Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Pearl 14: Baptism is not an Event, it is a Lifestyle

Dear Gehrig and Eliana,

Good afternoon, my darlings.  Well it has only been two weeks since I have seen you but I miss you terribly and so does Granny.  Well, I just have to say, your baptism ceremony and the entire weekend was just perfect.  You were so well behaved in church.  Eliana, as I expected, you were just enthralled with the experience of being sprinkled and, Gehrig, you just complained because the water woke you up a little.  But you went right back to sleep.  You both looked like little angels in your Grandma Kathy’s custom knit outfits and the whole congregation was impressed with you as were we.

Granny shed a few tears and I must admit, watching you being baptized brought a mist to my eyes as well.  Only time will tell if you both understand someday how important that particular day was for you.  It is my prayer that you do.

In the Lutheran Church (and, of course, many other denominations) we believe in infant baptism.  I guess we feel it adds an extra layer of salvation protection and it challenges your parents, your grandparents and others, who will have a profound effect on your lives, to instill in you a love of the Lord and teach you the principles and ethics we value and are important in life.  Of course, I was raised in the Baptist Church.  It was different.

The Baptists don’t do infant baptisms.  They believe the individual needs to make the decision to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Savior and cannot do that as an infant.  Consequently, I didn’t get baptized until I was 10 years old.  I had been going to Sunday School on and off for about two years at the First Baptist Church of Pomona, CA.  I wasn’t too excited about it but some of the Bible stories were nice.  Then, when I started the fourth grade at Arroyo Elementary, I had a teacher named Miss Schaffer.  She was probably in her mid-twenties with long blonde hair and a pretty face and I was quite smitten with her.  She took a special interest in me and I used to stay after school and talk with her.  She told me she was a Christian and told me a lot about her faith. 

At first, I listened and spent time with her because she was pretty and fun to be around.  Then I started listening to what she was saying and became intrigued.  Miss Schaffer asked me if I had been baptized and I told her I had not.  She told me I ought to consider it.  Now every Sunday, Dr. Edward Cole, the pastor of our church, would have an “alter call” after the sermon.  This is where Dr. Cole would ask anyone who wanted to come forward and proclaim their faith in Jesus, accept Him as their personal Savior, and become baptized.  Most of the time, I was nodding off about then and wasn’t paying too much attention.  But after my discussion with Miss Schaffer, I started watching and listening. 

My conversations with Miss Shaffer went on for a couple more weeks and then one Sunday, when Dr. Cole made his alter call, I felt something inside of me saying, “GO”.  About five other adult people were making their way toward the alter and Dr. Cole.  All of a sudden, I stood up.  My parents looked at me like, “What are you doing?”, but I couldn’t stop myself.  I stepped out into the aisle and began slowly walking forward.  Dr. Cole saw me coming and a broad, tender smile came across his face.  Now Dr. Cole was a big, powerful looking man, about 6’ 4”tall, with a tanned face and coal black hair with graying temples. He was in his early sixties.  He was an accomplished speaker and had a booming voice which he could project to the balcony whether his volume was high or at a whisper.  As I approached this imposing man, my knees became weak.  I started to shake and tears came to my eyes.  When I got close to him, he put his large hand out and rested it gently on my shoulder.  I was about to faint.  “Why have you come down?” he asked me quietly and yet I knew everyone in the congregation heard him and I felt their eyes on me.  Through tears and with a shaky voice, I said, “I want Jesus for my Savior”. 

Dr. Cole wrapped his arms around me and hugged me tight and his “PRAISE GOD!” resonated throughout the entire church and, I was sure, in heaven as well.  When he finally released me and led me to the others gathered at the alter, I stood there with them, feeling like I was going to fall down at any moment, as Dr. Cole introduced us to the congregation.  I caught my parent’s eyes and my mother was crying and my dad was smiling.  It gave me strength.

After some discussion with the pastor after service, he decided I was old enough to go through the adult instruction class with the others.  We did not have a youth catechism program at that time in the Baptist Church like you two will go through.  So for four Sundays, after service, we all gathered in his huge office for an hour.  He sat in his high back chair behind his large, heavy wooden desk and we sat in high, straight-back, padded leather chairs and listened to Dr. Cole tell us about baptism.  It was winter and the heat was on in his office.  The sun would stream through the windows behind him and after about 30 minutes it was all I could do to keep my eyes open.  I honestly don’t remember much of what he said.  That knowledge would come later in life.  All I knew was that God loved me and the waters of baptism were going to wash all my sin away.  I knew this is what God wanted, what my parents wanted, what Miss Schaffer wanted and what I wanted.  I somehow “passed” the course.

Finally, my baptismal day was at hand.  In the Baptist Church we don’t sprinkle, we dunk.  Full immersion to wash those sins away just like John in the river Jordan.  There was actually a good-sized pool behind a thick burgundy curtain up above and behind the alter.  The opening to the sanctuary above the pool was about eight feet long and five feet high.  There were stairs leading down into it on one end of the pool and stairs leading up out the other end but you could not see them through the opening.  Dr. Cole stood in the middle of the pool in a long white robe.  We wore white robes as well with bathing suits underneath.  We came down into the pool, one at a time, and Dr. Cole would recite the same scripture for each of us.  We had all been instructed how to do this.  Dr. Cole would take our right hand in both of his and we would use our left to hold our nose.  We put one foot behind us for leverage and at the appropriate signal, bend over backwards into the water.  We were down and up in about three seconds.  I felt changed.  I felt exhilarated. It was a highlight of my life. 

My conversion lasted until I reached the fifth grade and then I became a member of a huge group of Christians known as “backsliders”.  Backsliders are Christians who do not always practice their faith as they should.  You become a backslider when, despite your best effort or lack thereof, you sin.  This brings me to my next pearl.

Fourteenth Pearl:  “Baptism is not an event, it is a lifestyle.”

I spent the next six years of my life in backslide mode.  Oh, I wasn’t bad all the time but if there was trouble to be found, I could usually find it.  I spent most of my time taking care of my needs and very little looking out for the needs of others.  I did a pretty good job of covering this from my parents but mostly that was because I rarely got caught with my hand in the cookie jar even though it was in there quite often, metaphorically speaking. 

Then when I was seventeen, I had an epiphany.  It happened one day at the end of a high school church retreat and it changed my life.  It is a story for another time but once again I was on the straight and narrow path.  It was like being baptized all over again.  I felt changed.  I felt exhilarated.  It was a highlight of my life.  Only this time I didn’t smell like chlorine.  This time it lasted about six months.

Then I fell into backslide mode again and it wasn’t until I had my third epiphany (third time’s the charm) when I was 34 years old, married with two children, that I finally understood what my baptism was all about.  I felt changed.  I felt exhilarated.  It was a highlight of my life, but this time it took.  Again, it is a story for another time, but in 1979 I realized my baptism way back in 1956 was only the beginning.  It wasn’t something that once done is finished.  The process of baptism is a lifelong challenge that occurs on a daily basis.  We must die to sin and be re-born, through the grace of God, new creatures in Christ everyday.  If we skip a day or two, it is alright.  It is kind of like skipping our bath for a couple of days, we are still alive but we start to smell after a while.  Then we know it is time to get back to the waters of our baptism and remember why we asked Jesus to be our personal Savior, because only He can wash our sins away. 

Hopefully, you two will spend more time on the straight and narrow than your Grandpa Jud has.  However, whenever you get off track, remember what happened to you on October 28, 2007 was only the beginning. But because of your baptism on that day, you are forever in His loving care and workers with the rest of us in the Kingdom of God.

I love you both, bunches and bunches.

Grandpa Jud

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