When I was baptized in 1995, I remember asking my dad, who was the pastor, whether I would change or somehow be different as a result of baptism. He delivered a long, thoughtful pause before saying, “I believe something happens.” Following another long pause he said, “What that something is is a mystery.”
Exactly six years ago I would pose a similar question to my dad. This time I wondered whether I would change as a result of ordination. Again he said, “I want to believe something happens,” but this time I finished his sentence with, “yeah I know, it’s a mystery.”
Baptism is mystifying for sure (some more “mistier” than others), and yet I continue to believe or at least I want to believe that these are not just empty rituals, void of meaning or significance. Nor are these moments EVERYTHING. The church is not a baptized-only club, and I don’t believe in a God who only embraces those with baptismal certificates from their local church. And yet every time I accompany people through the baptismal process, I feel as if I am standing on holy ground. This doesn’t mean I don’t have my share of questions and doubt. None of us can say for certain what happens (or doesn’t happen) in baptism. I took great comfort when I heard a pastor say once that all baptismal services should include this phrase from Mark 9: 24: “I believe; help my unbelief!”
A couple months ago I told Andrew and Hannah, who will be baptized this Sunday at Rainbow, that what I remember most from my baptism is looking out at the congregation and seeing people who loved me and whom I loved (or tried to love) in return. I can still see their faces and smiles. I can still feel their embrace, especially when I slip into despair. Same goes for my ordination. It was sacred ground, made all the more sacred by the people accompanying me.
I can’t presume to know what baptism (or ordination) is or isn’t. No one person, pastor, or denomination has a monopoly on those definitions. And yet I have long hoped to surround myself with people who are searching for the living God, and who remain ever-humble in that search, but search nonetheless. And so I will ask Andrew and Hannah to kneel on Sunday, and I will get as much water in my tiny hands, and with misty eyes and a cracked voice, I will baptize them in the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. I will then bid them rise, and perhaps what I hope more than anything is that as they stand they will see a smiling congregation, ready and eager to embrace them as they are, encouraging them to become all they might be as they seek to orientate their lives around the teachings of Jesus.
Last but not least, I invite you to listen to one of the most interesting musical reflections on baptism that I’ve ever heard by Cynthia Hopkins.