baptized. I’d heard that all must be born again to receive salvation and baptism was the signal of this new birth. One cannot be baptized in the spirit without first being baptized with water. So, I decided, to follow Jesus. Not because I loved Him, though I most certainly felt I did. Not because I’d suddenly come to believe; as belief was essentially an inherited trait. Jesus had always been my friend, but now I needed to ensure that I was not His enemy. I needed to ensure I was not destined for destruction at the hand of His Father for what I’d said to my mother.
As it turns out, people are hesitant to baptize an 8 year old for reasons I assume are fairly obvious, so it actually took quite a bit of effort to convince my parents and my pastor that I knew what kind of decision I was making before they would allow me to make it. When I look back at it now, I’m not sure how I convinced them. Reaching the “age of accountability” doesn’t necessarily mean you fully understand what it is to accept Christ as your “personal savior.” If it did, the minimum age would definitely be in at least the mid-30s. It’s complicated; however, burning to death is a simple concept to grasp. So, by 8, with fairly aggressive asthma that had already led to a couple close calls, I began to deeply worry about dying before the next baptismal sabbath; dying before I convinced the adults I understood what I was mentally assenting too. By 8, I was already praying that God would not let me die too soon. Not before I figured out how to please Him. I desperately wanted baptism and got it, but my journey to the pool was ultimately born out of fear of hell…A broken plate and a broken word.