There are a thousand and more ways to describe baptism. All will be inadequate. For every major Christian “division”—Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant—there are a variety traditions and rituals that celebrate baptism.
The Baptism of the Lord – for January 9, 2011
And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17)
Water . . . Sprinkle or dunk? Living water or from the tap?
Age . . . Infant or adult? Adolescent or when God calls?
Words . . . Metaphoric or literal? Traditional or modern?
Tradition . . . Catholic or Anabaptist? One baptism or many?
Where . . . In worship or not in worship? A sanctuary or river?
The mystery called baptism is just that. Mystery.
I’m a United Methodist. I have papers to prove it and people that’ll vouch for me. So please trust me when I say one baptism is sufficient in my denomination’s tradition. If you’re United Methodist and reading this, I’m right, right? If you’re a Protestant of a different ilk, or maybe live in the so-called None-Zone (the Pacific Northwest where around 2/3 of the residents claim “none” as a religious affiliation), I guess you gotta trust me. Though, if you’re a None-Zoner, trusting others about religion probably ranks low in the order of likely responses.
But one baptism it is.
And yet, the mystery called baptism is just that because I’ve been baptized not once, but a thousand and more ways. To use language as comforting as it is unsettling for some, I’ve been born again. And again. And again. And again. There has been literal and symbolic water throughout my life. You get the point.
But one story, like one baptism, will be sufficient for today. I was thinking this week about Ruthanne. That’s her real name, by the way. It’s the name she was baptized with, and the name I’ll always remember her by. Note the past tense in that sentence. Ruthanne is dead. Died too young, barely made it to become a loving, doting grandmother. Died from cancer she battled for years. In the midst of her long struggle with cancer, she decided to go along on a church backpack I planned. She’d done considerable hiking over the years, but not recently. She wanted to hit the trail again. I doubt she thought it would her last time in the wilderness . . . though it was.
I thought it might not even be her next time. If she wanted to “hit the trail” again, she literally did! In the first mile of hiking, Ruthanne stumbled and fell. Once, twice, three times. Out of shape. Overwhelmed. Her borrowed pack didn’t fit and her boots felt more like vice grips tightening on her feet. Didn’t complain though. If cancer was a bitch, the trail be easy. She picked herself up. Others on the hike supported her. She arrived last in camp every day, but every day she put one foot in front of the other.
After several days of hiking, we made our goal, a little lake in the middle of the Sierra Nevada and a few miles southwest of heaven. I believe God’s throne is carved from granite. I believe the Holy only drinks from creeks flowing down the side of pristine peaks. We camped in a gorgeous, glory-bound place. We’d earned our tiny spot of paradise on earth.
All of us hikers were the three dwarfs who never got named in the Disney movie: Dirty, Grimy and Smelly. But there, right before us, the lake beckoned. Cold, though. Damn cold. Snow cold. And yet wet.
I don’t think Ruthanne went first. Some of the younger, faster hikers headed into the lake before her. But I recall following her. She’d barely made it up the first gentle slope on the first day of hiking, but she ran for that water. Then a woman in her early sixties, she stripped down to skivvies and dashed across the lakeshore and plunged into the snow-fed lake. Splashing. Laughter. No sprinkling. All dunking. Finally she floated, the lake water supporting her, surrounded by knife-edged peaks and a sky so blue it hurt the eyes.
Ruthanne, who frequently disagreed with me in my sermons and teachings—not in a disagreeable way, but because she often questioned everything—would not have said that her immersion into the mountain lake had anything to do with Holy Baptism. It was just pure joy. A bath. A frolic. Joining with all her other Dirty, Grimy, and Smelly chums.
And she would be right. And wrong.
As long as I live, along with a thousand, thousand other baptismal memories I treasure, I will run behind her, and I will proclaim that I don’t understand baptism. Sacraments can leave us speechless, in the best sense of what that means. But I keep witnessing baptism. I know now Ruthanne died a few years later. I knew then, as water from her plunge splashed onto me, that God sees all of us as beloved. Come to bathe. Come to be blessed. Come to fall and stand again. Come to claim life over death. Come and take the leap, beloved.