Subsequently, the candidate has made a profession of faith, or declaration of loyalty to Jesus, typically in a church setting, and in so doing, has met the requirements for baptism.
The structure is not what is sanctified, though. It is merely a symbol, a representation, of the true layers of holiness. The real sacred space is the heart: the heart of the believer, nestled within and sustained by a larger heart, that of the church.
As a Southern Baptist, I grew up hearing sermons and lessons that emphasized a loving, personal God. One day, for example, our Sunday School teacher showed us a picture of Jesus knocking on a door, and therefore depicting the passage we heard earlier in Revelation. “Notice,” she stressed, “That there is no handle or knob on the outside. No one but you can open your heart to Jesus. He can’t come in unless you invite Him.” I’m sure many of you heard a lesson like this at some point in your Christian education.
The prayers, hymns and choir music that we heard emphasized this personal connection, too. It all led to this picture: God wanted to get to know me and help me. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were all different facets of that sociable Being.
Baptism signifies entry into the Christian community, in obedience not only to Jesus’ example, but also His directive. After the Resurrection but just prior to His ascension, Jesus gave the disciples a task known as the Great Commission:
Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and lo, I am with you alway [sic], even unto the end of the world. (Matthew 28:19-20, King James Version)
In Greek, the word “baptiso” means “to immerse,” and, indeed, the early churches had baptismal pools in which converts were immersed. Jean Lubke and I visited a fourth-century immersion baptistery in a catholic church in Rome a few years ago. As Christianity spread, the time of baptism shifted, along with its symbolism. Thinking the holy water saved you from the pits of hell, churches started baptizing infants.
The idea of plunging a baby into the cold waters of the North seemed inhumane and even dangerous; hence the church began to use smaller, safer amounts of water – and modes of applying it. We learned words like aspersion and affusion to our church language. Those are high-falootin’ words for sprinkling. Soon infant baptism was the common practice.
But in the early days of the Reformation, a group surfaced who came to be called Anabaptists or Wiedertäuferin in German (meaning “rebaptizers”). These predecessors of modern-day Baptists insisted that infant baptism was not valid and that the individual had to make a conscious decision to profess Christianity. They also believed that the only warfare that was permitted was spiritual warfare. They were separatists and believed that everyone had the right and responsibility to interpret scripture for themselves. They read the Bible and revived the practice of immersion.
They were quite the rebels: withholding baptism from their infants was a treasonous act of resistance against the prevailing state catholic Anglican or Lutheran church. Further, because baptism was considered essential to salvation, they were branded as barbaric in Europe and to be driven out of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the New World. They got relegated to Rhode Island where they could do the least harm. As the United States Constitution was being developed, these experiences caused the practitioners, now called Baptists, to insist on the freedom of religion to be a part of the constitution. Official state religions had not worked well for them. The renegades.
One spring Sunday morning in 1960, I was sitting with my family at Country Estates Baptist Church, the large suburban church we attended in Midwest City, Oklahoma. During the sermon, I felt a strong, sweeping Presence all around me. It felt like joy and light and restlessness, all at the same time. I have come to recognize this Presence as the Holy Spirit – the Knock on the heart.
I broke out in goose bumps. When I looked over at Daddy, I saw that he felt It, too. The wet splashes on his necktie gave him away. Always free with his tears for a man, he often cried over good poems, movies, and sermons. Today was one of those days.
Soon the congregation rose to sing the invitation. That Sunday it was the classic, “Softly and Tenderly”:
Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling,
Calling for you and for me!
See, on the portals, He’s waiting and watching,
Watching for you and for me!
In a Southern Baptist church service, people come down the aisle during the invitation for several reasons. Salvation is a major one: briefly, one is saved when one answers the Knock.
On this particular Sunday, when we stood up, Daddy turned the hymnal over to Mother without one word. He excused himself, passed behind us kids and walked down the aisle. I whispered to my mother, “What is Daddy doing?”
“He’s rededicating,” Mother whispered back. One rededicates when one has done a specific wrong, or has “backslidden,” and wants the congregation’s support in getting back on track.
