This Easter, my sons and I worshipped, along with my parents, at the church in which I was raised. We did this last year too, as our school district ties it’s Spring Break to the date of Easter. Last year was difficult. I was distressed, hurting, stressed out and acutely aware of the fact that the nave was not where I usually worship from. The boys were antsy and would not, could not be still and their distraction drove me to the edges of anger, madness and humiliation. We left during communion and sat in the narthex until I decided minutes later we should just go ahead and leave. I was in no state to greet the old folks who would, no doubt, want to say hello to me.
But that was last year. This year I am much more calm, much more at ease being a member of the congregation (or visitor) and more patient with my very active boys. The church was fairly full and by the time we came to sit down, there wasn’t room on the pew with my parents. We sat one pew behind, which, actually was a good thing because it meant that my mom couldn’t glare at me when the boys got too restless. They had just participated in the church Easter Egg Hunt, and were a little hopped up on candy. (Can you blame them? If I could get away with it, I’d be stuffed with candy by then too!)
The tradition in this congregation is Believer’s Baptism by full immersion; which usually means there is a Pastor’s Class (church membership or baptism class) held each year in the first quarter leading up to Holy Week. Children, normally about age 10 or 11, participate in the class which most often leads to making a confession/profession of faith in Christ on Palm Sunday. Then, a week later, on Easter Sunday, the candidates are baptized during the Easter celebration in the midst of the gathered congregation. It’s a glorious day with full choir, brass and pipe organ. The children reaffirm their confession, made the previous Sunday, are laid back into the waters of baptism, dying to their old lives, and then rising up dripping with God’s grace to a New Life.
After removing the soaking baptismal robes, the newly baptized redress and rejoin their families for Holy Communion/Eucharist. In the old days, this would have been a First Communion. Things are changing in the Church and this is no longer the case. Many children now receive the sacrament when their parents decide they can. (And there is a tradition that this practice relates/harkens to.)
My oldest son is 9 this year. I tell my son how it was 31 years ago on Easter Sunday that I was baptized into the Church in this very sanctuary. He asks me how old I was then and I tell him I was 10. His eyes grow wide with excitement as he looks at me with intent and says, “So I will be baptized next year!?” My heart warms with his and I say to him, “We’ll see. Let’s talk about it later.”
My mind begins to turn. What a joy it would be to have my son baptized in the very same church in which I was baptized! But stop right there. While I was raised in this congregation, my sons are only grandchildren who visit on some holidays and came to Vacation Bible School last summer. They are known here, but they do not abide here. This is wider church, not local church.
While I believe baptism into the church is baptism into The Church (baptism in any place is still baptism into the faith), I believe that it is important to be baptized into the Church through a local congregation that is community day-to-day and week to week. It is important to be baptized by one with whom there is a relationship, an ongoing relationship. One can argue that baptism is still baptism no matter how it’s done or by whom, the Holy Spirit is still at work regardless of circumstances. But what I would raise up is the importance of the sustaining community.
We were created to be in communion with a group of believers, to have relationships within the community of faith that help us each to grow in our faith. We were made for walking together, worshiping together, studying together. We need the constant community to share our joys and our trials. There is a well-known story that is used by preachers to illustrate the concept. Simply put, a coal removed from the fire ceases to burn; a coal kept in the fire burns brightly and is sustained. A soul removed from the nurturing community loses its ardor.
And then there is another factor! My husband also gets a say in this. We could just as easily consider having our son baptised at his parents’ church; as much as my son loves that little old country church I could see him wanting to be baptised there, too. But I also think about the education component. I would also want my son to have the communal experience of a group of his peers.
I know of people who have returned to a favorite church for family occasions: wedding, baby dedication, etc. I can appreciate the sentiment behind these “pilgrimages” (indeed, I started this post considering it for my own family!), but I also grieve the absence of a sustaining community. When sacraments and milestone markers are observed (either intentionally or unintentionally) as points of service provided by a church/pastor, it robs the individual, the family and the church of relationship, community and it shallows the great depth of faith. Sacraments are in danger of becoming things we do to appease the grandparents, or scrapbook moments that lack deeper meaning. Sacraments, like baptism, confirmation, marriage, when held without the context of a connected family of faith become quaint events, often with missed educational value. They become stage plays, with assigned lines and actions, that don’t mean much once the show is over.
Incidentally, I wondered these things about the family and guests of one of the baptismal candidates. As soon as the child had been baptised and changed back into Easter day clothes, the entire family and guests left the church! The service was not half through and they all left. I wondered what kind of message that sent to the child; it certainly sent a message to me, kind of like leaving a dinner party just to go to another party, as dinner is being served. It seemed to be an insult to the Host.
I’ll admit here that I don’t know the family. I don’t know what their plans were. I don’t know anything about the condition of their hearts. But I did feel, in my heart and opinion, whether rightly or wrongly, that this child’s baptism was just a show, a photo opportunity, a reason for a family party and not a holy event. I hope that I am very, very wrong about it. (I recognize sheepishly too, that I have judged this family, and only God knows what is really happening there. It isn’t my place or my business. I wished they would stay and wondered why they didn’t. Am I any better when I think of having my son baptised in my natal church? Is it my own pride showing?)
Nonetheless, may God bless those who were baptised on that Holy Day.