Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Baptism Memories

“Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” 
(Acts 8: 36)

A flood of memories came to me suddenly when I first saw this cartoon. No, I assure you that it had nothing to do with corpses floating in the water after some strange baptismal service gone bad. Some of the memories had a comical twist, whereas others raised a theological question or two. Perhaps those of you with a seminary background can also see the humour in this. Perhaps the cartoon also raises a few theological questions for you too.

Three of my baptism memories sparked by this cartoon are:

The Stop Wiggling Baptism Memory

Not long after graduating seminary, I found myself serving in a small rural church as a bi-vocational pastor. I later mused that “bi-vocational” was really the church’s way of saying that they expected me to serve them as a full-time pastor, but they were only going to give me part-time pay for doing so. I still had to find a job somewhere else in order to make up the rest of the salary that I needed to support my family. Having said that, this event has long since become ancient history, and I hold no ill feelings towards anyone over it.

 One spring we decided it was time for a baptismal service. If I remember correctly, there were six or seven candidates for baptism.  I remember the father of one of the teenage boys who had asked to be baptized coming to me and informing me that he didn’t think his son was ready to be baptized. As I discussed this with the father, his concern was centered on what he perceived was a lack of spiritual maturity in his son. I asked the man how mature he thought we should be, then, before qualifying for baptism. I remember then suggesting that if we were to all wait until we attained a certain level of spiritual maturity, however that level was to be defined, that perhaps none of us would ever get baptized. I think he got the point.

When I met with the man’s son later before the baptism, I clearly remember the young man asking me how long he is held under the water. I told him, “I only hold you under the water until you stop wiggling.” After an interesting moment of silence, one in which I almost regretted saying what I did, we both laughed.

As it turned out, none of us were in the water too long. While it was spring, the water in the outdoor pool that we were using felt as if it may still have been frozen an hour earlier. Thankfully I was wearing a borrowed wet-suit under my clothing, since I had to stay in the cold water longer than the others and could not quickly escape.

The Practice Makes Perfect Baptism Memory

During seminary our class went to a local church one day to do “baptism practice.” What this amounted to was each of us taking turns baptizing each other. I don’t remember how many times I was dunked that day, nor how many times I dunked my classmates, but if the act of baptism was really what washed away sins, at least for that day, I’m sure I was sinless (Yes, I am being facetious).

Now obviously, as in all walks of life, there is something to be said for practicing an activity or craft as opposed to simply trying to learn something from a textbook alone. In many respects, practice does make perfect.

In retrospect, however, I have a problem with the “practice” of an activity when it comes to matters of faith. For me this is no different than the worship team at the local church getting together for a “worship practice,” or the pastor “practicing” the delivery of his sermon the night before the service. Think about what all that “practice” sounds like for a moment. The only reason we “practice” something is to make it perfect, or at least to improve it. While that may make sense in the secular school or workplace, it says something about our theology when we apply the same thinking to our faith.

In the church, if we “practice” something in order to make it perfect, are we not in essence saying that we believe that God either expects perfection from us, or that He is more impressed with the finely tuned worship service than He is with the more impromptu worship? Does it not then essentially become a works-based righteousness? Hmm, I wonder. 

If not that, then the only other reason for “practice” is because our expression of church has been “Hollywood-ized” in that it has evolved into a quest to better entertain the masses.  Have those in the pews come to expect professionalism from those on stage? If things don’t flow just right, from the music through the baptism and on into the sermon, are church leaders afraid they will lose their flocks to other churches with more finely tuned services? If so, maybe that explains our need to “practice.” The bigger question for me, though, is what does that say about our worship? Has it become simply a mechanical and religious exercise, and maybe even, a little superficial?

The Hot Tub Baptism Memory

Probably the best memory I have of a water baptism happened several years after I had already left the institutional church. I alluded to it briefly in my contribution to the recently released Finding Church book project.

A number of us were gathered in my home. It was a wonderful time of fellowship as we were preparing and sharing a meal together, sharing the Word together, and generally enjoying each other’s company.

Suddenly one brother, a recent new believer, announced that he felt God calling him to be baptized. Noticing the hot tub on my deck, and reminded of the Ethiopian eunuch’s question to Philip, “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” (Acts 8: 36), one of the brothers baptized him there in the hot tub as others spontaneously broke out in song. Wow! What an incredible memory of an incredibly beautiful time of fellowship!

The degree and intensity of fellowship we have enjoyed outside of the institutional system sometimes still blows my mind. The spontaneity and noticeable absence of organized structure and methodology, has been for me personally incredibly refreshing. Perhaps that’s what it means to be “born of the Spirit.” Perhaps it also has something to do with spontaneity and absence of organized structure. Perhaps anything more than that truly is also little more than simply a religious exercise.
“The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

Time For You to Weigh In. Thoughts?

  • What are your thoughts about waiting to be baptized until some measure of spiritual growth can be proven? Was the father right in suggesting that his son wasn’t “ready” to be baptized because of what he perceived as a lack of spiritual maturity in his son? Does that even matter? Why or why not?

  • What are we to make about our modern practice of delaying water baptism, even though the New Testament example almost always shows the baptism as happening hard and fast on the heels of the conversion experience? Are we wrong in delaying baptism? Why or why not?

  • What are your thoughts about “practice” when it comes to matters of the faith? In your opinion, what are the pros and cons of these rehearsals? Does that take away from “real” worship? Why or why not?

  • Has the traditional institutional church been “Hollywood-ized?” Has professionalism become the order of the day in modern institutional Christianity? Does that even matter? Why or why not?

  • What is your opinion surrounding the apparent growing trend towards leaving the traditional institutional church in favor of the more organic and simple format of fellowshipping in private homes, restaurants, public parks, or wherever else the Spirit may lead? What’s right with it? What’s wrong with it?

I guess at the end of the day, I still have more questions than I have answers. I would love to hear some of your thoughts. Thanks for stopping by. Peace & Blessings.

Photo Credit: David Hayward (Naked Pastor) Used by Permission. Thank you, David.

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