Happy New Year! What?

New Year is not a holiday I understand fully.  The change from one year to the next crosses only one boundary, and this year that’s from Thursday to Friday: a boundary of convention that is repeated week after week without much ado.  We will not have stepped through a worm hole, nor will we have moved from one country to another, not even from one house to another.  Yesterday will not have been left behind, and tomorrow will not be something entirely new, as if “without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life.”  Yet it will be celebrated as if something old has been left behind, and something new has been born in innocence and hope.  
My inclination is to celebrate that kind of dramatic change as belonging to Christmas and Easter.  What do I know?  But I digress.
New Year’s Eve marks the end of the holiday season that began with Thanksgiving while we have yet six of the twelve days of Christmas ahead of us.  For some of us in the liturgical tradition those final six days become a bit tedious, if only because it’s hard to ring joyful enthusiasm out of a congregation satiated with the hard work of showing the right kind of holiday spirit.  What began in genuine delight cannot be sustained for long.  After awhile it becomes hard work, and it’s time to get back to the routine of daily life.  The New Year marks that moment.  We give lip service to the baby new year with all of it’s promise, but that pretty much ends by half time of the New Year’s Day football game.  January may be dark and dull in our part of the world, but the blessed ordinariness of it comes as a relief for many.

Having harrumphed thus far along the way to New Year’s Eve, I must confess that we have plans for a celebratory dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, and there is no doubt that my Oklahoma bred spouse will have black-eyed peas stirred into some sort of a concoction as a symbol of good luck for the new year.  We may even find ourselves at a friend’s house to watch football.  I will enjoy every minute of it, but then it will be time to soldier on to the Feast of the Epiphany when we will be the last in the neighborhood to take down the tree, put away the decorations, and turn off the outside Christmas lights.   Then we too will relax in the understated joy of a few weeks of ordinary time.

Holy Innocents in our own day

Yesterday we observed the Feast of the Holy Innocents.  You can read all about it in Matthew, chapter 2.  What an odd event to observe right after the joy of Christmas.  You might wonder about all these feasts of martyrs coming right after the joyful celebration of Jesus’ birth.  It has to do with remembering those who gave up everything, including their lives, because of Jesus, the one who gave up his life for ours.  It’s a reminder that  being a Christian is serious business, joy filled, but serious just the same. 

Maybe that’s not a bad thing.  As we approach the New Year with it’s resolutions to do better in 2016 than we did in 2015, we might want to reflect on the Holy Innocents of our own day.

In the case of the Bethlehem infant males, there were not very many, and given the murderous cruelty of Herod, who would notice?  Herod had killed so many, a few more children would not get much attention.  The point is that the children were innocent.  They had nothing to do with Herod, or even with Jesus.  They were just there in Bethlehem when all hell broke loose, and the soldiers killed them because of Jesus, leaving their bereaved parents to do what?

As we approach the end of the brutal year of 2015, and remember the Feast of the Holy Innocents, consider the scores of children killed by gun violence in our schools; the thousands of children killed by warfare in the Middle East (some by American hands);  and the inhumanity toward children held as slaves or coerced into armies and the sex trade throughout the world.  We, collectively, as human beings, have been guilty of repeating Herod’s callous sin for many centuries.  We have done so in our own time, and in our own communities.  Some have done so in their own families.  

As Christians, how shall we respond?  What shall we do?  My own congregations have a history of working for children in need through dedicated funds and volunteer outreach.  It’s a wonderful start.  What else can and should we be doing as individuals and as the body of Christ?  Give it some prayerful thought.  And remember, when children were brought to Jesus, he embraced them, blessed them, and said that of such is the kingdom of heaven.

