I really think the church needs to readdress our baptismal policy. And by “the church,” I mean the wider church. As wide as you can paint it. Biggest brush ever.
There are issues everywhere. And I don’t claim to have answers for them. Trust me, if I thought I could address every nuance of the issues Christians have with baptism, I’d patent it and sell it for an unlimited supply Smithwicks. Or fairly traded shade-grown coffee.
But there are a couple of things that run across my desk every-so-often. Scenario 1:
“So-and-so would like to have their child baptized on March 23rd.”
First question: who is so-and-so? I’ve never met them. I’ve never seen them.
So I call so-and-so. They found us on the internet. They liked the look of the church.
“Yes, but are you going to become members?” No. They had not thought of that.
“Ok, what church do you currently go to?” None. Not active in a faith community.
“Ok, so what makes you think it’s time for a baptism?” The child was born. Grandma is getting antsy.
“Ok, so this is about grandma, right?” Yes.
Now, I’m all for affirming the fact that baptism, as a ritual act, has an inward affect on a person. Indeed, we are introducing the baptized to a life lived in God’s Spirit. Yes. Affirmative.
But there’s more, right? I mean it’s not “one and done,” right?
I’m pretty sure it’s “one and never done…” Something like that.
And I think that because I read farther in Matthew 28 than just “Go to all nations and baptize…” It follows with, ” teach them all that I have commanded…” And finishes with “I am with you always…”
What’s the connective tissue there, then? It seems we baptize, and then teach. Oh, and the Christ is always with us. I don’t get the impression that the third is a conditional. But it seems to me that the first two are pretty connected.
Instruction is important. Not as a prerequisite. Not as some sort of belief that makes us “ready” for baptism. Indeed, I don’t think our beliefs ever make us ready for anything! After all, I believe I’d be a good sailor. But if you stick me behind the wheel of a schooner right now and send me off to sea you’d better call the Coast Guard. And instruct them to bring coffee and Smithwicks.
So how do we ensure that we keep the second part of Matthew 28? We have parents and/or guardians make the promises for them. And then as a back-up, we have sponsors (ideally sponsors from the church, who are already practicing) make them.
We can’t get around it: in baptism we make certain promises, at least on this side of the denominational church aisle. The parents and/or guardians promise to teach the child the creed, the ten commandments, place in their hands the holy scriptures, take them regularly to communion, and raise them in a community of faith where they will learn to lean on the crucified and risen one.
It’s a promise.
And then we, as a community, promise to help the child in their life of faith.
But we can’t do it, see, we can’t keep the promise, if we never see the kid again. It’s an issue.
“Pastor, so-and-so would like to have their great-grandchild baptized here next week.”
“So, what faith community do the parents of so-and-so’s great-grandchild belong to?” None.
“So, why do they want to have them baptized here? They live out of state!” Because they were baptized here and great-grandma so-and-so comes here.
Refer to Argument One to hear the reasons why this is a bad idea.
You see, I think it’s time for faith communities all around the world to have a very difficult conversation about this sacrament. Can we take the promises lightly, knowing that those who make promises have no intention of keeping them? I mean, c’mon, it’s no guarantee that they’ll keep the promises if we have them join the faith community or anything, but at least its an attempt at honesty.
And for you, parents, can you honestly have your child baptized simply to appease great-grandma? Can you not, instead, have a conversation with great-grandma about your faith or issues with organized religion? Can you not, instead, allow great-grandma to make the promises and then take the child to the faith community? Even that would be a great turn of events, a great step.
But, instead, we’re living in this middle ground where we don’t expect parents to live up to their promises, and parents don’t expect the church to help them keep them or hold them accountable.
The issues surrounding baptism make me a reluctant Christian. On the one hand I have my evangelical brothers and sisters wanting to make it about “beliefs” or “understanding.” In which case you’re actually baptizing yourself…because your beliefs make you worthy.
On the other hand we have these other folks who seem to baptize out of tradition with no intention of practicing. Indeed, “we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”
I’m 30. I’m still learning how to live without seeing myself as the center of the universe…something that baptism helps me do. I’m still learning how to live, holding the scriptures in tension with what I see around me…something that baptism reminds me to do. I’m still learning how to live in a community of faith, asking the tough faith questions…something that baptism asks me to do.
It’s not a tradition. It’s not a belief system.
Can we not take this seriously? Can’t we help one another keep promises or refrain from making them if we can’t?!
If you are thinking about baptism but you-
a) aren’t interested in making faith a part of your life
b) aren’t interested in joining a faith community and engaging it
c) aren’t interested in seeking after God
d) can’t make the promises required of baptism
e) are doing it to get Grandma off your back
Wait. Don’t do it now. Wait until the child is older, then they can then decide if they want to make the promises. Wait until you can commit to a faith community and engage it. Wait until you feel the tug of God strongly on your heart. Wait until Grandma and you can have a conversation about it.
Let. Let Grandma make the promises.
However, if you-
a) are thinking that it might be time to re-engage your faith life
b) aren’t sure what you think about this whole “Jesus thing,” but are interested in it
c) aren’t sure what you think about this whole “God thing” but think a community can help you figure it out
d) are willing to make the promises and keep them
e) think Grandma might have some wisdom that you can carry yourself.
Do it. Engage it. Take the whole plunge. Put a ring on it.
This a/theist finds baptism, washing, being made clean such a powerful event, such a powerful story. But if it doesn’t get reinforced, doesn’t get explored, doesn’t get told and retold and retold…well…
I don’t know. Just thinking about it gives me acid reflux. I can’t make heads or tails.
All I know is that as a community who takes promises seriously, especially the promises of God, we should probably take our own promises seriously.