A horrific crocodile death reminds the faithful to count the cost

Who knew being a Baptist could be dangerous business?

A pastor was conducting a mass baptism service last month in Lake Abaya near a national park in Ethiopia when out of the murky red waters emerged a hungry crocodile. The unevolved creature from the deep snagged the unwitting pastor after he immersed only one of the many supplicants awaiting their turn on the shore. Rescuers were dispatched, but they could recover only the corpse of Pastor Docho Eschete.

I have often counseled people considering baptism to count the cost. We live in a generally benign culture when it comes to religious commitment. I know there are challenging moments when, even in the United States, we are confronted with what seems like a choice between God and Caesar or faith and culture. But by and large our history of religious liberty holds, which sometimes makes baptism — whether the infant or adult version, whether by sprinkling or dunking — seem more like a rite of passage than a life or death decision. But in truth, baptism is a dangerous spiritual event.

Baptism symbolizes a willingness to die to self and all that implies. It requires the renouncing of a life of safety and accommodation in favor of a life of loving self-sacrifice. We give ourselves over to God and live for others the way Jesus did. Jesus’ life of self-sacrifice led to a cross, but it didn’t end that way. Christians believe he was raised from the dead as a signal to all of us that this way of life will always be vindicated at the last by God. God gets the last word, and the last word is that we last.

While this description of baptism is Christian, Jews also baptize converts (mikvah), and all Muslims require the shahada — a declaration that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is his prophet. Each in its own way represents a kind of submission to God that is expected to be ultimate.

Baptism in oceans, lakes and rivers is normally an aesthetically rich experience. But whether in a natural habitat or an indoor tub, it’s meant to be a drowning pool of sorts. Even when sprinkling or pouring is the preferred mode, the language of death to self and life to God is part of the liturgy. Baptizands trust that God will be faithful to raise them up now and eternally. Baptism is therefore always fatal and always hopeful.

The tragedy of this horrific death by crocodile is a vivid reminder of mortality and a cautionary tale. Baptism is an invitation to a life of adventure in faith, not a guarantee of worldly security.

In his children’s book, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” C. S. Lewis records the question of a young girl who asks about the Christ-figure, the lion named Aslan. “Is he quite safe?” she asks. The Beaver replies, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”