I was thirteen on the summer day when I was baptized. The minister let me choose the closing hymn that day, and I chose Living for Jesus, which has this refrain:
O Jesus, Lord and Savior, I give myself to Thee,
For Thou, in Thy atonement, didst give Thyself for me.
I own no other Master, my heart shall be Thy throne.
My life I give, henceforth to live, O Christ, for Thee alone.
I’m not sure why I liked that hymn so much. I’m certain I didn’t understand the language. We hadn’t discussed atonement in Sunday School, or if we had, I hadn’t understood it. I did understand the idea of giving my life to live for Christ.
Or I thought I did.
It wasn’t my first baptism. My parents had marked my finalized adoption by gathering with the immediate family in the chapel at the Methodist church my father’s family had belonged to since 1783 or so. But the church I considered my own was the Baptist church my mother’s family had been part of since it was built in 1886. And although we lived in the suburbs of D.C. for my elementary school years, where I attended an Episcopal school and a Presbyterian church, I thought of the Baptist church as mine. It was my home church in my home town. I belonged there.
When we moved home in 1973, I was excited to be back in "my" church. I submerged my self in that particular Baptist culture. I wondered about being baptized. The older girls were doing it, or having it done to them. I’m not sure I understood all the things a good Baptist girl ought to have known about sin and forgiveness. I just knew I wanted to be in that place, to stand in that font, to disappear under that water and come up baptized.
The next summer, I went with my mother and my grandmother to a revival meeting at a big suburban church. It was a long, long evening. There was a lot of preaching, and I didn’t listen to it, prefering to think my own thoughts, which were no doubt about boys. But something caught my attention during a prayer. "If there is anyone here who hasn’t yet asked Jesus to be their personal savior, let them raise their hands."
Well, I’m known for being honest, and I had never asked that particular question. I raised my hand. The next thing I knew, and I think it was to my grandmother’s delight and my mother’s horror, I was being led off to a rather dark room to pray with an intense young person. And, suddenly, I was "saved."
That didn’t matter to me, not that particular word, anyway. I’ve always been subversive. What mattered to me was that now I could be baptized, because something had happened to me that meant I must be ready. The following Sunday, I went down to the front of the church during the closing hymn and spoke to the minister. "I would like to be baptized," I said. After the hymn, he announced this to the congregation, and following the benediction they all streamed forward, as was the custom, to shake my hand or embrace me.
Two weeks later, I put on the white robe and walked into the water with my minister. He asked me some questions, and I answered in the affirmative. I professed Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. I leaned back onto his arm and felt the water close over my head, and then I was breaking through again, finding my feet under me, the water dripping down my face, baptized.
My children were all baptized as infants, wearing a gown made by my aunt for her first grandchild. Two of them have been confirmed, and I have been there to lay hands on them and pray over them, four years ago as a Confirmation teacher and today as the pastor. They both know there are many ways to be faithful people; we are ecumenical at heart, each of us. But it touched me today, as it did four years ago, to hear my son declare as his the Way that is mine.
I baptized a baby today, too, a little fellow three months old, who has already survived a heart surgery. His mother grew up at Small Church, but I don’t know her well. His father did not grow up with church as part of his life. When I met with them last week, I wanted to be sure they understood what we were doing. I told them that I understand Baptism to be our acknowledgement of something that is already true: this child belongs to God.
As I cradled him in my arms this morning, I knew him, truly, as a little brother in God’s
human family. What could he need to be forgiven, this sweet one? And why do I still struggle with feeling forgiven when I have been touched with the waters of Baptism twice?
It’s an unfolding way, the life of faith. There are no tidy endings, only new roads opening to us, new choices to make, old learnings to discard, ancient truths to confirm.
Among the words I say before asking the questions of the parents at a baptism are these:
In baptism, God works in us the power of forgiveness, the renewal of the Spirit, and the knowledge of the call to be God’s people always.
God works in us the power of forgiveness. Well, God works it if we will only stop fighting her. As I spoke those words today, I was my own priest, working a wonder by the power of God in a completely unexpected way. No person immersed or sprinkled me, but the Spirit of the Living God came over me, and I felt a fire much like the one I felt the night I raised my hand so many years ago.
Perhaps I have finally been confirmed.