It has been five years. Five years since I put on that worn out white robe and climbed those creaky, ancient stairs to the baptismal at the Calvary Baptist Church (only pausing long enough along the way to share with the pastor that I was deathly afraid of water). Five years ago, for the second time in my life, I was baptized. This time it wasn’t a sprinkle of water, it was baptism by full immersion. And it was well worth facing my desperate fear of water.
I am, quite naturally, a person who remembers anniversaries, and so each year on this date I have stopped to consider my baptism. I in fact think of my baptism often, because I keep the picture below near my bed so that I see it often. And, I kept a copy of that picture in my hospital room so that it, along with a few other dear images, was the first thing that I would see when I woke from the anesthesia. And while at the seminary, I had multiple opportunities to participate in services where we relied on the Book of Common Prayer to guide us as we remembered our baptism. I came to appreciate the questions we were asked to ponder:
Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in your prayers?
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
It is such a wonderful, succinct list of our responsibilities as disciples, as believers, as followers. Lately, however, I feel that there is a question that is missing from this list. It is a question that is not asked in any baptism ritual that I have seen or experienced, but, in my understanding of a life of faith it is THE most important question, the one where most of us fail over and over and over again as disciples. And that question is:
Are you willing to be changed, over and over again, by your faith and by the call that this faith exerts upon your life?
In his book Beyond the Edge: Spiritual Transitions for Adventurous Souls (2013), Andrew D. Mayes alludes to this question in his compelling discussion of the baptism of Jesus. You see, as Mayes points out, we forget that, at his baptism, Jesus not only enters the water, but he passes through it — he crosses the river. Mayes sees baptism as a threshold experience, accompanied by bereavement of things lost and the dual feeling of exhilaration and fear at the creation of something new and unknown. For Mayes, the peaceful scene of a beatific Jesus receiving the holy Spirit bears no resemblance to the probable truth. Jesus journeyed far, from the peaceful land of Galilee, to the harsh land of the desert, the very edge of the sacred land of the Hebrew Bible. Jesus went to the very place in Joshua 3, the place where the Jordan River became the barrier where the people of Israel underwent that fundamental transition from a people wandering in the wilderness to a people, claiming the land that was promised to them. The Jordan, unlike the Galilee, was a fundamental place of hard transition for Israel. And in Jesus’ day, the Jordan was not the little trickle that it is now when we in the 21st century visit its shores: it was a ferocious river, with swirling, threatening waters. And on the other side of those waters, Jesus faced a total and irrevocable change to his life: a change in vocation (he had, up until now, worked as a tradesman with his father), and that sense of bereavement and dislocation that comes with such a change and with the loss of all that he knew (family, friends, community — possibly everything about his life as he knew it).
I understand this now. While I did understand my choice to be baptized again in 2009, I could not have foreseen the road out of the baptismal waters. I could not have understood the letting go, the loss of identity and confidence, the incredible vulnerability that living into this life of change and transformation has meant to my journey on this planet. I did not at all understand the pain involved in the process of forging this new identity, the new way of living demanded by this threshold experience.
And, five years later, I do not regret the choice or the commitment. Not in any way. Not for a single second.
Mayes says it best:
Baptism is not a one-off event in the lives of Christians, rather it sets the pattern for the whole of the Christian life. We pass through the baptismal waters as the first crossing of our Jordan but we are called to be a pilgrim people through all of life. …all through the year God is calling us to step into the swirling waters, to wade into the deep, to drown our small ideas, let go of certain dreams or sins, to submerge our narrowed hopes or worn-out practices and to hear again the call of Christ. We emerge, dripping like Jesus, to face a new future. We are a baptismal people, a river people, who know the Jordan in our daily experience. We are a people ready to make transitions, in the ways we pray, (in the ways we live), and in the ways we serve (LOC 295-303, Kindle Edition).
Just as on that day five years ago, I stand here, before my God, wet, and dripping, and ready to change. The difference? Today I know that change, above all, is what is demanded of me by my baptismal declaration.