Infant Baptism and Holy Longing
I once heard Li-Young Lee on NPR as he talked about his childhood. A famous poet with an eye for the beautiful and particular, he weaves his father's faith in and out of his work with regularity that insinuates that that well runs deep. He repeatedly returns to his father, who was a minister, even as Lee professes that he doesn’t consider Christianity his religion. In “The Gift,” he writes:
I can't remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
I couldn’t put my finger on it before I read this excerpt. What is it about my pre-adult faith that I miss so deeply? Why does it feel that I’ve left something behind in my childhood---that it now seems a distant well of dark water, a long prayer?
I'm not at all what Lee means by this excerpt of his poem. Faith might be a peripheral force in the poem. I know he is addressing mystery. Childhood. The way we see things as a child and then re-see and re-hear them as an adult. I'm hijacking his poem, but it is and always will be about faith for me.
We've joined the Presbyterian church and I've felt a ferocity in myself arise when it comes to baptizing my children. Like a mother lion, I have been ready to swing my children into the baptismal fount with a severity that astonishes me.
I feel a furious need for God’s promises.
Every time another child is baptized before my own, I choke up. The service ends with me swiping tears and whispering to Chris that I can no longer handle this.
I never expected to be there--in the front pew--sobbing over infant baptism. But what has come with leaving behind childhood, has been a renewed sense of absolute need. A renewed sense of the importance of God’s preeminence. Our human endeavors are all too weak, and my hands can't accomplish what I will. I've noticed the emptiness of even my best attempts at faith.
I've needed a new paradigm. A simpler way to see. What has come with "second simplicity" is the stark, blank, unavoidable awareness that God’s love was first. That we love because He first loved and chose us. And with that, I can no longer believe that it was my hand that reached out initially in baptism, but that it was His.
And that is why I've needed to baptize my children.
I’m embarrassed by the strength of my desire to baptize my children. It threw me. I wasn’t raised this way. I was raised to believe that baptism signified your choice to make Jesus your personal savior. But now baptism has diverged from the evangelical Baptist rhetoric and tradition and become extremely personal.
I haven't come at this without thought and preparation. I’ve prayed. My husband and I have investigated the biblical passages that support infant baptism. I've thought and argued with my husband until I’ve cried wet tears into my pillow over whether or not my children will be covered with water in front of the church as babies.
I want it so badly I can barely breathe.
We went through all of this, until one night, with tears in my eyes, I asked Chris to have our children baptized.
Please. I said. Please.
I believe that my children have been marked by God. I believe that God is faithful to believers and their families.
According to the Presbyterian tradition, baptism distinguishes children of those who believe in God’s redemptive power from children of nonbelievers. In many ways, it is about the parents' faith, and God's hand covering the children until they make a personal choice themselves. It is about His promises.
The water symbolizes three accounts from the Bible’s Old Testament: the waters of creation, the flood described in the story of Noah, and the Hebrews’ escape from slavery in Egypt by crossing the Red Sea. These three stories connect humanity to God’s goodness through water.
And it’s in my heart that I feel: this is something I have to say. This is something I must do. My desperation and desire for my children’s baptism comes from a place deeper than I understand. It comes from the hope that God is Sovereign, that he is calling to us from the dark.
That wherever my children go, his voice will haunt their thoughts and request their allegiance.
This is what I’ve come to believe as I’ve entered the church of my adult life: God rescues us before we know we’re in need of rescuing. God calls us and draws us with his powerful and unyielding arms. He is doing it always.
Baptism acknowledges the delivery of his redemption through generations and churches, without regard to countries and kings. Through Baptism, God has become Bigger to me than when I was a child. My views on baptism are now a compulsion born both of a child-like faith and the re-calibration in light of my understanding of the Old Testament promises.
I am only a 20-something adult, scrambling to find the grip to launch myself upwards. Sometimes I slip down to the bottom of the rock quarry, and feel the disillusionment creep in. That idea that this faith thing just isn’t practical. This is my adult self, and coming to terms with her has been harder than I imagined. She is tentative, cynical, rebellious, unattenuated, and unnerving. She is a far cry from the little girl that read Mandy books in the corner and marked up her Bible with yellow and pink highlighter. But then again, that little girl was also wild.
God doesn’t start over from a blank slate. He has taken my faith and dashed it on the rocks, but he has reformed that same clay with his potter’s hand. I long for the pure and the real, the true and the simple to break through the hard exterior of doubt.
And I've found a piece of that in Baptism.
It isn't the story I would have chosen for myself. But it is a story I recognize. It is a story that resonates for me like a deep well, a distant prayer. The water of the baptismal fount is as real to me as it will be to my children, as God gradually and faithfully draws them to himself.
Briana Meade is a 20-something writer and blogger at brianameade.com. She is a contributor to Early Mama, a site for young mothers, and often writes about the intersection of faith, culture, and motherhood. She lives with her husband and two children in the Raleigh-Durham area and is a graduate of Wheaton College.