November 2005. I'm sure that the story that I tell here was from one of my very first baptisms; I think both the writing and reflection here indicate that. Even after all these years, this sacrament is one of my favorite acts of ministry.
I've decided that baptism is one of my favorite things to do in ministry.
Yesterday was the first of two that we'll be celebrating during Advent. I've only officiated two others during my time here. Actually, for this church perhaps that's just about right.
The weeks leading up to it were a little nerve-racking, as I haven't yet perfected the art of properly instilling the importance and meaning of such an event in the family. Pastors like to do lots of instilling. It may be one of our favorite things, after taking a nap on Sunday afternoon. We like to instill in people that events such as baptisms and weddings aren't just cultural relics that churches still perform; they are living breathing events where God is present and active in relationships between couples, families, congregation, and so on. We MUST instill this in people, or they will enjoy the day for all the wrong reasons. And so we try our best at instilling.
I was worried that time was running short for my instillation opportunity. I kept calling and missing them, chewed my fingernails waiting for them to call me back. We finally set up a time for an early evening, and on that particular night a massive snowstorm started to blow through. Would they make it? Could we go through with the baptism without such a meeting? Ah, here they come.
We talked about the service: who would approach with them, any prayers or words they'd like to be included, that sort of thing. I then directed them to the part where the parents and congregation make their promises to help raise and nurture the child a certain way. 'This,' I said, 'is really the heart of the baptism service.' I actually cringe a little at that now. While a case can be made that those promises are the heart of the liturgy, I think I'd missed it just slightly. After all, my tradition views baptism as the point where the child is entrusted to the care of parents, family, and congregation to be raised in the faith, that s/he might one day claim that faith through an imperfect program known as confirmation. One can easily say that the promises are what drives the service.
Of course, the real driving force behind baptism is God's grace being made known through the sign-act of water. Yes, I was surprised at this myself. God is the One actively working in and through us and through the promises we make. It's not us after all.
He'd been sleeping comfortably in his father's arms right up to the point where I asked to take him. He fidgeted a little as I adjusted myself so he'd have proper head and neck support. Right before I reached into the bowl, he opened his eyes and just looked at me. He didn't make a sound. He just wanted to check out this new face for a moment before closing his eyes again. 'Oh...it's you. I remember you from the hospital. You may proceed, Reverend.' And so I did. In my nervousness I baptized him in the name of the 'Water, Son, and Holy Spirit.'
And then we took a walk. We walked down the center aisle, during which time he seemed to start wondering what was going on. I told him about his new church family, how they'd promised to nurture him and tell him the stories of the faith. He looked on in the wide-eyed way babies do. I wish I'd told him to never lose that curiosity, but I was more concerned about not dropping him. There will be other opportunities. To say the curiosity thing, I mean.
Now I have to admit slightly moist eyes on my part during this walk. There is a certain 'Aw, ain't he cute?' vibe that the congregation enjoys in infant baptism, and I was a little caught up in that. But as I told him about his new life in the church, some part of my subconscious was saying a prayer. It was praying that he'd always have proper support for his head and neck now, as well as later on when he needs it in other ways. It was praying that he'd truly get to know these people and discover the love of Jesus through them. It was praying that he wouldn't disappear thirteen years later after being confirmed. It was praying that God's love would capture him and transform him in real and wonderful ways.
Baptism is such an exciting moment for faith communities. It is a moment where we can all discover the presence of God's grace in others' lives. It is a moment of hope for an infant who won't even remember that the event took place. It is a moment where we can discover how important the promises we make really are.
God is slowly instilling that in me.