The way Pastor Dave sometimes speaks about baptism makes me suspect he’s just jonesing to perform one—not jonesing like how an alcoholic tweaks for their next fix, but perhaps more like someone who has been on the wagon for a few years gets that nagging itch, thinking, “Man, I could go for a cold beer.” If he is jonesing, of course, it’s not for himself, but for others. And that’s kind of cool.
Over the years, I’ve known folks who hear “the message” and within a few days they plunge into the water headfirst, shouting “Hallelujah! I’m born again!” And the Holy High that follows can last for weeks. They preach the gospel with every breath, condemn those who trespass against them, and pass judgment on the wicked and righteous alike. Their narrow perspective is both well intentioned and a real pain in the butt.
And usually, it's only temporary as the Holy High wears off.
I’m not the kind of person who can jump into the water head first. I need to wade in, test the water, feel the sand sift between my toes. Over the course of the past year at Lifeline Church, I’ve waded in deep enough to where the cool water bites, encouraging me to either race back to shore or to buckle at the knees and plunge down. And yet, I continue to wade.
Some Sundays, when baptism talk starts, I wonder if anyone else can see how close I am to buckling. I want to shout to Pastor Dave to grab a pitcher of water from the bar, dump it on my head, and call me saved…hallelujah! But, something holds me back, and I’m not entirely sure what it is. It’s not a lack of desire.
I’m not a perfect man, by any stretch. And even though Dave insists baptism isn’t about being perfect, I would like to at least feel a little less imperfect. I don’t want baptism to be a quick fix for a Holy High that only fades. Dave says all baptism really is is a public declaration that you’re giving your life to God. It is that simple, and yet, for the life of me I can’t figure out what that really means. And maybe that is the point, but that scares the hell out of me.
Maybe I can’t get past the dogma-ish feeling that the rite of baptism brings to mind. Born into a quasi-Catholic family, baptism was a birthright that happened to me regardless of choice. Like some sort of arranged marriage to God, I wasn’t ever consulted. Was it done out of love, or fear—and if out of fear, was it fear of hell or fear of what the family elders would think if I wasn’t baptized? I swore I wouldn’t baptize my own kids in this manner, instead leaving it up to them to make this same choice I’m struggling with for myself when they grow old enough to know what they feel about God. And yet, baptism happened to them anyway when my mother-in-law embraced her own fears (or love) and baptized my children while babysitting. True story. I wonder who their Godparents are.
When I was young I was told that we can’t get into Heaven without having been baptized, and that we baptize babies “just in case.” It’s heresy, I know, but if un-baptized babies aren’t allowed inside, I’d just rather go someplace warmer.
It took me some time to realize that just because people believe this is how God behaves doesn’t necessarily make it so. But what am I supposed to believe regarding baptism and how God behaves? Where I'm wading, baptism feels like something more than a declaration. As I Mosey along, baptism feels more and more like some promise, a promise I think I want to make, and a promise I’m not taking lightly.
Maybe baptism isn't about being perfect, but if I'm going to wear my religion on my sleeve, I feel like I should be prepared to wear it out with the rest of the shirt.
I don't want to stand before God a hypocrite, and my own insecurities remind me of Huck Finn realizing you can't pray a lie. Choosing baptism wouldn't be a lie for me, but I suspect it would sure feel like one.
Last week in church, Pastor Dave did something different with his baptism talk. He asked folks who were ready to be baptized to come forward. As Mike played on the guitar, I asked God for some guidance. I asked for my knees to buckle and my feet to move. I waited for someone to make a move.
And someone did.
Why couldn’t it have been me who moved? Why couldn’t I just step forward? Why do I continue to wade along? The water is feeling nice enough. Yet, for as deep as I’ve waded in, I often feel like I’m still standing alone with unsure footing on some sandy shore.