A newcomer reconsiders baptism
I don’t know how many Mennonite churches have allowed a relative newcomer to stand at Sunday morning worship and proclaim the delights of baptizing babies. I do know that Seattle Mennonite Church is an uncommonly gracious collection of people. When my wife and I moved to this drizzly city, knowing no one, they welcomed us warmly.
I told them I was raised in a church that takes infant baptism seriously. The Christian Reformed Church, a Protestant denomination, has just two official sacraments: Communion and baptism.
I like that. I like what it says about the Creator’s openhearted affection for his people.
Before we can speak a word or take a step, we are wrapped in covenant love symbolized by sprinkled water. (As the parent of a baby boy, I’d be glad for him not to be doing the sprinkling for a change. But that’s another matter.)
I picture the father of the Prodigal Son leaping off the front porch and running down the steps to meet his child, embracing the boy before he can even get a word out. A friend of mine says the Bible is often characterized as humanity’s long search for God, but it’s better understood as God’s long search for humanity. God goes looking for Adam and Eve, visits Abraham, picks Moses, chooses David, intrudes on Mary, appears as a baby, calls a band of disciples, goes to the darkest darkness, surprises Mary Magdalene in the garden. And on and on.
In an American culture that idolizes our freedom as consumers—choosing personal values, personal spirituality—I like the reminder that boundless mercy, as expressed in Jesus, comes seeking us. We are but to respond in gratitude.
So when we prepared for our son’s arrival, I wondered if we should look outside our church home for someone to baptize him. That raised a problem right away, because baptism isn’t a service you shop around for and compare prices. They don’t have baptism reviews online (actually they may; I’m not sure).
This helped me see one common trait of infant baptism and the infant blessing our church practices: They both derive their meaning not just from God but from the community. Without the congregation, each ritual loses its meaning. The church promises to “share in [the] child’s nurture and well-being,” as our hymnal puts it. We’ve already seen that promise kept in the form of dinners, hand-me-downs, kind words and a brilliant hand-made quilt given to Sam at his dedication.
Then I realized another thing the two rituals hold in common: They’re not magical acts. They don’t change God’s attitude toward the child or shift the baby’s soul from eternal danger to eternal safety. Rather, they’re signs of what we know to be already true about God’s enthusiasm for his children.
It became clear that dedication matters because of the people watching attentively as our pastor held our wide-eyed, apple-cheeked son and asked if they would help us raise him through sunshine and storm alike. They responded with a resounding, We will, and I knew our family was where we belong.
The fact that Sam is one of many babies, babies-to-come, kids, grownups and seniors only makes it clearer we are called to navigate life together.
Like many in our peculiar congregation in Seattle, my religious roots were planted in different soil. I’m still getting my bearings in the Mennonite church. Adult baptism is a concept I’m only beginning to understand, and I trust its meaning will unfold over time.
Creating a home for a new person—the most bewildering, exhilarating job I’ve ever found—has made me profoundly grateful for the home this church has offered.
Jonathan Hiskes attends Seattle Mennonite Church.