my baptismal backstory

Last week I wrote about moments I’ve felt baptized here. This is the back story.

photo by Geograph

Baptism is a weak sacrament. Admitting it hurts. Saying it out loud for the first time stings – both my tongue and my theological sensibilities. Years in various churches, study groups and even seminary muzzled me. I’ve let people think I waded into a pool (or river) and been dunked. But I’ve come clean here. I’ve never been dunked.

My parents had me baptized when I was an infant and they were Roman Catholic. In a white christening gown, in a downtown cathedral the priest sprinkled water over my fresh pink forehead declaring me a member of The Church. That day set me on a course of catechism, communion and confirmation, though my parent’s encounter with the charismatic renewal and resulting exodus from all things Catholic interrupted my trajectory within the tradition. I’ve since doubted the efficacy of a sacrament I could not remember or comprehend.

My seminary professor convinced me that believer’s baptism had Biblical correctness on its side. I still didn’t volunteer to be dunked in an elder’s family pool or plunged into the salty water of the Pacific Ocean or dipped in a portable baptismal pool in a mega-church parking lot. Although opportunities arose almost annually, I hung back. I stayed dry.

A few years ago I reconnected with my ecclesiastical roots. I reclaimed the Catholic Church as my Mother Church, a tradition that in some mysterious way birthed me into a life of faith. I decided to listen to my Mother and accept as valid my baptism under the watchful eyes of Mary. Maybe I could never take the plunge because I’d been under the sacramental grace all along.

So when I see baptism announcements I don’t twitch anymore. I don’t linger over the clipboard as it passes me in the pew. I’ve accepted the truth that baptism was done to me, not by me. It’s a gift I wear quietly like an heirloom locket strung around my neck.

And then I read this days ago:

“How can one possibly write of baptism as an event of immense significance when baptism is already accepted but accepted by and large as a minor tribal rite somewhat secondary in importance to taking the kids to see Santa at the department store?” (Walker Percy as quoted by Brian McLaren.)

I inherited an atrophied theology of baptism (insert catalytic click). Maybe the reason I couldn’t embrace baptism all these years had something to do with what I’d been given. The weak baptismal understanding handed off to me never energized my desire – or praxis. Baton in hand I walked the track as if this ‘somewhat secondary in importance’ sacrament didn’t really matter to a robust faith. I didn’t run with it, no one showed me how.

Baptism as I experienced it was little more than a church ritual, a domestic matter. The impact of the rite evaporated before the water had even dried, leaving both skin and spirit dry as before. The drops of water made me member of a certain ecclesiastical clan, but not a mover in the neighborhood. Like getting the American Express card baptism came with privileges rather than creating disturbances like a Baptizer I read of in Sunday School.

John the Baptist grew up the son of a priest, familiar with temple rituals and washings. But when he came of age he did not practice the baptisms of his father, he went out into the wilderness. He walked away from immersion as he knew it. (I feel a kinship with him.)

Standing in the muddy backwaters of the Jordan River he called for a baptism of repentance. He cried out for people to get immersed in a new kind of thinking. But baptism into a new identity wasn’t enough. He went further telling them to engage in a new way of living – give coats to those without any, share your food, don’t over-charge your business clients or extort anyone with your power. In short, he said your baptismal identity must give way to baptized living. When who you are shapes how you live out there – you are indeed baptized.

Infant baptism at the breast of my Mother Church introduced me to a faith. But what I’ve always hungered for is a baptism I can sink my teeth into like the baptized living of John the Baptist who held nothing back. Beyond the temple courts of my day I want to go out there in baptismal stride, radical as John himself.

If our kind of living isn’t begging for beheading might it be too tame? If no one is plotting against us, does our baptism matter? Should baptism domesticate us for church activities or radicalize us for service out there (where ever your out there is)?

I stand along the Baptizer – the sacrament has to burn hot, radicalize you and your world. Or it is just too weak to be sacramental at all.

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2 thoughts on “my baptismal backstory”

  1. Caris Adel
     ·  Reply

    This is such an incredible look at a ‘symbol’. These couple of posts are having me think about how I view baptism. “he went out into the wilderness. He walked away from immersion as he knew it.” – Love this. Viewing it like that makes me feel a little less lonely in my wilderness spots.

    • kelleynikondeha
       ·  Reply

      For the longest time I kept my insecurities about baptism to myself. As a sacrament-hungry person I always wondered why baptism eluded me. I am coming to terms with it… I am hungry for a baptized living like John, one that sets things ablaze with Kingdom goodness. What I’ve got was a membership card instead. You see the disconnect. But as I’m naming it, I realize I’ve got an active baptism, just needed to adjust the frame a bit! Glad we are in it together.

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