Sunday, January 11, 2015

B109. Remembering My Baptism

The stone is my reminder. During the worship service this morning, the pastor invited us to remember our own baptisms as we took a stone from the baptismal font.  As I remembered, I also realized that most of those sitting around me probably did not have a literal memory of their own baptism (as babies) but a corporate symbolic memory and a contemplation of what it means to their lives. As a life-long Baptist until a couple of years ago switching to Presbyterian, I contemplated both.

It was 1970, and I was eight years old. Southern Baptist from birth, I attended with my family the same small rural church that my father had attended with his family when he was a child. We were fixtures there. If the doors were open, we were there – every service, every training, every event. Everything I had known or experienced was filtered through my understanding of the Church.

I was always a thinking child, insulted at age three and a half when the hospital nurse brought my new baby sister out to the car and asked me if I wanted to see my new baby doll. Did I really look like I didn’t know the difference between a baby and a baby doll, I wanted to ask her, but I just smiled.  And I can remember some of the contemplative moments of trying to find who I was in the world in relation to who everyone else was. Though the answers weren't clear, I would contemplate how others might be seeing events in my life, based on how I saw the events of theirs. I remember realizing as a young child that others were not constantly thinking of me, just as I was not constantly thinking of them, and that what interested or mattered most to me did not necessarily interest or matter most to everyone else.

And I was always a spiritual child, interested in all I could learn about God, and internalizing at a very young age that God was about shaping our entire lives. I hungered for deeper understanding. Hypocrisy confused me, and I didn't understand how someone could possibly not be passionate if s/he internalized the call to live for God.

Second grade was an especially spiritual year for me. My best friend was also Christian and Baptist, and the two of us became little evangelists of sorts that year. During recesses we would walk around the playground singing hymns as a witness to all our classmates. Our favorites were “There’s within my heart a melody . . .” and “Just As I Am,” probably because between the two of us we could remember all the words to all the verses. And often we would ask our teacher to let us sing for the class, to which she consented.

Mrs. Jessup herself taught us blessing songs that we sang as a class as we lined up to go for lunch, like the Johnny Appleseed Blessing;* and we memorized a poem** that we recited to the class individually about God painting the trees. I don’t remember either of those being meaningful to me in a spiritual way, nor even ever thinking about the meaning of what we were saying, but looking back, it was all a part of the culture of my year.

The grass on our playground that year was covered with those little white flowery clovers that attract bees, and I remember entertaining my schoolmates by catching the bees in my hand to show them that God would protect me from being stung. I remind you here, I was raised Baptist, and I don’t know where I got that charismatic streak! My parents would not have been amused!  Miraculously I was never stung, and thankfully I don’t remember the others wanting to try it for themselves!

I also remember praying a lot that year for a Native American girl on the playground. She always kept to herself, and I wanted to be her friend. I remember she would run, fast, like a deer, from one end of the playground to the other, over and over, and I used that a couple of times to try to befriend her. I was fairly athletic for an 8-year-old, but I couldn’t begin to keep up with her, nor was I able to win her friendship before she moved away almost as quickly as she had come.

I was so interested in pleasing God (to my level of understanding) that I "broke up" with my boyfriend that year (We had a history all the way back to first grade!) because he said he didn't go to church, and I didn't want to be "unequally yoked."

In April of 1970 my church was in its annual week of Revival, which meant a visiting preacher would lead services every evening of the week, and of course my family was there every evening. These services usually featured high powered sermons followed by lengthy emotional altar calls, giving everyone a chance to accept Jesus right now because none of us could know if we had another day. It was during those services when most people would make decisions to join the church and be baptized.

I don’t remember being especially moved by the services, but I had decided this week would probably be my week to join the church. I knew I wanted to live my life for God, whatever that might come to mean, and while I was terrified at the thought of being dunked under the water, I accepted that that was part of the deal, and I reasoned myself through it. I had never heard of anyone drowning while being baptized, and I could put it off indefinitely but eventually it would still have to happen. I might as well put that dreaded part behind me.  

On Monday evening several responded to the altar call, but I chose to wait, not wanting anyone to think I was just copying someone else; so on Tuesday evening, despite being disappointed that the invitation hymn was not the usual “Just As I Am,” which I thought would’ve made the moment more perfect for me, I walked down the aisle and whispered to Pastor Broadway the only thing I knew to say. Having watched my entire short life as people walked the aisle and whispered something privately to the pastor, and having never been privy to hearing what they said, I had tuned in one recent Sunday on the drive home from church when my four-year-old sister had asked my mom what she had said that day when she responded to the altar call. My mom explained in child speak that she had said (obviously in retrospect a personal rededication)  she needed to love Jesus more. So that’s what I said: "I need to love Jesus more." Pastor Broadway thought that was cute and repeated my words to the congregation as the innocence of simple childlike faith. I thought I was just saying what everyone said.

Less than two weeks later, on Sunday afternoon, May 5, we had a baptismal service for the 16 who had made decisions during the Revival week. We ranged in age from eight to adult, and all of us lived through the dunking.

Fast forward almost 45 years to today.

I’m pretty sure my pastor this morning didn’t mean to send me on such a literal memory, but it was fun to go there too as I contemplated with the others about the meaning of it all. Being set aside to represent Christ in a world of confusion, to serve in whatever ways God might place before us, to take the road less traveled, to share God’s love. I turned the wet stone over and over in my palm, and I remembered.

*The Johnny Appleseed Blessing:
Oh, the Lord’s been good to me
And so I thank the Lord
for giving me the things I need
the sun, the rain, and the apple seed
The Lord’s been good to me.

**The poem (Thanks Al and Becky!!)
In my back yard the master works. He works among the trees. 
With lovely tints of every shade he’s painting all the leaves. 
He paints some red, he paints some green and some a golden hue. 
Some are shining in the sun, some glistening in the dew. 
The blackgum tree is turning red, the oak is burnish brass. 
The hickory tree has turned to gold, old gold a shimmering mass. 
I do not have to travel far nor make my journey hard to see the master’s handiwork.

It’s in my own back yard. 
For in my yard the master works, he works among the trees. 
With lovely tints of every shade he’s painting all the leaves.

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