A Divine Dunking
Lessons of a full-immersion baptism
Oh, to be Catholic, I thought, as I stood in chest-high lukewarm water. Catholic catechism and confirmation seemed so simple for my friends. Or to be Jewish, I imagined, as I stood on my toes trying to peer down into the darkened pews where the congregation sat. From what I had heard, bar and bat mitzvahs were tradition-laden ceremonies that ended in big parties. But I am Baptist, I sighed. I am about to be dunked.
Baptism, in the Baptist tradition, is supposed to be the culmination of an intensely personal decision to repent of sin and desire cleansing. In a Protestant denomination still doing its best to distance itself from the pageantry of the Catholic church, full-immersion baptism is the holiest church event. Most Christian denominations are satisfied with a symbolic sprinkling of water that recalls Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. But no sissy sprinkling is sufficient for Baptists. Afterall, the Greek wordbaptizo
does mean "to submerge, dip, or plunge under." If it was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for Baptists.
"Baptism is the outward symbol of what has already transpired in the one who has trusted Christ for full salvation," read the pamphlet I had been given before climbing into the baptismal pool. Had anything transpired in me? When would I feel changed? Even though the entire baptism process--from the initial "call" to the ceremony itself--had taken place in familiar surroundings, it still seemed mysterious to me.
The initial "call" starts with the closing hymn--or "invitation hymn"--of each Sunday's service which was designed to encourage a commitment to Christ. "Come home, come home, ye who are weary come home...." Before the hymn, the pastor would offer the invitation to anyone who had been moved to change their life, come forward, and express that desire in front of the entire community. It made for some tense singing--as we neared the last verse, deacons would edge up the aisles just in case, their heads darting at the slightest movement of a potential reborn soul. But the pastor was usually left standing conspicuously alone in front of the altar by the time the last notes had faded.
Maybe a dozen times a year, someone would answer the call and come forward. Sometimes it was a tearful adult whose hand would be clasped in the pastor's intense grip and who would be immediately surrounded by throngs of swooning deacons and deaconesses. Usually, though, it was a young person looking like a deer caught in headlights who stood at the front as the pastor urged us to rejoice in the addition to our family. As a young child, I wondered what it felt like to be moved to go forward.