I have been schooled to consider baptism with a theologian’s precision, what it is and what it isn’t, what happens and how, the various forms and their respective pitfalls. Nonetheless, baptism continues to possess much the same air of unfathomable mystery for me that my marriage does, that there is more going on here than can be properly named or known.
My own infant baptism, however inadequate (as my Anabaptist friends may regard it), held a strange hold over me during my growing up years. I have been accused of having high-church inclinations for a Reformed pastor, and surely my baptism at St. John the Divine in New York, the world’s largest Gothic cathedral, got me started down that path. My godfather, Bill Warren, was an Episcopal priest, a lovely man who served in remote parishes in Alaska and Arizona. He was a Jungian analyst who was fascinated by Native American spirituality. A bit of a mystic, his baptismal present to me was a red Morocco leather-bound copy of The Imitation of Christ.
It sat unused until I found it pristine in its dusty box on my bookshelf when I was about 19. My mother had recently died, it was the late sixties, and I was something of a lost soul at the time. I carried that little book around in my knapsack while hitchhiking across America in the summer of 1969, and it had an importance to me far beyond its content, which I found kind of creepy, to tell the truth. It had become for me a talisman of a lost home and family, and of some connection to the boy I had once been in church, singing in the choir and loved by the congregation. Later, when I read about Martin Luther’s “I am baptized” in the midst of his battles with the devil I resonated with that.
Now mystics, talismans and incantations to ward off evil are pretty far afield for a Reformed pastor-theologian to travel. It’s a long journey from Thomas A Kempis to Karl Barth. But still, six decades after I received that sacrament in the cathedral, baptism remains an inextricable (shall I say indelible) stamp on who I am, for better or worse.
I started ruminating on all this today because my daughter was baptized by my hand on this day, Epiphany, twenty-six years ago, and she is now discerning a call to serve in leadership in Christ’s Church. She is halfway through divinity school preparing for ordained ministry. I couldn’t have imagined that when I was a child, as there were no ordained women in my church when I was growing up. This is just one of a great many surprises that have taken place throughout my journey. So many changes, and so much of what I once took for granted is lost or long-gone. But baptism remains, full of promise and hope and heavy with many mysteries, connecting the journey of one generation of those who share Christ to that of another.
Some of my other posts on baptism:
Ruminations on Baptism
George Hunsinger: Answer to a Question about Baptism