Twenty-five years ago today -- January 31, 1988 -- I was baptized. It was an unusual event in that I was baptized side-by-side with my grandmother. She was 69; I was 15.
Just a few years earlier my grandmother, Betty J. Taylor, had started to attend church, at South Salem [Ohio] United Methodist Church, soon after her husband's death. In 1986 I began riding to church with her. In the fall of 1987 the minister offered a series of confirmation classes, which she and I both attended. Our baptisms would be the culminating moment of this experience.
The question arose of whether my grandmother had ever been baptized before. Her grandfather, after all, had been a Methodist minister. However, she had no knowledge of it, and no one knew of her having been baptized as an infant, so we had to assume she had not been. Baptisms at our rural church were rare events, and in fact I had never seen one conducted before. "We can do pouring or sprinkling, or I can even take you down to Buckskin Creek and dunk you if that's what you'd like," the young pastor, Rev. Swann, mentioned. Grandma chose sprinkling, so of course I chose the same.
|My Certificate of Baptism signed by Rev. Gregory Swann|
These two memories used to bother me somewhat. I used to wish I had undergone a more tactile form of baptism, and I also regretted not having knelt. But over time I have become reconciled with these two minor details. I realize that God was there anyway.
Baptism means a great deal to me. I am glad my own baptism could be a special event, shared with a person who in many ways introduced me to church. It is a meaningful experience for individuals, for families, and for congregations. And so I am continually distressed and, quite frankly, confused, by the manner in which baptism has become a dividing point among so many Christians. There are people reading this who will have decided already, I'm sure, that my baptism was not valid because of the method used. That argument, which has torn apart churches and kept groups of Christians bickering for years, is getting old.
I once read a book by a woman who had lost her faith, but in thinking back to her early years in the church she remembered the panic she felt when she was immersed and a bubble caught under her gown. A tiny bit of fabric was buoyed by this bubble, and she was terrified this meant she was not truly immersed and thus not really saved. Her experience is not far removed from the arguing so many Christians undertake over the exact form of baptism, as if God can't help us unless we do it just right.
While in divinity school I once heard someone mention "magic wand" theology -- something Christians would vehemently deny even if they practice it. This is the belief that performing a sacrament in just the right way will lead to God's favor, action, or even salvation, whereby if done incorrectly, we will miss out on all grace. Wave the magic wand just right and God loves you. Wave it wrong, and God condemns you. What a small God that would be.
Surely, God is able to accept our baptisms as we best understand them meant to be conducted. And God is surely able to embrace us in eternity even if only our hearts, and not our heads, have been baptized. Baptism is the one thing that almost draws all of Christianity together, but even here, too many prefer to argue over details rather than bond together for the sake of Christ's name.
As the Apostle Peter pointed out in Acts, it is through baptism that we enter officially, publicly, into the family of Christ, and we receive the promise that only corporate life in Him can fulfill: an eternal bond together, living in forgiveness, led by the Holy Spirit, across generations. Baptism defines us as a family. It defines us as a body.
Sometimes those definitions are quite pronounced. I mentioned above that my grandmother's own grandfather had been a minister. From 1909 to 1914 he acted as the very first pastor of a brand new church in southern Ohio -- the Methodist church in South Salem -- the very same church where we would happen to be baptized nearly eight decades later.