Friday, June 24, 2011

Baptist Bingo: Baptism & Infant Dedication, Part I

Baptists are one of several traditions that don't baptize our babies. We are credobaptists, practicing what's often called Believer's Baptism, baptism of adults by full immersion (known as the dunk, as opposed to the sprinkle).

When I was a small child, attending a non-denominational credobaptist church, I thought that I ought to be baptized because I believed in Jesus. That's what people who believe in Jesus do.

Of course, you have to have water to have a baptism, and we didn't have water.

In the 1980s, Grace Bible Church was formed by the congregation that left a Presbyterian church. Some of the members designed a building that would house the new church. The sanctuary was a geodesic dome. There was a wheelchair ramp, a gymnasium, Sunday School rooms, a field for playing kickball, a nursery with adjacent kid-sized bathrooms, a full kitchen, and a huge parking lot that quickly filled on Sunday mornings.

One thing it didn't have was a baptistery.

That was why, several times a year, the Grace congregation would pile into their cars and drive up the highway, over the bridge, and down the other side of the lake to Garrison Baptist Church. And so it was that, at age twelve, I got baptized in a Baptist church.

I remember pinching my nose as I went under the lukewarm water, and worrying that my bra (white cotton, 32AA, Sears) would show through my blouse when I came up. Then it was over, and I was bundled into a towel and spent the rest of the service in a back room blow-drying my hair.

There's a funny thing about credobaptists these days. We brag about how we're Biblical and don't baptize infants, but we push our children to get baptized as a sign of their faith. Younger and younger kids climb into the baptistery, some so small that they can hardly keep their heads above the water. And that gets on my nerves. If baptism is an undertaking reserved for informed, consenting persons, why are children too young to make legal decisions getting baptized? The social pressure is heavy. If you were a real Christian, the implication is, you'd get baptized. Only people who aren't actually committed don't get baptized. So I felt guilty for being baptized at twelve, so many years after my peers and so many years after I knew it was something that I was supposed to do. I didn't know that the things I thought and believed as a small child would change as I got older. I didn't get that baptism would mean something different to me at 16 than it did at 12. The pressure should have been to hold off on getting baptized, not to do it as soon as possible, but the only thing that kept me from jumping into a baptistery any sooner than I did was my paralyzing hydrophobia.

But a few years later I felt guilty that I'd already done it. You can only be baptized once, and in my mid teens I felt like I got this whole God thing a lot more than I had as a tween. Being a Christian meant something huge. Making that public dedication of self was something that I hadn't actually understood as a twelve-year-old. I wished that I could do it now, when it meant so much more. It was the biggest deal in the life of a Christian, and I had done it without knowing what it was. I felt cheated.

One thing credobaptists don't usually mention is that the early church practiced NAKED baptism.

When I was in college, I went through a crisis of faith. It's common for young adults, including those who were baptized as kids, to quietly drop out of the Church when they leave home. I dropped into a different tradition, and in the process of learning to identify as a Baptist I learned a lot more about baptism. My faith became more treasured. I'd fought myself to keep it alive when God and the world beyond Rhea County turned out to be different than what Grace had taught me to expect. I had learned how good life should be, and how pressingly evil death was, and now I understood this symbol of death and resurrection in a new way. I had learned how painful and how liberating it is to die to an old way of life and be born to a new one. I had found a body of believers that I really belonged to, and I wanted to stand up in front of them and make my statement of new-found faith. I wished that I hadn't been baptized already, because now I got it.

You know, I've always thought that vow-renewal ceremonies were lame. "They're already married," I'd say, "so why do they have to act the wedding out again? Do they just like dressing up and being the center of attention? Can't they justify champagne any other way?"

But I think I get it now. When we were in premarital counseling, one thing that Patrick and I heard over and over was: "You don't know what you're getting into. You won't know for years. You are going to make this promise once, but it will mean more and more to you as the years pass. It's going to take you a lifetime to know what it is to be married."

So maybe that's why people renew their vows. Because at some point they say, "I really get it now. It's a much bigger deal than I knew before. I want to make this promise now, since I understand it differently."

So understanding baptism is a lifelong journey. I did it just once, but every year it means something more. That makes it easier to accept when a child is baptized into my tradition. That child doesn't get it, but you know what? Neither does the sixteen-year-old getting baptized after her, or the thirty-year-old getting baptized next. None of us gets it. That's the nature of huge commitments.

These days, Grace takes its congregants down to the bank of the Tennessee River for baptisms. I saw one of the first of those services right before I left town. It was cold, for the Valley, and we stood crowded together on the bank and watched our family grow. The boy being baptized came up with lakewater running off of his clothing and weeds in his hair. It was a big moment. I wonder if, ten years later, he's started understanding what it meant.

No comments:

Post a Comment