A Foggy Day in the Valley

It’s foggy in the valley, very foggy.  It’s hard to know how far the fog extends, but my guess is no farther than the ridges surrounding us.  Beyond them, it could be a clear day of bright sunshine.  In any case, a drive into the mountains will likely break one into the sun and blue sky at no more than three thousand feet.  But here in the valley, it’s foggy, very foggy.
It gives the illusion that the whole world must be foggy, no one can see very far, and there is no sun or blue sky anywhere.  The power of that illusion can be seen in the coffee shop talk between people who have been warning friends and families driving this way for Christmas.  If it’s foggy here, it must be foggy where you are too, so please drive carefully.
The illusion of fogginess everywhere is a decent metaphor for the illusional political conversation that is slathered all over the media these days, and infects the daily conversations of people in the community.  In a foggy environment of limited sight and understanding, one can easily live with the illusion that what they see and understand must be the way it really is, and that there is no other way to see or understand it.  Someone who disagrees must be delusional, conspiratorial, or worse. 
And so it is that those with marginal knowledge about the issues in public debate often claim the greatest understanding based on nothing more than the shortsighted things they can make out of the foggy world of misinformation in which they live.  Moreover, since they are quite certain that the world, as they see it, is the way the world is, it must be others who are misinformed and confused.  We have a couple of frequent letter writers who are certain that global warming is a giant hoax, and others who are certain that, while it may be true, human activity has had nothing to do with it.  Others are certain that, in our high desert region, we do not have a water problem to worry about.  The whole gun regulation issue is encapsulated into suspicions of a secret plan to confiscate weapons, and a conviction that to be armed is to be safe.  Tax increases are symbols of greedy government’s wasteful spending.  The lower the taxes the better, but we want excellent services and good roads.  People poorer than they, are lazy.  Homeless people are even lazier.  Gangs are a Hispanic problem.  Young people are pampered weaklings.  The list goes on.
They tend to deny the complexity of problems, make grand generalizations from particular incidences, and are certain of simple solutions that involve two steps: first, impose their cultural values on others because their cultural values are the right ones; second, apply solutions that are popularly believed to have worked in their pre-adult youth, or that have been touted by pundits of dubious veracity.  

Is my world any less foggy?  Well, yes I think it is.  For one thing, I know that it is foggy, and that the fog doesn’t extend that far.  With a little effort, one can seek out reliable, verifiable information to help clear things up.  It took me a while to discover that Occam was both right and wrong.  Community and national problems are complex, not simple.  Complex problems usually have a menu of simple answers that apply individually to the specific and collectively to the general, but understanding what those simple answers may be requires considerable study.  It takes a lot of work to understand how simplicity can be applied to complexity.  There’s the rub.  Who has time for that?  All those people who glorify the American ethic of hard work – outside their own little arena, I don’t think they do.  

A Juvenile Reflection on Christmas

When I was a little boy, Christmas, cold and snow, lots of it, were so bound in one image that I could not imagine Christmas without it.  It was even part of the church pageants, so it must have been in the bible somewhere.  In about the third grade, a classmate came back from a Christmas trip to Florida with tales of warm weather and beaches.  It seemed reasonable to me that Christmas was  not celebrated in Florida, nor could it have been.  That kind of weather forbade it.  So I asked if him.  Nope, he hadn’t celebrated Christmas, thus my theory was confirmed to be true.  That he was Jewish was irrelevant because I didn’t know what that meant anyway.
I was more sophisticated by the fifth grade.  In fact, I knew that the southern hemisphere had summer when we were having winter.  And so it was perfectly obvious that to celebrate Christmas in Australia you had to do it in July.  The tropics were still a logistical problem, but since I had never been there, it was a purely hypothetical one.   Curiously, places like Africa and South America were relegated to the same mental shelf upon which lay Mars and the Moon.  Australia was a hard enough problem.  
You may smirk, but it’s an image deeply ingrained in the mythology of America’s Christmas, so much so that, some years ago, I was unsurprised to see a Honolulu shopping center outfitted with fake snow, an ice rink, and North Pole looking characters walking around “dressed up like Eskimos.”  I was reminded of all of this while listening to Pandora’s Christmas music station littered with romantic American standards of winter wonderlands.  

