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Weird, Radical, Wonderful Act

January 19, 2013

This past Sunday in some Presbyterian circles, congregations observed a renewal of baptism service right after Epiphany. Presbyterians do not believe you ever need more than one baptism, but they allow for a liturgy that focuses on a reminder of your baptism, and the service is a time to reaffirm faith in Christ, turn away from evil, and an opportunity to go to the baptismal font (usually on a small pedestal at the back, front or middle of most worship spaces) and touch and finger the water therein. It can be very meaningful, or it can be another “out there” ritual that makes some feel uncomfortably compelled to go forward whether they feel like it or not.

My own baptismal anniversary is coming up January 30, (1966). While we don’t have photos of that, (none even taken after the service, to my knowledge, it was a different era!), I do treasure a grainy photo of a baptismal service reproduced in a simply printed/photocopied edition of my home congregation’s 50 Year Anniversary at North Goshen Mennonite, Indiana.

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I treasure it because up front, (circa 1963,) holding the baptismal pitcher is my father, Vernon, who was a deacon, and that was one of his special jobs. He still wore a plain “Mennonite” suit at that time. We “poured” in our congregation—which is a good thing when you are baptized on Jan. 30 in northern Indiana.

For this baptism, you can spot me in the row directly behind the baptismal candidates, girl on the end, with a slightly messy (always) ponytail. My mother is next to me, and my brother, (I love this) is perched forward on the seat in front of us, as if to get an even better view of the proceedings. My other two sisters must have been sitting with the youth group in the youth corner. But my brother was probably also pitched forward because he knew what would come next: the “Holy Kiss” which was my mother’s job, as deacon’s wife, to go kiss the female baptismal candidates. (We’ll discuss some of the other fun jobs of a deacon’s wife in another blog sometime.)

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I also treasure this photo because across the aisle is my 90-something-year-old grandfather Uriah, who lived at our house. He had pink wintergreens in his suit pocket for the kiddies after church; he always did. (Uriah is the little white head on far right of photo, second row.)

Nostalgia aside, how does a born and bred (and “reborn”) Anabaptist-Mennonite who later in life joined the Presbyterian church and had her own infants (gasp) baptized find harmony with that mix of theologies? My father, for instance, was not happy with me.

I knew without asking Dad would not want to come to the baptisms of our daughters. After all, when your forebears suffered, were tortured and died for the radical right to withhold state baptism of your kids, and to be “rebaptized” as adults, swallowing the idea of infant baptism as another form of dedicating your kids, practiced in most Mennonite congregations, didn’t quite cut it for him.

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[Our oldest daughter with our interim pastor, Tempe Fussell. One of them looks really happy. It was the first baptism Tempe did out of seminary.]

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[Our middle daughter with then pastor Dan Grandstaff.]

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[My daughters and I on Easter Sunday, 1986; the babe in arms was baptized that year on Mother’s day (but I can’t find the photos. Isn’t that what happens to the youngest child?) but I’m happy to say my mother was able to come to that baptism. O happy day!]

I first wrote about my first daughter’s baptism here (In Presbyterians Today magazine) so I won’t repeat myself.

After my own father died, I felt freer to address some of my thought processing head on in Mennonite World Review.

Today I’m happy that, and my pastor made this point on Sunday, that Presbyterians practice infant, adult, teen and even child baptism at whatever stage parents want to make the claim of “this is my child and I will do everything in my ability to help him or her grow up to declare their faith on their own.” I’m glad there is more openness for parents to freely choose whether or not to have their children baptized, and not feel like people did at one time that a child who was not baptized soon after birth was not in the realm of God’s grace.

It is kind of a weird ritual, on the face of it, like the Lord’s Supper. If you were to be dropped into Protestant culture from the middle of Africa and not knowing anything about Christianity, observe either a river immersion, a “bathtub” emersion like those who have such fixtures in their churches, sprinkling—or watched a communion service, you would go—wow, wait a minute, these people are weird. What kind of cult is this?

But in the depth of it, baptism is a wonderful recognition that I am a recipient of God’s grace; that God loves me—amazing! That God claims me. What a way to start each day, as it was rumored that Martin Luther did, looking in the mirror and saying, “I am baptized!”

It is as weird, radical and wonderful as that.

***

A moving and transformational original “ana-baptist” (re-baptizing) re-enactment (10 min.) from the movie, “The Radicals”.

A fuller explanation of the Anabaptist view on baptism.

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