My framework for thinking about baptism and church membership was pretty clear-cut growing up. Basically the two were tied together. You don’t get baptized outside the context of a church community, and you wait to be baptized until you can make that decision freely. Once you make that decision you stand up or more like kneel during worship on Sunday, and declare your faith and in turn, the congregation pledges their support to you and welcomes you as a full member. In my home church, this meant I could finally partake in communion and it meant I could vote in meetings and receive scholarship funds. Hooray!
During college and post-college I would quickly learn that this framework for baptism and church membership is not the norm in Christianity, if there is even such a thing as a norm.
I became more in tune with different baptismal and membership practices when I was a hospital chaplain on the labor and delivery ward in a Chicago hospital. Weekly, if not daily, I was asked to perform a baptism. Sometimes it was the parents requesting it for themselves, sometimes it was a parent requesting it for their baby, sometimes their stillborn babies, or sometimes for their babies still in utero. At times, when I was too far outside my comfort zone, I would call for help and I would accompany other chaplains as they performed these baptisms. I gladly participated in some of the litanies and prayers. Of course there were times when I was the only chaplain on call. If and when I received a call in the middle of the night from the Labor and Delivery unit, I went. I sprinkled water on many a child, and that water was often mixed in with the parent’s tears, sometimes mine. I prayed that God would work to transform my discomfort into care and that the words of my mouth, the rituals I performed would be pleasing to God and a piece of people’s healing story.
Years later I would take great comfort in the words of United Church of Christ pastor Lillian Daniel who writes this about baptism and church membership: “It’s a good thing God’s love is not limited to our various understandings of baptism and church membership. And it’s good to remember that in God’s story, we have already been joined, one to another.”
Lillian Daniel, in a chapter titled “To join or not to join,” (The book title is Tell it like it is: Reclaiming the practice of testimony) reminds us that one of the most confusing, off-putting and awkward conversations for many is how, or even why, to become formal members of a church. Decisions about membership and baptism, she reminds us, “are often very intense for people and that the church could do more to understand the many nuances of that discernment.”
Good food for thought.
In that spirit, the invitation to join Rainbow and/or be baptized is seldom heavy-handed or even urgent, and I hope it remains that way. That being said, I don’t want to treat baptism and membership too casually either. These can be important, meaningful acts whereby we commit or renew our commitment to walk in the way of Jesus, along with a community.
Now I want to believe that there are many ways one can join this Way, this way of life. There is no one size fits all approach to joining this Way. And yet, through the ages, baptism remains an important step for many. We can bicker day and night about why this is important, and what it really means, what kind of water to use, how much water to use (I SAY A BIG, HEAPING HANDFUL-what I have come to call Sporing-somewhere in between sprinkling and pouring), what age you should be, what happens to those who do not choose baptism. But in the end I hope not to lose sight of the larger project or purpose that Jesus initiated and embodied—that being the way of peace. If baptism or if church membership can be a step toward that end, I’m all for it.
And so we at Rainbow will keep inviting people to participate in this church, whether you become formal members or not, whether you ever get baptized or not. And we will keep baptizing those who are able and willing to make such a commitment. In fact we will celebrate three baptisms at Rainbow this coming Sunday August 17.
Hopefully we will keep pledging our support to one another in a whole variety of ways and all the while, I hope to remain sensitive to people’s unique stories and nuanced discernment. And finally, I pray that a sense of awe will come over this place as we baptize Carl, Danny and Anna and seek to walk in the way of peace.