My niece has asked me if I would consider baptizing their 1-year-old daughter. Isabel is their second child, and Izzie’s 4 year-old big sister Nuala was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church. Erin [my niece] and [her husband] Mark were both confirmed and married in the Catholic Church, so this request to consider baptizing Izzie comes with a story, I gather. I’ve told Erin that I would certainly “consider” baptizing Isabel, but, like every other request for baptism, I told her, “Let’s talk.” We haven’t had a chance to do that yet, but I’ve been thinking about baptism, especially this week, when we celebrate the baptism of Jesus.
So, if you don’t mind, and if Erin and Mark don’t mind, [of course, I’ll have to ask their forgiveness, rather than their permission!] I’d like to share with you a letter I’ve been composing to them, just to get my thoughts on paper and to give us a place to start that conversation which we have yet to schedule. Maybe it will get you thinking about baptism as well, your own baptism, whether you’ve had one or whether you’re thinking about having one.
So here’s the letter–
Dear Erin and Mark,
Happy First Birthday to Isabel! Of course, Izzie just did “what came naturally” in being born. It was the two of you– ok, especially you, Erin– who did the work of bringing her to birth, and both of you have nurtured and provided for her in this first year, so Happy Birthday to you both as well! What a gift to all of us are your two beautiful daughters, so thank you for that.
You’ve asked me if I would consider baptizing Isabel, which of course I’d be honored and delighted to do, but since we may have different experiences and understandings of baptism, I thought it might be a good idea for me to at least let you know what I bring to our conversation about Isabel’s baptism and then I welcome your responses and questions as well.
First of all, baptism is one of just two sacraments in the United Church of Church–and in most other Protestant churches as well. The other sacrament is Holy Communion, the Eucharist. Those two–out of the seven, I think, recognized by the Roman Catholic Church–are chosen because we understand that Jesus himself participated in both of these. They weren’t “sacraments,” as such, because that’s what the later Church called them, but in these two occasions, Jesus and elements of the earth–water, bread, wine–came together in significant ways that were transformative for him and for us.
So, in baptism, we affirm for ourselves and re-enact or remember what Jesus himself went through. The name given to Jesus at his baptism–Beloved of God–is given to each one of us in our baptism. I’ve told my congregation many times the baptismal affirmation told by a United Methodist colleague of mine, which has become part of my own daily affirmation ritual– “I am beloved, a precious child of God, beautiful to behold.” Isabel too is beloved, a precious child of God, beautiful to behold. I happen to believe that she is that already, but baptism affirms and somehow, mysteriously, reinforces that.
In our tradition, baptism almost always takes place in the context of the community’s worship service. That’s why I asked you, Erin, if you’d consider having Izzie baptized here at Second Congregational Church. During the baptismal service, questions are asked not only of the parents and godparents or sponsors, but also of the community. “Will you support and nurture this child and these parents…?”
You both are blessed with truly amazing families who love and support you, but in baptism we are reminded that the Family we are part of extends way beyond blood or marital relations. God’s Family transcends all the boundaries and definitions we tend to put around people, and in fact, transcends both place and time. It extends even beyond death. Your grandparents and other loved ones who have died continue to be part of this Family.
Although your extended family in many ways could be considered a “village,” there is great wisdom in the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Isabel is not only your child, she is God’s child, and she is our child. All of us bear responsibility to teach her, to model a way of life for her, to do what we can to advocate for structures and systems that not only enable her to live life fully, but to enable all of God’s “beloveds” to live life fully. This “village” or community into which we baptize Izzie is centered less in a list of common statements of belief but more in a set of values, beginning with the value that each person is a beloved child of God.
There is a passage in Isaiah which we think the early Christian community looked to in understanding who Jesus was. In it, God says, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations…a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench…I am the Lord,…I have taken you by the hand and kept you…I have given you as a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness…”
This is the kind of servant the community looks to and values–a person passionate about justice and healing and liberation, who would not break a bruised reed or quench a dimly burning wick. There are so many people in our communities, our nation, our world, who are broken, whose light is barely able to shine. Here in Bennington at Mt. Anthony Union High School, less than 40% of the girls taking the Youth Risk Behavior Survey in 2011 said they felt like they mattered in their community. The boys were only slightly more positive. That means that somewhere around 60% of the high school kids in our community feel like they don’t matter here. Wow. Lots of bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks!
My hope and guess is that Isabel will grow to be one of those girls who feel like they do matter, but her baptism puts her in a community that says every person matters, is beloved and whose true essence is beautiful to behold. Her–and your–participation in the life of a community that extends beyond our incredibly blessed family and friends will challenge her not only to be aware of but also to interact with and stand in solidarity with all those “dimly burning wicks.” Within any given church community are people who we would not otherwise choose to associate, who “rub us the wrong way,” who we don’t feel we have very much in common with, and yet, in our baptism, we affirm them as our sisters and brothers, with something to teach us, whose diversity enriches us. So, whether here or, preferably closer to home, I urge you to find such a community.
All four gospels tell us that Jesus was baptized, though each one tells the story slightly differently. In Matthew, Jesus alone sees the Spirit descending upon him like a dove and hears the Voice from heaven saying, “Here is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.” The picture here is, if you will, a “selfie,” as one commentator calls it [a picture one takes of oneself with a cell phone or camera]. That claiming of him as God’s beloved child was for Jesus to press into his heart and then live into what that meant. He went immediately into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights, the gospels tell us, to be “tested,” but it could be said that growing up through adolescence and beyond is the wilderness all of us go through to be tested and to figure out who we are. Baptism, it could be said, is the point from which it all begins.
Perhaps the mystery and holiness of [baptism] are in the selfie, [writes Nancy Rockwell], in the image that moves into the heart and mind of each of us, when an expected–or unexpected–act of baptism occurs…What makes the baptismal name–Beloved–powerful for us is how and when we share it and what struggles it gets us through. It is an Epiphany begun in a moment, yet made real over years of time in other moments, as we reveal it to other people and continue to embed it in ourselves, till it becomes so much a part of us that everyone says Amen. [Bite in the Apple blog, 1/12/14]
Chances are Izzie won’t remember her baptism. It is for you–and us–to remind her of it. Martin Luther is said to have reminded himself in particularly low moments, “Remember your baptism.” As hard as you may try to shield her from them, Izzie will go through tough times, times when she is hurt, physically or emotionally, times when she is frustrated or infuriated or sad. You cannot–and should not–keep her from that. But you can remind her that she is beloved.
Finally, since I think of God energetically, I want to share this image of baptism that rings true for me. It’s from a guy named Bruce Epperly who’s a Disciples of Christ minister–
While baptism is not necessary for salvation, it is a sign of God’s grace and opens the door for experiencing a greater impact of God’s energy of love in our lives and communities…Baptism is a type of spiritual vortex, an axis of graceful energy that attracts other graceful energies into our lives and expands our ability to share grace with others. The promise of God in baptism serves to remind us body, mind, and spirit that we are always recipients of grace; grace doesn’t depend on our perfection, although turning away from God may impede its flow into our lives…”
[The Adventurous Lectionary, 1/12/14]
I love that–“baptism opens the door for experiencing a greater impact of God’s energy of love in our lives…[it’s] a type of spiritual vortex, an axis of graceful energy that attracts other graceful energies…and expands our ability to share grace with others…”
That’s probably more than enough for now, but thanks for letting me put some of these thoughts together. Let’s find a time to sit together and talk about what Izzie’s baptism means to you and what you hope it will mean for her. I promise not to put any of that conversation into a sermon without asking your permission first!
Know that you both are beloved, and I am so grateful that you are part of our lives. Let’s talk soon.