Today is Baptism of Our Lord Sunday, one of my favorite days of the Year (which I seem to have a lot of). I had never heard of this feast until worshiping with my then fiancé, my best friend, and her soon-to-be fiancé at the National Cathedral in DC four years ago.
I’ll share more about that experience later this week, but for now, I invite you into the deep—a life-long Baptist’s ramblings on the waters of baptism, part 1.
To pass through the waters of baptism is a subversive act. It is at once a move toward ultimate liberation and utter surrender.
It is a new birth and a coming of age.
It is a public declaration of a personal reality even as it is a corporate sacrament celebrated by the gathered Body of Christ. Its actual waters may be penned in chemical equation, but between the hydrogen and oxygen is the Spirit of God Herself.
Baptism is a many blessed thing.
Baptism is also a topic of much discussion and discord in Christian history, and, for that matter, the history of the Western world. In my life of late, my understanding of baptism has lain at the crux of continuing through faith as a Baptist or not.
Yeah. Baptism is a big deal.
The questions of my heart orbit around what baptism is and what it does–both to the baptismal candidate and to the watching (participating?) congregation, if anything at all.
Is baptism a dry symbol of an inward spiritual reality, a saturated lavation of God’s grace, or something in between?
It is in this sphere that I intend to reflect throughout this little series.
A robust theology of baptism has been sorely missing in my life. This is odd to me because I have been a Baptist minister’s daughter all of my life; one would think that I would have had the opportunity to absorb and grow in my understanding of baptism.
When I was coming up, however, I was taught that the practice is strictly and simply a symbol of an inward reality; it is a public declaration of personal salvation.
A body got herself dunked when she accepted Jesus into her heart. The wash symbolized being buried with Christ and raised with Him in newness of life. After accomplishing all the spiritual business beforehand (“walking the aisle," etc.), Baptists practice this strange ritual bathing because, simply, Jesus said to do so.
For many Baptists, baptism is an ordinance of Christ—or an ordernance, as Dr. Leonard, my Church History professor, is known to say.
I followed Christ’s order to get myself into the waters of baptism when I was seven years old. I had invited Jesus into my heart after a revival preacher convinced me that God would send me to hell otherwise.
I loved God and had never, until that point anyway, doubted God’s love for me. I walked the aisle and prayed the prayer because I did not want to upset God.
I remember calling my grandparents after service that night and telling them that Jesus lived in my heart, but was confused when Mawmaw hollered to Papa, “She’s joined the church, Earl!” Joined the church? Evidently I had done more than invite Jesus into my heart that night—I had invited myself to be a voting member of my church!
It is somewhat difficult for me to reflect on these memories. While I am grateful for the Christian foundation my family and church community gave me growing up, I am upset by several things.
For starters, I am deeply saddened that my younger self was caused to doubt her belovedness in the eyes of God.
I wonder what it would have been like to have broached conversion later, to have heard an invitation to follow Jesus without the manipulative fires of hell lapping at my heel.
Second, I am surprised that the way baptism was succinctly explained to me as a child did not shift or grow as I did. Of course, through the privileges of a liberal arts education, interfaith experiences, and some travel I have since had the chance to wonder at the theological depths of the baptismal waters, but that sense of wonderment was never part of my home church culture, to my recollection.
There were no occasions so as to remember one’s baptism or renew one’s vows. In fact, if baptism testimonies were shared, mine was often looked upon with suspicion by others and myself; it lacked the dramatic flair of a "real" sinner’s conversion.
All of this is troubling to me because it reveals a significant lack of continued Christian formation for myself and Baptist siblings in the congregation. It seems to me that in some ways my church was finished with me by seven years old because I had walked the aisle and been baptized.
It is not an exaggeration to say that this feels something like abandonment.
Of course, the same congregations and clergy people that did these things also empowered me to listen for the Voice of God. The same folks who questioned my conversion are the ones who bolstered me in my eventual call to vocational ministry.
A paradox, to be sure.
My Baptist sisters and brothers muddied the waters of my baptism, but they give me a rich heritage of freedom, dissent, and hope. Grace found me through the murky waters of the Baptist way, and, painful as it is, my desire and hope is to remain in this tradition that cradled and formed me.
But can a truly Baptist notion of baptism contain all that I have discovered about the grace of God?
This depends upon what baptism is and does.