I don’t mind.  I still live in the north, so Christmas and winter are very much a part of how I think of the holiday season, and I love it.  Global warming may have done a number on how many white Christmases we can look forward to, but the hope for one is still there.   When that gets stripped away, what are you left with?  Only the nativity of our Lord, beautiful sacred music, and a season of joyful sharing.  Or, as some members of my extended family would say, Mele Kalikimaka, which is Hawaiian for “let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”  Don’t believe me?  Look it up.

Walmart Gifts

The small rural congregation I serve  several times a month has a tradition of buying Christmas presents for children in need.  Teachers know who they are, and work with others to help set up the town giving tree decorated with gift tags labeled by age, sex, need, and wish.  Our little congregation takes a dozen or so tags, and others do the same. 
The set we got this year, like most years, included requests for winter clothing and a few toys, but with some serious specificity about clothing featuring film characters, certain styles of boots, particular colors of warm sheets, things like that.  It turns out that all of it is available at Walmart, a store I try very hard to avoid, and I’m very successful at avoiding it.  But the thing is, when these kids do get to go shopping for something new, that’s where they go, and that’s where they’ve seen those things, and those things are what their slightly more fortunate friends have.  
Getting there for them is no easy matter.  The closest Walmart is in our town, more than thirty miles from theirs.  That may not seem like a long way, but if gas is dear, time is short, and money is scant, taking a trip to Walmart is an adventure that comes along only now and then.  To meet their Christmas hopes, to Walmart one must go.  My wife, God bless her, took the list and did the deed.  
When she got home, I looked through everything and was dismayed at how poorly made so much of it was.  A pair of boots, a little like Uggs, are not likely to last through the winter, maybe not even through one good soaking with ice, snow, and mud.  They are not something I would have bought for my own children, but they are exactly what the other kids in that small school have, and what the child in need had requested from Santa.  If she (in this case it is she) came to school with well made warm boots that would last the winter and still be good enough to hand down next year, she would not be like the others.  Besides, these boots are better than no boots at all.  The boys Star Wars long sleeve tee shirt may last for a few washings before it begins to fall apart, but it will be a prized possession for a while, and will be like the other prized possessions that other boys will be wearing.  Who knows how durable a Mikey Mouse doll is!? 
The point is that what they need and want is complex.  One part has to do with the physical needs for comfort in daily life, but another has to do with the emotional need to fit in, to be like the other kids, or more accurately, to look like the other kids.  In a small town with a very small school there isn’t much room for being an outcast, and there isn’t very much difference between the “rich” and the “poor.”  It’s a matter of degree, sometimes not a very large degree.  The children for whom we bought these presents will fit in.  They will have, more or less, what the others have and look like the others look, at least for a while. 

It would be wrong to romanticize the relative poverty of rural small town life, or claim that small town schools are kinder and gentler places.  There is plenty not to romanticize.  One can take no pride in knowing that some children depend on anonymous Christmas gifts for necessities that other children take for granted.  But I do think they are places where children can learn to work things out among others they would rather not be with, because they don’t get to choose who to be with.  In a class of ten or twenty, who you see is who you get.  There aren’t any others somewhere else in town.  
About now you, the astute reader, should complain that I ended the essay too soon.  There is a lot more to be said.  You would be right.  I expect you are thinking about what that should be right now.  I’ll leave it to you to finish for yourself. 

