At the Water – A Baptism Story

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There is a young girl at my church whose name is Alison.  She is eleven years old, though small for her age, and she wears glasses that usually slide down her nose and dresses that splay out when she twirls.  This girl has a delightfully unfettered spirit of which I often find myself jealous.  She stands in the back and dances fiercely to the music on Sunday mornings.  She smiles broadly at anyone who speaks to her.  Simply put, Alison is beautiful.

When people describe a little girl as “shy”, you probably imagine her keeping mostly to herself or hiding behind her mother’s leg.  When people describe a little girl as “bold”, you imagine her running here and there interacting with each person in a room like a quick, chipper nurse making her rounds.

Alison is neither and she is both.  You will often find her immersed in her thoughts and quietly amusing herself.  But when you say hello, she looks you squarely in the eye, smiles widely, asks you what your name is {if she doesn’t already know it}, and then tells you about whatever thoughts she is having.  The other day, Alison told me, “I’m good at gymnastics,” and she proceeded to show me her jumping jacks.  This girl has more raw confidence and self-assurance than a lot people I have known.  She definitely has more of those things than me.

Alison got baptized at church some weeks ago, and it was one of the most stirring things I have seen in a long time.

I realize there are many different churches and many different kinds of baptism rituals.  So let me pause my story for a moment to explain our tradition.

Every few months, we have an opportunity at our church for adults to be baptized.  On baptism Sundays, the band gets up on stage and begins to play music while the pastor pours water into the bowl of the baptismal font, explaining that baptism is a public symbol of an inner truth.

In baptism, we are joining with many people who came before us and said, “I believe in Jesus.  I want to grow in love with Him more.  Being a part of this group of people right here today will help me do that.”

Then anyone who wants to be baptized comes to the front and spends a few minutes talking with a pastor or an elder or a member of the church staff.  This is to sift out those who might not understand well enough what baptism means…for example, those who bring their dog to church and are wanting him to get baptized.  Stranger things have happened.

Once the conversation is over, the about-to-be-baptized comes to the front, gets water poured on their head to represent the cleansing work of Jesus and the new life that comes because of it, and walks away smiling under their now floppy and/or crazy hair while the rest of us cheer.

So on this particular Sunday, Alison’s dad came to the front and got baptized.  He stood over the wooden baptismal font and let the water splash over his head “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” and then he grinned and proudly hugged his wife while the rest of us clapped our hands and celebrated the occasion.

Moments later, much to my delight, sweet little Alison stepped up to the baptismal font, her chin almost resting on the edge, and smiled expectantly up at the pastor.  My emotions thrilled at the idea that this tiny sister had decided to participate in such a beautiful, meaningful symbol.  I turned to see if anyone else felt my emotions, and I was happy to see tears welling up in the eyes of many others around me.

Her parents stood on either side of her with smiles so big they could have cracked their faces as the music swelled and the water began to splash down on Alison’s small brunette head.  She squealed and wrinkled her nose as the coolness rushed over her head and down her back, grinning and drawing her shoulders up to her ears like a tiny, happy Richard Nixon.

The rest of us clapped and shouted and whistled and “yee-hawed” while Alison’s dad lifted her up and they shared a beaming, drippy hug.

When he set her down, her joy could not be contained.  She jumped up and down and up and down, clapping her hands, cheering for herself.  She began doing this wiggly, spinning, marching dance, stamping her feet and punching her fists in the air.  It went on for several minutes, and it seemed like all the earth was laughing and joining in her joy.  I was enchanted.

There is a tendency I have noticed for people to witness stories like this and then turn them into lessons.  “As I watched Alison expressing her joy, I sadly thought about how long it had been since I had expressed my joy in such an outward and physical way.”  Or, “This little girl had no embarrassment in celebrating what Jesus had done for her.  And I got to thinking how often we are embarrassed to even say His name.”

You’ve probably read the email forwards.

But that is not what I want to communicate to you.  Lessons like that often bring guilt or shame, and there was not an ounce of either of those things at church on Sunday.  The dancing this little girl did made guilt and shame pack a bag and leave the country.  It was a pure moment of joy, love, grace, and gladness in the gift of Jesus and in His friendship for us.

And that is all I want to communicate to you.  May you feel the joy of His love, and may you see the beauty of His people.  May you dance in His goodness.  And may you, like Alison, go running down the aisles, laughing with all your might, and giving robust, exuberant high-fives to every person you pass.


photo by Brian Wolfe(y)

 

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