Soon Daddy was standing in the front, taking the preacher’s hand, and whispering. Reverend McGlamery, whom we also called “Brother McGlamery,” patted his shoulder and nodded while Daddy talked. Then Daddy took a seat on the front pew while the pastor waited in the front for more respondents.
The congregation continued to sing:
Why should we tarry when Jesus is pleading,
Pleading for you and for me?
Why should we linger and heed not His mercies,
Mercies for you and for me?
In that moment, I admired my father. I wanted to be like him. I also didn’t want him to sit by himself on that front pew. I had seen his tears. The words of the chorus beckoned:
Come home, come home,
Ye who are weary, come home!
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
Calling, O sinner, come home!
I put my hymnal back in its slot, stepped out into the aisle, and went forward. My dotted Swiss dress, with its stiff skirt and petticoat underneath, rustled crisply as I walked down the long, long aisle. It was the first time I had done something on my own initiative at church. As I pushed myself forward, I started feeling scared. When I got to the front, Brother McGlamery was waiting to receive and listen to anyone coming forward. I was the last, and therefore I stood alone before him. I put my cold, wet hand into his warm one.
Despite my fear, I knew what to say. As the pastor bent down, I stammered into his ear, “I want, want – to give my heart to Jesus.” Then I started crying. Although I had heard the phrase all my life, it was the first time that I had said it myself.
After saying these words, I sat down in the front pew by my father. Daddy looked at me through reddened eyes and then did a double-take. He and Brother McGlamery whispered. Because Daddy wanted to make sure that I knew what I was doing, the pastor gave him the key to the study so that the two of us could talk privately. Daddy held me on his lap, stroked my hair, and asked me: “Why did you come up the aisle?”
Through my tears, I repeated what I had said to our pastor, just moments before: “I want to give my heart to Jesus.” Daddy then cried, too, and prayed with me. Thus, my father witnessed my profession of faith. We then emerged from the study and went back into the sanctuary, where Brother McGlamery was presenting the requests of the other respondents. When my turn came, I followed their lead and stood beside the pastor.
“Paula Moyer comes forward on profession of faith, and therefore requests to be baptized,” Brother McGlamery announced. “Do I hear a motion?” A profession of faith and the subsequent baptism culminate in church membership. Therefore, in a Southern Baptist church, the request is subject to a vote, which is always unanimous.
“Make a motion that she be approved for baptism and that we extend the right hand of Christian fellowship!” a deacon quickly piped up with the words he knew by heart.
“Do I hear a …”
“Second!” another chimed in.
“Will all in favor signify by saying ‘aye’?” A chorus of “aye’s” followed quickly.
My baptism was scheduled for a Sunday evening service two weeks later. In preparation, Brother McGlamery arranged for two discussions in his study.
The baptistery may be very simple. A posterior wall can have an understated backdrop, like a back-lit cross. In some churches, the backdrop depicts a river scene: the Jordan River, where Jesus responded to the call of John the Baptist. Ours looks kinda like roman columns by the water.
Baptisms are happy occasions; however, they are also rather quiet, meditative events. We slosh into baptistery, stirring the waters just like our hearts are stirred. And when we hear that stirring and see the reflections of light dancing off the back walls, we’re transported back in time to other commitments and the stirring of our won hearts. In seminary, we’re taught not to hold the candidate under water; instead, we slide the individual under the warm water. Then we immediately push the now baptized one up smoothly, so that the lowering and the raising are one continuous motion. This symbolizes dying to an old way of life and being raised to a new life. The warm water reminds us of the comfort of the womb and we come out of the water as if we are born all over again. What was once calm is now in torrent and returns again. Dripping wet, ready to take on the world. Those who watch experience it too. We say a collective whew, but it’s mingled with a “Watch out.”
Brother McGlamery went over each step in the process. First, he explained what the ritual meant for Baptists. “It’s a symbolic act. It doesn’t save you,” he stressed. “Your faith saves you. Baptism is an outward act that shows the rebirth you have experienced on the inside.”
He then showed me how it would happen. He gave Mother and me a tour of the baptistery and changing rooms and then gave me instructions that, to my mind, were the most important for the event to be dignified: how to keep water from going up my nose, so that I wouldn’t noisily gasp and splutter as I went under. “As I am talking, hold your hands on your chest, and clasp one wrist with the other hand.” My arms would form a “Y.”