John, Donald, and Authority

You know from reading previous essays that I had a question about the source John the Baptist’s authority.  What was his authority for doing what he did?  I asked that of a bunch of my clergy colleagues and got mostly blank stares.  A few suggested God or Jesus, but how would the people standing around the banks of the Jordan have known that?  What evidence would they have had that God’s authority was at play?  What authority could a young carpenter from Galilee have had for them?
I get together with my friend Tom for coffee each Saturday, but the Saturday morning gang is loud, so our conversation is generally limited to inconsequential nonsense that gives us something to laugh about.  Laughing is very refreshing, I might add.  I highly recommend it.  However, on to more serious things.  Now and then we get together for dinner and deeper conversation, and so it was that we took up the question of John’s authority, and of authority in general.  What is authority, and how does one get it?  More particularly, what was the source of John’s authority?  Tom suggested that it came from John’s responsiveness.  John was responsive to the needs, hopes, and anxieties of the crowd that gathered at the river’s edge.   He knew who they were, what they needed, and how to provide it.  He recognized them as persons worthy of being recognized.  He understood them.  And they, in turn, recognized his authority to do what he did.  They trusted him.  
Responsiveness to a group’s needs as the source of authority is powerful.  Of course we recognize that John was a prophet sent by God.  His ultimate authority stemmed from God.  But, as Christians we know that only through the testimony of scripture and two millennia of tradition that we, in turn, recognize as authoritative.  The crowds gathered on the river’s edge had a more visceral and certain knowledge of his authority because they gave it to him.  The Sadducees who ran the temple knew better than the unwashed rabble because they had the real authority of position backed by the might of Rome.  The scholarly Pharisees who ran the schools of law and religion knew better than the uneducated rabble because they had the real authority of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding.  The crowds gathered on the river’s edge couldn’t care less what they thought they knew so much better.  What did the Sadducees and Pharisees have to do with them?  Nothing!  But this John, he knew them, he understood them, and he offered a new life for them, a life from which they had felt excluded for far too long.
Here’s where it gets sticky.  We now recognize John as a man of God and heartily endorse all that he said and did.  But in terms of the dynamics, they were the same ones that Donald Trump is using today, and that Ted Cruz would like to use if he knew how.  For a certain large portion of Americans, Trump has the appeal and carries the authority of a John the Baptist.  For the most part, they are white members of the struggling, and shrinking, lower middle class.  Once they were the owners of the American Dream, but no longer.  Ownership has been passed on to foreigners, people of color, and the wealthy who have already achieved it.  Once they were the majority, but now they are not.  Once they felt safe, even privileged, but now they are beset on every side by terror, real or imagined.  Trump appeals to them with the same kind of authority that John once demonstrated to the crowds gathered at the river’s edge, and he does so by cursing the authorized leaders of established American institutions, just as John declared that the Sadducees and Pharisees were a brood of vipers.  
Trump is a deceiver, an agent of evil personified.  He offers a false hope, a chimera, an illusion of delusion, but it sounds so attractive to a certain audience.  They are mesmerized, as were many of the people of Germany and Italy not so many decades ago.  It must be taken seriously.  
I’m not sure what the right response should be, but I have a guess.  Leaders with a sense of responsibility for the common good should craft well thought out, truthful, messages aimed directly at Trump’s audience reminding them of who they are as bearers of the American heritage at its best.  They need to be recognized for their contributions, and assured of a future that will not exclude them, but that will also not exclude any others.  How will it not exclude them, or any others?
It won’t be easy, but rebuilding a confident middle class has to be the highest priority.  That will require a domestic agenda calling for higher taxes on the very wealthy, more competitive tax rates for businesses, a higher minimum wage indexed to the CPI, and expansion and corrections to the ACA.  It will require full and understandable disclosure about why we are not going to repeat past mistakes in the Middle East, and are not going to be the world’s police force.  It will require clearer explanations of the why and how of international diplomacy.  It will require a complete reversal of the Citizens United decision.  It will require common sense gun regulation.  Perhaps most difficult of all, it will require national leadership forcefully explaining to the corporate leadership that they have a lasting responsibility to their rank and file employees, and the communities in which they are located, that is as important as the bottom line. Finally, something must be done to restrict “super salaries” but I don’t know what that might be.  I suspect it will have to do more with moral persuasion than regulation.

Well, those are some thoughts, and I’d welcome conversation about them.

