Monday, August 12, 2013

My First Baptism

I like to discuss theology. What priest doesn't? It helps me to sharpen my understanding of certain doctrines. One of those doctrines and practices is baptism. As one can surmise, there are differences of opinions on the nature of baptism. Two major understanding involves the baptism of infants and young children called paedobaptism and the baptism of adults and children who have attained an age of moral accountability called credobaptism or believers baptism. Denominations have separated over the distinctions.

I grew up in the deep South. My family was Episcopalian. Most of my friends were Southern Baptists. I was in the minority. My friends could tell me stories of their baptism. They described making a decision for Jesus, putting on a gown, and being dunked. Me? I don't remember my baptism. I was an infant.

As I grew older I learned that in emergency situations, a lay person can baptize in my denomination. While I never attributed any magic effect to the waters of baptism, I had often wondered if an emergency baptism made any real difference to the salvation of the person's soul. Was it just a panacea for the unrepentant person or for the person doing the baptism? Was it a way of hedging our bets that maybe it will get the person into heaven even though they have had a lifetime to repent and become the body of Christ? Of course if the person saw the immediacy of death & was truly sorry for the life they lived knowing that this was the reason for Jesus and the cross, then these questions were mute. But maybe we just put too much emphasis on what we think not really trusting in what God wants.

My first baptism that I administered was as a laymen. I was in seminary, a candidate for ordination. And it was an emergency. Every seminarian at the time had to do a summer in a chaplaincy. Mine was done in a children's hospital in Atlanta. I came into the chaplain's office early as it was my day to be on call and I had to get the beeper from the chaplain going off duty. My routine in the morning was the make the coffee. This day I really needed the coffee. I had spent the night at a bar with my colleagues blowing off some steam. Needless to say, I had a hangover! As I was doing this on this particular day a very large man, the size of two football players, stood in the entrance of the door of the chaplain's office. His eyes were red from crying. I asked how I could help him, and he asked if I could baptize his boy. I asked what the circumstances were and he said that the previous night he son dove into their pool hitting the bottom and breaking his neck. He was on life support and the doctors said he was brain dead. He wanted him baptized before they took him off the machine. So I said sure. On the way to the ICU I asked the father what denomination he was. He said Baptist. The boy was eight. I thought to myself, "Why would a Baptist want his very young son baptized who could not make a profession of faith as required by his denomination." I kept the question to myself. Upon the entrance to the ICU, the nurses had already prepared a bowl of water, a baptismal shell and a towel for the baptism. I said a prayer, baptized the child in the Name of the Trinity and making the sign of the cross upon the child's forehead. After which the machines providing life support were turned off. I gave my condolences and asked if there was anything else I could do. They said no and thanked me. I went back to the office.

Between the ICU and the chaplain's office was a long corridor that looked out on the courtyard. As I was walking down the sun light hit my face as the cloud were suddenly moving out of the way of the sun. At that moment my headache went away and my stomach calmed down. While I was feeling better I felt a great sense of guilt over my condition and my unworthiness to do a baptism. It was then I was overcome with God's presence as if He was saying, "Allen, you didn't baptize that child, I did!"

More often than not, we make much ado about those things that are truly mysteries of the faith. They may divide us but in the very end it is God who calls us unto Himself. For the Southern Baptist father, perhaps he wanted a reminder that his son was a child of the covenant promised to us by God, theology distinctive of Anglicans and other reformed denominations that practice infant baptism. Or perhaps God wanted it done in spite of one's belief because, well, he is God after all. Perhaps God wanted to tell the family their son was safe in heaven and not to worry. Perhaps God just wanted me to know He can use me in spite of myself. Perhaps, it's all of the above. After all, nothing is impossible for God! His will, in spite of our best & worst thinking, will be done!

And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36)