Junia, my dear daughter, today is the eve of your baptism.
I am taking a moment to write to you and express a few thoughts before that big day, for your sake in the sense that you may someday find this old post and find some meaning in it, and for my sake as well as I process the profound experience I see tomorrow to be. I hope it’s okay with you that I’ve shared this broadly. I asked you about it recently and you didn’t seem to mind too much, and seemed more interested in your magnetic drawing pad at the time.
Your baptism, Junia, will be a beautiful experience. Whether or not it’s something that a person believes in to any degree, the aesthetics are superb: you, Junia, ushered into a particular community of faith, and we your family and church believing God will one day draw you into deep relationship, directing you to live out a fulfilling life with Jesus at the center, love as the functioning principle, all in an economy of grace that is freely given [though it was rather costly on the part of Jesus, who paid a whole lot to distribute that grace].
Perhaps you’ll cry during the baptism. Or maybe you will coo, mildly, at Pastor Karen as she marks you with ordinary water imbued with sacramental meaning as those of us looking on respond with some oos and aahs of our own. Hard to say how it will go, but this talk of water and faith makes think about my own baptism 20 years ago.
I was not an infant when I was baptized, but a young teenager. It was a humid August, 2000, in west central Michigan, and I was 13 1/2. Okay, almost 13 1/2, as I do the math, and I only count the 1/2 because it’s so significant at that age to live through a whole half year [well, hold on, it still is a pretty big deal, but maybe not like it was then – I’ll mull over that and get back with you].
So there I was, amidst a rough patch in my middle school years, and it was becoming clear that I was living for no one but me. I had placed myself at the center of my small universe, which proved to be a lonely place to live. I acted out accordingly. Attempting to prove my worth, I diminished the image of God in others in order to make myself seem bigger. It was less popular to name what I did as bullying at that time, but that’s exactly what I was doing. I got in fights, even, in a vain attempt to glorify myself. I even got my friends in on the bullying.
Junia, it was awful.
I shattered chance after chance to treat other people as God’s image-bearers, as dignified creations with unlimited potential. On occasion I have imaged what I would have become apart from God’s sometimes-gentle-yet-often-overt ways of working in my life: lo! who would I have become, these 20 years later? I shudder to think. Would I be alive? Would I have pursued something else in life, perhaps chased after un-fulfillment in whatever form? It’s scary to ask that question, but pondering who I could have become makes me more grateful for the Holy Spirit’s work since the summer of 2000.
There was one conversation in particular that stands out as I reflect on those years. I was home from school that day. I had gotten into another fight, and this time I was carrying out a sentence: three days of out-of-school-suspension. The conversation with Steve, our dean of students, left me with the impression that he cared about me, but also wanted other kids to be safe. Looking back, I realize he also wanted me to be safe. He didn’t say it, but I think Steve also hoped I would have an encounter with the holy One and do some soul work [Steve happened to be part of our church].
Then my dad added some thoughts on the matter, and suggested it’s more difficult to walk away from a fight than to win a fight. I didn’t know it at the time, but my dad had a long history of helping to quell anger and frustration. He was a store manager for Walgreens for a number of years before moving to pharmacy, and this work presented a lot of opportunities to be a person of peace [he wouldn’t ever talk about this virtue, but others have told me about it].
After talking to my Dad and to Steve, I talked to Don about some of those changes in my life. After some of those conversations sank in, it appeared as if Jesus had come alongside me – like we were on a walk together – and shown me two different paths: one path was a bit more obscure, but appeared to lead to a beautiful place, while the other seemed easier to tread. But that second path did not appear to lead somewhere good. Instead it led to a lonely place where everyone thinks they know the best thing for themselves, but in reality end up unfulfilled, hurting, and separate – and all for the purpose of building a kingdom unto themselves.
I spoke with my mom, too, about all this. She grew up in a home and church that was really intentional about living out Jesus-centered faith, and had a lot to say on the topic of faith, of God’s grace, of living to give God the credit. Much of it sticks with me to this day, probably more than I know. Eventually I spoke with Gregg, who walked me through the church’s baptism process and asked me some insightful questions. I ran into Gregg recently when I was on a walk with you, mom, and your older brothers, and he is just as kind as he was in 2000, maybe more so.
It’s hard to believe I can’t remember this, but I think it was Don who baptized me [or was it Gary?]. I am not sure. Perhaps I’ll ask some of those who were there at Hemlock park that Sunday on the banks of the Muskegon River where Mitchell Creek feeds in from the west.