Babies, Puppies, and Christmas

Babies and puppies.  Who can see a baby or puppy and not smile, utter some inane babble sound, and reach out to touch, or even hold?  I don’t think it’s only the cuteness of the creature before us.  I think it has to do with their symbolism of newness in an old world, hope for a future that is yet to be dreamed, innocence that does not yet know betrayal and disappointment, and, at least in the case of puppies, unrestricted trusting joy in the presence of any other creature.   I wonder if there was a puppy in the Bethlehem stable?  There had to be one licking Jesus’ face.  I’m sure of it.
For many of us, whether Christian or not, it is the image of that baby in the manger surrounded by loving parents, animals, shepherds and angels that evokes in us the same feeling of innocence and hope that we get when we see babies and puppies.  It’s not a bad thing, and we need to rekindle that light each year because it can so easily be snuffed out.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the momentary delight of Christmas could become a reality the whole year long?  But January comes, and it’s back to the same old grind.  Here in the Pacific Northwest that means the same old grind in dark, gray, dank days.  Oh, Jolly!
The curious thing is that the light and love that the baby Jesus brought into the world can become an inextinguishable flame in the life of each one of us because all the promises of his birth were fulfilled in his resurrection through which every person and all conditions of life were shown to be holy, loved by God.  Some children in fortunate circumstances grow up knowing that, not because they were taught it in Sunday School, but because they experienced it at home.  More than some children don’t.  In either case the light fades in each of us as we grow into adulthood, and in some it cannot be seen at all.  But that doesn’t mean it’s lost.  It just has to be found. 
Maybe you have read the Mitford series of books in which Fr. Timothy solved a multitude of intractable problems within a few hundred pages.  They were stories of the light and love of Christmas lived out, but it was always hidden somewhere and had to be found.  The key to his success was a favorite bible passage that he had made his personal prayer: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”  It’s taken from a slightly larger passage in Paul’s letter to the Philippians that you can look up for yourself.  Fr. Timothy and Mitford were fictional of course, but I think they were popular because they evoked a vision of what the promise of Christmas might look like if it was ever lived out in real life, except that beyond being fictional, the stories were excessively sentimental and a bit treacly.
Don’t get me wrong.  I read and liked most of them, but for hard core reality how about the author of Paul’s letter to the Philippians?  The passage that became Fr. Timothy’s prayer of hope and courage was written by a man in prison who would soon meet his death by imperial execution.  He endured years of wanderings trying to encourage new communities of Christians, and his travels led him trough beatings, jailings, ship wrecks, escapes, and all the other hardships that came with those things.  Yet there he was, writing from prison, telling his friends in Philippi not to worry about anything, and to put all their supplications before God along with all their thanksgivings.  That is what a life living out the promise of Christmas looks like.  Most of us don’t have to endure what Paul had to live through, but the changes and chances of this life can sometimes feel just as difficult, and it’s tempting to put aside the light and love of Christmas along with the decorations, or maybe just toss them out altogether along with the trash.
Don’t do it!  Let Christmas light a fire that will burn in you right through the rest of the year.  If Paul could do it, so can you.  That homeless wino hanging out downtown was once a baby full of promise.  So was the self important big shot who smugly passes him by.  So was the struggling young family who owe too much on not enough income.  So was the immigrant refugee, and so was the terrorist.  Each of them was enfolded in the love of the baby Jesus, never to be let go, no matter how hidden that love had become.  It’s there to be found in each of us, and in each person we meet.  It may be well hidden, but it’s there.   The hard core reality is to look for it knowing that it could end in your own beating or ship wreck and still, in everything and without worry, offer prayers and supplications with thanksgiving to God. 
I’m not all that good at it, but I’ve still got a few years left to work on it.  Maybe we can work on it together.

