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 word baptizo 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.
One night when I was 10, I stopped waiting for a Damascus-like experience. I had done the math and realized that half my Sunday school class had already gone forward to be baptized. I searched my brain and could not think of any child in the church who had entered junior-high unbaptized. The time seemed about right. I told my mom, she contacted Pastor Bill, I attended new-member classes, and one Sunday I walked to the front of the sanctuary during the final hymn.
And so I found myself standing in what was essentially a big bathtub, awaiting spiritual transformation. Although some Baptists still perform baptisms in rivers, my home church opted for an indoor version, saving me from the chemicals of the nearby Detroit River. My mind was not exactly on the state of my soul. I wondered how holy I could feel wearing a polka-dotted swimsuit next to my pastor, who had donned wading boots. I worried that the microphone into which I was supposed to speak would fall into the baptistery and electrocute us. Oddly, I didn't fret about the baptism statement I had written--a radical denunciation of the congregation for not accepting my Catholic father, even though I knew him to be an excellent Christian role model.
More than anything, the decision to be baptized was the result of a simple risk assessment. I didn't feel that in my 10 years on earth I had done anything sinful enough to require cleansing. On the other hand, the constant refrain from the pulpit admonished that, if a bus hit me on the way home and I died unbaptized, I would go to hell.Waiting in the baptismal, I sincerely wanted to experience the power of baptism. But I was also hedging my heavenly bets.
Before I knew it, I had read my diatribe, been blessed, been dipped back into the water, got some water up my nose, made my dad cry, and returned to the choir-robe room to have my hair blown-dry by one of the deaconesses. I felt ... exactly the same.
I do believe in miraculous conversions of the type portrayed in the movie "The Apostle," but I have learned to stopped expecting the "Jesus bumps" my Sunday school teacher always talked about. I also believe that for someone who has been raised in the Baptist church and has never done much of anything to stray, baptism is not the symbol of one affirmative choice but rather an experience that is recalled in thousands of small choices made over a lifetime.
My baptism meant very little to me at age 10; it means everything to me now.