Baptism - Christianese Redefined

Baptism: (n.) The complete immersion of oneself in a body of water as a way of symbolizing death to the old way of life and the embracing of new life in Christ.

There is a photo I took in junior high of a friend and her parents on the day of their baptism. The three of them are standing a few feet apart in the man-made pond of a local mega-church, each with a different member of the pastoral staff.

Behind the pond, the church is brown brick with two entire walls of tinted windows. It is corporate and stark. Every weekend, more than 20,000 people attend a service there; at the time this picture was taken, it may have been the biggest mega-church in the country.

They brought me along to the service to take the picture and to hold the baby…and because they didn’t really know anyone else there.

The picture is a little blurry. I tried my best to angle the camera in a way that it captures only the three of them—to manipulate the memory so that it looks as it was meant to be: a holy moment, a transcendent moment. A reverent silence, the church looking on with joy and grace.

But across the bottom of the frame, there are strangers. They are turned, talking to one another. One mopping his brow with a white handkerchief. One pulling the hair off the nape of her neck.

You can hardly blame them; after all, it had been going on like this for two hours—an assembly line of baptisms. Seven people at a time make their way into the pond. The head pastor on the intercom says over and over again, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” while the staff in the water perform the ritual…in and out.

In the picture, the three of them are waiting to be submerged. They are the “Before” version of themselves, not the new, transformed version coming up wet and smiling from the pond.

Before them, the church people are mildly interested, mostly distracted. They do not realize how necessary they are to this moment. That to come up out of that water into a new life with Christ requires help. Love. Prayer. Grace. Support. Arms that hold you when you feel like you’re falling apart.

The congregation fidgets at the shore, looks at their programs, looks at their watches. None of them notice the three people leaning back. Falling backwards. Maybe even drowning.

4 thoughts on “Baptism

  1. So, I am processing your thoughts on baptism this morning as i have often asked similar questions. With all our American church rituals I think we need to ask why? Why do we do it? How should we do it? What impact should it have?

    With baptism in particular, so many people would answer these questions in so many different ways, problem is, there is a biblical understanding, it just seems most religious folk care more about it being, “My way,” than discovering God’s design.

    A couple challenging thoughts for you…
    – Is baptism meant to be a “Holy moment” as you describe?
    – Is baptism supposed to be a life changing moment?
    – What kind of change? Spiritual? mental? Emotional? Physical?

    My favorite baptism story in the Bible answers a lot of those questions. The Ethiopian with Phillip on the road between Jerusalem and Samaria in Acts 8. In that story we see the purity of the purpose, intent and impact of baptism. The Ethiopian heard the gospel, understood Jesus, chose to believe, and as a result was ready for the ceremony of baptism. It wasn’t planned out, there was no crowd (Which begs the question, why do we so often think of baptism as a “public confession” is it about others or us?) The Ethiopian knew little to know theology or doctrine, he just saw water, and asked (Excitedly) if he could do it. Phillip didn’t quiz him first, make him go through a class, or share his story with others, he said, “If you believe in Jesus, and that God raised him, do it!” and they did.

    I think sometimes we make too much of this ceremony. We expect it to be a water shed moment, excuse the cheesy pun, and it just isn’t. It’s a personal statement of surrender, a choice align oneself to his/her creator, to identify themselves with love, grace, salvation, sacrifice, selfless living, abandonment of personal identity for a heavenly identity.

    The change is more mental and emotional. The choice to be baptized certainly has a spiritual impact, but you are not different when you come up… you are the same broken, dependent individual in need of the power and love of Christ.

    I connect with much of your sentiment Addie, I hate what we, the church, have made of so much that God gave to bring more life, and we make it about us.

    Sorry if my ramblings got confusing… I love this, keep it coming.

    1. Thanks for such a thoughtful response, Jake. I am definitely not an expert by any means on what baptism is meant to be, so I appreciate your questions and biblical reference. I love this line: “The choice to be baptized certainly has a spiritual impact, but you are not different when you come up… you are the same broken, dependent individual in need of the power and love of Christ.”

      I guess that’s what I was trying to get at in the post. Here were these people who were throwing themselves, by faith, into a deeper relationship with God, but in the end, they are still broken. They couldn’t do it alone, nor were they meant to.

      I guess I’ve always thought of the symbol or ritual of public baptism as being in the same family as marriage or child dedication. You are standing up in front of, alongside, the great wide body of believers. You are committing. You are saying, “I want to do this.” You are saying, “Help me do this.”

      1. Yeah, I like the “Help me!” We were not meant to do the Christian life alone… we were meant to live in real, deep community. Baptism can often be seen as an arrival point when in reality its much more of a beginning point. The church in America has really ruined the purest concept of so many practices meant to empower us to spirit filled living… that is sad. Rather than blaming the church though I think its good for us to look individually at our own hearts. What are we really about? living for? The church will reflect the heart of God when the individuals begin choosing to live like Jesus. You rock, talk soon.

  2. “Baptism” – To dip, as in the dipping of a white cloth in dye so as to change its essence to that of another entirely. It goes in with one identity, it comes out with another…changed…transformed. So, more than a religiously driven hurdle, or a magically endowed “holy water,” or means of conveying saving grace, or even a public declaration of faith, let’s keep it simple. Let’s enjoy these traditions for what they are…all of what they are, but no more than what they are. Baptism – a symbol of what faith in Jesus did to kill the old, bury it’s power forever, and live as the absolutely new person Jesus has made me!

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