“I will have a towel over one arm,” he continued. “When I put the towel on your face, slide one hand up under the towel and plug your nose. Then when I lower you into the water, you’ll be okay. You won’t be under but just a few seconds.”
The Sunday evening following my instructions, my uncles, aunts and cousins joined my immediate family at church to celebrate my baptism. After the sermon, I followed my mother to the changing room. When I had put on my bathing suit and robe, Mother waited with me at the stairs.
Brother McGlamery made a beckoning motion with his hand. I waded in, step by step, into water warm as a bathtub. Then I looked down through the water and saw the preacher’s bare feet and calves. Of course! We’re both barefoot! I realized with a little surprise. I wondered if he was wearing a bathing suit, too.
The Presence that had made me break out in goose bumps two weeks before was rather quiet now. I didn’t have that same enraptured sensation. I simply felt reverent, once I got over the distraction of Brother McGlamery’s bare feet. My insides were as calm as the water.
“On the basis of your profession of faith, I baptize you, my sister, Paula Jean Moyer, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,” he proclaimed, using the words of the Great Commission. He then placed the towel over my face. I followed the plan and discreetly slid my hand under it.
“Your sins are buried,” Brother McGlamery intoned as he lowered me backward into the water. One hand was on my back, between my shoulder blades, for support, and the other on my shoulder. This was the hand that pushed me under. “And you are raised to walk in newness of life.”
Almost instantly after submerging me, Brother McGlamery pushed me back up with the supporting hand, right as he said the word “raised.” It was very quick. I didn’t even have enough time to wonder how long I’d be there.
I sloshed back up the stairs, dripping in that newness of life.
After church, the family gathering continued at our house, where my dad and his brother made scrambled eggs and pancakes. My Moyer relatives were fond of eating breakfast dishes for supper, as am I. When I do, I often remember the night of my baptism.
Michael was a member of Dolores Street Baptist Church in San Francisco. He lived the fast life with his “brother” Jose. They shared everything. An apartment, dreams, fears, friends, needles, the HIV virus. When they were diagnosed, they found methadone and they both found Jesus. And they came to our little church of intellectuals. They brought with them their street language and sensibilities. They didn’t laugh at my jokes but laughed at their own jokes. They brought food for the poorer members of the church. They wrestled with their demons. And they taught us how to really be a welcoming and affirming church. You see we were welcoming and affirming of people just like us. They took us up on our profession of a Christian community and pushed us to really live into it. Often a sermon was a dialogue with Michael. Not intentionally on my part, but something would strike him as odd and he would add his own comments.
When Jose finally succumbed to his disease, Michael moved into an AIDS residence that the church helped found. He set up prayer meetings with me and declared that he wanted to be baptized. So we rented a baptistery from the neighboring Baptist church (ours had been destroyed in a fire years before, but that’s another story). His mother flew in from North Carolina. His daughter from whom he had become estranged, came to the baptism service. His grandson wanted to jump in the water with him. He and I stepped down into the sunken pool surrounded by the congregation above us. I asked him if he truly repented of his sins, if he took Jesus as his savior and if he promised to walk in the ways of discipleship. He said yes and our tears mingled with the water of the baptistery. I glided him down into the water and we held each other as he rose out of the water. We hugged and wept and the church above us sang
Amazing Grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.
And I swear I felt light and surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Here was a man who knew what it was to take on a new life. And he caused me to consider what my new life was going to be about.
I love baptisms of all kinds. Because I grew up with immersion, these rituals are particularly precious to me. They move me all the way to my bones. I love hearing that the baptized are “raised to walk in newness of life” while seeing them come up from and transformed by the water, with their sopping wet hair and clothes clinging to the body. In fact, when writing this sermon, I choked up every time I wrote that phrase: raised to walk in newness of life. As I watch, I am reminded of Baptists’ historical struggle to defer this rite until the candidate can sense the Knock and answer It, as well as their insistence on immersion. Knowing our history deepens my loyalty.
I also relive the details of my own baptism. I will always treasure the love my church and family showed me. With simplicity and joy, the people around me lived out their faith, let me into their sacred spaces. When they did this, they showed me how to find my own.