As I look back on that experience of baptism, I note a couple things. On one hand, it seemed as if I was choosing to be baptized. In a sense, I was, I think. But less so than I really was.
It’s hard to grasp this, but the culture we live in emphasizes the agency of individuals. Americans, and western cultures in general, highlight all the power and opportunity that lies in the consciousness and actions of individual people. I am not making a value judgment on American culture or western thought, only noting that way of thinking.
When it comes to the journey of faith, we Americans naturally tend to do a lot of individualizing. At worst, following Jesus is something that happens to avoid punishment – a spiritual get-out-of-jail-free card so people can say a prayer and avoid hell. Faith can become so personal and individualized that no one can even tell that it exists.
What I did not know in August, 2000, on the banks of the Muskegon River, was the gravity of the many voices in my life, my church, my family, my world, who were amplifying God’s inner work within me. On my mom’s side, there are generations of pastors and revivalists who were keen to follow in the way of Jesus, many of whom led in the Free Methodist Church, which has a strong abolitionist history and an emphasis on holiness and sacrifice. On my dad’s side there were also faithful believers, maybe most especially his maternal grandparents, the Bayles.
Those people shaped my parents, who shaped me. Now imagine the multitudinous hosts of families of families who shaped the families and individuals at my church [who of course shaped me!]. It’s not that I was caught in a sea of voices that drowned out my own individuality or forced me into belief, no; conversely, a lot of my peers rejected God whether outright or more subtly.
For me though, because of many who believed before me, and because of God’s work in my life, I ended up coming to a decision. God, it seems, worked through people, but also worked directly to bring me to a place of authentic faith. It was my outer life of relationships with others yet also my inner life of faith. I was Jacob, that ancient man who wrestled an angel, desperate to make sense of the divine.
Junia, I hope to give you everything I can in life that helps you flourish and become the person God created you to be. I will do my best. But I realize I’ll do some things wrong. And that’s where the grace comes in, perhaps, for there is no perfect parent, though Mary the mother of Jesus got pretty close to it from what I hear.
Because Jesus found me, forgave me, and saved me, I trust and hope and pray he does the same for you. So essentially, what we are doing tomorrow as a community of believers, is taking you to Jesus so he can do what we cannot: finds you, forgives you, saves you.
There’s a story in the gospels about Jesus healing a guy. There Jesus was, talking with religious leaders, when some guys got creative. Or, perhaps, impatient:
Just then some men came, carrying a paralyzed man on a bed. They were trying to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; but finding no way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the middle of the crowd in front of Jesus. Luke 5:18-19, NRSV
Jesus forgives the man of all his sins. After some religious bickering about the topic of forgiveness and who can forgive, Jesus proceeds to take things a step further and heals the man. The end of the story is rather wild, hard to picture, yet a perfect picture of God’s kingdom: the guy, formerly paralyzed, picks up his bed and heads home, grateful for a community friends who helped him get to Jesus. Imagine the glow in his soul as he began to fathom his restored health, newfound forgiveness, and the forever life that came to him from God that precious, surprising day.
Junia, we’re merely the friends.
Mommy, me, our church, our families and friends, we are the ones trying to find means to connect you to Jesus so you can experience his lasting life, his healing, his forgiveness, his love. If it involves moving tiles on a roof, so be it [conveniently, it doesn’t!].
I get that you won’t be able to say a real yes to Jesus at age 1, and that’s precisely the point of this whole thing. The idea in baptizing you as a child is loudly emphasizing the way God did everything for us before we ever had a clue, no awareness of ourselves, other, or the almighty One. God created your world, your people, your networks, your family, and you. And salvation history swings wide its door to you, beckoning you to simply walk through. You see, God came up with the idea of sending Jesus to the world, a guy so compelling that people tore open holes in an ancient rooftop to get their friend just a little closer to him.
So tomorrow, at your baptism, know that we your family, your faith community, your friends, all of us who believe. We have all been found, saved, forgiven, restored, and together we are placing you before Jesus, hoping and praying for you as you grow up into who God created you to be that you would experience the riches of what has been prepared for you.
I love you, Junia.
I’m proud of you, Junia.
May you walk in the way of Jesus, dear daughter.
I added a few pictures from some of our adventures together: our treasured parks, downtown Grand Rapids, Chicago; and I hope this gives a sense of your character. Thus far you’re enduringly joyful, patently curious, perennially astounding. And what a joy to think God thought of you, Junia, before the foundations of the world. Be blessed, my dear one, and know the love Jesus poured out for you each time you remember your baptism – and live out of this reality.