Baptism: Confessions of a late bloomer

baptismI decided to follow Jesus at age 7 and was baptized at 22.

Yes, you read that right. There were 15 years between my coming to Christ and my sealing it publicly via water baptism.

How can that be when all those years my parents and family faithfully attended Nazarene congregations?

I love God and the Church of the Nazarene, in that order, but I have to admit: When it comes to my baptism story, it’s complicated.

My parents had me dedicated as a baby at the local Church of the Nazarene near Washington, D.C., where I was born. Dedication was the predominant practice in the Church of the Nazarene at the time and still is today, despite the fact that our Article of Faith # 12, “Baptism,” makes allowance for both believer and infant baptism. (Interestingly, baby dedication appears nowhere in our Articles of Faith, but does have a ritual at the back of the Nazarene Manual, along with an infant baptism ritual).

Our family later moved to central New Jersey where we attended two Nazarene congregations successively and finally to Rochester, New York. Like the D.C. area Nazarene congregation, none of these three church buildings had baptismal fonts or baptistries. In short, baptism was the nearly invisible sacrament during my early childhood – tucked away in neglected creedal statements in our church Manual – but never on the minds of architects who designed buildings for Nazarene worship.

There was one Sunday when I was living in Rochester that a visiting family showed up. Our pastor baptized their infant by sprinkling, but – strangely enough – we never saw that family again.

Fast-forward to age 13. I was a teen Bible quizzer studying the Gospel according to Matthew. I couldn’t get away from Matthew 3:13-17, where Jesus submitted himself to baptism by John. My logic was simple:

1) Jesus was baptized;

2) I’m supposed to be like Jesus.

3) Therefore, I should be baptized.

So I talked to the pastor and asked to be baptized. He looked at me, and with a kind but firm voice intoned: “Greg, we don’t believe that baptism saves you.” End of conversation.

Three years later, at age 16, God called me to preach, and in the Fall of 1981, I enrolled as a freshman religion major at Eastern Nazarene College. For four years, I successively attended two more Nazarene congregations in the Boston area and – during that time – witnessed several baby dedications but no baptisms of any kind, of any age candidate. Midway through my time at ENC, I received my first district license with my home District. I filled out the form that asked lots of good questions about my spiritual experience. “Have you been born again?” Check. “Had you been entirely sanctified?” Check. The form allowed for me to expand on my answers to those questions, describing my spiritual journey and my call to preach. But one question was conspicuously absent: “Have you been baptized?” I never noticed at the time that it was missing, not having thought about it since my very short conversation with my pastor at age 13.

Graduation, marriage, honeymoon, a move to Kansas City for Seminary in the summer of 1985 – Upon arrival, we visited several Nazarene congregations in the Kansas City area, and finally settled at the Grandview church, south of KC. The second Sunday there, the pastor announced that there would be a baptism class the next Sunday night and – one week later – a baptism service. This was my chance, my first Nazarene baptism service where adults would be immersed. I was happy to sign my name to the list of candidates. Nine years after my first request to be baptized, I was awakening from my sacramental slumber.

Since the Grandview church had been built without a baptistry, we joined forces with a nearby Nazarene congregation that had one. I remember the words of my pastor, Rev. Richard “Dick” Neiderhiser, as I walked up the steps to the baptistry. He playfully dubbed me the “late bloomer,” then plunged me under the water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Fifteen years after my decision to follow Jesus, I was now officially initiated into the Body of Christ.

There’s one other curious side-note. When I was 12, our church in Rochester held a class using a book that took a bunch of us 6th graders through a simple catechism. When we were done, I joined the Church of the Nazarene. So, from age 12 to age 22 – for ten years – I was a member of the Church of the Nazarene even though I had never been initiated by baptism into the Church universal.

Apparently I’m not the only one who considers this backward order strange. For at least the past two General Assemblies, there have been resolutions presented that would require anyone uniting with the membership of the Church of the Nazarene to have first been baptized in some Christian community of faith. Importantly, the resolutions did not mandate so-called “re-baptism” in order to join Nazarene ranks, just baptism in a recognized Christian church. Twice, the resolution has been defeated.

Some Nazarene congregations are not waiting around for the denomination to officially change its polity. In 2004, my two teenage sons joined the Church of the Nazarene while we attended the Nampa College congregation in Nampa, Idaho. Though the Manual has not changed, I was thrilled when their youth pastor asked them whether they had been baptized. They had been, some years before. He explained that baptism was a first step – initiation into the larger Body of Christ – that precedes joining that part of the family called “Nazarene.” God bless that youth pastor! I have hope that this practice will spread and that – as sometimes happens in our tribe – our official statement of practice in the Manual will eventually catch-up with our longstanding practice on-the-ground.

But back to my baptism odyssey.

All told, I held 8 district licenses on two districts. During all eight annual interviews prior to being ordained in 1991, I was asked many questions by ministerial credentials boards, yet not once did anyone ever ask me whether I had been baptized. So, I was ordained as a Nazarene elder – as my ordination certificate says, in “the Church of God” i.e. Church universal – without anyone inquiring about my status in the Church universal, the broader community of faith. No one was interested in knowing if I had ever been initiated by baptism into the Church that Jesus the Nazarene founded, against which the gates of Hell shall never prevail (Matthew 16:18).

Am I alone in this strange baptismal journey, or have things changed? Tell me about your Nazarene baptism experience.

