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.
Glenda, I was impressed with your story; thanks for sharing it.
Now that the service is past, all I can say is that it was spot on. I know my son sees his baptism into the Rainbow Mennonite community’s larger Christian witness as a call to service in the model of Jesus. Your sermon, which also helped us, as a congregation, process and grieve together over the events of Ferguson, MO, was a perfect complement to that sense of call. It was also an acknowledgement that something bigger happens here, in the church community, bigger than individual expressions of some dogma.
Beautifully said Debra. The peaceful protests for justice in Ferguson have made me feel as if I’m in a time warp back to 1963. I’m an 10 year old girl sitting in the front pew at Rainbow listening intently to Rev. Bohn speak about Rev. King almost every Sunday. He said he was a pacifist like us and as a Christian he was following Jesus’ example of speaking up for the oppressed. After the Children’s March in Birmingham I went to Rev. Bohn asking to be baptized. He went into detail about why Anabaptist wait until adulthood; it’s baptism of believers and you have to be old enough to know what you believe, it’s tied to membership which includes sharing your gifts and talents with the church, and much more. Since an even younger age I had been speaking up for “Negros” I knew personally and in general because of what I’d learned at church. I had a heartfelt need, almost a calling, to continue doing that and more, but as a Christian. Rev. Bohn came to my home for personal catechism. As my mom listen in, then joined the lessons, she made the decision to join also. She and I (now 11 years old) were baptist along side Matthew Lewis, one of the few Black people attending Rainbow. So, this Sunday’s baptisms and Ferguson’s activism felt like the right connection to me.
A wonderful story, Glenda. Thanks for sharing.
Wow, Glenda. Thanks. You were wise beyond your years.
As a convert, I’ll never know the internal odyssey that Mennonites born into the faith know. All I know is that when I heard my first Mennonite sermon (it was Robert Kaufman), it was eye opening and refreshing. Jesus’ radical peace message was unvarnished and allowed to be. It wasn’t manipulated to appease some patriot in the third pew. For me it felt like I was allowed to drink a glass of water for the first time, after a lifetime of being offered Koolaid in church. I know that sounds harsh toward other churches, and I don’t mean it to, because I know people find all kinds of sustenance in other churches, but that’s my experience.
Yes, a wonderful story. Have you ever shared this with Stan? If not, would you mind if I did? I imagine he would love to hear this.
You’re welcome to share with Stan; he’ll always have to be “Rev. Bohn” to me :). I don’t know if I’ve shared it in quite this way with him and It may mean something different to him that I was willing to share in this forum. He’s visited here a couple of times since I was an adult and I’ve taken him aside to quickly share that while he thought Helen Goertz and I were just coloring & whispering (very little whispering because her mom had us sit there so she could keep an eye on us from her seat at the piano) I was really listening. Things I told him I’d learned from his sermons did seem to surprise him. How his passion (and you know how low key he is) about the Civil Rights Movement and our responsibilities as White people had shaped my life, my children, job choices, volunteering, etc. How I still refer to Rev. King’s writings. Once I asked him what his involvement had been outside of church and he really downplayed it, but I learned a lot. I reminded him that every White activist doing or saying anything added a special credibility and had a great impact on the movement. Being White also set them up for repercussions. As a kid I knew of one ethnic Mennonite family who left our small congregation because he talked about that “Negro situation” too much. There may have been more who tired of hearing about it, but he knew we needed to know and care. He won’t volunteer information about this interesting chapter in his life. You’ll have to ask him what Black and lower income neighborhood doors he knocked on to invite them to church (that’s how I got here), what groups he belonged to, the picketing they did, his use of a Black realtor to sell his home in the White section of Rosedale and the noose he found handing on his family’s doorknob because of that. He was one of the original pastors who formed Cross-Lines to help the poor of all races. I continue to be amazed at what he was willing to say and do on behalf of others as a soft-spoken man of convictions!
I’m excited to have our own “artist in residence” at Rainbow. Jesse, I really enjoy your work.