A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Pondering the mystery of baptism

Yesterday was a special time of worship in our church as we celebrated the dedication of our youngest person and then later in the service, baptized his mother. As such, it was also a time for me to ponder again upon the meaning of these sacraments in the church.

A friend gave me a book to read for Christmas. It’s called, Gilead and it’s written by Marilynne Robinson. The book is a fictional memoir written by an elderly pastor for his six year old son, whom the pastor will never know as an adult. Early in the book, the pastor recounts a time he and his friends gathered up a litter of kittens in order to baptize them. He writes,

“I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing. It stays in the mind. For years we would wonder what, from a cosmic viewpoint, we had done to them. It still seems to me to be a real question. There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that.”

I think when we, as humans, recognize there is something powerful that needs acknowledgement in a way words cannot convey, we fall to the symbolic to do the job for us. It’s a real challenge then to write this post and try and distill meaning into words.

So be it. I make blessing my starting point.

Baptism and child dedication are primarily a way to bless each other, a way to acknowledge the sacred within us. Last Sunday the lectionary passages centered on baptism and since I didn’t use the lectionary last week, I decided this was one of those fortuitous happenings. I think Isaiah 43:1-7 kind of reads like a blessing. “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you (vs. 1-2).” “Because you are precious in my sight and honored, and I love you (vs. 4).”

In the sight of God, we are precious, honored, loved. We need not fear, for God has created us and calls us each by name. Our path is blessed by God. Child dedication is a symbolic way in which family bestows a blessing.

In the book, Gilead, the pastor writes, “I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you.”

A child dedication is, in large part, a symbolic acknowledgment of God’s grace to us. The grace which allows us to witness and be a part of the miracle of a child’s life. We are blessed by the presence of children and so we seek to bless them as well, to acknowledge that aspect of sacred within them which calls to mind our own relationship with God and God’s grace.

Believer’s baptism (The Mennonite Church practices adult baptism.) is a little more mutual in its nature. Yesterday, this 18 month old son of the church didn’t perhaps come with a whole lot of his own intentions and that’s as it should be. The Mennonite confession of faith speaks about a baptism of the Spirit. Quoting now, “The baptism of the Holy Spirit enables believers to walk in newness of life, to live in community with Christ and the church, to offer Christ’s healing and forgiveness to those in need, to witness boldly to the good news of Christ, and to hope in the sharing of Christ’s future glory.” I might say it more simply. At some point along the way, hopefully we recognize the touch of God in our life and how this presence enables us to live more fully and generously, with freedom and grace.

Adult baptism than is a symbolic way to publicly acknowledge something that happened in either the near or distant past. Baptism is an intentioned request for a blessing, an assurance by the congregation that the path chosen is a good one and one that was blessed by God in either the near or distant past too.

And then we get to the symbols themselves. In the case of child dedication, it’s human touch. According to our passage from Mark (10:13-16), “Jesus took the children up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.” There is some sort of power exchanged and experienced when we touch each other with the intention to bless. We’ve all been privileged in this way - a hug, an unexpected back rub that helps lift sagging shoulders, a cheek pressed to a fevered brow, a tear wiped away. Each of these are blessed moments when we feel the presence of God through a loved one, or maybe even a stranger. We are blessed through the simple act of human touch. When we take human touch and make it symbolic and intentional, the act of child dedication, the pastor placing her hands on a child to bless him on behalf of his family is imbued with an even greater sense of sacred mystery. And we are content to be at peace with this act of grace we can’t quite explain.

Baptism uses water as its symbol. Psalm 29 describes water as one of earth’s elementary life forces. “The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters.” Water is also a symbol of purity, nature at its most pristine. Water is seen as a cleansing force. Water is also necessary to our very survival. Too much water and we perish. Too little water and we also die. But water itself must be available in ready supply. So it’s a life giving force and as such, a powerful symbol.

One more thing I’d like to say about baptism. Our confession of faith speaks about the “baptism of blood.” This make me squirm a little bit. It’s also referred to as the “baptism of suffering and the offering of one’s life, even to death.” I understand the point, but it seems a little out of touch with present day, Kansas realities. Still, I’ve been pondering that phrase these last few days, “the baptism of blood” and I’ve come around to appreciate it in a different sense.

I think we spend much of our life, starting when we’re very young, casting about, looking for safe, secure places where we can get a firm foothold. At some point in time, most of us realize that sinking roots into the ground helps us reach a safer place in life. Maybe this means investing in a particular community, making a commitment to be married, having children. In the church, we begin with our babies, encouraging them to begin rooting themselves in our tentative understanding of God, in the person and example of Jesus as well as in our traditions and institutions. In this way, church can also provide a rich sense of security. But as we mature, many of us take a more critical look at how we’ve chosen to root ourselves and sometimes, if we don’t feel good about how we’re growing, we may even begin the painful process of uprooting so we can sink our exposed roots into better, more fertile soil.

Most often, as an adult, a decision is made in which we are intentional about how and where we root ourselves spiritually. This is a journey of faith. And we understand, on some level, that from this point on we are investing the very essence of who we are in this faith pilgrimage. Not to say we don’t continue learning and growing. But we come to a new understanding of ourselves within the context of God and this is where we root ourselves. Baptism is a recognition and an affirmation of this truth. As well as an acceptance that nothing can alter this way of being without irreparable damage being done in the process. Without a soul being bloodied in the battle. Baptism of blood. Yet even then, we profess, that there is nothing in this life that can ultimately separate us from the love of God, since God is, in fact, love.

Maybe that’s as good a place as any to stop, with God‘s love and the recognition that child dedication and baptism are our attempts as humans to bless each other as a demonstration and affirmation of God’s love for us. Amen.

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