Pondering on Baptism

Our pile of rocks beside the Detroit River.

By Lydia Wylie-Kellermann, co-editor of http://www.radicaldiscipleship.net

After the service ended, the rocks began to pile up. Grandparents brought stones from beloved places far away and the kids waded into the water gathering rocks and adding them to the pile. We left that day, but the pile of rocks still sits beside the river as the waters pass through the Huron and toward Erie down the Detroit River.

We had just baptized Cedar Martin and his cousin Ira Cole. We read Joshua 4, where the Israelites cross the Jordan and Joshua tells them to leave a pile of rocks by the river because “One day your children will ask, “what do these stones mean?’

So, we built a pile of stones beside the Detroit River that day that we can return to again and again always adding rocks. And one day, Cedar and Ira will ask “What do these stones mean?” and we will tell the story of their baptism. Of the people who gathered, the waters that flowed past, and the tradition that goes back through the generations. I want my children to have a place to remember their baptism. A place they can visit, that can hold them steady.

My mom wrote about baptism, and that piece of paper is something I return to and has held me steady many times throughout my live. The piece below is something I wrote a couple years back about some of those moments as I think about my own baptism.

My mom loved baptism. She had a fierce desire for theology and liturgy that was infectious. But when I was born that commitment was tested. She looked at this beautiful, fragile human being in her arms and realized the dangers she would place me in by baptizing me. Baptism was not as simple as entering a community or knowing the love of God, but about putting me on the road to the cross.

And then came the question of baptism. Water, words, community. Offering our child back to God. We would stand with Abraham at the sacrifice. We would give her to a God who models the cross. We would invite her to listen for a voice calling in the night, to vigil, to put herself at risk, to leave family and friends, to speak clearly a truth for which one can be executed. We would thereby invite her into the risks we have already elected and, by God’s grace, still will elect to take with our own lives. In the act of baptism we would wash away the possibility that our concern for her might justify a diminishing of our own obedience to our Lord’s perverse ethic of vulnerability and gain through loss.    –Jeanie Wylie-Kellermann, On the Edge 1986

I have clung to her writing on baptism. In the moments when I have felt scared and my knees shake, these words keep me steady.

I stood with the whole congregation of students as if it was just another Sunday. “The Lord be with you.” My heart started beating and my knees felt weak. Everyone is about to sit down and I will be left standing alone in the isle. I look around the church for the faces of the others who will stand. I say the prayers along with my neighbors. My voice shakes. “May the Lord cleanse the baptized of their sins and may God’s peace be upon you.” Baptized. Deep breath. Everyone sits. I remain standing as a baptismal call to speak truth to power, expose injustice, and accept the conflict or risks that may arise.

In college at Loyola University Chicago, I was part of a group of students who called attention to the exclusion of women and LGBT folks in the Catholic Church by standing throughout the entire mass. We fully participated in the mass as members of the community but were a constant living sign of the injustice.

It was a powerful action which I will always be grateful. We stood for two years every Sunday. We received a lot of responses- anger, gratitude, and confusion. Women approached us saying “I don’t feel oppressed.” Some returned to the church because for the first time they heard their pain named. And Jesuit scholastics stayed up into the wee hours of the night debating whether inside the church was the right place for action.

For me, it felt like I was able to be fully part of a community by naming the truth. I was my most authentic self even though the weekly fear never wore off, but my mom’s words stood beside me.

So, we baptize her into the risks we’ve elected for our lives. We take her, in utero, to Nicaragua. We share with her this broken, violent world. We baptize her into the communion of saints who have been crucified in every possible way. We baptize her into the grueling decision of Gethsemane and into Easter hope. We lay her on an altar before a God who rejects our carefully laid plans and take her life into His/Her own.

They were falling from the sky. Ten at a time. One fell ten feet from me. I watched the grass catch on fire and the smoke began to release. I started to run following those who did this week in and week out back into town. I couldn’t see anything. I bit down harder on the piece of onion in my mouth and pulled the bandana up over my nose.

Far enough away from the field of tear gas and the screech of sound bombs, I stood in shock. How could such a small, nonviolent protest at the building of a wall be met with so much violence? Men ran back into the smoke to try to save the olive trees that had gone up in flames.