On Prayer One More Time

I wrote a piece a few weeks ago, shortly after the recent Paris attacks, when one of my very conservative friends blasted away that we should forget about praying for Paris and start bombing.  I argued for the efficacy of prayer, and the need to think prayerfully before taking military action.  In the aftermath of San Bernardino, those same right wing friends are outraged that they are being chastised for their prayers for the victims by “radical leftists” demanding immediate action on gun regulation, which they vigorously oppose.  Prayer seems little more than a badminton shuttlecock no one wants to own, and is batted back and forth only to score pious sounding points.
It’s hard to judge the motivations of candidates and others who have publicly offered their thoughts and prayers for the victims in San Bernardino, but my suspicion goes in the direction of hypocrisy, and here’s why.  Prayer, understood as honest conversation with God, in which we strain to hear what God might be saying, is the most powerful tool we have in life.  But it is a tool that God uses to work in us, with us, through us, and for us.  It is not a tool we use to get what we want, to pass the buck, or to express comforting sentiments as a substitute for actually doing anything  helpful.  The efficacy of prayer is in the work we do as a result of our engagement in conversation with God. 
I don’t see much evidence of that in the prayer language currently being batted back and forth.  In a way, that’s not so bad.  At least most of my friends on the far right are not using superficial claims of prayer as a justification for doing something about which God has had very little to say, or worse, something that is morally repugnant to scripture, tradition, and reason.  It’s more like an attempt to express visceral anger and sadness in the same breath without having done much thoughtful reflection or possessing the right words to do it well. 
The same cannot be said for some of those with access to highly visible public platforms.  Luke’s John the Baptist rudely called some of those who came to him a brood of vipers.  In Matthew it’s not only John, but Jesus also who lays that on certain religious and community leaders.  A brood of vipers.  I’m inclined to think that Mr. Falwell, Jr., the current president of Liberty University, could be included in that brood, as can any other public figure who claims to offer prayer for victims in one breath, and demonizes an entire population in the next, or who proposes inhuman revenge for inhuman actions perpetrated by others.
If any of my far right wing friends (and I do have some) read this, I imagine they will object with a “Same to you, buddy!”  Am I not demonizing them?  Am I not accusing them of gross hypocrisy when it’s obvious that I am the one who is being naive, if not disingenuous?  My answer will not satisfy them.  I know that.  But here goes.

No, you are not being demonized, but I can see little in what you have said that is consistent with what Christ has taught, and he outranks you by a long way.  I can’t let that pass without saying so.  Moreover, as a Christian realist (yes, I know it’s Niebuhr’s term) I have no illusions about the Realpolitik being played out with whatever tools of power are at hand, regardless of how violent or immoral they might be.  Is that a game we want to engage in?  For moral reasons, I hope not.  For pragmatic reasons, those tools don’t work in any lasting way that leads toward a better world in which to live.  And please, please don’t bring up WWII as your example.  We don’t live in 1941.

Sin, Baptism, and New Birth

As usual, our Tuesday morning lectionary study group got off track.  We started into a conversation about the meaning of baptism, but 10 a.m. came and it was time to go, so we never got very far.  One might wonder why, given the plentitude of books and essays on the subject, a bunch of old clergy, plus a couple of younger ones, would  even bother.  Given our propensity to wander, we may never get back to it.  But I do have a few thoughts.
I think we get hung up on baptism as a cleansing from sin, or, more commonly, original sin.  The whole doctrine of original sin is problematic in itself because there isn’t one. There are a bunch of competing doctrines that, to my mind, hang precariously with one hand to a few passages in scripture, and with the other in a firm grip on Augustine.  
What we know is that water baths have always been powerful symbols of transition, whether one got wet or walked through them dry shod.  The waters of creation separated us from the chaos of an unformed universe.  Every time anyone in scripture crossed waters they left one way of life and entered another.  Water baths in Jesus’ day offered transition  from a gentile way of life to a Jewish way of life.  They offered transition from ritual uncleanliness to purification for worship.  Mini water baths of hands and dishes symbolized thanksgiving to God for the gifts of food.  I’m sure there were many more.
Consider the importance of water baths as signs of transition in our own day.  We bathe not just to be clean, but to prepare for the events ahead as we transition from one way of being to another.  We wash up for dinner not for sanitary reasons only, but also to be presentable at the table.  We bathe after leaving our daily routine so that we can be presented afresh at an important event.  Last summer we spent a week rafting on a river.  We looked pretty rough by the time we got home.  We bathed not just to get clean, but to be ready to reenter the community of professionals.  Many of the homeless with whom I once worked desired showers and clean clothes not just to be clean, but to be seen as worthy of fitting into the society from which they had been excluded.
Given all of that, I’m inclined to think of John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin as symbolizing a transition from a way of life outside the law to a new way of life according to the spirit of the law.  Within that context, Jesus’ own baptism was not for the forgiveness of some immorality or misbehavior, but as a sign of turning from his former life of (apparently) rural contagion to his new life as God’s messiah.  The earliest records of Christian baptism involve entire households, which I presume to mean everyone from slaves and infants to the oldest patriarchs and matriarchs, as a sign that the household in its entirety had entered into a new way of life.  
We say that baptism is a sacrament, something beyond sign or symbol, because God is truly present in the act of baptism doing something that we cannot do for ourselves.  How does that work?  I don’t know, but my friend Ernie says “not very well,” by which he means that parents and Godparents of infants are often unprepared for what that will mean for them.  He’s right.  However, what God has said God will do, God will do, and therefore I take Christian baptism to be sacramental in every sense of the word, even if I don’t understand it, and it doesn’t appear to work very well.  
In like manner, I wonder how many of John’s baptized went away rejoicing in their new found legitimacy before God only to resume a life filled with old ways that betrayed their good intentions?  Well, it wasn’t magic.  John wasn’t changing frogs into princes with a dousing of magical water.  It was about the beginning of a new life, a birthing as it were, a new life to be entered as infants, not as full grown adults.  That’s the way with water baths.  They open a door into a new life, but they don’t give us that new life.  That’s even true when I wash up to go out for the evening.  I’m ready to go out, but I haven’t gone out yet; the evening is yet to be experienced.  
The sacramental water bath of Christian baptism is like that.  It is a very real spiritual rebirth into a new life that may, or may not, mature into fullness of spiritual adulthood.  In the end, one is still marked as Christ’s own forever, even if one lives out their life as an irresponsible five year old.  That, of course, appears very unfair to those of us who work hard to become spiritually mature.  The best I can do is to refer you to the parable of the workers in the field who were all paid the same no matter how long or hard they worked.  Which is not the same thing as saying that baptism gives one a license to be a life long slacker, but you already know that.