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FOR FURTHER READING:

If you want to read excellent teaching on the meaning of baptism, I highly recommend two books:

– Rob Staples, Outward Sign and Inward Grace: The Place of Sacraments in Wesleyan Spirituality (Beacon Hill, 1991), available here at Amazon.

– Michael Green, Baptism: Its Purpose, Practice and Power (Hodder & Stoughton, 1987). An updated version of the book (2010) is available here at Amazon.

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Image credit: Crossbridge Community

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Baptism: initiation into the people of God

water-baptism2-300x204West Africa has many people groups. Different tribes “mark off” their babies with distinctive scars. One of my adult students, Francis, had an inch-long scar on his right cheek, just under his eye. During a break in class, I asked him about it. “This mark shows that I belong to my people,” he explained.

This practice may seem strange to those born in a Western setting, though with the rise of tattoos, perhaps less strange than in days gone by. Yet for any student of the Bible, African scarification immediately evokes how God marked off the ancient male Israelites as God’s own. Genesis 17:23-27 explains:

On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him. Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, and his son Ishmael was thirteen; Abraham and his son Ishmael were both circumcised on that very day. And every male in Abraham’s household, including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him.

For both Africans and ancient Jews, personal identity evokes “we” more than”me.” The people to whom I belong is of first and overriding importance. My story is important only as it is caught up in the larger story of my people.

The Old Testament people of God

The Old Testament takes this concept of group solidarity and goes one step further. Not only is the individual enfolded into the story of his or her people – the priority of “we” over “me” – but the people’s story in-turn is caught up in a much bigger story, the Story of God. In a land infested with idols to false gods, the prophet Jeremiah warned of a coming exile, but gave the hope of a people reconstituted one day:

They will be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me and that all will then go well for them and for their children after them (Jeremiah 32:38-39).

“They will be my people, and I will be their God.” This is the language of covenant, a solemn agreement between Yahweh and the people of God. Isaiah 49:6 is just one of a constellation of Old Testament passages that speak of Israel as a “light for the Gentiles.” They were to be a holy people, an example to the nations. Isaiah 56:6 speaks of “foreigners” who would come to Jerusalem, the “holy mountain,” to pray and make sacrifices to God. God’s people were to be a righteous, winsome, counter-cultural presence in the world, attracting even foreigners like a magnet to worship the one true God in the beauty of holiness.

The New Testament people of God

Old Testament passages like those in Isaiah are a bridge to the New Testament. In the New Testament, the people of God is no longer defined as blood descendants of Abraham. Rather, the people of God is comprised of anyone – Jew or Gentile – who are persons of the new covenant, the “new and living way” to God opened up through the sacrificial death of Christ (Hebrews 10:20). These individuals of the new covenant – this people of God – is the church.

Just as the ancient Jews “marked off” their male children through the rite of circumcision, so the new people of God, the church, marks off its young through a rite, that of water baptism. This replacement of circumcision by baptism is most explicit in the words of Paul to the Colossians:

 For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form,  and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ,  having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead (Colossians 2:9-12).

When the church evangelizes in communities largely untouched by the Gospel, many adults who come to Christ will not have had the blessing of growing up in a Christian home. In the United States, this is becoming more common. In some states, church attendance on a Sunday morning involves less than 10% of the population. Converts in such a context are unlikely to have a Christian heritage and – therefore – unlikely to have been baptized younger in life.  So, though older, they have never been initiated into the people of God. They, too, will pass through the door of water baptism into the household of faith, like the Ethiopian eunuch Philip baptized in the desert (Acts 8:26-40). As for the child baptized as an infant, they should receive later at a time when they can understand (traditionally around age 12) instruction in the meaning of their baptism and what it signifies to belong to the people of God. It is then – at the time some call “confirmation” – that they can affirm Christian faith as their own. By doing so, they  acknowledge what their parents by proxy accomplished when they presented them as babies for baptism. Confirmation means saying: “From the start, my parents always intended me to follow Christ, to be part of God’s people. Now, I openly acknowledge that these are my people, that Jesus is my Savior, and that I am His follower.” Like in many African cultures, so in the Christian family, the “we” precedes the “me.” This vital progression from “the faith of my family” to “my faith, too” is found in Paul’s words to Timothy:

I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also (2 Timothy 1:5).

Across Africa, there is an influx of converts to Christian faith. In a context where most are exiting African traditional religions, it is normal that most who are baptized are older. Yet as time goes by, the practice of baptism of those who are infants or young children is likely to increase, as portrayed in the book of Acts when entire families were baptized together (Acts 2:37-41, 16:33). Likewise, as believers in the West shift from the “Jesus and me” perspective to that of “Jesus and we,” the frequency of baptizing the young will surely grow. In any case, there is one baptism, not two (Ephesians 4:5). Baptism remains the once-in-a-lifetime sacrament (literally, “visible word”) of initiation into the people of God, though it may be performed very early or later in life, depending upon the circumstances.

Whether the sacrament of baptism is administered to an infant who later is confirmed or (alternatively) to an adult candidate, the people of God are the people of the covenant established by the blood of Christ (Luke 22:20). The “marking off” of baptism is an initiation into that holy people, at whatever age it occurs. It is an acknowledgment of the priority of who we are together, that the people of God predated me and they will continue when I am gone. I am a chapter in a book, an important chapter, to be sure, but  the book is a story of “we” with many chapters. Through baptism, I have been caught up in this bigger, divine/corporate story, the story of God and God’s people. What a story!

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Image credit: Horizoncrc.org