We were in Bil’in in the West Bank where men were taken in the middle of the night to Administrative Detention (not unlike Guantanamo where they were held without charges), olive trees were being destroyed, and people were being killed all in response to a weekly nonviolent demonstration. They had asked internationals to be present because by Israeli law the soldiers were not allowed to use real bullets at a nonviolent protest if internationals were present.

After the smoke began to clear, most people went back. I couldn’t do it. I learned about my fight or flight reaction and that day in the face of massive violence, it was flight.

That night I opened my journal and stumbled upon my mom’s baptism article. It was June 13 the anniversary of my baptism. In that moment I realized that I was exactly where I was supposed to be, even if my body and soul felt weak and shaky,- standing in solidarity and witnessing to the violence and injustice in this sacred place.

On June 13, Lydia Irene was baptized with water and the spirit. She was sealed as Christ’s own forever. She, and we again with her, died in Christ.

We sat outside in the straight lined chairs waiting to be called into the Bishop’s office. I sat next to my dad and across from my uncle who was there to pray for us through the meeting.

My dad was in trouble. Charges were brought against him and today he could lose his orders. He had performed a same sex marriage- my same sex marriage- violating the United Methodist discipline. Today I was there to support him as the one person he could bring with him. He could have had a lawyer or a pastor, but he chose me and in so doing it would change the conversation. The Bishop couldn’t talk about same sex marriage in theory, because I was in the room- it was my life, my love, my marriage he was talking about.

We entered the room and sat at a large conference room table with documents and charges and disciplines spread out before us. My body was tense sitting in the halls of power awaiting the painful words that could come.

When my turn came to speak, I read my mom’s words claiming my marriage as a vocation and baptismal call, of listening and discerning the voice of God in my life. And standing here with my dad was also a baptismal act of support for those who speak truth to power and to call the church to be it was uttered to me as a community of love, welcome, and justice.

The child is no longer a reason to flee from the voice of God. Instead, we carry the child, with our hearts, towards the one who utters us and calls us into being. We claim our lives in that voice and entrust each other’s to it. We loosen our hold, our desperate grip, on each other’s presence and well being.

In October of 2013, we baptized our child Isaac. Joining in this ancient tradition and hearing my mom’s words ring through my own life, we invite Isaac to hear them in his own, to listen, to discern God’s calling for him, to be loved by community, to expose injustice, to lay down what privilege he can, and to take risks for justice in this world. And when his own knees shake and his heart beats, may he be held in the knowing of how much he is loved by me, by his mama, by a community, and by God.

It is enough, it is more than enough to be loved by God. Our child is safe in covenant with our God who is neither predictable nor always comfortable, but she will find there a hand that wipes away her tears, an end to her thirst, and a wind that sets her loose.



3 thoughts on “Pondering on Baptism

  1. Annette Norris

    As a white woman married to a black man living in the southeastern United States, most churches are southern Baptist and Pentecostal. I attended several of these types of churches over the years, but i have never connected with the people or the philosophy in them. It is a philosophy of ‘no religion’ as in no real ceremony, or celebration of the life of Jesus, the death of Jesus, or anything . There are the Christmas trees and gifts for the kids and their friends but in the Christmas Eve service, and Good Friday service and Easter Service, all of the emphasis is on the ‘Benefis’ to ones self and family is the most important thing on every holiday. Therefore let us not spend any time on thinking about Jesus because our family wants to spend time together, so lets hurry up and do our duty by marking this occasion, so we can go home and let the REAL celebration begin. The only time that i felt connected to God through His church, was when i attended a Presbyterian one for 2 years. We moved after that and neither of the Presbyterian churches in this area fit . That is the culture here, even in those who dont go to church. Its not welcoming or inclusive or forgiving. There is a Lutheran church but i dont know liturgy (i was raised Southern Baptist) so im at a loss. Also, we must be alert to the racial climate wherever we go. The point of all of this is to tell you how much i love and appreciate the ceremony of Christianity, as it always put me closer to God. Evangelicals dont get it. So thank you and i hope to read more articles from you.

  2. Pingback: Weekend Reading – Molleen Dupree-Dominguez

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