Sunday, January 12, 2014

A Fresh Start


What's the point of getting baptized?

That was one of the central mysteries of my early life. I spent most of my first two decades searching for someone who could explain it to me.

My parents were no help. Though they were both raised in homes where faith mattered, they chose a different path for their children. No baptisms, no worship, no bibles, no prayer, no talk about God whatsoever. My dad was the quintessential mid-century atheist: God is dead; long live science. My mom, who probably knew better, went along with him to keep the peace. 

In any case, I grew up completely devoid of religious guidance. I was at least eight years old before I understood why we put out a little stable and a tiny statue of a baby lying in hay each year at Christmas time. My mom got angry with me when I asked her about it, and insisted that surely I knew that this was Jesus' birthday. Nope. Sorry. I had no clue.


I picked up a little bit about baptism from my childhood friends. Every now and then, they would all ask each other, "What church were you baptized in?" When I told them I wasn't baptized, they told me to go home and ask my mom because that couldn't be right. 

I also recall a game we used to play in the summer while we were swimming. One day, somebody picked up a plastic bucket that was lying around nearby, filled it with water and dumped it over the next person's head, three times in a row, saying, "I baptize you in the name of the Father (splash) and the Son (splash) and the Holy Spirit (splash)! My friends found this to be hilarious entertainment, and I enjoyed it, too. But mostly I remember feeling like they were part of a mysterious club from which I had been denied entry. 

In spite of my complete lack of faith education, I felt loved by God. I turned the idea of a higher power, a Creator and Father, over and over in my child-sized intellect, and it all made perfect sense to me. But I struggled to understand how baptism - and my utter lack thereof - fit into the plan of God's infinite love.

In college, one of my roommates was shocked to learn of my unbaptized status, and promptly told me I was going to hell. So I demanded to know what exactly baptism was going to do for me that was so all-fire important. But she couldn't really explain. It was just God's rule.

Well. That really put me off. 

I decided that I absolutely would not get baptized until someone could explain to me why it mattered.


It was a few years later, when I was newly engaged, that I pulled a 180 and decided to get myself baptized. My reasoning was purely practical: if I wanted to be married in the church - and I definitely did - then I wanted to do it properly. In the enigmatic world of organized religion, I knew almost nothing, but I was pretty sure that baptism should come before marriage. So my church-going husband-to-be delivered me to the local Lutheran pastor, who took great pains to school me in the theological implications of baptism.

His words meant nothing to me. But then he poured water over my head three times, handed me a tiny linen towel to dry off, and beamed at me. I still didn't get it, but I kinda liked it.


Fast forward a couple decades. 

After all these years of growing into my baptism, I won't pretend that I've completely solved the riddle of this ancient Christian ritual. But I can begin to answer the questions that puzzled me for so long:

What is the point of getting baptized?

Baptism is a way of saying, Take me, God - I'm all yours. Help me live the life that you want for me.

But it's not just a one-time thing. 

When you're baptized, every day is a fresh start. God rolls forward the strengths and accomplishments of your past, then wipes away your mistakes and gives you a chance to try again. 

Baptism is the ultimate do-over. 

Baptism is like an endless supply of clean white t-shirts. Every morning, you put on a fresh one. Sure, it's going to get dirty as you go about your day. That's to be expected. But each night, before you lie down to sleep, you can peel it off and throw it away. And you can rest in sweet peace, knowing that you get to put on a perfectly clean shirt in the morning. 

Baptism is like taking the perfect shower. You scrubbed fresh and clean, and all the dirt and grime swirl down the drain, never to be seen again. And as an added bonus, the warmth of the water, the pressure of the spray, the slippery texture of the sweet-smelling soap, even the sound of the drops pounding against the tiled walls, refresh your senses and rejuvenate your soul, preparing you to face another day, ready to do your best.

Baptism is like God whispering in your ear, "I'm so dang proud of you. Keep up the good work." He says it every day, even when you feel like you are screwing up. And it makes you want to try just a little bit harder.


But what about people who aren't baptized? 

Baptism can also be like the last present on Christmas morning, tucked so far back underneath the tree that it goes unnoticed, while all the other gifts are opened and enjoyed. Even if you don't see it back there, it will wait there for you until the time is right. And when you finally find it and open it, your joy will be all the richer for having waited. 

And I can personally vouch for that.


P.S. I'm planning to do a painting that will help me remember what it means to be baptized. These all-white inspiration pieces shout "Fresh start!" to me and that's exactly what I have in mind. 

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