Was John just a loony nut case?

What was it that John the Baptist did that fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy that valleys shall be filled, the mountains and hills made low, the crooked straight, and the rough ways made smooth?
There he was living a bizarre life style and offering water baths in the Jordan River that he said would open the way to a new life, free of the taint of sin, to any who would come to him.  By what authority?  There already was an established authority for doing that, so who did he think he was? 
A well institutionalized system for becoming free from the taint of sin had been in place for a long time, a system clearly authorized in scripture that was available in the proper place for such things, the temple in Jerusalem.   It may be that poor people living in the countryside, the sick and the maimed, and a slew of others whose ways of life were on the fringe of acceptability, were in a constant state of ritual uncleanliness that made it difficult, if not impossible, to take advantage of temple resources.  Besides, it was’t cheap.  One had to pay for the privilege.  If you couldn’t?  Too bad.  All of that was irrelevant.  The approved system existed, and there was no other.
So along came this disreputable mess of a so called prophet, who claimed to be of the priestly class, offering to ignore every requirement of temple ritual, indeed of the need for the temple at all.  He provided a ritual bath that he said would clean them of sin, and set them on a new life in companionship with God.  There was nothing subtle about it.  If that was not making the rugged path to God smooth and straight, what was it?  Moreover, he had chosen the Jordan River as the site for his water bath, the very river ancient Israelites had crossed over as they entered from wandering in the wilderness to occupy the new land God had promised them.  The symbolism of that could not have been lost on those who came to John. 
Still, the question remains; by what authority did he do it?  Isn’t that what the Pharisees and temple priests asked when they came to see what was going on?  John never did give them a good answer.  But I think we get one when, a little later on, Jesus came to him to enter into the water bath of the Jordan.  Jesus became the imprimatur when he recognized John’s authority by entering the water through which he left his old life as a carpenter and entered his new life as the Christ.  
If it had ended there, the legitimacy of John’s ministry, even his sanity, would still be suspect.  In fact, Jesus’ ministry would also be suspect.  But it didn’t end there.  The beginning of the end was experienced in Jesus’ death and resurrection through which all that went before was affirmed by God.  It was the beginning of the end because we are still trying to figure it out.